I was just beginning to feel a little more charitable towards the banks (notwithstanding the matter of bonuses at Barclays, which is in every respect far beyond my pay-grade). And part of the reason was the speed with which they slammed the brakes on their aspirational PR, ditched their fancy product-pushing, and reinvented themselves as nice, responsible, people- friendly operations with your – yes, your – interests at heart. Just look at the sensible-looking lads and lasses fronting their advertising at the moment, with my bank, the NatWest, casting itself as the "helpful bank".
But I regret to say that, behind the reformed façade, still lurk vestiges of the old-go-getters. Returning home last Friday evening, I found a slightly hangdog husband who asked whether I had spoken to the bank. No, I said warily – thoughts of identity theft, overdrafts and worse crowding in. Well, he said, pointing to an official-looking letter, they've given us a new account. It transpired that the bank had called him out of the blue, drawn his attention to the sum in our current account, and suggested opening another.
He had, he said, told them to ask me. But what amazed him, even more than this omission, was how quickly the bank had passed from suggestion to fact. In response to "your application", the letter said, our branch had already opened an account, supplied two deposit books, and was on the point of dispatching passwords and cards under separate cover.
The letter said nothing about what might have happened to our trusty old current account; it mentioned no interest rate that might make this new account worthwhile, nor did it say that the "helpful" bank – as I discovered by chance during a future conversation – had transferred £2,000 out of our current account into it. If we were "unhappy with our choice of account", the letter concluded, we had 14 days to cancel it, "in writing to your branch".
You can bet I was unhappy – if only because there were some rather large bills outstanding, which meant that the bank's "helpfulness" risked plunging the current account into the red. Most of all, though, I wondered why the onus should be on us to cancel "in writing" an account apparently set up as the result of a speculative phone conversation.
This hit a particularly sore spot, because barely 12 months before, we had spent weeks trying to open an ISA through the very same bank. We faced a myriad forms (which were lost), multiple requests for ID, and an eventual refusal – reversed only when I pointed out that we had had the same joint account for the best part of 30 years. Opening an account, post-banking crisis, was now clearly much simpler. Or it is, so long as it's the bank, not you, that wants to do it.
My temper was not improved when I ascertained – by asking a question – that the interest rate on the account was 0.1 per cent – a princely £2 for having the use of our £2,000 for a year. "But there are accounts with better rates," the girl on the helpline quickly added. I'm sure there are, but clearly not ones judged suitable for us.
So why, do you guess, might the bank think it worth the trouble to check the state of our current account, call (one of) us, rush through a non-existent application, and supply all the paraphernalia, to open an account that brings us 0.1 per cent benefit? Might there – I hazarded, when I reached the "supervisor" – be targets or incentives for staff who get customers to open these accounts? There might indeed.
Our soon-to-be-closed account, by the way, rejoiced in the name Natwest Reward Reserve. Reward, you have to ask, for whom?
Pressure to skate into the global elite
Those who believe we are on the brink of a new world order, in which China will be the dominant power, might find their view reinforced by the rise of China at the Winter Olympics. Earlier this week, two Chinese couples took gold and silver in the pairs free-skating, an event dominated for the best part of 40 years by the Russians. The Chinese bring to their skating the same discipline that distinguished the Russians in their day, while – to my eye – yielding a tad in the style and empathy departments. That could change, if the free-skaters of tomorrow skate to more oriental tunes.
But there is another gloss you can put on Beijing's sporting rise. It may not only be that China has such a large population to draw on, rather that it has something to prove: that same something about global presence and being taken seriously for which the Soviet skaters carried the standard in Cold War times, and Russia's tennis stars through the 1990s and early 2000s. A more confident nation might be less fixated on excelling at all costs. You could argue that China will not have risen to its full height internationally until its athletes start to slip back down the global rankings.
Why work two jobs if one will do?
All right, so it's maybe not in the best taste to write approvingly of so-called under-employment when you yourself have more than enough to do. But I can't help feeling that it is not altogether bad news if almost 3 million people in Britain are not able to work as many hours as they say they would like to as a consequence of the economic downturn. (That is on top of the 2.6 million people who are unemployed, which is where all efforts to create jobs should be concentrated.)
This recession has differed from previous ones in the creative solutions that have been applied to the decline in work available. This seems a thoroughly good thing. Boom-time Britain was characterised not only by the disparity in salaries from low to high (and stratospheric), but by the very long hours many people worked and the sharp division between households with two people employed and those with none. Wages in much of the UK were comparatively high, but some of that reflected the long hours worked and the high value of the pound against other currencies.
If we emerge from the recession with a wider acceptance that there will simply be less work to go round, perhaps shorter hours, in a variety of forms, will become the rule. Tax credits already help the low-paid, so at least some of the financial burden would fall on the Exchequer.
Two stubborn traits have dogged the UK economy for decades: low productivity and a poor work-life balance. If the downturn were to bring us more into line with the "old Europeans" on those two key indicators, that would surely be a prize worth having: for individuals and for the country.