In bread with my doner

I often have a kebab, though not as often as I might. In my part of the world - and along countless other urban arterial roads the length and breadth of the land - you can proceed from one samey shopping parade to the next, your forward movement registered only by the thinning and thickening of the stylised doner kebabs depicted on the signs vertically mounted above fast-food joints. What is it about the kebab? And more to the point - if you'll forgive the pun - what is it about the Turkish community, which has percolated into this country with scarcely a perturbation of the body politic?

True, from time to time, there is talk of Cyprus, or Armenia, or a multimillion-pound heroin bust - but, on the whole, all we see of the Turks among us are these lumps of compressed, ground meat greasily adhering to shopfronts. Moreover, the subtle occupation of the takeaway niche formerly occupied by fish-and-chip shops is equally unregarded. After all, a Turkish establishment will offer fish, chips, pies and kebabs - so what's not to like?

As I say, I often have a kebab; I had one in Bexhill-on-Sea the other evening, on spying a likely establishment en route to the station. My train was due in about 15 minutes, so I had to make a decision: should I have the doner kebab (a nasty gustatory experience, its pinky-grey strips of meat visibly fizzing with bacteria) or the shish (often surprisingly good, the meat charcoal-grilled and succulent). I stress: the kebab choice is never to do with a marginal unit of cost - at most there's a quid's difference between the two - but a marginal unit of time.


There's something about choosing the shish that brings out the artiste in the average kebab-joint operative. Yes, he will assure you that it will only take a few minutes but, once he's begun barbecuing, he becomes subject to some strange atavism. Once more, he is a sheep herder, high on the Anatolian plateau. In his mind's eye, he crouches, eyes narrowed, to spear the precious lamb chunks on his wickedly sharpened dagger. The winds howl all around, the wolves join in, the dogs yowl, the sheep "mmmaa-aaa-aaa" in dread anticipation. Outside, the yoof of Bexhill-on-Sea may be swigging Bacardi Breezers and talking arse, but inside the kebab shop it's a mystic communion between man and fire of Zoroastrian significance. Or so I thought, as the minutes ticked away and I cursed myself for not having risked the doner: "Um, I really do have a train to catch," I remonstrated with the Turk as he fiddled with his meaty spillikins. "I know, I know," he shot back, "but you can't have these underdone." No, indeed - an underdone shish kebab would be as bad as . . . well, as bad as a doner kebab.

Needless to say, I made the train and sat in the plastic, aseptic interior as it toggled its way through Collington, Cooden Beach and Pevensey and Westham. I unwrapped the hot buttock of the kebab from its outerwear of off-white paper, and then its underwear of grey-greasy paper. Naturally, the kebab man had asked if I wanted salad - and I had consented to this. Of course, he had offered sauce - and to this, I had also agreed.

A kebab stuffed to the seams should only be attempted with an armoury of cutlery and a full roll of quilted kitchen roll to hand - but I had neither. Within seconds, the tabletop was bedizened with chunks of tomato, onion and meat, with dollops of sauce and juice.

Plenty more shish in the sea

It was a very good kebab - and I was in hog-eat-sheep heaven. Chomping on, I meditated on the bizarre fact that oblong countries invariably have bad human rights records - Turkey, of course, but also Israel/Palestine (with the nasty sub-oblongs of Gaza and the West Bank), to say nothing of Egypt, Nepal and Saudi Arabia. There must be something about the rectilinear that does it to the collective unconscious of a nation, making its inhabitants feel as if they're all in jail together, and so they divide up into sadistic guards and cowering inmates . . .

The kebab was finished. It had taken me so long to get through £3.95 of food that the train was trundling through the outer suburbs of London. I looked down from the embanked line on the rivers of halogen light and the knots of the inebriated gathered outside late-night takeaways. It was with something like a thrill that I picked out the first, tapering oblong of a stylised doner kebab on a lit-up sign. Ah! It would be good to smell the greasy kebabs of home.

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 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask

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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.