VAT and other little pleasures

A little literacy is a dangerous thing, and unsettling to the health. Easy is the mind that cannot scan the morning newspapers and discover therein what is about to cause it to cease functioning.

Even the odd snippet of encouragement is instantly countervailed. Thus, red wine is good for the heart – hooray. But red wine is more likely to give you a hangover, and hangovers cause cancer of the throat – boo. A slice of Brie will protect your teeth from decay – hooray. But Brie is saturated with harmful fat and will strangle your arteries till you pass out forever- boo, hoo. It’s not much consolation that your corpse will be free of dental caries.

But the mind that has learnt to read cannot just switch off, it craves printed matter. Which is as good an explanation as I can find for having read VAT Notes No. 3, 1998. It is not a course I would recommend to others. If newspapers are unsettling to the weakened body of a cheese eater, VAT Notes enfeeble the reader’s grip on reason.

For example: “Veterinary services – place of supply. A recent European Court of Justice decision concluded that veterinary services are supplied where the supplier of the service belongs.” Eh?

Or this: “Following a review, the liability of sweetened dried fruit has been made clearer. Where sweetened dried fruit is held out for sale as being suitable for both snacking and home baking, the supply can be zero-rated, irrespective of bag size. Sweetened fruit specifically held out for sale as confectionery remains standard-rated. Dried fruit that is naturally sweet and has no sweetening matter added to it remains zero-rated.”

Look out then, for sweetened dried fruit held out for sale as confectionery but sold with the vendor’s assurance that, in this instance, it is for the purpose of snacking, or home baking. And, by the way, you can have any size bag you like.

No mention, of course, that sweetened dried fruit is a notorious cause of periodontal ruin, but only when chewed. Used for home baking it is quite harmless and, better still, zero-rated.

After perusing VAT Notes, one is left with the overwhelming sense that life really is too short. Who gives a fig where vets belong or whether dried fruit is naturally sweet or sour or – here’s another – whether the charges made by opticians for spectacles are payment for standard-rated supplies of spectacles and exempt supplies of dispensing services?

Though a substantial body of evidence suggests that employees of HM Customs & Excise are not made as other people (one theory is they lack the chromosome that causes thought), can it be that they also enjoy a longevity unthreatened by such killers as wine and cheese, leaving them free to fill the long, untroubled years ahead with minutiae piled upon trivia and shot through with nit-picking? Wouldn’t you rather be dead?

But what’s this? Balm for the troubled mind? For fluttering on to my doormat, comes not one, but three leaflets, all agreeing that life is indeed too brief.

“You cannot afford to wait any longer,” writes Philip Turner. “Life is too short and precious.” In another age this might have been the preamble of an evangelist urging the sinner to repent, before God smote him and cast him into the fires from which there is no return.

In fact, Mr Turner’s offer is not that different. “Now is the time to get in shape. Work out at home or in your local gym. Fat burning and muscle tone. Weight train. Aqua aerobics. Dietary advice and food plans.” Dear God, life really is too short.

Peter Dede’s leaflet is altogether more soothing. “Do the right thing. Personal training. Stress management. Lifestyle analysis. On-site massage. Personal effectiveness coaching.” See how he’s even burnt off the verbs.

How the VATman would enjoy this: “Following a review, the liability of lifestyle analysis where massage takes place on-site and not where the masseuse belongs, is zero-rated. Personal effectiveness coaching, held out for sale as stress management but with massage off-site is standard-rated, provided the buyer of the service supplies his own essential oils not brought in from outside the European Community and not containing untreated groundnuts.”

The third leaflet is an invitation to the Lifestyle Zone, Potters Bar. No need for analysis here. You simply plunge in and friendly qualified personal trainers will show you a “refreshing contrast from the noise and bustle of daily life”.

“In front of a number of large TV monitors, which you can tune in to via your personal earphones, are arranged cycling machines, rowers, treadmills and stair climbers designed to create an exciting cardiovascular area second to none – no queuing for equipment here.”

I am not in the least surprised. I would rather be smitten by God, stuffed full of unsweetened dried fruit, filled to the gills with vin rouge, and force-fed blue Brie until my aorta begged for forgiveness rather than pound a treadmill, ear-plugged into a battery of TV monitors under the half-witted gaze of friendly instructors.

If the pain-racked perdition that is the Lifestyle Zone is a refreshing relaxing contrast to the noise and bustle outside, Potters Bar must be the nearest thing in Tony Blair’s New Britain to Gomorrah. If it doesn’t wake up and come to its civic senses, it will achieve iconic status.

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