To the Letter Writer(s) at the TV Licensing Office | Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim | Essay

The first time I received a letter from you in December 2021, it came in the midst of several others. It stood out with the bright red lettering that peeked from its see-through envelope. All the letters made one demand or the other. Pounds, pounds, pounds, otherwise threat, threats, threats. In fact, your threats in particular, stood out and only grew more vicious. When I look back now at the phobia that I developed for those scaremongering envelopes of yours, I must admit it’s quite embarrassing.


Here I was, newly relocated to the UK from Nigeria with my family, first rattled by the mandatory isolation period that carried a £10,000 fine if caught ‘not isolating’; then by the agent who reached an agreement with us before we got on the plane only to renege when we called for the keys and he heard our baby’s cry; then by the reminder that as Tier-4 Student Visa holders, my wife’s school was our sponsor and they won’t hesitate to report us to the Home Office if we didn’t pay up the balance of her school fees.


This relocation was not a cheap one—for a family of four, just multiply all fees and expenses by four. It had swallowed my BMW, three choice plots of land, a few more, yet still left us in debt. I suppose this was where my fear developed from, because, no, after such a huge investment, I could never let them report us to be sent back. The fear had grown from just a nagging feeling to a heart-thumping trauma in those first three months when we had to live out of hotels because we couldn’t find a house. It was then I learned—in practical terms—that having a million naira could be big money in Nigeria, but here, it was only a little over a thousand pounds, and this wasn’t even enough to cover two month’s rent at the relatively cheap hotels we were managing in. Worse, I couldn’t find a proper job, so I was converting naira to pay for this. I was almost running mad!


When eventually we found a place that December, it was a case of ‘beggars cannot be choosers’. The house sat on top of shops on a high street and reeked of abandonment. It reminded us of our expansive compound back in Nigeria. Our touches and steps were light, careful because the doors and walls felt like the slightest pressure could dent them or break them apart. Yet, we were overjoyed that we finally had a UK roof over our heads. You bet we were, until the letters began to rain in through the aluminum-lidded hole in the door, yours the most disorienting of them all.


First, we piled the letters in a corner of the kitchen slab after reading them. We let the pressure soak in for a few days, then we summoned the courage to begin tackling them one after the other. First one was the electricity and gas supplier, and then the water supplier, internet supplier, this supplier, that supplier. Apparently, we could setup direct debit and didn’t have to pay all the estimated figures we read in the letters at once. Also, we were able to convince the city council that as Student Visa holders, we shouldn’t be paying council tax. Most of the other bills were for the previous occupier. From my throat, my heart slipped gingerly back to its place in my chest. A sigh of relief never felt so relieving.


But there remained your letter. Official notice: Investigation opened. Of all the other things you wrote in that first letter, that was the only thing my eyes could transmit to my brain. How have we landed ourselves in a situation where we were now being investigated? The plan was to stay out of trouble. Investigation, how? Even though I knew that whatever the investigation was about, we hadn’t done anything wrong, yet I couldn’t sleep that night. But life did not stop coming at a dizzying speed, so in a few days I had forgotten about your letter, dealing with job hunt, school hunt for the kids, daddy duties when my wife was in school, etc. These were many steps back from the life I had in Nigeria, but the general advancement of this new country in comparison to Nigeria’s confused state made up for that.


We only need to settle in properly, we will be fine, I constantly reassured myself. As soon as we got good jobs, we would lose the charity setup we had in the house and furnish it to our taste—perhaps we could even move to a better house. A smart TV was a must, so we could stop accessing Netflix and Prime on our phones. It was as though you were lurking somewhere behind the walls, eavesdropping, because it was as we discussed the appropriate position for the TV—to protect it from the kids—that the aluminum lid snapped, and a letter hit the rubber ‘Welcome Home’ mat at the foot of the door. Your red lettering through the envelope had become a dreaded portal.


My eyes ran over the paper after retrieving it from the envelope, the words ‘official notice’, ‘investigation’, ‘criminal offense’, ‘official visitation’, all thickening the air. The red stamp in one corner screaming Enforcement Officer, Visit Approved did the rest of the suffocation. It was freezing outside, but I just had to get out for fresh air, only for shivers and teeth gnashing to remind me a few seconds after that I was under-clothed.


Your letters didn’t stop coming, but I never opened another one at that address. I just told myself that we’d clear our name when you eventually carried out the visitation. We left the address for a more comfortable place in April 2022, but in those four months we spent there, you never showed up. So when I returned from work one morning and met your devil of an envelope on our newly purchased raffia foot mat, my phobia for it had greatly weakened. At first, I was going to leave it unopened like I had done the last six you sent, but the see-through window of your envelope carried words you’d never sent before, emblazoned in red, intended to intimidate: We have been told that you’re watching TV at this address!


These words were my Eureka moment as I asked myself out loud: Who told you? Even in the silence that was my response, my fear turned to shame realizing the answer. No one. It’s all just been a marketing gimmick, a generic repetition of prompts. Isn’t it? Because then, I opened that letter, and for the first time, I read and fully digested without the visor of fear—school was still at our throats for their balance, but we’d come to understand the system better than to remain intimidated by it. You were assuming, accusing us of watching TV without a license. I mean no disrespect, but my friend(s), assumption, they say, is the lowest level of intelligence. Back in Nigeria, we had TVs in the living room and in our bedroom, but we’d never bought one here. Asides the fact that we were still in debts, your letters had tainted any desires for one.


And thus, my shame metamorphosed into anger. Not like I was seething or anything like that, but if you had visited at this time, our exchange would have been heated. But all that anger soon melted into pity when at work, Peter—a colleague—told me I could actually have a TV without paying for a license as long as I wasn’t watching BBC and other designated channels. He said a TV license was not required for digital channels like Netflix, Prime, and others. Apparently, since the BBC didn’t show ads, this TV license thingy was the revenue model it depended on. It became clear then that your letters were more a threat for you than to me. Because you must have targets, right? How much was it? One million, ten million pounds a year? Those sorts of figures would make even me shoot letters blindly in any, and every, direction. Poor you. No wonder I’ve always been ‘The Occupier’ to you.


I wondered about you, and how I’d allowed you to take advantage of my situation as a newly arrived immigrant to haunt me for absolutely nothing. The letters were always signed, yes. Different names sometimes. But I know how these corporate things work. The bosses sign the letters, but that’s about it. How many times do they really take their time to read what they sign? And if there was to be a visitation, would they also come along to knock on doors in the wintry cold? We both know they won’t. If there was to be one, it is you who would show up. The target is theirs, but the finger/foot soldiers do all the work.


Every knock on the door began to wear a question mark; was that you? I searched faces on the bus, at the park, in the library, thinking I might find a clue that would give you away. Sometimes I’d think I had found you, but little things like awkward patterns on a sock, the enormity of a tattoo, or the depth of a laugh would make me change my mind. I’ve read your letters. I know how you write, so perhaps I know how you think and how you must be. Or perhaps not. To be honest, I can’t even tell if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re young or old, or if there are plenty of you, taking turns to type those letters.


Anyway, it’s the summer of 2023 and we’re now in our third UK house—a lovely home that’s close enough to what we had back in Nigeria. Guess what though? Your letters still found us here (lol). But that erstwhile fear is completely burnt out as we’re now our own sponsor via the Global Talent visa. Although it’s pretty annoying that across three addresses, you still refer to me as ‘The Occupier’; more annoying that I know now that you’re never going to visit. Who would have thought, but it would actually be nice to have you over. We could sit and discuss over tea, or coffee if that’s what you prefer. We could even see a Netflix show together on my MacBook. Perhaps you’d finally leave us alone if you saw that instead of getting a TV, we’d invested in exotic laptops and fortified the kids with their own tabs.


But my biggest reason for wanting you to visit is not any of that. Yes, I have one or two ideas that can perhaps prove to be more effective in your target chase, but that’s not it either. It’s mostly to tell you that, for starters, you need to get a proofreader. Consistent typos in supposed official communications give me a nasty headache and sometimes keep me up at night. You definitely can do better.


Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash


Ibrahim grew up on his grandmother’s storytelling of African folklore and thus fell in love with stories, and by extension, literature. After he was forcibly sent to science-class in high-school, it took Ibrahim 20 years to find his way back to his passion, in 2019, when he left a successful ten-year career in media & entertainment to become a writer. In that time, his work has been published (or forthcoming) in Transition Magazine, Typehouse Magazine, JMWW, Ake Review, Zone 3, Brittle Paper, Popula, and more.

Ibrahim won the Quramo Writers’ Prize (2022), and was a runner-up for the Jessica George Bursary (2023), the Goge Africa Writing Contest (2020), and Ibua Journal’s Pack Light series (2020). He was a finalist for the Faber Children’s FAB Prize (2023), the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship (2022), a Masters Review anthology prize (2023), and twice for the Moon City Short Fiction Award (2022 & 2023). He has also been longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2022), the Laura Kinsella Fellowship (2022), and the Dzanc Diverse Voices Prize (2021). He has multiple nominations for both the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net.

Ibrahim’s work explores the human experience from an African perspective. He’s @heemthewriter on Twitter and Facebook, and @writtenbyheem on Instagram and Threads. More information about Ibrahim can be found on and

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