London’s Chinatown in Soho. Photo: Getty
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Trawling Chinatown for a backscratcher, I see there are some itches that never go away

Even thinking about a backscratcher makes the back cry out for one.

I’m trying to find a backscratcher. It’s about the only thing my father can make use of at the moment. Complications following his fall – we think – have resulted in him losing most of what little eyesight he had remaining. It has come to the point where, in order to remember all the ways he’s falling apart, you have to make a list. Add to this my mother’s infirmities and the list reaches halfway down the page. My own woes and worries are not trivial in themselves, but they are by comparison: not (touch wood) life-threatening.

So, my father wants his backscratcher. It’s like the answer to the question: what do you give the man who has nothing? He is on the precipice, the crumbling ledge of existence, and there are more ignoble desires. Unfortunately, the house is large and the backscratcher is relatively small. I have little hope of finding it. But where does one buy a backscratcher these days? I imagine a prelapsarian past in which grocers would have bundles of them and in which chemists dished them out with prescriptions. Every high street would have a shop devoted to nothing else; indeed, London was famous for its Backscratcher District, in the way Harley Street is known for doctors and Swiss Cottage for shrinks. All gone now, irretrievably gone, another part of our cultural legacy mown down by the forces of rampant capitalism unleashed by Mrs T.

Trying to find one becomes vexatious. Even thinking about a backscratcher makes the back cry out for one. I am very prone to the suggestive itch and have already had to pause several times to scratch myself while writing this – which is why I knew, deep down, even from childhood, that I could never be an astronaut. I’d start thinking about getting an itch on my nose while spacewalking and would either be driven mad by not being able to scratch it, or pull my helmet off to do so and then die in the inky vacuum of the cosmos.

A backscratcher’s not much to ask for, is it? I go to the local chemist, the one that’s been there for over 200 years. If anyone’s going to stock a backscratcher, it’s going to be this shop.

“We used to have one,” says the nice assistant, peering into a corner where, presumably, the backscratchers would gather, until, one by one, they disappeared, like great auks, or passenger pigeons, or electable socialist politicians.

“But not now,” I say. He shakes his head ruefully. First they came for the backscratchers, I think to myself, but I did not speak up, because my back didn’t itch . . .

I try a social medium. My friend Mei suggests Chinatown. So there is a Backscratcher District in London after all. But Mei, for reasons you might be smart enough to spot for yourself, is able to navigate Chinatown better than I can. I would go to Soho in search of a simple stick of sandalwood, carved into prongs at one end, and end up buying a Mogwai, which would end up causing all sorts of havoc. Besides, there’s enough wildlife in the Hovel as it is.

I go to Boots. The assistant at the till looks at me as though I’m mad, but she gets out a little iPad and does her utmost to help me. We come across something called a “self-massager”, which sounds incredibly rude and looks insanely complex, like something you’d use to shift cargo into the space shuttle (again, the astronaut theme; what’s that all about?), and which costs twenty-odd quid. I am beginning to think it would be easier for me to learn how to carve one myself, or nip up the road from the Royal Free and find a suitably shaped stick on Hampstead Heath.

Of course, now that I’ve written this, the letters about where to find backscratchers will start coming through this paper’s letter box by the dozen; some of the more generous of you may even send me one, and the corridors will echo to the clatter of the things. Please don’t bother. In the end, my mother (in hospital, too, so not in situ) suggests I look in a certain drawer by her bed.

There it is, the faithful family backscratcher, a little more polished with use than I remember it, its teeth a little more worn down, but still slender and graceful, the last living backscratcher in captivity. Yet what you’ll have realised is that my search wasn’t for a backscratcher at all, but for something else entirely: a lost link, perhaps, and also a symbol of something I can do for my father, because the things that I can do for him are becoming ever fewer by the day, it seems.

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 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.