Congestion charging
I return from a conference in Colorado feeling jolly impressed – I still have my shaver, passport, wallet, keys and laptop, and I know where my front door key is after almost two weeks on the road! There’s a week before wife and child are due back in the country, so after a good night’s sleep I mow the lawn, plan to clean the oven (it takes me another four weeks to follow up), and – upon spotting the out-of-date disc on the car – set out to pay my road tax. Which is when things start to unravel.

I recall there being an issue last year with the car’s Registered Keeper (me) being on file as living at our old address. I was puzzled at the time by the DVLA’s confusion. I told them I’d moved, and they sent me a new driving license showing the new address. Because they are called the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, I unconsciously assume that someone (or even a computer) will notice the growing body of evidence (I am the keeper of my car, I have moved, the DVLA knows and acknowledges this, they have sent me a license bearing my new address, to my new address) and register my car ownership at the place where I obviously live. Of course, this hasn’t happened, so I pop round to our old flat to see if there’s any post. I sort of know there will be, because I definitely have still to change my subscription to a hip-hop magazine, and haven’t been round to check in well over a year. Actually, last time I went to check for post I let myself in to the lobby because I still had a key and no one was in when I rang the bell. There are no magazines (humph), but there is the document from the DVLA that I require to purchase the road tax. There is also a note from Equita Bailiffs, calmly stating that I owe them £512 to meet a Distress Warrant for their Client, Congestion Charging London. The note says that they visited the property while I was in the US to collect goods to the value of £512, as I had not replied to their previous requests to give them the money; unsuccessful in this attempt, they will be calling again soon.

I very nearly soil myself, but am overcome with anger, again fear, disappointment, a wave of excitement, some mischief, utter disbelief, then the dawning realisation that I have utterly fucked up. Sifting through the mail – and checking my mirrors for bailiffs, imagining myself executing a wicked J-turn like Jason Bourne would (obviously not have to) do if they suddenly were to jump out from behind a wall – there is quite an evidence trail. There are several letters from Congestion Charging London (FUCK! I didn’t notify them that I moved house either! Balls, crap and arse!) referring to a parking fine that I apparently incurred on 16th February on John Street, Islington. I was there for three minutes, and the company has plenty of photographic evidence to support this claim. The original Penalty Charge Notice is nowhere to be seen, but it is nonetheless clear I have committed a parking infringement that should have cost me £60, for the not-paying of which I now owe nearly 10 times that sum. I am now very glad my wife is out of the country.

I see a handy phone number for Phil, the Bailiff, which I ring. He does not answer, so I leave a voicemail message asking him to email me. On a separate piece of correspondence is the number for the Traffic Enforcement Centre in Northampton, whom I also call. A lady there tells me that all I have to do is fill in a form (which she kindly emails me), send it back to them, and they will then contact Congestion Charging London to say I never received the penalty charge notice, thereby giving CCL the option of asking the Bailiffs to stop terrorizing the new occupants of my former rented accommodation for money that I probably shouldn’t owe. I fill in the form, and notice that it needs to be signed by a Commissioner for Oaths at a Country Court before it can be returned. Trying to find contact details for, or the precise location of, a Commissioner for Oaths puts my research chops to their fullest test in a while. The county court naturally only takes calls between 9.30 and 11.30 am, and 1.30 and 3.30 pm, Mondays to Fridays. It also, apparently, does require anyone to actually pick up the phone when it rings. After a couple of hours on hold and listening to busy tones, I give up. I head for the bailiffs’ website, thinking it might be easier just to pay the damned bill and move on. The website loads none of its pages, a problem which recurs for the whole of the following day.

A couple of weeks later, following twelve packed days of teaching, supervision, assessing, writing, and furiously organising a conference at my institution, I receive an email from the guy who now lives in our old flat, saying the bailiffs have been round again, and they’re growing all the more keen to take their good-to-the-value (still, thankfully, £512). Very kindly, the chap did not give out my new address, instead emailing me a photo of the notification from the bailiff. I call bailiff Dave, and again there is no answer, so I leave a message offering to pay the debt in full – wife and daughter are home now, and I’m worried that the bailiffs will turn up at the house when Liz is home with our daughter, take my drums, the TV, or god-knows-what, and leave me with too much explaining to do. With another meeting to go at work, I leave this for yet another day.

I have a window the next morning, and call Congestion Charging London. Their hold music is the most obnoxious I’ve heard. It’s distorted and loud, comprised of two arppeggiated major chords alternating and making me want white noise or for someone to stab me. After half an hour being passed from pillar to post (with, believe or not, actual humans), my fate is confirmed – I cannot pay the fine to CCL, as they have now given the debt to the bailiffs, so I can only pay Equita. I visit Equita’s website again, the pages do work, and I become really irritated by the similarity in the site’s appearance to commercials for laxatives – too much of a floating leaves kind of vibe. I can, honestly, imagine no graphics that would not massively piss me off at this point in my hectic day when I should be in a student meeting, but this seems like it’s mocking me. I spend about ten minutes on hold before realising my credit card is at home. I have my debit card, but that stopped working yesterday because I sat on it and cracked the chip. I hang up.

Upon reflection, cycling home, I realise what a bunch of total wankers the people at Congestion Charging London must be. Why did they not contact me another way? Had I known they wanted me to pay a penalty charge, I would have paid it, and in good time! Surely when I did not reply by post, and before they resorted to sending the bailiffs in, they might first have Googled me? When I last checked I occupied the first three pages of search results for “gareth dylan smith”. The top hit is my website, which contains no fewer that six contact forms, all synced to my personal email account, my MacBook, iPad and phone. I am on Twitter. On LinkedIn and Facebook I list the places I work, yet they did not contact me at the Institute or through Boston University. How is it possible that CCL would choose not to email me? Why the bullying? Why the exponential increase in the fine? Why harass the new tenants of a place where I clearly no longer am resident? The answer is, of course, money – there is little to be made from trying to help.

That evening I have a rehearsal on Wigmore Street. It goes great, despite our starting an hour late because, having parked, I immediately fell asleep in the car. As we leave there’s a guy settling down to sleep in the doorway of the Wigmore Hall, and Gav, our guitarist, in a simple act of humanity, stops to chat. It turns out that the guy had a good job, lost it, and in a very short time lost his home, his daughter died, he spent a month sleeping on her grave, was moved on by the authorities, suffered considerable physical abuse, had all his possessions stolen, and now finds himself grateful for the warm, dry spot in central London to rest his head. I dash to the comfort of my car, feeling empty, sad and spoilt. This man’s sad downfall, whatever precipitated it, could so easily be my own. It isn’t. Perhaps it will be. Feeling vulnerable, weak and ashamed, I ache for this man, and accelerate hard down the street wrestling selfishness and guilt. Entitlement evaporated, I resolve to pay the bailiffs in the morning. It’s an irritation, and I can ill afford the cost. But I messed up. I have a credit card, a steady job, and my stock is rising in academia. I need to stop being a twat. Pay the bill, call Congestion Charging London, and change my address. I am not above this. Be grateful for the privilege that I have to sleep under a roof in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. I may not share as abundantly as some in the billions that keep us atop the global HDI, but I can do better than to whinge like a brattish child over a pathetic middle class problem of my own creation. Maybe the money Congestion Charging London earns from me will help keep the streets safer for people like the guy who gave me some bloody perspective.

The night I trespassed on John Street, Islington, I paused in the car, engine running (as though this would save me) while I called the bandleader of the London Gay Symphonic Winds for whom I was drumming that night at a benefit concert raising money for elderly members of Islington’s LGBT community. I ended up owing more money in parking fines trying to find the back entrance to Finsbury Library than the concert – worthwhile as it was – raised for the charity. But that’s hardly the point. I feel mistreated and annoyed, but more just like a total idiot. The guy in the doorway put me right in my place. He has no fight left, and I have everything I need to be happy. I’ll just be grateful tonight.




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