Student digs: Beware of the mice...

Jonathan Sale has seen his fair share of grotty student digs. As the new academic year starts, he reflects on leaks and rodents
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The Independent Online

For the first time in well over a decade, no children of mine are in higher education. They have served their time: three of them doing two degrees each in a total of six different universities, with new lodgings every year: that's a lot of entries in our address book to be jotted down each September and crossed out every June. It meant an even greater number of student houses to be checked out to see if they were safe houses, i.e. fit for human habitation. Some passed the test, being perfectly adequate for not particularly houseproud teenagers. Others failed the inspection completely; if the kitchen radiated a dull glow from ingrained grease, only a few nano-seconds separated our entering in hope and leaving in disgust.

Water was a theme running - literally and metaphorically - through most of the properties in which they ended up. If anyone was foolish enough to turn on the electrically heated shower in Jessica's house, all the lights went out and, more seriously, all the computers - with their last-minute essays humming away on the screens - would crash. Similarly, the shower in the shared house of her sister, Rebecca, was a deathtrap of bare wires, which suggested it was better for suicide attempts than cleanliness. Directly underneath in the kitchen was a bulge in the ceiling which intimated to the highly intelligent Lancaster students that a reservoir of dirty water was waiting to splash down; the highly intelligent Lancaster students turned out to be absolutely correct.

The landlord's response was to send round a collection of unhandymen who were uniquely unqualified for plumbing jobs. It was only in the last week of the academic year that the word "plumber" occurred to him. Oddly enough, my daughter was planning on graduation to start an MSc in water management, though she did consider switching to a PhD in Justifiable Homicide.

I never had any aquatic problems as such but in our day student lodgings came with a built-in snag: the owner. My first landlady stuck her snout into all aspects of my life apart from my essay on imagery in the later novels of Charles Dickens. She barred female visitors from our rooms, apart from two evenings a week, though, to be fair, we could choose the evenings and indeed the girls. She was so mean her bill included a surcharge of £5 for loo paper and there was no refund if you used the bogs in college instead. Fortunately, my last year was perfect. The landlady, a music teacher who let out rooms in her elegant house near my college, didn't care what you did as long as you did it quietly and in A Minor. The mod cons included a grand piano if you felt like a late-night tinkle. The only snag was that a leading light of the university Conservative association moved into the house next door - and bang went the neighbourhood. I know it's not politically correct: but would you like a friend of Norman Lamont only a brick wall away? Or maybe a mouse in the kitchen? The choice is perhaps too close to call.

A young friend of mine, Emma, who last year was paying £350 a month for her share of a house near Edinburgh University, became obsessed by a rodent on the premises, to the extent of giving it a name (my Christian name, as it happens, but she assures me this was a coincidence). Despite the miniature minefield of mousetraps, the intruder had a charmed life - until the night when someone popped a slice of bread into the toaster and switched it on. There was a tiny scuffling noise, a smell of singeing and a tail poking desperately out of the toaster. She had found the mouse in the one place where they hadn't looked and where the pile of droppings indicated that "Jonathan" had been munching crumbs for much of the last few months.

The mouse-on-toast episode was typical of the place. Smart street, elegant rooms, high ceilings - but an absolute tip. The place was so filthy that, before my friend moved in last September, the mother of one of the other students was driven to swill down the nastier areas. The young student tenants of Dun-Cleanin were therefore furious at the end of the academic year when the landlords told them that they were withholding the entire deposit of £1,350.

A letter spelt out the 17 reasons. The bin was missing a lid (the students knew that it had never possessed one.) A cupboard was full of assorted rubbish (as it had been when the students moved in). The bedroom doors had, without permission, been fitted with locks (but not by them).

In addition, the picture rail was dusty. Well, really! The tops of the kitchen cupboards were dirty. If the place had been spick-and-span in the first place, the landlords might have had a case in complaining about the need to clean the fridge and "several areas under the beds"; but it wasn't and they didn't. The concept of wear-and-tear appeared not to have occurred to them, to judge by their complaints that a cupboard door appeared to have been "opened too wide", allegedly causing a slight crack in the wood, and the front door may have been "slammed", resulting in some cracked paint. The young folk did put their hands up to the charge of accidentally making burn marks on a small carpet: say, £50. But the landlords were still over the top to the tune of a cool £1,300. The students, or rather their parents, are consulting lawyers; the mouse is Exhibit A.

One's fellow students are as important as the fixtures and fittings. My elder daughter, Rebecca, got on with everyone in her house, but she was lucky to be a de-militarised zone in a household split by civil war. Her younger sister never even got her feet under the table in one of the places she looked at. A student already ensconced there had the nerve to blackball my wonderful daughter for the crime of having 9am lectures, a time which would have led to pressure on the shower schedule. (The coveted place went instead to someone who had a leisurely - 10 am - kick-off to the academic day.)

Fortunately she had better luck when she arrived at another potential home. All the existing tenants were out and it was left to one of their fathers, who happened to be on the premises, to show her round. Yet the dad was so agreeable that she gambled on his daughter being a good egg too, as indeed she was and is (the two girls are still pals).

My son, Peter, had a similarly lucky start to his career by happening to select the same house as a congenial lad, Paul, with whom he chose to share when he moved during their two subsequent years. Some time after graduating, Paul discovered that his stepfather, with whom he lived, was my cousin. The two students, housemates for three years, turned out to be - what? - step-cousins once removed. The landlady could have charged extra for re-uniting the long-lost relatives.

Not all of Peter's housemates were quite as congenial. Back in his first year, he never quite gelled with the rather delicate, privately educated girl in the next room. The two freshers particularly failed to gell after she was woken very early one morning by the radio alarm clock left in his empty - and locked - room. To avoid the continuing din, she fled to the house next door where a friend had one of the rooms. She turfed him out of bed (well, what are friends for?) and had just got to sleep again when my son returned and, as part of an on-going, inter-house food fight, began throwing eggs at the window of a friend in the house next door. The same friend. Except that now the delicate girl was in the room, feeling very persecuted. Next day she moved into a hall of residence, telling the landlady that my son, who had driven her out, should pay her rent. (He didn't.)

The delicate girl will be pleased to learn that, after 11 years of working in London, going round the world and teaching in Japan, my son became a responsible father figure when he went to another university for a BA course. This time, you would have paid extra rent to have him in your dwelling place. In his postgrad house, he was the one who chided his housemates to tidy up, wash up, grow up and pay the communal bills. And turn down their radio alarms.