Housing officer Brian features in Channel 4's How To Get a Council House. Photo: Channel 4
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Channel 4's How to Get a Council House is infuriating and compassionate by turns

Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham?

Not Safe for Work; How to Get a Council House
Channel 4

Two episodes in and the jury is still out on Not Safe for Work (Tuesdays, 10pm), Channel 4’s new comedy-drama in which a clever, sardonic and mildly despairing civil servant called Katherine (Zawe Ashton) is sent by her bosses from London to Northampton to work in what looks like an out-of-town branch of Staples on a futile project known as “the Immigration Pathway”. The cast is great and I do like the “austerity Kafka” vibe: its emotionally and financially precarious characters are stymied by management-speak as if by shackles.

But the writing: it’s so uneven. Katherine’s loser colleagues – the coke-head Danny (Sacha Dhawan), the super-square Jenny (Sophie Rundle) – are so cartoonish that her lowly new position among them seems utterly implausible. Then there’s the question of tone. One minute, she’s taking the mickey. “Did they not have any Calippos?” she asks the infantile Danny, finding him in the car park with two ice creams in his hands. The next, she’s having a flashback to the baby she lost before her divorce. The sadness and the clowning seem sometimes to belong to different shows entirely.

Still, I will keep watching. I approve mightily of Katherine, who isn’t entirely adorable; my crusade on behalf on unlikeable female characters, whether on TV or in books, is ongoing, despite some fairly hairy experiences at recent literary festivals (oh, how the lady readers out there want women characters only to be “nice”). I love the way she calls her Joe Root-lookalike ex Anthony (Tom Weston-Jones) a “total bell-end” to his face and in front of the entire office. It pleases me no end that she loves her job (Northampton posting aside) and is good at it. When she demolishes Danny’s crummy ideas – he has suggested that the Home Office buys a lot of tents for new immigrants, what with camping being such a very British pastime – it’s like watching a stoat swallowing a vole. She’s magnificent.

There’s something else going on here, too, which is that while I watch Not Safe for Work, I experience a kind of retrospective Schadenfreude. The series reminds me forcefully of my twenties, when I, too, was at the mercy of human resources (or, as we used to call them in journalism, that “bitch/bastard on the news desk”). Thanks to this, I’m filled with gleeful relief whenever Katherine and the others gather at some half-empty taco place to toast God knows what. Oh, the misery of office drinks with your rivals, your boss and your office crush. Oh, the loneliness of your first job: the boredom, the fear, the penury. If Katherine doesn’t sleep with someone highly inappropriate soon – my money’s on Nathaniel (Samuel Barnett), who looks about 12 and wears his political correctness like a neon sign – I’ll eat my novelty pencil sharpener.

Channel 4’s specialities right now are comedy-dramas and the kind of documentaries about the poor and dispossessed that make some cross and others roll their eyes and wonder why IDS, George and Dave don’t hurry up. How to Get a Council House (Mondays, 9pm) is its latest offering in the latter vein and, yes, it’ll make lots of people boil with rage. Me? Let’s see. Is it a legitimate left-liberal position not to want any more cuts, yet still to feel that some people take the piss? Or does that make me Andy Burnham? (I’d rather not be Andy Burnham.)

In Portsmouth, Britain’s most crowded city, a couple complained to their housing officer, Billy, that their landlord had threatened them with eviction. When Billy, having spoken to the landlord, who was unhappy with the state of the property, came round to tell them that if they’d only clean up the dog shit in the yard and apply a little elbow grease to the bathroom and kitchen, all would be well, what he got was abuse and indignation. These two followed a racist – “Muslims, Pakis . . . If you’re white, English [like us], you should be first in line!” – and a woman who said she would rather make her children homeless than live in a second-floor flat. Truly, the only thing to do in such moments, left-liberal-wise, was to focus on the saintly Billy and his long-suffering colleagues, who treated everyone the same way: kindly and with great patience. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge