Harriet Walker: The harsh reality of the cashless society

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In this age of each man for himself, old versus young and the haves against the have-nots, it has become de rigueur to whine about the only institutions to have emerged from the recessional ooze apparently unaffected and, what's more, still rolling in it: the banks. Those glistening glass oblongs standing bullishly against the swampy Docklands horizon have become as easy a target for our communal bile as a dartboard the size of Jupiter, say, or crosshairs big enough to encompass a whole city within their sniper's viewfinder.

But, while we may complain about the system – that opaque and constant flow of assets from those with none to those with plenty – we overlook the banking that we do everyday. We need those august moneylenders and greasy-palmed enablers if we're going to buy our daily bread, gossip mags and Super Noodles. We need them to purchase our very existence. Day to day, the act of taking money out of a hole in the wall and railing against those with plurogajillions seem like two quite separate things.

Remember, though, they are not. Because as soon as something goes wrong with the hole in the wall, you're thrown into a hierarchy that begins and ends in the lofty glass office and the entirely conceptual money market that has come to be – in its very abstraction – the veiled face of our current fiscal woes. And, according to that system, you're judged by how important – that is to say, rich – you are. So if, like me, you tend to live ever-so-slightly beyond your means, with no savings whatsoever and the economic prospects of a medieval villein, your bank is not going to budge for you.

As my bank card spluttered and died in Heathrow Airport last week, 30 minutes before I boarded a plane to Los Angeles, I was faced with just how little my own bank thinks of me. The card just stopped working, rather than the fault lying in my dwindling coffers: the futuristic micro-chip decided that it had been beaten into submission by constant use.

"You're flying to the States, you say?" parroted the HSBC lady I finally got through to. "Oh, in that case we won't be able to help you. Do you have a friend there that you can borrow money from?"

I should acknowledge now that the woman at the end of the phone was as tiny a pinprick of humanity as I was in this horrid saga of penniless person versus tireless and grinding capitalism, and I concede that HSBC's failings are not her fault. She was very nice. But the company she works for builds its slimy reputation on being "the world's local bank". That, at the very instant when my card ceased to function that morning, someone in Australia was putting their own wallet away for the night and turning in.

But it appears the sort of global banking that HSBC advertises, that sort of practical service and international presence, is only for those who make billions in seconds by transferring funds between currency markets and playing the sort of conceptual lucre games that we who rely on holes in walls can make neither head nor tail of. It appears that that sort of helpful reliability is reserved for those with business accounts, five Bentleys and a few spare squillions. Because if you're a single woman travelling alone to LA, where for the record no, I don't have any friends whose money I might borrow, HSBC can do nothing for you.

The only thing to do was a Western Union transfer. I'll admit I know very little about these, but for the fact that they seem to crop up in nearly all Nigerian internet scams. So I was dubious when HSBC told me to wire money to an undisclosed location in Los Angeles to pick up when I arrived. It's a bit like Google telling you that telegrams are the best way to stay in touch.

(In the end, the card that had stopped working was stolen anyway, from a gay bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. Being robbed was no less than I deserved, I thought, for being drunk and dancing on a table, although my friend pointed out that that is what you're supposed to do in a gay bar, and I would really have deserved to be robbed had I instead been sitting in a corner reading Ulysses.)

When I returned to London, there was a new bank card waiting on my doormat, alongside an acknowledgement of my complaint that explained there was simply nothing HSBC could do. Unless, it signed off, I wanted to upgrade my account for a significant monthly fee to a more premium version – for the most esteemed customers only, you understand, HSBC could ensure that I'd never experience the same difficulties abroad ever again.

I'm keeping my money in a shoe box under my bed from now on.

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