Times past, Britain divided into the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the working class. Nowadays, classes divide among anyone who bought property before 1997 (prices have tripled since then), folks who bought late in the game and are saddled with killer mortgages, and renters. Shorthand? The Super-Smug, the Plain Smug, and the Deeply Ashamed. Me, I’m a prole, a slug, the scum of the earth. I rent.
With the average U.K. home gaining value by Ł40,000 ($77,000) per year, a renter is not just a serf but a fool. My friends all pity me. Whereas once we discussed the worrying state of Congo, we now lavish our evenings on which dangerous, dilapidated, brutish neighborhood I might move into for an amount of money with which I could probably buy Congo.
Thought the Brits were socially discreet about money matters? Not anymore. How much the house has appreciated, what the place next door just went for—nobody’s shy about naming hard figures. The only coy sorts are the Super-Smug, Looney Tunes characters whose gaze it’s difficult to meet because of the pound signs in their eyes.
Nearby my own rental of ill repute, my publicist recently showed off the tiny flat she shared with four other people. It was a dump. They were living on top of each other like grad students, while earning full-time salaries in their thirties, and the doors were plastic. But never mind that. They owned it. They were very proud.
I’ve had to swear off television. A mere taste: House Doctor, I Want That House, I Want That House by the Sea, Hidden Treasure Houses, House Busters, Honey I Ruined the House, Nice House, Shame About the Garden Revisited.
Meantime, owing to undersupply, if you do find a hovel in London you fancy, hundreds of other buyers descend on the same listing to fight over who can offer more over the asking price. It can take $700,000 to get a one-bedroom in Walworth—a junky neighborhood south of the river. (In Windsor Terrace, the Brooklyn neighborhood where my husband rents, you could buy an entire house for that much.) Despite the scarcity of properties, apparently one in ten Londoners is planning to move in the next six months. Where to? Somewhere sane, somewhere affordable, somewhere sophisticated, where the locals might occasionally talk about a book, and not just the fixed versus variable-rate mortgage?
I bet they’re headed for New York.
Lionel Shriver is the author of The Post-Birthday World.