As a child, I sensed an oppressive gloom settling on the shop at this time of year.
It was when my dad piled up his petrol receipts (3s 6d a gallon) on the office desk, finally opened a lot of brown envelopes and sent my mum out for a bottle of indigestion mixture.
Now I know what it was all about, because I’m doing pretty much the same as the end of the tax year comes round.
My wife Doreen says that, if possible, I look even more depressed when doing the yearly accounts than my dad did, and to be honest, it’s hardly surprising.
After all, I was actually done over by the HMRC last year and – like getting married, riding a horse and having a prostate investigation – it’s not an experience I want to repeat.
Of course, investigation of tax returns is the stuff of business folklore. Friends queued up to recount such stories as Revenue heavies putting a sweetshop owner in an arm lock until he confessed to eating a packet of jelly-babies without deducting VAT.
There were tales of heroic rebels who had paid HMRC fines in old halfpennies delivered to tax offices in lorries or who had written cheques on the backs of sheep (legally allowed under some 18th century law, I’m told), and got away with it.
Less fortunate were the alleged victims of broken marriages and suicide bids after hours of relentless interrogation by faceless men in fawn raincoats who drove Ford Ka cars and lived in Harlow New Town.
“My uncle was so shaken up that he closed his dry-cleaning business and joined a Buddhist community on the Isle of Mull,” said my informant.
“Don’t wear your new watch” advised my friend Harbottle, who once ran off with a tax-inspector’s wife and was stung for a whopping tax bill the following month.
His main grievance was that he didn’t get a rebate when the wife returned to her husband.
By now I had forgotten that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong, but then you don’t need to.
A computer in a shed in Norfolk picks out your name and the Revenue’s hard-eyed special compliance boys oil their thumb-screws and stack your files in their car-boots.
Nor was my accountant particularly reassuring. “Statistically, you’re long overdue for a visit from the revenue,” he said with the nearest he could get to eager anticipation.
After all, they say an extrovert accountant is one who looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you, instead of at his own.
“The last time I had a client investigated it took five years and cost £60,000. I did advise you to take out insurance, if you remember. There were some very good deals around at the time.” Thanks mate.
As it happened, the chap who came to see me was not remotely hard-eyed.
He was small and middle-aged with a paunch and an unhealthy complexion, who explained there was nothing personal in the visit.
It seemed that self-employed retailers were their most tiresome customers.
Over 40 per cent had mistakes in their returns and 35 per cent were late.
“If you were a dentist or a taxidermist we probably wouldn’t be here now,” he said. “The problem is the computer has targeted you on the random probability theory.”
“Rather like Pearl Harbour,” I said, but the irony was lost on him, so I added that it was a bit late to make a career change that afternoon but I’d try to do it by next year, and offered him a cup of tea and a Jaffa cake.
To be fair, the inspector said he seen a lot worse accounts than ours although he wasn’t too happy about our claiming my assistant Norman’s hearing-aid batteries as tax-deductable, and why did we need so many elastic bands?
The rest of the accounts were apparently OK. Actually they were excruciatingly deadly dull. That was always my dad’s secret in getting a tax return accepted and one of two useful things he passed on.
The other was his penknife. Have no pity when it comes to documenting the depreciation on the stapling machine and wear and tear on the stockroom light-switch. Don’t forget the £1.20 parking
ticket, the 40p sponge used to moisten stamps and the Sellotape used to temporarily repair your glasses.
Keep it up and you should have them begging for mercy.
My accountant, obviously hoping for a nice little earner and clearly disappointed that I hadn’t been hustled off to a soundproof interrogation room and given the waterboard treatment for claiming depreciation on the out-of-date Jaffa cakes, warned that I might not be so lucky with the taxman next time.
But I reckon I should be OK. To be honest, dentistry is a bit outside my comfort zone, but I’ve come across a very reasonable online course in taxidermy.