Animal rescue: but in this case it was dog that saved master, says John Dolan. Photo: Marcus Peel
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How one man escaped homelessness through drawing – and his bull terrier muse

John Dolan spent almost two decades in the “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. 

John Dolan seemed restless. He paced up and down the gallery, occasionally darting outside or disappearing downstairs without warning. At times I thought he might have settled, as he perched on a windowsill or lit another cigarette, but then he would be off again with George, his Staffordshire bull terrier, following patiently behind and me trying to keep my Dictaphone in range.

It wasn’t surprising that John was feeling on edge. He had just over a week to complete as many as 500 drawings of George before the launch of his exhibition on 16 July. The plan is that more than 1,000 sketches will cover every inch of wall at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, east London. The installation will be a fitting tribute to an animal Dolan says turned his life around. “It was all down to the dog,” he reminded me several times.

Dolan, who is now 43, spent almost two decades in what he describes as a “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. Caring for the dog gave him a new sense of purpose and a reason for staying out of jail. He started to draw, something he hadn’t done since school. The first picture he sold was of George, for £20.

With time, the pair became a familiar fixture on Shoreditch High Street. John drew street scenes and sold the pictures for £20 or so. When passers-by were abusive, George would bark at them as John had trained him to do. He showed me their secret signal: he pointed his finger and George yelped. “Then I’d say, ‘I’ve never seen the dog behave like that before. You’d better step away.’ ”

In 2011, the publishers of Shoreditch Unbound asked if they could print some of John’s work in their book, which celebrates East End cultural life. Other commissions followed, and after meeting Richard Howard-Griffin (who runs the Howard Griffin Gallery) he began collaborating with high-profile street artists including Stik, Thierry Noir and ROA. In 2013, he held his first solo exhibition at the Howard Griffin, where he sold some of his drawings for more than £2,000 – an impressive rate of inflation for any artist.

Predictably, a book deal ensued. Discussing his life with a ghostwriter was “like therapy”, he says. But John and George: the Dog Who Changed My Life is too sappy for me. I prefer his direct storytelling, which veers wildly from soaring self-confidence – “I thought I’m a naturally gifted artist so I might see if people wanted to buy my art . . . within a few months I was published alongside Tracey Emin” – to heartbreaking, matter-of-fact descriptions of living with mental illness and addiction.

Dolan is still adjusting to his new life. A few days before we met, he’d joined a gym. He is reducing his methadone dose, because he needs to be clean to travel to Los Angeles for his first US exhibition later this year. Although newly reunited with his family, he felt unable to spend Christmas with them. “I’ve been out of the system for so long,” he said.

Sometimes you can still see John sketching on his old patch of pavement in Shoreditch. He was trying not to sell any more drawings of George before the show, but on occasion, if he felt “sympathy” for someone, he might relent. (I suspect this happens often, because he insisted that I take one home.)

Leafing through some of his ink drawings of landscapes, I told him I wasn’t entirely convinced by his story. Surely his artistic talent – and not George – is the reason for his success?

“Nah, if it weren’t for the dog I wouldn’t have picked up the pen.” And then he was off, maybe for another cigarette, or to sketch a few hundred more Georges before bed. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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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.