You need to start asking questions when a quiet, empty house is your idea of heaven

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

I lift the duvet and sink my aching limbs into clean, crisp white sheets. Around me, everything is quiet. Not the kind of quiet that you get in our house, which is laden with the knowledge that within two hours it will definitely be shattered by baffling, implacable screams of red-faced outrage. This is real quiet. It’s-going-to-stayquiet quiet.

Aaaaaaah. I close my eyes and think about floating naked in a tropical whirlpool, clutching some kind of delicious cocktail. Am I in heaven? No. I’m at my friend Hannah’s house. But it might as well be heaven. Everything in Hannah’s house is clean. Everything is white. Everything is in the right place. Most importantly, I don’t have to deal with any of it. It is not my responsibility.

I am here on Dr Ibrahim’s orders, because if I don’t get some sleep soon I will pose a danger to myself and others. She has instructed me to leave the baby with Curly while I go and spend the night elsewhere. Hannah, one of my dearest and oldest friends, not only offered her spare room but also threw in a Chinese takeaway for dinner. She is by nature a person who restores order to a disordered world.

It is a measure of how desperate Curly is for me to be sane again that he happily agreed to this arrangement. In fact, he packed my bag for me and practically booted me out of the house. “Why don’t you stay for two nights, hon?”

The way things have been going recently, he would probably be pretty chuffed if I never came back.

I open one eye. On the floor by my bed is a pair of white, fluffy slippers. They are not mine. They are Hannah’s “guest slippers”. I’d never heard of guest slippers before, but I love them so much, it brings a tear to my eye. I don’t even want to wear them. Just knowing they are there, that someone has gone out of their way to bring about my happiness and comfort, makes me feel as warm and fluffy as they are.

Why don’t I have guest slippers? We aren’t exactly overwhelmed with guests in the slightly-too-small flat, which is just as well, because the only place for a visitor to sleep would be on the floor underneath the dining table, surrounded by Lego.

But the question is more profound than that. Hannah and I grew up together. We have similar backgrounds. We even have similar jobs. How have our lives turned out so differently in this, it suddenly seems to me, quite fundamental respect? Is it just happenstance? Or is there a part of me, deep down inside, that doesn’t actually want guest slippers?

Although half of my psyche longs for a calm, adult respectability, is there another, devilish part of me that delights in uncertainty and chaos?

I feel tantalisingly close to some kind of epiphany, but before it arrives a huge, white wave of sleep sweeps over me. I dive gratefully into its heart, and let it bear me away to a distant, longed-for shore.

A good night's sleep is what the doctor ordered. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation