The man who put the axe in double tax

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are one of those people weighed down by earnings from more than one country, you will know how handy it is to have double taxation treaties and a battery of accounting tricks to make sure that you cough up to the taxman only once. Have you wondered who to thank for these devices? May I direct you towards that great man, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.

P G Wodehouse was one of the highest-paid people in Britain between the wars, writing books and shows. Trouble was, he was also one of the first transatlantic commuters, earning part of his boodle in America and part in Britain. This, according to the new book You Simply Hit Them with an Axe (Tony Ring, Porpoise Books pounds 30), caused all sorts of problems.

When Wodehouse got on the boat in New York, he had to produce a "sailing permit" to confirm he was up-to-date on his tax. His view on this and that of the Internal Revenue Service often differed.

In 1936, for example, the IRS demanded $250,000 and tried to grab his American earnings: his accountants responded by inventing many of the tax-avoidance schemes that are now standard wheezes.

One of these led Wodehouse to move to France in the 1930s, which in turn led to his internment by the Germans. No wonder he didn't like tax people.

His battles come across in his books, where he likes to paint the criminal classes - be they safecrackers or earls stealing policemen's helmets - in a rosy light. It also produced the lyric that gave the book its title.

It comes from the show Sitting Pretty:

In Bongo, it's on the Congo,

And boy, what a spot.

Quite full of things delightful,

And few that are not.

There no one collars your hard-earned dollars,

They've a system that's a bear:

When government assessors call

To try and sneak your little all

You simply hit them with an axe;

It's how you pay your income tax

In Bongo, it's on the Congo

And I wish that I was there.

BARRY WEHMILLER was the biggest shareholder in the process engineering company that bears his name. He has sold out, so the company is changing its name to BWI.

Boring: companies that insist on being acronyms should pay a punitive tax. (This includes ICI, whose chairman once told me the initials stood for "International, Competitive and Innovative". Yuk.)

So farewell then, Barry. There are no other Barrys on the stock market, and precious few with proper first and second names. As far as I can see, this group consists of John Mansfield, David Brown, Dominick Hunter, Albert Fisher, Robert Wiseman, David Lloyd, Leslie Wise, Dudley Jenkins, Jacques Vert (is that a real name?) and my favourites, Horace Small and John Lusty. Long may they keep their full monickers.

There are also a few companies that just have first names, which at least makes them cuddly. Here we have Allen, Eve, Howard, Julia, Leslie, Loraine, and Helene. I'm not sure whether we should count Hamlet, who is obviously a Dane, or that uncomfortable Welshman Dai Ichi Kangyo. And by the by, who was Smith's Nephew?

Motoring on the tube

WE RETURN to the Angel tube station with a barrel full of ideas telling us how to get a car on to the platform. TDI, the company intending to do the stunt, is handing out a bottle of champagne to two winners: a) sensible, b) other. Most of those who replied got the right idea - the car could be loaded on to a drop-sided freight wagon at an outlying depot and rolled into Angel at night. The first card out of the barrel came from David McLean, of Harringay, north London, who suggests that the car could be loaded at Highgate, from where, with a little reversing at East Finchley, it could travel down the Northern Line.

But - and this is where we fight back at those who accuse us of setting too easy a competition - no one spotted the really tricky bit. How to get the car off the wagon. Underground platforms are not all the same height, and it is unlikely the wagon floor will line up exactly. So TDI is faced with the prospect of manhandling a car up or down a step, sideways.

Bottle 2 almost went to John Penny of Southampton, who asked TDI to "lend the car to my wife for a couple of days. She is very good at smashing cars". This was found to be unacceptable by my younger colleagues, so the fizz goes instead to Chris Sladen of west London.

"Muscular youngsters from car-building countries have been arriving at Heathrow and getting on to my branch of the Piccadilly Line," he writes. "Each of these young toughs has an enormous backpack and one those ludicrously large canvas holdalls, crammed with automobile components. Only last week one such bag, probably containing a big end, was dropped on my foot. At the most congested stations gangs of these youths assemble on the platform and start to put together some sort of sub-assembly, preparatory to building the complete vehicle at the Angel." So now we know.