I want to be a camera

Listening is more important for a writer than the active imposition of "a greater truth".

One of the many novels I read, when young and impressionable, was Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin. It's one of his Berlin stories, immortalised in the minds of men of a certain age by the image of Liza Minnelli straddling a chair in the film derived from them, "Cabaret". That life is a cabaret, old chum, is something I'm sure Johann Hari considered all too true last week.

I'm almost ashamed to admit that the reason I remember the book more powerfully than I do any of his other works, or even Liza Minnelli on the chair, is that its first page contains the line "I am a camera". Twenty-five years at least passed between my reading that novel, and this -- that which you see before you now -- an attempt to craft a career from words. I am here, you are reading this today, because I won a prize, called the Orwell Prize (I won it for my blogging on Conservative Home). The prize is awarded to the person who has "done most to turn political writing into an art", in the words of the people who award it. I'll come back to that reference to "art" in a moment.

It is still not possible for me to describe myself as a "writer". I am sure many of you will agree. I hope you take comfort that I cannot bring myself to even use that word inside my own head. I'm just a statistician, mildly obsessed with swimming, who sometimes writes things down.

I think I write because I am perplexed by most of the human beings around me (residual Only Child psychology), so I listen to what they say to one another, I listen to the words they use, and without always succeeding, I try not to theorise about why I'm hearing or seeing those things; and thus my fixation on that Christopher Isherwood novel. I want to be a camera. I am often puzzled by a dream, in the words of the beautiful song, and this bewilderment carries over to the snatches of disconnected words I hear around me every day. What are those patches of overheard conversations most like? They are dreams, the dreams of other people.

That George Orwell also inspires me is hardly a shock; he's a hero to many Tories because he refused to back down in his opposition to totalitarianism, simply because it was sometimes prefixed with the adjective "socialist". The real reason he interests me, though, is related to the writing-as-camera idea; that and the clear love he evinced in his writings for the English working class. It is so easy to scorn this love, to write it off as an affectation. For a homosexual man, of course, the confounding is multiplied -- my unchecked admiration for the men who build our roads, our houses, is not unaffected by my aesthetic sense, and I am aware of that. But the company of such men provides the chance to hear honesty in speech. I think there is more honesty to be found in a scuzzy East End pub on a Friday evening than in any boardroom or editorial office or writer's garret in the land. Nothing is dressed up, or hidden, for the sake of a "greater truth". It is this reason why the left is so angry with the working-class, and in government devoted such political energy into destroying their leisure environments. Working men remain -- just -- immune to the imprecations to speak only acceptable, liberal "truths".

So: I should be -- I am -- aghast at Johann Hari's actions: he "interviewed" people by meeting with them, and then (after the interviews, when he was writing them up), he ascribed direct quotations (of the "And then he said...." form) into the mouths of his interviewees. Unfortunately, regrettably, many of his interviewees had not used those words when speaking with Mr Hari. He lifted them from books, articles they had written. He did so in order to illustrate "their greater truth". Both the Tory and the empiricist in me have a massive problem with that.

But there remains, even for the person who wants only to record what is said around him, an element of art. And this is the only iota of sympathy I have for Mr Hari. I do write down what I hear, usually within seconds of hearing it. But could I take the witness stand, and swear on my life that I have written a totally verbatim transcript? Let me try it now. It is 10pm, I am in the pub closest to our flat, and I am hearing:

- No but the reason
- I did sell it
- what a lovely dog! he's smiling!
- you work abroad in the first place

Even that patch wasn't quite in real time -- my fingers won't go that fast. This is where the "art" (specified in the prize) might come in. The art is not in the "bigger truth". You deconvolve the multiple inputs into single-sensed passages, and add notes of scene-setting, and your own psychological conclusion:

- "I did sell it [my car]. The reason is that there's no point in going to work abroad if we're going to hold onto the life we've got here."
His girlfriend is bored. I feel strongly and at once that she does not want to move abroad, and that it is far from the first time they have had this conversation. Her gaze has moved from him, onto the dog that's been lurking under their table:
- "Oh, what a beautiful dog! Look, he's smiling!"
The man will move to Spain. His woman will remain behind.

The "art", if there be any art here at all, lies in the little truth. The straining to breaking point of a relationship on its last legs, the desperate displacement activity ("Oh, what a beautiful dog!") tell me, anyway, more about the life of that couple than any "greater" truth I might try to strap onto the scene, to persuade a reader that my loudly proclaimed worldview is the one worth supporting. I might "only" be describing an anonymous couple, but I think the principle would be the same in any situation.

My fundamental dogma is that words are real things, with power, in the Universe. Their power terrifies me, actually: they deserve respect. But then I'm not a writer. I just try to write things down.



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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.