Hard times

<strong>Stealing Water</strong>

Tim Ecott <em>Sceptre, 320pp, £16.99</em>

Subtitled A Secret Life in an African City, Tim Ecott's memoir describes his childhood in Johannesburg. Shortly after the Ecotts’ move from Northern Ireland to South Africa, they fall on hard times. Debt and the threat of the bailiffs hang over them constantly.

His formidable mother is able to keep the family – just about – afloat with proceeds from the junk shop she owns in an underground shopping arcade, but she also has to resort to fencing stolen goods to make ends meet. His father is a rather insignificant figure by comparison: prone to hot-tempered outbursts, he is incapable of lifting his family out of the mire of debt, and Tim grows up surrounded by a cast of characters who hover on the fringes of criminality: Carl the cat burglar, Babette the middle-aged prostitute, Frank the alcoholic.

Ecott manages to avoid most of the clichés of the childhood misery memoir; this is not about documenting an existence made grim through poverty. And nor, despite the book being set predominantly in South Africa, is it explicitly about apartheid. The political contexts of Belfast and Johannesburg remain in the background.

Instead, Ecott writes with affection about his experiences. He neither rose-tints his family’s situation nor revels in it. And he does so in a style that is spare, unsentimental and engaging.

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.