Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 3 January 2009

Shark attack

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Three missed calls. Two answer phone messages. The bank manager. He needed to see me. Would I make an appointment and come in to see him as soon as possible? His tone of voice suggested it was a matter of some urgency. Had some energetic, enterprising person fraudulently obtained my password or pin number and cleaned out my overdraft facility, I wondered?

Normally I don’t need to have anything to do with the bank manager. A couple of years ago, however, this current one’s predecessor had smartly intercepted me on my way out of his bank and offered to lend me money. He led me into an office, candidly confessed that a recent change in the bank’s ethos now meant that he was little more than a glorified loan shark, and said how much would I like? Was there anything I wanted to buy?  A new car perhaps? Surely a long-haul holiday wouldn’t go amiss? 

I liked the young man’s open, cheerful style and borrowed ten grand, I think it was. I forget what the interest rate was, but I vaguely remember that the bottom line was that by the end of the loan period I’d have paid back double the amount. At the time I was glad to pay off a few of my more pressing debts and look around for a new laptop. Looking back on it now, however, and knowing what I know now — that if I’d wanted to, and I’d looked around, I could have borrowed up to five times my annual salary on the strength of being able to produce a recent gas bill — I reckon I must have needed my head examining.

When I turned up at the bank the next day the manager showed me into a joyless office, waved me into a seat, and logged on to the computer on the desk. His mind was far too preoccupied for pleasantries. Lines on his forehead and a weary demeanour testified to his employer’s straitened circumstances and his own soldierly role in the frantic, last-ditch action being fought at capitalism’s crumbling barricades. I observed his careworn concentration as the details of my modest in-goings and out-goings unfolded in figures on his computer screen. I hoped it afforded him a little light relief. It must have been like studying the bank account of a conscientious church mouse who hasn’t been very well lately.

I asked him to what I owed the pleasure. Was I done for? In targeting the likes of me, had the fraudsters, like the world’s great financial institutions before them, reached the bottom of the barrel? He looked uncomprehendingly at me. To detach his mind from the solid, irrefutable world of on-screen figures and engage with metaphoric language wasn’t easy. No, no, no, he said. It was just a routine financial health check-up. With interest rates coming down, he said, perhaps we could adjust the terms of your personal loan accordingly and either lower the repayments or give you an extra cash cushion to help pay off your overdraft.

The interest rate had fallen 1 per cent only that morning. So did he mean, I said, that his bank was now willing to pass on the lower rate of interest to me, the customer? Which in turn would mean that I would have a few hundred quid more in my Profligate Gold account to spend on Chinese goods in the shops? And did that also mean that, although one might never guess as much to look at me, I was in fact a little green shoot of recovery? It did, he said — subject, of course, to approval by the judicial process programmed into the bank’s central computer.

I smelt a rat. From listening to the radio, I knew that the banks have the additional headache that a substantial proportion of personal-loan agreements drawn up in the past few years are so legally flawed as to be unenforceable. Thick-skinned customers are effortlessly wriggling out of them. Would my adjusted loan require me to put my mark on a tightened-up agreement, I wondered? Or was it possible that my loan-protector insurance policy costing a thousand pounds a year might have been ‘mis-sold’ to me, as it had to so many in other banks, and that he was about to offer me a less onerous, legally bomb-proof policy? Financial health check-up — my foot, I thought.

After half an hour’s work building a financial profile, he pressed a key and sat back to await the verdict. The reply was negative. As you were. What a complete waste of time. The reduced interest rate wasn’t yet being handed on to the customer. The bank manager’s brow knitted in frustration and perhaps a little anger, I thought. ‘Tell you what,’ he said. ‘Come back tomorrow and we can at least get your loan-protector policy repayments reduced.’ He peered again at the screen. ‘By about half, actually.’