Life in Offord Road

Nowadays, it seems almost impossible to find anywhere to rent in London unless you earn about three times the average salary.  It wasn’t always like that, of course. When we were all younger, living in shared houses or flats was quite quick and simple to arrange on a fairly low income but produced a number of often strange uncertainties. Few of these were as odd as the ones I encountered in Offord Road in Barnsbury.

Back in the winter of 1981, fresh out of uni, I moved, with little more than a suitcase, a guitar and a box of books, into a bedsit at the top of a house in this rather peculiar street in this rather peculiar part of town wedged between Islington, Highbury, Camden and Kings Cross; dilapidated, shabby and bohemian; full of old-men’s pubs and Greek and Turkish corner shops; and the ancestral hunting ground of the 172 bus, a great red Routemaster whose route included leafy squares and unfeasibly small side streets. A few days later, the big freeze kicked in, the coldest three months I’ve ever experienced in this country. My room was on the top floor and at night the glass of water by the side of my bed would freeze over. The room had an electricity meter which accepted 50p bits. For the first couple of days I was getting through these all too quickly.

On the third day I put a 50p piece in and it jammed half-way. This was, I noticed with interest, enough to keep the power going, no matter how long I had the electric heater on for. Being the honest chap that I am, the next day I told the landlord, Mr Gorman. “Well, now,” he said, “you can be sure I’ll have a fella round to fix that soon enough.”

He didn’t. The freeze went on for three more months and the heater was on for every moment I was in the room, all paid for by Mr Gorman. From time to time, I’d see him in the street. “The bills on your place are something fierce,” he would say. I reminded him that I’d told him about the problem. “Sure you did. Well, I’ll have it fixed any day now.”

“In your own time.”

This eventually happened the day I moved out, about a year later. I think, but I can’t swear, that I managed to swipe the original 50p piece as well. It had probably kept me alive.

You might be interested to know who else lived in this strange place. In the basement was Mr Torrance who would play pornographic tapes very loudly whenever anyone used the phone in the hall. I’m sure this quirk of his once scuppered my chances with a rather lovely young lady I’d met at a party a few weeks before and was trying to chat up on the phone: no easy job in those days of 10p bits and even harder with Mr Torrance on hand. On the last occasion I was, I thought, just about to close the deal when one of his taped orgasms blasted up the stairs.

“What the hell was that?” she asked.

“The bloke downstairs.”

She didn’t believe me. I can’t blame her. It must have sounded so much closer. I never heard from her again.

The ground floor had just this ill-fated hall with its coin box and a shop, which was permanently untenanted during my time there. On the first floor was a couple whom I never met who had both the bedsits. They seemed to argue quite a lot, sometimes from one side and sometimes from the other, but I never saw them cross the landing from one room to the other. That was quite odd too.

On the second floor lived Robbie, one of the oddest people I’ve ever met.

On the top floor was, on the right, me, and on the left Chris, a gay ballet dancer and his occasional boy-friend. The boy-friend was interested in me the first time we met, much to my embarrassment and Chris’ amusement, but this seemed only be because he wanted to know what my waist size was (28″ then, I think) and how it compared to his (26″). After that he left me alone and we all got on fine.

On the other side of the stairwell on the second floor was a room which Mr Gorman had never been able to let out, mainly because it had almost nothing in it apart from an electric oven and stove (for which no coins were required) and a sink. The rest of us used this as a kind of living room-cum-kitchen. It was also where Robbie installed the telephone.

I should wind back and tell you more about Robbie. He was my age, north London born-and-bred, a talented musician and, as I later learned, a paranoid schizophrenic. He also had no hearing at all in his right ear as a result of a car accident a few years before and, as he claimed, the way the police had beaten him up afterwards. Worse than no hearing, he had tinnitus in it, sometimes so loud that on occasions I’d be woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of him banging his head against the wall to try to stop it.

He, like me, wrote songs and we used to collaborate on each others’. In those days, home recording consisted generally of a two-track tape machine using a recording process known as bouncing. You would record one part on the left channel, then record the second into the right channel while simultaneously adding what you’d recorded from the left. You’d then repeat this, overwriting the original take on the left channel with the combined right-channel part plus your third instrument. There were a number of problems with this. First, you could could only either go back one stage, or else start again from scratch. Secondly, the results were in mono. Thirdly, with every copy, the quality would diminish.

Robbie, with his one ear, developed work-arounds to these problems. He had a compressor pedal for his guitar that made all the difference to these kind of recordings. He worried about the levels for the original recordings. He kept the bass parts strong and simple. Above all, he constructed a drum kit which comprised a reinforced cardboard box taped to the floor (bass drum), a suitcase (tom), a biscuit tin with several tea towels inside it (snare) and a saucepan lid suspended from the ceiling (cymbal). Now, with Logic Pro’s thousand of kits and samples at my disposal, I sometimes find myself searching in vain for “Robbie’s kit”. Maybe it wouldn’t sound so great now: but it did then.

Round about this time, two bits of equipment were released which changed everything. The first was the Drumatix, a programmable drum machine which was pretty tinny but at least gave you a steady and editable beat. The second was the Tascam Portastudio which gave you four tracks and thus the possibility of a stereo mix. Robbie got his hands on both of these and we started using those. He also invested in a foot switch connected to his (very expensive) headphones. This was, he told me, to give him a stereo effect by flicking from right-to-left-to-right and so on channel. He told me he’d disconnected the right headphone speaker to double the headphone’s life.One day I uncharitably tested this out. He was right. If I wanted to have two-ear sound, I’d have to bring my own cans from upstairs. This made what he did seem even more extraordinary. It also made me sympathise all the more with his late night wall-banging: all he could hear in his right ear was either silence or else deafening roars, like – as he described it to me once – the constant flushing of a toilet inside his head.

Unfortunately, these were not the only roars in his brain. It was at once clear to me that there was something unusual about his mental wiring. This I first noticed when, visiting his room at about one in the morning, I found him leaning out of the window looking at Pentonville Prison on the other side of the railway tracks.

“You see the cars parked down there?” he said, pointing down at our side street. “They’re getaway vehicles. There’s this guy who was checking them out today. Hey – look at the lights!”

I looked across at the prison. Most light were off, a few were on. Then one of these went off. Robbie made a note of this on a piece of paper.

“Ah, you see – it’s a sign.”

“A sign of what?”

“That they should be ready.”

“That who should be ready?”

“The get-away drivers.” I looked down at the street. Nothing seemed to be moving and I pointed this out.

“Ah, yeah, that’s just what they want you to think.” If I’d pushed any further his next remark would have been “so you’re one of them?”

That was the problem with his logic: negative proof was impossible. The essential logic that one night there would be a break out from the prison and that the cars parked in our side street would be the get-away vehicles was an axiom of truth for him and there was nothing I could do to change his mind.

A month or so after I moved in I made what turned out to be the supremely poor decision to introduce Robbie to my friend Patrick, who was writing a book about phone tapping. This provided Robbie with the external logic he needed to justify his obsession. Three days later I was woken up at one in the morning by his being brought home in a police van, having been caught breaking into the 607 telephone exchange in Caledonian Road. He wasn’t charged with anything – which seemed odd in that sensitive time – but the incident, including the journey home in the meat wagon, confirmed everything he had previously suspected. He was on to something and They were out to get him.

This obsession took an odd twist a couple of days later when he managed to rig up an illegal extension to the phone box downstairs to one that lived in the second-floor sitting room-cum-kitchen. He’s also expertly covered every part it with fake fur, leaving only the dial, the ear piece and the mouthpiece unexposed. As well as free electricity, I now therefore had free phone calls. Even though he’d installed it, Robbie never fully trusted it. “It’s watching us,” he told me once. “I know it is. Be careful what you say.”

A few weeks later he woke me up at two in the morning to tell me a tangled story about something that happened to him in Trafalgar Square that evening and what his girl-friend had said to him and the way someone had looked at him in a shop a few days earlier. All this made me realise, for the first time clearly, that he was seriously ill. There were no dispassionate helplines, no friendly groups and no informative websites in those days. There weren’t even any words for what he was going through, or what he thought he was. I found myself distressed, but unable effectively too convey this emotion. I had drifted close to and was now being estranged from, someone who needed help. Beyond arranging for him to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act, which eventually happened to him by someone else, I felt powerless.

I lived there for about three more months. We carried on communicating most rationally through music. As a musician, there was certainly something about him. Above all, his songs and playing had personality, to an extent I’ve rarely encountered since. Others seemed to feel so too. One day a famous musician rocked up at Offord Road to pick Robbie up for a session. Nothing came of it, so Robbie told me. Soon afterwards, the famous musician released an album and Robbie was at pains to point out to me what had been nicked from his stuff, some of which I knew. It was hard to be sure but I was inclined to agree that there were similarities. Robbie stormed around for a few days saying he was going to “sort him out” but never did. This didn’t help his state of mind either.

Then I moved out. We keep in touch, though I found any connection increasingly difficult. At one point, so a mutual friend told me, he was convinced he was being followed around by Southern Region Railway ticket inspectors. Someone else told me that he no longer went out except wearing a crash helmet, the better to deflect the malevolent rays that were being beamed down on him from outer space. Offord Road was, apparently, somewhere he needed to escape from but could not because of the powerful ley-line which ran down it. The final straw came when he was found a council flat on the street but decided one night that the furniture was impregnated with something malign so he set fire to it. He had long predicted that They were out to get him: and They duly did. The ambulance soon arrived and he was carted off to the Whittington Hospital. It was not possible to convince him that this was because of the arson, not because he was a danger to the state.

The last time I saw him was during a respite from this, in his parents’ house in Finchley. He had particularly begged that I come up and I duly arrived, though I was far from sure what or whose cause I was pleading. The middle-class chintz and china was so far removed from my knowledge of him as to freeze my mind. Even worse, his parents’ utter incomprehension about their son’s confusions, and Robbie’s own cynical and defiant-defeatist reaction to his situation created no point of contact that I could help bridge. I have many regrets in my life: one of them is that I failed to accomplish anything from the conversation. What Robbie knew of me, and how he’d sold me to his parents, demanded of me a solution that I couldn’t provide. Even more to my shame, I never saw him again.

Back in the day when I was young enough to go for flat- or house-sharing with strangers, it seemed so simple just to turn up with a few possessions and start over. Those times now seem to be gone for good. My sons will perhaps never experience anything other than the incredible expensive and process-driven accommodation market that now prevails. Few such experiences leave you untouched or unchanged, often in ways you least expect. Whenever I hear some talk about tinnitus, or I see a photo of a Drumatix or a Portastudio or (more rarely) a fur-covered telephone, I think of Robbie and his strange and hectic obsessions.

It was a deeply strange year or so I spent in Offord Road – full of beer, music, icy cold followed by blazing heat, paranoia, confusion and a strange six-month affair I had with a slightly bonkers woman who was a train announcer at Paddington station. So, Robbie, you crazy catalyst of most of this, here’s to you: wherever you are – and if you still are – I hope things have got better for you. Nothing about that year was what I was expecting: but, looking back, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Brian Quinn

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