What was the secret dread of this bright black girl?

She was just 34 years old, lithe and handsome. I had met her some years ago in Manchester, at Granada studios, feeling her way to a career in television. She wasn't born to it. I guess no one is. She would have had to work harder than most in order to be successful. In the six-month contract world of television, the competition is fierce, and the ambitious young black woman would find life trebly difficult.

Yet she had all to play for. She had links in London with an Oxbridge set of young African men, compatriots and friends. She sought pastures new in London because, she told me, there was not much happening in Manchester. I would see her from time to time in Brixton. She lived only a stone's throw away from my home, on the white side of the tracks. She found digs in a flat owned by a fairly well-known black journalist who had made the identical journey from Manchester.

The Oxbridge elite gathered there and she soon became the belle of the ball. She was finding it difficult, I could tell. She approached everything with caution, kept serious discourse at bay and had slowly developed a deep resentment, nay suspicion, of anything intellectual. She did not seem happy. Whenever we met, she confirmed to me that the old spark had gone, so, too, the quiet curiosity. But it happens to all new migrants to London, and I assumed that there was always a retreat back to Manchester.

I met her for the last time a few weeks ago at Brixton station. I pecked her cheek as normal and she said something rather odd. "I didn't think you would recognise me." Had she changed, had one of those makeovers we have had stuffed down our throats on Ricki, Kilroy and the rest of them? She looked like the Dappo I knew over the years. I was genuinely puzzled by the remark, until she released me with an easy quip.

I handed over my mobile number, but she never called. The meeting lingered in my mind. When I was sitting one day in the Souls of Black Folk, a coffee bar on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, her landlord approached. We talked of this and that.

After a while, I asked about Dappo. He paused a bit and threw a glance at me. "Yes, yes, she is fine," he replied. I probed. She had a job in a computer magazine. She was travelling abroad regularly, she was making some money. I quietly logged the information as I would anything that was at odds with what I had experienced.

I waltzed into the Souls of Black Folk on Saturday evening. Biyi, an African novelist, joined me. "Dappo is dead," he said.

He repeated it. She had left her home on Dulwich Road, drifted along towards Herne Hill. She had negotiated her way into a block of flats under the pretext, so it is said, that she wanted to see a particular view of London. She took the elevator to the 18th floor and jumped. She chose a brutal end to a short life. She had been buried by the time I was told about it. She was a Muslim and had to depart this world before sunrise.

The Book of Common Prayer says it harshly. She brought nothing into this world and took nothing out, or words to that effect.

Her landlord offered no clarity. He rented her a room in his flat: she came in, she left, she had her own circle of friends. There was nothing untoward. He had no clues. It sounded like a statement to a coroner. As I write, they are sorting out her personal belongings. Maybe there is something there that will throw light on this moment of dread.

There is nothing left now. Whatever tormented her soul, she did not deserve such a cruel end. She tried to make her way in the difficult world of freelance television, of flippant men, of fiercely competitive women, and crashed on her face. Alone, drifting along Dulwich Road, blind, deaf and numb to sights, sounds and smells. There was only one thing on her mind that fateful day. I could only invoke a religious chant so often repeated by my late father from the altar: "O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon her."

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people

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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.