A mouse (not the one from the author's kitchen). Picture: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1899
Show Hide image

Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know

I saw the recycling bag shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight and started to reflect on animal cruelty.

I go into the kitchen one evening. Mousey is there: ambling across from the chopping board to where the teapot is.

“Please, Mousey,” I say, “give me a break.” It is late, and I am tired, so tired. Tired of being alone, of being a failure, of being tired. Recently some moron called me a “patronising git” and a “wealthy media lefty” for the column I wrote here in which I said I was very sad that the Tories were knocking down Shepherd’s Bush council housing and replacing it with luxury apartments. There are few things more tiring, in terms of the fruitless exasperation it causes, than being insulted by a moron. (The “wealthy” was especially fatuous.)

Mousey’s normal routine, when I come into the kitchen and he is having a snack, or a stroll, is to turn and scurry away as fast as his little paws can move him, which is pretty damned fast. But this time he doesn’t bother. He just stays there and looks at me for a bit, and then carries on, slightly slower than before, as if in mockery, pausing to sniff at the tea caddy (perhaps his way of saying, “Any danger of a cup of tea next time?”) before he disappears behind the cupboard next to the fridge.

Enough is enough. I have always, since I first read it, been impressed by Shandy’s Uncle Toby’s address to the fly that had been tormenting him all through dinner: “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head . . .—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” I did once hurt Mousey, very badly, when I found him gorging himself, oblivious, in an ecstasy of gluttony, inside a bag containing what earlier that evening had been a sliced loaf of bread, now reduced entirely to crumbs, and I had twisted the top of it shut and brought my heel down on it very hard and quickly. When I wrote about that, someone on Twitter said I was inhuman, but that person had not seen the bag, shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight, from which I had been hoping to extract a slice for a snack.

My murderous impulses were not there this evening. I was too tired. Also, it is nice when an animal does not flee or attack a human being. And Mousey had not, this time, come to ravish my dinner.

Still, there is the question of infestation. That runs up against some deep-rooted human feelings. We may like cats because they do not flee or attack when we come near (for the most part), but the reason we liked them in the first place was that they killed the mice and rats in our barns, and scared the bejesus out of the ones that escaped. I cannot have a cat here, which is one of the reasons I am going mad, but I had heard that Mousey cannot abide the smell of peppermint oil – and that only costs a fiver from Holland & Barrett and, unlike with a cat, you don’t have to arrange for the oil to be fed if you go on holiday.

So I get a wee bottle of this oil and sprinkle it liberally behind the counters and cooker, which seems to be Mousey’s main thoroughfare. In fact, having no idea as to how much peppermint oil smells, I slosh it about very liberally indeed, and for the next few days I feel like I am living inside a Bendicks Bittermint. I also get some on my hands, and I discover that the sensation that occurs when you accidentally rub some on the sensitive skin at the corners of your nostrils is the closest sensation you can have to burning without it actually hurting. Still, at least the smell of peppermint is nicer than the smell of cigarettes and regret that is the Hovel’s current atmosphere. And Mousey will move on and there will have been no cruelty involved.

Well, you can guess how that turned out. The daughter, who had popped down for a brief weekend visit, came back from the kitchen to say she’d just said hello to Mousey; and a day or so later, I heard a rustling coming from the recycling bag kept next to the bin. Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know. Maybe he thinks there will still be some Curiously Cinnamon in the empty Curiously Cinnamon box he discerned through the blue plastic. Stupid Mousey.

I leave him. He can do what he wants there. But then next night I come into the kitchen and I see another Mousey standing by the bag, as if trying to give some message of solace and hope to the Mousey who is trapped. This is not anthropomorphism, or pathetic fallacy. I know that posture when I see it, and I am unmanned. Does that mean, then: that I am moused?

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 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation