No go zone: the wife of cartoonist Barry Appleby washes a teapot in her kitchen, 1952. Photo: Getty
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I’m living with a house-proud northern woman who has just uncovered the kitchen

But if, like me, you are miserably fussy about your tea, then you will know that you never clean the inside of a teapot.

And so there is a new occupant in the Hovel. It can’t be helped. The general consensus among my friends is that the poor woman must be either on the run from Interpol or a homicidal lunatic who has inveigled her way in here under false pretences but, as far as I can see, she is neither: she is simply a house-proud northern woman about my age.

You begin to see the problem right there, don’t you? “House-proud”. I am many things – well, one or two – but “house-proud” is not among them. I am house-shamed.

As I may have mentioned before, I was blessed at birth with the ability to make a room messy just by looking at it. If I want to render it uninhabitable, I have to sit down in it for about five minutes. This is much more than a class thing: it is supernatural. Then again, you will not find me scrubbing the doorstep every Saturday morning, whether it needs it or not.

Anyway, I came down on her first morning to find an entire room where the kitchen had once been. Everything had been tidied away. Where, I know not.

The kitchen, which last saw development around the time Clive Dunn’s “Grandad” was No 1*, has six drawers, three of which are unusable because the bottom has fallen out of them and three of which are unusable because they are full. The cupboard space beneath them is an area bitterly contested between the saucepans, assorted unnameable bric-a-brac and Mousie, apart from the cupboard under the sink, where even Mousie will not go.

Either this woman has access to Time Lord technology or some things have gone, perhaps for ever. William of Ockham told us not to multiply variables unnecessarily, so I will for the time being assume Time Lord tech. Not only theoretically but practically, I know that tidying up is possible. After months of looking around me with a sick feeling and putting it off for ages, I spent the hours of midnight to 2am tidying up the living room the night before her arrival – but who does it voluntarily?

Exhausted, I’d left the kitchen alone, apart from cleaning the breadboard and doing the washing-up, bar a few items of cutlery that were beneath contempt. I couldn’t see where anything else could go.

Anyway, things got off to an inauspicious start the next day. I have, since living practically alone, let myself go a bit. It’s a gradual process, like one’s children growing up; you don’t notice it so much on a day-to-day basis but if you haven’t seen someone else’s kids for a year or so it can be quite a shock.

Likewise, I think I might present an alarming spectacle to someone who last saw me (and only briefly) about two months ago, when I had made an effort to scrub myself up. I now have a straggly white beard, like a strange fungal growth, or a cobweb in a cellar. My toenails have sheared through the front of my slippers and scratch, claw-like, on the ground when I walk.

My eyes are red-rimmed and sunken from a strange combination of too much sleep and too little sleep. My expression is that of a man hunted by the Furies and hag-ridden by nameless fears. I look, in short, like late-period Howard Hughes, without the money.

“You cleaned the inside of the teapot,” I snarl.

Dimly, the last human part of me – think of the remnants of Sméagol still minutely present in Gollum – recognises that, as welcomes to the Hovel go, this is somewhat lacking in politesse. But one becomes attached to one’s mess, especially if it is all one has. Still, the inside of the teapot is another matter. If, like me, you are miserably fussy about your tea (because that, too, is all one has), then you will know that you never clean the inside of a teapot, because doing so ruins the taste. And, as it turns out, the poor woman does not herself drink tea. “My husband never cleans the inside of the teapot,” she says. “I always thought he was just being lazy.”

I conceive an immediate bond of sympathy with this man, wherever he is. I deliver a brief but impassioned lecture about the unwisdom of cleaning teapots, or, indeed, anything else that is My Precious, and claw my way back to bed. Jesus, the poor woman.

*January 1971. Clive Dunn was almost exactly the age that I am now when he recorded it

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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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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