17 Jun 2016

A Muddled Business

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In The Story of a Norfolk Farm (1940), Henry Williamson recounts the story of his own less-than-successful efforts to straighten out the tangled business affairs of his bumbling brother-in-laws to be.

When Papa died, the Boys, as Loetitia called them, would have some money from the trustfund of their parents’ marriage settlement. One of them had an idea, How about trying to get some of that money now? Only a little part of it, of course, about one hundred pounds. It was fatiguing work, pushing on the treadle-lathe hour after hour. Now with a hundred pounds they could buy an oil-engine, and two more lathes, and turn out more work. Keen on the idea, they went to see a lawyer.

Certainly, said the lawyer, he would make inquiries on their behalf. The inquiries were so thorough that in less than a week he gave them the good news that much more than a hundred pounds could be arranged, if they liked. Why not sell all their reversions? Then they would have nearly three thousand pounds, with which they could enlarge their engineering shops more profitably. They thought him an awfully nice fellow to have taken such trouble for them, and agreed that it would be fine to have a big Works in the garden, right by the house, so convenient for business. So they signed the document; and a few months later, when Loetitia left to share the precarious life of an unknown and unconventional author, building began. They gave the job to a small local builder, to help them. There was no contract, no price agreed between them. When the building was finished, the little builder hired a cab, bought a barrel of beer, and drove around town visiting his friends. For a whole week the little man celebrated: the dream of his life had come true: suddenly he had a lot of money.

As for the Boys, inexperience and trust in human nature had resulted in a factory being erected with walls of only a single brick in thickness. Part of those walls fell down, and had to be rebuilt. Only the roof held them together. This had cost about £1600, but when the fire insurance inspector came to look over the completed building, he said that in the event of a total loss his company would indemnify them only to the full value of the building, which was £600.

Workmen had been engaged, machinery ordered. The blacksmith’s son, a lad of fourteen years, was given a job as an apprentice and most generously paid twenty shillings a week. Elsewhere the parents of apprentices had to pay for their sons’ learning to be mechanics, and the money they paid was returned as weekly wages. But Sam had been an apprentice, for a brief while, to the local ironmonger, and had sympathy for their hard lot.

The Boys also had sympathy for commercial travellers who went from place to place, often without getting a single order. Also the things they had to sell were all likely to be useful to the Cobbold Brothers. Sparking plugs for instance, now that motoring was on the increase; and such neat sets and layouts of various kinds of plugs, from two-stroke engines to racing aeroplane plugs with cooling fans. So Sam bought one gross of mixed sparking plugs, and put them in neat pyramids of puncture outfits, car-cleaning brushes and sponges, electric light bulbs, and other gadgets he had already bought. The new shelves and show-case looked fine: and they waited for customers.

Occasionally a laborer, on an old push-bike, called in to have a puncture mended.

Seeing an advertisement in the local paper for the construction of an iron roof on the gasworks beside the river, they applied for the job, estimated that it would cost them £100 and put in their tender. To their jubilation, they got the contract. Now they would show what Cobbold Brothers were made of! Joe the blacksmith helped make some of the ironwork in their new forge. The brothers worked from early morning to late at night; it was summer; they sang and whistled at their jobs. They wanted to get the contract finished in time for the Joint Week of the Culmstock and Two Rivers Otter Hunts. …

During one lunch-hour rest, someone strolled out from the gasworks and said that surely the sheet-iron louvres for the main ventilator in the roof were too thin? Wouldn’t they rust in the salt sea wind? the someone demanded. Adding that cast iron would be much better. When they returned home that evening, the Boys consulted the blue prints, and specification, and found that cast iron was not stipulated, nor for that matter was sheet-iron; but it was their first contract, and must be absolutely first-class work. They agreed that if the gasworks people wanted a ventilator with cast-iron louvres, well, they supposed they ought to have it. So it was ordered from a Bristol foundry, who charged sixty pounds for it, including the shapen wooden mould. It weighed twelve hundredweight, and when the gasworks manager saw it, he declared that the roof was not strong enough to support it. The junior clerk who had made the suggestion of cast iron did not remember the conversation during the luncheon interval; and when the roof was finally on, the Boys found they had lost £100, in addition to their time as workmen.

Meanwhile they found that they could not work outside all day and also attend to the business side. So the books were not methodically kept. No-one was responsible for attending to the post; they did it between them. Replies to letters were intermittent. The man who originally asked them to make parts for battery-making machines wrote frenzied letters about the chronic lateness of the dispatch of orders. All three partners drew cheques from the banking account, whether for personal needs, housekeeping, or business matters. There was no limit to the withdrawals, and no check on them, until one day the bank manager wrote and said they were overdrawn and what security was there for further overdraft. This was unpleasant; and to escape the unpleasantness, they all went otter-hunting. An old friend of the family continued to come over to the Works on his motor-cycle, and to borrow sums of money from the Boys. Generously and sympathetically, his requests were always met.

The time came when half a dozen or more summonses for unpaid accounts were lying about in what was called the Office, among letters and bills scattered with catalogues and cigarette ends and the parts of models (for engineering was still a keen interest in their lives). Since they did not know what to do about the summonses, they did nothing. For weeks the Works had not been working, but they hadn’t the heart to stand the men off. They were still on full pay, including the expensive apprentice. When Loetitia and I went to stay with them in August, the position was that all the money had gone, and four to five hundred pounds in debts were about to be collected by means of summons, judgement summonses, and writs.

I had looked forward to fishing for flatfish and bass in the estuary by the railway bridge, all the summer weeks; but something had to be done to help the Boys. I knew nothing about business, and had an aversion to materialism, figures, mathematics; but something had to be done. It was hard to find where to begin. The place was untidy and unorganized, and the books had not been kept latterly. Sam was the only one who concerned himself with book-keeping. For the last year of his education at the local grammar school he had played truant, leaving home each morning with a satchel of books strapped on his cross bar. for three terms his father had thought him to be at school, while the headmaster assumed he had left. Sam, however, was not lazy; he educated himself by reading engineering and electrical books. He dreamed of having the letters A.M.I.E.E. [“Associate Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers”] after his name.

Sam’s knowledge of book-keeping was small, and based upon courses of instruction by post. After working hours he had sat at a desk, in a room adjoining the cozy sitting-room, and tried to master the principles of double-entry book-keeping. Through the closed door, in those happy evenings before my marriage, we used to hear groans, with mild explodents like ‘Dash!’ and ‘Curse it!’ Eventually Sam gave up the courses, and exchanged into Electrical Engineering. …

I set myself to give them all the help I could. How many summonses and threats were where there? No -one exactly knew. Some of the dashed things had been thrown away, or burnt. The writ was important. I had £30 in the bank, and drew this out. I went round people who owed them money, and tried to collect it, telling the truth. This gave us a week, while costs of stays of execution mounted up. The old family friend who came on his motor-cycle to see the boys, and get some money from them, was met by myself as Manager of Cobbold brothers. After an interview, in which I said firmly, No more money! He managed borrow £5 from me. I touted up the sums in the cheque-book counter foils, and found that he had borrowed £150 from the Boys. I got a Promissory Note from the Post Office, and saw that he signed it, for presentation to his trustees after his death. More judgement summonses arrived, with threats of bailiffs. A knock-down sale would be disastrous, all that fine new machinery, sold outright, by order of the court, without advertising! I traveled hundreds of miles on my bicycle, with the eldest brother, visiting relatives. Would no-one lend £150 on a bill of sale? No-one would. They were sorry, but it was not their affair.

Meanwhile costs of the judgment summons for a vacuum cleaner bought for £13 had mounted to £35. £2 had to be found, or the bailiffs were coming in.

I made inquiries about the thing. Why had they bought it? It appeared than one day in May, a traveler had called, and promised Sam a lot of easy money if only he would drive him, the representative of the best vacuum cleaner in the world, to visit Sam’s friends in the neighborhood. So Sam drove him around. At the first house he was reproachfully refused entrance by the elderly butler. At the next house, they were not at home. At the third house, no-one answered the bell. The fourth house was occupied by the General, a decent chap, declared Sam, who went otter hunting.

The General told them his wife was away, and in any case they did not want a vacuum cleaner. Sam, who was sensitive about the intrusion, was about to retire, when the demonstrator asked to be allowed to clean the General’s carpets for nothing, with absolutely no obligation. Again the General said he did not require such a cleaner; again the demonstrator persisted, and at last was running the machine over the carpets brought back from India. Driving away with the machine, the demonstrator told Sam he had a sure sale there, and all Sam had to do is buy a new cleaner from him for £13 and sell it to the General for £17, making £4 pounds for himself. Sam thought this a good thing, but before he gave the order, obtained from the salesman a written statement that he would take back the machine if it was not bought by the General.

In due course the big cardboard box was delivered by the railway van, and taken over in the car to the General’s. Mrs. General said firmly at the door, ‘We did not order it, and we do not want it; and I consider bringing it over like this a most questionable procedure.’ Sam stammered an apology, and said of course he would take it away at once, and returned with the unopened box, which was put away with other unsold stuff in an attic.

Eventually the judgement summons, and the costs of keeping the bailiffs out, had increased the original debt of £13 to £35, and if £2 were not forthcoming on the morrow, the bailiffs would enter.

Without saying a word, Sam went to Exeter in his car, and returned in the afternoon with £2.

‘How did you get it, Sam?’

Sam replied modestly, ‘Oh, I had an idea. I pawned the beastly thing.’

‘What, the vacuum cleaner, for 2 pounds!’

Sam nodded.

All that morning I had been trying to make some sort of order in the Works, sweeping the machine room, making piles of catalogues, bills, accounts, etc., and also cleaning the new lavatory which the workmen (now dismissed) had left in an unbearable condition. I had cleaned the bathroom in the house, too, for no one but myself seem to be affected by the marks of ancient washing; and having worked throughout the lunch hour, in a desperate fury at the complacency around me, I felt an immense frustration of rage, intensified by complete loneliness; for there seemed no point of contact anywhere in my way of thinking and theirs. Here was Sam, holding out two pound notes, his usual diffidence mingled with certain air of Pride, for had he not save the situation by pawning the vacuum cleaner?

I couldn’t bear it any longer. I do not remember what I said, or shouted, at them; but they looked startled and bewildered. In the days that followed (having sent Sam back to Exeter with £2 to get the cleaner, which was not legally their property, I told them) I was in despair, and exhausted by haranguing them continually, trying to get them to see life from a different viewpoint; to use self-criticism to destroy their old selves, and rebuild a new conception of life. They didn’t know what I meant, and perhaps I was foolish to think that they could do for themselves what I had done (I believed) for myself; rejected all the past that had blossomed, or rather had come to a pox, in the Great War. This is the theme of the book I was writing about an ex-soldier, and it arose from my own life.

Of course I lacked experience, even as they did; and emotional urging was useless to them, and harmful to me. The situation, which was desperate, was most curiously solved the very next morning; when the eldest boy calmly announced to me that he had been left £3,000 a few months before, by the death of an aunt; adding that he could not get it, as the solicitors had not sent the cheque yet.

For over a month I had been rushing about, trying to borrow money to prevent them being made bankrupt; for over a month the judgement summonses had been mounting up in almost geometrical progression; and all the while the money was available among themselves. I felt quite lightheaded.

Half an hour later, and having lodged proof of this inheritance, an overdraft was arranged at the bank, and there was general rejoicing at the end of the crisis. I went fishing alone in the estuary, grieving at the change that my behavior caused the happiness of that household. I had done nothing to alter things; I was foolish to have interfered; now there was a rift, perhaps forever.

The two younger boys emigrated to South Africa, working their passages as stewards on emigrants’ ship. The eldest brother remained, buying a new car and enjoying himself by learning to fly an aeroplane. About a year after the two brothers had departed, and the Works were standing idle, the General came in to buy a vacuum cleaner. He would like to help in a small way, he said, by giving an order for one. Ernest said there was a second-hand one somewhere in the store-room, but of course it was an old model, although it had not been used except for one demonstration. This is the cleaner which had cost £37, and heaven knows what waste of nervous life; and Ernest sold it to the General for thirty shillings.

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