19 May 2016

Home Sweet Home

Accommodation Wanted


Jon Wynne-Tyson 1951

In the throes of a housing crisis, a little book like this opens a window onto a lost world. It was a world where ordinary people were far more likely to be paying a rent than a mortgage, where having somewhere to live was more important than acquiring an asset, and where a landlady was a woman in the basement with curlers and a mop rather than someone in a business suit building a buy-to-let portfolio. Back then, a significant part of the housing mix was the lodgings or digs.

Reading through Jon Wynne-Tyson's grimly humorous advice, I kept having recurring visions of Tony Hancock’s monumental modernist sculpture plunging through Mrs Crevatte’s floor in his film The Rebel. There is something about the prevalence of lodging houses ruled by martinet landladies and tenanted by a population of interesting but rootless people that seems to fit perfectly with the creative atmosphere of 1950s London. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I like to think that everyone who was anyone, from Frank Auerbach to John Osborne, lived in lodgings.

Partly it’s because they imply a certain degree of righteous poverty for the artistic and the maverick to kick against. They are the London equivalent of the Parisian garret. Accordingly, Wynne-Tyson paints a picture of a quite visceral existence. The great universal, daily threats to any individual’s life – cold, hunger, squalor – are barely mitigated by constant battles with bathroom geysers and metered gas fires. Even what he describes as "the place of absolute necessity", if it is not actually down the garden, involves barked knuckles as you perform the "essential gestures" in its cramped space, or constant interruption from briskly rattled door handles.

The Khazi is also the place where the landlady gives freest rein to her urge to display notices of instruction and moral improvement. As well as regulations governing what may or may not be flushed down the pan, "pleas for the most obvious sanitary behaviour" cover every wall along with lithographed texts from the Bible. In fact, as much as being a guide to getting, surviving and leaving accommodation, this is a book about how to get the better of landladies.

Initially, you will simply want the landlady to offer you a room, but every phone call replying to a small ad in the paper or shop window will get the terse reply "S’gone!" Several strategies are suggested to get round this. These include writing to a landlady about a current lodger in the hope of provoking a vacancy – "The person calling himself/herself Stooks is well known for carryings-on. You know what I mean. Have you ever thought what a nasty face he/she has got…I would lock your door if I were you." Or you could try wooing a landlady, so long as you "avoid anything under eighty-five and taller than 4 ft. 10 ins."

Once installed in your room, it quickly becomes apparent that a life of any richness can only be lived by subterfuge. Returning home after 11, receiving a phone call, having a girlfriend or boyfriend, owning a pet and even heating yourself in winter all require some kind of ingenious deception to get around the woman in the basement.

It may be that this constant need to break rules is what gives this era of lodging-house life its Bohemian feel. The landladies are pictured as representing a particular brand of British morality that found its expression in papers like the News of the World. Attempting to get on with their lives in the face of rigidly enforced respectability, and beneath a barrage of tutting and pursed lips, the tenants cannot help but be rebels.

Even Mrs. Collins, the landlady in Ken Russell’s short 1960 film A House in Bayswater, who seems to have had a far from insular life herself, takes the phone off the hook after 12pm and is not available to anyone after 11 – “even if they knocked the house down, I wouldn’t answer the door.” Accommodation Wanted has a couple of ways to deal with that particular situation, which include making an alliance with the landlady’s son or daughter if she has one, or using a ladder.

Among the tenants in the Bayswater house are a photographer (David Hurn, who went on to become a member of Magnum), a painter, a dance teacher and a couple who work in the wine trade. Wynne-Tyson includes a section on what kind of lodgers can be found in the different parts of the capital. In the northern districts of Hampstead and Highgate are the musical, literary and artistic types. Around Tooting and Clapham are the sporty ones, while Dalston, Stepney and other eastern outposts are "the land of cheaper lodgings and no nonsense".

There's a distinct feel that Wynne-Tyson had direct experience of what he was talking about, though it may have been recalled from his past as he was twenty-seven when this book was published and married to his first wife Joan Stanton, who did the neat little drawings. As a literary type - he founded the Centaur press in 1954 - he was certainly acquainted with plenty of bohemians. 

Among them was the poet John Gawsworth, who seems to have spent most of his life ensconced in the pubs of Bayswater and Notting Hill. Gawsworth was also known as King Juan I of Redonda - a tiny Caribbean island that emerged as a micronation in the 1880s under its first king, the fantasy writer M P Shiel. Gawsworth was renowned for bestowing dukedoms, earldoms and even, some say, the crown itself on anyone who would buy him a pint. So when he died in 1970, the succession became the subject of heated debate. One of the leading candidates, though, was John Wynne-Tyson who had acted as Gawsworth's literary executor and, somewhat reluctantly, took on the role of King Juan II.

In spite of the controversy and the disapproval of rival claimants, Wynne-Tyson actually visited the island in 1979 accompanied by a publisher of M P Shiel's works. Once there, he climbed the summit and raised a flag made from a pair of pyjamas. Perhaps, having tasted the life described in Accommodation Wanted, he felt right at home on an island characterised by its spartan environment, lack of fresh water and plentiful deposits of guano.

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