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Will Self: Is there nowhere I can escape the tyranny of muzak?

All right-listening folk despise this piped sonic sewage.

Sitting in the snug bar-cum-restaurant of Tarr Steps Farm – a monstrously comfy little boutique establishment in the Exmoor National Park – I looked out over the wooded valley. I felt the stress of the metropolitan go-round slacken in my shoulders. My wife, bless her, observed at this point quite how strange it was that even an establishment of this type, with this sort of clientele – wealthy, foodie, moderately outdoorsy – still had a loop of soft rock music playing in the background in its public areas.

I had become so relaxed that for once I hadn’t even noticed the muzak (a term, which, up until 2009 when the company Muzak Holdings filed for bankruptcy, should always have been written with a capital “M” and accompanied by a ®, since it was the coinage of one George Squier, who took out the patents for ambient music systems in the early 1920s) but once I registered that Foreigner, or some other equally tedious combo, was perturbing the air with their guitars, my breakfast – hitherto irenic – was entirely ruined.

Like all right-listening folk I am an implacable enemy of all muzak. True, I’m not in the position of those factory workers for whom muzak in the 1940s and 1950s constituted a sort of mind-control – or “stimulus progression” as it was chillingly, Pavlovianly termed – designed to move their tasks forward with its insistent and carefully calibrated tempo, while lulling them into the monotony of their tasks with its equally bland and Lethe-like melodies.

However, even in modern Britain we of the whitish collars are still subject to a form of this. I travel for work and there doesn’t seem to be a Travelodge or Holiday Inn Express the length of the land that doesn’t come equipped with its own piped sonic sewage, which is surely at least partially designed to send the punters quickly on their way, to generate more “growth”.

I remember finding myself in one such establishment in Norwich – eating breakfast, natch – when I became insistently aware of some particularly crap muzak and upon looking up saw the speaker cabinet immediately above my head, trailing some tempting wires. I stood up on my chair and detached them – bingo! silence (except for the mastication of my fellows) fell like a 30-tog duvet across the room. Unfortunately, a maintenance man hove into view, opened a stepladder and reinserted the jack plugs. I waited until he’d retreated, then got back up on my chair and was about to commit this dreadful crime against late capitalism for the second time, when he leapt out at me from behind a pillar and near-screamed: “Don’t you move!”

I thought I was about to be dragged away to some inhuman reconditioning unit, where, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, I would be subjected to muzak until I learned to love it. But this didn’t happen, because I was in just such a unit already.

True, there was a backlash against the hateful “elevator music” in the 1960s but those natures that abhor a sonic vacuum outflanked this effortlessly by in the one ear incorporating the pop hits of the day into their go-round and in the other devising something they termed “audio architecture”: muzak still more cunningly fashioned to sink below the level of ordinary consciousness, while yet retaining its ability to influence. The success of these stratagems can only be gauged by just how little mass objection there is to the fact that nary a nook nor cranny of the built environment remains unsullied by these sound smirches.

I found myself a while back eating dinner in the trendy restaurant at Kings Place, which, among other functions are the Guardian’s fancy new premises. My dining companions were a trio of my late father’s friends, who taken together had a collective age of over 270. These feisty nonagenarians – whose sparky conversation, wit and general insouciance in the face of egregious modernity would put a similar group half their age to shame – showed no animus towards the muzak playing, despite one of them being very hard of hearing.

I, however, am made of less stoical stuff and bearded the waitress, explaining that since we were the only diners and we didn’t want to listen to The Four Seasons, perhaps she could turn the fucking noise off! She looked at me quizzically and replied – as if this definitively settled the matter – “But this is a restaurant.” The obvious implication was that even when all human life is extinct on this planet, there will remain buildings that continue to resound with Barber’s Adagio or indeed Lou Gramm warbling, “I wanna know what love is . . . !”


Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

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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.