White out: a bidet following a landslide in Costa Rica, 2010. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

It’s a happy bidet that contains the LRB, the TLS and a few copies of Viz

The appliance hasn’t worked since the days of Callaghan but provides an excellent receptacle for reading matter.

Although the bidet in the downstairs loo has not worked since, I would guess, the last days of the Callaghan government, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good and, as I believe I have had occasion to mention before, it now serves as a handy receptacle for reading matter should you wish to improve your mind. In what some may consider a serious bid to get into Pseuds Corner for the first time in what feels like ages, this tends to be of a highbrow nature: PN Review, the LRB and the TLS, a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Book of Disquiet by Pessoa and Kevin Jackson’s volume on Ruskin.

There are some copies of Viz for the young at heart and for a long time I found Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo a much better and more fascinating read than I had snobbishly suspected it was going to be when I took it out of the Jiffy bag. But the former Arsenal and Scotland goalie’s book has gone missing, so you’ll see instead a 1991 edition of E M Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations. This is always good for a chuckle.

Cioran, in case the name is unfamiliar, was a Romanian exile living in Paris. He was of such a bitter and gloomy nature that when he needed cheering up even more than he usually did, he would visit his pal Samuel Beckett. Apparently Beckett grew to dislike these visits and the final one ended with Beckett throwing Cioran out of his flat, saying, “For feck’s sake, Emil, lighten up, you miserable bastard. Things aren’t as bad as all that.” (I suspect I am embellishing the facts rather a lot here, so if you’re writing an academic work on either Beckett or Cioran, it might be best if you do not quote anything from this piece as a primary source.)

Cioran’s maxims are always bracing. “On a gangrened planet, we should abstain from making plans, but we make them still, optimism being, as we know, a dying man’s reflex.” That’s the stuff to give the troops and, as one rises from stool, one feels a braver and less deceived person for it. That, at least, is the intention: you could also have learned why a googly is called a “Bosie” in Australia if some swine hadn’t  stolen Bob Wilson’s book. Visitors to the Hovel are now stuck with Cioran, Pessoa and the rest.

This needn’t be a bad thing. What was that about plans again? (And don’t you love that “gangrened”? So much nastier than “gangrenous”. You hear the green of corruption in it.) I have abandoned making plans ever since I used up the 2008 diary given to me by the Finn. This has resulted in countless missed parties and invitations; and this, in turn, has resulted in people assuming I’m dead, so I now no longer miss parties because I’m not invited to them in the first place. However, I’ll have to plan to clean up the living room within the next couple of weeks because it turns out that the woman who ran screaming from the place when she was shown round it last month has decided that it might be best not to be so fussy after all.

I sympathise with her. Most people, when they see the Hovel for the first time, see it, as Martin Amis said of western tourists visiting India, through the mists of their own rejection and I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I first saw my new home. But all new homes are sad in some way, especially when the circumstances of leaving the previous one have been traumatic. A shared home is doubly sad if you are not sharing it with anyone you love. The new lodger will only be here for six months at most, if she is not put off by weirdo Romanian philosophers in the bidet (“One can imagine everything, predict everything, save how low one can sink”), 16,000 books in the living room (which I am under instructions to deal with – another plan I have to make) and a funny smell in the kitchen, which is not the sweet smell of rotting fruit, as it was last time, but something like an enormous loaf of bread that has gone mouldy, which may well need the services of Rentokil.

I look around me at the piles of books and Jiffy bags in the living room. It will take, I estimate, a full day of hard work to sort them out, so I had better start putting the task off right now.

But look! It’s Bob Wilson’s Ultimate Collection of Peculiar Sporting Lingo! I think Cioran and Pessoa and the tidying can wait. I want to know why West Bromwich Albion are known
as “the Baggies”.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.