How a big, green dustbin bag containing about half a pound of weed led to a night to remember

Don’t be fooled by the bars and the mussel shacks – Clapham is no place to dance the night away.

It must have been in the late spring of 1982. I went down to London from Oxford, where I was at university, to buy a bag of marijuana from a friend of a friend who had a room in a squat immediately behind Brixton police station. “It’s a great gaff to deal out of,” the bespectacled little fellow said. “I mean, this is the last place they’d come looking – right by their back door.” Maybe he was right; after all, it was only a year since Brixton had been up in flames, the railway bridge was still black with soot and the premises to either side of the squat were boarded up. It seemed reasonable to think that the police might have had more serious things on their mind.

We took our bag – it was a big, green dustbin one and contained about half a pound of weed – and sauntered off into the city. Even with this plastic-wrapped potential jail sentence dangling from my hand, I didn’t feel particularly paranoid – but then some things don’t change and, statistically speaking, we were the wrong colour to get stopped and searched by the Met.

My friend, who is now a thoroughly respectable provincial solicitor, suggested that we go up to Clapham Common and have a snooze with our grass on the grass, which we did. We then sauntered back down Clapham High Street, took the Tube to Victoria and got the coach back up to Oxford. The reason I vividly recall that day has nothing to do with the marijuana at all – obviously – and everything to do with Clapham High Street, because I remember thinking, as we trolled down it in the late afternoon sunlight, what a benighted and miserable stretch of road it was. It had none of the vigour and buzz of Brixton Road and on the way from the common to Clapham North Tube – where the commercial zone ends and the residential one begins – there can’t have been more than one or two restaurants and cafés and perhaps a boozer or two. As in Brixton, quite a few premises were boarded up, or their windows were fly-posted, and overall there was such an atmosphere of psychic despair that the rubbish drifting across the roadway reminded me of tumbleweed blowing through a western ghost town.

Fast-forward 32 years and here I am on Clapham High Street again. It’s not terribly surprising – I live down the road in Stockwell – and at least once a week I find myself metonymically riding the 88 bus and having all sorts of rather conventional opinions. On this occasion, it was the night bus, because we’d been to a late screening at the Picturehouse, and the opinion was . . . well, it wasn’t so much an opinion as an experience of profound shock: who the hell were all these people?! And what the devil were they doing – many of them half-naked – on Clapham High Street at 12.30am on a Sunday morning in January?!

I’m not so blinkered that I haven’t noticed the rising commercial tempo of Clapham – where there used to be a brace of hostelries, there are now scores of them. Indeed, along the stretch where once I toted my bag, it’s pretty much a continuous strip of tapas bars, pizza parlours, Belgian mussel shacks and Brazilian steakhouses; there are assorted themed bars and several clubs, including Infernos, which – rather suitably – suffered a fire a few years ago. I knew all that but what I couldn’t quite credit was that come Saturday night all these joints really would be jumping – but they were and there was no room on the pavements, either, so that the crowds spilled out into the road.

London barely went into recession after the 2007-2008 crash; last year, house prices in the capital rose by an average of £50,000, so that people who own property are, once again, earning more off it than they are from their employment. The visible evidence of this bunce is the crowds whooping it up in Clapham – Clapham!

While they swill their property bubbles and dance the night away, there are many other Londoners living in a permanent hangover. I’m not in the business of inciting revolution but a society that can become so crazed and decadent that it seriously considers Clapham a fit destination for a wild night out is clearly in need of a savage reality check. What next, the Balham carnival? Mardi Gras in Mitcham? As I sat on the top deck of the bus, it occurred to me that I’d become a one-man constabulary – after all, while I knew there was criminality like this going on, it had never occurred to me to look for it by my own back door.

A diamond jubilee party in Clapham. Photo: Getty.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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