Monday, January 31, 2011

Miscellaneous Musings, January 31, 2011 - The South Sea Company Accountant

Charles Lamb (1775-1834), an English essayist ...Image via Wikipedia
I may have noted a few times that I’m an accountant by trade. I’ve often said, as an accountant, that it takes a specific personality, a character with certain traits, to be a successful one. I guess I inherited this idea from several old CPAs that I worked with early in my career; the sentiment was much more pronounced then within the profession than it is today. I recently had confirmation of my theory when I picked up a volume of essays by Charles Lamb (Elia). Apparently, even some 200 years ago, that accountants are a breed apart, as seen in this description of one of the accountants of the infamous South Sea Company. This essay was written in the early 19th century, some 200 years ago and tells of an accountant who lived and worked nearly 250 years ago.


Of quite another stamp was the then accountant, John Tipp. He neither pretended to high blood, nor in good truth cared one fig about the matter. He "thought an accountant the greatest character in the world, and himself the greatest accountant in it." Yet John was not without his hobby. The fiddle relieved his vacant hours. He sang, certainly, with other notes than to the Orphean lyre. He did, indeed, scream and scrape most abominably. His fine suite of official rooms in Threadneedle-street, which, without any thing very substantial appended to them, were enough to enlarge a man's notions of himself that lived in them, (I know not who is the occupier of them now) resounded fortnightly to the notes of a concert of "sweet breasts," as our ancestors would have called them, culled from club-rooms and orchestras--chorus singers--first and second violoncellos--double basses--and clarionets--who ate his cold mutton, and drank his punch, and praised his ear. He sate like Lord Midas among them. But at the desk Tipp was quite another sort of creature. Thence all ideas, that were purely ornamental, were banished. You could not speak of anything romantic without rebuke. Politics were excluded. A newspaper was thought too refined and abstracted. The whole duty of man consisted in writing off dividend warrants. The striking of the annual balance in the company's books (which, perhaps, differed from the balance of last year in the sum of 25l._ 1s._ 6d. occupied his days and nights for a month previous. Not that Tipp was blind to the deadness of things (as they call them in the city) in his beloved house, or did not sigh for a return of the old stirring days when South Sea hopes were young--(he was indeed equal to the wielding of any the most intricate accounts of the most flourishing company in these or those days):--but to a genuine accountant the difference of proceeds is as nothing. The fractional farthing is as dear to his heart as the thousands which stand before it. He is the true actor, who, whether his part be a prince or a peasant, must act it with like intensity. With Tipp form was every thing. His life was formal. His actions seemed ruled with a ruler. His pen was not less erring than his heart. He made the best executor in the world: he was plagued with incessant executorships accordingly, which excited his spleen and soothed his vanity in equal ratios. He would swear (for Tipp swore) at the little orphans, whose rights he would guard with a tenacity like the grasp of the dying hand, that commended their interests to his protection. With all this there was about him a sort of timidity--(his few enemies used to give it a worse name)--a something which, in reverence to the dead, we will place, if you please, a little on this side of the heroic. Nature certainly had been pleased to endow John Tipp with a sufficient measure of the principle of self-preservation. There is a cowardice which we do not despise, because it has nothing base or treacherous in its elements; it betrays itself, not you: it is mere temperament; the absence of the romantic and the enterprising; it sees a lion in the way, and will not, with Fortinbras, "greatly find quarrel in a straw," when some supposed honour is at stake. Tipp never mounted the box of a stage-coach in his life; or leaned against the rails of a balcony; or walked upon the ridge of a parapet; or looked down a precipice; or let off a gun; or went upon a water-party; or would willingly let you go if he could have helped it: neither was it recorded of him, that for lucre, or for intimidation, he ever forsook friend or principle.

Except that I’ve never played the fiddle in my life, I’ll have to say, if someone wrote a similar eulogy to me, I would feel very honored. There are worse things that can be said of any of us mortal humans that that “not for lucre, or for intimidation, he ever forsook friend or principle.”
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