For some years now, I've been having this intense relationship with the Inland Revenue. They're a weird bunch. First they send you a frighteningly off-the-wall estimate of how much cash you might owe if you lived in some parallel universe where a) you earned pounds 870,546,929 per annum and b) all the tax you owed in every one of your 75 previous karmic existences had, in addition, fallen due at exactly the same time, ie autumn 1996. So you look at this figure, marvel at its extravagance and wonder how to fight back. You get an accountant to plead your case with the tax authorities, pointing out that, taking into account three bus tickets and a modest invoice from the Stockpot restaurant in London W1, your tax liability should in fact be pounds 102.02.
The Revenue respond with redoubled fury. They bombard you with demands for ever-more-unfeasible amounts of money. A blizzard of buff envelopes begins to silt up the front hall. Forcing one of them from the slavering jaws of the family labrador (trained to attack anything with the legend OHMS), you make out the words "...now stands at pounds 237,596,574,076.60. Interest continues to accrue daily."
How did this happen? Once you worked, you earned a bit, you did a bit of overtime, you owed a bit of tax, everything was fine - then WOOMPH! next thing, you owe the people at Taxation Central more than the combined debts of Robert Maxwell, the Duchess of York and the government of Mexico. Your accountant is not your friend any longer. He has sided with the baddies. More buff envelopes cascade upon your few sad last grey hairs. They promise penalties, court appearances, the Marshalsea nick, the Little Ease. Wild remedies occur to you. Perhaps I could plead with the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps I could get some hired muscle ("So you want to discuss tax assessment No 531874, do you, Mr Snodgrass? I think you'll have to talk it over with my friend here ...") against the day they come for me. Because you know you're now beyond the point of being physically able to write a cheque to your tormenters.
You stop eating. The children look at your haggard face and run yelping to school. The words "distrain your chattels" - which have appeared in the most recent buff envelope - nag in your head, like in a Fifties B- movie. You know they'll come any day now: the bailiffs, a couple of beadles, a SWAT team of marksmen and, in the middle, a smoothly efficient sadist in a car coat and an atrocious haircut, saying; "Right, first we'll take the hi-fi, the Apple Mac, the electric orange-squeezing thingy in the kitchen and your favourite swirly waistcoat. Then the lawnmower, the dishwasher and the baby ..."
And in the end, Nemesis did arrive. Saturday morning, 10.45, the doorbell rang, and a small Irish woman appeared on the doorstep, like Delia Smith only a smidgen more determined. "Have you got a minute?" she asked. "We must have a word about some unpaid tax," as if she'd noticed some of the stuff lying tragically in the road. I looked around. Where were the bailiffs? The trained muskets? Where ...? "It'll only take a minute," she said, brushing past.
Five minutes later, she shimmered out again, bearing a cheque (not all that big) in triumph and heading for her bus. I hated the Inland Revenue more than ever, but months of gathering clouds, a slow-building avalanche of angst and trauma, had all suddenly evaporated. I went out into the spring sunshine, hopelessly skint and oddly redeemed.
Political surprise of the week was surely Jeffrey Archer's blurted revelation on Channel 4 the other night that he calls John Major "Sir" when they're together. It's apparently his normal form of address when the two are driving around chewing the fat about the prospects of a Labour government. It seems an odd picture, doesn't it, the two classless-society boys, one now a lord, the other now the Prime Minister, deferring away to each other like courtiers at Versailles. You wonder if Archer was taking the mickey and using the word in inverted commas, as if to say, "I'll call you 'sir' as long as you remember that I'm a peer of the realm and you're just a career politician." But then it's more likely that Lord Archer just likes the smell of courtliness, the tat of chivalric exchange. I expect the PM had to stop him saying "Sire". Or, indeed, "My liege ..."
"The Beverly Hills Tour of London" is how they describe it in the brochure - a chance to gawp at "celebrities" going about their ordinary lives. In Los Angeles it's part of the tourist itinerary. You drive up in a coach, park outside's Madonna's hacienda or Sly Stallone's penthouse, dish out binoculars to the $30-a-head suckers from New Jersey, and pretend that the sight of a film star's mailbox, door knocker or velvet curtains is the next best thing to having dinner with them. Sadly, it almost guarantees you won't spot anybody at all. Now it has come to London. "Showbiz Tours" (there is, at present, precisely one tour) is offering to squire clutches of rubber-necking tourists round the "Driveways of the Rich and Famous" in Hampstead and St John's Wood. That word "driveways" is so redolent of British diffidence, of patio-doors blandness: we will not show you these people's homes, but we will point out their front path, their silver birch, their wheelie-bin ...
The lucky recipients of this attention are a mixed bag. The adjectives "rich and famous" may well describe Peter O'Toole and Emma Thompson, but seem hardly appropriate to describe John Keats (though you can see "the tree under which Keats composed his legendary Ode to a Nightingale), nor George Orwell, John Constable, HG Wells, Freud, RL Stevenson ... Cunningly, Showbiz Tours mixes dead blue-chip, blue-plaque writers with living rock stars such as George Michael and Boy George, as if they shared the same celebrity status, presumably in the hope that the thicker star-spotters won't be able to tell the difference; the next stage is to convince them that the man with the wispy moustache emerging from the corner shop with 20 Woodbines is indeed the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ...Reuse content