Monday 24 October 2016

Mary Kenny: The landlady's return

How economic forces are reviving the days of the student digs

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Digs! There was a time when all students - and nearly all young people migrating to the city - went to live in "digs". And now, to relieve the dire shortage of accommodation in Dublin and Galway, the college authorities are recommending that students return to the system whereby they became lodgers in a family house. Back in the day, digs were run by a bean an tí - the landlady - who usually exercised a matriarchal discipline on her young tenants. There were rules and regs, and certain guidelines about morals and decorum.

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Some might be strict, but some might be vague. We had lodgers when I was a teenager - young, male singletons - and my mother didn't lay down any particular rules that I recall, except that she expected a chap to be "a gentleman".

I wasn't quite sure what that entailed, but an episode illuminated it. On one occasion, one of the lodgers, a Trinity student, didn't sleep in his own bed overnight. Nothing was said, but later it was mentioned that, if he slept away, "a gentleman" should at least ruffle the sheets for the sake of appearance.

Morals, manners and money changed the traditions of student digs. A couple who ran a successful digs for many years in London's Earl's Court told me that the contraceptive pill changed the demands for digs, as it changed so much else. Their tenants were mostly young women, either students or "girls of slender means" in their first jobs. They had been happy to share bedrooms and other facilities, until the Pill became widespread. "After that," said the landlord, "they all wanted their own individual accommodation, as part of freedom in their sex-life." And thus the habit of living in digs gradually died away.

Digs had flourished until the 1960s because they were economic and practical but there was also an element of supervision involved. Parents felt that there would be someone older looking out for their offspring though if the youngsters chose the digs themselves, they might as easily have lodged with a procuress running the white slave traffic as with a motherly hen keeping a beady eye on vulnerable kids.

My husband found his own digs in London's Islington (then a slightly run-down area, now dead posh) where the walls were damp with condensation, and the landlady was a rabid Marxist. He and the other tenants sat up half the night arguing over varying Trotskyist sub-groups, and it was all tremendously exciting. One day, a shy Irish girl knocked on the front door and asked quietly, "Is the woman-of-the-house at home?" She became one of the tenants at this particular collective, and Richard converted her (he claimed) to socialism after a wild night overdosing on cocoa. Her name was Mary Holland, and she became, of course, a distinguished journalist (and partner of Eamonn McCann, who finally won a seat in the Stormont Assembly this year, at the age of 73, after a lifetime of Trotskyist politics).

Digs could be restrictive, but they could sometimes be fun. They often provided a launching pad, a home life and a network of friends and connections for young people coming to the big city. Then digs faded away as being too old-fashioned, as the availability of bedsits and flats expanded. But now bedsits have been banned by the planning authorities, and flats are beyond the economic reach of most students or young workers. Gone are the days when an out-of-work actor or struggling poet had a cheap flat in Baggot Street, or an artist's garret in Chelsea.

And so, economic forces are reviving students' digs, and probably a good thing too. Older people with empty nests often appreciate the company of bright young folk, and the Airbnb generation are accustomed to moving around the world living in other people's homes. The internet is a useful facilitator of these arrangements, since reputation can be checked out via social media. If the hosts are absolute swine, the message will get transmitted via Facebook: if the tenants trash the place, they will find it harder to secure a subsequent berth.

New guidelines will arise spontaneously about manners and morals. Some hosts don't object to boyfriends or girlfriends being entertained overnight, but some already ask that their lodgers "play away" if they're in a relationship. It's not so much about moral supervision, now, as about social comfort - the appearance of strangers at the breakfast table the next morning isn't agreeable to all hosts.

The benefit of digs, in those formative years, is that they provide more narrative, more interchange of social experience. Living alone in a flat or a bedsit can be isolating, and a surprising number of young people don't cope well with too-early independence. Homeless youngsters who have been provided with individual accommodation have been known to go to pieces: they're too young to run a home.

Writers benefit from digs, because great stories emerge. One of the most hilarious memoirs of digs is Jeremy Lewis's Playing for Time, a screamingly funny account of being a TCD student more than 50 years ago, and of the Dublin digs he inhabited. He tells the story of a renowned Belfast poet searching for really slummy Catholic digs as a deliberate reaction against his ultra-clean Presbyterian background. Finally, the bard delightfully found Dublin digs where there was snot in the butter. Rebellion accomplished!


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