The absolute redundancy of the human being troubles me

It’s clearly bothering Philip Pullman, too.

 

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Well, I made it to the bank. It would appear I have won one victory: they’ve dropped the Muzak. I have had few victories in this life so I might as well celebrate one. Unfortunately, that was pretty much it. I discovered that it now takes six working days for an old-fashioned cheque to make its way into your spending power; I remember when it was three. Six working days . . . that means eight actual days. That’s eight days the bank has been making interest on your money while you’re yet to receive any.

I asked the 12-year-old at the customer services desk why it had gone up from three, and he said it had always been six. I then explained that I had nothing to live on for another few days; all he could do was prod hopelessly at the machine on his desk and say there was nothing he could do. I considered asking him if he could lend me 20 quid but he didn’t look old enough to be paid in actual money, so I let it go. In the end I had to rely, as I so often do, on a friend.

I found myself wondering, though, whether I should have asked this young squirt if he realised, or minded, that there was absolutely no point to his job. Seriously: he couldn’t approve loans, he clearly didn’t know anything about the internal dynamics of banking (or if he did, he wasn’t going to impart any information); all he was was a meat-based conduit between the screen on his desk and the customer. He was irrelevant: a waste of tailoring and education. His only useful function was to help confused customers put their cheques in the right way up into the machine that now cashes your cheques instead of a human being. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in my life quite so absurd and sad and, indeed, tasteless, in its demeaning, quotidian way – the spectacle of someone helping someone else use a machine that has been designed to make that first person redundant. Even the sentient cow in Douglas Adams’s Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which recommended which of its parts were going to be the tastiest to diners, had more dignity and agency.

The redundancy of the human being keeps cropping up these days. I popped in to a Vodafone shop over Christmas to see if I could get a phone that was slightly less primitive than the one I have (it’s about the size of a packet of Swan Vestas and can’t take photographs, but the battery lasts a week) and the lady I asked said I could, but she was powerless to do anything else but say that. Here, again, was an employee whose sole advantage over a piece of software was opposable thumbs and the ability to ambulate.

Do we realise the contempt in which we are held? Any writer is always going, during some long, dark night of the soul (or teatime, as Adams would have put it) to question his or her utility, but lately there has been a hoo-ha about Philip Pullman quitting the Oxford Literary Festival on the grounds that it conflicts with his position as head of the Society of Authors. The festival (which I gather is sponsored by the Financial Times, an irony so rich that it probably has its own yacht) would prefer not to pay the authors; the society thinks authors who do this kind of thing should be paid.

Pullman’s action is to be applauded, and have roses thrown at it, too. As I once had it explained to me by some clever person on the radio, there was a time when employers regarded their employees as assets, to be cared for; now they are regarded as expenses, to be trimmed and made redundant as expeditiously as possible.

I met one of the rich the other day. He has something of the rough-diamond charm of Matt Crawford in The Archers; he lives in Monaco but has done a deal with a posh London club to let him stay in one of its suites for £100 a night over the winter. Normally it’s £200.

I fail to see how, when you’re spending that kind of money, it makes much difference whether you spend £100 or £200 a night – but what interested me most was his utter incomprehension as to how someone could have financial worries, or earn so little that they couldn’t even belong to a posh London club in the first place.

My consolation was that he had a big, fat belly, the size of an advanced pregnancy, and I didn’t. It wasn’t a huge consolation: he was very clearly happy in his own skin. That charm again. But, as far as the rich are concerned, it’s their world, and we’re just existing in it.

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 appears in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war