Nigel Farage stares despondently at a submerged quad bike. Photo: Getty
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J G Ballard’s Shepperton is under water – so turn on your mind, relax and float upstream

Will Self on the floods.

On the cover of the Daily Mail the other day, there was an aerial photograph of the Thameside town of Shepperton, its achingly dull semis and prosaic garage forecourts submerged in the muddy brown effluvium. The editor of the New Statesman emailed me: “Your pal Jim wouldn’t have been surprised.” This reference to the late J G Ballard, for many years Shepperton’s most notorious resident, got me thinking about the strange conceptual flotsam that the current deluges are dumping on the floodplain of our collective psyche.

Ballard’s fiction brought into sharp relief many of the jagged realities submerged beneath our comforting sense of homeliness. His world was at once relentlessly anthropic – a sodium-lit landscape of motorway fly­overs and concretised modernism – and subject to largely inexplicable environmental disasters. In his novels and stories, he drowned the world, parched it, crystallised it and blew it to pieces with a wind from nowhere. Neither the riverside residents of Wraysbury nor the seafront ones of Aberystwyth would find his oeuvre remotely escapist at the moment.

Ballard said of these odd juxtapositions between the banal and the extreme that they, in part, reflected the impact of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, which he had witnessed as a child. Growing up in the comfortable European concession, the son of a wealthy manufacturer, Ballard learned from the war that, “Reality as we mostly perceive it is a social construct”; the skull always lies beneath the skin, whether it’s the human capacity for evil or the weather’s for wanton destruction. You would have to have a very stony heart not to sympathise with the victims of the current flooding: encouraged by successive governments and by uncritical neoliberalism to place their faith and their savings in bricks and mortar, they now have to face the truth that a property bubble won’t keep them afloat.

Ballard found in the landscape around Shepperton strange echoes of the Shanghai of his childhood. In place of the flooded paddy fields, there were the vast reservoirs that rear up out of Staines Moor to the west of Heathrow Airport. If you walk from Shepperton to Heathrow – which I have done, partly in homage to Ballard – you pick your way between the grassy flanks of these leviathans, oddly conscious that like a unitary tribe of Israel you are in a man-made defile created in an artificial sea held in suspension above your head. Then, when your flight takes off, you see these acres of drinking-water-in-waiting glistening beneath you, with the Thames worming alongside, a natural flourish signed beneath the marks of man.

Our geography, for all that we valorise “areas of outstanding natural beauty”, is overwhelmingly a human construct: we understand places in terms of the economic imperatives associated with them. We drive to work, or to buy stuff, or to paid-for leisure activities – even our relationships are mediated by mileage costs and time constraints. And Britain, being the first industrialised nation and a smallish land mass to boot, bears the impress of the human foot more heavily than almost anywhere else. Even in the middle of Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highlands, you are surrounded by a wilderness that is the product of Iron Age clearance.

The British unconscious registers this, while our daily go-round is tightly circumscribed by concrete and clay brick; so is it any wonder that when Bide-a-Wee gets resolutely pissed on, its inhabitants look to Cameron, that anagrammatic Cnut, to stem the tide? The practice of psychogeography owes its origins to the French surrealists and after them was crystallised by the situationists; both these quasi-Marxist groupuscules looked to the dérive – or aimless drift – through the city as a means of freeing the individual from the physical constraints imposed on her by the nexus of late capitalism. I should imagine the last thing the washed-out householders of Surrey, Berkshire, Somerset, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire et al want to do is drift anywhere but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from going against the prevailing current. To undertake psychogeography is to experience place in a transcendent and unbounded way – to feel the reality of things peeling from the social construction of location, location, location.

In the months to come, I will be writing columns that recount my psychogeographic practice – which I took up in my forties when I began to find this anthropic home of ours almost suffocating in its claustrophobia. Put another way, I could no longer bear to look at the three plaster ducks flying on the wall – I wanted to experience animated ones, paddling in a real brook. But this is not about nature worship – it is about resiling from the dominant consumerist culture that makes a place just a fungible commodity to be traded in the global market: you’ve done Prague, why not have a bit of Bratislava?

No doubt in a few weeks Shepperton will be high and dry once more but perhaps its residents’ biblical experience will lead them to seek out the sort of gnosis the one-time inhabitant of 36 Old Charlton Road excelled in producing. The art of living to the full consists not in securing a place for your home in this ever-inconstant and turbulent world, but in being at home in it even when the apocalyptic horsemen are stabled next door.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

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 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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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.