Bankers daft: Michael Holroyd on the inability of banks to deal with writers

Michael Holroyd

Filed under: Non-fiction

Ordinary citizens, the majority of the country, are frequently bewildered by the self-employed register, we have grown fearful that our species may become endangered. Even the Inland Revenue sometimes seems perplexed by the erratic rhythm of our incomes, especially when matched against the steady optimism of our expenditure. But bewilderment and perplexity are insufficient terms to describe the attitude of banks. My own bank – it’s called Barclays and I do not recommend it – is now openly hostile.

Every three or four years I publish a book (it used to be every ten years when I was younger and worked harder). But my publication cheque promotes not so much pleasure as bank disbelief from my local branch at Barclays. A short time ago holding one of those rare cheques, I joined the queue which stretched round what appeared to be various cattle grids and oddly-placed barriers inside the bank and wound dejectedly out on the pavement. It took some twenty minutes of slow shuffling though doors, round corners, past firmly-closed tills, past advertisements showing for some reason ice-cream sundaes, to reach the counter and triumphantly present my cheque. The cashier looked at it, looked at me, and said: ‘Where did you get this?’

I replied that the postman had brought it to my door that very morning.

That’s not what I mean,’ she answered. ‘I mean what’s it for?’

‘It’s for me.’

This was an unfortunate misunderstanding and less helpful than my happy expression implied. The cashier stared at me in silence and for a moment we appeared to have reached an impasse.

‘I said what’s it for, not who’s it for.’

She had raised her voice through the glass partition.

‘It’s for Mosaic,’ I explained. ‘A book of mine called Mosaic.’

‘It’s for a book!’ The incredulity was withering.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘If you examine the cheque you’ll see my literary agent’s name and address printed at the top. A.P. Watt.’

‘What sort of book?’ she persisted, ignoring my suggestion.

‘It’s hard to describe,’ I admitted. ‘In some ways it’s experimental, some might say even post-modern, almost inter-active. In places it’s autobiographical. My subtitle…’

‘I’m going to call the manager.’

She rang a bell and we waited while the queue behind me lengthened over the horizon. When the manager arrived there was a good deal of whispering. All of this surprised me. I have been with Barclays Bank ever since my father opened an account for me in my late teens – in other words probably before the cashier and manager were born. Besides, my cheque was not for such a phenomenal amount – by football standards quite trivial. To display my professionalism I thought I’d mention VAT. ‘It includes VAT,’ I volunteered.

The manager then took up the interrogation. ‘You say it’s for a book.’

‘I do.’

‘What’s your mother’s maiden name?’

I confess this took me by surprise, but I uttered her name and we lapsed into silence. The trouble, I deduced, was terrorism. Since what I call 11/9, we are all potential terrorists. What was terrorising the bank was the suspicion that my royalty advance was laundered money to be spent on some weapon of mass destruction. Eventually I was allowed to pay in my own money with a written description of the book’s contents – it has been quite useful as a first draft for the blurb.

Do such misadventures happen only to me? Are they confined to four-figure cheques? Apparently not. When I got home I was eager to tell my wife of this latest humiliation, but before I could begin she was herself speaking. ‘I’ve just had a row with my bank,’ she said, ‘and I’m trying to calm down. Barclays doesn’t seem to want to let me pay my own cheques into my own account. It has just returned a cheque for £47, made out to Margaret Drabble, on the grounds that this name is not recognised, as the account is in the name of Margaret Holroyd. In the old days, this problem did not exist. Any branch, anywhere, would accept a cheque in either name, provided I endorsed it. I have set up elaborate systems to try to pay myself my own money, but they don’t seem to work, and Barclays Premier has just told me there is nothing I can do about it. I don’t call that very Premier of them.’

What bemused us both was why the ordinary banking system had grown so complicated. As Maggie put it: ‘I object to being made to feel like an incompetent fraud and addressed as if I were a half-wit. There must be millions of women who trade in two names. Why has it now become so difficult? Is there an epidemic of people trying generously and mistakenly to pay money into the accounts of total strangers? Why do the bank directors, advisers and what are called “relationship managers” sound so cross and send me such dismissive multiple-choice error slips? What on earth happened to the principle that the customer is always right?’

I could answer none of these questions. The thought of trying to move our accounts filled us both with horror, though of course financial journalists frequently advise people to ‘shop around’ and chide them for their inertia. ‘It’s not just inertia that deters me from moving,’ Maggie protested. ‘It’s the fear of muddle overtaking all those Standing Orders to Oxfam and Amnesty, to the Society of Authors and, of course, the Royal Society of Literature, all those Direct Debits to BT and London Electricity with which, for some reason, we apparently settle our gas bills.’

‘And who is to say that other banks are any better?’ I intervened morosely.

It was then that the post arrived. Among the letters was a small cheque made out jointly to us both. We agreed that we had as much change of getting it into either of our accounts as to winning the lottery (for which we don’t buy tickets). There was also a PEP contract note from Barclays Stockbrokers. It read: ‘Barclays is no longer one of our favoured bank stocks, or indeed investments…For your information, we are now ceasing our in-house research and analysis of Barclays shares.’

I can understand this decision, though I am faintly surprised by it. What exercises me is how Barclays is to regain its reputation. Other Fellows may have similar feelings about their own banks. So I have come up with a solution. If these banks were to make handsome contributions to the Royal Society of Literature’s Appeal, they would surely do much to recover their position. And who better than to take a lead and encourage the others than the President’s bank? I think I mentioned that it is Barclays. I can assure them that there will be no difficulty accepting their cheque.

Related RSL Fellows

Sir Michael Holroyd 1968