Don’t hate me, readers, but I’ve got to come clean

A Saturday afternoon. The kids are mooching about in the Hovel and I am pootling about in the kitchen. It is that null time in the late afternoon, when it is too early for wine but one has had more than enough tea for the day. In days gone by, this would have been when I called the Woman I Love for a chat, or she called me, but ever since I got dumped by her and then, just as it looked as though a reconciliation had been effected and we could return to the status quo ante, I had a moment of insanity and slept with someone else while the WIL's daughter was in the room next door, relations between us have been on the frosty side.

That is to say, the frost has emanated from one direction only and with good reason. My unpardonable (and, indeed, inexplicable) act has resulted in both the old and newfangled terms of rejection: not just complete silence but that modern refinement, the blocking on Facebook, which is so complete that, when the blockee asks Facebook if such a person as the blocker exists, he receives a negative answer.

So be it, I thought. As Snoopy remarks while walking down the railroad tracks, carrying a hobo's bundle over his shoulder after a moment of inattentiveness when he loses Lucy van Pelt's balloon: "You make one mistake and you pay for it the rest of your life."

And one does pay. If being dumped for no reason is bad enough, being dumped for a very good one is much, much worse. Unless one is a Don Juan (pre-Byron) or a de Maistre, scornful of the finer and gentler feelings, the agony of rejection is multiplied, on a logarithmic scale, by the constant awareness of one's own culpability and folly. Nor can one rely on the sympathy of one's friends, except in so far as they realise you are even more handicapped by stupidity than they already thought you were.

Anyway, there I am, getting on with my life, after a fashion, albeit feeling a little emotionally labile, as we have all just watched a double bill of Friends. (The kids have really got into this venerable sitcom and dragged me along with them; except now, having seen just about every episode from the pilot to the finale, I realise that the whole damn series is about the love affair between Ross and Rachel, and the faint similarities between Jennifer Aniston and the WIL don't make the experience of watching it any less agonising.
As for the folly of the phrase "We were on a break!" - that goes through me like a bloody knife.) Then the phone rings, and whose name should pop up on the screen but the WIL's?

Mea culpa

So, after I've fumbled with the phone for a bit - it's funny how panic can make a familiar and normally tractable object feel as though it were both red hot and as ungraspable as a live eel - it turns out that she is in town and wonders if it would be OK to come round. This, mind you, after almost exactly six months of complete silence, bar the odd mordant comment on the noticeboard for this column on the NS website.

During the long conversation that ensues upon her arrival, she mentions the case of a Brighton man who, having been caught in flagrante by his girlfriend, agrees to walk through the town holding a sign saying, "I am a cheating c***." The town might not have been Brighton and I may not have the wording on the sign exactly right but that is not the point. I begin to see what she is driving at.

“A public mea culpa is all very well," I say, "but I don't think the readers of the New Statesman will be particularly interested in the intricacies and vagaries of my love life."

“Oh, I think they'll be very interested indeed," she replies. "How could they not be?" (At which point, she goes through the events summarised in the first paragraph of this piece.) "I'd be interested."

“But my mother reads this magazine," I whimper. (This is short for: "Not only does my saintly, grey-haired, outspoken mother read this magazine, but there is no way I can emerge from this without forfeiting the last scraps of compassion my readership may retain for me.")

“Well, then," she says.

And there is the dilemma. On the one hand, I am now going to make myself look very bad. And, unlike with Brighton Cheating Man, with no hope of return. (I presume that was why he agreed to his public parade: you don't walk around like that if you think, "Sod this for a game of soldiers.") No, that was made unambiguously clear, and fair enough. On the other hand, if I cannot salute the bravery, kindness, magnanimity and sheer decency of a woman prepared to make friends with me again after all this, what is the point of being alive, or claiming to be a member of the human race? l

Next week: Mark Watson

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 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

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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.