I hate having to do my accounts. And I despise myself annually for my reticence to do my civil duty and pay for the government that protects and enables (and angers and frightens) me. I always leave my accounts to the last minute, despite working well to other deadlines (learning songs for gigs and recordings, submitting abstracts for conferences, finishing papers for publication, catching flights, arriving on time to teach classes, etc.). I’ve always paid an accountant to prepare and submit my tax return for me, because I figured they’d save me more money than they cost me in fees and frustration. The first year I was self-employed I used a small accountancy firm in Wales recommended to me by my then boss, who swore by them. The following year I found a less extortionate group with which to work, called Tax Watchdog (TWD, for short), and have used them ever since. I tend to send them some clumsy and fudged accounting records by their September or October deadline (it fluctuates), but I decided this year to make use of the extended TWD submission deadline of 1st December. And I didn’t make it. I was supervising dissertations and giving research methods lectures in London, teaching and assessing online for Boston University, and playing drums for a pantomime in Chelmsford twice a day. So completing a massively boring spreadsheet on top of this was too much. I managed to compile just over half my expenses before the deadline, but fell asleep creating the income spreadsheet.

Promptly, on 2nd December, my accountants sent me a peculiar email, saying that, in view of the late date, they “might not” be able to process my accounts in time. Well, I could have told them that! I called their office in an attempt to ascertain more precisely how improbable they suspected completion of my accounts in time for the UK tax return submission deadline of 31st January to be. After too much time and much repetition by me, Paxman-style, of the same question, the gentleman on the other end of the line conceded that, beyond mere likelihood, the company would not be able to complete my tax return in time. So, I was on my own. This would save me the £250-odd that the accountants charged in fees. Trying to fill in my own tax return might instead cost me my soul or my sanity, but I felt I was fast losing a grip on these anyway, so there was really no reason not to continue as I had no alternative but to do. But there was also no immediate hurry.

Playing drums for the pantomime was such an intense experience that I decided to wait a month for the show to finish before attempting anything so mentally and emotionally disruptive as completing my tax return. I chose to embark on this new adventure on 6th January because it was the first Monday back at work for everyone after the New Year. With a sense of something akin to motivation to get on with it, when I found the right page and was ready to dive in… I was unable to register. I got as far as I could, and was told I’d need to wait to for a Tax Code to be sent in the post in the next seven days. This was frustrating – and somewhat ironic, since this was the online service – but to console myself amidst the dwindling air of excitement surrounding my planned foray into financial competence, I poured a large glass of port (my brother and his partner’s Christmas present to me), and relaxed into marking undergraduate dissertations instead.

I waited patiently for the promised Code to arrive in the post, which it didn’t. While at work on 23rd January, before committing myself to what I suspected would be an arduous and humiliating process of uncomfortable telephonic exchange with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, I called my wife, who, conveniently at home, obligingly double-checked the mail. There was, she assured me, nothing from HMRC. I made the phone call. After being cut off automatically only once for misinterpreting the (one can only assume) deliberately misleading menu options, I was greeted by excerpts from six pieces of West Coast funk music on rotation. The first piece was all right, but by the second one I was only aware of how I just get disproportionately pissed off by the awful sound quality when I’m on hold. Virgin Media, in a silly and transparent attempt to improve the experience of waiting in line while they still refused to hire enough staff to answer the call-load in a reasonable time-frame, started a thing a few years back where they ask valued customers to select a genre for the hold music to which they will, forthwith, subject you without mercy. The arrogance flaunted in this ridiculous gesture is as grating as the flagrant (surely faux-) misapprehension of customer priorities. I really couldn’t give monkey’s arse what genre of music you play me while I’m holding. It all sounds crap! None of it has any bass, it’s all crackly, and – they surely can’t not have grasped this – people do not call the Virgin Customer Services helpline to listen to a selection of music in the least-personally-offensive style pre-selected from the Virgin back-catalogue. We call as a very last resort, with reluctance and desperation, to speak to a human being about a problem with another of the services for which we continue to pay the company amply. I would prefer total silence to this patronizing BS. If I want to listen to music, guess what: I’ll select something awesome from the library of thousands of albums I own on CD, vinyl, minidisc, tape or iTunes. I might even stream something or try the radio if I’m feeling adventurous. I will listen to my chosen music through decent speakers or headphones at a time and in a place of my choosing, NOT when I need someone to fix the goddam broadband so that I can carry on with my work! (My subsequent tactic of putting Virgin on hold when I finally got through to someone didn’t pay off especially well either; when I told them I had a list of other things to do before I could speak with them, so would appreciate them waiting until it was their turn in the queue, and left some music playing for them in the background, they hung up.)

So it didn’t bother me that HMRC had a less-than-wonderful selection of music, although it did frustrate me that the pieces were brutally clipped, rather than faded out (the AA – Automobile Association, not Alcoholics Anonymous – used, once upon a time, to do a subtler, if still somewhat jarring, cross-fade from pastiche Coldplay into almost-Oasis, and back again via a rock waltz). Anyway, after only about 45 minutes on hold I was put through to someone who told me she was unable to help me directly. Instead she gave me the number of another department that she was pretty sure would be able to assist (her tone strongly implied that she was neither willing nor able simply to transfer my call). To her credit, she did tell me which menu-numbers to select in order to get me through to an appropriate person with all possible haste. I followed her advice, and a man picked up within a few short minutes. He helped me pretty quickly, and put my mind at rest: No, I didn’t need to panic that I hadn’t yet received the Tax Code that I needed to begin filing my tax return on line; Yes, it was the HMRC’s fault that I hadn’t yet received the number in the post; Yes, they had my postal address recorded correctly; Plus, I would be given an extension on my tax return deadline, to 15th February. This was all surprisingly good news, and delivered with some courtesy. Not the outcome I had cynically expected, but I never mind. I was so surprised, I was able to spend the next 90 minutes feverishly writing and distributing to colleagues the draft call-for-papers for an upcoming conference, and to send with it an encouraging, buoyant email too boot. All was rather well.

The next day I was working in a café, trying to mark some students’ essays but failing miserably and instead working on a paper I had been meaning to write for ages, deleting photos, checking Facebook and planning for an upcoming band rehearsal. It was then that I received a truly mystifying and simultaneously alarming email from HMRC. The email (addressed to “Mr Smith”, but I would gallantly overlook this, since at least they had got the gender right – something they’d failed to manage with my brother for about 20 years) said that HMRC would be glad to grant me an extension of the deadline for submitting my tax return. Contrary to what I had been told the previous day on the phone, however, the extension would be until 2nd February – this was only 13 days earlier, so I would not quibble, and, anyway, they held all the cards. Also, 2nd February was, by coincidence, a day off for me, so I would just ignore my family all day and do my tax return and try not to drink. Fine, easy. The last line of HMRC’s email, though, was truly extraordinary. It read “you must still pay any tax you owe before 31st January in order to avoid a fine”. I sent the following response, by return:

Dear anonymous desk jockey

Is this a joke?! 

How could I (or anyone else) pay the tax I owe prior to completing my tax return (the whole point of which is find out how much tax I owe)? 

If it is a joke, I apologise for not finding it terribly amusing at this stressful time. 

If it is not a joke, I require an explanation – at your earliest convenience – of how I may proceed with the necessary time travel, at the minimal possible cost. 

Thank you for your help.

Dr Gareth Dylan Smith. 

HMRC took only another four hours to respond (and they did call address me as “Dr” this time), advising me to check their website for information on how to file my tax return online. I had already tried this: it said to fill in the details and then wait up to seven days for a tax code to arrive in the post…



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