I know it's a little past the festive season, but I have been away, and I feel as though I need to share my latest brush with the taxman with you.
OK, let's get a few ground facts out of the way. My tax return for last year, and I mean the previous tax year, was very late. A year late. I developed a phobia towards it. Left all the paperwork in a folder, put the folder in the bottom of a drawer, locked the drawer, and put the drawer and the desk in a lead-lined nuclear bunker under the Irish Sea where it was to be left for 100,000 years. OK not the last bit. But I did just want it to go away. I couldn't cope with it. I can't "do" the tax calculation thing.
Every year you, like me, may find yourself in possession of an official HM Revenue and Customs "tax calculator". This is designed to help you work out what you owe the state.
Well, very soon you will start encountering negative numbers, and then trying to divide zero by negative numbers, which doesn't make the experience any more, erm, positive. Then you have to subtract negative numbers from irrational ones and the whole thing becomes absurd. Then you give up and forget about it.
I have a confession: the £200 in fines I collected last year for my tardiness are actually a price worth paying just to have the thing go away for a while. I really did feel nauseous when I thought about my tax return.
So I know I'm guilty of a crime, of failing to provide a tax return. However, let us examine my punishment – I mean apart from the statutory fines. The mental punishment. I received a seasonal phone call on 21 December, practically the last day before Christmas, from the HMRC's sinisterly named "compliance department".
It was unpleasant. I was threatened with all sorts of pain, I think up to and including the bailiffs, if I didn't get my return in pretty much straight away. I was made to feel like a criminal, which I suppose I am, but I don't think a very serious one. I mean, the HMRC sit there and watch £4bn a year – yes, really – go missing in "missing trader" or "carousel" VAT fraud, which puts my offence in context.
I know I'd had a year to get my act together, but HMRC chasing things up when Santa is making his way down the chimney is a macabre joke: "the taxman who stole Christmas". Actually it was a taxwoman, which somehow makes it more unnatural. What a bitter, sour, malign bunch of grinches they are at the HMRC.
I was supposed to go to the local tax office on Christmas Eve and go through the forms. Christmas Eve! Ringing around the various HMRC unhelpful lines, I was told that there was no tax office near where I lived and that I'd have to travel 30 miles. That, by the way, was erroneous, but no matter. No matter, either, that the phone number they give you to pay your bill doesn't work, or that the various officers give you different versions about how and when you can file a late return. (Not online, for a start, you see, so they make you reliant on the postal service at Christmas. Congratulations to clever old HMRC for that logistical breakthrough.)
The only satisfaction I managed to extract from this gang of nasties was when I suggested that I put my details on a disc and get TNT to courier it over to the nearest tax office. Apparently you're not allowed to be sarcastic to HMRC officers.
Anyway, I've now calculated, on the back of a fag packet, and paid my tax bill. Once I'd realised I could quite easily work out the bill from first principles and I'd abandoned their incomprehensible and useless "tax calculator", everything became simple. They cleaned me out, just in time for my Christmas shopping, for which I will never forgive them.
The HMRC have many enemies, some justified, some unjustified. I like to think that I'm happy to pay my taxes, but I'd like to be asked nicely for them. It's my money, earned by me, after all. One oughtn't forget that. To make me work out how much I have to hand over seems to be adding insult to financial injury. It's a sadistic business, self-assessment.