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19 January 2016

I’ve always fantasised about robbing the bank and now my local branch has made it easy

I dislike going to the bank intensely; only, perhaps, not for the reason you might suppose.

By Nicholas Lezard

To the bank. One of the side effects that death has on the living is that an enormous amount of money has to be spent very quickly: on the funeral, basically, and its assorted costs. My father, in one of his last requests, had stipulated that guests were to be served champagne, and not Cava or (shudder) Prosecco. (I really could go on a bit of a rant about this vile liquid, sweet, underpowered and slightly flat, but it is not the liquid’s fault, it occurs to me; it is the fault of those people who consider it somehow an acceptable thing to press upon others.)

This is a request that I was happy to go with, and it fell to me to go to Majestic and do the ordering and collecting. The upshot of it, though, is that I had to spend quite a lot of money all at once – on top of having to pay for rescheduled flights for children, etc, etc. The amazing thing is that, for the first time in living memory, I had sufficient ballast in the bank account to pay for all this. I’ve been working hard lately, like a good boy, for once.

However, it has cleaned me out and I’ve been having to scrounge around for short-term loans to see me through until the estate coughs up. Which is why I began this column with the words “to the bank”. I want to plead my cause to them.

Only those words are not strictly accurate. I now dislike going to the bank intensely; only, perhaps, not for the reason you might suppose. A couple of months ago I mentioned in this column that it was being refurbished, and part of the process had involved removing the blank wall behind the cashiers, exposing an utterly charming warren of what I guessed were roughly 100-year-old offices. It was the bank’s guilty little secret: that behind the blank, off-white MDF walls which were the backdrop to its cashiers beat a cosy little heart. It was immensely cheering, although I had my misgivings when it became apparent, after I commented, that the staff were not too happy about the back office being made visible.

My misgivings proved to be correct. They invariably are. (There is a reason I called the book culled from these columns Bitter Experience Has Taught Me.) When I next showed up at the bank, its interior was even blanker than before, with the huge difference that the reinforced glass between the customers and the cashiers had gone: now, there is simply a free-standing counter and a big machine that doles out the money. (The cashiers no longer do that thing of counting the money out twice in front of you. I miss that.) It was all rather unsettling, and The Cashier Who Looks Like Gwyneth Paltrow gave me a chocolate coin to soothe and console.

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If the bowl of chocolate coins is a good move in the world of customer banking, much like the box of tissues in the psychiatrist’s consulting room, then it is the only one. I am not sure about the removal of the glass; it has made me think once again, when I thought I’d banished the idea, about bank robbery as a career move. (An idea that has been in everyone’s mind ever since they first heard it; but in my case even more of an obsession since reading The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, which came out around the time I became mildly matey with John McVicar, the armed robber-turned-writer.)

But such misgivings are nothing. You can see the reasoning behind it all, and even the half-walled-off bits in the lobby where customers are invited to “have a chat”, whatever unpleasant reality lies behind that word “chat”.

No, what has got me terrified of going into the bank again is the Muzak. A speaker that plays a continuous stream of piss-poor middle-of-the-road rock music has been installed. While you wait in line (and as there is now only one cashier at a time), this can be an awful lot of piss-poor middle-of-the-road rock music to listen to all in one go. So the bank experience, never one of the more relishable ones at the best of times, has now become absolutely horrific.

The first time I heard it I complained to a free-floating member of staff.

“Why don’t you like it?” he asked.

“Because this is a bank, not a shoe shop,” I said, “and also because it’s shit.”

As I said this I thought: God, I have become That Customer. Then I remembered my friend the late Robert Lockhart leaving a pub – even though at the time he needed two sticks to walk, and it caused him great pain to do so – because he couldn’t stand the Muzak. It’s an example to look up to.

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, David Bowie