Tales of the City: Here's your starter for £60,000

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The Independent Online

I think it was in the run-up to a general election in the Ivory Coast that one of the opposition parties promised the electorate that if they voted the right way, they would be absolved of all the sins they'd committed in this life, and be guaranteed a place in heaven. It was a rather, shall we say, ambitious undertaking.

I think it was in the run-up to a general election in the Ivory Coast that one of the opposition parties promised the electorate that if they voted the right way, they would be absolved of all the sins they'd committed in this life, and be guaranteed a place in heaven. It was a rather, shall we say, ambitious undertaking.

But, as spurious pieces of bare-faced electioneering go, it was no worse than the Government's Homes for All plan, launched this week. It is a very potent dream they're selling - to own your own home, your Englishman's castle, your piece of sceptr'd isle - and, to make the figures work, they have come up with the magic promise, of getting 15,000 "starter homes" built at £60,000 each.

I'd never heard the phrase "starter home" until it turned up in the film Trainspotting, as part of the "Choose Life" litany of all the awful bourgeois things the film's druggy hero has no interest in acquiring. As with nursery ski slopes, bicycle stabilisers and Stanley Gibbons introductory packets of stamps, the phrase suggests that, when it comes to housing, you will have to undergo an embarrassing period of discomfort and infantile nonsense before you can move on to a more mature level of existence.

I'm trying to imagine the £60,000 home. "Look at this," Mr Prescott will say when the first homes are knocked up in Milton Keynes or Peterborough. "Here's a front door and windows and a kitchen. Very handy, that. There's a loo and a sink in 'ere, wi' a lightbulb in t'socket. Bloody luxury. And there's a shelf in t'front room, over the one-bar electric fire. You could put books on it. You could have books about all sorts of things. It could be like the Bodleian Library in 'ere. And there's a bean-bag you can sit on, while yer looking at t'one-bar electric fire and feeding t'baby. Very cosy. You could live here, course you could. Anyone could..."

Well no, they probably can't anymore. Too many people have watched Location, Location, Location and other house-makeover TV shows to be satisfied with the unvarnished basics of home living, low income or no income. They might not relish the prospect of being offered a £60,000 terrace with the same Eastern-bloc fixtures, the Anaglypta walls and one-ply wooden stairs, the same chill-as-a-coffin ambience and Crossroads-Motel structural shakiness as the 14,999 others.

Even as we speak there are firms of quantity surveyors looking into ways of lashing up a modern house for just 60 grand. Think small, think tight spaces, think low ceilings (fewer costly bricks), think plastic fittings such as door knobs and towel rails, think exposed wiring, think lino (and don't even start about floorboards - someone moving around at night would sound like the German army crossing the Rhine), think cheap-as-chips materials...

Why stop at £60,000? The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister could, surely, arrange to build 30,000 new starter-homes at £30,000 each. All you'd need do is to adjust the specifications, so that the roof is made of plastic sheeting held down with inexpensive nails, the outside window-ledge doubles as a fridge, the walls are made of medium-density fibre rather than plaster, and the sofa becomes a bed at night. Mind you, the 5ft-high ceilings would be a pain and the kids would get pneumonia. And the Government would still own the land because it's in the small print, so it wouldn't be quite the Englishman's castle you were hoping for. But it would still be a kind of home, wouldn't it?

A lamé excuse for nostalgia

You know you're getting on a bit when the wildest fashion item you crave is one of Jon Snow's poster-paint ties. So it was a shock to walk into a clothes emporium last week and be pitched back to a wilder, crazier era of dress.

I was in Portobello Road, and the shop was One of a Kind, a specialist in Vivienne Westwood designs and "antique clothes" from the Sixties, when Ms Westwood was still a curly-haired ingenue. I flicked through the rails, marvelling at the yellow flares, the fringed waistcoats, the ghastly bedspread material of the jackets (did we notice how horrible they felt, or did we just ignore it?), the kipper ties and take-your-eye-out lapels - and I suddenly stopped dead.

Here was my shirt, the shirt I wore to the Parish Hall disco in the summer of 1968, when I was 14, a frankly hideous gold lamé thing (I know, I know) that made me look like the victim of an oil tanker spill, but I loved it because it wasn't covered in flowers like every other shirt in 1968. How I coveted it. How I knew it would transform me from a spotty oik into the suave ladykiller of the SW19 dancefloor. How my pals had screeched when they saw it. How Angelina Potts decided she'd rather not dance with me, on the whole, no matter what she might have hinted last week.

I took the golden shirt off the hanger, fingered it lovingly and looked at the price. Once it had been two pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence. Now it was £110. Good God, a price hike of 3,600 per cent. And to my astonishment, a tiny voice in my head started to say, "You've got to buy it. You know you've got to buy it", like in the old days. I don't know what demonic agency was urging me to revisit one of the great embarrassments of my youth, but I fled from the shop.

And now, every weekend, I can be found searching through the attic for an old hairy Afghan waistcoat (circa 1970) that might fetch a score of notes. No point in being sentimental about the old days, is there?

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