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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder