/ GUARDIANSHIP / Portraits
Writer, Musician & Guardianship Building Manager
Victoria Birkinshaw 2017
Head of a Dubious House
Opportunity is a funny old thing, I had moved back to the U.K after a
five-year period of doing very little up a mountain in Switzerland. And
thought what I really should be doing next is very little a bit closer
to where I considered home - London. I signed up with a guardian
company (Newbould) figuring this was the best way to stretch out what
was left in my Swiss bank account. I ended up in Charlton, Greenwich,
in an old people's home called Fred Styles House. Newbould had just
acquired the building and needed someone to temporarily secure it,
keeping squatters or vandals out before guardians could be found to
fill the spaces. I'll only be there three months, I thought, so why not
buy myself a little bit of time to work out what to do next.
The building had been decommissioned just two months previous
and its empty forty-two flats were boarded up from to toe. It wasn’t
the most welcoming of places; little natural light, repetitive,
identical corridors and doors gave the feel of a prison or mental
institution. Each floor had a colour code. All were pastel. The heating
permanently notched up to candle melting temperature and the taps
turned in the wrong direction. It was to be an education.
In the beginning there were just two of us, me and a white witch
called Holly who wouldn't leave her flat because she was too busy
astral projecting. I was quite busy too, sitting in each flat to see
which one was the best and ‘whee’ ing myself around in the wheelchairs
left lying around the building. This was before I knew I was to be
given something I had so far most successfully avoided like the plague.
Soon into my stay a member of Newbould asked me if I would like to stay on and be house manager.
“What does that entail?” I asked,
“Well, you'll get a large discount off your rent, perhaps even all of it.”
“Yep,” I said without hearing anything more,
“I'll do it”.
People do tend to only hear the details they want to. The good bits.
With no training, or idea of what I should or shouldn't be doing, I did
it for four years.
We guardians weren’t allowed to talk to the owners, in this case
the council. There were keys left everywhere, all unmarked. Trial and
error became part of my daily routine. Where were the fuse boxes? How
do I change the bins, or clean the industrial washer-dryers? What do I
say when someone tells me their friend has died, or brings me a dead
mouse in a pizza box and asks what to do with it? Half the flats had no
bathrooms so a majority of guardians had to use the communal showers,
barring robbery or intoxication, this is how most people got locked
out. I grew indifferent to the sight of barely dressed -fresh from the
shower - men and women turning up at my flat. I dreaded the
buzzer going off in the middle of the night.
I got over losing the ability to slip through my everyday
existence without people knowing my name, and even got used to being
stopped to answer questions every time I poked my head out my flat. I
usually got collared in the local Co-op, with a two-litre bottle of own
brand cider in hand. I smiled, and listened and tried my best to find a
solution, the right words, or at the very least buy some time until I
could find someone who actually knew what they were doing. Through time
I realised no one knew what they were doing. I picked up some practical
skills and managed to get a hold on how this building worked. I did the
monthly inspections, checking if the guardians had pets, drugs or
sub-letted. Mostly I used the time to see how people were getting on
and if anything needed fixing. Occasionally I’d sit with them and have
a cup of tea.
Along the way I collected a few people around me that were eager
to go on “how do we do this” escapades. The bins got emptied, the
dryers got cleaned, the communal garden made friendly and the “how do
we do this’ people became friends. From all over the world. From New
Zealand, Romania, Thailand, Russia. I met more here than I did when I
traveled because I had time to see them again and again and again.
There was something unique about my time in a decommissioned south
London old peoples home. This rarely happens in adult life.