My mother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s some years earlier which didn’t stop her pointing her fingers very firmly at me. The shaking had got worse and my mother decided she was going to intervene before she became unable to reprimand me. The operation that was recommended by the doctors was having an electrode implanted into her brain to control the shaking. But the electrode would have involved my mother either moving to the United States, as the implant needed to be monitored every two weeks, or constantly travelling to the US. Determined to stay in Jamaica, with the favourite part of her family (ie not me) she decided she would instead have a partial lobotomy. This was a much riskier operation to remove part of her brain to control the shaking.
As my mother’s shaking worsened and the operation approached, I suddenly became obsessed with building a house in Notting Hill. I was living in Maida Vale but all my friends were in Notting Hill, it was 1999 and the epicentre of cool. I spent hours on the phone to my mother begging her for the money to build the house. She kept saying, “why don’t you wait till I die?” which wouldn’t have worked as by then she’d given it all away. It was like pulling teeth from an un-sedated (and peckish) polar bear trying to get the money out of my mother. This was galling as she threw money, quite indiscriminately, at her family in Jamaica. When I said my mother had given me some of the money to buy my first flat, I did somewhat gloss over the difficulty of this. We saw several flats but just as we were about to make make an offer, I would leave a glass on the table and my mother would withdraw from the flat, saying I would “turn it into a slum.” This left me wandering around, without a settled home, for years.
Eventually, in the spring of 1999, I persuaded her to give me one of her flats in Maida Vale. I sold my flat in Maida Vale, for a considerable profit and moved into lodgings in Notting Hill to find a new home. Alas the lodgings didn’t last for long because of my mess and because the landlady, very strangely, slept in the bathroom and would have a fit if you went in there at night for a wee. I was clearly still attracted to nutcases and freaks. I moved in with my cousin, Miranda, in Ladbroke Grove, still obsessed with building a house. She was used to the mess so didn’t complain.
After some searching, I found a derelict garage in an idyllic mews on the lower slopes of Notting Hill, as it slid down towards Ladbroke Grove. Rejected by squatters for decades, its only inhabitants had been a squadron of squiffy pigeons, (Imodium is obviously unknown in the pigeon world). Luckily the pigeons had been removed before I saw the house. But the pigeons have had the last laugh. In 2015 they’re all back there now. Despite the holes in the roof, rotting floors and smashed windows, (“an opportunity to put your stamp on the place” the agent said), the price tag was a hefty four hundred thousand pounds. The London property market was just beginning a massive boom, which lasted until 2008. This came after it had been stuck in the doldrums of recession for over a decade following the late 80’s early 90’s housing crash, with its interest rates of 15% and tsunami of repossessions. The half a million pound garage did have permission to demolish and build a house. But I didn’t actually like the design of the Dadaist greenhouse it had permission to build. It had a glass roof in the main bedroom, which made it far too visible from the higher houses behind. I decided this would interfere with my sex life and that the house needed to be redesigned.
I set about trying to find an architect to revise the plans for the house. I saw a stunning custom made glass staircase pictured in a magazine. I contacted the architect and commissioned her to do a re-design. One of the things I didn’t like about the design of the proposed house was the lack of windows at the back. This made it poky and dark, like a dwarf’s boudoir in Lord of the Rings. I visited the planning officer at Kensington Council to see if it could be changed. The planning officer said the council would welcome the redesign of the house, which it thought was a bit of a modernist eyesore, and wanted more “traditional” mews features, such as stable doors and hay. I said I (unfortunately) didn’t have a horse but would try to work some bales of hay into the design.
I visited the neighbours to check whether the redesign of the house would be acceptable. The Croatian neighbour, Mrs Milosevic, (“No relation! No relation!” she screamed loudly upon introduction), was opposed to the new design. She said the windows at the back would invade the privacy of her garden – a six foot high tangle of weeds – and a poodle nail clipping service on the first floor. Luckily she’d decided to sell her house and the new neighbours didn’t mind.
In the summer, as my mother’s operation approached, I became more and more obsessed with buying the house, not realising that I was wanting to create a nest as my mother was falling apart. The British obsession with buying property has been described as an “Edifice Complex.” And I had one so huge I would have needed to clone Sigmund Freud and move him into my bedroom to sort it out. When I actually went to Canada to accompany my mother for the operation, I was on the phone to the estate agent and solicitor 20 hours a day. My family thought this was awful, evidence that I was selfish as my mother said. But the reality was I couldn’t cope with the fact that my mother might die in the operation and was using the house to distract myself. After all the abuse I’d suffered from my mother as a child, my feelings about her illness and possible death were complex to say the least.
Back in London, I took the biggest risk of my financial life. I was unable to get a mortgage on the flat my mother had given me in Maida Vale, so exchanged contracts on the garage in Notting Hill without the funds to complete. I would get the money somehow, I thought. I also didn’t have planning for a structure I actually liked, the peeping Tom roofed oddity that had permission was not my cup of tea. My mortgage adviser asked me, “what is your attitude to financial risk?” I said I was cautious, he said I was, “as buccaneering as the Pirates of Penzance.” The only way I got through that month, before I finally did get another mortgage, was by necking Valium which I persuaded myself was a new kind of vitamin. But I was buying my dream home, that I would live in for the rest of my life, or so I thought. My obsession with the house was causing problems with my cousin who politely asked me to leave. I moved into the derelict garage in August 1999 causing the estate agent to fall off his chair when I told him. The place was still covered in pigeon shit.
The great attraction was the location – a quiet, charming, peaceful, little backwater. Or so I thought..
I was not the only new girl on the block. A few doors down the street, TV presenter, Paula Yates, ex- wife of Bob Geldof and partner of dead rock star Michael Hutchence had set up home. The house’s framboise walls were filled with fairy lights, exotic drapes and substances. But bereavement had taken a bitter toll on Paula. Soon after arriving at the house, she purchased absolutely too much Absolut in the local Lost Your License. While walking down the street she strayed from a straight line, or even stumbled. Her three daughters with Bob Geldof, the curiously named, Fifi Trixabelle, Peaches and Pixie, went straight back to his house.
Within hours, sinister looking snapperazzi swarmed into the street, parking outside my house all night and day. This made moving all my carefully selected ethnic artefacts into my new house quite difficult. I say “house” because – as they say – an Englishman’s hovel is his castle. And just because I was living in a slum didn’t mean I couldn’t have chic accessories.
But I had very little money and had taken on a massive project I couldn’t really afford. My friends thought I was mad, had taken on too much, and did keep pointing out that I was living in a garage encrusted with pigeon shit. One room, particularly thickly pooed, I optimistically re-christened “the principal guest bedroom.” I promptly announced I wanted to rent it to a lodger, to raise money for the building works. “A LODGER!” exclaimed my horrified friends. “But even the pigeons have left.” “Nonsense,” I said, “all it needs is a clean and a good coat of paint.” And so it was. With electricity and water restored (and a Biological Warfare team to remove the pigeon shit) the place acquired a distinctly bohemian air. The wording of the advert for the room (in London Property Bible Loot) required some care. “You have to say it’s a Squat,” insisted the Friends. “A Squat?” I said. “That’s unfair! I’ve been to far better Squats than this!” The phrase I selected, amid gasps from astonished Friends, was “requiring some decoration.” I also said the house had “a low carbon footprint” ie no central heating.
At 6am in the morning the ad came out the mobile began to jerk in a frenzied fashion. (The room, after all, was cheap and in one of London’s Most Fashionable Zones). “Wearily, I answered.
“Vloom you adletize in Root it flee?”
“No,” I said, “it’s gone.” The same applied to students, vegans and cheapskates who wanted to share the room with a spouse.
After five thousand frenzied calls, I’d selected a crowd to visit the house that night. Returning from work at 3 – I was surprised to see a gaggle of early Looters hovering outside the house. “The room,” I said, “is not ready.” The bed was still in the garage. A suspicious trickle of water was pouring from the roof. “Nonsense!” they cried, “it’s perfect! When can we move in?” Clearly location not sanitation was key in their quest.
An Evil Plan was forming in my head. “Not all of you can move in,” I said sweetly. “But there is the space downstairs?” “The Garage?” a Looter asked. “I wouldn’t call it that,” I said. We trooped downstairs.
“The Car repair pit,” one sputtered, “it’s still here!” “Very useful,” I trilled, “for a sunken bed or bath.” “I’LL TAKE IT!” yelled one and that was that. I was a proper slum landlord, my only saving grace that I was living in the slum.
Despite a large hole in its roof, there was fierce competition for the room upstairs, which eventually went to sealed bids. The winner was a pretty young actress, unemployed of course, who was working in a local bar. In the garage I had the executive producer of TV show, Film 2000. Why on earth would he move in? Well the garage was dark enough to look like a derelict cinema.
The Matrix had been released, arguing that reality was an artificial construct created by machines. I decided to take this on board and mentally transformed the derelict garage into a 7 bedroom mansion with a swimming pool and off street parking for my 5 imaginary cars. The news was full of stories about the Millenium Bug. Businesses were (quite pointlessly as it turned out) spending billions preparing their computer systems for possible collapse. Luckily my garage, where all the fixtures and fittings were already vintage in 1922, was completely immune to the problems that beset the more high tech world.
As the end of 1999 approached something changed – dramatically – which shook our entire world. Not the dawning of a New Millennium – as this was no surprise. Dwarfing this, my flat mate scored a leading part in a TV soap. Her face was on the cover of every TV magazine and her wages shot up to £2,000 pounds an hour. Amazingly, she said she wanted to stay in my “house” saying the rain falling onto her bed was “quite refreshing at night.” Sack loads of fan mail – some clearly from the clinically insane – turned up at the house and were read in disparaging tones. She said she was too famous to walk down the street and started catching a cab to Tesco – at the end of the Road. Requests for washing up were dismissed with the phrase: “please email my PA.”
Celebrity hangers-on, with nasty habits, started to frequent the house and turned my perfectly respectable slum into something really squalid. Cigarettes were stubbed out into rotting plates of food and cocaine was firmly back on my menu. Unfortunately I was sleeping in the sitting room where the cocaine sessions took place.
I made a flimsy MDF wall to enclose my bed with a door held shut with electrical cable. My flat mate said this made her “feel excluded.” So, quite understandably, she chopped through the cable with a carving knife and burst into my bedroom one night, borrowing my cocaine. She must have had a toothache as the pharmacy was closed. I did enjoy the celebrity parties though, where I went wild dirty dancing with a 10 foot inflatable bottle of Banana Schnapps.
But, at home, another thing was happening that was very strange indeed. My flatmate seemed to agree with everything I said and appeared to be just like me. She later said she was acting and “mirroring” everything I did to make me like her more. But, duped by this, I decided we were soul mates and “meant to be together.” I was falling in love with her. I was devastated when she said, just like Alex, that I was too short and that she liked tall women instead. And even more upset when she went off with the other lodger who was living in the cave downstairs. Rejected and excluded in my own home, I asked them to move out, saying building works were imminent, (although they weren’t).
In fact the tenders for the building project had come in massively over my budget, forcing the axing of the glass staircase and glass ceiling in the hall as well as the, less obviously useful, glass toilet and glass dishwasher. When the revised plans arrived, (sadly denuded of glass), I was surprised to see the French doors in the sitting room four foot above the ground. The architect recommended a flight of stairs taking up half of the room. I vetoed the stairs and said the plans had to be redesigned. But I still needed more money, and had a few ideas. I was desperate to have an ocelot and could start a breeding programme creating mini ocelots in the garage downstairs. Upon investigation, Harrods pet department had no ocelots, so I would have to try to beg my mother for more. Sign up for updates on this blog
My mother had nearly ruined the Christmas of 1999 for me, saying as, I was preparing to go to Jamaica to visit her, that “there was no point my coming” as she “wanted some space.” The 5,000 miles between us were obviously cramping her style; she hinted our relationship would be better if I moved to Japan. I stopped speaking to her for weeks but then, after pressure from my Jamaican family, resumed contact again and booked the flight to see her. My family in Jamaica always excused my mother’s mad behaviour. For example, my mother had put all her property assets in London in her cousin-in-law’s name in an effort to avoid inheritance tax which I wouldn’t have been liable for anyway. I said this meant she didn’t legally own the flats but she dismissed my concerns. Instead she forced me to change my will, which she dictated to the solicitor, as she said now the flat in Maida Vale had been transferred into my name, if I died and it went to my father she would have a coronary. In the new will everything was left to her. Of course when I got to Jamaica, at Christmas, the first thing she said was “go and stay in a hotel.”
It was in the next year, 2000, that a disaster happened in my life. My mother had a massive stroke, possibly connected to the lobotomy. She had to go to a stroke rehab centre in Florida in the summer and I went with her to keep her company. But my feelings towards my mother were confused because of her abuse. She said I was selfish and uncaring because I didn’t visit the stroke treatment centre once. But I just couldn’t handle what was happening to her. To fly in like Florence Nightingale and want to look after her just wasn’t going to happen after the way she’d behaved. She had never really looked after me.
In Florida I had another accident in my attempts to “improve” my appearance. I wanted to grow my hair and had discovered Minoxidil maximum strength for balding men, aka “Amazon Head.” This said “do not use if you are a woman,” on the packet, “may grow facial hair,” but despite this I poured most of a bottle on my head. Suddenly my heart started racing and I turned purple in the face. If I’d checked on the packet I’d have seen that Minoxidil was a heart medication and that an overdose can cause heart attack. I was too embarrassed to go to A and E saying “I’ve overdosed on “Amazon Head.”” So I, perhaps dangerously, waited for the symptoms to go away. After my face returned to normal, I decided no more throwing funny chemicals at my scalp. This resolution lasted until I returned to England and the memory of the near heart attack had faded to (just another) beauty legend. This problem of my hair not growing, because it was Afro and would only get to a certain length, had beset me since I was a child. I hated going to the hairdresser to have it cut and dreamt of long flowing blonde locks like Rapunzel. But no matter how much I prayed, waist length hair was as much of a fantasy as winning the Oscar for best actress. I say fantasy, despite not doing any acting, I had already written the speech.
I returned to London and the building works began on September 9th 2000. As the demolition team went in and the house practically fell down on its own, the builders remarked they were surprised we hadn’t fallen through the rotten floors. The immersion heater exploded as the house came down.
When all that was left of my house was a hole, I was surprised to see a picture of my scaffolding headlining the one o clock news. I rushed to the house to find the street swarming with camera crews but not, alas, with builders whose legality was tenuous and had all disappeared. Paula Yates had died of a heroin overdose. I looked bleakly at the hole that used to be my home, wondering when the builders will be back. The BBC was hassling me to get an interview with Paula Yates nanny but she’d flown to Outer Mongolia to avoid the press.
Eventually the builders came back. I thought things would return to normal. Wrong… The TV footage of the idyllic mews had caught the eye of film location scouts. An endless stream of film crews hit the street, blocking it for days each month with dollies, lighting rigs and Big Star Winnebagos. The entire equipment for the films was dumped outside my house. None of my builders or materials could get in and nor could I. I complained and was given a bunch of daisies to compensate.
When the building project started, I had moved out to a friend’s flat in Shepherds Bush conveniently close to the BBC. Although, since I’d developed the obsession with the house, my focus on work had deteriorated rapidly. My room in the flat in Shepherds Bush was too messy to be called a pigsty, (as a pig would have complained) with clothes all over the floor and samples of wood and stone flooring from the house in my bed. I needed to get close to the materials I thought. When I unexpectedly pulled an eligible barrister, he took one look at the room and said “you’ve got slabs of stone in your bed, it looks uncomfortable, perhaps I’d better leave.” He refused to give me his phone number saying it would get lost in the mess. So I took up with another bod at the BBC who said (after I’d puked on the floor) that there “must be something wrong with me,” because of the way I behaved on drink. I still didn’t realise I had a problem with alcohol.
Late in 2000, I went out one night to Shoreditch in East London with Susanna. I got completely shit faced drinking double vodkas and pulled an attractive artist, so said to Susanna I wasn’t going home, or not with her at least. By the end of the night, I wasn’t going anywhere, as I was falling on the floor and crawling around. He took my back to his flat, where I got lost on the way to the bathroom at night and weed in my handbag. Still resolutely anti casual sex I had refused to sleep with him when I was so drunk. But the next day I thought what the fuck and slept with him. After that I became totally obsessed dreaming of moving to East London to start a private zoo, and fantasising about him reading me Chinese poetry in bed. The fact that I wouldn’t understand it just made it all more Zen. The tiny problem that I hardly knew him obviously didn’t stop me at all given I had form for falling in love with men I’d never met. After a short fling he dumped me, saying he wasn’t over his ex. I was heartbroken and continued to fantasise wildly about living with him in an art co-operative/zebra hospital.
It was in the flat in Shepherd’s Bush that I had another of my disastrous attempts to “improve” my appearance. Having been told I was ugly all my life I spent considerable amounts of time trying to enhance myself. I had salicylic acid to treat my acne but instead decided that I was going to scrub my imaginary wrinkles with a toothbrush and the acid for an hour. I gave myself chemical burns that lasted a year.
At the end of 2000, running out of money, I moved in with my father, which was a total disaster as my step mother and I practically killed each other. And the bulimia, which had always been present, got completely out of control leading my father to say, “you’ve eaten everything in the fridge where do you put all that food?” The cat was no longer there to blame so I said their parrot had eaten it. It was at my father’s house that my obsession with the building project reached its crazy zenith. I was finishing work at 1am and, still fired up from my shift, would fly round to the building site to do some DIY. I was desperately short of money and had no option I thought. I spent many nights out on the scaffolding painting and filling the front of the house at 3am, in the pitch dark, thinking it was strange that people painted in the day. I was laying floors with power tools at 4am. When my neighbours asked me to cut it out I just didn’t understand. Of course everything I did at 3am came out completely fucked and had to be done again. Meanwhile back at my father’s house, as the rows with my stepmother escalated, my father said I had to leave. I decided I’d better move into my almost completed property.
I finally moved back in when the shell of the house was finished in May 2001. I say “finished” although the builders had forgotten some minor details – like a hot water or central heating system.
As I still needed to raise some money for further works I then moved in three lodgers to the downstairs. The council had insisted that I maintain a garage in the house although I didn’t have a car or a license and had failed the test so many times that I was on the DVLA’s: “Top 10 (un)wanted drivers list.” The first lodger, sleeping in the converted garage fled after a flood came from the street under the garage door. Her replacement stopped paying the rent as works were ongoing and the carpenter had turned his bedroom into a workshop, covered in saw dust, while he was away for the weekend.
In the meantime my drinking was out of control again. After a friend’s party in which I’d fallen to the floor, (after snogging an Anthurium) I had to be carried out of a bar in Notting Hill by the entire staff. And then, although it was June, I started singing “Auld Lang Syne.” I apparently danced to “Thriller” on the pavement (perhaps it was convulsions instead) and had to be airlifted home. I woke up the next day with my trousers still on but, curiously, inside out. I panicked thinking I’d slept with someone. But when I phoned my friends they said I’d gone into the loo at the bar and emerged, rather green, with my trousers inside out. I was obviously too un-coordinated to manage a complex task like pulling my trousers down. One of my best friend’s, Imran, said “you really have a drink problem and you have to do something about it.” I said I didn’t have a drink problem I’d just been drinking on an empty stomach. It would never happen again, I swore. A portion of chips would cure my alcoholism. Another night I ended up in bed with someone from work. He asked me when I’d last had sex and, too drunk to censor myself, I said “I think it was last night but I’m not sure it went in.” He politely declined my offer of sex, thinking I was a slut, and went home instead. The reality was if I hadn’t been for alcohol I would never have had sex at all; but now it was turning me into something so far from the virgin I used to be.
The artist came back on the scene, newly interested saying I’d “gone up in the world” since I’d moved into the house in Notting Hill. Of course I got back together with him but the fantasy of living a highbrow literary lifestyle with him was dented by the fact that he couldn’t spell in texts.
Then I had a disaster with a neighbour. One night I woke up at 2am to find a strange man in my bed. Thinking it was one of the lodgers who’d made a mistake, I turned on the light to shoo him out. It wasn’t a lodger it was my neighbour who was totally pissed and lying flat out in my bed. I tried to shake him awake but he kept calling me “mummy” and saying he wasn’t going anywhere. I had to call 999 to get rid of him. I later found out one of my lodgers, who was very weird, had let him in and he’d bolted up to my room. He reacted very badly to me throwing him out starting a campaign against me and sending me hate mail written in a circle, (like a snail’s shell), saying I was “the spawn of Saddam Hussein.” Unfortunately he was a locksmith so I felt entirely unsafe as he could have broken into my house at any time. But the police weren’t helpful at all, saying that they couldn’t intervene as he might have ended up in my bed as part of Neighbourhood Watch.
My mother had been phoning me all summer begging me to come to Jamaica to spend time with her, sounding increasingly desperate and weak. So I decided to take a career break from the BBC to spend six months with her. I owed it to her, despite our difficulties, without her I would never have bought my dream property. If I hadn’t been leaving anyway I would have had to move house because of the psycho locksmith opposite. I headed off to Jamaica in October 2001, leaving the lodgers at large in the house. Sign up for updates on this blog
Next week: doing time with my mother, misplacing the Jamaican Prime Minister and preparing for Queen Elizabeth, the Invisible Head of State.