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Letter From America: Although I Am Not An Accountant...

"They must have taught sums on one of the many days I was missing from Spring Grove School because numbers still flummox me,'' declares the inimitable Ronnie Bray. But he is up to the task of spotting a catch in the guarantee on a £5 telephone in the shape of a nineteen-fifty-seven Chevrolet ‘Bel Air’ two-door coupé.

Read more of Ronnie's brilliant columns by clicking on Letter From America in the menu on this page. Read also his autobiography A Shout From The Attic.

They must have taught sums on one of the many days I was missing from Spring Grove School because numbers still flummox me. I knew exactly how many empty beer bottles I had to carry to the back door of the Olde Hatte to get enough cash to get into the sevenpenny seats at the Picturedrome and buy a bag of chips on the way home. Apart from that, no matter how hard I try I cannot get my mind around numbers and the distinctive patois that goes with them.

This has served to my disadvantage at times, like when I was working as a labourer in W C Holmes’ machine shop and applied for the position of progress chaser. Terry Cartridge, a man who was said by my father to be the cousin of his second wife, Kitty Marshal, interviewed me. My verbal skills seemed to satisfy him, but then he said he needed to test me on my mathematical proficiency. The ‘thud’ that shook his office was my heart hitting the floor.

The test was simple enough, but it caught me by surprise and I could not remember the formula. He gave me a calculator and asked me to do a simple percentage calculation. I know I had to either divide something by a hundred, or else multiply it by a hundred, or multiply or divide the hundred by the new number and then multiply (or was it divide?) the product by the total, and that would give me the required percentage.

I cannot be sure, but I think there are thirty-two possible permutations to get the formula right, and I could tell by the twenty-third attempt that whatever hope he might have once entertained for my potential was fast disappearing. Eventually, I got the number right, but the time I took was abysmally long. His face assumed the kind of smile used by cat lovers when a neighbour’s dog does something antisocial outside the cat door. He was not impressed. I had flunked the test and we both knew it.

In common with others who have occupied similar unenviable positions I have contemplated the folly of judging a person’s merit or ability on a single incident. Once I had discovered the formula I never lost it again, and can do it with relative ease now that I have no call to do so. Ah, the tortuous path that some are fated to tread. Future applications to get off the floor onto machine were fruitless. I was a marked man. I remembered this a few years later when I secured employment as a precision lathe operator and worked fast and well to tolerance of two one tenths of a thousandth of an inch.

For obvious reasons, I avoided employment where a sharp mind and mathematics were habitually and inescapably mixed. This has led me into verbally rich occupations where language skills were more valuable than number crunching. Do not misunderstand: I have profound respect for mathematicians, and the more able they are, the greater my respect for them.

I also respect fire-eaters, sword swallowers, those who free-climb sheer cliffs and tall buildings, bungee-jumpers, rock divers, spelunkers, Dutch canal leapers, bigamists, and others who court and thrive on danger, even though my fascination with them does not lead me to attempt to imitate their exploits. I explain this so that you do not think I am down on what I am not up on. Notwithstanding all that, you would have been proud of my reckoning acumen in a transaction I effected this very morning. This is how it unfolded.

Since I extended our computer two desks into a single one ten feet long, I have been on the lookout for a second telephone to have down at Gay’s end. Today, as I was shopping at Wal-Mart for a network hub I came across a telephone that was rolled back to five dollars, less than three Great British pounds! What a bargain. I overlooked the insignificant fact that it was in the shape of a nineteen-fifty-seven Chevrolet ‘Bel Air’ two-door coupé and handed over five dollars.

After getting it home and handing it to Gay, who was less than impressed with ‘her’ telephone, I read the Guarantee. It was guaranteed for ninety days, not uncommon in the USA. If it went wrong during the warranty period, all you had to do was send it back to the distributors in New York with a payment of twenty dollars to cover handling and return postage.

Although it has probably escaped your attention, it didn’t escape mine that not only was the requested sum four times the cost of the item (it was over twice the amount of the original price), but adding the cost postage to send it back to them would increase the cost of replacement to five times the purchase price!

I have kept the guarantee registration card but I will not submit it. To do that would add a further thirty-nine cents to the cost of their guarantee. Just imagine if you bought a car and the cost of guarantee was added to the purchase price, but it worked out at five times what you paid for it!

So, despite the fact that I am not an accountant, and now you know why I am not, I can still spot a mathematical trap, which skill will probably save me from being dunned into the poorhouse afore my time. I will add only that … Oh! … What? … Aah … Er … Sorry … I have to go; the ‘Bel Air’ is ringing!


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