Sunday, 14 August 2011

The queue at the bank

A scene from modern British life. I am in the queue at the bank on Saturday, waiting to pay in a cheque. The queue is long, because there are only a few cashiers and this is now the only branch within a radius of several miles that is open. An elderly man, I would guess in his 80s, pulling a shopping trolley on wheels behind him, goes up to the cashier. He has received a new credit card in the post and wants to know what to do with the old one. Should he bring it in to the bank? No, he should just cut it up and throw it away. He is confused and worried that not knowing which card to use will mean that he will not be able to pay off his credit card bill, which he has also brought with him. A long, unproductive conversation ensues, conducted at high volume because he is deaf and cannot hear the cashier, but he remains polite throughout. The woman cashier keeps telling him to ring up the number on his bill, but he says he can't use the phone because he is deaf.

This man, who came to adulthood before most people had bank accounts, probably has no need of a credit card – he could just as easily manage with a debit card and a cheque book – but he has presumably been sold it as an easy way of managing his everyday financial transactions. And it has brought him only anxiety that he will be left in debt.

Credit cards, cashpoints and the internet have almost removed the necessity for high street banks to deal with their customers in person. Queueless services mean that they can focus on valued clientele and retreat from any obligation to the wider community. Online accounts allow them to cream-skim their wealthiest clients and offer them preferential rates. As smaller bank branches close, queuing up to be served by a cashier is now an old-fashioned way of getting hold of money – although I notice that there is also an alternative queue in the bank for ‘premier customers’.

The sad thing is that everyone within earshot, including the people in the queue, is laughing quietly at this elderly man. Why is he talking so loudly? How can he have got through life without understanding the basics of how banking works? The cashier is still laughing when I arrive at her till to pay in my cheque. She explains that the money will be in my account by next Friday. For six days, in other words, my money will cease to exist, except perhaps in the form of virtual chips on the international money markets.

I share the old man’s incomprehension at this way of ordering things.

A piece I did on birdwatching a while back is now on that excellent website, Caught by the River:

Mundane quote for the day: ‘How many people turn on the radio and leave the room, satisfied with the distant and sufficient noise? Is this absurd? Not in the least. What is essential is not that one particular person speak and another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking and no one in particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of undefined promise to communicate, guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words.’ – Maurice Blanchot


  1. Joe, I think in Jon Ronson's excellent 'Who Killed Richard Culshaw?' essay (I think in the What I Do collection) he refers to being told by someone in the industry that the clearing period for cheques etc is utter nonsense in the age of instant digital communication, but that banks keep it going as a wheeze to earn interest. Big surprise for us all, I'm sure. I do remember from my time working for a bank that a customer could pay an extra £25 to make sure their payment was processed on the same day, which basically involved someone picking the cheque out of the stack, walking about 100 yards and moving it to the front of today's processing queue, a task taking about 2 minutes. Now we see why bankers are so highly paid; clearly such fine-tuned systems as this are well above the understanding of the person in the street. - Jo

  2. Thanks Jo. My dad said he once saw a headline in an Australian newspaper: 'Why the banks are bastards.'

  3. Hi Joe.
    Great article, thanks. I've seen it described as a "flight to quality" by the banks, focusing on their most profitable customers (and areas) and abandoning the poorest areas to fee-charging ATMs.

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