Howard Jacobson: Always beware a man who thinks in columns, downwards - like the Chancellor

When did it all start, this Budgetphobia? In the usual place, is my guess. In the womb
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The Independent Online

So what's all this talk everywhere you look of shared equities, inheritance tax thresholds, and freezing the duty on Welsh sparkling wine? Has there been a Budget or something? Please tell me there hasn't been a Budget. I feel about a Budget - not just the event but the very sound and configuration of the word, especially that clogged unbudging middle syllable - the way some people feel about snakes and spiders, allowing that I feel that way about snakes and spiders too.

I am a Budgetphobe. Get it off, get it off me! At least you can tread on a spider. And you can always, if you happen to have one handy, throw a towel on a snake. Or stare it out. But there's nothing you can do against a Budget. Lock me in a confined space with a Budget and I lose my reason.

So when did it all start, this Budgetphobia? In the usual place, is my guess. In the womb. Given my horror of the word, it's possible my mother suffered at the hands of something that sounded similar. Maybe she was attacked by a budgerigar. Maybe, in her final months of pregnancy, an improper suggestion was made to her in Budgens.

Unless it's genetic. Though my father didn't run out of the house the way I do whenever a Chancellor of the Exchequer appears on television clutching his red box, he had a distaste for the activity of budgeting which was surely the forerunner of mine. He was never able to save or account for a penny, my father. He never knew what his income was. He never knew what he spent. He could not keep money in his pocket. The one time he did get his hands on any cash - he was an upholsterer at the time, had just sold a three-piece suite and was so excited he had to ring my mother from a phone box to tell her - he left the newspaper in which he'd bundled the money (don't ask me to explain that) in the phone box.

When he got home and realised what he'd done we all had to run out in different directions - he couldn't remember where he'd been - to see if we could recover it. Some kids must have found the bundle and, not recognising the notes for what they were, made paper planes of them, because I came upon a fleet of fivers gliding down the street on air currents. Leaping about like a boy trying to net butterflies, I gathered in about a tenth of what he'd lost. He was delighted with me. "We're in profit," he said, and made arrangements to take us all out to dinner to celebrate.

Shortly afterwards, my mother bought a book of a sort we had never before seen in our house - a ledger, was it? - with lines running in the wrong direction. My father refused to have anything to do with it. "How do you expect me to know?" was his answer to every question she asked him. "Cost of raw materials? How do you expect me to know? Weekly expenditure? How do you expect me to know? Gross percentage profit? I don't make a gross percentage profit. Why not? How do you expect me to know?" That was as close as we came to having a family Budget.

Years later when I was teaching English at Sydney University the campus bank manager called me in for a chat. My overdraft, he said, had gone through the roof. I seemed to be spending as though I didn't believe in tomorrow. I smiled warmly at him. "I don't," I told him.

It took me some time to realise he wasn't complimenting me. He wondered what I thought I could bring my weekly expenditure down to. Weekly expenditure? How did I know? What I could bring my weekly expenditure down to, I tried explaining, was whatever I happened to spend that week. I could tell him when the week was over, but any figures I gave him before the week had begun would be purely guesswork. "Not if I put you on a budget," he said.

It felt like the end of my life. For two months, I entered everything I earned and everything I spent into one of those books with which my mother had desecrated our house, a book with lines running in the wrong direction. Analysis Book, it said on the front. Though how you can analyse anything from top to bottom when thought, which is surely essential to analysis, runs from left to right, I have never understood. But I tried. "Done it," I told him when I saw him next, not without a note of triumph in my voice.

"Mate, you haven't cut down by a penny," he told me after he'd inspected my calculations. "If anything you're spending more."

"I might be spending more," I said, "but now I can show you what I'm spending it on."

"That's not the point of being on a budget," he told me.

The following month I was on the boat back to England. I wasn't going to have some Australian, who wore shorts with creases in them and socks up to his knees, budgeting my liberty away.

Nothing's changed. To this day I cannot receive any communication from my bank or my accountants or, indeed, from Australia, without tremor cordis coming on me. What if the bastards want to confine me, a king of infinite space, in the nutshell of a budget?

Every Christmas I receive a card from 11 Downing Street - I once contributed to a book the Chancellor's wife edited for charity, if you must know - and every Christmas I approach the envelope as though it contains a spider. You want to know what it says? "To Howard: Seasonal Greetings and a Prosperous New Year - time we put you on a budget, Gordon."

I met him once. At his place, at a party celebrating the aforementioned book. "Ah," he said, extending a hand, "the writer." Since we were all writers, he must have reckoned he was fairly safe with that. "Well," he concluded, after a minute or two in which neither of us could think of anything to say to entertain the other, "keep writing."

"And you keep taxing," I should have quipped in return, but didn't. I was too agitated by his office. A man who thinks in columns, downwards. A man whose success depends on his exhibiting qualities we would loathe in any other context - cautiousness, parsimony, prudence, penny-pinching, unadventurism, anality. A man who budgets - can one say anything worse about a person than that?

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