Scrabble is like life: you’ve got to be innit to win it

Not much doubt about the big news of the past couple of weeks: there are a dozen new words allowed in Scrabble. You can now get points for INBOX (only 15 years or so after it entered everyday vocabulary), WAGYU (upmarket steak, guaranteed to psych out your opponent, who will conclude that you can afford to eat in more expensive restaurants and are thus a more accomplished wordsmith), and - perhaps controversially - TWIGLET (as in, er, Twiglet, the wheaty snack). They've also opened the doors to VLOG (a video blog and a deeply uncomfortable word to say out loud) and QIN: a boon to anyone who's been frustratingly stuck with a Q, the queen of letters but among the most intractable. Yes, like I said, this is big news. I can't wait to play QIN, have someone challenge it and smoothly refer them to a recent news story. I might carry around a laminated copy of the Guardian story that broke the news, in anticipation of just such a challenge. There's nothing like ruining someone's day with a laminate.

Game changer

Some people, undoubtedly, are going to get annoyed when the new words come out. They'll be hot under the collar that INNIT (as in, yes, "isn't it") is suddenly a legitimate strategic play, rather than - as it should be - something you hear on the train and try to pretend didn't happen. They're the same people who complain bitterly when you win the game by playing AA or XI or JO. "Those aren't real words," they moan. "It's not a fair test of vocabulary. I put a lot of effort into saving up my letters until I could write CAMEL. You should be ashamed of yourself."

What these people fail to grasp is that Scrabble exists in its own autonomous universe. It's not obliged to be faithful to the genuine patterns of popular word usage, any more than Monopoly should be condemned for popularising the idea that you can buy Mayfair for a few hundred pounds (although its rail system, which becomes more and more profitable the more stations you annexe, eerily presages the modern age of privatisation). Scrabble is about tactics, not words. If you know the tricks, you'll get ahead; if you show too much sentimentality towards your favourite words and objects, you'll be bulldozed. In this respect it mirrors real life very well. It's not really fair that people get cheaper train tickets just because they book earlier than you; they're still taking up the same amount of space on the train. It's unjust that a reality TV show winner sells a thousand times as many records as a more gifted but obscure singer-songwriter. Nevertheless, this is the world we live in. On almost every level, it's a competition, just as evolution is a competition to see which species make it and which die out muttering about not being able to use their Zs. We can learn from Scrabble. Life is about winners and losers. Be a winner. Commit the word WAGYU to memory now. It's 24 points on a double-word. I don't need to say more than that.

If further proof were needed that modern life is even more of a cut-throat competition than it always has been, you should see the current series of Masterchef in Australia, where I've spent the past three months. Masterchef is popular enough at home, but down here it brings the populace to a standstill. Never has food been spoken about with such seriousness; never has a silver cloche been lifted, to reveal a dish of steak and kidney pie, with quite such portentous musical accompaniment.

Half baked

On the episode I watched yesterday, three contestants faced a sudden-death Baked Alaska contest. The tension at the unveiling of the dishes would not have been out of place in an operating theatre (which might be an idea for a future TV series: Britain's Got Surgeons, perhaps). The judges nibbled at the desserts as if the creator of the least impressive one would be put to death. The contestant with the worst Baked Alaska, teetering at the doors of elimination, wept and said cooking was his dream. He was reprieved and someone who hadn't cried was eliminated instead.

Fair? No - but once more, a useful lesson in the way to get ahead. Presentation is more important than product. People can complain that reality TV has made us all shallow and vacuously results-driven, but it only reflects a trend that has been in progress since cavemen first began to compete for wives, cave-space and the survival of their genes. Life is a game with winners and losers. It's no more than a glorified, feature-length version of Scrabble or Masterchef. If you don't like the rules, find a way to beat them. Innit. l

Next week: Nicholas Lezard
newstatesman.com/blogs/mark-watson

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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