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The stuff of life

19 July 2013


IONESCO's play Le Roi se meurt captures it brilliantly. As the Everyman approaches his end, the individual - ruler of his own little universe - is divested of all he possesses, until he stands naked and alone. But this is not just some symbolic disrobing. At some time or other, all of us will have to make choices about the stuff we have accumulated over the decades; and Between the Ears: Belongings (Radio 3, Saturday, first broadcast November 2012) charted some responses beautifully and movingly.

There is the childlike Mike, who, as the result of a stroke, must now move to a bungalow and leave much of his clobber behind. "Keep . . . keep . . . keep," he demands, as each cherished piece is presented to him; and we occasionally hear the plaintive suggestion of his carer: "Should we put it as a maybe?"

Nina, moving to a retirement flat, claims that possessions are unimportant to her; while Patricia goes through the indignity of having her prized heirlooms judged more or less valueless by the heartless auction process.

It is a traumatic time for all concerned. No wonder few politicians want to contemplate more elderly people being forced to downsize. Yet a rationalisation of property taxes in this country would be an obvious move, Paul Johnson argued in Analysis: They're coming for your money (Radio 4, Monday), were it not for the political fallout.

Professor Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, somewhat depressingly has concluded that we are all going to be paying a lot more tax in the future. The question is: in what form?

I can't say that programmes about tax are bread-and-butter listening for me, although, as a result of Professor Johnson's admirably clear presentation, I now know why bread and butter are not VAT-able products.

He used the standard journalists' trick of introducing us to "an ordinary family", and asked how taxes might impinge on their lives. Chris and Louise are from Norfolk, and are ordinary. They make an ordinary amount of money, and Chris is an ordinary builder. So how did Professor Johnson find them? In a register of ordinary couples? Or did Chris build an extension on to his mansion, and get paid cash-in-hand?

These are fanciful speculations, of course; but these characters are dangled in front of us, only to be cruelly withdrawn once the point has been made about VAT on fuel, inheritance tax, or fiscal drag. And what of Chris's poor old mother, stuck up in Cromer; what is to become of her?

The simple answer to our worries is, of course: make the fat cats pay. But it is in the nature of business to avoid tax and maxi-mise profits. The ethics of business was the subject of a Radio 3 special, Free Thinking in the Summer (Wednesday of last week), which, judging by the applause at the live event, did not grab the attention of the people of York as much as the producers might have wanted.

Adrian Wooldridge, of The Economist, and Lucy Siegle, of The Guardian, did their best to stoke the flames, but there was too much sense being spoken around the table for any real conflagration.

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