Sunday 20 January 2019

Mary Kenny: A deposit of loyalty

We should embrace change, but I still find solace in traditional banking

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Apparently, Irish people are the slowest in Europe to switch banks. Even though "banksters", as they're now called, are often seen as baddies, there's a loyalty to our own bank. This could be a bit like the relationship with the Catholic Church: people rage against the "institution" and the hierarchy, but they often like their own neighbourhood priest and he's the first they turn to when there's a local tragedy.

On banks, I'm with the flock. While I think we must embrace change - the tattoo on my arm reminds me that "To live is to change" - I'd be very reluctant to change banks. There's an element of scepticism to my thinking. I was urged to switch energy suppliers a few years ago - since gas and electricity bills were so eye-watering - and I duly did so. Now the new energy supplier is charging just as much as the old one did - and you wonder if the extra levies for "green taxes" really do go on the environment.

I say that I embrace change, but to be truthful, I still bank like it's 1979. "Get into the 21st century, Mary!" my daughter-in-law reprimands me when she discovers that I don't do internet banking. When I want to put money into the grandchildren's savings accounts, why, I write a cheque. Yes. So quaint.

But I love cheques and I'm delighted that we cheque- users have so far defeated plans in both Ireland and Britain to abolish the dear little things. Banks and governments alike think that cheques are "inefficient", and in our monetised world anything that is "inefficient" must go. But must it? Small charities greatly depend on cheques, and small charities are often the most worthy recipients of caritas (and least likely to be corrupt). When the BBC broadcasts its Sunday morning Radio 4 Appeal, after a good cause is promoted by a celebrity, the option of sending a cheque is always mentioned, and even encouraged.

Women, let it be known, fought for the entitlement to have their own chequebooks. In France, a woman was not permitted to obtain a chequebook of her own until 1965. Sometimes, when I write a cheque with a flourish, I think: "This one is for you, Simone de Beauvoir."

Or sometimes I think of dear Dorothy Parker, saying that the sweetest words a letter could bring were: "cheque enclosed". And, hey, no one is going to hack into my chequebook. My banking finances are totally unhackable. It's all done on paper.

My other quaint banking habit is actually visiting the bank from time to time. If there is business to do, I like going into the premises of a bank, for Irish banking staff remain remarkably helpful and friendly. It is nice to do an actual transaction face to face with a human being, rather than access a robot online via a gadget. I occasionally do a banking transaction that is so old-fashioned, younger bank staff have to be taught how to do the task by a more experienced bank official: they apply themselves to it with much wonder, as if someone had asked for a lesson in Fijian nose music.

This antiquated transaction is called a "sterling draft", whereby a Victorian-looking cheque document is drawn up in oldie formal bank language. There are much more expeditious electronic ways of paying a bill in a different currency, but I like the ritual of the foreign draft, and I also like a friendly exchange with the bank staff. And I like the sense of control. I am remitting this cheque: it is not sending itself using me as a source.

It may be illusory, but I feel I am in control of my banking business when I am doing traditional banking. When everything goes electronic, and you have to deal with robots and artificial intelligence, you feel the system is in control of you. Who enjoys ringing up a utility or a big business to be told myriad number of options and keys to press? Occasionally it's convenient, but it's always gratifying to speak to a real person.

The Irish aren't slow to use modern technology but the reluctance to switch banks may have some links with traditions of local loyalty. In small towns, banks once built up a great deposit of local loyalty and the bank manager was a respected figure. It would seem sectarian today to explain that there were even "Catholic" and "Protestant" banks, especially around the border towns, and yet, such divisions had their uses.

My late brother worked in a bank in lovely Oldcastle, Co Meath, where, back in the day, the Protestant farmers had their deposits in the "Catholic" bank - the Hibernian - and the Catholic farmers had their money with the Protestant bank, the Ulster Bank. This was a cunning plan to keep the funds in a more discreet place, so that their relations would be less likely to find out what kind of sums were on deposit. And it could be good for business too - the bank officials went out of their way to please their customers from the "opposite" denomination.

Banks, like everything else, have to develop and evolve. And they should please their customers. We should voice our displeasure if they're getting above themselves, and I protested vehemently when Allied Irish Banks opened up a palatial HQ in Dublin 4, modelled, seemingly, on Mussolini's architectural style: everything big so as to diminish the individual. It was a metaphor of the follies and illusions of grandeur which led banks astray in the earlier 2000s. But I still didn't switch accounts. And neither, it seems, did most people.


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