Oh no, we've been modernised

Bankers, film stars, drug dealers and wide boys live in Chelsea these days - ordinary families don't
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The Independent Culture
HOW, I wonder, will this week's gloomy news from Brussels affect our rent, which is coming up for review any day? I fear the worst. Inner London, according to a new Eurostat survey, is now the richest region in Europe, generating two-and-a-half times more wealth than the EU average. That must include me.

I've lived in Chelsea man and boy - well, two men, three boys and three girls, to be precise - for the better part of 30 years in the same cramped fourth-floor (no lift) flat above a shop that I moved into as a penniless student. There were four of us, a law student called Hugh, an art student called Richard, a young journalist called Hamish (that's Hamish McRae, by the way) and me, and we all paid pounds 5 a week rent.

Don't worry - this isn't going to be one of those down-memory-lane exercises with me binding on misty-eyed about the good old days when the King's Road still had a fishmonger, a greengrocer, a pet shop and a spit-and- sawdust pub called The Markham Arms where the Kray brothers drank. I am feeling misty-eyed - The Markham Arms is now a branch of the Abbey National.

I tell you all this to demonstrate that Chelsea, despite its raffish reputation (greatly exaggerated), was once an ordinary place where ordinary people like us could afford to live. When, in the fullness of time, I moved into the master bedroom, having married the law student, the others moved out. This left room for a lodger, a serious young woman called Vera from Dusseldorf, who sold space for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and ran a nursery. Every five years or so they put the rent up, but not by much - they being a series of increasingly dubious landlords, the last of whom demanded that the rent be paid in used notes or a cheque made out to Lucky Logic Holdings (Isle of Man). The building fell into disrepair. We, being nearest to the roof, became used to the rain dripping, sometimes pouring, through the kitchen ceiling via the electric light fitting, but this was preferable to life in Flat One, which bore the full brunt of the building's archaic plumbing.

There was the memorable evening when Mary Lou, one of the four Pan Am air hostesses who lived in the bottom flat, staggered upstairs too traumatised to speak coherently. They had all been away on long hauls for a week. She was the first one home. "Oh my God - oh my God," burbled Mary Lou, "Come and see." I came. I saw. I blanched. Someone's S-bend or P-trap, possibly Flat Two's, had packed up, and a week's worth of sewage from three flats had backed up into Mary Lou's lavatory and was now seeping menacingly along the corridor towards the kitchen.

We all put up with these minor irritations because we liked living in Chelsea. My second husband said there would be more space in Wimbledon, but you get used to Zone One, and besides, the children were at local schools. And then 10, maybe 15 years ago, everything changed. The first intimation that things were different became apparent when the lights on the stairs were turned off because Lucky Logic had failed to pay the electricity bill and done a runner owing heaven-knows-how-much to the Right Hon Lord Whatsit who owned the head lease to the entire block.

Overnight we were modernised. The 82 concrete stairs leading to our front door were carpeted, the walls were painted, the roof was fixed. Most significantly, our security of tenure as tenants was withdrawn. We were no longer in Fair Rent territory, we were in market rent territory, and the market had changed - boy, how it had changed - because Chelsea had changed. There were still families down the road, but if they were in flats they were council flats, and if they were in houses, the houses cost upwards of pounds 2m.

Bankers, film stars, drug dealers and wide boys live in Chelsea these days - ordinary families don't. In the Fair Rent days, I kept the pram and the children's bikes in the hall, and hung the washing on our landing to dry. The fire escape ladder was perfect for underwear. Visitors said it looked very Italian. Frank, the 85-year-old ex-bomber pilot downstairs, loved having a family upstairs. Last year Frank died, and his flat became vacant, and Lord Whatsit wants pounds 600 a week for it - unfurnished - and yuppie foreign bankers are trudging incredulously up three flights of stairs ("What, no elevator?") to view it. Yesterday, after several warning letters about health, safety and vermin, the bicycles downstairs and the washing, football boots and toy boxes on our landing were seized and impounded in a mews off Sloane Square.

Inner cities, even the richest in Europe, need families. Families need understanding landlords. Besides, a Chelsea flat with Continental ambience and lingerie should fetch more than pounds 600 a week, surely?

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