I may be reeking and radioless, but to some I am a god

And it just gets better. Two days after getting my laptop back from the mysterious Chinese guy who can fix anything - I imagine him working out of an office that looks something like the creepy android-maker's place in Blade Runner - my friend Lori knocks a large glass of red wine over it and once again I am confined to the teeny-weeny notebook computer, the size of a trade paperback.

This diddy little thing is a lot better than having nothing to write on at all, but the keys are made for more delicate fingers than mine and so the mistakes are tiresomely frequent, or, as I originally typed, trordomely frewrmt.

As if to rub my nose in the ways of fortune's wheel, I brush against my trusty radio (a Sony ICF-404L, small but packs a punch) and knock it off the bookshelf in my bedroom, removing, as it hits the floor, the last remaining stump of aerial. This means, in effect, that my media consumption is now restricted to Radio 4 on medium or long wave.

I can listen to FM if I hold the little metal nub where the aerial once took root, but one feels foolish doing this after barely two minutes, and if one has other chores to perform, such as doing the washing-up, rolling a cigarette or, indeed, writing a column, then it becomes impossible.

The entropy spreads: having a shower in the upstairs bathroom precipitates (the mot juste here, I feel) a deluge in the bathroom below. As neither bath nor shower in the latter bathroom functions, we are obliged to make our own ad hoc arrangements. I tape a note to the bathroom door advising my fellow inmates of the Hovel to wait until the plumber sorts it out.

Unfortunately, because I do this well after closing time, I think it amusing to add a little poem of my own composition, which, with your permission, I will share with you:

It must be said, it is a bummer
Being shafted by the British plumber.
Thank goodness that we now have Poles
To come and plug up all our holes.

I only remember to take the note down after he has, without my knowledge, been and gone. And the shower has not been fixed. (I don't think he read the poem, though. For some reason the handwriting is a trifle wayward.)

So, reeking, radioless and down to the cheapest viable red wine, I return to the conditions I experienced when I was 17 years old, in a chambre de bonne up eight flights of stairs in Paris. Romantic then, not so much now.

Meanwhile, the internal process of decay continues. Never mind the phy­sical. (As Martin Amis says in The Pregnant Widow, after a certain age, "every trip to the mirror will, by definition, confront you with something unprecedentedly awful". I'm not quite at that stage yet, but things aren't getting any better, and the bad times are beginning to herald themselves, particularly in the skin around the eyes.) One becomes harangued by one's conscience. I remember listening with a great, haunting sense of guilt to Matt Johnson's lines from his song "I've Been Waiting for Tomorrow (All of My Life)": "Another year older and what have I done?/All my aspirations have shrivelled in the sun."

That was when I was 21. I'm now pushing 48, and my achievements - three splendid children - can be counted on the fingers of one maimed hand. And they're not even really my achievements. This was not part of the plan.

Lurking smirk

So, one rolls up one's sleeves and gets to work. Frustrating to do so on a keyboard that only the fingers of a five-year-old could navigate with confidence, but there you go. I am also cheered at the launch party of a magazine to which I am slightly miffed not to have been asked to contribute (the pay is not much, I gather).

I am introduced to the editor, who looks so young, I am astonished. Editors, as far as I am concerned, are meant to be older than me. Or at least somewhere in the same ballpark. He looks astonished, too, on hearing my name.

“I'm in awe of you," he says. "To me, you are a god." I look closely for signs of the lurking smirk. He hides it well, it must be said. After
a while it becomes apparent that I actually am intended to take this statement at face value, which makes me feel rather weird.

Later on at the same event, I run into my old friend Catherine, who knows me rather better than the young editor. I tell her what's just happened. I close on the words "a god".

There is one of those slight pauses that certain women do rather well. "You mean 'a knob'," she says.

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 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

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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.