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  • Writer's pictureDebbie de Mornay Penny

Bedsits, communal living, and a surprise film crew

Drawn to the funny side - inspiration for my drawings continued:

Seeing the funny side of things can help at times, especially when it comes to some of the places that I have lived in my life.

A while ago I decided to tot up the number of different places that I have lived. In total, I have lived at approximately thirty different addresses. My abodes have spanned across six different counties in the UK and one state in Australia.

I often wonder why I moved so many times. Was I lost? Was I finding myself? Was there some deep-rooted psychological mystery to it all? Did it matter? No not really; perhaps it was all part of some wider creative process? Yes perhaps, and I like that reason, let’s stick with that and continue to draw on the funny side of it all.

My experiences of living in rented accommodation has provided me with much inspiration for my drawings. I thought that it might be fun to share with you some of the highlights, my thoughts on communal living and one funny event, involving a film crew.

It was around 1980 and I had arrived in the Midlands to study Graphic Design. My first abode was a 1930’s house shared with a rather eccentric landlady, three other students, a large smelly old dog and a black cat. Our landlady was a wonderful character with a natural inclination for finding the humour in everyday events and people that she knew and met. Our landlady shared her stories daily, providing us with much amusement, she was a joy to live with.

Our landlady used to like introducing us to her friends and many of those were a little eccentric too. I remember on one occasion we were driven in her old rickety Morris Traveller to a grand old house, to meet Margery. Margery had been drinking gin and was in the garden pulling up rhubarb. I had never seen anyone pull up rhubarb in that way before, the bright red and green stalks were flying through the air at great speed. Later on this inspired me to produce a drawing called “The rhubarb sling”.

Our home was very comfortable. We were provided with meals. The house was warm and comfortable. It was my first experience of central heating and I immediately developed an allergy.

There was an old walk in pantry in the house. Our landlady often used to sit in there, on a wooden stool eating toast. The toast eating was a secret, or so she thought, always declaring to be on the latest a diet. One day we came in early, she heard the door and in a panic she promptly threw her piece of toast high up in the air. The toast, thickly buttered with a topping of her favourite marmalade landed face down on the highest shelf in the pantry. Two months later when a couple of us were cleaning out the pantry we found it. Our landlady confessed all, and we all rolled around laughing. She continued to diet.

In our second year as art students two of us, desperate for more independence moved into a shabby little terrace, on the corner of a road, not far from a park. Our new home had blue vinyl 1960’s floral wallpaper, orange curtains and carpets throughout. Fan heaters were provided and the whole house had a damp musty smell. There was no phone and electricity had to be paid for by a coin meter fitted to the wall. We were permitted to decorate our bedrooms if we wished, although I was almost evicted for painting my walls a deep red and the ceiling black. The bathroom was downstairs, a bath but no shower, and if you did not top the electric metre up promptly, no heating and no hot water. A strip wash was quite the norm and to do this you kept as many clothes on as possible, just pulling them around a bit to wash vital areas.

The kitchen had the basics: an ancient oven, table and chairs circa 1950 and a fridge that if touched in conjunction with the stainless-steel draining board would occasionally give you a gentle charge of electricity up your arm. I lived in this property for two years and somehow lived to the tale.

In the early eighties I found myself back in Hertfordshire, living in a dark little bedsit owned by a land lady who had a strict no visitor policy.

Décor and furnishings of my new accommodation can best be described as questionable and at worst dire! An ancient single bed, metal sprung, with a gigantic dip in the middle was the worst bed I have ever tried to sleep on; I do not think I had a proper night’s sleep in the entire time I stayed there. How many people had contorted their spines in that bed before me I dread to think.

One old, stiff sash window which only opened a few inches at a push, a small lonely little 1950’s table, with a drawer holding just enough cutlery for one. There was a small unstable chair with a fitted plastic cushion, this was useful because you could wipe it down easily if you spilt your baked beans on it. There was a dated, dark oak wardrobe and a matching chest of drawers that could hold just a few items of clothing. Linoleum flooring with a bit of orange and brown swirly nylon carpet on top, an offcut perhaps? It would seem that orange carpets were all the rage back then. As a final touch, a small, tatty, grubby rug that looked like something the cat had brought in. We were not allowed cats either.

A Baby Belling oven sat on the floor, yes, it was on the floor, and it only had one setting – very hot! I became quite good at converting casseroles to charcoal, and it was not long before I managed to destroy the oven and melt the nylon carpet in the process!

The bathroom was just down the hall, and I was told that it was shared; I am not sure who with, I never saw anyone, but did hear the odd eerie footstep at night. I dared not look or enquire, I just hid as best I could under the bed covers, this is where having a big dip in your bed can came in handy.

I decided after a couple of months of poor sleep, an aching back, no friends allowed and the creepy hallway, that regardless of how cheap this bedsit was enough was enough. My father came round to help me move out, the landlady promptly appeared on the stairs and asked him to leave (because he was a man). I explained he was my father; she did not believe me and he had to wait outside in his car. We laughed quite a lot about that as we drove off.

From then on there were more bedsits, numerous shared houses a couple of flats which, I struggled to pay for on my own and had to give up, a couple of hotels and for a while a stock cupboard in a shop.

I once had a lovely little flat on the lower ground floor of a very big old Victorian house in Bristol. The main bed sitting room had an enormous old fireplace, which I immediately covered in ornaments and vases of flowers. The kitchen was tiny and you could just about turn around in it. I grew Geraniums and Nasturtiums on the window sill. My bathroom was small but for my use only. I loved that little flat, old and full of character. My landlady too was also a great character; she only appeared occasionally, staying upstairs in the main house when returning from work overseas.

When my landlady was home, she would invite me up on a Friday evening for a gin and orange, her favourite tipple, one I tried to like. When she went out of the room I would tip a little in the Aspidistra pot, Aspidistras can withstand a lot. My landlady had big eyes and long eye lashes; very little hair was left on her head but instead she appeared to be growing a beard. Lounging contently in her favourite armchair she reminded me of a playful seal rolling around on a beach. I would be captivated by the wonderful stories she told about the amazing places she had visited on her travels. I loved those evenings and I learnt a lot about continental travel. Interestingly now I have no desire for travel and the furthest I have been in the last 30 years is Cornwall.

Living in hotels in exchange for working as a waitress and housekeeper for the season was incredible fun. Staff accommodation in one was at the back of the hotel, a noisy, spartanly decorated tiny room. In another hotel we all lived in a purpose built block. To get to our accommodation we would need to walk across a field, away from the hotel. The distance was useful as most nights, during the summer there would be party. Serving breakfasts to guests in the morning could be a trial, and for some impossible. On reflection I do not think any of us were there to learn the trade. Most of us were there for perhaps: adventure, escape or just time out. Everyone had a story: trying to resolve trauma’s, demons, pain of lost loves, homelessness, poverty and more. The hotel provided shelter, food, a miniscule wage and in a way an alternative family. The volume of characters both staff and guests, relationships good and bad, social activities and escapades, are still treasured memories and stored within the recesses of my mind. From time to time these memories, pop up when I am drawing, a drama, a mannerism, a style of dress, a certain gait for example.

Sometimes when you are a struggling artist, you can find yourself homeless. I was in between bedsits at one point a friend allowed me to sleep in the stock cupboard of his shop in Devon. My accommodation was rent free in exchange for working a few shifts in his shop. As there was no bathroom at the shop a local fisherman allowed me to take my baths at his cottage.

I have lived in many shared houses and my thoughts on this are that it can be a very useful learning experience indeed. Living with others helps you to gain experience and understanding of how different we all are. All those funny, sometimes irritating or illogical behaviours are all part of what makes people unique, something which I find fascinating.

Living in a shared house can help you to: develop better understandings of others, improve your tolerance levels, people skills, make new friends, or learn how to fit triple locks on your door.

There is always noise in a shared house for example, competing music, invariably not to your taste, which can become an orchestral nightmare. I once lived in a house where heavy rock was played simultaneously with Vivaldi’s four seasons, and it certainly was not a rhapsody! Singing, chattering, screaming, shouting, mutterings of love making, made worse if one party is your x. Even aeroplanes flying over if you are unfortunate enough to live under a flight path. Living with noise helps you to understand sound, improve your musicality or you just buy ear plugs.

There is always a bathroom drama in a shared house: queuing or racing to be first in, finding someone has left a damp mat on the floor, you tread on it you get your socks wet. The bath’s not been cleaned, the loo seat is up, and the last person didn’t open the window to let the steam out. The shower has packed up or is running cold because someone has turned the hot water tap on in the kitchen, someone’s pinched your shampoo, people are taking too long: “He has been in the bath for age’s, I’ve got to get to work!” You wonder whether the bather is hungover, just plain annoying, or dead! “Why have we run out of loo roll?”; “Whose turn is it to buy it?” Living in shared houses helps you to appreciate the joy and convenience of on suites.

You can also guarantee that there will be kitchen drama’s in a shared house: “Who has left all that washing up?”, “Someone has been in the fridge and eaten my cheese!” “Who has drunk my expensive coffee?” “I thought it was for everyone (common lie)”, “Someone has been using my mug!” The list goes on. Sound like a nightmare? Maybe. Would I want to be there now? No? Was it a worthwhile experience? Indeed yes.

There are the memorable housemates of course like lady who had three stuffed baby crocodiles on her dressing table, the drunken fisherman who would return home after weeks at sea, go out for the night, fall through the door in the early hours of the morning land on the kitchen floor with a thud. We would often find him still there in the morning, oblivious and quite happy. The man in the basement who lived on lime pickle and cream crackers, the eccentric lady who lived in the garden shed, knitted socks for fishermen even when they did not want them, so many more, so many characters and so many fun elements to draw on.

Surrey: a very large old rambling town house, filled with student nurses one of whom was my sister.

My bed was an old sofa stuffed with horsehair in in the dining room, that led out onto an enormous garden. This lovely old house could be referred to as “The house that time forgot”. Cold but atmospheric, you would be lucky to find a fan heater; woolly jumpers, socks and blankets recommended.

The house, circa 1930 had wallpaper, furnishings and cupboards full of ancient rusty baking tins, candelabra’s, cooking utensils and crockery of that period. Student nurses from all over the world and their friends would attend our dinner parties. The ambience and décor of the house not that dissimilar from a scene from Great Expectations, at any moment in time you might expect to see Mrs Haversham walk in. A large galleried staircase and a wraparound garden provided the ideal party house and parties were many. Perhaps the best party was “The Hammer House of Horror” party. We built a large, 6ft coffin to store the party food in, raised it on top of a table. The coffin was a talking point for months after, the funniest aspect being that in the early hours of the next morning we found a soldier from the nearby barracks asleep in it! None of us recognised him from the party or had a clue who he was.

My next home was in a small Victorian, two up two down terrace, with a tiny back yard. Lying in bed at night my room was lit up like a fair ground by a large neon sign, on a skyscraper just over the road. This became a constant cause of poor sleep, I put up with it because it came rent free because I was “house sitting”.

Of all my experiences of shared houses this is perhaps one of the most amusing:

Still in Surrey I moved into a rather splendid old Victorian house in a leafy street. Much to my delight I was allocated the biggest room, at the top of the house, the attic. A lively landlady lived there with her young child, a boyfriend, a best friend, and a nanny.

The house was a hive of activities, including a rock band who used one of the rooms to practice in twice a week. Many people would visit and stay over.

One weekend everyone in the house decided to go on a shopping trip to France; I was invited, could not afford it and quite liked the idea of having the house to myself for the weekend. I declined the offer stating that I had arranged to see my sister. They all left for France.

Saturday morning, 7.00am. I am wearing my tatty old pink dressing gown and furry slippers. I drifted down to the kitchen with a pile of dirty washing to put in the machine. A non-economy wash planned, tea and toast and a leisurely, peaceful lounge on the large sofa in the front room. Bliss I thought; then I heard something.

As I descended the stairs from the attic, I could hear what sounded like wheels on the highly polished wooden floors, then the clanking of metal, scuffling of bags and voices. Orders were being given by someone with a very deep authoritative voice, who to my horror I would shortly be destined to meet. Slightly alarmed, I continued my catlike decent. As I approached the kitchen a very tall man in in a big black leather coat, with designer stubble and dark glasses stared at me in a strange sort of way and said: “Darling, we were told that the house was empty. What are your movements for the day?” As he spoke I noticed rails of clothing being wheeled in, large theatrical lights being positioned, reals of electrical cable trailing along the floors, a man taping up a window with black plastic and a very sultry looking middle aged lady with red hair, heavy makeup and wearing a lot of chiffon. A little shaky, and perhaps not completely understanding the question, I replied: “Well I was going to do my washing.” Then to both my horror and later amusement I found out what was happening. My landlady had rented the house out for the whole weekend, to a film crew. I promptly called my sister and fled.

By: Debbie de Mornay Penny

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