Man, I’d like to judge the Booker

I have just come back from lunch at St John, the splendid restaurant in Clerkenwell that serves up bone marrow and other bits of animals that the English normally eschew. In the old days, I would not have been able to write a sentence beginning "I have just come back from lunch at St John" without it taking me half an hour of tiresome rewriting. Lunch at St John - or the other favoured venue when I could get publishers and agents to stuff me with food and drink, the Quality Chop House on the Farringdon Road - used to be a luxurious affair. I would tend to get there ten minutes early so I could grab a glass of champagne on the sly.

When my date, or meal ticket, arrived, I would then have a big dry martini. I think a restaurant stands or falls on the quality of its pre-lunch cocktails, don't you? Then there'd be a bottle of something white to go with the first course. Then there'd be a nice bottle of claret to go with the main. This would tend to disappear rather quickly and so we'd have another one. Then there'd be a half bottle of dessert wine to go with the pudding. Then I'd order an absolutely enormous Armagnac to go with a teeny-weeny coffee, arriving home at about six and ready for the pre-dinner bracer.

That is how lunches are meant to go, but tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, and the person buying me lunch is a writer, not an agent or a publisher, so even if I'd been in the mood for a Grande Bouffe-style blowout, I wouldn't have wanted to stiff a novelist for the tab.

This is also a kind of working lunch: Tom McCarthy, Booker favourite and chair of the International Necronautical Society, and I are thrashing out some details about the interview I will be conducting with him on stage at the South Bank on the 27th. By a strange coincidence, I'm also chatting with Howard Jacobson at the Hampstead and Highgate Literary Festival in the same week. I dunno. You wait years to be asked to interview a Booker shortlistee and then two come along at once.

I am normally highly averse to this kind of thing, especially after what happened at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 1990-something, when I interviewed Alex Garland and Nicholas Blincoe in front of 500 people while half covered in mud. But Tom and Howard both requested me specifically, and even though the former's latest got something of a spanking in this very magazine, I am a fan of both authors and it's an honour to oblige them. And Tom himself is delightful company. Conversation between us tends to revolve around Tintin, Samuel Beckett and cricket, which means we could go on ad infinitum.

Dressed for dinner

Later on, I get an email from a publicity person at Jonathan Cape. She says she understands that I had a lovely lunch with Tom McCarthy and invites me to join the Cape team for the Booker Prize dinner. This is, I feel, something of a result. My feelings about the Booker are mixed. Despite being probably the only person in the world who makes what could loosely be called a living from reviewing books, and having done so full-time for 20 years, I find myself a little peeved that I've never been asked to have anything to do with the prize. My official position on this is that having to read 200 contemporary novels in three months is not my idea of fun, and I am glad to have dodged that particular bullet, but in my heart of hearts I know that this is sour grapes and it would be nice to be asked, even if it's just so I can say "No thanks". (The workload of a Booker judge really does sound Stakhanovite.) So, being asked to don the black tie without having to go to the trouble of writing or judging any novels sounds pretty good.

I nonchalantly email the first Mrs Lezard, asking if my DJ is still at the family home.

I know the whole business of dressing for dinner is ridiculous, but it appeals to my inner Bertie Wooster - and besides, I take a smug satisfaction in being able to tie my own bow tie. And, as I contemplate my new-found respectability within the literary world, I find my smug satisfaction soaring to dangerous levels. Even the nagging fear that I may not be able to fit into the DJ doesn't worry me. After all, it is perfectly acceptable these days to go to black-tie bashes in a terrifically daring ordinary lounge suit, thus demonstrating one's devil-may-care attitude to social conventions.
In the end, it turns out that "there has been some confusion" at Cape's end and they don't have a place for me after all. The turnaround has been rather swift, but at least the natural order of things has been restored. I feel less Bertie Wooster, more Charles Pooter.

Although even he managed to get invited to the Mansion House Ball.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

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.