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Soon I’ll be able to look Ken in the eye. Not that I’d want to

Regular readers of this column with long memories and for whom time hangs heavy may remember that one of the recurrent problems of my life is my inability to do accounts, send invoices, keep receipts and, er, pay taxes on time. I am not proud of this. It is a problem many writers have, but I seem to have it worse than anyone else I know. Even my great friend the Moose keeps his affairs in better order than I do.

It’s the tax bit that bugs me the most. I do not like tax dodgers, believing that tax is the price one pays for living in a civilised society, but when the question arises in conversation about, say, Ken Livingstone, I mumble a bit and then start to pretend to play with my phone or something until the subject is exhausted. For I feel I am not one to point the finger, even though I wouldn’t know, even if it was explained to me in words of one syllable, how to set myself up as a business or whatever the revolting Ken* (friend to builders of skyscrapers, promise-breaking abolisher of the Routemaster and one even whose on-the-record attitude to Jews bears some scrutiny) has done to line his pockets, or at least keep them better-lined than otherwise.

Pushing the envelope

But you know how it is. You shudder at the sight of the first brown envelope from HMRC. This is the mistake. For then you shudder even more at the arrival of the next one, for your shudder incorporates the one that the previous brown envelope occasioned. By the time you are on your fifth or sixth brown envelope, you are such a nervous wreck when you catch sight of them that you might well require hospitalisation. And you know that with each brown envelope you are deeper in the shit than you were before. My ex-housemate, the sorely missed Razors, once offered to open one of them up after I’d had a stiff drink. He did so and there was a silence.

“Well?” I asked. Razors gave a long, low whistle. “Have another drink,” he said, and we never spoke of it again.

A couple of years ago the tax people sent someone round to pick the money up in person, took one look at me and at the entrance to the Hovel, and realised, correctly, that the repo men were going to have a hard time extracting anything more valuable than the machine I use to earn what we shall loosely call my living.

Then someone at HMRC had a brainwave. “Why not send him his demand in a white envelope? And maybe not put ‘HMRC’ on the front of it? 

It’s worth a shot.” And that’s what they did.

What they don’t know is that after years of experience and mysterious, rigorous tuition from a Zen master of an arcane sect at a secret location in Grays Thurrock, I am now able to intuit with astonishing precision the contents of an envelope simply by looking at it. So I guessed, from its radioactive hum, that there was something iffy within. And indeed there was: a note, from a debt collection agency, informing me that my repayment offer of [four-figure sum of money] payable weekly (“weekly” in bold; a nice touch, I thought) had been accepted. Well, if someone offered to pay me a four-figure sum every week, I’d accept it, too; only no such offer had been made. What had happened was that someone representing the taxman had called and asked for a large sum of money, and said I could actually pay some of it back now but I’m busy, can you ring tomorrow around 4? Which they never did. Fair enough – in their shoes, I’d forget to call back, too. Again, I can hardly wag the finger.

No Scrubs

So, for the past few days this letter has been sitting, as attractive as the putrefying rabbit in Polanski’s Repulsion, on the table in the Hovel, and, like Catherine Deneuve in that film, I have been gradually losing my mind. In the end I decide to call the number given for those who, in their words, have any queries. The first query that springs to mind is: will I be going to an open prison, or the Scrubs?

Those of you who have had experience of debt collection agencies may well be feeling for me at this point. But funnily enough, things seem to have turned out OK. I get put through to the person who made the original assumption about my capacity for repayment; she acts, and treats me like, a human being; I make a somewhat reduced if still punishing offer for repayment; and she accepts it. It turns out to be as simple as that. And in a few months’ time I’ll be able to look Ken Livingstone in the eye. 

*For the record, I find Boris Johnson equally revolting. Wolfgang Moneypenny for mayor in May!

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 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial