Just Kids

Two whip-thin creatures, blinking into the sunlight for an old man on the boardwalk, smile softly from the cover of this moving memoir. Taken at the Coney Island funfair in 1969, the picture shows Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, a pair of 22-year-old lovers celebrating two years together.
“It was our good fortune that this moment in time was frozen in a box camera," Smith writes. "It was our first real New York portrait. Who we were."

Thus her account of a relationship between two remarkable artists stems, rather fittingly, from a photograph. The girl from New Jersey who would fuse poetry with rock'n'roll and the lapsed Catholic boy who became a feted, controversial photographer met by chance shortly after Smith arrived in New York on a bus in 1967. They quickly became lovers, and each other's muse, breaking up only when Mapplethorpe came to terms with his homosexuality.

Their intense kinship survived, however, and before Mapplethorpe's death in 1989, Smith promised that one day she would tell their story. That it has taken her 21 years to do so suggests quite how demanding and wrenching the task must have been.

But as Just Kids whirrs magically into life, one worries that it is merely an exercise in myth-making. It starts with Puccini's Tosca singing an aria about love and art as Smith finds out about the death of her soulmate. Then we feel the full blast of her overwrought prose. She writes of her first child, given up for adoption when Smith was still a teenager, as having been "born on the anniversary of the bombing of Guernica". A curtain hung by Mapplethorpe in their first flat "harmonised with my own gypsy elements", while Horses, the 1975 album that made Smith's name - and Mapplethorpe's reputation, thanks to the shot of his ex on the sleeve - is not a record, but an "aural sword sheathed with Robert's image".

Smith depicts the pair as the Big Apple's answer to Rimbaud and Verlaine, the Fates bringing them full purses and silk-laced shoes, as they penny-pinch for food and deal with lice on the pillow. They are, one senses, a couple of whom you could tire very quickly. But her writing becomes warmer as their story progresses, narrating her and Mapplethorpe's extraordinary journey from a tiny flat in Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel, and encounters with some of the period's countercultural luminaries.

We watch Smith meeting Jimi Hendrix on a club stairwell and eliciting his sympathy when she is too "chicken" to go in (a memory that adds a new layer of meaning to her version of Hendrix's "Hey Joe"). Asked to fake shooting up heroin for a friend's artwork, she reacts with horror - her only brush with drugs, up to that point, having been a spiked drink. Her small-town mind also fails to see through Mapplethorpe's obsessions with sailors and men in tight leather, which ought to have suggested interests outside the couple's bed. But as it reveals her more innocent side, this fierce girl's writing gains a deeper power.

She also recognises the arrogance of youth - especially when she remembers being present as Kris Kristofferson played "Me and Bobby McGee" to Janis Joplin for the first time, in a room littered with bottles of Southern Comfort. Back then, she was "so young and preoccupied with my own thoughts that I hardly recognised them as moments" - an especially telling insight into Smith's character.

As time winds on, she and Mapplethorpe part as lovers but continue to share a loft, and the cast list keeps growing. Smith touches on relationships with the playwright Sam Shepard and the poet Jim Carroll, her first meeting with her mentor Allen Ginsberg - who initially assumes that she is a beautiful boy - and her friendship with Lenny Kaye, with whom she performed her debut poetry evening in 1971, and who later gave the Patti Smith Group its musical bedrock. These relationships are gently brushed over, however: Mapplethorpe's shadow looms too large for Smith to dwell long among other ghosts.

After all, Just Kids has a very different focus from other stories about rock stars and their lives before they became famous, such as Bob Dylan's Chronicles or Nowhere Boy, the film about John Lennon's adolescence. This is essentially a love story, and a reminder that the deepest relationships need not have perfect resolutions.

“We said farewell and I left his room," she concludes, ending the book as she began it, with the death of the man who gave her life. To Smith, Mapplethorpe still looked like "a sleeping youth cloaked in light", and this is how she wants us to remember him. "Of all your work," she tells him, as she tells us, "you are still your most beautiful."

Just Kids
Patti Smith
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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.