Every now and then, I have a nostalgic flash. I’m putting my shoes and jacket in the plastic tray when going through the maze of security at the airport and, suddenly, I remember when flying was glamorous and fun. I remember my first flight, aged 17, wearing a hat and gloves and gliding down the aisle to my seat like a bridesmaid. A decade later, on cheap flights across the Atlantic, the hat and gloves have been replaced with a corkscrew and a bottle of wine for an in-flight picnic. The refrain playing in my head as I write this is: ‘Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.’
Another trip down memory lane. I’m having tea with the mother of an old friend. She always stays at the Cadogan. She tells me the hotel has bought the old NatWest building next door. ‘My old bank,’ I say wistfully, remembering meetings with my bank manager. I always dressed up and took Adam, my labrador. Mr Maskell was gentle, patient and thorough. When I married, he wrote to my husband to congratulate him on acquiring ‘two rock-solid assets’ (me and my dog), a generous letter considering I was marrying a man who banked at the competition.
With my marriage, Barclays became my bank as well. Who could have predicted that the relationship wouldn’t last? I confess: we deserted Barclays a few years ago. The trigger was twofold. We had some shares in the bank, but, despite the breathtaking salaries and bonuses of men at the top, the dividends had dwindled to a mere pittance.
The second push came after a meeting with the bank’s agricultural manager-our annual hour when we produced accounts, wagged our tails and hoped for a pat on the head that never came. Then, we’d shake hands and part for another year. After the last meeting, we received a letter confirming the accounts and a fee of £5,000-an ‘arrangement’ fee on top of the separate fee plus interest for our ‘overdraft facility’ had just slipped in. ‘That’s another £100 a week added to our costs,’ I hollered. We were told this was now a ‘routine charge’.
Changing banks is almost as complicated as divorce and remarriage. We asked around, interviewed, stewed. I honestly thought that, when Barclays realised we were leaving, someone would try to persuade us to stay. After all, Carlisles have banked with the company for more than 50 years. We never heard a word. So, off we went to HSBC. And all last week, once I understood what Libor meant, I felt relieved that we were no longer with a bank that had such callous disregard for anyone who’d ever taken out a mortgage or loan or invested in a pension. In other words, people like us.
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And then, last Wednesday, in the hazy consciousness of Today, I heard that our new bank, HSBC, the UK’s largest bank, was being accused of ‘allowing clients linked to Mexican drug gangs, al-Qaeda and rogue regimes such as Iran, North Korea and Burma to move money around the world with little or no scrutiny’. But it was the bit about HSBC clearing more than $290 million in travel-lers cheques that were cashed at a regional bank in Japan-cashed at a rate of $500,000
a day and eventually traced back to a group of Russians who claimed to be used-car salesmen-that really threw me. Even The Sopranos couldn’t have cooked up that storyline.
I know there’s no point in hankering after the days when banks were housed in beautiful buildings (they’re all Wetherspoons now) and your bank manager was genuinely happy you’d got engaged. No future in remembering when corkscrews weren’t considered weapons and bottled water a potential explosive. Indeed, there’s no point in looking at old film of the Olympic Games where there’s not a single security guard, much less 23,700 at a cost of more than £300 million. Those were the days, my friend. Lucky were we to have known them.