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Two of a set of photographs demonstrating domestic hygiene using children's toys (waking up; brushing teeth). Papers of Charles McMoran Wilson, Lord Moran. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Every morning, I wake up and I see an enormous painting on the wall that hangs opposite my bed. The painting belongs to my landlord, as does the bed. I have lived in this particular flat, my tenth rented bedroom in nine years, for four months, which means so far it has been 128 mornings that I have woken up to that painting although sometimes, if I sleep on my side, I suppose I technically wake up to the sight of my landlord’s rug. In one sense, I don’t mind the painting. It’s abstract, muted, brownish grey, kind of nice. If you squint slightly, or if your eyes are heavy with the sleep approaching or the sleep you’ve just left, it looks a little like a subway train flashing through a tunnel.

Unfortunately, in a larger sense it is imperative that I learn to hate this painting. Every time I look at it and think simply ‘huh’ or ‘there’s the painting’ or ‘is that a spider?’, I’m acclimatising to the fact that in the place where I live there is a painting that takes up almost an entire wall, that welcomes me to each new day, that I didn’t choose. I care about paintings, or, at least, I do when I’ve got the time.

I care about paintings, but in fact I wouldn’t buy a painting that size, even in a charity shop, even one I fell in love with in the intense and disorientating way you sometimes do with objects, because I can’t say with any confidence where exactly I’ll be living next, if there will be space for it, how far I’ll have to carry it and how expensive that might be. I suppose in a sense I technically have bought paintings of that size, or other very large ornamental objects, for my landlords over the years. I’m looking at the painting now. I bought that painting! I bought that fucking painting! Or, if not me then my money or if not my money then the money of the tenants before me and before me and before me and before me and before me and before me and before me and before me and before me and—

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The average cost of renting in Scotland has increased by 3.6 per cent during the pandemic in comparison to the same quarter of the previous year. In Glasgow, the average cost of a two-bedroom flat has increased by 7.3 per cent.[1] According to figures recently released by the Department for Work and Pensions, since February 2020 there has been an 85 per cent increase in private renter households claiming Universal Credit, and 700,000 of those households cannot cover their rent. University students, meanwhile, have launched the biggest nationwide tenant action in 40 years in protest at being charged extortionate rates by private property companies to be left alone to isolate in inadequate halls of residence, often without enough food.

Throughout the pandemic, the higher rates of virus transmission in urban areas, particularly less affluent urban areas, have frequently been spoken of as being to do with the ‘behaviour’ or the ‘choices’ made by the residents of those areas. This is certainly true if you consider going to work simply human behaviour, floating free and in isolation, with no material context. The financial support packages released by the British government—including tax breaks for buy-to-let landlords—have assigned to those who hoard property and profit from other people’s need the status of national treasures: the landlord, the government appears to be saying, is to be protected at all costs from the consequences of their riskier investments.

The condition of landlordism, it seems, is one of freedom: to be a landlord is to float, to be untethered from material reality. They might be your broken radiators, but they aren’t your frozen feet. It might be your broken boiler, but it isn’t your carbon monoxide poisoning. It might be a public health crisis, but you are, miraculously, a purely private being.

Time on my hands, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about foetuses. Writing a book about the politics of motherhood, as I currently am, I often return to a passage in the writer Sally Rooney’s essay ‘An Irish Problem’, published in the London Review of Books in the lead-up to the 2018 referendum that successfully repealed the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution, legalising abortion in the Republic of Ireland.[2] In the piece, Rooney details the exceptional generosity of pregnancy as a state and observes that, when this state is effectively enforced by the legislature of a country, the foetus becomes a person with ‘a vastly expanded set of legal rights’. The foetus, Rooney writes, ‘may make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body. In the relationship between foetus and woman, the woman is granted fewer rights than a corpse. But it’s possible that the ban on abortion has less to do with the rights of the unborn child than with the threat to social order represented by women in control of their reproductive lives’.[3]

The 2018 referendum technically added a Thirty-sixth Amendment to the constitution, an amendment which in full reads that ‘Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy’. Perhaps because of the sterile diction of jurisprudence, every time I read this sentence, I can’t escape a compulsion to misread the final word, to swap in ‘tenancy’ for ‘pregnancy’. I have always vaguely conceptualised the relationship between a pregnant person and a foetus as one in which the latter occupies the position of tenant. Perhaps, I think to myself during the time that’s on my hands as I am legally required to remain mostly inside my rented accommodation, regularly transferring a significant percentage of my pay check to a letting agent, it’s actually my landlord who is the foetus.[4] Perhaps I am carrying my landlord inside of me. I am, after all, supporting them with my body. The state, after all, takes their rights very seriously. My relationship with my landlord, after all, curtails any other reproductive possibilities.

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Housing is everything. Where can I be? Where am I safe? Where am I able to experience pleasure? Under which conditions am I able to merely live? The pandemic has reconfigured our understanding of private and public space, mostly by making the latter inaccessible and imposing strict restrictions on the former. Your domestic arrangements, a mixture of circumstance and choice, have become definitional; unsurprisingly, given the party in government, the imaginary ‘home’ accounted for in lockdown legislation has been one with a garden and a home office, inhabited by a heteronormative nuclear family, a crayon drawing by a bored child with one eye on the tv. As a recent report in the Guardian noted, for almost a year ‘the rules introduced to fight the spread of coronavirus mean that, in England, sex between single people, or established couples who don’t cohabit, has in effect been either illegal, or against regulations, or only allowed outdoors’.

The history of outdoor sex—and indeed any sex outside of the home, such as that which takes place in public lavatories—is, of course, also a history of the attempted legal regulation and prevention of queer sexuality. The commodification of empowerment that has been a feature of corporate feminism and pink-washing alike has resulted in an allegedly permissive culture where sex-as-a-concept is celebrated within specific limits and boundaries: able-bodied, cis, often white, definitely housed. Marriage rates are falling, but we’re still invested in crossing the threshold. Even in the rare instances of mainstream news coverage during the pandemic that have acknowledged the possibility that sexuality might exist outwith the boundaries of the couple form, the relationship between sex and labour has been almost entirely ignored: sex workers have been unable to apply for government support, often with severe financial and health consequences.[5]

Eimear Walshe’s The Land Question: Where the fuck am I supposed to have sex? (2020) is an artist talk in video format, the first of a series of works by Walshe for the 39th EVA International. In the talk, the land question—and by extension, the national question—is framed through a consideration of sexual logistics: ‘What three conditions would need to be met’, Walshe begins, ‘in order for me to feel comfortable having sex exclusively outdoors?’ After a rapid-fire history of land contestation in Ireland, including the formation of the Land League in the late nineteenth century and its demands for the ‘three Fs’ (fixity of tenure, fair rents, freedom of sale), the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and the property website ‘Cheap Irish Houses’, and after a thorough consideration of the possible downsides and extensive equipment requirements of an entirely outdoor sex life—‘Am I really into this? Or is my body just hyper-morphing to suit the economic conditions again?’—it becomes apparent that at present the only viable course of action is ‘Plan B: only sleeping with people who reach the ever-increasing threshold for comfortable & private accommodation’.

Where you stay, then, can be understood as a question of who you’re fucking and who is fucking you. In amongst the history covered in The Land Question is the story of William Clements, 3rd Earl of Leitrim, who was killed in 1878 near Mulroy Bay in County Donegal. Clements, who owned entire villages, was notorious for mistreating his tenants, including his alleged habit of exercising his droit du seigneur or jus primae noctis. Meaning ‘lord’s right’ and ‘right of the first night’ respectively, this refers to the supposed right of a feudal lord to have sex with his female tenants, particularly on their wedding nights. Michael Heraghty, one of three men arrested for the murder, died in Lifford Jail of typhus fever.

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Feudalism casts a long shadow. If someone owns your shelter, you might run into conceptual difficulties preventing them from thinking that everything else of yours falls under their jurisdiction, too. No smokers. No babies. No pets. I can’t help but try and map the contours of the decisions and possessions and geographical situations of my life onto the shadows of my many landlords. It’s almost like unrequited love: do they ever think about me? No. But I think about them all the time. They’re there in a decade of monthly calculations, in the hours on my knees scraping mould off the bedroom walls, in the planning of cups of tea around the time it takes to do a load of laundry because running the washing machine and the kettle at the same time makes all the fuses in the illegally-divided building blow.

Like any scorned lover, I fantasise. I wish mice on them. I wish damp on them. I wish them broken windows and bad neighbours and clogged washing machine filters and bed bugs and unanswered emails and a leak in the ceiling in the shape of Jesus. But it’s no use; even if I could make it happen, it won’t happen to them. They don’t live there. In the miraculous feat of capitalist displacement, these imaginary consequences would only hurt versions of myself.

In Walshe’s estimation, if you distributed the land of the island of Ireland equally amongst its inhabitants, everyone would get 2.5 acres each. By my rough calculations, in Scotland, everyone currently living here would get 3.5. Housing is everything. Where can I be? Where am I safe? Where am I able to experience pleasure? Under which conditions am I able to merely live?

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[1] Citylets, 2021: https://espc.com/news/post/an-update-on-the-scottish-rental-market.

[2] The new law still enshrines restrictions that impose ‘substantial barriers on abortion seekers’: https://www.independent.co.uk/….

[3] Of course, not everyone who needs access to abortion and reproductive control is a woman, a critique aimed at the trans-exclusionary campaign run by Together for Yes (https://medium.com/@transvoicesforrepeal/trans-voices-for-repeal-call-on-the-together-for-yes-campaign-to-formally-apologise-to-trans-people-84931f0fa85d).

[4] This is a conceptual landlord. Any resemblance to a real landlord, living or dead, is coincidental.

[5] For more information on the situation for sex workers in Scotland, see the work of the charity Scot-PEP: https://scot-pep.org.uk/. Umbrella Lane have just received funding for an outreach centre in Glasgow: https://www.glasgowtimes.co.uk/news/19101017.umbrella-lane-use-lottery-funding-glasgow-sex-worker-outreach-plan/.


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TENANCY has been a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project was curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.

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