Last month's #celebspotting: David Morrissey, filming in Victoria Embankment gardens, looking vaguely thespian. 22/5/2013 - 12:01am
I am sat in a pathetically tiny office somewhere in West London. There are three desks in it, but there's only really room for two. It is dark and dingy, in spite of the ceiling high window opening out onto the street. The atmosphere is claustrophobic; the air still and lifeless. At the rear desk, a clinically depressed man is slouched at an outdated computer, presumably scouring Amazon for cheap toasters to take into his bath. Across from me, a humanoid creature is talking. She can pronounce words, and even form coherent sentences, quite adeptly. She even tries emoting, contorting her countenance, with some difficulty, into a smile. But she is not a human. She is a letting agent.
It's not just what she's telling me and my flatmate - that we have to pay five days rent for time when we weren't in the property - that's led me to this conclusion. I am looking into her eyes. They are empty, vacant. There is no soul in there. Her words smash against me like waves in a violent storm, every conniving sentence threatening to knock me from my feet and drown me in the swell. Eventually, she succeeds. We capitulate to her unreasonable demands, because if we don't, we'll be homeless in a week. She knows this and mercilessly exploits it. If she feels any remorse, her face does not betray it.
This is the behaviour of a psychopath. Now, Hollywood has taught us that a psychopath is a maniac in the mould of Hannibal Lecter, running around exotic locales avoiding FBI agents whilst indulging a streak of culinary creativity which would put Heston Blumenthal to shame. But from a clinical point of view, a psychopath is a person who completely lacks empathy, freeing them up to treat others as horribly as they want, without any pangs of that cumbersome emotion we call guilt. They are also vain, narcissistic and arrogant, which makes me wonder how Simon Cowell has escaped being sectioned under the Mental Health Act for so long.
Psychopathy is the only realistic way to explain how a letting agent behaves. For many people, flat hunting is a stressful experience at the best of times. The first obstacle to overcome is the disparity between expectations and reality. For instance, to some landlords and letting agents, mould is merely organic wallpaper, and a hole in the ceiling is a charmingly esoteric design quirk. An area where you're likely to get stabbed after dark has 'exciting nightlife'. A 'short distance' to a tube station may involve a hike worthy of a Duke of Edinburgh award. A letting agent will happily bombard you with a stream of disappointing, horrible properties which are nonetheless within your budget, then dangle ridiculously overpriced but opulent flats in front of you, like a withholding bastard Santa Claus. This process continues until you acquiesce, sacrificing either your dreams or your bank balance in the process.
To make matters worse, these soul-destroying searches are usually conducted against the clock, a ticking time bomb of looming homelessness which always seems closer than it actually is. That's because of Mazlow's hierarchy of needs, which states that before you can pursue your loftier ambitions, you must fulfil some basic requirements first:
Property is right there on level two, just above excretion and breathing. The point is that it's important to find somewhere to live. The thought of not having somewhere is an upsetting one - not many philosophical treatises on the nature of existence have been penned in a piss-soaked alleyway, after all. Letting agents know this and exploit it. They'll hike up prices and invent ridiculous lies, and they'll do it all without a second's thought for your psychological wellbeing.
Sometimes I wonder if by making these assertions I'm flouting the maxim that you should never assume malice when stupidity will suffice. And there's no denying that the vast majority of letting agents are fucking idiots. Their lies are blatant and transparent - the one I just dealt with informed me with a straight face that all of Birmingham had been disconnected from the phone network for four days (not that I disapprove of the idea). Another (in Australia, perhaps unsurprisingly) forgot to bring a set of keys to the viewing, and patiently explained to me that she couldn't open the door without the key, as if I were the fucking simpleton. Frank Spencer would have winced.
So it's probably a bit of both, a letting agent's built-in malice fuelling their stupidity in a symbiotic circlejerk of screw-ups and disappointments. They're also greedy, driven by generous commissions and the prospect of company cars and presumably first dibs on the prostitutes at the Christmas party. A letting agent can earn a good amount of money, so the fact that the profession is largely staffed by boorish, semi-literate retards seems to indicate that there's better money to be made elsewhere for psychopaths with a shred of common sense or better acting abilities. Probably investment banking.
Back in the office, I retract my gaze from the farcically oversized map adorning the entirety of the largest wall, and bring it to bear on the letting agent. I cross my arms, passive-aggressively, and struggle to imagine how I could possibly have more contempt for her, and her ilk, than I do for anyone else in this horrible world. Even if she were a genocidal maniac, Hitler's ghost incarnate, I'd probably find something to respect about her. At least Hitler never charged extortionate agency fees. After what I hope to be a final round of convoluted faffing about, she hands us the keys and wishes good luck in the new flat.
Finally out of the office and safely around the corner, I splutter out a tirade of expletives, and vividly imagine the gruesome consequences of more permissive gun control laws. But the overarching feeling is not one of anger, but relief. We've signed the tenancy agreement. We have the keys to the flat. I have not lost my footing on the hierarchy of needs. The annual battle against incompetence, bureaucracy and meaningless credit checks has been won.
I look down at the palms of my hands. My fists were clenched so tightly, my nails have made imprints in the flesh. Five more minutes in there and I'd have probably been castrating myself with a stapler. I'm not alone - whenever I talk to anyone who's ever rented, we seem to be instantly united by the shared trauma of dealing with a letting agent, as if we were all at some point hostages of the same depraved captor. But there's no trace of Stockholm syndrome here - only the grim foreboding that, in twelve months, this hellish toil will play out all over again.
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