You know you’re in trouble when HMRC tells you to “have a cup of tea”

“Would you mind if I put you on hold, please? I need to talk to someone about this.” I get this a lot.

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The music they play you down the phone when you call HMRC – and you get to hear a lot of it – alternately irritates and…  well, you can’t say “soothes”. It doesn’t irritate, that’s all – it sounds like something William Orbit, the talented composer and producer, might have made when short of cash. I met his mother once; she painted for the same art group in Highgate as my mother. “Hello, Mrs Orbit,” I said. Her name was not Mrs Orbit.

I am ill again, as always happens after a trip to London, and once again there is no one to look after me, but it is not a serious illness, no explosions of bodily fluids, outrageous temperatures; just trembliness, wooziness and 16-hour stints in bed. I wonder when the last time was that I was ill and there was someone there to look after me. I think it must have been over a decade ago.

But illness is no excuse to not call HMRC. Well, it is, and previous excuses not to call HMRC have included: a sunny day, a rainy day, a feeling of unusual elation, feeling down in the dumps, a cat wanting to be stroked, a deadline, the lack of a deadline, a hangover, a craving for toast. You get the picture. (Incidentally I read, to my astonishment, that the New Statesman’s toaster has been removed from the premises on the grounds that it is a fire hazard. Of course, you look at the devastation across the land caused by toasters – you simply can’t get house insurance any more if you admit to having one of these machines – and concede that the busybodies have a point, but in my experience the only toaster-related fire I have ever experienced in my long years is the one I documented in my column of 23 February 2018, and that was because it was three in the morning, and it was a rubbish toaster.)

Where was I? Oh yes, tax. Well, I had a very good excuse not to call the tax people but I had promised the Estranged Wife the night before that I would, because she had lulled me into a false sense of security. (My gig cooking Christmas dinner for the family has been confirmed, it would appear. That does cheer me up.) And for some reason, when I make a promise I tend to keep it. It devalues the currency if you don’t.

I have had to call the tax people before, and it usually goes well. I use the word “well” advisedly. It does not mean that the person at the other end – almost always a woman – says, “Poor baby, let’s just write this off, shall we? Here we go: backspace, backspace, backspace. All done! Now we’re going to go after Amazon instead.” What it means is that a professional trained in managing people who are usually at their wits’ end has a look at a screen and, in my case at least, goes, “Oh, golly.” And, in my case:

“Would you mind if I put you on hold, please? I need to talk to someone about this.”

I get this a lot.

More music.

Usually, the HMRC woman takes some kind of pity on me. My manner during these conversations is – and I don’t have to fake any of this – respectful, contrite and quietly despairing. Tears in a man are not always seemly, but a certain tremolo in the voice can indicate a pure heart. And as they scroll through my history, the silence at their end deepens, and when they get back to me it is with something like awe in their voice.

“Would you mind if I put you on hold again, please? I need to speak to my supervisor about this.”

Yesterday’s call took an hour and 15 minutes, including a trip to their website that kept me going round and round in circles, but I didn’t want to mention it in case it upset them even more. In the end her advice, and she really said this, was, “Have a cup of tea.” It sounded like she wanted one, too. Sometimes I end these conversations feeling as though I should be the one doing the consoling, and I remember last January, I think it was, having a chat with my interlocutor, as one might with a teenager having a bad drug experience. I noticed an unusual accent, and discovered it was Welsh-Polish. She had such a nice voice, and was so kind and helpful, that I almost invited her out to dinner on the spot, but then remembered she was looking at a screen that was the fiscal equivalent of the old arcade game Missile Command, and that she would have realised that she was going to have to be the one paying for it.

I remember that when I met Mrs Orbit, my mother told her I was a writer. Mrs O expressed pleasure, and said she’d wished her son had gone into a profession like that instead of the music industry. He was at the height of his fame, and had produced an acclaimed album for Madonna. As I look back at that encounter, I marvel that anyone so obviously intelligent could have said anything so daft. 

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 appears in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history