I went today with my mother and nephew to visit the National Gallery. My nephew is seven, and extremely keen on art. Wivenhoe has been celebrating its branch railway's one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, and he not only won the children't art competition, but designed the anniversary poster on the station platform. He admires Van Gogh and Monet, but didn't think that the Constable painting saved for the nation was worth forty million pounds on the strength of the photograph in The Times, though he knows that Constable tended to put a flash of red in his pictures.
The trains ran to time, and the buses weren't too slow, and we all enjoyed looking at the paintings. Our visit covered a fair span of art history, since we saw Velasquez (that Habsburg chin), Gainsborough, Stubbs (rearing Arab stallion on a gold ground), Turner (early and late), Van Gogh, Sisley, Monet, Rousseau (tiger), and loads more besides. We couldn't have looked at any more paintings.
What was very annoying, even though we had looked at as many pictures as our brains would hold, was that quite a few rooms were closed due to industrial action. We couldn't see any of the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, which are among my favourites, or the Uccello which my mother particularly wanted to revisit, or the entire Sainsbury wing, which my nephew wanted to go to after previous trips with his other granny. Actually, I fancied seeing Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks again, having contributed to the public appeal to buy it. The whole of the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery, which houses the twentieth century portraits, was closed as well.
What on earth is the point of industrial action in the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery by members of the PCS union? There is no more money. Do they imagine that people working in the private sector are getting pay rises, or are not being asked to do more work with fewer people? It made me very cross. It made my mother very cross as well, though by unspoken mutual consent we agreed to look at the rooms we could see, and not throw a huge strop in front of my nephew. It was a completely pointless and useless gesture which spoiled other peoples' days out, will achieve absolutely nothing, wins them no public sympathy, and has not received any press attention at all.
Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has picked up on another pointless action by public servants, which I'd been meaning to blog about for a few days since hearing about it from the Systems Administrator. I do not normally read the Mail, but Googled the story after hearing a mention of it in The Today Programme's round-up of the papers.
A great friend of the SA has become treasurer of his local cricket club. He recently received a request from the Inland Revenue to come and inspect the club's books. The SA's friend suggested that, while they could look at the books, it would not be a very productive exercise, given that the club leases its premises and has no employees. The Inspector insisted that he wanted to look at the books, and would meet the treasurer in his office at the ground. The SA's friend said that he did not have an office at the ground, and that if they went there the pavilion would probably be locked, so if the Inspector insisted on visiting he had better come to his house. The Inspector duly did (a nice day out of the office, travelling from Cambridge to Hitchin). The only thing he could find in the books was that eight years ago they employed an overseas player. The SA's friend, who is a chartered accountant, queried the relevance of this, given the six year cut-off for pursuing back taxes. The Inspector harumphed about how, if they employed anybody else, they must be sure to pay income tax and national insurance, and went back to Cambridge. Like I said, a nice day out.
The System's Administrator's friend chatted to some other treasurers of local sports clubs and discovered that they'd been inspected by HMRC as well. According to today's Mail, this is part of a concerted campaign by the tax authorities to collect unpaid tax from local sports clubs. Some of them have been paying small amounts to people on a casual basis for bar work and cleaning. Others have paid as much as a hundred and twenty five pounds a year for out-of-pocket expenses to members who have put up visiting players overnight. HMRC has put in claims for back tax for as many years as it can, and shock, horror, one club owed a whole £15,500 in back taxes! Its members had to take out a loan to pay it.
The Mail is indignant about this chiefly because it represents an assault on village life. That makes me cross, but what really made me angry when the SA first told me about the great tax investigation into village cricket is that it is such a blatantly inefficient use of the tax inspectorate's finite resources. If they are trying to track down the billions in unpaid tax that we, the people, could really do with being paid, they are not going to find it secreted among the amateur sports clubs of the Home Counties. On the other hand, how pleasant to spend several weeks inspecting cricket clubs. No risk there of meeting really scary lawyers, or dangerous hard men with rottweilers. No, there will be nothing more threatening than some exasperated retired chartered accountants, and maybe a few Rotarians.