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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Richard Dawkins: We need a new party - the European Party

I was unqualified to vote in the EU referendum. So at least now we should hear from experts. 

It is just conceivable that Brexit will eventually turn out to be a good thing. I gravely doubt it, but I’m not qualified to judge. And that is the point. I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history. It’s grotesque that David Cameron, with the squalidly parochial aim of silencing the Ukip-leaning wing of his party, gambled away our future and handed it over to a rabble of ignorant voters like me.

I voted – under protest, because I never should have been asked to vote, but I did. In line with the precautionary principle, I knew enough to understand that such a significant, complex and intricate change as Brexit would drive a clumsy bull through hundreds of delicate china shops painstakingly stocked up over decades of European co-operation: financial agreements, manufacturing partnerships, international scholarships, research grants, cultural and edu­cational exchanges.

I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.

The single most shocking message conveyed during the referendum campaign was: “Don’t trust experts.” The British people are fed up with them, we were told. You, the voter, are the expert here. Despicable though the sentiment was, it unfortunately was true. Cameron made it true. By his unspeakable folly in calling the referendum, he promoted everyone to the rank of expert. You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.

Scientists are experts only in their own limited field. I can’t judge the details of physics papers in the journal Nature, but I know that they’ve been refereed rigorously by experts chosen by an expert editor. Scientists who lie about their research results (and regrettably there are a few) face the likelihood that they’ll be rumbled when their experiments are repeated. In the world of science, faking your data is the cardinal sin. Do so and you’ll be drummed out of the profession without mercy and for ever.

A politician who lies will theoretically get payback at the next election. The trouble with Brexit is that there is no next election. Brexit is for keeps. Everyone now knows that the £350m slogan on the Brexit bus was a barefaced lie, but it’s too late. Even if the liars lose their seats at the next election (and they probably won’t), Brexit still means Brexit, and Brexit is irreversible. Long after the old people who voted Leave are dead and forgotten, the young who couldn’t be bothered to vote and now regret it will be reaping the consequences.

A slender majority of the British people, on one particular day in June last year when the polls had been going up and down like a Yo-Yo, gave their ill-informed and actively misled opinion. They were not asked what they wanted to get into, only what they wanted to get out of. They might have thought “Take back control” meant “Give control back to our sovereign parliament, which will decide the details”. Yes, well, look how that’s working out!

“The British people have spoken” has become an article of zealous faith. Even to suggest that parliament should have a little bitty say in the details is hysterically condemned as heresy, defying “the people”. British politics has become toxic. There is poison in the air. We thought that we had grown out of xenophobic bigotry and nationalistic jingoism. Or, at least, we thought it had been tamed, shamed into shutting its oafish mouth. The Brexit vote signalled an immediate rise in attacks on decent, hard-working Poles and others. Bigots have been handed a new licence. Senior judges who upheld the law were damned as “enemies of the people” and physically threatened.

Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite. In the same way, to decide the affairs of state, as we live in a representative democracy, we can at least hope to elect elite parliamentarians, guided and advised by elite, highly educated civil servants. Not politicians who abdicate their democratic responsibility and hand important decisions over to people like me.

What is to be done? Labour, the so-called opposition, has caved in to the doctrine of “the British people have spoken”. Only the Lib Dems and SNP are left standing. Unfortunately, the Lib Dem brand is tarnished by association with Cameron in the coalition.

Any good PR expert would prescribe a big makeover, a change of name. The “Euro­pean Party” would attract Labour voters and Labour MPs disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn. The European Party would attract Europhile Tory MPs – and there are plenty of them. The European Party would attract a high proportion of the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain. The European Party would attract big donations. The European Party might not win the next election, but it would stand a better chance than Labour or the Lib Dems under their present name. And it would provide the proper opposition that we so sorely need.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition