Safe as houses
Sometimes familiar stories replay themselves and a thought occurs for the first time.
A television drama in the late 1960s remains fresh in the memory. An older man comes into a betting office. A couple of shillings in his pocket – it was pre-decimal days – he is looking for someone to lend him the eighteen shillings he needs with which to buy his grandson a train. He decides to place a bet on a horse, which wins; then the winnings are placed on another horse; and then the accumulated sum is placed as another bet. He continues the winning run, each time being exhorted not to place the full amount, until his winnings stand at £10,000. The bookmaker pleads with him just to accept his winnings and go, but the man is convinced that his winning streak will continue and he places the £10,000 on a dead cert, which loses, and every penny is gone. At the end the bookmaker offers him the eighteen shillings he needs to buy the train.
It was a piece of adult drama that had a profound effect upon a childhood mind, for it is recalled again and again. It was a morality tale, a fable about recklessness. Not once in all the years did a thought arise to ask, ‘what about the man in the story? What thoughts had he as he left that betting shop?’
Reading an Irish Times report of a 68% fall in the property market, the man looking for eighteen shillings resurfaced. His aspirations were modest, ordinary, unexceptional, but he becomes caught in an upward spiral in which he believes he cannot lose. How did he feel as he walked home?
Those hurt most by the collapse of the property market are those whose aspirations were modest, ordinary and unexceptional. The man in the betting shop drama knew he was gambling; those who put everything they had into buying houses were told that there was no gamble involved, that it was irresponsible for anyone to speak of negative equity, that prices would rise and rise and rise.
The man in the betting shop lost his £10,000 bet, but at least left the building no worse off than when he had walked in through the door. Not so those whose debts now far exceed their assets and who are trapped for years to come.
68% may seem another statistic to many, but what of those who spent the average figure of €300,000 on a house and now find it worth less than €100,000? This was not recklessness or greed, this was modest, ordinary and unexceptional people seeking a place to live for themselves and their families.
How does it feel to be in such a situation? Sometimes people will talk on radio phone programmes, but most hardly wish to tell the nation of their problems. ‘Work hard,’ people are told. ‘Be independent. Stand on your own feet. Buy your own house’.
Had the man in the betting shop really existed, it would have been said to him that his actions were foolish, his loss his own fault. The people hurt by the property crash were told they were acting wisely, that this was the responsible and forward-looking thing to do. What now will be said to them? What future are the wise now offering?
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