Squeezed Middle: The horrors of house-hunting

"Quarter of a million quid for a wreck," he huffs…

‘‘You’re not going to do better than this for £240,000,” says the estate agent as he opens the door. There is definitely pity in his voice.

The estate agent’s face is almost as shiny as his suit, which is in turn only marginally less shiny than his large, lustrous patent leather shoes. It’s as if he is holding up a man-sized mirror to show me beyond dispute how pathetically poor and needy a muesli-muncher like me is, in comparison to a dynamic wheeler-dealer like him.

The estate agent has already told me he owns five antique shops and a four-bedroom house in Epping, Essex. He thought about applying to go on The Apprentice, but decided against it because “the prize is only a quarter of a million quid. It’s nothing when you think about it – I want to be a multimillionaire.”

I nod meekly, a mere pawn in his game.

Inside the house, the hall is dark. The door is pushed up against a snowdrift of post. There are vomit-like swirls on the carpet and a strange smell is emanating from the kitchen. It could be rotting meat. Is there a body buried beneath the peeling cork tiles?

“You’ll have to use your imagination,” the estate agent says. “Just blank out what it actually looks like now, and think about… the potential.” I close my eyes. If I hold my breath as well, I can imagine I am in a nice Victorian terrace in Islington with distressed pine flooring. I can almost forget that I am in a small, grey-brick two-up two-down just off the North Circular. Almost, but not quite: the hum of traffic is audible from the living room.

I walk through the tiny kitchen and push open the back door. There, stretching into the distance, is the most enormous garden.

It is completely choked with brambles and fruit is rotting on a gnarled old apple tree.

But it is a garden big enough for my dream veggie patch, for my boys to have their football pitch… twisting, nooky, ramshackle and perfect for adventures.

By the time I get back to our too-small flat, the house has been sucked into my subconscious middle-class processor and spat out the other end. With a coat of white paint and some proper bookshelves, a wood-burning stove in the sitting room and one of those cheap but nice IKEA kitchens, the place could be lovely.

“Well, it needs a bit of work,” I tell Curly excitedly when he gets home. “But it’s got… potential.” He is busy lifting the cot back into the bedroom so we can sit down at the table for dinner.

Curly, Larry, Moe and I live in a continually shifting reality where sitting room transmutes into bedroom and back again, the dining table becomes a desk and the bed doubles as a changing mat.

“Quarter of a million quid for a wreck,” he huffs, before embarking on his favourite monologue. “Thirty-four years paying the bloody thing off… modern-day slavery… up the revolution…”

Once he’s got it off his chest we decide to put in an offer.

 

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.