John Lanchester

In the house in Clapham, South London, where we’ve lived for the last couple of years, the first post of the day—in the U.K. there are usually two—isn’t delivered until about 11 in the morning. This is, from the point of view of a writer who lives at home, a significant boost to productivity. I find if I get upstairs to my desk before answering a phone call, looking at a newspaper, checking my e-mail, or opening any letters, I am immensely more likely to just get on with some work. Any one of those busy, practical-type things can cost you several hours’ useful labor, and of all of them, letters are the worst.

By letters I don’t of course mean birthday cards from aunts and so on, but anything to do with bills and money, especially if it comes in a brown envelope, and especially especially anything where the envelope is brown but the figures inside are red. I find these hard to deal with and harder to ignore. If I were a computer, they would be shown eating up enormous amounts of RAM space. This condition is known as being frightened of your mail.

Actually, I have a pretty mild case of the syndrome. I have heard of people who send all their mail to their accountants, unopened. Not just bills and brown envelopes, but everything. If it’s a letter from Aunt Sadie, the accountant writes “Letter from Aunt Sadie” on the front and returns it. And then there is the character in Martin Amis’ novel The Information, who has ceased to be frightened of his mail ever since he got a solicitor’s letter from his own solicitor …

No, I’m not too bad, apart from one thing: brown envelopes with the words “Customs and Excise” on the cover. That’s because anything bearing those words is to do with VAT, Value Added Tax, a sort of sales tax that I became responsible for collecting about five years ago when I made the mistake of earning more than £25,000 from my free-lance writing in one calendar year.

Here’s the way it used to be before VAT: I wrote a piece and got paid for it. Here’s the way it is now: I write the piece, file it, ring up the editor, ask what I’m going to be paid, write down what he or she tells me, hang up, work out what the amount comes to plus 17.5 per cent VAT, type out an invoice, print it, put it in an envelope, go downstairs, get a stamp, walk to the post office, send the letter, then go home and write down everything I’ve just done in a big accounts ledger. That is of course unless it is a piece for a European publication, in which case it is zero-rated for VAT, meaning that although it’s technically eligible for VAT, I don’t have to charge it, although I do have to keep a record of it for VAT purposes, and I can charge VAT-eligible expenses against it. If it’s for an American publication, on the other hand, it’s not eligible for VAT so I don’t have to do a VAT invoice and I can’t charge VAT expenses against it although I still need to keep a record of it for my tax return and I can charge non-VAT expenses against it. When I finish a book, I have to bill my U.K. publisher for VAT, though not my European or American publishers, and my agent has to bill me for VAT on his services, though I can of course reclaim that VAT against my own VAT, except of course in the specific circumstances when I can’t.

That clear? Didn’t think so. Instead, what I, and everyone else I know, do is keep every single work-related scrap of paper I can find, by the simple expedient of shoving them in my hip pocket. When it’s time for the trousers to be washed, I decant the contents of the pocket and then, once every three months, when the dreaded envelope arrives, I have a VAT day.

Yesterday was VAT day. This is the drill: I went around the house to the three or four places where I’d left receipts and put them in a huge envelope. Then I went upstairs and sorted them into smaller envelopes—Research, Travel, etc. That’s my Input VAT. For some reason, stuff you buy or spend is called Input. Then I put together a vastly smaller envelope of invoices for stuff I have written—in the last three months, because I’ve been working on a book, this amounts to two items—and put it in an envelope called Output VAT. Then I wrote a covering letter and drove to my accountant’s and back, which took an hour and three quarters. So that was yesterday. I have learned that the only way to get through VAT day is to tell myself that it’s all useful material for my autobiographical screenplay Lanchester: The Years of Struggle.