Hi. My name is Sean and I work for myself. It wasn’t always that way, of course. Before that I worked for a bank. I must have been mad.
I left Hull University in 1981. I was 21 years old with a B.Sc. honours degree in Economics, and more usefully, a clean driving license. I don’t think I ever met anybody from University who then actually went into the same subject as a career move. Take Joe for instance. Joe took a degree in American Studies and was always rather vague if you asked him what it was about. As far as I know he has never been to America and possibly never actually spoken to an American. There was Rob; maybe you could count him. He left with a degree in law, but after working as a junior clerk in a law firm for six months, announced that he would rather have third degree burns than do this for the rest of his life. Last I heard he was a civil servant with the Department of Employment. When you have a degree in economics I suppose you gravitate toward employment in the financial sector, which is what I did. I got a job as a graduate trainee with a bank. Most days for the next ten years I went to work feeling like a condemned man. God alone knows why I stuck it so long. In common with my fellow flatmates I had applied for a job with every single brewery in Britain. None of us got as far as the interview stage, but we did get enough rejection letters between us to proudly wallpaper two walls of our common room. A rejection letter from Tetley’s was particularly prized, it being our favourite beer at the time.
When I actually got the job with the bank all my student friends thought it was hilarious. I hadn’t exactly been in financial control when at University. On receipt of my first grant cheque I had opened a bank account with the same local branch that my parents used.
At one point my parents telephoned me to say that the manager had asked them to get me to return my chequebook and cheque guarantee card until I got my spending under control. He said they had written to me on a number of occasions without a response. Well you know what the post can be like sometimes…
I discussed the situation with my good friend and fellow financial reprobate, Nick.
Nick advised me that I was now a wanted man – the only way to keep ahead of the pack was to never cash a cheque in the same place twice, and never ever to use a branch of my own bank. So I continued to cash cheques all over town – well books are expensive you know? During the summer holidays I worked eighteen-hour days in a sausage and pie factory to pay it all back.
The other thing I knew about banks from my student days was that they could be an excellent source of home decoration. Late one Saturday night. Sunday lunchtime I walked a young lady home from a really excellent student party and was invited in for ‘coffee’. Imagine how pissed off I was when coffee was what I actually got.
No matter, the point is that this girl’s bedsit was like the bloody Amazon rainforest – luxurious plant life abounded. I asked her where she got all the plants from and was well impressed when she told me she used to steal cuttings from the floral displays in the foyers of banks.
Soon my own bedsit was a veritable Kew Gardens. Rubber plants, Swiss cheese plants, spider plants, all sorts of stuff. Very therapeutic. I actually had a Swiss cheese plant for over twenty years. It was a very small sorry looking soul when I rescued it from the reception area of a Bradford & Bingley building society office (their bloody lazy staff never watered anything!). I had to leave it behind when I moved to Africa in 2002. It was huge and healthy when I left but died soon after. The pain of separation must have been too much for the poor green bugger.
One of the big banks in town where I would occasionally cash a rubber cheque had a customer suggestion box in the foyer. Customers where requested to leave any suggestions they might have for improving services or facilities. The best suggestion each month was awarded with a book token. No expense spared there then.
I stuck in two suggestions (anonymously of course – it wasn’t my bank). Firstly I wanted them to upgrade the floral displays to include more exotic species like Venus Fly Traps and Antler ferns. Maybe even splash out on some orchids! Oh boy, orchids! Yes I know a very selfish suggestion this one.
Secondly, I suggested that to get more students and young people to open accounts with them they incorporate a nudge/gamble option onto their hole-in-the-wall cash machines. You know, like they have on one armed bandits.
So say you asked the machine for a withdrawal of £20. You would be given the option of gambling up to £100 or exchanging the money for a chance to win fabulous prizes, like a motorbike or a meal for two in an expensive restaurant. Or a night on the town with a topless model, that sort of thing. Or lose the twenty pounds. Obviously the bank has to make a profit.
I maintain this would be a real money-spinner. After a few cheap beers in the Union bar students would be queuing up to use this kind of facility. It would at least be more open and transparent than the bank charges and interest that they levy on customers.
Needless to say I am still waiting for the book token.
So despite all the warning signs as to incompatibility shall we say, I accepted the job with the bank.
There were some good days and I did work with some great people. But honestly? I should have left after my first month and done something more useful in life. Like rob the crap hole at gunpoint and fled to Brazil. My fault but then I always have been a bit stubborn. And on those wages I could not afford to buy bullets for the gun.
You see I left University full of youthful enthusiasm and zeal. I wanted to make a difference in the world. I wanted to help people to build their businesses and their futures. I chose the wrong job.
When you work for a bank, at least the one I joined, you do exactly what you are told to do, the way you are told to do it, at the time you are told to do it. There is no room for individualism. There is more freedom of expression in the Borg Collective on Star Trek. And God help you if you bend the rules a little and it goes wrong. “Resistance is futile” as they say.
My first day at work I arrived bright and early, eager to learn the ropes and make new friends. I was told to sit and wait in reception until the manager had had a chat with me.
I sat. I sat and waited for almost two hours before the manager could be bothered to find ten minutes from his busy schedule to have a word with me. Lovely start to my career I thought.
Eventually I was summoned into the Great One’s presence and offered a seat by his secretary who then left the two of us alone. The manager was reading my application form, slouched back in his comfortable leather chair his feet up on the desk pointing in my direction – very, very rude that in Middle Eastern circles. A bit like telling somebody you think he is scum. I think the manager was aware of this too. He didn’t speak for some time.
When he did speak it wasn’t the “Sorry for keeping you waiting, welcome to the team”, speech that I was expecting.
Instead he sat bolt upright in his chair, his feet coming down heavily on the floor.
“Bloody hell. You’re a Left Footer! What the fuck are we doing giving jobs to Left Footers!” These were his first words to me, on my first day in my new job, and I quote verbatim.
I had no idea what a Left Footer was that it should make him so upset – I had never heard the expression before. At one of the interviews for the job I vaguely remember being told that the Bank had a sports fund intended to encourage team spirit and interaction between the branches. Each region had its own football team and they competed against each other in a Sunday league. I took a wild guess and assumed he was talking about football.
“ Actually that is a mistake,” I said even though I had no recollection of putting it in my original application Then again it is hard to recall all the bull shit that I wrote in an attempt to get a job in a time of rising mass unemployment. I certainly had not been vice captain of the University chess team for a start. Nor had I actually read all the published works of Isaac Azimov. I still haven’t.
“Yes that’s definitely a mistake,” I confirmed. The manager looked visibly relieved.
“So you’re not a Left Footer then?”
“Actually I am embarrassed to admit that I’m pretty useless with my left foot other than for walking or running around on. No, I am a right footer and can play in defense or midfield, but I prefer midfield.
“Oh bloody marvelous,” he looked unaccountably upset by my information. “Not only is he a Left Footer but he thinks he’s a bloody comedian to boot. Just what I bloody needed.”
“At least I won’t have to give you a lift to the Lodge meeting every month”. He carried on reading.
“Jesus Christ you’re Irish!” I thought he was going to have a seizure. “Is this some sort of bloody joke?”
His facial expression read ‘the doctor has told me it’s malignant and I have only days to go’.
“Okay. I’m a man who likes to call a spade a spade. So I am going to tell you straight how it’s going to be.”
I hate that expression. The people that use it try to justify themselves as being completely honest and open, when in fact they are usually just bloody rude and uncaring of other people’s feelings. This ‘Good Old Boy’ was a classic example. The manager then went on to tell me he didn’t know why they kept sending him graduate trainees every year. They never stayed the course. So why do they keep sending intelligent people here on suicide missions, I thought. What a waste of everybody’s time, money and talent.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I don’t expect you will turn out any different.”
Perhaps he was the reason why I stuck the job for so long – he got my back up and I wanted to prove him wrong.
My new bigoted boss gave me the rest of the good news. “I have been sent a two year training program for you from Head Office. The office manager will be in charge of that. You get one day off a week to study for the Banking exams (I didn’t – we never had enough staff to cover for me), other than that you will keep your nose clean and do what you are told. If you don’t like it, you know what the alternative option is. I joined the Bank 23 years ago and I started right at the bottom. Just like you are going to do.”
And that is precisely what happened. For the next six weeks I made tea and coffee twice a day for twenty-five people. The rest of the time I filed. I filed index cards, loan applications, correspondence, and memos. I filed every possible type of paperwork.
I was bored fucking delirious.
I eventually discovered that being a Left Footer meant being a Roman Catholic, even though I was now essentially an atheist and hadn’t been inside a church for years, it didn’t matter. The records at Head Office said I was a Left Footer. It felt a bit like those people you hear about who can’t get credit anywhere but have no idea why, and eventually discover that they have been accidentally put on a computer credit card blacklist. Once you are down as either a bad credit risk or a Catholic, it’s a bugger trying to get people to change their opinion.
It was even more of a problem in the Bank that I was with. They actually had their own Masonic Lodge for like minded White Anglo Saxon Protestants, membership of which was difficult to achieve for red haired freckly Irish Catholics. If you were not in the ‘Club’ your career was taking the slowest of slow boats to China. So I was a little confused as to why I was given the position in the first place – it just didn’t make sense.
I found out some time later how I had managed to slip through the net.
The bank would take on about a dozen graduate trainees every year. It turned out that the Recruitment Manager who hired me had been pushed sideways in some bitter office politics (the Nazi bastards probably discovered his grandma was Jewish or something equally inexcusable).
This had aggravated him to the point that he had gotten himself another job with a big finance company. As a parting gesture, this year’s graduate intake included two other Roman Catholics, an insufferable bible bashing born again Christian, a hippie drug addict, an Asian (What the hell was the Recruitment Manager thinking of!) and worst of all, two women.
When I left ten years later, the Bank had well over two hundred branches nationwide, but not a single branch had a female manager in charge. And I never ever met an Asian working for them. Not too forward thinking in the area of equal opportunities this bunch.
After six weeks we all met up back at Head Office for the next stage of our accelerated training program. When I say ‘all’, I really mean to say ‘the survivors’.
The Asian and one of the women had lasted just a week. As had one of the ‘normal’ recruits. The hippie drug addict lasted five weeks but only managed to make it in to work on the first Monday – he never managed another Monday. He then didn’t manage to make it in to work for ten days on the trot. The hippie wasn’t on the phone so eventually the Manager called at his flat on the way to the branch. The hippie answered the door in just his boxer shorts looking seriously hung over and bleary eyed. When asked when they could expect to see him at work again he replied, “When the vibes feel right, man”. Brilliant!
The dismissal notice was hand delivered later that afternoon. Shame, I liked him.
My two years spent at the first branch were not all bad. For instance there were the Bank Holidays to look forward to. Once the fog was so bad we were sent home early. That was fun.
I had my most entertaining day of my banking career ever working at this branch. It was the day of the bomb alert. The branch I was working in was situated quite close to the main train station. At the time the IRA had extended its lethal bombing campaign to mainland Britain. No town center was safe from these nasty bastards.
One morning we got a notice from the police to evacuate the area. An old Ford Transit van with Northern Ireland number plates had been left for nearly 24 hours in the short stay car park at the station. There was a suspicious looking box in the back of the van and the bomb squad had cordoned off the area.
The bank in its wisdom had sent a memo to all office managers instructing them to formulate plans for such an eventuality. The office manager now read these instructions out to the assembled staff.
He had already prepared notices to put in the windows to advise customers why the bank was closed. All of the staff was to assemble in a safe place except for four male members of staff. These four were instructed to stand in front of the plate glass windows around the bank building to ensure that customers didn’t hang around outside where they would be in potential danger of serious injury from flying glass.I kid you not.
“And what about us, the four male members of staff?” I asked.
“Er… how do you mean?” He wasn’t quick this guy.
“ERR…I mean what about us and any potentially dangerous flying glass?”
Silence greeted me. All the staff was staring at the office manager, waiting for him to explain this rather bizarre aspect of his well thought out plan.
Still silence. I broke it for him.
“Tell you what,” I said, “while you stand outside that bloody great plate glass window thinking about it, wearing that ill fitting pin striped suit for protection, me and the other guys will go join the ladies somewhere safe. OK?”
With that we left and spent a pleasant couple of hours in the Town Square, chatting and drinking coffee.
It was home time when we heard the controlled explosion and were thankful that the noise wasn’t louder and more significant.
Quite rightly the bomb squad had not taken any chances. They sent in a remote controlled robot device on caterpillar tracks, fitted with a rifle and an explosive charge. After checking the area for secondary booby traps, the robot approached the back of the van. Using the rifle it blew off the door lock and used its robot arms to open the van doors. Then it placed the explosive charge against the suspect box and retreated to a safe distance.
Booommmm, was the explosion we heard, followed by the sight of a student’s dirty laundry slowly falling down to earth around the car park. That will teach him to remember where he parked next time he gets drunk in town.
Wonder if that is covered by your insurance?
Another morning we received a visit from two plain clothes police officers. They had received a tip off from a reliable source. Their informant had overheard a conversation in a bar where a guy had told his drinking buddy how desperate he was for money and that he was going to rob a bank on Friday (the day most people locally got paid) then skip town. The informant said the desperado showed his friend what appeared to be a sawn off shotgun under the bar table.
The police spoke to us all before we opened the doors to the public. “Be extra vigilant Ladies and Gentlemen. Keep as little cash as possible on the counter. We have no idea which bank the criminal mastermind intends to strike at. If the man points a gun at you do as he says and give him everything he wants. Remember the bank is insured and we don’t want any dead heroes.”
If he points a gun at you do as he says? Are you fucking joking? If he points a shotgun at me Ill make sure he doesn’t leave without the manager’s wallet and car keys as well. Be a hero? For these wankers? I don’t think so sunshine.
This was the day that I discovered a little known fact about the bulletproof glass counter screens that separate the staff from the customers. It isn’t bulletproof. It isn’t even very thick. Bulletproof glass is apparently too expensive to waste money on protecting staff from shotgun wielding desperados.
So my long held suspicions are confirmed. The counter screens exist only to make normal conversation between customer and cashier all but impossible.
Which brings me to the next question. Why they are there for fucks sake? I’m afraid I have no adequate explanation.
Anyway back to the tale. The day of the raid passed without incident as far as we were concerned. We all went home for the weekend none the wiser that the desperado had indeed attempted his robbery.
Next week we heard on the grapevine that he had attempted to hold up a small sub-branch down by the docks. Why? I honestly can’t say. The place only had three staff and was just open a couple of hours a day. If he had stolen every penny in the place he would still have had to borrow money from his mum to pay for a plane ticket to Ibiza. It must have been handy for the drug clinic where he collected his free needles or something.
Allegedly he walked into the sub-branch wearing a pair of women’s tights lopsidedly over his head, menacingly waving the sawn off shotgun at the one and only elderly lady cashier. He stuck a plastic shopping bag into the cash slot and screamed at the elderly cashier “Fill her up Bitch!!!!”
The cashier was frozen stiff with fear at the sight of the weapon. The other problem was that the tights muffled the gangster’s voice. What with that and the effect of the glass screen between them, she had no idea what he wanted. So she just sat there looking terrified.
So he reiterated his request a bit louder “I said fill her up bitch!!!” Then to make his point more forcefully Interpol’s most wanted fugitive aimed the gun skywards and let off both barrels.
Minutes later, mildly concussed by a collapsed false ceiling and covered in concrete dust, he was seen making his getaway on a racing bicycle headed back towards town, the sawn off shotgun dangling from the handlebars in the otherwise empty shopping bag. Would that all bank robbers were so efficient.
That is not the stupid part of the tale. No, the stupid part of the tale is that despite the fact that the robber had an amoeba sized IQ and his getaway vehicle was a second hand bicycle, the police didn’t catch him. Scary Huh?
After two years I had finished the accelerated training course. More than half the people that had joined at the same time I did had already left the bank to do something else less stressful. Like mediating between the Israelis and the PLO. Now it was the bank’s usual practice to move on the remaining graduate trainees to a new branch to give them more experience.
I had made many good friends amongst the staff in Hull and was sorry to leave them, but I was looking forward to a fresh start with a new boss. Preferably one that didn’t consider Ian Paisley to be some kind of Papist sympathizer, and wouldn’t give me ‘C’ grade appraisals just because he didn’t like people with a University education. Out of the frying pan…as the saying goes.
The bank transferred me south to Warwickshire, to a recently opened branch. It had been open for three years and in that time had descended onto total chaos. Even though I had only been in the bank for two years myself, I was one of the most experienced staff members we had. In a bank you don’t go home until the books have balanced. The books never balanced first time due to a combination of staff inexperience and overwork – we just didn’t have the staff to cope with the massive influx of new business.
So often we didn’t leave for home until after nine at night. One New Years Eve we didn’t get out until 10.30 PM. My overtime payments were usually more than my regular salary, and the overtime was compulsory.
On the plus side my co-workers were good fun and we would go out together as a group at weekends, often they would stay over at my house because I lived only walking distance from the town center.
On the negative side there was the manager, Mr. McFier.
The new manager was a disaster. At least the old one knew his job; this man was the most inept individual I have ever come across bar none. The new boss disliked me intensely and I can tell you the feeling was entirely mutual. I can honestly say found him inspirational in many ways. For instance it was comforting to discover that being completely bloody hopeless at your job need not be a barrier to progress in your chosen career. Especially if you managed to gain membership of the Lodge of course.
We used to play a game there called ‘Identify today’s breakfast’. Invariably McFier would arrive for work with his tie covered in egg or beans, or toast crumbs, or fried banana, or God knows what. The staff would take bets on what the stain was, and the typist would then ask the man in a roundabout way, what his wife had cooked for him this morning. McFier was a difficult gentleman to respect. I didn’t respect him at all.
I remember we had an ‘office snitch’, a creep called Colin. Anytime anybody screwed up, Colin would have a discreet word with the ‘Village Idiot’, or Village as he was affectionately known, and the offender would be summoned to the manager’s office for a dressing down and a reminder of the importance of attention to detail. This from a man that could not successfully get all his breakfast into his mouth two days running. Village made more screw ups per day than George W. Bush in a term of office.
The only way I could get through Village’s inane ranting was by imagining the lanky halfwit sat opposite dressed only in women’s underwear.
So while he was admonishing me, I would be sat there imagining him dressed in a basque and G-string, an image that made me smirk involuntarily. Village would notice the smirk and it drove him berserk.
One time he apparently confided to Colin, “He just sits there smirking. Never apologizes. In my army days it was called dumb insolence and he would have ended up in the stockade. I tell you Colin next time I will hit the bugger.”
Colin saved his life. “I would advice against it Sir. Sean trains in kickboxing twice a week and karate twice a week. Most weekends he fights on the amateur tournament circuit. I have heard him say in the staff room that if you are not careful, one day he will snap and put your head so far up your arse that you will need a toothbrush with a two foot handle to reach your teeth. He would do it Sir. The man has no respect.”
Colin repeated the conversation to me as soon as he could. He was fair like that Colin; he would snitch on anybody. Colin just liked snitching.
After that Village treated me with kid gloves. He got his own back by consistently giving me lousy appraisals.
There were very few memorable days working at this place. Mostly it was just the same old grind and long hours, living for the weekends. It was here that I developed the psychosis that came to be known as PMT or Pre Monday Tension. It was a wave of nausea and despair experienced at about teatime on Sundays as you realized that the weekend was nearly over. Luckily there was an herbal remedy readily available – four pints of draught Guinness usually did the trick.
I did however get myself involved in a couple of classic incidents. Both times I could not help myself, my warped sense of humour would not let me miss the opportunity. Both times earned me a reprimand from Head Office.
You know when old people get like, borderline senile dementia? They forget where they put stuff but are convinced that somebody is stealing from them. Usually they blame the poor bugger who looks after them 24/7, without complaint or reward. I know I do.
Well we had one of these who banked with us. She was eighty years old, fit as a marathon runner and mad as a bag of ferrets.
Every week she would come into the bank to take out cash for the week. Always on Friday and always at lunchtime, our busiest time of the week.
The cashiers would do anything to avoid having to serve the crazy old trout. Serving slowly or quickly, trying to judge the speed of the queue, feigning an attack of botulism, anything not to have to deal with her.
I recall that this particular day she arrived at Mick`s till. Mick was a new recruit with only a couple of days experience on counter. You could see the experienced staff titter with relief when the nutter went to Mick`s till.
Mick was a textbook example of politeness and efficiency. He gave the lady her cash and wished her a pleasant weekend. She put the money in her purse and turned to leave, but before he could serve the next customer she was back accusing him of shortchanging her. Mick denied it of course but it was no use.
She insisted on seeing a supervisor – me, and I was required to close the till and check the contents while they both watched me. I really did not have the time or the patience to close one of our five tills when we had customers queuing literally out of the doors, but I had no choice. As I said before, when you work for a bank, rules are rules. Resistance is futile.
I was busy counting all the cash and checking it against the receipts issued when‘The-customer-is-always right-even-if-she-happens-to-be-bobbins’ noticed a sticker on the glass screen. It was an ear with a cross over it.
As part of National Year of the Deaf, the banks had agreed to make themselves more users friendly for deaf people. Some banks trained staff in basic sign language, another installed equipment so that deaf people could plug their hearing aids into a socket on the counter. Our bank extravagantly sent each branch a little plastic sticker to put on one counter with the simple instruction “put somebody sympathetic on this till”. No expense spared as usual.
Anyway the lovely but bewildered old lady tapped the sticker with her walking stick (she didn’t need a stick, it was just for effect) and demanded of me;
“Young man. What does this mean, young man?”
I lost my place in a bundle of ten pound notes and had to start counting again. There was more cash in Mick`s till than under a Colombian cocaine dealer’s mattress.
“It is there to show that we are a caring equal opportunities company (unless of course you are black, Asian, Catholic, Jewish, etc), and we give a sympathetic service to those with a hearing disadvantage,” I told her.
She tapped the sticker again with her stick, this time even harder causing both Mick and I to jump. I lost my place again in the bundle of money.
“You mean deaf people?”
“Yes, I mean deaf people.”
“So,” she continued, oblivious to the icy stares of the people stuck behind her in the queue. “Let’s assume that I am deaf and I present my usual cheque for payment. How would you respond?”
I felt the red mist rising but I was unable to resist. I leaned up to the glass and beckoned her closer, our faces inches apart but separated by the glass.
“I would examine the cheque to see how much you wanted,” I said in a reasonable voice. Then I would ask; “HOW DO YOU WANT YOUR MONEY!” This last bit shouted so loudly that blood began to leak from her ears and nose.
The lady stepped back several paces in shock, turned and stormed out of the building, to a round of applause from the long suffering customers in the queue behind her.
“Carry on Mick,” I instructed and returned to my desk.
Less than half an hour later I found myself in Village’s office for a dressing down.
The senile old sod might not have a clue who much was in her purse, or indeed which wrist her watch was on, but she had no trouble at all in remembering my name or getting through to Head Office to complain.
McFier had been given a roasting and he was merely passing it along. Fair is fair after all.
Another time and another old lady. This one was even older than the last one I had a problem with. Not as sprightly on her feet but she was 92 years old after all. Still in full possession of all her pots and pans you might say, and very prim and proper.
She was the last of a very rich ‘old money’ family from the local area and was arguably our richest customer. No excuses, this one was my own entire fault.
It was another Friday afternoon. I was flying off in the morning for two weeks of sun, sea and serious sangria abuse. Yes, Ibiza, with a girlfriend that didn’t like to be touched in case it interfered with her quest for the perfect suntan.
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