Tintin, Asterix and Sugar Puffs: I’m on a fast track back in time

Time is playing a strange game these days: it's going all circular on me, and little bits of my past keep resurfacing, so, unless I check the date on the newspaper, I find myself wondering which year I'm in.

Take the Sugar Puffs. The other day, a friend of mine, a noted gourmet to whom I like to present myself as a kindred spirit, noticed the Sugar Puffs in the cereal library on top of the kitchen cupboards. He raised an eyebrow both quizzical and stern.

“Not mine," I said. "For the kids."

This is a lie. The children, inexplicably, scorn Sugar Puffs. But the shop over the road is selling them for £1.29 a pack, a price too good to ignore. Left to their own devices, the good people who work there would charge something like a fiver, but the price has been printed on the box in enormous figures by the manufacturer, so they can't duck out of it.

Therefore, Sugar Puffs it is, and every mouthful takes me back to at least 1973. (This Proustian moment recurs a few hours later when going to the loo, for, as you may have forgotten, eating Sugar Puffs makes your wee smell of Sugar Puffs, too.)

Beatle mania

Then the other evening, my great friend A -- came over, and after dinner we got thoroughly smashed and danced to the entire Beatles back catalogue until two. Again, I'm back to my ten-year-old self, when I first started seriously getting into the band. We both know pretty much every word and note of every song on every album, although A -- 's recall is slightly better than mine. Who else, we ask each other, could we do this with? (We both know people who affect to hold the Beatles in disdain, but we consider them to be attention-seeking weirdos who are against Life.)

Answer: my even better friend H -- who, although she knows everything there is to know about opera, has only scant knowledge of the post-Beatles popular music scene. I am slowly building up her knowledge - we're now on Talking Heads, circa Fear of Music - but, for some reason, a couple of nights after having A -- round, we do the whole Beatles thing again, for not only does she, too, know all the words and tunes, but she has a beautiful singing voice and it is a pleasure to listen to it. (This time, though, I do not dance. I am trying to impress her with my suavity.)

And then there's the canal boat. This is really freaky. A -- lives on one, moored off Lisson Grove, but every so often she takes it for a spin up and down the Regent's Canal. I have been pestering her for years to take me and finally she has agreed. Her new boyfriend is coming up from the countryside and she feels like impressing him. Well, I'd be impressed. I have the boys with me that day and, having skippered a similar vessel for a couple of weeks when they were much smaller, I know that they'll love it, too.

But this trip completely unmans me. Literally: I become a child again. My grandmother used to take me on one of the long, multi-passenger barges to while away the time when I was a kid. I find that I still know every inch of the canalside 40 years on. Only when we get to the new Sainsbury's do I find myself in unfamiliar waters. We even pass the barge I used to go on: Jason's Trip, presumably whimsically named in the 1960s.

Give me an R, give me a G

Then there's Asterix. It's the Woman I Loved's little girl's birthday, and I get her Asterix in Britain to add to her collection. The queue at the post office is so long that I get to read the entire book before reaching the guichet. I don't mind the wait, as it is a work of genius and full of great affection for the British. (I later learn that the postman has folded it in half to get it through the letter box, which is quite impressive, as it was the hardback.)

And then, finally, there's Tintin. The first-rate novelist and Tintin expert Tom McCarthy and I are going together to a press screening of the new Spielberg film before writing about it, and so I have been reimmersing myself in Hergé's masterworks - slightly unnecessarily, because
I can remember every panel. But anyway.

All this happens over a period of about a week. It gets so intense that, at one point, halfway through Prisoners of the Sun, I have a little panic and look down the front of my trousers to see if I've grown any pubes yet.

They're there all right, in all their glory, but soon I'm going to have to do something grown up. I'm not sure what, though. Learn to ride a bike? Read a book without pictures in it? Kiss a girl on the lips? With tongues?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.