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"Going to Abney Park": a matter of life and death

Bohemian Rhapsodies.

In the darkest corner of what must be the most dilapidated cemetery in London, a small mound rises to a height of about three feet. At its centre is a chestnut tree, beside which stands the stone figure of a woman, dressed in classical robes and conspicuously headless. Tall, white-flowering weeds have proliferated in the fortnight since my last visit, competing for attention with the empty fag packets and crushed cans of cider that litter the ground.

This, according to the plaque below me, was once the “favourite retirement of the late Isaac Watts” – the poet and hymnographer who wrote the words to “Joy to the World” and hundreds of other songs of praise. Watts lived in these grounds, in Abney Park, Stoke Newington, from 1736 until his death 12 years later at the age of 74. It wasn’t always a wild space, with weeds and tree roots upending gravestones; and I doubt that the grotto my partner and I chanced upon a minute or so away was always strewn with used condoms.

Abney Park opened as a non-denominational burial ground in 1840 and was one of the “magnificent seven” cemeteries of London, established to help alleviate overcrowding in local parishes. Almost 200,000 people are buried here; so many that, by the early 20th century, the phrase “to go to Abney Park” was slang for “to die”.

But death has no dominion over this cemetery. It is teeming with life, from its 2,500 trees and shrubs to the woodland birds that dart chaotically across my path. Close to the chapel, now boarded up for repair, we pass an old beam tree. A sign at its root explains that though fires have been set against it – and even in its hollow – it “continues to grow and, each June, produces large, white, foxglove-like flower panicles”.

The writer Bridget Penney, who is working on a project about the park, tells me that it’s “a very privileged space. People are able to draw a whole range of experiences from it and take what feels most relevant to them.” She’s right – I’ve seen boozers boozing, people walking their dogs, children kicking a punctured football around. Amy Winehouse shot a music video here (“Back to Black”) and made it look like a place of high drama; I come here to drink tea. And it’s a popular cruising area – apparently, there’s even an audio guide for this.

Walking towards the Egyptian-style exit, we see a pile of flowers, some of them arranged to spell out the words “our nan” and “sister”. There are so many flowers that I can’t see the grave or gravestone; only a plastic name tag tells me that the deceased was “Aunt Joyce”. It’s a reminder that, as Penney told me earlier, “Burials still occasionally take place here.”

Nearby are the small marble graves of Tom and David Durnan, who died in 1993 and 2002, respectively. Above them is a laminated piece of paper. It reads: “Please stop stealing my flowers. You are upsetting me very badly. I am David and Tom’s mum, Margaret.”

Yo Zushi's zine and album of songs "Smalltime" is available now. The video for "Something New", taken from that release, is on YouTube here

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

Photo: Getty Images
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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.