Show Hide image

The Yank has fitted in nicely: she drinks like a fish

There’s a strange light outside. It hangs high up in the sky, is impossible to look at directly and is making everything bright. When one turns the lights on in the Hovel, they make no difference. I ring round a few friends and do a little poking about on the internet. It turns out this light is called “the sun”, is a fiery globe of burning gas, a continuous fusion bomb about 93 million miles away and the ultimate source of all heat and light on the planet.

As I presume you are reading this magazine somewhere in Britain and not in the Bahamas, you will have noticed that the past few weeks have been spent under a pall of gloom and rain that has been collectively lowering the spirits to most alarming levels. And, this being a nation of shrewd and canny observers, the irony that the south-east also happens to be operating under a hosepipe ban has not escaped us. Who stole spring?

Drink up

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy find it is too wet to play outside, they roam around the Professor’s country house playing hide and seek until Lucy discovers, in a wardrobe, an entrance to another world. Unfortunately the Hovel does not have any such wardrobes and so the Yank and I have been reduced to drinking heavily and bickering about what we’re going to watch on the telly.

Have I not mentioned the Yank? She is the new Hovel-mate, here on a kind of swap arrangement with Laurie Penny, who is in New York prospecting for news. (The Yank herself is, with pleasing symmetry, a New Yorker.)

“Can’t you call me anything else?” she asks. No, I tell her; you appeared in this column once before as the Yank, on the grounds that you are American and a bit of a loudmouth – in the nicest way, of course – and once a nickname has been granted on this page, it is set in stone and not even the edict of God can change it.

At least, what with the Yank being an old friend, I knew what to expect. A master of sarcasm and the Marge Simpson-like extended grunt of disapproval, the Yank fits nicely into the Hovelly scheme of things. Sometimes a bit too nicely. Comparisons with la Penny are instructive. The Yank, for a start, does not shirk when it comes to the washing up. Many times I have staggered down to the kitchen in the morning to discover that last night’s plates and glasses have been washed up.

She might even have done the bin once or twice. This is not exactly the most onerous of jobs, as it involves little more than taking the laden bin liner (funny how that sounds like an anagram of “Osama Bin Laden”, yet isn’t) out of the bin, putting a few more things in it, tying it up, and then leaving it outside the front door, whence an anally retentive and houseproud Westminster Council will pick it up in the early evening. But it is a job that even the most self-sufficient and empowered woman finds reluctant to do if there is a man within shouting distance.

On the other hand, the Yank does not share Laurie’s near-teetotalism. Not by a country mile, she doesn’t. One goes to the local Majestic for one’s half-dozen bottles of electric soup and the next morning one finds that only one, if that, remains. (I hasten to add that this five-or-six-a-night consumption happens when there’s at least one other guest in the Hovel. Not even the Yank and I can get through three bottles each a night.)

One also finds, sometimes, the Yank still asleep on the sofa. Reluctant to move her at bedtime, I save her from hypothermia by putting the furry fake tigerskin blanket over her at night. (“It’ll help you get laid,” my mother said to me when she gave it to me as an unusual present the Christmas before last. I never really wanted to hear those words from her, but they did turn out to be true.)

So long, Mousey

The only problem with her is her attitude to Mousey. She has installed a device that plugs into a socket and emits whatever the mouse equivalent of a Jedward B-side is – that is, an ultrasonic scream designed to clear a room – with the result that we seem to be rodent-free. This is fine by me – I had long since wearied of Mousey’s impertinence. But she since revealed that though she loathed mice, she was fine with cockroaches.

Well, I suppose you can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the girl. My fear is that she will, somehow, conjure New York roaches out of thin air simply by sympathetic presence. But now the sun is out!

I no longer have to watch or hear The Voice! The pub beckons. Lord, let this weather hold.

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 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.