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These boots weren’t made for walking – they were made for moaning about

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Another pair of boots has bitten the dust. I was crossing Paddington Street during the cold snap and felt a draught in the side of my foot. I am used to feeling draughts in unusual or unwelcome places and they are invariably signs of what we have come laughingly to describe as wardrobe malfunctions. Normally they strike me in the area that cricket commentators coyly refer to as “amidships” and are the result of a faulty fly button. My children are vexed and confused by me for many reasons but the one that drives them up the wall the most is my predilection for button- flies rather than zips.

What can I say? The Levi’s 501 black jean, which is the only trouser I wear during the winter months (they are modestly stylish, unassuming, the right shape and hard-wearing) does not come with a zip-fly, OK? Unfortunately the middle buttonhole of the fly degrades over time and opens at the slightest pretext, or on no pretext at all. The last time this happened when I was with the kids, the Big Issue seller at the market had to point it out to me. While my offspring died several deaths from embarrassment, the BI seller made light of the incident, reminding us of what Churchill had said when someone pointed out that he was flying low: “dead birds don’t fall from their nests”, which amused me but didn’t make the kids feel any better at all for some reason.

But I digress. This was the boot, one of a pair I had bought about 13 months before, from the expensive manufacturers, and had been so excited about – I’d never spent so much on footwear – I put it in one of these columns. The idea was that by investing in a pair of expensive boots whose makers have a royal charter – I am, I assure you, very much a republican but even I suspect that Her Maj and co don’t put any old shit on their feet – I would have something that would outlast me. My children, their past shame-making experiences with my fly buttons now forgotten, or recalled with a wry, indulgent smile, would find my Loake’s boots, bought in 2011, many years hence while going through my effects. “He loved those boots,” they would explain to their own children. “He looked after them and they lasted him until the end of his days. I hope one day you, too, come to appreciate the hard work that went into his seemingly effortless style.”

Anyway, the bastards more or less exploded while crossing the road at my usual leisurely pace. I showed them to the shoe shop-cum-repair-shop – which only sells that brand – which supplied me in the first place. “Never seen that before,” they said. “You must do an awful lot of walking.”

“I’m a writer,” I explained. “I don’t even get out of bed if I can help it. And I don’t wear them during the summer.” (Which I concede means that in 2012 they only got about a week’s rest, so awful was last year for good weather.)

The idea was that they would get on to Loake, who, realising the value of good publicity, even in this column, would supply me with a new, guaranteed pair at an extremely advantageous rate, and we would all proceed happily. But we examined them – the three people behind the bar tending the machines, myself, and a couple of customers. I must say the boots did not look as they belonged to a gentleman with a sedentary lifestyle. They had gone from something the royal family’s matriarch considered worthy of clicking the “Like” button for to something that both Vladimir and Estragon would have rejected as being infra dignitatem.

I was reminded of the twist on the old saying: “You cannot judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins; for not only are you a mile away from him, you also have his moccasins.” It was if someone had been walking miles in my moccasins and then returning them to me when I slept.

This has been bothering me for a week now. Does this mean I will never trust the royal warrant again? Or that I should try not to think too hard about what goes on the ends of my legs? And is this fannying around with footwear simply a displacement activity, something I am using to distract myself from the ongoing catastrophe that is the rest of my life? (As the tailor says to the customer who complains it took God less time to make the world than him to make his trousers: “but just look at the world . . . and now look at my trousers”.) Anyway, I bought another pair of the damn things. If ER uses them to boot her son up the jacksy, they can’t be all bad.

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 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

Photo: Getty Images
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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.