Mr Farquhar’s discomfiture

How writers invent their characters, part one: (here is part two):

Image: Annual accounts.When I was a brash young man not quite fresh out of school but still as green as a seasick virgin in the world of business, it occurred to me when the tax office demanded to see my accounts (of which there were none at that stage) that perhaps I ought to get myself an accountant.

Having by that time worked at a variety of jobs, all more or less tedious, boring and paying piffling wages, I had taken heed of a remark made to me by an uncle, to the effect that “You’ll never get rich working for someone else, Sonny Jim.” As it turned out I never got rich in any case, but at the time I figured there was nothing to lose by taking Uncle Bill’s advice to heart, especially as I disagreed disagreeably with the boss of the taxi company for whom I drove at that time. He was a horrible man, demanding and contemptuous. So I quit, bought a better car and set up in competition.

Unmarried, free of social responsibilities and with no debt shackled to my ankle like Marley’s chains, I figured there would be no hideous consequences if it didn’t work out. Looking back I see what a perfect time that was to launch out into the uncertainties of self-employment. Lacking any sort of business training and about as well educated as the average medieval serf (admittedly nobody’s fault but mine), in no time I was staggered to find myself earning as much in a week as I had earned per month working for Mr Horrible, and that was when the tax office sent me scurrying to find a friendly accountant.

The yellow pages yielded Mr Farquhar’s number, and as he had his practice in the nearest town he seemed a convenient prospect. His secretary made me an appointment which I, absorbed in the novelty of running my own business, promptly forgot to keep. Oh dear. Mr Farquhar was not pleased, but his secretary accepted my lame excuses and made another appointment a week or two later.

Mr Farquhar turned out to be an accountant of the old school. Ushered into the hallowed peace of his office beyond the secretary’s outer domain, I sat and listened to his sage advice about the wisdom of appointing him as accountant to a young man just setting out in business life. The hapless young man in question, I can tell you, felt like a boy at school again, sitting before the headmaster’s desk assailed by a lecture that majored on threats of dire consequences if I failed to keep future appointments, let alone proper accounts.

Mr F cut a decidedly pin-striped, pillar-of-the-establishment figure of respectable seniority behind his enormous desk, assuring me with gravity that his name was of Scottish origin, not German. Puzzled by the irrelevance of his remark I assumed he still held a grudge against the old enemy he presumably fought in the war (WW1 or 2, I speculated distractedly?). Perceptive readers of Sunset over Salhouse Broad might recognise his reincarnation in Mr Enright, the upright docks company executive interviewed by detective Enoch Shackleton.

I left Mr F’s office with thoroughly addled brain, and his secretary made a further appointment to discuss the finer details of my still non-existent accounts, which I also forgot to keep. When I telephoned to apologise I suggested to Mr Farquhar that he might ask his secretary (also, now I come to think of it, reincarnated in Mrs Handforth, secretary to the solicitor who commissions Enoch to find a missing girl in Sunset over Salhouse Broad ) to remind me the day before our next appointment. The astounded spluttering that came down the phone lines followed by a resounding click as the line went dead suggested to me that I might have overstepped the mark. I never had another appointment with Mr Farquhar, whose name was Scottish, not German, and I never regretted it. Somehow, I doubt Mr F and I would ever have got along as colleagues of equal standing.

Nevertheless I hope Mr Farquhar enjoyed a long and happy retirement and I don’t doubt he was able to dine out on his version of the story about a hapless young man who could never keep an appointment. I did later find a very good accountant with whom I got along admirably. He made his fortune and retired to the Caribbean while I, by then a partner in a more substantial business, made a steady living and have no right to complain. For the record, he was not the model I had in mind when I gave Mrs Clarke the bitter observation in Sunset over Salhouse Broad that her accountant would likely be found sunning himself “somewhere in the Caribbean, the leach!”

I suppose it’s the same for many writers; the people we meet throughout life get ground up in the mincer of subconscious memory and bits of them eventually reconstitute in the characters we think we have invented. So beware, all you who tangle with writing types. You may find yourself fodder for the writer’s inventive streak…

UPDATE: Since writing this essay Sunset over Salhouse Broad has been revised and re-titled Just One Mistake, but the links should still take you to the right place.

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