Four Yorkshiremen

June 15, 2012

The human body is a time machine.  Your mind is carried into the future, whether you want it to be or not.

When I was a child, I remember a television programme called “Twenty Five Years Ago Today” which covered, week by week, what had been happening in the second world war, 25 years ago.  So this must have been, what, the late sixties (1939-45 + 25)

To me, this was history.  Black and white, unimaginably long ago.  I didn’t connect it with the lives of the adults around me, and I didn’t understand why my grandmother would “Boo!” every time Hitler appeared, and yet it was no further away from them than Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” is from us.

Twenty five years ago today it was 1987.  I was thirty one years old, starting my career as a tax inspector after five years lecturing in drama and communications in a college of Further Education.

The human body is a time machine.  The brain in my head now has come from the past.  This is the past that I remember.

When I was recruited into the Inland Revenue, a Member of Parliament and an Inspector of Taxes were both paid at approximately the same rate, the equivalent of a Grade 7 or Principal, a grade understood across the entire Civil Service.

An Inspector of Taxes – even a raw, green, trainee Inspector of Taxes – had an office of her own; a room, a desk, a cupboard, shelves.  A set of hardback Tax Cases.  A set of Manuals.

There were controversial issues: whether the clerical staff called you “Ms Bradley” or “Wendy”.  Whether “Ms” was a real title or not.  Whether it was sexist that the staff list read

  • J Doe
  • R Roe
  • Ms W Bradley
  • F Bloggs

And, yes, I had an actual argument with a District Inspector who maintained that this was “correct” and that my suggested alternatives were not.  That

  • J Doe
  • R Roe
  • W Bradley
  • F Bloggs

wouldn’t do, because then how would you know which members of staff were female????  And

  • Mr J Doe
  • Mr R Roe
  • Ms W Bradley
  • Mr F Bloggs

would make work for the typists!

And, oh, yes, we had typists!  The District Inspector had a secretary, and the rest of us had a typing pool, and we were not under any circumstances to type our own correspondence because (a) it was taking work from our typing pool colleagues and (b) we couldn’t type to Civil Service Standards anyway and (c) our time was too valuable to waste.

We didn’t have computers on our desks, and we calculated using 174 paper – paper ready ruled with convenient columns for doing T-accounts and which I still miss (I hear rumours there are still secret stocks of 174 paper around HMRC but they are jealously guarded, not least from HMRC management)

We were intensively trained according to a method which offended every bone in my teacher-trained body.  Where you would cover a new topic, do your level best to wrap your brain around it, and then tackle the practical example at the end of the chapter which would always – always – have some entirely different issue in it that hadn’t been covered by your training yet!

This was not, I argued, how you learn.  You struggle to get your head around a piece of legislation and its accompanying calculation and then you do a practical example which cements that learning.  Ah, but that IS how life in the Revenue works, was the argument.  It’s always what you don’t know that you don’t know that trips you up.

The pass mark in the exams was high.  Because, there was nothing woolly about the topic you were learning.  There was always a right answer.  And that was your job.  To find the right answer.  To require people to pay the right amount of tax.  Not too much, and not too little.

Later, after you’d passed your training, when you looked at a set of accounts and found that the taxpayer hadn’t arrived at the right answer, you would register the amount and reason for any adjustment you had made.  They were called R adjustments (for “review” – you would look at accounts as they came in and classify them as A – accept – R – review – or E – examine or investigate.)  There was a box you ticked on the form to record whether the R adjustment was in favour of the taxpayer or of the Revenue.  Because both kinds of adjustment counted.  Your job was to find the right answer.

Not to find something “reasonable” that would do.

Tell the young people of today that…

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