Putting out fire with gasoline

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THE WRITER’S LIFE

The last couple of weeks have been quite a whirlwind in my world and the writer’s life is in the process of being moved to a new home. The period leading up to the move has been one made seemingly as difficult as possible by my outgoing landlord. He has been nothing more than a bully and I’ve been advised that he’s actually acted illegally. All I’ve wanted to do is get out and move on, so I’ve played along but he won’t win. I have the power of the pen. He’s shot himself in the foot and continues to do so, sustaining many injuries. I shall explain. The plot device is a dart board, believe it not. More on that later.

Turn back the clock to a year ago, when things weren’t so good. At the time, I was grateful to be offered a place to live. I’d have taken anything and although a flat above a pub may not have been the logical choice for an alcoholic, I have the drinking under control and there have been no problems: I’m a model tenant and I don’t get drunk. The place was in a state of disrepair, so my friends and myself took it upon ourselves to do it up a bit. In doing so, we did the landlord a favour. I should have realised at that early stage that he was less than a generous soul but I was so relieved to have a place of my own that I just let things go.

The landlord was aware that I was in receipt of housing benefit and as such, I was unable to raise a deposit and my rent would have to be paid in arrears. This is a simple fact of life for those on housing benefit, who are limited in the accommodation they are likely to be offered because most landlords won’t entertain benefits recipients and the financial constraints placed upon them. My landlord accepted me as a tenant on this basis and issued me with a tenancy agreement (Assured Short hold, which gives the tenant a good degree of legal protection from unscrupulous landlords). I was grateful and relieved.

The bells of alarm should have begun to toll when the landlord pulled off a little sleight-of-mind trick with the rent: initially, he quoted me £120 per week. He stated on the tenancy agreement that rent would be payable at a rate of £480 per calendar month: I have the printed contract and that has proven key in my subsequent delving into this. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the landlord has made a mistake here. £120 per week does not equate to £480 per month: 120 x 52 / 12 = £520 per calendar month. Despite having a legal document which would stand in my favour in court, the landlord’s tactics were persuasive enough to extract the greater amount from me. Therefore, he has had £40 x 12 months in additional rent from me which was not in the tenancy agreement. I have all of my bank statements to prove that I have overpaid and am therefore owed £480 by my landlord.

Two months into the tenancy, the landlord got a bee in his Scotch bonnet (He’s Scottish and the tight-as-a-gnat’s-cunt stereotype, personified) about rent arrears. He knew that my rent would always be in arrears because that’s how my housing benefit is paid. Although I’m very good at arguing and debating, it is impossible with someone as ignorant and irrational as this guy. His method of arguing is to state his case loudly and in a threatening manner, then to leave the discussion, without hearing defence. So the mother ship came to the rescue and addressed the delusion by paying my arrears to the tune of £540. I have been advised that it was illegal for the landlord to demand this: I am a housing benefit tenant, with a legally-binding tenancy agreement. Even if I’m really generous and see it fair personally for me to be up to date with rent upon leaving, then I would owe the landlord one month’s rent at the amount stated in the tenancy agreement. This leaves a surplus of £60 owing to me (I repaid my mum the £540 when I got my disability payout).

The tenancy agreement clearly states that rent will be paid on the 10th of each month. Because of the way my landlord chose to operate, I have always paid fortnightly as I’ve received my housing benefit, topping it up myself to pay the extra he charged. Using the tenancy agreement as the only legal document in this fiasco, my last in-arrears payment would have been on 10th March: up-to-date on the rent. It’s the 14th as I write this and I move out tomorrow. If I’m really generous, I owe five days in rent. Any landlord with a hint of humanity would perhaps find it within themselves to waive this; perhaps be a little accommodating of my mental health issues and realise that I’m under a lot of stress from the move. My landlord is not human and has demanded rent for the last week in advance, which I have paid (£120). I had to borrow and as such, I have paid one week in advance of the last stated monthly payment date in my legally-binding document: I have paid rent up to and including this Friday, 17th. In addition and because of his inability to comprehend figures, dates, the number of weeks and months in a year and basic reason, my landlord has it in his fantasy land that I’m on borrowed time and is demanding rent from me daily at  £15. By the time I leave tomorrow, I’ll have overpaid him two days with my last advance payment and a further two days which he has conjured from his imagination. Again, I shall pay to ease the process of getting the fuck away from him but that’s another £60 he owes me.

Still with me? So, my landlord owes me £600 in total and that is the minimum, with me giving him the benefit of any doubt which may arise. Legally though, it is a minimum of £600 on the basis of what is in writing and legally binding. I have the documentation and I’m taking it with me. If I were to take the voice recordings of all of the unreasonable demands and threats which have been directed at me to the police, there would be a whole load more trouble, as there would from the local authority for various other things. We’ll let the fact that I ended up occupying a two room bedsit while the landlord crammed others into the flat, for him to continue to deny to the authorities when they ask: they will.

The reason the last couple of weeks have been so full-on is mainly down to the landlord, his ignorance and a level of co-operation in getting me out of a place he needs vacated, which borders on being obstructive: that’s how irrational this non-human is. He needs me to vacate the property because the tenancy of the pub is changing and he has given his word to the incoming manager that the place will be cleared. Here, he will find again that his dealings with his tenant have been unfair. Under the terms of my (legally binding) tenancy agreement, the landlord is required to serve the tenant with a Section 21 Repossession Notice. The notice period is two months. Aware of this, I approached my landlord on 4th January (I have the conversation recorded and date-stamped) to remind him of his legal duty, should he wish to evict me. The two month notice period is in law to allow a tenant sufficient time to find suitable alternative accommodation. When I approached him, my landlord stated that my tenancy was safe as far as he was concerned but that he would let me know if the situation changed. It should not be down to me to chase him around but I’d learned what a devious piece of work he is by now, so I’ve been protecting myself.

As soon as I became aware that the deal was done with a new pub manager, I took it upon myself to approach the local authority housing options team. I met with them and was given a standard response that they were not obliged to house me because my landlord hadn’t served me with the legal requisite Section 21 Notice. Until he did so, I had legal protection over my dwelling and I had two months from when it was served. Only when I was evicted legally would the council be able to consider my application. I returned to my landlord with this information and politely requested that he not shoot the messenger. This he did verbally and made it clear that should he need to, he would physically remove me.

I’m from London and where I’m from, we have certain rules. Among those is the one which says you don’t grass. London is also the place where a lot of arguments are settled the old fashioned way. I’m not in London now though and medication means that I don’t do that kind of thing any more. I didn’t grass but I did make it clear to the local council that my need for housing had become more urgent. They deal with this kind of thing all the time and no doubt I was feeling less than my usual generous self, so may have let a few things slip under questioning. All of a sudden, I was classed as “Vulnerable” and the council asked for my landlord’s details. I know he’ll be reading this and for the life of me, I can’t remember whether I told them his name and the company I pay my housing benefit to. I was under so much stress that I simply don’t recall. Still, those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, so it wouldn’t matter what I told the council.

And here’s how the dart board fits into the story: my landlord has it in his head that the dart board which has hung on my wall for the last year and which I brought from my last place in Sidcup, isn’t mine. I don’t have a receipt as I bought the thing five years ago but never mind that and no matter innocent until proven guilty, he insists that I can’t take it. That’s fine. It’s impossible to argue with a mind which seems intent on inconveniencing someone but my mind works in a similar – but better – way and I can play that game too. If I was feeling really vengeful, I could simply dig my heels in and refuse to move. In the absence of that Section 21 Notice, I have the law on my side and could dial 999 as soon as the landlord lay a finger on me or my possessions. I’m leaving quietly though, to rid myself of the parasite; just leaving a lot of noise behind.

I’ll give up the dart board, just fine. I’ll then extend the logic that what was here already, must stay. Because when I arrived at the pub, there were some things already in the place I made home: a fucking great wardrobe and a double mattress. I have neither need nor room for these and other things at the new place and was planning a trip to the local dump to dispose of them. I don’t think I’ll bother. With all of the extra costs which I have unfairly incurred, I cannot afford a second day of rental on a van. I was going to be helpful but I may as well use the situation to my advantage. I need to shed some stuff, so I’ll just leave it behind and saddle the landlord with a problem. In reality, all I’m doing is leaving the place exactly as I found it before I did it up. As such, the landlord has no claim against me, while I still have one against him for a minimum of £600, all backed-up in legal documents and date-stamped voice recordings. Were we ever to speak again, I’d propose we leave things exactly as they are. Then he doesn’t have to worry about me going beyond the £600 and causing a lot more hassle over alleged illegal activities. I’m sure he’ll agree, now that he’s read this. I watched an interesting Dispatches on Channel 4 tonight, on my last night. It dealt with bullying landlords extorting funds from vulnerable tenants. In one case, the tenant paid up out of fear: she wanted a quiet life and needed somewhere to live. She turned to her local authority and was advised to sue her landlord. She did and the court found in her favour, awarding personal damages of £10,000 to be paid by the landlord. Hers only escaped by going bankrupt. If my landlord needs advice on the latter, I’ve been there too. Either way, his stupidity in thinking he has one over on me will cost him.

Almost two weeks ago now, I viewed the flat where I could well spend the next six years: it is very, very small. But as I ponder what is going to be one of the biggest moves of my life, I know that it’s not so much about the modest size of the place but what I make of it. Unsurprisingly, I already have a vision and I’ve got a pretty good track record of dressing things up and making them look good. I’m apparently a pretty fucking good writer.

It’s a little bit mental when the whole thing is taken into consideration: as recently as five years ago, I had a family. Then it started to go a bit wrong but I still had a thriving business, a nice bachelor pad in Bexley and a swimming pool. Then I had a fiance of model proportions and a lovely home in Sidcup. Then it went tits up. The whole thing has been analysed at length and in great detail. I still don’t know what happened. I do know that it was fuelled by alcohol addiction. I know that I was an utter arse to many people who didn’t deserve to be treated in the way I treated them: my family and some of my closest friends. I understand why I had to be left to die: because I was beyond hope. I have learned through valued old friends though how deeply people were moved by me and I will always be sorry for all of the stress I caused. I’m incredibly lucky to have such wonderful friends and family that we have rebuilt bridges. Where I’m from, it’s good to maintain such things and not permanently burn them down.

The battle back to some semblance of health was a fucking long and hard one and now I rattle with pills but I’m much better. It took a lot of hard work to get my particular mental illness recognised but a tribunal judge ruled that I am indeed unwell. I didn’t ask for a brain which plays tricks but with hindsight, the thing in my head has become an interesting friend. I wouldn’t want to go through the nightmare of the last few years again but now I’m emerging from the other end, those who stuck around are glad I made it. I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone. I’m still going through it now: mental illness is not cured by a change of address, no matter how hellish the old. My landlord is constantly reminding me of how “fair” he’s been to me, when the opposite is true. He has certainly not been in any way understanding of mental health issues and the voice recordings I have prove that, should they find their way out of my hands. 

So, from all that I once had to being almost physically excited at the prospect of moving into my tiny new flat tomorrow. I’ve got the place thanks to an absolutely amazing young lady at Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council. Yes, I just praised a civil servant but over the course of this whole illness, breakdown, recovery and the rest, I have learned that the system in place in this country does actually work. I’m so proud that my ancestors were immigrants (as were all of ours) into a land which has become the multicultural, inclusive, diversified and wonderful country that it is (a few bigots aside). I got so much help from the council because they – like the judge – recognised me as being vulnerable. If I wished to remain on talking terms with my landlord, then I would tell him what it’s like to stand before a judge. I’ve done it many times and he may like to prepare. No matter that the new place is small: I have freedom. I would much rather have departed the pub on amicable terms. If I were to write more of the landlord’s most recent conduct (all recorded), no-one would blame me for the way I have inconvenienced him. Certainly, no judge would be able to convict me of any illegal activity, especially when I site the very serious offence of harassment as provocation. The reason I don’t write of it here is that it’s best saved for a judge, should my hand be forced.

The new place is just a studio in the outlying reaches of the borough but it’s with a landlord attached to the council and it therefore comes with the security of a long term tenancy. If I behave for the initial 12 months (I will), I have the option of signing a five year tenancy: that is exactly the kind of security I need. I’m done with living out of a suitcase; six months here, twelve months there. I want to settle down so that I can finish my French language course, get on with my creative writing degree and perhaps one day be a teacher as well as a writer.

Infana Kolonia is progressing well as the sci-fi / fantasy adventure I hoped it would. I’ve written the first twelve chapters: 40,000 words (about 100 pages) just setting the whole background and base up. The rest of the book is in rough draft form and the ongoing writing is in keeping with the original synopsis. Once the move is out of the way, I’m looking forward to continuing to write a book which has become a real joy, in my new studio. I’m still hopeful of getting a 550-600 page book out by December. The children’s book, the anthology and the memoir are still roughly on target as well.

Around about this time tomorrow, I’ll have transported what I want to the new flat and left what had to be discarded behind. The new place is so small that the main living area will not accommodate the footprint of my current furniture. In the living room, I’ll have my sofa and writing desk by the window with the TV and AV equipment opposite. I then have space remaining for two each of book cases, CD and DVD towers. A nest of tables, a pouffe, scatter cushions and a few sundries thrown in completes the floor. The sheer quantity of books, CDs and DVDs I own is such that I’ve had to buy shelving equivalent to that which will stand on the floor to house it all. But it will all be there, possibly even having to extend into the separate kitchen: my library, music collection and The Savage Cinema, relocated. I will be able to watch, listen, read and write in privacy and with a lock on the door: a luxury denied me at the pub.

I have my own separate kitchen and not one which I have to share, even though I paid for the white goods (coming with me). There’s a Tesco Express (I know) on the village high street, where I can buy ingredients for daily, freshly cooked meals: something I’ve not been able to do for the last year, while I’ve been stuffed into a bedsit within the pub flat and had to buy my own microwave to be able to eat cooked food. There are take-aways in the village, including a chip shop quite literally a 30 second walk from my new flat. I’ve not had fish and chips for the last year because I eat at unusual hours and often reheat meals: fish and chips in a microwave isn’t nice. Sizzling from a conventional oven at 2am, eaten in front of the TV or at my writing desk, the first fish and chips will be the nicest I ever tasted: a bit like revenge.

The ubiquitous (although I begrudgingly admit, welcome) presence of Tesco and a few other chains (Boots, Costa Coffee) aside, the village is mainly independent shops. There’s one I have a particularly keen eye on, as it sells the sort of cool stuff and curiosities which populate my shelves. Given the gentrified nature of the village, the obligatory charity shops are of the quality one would expect in such an area. I predict many visits to the village, which is one minute from my flat, which is in the rather wonderfully-named Harrington Mews. There are cafes and pubs on the high street and most of the pubs do decent food. I’m in a place now where I can go out for a couple of pints socially, so if I ever get stir crazy in my little studio, I have many places to sit and write, just on my doorstep. Five minutes’ walk from the flat is a National Trust country park, where I imagine taking long walks for inspiration and personal reflection. It’s idyllic, if somewhat cosy.

It’s going to be cramped. I have about 30 feet of shelving going on the walls and the place is going to look like a book store / music store / DVD library, with me squeezed in somewhere. I can’t even make room for a bed with everything else that I need to put in there. I’m resigned to not sharing any future life but should such an unlikely thing occur, this first foot on the local authority housing system will serve me well if I need a bigger place with a landlord who can offer continuity of tenancy. Until such a need might arise, all of my others are being taken care of. So, I sleep on the sofa: I’ve done that before and far worse. I could fit a bed in but it would be at the expense of something else which is more important to me. As long as I’m in my writing studio, I’m happy to sleep at work, in amongst all that I hold dear. All that is left behind is loose skin, shed: it’s the least I could do. I could have done far more and worse. He won’t have seen beyond the smile as I departed but few can see into a mind more calculating than his.

It’s all a bit mental, how life has changed into such an amazing thing, when not long ago it was shit. It still is, until I leave this place for dust and merely haunt it. There is no mention of a name attached to my now ex-landlord because I don’t believe in publicly shaming someone, for many reasons. If my life is made more difficult though, a name is only a few keystrokes away from being in the public domain on a blog which a lot of people read. The authorities who obliged me to answer questions have been told all that they asked for. If I hadn’t co-operated, I’d have not got re-housed and I wasn’t getting any help from the ex-landlord.

Right now, my ex-landlord will be seething after reading this: It’s a tough life when you’re signing on (I know). I’d have preferred a rational conversation and perhaps a gentlemanly parting of company. He is neither rational, nor a gentleman. My words would have been wasted and they still will if he follows his usual argumentative course, where I have no say. Therefore, just read the fucking blog and either cease the harassment or speak to your lawyer because I will speak to the police. I’m on first name terms with many, as we co-operated when I was homeless.

I know my rights one year down the line and although I’m grateful for the stepping stone, I cannot allow others to suffer as I have over the last year.

Post Script

I moved home last Tuesday and after almost three days of solid work, the place was finished: CDs and DVDs are in alphabetical order and my books are in some sort of order. The place has worked out exactly as I planned, with a smaller footprint of furniture and shelves on the walls. It’s bigger than I remembered too: When I first came to look at the place, the main living space was dominated by a double bed: it was just plonked in the centre of the room, as though the previous occupant had just slept here. Between then and me moving in, council contractors gutted the place: all the old shit was thrown out, and the flat was redecorated and re-carpeted. The difference it made to the perceived size is quite amazing. My main living room is not cramped at all as I’d imagined it would be. With a little less furniture than I had before, the place is cosy but spacious. Everything fitted where I imagined it would.

One of the most striking things is how quiet it is around here. I live in a village now, so I don’t have the sound of a main road like I did at the pub but the little building which houses three flats besides my own is almost uncannily quiet. I’ve met my neighbours and all four of us are council landlord tenants. Two of the others are ex-offenders. I don’t know what they did or how long they served: that’s the sort of thing you’re told and not ask about where I come from. It’s irrelevant anyway: whatever they did, they have served their time. They are really nice blokes. Like me, they seem to keep themselves to themselves, which makes this little building a lovely one to live in.

It is a lovely little building too. I gather that it was originally a mill of some kind (most likely a flour mill round here) and parts of it date from the 15th century. Local talk (in the village) tells me that one particular wall is the oldest of its kind in the world. I really need to research. It is a beautiful old wall, certainly listed and perhaps scheduled ancient monument. The building which houses my flat and the three others is built onto the remains of the old mill. It’s a curious juxtaposition but it must have been granted planning permission.

The Mews where I now live is also home to a few quaint old shops: there’s a mini oven shop (really), a gallery and a tea room. My building backs on to the village high street and I’m half above a tattoo parlour and half over a restaurant. The smells wafting up from the latter are amazing. This is the life: this place (the flat, the building and the village) is cosy, friendly, quiet and just really fucking brilliant. Somehow, after all that I’ve been through, I’ve landed on my feet with a fucking great smile on my face.

It’s not taken long to realise how great this place is compared with the last. It’s nice to have a lock on the door for starters. By extension, it’s pleasant to be able to chill out with a DVD and know that there’ll be no interruptions. It’s nice not to share a bathroom with the family of six which the landlord crammed in rent-free and illegally: that’s one I was keeping up my sleeve but I have motive for rolling my sleeves up. For starters, I gather from my various encounters with the council staff who’ve helped me with all of this, that they’re onto my old landlord. It’s nice to be in a quiet environment. I don’t mind the incidental noise of life in any particular area but the absence of angry noise is a relief. Safety, security, personal space and a bit of peace is just what I need to really face up to the depression and maybe even get over it. I’ve been able to concentrate more on my writing and the book is going well. There’s also a slightly incendiary short story out on submission with publishers: any similarity to persons living or dead is of course purely coincidental. 

I mean, it’s perfect: I have all that I need within a two minute walk into the village. I’ve not visited my local yet but myself and my wingman went into the same pub I did when I was last over here and it’s even more friendly than it was then. We both play pool and we enquired in the pub whether there were any in the village with a table: there’s one at the working men’s club, which is on my road. Absolutely everything is in the right place. The flat, the building, the mews and the village are idyllic.

One of my motives for baring my arms is exactly because I’m so relaxed. It’s only now that I’m in such a pleasant and quiet environment that I realise what a hell hole the pub was to live in. I shall never stop being grateful for the initial kindness of my landlord and landlady for taking me in. It was better than where I’d been previously – the safe house, where I sofa surfed for seven months – only in the respect of giving me at least some personal space. Personal space was impossible in the safe house because I was a homeless guy taken into an already full family home. The company there, despite a few fallings out, was far more pleasant than the pub, where it just felt like a constant argument. Both places were infinitely better than where I’d come from: on the streets. I cannot deny that both were necessary stepping stones and that without them, I wouldn’t have ended up here. The ironic thing is that the landlord who I now resent for the way he treated me, is the reason I’ve ended up here; because of the way he treated me. My gratitude doesn’t extent that far but I acknowledge that things had to happen just as they did.

I’m going to leave it there, while I’m not feeling too antagonistic towards the old landlord because of what I just wrote. I did leave him with a load of stuff I didn’t want to take with me but I did intend to go back for it when my conscience got the better of me. Unfortunately I had a bit of a mishap during the move which prevented me from doing so. My friend who helped with the move phoned the landlord to tell him that I wouldn’t be back and apparently my old landlord found it highly amusing that I’d been hurt. I cracked the back of my skull on some iron steps: my old landlord thought it funny that I might have bleeding on the brain or permanent brain damage. That’s just the lovely guy he is. He’d know a lot about brain damage though, given the company he keeps. I’ll say nothing about what’s in the national press: it’s in the public domain, so I don’t have to. Suffice to say that what’s in the news is reason enough to never want to set foot in that pub or around those people again. My mind is divided on whether he will pursue me. I have done nothing illegal, although I have inconvenienced him. If I’m generous, I’ll say we’re even on the inconvenience thing. I may or may not seek to reclaim the money he extorted from me, if I can be bothered. At the moment, I’m too chilled but if he riles me, I will become unchilled. He’s a complete and utter insecure bully and I have been submissive in the past: as such, I believe he might try to bully me. I do have another card up my sleeve if he does though.

It’s dawning on me now that for the last year, I have been suppressed. This was true to a lesser extent over the preceding seven months but that was a much more helpful suppression because I had a greater respect for the people around me. After only three days of being in what is truly chez moi though, I feel I have my mojo back. This is not to say that I am in any way inclined to return to my bad old days; rather, for the first time in around six years (since it all started falling apart), I feel okay. “Okay” is how most people feel most of the time. For me, I feel okay about things generally and long term. Right here and now, I’m fucking ecstatic. I didn’t realise how much I’d had the wind knocked out of my sails.

Delirium Tremens: Expression is freedom. I have total freedom of expression here.

I took the fucking dart board too.

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