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

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.