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Breakfast of champignons

At what mute, inglorious juncture in the history of British cuisine did the "all-day breakfast" make its appearance? I can't recall it being scrawled on a yellow cardboard sunburst in Magic Marker until the early 1990s - which makes sense, dating it to the same era as 24-hour rolling news and the export of western values through the cross hairs of a USAF bombardier.

This is not to suggest that Saddam could have been ousted during the first Gulf war by laser-guided egg, bacon, sausage, baked beans, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, chips and toast - but the all-day breakfast coincided with a devastating new onslaught by irony on Britain's social structure. Certainly, as the British middle classes loft-converted their way out of the recession of the early 1990s, they began eating all-day breakfasts (or "fry-ups", as these are known to graduates), while washing them down with copious amounts of "builder's tea". Before this jumbling of mores, a café was a caff, and its clientele was decidedly proletarian.

Greasy does it

Lunching with the writer Nick Papadimitriou at the Max Café on the Wandsworth Road, we mulled over caff food as we dabbled our chips in the shocking fauvism of our oval platters. Nick observed that the meal was a Proustian madeleine, a sense datum linking one unerringly to the past. But which past specifically, I wanted to know? Nineteen seventy-four, Nick snapped - it's always associated in my mind with leaving Emerson, Lake and Palmer concerts feeling incredibly hungry. But why, I pressed him, were you famished after prog-rock gigs? He grimaced: because they went on and on and on - especially Greg Lake's bass solos.

Socially descending, I had also taken to the caff in the mid-1970s, during a period when I took jobs as a road sweeper and a brickie's mate as a means of working off my Levin complex. My man-of-the-people shtick didn't last long, but it did leave me with the conviction that bulky, high-fat caff meals were an essential part of manual labour - or, at any rate, industrialised society. It seemed to me that the origins of the full English blowout must lie deep in the Depression of the 1930s; that the key component was the "tea-and-two-slices" that Orwell described as the dismal staple diet of the lumpen proletariat, during his wanderings down and out in London. The trimmings, I hypothesised, must have been added one by one - egg, then bacon, then sausage, etc - as affluence seeped in. Probably not until the early 1960s (when the rockers were doing a ton-up on their way up the Great North Road to the Ace Café) was the repast we now know fully assembled.

No smoke without fryer

Although we grew up only a couple of miles apart in north London, Nick's take on the "tea-and-two-slices" was quite different: I loved the sound of it when I read Orwell, he told me. You've got to understand that there were weekends in our house when if my dad had gambled his pay packet, there was nothing to eat but bread and marge, so for me it's always been a weird form of comfort food.

I'd asked for chips but no toast, while Nick had requested toast but no chips; however, we both got both - which seemed only fitting, buried as we were deep in the carbo-pap of yesteryear, the great whitish foundation that underpins the steadily depreciating asset of contemporary Britain.

Still, we'd enjoyed our all-day breakfast at the Max Café; everything was as we recalled it - the skyline of squeezy sauce bottles, the crystal minaret of a Sarson's vinegar shaker. The tabletop was even Formica, its splodge-dots reminiscent (at least for those of us who went to too many prog-rock gigs) of the paintings executed by Henri Michaux under the influence of LSD.

We had drunk white mugs of stewed tea, and now the definitive seal of the all-dayer was upon us: that film of yolk, fat and tannin that's tangible to the tongue as it seeks to free a twist of bacon gristle from between molars. Nick was slightly amazed that the health fascism de nos jours hadn't done for the caff blowout, but I pointed out that while a tabloid still lay on the counter (blazoned with reassuring paranoia: "Freed after using sword on intruder"), there was one element missing from the Max Café: the smirch of tobacco smoke. Without this sepia overlay, there was no disputing the clarity of the present: this was indeed 2010, and so the indigestion commenced.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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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.