Knocked for six by the pandemic: The Trumpington resident ‘only surviving thanks to the generosity of my friends’
Dominic Green lives in a nice house in a nice part of Trumpington, he had a good job in TV until the pandemic, and recently launched his own business making high-end lampshades.
Sounds promising, but there’s another side to the story. Dominic hasn’t had the heating on this year. He’s been on Universal Credit, used food banks, and his doctor put him on anti-depressants. His TV work has dried up and the the lampshades business has yet to generate significant income. And accessing the business support that the government offered proved an ordeal that nearly broke him. It took months for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to process his application, leaving him dangling on the brink of disaster.
Dominic is surely one of nameless other previously doing-OK Cambridge residents who’ve been knocked sideways by the pandemic in what was already the UK’s most unequal city.
“I was born in London and moved to Cambridge when I was eight,” says Dominic, 57, who attended Impington Village College. “I travelled, I went round South-East Asia, and lived in Hong Kong for a while. I went to Japan for seven years. I loved the culture, the history. I did Aikido intensely for six years, and became a second dan. I played with two former members of Kodo [a performing arts ensemble]. I went on tour with them to Hawaii, and for concerts in southern Japan. All these extraordinary things happened.
“I also set up a school to teach English and ran a small travel business.”
When he got back to the UK Dominic – by then fluent in Japanese and with a Japanese wife – became an interpreter and began working for Thomas Cook. He decided to take up photography. Pretty soon, a friend asked for his help getting a Japanese TV producer around England and “before I knew it, I was required to assemble a full TV crew, arrange all the interviews and the itinerary, and do the driving”.
In 2001 he started his own company, Bigfoot Productions, in 2001, became a parent and kicked on.
“Bigfoot works exclusively for Japanese clients. It could involve commercials, music videos, documentaries, news, ... I was flat out until February 2020.”
Once the pandemic began, the clients from Japan stopped visiting.
But that was when the real difficulties began. An immediate issue was that the grants are made to people, not to the business. Suffice to say that Bigfoot has only received half the grant so far and, to add insult to injury, “they are fining us for late filing which is entirely down to them, their disjointed systems – not to mention their incompetence”. Dominic adds that “they are desperately sticking to their guns because they haven’t got the manpower to review [the case] properly”.
The human cost has been horrendous. His wife went to Japan in September last year “to spend time with her sick father, and also because of the financial strain”. She has yet to return.
“I am only surviving by the generosity of friends and by selling personal belongings,” Dominic says. “And Universal Credit. We are over six months in arrears on our mortgage, my wife cannot afford to fly back for us to be together again. I can barely eat and pay the bills without the mortgage and my mental and physical health has deteriorated considerably because of this alone. It has absolutely ruined my sense of well-being and worth on a social level. It has rendered me very lonely in poverty and fear over a long period.”
Again, Dominic refers to the wider picture – how many people, living in apparently satisfactory circumstances, are actually going through the worst of times here in Cambridge?
“It’s an absolute car crash out there,” Dominic says. “People don’t talk about it sitting in the pub, perhaps because there’s a bit of shame too – you’re broken, you’ve lost all hope, why would you want to go out? It takes it out of you. I’m on anti-depressants, and there’s a huge personal cost too in terms of friendships and relationships. It’s an absolute horror show and you have to wonder, has HMRC done this to other people as well? It’s supposed to be offering support, it’s most bizarre. The government purse depends on people like me getting on and paying tax. It’s economic madness not to help people as they try to pick up the pieces and carry on.”
But Dominic has never stopped trying to pick up the pieces and move on, and has started a new business. Shades by Dominic Green produces beautifully crafted high-end lampshades from a workshop in the house. So how did that come about?
“I’d started making lampshades before lockdown,” he says. “I wanted one and couldn’t find any I liked: I researched it and thought ‘I’ll get the materials I want and sell a couple’. I wanted to use nice material. Then I thought it could be a business.”
But there were obstacles.
“I picked a Designers Guild flock fabric – it’s £100 a metre – but you can’t glue it down. No one else is doing anything with nice fabrics. The glues aren’t strong enough. Then I had a light bulb moment and started looking for something that could clip round the edges and hold the fabric in place. And that I could colour.”
He settled on edging that involved an acrylic airbrush process – “it’s very uneconomical to spray it on, but gives a beautiful finish”.
The next challenge was to find a way to mount a light diffuser into the lampshade.
“Usually it’s done with spokes, but I thought there must be a better way. My idea was I wanted to see the inside of the shade a bit with the diffuser in place, to keep it away from the edge. Then I thought: ‘Magnets’. Why not?”
The magnets, bought off-the-shelf, certainly contribute to the overall quality of the product. He’s looking to set up a sales outlet with Liberty London.
“What I want this to be is not a factory, it’s a bespoke service to interior designers that fits in with what they want in terms of designing a room,” Dominic adds. “I’m aiming at the mid to upper end of the marketplace.”
Six have been sold so far.
“They are totally unique. There’s only one company anywhere making anything similar, using methods that they’ve always used. For 2022, I can make five a week: if I sell three a week I can survive on that.”
HMRC confirmed that five claims had been made for SEISS (Self-Employment Income Support Scheme) grants.
A spokesperson said: “As he missed the (extended) deadline for submitting a 2019-20 tax return, he was not eligible for the fourth and fifth grants as eligibility was dependent on a return being filed on or before March 2, 2021. However, after his return was submitted and his challenge was accepted, he was able to claim the fourth and fifth grants.”
His wife’s claim “is now with the adjudicator”.
In normal times, a product that disrupts the status quo – with two novel solutions to challenge traditional methods – would be a game-changer.
You might imagine, in Cambridge, someone would hear about Shades by Dominic Green and think: ‘That’s a good investment.’ Indeed, for £50k Dominic could secure his 2022 schedule. But there’s still time: who knows what might show up?