Dead man walking: a man dressed as a zombie in Hyde Park, London, August 2013. Photo: Getty
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I think I might be dead – it would explain a lot about the past seven years

A friend comes round with some old copies of the New Scientist and I read a piece about Cotard’s syndrome, whose symptoms present as the conviction that you are dead.

An email arrives from a friend I haven’t seen in a while. “I’ve been reading about that s***hole you infest for so long now I’m minded to come and take a look at the gaff. You around at the moment?”

I read this while lying on the bed, around lunchtime, in my underpants. Around me, the scholar’s mistress – the various reading matter that accumulates in the bed of the solitary writer – has been putting on weight. Downstairs, the living room is a heap of old plates and the usual piles and piles of books.

For the past week or so I have been the Hovel’s sole occupant. The Woman Who Scoured the Teapot has finished her stint of working in London and returned to the family home; the man who crashes here from Monday to Thursday to save himself a commute has gone on holiday with his family. My children are on holiday. My girlfriend is in Sweden. My cat . . . I don’t have a cat.

Esse est percipi, Berkeley tells us: to be is to be perceived. Well, no one is perceiving me at the moment. So, do I exist? I’ve let things slide a little, and the prospect of someone rocking up to the front door – someone who I happen to know is a man of tidy habits – puts me into a bit of a flap. Also, I have two deadlines, including the one for this column. I cannot shower, shave, get dressed, tidy up and write the number of words I am contracted to write as well as entertain someone, however desirable it would be to see him.

Solitude has strange side effects. The loneliness is a given. What’s surprising is the way you don’t want to see anyone despite being lonely – it’s as if one is no longer confident in one’s ability to project a persona. One is also acutely aware of the gulf that exists between the figure shambling around in his undercrackers all day long making endless cups of tea, and the suave, witty and dapper raconteur, which is how the world sees you. To clean oneself up and talk as if one were a self-assured and functioning member of society who can make other people laugh would, in some way, feel like an imposture; and so you become like the tree in the Berkeleyan forest which falls without anyone being around to confirm it.

Still, you can’t become completely isolated, however convincing the philosophical case; so, when I get a call from my friend Toby, who is normally, after six o’clock, as hard to shift from the Uxbridge Arms as a limpet is to shift from its rock, doing me the signal honour of proposing a meeting at the Barley Mow, my own local, for a pint, I accept.

Toby brings with him, as has become most welcome custom, a plastic bag full of the past dozen or so New Scientists. (I find that it is a magazine best enjoyed when gorged upon, rather than bought weekly.) And in the first issue I open when I get back to the Hovel, 19 October 2013, I read a piece about Cotard’s syndrome, whose symptoms present as the conviction that you are dead. Or, as one sufferer cited put it, more carefully, the “strong feeling” that she was dead. These may not have been her exact words but I do like the nuance.

I vaguely recall hearing about this at the time of publication and thinking: that’s a delusion? The train of thought tentatively set off last October judders into motion again. Is it possible, I wonder, as someone who first tentatively thought these things after reading “The Waste Land”, specifically the lines about the Dantescan crowds flowing over London Bridge, that it is not realising that you are dead that is the true pathology?

After some days, the idea still grips me. It would account for a great deal I’ve been pondering on for the past seven years. In fact, as an explanation for what is going on, as the TLS’s review of The Matrix said at the time, it makes a great deal of sense. And I have to admit that, as an excuse for late delivery of copy, “I can’t file right now – I’m dead” packs a certain punch. I am also reminded of Will Self’s excellent joke, in his story “The North London Book of the Dead”, that when you die, you just move to another part of London; and what have I done, since being ejected to the Hovel, but move to another part of London?

QED. The problem with most sufferers of Cotard’s on record is that they are distressed at their condition; this, I would venture, is where they are going wrong. 

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 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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