You've probably noticed that ISA season is here again, the last few weeks before the end of the financial year when the banks try to persuade you to use up your tax-free savings allowance. Once that deadline has passed, they apply equal zeal to going after your next year's allowance. If you try to be conscientious about saving, March-April can be a busy time.
Of course, with interest rates on savings as they are, and inflation accelerating, you might reasonably conclude that this year's allocation – even if you have a surplus in the bank – might be better just, well, spent. A rate of 20 per cent, or even 40 per cent tax avoided on accumulated annual interest of pretty much nothing is even closer to nothing, and if you start switching accounts around in an effort to do better, it all becomes quite a hassle.
Which prompts this question. Given that a state of credit is supposed to be so superior to a state of debit in this post-crisis world, why is saving in Britain so complicated?
I have in front of me the latest bright purple information offering from my "helpful" bank, which says on the front, in nice plain English, "Savings Accounts. Important information". Beware, though: the simplicity is deceptive. Over 14 pages, the bank sets out no fewer than 45 (yes, 45) types of savings accounts, all with several different interest rates. They are arranged in three categories: "branch-based accounts", "non-branch based savings accounts" and "superseded accounts". And not one of them, so far as I can discern, offers anything approaching even 1 per cent, unless it entails some sort of "bonus" offer. (That word has a lot to answer for.)
This means that the rate is temporary, for "new" savers only. It will expire, and you will find your cash reaping more like a tenth of 1 per cent unless you act promptly and move it in pursuit of another "bonus".
At the weekend, a long-time college friend and I – who don't usually talk about finances – worked ourselves up into quite a lather of indignation about the bank-induced pressure to keep "switching". At one end of the spectrum you have – still – "casino" banking, with its plethora of "financial products" and returns akin to gambling; at the other, you might as well keep your money under the bed. We both hankered for those long-lost days of National Savings Certificates and straightforward deposit accounts with a modest, but predictable, return.
We both have decent degrees, albeit not in maths; we are both computer-literate, and we are both capable of figuring out what is on offer if we put our minds to it. But why should we squander valuable time this way? Why won't the banks simply share out the (paltry) proceeds evenly, with a clear table of rates for all?
It would spare a lot of people a huge amount of time and inconvenience; it would reduce the number of balances mislaid during "switching", and it would enable the "helpful" bank to save some trees by cutting its "important information" from 14 pages to one. Oh yes, I know it would also stop banks relegating stroppy non-switchers like me to accounts yielding 0.1 per cent, but does anyone want us to save or not?
The looking glass world of spies and lies
It was one of the most scandalous episodes of the Bush presidency, and one far worthier of impeachment than Bill Clinton's dissembling about his Oval Office dalliance. The career of Valerie Plame, a high-flying CIA agent, was destroyed because her ex-ambassador husband failed to come up with the goods on Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions.
Fair Game, a film based on that saga, is now out, with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn and a screenplay that astutely plays on Plame's double identity. You can never be entirely sure whether it is the "real" Valerie you are seeing, or her other, undercover, self.
The ambiguity was still fresh in my memory when I saw the former head of MI5, Dame Eliza – now Baroness – Manningham-Buller, interviewed in the first part of the BBC's Secret War on Terror. I had always thought of her as principled and understated – admirably so. As she answered Peter Taylor's questions about what the British knew about the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects, the slightest flicker of a doubt crossed my mind.
Was there no "tacit approval", he asked, no "blind eye turned"? Was Britain "complicit" in torture? No, she answered, with quiet authority. What if Taylor had dropped the word "tacit"? You can clearly watch too much spy drama.
A sliver of hope for media dinosaurs
As an enthusiast both for Japan and for old-fashioned printed newspapers, I drew the faintest sliver of comfort – on both counts – from a report by our Japan correspondent, David McNeill, on Monday.
Reporting from the ruins of Minami Sanriku, a town described as the size of St Ives, he wrote this: "Its survivors huddle around gas heaters in a community centre about three kilometres from the sea. There is no television or radio. A noisy generator keeps the lights on. News comes in the newspapers delivered late every morning, with their thick black headlines bearing reports of the catastrophe from other parts of the country."
So, even amid so much devastation, there were Japanese producing, distributing and reading newspapers – real, printed, paper newspapers.
Given the lack of mains electricity and the rolling power cuts to come, I guess there won't be that many people relying on their laptops or their tablets for a while. Let's hear it for the wonder of newspapers you can not only read, but actually hold and pass around.