Come and Get It

Author of many books, articles, and broadcast scripts, J. B. BOOTHROYD is a regular contributor to PUNCH.

BY J. B. BOOTHROYD

One of Britain’s most recently changed faces is the bank manager’s, now bulging with benevolence. The transformation, which depositors surviving from the flinty old days would have thought impossible without plastic surgery, is a symptom of the new loans-for-all craze. This has swept the country fiercely, and head office directives to branch managers are clear: hook the public off the street and fill their pockets with free sterling, ignoring their protests though using only the minimum amount of force required. Afterwards, a quick course in check-writing, and send them on their way.

Many managers of the old school, allowing their faces to relax into a comfortable scowl as soon as the doors are shut, are asking themselves what the harvest is to be. Can this rumor be true that, up in Liverpool, they actually have a drive-in bank now, so that the stuff can be taken away by the carload? I am sorry to have to tell them that this is indeed so.

I used to work in a bank, and our boss was a lord, but the nearest we ever got to seeing him was when he was photographed showing the Aga Khan a favorite strongroom and had the picture circulated to branches with instructions from the premises department about which wall it had to hang on. Looking back on those days, I can think of at least eight members of the general management who would have slumped to the noiseless flooring at the idea of a drive-in bank.

All that has changed. And with the change, something has gone out of British banking as Britons knew and feared it. In my day there used to be decorum. Customers who put their wet hats on the counter were asked to take their business elsewhere and their hats with it. Loans were for the rich man who didn’t need one. A poor man who did would creep in looking whipped before he started. As a matter of fact he was whipped before he started, if all the security he had was a deluge of writs and a wife ordered to Majorca for her health. Mind you, all was ceremoniously done. There were interviews. It was suggested to the suppliant that he might try going out and coming back again with six unimpeachable guarantors. He was asked courteously about his immediate expectations under wills. Sometimes it was even recommended to him that he should go bankrupt. Indeed, no effort was spared to advise him.

But it all came to the same thing in the end. He slunk out of the branch for the last time, past the framed statement showing the bank’s assets as £3,196,000,000 at the last count, and hanged himself at his own expense. Meanwhile, the £100 he had been seeking was lent instead to a customer owning eight sugarbeet companies and a shipping line, who had dropped in after closing time for some pocket money and found he’d left his checkbook at home, dammit, ha-ha.

The clerks on the back desks used to be highly class-conscious in those days. I don’t mean class in the upper, middle, and lower sense, but in the more clear-cut terms of pounds, shillings, and pence. That familiar thorn in the managerial flesh, the elderly overdrawn grocer in a small way of business, was referred to by surname only and well snubbed at the counter. Fattish credit customers got their initials thrown in and, as the notes and coin changed hands, at least two civil remarks about the weather. Only chunky debtors, ponderously secured, enjoyed the full treatment both front and back.

To what extent demoralization has set in among British bank staffs as a result of the loans-for-all movement I cannot say. I suspect that things are pretty bad. In my own bank last week I saw an undoubted sports coat moving at the back behind the frosted glass, a thing unheard of in my time except on a Saturday morning — when, by an odd convention, it was virtually obligatory for any clerk blessed with more than one suit. Obviously all these time-encrusted conventions are bound to go: the somber costume, the ecclesiastical hush, the rubber heels, the whispered financial confidences between confessor and confessed, the furtive passing of folded slips of paper, the service so leisurely as to seem at times stationary. The whole system had one purpose only, to frighten undesirables away and to impress the inner few with the breathless sacrosanctity of £.s.d.

But what now? The £.s.d. is being shoveled over the counters like popcorn, and all pretense is over. The façade must crack and crumble. A hard white collar and tight black coat were clearly de rigueur for the manager dedicated to a stony “No, no, no.”When it’s “Yes, yes, yes, why not take double?” nothing wall do but a sharpish Glen Urquhart check and a companionable billow of cigar smoke. The voice need no longer, must no longer be kept low. “Let Mr. Crouchthorne have another thousand !” bawls the manager, buttockdeep in bullion, and his tones ring down the street and catch the ear of four or five loafers who were intending to oblige the bank next door, but now turn into his.

Somehow, too, the traditional hush must be dispelled. I have read that there are American banks where organ music plays, muffling the coarse rustic of currency. I suppose, in Britain too, that this must come. For the time being, however, the new, open handed, drive-in banker will have to make do with the music of the sports car’s exhaust; and the old, noting the mounting incidence of armed holdups by masked gunmen who can’t break the now needless habit, can at least hope that one of them will shoot him while he still has his self-respect.