Please sign here, Madam: Coutts Bank on the Strand, 1970. Photo: Getty
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The bank has two exits – the door I came in by, and the ground that will swallow me up in shame

What I thought was going to be an investigation into my expenses turns out to be nothing of the sort: instead, a charming young woman is trying to sell me life insurance.

Another one of those awkward moments at the bank. Once again, I find myself with too much month at the end of my money and as the manager happens to be doing a stint at the till (which I find commendable, like an officer leading from the front), I ask him again about a modest extension to the overdraft limit. The last time I asked this, a central computer turned me down and the manager looked pained and confused as he gave me the news.

This time, he suggests a loan. This will pay off the loan I have already, as well as a few other things, and it will probably work out cheaper than my frankly rather scatty approach to personal finance. All is fine: the brain in a jar that is the bank’s decision-maker vents a few bubbles saying I’m good to go and panic is assuaged until the next time.

A couple of days later, I get a call from a woman at the bank. She is coming into the local branch next Wednesday and could she interview me, please? This I do not like the sound of. Somehow, I do not think she is going to be interviewing me for a job, or a profile in NatWest’s staff magazine (“This month: our most feckless customers reveal their astonishing secrets”). Still, the bank has gone out on a limb for me and it is only round the corner, so it would be bad manners to say no, if not unwise.

The day comes and I remember the appointment only ten minutes before it is due. As I have barely had time to potter around before the first cup of tea, I have neither showered, nor shaved, nor – I notice – put on any trousers. I wash my hair with one hand, shave with the other and pull my trousers on with my teeth and manage to arrive two minutes early. Like James Bond – I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond lately – I check the bank for available exits should things turn sticky. There are two: the door I came in through and the ground, which at some point will open up and swallow me to cover my embarrassment.

What I thought was going to be an excruciating investigation into my expenses turns out to be nothing of the sort: instead, a charming young woman is trying to sell me life insurance. “Life insurance”: the words have become associated with fiddles and scams for so long that I am amazed no one has come up with an alternative term. Then again, if I take out a life insurance policy, who will be zooming whom? I’m not exactly a safe bet.

Going through my personal details before sending them off to the other brain in a jar that is the insurance department’s arbiter will take between half an hour and an hour, she tells me, which puts me in a bit of a panic because a) I don’t like sitting in a small, enclosed room in a bank for that long with anyone, however charming, and b) I am conscious that I only had time to shower my head, which is generally not the smelliest part of a body that hasn’t showered for a day. The reason it’s going to take so long, it turns out, is because she is obliged to read out every word that appears on the screen to me – presumably in case I am one of those customers who says he can read and write but actually can’t. I assure her that I can read, quite quickly, as it happens, and that we can zip things along. She looks doubtful at first but soon we get into the swing of things.

“I’ve never gone through this so quickly before,” she says at one point. “Twenty minutes, that’s amazing.” We also establish a rapport. This might come as a bit of a shock to you but I am given to flippancy in the face of official questionnaires and exercise this gift more than once in the face of what are otherwise rather impertinent questions. She is by turns amused – “I’d love to spend the whole day with you, just to see what you’d say next” is a very nicely two-edged compliment – and horrified: “How many units a week? That’s impossible.”

By the end of it, we determine that if I decide to forgo cover for loss of an eyeball and benign tumours, we can have a decent sum on my death for a modest monthly outlay. And I have been, largely, honest with my answers. It will take the brain, I gather, three months to make its decision, during which time I will get free cover. Sounds like a deal. She presses the button.

Her terminal does not make a waah-waah noise but a red thing comes up on-screen that tells us I instantly have been refused life insurance. I think of a few funny things to say to lighten the mood but, in the end, keep them to myself.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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