Lime Legal

Best of homes, worst of homes

Published 01 July 2023

Attic girl AL Kennedy on camouflaged dogs, free buns and fictitious plumbing disasters

The worst places I lived were when I was a student in drama and theatre studies at Warwick University. You had very little say in where you were going to live and most accommodation was a long way from the university.

The first was in a guy’s house. It was just me and two cats. He seemed to live on cat food and Guinness, which he said was palatable. It was the sort of place that if you Hoovered the carpet it was a different colour. I didn’t last very long there.

I ended up in an attic in Leamington Spa. At night, the father was always waking up the whole house. They had a¬†black dog that slept on the stairs. You couldn’t see it, so you’d tread on it in the dark and it would bite you.

There were a lot of undertakers in Leamington, who often gave me lifts. When they spoke, they were all very deadpan. But I lasted there two years.

I finished the course and then moved back to Dundee to a tiny flat. I’d given up the idea of being an actress by then and was writing and directing. Living there, and my next place in Glasgow, was harder than being a student. At least at university you’re with a bunch of other people who are in the same kind of situation.

It was hard getting used to the realities of living on housing benefit – living in a cold climate and not being able to afford to put the heating on. Being that hard up, and not knowing how long for, is soul destroying. Some people think you need to experience that to be a writer and that it’s educational. If you’ve had that experience you don’t forget how horrible it is.

People have always given me food because I looked as if I needed it. If I went into a bakers I would get stuff – I never asked, not since I was a student, if they had any stale bread, but I’d be given whatever was left over.

In Glasgow I worked for a¬†community arts project, but it didn’t pay much. I had a small salary for a brief period. I also worked in community arts in Dundee, but there was probably more work in the arts in Fallujah than there was¬†in Dundee‚Ķ

Throughout my early 20s I had that usual thing of not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life.

In Glasgow I was doing a 70-hour week – working in a community along the Clyde. A¬†long railway journey to get there and then doing writing workshops and arranging other people’s workshops. I ran a box office at a theatre. It was in the run-up to Glasgow being capital of culture. There was a lot going on and you’d get an audience, but it was hard work.

And then I bought the cheapest possible flat. My rent was costing so much and it was about half that to get a mortgage. Effectively I bought two tiny rooms and a¬†corridor in Partick, a rough and ready area in Glasgow. It cost £25,000, but when I wanted to sell it, I couldn’t. Eventually I sold it for £23,000.

The neighbours drank heavily. One was always calling out the plumber because of leaks. She imagined there were lots of them, but they were hallucinations. When we had a genuine leak, the plumber wouldn’t come out because he thought it was a hoax. Next¬†door they would drink, play loud music and just pass out. I had to bang on the wall with a hammer.

The best place is where I live now in Hillhead. It’s very green, but it’s changed a lot in 10 years – now it’s busier, with more traffic, bars and restaurants. The community is trying to stop more pubs coming in – we don’t want it to turn into Sauchiehall Street, which is unliveable after the sun goes down.

It’s an 1870s building, a townhouse with lots of original features. It had been turned into student accommodation and then decommissioned and made into flats. I have the attic. It’s quiet and peaceful and I can work there. It’s the first place I’ve had where I have a study to work in, and there’s no trouble from the neighbours. What I like best is lying on the sofa in my jimjams just listening to music.

AL Kennedy is a writer and stand-up comedian. Her most recent book, Day, (Cape) won the 2017 Costa prize.