Good Questions: Cheque not cleared yet? Blame the law

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The Independent Culture
CUCKOOS, catalogues, cheques and uncle Bobs have been among the things troubling our readers over the past week. Here we try to sort out their problems.

How does a cuckoo speak cuckoo? They are not brought up by their parents, their mother is not even at the birth, and yet every year every area has its own solitary cuckoo yelling out that once again it has managed to fool another unsuspecting sparrow or blackbird into bringing up its young. And yet when the interloper has grown up, does he even talk to his adoptive parents or can he even be bothered learning their language? (Rod Huckbody, Isle of Lewis)

There has been a great deal of research recently into bird song, all of which supports the theory that a bird is born with an innate repertoire of songs characteristic of its species.

Baby birds reared in captivity, out of sight and sound of any specific species, still sing away in the manner one would expect of them. They may still develop their own new songs, or pick up songs from other birds, but such individual variations develop later. Generally speaking, they do not have to learn songs, but they can learn variations on the basic theme. Some birds, for example the starling, are excellent mimics and can develop a wide repertoire. Others, such as the cuckoo, stick to what they know best.

In a paper, 'Consequences of Domestication on the Song Structures of the Canary' (Behavior, vol 94, 1985), H R Guettinger compared the sound qualities of domestic and wild canaries and found that 'the general acoustic morphology has remained astonishingly stable'. In other words, many generations of domestication has not altered the canary's song pattern, though pet canaries do tend to sing in shorter syllables.

According to work done in the early 1980s at the Field Research Centre of the Rockefeller University in New York, the canary loses 20 per cent of its brain every winter, including the parts that hold the memory for song. Thus canaries must learn a new repertoire of songs every spring when the missing parts of the brain regenerate.

As for communication with the cuckoo's foster parents, one baby bird screeching and gaping has much the same effect on a mother as any other. The cuckoo chick has the added advantage of being bigger and better at elbowing and pushing other baby birds out of the way.

Sources: Mike Clarke at London Zoo; Behavior (1985); Strange Things by R K G Temple (1983).

Why does it still take four days for a cheque from one high street bank to another to be cleared? (Arnout de Waal, Cambridge)

If a cheque is paid in on Monday, it will be processed at the branch where it is presented that evening, exchanged on Tuesday, and back to the branch on which it was drawn within 48 hours. That bank must then decide whether the customer has funds to meet the cheque.

Finally the two banks involved in the transaction will settle their obligations at the Bank of England. The payee may have value for it on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. The banks claim this process is necessary to ensure the integrity of the system.

According to a law passed in 1882, the cheque itself must physically be presented at the bank on which it was drawn, which - with 10 million cheques processed every day - means a lot of pieces of paper travelling around the country, although the entire system is machine operated, using high-speed sorting machines that can handle 20,000 cheques an hour.

Legislation has been promised to repeal the 1882 law, but neither the government nor the banks seem to consider it a matter of urgency. The technology does exist to make instant transfers, but it would not at present be economically viable to do so.

Source: Richard Tyson-Davies, Association of Bank Clearing Services.

While we are on the subject, several readers, including Joy Lomas, Betsy Damerall, Sue Verovkins, and Kym Welsar, have written to ask: Why don't cheques fit into standard-size envelopes?

According to a 1983 publication, the replies from the high street banks' head offices to this question were: 'We were not aware of it' (National Westminster); 'Don't they?' (Lloyds); 'Thank you for drawing our attention to it' (Midland); and 'But they do fit our envelopes' (Barclays).

Ten years later, we were referred to the Association for Payment Clearing Services who said that it is a good question. They blamed the equipment for printing cheques, which comes from the United States where Imperial measures are still used, which cannot be expected to fit metric envelopes.

We pointed out that the problem pre- dated our switch to metric units, and they said: 'At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter if the cheque is folded.' In any case it would be difficult to change cheque sizes. The increase in plastic transactions has led to an annual drop of about 4 per cent in the volume of cheques, and it is unprofitable to make changes in a declining market.

Additional source: The Incredible Quiz Book by Ian Messiter (1983).

Could you tell me where the saying 'Bob's your uncle' comes from? (Erika Sjoberg, London NW5).

The uncle Bob in question was Robert, third Marquess of Salisbury, who, when he was Prime Minister, promoted his nephew, A J Balfour, to the post of Chief Secretary for Ireland.

Balfour had already been President of the Local Government Board in 1886, and later held a place in the Cabinet as Secretary for Scotland. There were strong suggestions of nepotism, and Bob's your uncle, the phrase came into being.

Source: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Why are paintings in an art exhibition never hung in the order in which they appear in the catalogue? With all the advantages of modern technology, surely the layout of the paintings could be decided before the catalogue is printed? (Edward Frith, Selsdon, Surrey)

'I agree it's better that way', said the lady at the Press Office of the National Gallery. 'I think our current catalogue is done that way. Would you like me to check?'

We said we would, and after a few moments pause she returned, saying 'Actually I'm a bit wrong there.'

But the catalogues were in line with the exhibits for their Queen's Pictures exhibition and their recent Rembrandt exhibition. 'It all depends on who puts the catalogue together. If it's a series of scholarly articles, they choose the pictures to illustrate the articles.'

But sometimes it is done alphabetically by painter, or chronologically, which may not be the way the exhibition is laid out. Often the catalogue has to be set and printed before the hanging is finalised. It is evidently not easy to decide where pictures are going to hang on walls before they have arrived.

Source: National Gallery.

We would be pleased to receive more questions and comments from readers. Correspondence should be sent to: Good Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

Compiled by William Hartston