The mystery of the disappearing footnote - a reminiscence by Dr John Watson

05 January 2016

Andrew Hubbard

Looking through my papers I find that, along with Holmes’ triumphs there are a few cases where even his great brain was defeated by an insoluble problem. His attempt to understand the tax system, in particular his quest to discern the true intentions of parliament, ended in failure when a clue which HMRC had left for him ended up taking him down a blind alley. No true account of Holmes can ignore his rare failures, so I present to my readers the case of Sherlock Holmes and the disappearing footnote.

Christmas at 221B Baker Street followed our usual pattern. While I over indulged on Mrs Hudson’s excellent christmas pudding and mince pies Sherlock Holmes refused all food and drink and stayed up long into the night endlessly pacing the room muttering to himself. I’d seen him like this before when he was investigating a big case but I had no idea what had brought on this latest agitation. I heard him say 'Watson, it’s missing' several times but as to what was missing I had not the slightest clue. But given the intensity of his emotion I had no doubt that whatever it was that was missing was of enormous value: surely another naval treaty had not disappeared?

Days passed and still he revealed nothing. Finally I could stand it no longer: 'Holmes', I said, 'what is it that has gone missing and why is it so important?' He paused for a while and then sat down in his leather armchair, took a long draw on his pipe, and gestured for me to sit down. 'Watson', he expostulated, 'this is my biggest case and I am not ashamed to admit I am stumped.'

'My illustrious client, a director of XXX bank' (he gave me the name but it will be many years before I can risk revealing its name in the pages of these memoirs of mine) 'has asked how it is that HMRC can know what the intentions of parliament were when they passed particular tax legislation. HMRC have said that they will give any bank confirmation that a proposed transaction is, or is not, contrary to the intentions of parliament: how on earth can they tell?'

Holmes turned to me and said 'I thought I was on the verge of one of my greatest triumphs. From my immense filing system I turned up the HMRC report on the code of practice on the taxation of banks and referred to paragraph 2.5. There it was. Footnote 4 explained exactly how it was done. But Watson', he said, throwing the document onto the floor in disgust, 'Footnote 4 doesn’t exist! Footnotes 3 and 5 are there but of note 4 there is not a single trace. I fear we will never know.'

With that he picked up his violin and started to play. That was my signal to leave. Did he ever find out the answer? I fear not. It will go down as one of his greatest ever defeats. Perhaps one day we will know the true story. But I doubt it. The intention of parliament is a concept which eludes even Holmes’ genius. The rest of us have no chance.

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