Howard Jacobson: Resistance is futile when in the circle of hell known as banking

Go on, make your fortune. Just don’t forget the materials out of which it came

"I want to say one word to you," Mr McGuire told Benjamin Braddock, aka Dustin Hoffman, the most famous ever graduate in movies. "Are you listening?"

"Yes, I am."

"Plastics."

How we laughed. It was 1967 and if there was one place we weren't going it was into plastics. We might wonder, looking back, whether there weren't worse options. Particularly if we chose to go into banking instead.

John Boehner, Congressman for the Eighth District of Ohio and 21st Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives, began his career in plastics. Proving that plastics can be the making of a man. It was Boehner who delivered the most eloquent indictment of Bush's original bailout package, calling it a "crap sandwich" while acknowledging that the country had to hold its nose and eat it. A politician alive to the tribulations of small business, you see, but a pragmatist, too, as any small businessman has to be.

Myself, perhaps because I am the son of the smallest businessman the world has ever seen – so small he was his only employee and so poorly remunerated he frequently went on strike against himself for better pay – I have a soft spot for modest enterprise, however successful at the last, so long as it remembers its origins. Go on, make your fortune; just don't forget the plain materials out of which you made it. I suppose you could argue that the men who make money out of money are handling the plainest materials of all, but we know in our souls that to prosper through the heartless logic of money begetting money is parasitic. And yes, I know the organism we call society cannot do without such parasites. That's the crap sandwich we have to swallow, down to the last crumb.

But isn't everything about banking a crap sandwich? I speak as someone whose knowledge of the subject is limited to the humiliations of arranging a small overdraft, trying to pay in a cheque or asking for a fiver's worth of small change, but if it's a crap sandwich at the lower end it's sure as hell going to be a crap banquet at the higher. And that's not because banks make money but because money is their domain. St Paul didn't get it quite right: it is not the love of money that is the root of all evil, it's the company of money. Money is crap. It defiles where it touches. Which means none of us is clean. But those who swim around in money for a living – rather than, say, plastics – are the uncleanest of all.

Excuse my biblicality. These are apocalyptic times. And to be fair, those who have made my life a misery at the lower end of banking have been crap less in the defiling sense than in the sense of being a pain in the arse. I go back to the first bank manager with whom I ever had serious dealings – the manager of the on-campus bank at Sydney University where, in a state of high excitement, I had landed my first job. It was my high excitement that bothered him. He reckoned I was spending too freely. "What do you care?" I asked. "You get interest on my overdraft." He wore a short-sleeved shirt, little-boy shorts and long white socks in the Aussie manner – all mates together in the sunny men-only game of life. It's hard, when your bank manager is wearing shorts, to know where to look. "I'm not here to take your money," he lied. "I'm here to help you live."

Helping me to live meant getting me on a budget. "I'm not a budget kind of guy," I told him. "Then how do you know how much you need to spend?" he wondered. "I don't," I told him. "It all depends on the restaurant I happen to be passing. If a beautiful woman winks at me when I walk out of here, that could be the beginning of an expensive week. If she winks at someone else and I don't as a consequence need a couple of new suits, I'm solvent. Life is serendipity, cobber."

Not a word they understand – serendipity – in the lower circles of banking hell. Not only did he cut my overdraft facility and put me on a budget, he leered at me in the university staff club, in the company of my academic enemies, over chardonnay the like of which he had made it impossible for me any longer to afford.

Thereafter there was always a bank manager somewhere helping me to live while still managing to take my money, and if there's one thing worse than a crap sandwich it's a morality and crap sandwich. Now, which should be a blessing, you can't find a bank manager. Instead you speak every combination of numbers you can remember into an automated phone, give your mother's maiden name, and spend the rest of the day convincing a person who might not really be a person that you are not laundering money, you are just wondering where it might be worth depositing some, or, if you really want to walk into a brick wall, asking why you have to pay money to get your own money out.

Some of this can be a done at a branch, if you can locate a branch, but that means queuing in the street because the person at the enquiry desk is out for lunch and the teller at the express till is explaining to a Ukrainian without any knowledge of English words or English currency why the life savings he thought he'd transferred from Kamenetz Podolsky will take another 18 months to arrive. I have tried many times to start a revolution in a bank queue but there are no takers. We accept the ignominies of basic banking as a matter of course, persuaded by a system that bleeds us dry to be grateful it will take the little we have saved and blow it. Thus does money grind us, too, into ingredients for the great crap sandwich which is finance.

But is crap sandwich the right metaphor for what doesn't in actuality exist? Because money isn't really ever there, those who wade thigh high in it are necessarily fantasists and dreamers, hedging against eventualities that cannot be hedged against, dealing in futures of which the future cannot be told. Could it be that it's not crap we're eating in our sandwich, but hot air? In which case look on the bright side: we are not, after all, about to succumb to the bubonic plague. We will, however, have to get used to going to bed hungry.

Comments