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Squeezed middle: The housing bubble that hangs over our lives

Rising house prices are meant to pacify the UK, but they are not in the least bit comforting.

I take a detour down Frankie’s road on the way to Sainsbury’s and that’s when I see it: a clipped little tree in a slate-coloured pot. It is sitting innocently enough in the front garden of an ordinary house in an ordinary street. But immediately I get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

I’ve seen trees like this before. Years ago they spread through Islington, my childhood home, like a virulent rash. The moment they started appearing near my old flat in Stoke Newington, I knew it was all over. Shortly afterwards we moved out to the suburbs, where we live now.

Just when I thought I could relax ... now they’re here, like harbingers of doom. Because these trees – so tame, so tasteful, so not actually trees – mean property developers. They are what you do in a front garden when you don’t intend to stick around long enough to actually plant anything and watch it grow. A cursory glance at the rest of the house confirms my suspicions. The front door and the window frames are painted Farrow & Ball-esque grey. The brickwork has been cleaned up, the plantation shutters are closed. A “For Sale” sign is up outside.

“What’s going on over there?” I ask Frankie when she opens the door.

“Oh, yeah. Guess how much it’s on the market for?”

“No. I can’t bear it. Just tell me.”

“Six-fifty.”

“Piss off.” Only last year, houses on this road were selling for less than 500k. Frankie bought hers four years ago for 350. I heard a rumour that the average house price in our area has gone up by 40 per cent this year. As we own our slightly-too-small flat, I can’t deny that part of me feels greatly chuffed. It’s always nice when your net worth increases to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds without you having to lift a finger.

But during the epic journey home, as Larry stops to examine every leaf and hole in the road, I have plenty of time to mull it over. What good does this “money” actually do us? It’s not going to help us move; in fact, it will make it more difficult as the differential between flats and houses only grows as prices rise. The only way it would actually improve our quality of life would be if we moved out of the area to somewhere cheaper — north, for example. I know plenty of people who are considering it.

But I have already moved once and I am determined not to do it again. London is our home. My mum is here and so is my sister. We have friends, Larry has friends. Even baby Moe has friends, if you consider a shared love of hitting one another over the head as nascent friendship. I don’t want to start again in a new place, unless that place is a lovely terraced house on Highbury Fields.

I glance into the buggy and notice Moe has opened his eyes. I pop his dummy back in and he drifts peacefully off again. It is, I realise with grim satisfaction, the perfect analogy: house prices are nothing but a great big dummy, administered by our great leaders to keep us all quiet. And we are just sucking it up.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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An alternative Trainspotting script for John Humphrys’ Radio 4 “Choose Life” tribute

Born chippy.

Your mole often has Radio 4’s Today programme babbling away comfortingly in the background while emerging blinking from the burrow. So imagine its horror this morning, when the BBC decided to sully this listening experience with John Humphrys doing the “Choose Life” monologue from Trainspotting.

“I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Radio 4?” he concluded, as a nation cringed.

Introduced as someone who has “taken issue with modernity”, Humphrys launched into the film character Renton’s iconic rant against the banality of modern life.

But Humphrys’ role as in-studio curmudgeon is neither endearing nor amusing to this mole. Often tasked with stories about modern technology and digital culture by supposedly mischievous editors, Humphrys sounds increasingly cranky and ill-informed. It doesn’t exactly make for enlightening interviews. So your mole has tampered with the script. Here’s what he should have said:

“Choose life. Choose a job and then never retire, ever. Choose a career defined by growling and scoffing. Choose crashing the pips three mornings out of five. Choose a fucking long contract. Choose interrupting your co-hosts, politicians, religious leaders and children. Choose sitting across the desk from Justin Webb at 7.20 wondering what you’re doing with your life. Choose confusion about why Thought for the Day is still a thing. Choose hogging political interviews. Choose anxiety about whether Jim Naughtie’s departure means there’s dwindling demand for grouchy old men on flagship political radio shows. Choose a staunch commitment to misunderstanding stories about video games and emoji. Choose doing those stories anyway. Choose turning on the radio and wondering why the fuck you aren’t on on a Sunday morning as well. Choose sitting on that black leather chair hosting mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows (Mastermind). Choose going over time at the end of it all, pishing your last few seconds on needlessly combative questions, nothing more than an obstacle to that day’s editors being credited. Choose your future. Choose life . . .”

I'm a mole, innit.