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London’s overpriced, golden streets by Town Mouse, Tom Hodgkinson

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | Jul 14, 2023


When I was a very small mouse, we lived in a two-up, two-down cottage on the outskirts of London. My young parents, then 27, had just moved south from Newcastle, where I was born.

I have hazy memories of our time in that cottage: I was four. I do remember walking out of the door on my own one day and walking up the road to the place that sold ice creams. As I had not reached an understanding of money, I expected the lady behind the counter to give me an ice cream for nothing. Toddlers wandering the streets … parenting was clearly pretty hands-off in those days.

Granny Mouse, my mother, took things a little further than most: she was never the most maternal person. Grandfather Mouse told me later she was known locally as ‘the woman who hates babies’.

Now that my own Mini Mice are in their early twenties and contemplating leaving the nest, I have taken a new interest in house prices.

Maybe the young ones might also consider a two-up, two-down on the outskirts of London as their first purchase. I looked up the price of a similar cottage to the one that housed my parents’ young mouse family. To my horror and astonishment, the estate agent is asking £925,000.

That leap is quite extraordinary. My parents bought their house for £8,000 in 1970, when their joint income was £4,500 a year (around £50,000 today).

In those 50 years, wages have gone up ten times while property prices have gone up 100 times. Buying your own nest is practically impossible unless you’re a banker or corporate lawyer. To be in a similar financial position, that young couple would need a joint income of £500,000, which would put them in the top one per cent of British earners.

In a sane world, where property prices and wages had risen in tandem, Granny Mouse’s starter cottage would today cost around £100,000.

Admittedly, though the cottage was built for humble labourers in the 1870s, it’s in The Alberts in Richmond, Surrey, one of the most desirable locations in the country. Still, a hundredfold increase in 50 years is quite something.

The Labour Party recently claimed that a child born today has a 30-per-cent chance of owning their home when they’re 50. No one can see into the future, but this makes a valid point.

The way they worked out this statistic was straightforward. Over the last ten years, the percentage of middle-aged homeowners has fallen from 74 to 65. Keep going down at this rate and you’ll reach 30 per cent in 2071.

So where does this leave the poor little mice? Can you buy anywhere in the UK for £100,000?

Well, yes. According to Zoopla, you can get a two-up, two-down for £100,000 in Doncaster, Bradford or Huddersfield.

In the days of remote working, it would surely make logical sense for the population to spread itself out around the country. All the little mice would move out of the capital, to somewhere affordable, install a home office and set up hipster cafés.

Get out of the Great Wen, escape the machine and keep your monthly payments down to a sensible level.

Or why not live abroad? In the 1920s, the young Aldous Huxley moved to Italy for financial reasons: his money went four times further there, he calculated. Being a writer, he could work from home.

‘On the same income on which I just kept alive, uncomfortably, in London,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘I live in a large house, with two servants and a nurse, keep a small car, travel quite a lot and save money to boot.’

This can happen today, if you travel a little further. I have a writer acquaintance who would be hard-pressed to put a 50-per-cent deposit down on a cottage in Richmond but lives in high style in Delhi.

Huxley lived life like one of today’s young digital nomads, who work anywhere they like.

‘Seeing that one practises a profession that does not tie one down,’ he wrote to his father, when announcing a round-the-world trip, ‘I feel that one ought to see as much of this planet as one can.’

One agrees entirely. If one does not want to move to Doncaster, perhaps one should be roaming the planet with a laptop, working anywhere. That might well be preferable to subjecting oneself to the grind of London Town.

But London pulls millions of souls into its orbit. It’s a giant magnet, overcrowded and absurdly expensive but very, very attractive. The nests here might be smaller but, for a full life, it’s irresistible.

It looks as though my Mini Mice are bound to stay in London – and either become billionaires or live with Mrs Mouse and me for eternity.