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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All the Premiership teams are competing to see who’s got the biggest stadium

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper.

Here in NW5, where we live noisily and fashionably, we are roughly equidistant from Arsenal and Spurs. We bought the house in 1963 for £5,000, which I mention constantly, to make everyone in the street pig sick. Back in 1963, we lived quietly and unfashionably; in fact, we could easily have been living in Loughton, Essex. Now it’s all changed. As have White Hart Lane and Highbury.

Both grounds are a few metres further away from us than they once were, or they will be when White Hart Lane is finished. The new stadium is a few metres to the north, while the Emirates is a few metres to the east.

Why am I saying metres? Like all football fans, I say a near-miss on goal was inches wide, a slow striker is a yard off his pace, and a ball player can turn on a sixpence. That’s more like it.

White Hart Lane, when finished, will hold 61,000 – a thousand more than the Emirates, har har. Meanwhile, Man City is still expanding, and will also hold about 60,000 by the time Pep Guardiola is into his stride. Chelsea will be next, when they get themselves sorted. So will Liverpool.

Man United’s Old Trafford can now hold over 75,000. Fair makes you proud to be alive at this time and enjoying the wonders of the Prem.

Then, of course, we have the New Wembley, architecturally wonderful, striking and stunning, a beacon of beauty for miles around. As they all are, these brave new stadiums. (No one says “stadia” in real life.)

The old stadiums, built between the wars, many of them by the Scottish architect Archibald Leitch (1865-1939), were also seen as wonders of the time, and all of them held far more than their modern counterparts. The record crowd at White Hart Lane was in 1938, when 75,038 came to see Spurs play Sunderland. Arsenal’s record at Highbury was also against Sunderland – in 1935, with 73,295. Wembley, which today can hold 90,000, had an official figure of 126,000 for the first Cup Final in 1923, but the true figure was at least 150,000, because so many broke in.

Back in 1901, when the Cup Final was held at Crystal Palace between Spurs and Sheffield United, there was a crowd of 110,820. Looking at old photos of the Crystal Palace finals, a lot of the ground seems to have been a grassy mound. Hard to believe fans could see.

Between the wars, thanks to Leitch, big clubs did have proper covered stands. Most fans stood on huge open concrete terraces, which remained till the 1990s. There were metal barriers, which were supposed to hold back sudden surges, but rarely did, so if you were caught in a surge, you were swept away or you fell over. Kids were hoisted over the adults’ heads and plonked at the front.

Getting refreshments was almost impossible, unless you caught the eye of a peanut seller who’d lob you a paper bag of Percy Dalton’s. Getting out for a pee was just as hard. You often came home with the back of your trousers soaked.

I used to be an expert on crowds as a lad. Rubbish on identifying a Spitfire from a Hurricane, but shit hot on match gates at Hampden Park and Ibrox. Answer: well over 100,000. Today’s new stadiums will never hold as many, but will cost trillions more. The money is coming from the £8bn that the Prem is getting from TV for three years.

You’d imagine that, with all this money flooding in, the clubs would be kinder to their fans, but no, they’re lashing out, and not just on new stadiums, but players and wages, directors and agents. Hence, so they say, they are having to put up ticket prices, causing protest campaigns at Arsenal and Liverpool. Arsène at Arsenal has admitted that he couldn’t afford to buy while the Emirates was being built. Pochettino is saying much the same at Spurs.

It’s not just a financial, but a macho thing – the big clubs want to show off that they have a whopper. In the end, only rich fans will be able to attend these supergrounds. Chelsea plans to have a private swimming pool under each new box, plus a wine cellar. Just like our street, really . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle