The Times, 18 January 2010

Most self-employed people hate January with the passion we normally reserve for a professional rival who got a gig for which we would clearly have been the better choice. Firstly, the weather makes it difficult to get to work, and that hurts more when you don't get paid if you don't turn up. This is why I once walked four miles through a foot of snow to see the film He's Just Not That Into You. I do appreciate, obviously, that being paid to watch a ropey rom-com is still a great deal easier than going down a mine, even if I did lose a mitten on the way home.

But even when the snow has melted, it's still self-assessment deadline month. Though I should admit that I actually quite like doing my taxes: it is the one time of the year when I feel like I have imposed objective order over anything. And the only time, other than applying for a mortgage, where I really feel that my need to keep everything in date order, in colour-coded folders of ascending importance, is properly rewarded. The rest of the time it mostly draws scorn.

But this January, even by its own standards, HMRC has been the least popular kid in the room. Last week, the National Audit Office criticised them for failing to answer 44 million of the 103 million calls made to their customer 'contact centres', in spite of the fact that they have 10,500 full-time staff. Since I've already done my tax return, I decided to do a bit of extra bonus maths. HMRC's phone-lines are open 84 hours a week. Assuming that their full-time staff do a 42 hour week (which I'm sure they don't, exactly, but it's half of 84, and I only have a pencil, so give me a break. I'm not taking off bank holidays and Christmas, either), that means there are 5,250 staff working at any one time. They answered 59 million calls last year. That's 2.57 calls answered per person, per hour. If they'd also answered every one of the calls they ditched, that would still only have brought the numbers up to 4.49 calls per person per hour. And that doesn't seem impossible to me. Maybe Moira Stuart needs to sit on their desks and have a word.

Then yesterday, the story broke that HMRC would be driving sports stars away from major events, as they try to grab hefty chunks of sponsorship deals. Previously, they taxed visiting sports stars on the number of days spent in the UK. But now the plan is to tax them on the percentage of events they do here. That might not be so bad if a sport has lots of events in a year - Roger Federer is scheduled to do 19 tournaments in 2010, only two of which will be in the UK. But it's hard going for marathon runners, who usually race twice a year. If one of those is in London, they'll be taxed on half their year's sponsorship money for one day's running.

I never really believe it when people wail that taxing bankers will simply drive them out of the country. Most of us aren't like Ryan Bingham in Up In The Air, living with no ties at all. We don't just live somewhere for its tax rate, but because we like the area, or our kids are at school there, or our partner has a job nearby, or whatever. But visiting sportsmen are different - why won't they just run a race in New York instead of London?

Waterstones have responded to poor Christmas sales by appointing a new managing director, Dominic Myers. I feel a surge of hope that he can bring them back from the brink. For several years now, it has been virtually impossible to buy a book in Waterstones. There are dozens of copies of maybe 50 books which have just been published. There are piles of notebooks, racks of wrapping paper, and plenty of magazines. But they seem to have very few books that were published before three months ago. When I discover a new crime novelist, I invariably go back to find their earlier books - the author is new to me, not new full stop. But it has been increasingly difficult to buy anyone's back-catalogue from Waterstones. And I don't need wrapping paper if I can't find the book I want to buy as a present. Waterstones' opening hours are terrific - I can buy a paperback at ten o'clock on a Saturday night. And I will, I promise, as soon as they get some in stock.

The BBC has announced that it may drop the Met Office, after almost 90 years. They have apparently been talking to Metra, the national forecasters of New Zealand. Let's just take a moment to think about what that really means. The BBC reckon that people on the opposite side of the world have a better chance of predicting the weather in Birmingham than Rob McElwee. That is a pretty debilitating forecast.

Peppa Pig, a children's TV character, will start wearing a seatbelt. Not because pig-centric car fatalities are on the increase, but because a parent complained that her daughter wouldn't wear a seatbelt when Peppa doesn't. Peppa has a snout. She is 2-dimensional. If you can't win the 'just because an animated pig does it doesn't make it right' debate, you shouldn't have children.