Andrew Martin: Give me an Edwardian teller over a hole-in-the-wall any day

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The Independent Online

John Shepherd-Barron, the man credited with inventing the hole-in-the-wall cash dispenser, died last week. In 1967, he sold the idea to a Barclays executive over a pink gin. The first cashpoint machine was then installed in Enfield, and its first user was Reg Varney from On The Buses, a fact presented with no further explanation in most obituaries of Mr Shepherd-Barron. Was Reg Varney by any chance a keen early adopter who happened to have about him the world's first cashpoint card when he suddenly saw the world's first cashpoint machine? No. It was all a publicity stunt, and those early machines required the insertion of not a card but a cheque impregnated with a mildly radioactive substance. Mr Shepherd-Barron, who went on to become a snail farmer, calculated that he would have had to eat 135,000 of these cheques before they did him any harm.

I'm sure that Mr Shepherd-Barron was a charming and brilliant man (although he somehow managed not to make any money from his invention), but he didn't do me any favours.

I acquired my first bank account in the early Eighties when the cashpoint machines were beginning their rapid proliferation. (There is today one at McMurdo Station in Antarctica). That first account, with Lloyds, lasted three months. After about six weeks, my bank manger warned me off the cashpoint machines; he then confiscated my card and tore it in half. So I took my overdraft to Barclays, whose machines I use on a daily basis, despite my bookkeeper telling me to "take out a fixed sum at the start of the week, and try to live on that".

I never know how much money I have in the bank. The only question is whether the cashpoint will give me any cash. I approach the machine in a craven, prayerful state, and when the money comes out I'm ecstatic – although I have never said to the machine "Oh, thanks very much!" as an impecunious friend of mine did when – while standing at the head of a long queue – he over-optimistically (as he felt) keyed in a request for £150.

Sometimes the people ahead of me in the queue will check their balances before deciding on a withdrawal. I always try to peer over their shoulders to see how much money they've got, and I once observed, in the case of an ordinary-looking middle-aged man, a balance of ninety-something thousand pounds. He then havered for a long time before withdrawing £30. I did wonder whether the fact of that man having £90,000 was related to the fact that he checked his balance before withdrawing his money.

But surely the use of a cashpoint machine to check one's balance is an improper use, like buying whisky to treat a cut. The machine is there to give you excitement, not to serve a regulatory function. My problem is that I subconsciously think of a cashpoint machine as being like a fruit machine that (almost) always pays out.

It is said that our progression towards being a cashless society is dangerous in that electronic money will encourage reckless spending. But the moral virtues of old-fashioned cash are undermined if the stuff is instantly available at any time. With all due respect to the late Mr Shepherd-Barron, my interests would be best served by a reversion to Edwardian conditions: my money available solely from a rectitudinous bank with very limited opening hours, a five-mile walk away. My withdrawals would be slowly counted out to me by a fundamentalist Christian in starched collar and pince-nez – and if I took out more than £20 his eyes would follow me all the way to the door.

Andrew Martin is the author of 'The Last Train to Scarborough' (Faber)