Dancing with the Tax Man
I’ve had a week of ups and downs. The downer is a pretty big one, at least in terms of price tag. Well, perhaps in the great scheme of things it’s not that bad – about £780 – but it’s rather a lot of money to suddenly have to find in a hurry.
When I completed my tax return for 2015-16, the online system for HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) declared that I owed them £782. Quite why was a mystery to me; during that tax year, I’d been in full-time salaried employment and all my sources of income were taxed at source. How had I become liable to pay more tax?
I took a day off to ring the Revenue, though in the end I was able to conclude the process in half a morning. Who knew it could be so easy? It turns out that the underpayment has arisen because when I was self-employed, I put an amount into my tax return for business expenses that could be offset against tax. When I had a lean year, and earnt nothing from my business, obviously I didn’t have any expenses either. But the Revenue simply brought forward my business expenses from the previous year; as I hadn’t said that I’d closed my business down, they assumed that i still had the outgoings even if I didn’t have any income.
Those expenses were then reflected in my tax code. So once I went back onto Pay As You Earn (tax deducted from earnings at source, for overseas readers), my tax code, the basis of that calculation, was too low. That didn’t matter until I actually advised HMRC that I had closed my business. Whereupon the expenses element ended up being reflected in my tax code in the form of an allowance that I’m no longer entitled to. Whilever I didn’t close the business down, that was OK, because I might get lucky and have some business come my way. Indeed, I commented a year or so back in this very blog that I’d contemplated closing the business, only to get some approaches for possible speaking engagements and a new book deal. But once the business is no more, the expenses drop out of the tax calculation. And so they want it back.
I rather suspect that there’s a bit of a glitch in the algorithm that doesn’t reset the expenses number if the following year records nothing, partly because that would be a policy decision that the Revenue would have to take and partly because it’s a nice little earner for them. I’ve used the magic legal phrase “without prejudice” wherever possible, just in case I decide to look into this further and challenge the repayment request. But I suspect it will take more time and money than the tax underpayment is worth.
Still, (grumble grumble). They don’t tell you this when they go on about the joys of self-employment.
To happier matters. My other half has been doing some work with the Birmingham Royal Ballet recently, and she came into possession of some tickets to see the final dress rehearsal of their current production, Prokoviev’s Cinderella. So last Tuesday, I had a night at the ballet.
I’m not much of a balletomane, but this was too good a chance to miss. We got good seats in the stalls, only a few rows from the orchestra pit, and about on eye level with the stage. And I have to say I was very deeply impressed. Ballet is a very tough discipline; even the most petite ballerina is going to be a good nine stones (57 kilos or 126 Imperial pounds), and the male dancers will spend a good part of their performance lifting those ballerinas. Repeatedly. And that was the case here.
Ballet consists of a number of set positions and movements, so it’s no surprise that dancers start young, not only to build strength and stamina, but also to train their muscles so that they have the correct “muscle memory” to make the moves correctly. And that’s before they tackle the actual choreography of the production, the dance moves that tell the story. Nothing in this is ever going to be easy. Sitting where we did, I could see how that worked in practice; towards the end, the lead male dancer was showing signs of fatigue if you looked very closely – a tremor in the arm as he hoisted the lead ballerina once more. And as a rehearsal, there was the occasional fluffed entry and places where some of the corps de ballet were in the wrong place. But that’s what a dress rehearsal is for.
The other thing, of course, is the depiction of character through dance. In the case of Cinderella – a pantomime story, after all – this tended to be in the persons of the Ugly Sisters. This production made one into a tall, willowy manhunter (think the Irma Prunesquallor character from the BBC production of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast a few years ago), whilst the other was a made up with prosthetics to look just a bit roly-poly (“The ballerina Tumbleova”, I commented, channeling Beachcomber) and clumsy – which means that she had to be a really good dancer to be able to dance that badly on purpose. These two dancers managed to inject the right amount of comedy into their parts.
The utter marvel of the production, for me, was the scene setting. The action of the first act and the first half of the last act was set in Cinderella’s kitchen; traditionally, in the British versions of the pantomime, Cinderella’s father is called Baron Hardup, and the decor of the kitchen bore that out. The entrance of the Fairy Godmother was very well concealed with a breakaway panel partly concealed by an on-stage cupboard, and partly by a complex dance movement of about half the cast. But my highlight was the minutes before midnight, where the dancers imitated clock hands whilst a huge stylized clock mechanism counted down the seconds. The whole thing, with the aid of Prokoviev’s music, to me seemed to owe a lot to the Moloch Machine scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Prokofiev’s score is sufficiently modernist to sound rather edgy, matching the efforts to darken the story a little, without becoming completely divorced from the physical action on stage.
I would recommend this to anyone if they can get to Birmingham to see it. A link to the Birmingham Royal Ballet here: http://www.brb.org.uk/whats-on/event/cinderella
(Photos courtesy of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.)
I commented a while back on a job where I’d been interviewed at high level by the company’s owner and MD, and after a week they decided that I “…wasn’t a team player”, much to my surprise and puzzlement. Well, I’ve had a flash of inspiration as to what they meant.
The company I was interviewing with was in the facilities management business, just like my former employer. I was basically made redundant because my employers’ venture capitalist owners decided that rather than do IT development work in-house, they could buy that service in; and then they went one better and decided to buy the company that they might have bought the service in from. So in the course of my interview, that company came up as a topic of conversation, with them being named as “our biggest competitor”. “Ah,” I said, “and they’re the reason I’m here today – because they have replaced almost all of my former employer’s IT development and testing team.”
It suddenly struck me – did my prospective employer think I was dissing my last employer? If so, then it shows that they didn’t understand the nature of venture capital and company ownership. I will always show loyalty to my employer; but would anyone expect me to show loyalty to my employer’s owners, especially if they have a big portfolio of firms that means that even a multi-million pound turnover company is just one entry on a longer list? And loyalty is a two-way street – the venture capitalists, with whom I had no contact and no personal involvement with – showed me no loyalty; why should I reciprocate? To me, the venture capitalists were remote; uncaring, unthinking minds; why should I speak up for them, as opposed to my direct managers and colleagues who had faith in me and who I was pleased to repay in kind?
In other words, the prospective employer might well have thought that I wasn’t a “team player” because I was voicing criticism of “the owners” – but I didn’t see them as any part of “the team” in my workplace. We may have been talking at cross purposes all along.
I had a really strange dream last night. I dreamt that I was back working for the Department of Health and Social Security, though in the present day (as opposed to the 1980s) and at the one-time Regional Office on Chalfont Drive, Nottingham (again, somewhere that I haven’t visited since 1980).
In the dream, I received a package from the DHSS Central Pensions Unit in Newcastle upon Tyne about my forthcoming retirement. (Well, in six years’ time, but that’s still forthcoming. And the Central Pensions unit is a real place.) The odd thing was that delivered with this package was a misdirected letter, addressed to a Mr. P. Day in Arley, the next village over from where I used to live in North Warwickshire. Arley is a former mining village, though its pit closed back in the 1960s. The misdirected letter dated from 1974, and was about compensation payments to a number of retired miners. It included a list of names and addresses, and a wad of banknotes!
The envelope was plain manilla and typewritten, with a stamp on it; the letter inside with the list was handwritten on flimsy yellow paper. It gave Mr. Day’s address, on Spring Hill in Arley – which is, again, a real place – and I could remember seeing the address in vivid detail. The dream was so real that I could pick up the texture of the paper and envelope, and the colour of the stamp. Mr. Day appeared to have been an NUM local official, and I was thinking “I should take this round to him, if he’s still alive, to see how we can get this money to his members, even after more than forty years” and I was actively thinking about this when I woke up. It was so vivid that, for a few minutes after I woke up, I was still making a mental note to look in my work papers for this letter, even though I haven’t worked for the DHSS since 1989. It was one of those occasions where the reality of the dream persisted into wakefulness for a short time.