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Squeezed Middle: A dangerous addiction to estate agents

How can house prices be so high when seemingly nobody has any money?

Shhh, don’t tell Curly. I am looking in the estate agent’s window. I am not supposed to do this. Just as other people are addicted to class-A substances, to porn, or to internet gambling, I am addicted to gazing through the windows of estate agents.

This is my first relapse for a while; it’s probably been, ooh, two weeks since the last time I looked. The nice terrace off the high street has been snapped up for the extortionate sum of £325,000. No surprise there. More worryingly, the flat on our road has been reduced, but then it has swirly wallpaper and no central heating and was originally on the market for £200,000. Perhaps there is some sanity in the world, after all.

My eye wanders longingly across the card advertising a large terraced house by the park. It’s the Platonic ideal of a middle-class family home: sturdy, red-brick, period features; a sitting room with a fireplace, and a garden. It wins a Brucie bonus for having a wisteria, my favourite creeper (yes, I have a favourite creeper) growing over the door.

I won’t look at the price just yet. The bustle of the high street recedes and I slip off into my favourite fantasy: summer evenings in the garden, dinners al fresco; cosy winter afternoons eating scones before the open fire; raucous Sunday lunch parties with a fullsized table to sit around; somewhere to put the Lego; a room for each child – no more moving cots around and unfolding furniture in the dead of night; a book-lined study in which I could pursue my Improving Activities or slip off to for a quiet doze.

Enough! Time to face reality: £650,000. It’s even worse than I thought. Prices are going up again – how can it be possible when nobody around here has any money? I spend a few enjoyable moments directing hate vibes at all the trendies rolling in from Hackney with their ironic T-shirts and their huge deposits, taking our houses . . . Admittedly, Curly and I moved to the area three years ago from Hackney but that was different. The new wave of squeezed-middle settlers is better dressed, richer and more annoying. There’s really no comparison.

Wait a moment – what is this? Right in the corner of the display, almost hidden from view, is a dog-eared card I have never noticed before. It’s a little 1930s two-up-two-down just around the corner from our slightly-toosmall flat, on a pleasant, leafy road a little further from the station. “Property needs some modernisation,” reads the blurb, but it doesn’t look too bad.

Unbelievably, it’s on for £240,000, which in all my years of estate-agent-lurking I have rarely seen before. If we sell everything we own and lie through our teeth to the mortgage company, there is a small chance we could afford it.

Before I know what I am doing, I have opened the door and marched inside. A very shiny man is sitting at the front desk and he looks up to greet me with a narrow, cunning smile. “Good morning, madam. How can I help you today?”

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.