A weird little fad that proved fatal

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Indy Lifestyle Online
JOHN MAJOR'S 'reform' of the Honours system is as wet as one might have predicted, but I shall certainly take advantage of the new do-it-yourself nomination system. In fact I hope to develop it into a betting club on Poohsticks lines, whereby members will put pounds 1 each in the kitty for every name they nominate, and whoever's nominee comes out with the highest honour wins the pot. My nominee this week is Anne Diamond to whom I wholeheartedly bow the knee for the success of her campaign to prevent cot death.

If, as seems likely, she has actually halved the national incidence of cot deaths by publicising research that showed that babies were less at risk if put to sleep on their backs, instead of on their fronts as recommended by the Department of Health, she deserves the thanks of a grateful nation. What is extraordinary is that mothers were ever encouraged to put babies to sleep on their fronts. I wonder when and why it started? I was taught to do it when I had my own children in the late 1970s but it always felt unnatural and older women thought I was mad. There are no face-down babies in art; you seldom see them in other countries; it was one of those weird little British health fads which, it now seems, may have led to many preventable deaths. Anyway, give Anne Diamond a gong.

SOME MONTHS ago I invited readers to tell me of any bank anywhere that offered good service. None of the big four clearing banks found any commenders but there was quite a little chorus on behalf of the Bank of Scotland. So I was depressed to read in Wednesday's Mail that the Bank of Scotland had launched some bonus scheme whereby employees would be paid extra for dreaming up new ways of maximising customer charges. On Thursday, the Mail printed an apology, though not a very large one: their story referred to the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is different. If I were the Bank of Scotland I would have demanded a full-page apology and several million pounds of damages for this mistake but I suppose it is such a virtuous bank it didn't want to seem greedy.

NO SUCH inhibition applies to Barclays, which this week managed to charge a customer pounds 72 for a 10-minute meeting with his branch manager. Meanwhile Lloyds, not to be outdone, was busy sending out a letter which must have bemused many customers, as it did me. The wording was a little masterpiece of unintelligibility: many of the finest PR minds in the country must have slaved for weeks to produce such a shimmering mirage of non- meaning. The heading is 'Customer Confidentiality' and the subhead is 'Lloyds Bank Promises to Keep Your Financial Affairs Private'. Then follows this curious syllogism:

'Lloyds Bank adheres to the Code of Banking Practice.

Lloyds Bank is committed to keeping my personal financial affairs in strict confidence under the law.

On this basis Lloyds Bank may continue to provide other companies in the Lloyds Bank Group with my name, address and telephone number so that they can offer me information about services available to me from time to time.' Followed by a space for your signature, and telephone number.

At first glance, one might assume that signing the form would help to preserve one's confidentiality. But that would betoken an innocence in the ways of banks which, like virginity, can never be regained. I rang my bank manager to ask if he would care to parse the letter's meaning for me. He was soon floundering. 'It means, er, that we're protecting you under the Code of Banking Practice, aren't we?' Well, not exactly, I explained, because the Code of Banking Practice did the protecting; this form was intended to un-protect me. He seemed a bit confused by this so I left him to puzzle it out for himself while I turned my attention to Lloyds press office, who by now know me rather well. They explained that, unlike the other clearing banks, they had decided to adopt a policy of 'express consent' instead of relying on implicit consent. But the Code of Banking Practice was introduced a year ago, in March 1992: why, I wondered, was the bank only now asking for my consent? And why did it say that, if I signed, it would 'continue' to dish out my name and phone number to any life insurance salesman or investment whizz who fancied pestering me at home? Had it been doing so since March 1992 when the Code of Banking Practice was introduced (answer: yes) and why was it now having cold feet? The press officer whimpered that the code was ambiguous and that they just wanted to be on the safe side. If so, I suggest they might have worded their letter differently with the aim of being understood. For instance, they could have said: Do you want financial salesmen ringing you up at home to flog you things? Admittedly, this might produce a rather low response but it would at least have the merit of honesty.

I HAVE received an impressive four- page contract from the BBC's Copyright Department called an 'authority to use literary material for television'. The literary material in question is a very short (in both senses) letter I wrote to the Arena programme, declining to talk about Melvyn Bragg, and the BBC is prepared to pay a lavish pounds 16.62 for the privilege of quoting it. Moreover if the programme goes out abroad or to what the contract calls 'trapped audiences' (in hotels, ships, aircraft, etc) I get another pounds 16.62 which will make it the best-paid sentence I've ever written. Yippee.