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17 November 2015

They’ve taken the MDF wall down in my local NatWest. Now you can see what banking used to look like

The bank is now closing for refurbishment. Whether it will be demolishing its secret garden, I do not know – but I know where my money would be if I were a betting man.

By Nicholas Lezard

There is an unpleasant stench in the Hovel. I wonder what it can be. It’s a corpse, obviously. But of what? My ambition? My hopes? It is probably nothing more significant than Mousie having eaten a baited morsel of poison from someone else’s hand and crawled off to die beneath our floorboards.

This has happened before. The pong lasts for a couple of weeks and then it goes away, as I recall. The trick is either to mask the smell with smoke, or to go out as much as possible.

This isn’t so bad. For a start, little can put a dent in my mood at the moment, as I managed to get to the end of last month without having to borrow any money. This was largely because I spent most of October cowering in my room, a hostage to obligations unfulfilled and the usual free-floating paranoia. It will be good to get out. I’d also been watching Roman Polanski’s The Tenant on DVD on my laptop and I can tell you for free that this is not a film that you want to watch if you are living a bachelor existence in a major city and are prone to uneasiness.

So off I go. First, to the bank, to arrange something that is none of your beeswax (but is perfectly innocent). The NatWest on the corner has been making itself pleasant to visit lately, or as pleasant as a bank can be – first, by employing as one of its tellers a woman who looks exactly like Gwyneth Paltrow (but who doesn’t seem like such a drip); second, by removing the flat, blank, white MDF board that commonly stands behind all counter staff in order to give the impression of . . . blank indifference, I suppose.

You can tell that they didn’t want to remove this wall. For there is yellow-and-black gaffer tape all over the floor but behind where the wall stood lies the bank’s big secret: a warren of offices and corridors, at least a century old, in ancient, panelled wood, with cheerful little panes of glass in the door frames; all conspiring to make one half expect to see a bowler-hatted Captain Mainwaring, gas mask slung over his shoulder, drop his briefcase on to the table and say, “Morning, Wilson.”

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One day, struck by its charm, I commented on this, and I didn’t like the way my comment was greeted. It was as if I had complimented parents on a child they were actually ashamed to death of.

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The bank is now closing for refurbishment. Whether it will be demolishing its secret garden, I do not know – but I know where my money would be if I were a betting man.

I walk past a Chinese restaurant I have not noticed before, Bright Courtyard. I am inordinately fond of Chinese cuisine and inspect the menu. Steamed razor clams with vermicelli and garlic is one of the starters. Yum, yum! The price: £8.50. OK, razor clams are a delicacy. But the next word is “each”. As I recall, a razor clam consists of about four inches of white inner tubing that, whether you like it or loathe it, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be a filling repast. One would need about half a dozen to leave any impression that you had eaten anything at all. Here, you would have to spend over £50. As a friend of mine, new to parenthood, once said in a tone of maximal outrage, when he found out how much a wooden Duplo train cost (not the set; just a train carriage): “I could get sucked off for that!”

Once again I have to accept that one of the prices of living in a swish part of town is that you will not find a takeaway that will give you a stomach-bursting portion of ho fun noodles for under a fiver.

So, off I go to the pub, to see my friend Toby-Who-Is-Not-Toby-Young-How-Many-Times-Do-I-Have-To-Repeat-This?, for a catch-up and a chuckle over the latest Viz. This is all very pleasant but, as I make my way back to the Hovel from Edgware Road Station, I am accosted from the other side of the road by Darren, the manager of the Duke, where I used to go a lot when I had funds.

It is now past closing time but he pours me a whisky and tells me the news: the leaseholder plans to shut the place down and replace it with luxury flats – as if there were any other kind here these days. This, despite the Duke making money hand over fist.

And I think of the bank and the poncey restaurant and all the shit buildings that are going up all over the place and all the rest of it – and I know what has crawled under my floorboards and died. It’s London’s ancient heart. 

This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain