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So close to catastrophe, I glimpse an even more desperate parallel self

Well, that’s it, the book is done and you will hear no more about it from me in this column. Apart from this. It so nearly didn’t get done. Or, to be precise, so nearly didn’t happen.

Let me explain. The writer, these days, trusts to the computer, to the internal movements of electrons, rather than to the physical reality of ink pressed on to the paper by effort of hand on pen or hand on typewriter key. This has its advantages and its drawbacks. You know what the advantages are so I won’t go into them. Ease of editing, basically. The drawbacks: for one thing, the computer offers too many opportunities to slack off. Anthony Burgess once made the point that you couldn’t say you had been writing if there had been no clatter from the study all day. Industry should make a noise. Nowadays, you can make exactly the same noise looking for exotic pornography as you can when seeking, through your deathless prose, to purify the dialect of the tribe.

The other drawback is that, once you start relying on electrons, you enter the quantum universe, where things behave strangely and can wink in or out of existence unpredictably.

Vanishing act

Which should give you a clue as to where this is heading. An early adopter of computer technology – I was programming in Basic and Fortran on the school computer (a behemoth of a tele - printer, basically, connected to a central intelligence in Reading, if that is not a contradiction in terms) in the mid-1970s – I know about the importance of backing up, the ephemerality of electrical essences. You can leave your manuscript in a taxi or, as in Thomas Carlyle’s case, have an illiterate housemaid use it to light a fire but if you’ve backed it up, you’re laughing, right? And I back it up here, I back it up there. I back it up sodding everywhere. External hard drive, memory stick, Dropbox account, that should cover it.

Ah, yes, but it all depends what you’ve backed it up with, doesn’t it? So when, one morning, the morning I was due to hand over the first proper draft (and I was on time! When has a book ever been handed in not only on time but a little bit early? And who would have bet on me to be the first person ever to do it?), I cracked open the plastic piano and clicked on the master folder in which lurked my deathless prose. I was a little perturbed to discover that half the files in it had simply disappeared.

“A little perturbed” is one way of putting it. “Feeling as though the very fabric of the universe had suddenly unravelled” is another. There are no words accurately to describe my sensations. When P G Wodehouse’s heroes have a setback and everything goes black or they quiver like an aspen in the breeze, these are deliberately debased comic tropes. But they have to have been debased from something, something that expressed a closer connection to lived experience, and the sensation of having lost about 50 per cent of a book, an irreplaceable 50 per cent and, moreover, a book that had to be handed over on that day for it to be published at all, produced a physical sensation of horror unlike anything I had felt ever before – apart from the time my first child, recovering from a fever, aged about two, had a seizure, her eyes rolling up in her head, and for all the world looking as though the life was swiftly ebbing away in front of me. Even then, an instinct to command the situation kicked in and 999 was called, the frantic mother was soothed, for someone has to be in control, and everything turned out OK. Here, there was every indication that everything was fucked up for good.

No accidents

As it turned out, the back-ups were fine and I sent them off immediately before my computer could eat any more of them. This is the interesting thing: I don’t believe it. We all make narratives of our lives, or experience them as such, and in terms of narrative, my easy recovery of the files doesn’t fit in.

This does not feel right. I have not written a book before; therefore, I should never write a book or, just as I am about to send it off, it should be snatched away by electronic whim. Or, as in the multiple-universe theory – a spin-off from quantum theory – there is a universe, now, in which I am wandering, hollow-eyed and desolate, wondering how to pay back my advance and contemplating the ruin of my reputation. And also wondering if I was subconsciously responsible – like the writers who leave their manuscripts in the back of cabs. There are no accidents. Reader, if you visit that universe, be kind to that wretched unfortunate, and put some money in the paper cup he is holding out in shame and need towards you.

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 27 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the political cartoon?

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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.