The exotic art of auditing

Auditing may seem straightforward, but one man has undertaken some very strange assignments indeed, like counting phone boxes in the Caribbean and valuing a rhino

SBHD: Auditing may seem straightforward, but one man has undertaken some very strange assignments indeed, like counting phone boxes in the Caribbean and valuing a rhino

This column seldom goes in for investigative journalism, an omission explained partly by shortage of funds and partly by native lassitude.

This week, however, is an exception. I was intrigued by an advertising blitz in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, in which the accountants KPMG bought no fewer than ten pages of ad space in a single issue and resolved to find out more.

The inquiry was prompted by the last in the series of ads, which declared: “In addition to the obvious, the skills required for our audits have included evaluating the optimum size of a marketable turkey, counting phone boxes in the Caribbean and valuing a rhinoceros.”

I shall not try your patience by recounting at length the investigative process by which I traced the unknown auditor. The techniques employed by the journalistic sleuth are of no greater interest to the consumer of the final exposéthan are the methods by which a great chef prepares a dish to a diner.

It is sufficient to say that I finally tracked him down to his home, which is a bench in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I tapped upon his counterpane of old FTs and he rose slowly. His was a large hoary head assembled in a fashionable blend of pink and grey, the empurpled flesh perfectly complemented by his bloodshot eyes.

“Excuse me, sir, are you the chartered accountant from KPMG whose skills included evaluating the optimum size of a marketable turkey?” I asked.

“Yes, my dear boy, I am,” he replied in a rich, fruity tone, and as he spoke I sensed it would be unwise to strike a match within a yard of his breath. “But that all seems a long time ago.”

“Tell me more about the turkey,” I said.

“Well, there were several,” he replied, slowly swinging his legs from the bench to the ground. I noticed that he wore his socks outside his shoes and bound his trousers at the ankle with postman’s string. “First, there was the Sinclair C5. Do you remember that? A little electronic trike designed by Sir Clive Sinclair, a genius and now chairman of Mensa. As soon as I saw that anyone riding the machine would, owing to its height, be perfectly placed to inhale great lungfulls of petrol fumes from every passing vehicle, I knew it was a turkey.”

“How right you were. You said there were others.”

“Yes, there was the Conservative Party. I evaluated its optimum weight, which was light even in those days, what with Norman Lamont as Chancellor of the Exchequer. But I was right, dear boy. It was marketable. They were voted in, though God knows how. You need a bit of luck in this game.”

He pulled a bottle from a greasy pocket and drank deeply before wiping its neck with a blackened palm and offering it to me. I declined.

“Any more turkeys?” I asked.

“Dozens, my dear boy. It was my privilege to evaluate the classless society, the Citizen’s Charter, the road cone hotline, the Department of Heritage, all of those. Depend upon it, sir, John Major is the Bernard Matthews of politics.”

“Any in the world of commerce?”

“Plenty,” he replied, pulling from a carrier bag a cheese sandwich wrapped in a rancid sock. “There was Hoover. Buy a vacuum cleaner and fly free anywhere you like any time you like. That was a big bird, that one. They just don’t come much bigger than that.

“Then there was the mobile phone offer. Buy a phone and call anywhere in the world free of charge on Christmas Day. I could see that wouldn’t work. All those people jamming the lines at the same time. No one got through. Sold a few phones, though.”

“Tell me about counting the phone boxes in the Caribbean.”

“That, my boy, was the auditing assignment of which dreams are made,” he said, pressing a grimy finger to one richly-veined nostril while evacuating the other by means of a swift expulsion of air and other matter.

“Beautiful girls, palm-fringed beaches and enough rum punch to float a frigate. And the evenings. Ah, you should have seen the sky as the sun sank like a blazing coal over the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. Like a rich tapestry woven in fire, my dear boy. I cannot believe that Elysium itself could compare with a piss-up in Barbados.”

“Yes, but what about the phone boxes? How many were there?”

“Damned if I know. I did see one in Bridgetown, I think. But I wouldn’t swear to it.” He spoke quietly, the words emerging between attempts to extract a strand of tobacco from between the two sepia front teeth that comprised his entire complement in that department.

“What was the rhinoceros worth?”

“Well, it was only a small one, so I put it down as £4.50. Miscalculation, as it turned out. It was snapped up by a speculator from Botswana and sold to an oil sheik for nearly half a million. Bit of blunder on my part you might say.”

“Was that why you find yourself…” Unsure how to pose the question, I put on a dumbshow intended to embrace his current condition and circumstances.

“No, no, no,” he said, emitting a laugh like gas escaping from a leaky pipe. “I am as you find me, dear boy, because of an affair of the heart. Lovely little popsy, she was. The things we got up to on the office Axminster. Make your hair stand on end. Happy days. But, to cut a long story short, I grew weary and I ditched her.

“Mary Ellen, that was her name. Half Irish, half American, and all woman. I wonder where she is now.”

A single large tear rolled down his grime-encrusted cheek. I closed my notebook and softly stole away.

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