"In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London." Thus begins The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans, though it could be any of the Sherlock Holmes stories. November is the quintessential month in Conan Doyle, masking London and its criminals in a "greasy, heavy brown swirl". Darkness protects the wicked and heightens our sense of fear. How glad we are of Watson and Holmes smoking their pipes in the cosy warmth of 221B Baker Street! How comforting, too, to contemplate Holmes's honest English diet, which only really comes into its own in the winter months.

Holmes is no glutton. Watson tells us "his diet was usually of the sparest". His nervous frame is powered instead by coffee, tobacco and cocaine, the hunger keeping his brain keen. The erratic hours Holmes keeps disrupt mealtimes, and he often snacks on biscuits and cold meats. While hiding out on the moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he survives on rations of tinned tongue and peaches. In the thick of another case, "he cut a slice of beef from the joint on the sideboard, sandwiched it between two rounds of bread, and thrusting this rude meal into his pocket, he started off upon his expedition". This manly, rudimentary sandwich is awesomely unlike the indulgent constructions of Pret a Manger.

But when Holmes has more time to spare, he displays fine high Victorian taste. Having solved the Case of the Noble Bachelor, he lays on an "epicurean" supper of "a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pate de foie gras pie with a group of ancient and cobwebby bottles". In The Sign of Four he graciously offers dinner to the detective Athelney Jones: "I have oysters, and a brace of grouse, with something a little choice in white wine." When the sideboard is less groaning, and a case is wrapped up, Holmes and Watson dine at Simpson's. Ravenous with hunger, Holmes repairs there for "something nutritious" (capon pudding? stewed partridges?) after starving himself for three days in The Dying Detective.

The most comforting and Novembery of all Baker Street meals is surely breakfast, often taken after a night of hard detecting and no sleep. Holmes and Watson settle with the newspapers and a crackling fire in front of a "well-polished, silver-plated coffeepot". Their basic fodder is toast and eggs, but Mrs Hudson sometimes lays on more elaborate fare under covered dishes - kidneys, say, or kedgeree. In The Naval Treaty, a story about a crucial document being stolen, she brings in "three covers", one containing ham and eggs and the second containing curried chicken. The third cover is lifted to reveal the missing naval treaty, to the shrieking amazement of a Mr Percy Phelps. Holmes comments that "Mrs Hudson has risen to the occasion . . . Her cuisine is a little limited, but she has as good an idea of breakfast as a Scotchwoman."

Curried Breakfast Chicken
Tell Mrs Hudson to chop eight skinned, boned chicken thighs into bite-sizes. She will then heat some oil in a wide skillet and add a chopped onion and a spoonful of curry mix (hand pounded from cardamom, turmeric, coriander, dried chilli, cumin, fenugreek and mustard seeds). When the spices are fragrant, she will add the chicken, a little chopped ginger and half a chicken stock cube. Then she will pour in a mixture of water, buttermilk and coconut cream, season and simmer for 20 minutes. As you sweep the cover from the dish, you may detect a light sprinkling of parsley.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians

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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.