Thursday, 28 July 2011

The VAT man cometh

The very first morning I was back from Los Angeles, the telephone rang at one second past nine. The voice introduced itself as Mr. G****** from Her Majesty's Tax Office, and explained that the return I had submitted had been passed to him due to an ever so slight discrepancy between the figure entered as our takings since opening for business and the VAT reckoned due. Trying to sound lively, I explained we had already won an export order to the USA, such as is VAT exempt, and, domestically, had printed some children's t-shirts (the Ocean Colour Screen side of the business) - and kids' clothes are also VAT free. Mr G seemed satisfied with this explanation and pronounced that I had done everything correctly. We were sort of wrapped up when he asked, "What accounting software package do you use?" 
"Um," I offered, suddenly sounding less Captain of Industry and more scurvy stow-away on the Tug Boat of Business, "I sort of make it up as I go along with my own DIY spreadsheet as, you see, the bank only had software for a PC but then our friend Tim leant us his and so I've sort of adapted that and..."
He cut me off, lights now flashing all over his office where, moments before, it had been going so well. Could I send, he now requested, six of our largest expenditure invoices? Absolutely, of course, no problem. Only... "Yes?" 
"Well, would it be alright to have them with you Monday as we have the Kennington Village Fete this weekend? We have ever such a busy few days ahead." 
"I can understand," Mr G said with such deadpan delivery that I was not sure whether to take it for indulgence or despair, "how that would take priority."
And with that we bade each other good day on the promise to resume early the following week.

And so we set to work getting things made for the stall. The weirdy windowless room downstairs has now been cleared out to make a weirdy windowless den in which Mr Wesley can sit and create to his heart's content.

The Earl in his cave-den

While I was away, Anne Barclay, whose hand woven silk and wool scarves we already stock, had delivered the samples of her lovely stone coloured linen tail coat and black silk Spencer jacket. These she will then make to order and this arrangement elegantly fills the hole where our own ladies' collection should be Here is the tail coat in the window before we redressed them for "Summer" (HAHAHAHA!):
Anne Barclay's linen tail coat in the window

So come the day of the Fete, Sunday (July 10th), as the sun parried with grey clouds above, we wheeled our goods up the Kennington Road in a wonky trolly gifted us by one's saintly godmother Elisabeth. Both of us were hung about with extra bits and bobs looking like a proper pair of tinkers, the new kids on the Cleaver Square pitch. Immediately we realised the old hands had brought smart table cloths, so Mr Wesley had to hoof it back in his limping gait to get our special US flag - bearing 48 stars only - before we could set out our stall. That achieved, we had a totally jolly day, reinforced by the Carr ladies, Tim'n'Ian and Bedlam's old friend and professional bean-counter Mr Beck who hobbled his self along with his missus and baby Roxanne. David was sporting a not-so-gainly boot having had an operation to remove his arthritic toe and replace it with Titanium (think I'm getting this right). Mr Wesley is now giving serious consideration to joining the Men of Metal club and having micro-surgery on his gammy ankle. I mentioned to Mr Beck that our VAT return had attracted some attention and he said "Bloody Hell, that's a bit quick, well just tell them what they need to know and nothing else. Offer no information that is not solicitated. Got that Butler?" I nodded my understanding then promptly forgot it.

The Kennington Village Fete held in Cleaver Square, London SE11

Tim Balmain-to-Bedlam Oval Area Manager, beer boy Ian Vincent and Mr Wesley offering "Three for a pand!"

So, seeing as we had such a lovely day, come Monday morning I naturally wanted to share the joy with our Tax Inspector Mr G*****. I started by expressing my hope that he had had a pleasant weekend himself - basic good manners - and then went on to describe what an all round satisfying experience the Fete had been. We covered our costs, I told him,  £35 for the pitch inc. table, and had enough profit for a couple of pints of cider and some grub from the Kennington Tandoori restaurant stall. Really, for what more could one ask? I may have continued on a bit more about other things that seemed relevant not to say crucial to the accounts in hand before attaching the invoices he had requested and the spreadsheet showing all our takings from Day One.

Not many minutes later, the telephone went. It was Mr. G. "Do you want the bad news?" he asked me in an inscrutable tone.
These are not words that anybody ever wants to hear from a Tax Inspector.
"Hit me," I said, clearing my throat, mouth suddenly parched.
"I can't open the attachments."
Anti-climax as never been so well received. I said I would try attaching again, individually.
"Not to worry," he said.
OK, I shan't!
"As it happens, I'm in your neck of the woods this Wednesday so why don't I come to see you? Be sure you have all paperwork and receipts there at the shop and we'll go through it together. How does midday sound?"
How does the dull thud of me hitting the ground sound?

You must understand that I spend considerable time saying to certain people "Don't forget to get a receipt!" only for them to return and go, oh, oops, sorry, forgot, or "I'll get one later" (??), or "I've got a receipt for a meat pie / packet of cigarettes / cinema ticket from Equador instead?" but notwithstanding that anti-help I managed to do what I regarded as a pretty darn fine meticulous spread sheet of expenditure and a neatly filed collection of suppliers receipts. We carried all the files down to the shop. I called Mr Beck friend and pro-bean-counter and said "Guess who's coming round?!"
"Bloody Hell Butler," he spluttered, "I can't believe it, people file for fifteen, twenty years and never get a visit."

To mark the honour, we emptied bins and dusted, bought milk in case he'd like a cup of tea, plumped cushions and cleared a space on my desk. Then sweeping outside I noticed the weeds were a bit rampant again after all the wretched rain, so started pulling those up. There was one pesky varmit left, and I was seconds away from straightening up ready when someone cleared their throat at my stuck-in-the-air rear. I turned around red-faced. "Mr G***** I presume!"

He followed me inside and we made fore-talk. I lead him out to the yard where Mark was cleaning a screen and went rigid as Mark divulged all and various Grand Plans for the future. Later he explained he thought I was presenting my old Art History teacher and one-time Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Giles Waterfield, who lives around the corner, even though it was the exact appointed time of Mr G's arrival and I was speaking in a high squeaky voice and laughing a lot.

We then all went inside to play the fiendish Game Show known as "Show me the receipt for...!" I don't think I have been so scared since my A'Levels, as much as I knew I was well prepared. Mr G would look along my spreadsheet before challenging me with "May 25th, Classic Cuts, so-and-so many pounds!" and then set the countdown clock ticking from ten while I grabbed at files and sprung open arch levers to present said documentation before a bucket of sludge was emptied over my head. OK, that's a bit egged for dramatic effect, there was no countdown, or sludge, only in my head, but that was loud and real enough to me. Mr G gently explained various things I thought were VATable aren't, in fact, and scratched a few from my spreadsheet. I blamed Tim and offered to give Mr G his address, said our Oval Area Manager was very likely home if he went round directly on leaving us. In jest of course. Had he accepted I would have given him the wrong door number. But every time he corrected, he countered by saying I had done really well. And that meant a lot. I was particularly proud of my approach to petrol, pre-empting Mr G's suggestion that claiming on it is so much hassle, it's almost easier to leave out. Not so fast HMRC! How's this, I proposed. We don't HAVE a car, so whenever my mum lends us hers and I put petrol in, it is ONLY to do work stuff- ta-dah! It was very hard, nigh impossible in fact, to tell what Mr G was thinking.

"Have you always been a tax man?' asked Mr Wesley, breaking some ice.
"No," said Mr G, "I went to school."
We didn't quite get it and sort of laughed.
"But seriously, I did join Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs on leaving school."
"Isn't it a bit unusual," Mark went on, "to get a visit on your first return?"
"Well," said Mr G, "In all my career, I have never received an e-mail quite like the one Caroline sent me and I had to see who had authored it.  Most people write one or two sentences with the bald facts, I've never before been treated to an account of the Village Fete, it was like getting a book."
Cider with Wesley perhaps.
In time he concluded our tutorial and with a handshake each was gone, though not before expressing the hope that we would soon be filling Her Majesty's Coffers with the bounty of our business.
I did ask him to pose for a photograph but he said he preferred to remain anonymous - being a Tax Man wasn't the best conversational entrée at cocktail parties he confided. He had no objection, however, to our meeting being written up here.

I was spent. Aurelie our French summer student intern arrived soon after and sat sewing labels in exquisite tiny stitches while Marta wrote tags. Mr Wesley bemused the girls by modelling various daft drafts of the pink furry donut ring hat he will make for godmother St. Elisabeth to go with the tweed coat she commissioned from us last month.

Mr Wesley in rosy furry snood experiment while Marta and Aurélie endure

Marta running the print room, taking no nonsense. Aurélie is a student of engineering so understands the tensile strength required to pull down the screens, and stuff.

News of the fantastic success of the Kennington Village Fete spread so St. Peter's Church in Battersea decided to get in on the act and hold one too. GUESS WHO GOT THE GIG TO PRINT THE T-SHIRTS?! We did. My word though, God drives a hard bargain. They haggled and cajoled but it was a high volume order and hopefully the rate will be remembered at the Pearly Gates. Death and Taxes, all we can rely on, eh? Here Marta displays the finished product emblazoned with "God Loves Battersea", the event dates and St. Peter's address. Shortly after this, when they had printed hundreds upon hundreds, Mark enjoyed a cigarette out on the deck. A man came over and asked "S'cuse me mate, any idea where St Peter's church is?"
"Nah, sorry mate" replied Wez. Of course, the lost man may have meant another St. Peter's, and not the one on the Winstanley Estate, Battersea. I do hope so.

In addition to the bread and butter commercial work that week, we launched Baby Bedlam. The reaction was instant and rewarding - people were buying the pieces out of the window as fast as we could put them up. When the sale of the last mini zip up hoodie left a gap in the display I dressed one of the stripey organic cotton rompers with Ocean's pirate hat and sword. Within moments I heard a mummy and daddy saying to their little boy "Let's go inside and look at the pirate hat!"

Rompin' in the riggin'

The "Summer" window display featuring pieces from the brand new Baby Bedlam  collection

Worth having twins for
I steeled my heart to tell them that the pirate hat was priceless but luckily there was enough distraction from the goods actually on sale that they forgot to ask about the props. Earlier in the day, Aurélie had thrown some rubbish in my St Tropez market basket before going "Oooops! I am so sorry! I thought it was the bin!" Now the little boy was exclaiming what sounded like "Bin! Bin!" 
Sensitized, "Oh not you as well," I thought. 
"He's saying 'Ben! Ben!' explained his mother. "He thinks this is Mr. Ben's shop, that's his favourite programme."
Never, but NEVER, have we been paid a better compliment. The shop in "Mr Ben" represents the acme of all retail, that Shangri-La portal where you find the item you were destined always to own, that will unlock all manner of delicious adventure during which you find your better self. I could have wept with gratitude. Then I was puzzled. Me n Wez watched it on telly as children and thus were our futures formed, but how does this little nipper know the show? "We got him watching it on Youtube," his enlightened mama explained. Enjoy:

If you watched that, and I sincerely hope you did, now guess what present Mr Wesley received from Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory in fact? Hehe - 

Weztronaut in his funky NASA suit

Then Simon the Geordie Chef who was cooking for the VIP execs at the Oval Cricket Ground came in and bought the pin stripe suit off the dummy as if it was made on his body -

Simon the Geordie Chef in HIS pinstripe suit
Then last Saturday William from the Congo waltzed in to collect his Seville Marmalade suit. He spotted the Gentleman's Relish trousers on the rail (pictured above, the bold check behind Simon on the mannequin). The only pair, they were in his waist size so - kismet! - he took those as well.

And in between all this heightened-reality activity, we went live with the e-shop! There's more products to add, haven't even had a chance to add the Baby Bedlam section yet, but give us your feedback and hopefully your orders too, as for those of you who can't yet get to the store, we bring Bedlam to your door:

Fittingly, we rounded off the week by celebrating the launch of our online commercial presence and the bigger more beautiful Victoria & Albert Museum website at the Digital Weekend there.

It has been mooted on occasion that Mr Wesley has mislaid his marbles but here he is amidst them
(at the Victoria & Albert Museum)