Gunpowder and Gumtree is a new blog stream bursting from the seams of my recently-changed and rather challenging life. At the age of 53 - having lived alone (or with lovers) since I was 30 years old - I have fallen off the central London property ladder (boom, scrape, dead cat bounce) and am having to eat humble pie (no flour, no sugar) and thus look for a room in a flatshare in the outer zones until I can dust myself off (two years or more?) and figure out how I might live in zone one again.
I understand this living in zone one business is not the same as pledging to give up alcohol (done it) or writing a book (doing it, slowly) or running a marathon (done baby done) but it does mean something to me and maybe two years down the line it won't. Just in case though I want an action plan in place so that if my heart does ask it of me I can again afford a studio flat overlooking the Thames and accordingly swing my legs in zone one air (very polluted) when I am 55. I know I have mentioned this before but mine is definitely a riches to rags life. Riches to rags and again riches to rags. I believe I may now be cycling a third time. The trick is in being able to jump off the automatic roundabout of habit and belief whilst the word riches is being uttered.
We all know what Gumtree is.
I put an attractive and pleasant face shot on Gumtree and then said the following which seemed about right:
I am a writer and a yoga teacher and I am looking for that dream flatshare with someone calm (possibly 40s, 50s) who likes to keep things super clean, shoes off at the door, space nice, no smoking in flat ever etc. I am a great flatmate if this is you (smile). I am also looking for somewhere quiet as I write full-time from home and teach part-time away from home. Apologies as well but no pets - allergic to animal dander. Please email if you have something and would like to talk. £450 pcm including broadband and bills is my rental cap. Prefer London but for the right set-up I would travel out.
I chose a supporting pic that I thought said nice woman and did not say looking for sex and thus three days after returning from the Near East (see completed blog stream Reflections on a Gift of India) I set off to Camberwell, which for me is deliciously down south, to view flatshare number one.
I associate South London with dirty stop-overs from my younger years (I say this truly and happily) plus more than a decade ago I had a favourite piratic girlfriend who presumably still lives in Camberwell now. All this meant that early indicators were playful and positive.
Flatshare was on a council estate however and as I approached I was a little concerned although I couldn't exactly make out door numbers yet. Number 1 which was where I was heading appeared to be the front of a very dilapidated block. I tried to imagine myself skipping home after teaching or a nice day out and I couldn't quite do it yet but everything always depends on feeling. I needed to go inside and see.
I remember being very happy once staying in what could only be described as a flophouse because of the company I had been keeping at the time (a French-Canadian beauty) and also my mood (I was eating steak then, crazily, and had a grand openness of my mind). For £450 a month inclusive of bills I was prepared once again to gainfully employ my imagination.
I rang the doorbell which didn't seem to work so I knocked.
My two flatmates-to-be were Brazilian and I liked both of them at once. They seemed to me upon first glance to be friends and not lovers and that turned out be right. The problem was that as I walked into the flat I was assailed by the smell of damp. I also noticed everything was very clean and and very run down.
We sat together at a painted wooden table that I imagine came from a skip. The judge inside my head which I have cultivated, religiously - and am stepping up to own now - that voice, said 'You can never live here' and there we had it. Parked and done. What remained was to be pleasant for fifteen minutes in the company of Mariella and Bruno.
It transpired that Bruno did something white collar for the council and Mariella had three cleaning jobs which tired her out. They both had partners in Brazil and I understood now that for these two London was about work. We talked age and the experience of living here. They had both been here for quite a while also and were a decade or so younger than myself. I had come to expect that - being older than any flatmate now - and was fine with the reality of living with younger people.
I decided to be frank about my experience of their environment especially because what I had to say would not reflect badly on them. The flat was scrupulously clean, they were nice people, it was just hazardously damp and in a terrible state of disrepair.
I gestured at the badly peeling wallpaper and the black mould around every sill.
-You two are great and keep it clean but this place is a mess you know.
Bruno seemed vastly relieved and began to talk. Throughout what he had to say Mariella nodded emphatically.
-I have told the landlord many times and he does nothing.
Mariella then pointed out the worst of it and I wanted to plop the landlord on the floor and give him my mould lecture 101.
-Who is this guy anyway? Where does he live?
It transpired the landlord was Jamaican and I could feel myself ruffle through my online dating black book - I have been out with enough Jamaican men. Did I know any Jamaican men who would slum landlord it like this? No. I was mad at this guy though and I could feel myself plotting.
So, for the sake of no retribution, and as I go forth with this blog, let's just call the landlord Jason. Bruno then told me that Jason had five flats. I raised my eyebrows at this and spoke to both of them.
-Do you know if Jason owns or rents these properties - have you done the math?
Yes, they both had and apparently Jason was primarily an owner.
So Jason has five council flats and lived in Lithuania with his chick. This meant he probably didn't pay rent in Lithuania either.
I scraped my chair back at this stage of the story which only got worse. Apparently Jason of Lithuania comes to London every six months and when he does he kips unannounced on Bruno and Mariella's couch. The third person - whose room I would have been taking when she moved out - was never here and thus didn't really enter the equation. Her boyfriend lived somewhere better which meant she rarely came back so it was Mariella and Bruno who had to field Jason.
At this point I almost laughed aloud imagining my conversation with Jason if I ever came home and found him sleeping on the couch.
-Does he repair anything when he comes here?
-Does he give you money toward bills?
-We ask him but he says no.
Bruno and Mariella laughed like two people reconciled to a ongoing train strike or weather that was just terminally bad. No repairs done and no contribution from a man living in Eastern Europe with five London flats. I don't have friends who cheat like this - most of my friends don't cheat at all - and doing nothing about it did not sit well with me.
-I wish I had a clean, fresh three-bedroom flat - Mariella and Bruno - because then if I did I would take you both with me right now. Jason probably pays no tax. He may even be signing on from Lithuania.
Their groans were good-natured (this was their landscape and the way it was) but I am new to all of this and it derails me over and over. Or I derail myself. The sheer unfairness of everything. Jason has enough property - presuming all five flats are comprised of two-bedrooms or more - Jason has enough property to capture four or five lots of Jeannie, Bruno and Mariella.
My problem - or maybe my salvation - is that I cannot give my hard-earned money to someone as crooked as this. I finished my plain tea (I had forgotten to bring oat milk) and I kissed both of them on their innocent cheeks. Then I left. I had their express permission to tip off the council and HMRC re Jason's presumed fraud and I thought about it for one night.
What stopped me was that my life was already in crisis (my perception) and what good would attracting an enemy do for me right now? I couldn't be sure of no blowback. Somehow whistle-blowing by its very nature can never really be anonymous. It is energetically personal, targeted as an arrow, right or wrong. Besides, I had the recent experience of some diabolically bad luck (again, my perception). Also strong spillage from Barbados that was still effecting my life and I was a little afraid of what my karma with Afro-Caribbeans held in store. I do understand it is my karma.
So in the morning I folded away the address in Camberwell complete with name of council and Jason's surname as well, and during the first block of my therapeutic Essex run I put the whole thing into an outdoor bin and like this the information was gone.
If I focus on what is fair in the London rental market - and what categorically is not - my intestinal tract will corkscrew like fussili and it is me who will suffer not the culpable. The mystery of Jason though, the Jamaican, is that he believes he is entitled to exploit people unchecked until the end. Or he is waiting for his Waterloo but that cannot be me, not right now.