Ringing up authority

It is extremely easy to slag off a government department, especially one that has a hand in nearly everyone’s day-to-day life. But HM Revenue & Customs, responsible for taxation and keeping order in the world of work, truly are the most pathetic useless body of utter toss known to man.

I don’t earn very much money. In fact, I’ve often been disappointed that D-list celebrities haven’t performed a charity stunt of the kind you see on Children In Need to tide me over while I fritter away my student loan on premium bottles of Belgian cider. On the rare occasions I haul myself out of bed for an honest day’s work, I do so expecting to keep most of my earnings. I earn well below the £7,000 personal allowance which disqualifies you from income tax, so I’ve never given it a second’s thought.

Therefore, in April, when I received my first pay form of the tax year, I was traumatised to discover that over £70 had been taken in income tax by the government, presumably to bail out some more bankers.

I felt a surge of anger at the blatant money-grabbing of my precious little money. Most people want to pay less tax of course, but I don’t mind. I understand that things need to be paid for and that we can’t go around bombing African countries and maiming civilians without collecting money from the population first. I don’t have a problem with paying tax – if I earn enough. My latest pay form states that I have now paid £250 in income tax since April and that figure will only rise. A couple of solutions presented themselves: one, I could do a Bono and move to Holland, thus putting my tax affairs under the control of a shady solicitor’s firm and attracting criticism from tax campaigners and anyone with a conscience. Or two, I could call up the tax office.

I have a voice like a warthog with its knackers in a vice, so being an international musical icon like Bono is not an option. But the other solution required me to ring up authority, the thought of which turns my insides to stone.

I find it hard enough talking to people I know on the phone, what with the stagnant pauses, the overlapping conversation and the fact you never know if someone is joking because you can’t see their face. So ringing up some stranger to talk about my tax affairs is a marginally less inviting prospect than running naked in the streets singing that my sex is on fire.

Another grand dose of incompetency came with my finance application to the Student Loan Company, which wasn’t processed until three months after my course started. Whenever I rang up the hotline (a word which, correct me if I’m wrong, suggests urgency) I would be forced to listen to Classic FM for half an hour, before a Scottish bloke with an accent so strong I needed a translator introduced himself.

As we both failed to understand each other (I garble when nervous, until my words are onelongsentencewithoutaspace) for minutes on end, we stuttered and stalled repeatedly until the idea of getting through University without a penny to my name seemed like a fair deal if I could just put the phone down.

When I bought my bizarre tax situation to the attention of my boss, she said I should talk with the people working in the University’s payroll department. There I was told that my tax code was “0020T-C” which for the layman basically means “grab every penny off the bastard!”

I have been working on and off for about three years with various institutions and not once have I been charged tax. My only reductions have been for National Insurance, which I have contributed about £15 towards (my pension is looking rosy). Now I was being told by Jenny from payroll that I was “in the highest tax bracket I’ve ever seen for a student”.

Such a code would normally be associated with immigrants, who are placed on an emergency tax rate before they are settled and fully registered. Yet I’ve been working for three years, never once earning more than a couple of thousand pounds a year, and now I’m considered a risk! To be fair, I would pose a substantial risk to the taxman that set my code so low if we ever meet – in my spare time I often think of the torture I could put him through, often involving vats of cooking oil and sharp cutlery.

Because I am useless at saving, I am actually using my income tax as a savings account. In a few months time I will let the authorities know that they have been conning me out of house and home and I will have a nice little Christmas bonus.

Then again it may require a phone call, in which case they can keep their money.

With age comes responsibility

I don’t want to get old. I’ve seen what happens when people enter their twilight years; they join a bowls club, regard the snooker commentator as one of their closest friends and have to sit down with a doctor every six months and use words like ‘prostate’ and ‘rectal’. It doesn’t sound, nor look like, a barrel of laughs.

But the ageing process is doing to me what it has done to almost every other person on the planet. I say ‘almost’ – Queen Elizabeth II appears to be immune from biological processes, waving at her subjects in the same way for the last twenty years and always maintaining that same sourpuss disposition, as if her nostrils were being threatened with nuclear war.

Each time my birthday swings around it doubles as a celebration of life and mini-funeral for naivety and innocence. Forget cards that say stuff like “To a wonderful Grandson…” or “Here’s hoping you have a brilliant day”, I’ve often thought about marketing a birthday card which shouts “fucked up and you know you are!” when you open it. 

Turning 13 was momentous because I had entered my teenage years and begun shaving, which at the time seemed the height of grown-up behaviour. At school, we would take the piss out of kids who hadn’t started shaving, meaning that arriving at the gates with inch-long gashes on your cheek became a brief signifier of cool. As I gripped the razor for my first ever shave, the Gillette commercials I had seen featuring the likes of David Beckham and Roger Federer getting the “closest ever” shave flashed before my eyes. If David Beckham can do something, I remember thinking, I ought to be able to as well.

At 16, I was given enough freedom to attend the Reading Festival. Again I thought this made me an official adult because in NME it said you were almost certain to get drunk, laid and stoned. I was immediately put in my place when two brightly coloured youngsters sitting opposite me on the train to Gatwick struck up conversation.

“Did you manage to score some crack” one asked, sneering slightly, as if he would jack up in the carriage right here, right now if he could.

“Nah mate, I did get some weed though” said the other, opening a pocket of his rucksack to reveal a spice rack-like array of materials, all processed in little plastic wallets. This put to shame the contents of my rucksack: you can’t get high on baby wipes and toilet roll.

At 17, I needed a job. That means I had to endure the harrowing ordeal of interviews, a process which made me long for the simplicity of life before I needed extra money. I was asked during one interview to describe what I believed “equal opportunities” meant, consciously noting that my interviewers were a gay Italian man in tight jeans called Leonardo and a black woman in a wheelchair, while I was a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, baggy jeans-wearing male. I was tempted to say “equal opportunities means the process by which I get rejected for this position”.

At 18, I accepted that I was now, in the eyes of the law, an adult (not that I had a choice or anything). On the plus side, I could legally buy alcohol and vote for corrupt politicians. Unfortunately, with age comes responsibility – and responsibility usually means paying more money for things. My first trip to the dentist after turning 18 produced a nasty shock after I was charged £17 for a two-minute check up and I didn’t even get a fucking lollipop. Cheap bastards.

In the reception area, I booked my next examination and was halfway out of the door before I was called back by the chirpy receptionist saying “Mr. Mason, we need your payment”.

“What for?” I asked. “Don’t tell me they’re charging for lollipops now” I should have added.

“You need to pay for your check-up Mr. Mason” she said in a crisp voice which lets you know who is wearing the trousers in this power struggle. After all, she has your NHS files at the click of her finger. One misdemeanour and you could end up with every STI known to man on your records. This is what I mean about growing up; I feel cheated that just once in 18 years I have been asked for £17 to cover all my dental treatment. I somehow deem myself robbed that my numerous fillings and check-ups have cost an average of one pound a year.

I barely seem mature enough to use a ticket machine at the railway station, let alone be forced into subsidising NHS prescriptions for the young, old and unfortunate. It all seems grossly unfair when I just want to return to a world when my medical bills are paid.

When young you strive to be older than your years. When old you strive to be younger. If things continue like this, by the time I’m 50, I’ll be wishing I was back in the womb.