No go zone: the wife of cartoonist Barry Appleby washes a teapot in her kitchen, 1952. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation