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 dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism