Ever Wanted to Live Inside an Escape Room? You’re in Luck

What is living in London like? Hell. Here’s proof, beyond all doubt, that renting in

What is living in London like? Hell. Here’s proof, beyond all doubt, that renting in London is a nightmare.

What is it? One of the more under-appreciated victims of the pandemic is the concept of “escape rooms”, which you will notice have been slowly populating small towns in the UK over the course of the past three or four years. Escape rooms in small towns (and you know the exact kind of small towns I mean: “multi-million pound bus station the exact size and shape of the old bus station” small towns; “too many town-centre roundabouts” small towns; “high street still has a Peacocks on it, somehow” small towns; “really big Tesco car park” small towns) have been following a pattern of what I call “vape shop gentrification” for a while now, where small grey enclaves of front-facing medium-footfall shop space – it used to be a card shop! It used to be a bakery shop that sold “really good sausage rolls”! It used to be an off-brand video game exchange! It used to be The Works! – are given over and refitted to serve the trend du jour, in a way that would financially flicker out in a big competitive city, but, because of the low and un-rising rent of small towns, means they just sort of stay there, forever, as a relic of. Do you understand where I am coming from? Vape shops, home brew supply stores, “Wicked Flame” peri-peri chicken serveries, American candy places, games shops that almost-exclusively sell Minecraft squishies and Fortnite merchandise: these will live out in small towns long after the nuclear bomb of culture has moved on from them. Escape rooms are just one small part of that. In the year 2040, you will be travelling innocuously through, like, Crewe, and a blacked out window with a cartoon character painted on it will beckon you to spend 45 minutes with your family and friends trying to solve a series of puzzles while a bored teenager who hasn’t been born yet watches you from a distance on CCTV to make sure you don’t start smashing the place up, and you will do it, for old time’s sake, to remember this summer, the last five summers. You will walk out of there absolutely chomping for a Pop ‘n’ Flip, a game of Among Us and a go on a vape, and you won’t know why. A surname that hasn’t flickered across your mind in years, not since the boat accident and the half-day of obituary tweets, will suddenly occur to you. “Golby,” you will say, “Golby foresaw all this. He was a good writer. He was ahead of his time.”
Where is it? What I am saying is this flat in Paddington is essentially a really shit escape room, that is where I was going with the bit—
What is there to do locally? It’s Paddington, which is just a big train station. London train stations magnetically attract business and repel culture, and Paddington is one of its biggest magnets, so the only thing to really do in the area is buy a too-hot Cornish pasty for the best part of six quid then go to a pub that doesn’t have any regulars and drink exactly one flat pint while nervously checking your phone to see when your next train is. Paddington is— how to put this in a way that seems universally true? Paddington is the place you end up when you trust some guy you only half-know from that stag-do you all went on to book the place you’re going to watch the football this week. Just you and six lads who don’t know each other, watching the Manchester derby in a half-empty venue, lurid red platters of chicken dippers and drinking jugs instead of pints, because for some reason the table has a £40-per-head minimum spend. After the game, the only place still open you can go to for a fight is the M&S Food Hall. I think I have just succinctly captured “Paddington”.
Alright, how much are they asking? £850 p.c.m., though I’m sad to report that a let has been agreed, so if you want it you might have to email the landlord and offer more. Not to cast aspersions on the moral compass of the person trying to rent this room out, but: he would absolutely bin off the current tenant if you came in with an offer even one pound higher than it’s currently on the market for.

On first glance, this is just one of those normal places it’s hard to get too horny for the bleakness of: sofa folds down lengthways into an insipid little bed √, soulless little kitchen with just an electric two-hob and a too-high-up microwave √, single ugly all-edges canvas print on the wall √, visible fire blanket one of the only real decorative features √, unnecessary single chair and table taking up space for absolutely no reason at all √, looking at photos of it is a little bit like standing next to someone on the tube and they sigh really loudly and that sigh exhales air onto your face (into your mouth, even), and so that sigh is now inside you, you have metabolised someone else’s suspiration √√√√√:

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But I would like to focus on three very key features of this place that tip it over from “the usual shit” into being “actually really bad, slightly worse than first thought”, and these is they:

i. If you look at the “kitchenette”, which is actually just two shelves and one cupboard, you will notice that the work surface section of it, such as it is, actually extends out… across… the door? Like: behind that shutter-style office blind, there is a door. And that door is blocked… by the kitchen counter.

Now, I do not think that is the main door, meaning that this studio flat is actually just two main doors at either side of a corridor, making it a converted hallway, and not a flat. But the pure fact of it is you cannot use that door in any practical way because the kitchen counter is in the way of it. You could maybe draw the blind and open the door (presuming the door opens outwards, instead of in?), and you could go sideways and slither through it, but firstly I dread to even think what is out there (I am imagining: just a grey tarmacked rooftop with a single white plastic garden chair on it, one of the legs cracked but not broken, and an exhaust vent from a chip shop that just blows a load of cooking oil vapour out onto you), and secondly there is no practical way of using that doorway other than slithering out of it, like you cannot get a sofa through that door, you can barely carry your shopping through it, so the door neither functions as a door or a window, and in fact without it you’d get another foot or so of kitchen, so it is actually robbing you of about three functions at once—

ii. Where you pissing, bro? Where you shitting? The question is answered in the advert: 

A single studio flat in a quiet street with a public square, off Paddington Station, London W2, comprised of:

·   shower and WC (not shared but located on the hallway next to the flat)

So the hallway flat leads into another hallway that has your shower and WC in it: these features are not shared, but they are not advertised as being a part of this flat, which to me suggests they are not actually yours, you just have access to them, and to do so, you have to exit the main door of your flat (I assume the photos in this listing are taken from the position of the main, “actual” door), locking it behind you, then go for a piss, then come back into your flat, by unlocking the main door to your flat, and then going to sleep on your sofa.

This is even worse if you need to take a fucking shower, because you have to do the freezing post-shower waddle through a hallway to get to your own door, and you have to take your keys to the shower with you, your hands all wet (in my personal experience I am blind after a shower because I wear contact lenses: me, soaking and cold, wrapped in a towel, pieces of lint and hallway dust sticking to my feet because I forgot my sliders, fumbling with my keys while holding my own wash bag, dropping the keys, bending over blindly in my towel, one of the other flats that uses the hallway comes through, and sees me, but they can’t even feel pity because they know their lives are as bad if not worse than mine), &c. &c. &c., and I just really feel like there should not be this many logistical hurdles in the way of taking a shower at the flat you pay £850 a month to rent. I feel like there should be zero challenges to taking a shit somewhere you live. That’s just me. 

iii. This is perhaps not as notable, but I am taken aback by the absolute lack of soul, the sheer void of humanity in this one. Let me explain: landlords in London always stage their little shitholes with a couple of props to make it look like a human being could live there – a couple of rolled up towels on the bed, for instance, or a single cup and saucer. Here, they have put out some supermarket flowers and a single scented candle in the bathroom, which I assume were swiftly packed up and taken to the next place as soon as the photos were done. But there are also accoutrements there, normally, a little decorative flourish that, once you move in, you work to hide – a shitty canvas print that is screwed to the wall, for instance, or a horrible leaning floor lamp.

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Sometimes (often), these landlord-choice decorations actively get in the way of you living a decent life. I once rented a place where the sofa was so deeply uncomfortable that it was more comfortable to take the back cushions off and replace them with a few flat scatter cushions from H&M, but it meant we had to hide the back sofa cushions underneath the sofa because there was nowhere else to put them, because we had neither cupboards nor storage space. The sofa, as a result of this, sat uncomfortably a couple of millimetres above the floor.

When moving into the current place, we had to formally request the landlord move a fridge-sized plant pot with a single dead tree in it out of the corner of the flat, and the letting agent really ummed and ahhed about whether that would even be allowed (“Hi guys, checked with the landlord: you have to live with a dead plant in a terracotta pot the size of a Fiat 500, sorry if that is inconvenient to you”).

You will yourself have stories like this, because London landlords use their properties more as extended storage sheds that rentable, comfortable assets – but what is clear about this one is there are almost zero flourishes there that would suggest this is a place designed in any way for comfort. There are exactly two ugly cushions on your sofa bed that you have to move every night and put on the floor. There is exactly one canvas print. These decorative flourishes are so life-draining they are almost worse than nothing. The only thing separating this flat from bunks in a juvenile prison is the two mismatching wedges of carpet.

In a way, I almost respect it – there is less tasteless crap to bend your life around for 12 consecutive months! – but in another, more palpable sense, I feel like landlords should be duty bound to at least pretend they wouldn’t, if they could, place you for a grand a month inside a gulag. 

You’ve checked under the table, you’ve folded down the bed, you’ve carefully unpacked the fire blanket and read it for clues. There are no arcane codes or significant numbers on there. There really is no puzzle to this: you are stuck in this room, but you are not locked in it. “You have chosen to come to this city,” the bored teenager tells you over the intercom. “That’s the trick: that there is no trick.”

Come on, you plead to them, staring at the screen above the door, come on – there has to be some clue I’m missing. “You placed yourself in this prison,” the voice says. “Your mind is the lock as well as the key.” You could just open the door and leave all this behind. You could just turn sideways and walk to freedom. But you don’t. You lie on your sofa bed and flip your laptop up. Your wan skin glows in the light of the fire. You spent the best years of your life in a city that didn’t love you, scrolling Twitter for two hours before going to bed. You should go back home, you think. You should go back home and open a vape shop. But you never will. You never, ever will. 

@joelgolby