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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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.