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Wanted: one cat

My usual squalor has been limited by having a cleaning lady, and Razors. But the mice still prance a

We have a cleaning lady. You may well ask what a column calling itself “Down and Out in London” is doing with a cleaning lady, and whether, in fact, it would be more appropriate if she wrote it, but her English is basic, and she comes free with the Hovel, so what can I do? She’s from Romania.

I know a bit about her neighbour, Hungary, but bugger all about Romania, except for the basics about Ceausescu, and that relations with the Hungarians are strained. “I’ve always wanted to go to Romania,” I said once, in an attempt to have some kind of conversation. I didn’t want to mention Transylvania because she might just think: another idiot who’s only heard of Transylvania because he happens to have heard of Dracula. “The Carpathians,” I added, tentatively. Are the Carpathians in Romania?

It was awkward. I am also, I must admit, an incredible slob. Will Self once tried to teach me how to
wipe crumbs and other detritus off a table. “You don’t just dab at the visible stuff,” he said, slowly and clearly. “You use big, sweeping motions like this.” I looked on uncomprehendingly, like a Neanderthal being shown how to fly a helicopter.

Actually, I can tidy up if a lady is coming round. This can even include the cleaning lady. I have begun to understand the mindset of someone who picks the place up before the help arrives. Once, during a long sex drought, I gave up on cleaning my room. What was the point? This meant that when the cleaning lady came round I’d be too ashamed to let her into the room, so I hid under the duvet until she left. Thus the room became even more squalid. Nothing organic, mind, except for the mould at the bottom of the mugs, and maybe the odd nail clipping; but plenty of papers, receipts, books – oh Lord, so many books – clothes (particularly socks), small change, CDs, cassettes, unmentionable fragments of tissue, little items of office stationery I have no use for, like those tiny bits of green string with metal aglets (there’s a good word. Look it up), library cards, playing cards for some reason, letters, bank statements, invitations, cards with little bits torn off the edges for roaches, roaches, packaging for various things, empty or partly empty blister packets of Nurofen, sticking plasters roaming far and free from the comfort of their box, bits and pieces whose provenance and purpose will remain forever an impenetrable mystery. You know, all the normal crap you can expect to pile up around you – only an awful lot of it, and, if you stepped into the room from the normal world, all at once. I now know why I never decorated my post-separation room: it was already decorated. By H P Lovecraft.

Eventually, I pulled myself together. I think it was the day I couldn’t find my own bed. Or the day after I had to use the completely empty spare room next door for a certain nefarious purpose. Also, the kids were coming the day after, and you don’t really want them to think you’re going to pieces. It took me about three hours to clean up, and it’s a small room. Yet I did it, breaking a vicious cycle: your self-esteem goes because you’ve been thrown out of the family home, you let things go a bit, you look at the mess, and now your self-esteem exists only at quantum level you let things go a bit more . . .

These days I am much better. Razors, like all cockney gangsters, is very tidy – they learn it during national service, I think, or prison – and I do not wish to offend him. He doesn’t have to say anything. He just gives me a hurt look, detectable as reproach only by someone who knows him well.

There are still the mice. They were too disgusted to enter my room but they do prance about the place as if they own it. This was endearing when I was lonely and miserable; Mousie was my friend, like Mr Jingles, the mouse in The Green Mile who befriends the convicts on death row. But now I’m not lonely, or miserable, and they’re a nuisance. They once lined up in the living room to watch the telly with us, the cheeky bastards. They poo on the chopping board, as if to say, “Here’s what we think of you and your fucking chopping board.”

I catch the cleaning lady looking at the tiny turds. “Yes, I know,” I say, “we have a mouse.” She shakes her head. “You have many mouse,” she corrects me.
“Er yes, ha ha, we need a cat.”
“No,” she says, “you need more cat.”
I’d be happy with just the one. Unfortunately, the terms of the lease prevent us from having
a pet. Although a cat in the Hovel would be an employee, not a pet. Now, what if a stray kitten known to a reader of this magazine just happened to mislay itself in the Baker Street area, and find its way to a certain house . . . ?

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 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

Photo: Getty Images
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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.