I’m a receipt offender

At King's Cross, starving and honour-bound never to buy anything from Burger King ever again (see my column from a few weeks ago), I go to the West Country Pasty Company stall and buy a sausage roll.

My issue is not so much with the product itself, filled with some kind of vaguely sausagey molten goop, but with the way that, as part of the transaction, the vendor - himself possessed of impeccable manners and winning cheeriness - keeps trying to hand me a receipt with my change.

As English is not his first or possibly even second language, it is hard to communicate my purpose to him as effectively as I would like, and a kind
of stately but increasingly frantic hand dance ensues as I try to extricate the 40p change from his hand without taking the accompanying receipt for £1.60, itself about the size of one of the old white £5 notes, only not as valuable or beautiful.

It is very annoying, this business of being handed a receipt for every single transaction, however footling and non-tax-deductible. One boggles at the kind of circumstances in which the retention of a receipt from WHSmith for a Double Decker or a Coke would in any way be useful, unless it were to prove to someone that when it comes to mark-ups for consumer goods, WHSmith could teach the sommeliers of high-end restaurants a thing or two.

But no. Instead, one is handed this useless piece of paper along with one's change, for no discernible reason. I suppose the proof of purchase might come in handy if one were chased down the street by a store detective, but my shoplifting days ended in 1974 after a close shave with a handful of Fruit Salad chews, so my conscience about this kind of thing has been whistle-clean for nearly four decades.

After some reflection, I decide to blame Thatcher. Again. It is to her that we can attribute the rise of all the miserable specimens who equate life
with sums of money. What arrogance it is, after all, to imagine that clogging up our wallets and pockets with these scraps is going to enhance our worlds. And how many of us, just to avoid making a fuss or looking like the kind of person who lets this kind of thing bother him, meekly accept this stuff and then let it fester, unwanted and forgotten, in our trouser pockets until it is too late and we've done a laundry without removing them, and all our clothes are covered in tiny bits of damp paper.

Tax haven

The funny thing is, I have recently become convinced about the good sense in keeping hold of the right kind of receipts. The reasons why, I will keep under my hat until my accountant and, indeed, HMRC have said that I can break my silence without compromising myself, but the upshot is that I have been spending my evenings sorting my accounts from April 2007 until the present.

This isn't my idea of a groovy night in, but it is not quite so balls-aching as I thought it was going to be. Writers, on the whole, are antithetical to the idea of doing accounts, and consider themselves gay, carefree spirits who flutter through life caring only for art and beauty. We are also not wild about our tax money ending up paying for an illegal war or rolled up a banker's nostril, but do concede that some, for the time being at least, ends up with the NHS or whatever else this country does that it can still be proud of.

Anyway, here are my tips for the harried aesthete compelled, for whatever reason, to do his or her accounts.

1. Prepare a tracklist of good, fast rock music of an alternative bent (Wire, or the Duke Spirit).

2. Get drunk. As with washing up or childcare, accounts, done honestly, do not require a mind operating at top speed. As to whether this works or
not, you'll know in a few weeks.

If this column is renamed "Down and Out in HMP Wormwood Scrubs", you'll know it doesn't.

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 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!