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<strong>From Working-Class Hero to Absolute Disgrace: an Eighties Memoir</strong>

Stephen Foster

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown believed they had obviated the need for any further discussion of class, this breakthrough being a by-product - don't you see? - of their victory over the economic laws of "boom and bust". The availability of cheap credit did indeed act as a social balm for a while, but now we have all been thrown back on the question of who we are and where we stand. Consequently, these two class odysseys, telling how upper-working/lower-middle-class boys gravitated towards the literary life, are timely, as well as being highly readable.

Stephen Foster is a writer of fiction who has also scored two bestsellers with books about his pet dogs. I had accordingly expected something a bit more dewy-eyed than this at times rather brutal account of leaving Stoke to make it in London.

Foster is hardly Dick Whittington. There is very little gaucherie or naivety about his view of the capital, upon which he falls rapaciously in the 1980s. No sooner is he out of Stoke ("a doomed anachronism", to his young mind) than he is driving around London wearing a two-tone suit in "a black Mini with a white vinyl roof and tinted-out windows". Having secured an apprenticeship in hotel management at Claridge's, he, of all the trainees, lands the plum job of serving Clint Eastwood breakfast in bed: "scrambled eggs on rye, freshly squeezed OJ, black coffee, all of which struck me as perfect".

The book, like Foster himself, moves at an amazing pace. He quits the hotel business, but these are the "Loadsamoney" years and he falls into a succession of jobs: as a maker of designer furniture, as a painter and decorator, as a clerk at the Gas Board HQ on the Victoria Embankment - "the kind of place where they serve biscuits on paper plates with clingfilm over them". He takes drugs and has sex in the better postcodes, makes friends with people who have en suite bathrooms, names like Toby ("There are no Tobys in Stoke") and mothers who elide "Darling! How lovely to see you" into "one single, high-pitched multi-syllable: Darholseyoo!". His friends in Stoke, to which he returns periodically, become a dour chorus, noting that he has become the sort of person who doesn't have a carpet on his floor, and taking a sceptical view of his three-quarter-length Italian mohair overcoat: "Not being funny, but you look a bit of a twat."

Yet, behind the brassy front, his guilt and ambivalence about becoming the kind of person who "feels symptoms of physical distress at the sight of decorative motifs with which I disagree", give the book soul and poignancy on top of its sharp humour. Foster concludes that he is middle-class enough to want to be déclassé, and to take a cultural studies course.

Fowler cuts a more reserved figure. His book is an almost Morrissey-like lament, with a similar plangent drollery, for a Sixties childhood spent in a backwater of Greenwich ("You could hear conversation in the next street, and perhaps in the street beyond that"), living in a house presided over by a tyrannical, passive-aggressive, practical father - manager of a gas showroom at Elephant and Castle - who doesn't understand his dreamy son. Fowler's father is "wired differently, like a Continental plug". So the boy retreats into Marvel comics, Hammer Horror films, Ray Bradbury and Conan Doyle: "Even his cheerful scenes felt vaguely gruesome: shopkeepers would drape a Christmas goose around a character's neck like a boa constrictor . . ."

Fowler has both a taste and a flair for the lurid. After Greenwich, his family moves into a ramshackle, lonely house in Abbey Wood called Cyril Villa: "I was reading Gormenghast at the time, and living in it, too." The Fowlers take a holiday in Sheerness, "where the beach was covered in reeking green weed" and where they "sat huddled in a wooden hut watching huge tattooed women eating whelks while their children dropped bricks on stranded jellyfish".)

His mother Kath's main ambition is to have a starter in a restaurant. She encourages her son in his reading, however, and is lovingly evoked in this memoir: "When she stood with her right hand on her hip, she was meant to be obeyed." The book has a well-rounded narrative arc, incidentally, and the father is redeemed by some closing revelations.

Here are the roots of an author who would become romantically committed to the most imaginative sorts of storytelling: crime, horror, humour. Fowler discovered that, by opening a book, he could drift off into this other realm at will, and that he would thereby "be kept safe" - not least from the British class system. I wonder whether the computer-game generation will find the same solace, and the kind of energy that drive Foster and Fowler.

Andrew Martin's novel "The Last Train to Scarborough" is published by Faber & Faber on 3 March (£12.99)

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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.