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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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.