Tax from the Trenches: “Old friends”

Tuesday 19 September 2017

Tax from the Trenches: “Old friends”
One of the joys of having dealt with tax investigations on both sides of the fence, is that occasionally you get to bump into old colleagues and friends in the course of an enquiry. It doesn’t happen very often, and it must be said that some of the ex-colleagues I’ve dealt with over the years have been just a little bit frosty, perhaps anxious to ensure that there is no whiff of favouritism. From my point of view they needn’t have worried. No-one that I’ve ever worked with would dream of extending me favourable conditions or favours and rightly so. The bonus, however, is that we have been able to speak the same language and get to an end result a bit quicker than dancing the usual steps of the tax settlement Tango. We both know the strengths and weaknesses of each others case, which means if you need help with a tax investigation I can help you to come to a settlement quickly.

Which leads nicely into the meeting I had last month with a guy I started working with in the early 1980’s, long before we were Inspectors. Our paths intertwined periodically over the years as we made our way up through the ranks and, when I left the department in 2004, he was sitting only a few desks away from me in the Investigation Unit at Chadwell Heath. For the purpose of this article the Inspector in question must remain anonymous, for reasons that will become clear later, so we will call him Mike.

Hi “Mike” I said as we met in the reception of my firm. I hadn’t seen him in around 12 years and he hadn’t changed much. Mike was from Scotland and had always been something of a no-nonsense stocky rough-diamond, possibly borne from growing up on the mean streets of Glasgow. Exceptionally bright and good at his job, but not someone to suffer fools gladly. Mike’s softly spoken Glaswegian accent could lead you to think he detested you when in fact all he was actually doing was passing the time of day. I had been to the pub with Mike on many a HMRC jolly and, after a few drinks, I could never quite be sure whether he was going to punch me or hug me. “You look exactly the same” I said shaking his hand, “Although you always were a bit old-looking for your age”. I smiled to let him know I was joking and just breaking the ice. He smiled back with that tight lipped curl I’d forgotten he had. “I see you’re still a fat bastard” he said.

The meeting went along its predictable course, just like a game of chess with standard openings and strategical moves designed for the end game. As I listened to Mike’s colleague warble on about unverified bank deposits I suddenly had a flash back to an event around 1992 (I had to think about that) where about 20 boys and girls from HMRC had been drinking in Romford. Late into the night, the numbers had predictably dwindled and Mike, myself, and one other were stumbling around Romford full of beer and curry, in search of goodness knows what, and speaking complete rubbish to each other. We had managed to get to the ring road for some reason, which is nowhere near anything, when suddenly we were subject to a hail of stones raining down on us. Such was our alcoholic confusion that it took us a while to realise what was going on. Mike had been plonked on the head and was swearing and shaking his fist at a passing seagull whilst I was trying to fathom out if it had started to rain hailstones. Then we saw two lads, late teens or early 20’s up on a footbridge, sitting on BMX bikes, shouting general abuse in our direction and throwing more stones at us that had previously been reserved for throwing at passing cars.

Mike shouted at them in no uncertain terms that they better pack in and go home. “Oh yeah” said one of the lads, “What are you going to do about it?” and with that, launched another stone that smacked Mike squarely on his right ear. In all my days, I have never seen anyone take off with such speed and vengeance. Usain Bolt may well be quite sharp off the mark, but I think even he might have been trumped on this occasion. I had gone to shout something at the oiks but stopped in my tracks, mesmerised at the sight of Mike in full flow and listening to him shouting in broad Glaswegian, not fully understanding most of what he was saying. Within seconds he had covered 50 yards or so to the bridges staircase and was taking the steps four at a time. He reached the top and paused momentarily whilst the two guys on their bikes stared at him like rabbits in the headlights. I swear I remember seeing Mike’s nostrils flare like an angry bull, then he was off again, motoring down on them like a possessed steam locomotive and mouthing further terrifying Glaswegian obscenities. My other friend Dave, who really is called Dave, shook his head in a peaceful accepting sort of way. “He’s gonna kill them isn’t he”.

Dave and I started running for the bridge just as the teenage oiks were trying to get some speed into their BMX bikes. It was always going to be a losing battle. Our concern was not for Mike, but the fear for what he might do in the circumstances. In the confusion of the moment, and trying to run while drunk and look at what was going on above us, Dave managed to run into some railings and winded himself which left me trying to run up the stairs while now giggling uncontrollably. I finally got to the top of the bridge to see Mike standing over one of the guys who had fallen off his BMX. The other rider had disappeared leaving his mate to face the music alone. I jogged up to Mike, very much out of breath and still giggling. Much flowery language was being directed at the fallen youth who, by now was not anywhere near as brave as when he first started throwing stones. Mike was in full flow and admittedly, there were quire a a few words and phrases that I couldn’t decipher through Mike’s broad accent, but my Lord it was terrifying. I could tell that the Romford born lad was regretting every moment, even if he too was finding Mike’s words hard to follow. I deemed it best not to say anything and to let Mike vent.

After a minute or so Mike told the guy to go away, or words to that effect. Very meekly the lad got on his bike and, after picking up some speed, turned around to give a farewell volley of abuse to both of us as he rode off. It was not a good decision. Immediately Mike was in full flow, like an Olympic sprinter, and within seconds had caught the guy, threw him off the bike and proceeded to kick in the spokes on both wheels. There may well be readers that “tut-tut” against this sort of approach to someone prepared to throw stones at passing cars and pedestrians. Personally I thought it was entirely appropriate, and possibly one of the most enjoyable nights of my life.

Back in the meeting I half smiled as I remembered the whole incident from some 25 years before. My friend Mike had installed himself as a legend in my books that night. And here we were now cobbling together a deal to bring a long running enquiry to a conclusion. I was tempted to remind Mike of that night in Romford, but he had a colleague with him who looked just a touch straight-laced and might not get the story. It was one of those golden nights to be remembered but not necessarily repeated. “We will be in touch” said the colleague as we shook hands, and I thought I detected a flicker of mirth from behind Mike’s eyes as we said goodbye. Had he remembered that night? I hoped he had. “Safe journey” I said as his colleague went first through the main door. I said the same to Mike as he followed and he turned and smiled, at least I think it was a smile, you can never really be sure with Mike. “I wasn’t joking” he said, “when I called you a fat bastard. Speak soon”. Then with a wink and a grin he was gone. It’s not often a tax inspector closes a meeting with a comment like that, but then most tax inspector’s aren’t exactly like Mike.

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