Tuesday, 29 December 2009

day 172- the missing 7 years and the long journey to the cave

Every time I meet someone I'm burdened with the same questions: 'what happened to drugstore? where have I been in the past 7 years? why did I stop the band?' As much as I love telling a story, refreshments provided, it's such a long and traumatic tale, that I find it a bleeding pain having to go through every single detail over and over again.
It's a good story and one that needs to be told.
So, for the record, and hopefully for the very last time, I will tell you what really went down, and why it took me 7 long years to pop my head out of the cave.
Bring on the violins, the bottles of wine, let's get some clouds going, read on!

an inconsequential decision with catastrophic consequences
We're going to start by rewinding the tape to a point in time where I was still a semi-tourist in London, moving from place to place, sharing flats, sharing rooms. I had just got myself a bass guitar and was toying with the idea of joining a band. Met an artist called Yuri, she offered me a cheap room in her east-london flat. Sounded like a great bargain. The place was shabby and cold, but tempted by the cheap rent, I moved in. There are certain seemingly inconsequential decisions in life, that will in due time, prove to be disastrous. This was one of them, but it would be many years until I'd find out why.
The flat remained my base in London throughout the Drugstore years, many of which were spent on the road, so the cheap east-london gaff was perfect. Yuri had long moved back to Spain, and I carried on paying rent, tax, improving the place, and that went on peacefully for the following years.

chapter I
when love turns to dust
We're now back in Drugstoreland and about to start promoting the last album 'Songs for the Jetset'. We were unhappy with the label and generally tired. I fell in love with a lobster and was dreaming about a trouble-free life by the sea. It was a nice dream. I could really picture myself in that beach-hut, glass in hand, writing a novel, 'young lover' at my feet, the sunset and the seagulls. The 'young lover' in question was very keen for me to stop Drugstore, as we were about to embark upon our own seafaring adventure. I suspect, he had his own reasons, and feared that the band would always keep me tied up and maybe not deliver the mortgage payment.
For whatever reason, I went along, decided to stop the band, and lived almost happily for the next two years, surviving on my savings. But then, inevitably, the dream folded away, like a poorly built sand-castle.
I don't mind when things fall apart, in fact, I'm pretty pragmatic about those things, and before he even had a chance to say "...so, d'you think I could keep the Neil Young compilation?", I was already re-decorating the place, buying a new wardrobe and getting ready to find a new mate.
I came to see that what I was really in love with was the lifestyle, that beach-hut, the stress-free afternoons. Being in a band, even a mini-indie band like Drugstore, is very intense and lonesome at times, I can understand why I went for it.

So, the young lover was gone, the savings were gone. I was broke, but certainly not beaten.
Aware that I would need to find a flatmate pretty presto, I decided to contact the Council, the local Housing Authority; Having lived at the flat for many years, I wanted to get things sorted-out and the rent-book under my name. I genuinely assumed it would be a simple formality, a couple of forms to fill-out. But boy, was I mistaken; That was the start of the first nightmare, one that would eat away the best part of the following two years of my life.

chapter II
the first nightmare
This is a boring, painful and unpleasant chapter. Will try to be as concise as possible. I contacted the Housing Authority and was told that I had no rights and that I was to become homeless immediately. There followed a 'cat and mouse' chase between myself and their Housing Officer, who we can safely call 'bad lady', who broke every rule, every regulation in the book, in her attempt to get me to voluntarily become homeless, without having the trouble to do it via the proper court channel.
Some of the things she did really beggars belief: typex-ing dates from my letters out, losing my documents. The list of irregularities was endless. It was all very kafka-esque, and I found myself stuck in a script filled with absurdities.
I tried to get legal help from every single possible organisation, Shelter, Homeless Direct, you name it. Went to every free legal advise session available, but the bottom line was that I really had no rights, and funnily enough, I would have had more rights had I been a squatter, but as I was only an irregular 'occupant' or 'occupier', there was no paragraph in any law that gave me any rights whatsoever, regardless of the number of years I had been paying rent.
These were stressful times. The money ran out, I had to sell most of my music gear, and there didn't seem to be anywhere, anyone to turn to.
I had many nightmares, I mean, real nightmares, the ones you wake-up sweating, with your heart on speed. All my things were boxed-up, ready for any emergency move.
Eventually, a super-shabby lawyer, agreed to represent me in Court, round about the same time the 'bad lady' from the Council realised that I was not going to go anywhere, unless told by a Judge.

Court papers were served on a thursday, with the hearing schedule for the following tuesday. I went to see the 'shabby-lawyer', only to be told that he was away on holiday, and not due back for another 2 weeks. They had no idea where my papers were and I almost had to be escorted away from the building.
I just could not believe it. Had waited nearly two years for my case to go to court, and now, I was a few days away, without a lawyer, without a case, with nothing.
I walked away from their offices in Whitechapel towards Poplar, feeling that the world had ever so slightly tilted off-balance, the whole street seemed to be moving slowly from side to side. Got back to the flat and realised that this was it, I just had to put a case together by myself, just had to do it.

printer check: got ink
paper check: got plenty of paper
ciggies check: 2 packs
nescafe: half-jar
internet: login - google - search: how to write your own defense+housing+occupant+fuck I'm really desperate - Enter.

The following 4 days were spent with hardly any sleep, pouring over other cases online, researching, trying to find out what kind of typeface you use, what not to wear in court, everything. The flat became a mini-lawyer's office, with papers scattered everywhere, cups of coffee and an ashtray brimming with fag ends.
Wrote the case, detailing everything that had happened since I had approached the council in good faith, and hoped for the best.
On tuesday morning, went to Chrisp Street Charity Shop, which is one of the sorriest charity shops in east-london, as deprived of goods as the area it serves, where occasionally, unexpectedly, you get a sudden arrival of size 22 dresses, due to some death.
That morning, I found a size 8 - petite, pinstripe suite by Karen Millen - £4. Bought it, and felt that now I was ready to say hello to 'your honour'.

Now, we need to get the old violins out at this point, let's have a corny musical interlude: how fucking pathetic: I had to walk to the court, all the way from Poplar to Stratford, didn't have enough coins for the bus fare. Ok, done that, violins can go back in the box.

The scene: Proper little courtroom, judge wearing super-stylish 'zorro-like' cape and thankfully sympathetic to my case: "Miss Monteiro, must warn you that in these cases the Council always wins, but having read your statement, and given that you're without proper legal representation, I shall adjourn the case for another 30 days. You must return to this court with a lawyer. And although it's not my position to give you advice, what you need to google is 'judicial review'. Case adjourned."
Fuck. Adjourned. That's good, right? No, that's really Fucking Good.
Got home on a high. Googled 'judicial review', which is not the easiest concept to grasp at first, took me awhile, but then the penny dropped.
So, what it means is that because the Local Authority had behaved in such appalling way, the case was no longer about them against Miss Monteiro, but instead, it would be, Miss Monteiro, on behalf of the people of the British Isles, calling for a Judicial Review on how this local Housing Authority had behave, or misbehaved, as it was obviously the case.
I liked the sound of that.

Feeling pretty confident, instead of looking for a lawyer, and inspired by Machiavelli, and being a hardcore fan of both 'Yes, Minister' and 'The Thick of it', I've decided to play the political card. The Council was Labour led, the last thing they'd want to see is a judicial review exposing how incompetent their Housing Department was. So, in a moment of madness, I contacted the opposition. Yes, it's shameful, I know. Monteiro, she who had penned pretty melody in the memory of the great Allende, and marched against the Poll Tax, had secretive meetings with the Conservative Councilor. But you've got to agree, it was a pretty smart move. Also contacted the local press, just to make sure they would be happy to run the story, first page. Armed with that, sent all information to local Labour MP, who proceeded to take matters further up the echelons of the greasy political ladder.
Within two days, the Council dropped the case and I was offered a 1-bed flat in Stepney Green.
A month later I moved into the new flat, feeling on top of the world.
I won, I won! - I fought the law and I WON!
Little did I know that the worst of the nightmares were just about to start.

Right, we've come this far, let's have a ciggie and coffee break, for the following chapter will not be pretty, not be pretty at all.

some improvised good writing from monteiro here:

chapter III

descent into hell
Most people when they think of east-london, they think of the cool areas, like Bricklane, Hoxton and Bethnal Green. But the bulk of east-london is made up of mile upon mile of run-down council estates, that bear the well-known marks of poverty and deprivation. It never bothered me that much, as I believe you can always make your cave a cool place, wherever you are.
It is ironic that while I had dreams of living by the sea, the Council, in all their generosity, had re-housed me into the 'Ocean Estate'. Nice touch.
A few choice cuts from the web:
"On the Ocean Estate no one except drug gangs is out after the sun goes down."
"A report into the Ocean Estate described it as an area where children as young as 11 smoke heroin, where 15-year olds are crack addicts and where the only role models are the drug dealers in their heavy gold jewellery, designer clothes and soft top BMWs and Saabs..."
"It is the cheapest place to buy heroin in Europe"

what was left of the community center at the Ocean Estate:

My flat was on the ground-floor and faced a green open area, controlled by one of the bangladeshi gangs. It didn't take long for the extent of the troubles to hit me.
I'm not someone who's easily intimidated by a bunch of kids in hoodies, but this was a little more serious than your run-of-the-mill group of bored disfranchised teenagers.
Every night something would happen, smashed windows, breaking into flats, stealing cars, fights, setting something on fire. It was relentless.
Next door, a recently arrived single mum from Nigeria was one of their main targets, she was constantly being harassed, could not leave her flat, and every time she did so, they would throw rubbish or curry sauce through her letter box, or just simply smash her front-door down, which they did, twice. It must have been terrifying for her, alone with a baby.
I used to call the police so often, they'd recognise my number on their switchboard and just say: "Yes, Miss Monteiro, what is it now?..."
The Council didn't do much either. They'd just log the complaint and that was it.
Around this time I was given the portastudio, I wanted to start demoing a few ideas, and was hoping to get Drugstore off the ground, but the porta was to remain well hidden under the bed for a long time yet.
And then the pizza incident happened. I had ordered some Domino's, was about to pay the delivery-boy when a gang of about 8 turned-up. They kicked the delivery-boy and his bike to the ground. Pushed me against the wall, grabbed the pizza, which I tried to hang onto, grabbed my top and started pushing, tugging me and spitting at me, spitting at close range, their little faces an inch away from mine. They were shouting: "you fuckin british, we hate the british, you fuckin british cunt..." I managed to mumble very gently: "I am not british, I am brazilian, brazilian..." But they carried on, tugging and spitting. Eventually, they left and I got back into the flat, trembling. A few months before a kid had been knifed down a block away, so these days, when a bunch of kids corners you against the wall, in the Ocean Estate, believe me, you feel very scared. I did.
Washed my face and had one of those 'movie moments', when you take a good look at your face in the mirror, and right there and then I made the decision to fight back. I was not prepared to let a group of rather sad, confused teenagers ruin my life, plans and dreams.
I was put on the 'victim support program', which did absolutely bugger all, except to occasionally send a sorry looking officer 'round, to see how I was coping, and then ask me to fill in a questionnaire about 'how effective the support' was, bloody useless. I do understand the difficulties faced by the Council, the problems in the area are complex and run very deep and wide, and in light of the iraq wars, I also have some sympathy for the kids, I understand where their anger is coming from, but I will never, could never accept any violence or mindless abuse against innocent people, never.
I had terrible nightmares around this time, they were all about not being able to get from a to b, would be stuck in a bus going in the wrong direction, or the taxi-driver would ignore my request. A feeling of being completely powerless and helpless.
I then decided to do a mini-miss marple, and started photographing the kids, discreetly.
It took a major incident to kick the Police and the Council into action.
The gang broke into an old man's flat, who lived next door to mine, and burnt it to the ground. To the ground, literally.
You have no idea what is like to come home from work and find the whole building evacuated, truly scary stuff. It could have easily been my flat.
My photographs were then put to some good use. 3 of the gang 'leaders' were eventually given ASBOS and the whole gang banned from walking near the building.
A minor victory.

chapter IV
ascent into heaven
With the building now back to some normality, I then embarked upon a major drive to renovate the flat-up and regenerate the area, make it look as decent as possible.
I was broke, (quelle surprise...), joined the freecycle/recycle network and became a trolley-lady for awhile, collecting everything and anything from anyone, from tiles to paint, furniture to trees. The plan was to get the place up-to-scratch and get a flat-swap going.
The neighbours must have thought I suffered from some kind of weird cleaning/decorating compulsion. I used to go round the block collecting used needles and the obligatory cans of white diamond.
I campaigned, got the neighbours organised, and we managed to get some gates put up and the whole place spruced-up a little.
It was taking the council so long to get the fire damage repaired, I ended up doing it myself, painting all the exterior/visible areas, landing/ceiling, everything.
If I had someone viewing the flat, I'd wake up really early, and wash all the flat's windows. One early morning, this was funny, the Nigerian lady wakes up, pulls her kitchen blinds up, and there I was! cleaning her windows. She probably thought "the british, very nice, very considerate and generous, good neighbour washes your windows for you, this is good country."
And so it was, that all that hard work came to pay off and eventually I found someone who wanted, for family reasons, to move into the area, and fell in love with my flat.
So we swapped. (musical interlude: Hallelujah from 'songs of praise').
This was no ordinary swap. Monteiro truly won the triple-roll-over jackpot of swaps, for I ended up with a most beautiful flat, in a gorgeous warehouse-type conversion, a listed building, huge windows, a garden, nice neighbours, birds and squirrels, the very best in London.
A flat worthy of a mini-indie popstar of caliber!
Some people think I got lucky, but my view is that I worked pretty hard to get the impossible to happen. I really did.
We've got to have another musical interlude here, it's got to be a dodgy combo of 'My Way' and 'All by Myself', how's that for a dramatic happy ending?
As soon as I moved in, the nightmares went away, overnight.
Once I settled in, and got used to people being gentle and polite again, one of the first things I did was to join the 'Drugstore Facebook group', get the Dingwalls' reunion gig going, and started the 'Anatomy blog'. That early blog-entry about me setting up the portastudio was pretty much 'so what?!' for most people, but now you know, that ordinary day was one that I had waited for a mighty long time.
So now, I'm back in the saddle and full of ideas, and doing it so, because it makes perfect sense to me, and it means everything to me.
And take note, an army of naked Venusians armed with laser guns, could not try to stop me.

the flat in stepney green during mad diy works:

and after a lot of freecycling:

kew gardens, heaven in the maddening city, the perfect cave a few blocks away.

Monday, 28 December 2009

day 180- the missing 7 years and the long journey to the cave

Having received such an overwhelming response for the 'Missing 7 years journey to the Cave' entry below, I want to clear a few points, as I fear we might end up with a misplaced canonization of miss monteiro, and I have no inclination whatsoever to dish out holy water.
Although I was very touched by the posts, messages and emails received, each one a brandy-fondant filled with niceness, I was a little concerned that some of the heavier emails were just a little out of proportion.

1 - Whatever I did, it was solely driven by the desire to carry on doing what I enjoy in life. It was hardly altruistic, although it is nice that a small amount of good spilled into other people's lives.
2 - I've had a very privileged upbringing back in Brazil, and my life in the UK has, by and large, been a cool and easy ride. That I had to endure some hardship over the past few years, more than makes up for the blindingly beautiful life I've lived so far. At any point I could have taken the plane back home. I chose not to.

3 - Everyone keeps wishing me success. Lovely. But my kind of happiness could never be measured up in digital indie-sales.
The cave is far out and way beyond that.
So whether the next chapters will be big or small, I cannot tell and dare I say, I could not care, for size, in this instance, is irrelevant, for its value has already been set in deep aquamarine.
4 - So, in sum, monteiro not a little saint, I'm affraid, and more like an unwrapped little sinner, albeit a reasonably nice one - sometimes.
Lady Monteiro of Kew