Show Hide image

Another dirty book


Charlotte Roche

<em>Fourth Estate, 229pp, £12.99</em>

A warning: do not, as I did, start reading this book in your lunch break. The writer introduces the protagonist's haemorrhoids in the very first sentence, and by the second page some lucky man has his nose in them ("I call this position 'stuff your face'"). The gross-out genre, happily bestowed upon us by the Farrelly brothers and Chuck Palahniuk, has a new star in Charlotte Roche, an elfin, English-born, German-bred television presenter whose fictional debut, Wetlands, has sold half a million copies since its publication in Germany last year. It is interesting to see how differently this kind of subject matter is received when it is written by and/or about a woman. While Palahniuk and the Farrellys are filed under "comedy", the jacket of the English translation of Wetlands announces that this novel has the "feminist agenda of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch".

Such a reception in itself lends weight to the book - it is clearly still political, rather than funny, for a woman to write about shit, piss, slime and other entertaining bodily functions. But the focus on gender diverts attention from what Wetlands actually does well: it is a sharply written, taboo-busting black comedy, both gross and engrossing. If you are looking for a manifesto for 21st-century feminism, on the other hand, you will be disappointed.

The novel is set in a proctology ward (or "ass unit") where 18-year-old Helen Memel has been admitted, following an unfortunate accident while shaving her bum. (Roche said in a recent interview that the book had originally been conceived as a non-fiction tirade against hair removal. She also maintained that bum-shaving is a common practice among females. At the risk of giving away far too much information, I have to ask - really?) In between the various agonising medical interventions to which she is subjected by the sinister Dr Notz, she flirts with a male nurse, ponders her colourful sex life and lets readers in on some of her choicest grooming habits. "Hygiene's not a major concern of mine," she announces, and she's not kidding: from deliberately wiping her "lady fingers" on the seats in public toilets to fashioning her own tampons from whatever happens to be lying around, this girl is Florence Nightingale's worst nightmare.

I can't help but find it depressing that Helen has been understood as some kind of feminist icon. Far from being liberated, she is imprisoned by her preoccupations with sex, dirt, blood and hair. She has rebelled against her prim-and-proper mother's obsessive cleanliness ("Her dying thought at the scene of an accident would be: How long have I been wearing these panties?"), only to construct her own set of obsessions, many of which are more damaging to herself and to those around her. She is promiscuous and sexually adventurous - we are treated to several pages on her preparations for anal sex - but surely we have progressed beyond mistaking these for sexual empowerment? Roche makes the point neatly by allowing Helen to be "rescued" in traditional knight-on-a-white-horse fashion by Robin, the male nurse.

There is an interesting argument to be made against hygiene fascism, and many times during the course of her narrative Helen hits the target: "If you find cocks, cum or smegma disgusting you might as well forget about sex"; "What [well-kept women] don't know: the more effort they put into these little details, the more uptight they seem . . . those type of women would never let themselves get all messy fucking". However, after 229 pages in her company, I was just as tired of the tyranny of uncleanliness, and probably more drawn to obsessive-compulsive hand-washing than ever before.

None of these is a criticism of Helen as a character. She is charismatic and full of contradictions: obsessed with mascara and curling her eyelashes but pathologically opposed to washing her face; proud of her pussy yet ashamed of her ass; strong and independent-minded, but still reliant on men to bolster her self-esteem. For all her tough talk she is, by her own admission, "neurotic, deranged and depressed", the product of a broken home and a suicidal mother. Wetlands, in the tradition of Plath's The Bell Jar, is a remarkable novel about mental illness that has been mistaken for feminist literature.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Revolution 2009

Show Hide image

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.