It is with a heavy heart that, in the year of Our Lord two thousand and twenty one, I take up my quill to lament the passing of another milestone as our collective handcart continues its precipitate plunging descent through a dystopia of our own creation and towards the lower regions of Hell.
You can tell I’m filing my tax return.
I was resigned to the fact that extracting information from various financial institutions in Blighty, a “world leader” in obfuscation, would be like drawing blood from a stone. What I find hard to bear is that now dear New Zealand has become more like the rest of the world, the world as it is understood by Franz Kafka.
I wrote a letter to a certain financial institution in NZ, with whom I have been investing for thirty five years, requesting a print-out of interest earned on various accounts for the tax year 2020-21. I got a reply by email stating that this was not possible, and that I could access the information I needed through internet banking.
Now vis-a-vis this particular institution I don’t use the internet; however I bit the bullet and registered, with a considerable degree of difficulty, for internet banking. It was one of these Catch-22 situations where I needed an identifying number to register, but would only have an identifying number once registered. Anyway I got round that difficulty and got into the system.
The first thing I encountered was an alarm warning me that phishing scams were rampant and that if I came across such and such an alert it was bogus and on no account should I click on such and such a link. You see what is happening. Not only has this financial institution employed me as my own (unpaid) bank teller; it has also employed as my own (unpaid) night watchman, guarding the vaults.
Anyway having accessed my account I couldn’t figure out how to find a tax certificate. I went into “Help”. Has anybody in the history of the universe ever received help from a digital help desk? You ask a question and are directed to a menu of “commonly asked questions”, none of which you have asked.
But eventually I found what I was looking for. Open menu, open documents, click on tax certificates. I duly opened menu and opened documents. No sign of tax certificates. Anywhere. I logged out and emailed my contact in the institution and explained my difficulty. I suggested a solution. Would it be possible for the institution to send me a tax certificate by mail, a service for which I would be delighted to pay?
That was three days ago. No reply. (Incidentally, No Reply is a very wonderful Beatles’ song, the opener to the LP Beatles for Sale. It is full of anguish.) Now granted the weekend has intervened and I may yet receive a reply. But you know how it is when you carry out an interaction with an automated system, like booking a hotel room or buying concert tickets. You don’t get it quite right so the transaction does not go through. But the automated system doesn’t tell you why. (It has read its Kafka.) It just ignores you. I have a horrible feeling that human beings are modelling their behaviour patterns on machines. If your request, or plea for help, does not figure in the “commonly asked questions”, you are simply ignored. And people seem to think this is just dandy. You are, after all, a vexatious caller. A crank.
The reason why I find all this so upsetting is that this is not the New Zealand I know and love. When I first went to NZ in the mid-80s I was amazed to find that the taxi drivers would give you a tip. “That’s 22 bucks mate. Call it 20.” I remember buying my house, on Auckland’s beautiful North Shore. I went into a real estate agency in Devonport and said, “I want to buy a house here.” The agent, an ex-All Black, took me round a few houses that were on the market. At the sixth house, I said, “This is the one.” He said, “How much do you want to offer?” I named a price. He shook his head and said, “it’s too much. Offer this, and you will get it.” And that’s how it panned out.
Now the house prices in Auckland have gone bananas and there’s no way I could afford a house in Devonport. New Zealand is becoming like the rest of the world. And that is cause for lament.
Well, they say the only certainties are death and taxes. No point in getting upset. To paraphrase St Paul, “Whatsoever things are good, whatsoever things are true, think on these.” With this in mind, I tuned into Yo-Yo Ma on Desert Island Discs. The renowned musician took his cello with him when he went for his Covid vaccination, I think in New York, and gave an impromptu recital. Somebody said to him, “That was very good. Do you play in an orchestra?” Mr Ma replied, “Sometimes I play with the Boston.”
For the record (eight records), he chose Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, the aria Erbarme Dich from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Brahms First Piano Concerto, the Elgar Cello Concerto (Jaqueline du Pré) the Oscar Peterson Trio and Tin Tin Deo, Richard Strauss’ Morgen (Janet Baker), Moscow Nights sung by Dimitri Hvorostovsky, and Schubert’s Second String Trio. All this calmed me down. His book was Enyc Brit and his luxury a Swiss army knife (stretching the rules on both counts, but Ms Laverne was inclined to cut him some slack), and he saved the Schubert from the waves.
The thing is, Mr Ma is full of humanity. He happens to be a cellist and music is what he shares with us. He touches people. It seems to me that in the world of music there is usually somebody who, perhaps reluctantly, finds that the mantle of moral leadership has fallen upon them. I suspect Mr Ma has become that beacon of light for our time.