Another suitcase in another hall? Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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The new lodger moved in and out of the Hovel in a day. Who’d want to live with a middle-aged man?

Unlike others, we have no choice but to live with ourselves - still. A 27 hour residency seems a little brief.

What, ladies and gentlemen, is the shortest you have ever lived in a place? That is, moved in somewhere, with your stuff, and then moved out again? The Hovel can boast a new record: 27 hours, for its latest occupant.

The previous one, whom I’ve written about before as the country girl who seemed more used to giving horses sugar lumps than negotiating London traffic, got streetwise very quickly and we rubbed along together fine for months, but in the end found a place more to her liking. Her replacement, who was invited round to check the place out, declared herself satisfied, and early last Sunday evening she moved in with a couple of big suitcases and a brand-new Marks and Sparks duvet.

I introduced her to my boys, who were, along with me, digesting Sunday lunch, and they were civil and handsome. She went out for dinner and came back with a man she introduced as her “friend”.

Uh-oh, I thought, because, as I may have said before, the wall separating our bedrooms is so thin that the occupant of one can hear what the occupant of the other is thinking about having for dinner. But they were quiet as mice in the end – quieter, in fact. (I can sometimes hear Mousey as he rummages inside the blue recycling sack that sits open on the kitchen floor; what he hopes to find in there is beyond me, unless mice can digest cardboard. I have recurring dreams of vanquishing Mousey with the heel of my boot, but I’d hesitate to do so again, especially after the abuse I got on Twitter the last time.)

And then on the Monday evening at about half past seven she popped her head round the living-room door and announced she was leaving.

Now, it is rarely given to us to see how the outside world perceives us. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!” as Burns put it, but what many people forget was that it was looking at a louse crawling on a fine lady’s bonnet in church that prompted him to make such a plea. What are the vermin that crawl upon us without our knowledge? What could I have done that would make someone up sticks and away before little more than a day had passed?

My friend K—— lasted a fortnight and that was bad enough, leading to a long period of fruitless introspection; but that was when Razors was living here with me, and we were perhaps too tightly knit for a third party to join. Also, we were probably insufferable.

One thing my conscience can be clear about is my propriety. No one who has lived here will ever be able to claim that I acted in a creepy way towards them – not even my worst enemies would accuse me of that. (And as my worst enemies include [name redacted at insistent legal request] and [ditto], they would be wise not to bring such a charge in the first place.)

But there must be something. F——, the occupant of 27 hours, said that the place she’d originally wanted to live in came up again – that’s her story and she’s sticking to it. And living in the Hovel is like being the Ringbearer: even if you were there for only the briefest of times, you will be able to claim the title of Hovel-dweller until your last breath.

I wonder if she could smell the failure and the desperation. I have been noticing, for the past few years, how it is men in their mid-forties to mid-fifties who seem to be bringing the most woe upon themselves, and on others. They are the ones most likely to kill themselves, or to run amok. The mid-life crisis is no longer the comedy business with the sports car and the secretary; it means the grim march to the jobcentre with the concealed kitchen knife, the family home that’s no longer his burned to the ground from the outside. It is a reaction to redundancy, in the broadest sense of the word – the all-pervading sense of uselessness in the face of a world that has decided to dispense with you.

This is not generally how I see myself, and readers know me as the happy-go-lucky scamp who whistles at misfortune. However, there are some misfortunes looming, which I will not go into, which would desiccate the most insouciant of lips, and I wonder whether it was some sense of these that made F—— decide that maybe it would be best if she took her chances south of the river. So the hunt is on for another lodger; but would I want to live with me? Would I really? Unlike others, I have no choice.

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 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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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.