An HRMC tax letter. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
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If you leave it long enough without doing your taxes, a really nice lady comes round to do them for you

I have now got the stage where I am convinced that if I open the latest HMRC-stamped envelope, a Balrog will jump out.

I am lying in bed, as is my habit these days, reading a good book and eating a packet of Frazzles (breakfast of champions, and still only 39p), when I feel a tremor in the air. A shudder seems to go through the Hovel, as if some great event has taken place, like the Harrowing of Hell, or the casting of the One Ring into Mount Doom. I put down my Frazzles and tiptoe downstairs to see what has happened.

And there, just below the letter box – in an area that’s normally strewn with cards from minicab firms, leaflets from restaurants that deliver, magazines full of wank for rich people, but which for some reason is now miraculously free of all such litter – lies a single white envelope with my name printed behind the plastic window, and, in handwritten letters small and neat: “Urgent. By hand”.

I know what this is. These days I know pretty much what is going to be in any envelope; I can even make a good guess as to the quality of a novel sent to me for review without opening the jiffy bag. Indeed, it is one of my party tricks. Anyway, this seemingly innocent letter is, I know without opening it, a communication from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, inviting me to get in touch with them, or face the consequences.

I open the envelope, and lo, this is exactly what the letter says. The consequences are almost medieval in their severity. It also gives me a mobile-phone number to ring and the name of the lady (who, unusually for these times, signs herself as a “Miss”) who will, presumably, answer it. I steel my nerves, and ring the number, giving my name. There is a meaningful silence at the other end, into which I say: “Miss ——? You have my full attention.”

HMRC has been trying to get my attention for some time now, and the trickle of envelopes has turned into a flood, reminiscent of that scene in Harry Potter when all those letters from Hogwarts fly into the house of the Dursleys. The problem is that, when it comes to filling in income-tax forms, my nerve fails. No one looks forward to them, but writers hate and fear them more than anyone else, not because they are against the idea of a welfare state subsidised by revenue, but because . . . actually, I’m not sure why. Just take it from me that they do.

However, while almost all of us knuckle under and, at the last possible moment, pull an all-nighter and arrive at HMRC head office with a crumpled, tear-stained but still just about serviceable document on the stroke of the deadline (we can’t afford accountants), I just haven’t for some time now. It’s a simple matter of snowballing terror: you feel terrible not having opened the first envelope, terrified for not opening the second because it will contain a reprimand for not having opened the first, and so on; I have now got the stage where, if I may extend the Tolkien theme from the beginning of this column, I am convinced that if I open the latest HMRC-stamped envelope, a Balrog will jump out.

Well, as it turns out, not only is Miss —— not a Balrog, she even laughs when I say she has my full attention, and I do not think I have heard a more welcome laugh in my life. It indicates the presence of humanity. She suggests she comes round to discuss my affairs. A home visit! It is like an episode of Dr Kildare. She suggests 8am on Monday, which makes me revise my assessment of her humanity, but then she agrees to 10am.

One thing on which my conscience is clear is that I am not hiding anything from the tax people, and even a brief peek around the door of the Hovel will convince even the most sceptical of inspectors that it is only incompetence, deep-seated psychological problems and dimwittery that have prevented me from filling in a tax return, as opposed to dishonesty or greed. After we’ve gone through my income and expenditure, she frowns at her laptop and makes a face that suggests she is wondering how, in the words of a friend of a friend, she is going to be able to pluck feathers from a toad. We eventually agree on a monthly sum that I can at least start with, to show willing.

The interesting thing is that the whole process is liberating: a huge weight off my back. I must say that Miss —— is excellent at her job. She laughs at my jokes, but is no-nonsense when it comes to the numbers and rules bits of it. And when I add, “Do you believe me?” after I say I’m not hiding a stash of gold bullion in my bedroom, she says, “Yes.”

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 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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