Landlords, neighbours, and noise complaints

Aidan Balfe’s reflections on a year of living out in Cowley, and the communal living myth

I remember the first day I moved into my house in Cowley. I smelt the fresh, clean carpets as I marched into my new home, and sat brimming with optimism and excitement, thinking of all the memories yet to be created within these walls.

The very next day we received our first noise complaint. A short, white-haired, angry little lady came knocking on our door at exactly ten am. “You kept me up with your music ‘til two am!” she jabbed. As far as I remember, three of us had stayed up until midnight chatting. Maybe Miriam—whose real name has since been forgotten—was playing hard ball, like the new teacher at the start of the year who puts her foot down lest her students think they can push it. Either way, “that bloody conservatory amplifies all the sound inside it”, she explained. And that wasn’t a lesson we learnt in one sitting.

After that morning’s telling off , I got on my bike and cycled into town. “Ah, the new commute,” I thought. “This will never get old”. I was—at that moment—every naïve, optimistic new Cowley student resident, yet to realise that as much fun as living out is, the novelty of almost every aspect of the experience has a sell-by date. I do still enjoy the cycle into college. On a crisp spring morning it’s a lovely way to start the day. However, the dependence you quickly develop on your bike has a dangerous side effect.

Most people are familiar with what I call the Oxford-trek phenomenon: by virtue of the fact that Oxford is such a small city, for most people here (perhaps not at Hugh’s) even a ten minute walk feels excessive— we are used to rolling out of bed into the library, taking the 20 metre trip to hall at lunch. Starting to use a bike produces a similar effect. You estimate any trip from any part of Cowley to any part of town, without fail, as five minutes. Yet to brush your teeth, you see the clock at 9.53am, and somehow remain confident you’ll make your tute at 10. By the end of a year living out, you’re an expert in the student triathlon: a dip in the shower, the cycle into town, and the dash to your tutorial.

A major barrier to beating your own personal best is an occupied bathroom. No matter how big your house is, or how many people you live with, you inevitably end up getting on top of each other. I don’t mean sex. Sex with housemates is a big no-no. Thankfully none of mine are my type. What I mean is getting in each others way. The strange thing about living with people is that you notice things about them that you never would have otherwise. Little habits, and patterns of behaviour, which can range anywhere between amusing and infuriating. With my room downstairs near the kitchen, I’ve started to be able to tell which one of my housemates has come in, not from the way their footsteps fall, but from the way they drink a glass of water.

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On a bad day, however, even the largely harmless habits of your cohabitants can irk you. I never realised how much I hated people not putting the bread tag back on the bag. After it was discovered that one of my housemates was putting empty jars back in the cupboard, the house meeting that we called quickly descended into a kangaroo court show trial. It took four months for us to set up a joint account for bills and general shopping. To this day I have never used the debit card. During its creation, the debate over whose name the account would be in (only two available slots between four of us) was heated. Thinking of my future credit rating, I made the smart move and bowed out.

One of my regrets is letting myself be persuaded—at the very start of our tenancy—that we weren’t the kind of house who needed a washing up rota, only to be trapped in a four-way prisoners’ dilemma just weeks later. Don’t be fooled if a friend comes out with the same. Everybody thinks that they’re the house who can live as a commune, washing up, not out of a sense of duty, but out of compassion. It doesn’t exist. Get a rota.

All that washing up comes from somewhere though, and with a real kitchen at your disposal—as opposed to a crappy little kitchenette—you suddenly start to release your inner Heston. Being able to properly cook is one of the joys of Cowley life, and there’s nothing like a nice homecooked meal as a house. Recreating Christmas day with a house at twice capacity was one of the best days I’ve spent in Oxford. As we approach the end of our tenancy, however, our already semi-Stalinist landlord has only got worse. It took us three attempts to get the house up to his germaphobe standards for his last inspection, and now he’s making noises about a “professional standard” before we move out.

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This is all despite the fact that for four weeks we had no lighting in our kitchen, most radiators are useless, and there’s literally a tree growing through our conservatory. He also wasn’t best pleased when our neighbour complained about our last party. Apparently we were breaking our tenancy agreement. We’d had more success the last time, when all we received was a noise disturbance letter from Oxford Brookes, now proudly pinned on our notice board House parties are a normal part of student life, and obviously you don’t want to be complete pricks to your neighbours (buy them some wine beforehand, and start to turn things down when they ask), but second year is the year for them.

Cowley is a nice, vibrant place, and there are plenty of good pubs, restaurants and cafés on Cowley Road. It’s not, however, Manchester’s Fallowfield—the student areas of large cities put Oxford’s to shame. It is perhaps telling that Oxford’s student area is actually named after a town a few miles down the road. Given Oxford’s intense academic focus and its small size, it does tend to feel like you are splitting your time between town, where you actually do things, and Cowley, where you sleep. The more this can be avoided the better

As I sit here in my house, looking out into our grassless garden, surrounded by drying washing, and my best friend trying and failing to defrost some frozen noodles directly into a wok, I can say that—despite its drawbacks and its frustrations—the experience of living out is a wonderful one. The sense of genuine independence that it gives you is the one that the university experience as a whole promises. Only once you’ve walked in to a kitchen piled with washing up, or a living room strewn with empty cans, does university deliver on that promise.