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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear