Charles Nevin: A back-to-basics approach to banking


Banks, even I have noticed, are going through a torrid time at present. This newspaper's admirable campaign to get them to repay excessive charges from their excessive profits; the threat to discipline employees who don't bank with them; the "gender penalty" that sees them charging higher lending rates to female entrepreneurs than to their male equivalents - the list is almost as long as the queue at the one window open for service while the rest of them try to look busy at the back.

Please, though, do not get the impression that I start with a balance showing my sympathy and compassion heavily overdrawn. No: although it takes an effort of some imagination, I can quite see that making money by taking it and then giving it back does present challenges. As Seneca so wisely put it, wealth doesn't end your problems, it merely changes them.

And although, as Impecunius, Seneca's slave so pithily put it, "chance would be a fine thing", I will not be distracted by petty resentments and my latest statement from a dispassionate analysis of the banks' plight, followed by a few helpful suggestions.

My belief is that the banks have attained their present levels of unpopularity by a fundamental error in their approach to public relations. You will be familiar with their blandishments and wheezes, their offers of assistance and advice, the chirpy, all-dancing and singing adverts boasting about giving money to charity and green causes, their assurances that your best interests are the paramount matters in their minds, waking, sleeping, or counting.

Indeed, we were all rather touched when one of them sent my son a birthday card last week (even though it didn't contain the tenner his aunts and uncles stumped up).

The flaw in all this was never better nailed than by that most astute Marx brother, Groucho, whose bank manager ended a letter to him thus: "If I can be of any service to you, do not hesitate to call on me."

Groucho replied: "The best thing you can do for me is to steal some money from the account of one of your richer clients and credit it to mine."

Banks are about making money for banks, and any attempt to promote themselves as disinterested philanthropists will produce the current resentment as inevitably as they will demonstrate they are not.

I applaud the generous instinct that led the staff at the Plymstock branch of Lloyds TSB to leave it open on Thursday morning while they all disappeared upstairs for a meeting, but such gestures will, I'm afraid, besides attracting the disapproval of the Devon and Cornwall Police, be short-term and counter-productive.

What is needed is a "does what it says on the tin", no-frills approach, with stern tellers, old-fashioned managers: the sort of place, to sum up, that would be distinctly unimpressed by Howard from the Halifax (the view in Lloyds, you will remember, on its employee, TS Eliot, was that, in time, with luck, he might have made branch manager).

That's the bank we want, the one we can be quite clear about. Not so much EasyBank, though, as HBTC - the Hard But That's Capitalism bank. No gimmicks, no need to be liked. A message that the national bank manager, Mr Brown, too, should heed.

How to surprise a cow

Promising news from Stuttgart, where scientists have developed a pill that stops bovine wind-breaking (cow emissions are responsible for 4 per cent of greenhouse gases). Unfortunately, the pill is the size of a human fist and proving hard to swallow. A solution. Silent comedy memories warn against blowing down a large tube into the cow's mouth. Instead, I would adapt the ancient method of persuading a camel to take on extra litres, involving a surprise approach from behind at the wadi as it s ending its drink, and a sharp kick. My way is more humane: the pill is placed in the cow's mouth and it is then shown a picture illustrative of global warming; those polar bears, say, on the ice floe. Failing that, a burger.

Despite the disappointment of learning that I had misheard and it's going to be a movie about Ian Paisley rather than a musical, it has still been an exciting few days in the other-news sector. The anti-snooze seat, for example, wired to detect slowing pulse and breathing and then sound an alarm, although developed as a motoring safety aid, is sure to have many other applications, including meetings and dinner parties - particularly those involving discussions about David Cameron's parting or house prices. A Gordon Brown leadership campaign run by Jack Straw should also produce a rush of orders.

* Elsewhere, I am mulling over the report that drivers in Wales have the most accidents in car parks while those in Lancashire have the least. Finally, I note that, following the swamping of the Home Counties by parakeets and the dangers of escaping animals from London Zoo, budgies are in the grip of an obesity crisis, and would merely remind owners that budgerigar in Aboriginal means "good eating".

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