Liz Hoggard: It's out of credit, but I owe the cheque book

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The Independent Online

So farewell the cheque book. Now that plastic is king, cheques are to be consign-ed to the history books after 350 years. Yesterday the Payments Council announced they will be phased out by 2018. Will today's teens – who rely on debit cards or bank online – ever understand the romance the cheque book once embodied? My generation spent years in front of the mirror practising our best grown-up signatures. It didn't matter that you didn't actually have any money. It was a rite of passage, like experimenting with Charlie perfume or herbal cigarettes.

When you moved on to work or college, cheque books were tribal. Even now those early colours are burned into me: green for Lloyds, Blue for Barclays, unglamorous brown for Nat West.

Your relationship with the old-fashioned bank manager was feudal, yes, but also paternalistic. He cared about trying to keep you in credit. In those days, he (and I'm afraid it was mostly he) wasn't trying to flog you timeshares or mobile phone insurance. Nor was he trying to cripple you with outrageous bank charges. But he had one key weapon. If you didn't turn up to discuss your overdraft, he didn't reissue your cheque book. And life stopped.

Cheques have been markers of the best and worst moments in my life. I can still feel the hot flush of shame when a cheque bounced. It felt incredibly personal. I had betrayed someone. Even today the words "the cheque is in the post" fill me with agony and ecstasy. Will it turn up in time? Will it turn up at all?

Of course cheques are expensive. They cost around £1 each to process, four times as much as electronic payments. John Lewis and Tesco have stopped accepting them. But cheques are political. Without them we are vulnerable. Companies prefer direct debit because it suits them to be in control. But have you ever tried to get money back when they have taken it in error? And what if banks start charging £2.50 every time we use a cash machine?

Yesterday's move was criticised by consumer groups representing the elderly who tend to prefer cheques to plastic and who are less likely to bank online. According to Andrew Harrop of Age Concern: "We are very concerned people will be forced to keep large amounts of cash in their home, leaving them vulnerable to theft and financial abuse."

A piece of plastic feels like someone else's money. A cheque seems to have a more "real" relationship with hard currency. The language is courtly: "Please make the cheque payable to...". Your word is your bond. Which seems important, in a recession, when supermodels are insisting on being paid in diamonds. And people prefer to invest in art rather than banks.

Of course every generation has a different relationship to credit. My own parents were once hauled out of the bank because they owed £10. There was no possibility of waiting 28 days for the Mastercard statement. The psychology of debt was different.

As a student, I remember folding my cheque or stapling it in the hope it would take longer to go through. Please God let it take five days to cash. Which must sound incredibly quaint to today's twentysomethings, who leave college thousands of pounds in debt.

The edifices of my childhood are crumbling. This year alone, we've lost Woolworths and MFI and Keith Floyd – and now cheques. As the poet Elizabeth Bishop declares: "The art of losing isn't hard to master."

I for one will mourn. Okay, we only write 14 cheques a year on average, and receive just seven. But actually it's a sign of a personal relationship – with your sister, the homeopath, the dry cleaner. And I don't know about you, but I can't actually imagine handing over a bag of cash – or a Visa number – to the therapist. Far too intimate. Woody Allen would have a field day.

Firing on all cylinders

It's no surprise the new George Clooney film – Up in the Air – has been nominated for six Golden Globes. With its plot about a corporate downsizer, a man who fires people for a living, it chimes perfectly with global insecurity.

You howl at the way corporate culture invents new humiliations: firing us on Thursdays (so we have the weekend to get over it); sending the redundancy by text; or even using video screens so they don't even have to do it in person. This is terminating employment as an artform. Who knows what they have in store for us at work tomorrow.

Clooney is brilliant as Ryan the downsizer, a man who spends his whole life in planes and hotels: collecting his gold flier miles, until he rediscovers his conscience. Unusually for Hollywood, you get two strong women characters well able to match him. The locations are unglamorous: Detroit; Phoenix; Wichita. This is blue-collar America, a world of bottling plants and automotive firms.

But the triumph of the film, directed by Jason Reitman (who made the spiky Juno and Thank You for Smoking), is the use of real-life people who have actually been fired for the scenes where Clooney and his young female colleague have to deliver the bullet. The pathos – and faltering eloquence – of these moments is what gives the movie its edge. These are the voices we don't usually hear. Parents holding together families, older workers nearing retirement. People who come perilously close to the edge when the rug is pulled. Us basically. Don't miss it when it comes out in January.

Claws out for Secret Santa

Is anyone else suffering the tyranny of Secret Santa – the Christmas party wheeze where you are asked to buy your friend/colleague a present for £5 for the lucky dip? Yes of course it's cheap and democratic. But it's an absolute minefield. If you know your colleague too well, you are bound to select something so esoteric no one gets it. Enemies will spot a gift given in bad faith. And who on earth is Sebastian in accounts? Unwrapping them, en masse, amid the debris of the Christmas meal is heart-stopping.

Will anyone else spot the regifting. And oh the shame when the present you get is so much more original than the one you gave. People bake delicious morsels, paint miniatures and make up photomontages. The other night I opened an exquisite, gilt-edged copy of Max Beerbohm's "A Christmas Garland" (1912). It was thoughtful at every level. So you can imagine how much I regretted the gift I gave: a bag of chocolate sheep droppings from New Zealand (no excuse really, just a bad day).

Admittedly you are anonymous. But no one is fooled. And the clues are fascinating. Men write the names in hearty upper case. Women tend to wrap properly with a matching card. It's SO competitive: by the end of the night you are stripped emotionally naked. Can't we just go back to buying normal gifts – with all the tension and disappointment that involves?

* I love Ronnie Wood's ex-girlfriend Ekaterina complaining their relationship was boring. "All I would do is sit at home, light up scented candles, watch TV, and order some clothes on the internet." Don't envy her the drunken Goblin King, but it sounds pretty ideal to me.