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  1. Politics
24 October 2013

Squeezed Middle: How to change the world

I just haven’t had much time for changing the world lately. It’s been difficult enough to get my shoes on the right feet in the morning.

By Alice O'keeffe

‘‘Do you really think all this is going to make a difference?” I gesture around me, at the shattered, rusting greenhouses, the weedy vegetable beds, the wobbly wind turbines. I have brought the boys for a day out at the Squat. I needed to venture out of our suburb, to take them somewhere more enriching to the soul than Ikea Edmonton.

I’d been meaning to visit the Squat for ages. Some friends of friends set it up. They’re trying to stop climate change, or something. I am a little hazy on the details. Whatever it is, it sounds like a Good Idea. An idea I should support. I just haven’t had much time for changing the world lately. It’s been difficult enough to get my shoes on the right feet in the morning.

Jules spreads his Rizla carefully on the table and fills it with baccy. Jules runs the Squat, in a totally non-hierarchical and collective way. I’d never chatted to him properly before. Perhaps it was the moustache that put me off; I have a thing about ironic facial hair. But I am getting past that. It’s too easy to dislike people who are trying to do things differently. Their very existence can feel like a reproach to those of us who have been resignedly going along with it all.

“I don’t know,” he says, as he lights up. “You never know what’s going to be the tipping point. We can only do what we can. And if it doesn’t work, at least we can say we tried.”

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We spent the morning looking around. Larry loved the urinal made from a bale of hay, the shower heated by an old radiator suspended over a bonfire and especially Jules’s little wooden house, which he had built himself, just like Bob the Builder.

I was surprised how much I loved it, too. I’ve never been much of a radical. I’m too nervous. I don’t like any kind of upheaval. I’ve never thought the system was perfect – just that it was probably good enough. Recently, though, I have started not only to notice the flaws but really to feel them.

It’s not good enough that our great leaders are doing nothing to limit climate change. It’s not good enough that an ordinary job does not pay enough to buy an ordinary home. It’s not good enough that greedy fat-cat companies control the resources that we need to survive, such as water and heating.

It’s not good enough that I can’t imagine a calm and secure future for Larry and Moe. It’s not good enough at all. That’s why I have driven right across London to look around the Squat. If anyone out there has an alternative, I want to know about it.

Jules finishes his cigarette and goes back to his gardening. I sit on a rusty water tank, looking out over the battered landscape, and think for a long time.

I think about Larry and Moe, these small beings I have brought into existence, and what kind of world I would like for them. I think about how much I would like to look them in the eye when they are big enough to understand and to tell them that I tried.

  1. Politics
3 October 2013

Squeezed Middle: Sleepless nights and Highbury flats

I tell Mum straight out what I think of her plan to buy a million-pound flat in Highbury - because we are facing financial Armageddon.

By Alice O'keeffe

Another sleepless night. At 6am, I stagger out of bed. It is semi-dark outside. I reach for the phone and, before I have even thought about it, I dial Mum’s number. She answers straight away. She’s an early riser.
 
“Hello, darling. Is everything all right?”
 
No. It’s not. I make a weird choking noise.
 
“Oh, dear. What is it? Is something the matter?”
 
I tell her straight out what I think of her plan to buy a million-pound flat in Highbury. I don’t hold back. I tell her that I love her and that I want her to have everything in the world that she could possibly wish for – but that we are facing financial Armageddon and we need her help. She listens and she doesn’t get offended or cross. She sounds shocked. And sad.
 
“If you feel like this, darling, I won’t buy the flat. It was just a silly idea. I got carried away. And that’s the end of it. OK?”
 
I sniff. I thought I’d feel better but I don’t.
 
“OK. I’m so sorry.”
 
“Shush. Go and get some sleep.”
 
Three hours later, once I’ve made Larry and Moe porridge and brushed their teeth and wriggled them both into their clothes and washed their faces and distracted them for long enough that I can throw some clothes on – the same as yesterday, but who cares? – and tidied away the breakfast things and wiped the table and started to think about how on earth we’re going to fill the eight hours until Curly gets back from work and I can finally sit down and close my eyes, the phone rings. It’s Mum.
 
“So, I’ve been thinking about our conversation,” she says.
 
“Oh, right?”
 
“And I’ve come up with a plan.”
 
I give Larry and Moe two gingerbread biscuits each so I can fully focus on Mum’s plan. It’s an amazing plan. It’s a plan that will change our lives.
 
Mum is proposing to stay in her current house but to rent out two of her bedrooms and give the income to us every month. It will be enough money to cover our mortgage repayments. Curly and I, between us, will only have to earn enough to pay for food, bills and fun. She will do this for a year and then we will review the situation.
 
By the time I put the phone down, the world is a different place. So we will still be in the slightly-too-small flat but we will be free! We can be real people again, people who enjoy life and don’t worry all the time and even maybe go out for a pub lunch and on holiday sometimes. I can stay at home for a bit longer with the children. Curly can take some time to retrain.
 
I am so delirious that I sit smiling stupidly for several minutes before noticing that Moe has smeared his gingerbread man all over the carpet and is eating earth from the plant pot.
 
I pick him up, bury my mouth in his chubby neck and blow a big raspberry. He squeals with delight.
 
“Bubbalicious baby,” I whisper in his ear.
 
“We’re going to be all right.”