The Null Device
House prices in London keep rising; London housing is, after all, a de facto reserve currency, and most sales in the "super-prime" market—places like Chelsea, Mayfair and Belgravia—are done in cash to foreign buyers, often from economically or politically troubled regions whence getting one's wealth out is a sensible idea; also, if one wants to hobnob with the world's movers and shakers, a pied a terre in London is essential. One result of this is that demand from the unimaginably rich global titans pushes the merely locally rich further out, and triggers a wave of outward-moving gentrification ending in cash-strapped working stiffs moving out to remote corners of Norfolk and spending several hours a day commuting to their London jobs, collapsing exhausted when they get home, but not before setting the alarm for 4:45 the following morning to do it all again:
The "extreme commuter" appears so regularly in demographic updates these days that it will be a miracle if, like Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman before him, he doesn't become a prime target for next year's electoral pitch. A recent Radio 4 exposé of the phenomenon came crammed with horror stories of single mothers rising at 5am in the Essex hinterland to drive their offspring to the childminder's before proceeding, via train, Tube and pavement to some sweating house in Threadneedle Street or Holborn Circus. Ominously enough, there was very little in it about that search for the fulfilling rural lifestyle that we hear so much about, and a whole lot more about ground-down wage serfs forced into five- or six-hour daily round-trips by domestic circumstance or the lack of affordable housing near their place of work.While some resign themselves to the joyless grind of extreme commuting, others have found different solutions; such as living on no-frills floating slums on the Thames (the London property market's own answer to the Chinese zombie fishing trawlers), with a combination of low-wage service-industry workers, the economially desperate and a smattering the sorts of oddballs one finds drawn for one reason or another to the fringes:
The room I chose had a smashed window and was open to the elements, meaning I could see my breath when I was in bed (March 2013 was to prove one of the coldest on record). The only upside was that the draft offset the fumes from the stove, lessening the dread caused by the occasional sounding of the carbon monoxide alarm. Better to be cold, I reasoned, and wake up the next day.
This way of life inevitably attracts colourful characters. A few longer-term residents, some of whom had been on the boat for years, genuinely enjoyed the life of the river. They had pets, and were often heavy drinkers, chain smokers and drug users, partying until the early hours. The boats meant freedom from rules and regulations, and form-filling officialdom. Most residents bought bottled water rather than consume the drinking water that was filtered straight from the river, but one man told me it didn't bother him because he never drank water; his entire liquid intake came in a cider bottle. He once advised me to cover my food in the kitchen; not because of rats – they were dead – but because they had stuffed the ceiling full of poison and had no idea where it might fall out. Included in this group were some of the younger crowd on my boat, people who liked the communal living, sitting out on the deck in the summer with a barbecue and some beers. It was enough for them to forget the conditions. Some of them admitted that they could afford to live elsewhere. They worked full-time; one designed computer games; another was a football coach; one young woman worked for a local council. They had no plans to stay in the long term, but were saving money by tolerating the boats.Perhaps less romantically, some 289,000 families in England and Wales have taken to sharing homes with other families, in a laudable display of thrift of which George Osbourne would certainly approve. Fewer poor families selfishly demanding their own homes, after all, means more homes to be done up, sold, and left empty and "bubble-wrapped", the better to retain their investment value.
Meanwhile, one person has calculated that it is cheaper to rent a place in an upmarket district of Barcelona and commute to London each day than to rent one in London. The downside, of course, is spending several hours a day on Ryanair.
Finally, a Buzzfeed listicle, enumerating 14 signs you're house-hunting in London:
You need to consult your Oxford English Dictionary, because £720,000 for a flat certainly isn’t your definition of “affordable”.
You examine your finances and decide to delay buying for a couple of years in order to save up a bigger deposit. A year of working over time and living off baked beans later…and house prices have risen by £40,000. See ya later hesitater.