Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the category “Musings”

Cogito ergo sum

Good old British liberal education

Good old British liberal education

Arguably, the greatest contribution to society of a liberal education is perspective. ‘Dah da dah da dah. DISCUSS’ was the way it went when I was at school, as opposed to the ‘A, B, C, D, E. Tick one’ of the modern era. Today, July 14, is only significant to the vast majority of the world’s population for being the day after July 13 and the day before July 15. In France, it is a national holiday. Back in 1989, the bicentenary of the storming of the Bastille, it was Oxford educated Margaret Thatcher who pointed out in an interview with Le Monde that: ‘ ”human rights did not start with the French Revolution,” a perspective the French were not prepared for.  Fortunately for the Iron Lady, she was guillotined by her own Government the following year, before the furious French could get their act together. Earlier today, the massively anticipated sequel to Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ hit the bookstores. The fictional superhero of my youth ( along with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne), Atticus Finch, now turns out – in his author’s eyes – to have been a bigot. We all missed that one.

So, with the gradual movement from education to knowledge cramming, it is perhaps no surprise that the entire tax world is out on a fanatically dogmatic witchhunt, not even stopping to breathe and get the whole thing in perspective. And it is embarrassing.

I refer, of course, to the twin tax bugbears of western society, BEPS and Automatic Exchange of Information. Europe (did somebody whisper OECD?) has decided that American (did someone say ‘foreign’)  companies pay scandalously and imorally little tax in their jurisdictions, and the world’s leading economies (did someone shout ‘the entire world’?) are singlemindedly trying to sort this out (with a constant look over their shoulders to check if the Americans are going to throw a wobbler and crush the whole thing). Meanwhile, thanks to the Americans (who feel that – far from taking too much tax away from the Europeans – their taxpayers are hiding their income there),  everybody is trying to make sure that their tax residents declare all their ill-gotten gains.

He tried to take shares in somebody else

He tried to take shares in somebody else

Dogma rules. If this can be sorted out, we are told, the world will be a fairer place. Perhaps. But there are two small issues here that should have been factored in. Firstly, it is by no means clear that companies should pay tax.  While Shylock could ask, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ joint-stock companies, like Pinocchio, do not have the same luxury. Companies are a legal fiction – the Walt Disney of the business world. As they do not have feelings (an accusation often aimed at me), they cannot suffer taxation. Taxation is paid by flesh and blood people – it is the customers who pay higher prices , the shareholders who make lower profits, and the employees who receive lower income. The company just sails on regardless – and, if it dies, does not even warrant a marked grave. There has always, therefore, been a strong movement to abolish company taxes in favour of taxes on individuals – income tax, withholding tax, value added tax. Company taxes, it is argued, distort economic performance.

Secondly, while the search for the hidden treasures abroad  of individuals is highly laudable,  white man speaks with forked tongue. The latest example of Orwellian Doublespeak is last week’s British budget where non-domicile status (institutionalized tax avoidance) was, with much fanfare, marginally tweaked. Rich foreigners will still be able to enjoy the English weather for substantial periods.

While BEPS and Automatic Exchange of Information are undoubtedly an improvement on the international tax scene that has been around until now, they are not a Utopian goal resulting from deep thought and discussion. They are  the result of an ‘I want’ philosophy of the electorates of the world’s leading nations. The elimination of company tax is controversial and may be totally impractical, but it, and other ideas including a simple move to regressive VAT as the main source of revenue, should have been part of  the debate that never came. Instead, the new world tax order – like so much else in the modern world – is being led by populism. And populism – thanks to a biased, disingenuous and largely ignorant press – is becoming increasingly dogmatic. Look what happened to the French in the 1790s.




Who said tax is boring?

Still at it

Still at it

I was at dinner with friends late last year when one of the female guests announced that her husband was taking her skiing ‘for her special birthday’. My in-built accountant’s abacus went into immediate action calculating the lady’s possible age. This took into account the ages of her children, her looks, and the milestones of her life, as shared with anyone who had been willing to listen between the chopped liver and the soup. In a state of complete disbelief, I disingenuously told her how wonderful she looked for 50. ‘No, I am 55 actually,’ she replied, to my absolute lack of surprise. ‘What the hell is special about 55?’ I thought too loudly. ‘Aren’t you planning on making it to 60?’

I mention this incident because, for some months, I have been debating how to celebrate this, my 150th post. If truth be told, 150 is not a landmark – the Americans hardly bothered with the anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, earlier this month. But, at the rate I am writing these days, number 200 is looking dangerously  post-mortem.

I figured it was about time I revisited the tab which has  been up there at the top of the page from the start: ‘What is this blog?’ The first paragraph bemoaned my marginalization at social gatherings – anyone and everyone running a mile when they heard I was a tax geek.

Well, 150 – I hope vaguely entertaining – posts later, I found myself late the other night sitting around a friend’s kitchen counter with a senior tax official (with whom I have been on excellent terms for years), and a tax lawyer whose name I, mercifully, still do not know. The tax official (a woman) and I were sharing reminiscences of some of the quirks of the tax authority in our early days twenty years back. Among the memories, there was the period when, if the head of the main tax office – later Tax Commissioner – saw me in the corridor, he would stroke my arm and say soothing things to me because he had evidently been convinced by his deputy that I was a potential mass murderer (I had my own doubts about the deputy).

Some time into our conversation, the nice tax lawyer gentleman whose name I still don’t know decided to get in on the act. He asked us about our experience with tax levies on the employers of Sub-Saharan refugees. When we both said that we had no experience, he launched into a 40 minute monologue on the subject, pausing occasionally to ask our views, just to make sure we hadn’t dropped off. In fact, I don’t know if it was only 40 excrutiating minutes because, at 12.45am, my wife thankfully came over to whisk me home. He was still going strong, apparently oblivious as to whether he had an audience or not.

So, I can state categorically that there is nothing more boring than listening to someone talking tax. If you see me walking into a room, you will be perfectly within your emotional rights to look the other way. ‘Who said tax is boring? It was me, actually.’ Nothing has changed.

Celebrity Squares

1101500102_400Adolf Hitler is, for me, ancient history, while Churchill is almost pinchable. Why the distinction regarding two implacable foes, the height of whose infamy and fame coincided exactly? It is simply because, by the time I was born, Hitler had been dead for over a decade, while I remember Churchill’s funeral,  50 years ago next week, vividly. Hitler was in black-and-white. Churchill was in colour.

We tend to think back on our childhood as steady-state. I was 10 years old when Colour TV came to Britain and  have always thought of it as a major revolution in British life. In fact, although the BBC had started broadcasting in 1936, few homes had TVs until around 15 years before Colour hit the living room. The story of the last hundred and fifty years has been one of continuous change.

Change has been as true of Celebrity as of any other field. Although the early twentieth century brought images of mute silver-screen stars to the world’s movie theatres, it was Charles Lindbergh who, thanks to his groundbreaking transatlantic flight in 1927, was the first true international celebrity. World leaders were not seriously heard until the 1930s, so that, when the British people had the lion’s heart in the dark days of 1940, Churchill’s roar was quite a novelty. It wasn’t surprising that the Old Man was crowned Time Magazine’s Man of the Half-Century in 1950 (he was beaten for the full century by Einstein), or that he was later voted, almost by acclamation, as the Greatest Englishman, whatever that may mean.

High Flyer

High Flyer

Through the second half of the twentieth  century, celebrity had two significant branches – entertainment and glitzy wealth on the one hand, and politics on the other. If you were not an embarrassing extrovert or a politician, you could expect to live your life in blissful anonymity. Then came the Information Revolution. Everybody was out there with the potential to reach the world – even if the world wasn’t really that interested in being reached by most of them. But who cared? It was cheap and worth a go.

Which brings me to my point. I am a tax advisor. I am, despite what it says in the sub-headline to this blog, boring. Tax advice is something to be practiced behind closed doors by consenting adults. Should I ever become a celebrity, it will not (or at least, should not) be because I dispense advice about the laws and practices of taxation.

But, it appears, the times they are a’changing. After the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration aired its maiden internet TV broadcast last year, its head – the drop-dead gorgeous Pascal Saint-Amans – has now been declared Person of the Year by none other than Tax Notes International (which you will be forgiven for never having heard of). In a wide-ranging interview on the progress of the world-famous BEPS project, he declares that he is ‘the luckiest person in the tax world’. Now, go steady there, Pascal. A tax attorney who pocketed a $10 million success fee might argue that you are in second place. We know you are an important bloke, and you and your team have to philosophise a lot about the future of taxation, but – as I have written in the past – philosophy is to international taxation what a bicycle is to a fish. You, and the world-famous Tax Notes International, may think that the BEPS project is up there with the Theory of Relativity and World War II, but frankly it isn’t.



When tax bureaucrats become celebrities – and I stress that I am sure Mr Saint-Amans is amazingly good at whatever he does from 9 to 5 – it is time to think about hanging up ones Oxford Shoes.  A good tax advisor is someone who has a broad view of the business and political environment around him. There is plenty more to read about than irrelevant bla-bla regarding  tax people similar to himself.

So I say to the editors and my fellow readers of Tax Notes International: ‘Get a life!’


Christmas Cheer

Charles-DickensThe spirit of Christmas Present materialized in the wake of the sensational success of  ‘A Christmas Carol’. Britain which, despite French whinging, was – in 1843 – the world’s superdooperpower, had been struggling with Christmas traditions and what-not for years. Dickens’s simple short story of a tyrannical, lonely employer mirrored against his put-upon employee (the latter having a loving, but tragic, family life) caught the nation’s mood. In a tale that, to borrow  from John Lennon, is more popular than the Nativity, the eponymous Scrooge eventually sees the light, and everyone – including the sick child that Dickens threw in for extra pathos – lives happily ever after. Amen.

The gifts didn't improve much over the years

The gifts didn’t improve much over the years

For me, a non-Christian, Christmas has long been defined by an event exactly 100 years ago today. The organized football match between the Allies and the Hun is probably apocryphal (nobody can agree on the score), but what is certain is that there was an informal truce on the Western Front for a number of hours on Christmas Day 1914. The Germans seem to have started it (as every good Englishman knows, they always start everything) by singing Stille Nacht (a passable translation of Silent Night). Before long, both sides were out of the trenches exchanging gifts of tobacco, black bread and buttons – and, just maybe, starting the Hundred Years War that has seen Jerry winning four World Cups to our one. (Fortunately, the World Wars went the other way.)

The truce over, the troops climbed back into their respective trenches and spent the next four years ensuring that at least 10 million of their number would never again sit around a Christmas tree exchanging gifts in the bosom of their families. Indeed, in December 1915, the order went out that any repeat of the events of a year earlier would result in a Court Martial and the Firing Squad, not necessarily in that order.

And THAT is Christmas. Once a year, mankind is enveloped in a vague haze that colours its eyesight and addles its brain. For a few short weeks, minds turn to gift-buying and peace and goodwill to all mankind. Come January 2nd, the miserable self-seeking world is back to normal  (from what I am told by Christian friends, it can start on Christmas afternoon when out-of-town guests – like three-day-old fish – start to stink). Someone who in mid- December would volunteer to save the world would, come  New Year, not give the drippings of his nose to a person dying of thirst.

Why do people insist on comparing me to these guys?

Why do people insist on comparing me to these guys?

This is the reason why, perhaps ironically, I believe in Taxation. While there are countless wonderful individuals and organizations out there who help the less fortunate, only the enlightened, collective self-interest of a people delegating the responsibility for its poor to its elected representatives, has the chance of ridding a country of the scourge of poverty. However enticing the Christmas message of peace and goodwill to all men sounds today (December 25th), Scrooge was right when he called it ‘Humbug!’

In any event, a heartfelt Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating today.

The Gentle Tax

Spot the player who had never heard of Germaine Greer

Spot the player who had never heard of Germaine Greer

There was a time when the mere mention of the name Germaine Greer – pioneering feminist author of ‘The Female Eunuch’ – made grown men (and only grown men) adopt the Direct-free-kick-defensive-wall position favoured by all modern footballers. I had no such reaction when, the other day, I turned on my car radio and was sucked into the middle of a BBC panel show in which she was participating. Greer has long been an occasional, articulate and humorous guest on  such programmes. A few years ago she even eulogized one of my all-time heroes, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ Chairman Humphrey ‘Humph’ Lyttleton, describing him as ‘salacious’. Salacious translates into Street English as ‘Dirty Old Man’- an adjective painstakingly earned by the deceased octogenarian, who was the master of double-entendre and, hence, an unlikely guru of the guru of feminists. But we all grow up eventually.

I can forgive Greer and her bra-burning cohorts just about everything, but I cannot accept the pathetically small-minded assault they made on the English language. I refer, of course, to the default pronoun. For  centuries the default pronoun has been ‘He/His” (A good  student always does his homework). Even if some crazies thought this was not appropriate, there was always ‘They/Their’ (A good student always does their homework) or ‘One/Ones’ (I cannot be bothered with an example). But no, Greer and Co were not satisfied with equality, they wanted liberation (or was it the other way round?)  So, ‘She/Hers’ started popping up. And nearly half a century after The Female Eunuch, it looks like the bloody thing is taking off. I recently stopped reading a new, much acclaimed, English Style book because my eyeballs started going in opposite directions around my head at the consistent use of ‘She’. And then, yesterday, my beloved Economist – supposedly slave to the bestselling Economist Style Book – succumbed.

Language undoubtedly evolves, but that evolution – especially in the case of the chaotic English language- should be natural and gradual. This She/He business is pure tampering.

Dressed like that, it is no wonder he got away with so much rhetoric in his inaugural address

Dressed like that, it is no wonder he got away with so much rhetoric in his inaugural address

An example of a material, but natural, change in the English language over the last few decades is the reduced use of rhetoric. Asked to reach for your favourite speech (‘your’ is yet another way of getting round the gender-bender issue), you will probably go for something out of 20th century history: Roosevelt’s ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’; Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches’; Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’. Chances are you will not come up with  George W Bush’s, ‘You teach a child to read , and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test’ (which is why he definitely should have stayed with the default pronoun),  or even Barack Obama’s…… well, let’s face it, he has simply never said anything worth remembering.

Rhetoric, once a staple of any English-speaking child’s education, has pretty much gone out of the window. People are nowadays as well-educated as those who lead and try to influence them, so rhetoric tends to sound naff. Nevertheless, as pointed out in an article last week in the New York Times by Mark Forsyth (who, even Ms Greer would allow me to refer to as ‘he’), rhetoric still has a central place on Madison Avenue.

I thought it would be fun to see what slogans a tax wonk could come up with based on rhetoric.



‘Intel Inside’ is an example of Alliteration, as is a method for stopping dogs fouling our footpaths: ‘Tax the Turds’ (with a background picture of a traffic warden handing out a ticket).

‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘Be all you can be’, and ‘Home, sweet home’ are diacopes, as is: ‘Tax, your tax’ (with a picture of a Victorian hospital corridor full of occupied beds).

An example of a chiasmus is ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind’.  How about a Republican slogan: ‘America must lower taxes, or taxes will lower America’?

Enallage is a deliberate grammatical mistake for effect such as ‘We was robbed’. That could be a good line against a background of a picture of any Finance Minister at any time in history.

But the daddy (or, Ms Greer, should that be ‘mummy’?) of them all is the Tricolon:  ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’; ‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite’; ….’Tax, fraud, prison’.



The Good Old Days?

These two would have sorted out Islamic State

These two would have sorted out Islamic State

By the time you get to my age (I, just about, remember what I was doing when I heard JFK had been shot), there are not many childhood ambitions you have either not fulfilled or not given up on. I made it to the Volvo, but not President of the United States (an early disappointment reading a DC Comic – if being born on Krypton ruined it for Superman, Stoke Newington wasn’t going to do much for my chances).

Well, last Saturday night I finally fulfilled an ambition that first entered my head one Spring day in 1970. I remember walking into the school library, the most junior of juniors, and asking the duty prefect to order a copy of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga”.  I had been gobsmacked  by the 26 hour BBC adaptation that had been showing in 1968/69 and I thought I would have a go at the original. Either because the prefect knew that the book was about something resembling incest (inbreeding), or because he was an illiterate moron,  instead of encouraging my literary pretensions, he threatened me with detention. Illiterate moron. Definitely.

Last Saturday night, having logged out from normal life  for four complete Saturdays in a row, I finally finished the trilogy that is the Forsyte Saga. It did not disappoint.

It possesses  one of those story lines that would not disgrace ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ (which I saw for the first time on Friday – somebody told me a number of the characters were thinking of taking up acting; I hope not). I will try a short synopsis (if you are under 18, despite the word ‘incest’, this is a family  site, so I suggest you clear off). Names are a bit of a bind: there is Jolyon and Jo and Jolly and Jon – not to mention, June. So I shall use letters.

Spot the one with two heads

Spot the one with two heads

Back in the 1880s, Mr A and Mr B are first cousins who don’t like each other very much. Mr A marries first but later runs off and marries his daughter’s governess, abandoning his daughter (A minor)  to her mother and his father (Mr Old A – the wives’ names are not important). Mr B marries Mrs  B (her name is very, very important) but she cannot stick him. Mrs B steals A minor’s fiance, who proceeds to top himself . Mrs B walks out on Mr B. Mrs B falls in love with widower Mr A, and Mr B names them both in a divorce suit. Mr A marries Mrs B, while Mr B marries a French woman who is not important. Mr A and Mrs B have a son (AB minor), while Mr B has a daughter (B minor). AB minor and B minor fall in love and want to get married. This cheeses off just about everybody. Just to add to the fun, Mr A has two children from the governess, one of whom dies in the Boer War, while the other marries Mr B’s nephew (this is a daughter – which would have been stating the  obvious in the 19th century), her second cousin. She is the only really sensible one in the whole book, deciding not to have children because – thanks to the family connection – they might be born with two heads.

There is, however, something that was, to the best of my juvenile memory, completely missing from the BBC series. The trilogy is about unabashed capitalism – Soames Forsyte (Mr B), the books’ main protagonist, along with almost all the Forsytes, is obsessed with property and the individual’s right to own as much of it, in all its forms,  as possible. That fits well with late Victorian England, but there is a great leap to the last book from 1901 to 1920, which Nobel Laureate Galsworthy was writing in real-time (published 1921).

This was immediately after the Great War, when the aristocracy and middle classes were living in real fear of what might happen to the country. Income Tax had already been hiked before and during the War. But, while Soames and various Forsytes bewail the inroads the income tax and super-tax are making into their fortunes, they live with a far greater fear which, given the timing of the book, is almost palpable. Three years earlier, King George’s doppelgänger cousin, together with his family,  had been murdered by the Bolsheviks. In Britain, with universal suffrage (that is ‘the vote’ for any under-18s who did not heed my advice above), the Labour Party was rising rapidly and there was a real concern of either outright revolution or wanton nationalization.  As it turned out Labour foamed and fizzled, it requiring another World War to deliver them a sustainable parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, ignorant of what the future held, Soames (and Galsworthy) hid their Top Hats and flashy cars in the hope of not being noticed.

Spot the one with a brain

Spot the one with a brain

A hundred years on, and it is interesting to note that the Social Protests as well as the writings of the likes of that Frenchman Thomas Piketty have not led the nouveau-riche to hide their  wealth. Quite the opposite – they appear to flaunt it.  It will be interesting to see how this one pans out. Whatever happens, I will not be around for the BBC series in 2068 (although, I imagine ‘The Bold and The Beautiful’ will still be going strong).



The Tax Business

This week's edition has come back to Earth.

This week’s edition has come back to Earth.

If proof were needed that the Silly Season is upon us, it turned up in our mail box a few days ago. Slowly ripping open the envelope housing last week’s Economist, I noticed an ‘x’ peeping out at me from the partially-revealed cover. Excited by the prospect of ‘tax’ finally having  hit the headlines of  the world’s most venerable newspaper, I rapidly finished the job, the publication  falling unceremoniously onto the kitchen table.

Well, it seems that tax doesn’t sell newspapers at airport newsstands in midsummer. The normally sober Economist had gone for the lowest common denominator, running a feature: ‘The Sex Business’. Having seen the article, all I can say is that there will have been a lot of disappointed vacationing punters out there who would not have been able  to get their money back because, by the time they realized their mistake, they were half way round the world.

If the Economist can be silly in August, so can I.

Something that has been bothering me for ages is the complete lack of respect for the English language in certain  tax publications. My firm subscribes to a number of leading journals. Most are pure hardcore professional jobs that pay no attention to format, but provide their product in a raw and timely manner.  However, there is at least one (which I will not mention by name for fear of reprisal), from a highly respected stable, that presents itself as a glossy, ‘hip’ magazine. Sixty pages, lots of colour pictures, a ‘funny’ (spare me, please) back page, plenty of adverts and a $200+ cover price (in fairness, internet access is thrown in). The articles, generally written by tax professionals who I assume are not paid, are often highly informative, justifying the subscription. But, what I cannot abide, is the wanton lack of editing which, frankly, is more-or-less all that is left for the editors and publishers to do.

Here is a recent example:

As those involved in the OECD’s base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) project reach for the halftime oranges and energy drinks, our special BEPS feature looks at the progress made to date and explores the hurdles that litter the track ahead as the bell rings to signify the last lap in this race against an ambitious timeframe to produce meaningful outcomes.

If you pay peanuts....

If you pay peanuts….

Oh dear! This would have got me a miserable fail  – and a whack round the head –  in primary school. Apart from the lack of punctuation (one comma in an unforgiveably long sentence), the  metaphor is horribly jumbled; although no great athlete, I do not recall half-time in races – even marathons. I could go on and on, but I will not try your patience.

The saddest thing about this ‘sentence’ , apart from the enormous angst it must have caused the myriad readers for whom English is not their mother tongue, is that it was part of the introduction (the rest was no better) to a full-blown feature section. With no appetite to proceed, I dipped into the first article, which included in the first sentence the expression “most well-known’. Unless he had been paid by the word (and well-known counted as two), the average mortal would have gone for the better recognized:  ‘best known’. At that point, I realized: ‘Houston, we have a problem’, and made a mental note to take 2 aspirin half an hour before attempting to read on.

She even edits the text on her tee-shirts

She even edits the text on her tee-shirts

It is high-time they took some of their income from the advertising and $200+ cover price to employ a good copy editor.  If currently between books, E.L. James or Danielle Steele would  do a wonderful job with the syntax and punctuation, at the same time coming up with unthought-of teasers for a three-letter word ending in ‘x’ (in case you were wondering, I was referring to ‘tax’).

And before you start gratuitously red-marking this post – rest assured that, when you start paying me $200 a shot for this Blog, I will employ a copy writer.

Happy Silly Season.






Down Wiv Skool

Arvind Mahankali won the National Spelling Bee by correctly misspelling Kneydl

Arvind Mahankali won the National Spelling Bee by correctly misspelling Kneydl

I was chatting the other night with my middle son when he came out with the word “procrastinate”. He also knew what it meant – not bad for a young man neither born nor bred in an English-speaking country. While ‘procrastinate’ is not as complicated as ‘antidisestablishmentarianism,’ the word does have as many syllables as  that old spelling bee horror: ‘Mississippi’.

“Procrastinate” is a word that should be on every English-speaking tax advisor’s lips.  Meaning ‘Manana’, it is what tax authorities the world over are truly expert at doing. If tax authorities ran hospitals, patients would all be dead  from untreated disease or old age.

It may therefore come as a surprise that ‘procrastinate’ is a word I do not use. I do employ lots of other words to convey my feelings to the tax authorities which, over the years, have got me into several scrapes requiring a grovelling apology the next day – but “You incompetent procrastinator” never made it to the top of  my windpipe.

My singular avoidance of the word has its roots in an event 40 years ago this month.

While the rest of the world was celebrating the 30th anniversary of the D Day  landings in Normandy, I was experiencing my own Dunkirk.

In June 1974, at the ripe old age of 16, I sat my O levels. For those not raised in Britain or those too young or too old (they are coming back in 2017) to remember them O levels were, coupled with the horrendous 11-plus,  the components of a peculiarly patrician British examination system designed to ensure sufficient dropout at 15 or 16 to maintain  supply  of  barely educated labour to the mines, factories and clerical jobs. (There were also ‘immigrants’ who drove the buses and suchlike, but they were  called other names then that are no longer de rigeur).

We should have been so lucky

We should have been so lucky

About two hours after completing the paper in English Literature I received a call at home from the school secretary that the headmaster (principal) wanted to see me “Now!”.  Not having the faintest idea what I was being summoned for, I remember sauntering calmly to school – despite the fact that the headmaster had a reputation as a  frightening despot. Arriving at his study door, I was ushered in. I think I know what condemned men in US prisons feel when they enter the Death Chamber. The headmaster, cruelly disfigured by acute arthritis,  sat at his desk smoking his beloved pipe. Next to him stood the superannuated  chief invigilator, a truly dreadful man who had been an amateur boxer in his younger days and was a diabolically poor maths teacher to boot. The latter  wore  his trade-mark fixed grimace. Various other senior masters littered the room in diverse states of discomfort.

“Is this yours?” It was the headmaster creaking his head in the direction of the far edge of his desk.

Following his line of sight,  my eyes landed on the pink answer book that had my candidate number on it. Now, readers, you will doubtless share with me the feeling that, similar to watching a coffin being lowered into a grave at a funeral, when you hand in an exam paper, it is your fervent desire that you will never see it again. So, shocked by the situation, I answered the obvious: “Yes, sir.” I saw the invigilator’s mouth lengthen into a pencil-thin smile.

“So, you admit it, do you?” The headmaster again.

“Of course. It is my exam paper…sir”

‘Not the exam paper, boy (they really did speak like that in those days – TB). This’. He manoeuvred his arm toward the exam book and clawed at a heavily folded piece of white paper perched on top of it. He waved it in my direction. I took it and opened it. It was a series of brief crib notes on Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock”.  The first line contained one solitary four syllable word. You guessed it (No, it wasn’t Mississippi).

“Mr E***** (he of grimace fame) found this in the examination room and, after carefully checking the handwriting of all the papers, has come to the conclusion that it is closest to yours.” E***** was clearly as good a graphologist as a maths teacher.

I managed to compose myself.

“Sir. If you look closely, this is clearly not my handwriting. Furthermore, if you look for the word “Procrastinate” in my paper, you will not find it”. I even ventured a little joke from the gallows: “I wish I HAD known the word. It might have bought me a few more marks.”

“It is our intention to send it to the University Examination Board and let them decide”.  This was positively frightening. Whatever else I was or wasn’t in school, I was always known as scrupulously honest. At the University, I would just be a number and my – as yet not quite – budding academic career could be prematurely ended by a summary trial and execution by firing squad.  With that, the inquisition ended and I was dismissed to mull over my future.

The bottom line was that, following the intervention of a number of civilized members of staff and, I believe, the Headmaster waiting enough time to shake the Chief Rottweiler off his tail (tale?), I was informed a few days later that the matter was closed.

As regards that English Literature exam, I have to admit (perhaps to the surprise of some readers), that I was not much into it in school. I did scrape a minimum “Pass” grade largely thanks to the fact that the black-and-white movie version of one of the two set-books was shown on television on the Sunday afternoon prior to the exam – thus negating the need to read the wretched thing.

I didn't make it up

I didn’t make it up

As Chick Flicks go, the 1939 Oscar-winning adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights scores pretty high on the Kleenex charts. A weepy if ever there was one, the most poignant scene has to be the death of Cathy (Merle Oberon) . Determined to maximise the pathos , the immortal William Wyler directed that, while the emotionally stunted Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) took adulterous centre-stage, Cathy’s hapless husband, Edgar Linton (David Niven), should cry bitterly as he bent over the body (and they say the modern world is immoral). When Niven failed to produce the tears, the prop man blew menthol into his eyes resulting in him ejaculating the entire contents of his nose over the corpse. The hitherto dead Cathy proceeded to return immediately to life and run off screaming to the dressing room. Astute observers of the blooper-free scene on You Tube will notice that Niven does not make it any further than the end of the bed. While naughty Heathcliff gets to caress his dead mistress’s limp hand, Linton has to make do with his wife’s dead feet.

Many years ago, when my eldest son was in High School, he forgot to take something with him in the morning that was relevant for something-or-other that day. I was around  at home for some reason, so I offered to take whatever-it-was to him. Arriving at the door of his class, I observed total mayhem. Pupils were walking in and out, talking, shouting, standing on desks. I assumed it was Morning Break and sauntered in. Pleased to see me, my son suggested we went outside. As I was leaving the class, I noticed a teacher buried in a book at the front. Safely outside, I asked my boy what was going on. “”Oh! We are in the middle of an exam.” You couldn’t make it up.

Deading The Fat Man

In God We Trust

In God We Trust

Moral Dilemma – two words that do not feature prominently , jointly or severally, in the tax advisor’s lexicon.

In the first half of the 20th Century when world wars were all the rage,  moral dilemmas evolved from the gritty reality of combat.  By the late sixties serious debate was banished to the periphery of existence along with Bras and the Bible.

In 1967 the ubiquitous moral dilemma that had every moral philosopher  thinking involved a trolley hurtling out of control along a railway line towards 5 people bound to the tracks. All 5 were bound to die unless the chap with the moral dilemma diverted the trolley to a siding where a single individual would be unavoidably sent to kingdom come. Was the loss of one life preferable to the loss of five where there was an, albeit indirect, contribution to the lone death?

By 1996 the search for sound-bytes, together with advances in the human condition, had led to the addition of a bridge over the railway with a slobbering fat man sitting precariously on the parapet.  Our friend with the moral dilemma now had a number of choices. He could pull the lever and be the indirect cause of the unpleasant demise of the single person on the siding; he could let the 5 on the track go west; or he could – very directly – push the fat git off the bridge , thus dispatching him to an oversized grave while stopping the trolley in its tracks. (The chap with the moral dilemma would not sacrifice himself because (1) he was too thin to stop the trolley and (2) moral philosophers are often people with their heads up their own backsides who have difficulty practicing what they preach).

Although the Utilitarian answer to this conundrum would be a toss-up between diverting the  trolley or deflating the fat geezer  (a 5-1 win for the human race), it was established that  the most likely outcome would be to watch in horror as the 5 are trampled. Coming in second would be diversion of the trolley. The Fat Man would survive to spill over both sides of  the middle-seat on an economy flight to Australia, as well as to invariably eat the last cake on the plate.  Even though they could not  stand his guts –  normal people would shy away from actively taking the man’s life.



Last week I read in The Economist, however, that according to a recent book “Would You Kill the Fat Man?” when the question is posed to respondents in a foreign  language,  it is more likely that they will elect to kill the bridge-balancing- blubbery- baboon. This has nothing to do with xenophobia. (I must apologize to any rotund gentlement reading this post if I am sounding unintentionally offensive. I am currently on a diet trying to shrink my girth and I figured that, just like anti-Semites never become Jews and the English never become Irish – if I am disparaging enough about fat people, I will have conquered obesity for ever – fat chance).

The reason  cited for the different results when talking in a foreign language stems from something I mentioned in my blog of April 28:

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, fast and slow’ talks about “expert intuition” – a Fire Chief who senses exactly when to leave a burning house before it collapses or a Chess Master who can instinctively advise the next three moves in somebody else’s game. It turns out that this comes from enormous practice and experience and not some magical eureka moment –  a combination of System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (conscious) thinking. This allows for quick, highly complex, thoughts.

It turns out that when you are thinking foreign, you slide into System 2 thinking most of the time. As a result, while the Natural Born English Speaker instinctively decides he cannot shove the Fat Man over the edge, the foreigner is forced to ruminate more slowly over the question and is more likely to come to a utilitarian decision,  which might just explain why Germany started two world wars.

This has consequences for tax consultancy (and just about every other verbal interaction for that matter). Last week I met with a gentleman from   Southern Europe who, for the purposes of this post, we shall refer to as Umberto. Now, because Umberto was not called Frank, Henry or Michael, as we sat over some pretty complex tax issues I realized that, even putting my mouth into low gear and applying the hand brake, he was left hanging on for life to the rear bumper. Until I read the Economist article I assumed it was just a matter of language but now I realize that our thought processes were probably working on two different planes. The upshot is that, given that there are far more of them than us, English tax advisors should be forced to attend a course in English as a Foreign Language in which they are brainwashed into thinking in Pidgin.

What would he have made of it all?

What would he have made of it all?

It is parochial and naive to think that English has conquered the world. It is the world that has conquered English.

I think I am going to start speaking like Borat. It’s a very nice.


Two deaths and a funeral

Taken too soon

Taken too soon

Last week news of two deaths brought sadness to members of my family. My lawyer son was devastated by the premature demise of  Adrian Mole aged only 47 1/52, cut down in his prime when his greatest years of mediocrity and failure lay before him. As Mr Mole was nearly 10 years younger than me I had never had the opportunity, as I picked at the acne spots on my unseemly teenage face,  to take comfort in the confessions he committed to his candid teenage diary: his obsessive love for the unattainable Pandora Braithwaite, his dismissive opinion of his utterly abominable dysfunctional parents and so on and so forth.

My own grief was reserved for Adrian’s creator,  Sue Townsend, who died on April 10 at the untimely age of  68 1/52.  Sue Townsend was one of a handful of this generation’s genuinely great comic authors. Her forte was social and political satire and, I admit, much of what she wrote made me want to throw up – which is probably a sign of how good it was. While the Adrian Mole series of books and her most recent “The Woman Who Stayed in Bed for a Year” prey on the dysfunctionality of the  British  middle class (lower and whatever else), “The Queen and I” cuts out the middle-class entirely; the deposed Royal Family are forced to subsist on social welfare while living on a filthy working class estate. Prince Charles gets arrested, while the Queen Mother has the down-and-out neighbours over for tea.

My personal favourite Sue Townsend novel is “Number 10”, in which a thinly disguised Tony Blair dresses up as a woman and tours the country with his police guard finding out what the public really thinks. The dearth of unattractive dysfunctionals, coupled with my eternal delight at seeing that particular Prime Minister dissed,  makes it an uplifting experience from beginning to end.

You couldn't make him up

You couldn’t make him up

My most-loved quote from that novel, and from the late, lamented Ms Townsend’s pen in general,  relates to when Edward Clare’s (Tony Blair’s) wife Adele (Cherie) has taken a fashionable breast-feeding break from a meeting on the subject of Irritable Bowel Syndrome at 10 Downing Street. Baroness Holyoaks of the Liberal Democrats (those wombats who are now in coalition with Dave Cameron) is striking up a conversation with Rosemary Umbago, the blind editor of the Daily Voice:

“…’I do think it’s marvellous how you manage with your visual impairment, Rosemary.’

“Rosemary snapped, ‘Oh please call it blindness. I really can’t bear those weasel words of political correctness. I’m blind, for God’s sake. I was born blind. I’m not one of those sensitive nouveau-blind people who keep whinging on about their precious sight loss.’

“Baroness Hollyoaks, mindful of Rosemary’s dislike of politically correct language, said, ‘So, Rosemary, I understand you are married for the second time to a South African. Is he a nigger?'”

Now, while you search for excuses as to how she could get away with that last line, although Townsend was born in Leicester – which has the highest ethnic minority population in the United Kingdom –  far from being black she could probably best be described as a “whiter shade of pale”. She was, however, blind – along with being plagued with a cacophony of other dreadful illnesses and impairments as well as a history of near-poverty. It may explain why her satire is so cutting and spot-on. It also speaks volumes about a remarkable woman who brought enormous pleasure to millions. The Taxbreak family will keenly miss Ms Townsend and her creations and while this Post has nothing to do with tax, it has everything to do with this Blog .

My condolences to the multi-ethnic inhabitants of Leicester on the loss of  a favourite daughter and, meanwhile,  Happy Holidays to those of you in Leicester celebrating Passover or Easter this week. (Anyone?)



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