An engrossing read leaves me with egg on my face and fears about senility

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

Iam lying in bed in the afternoon reading a fascinating article in the Times Literary Supplement – a very good review of the film Amour by Adam Mars-Jones, if you want to know – when I hear two loud bangs from downstairs, in quick succession.

A nasty smell climbs up the stairs and the smoke alarm goes off. Those things never make a pleasant noise, do they? Why does no one have the wit to make them emit the stirring sound of the red alert noise in Star Trek, or – for even older customers, to really give them the heebie-jeebies – a Second World War air-raid siren?

Anyway, all this is by the by, as it is clear grievous disaster has stricken the Hovel and I am going to die horribly.

Death by fire has always struck me as a particularly nasty way to go, although neither am I a fan of its wetter counterpart, drowning, or its crunchier one, being eaten by a shark. Reports of shark attacks on humans always affect me strongly and it may well have been reading of a recent one off the coast of California that made me take to my bed in the first place.

Through the roof

I suppose I’ve had a good run in the Hovel – five years or so of not being nagged by anyone and not tidying up unless I really feel like it. True, I now have mice and piles of books that, were the roof to be removed, would be visible from space; but I also have peace of mind, of a sort, and it is in this frame of mind that I prepare to meet my maker, if such an entity exists.

I do not have time, I reflect, to put my affairs in order – that would take about a year, entirely devoted to putting my affairs in order, allowing for a maximum of five hours’ sleep a night and only one main meal per day – or even to call my great friend John Moore and tell him that, yes, he can come round and have my red 12-string 1967 Baldwin semi-acoustic after all.

I mean, I could call him and tell him that but it wouldn’t be in such a great state by the time he found it. (John has been much on my mind lately, what with the Jimmy Savile affair: it is a subject that seems tailor-made to justify a reunion of his band, Black Box Recorder, and the writing of a really creepy and disturbing song. After all, his songwriting partner, Luke Haines, managed the same, to great effect, on the subject of Gary Glitter on a solo album a few years ago.)

In the end, though, I decide that while death may be, in the words of J M Barrie, an awfully big adventure, it would also be massively tiresome and inconvenient, so I decide to stir myself and see what’s going on downstairs. The smoke is really getting quite thick and the stench is becoming insupportable. For some reason – and this is a detail that only occurs to me long afterwards – I do not take one of the little fire extinguishers with me, and all I am wearing is my dressing gown. I suppose I am giddy with bravado. I am also, above all, curious as to what could have happened.

It turns out that there is a very simple explanation: I have been feather-headed. I always used to laugh at the warning on certain items of soft furnishing: “carelessness causes fire”. One of my little comedy routines, which I flatter myself to think were found amusing, was to muse on this aloud and then go through a pantomime of a Boy Scout tutorial whereby the scoutmaster, instead of having to go through all sorts of business with bits of wood and string in order to teach his charges how to make fire in the wild, would simply have to walk into a tree, or drop something from his pocket instead. It is not a joke I will make any longer. It turns out that I have, about an hour earlier, put a pan of water on with two eggs in it, so that I might have, later, a teatime hardboiled- egg sandwich as a special treat.

This is the end

However, a combination of incipient senility and an unusually engrossing edition of the TLS conspired to make me forget all about this. The bang, the smoke and the stench were caused by the eggs exploding. I reset the alarm and then put it in a drawer so it doesn’t start going off again. (I’d put it outside on the terrace but it looks like rain.)

I do worry, though. I’ve never done this before, unless I’ve been pissed or stoned. Now, it turns out, I can contrive my own end even without being intoxicated. It is, I feel, a turning point. But later on, when I recover the scattered bits of egg, the whites turn out to be, if tough, perfectly edible.

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 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.