Books of the year 2011: Toby Litt

The Coffee Story - Peter Salmon

It's been a while since I read a first novel that felt as universally accomplished as Peter Salmon's The Coffee Story (Sceptre, £12.99). World, voice, humour, everything is in place. I was a bit surprised when so little notice was paid to such an obviously good book. Because of its subject (raging against the et cetera), people will compare it to Coetzee's Disgrace but I thought it was better - Coetzee has a tin ear; Salmon's ear is quicksilver. Perhaps it's that thing of readers wanting likeable narrators only. Salmon's narrator is a devil of a man but the more diabolical he becomes, the more fascinated we become.

Andy Kershaw, a man more demonised than most, ranks high among my personal saints. I wouldn't say this of many people but I think he's got better taste in music than I have. He's also got a huge, friendly, life-affirming heart that is absolutely in the right place. All his best qualities are on display in No Off Switch (Serpent's Tail, £18.99). Within any kind of broadcasting bureaucracy, Kershaw's instinct-trusting passion is going to get him labelled as "difficult". Put simply, sometimes he's going to make a complete arse of himself. But he knows that. He sees it as his job description. It's a crime that his bullshit-free voice isn't speaking out of radios across the nation.

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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.