I recently broke a settled habit and read one of those loose inserts that fall out of magazines. Usually, in common with 97 per cent of readers, I shake out the wretched things and send them off for landfill. Should by chance any legible fragments of this subterranean Everest survive a couple of millennia hence, what incomprehensible reading they will make for their finders. But we don’t have to wait that long to be confused. It happens in seconds.
Take the item that caught my eye, just as its perpetrators intended. It measured about eight inches square, was a uniform grey and bore the single line of type reading: “This should really be a conversation over lunch.”
Foolishly, I turned the page and was duly puzzled. It depicted a dimly lit scene, not, as you might have expected, of two people seated at a restaurant table having a conversation over lunch, but rather of two men standing in what looks like a wine cellar.
The man on the left is dressed in jeans, a dark jacket with four metal buttons at the cuff and, in a strikingly contemporary gesture, has an open-necked shirt. He is aged about 45 to 50 and has iron grey hair worn in the kind of overgrown crew-cut that my mother used to liken to a lavatory brush.
He has either the beginning of a goatee beard and moustache or the end of a failed experiment with a razor blade. He is holding a glass of red wine at arm’s length and grinning appreciatively. He is standing in front of a large barrel, which is lying on its side.
The other figure, though out of focus, is plainly bald. He, too, has an open-necked shirt but no jacket. Instead he is wearing an apron. He is also smiling.
So what are we to make of this mysterious scene? What has a man of modish tastes sampling wine drawn straight from the barrel got to do with a conversation over lunch? Call me old-fashioned, but I have always understood that luncheon involved eating as well as drinking. Eating, moreover, while seated at a table, not standing over a wooden cask. True, there is a caption to this picture, but it does not help. It says: “One-to-one banking explained one-to-one.”
Which of these two men is the banker? The one holding the glass and grinning, or the other in the apron? The man with the nascent beard looks sufficiently dressed down and “accessible” to be a modern banker, in that he is indistinguishable from a car salesman. But if he is the host, why is it he and not his guest drinking the wine?
Could the clever twist be that the second man is the banker? A figure so relaxed and approachable, so cast in the mould of willing servant, that he wears an apron as a badge of inferiority? And so on to the blurb. It opens with the words: “It doesn’t actually have to be lunch.” No, obviously not. It can be a glass of wine in a cellar or, who knows, a bag of whelks on a park bench.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” it says, “to ring your bank and talk to someone you know? Better still, imagine your bank calling you to tell you they saved you some money or solved a problem – without even being asked. HSBC Premier could be the service for you, if: you’re earning at least £75,000 a year, or you and your partner earn £100,000 jointly, or you have over £30,000 in savings and investments or a mortgage of £150,000 that you can move to HSBC.
“HSBC Premier is a banking service that gives you your own Relationship Manager – a bit like an old-fashioned bank manager, only without the stuffiness and the bowler hat.”
Well, that clears that up. The man in the apron is the “Relationship Manager” (the single, small dignity that he retains being to capitalise his title) and he is so unstuffy that he has removed the outdated concept of food from what I feel sure he calls the “lunch experience”. Eating, he will explain, is so Nineties. And, let’s face it, if you’ve got 30 grand in the bank and are pulling in another 75 a year, you can afford to buy your own tucker.
So what we have here is a virtual lunch provided by a virtual bank. The sort of bank that considers a face-to-face meeting with one of its middle managers to be the prerogative of only its better-off customers. The sort of bank that sees a personal telephone call to you as the equivalent of an honour conferred by an especially benevolent deity. The sort of bank that looks back on the bad old days, when bank managers wore bowler hats and felt a personal obligation to all their customers, and thinks them irremediably stuffy.
Modern, happening, hip banks have a sense of humour. Which explains why they enjoy pictorial jokes about having customers over a barrel. When those archaeologists of the future have this fossilised HSBC leaflet on the end of their trowel, they will gaze back in wonder on an age when banks still felt it necessary to court their customers, even if it were no more than lip service, rather than have them vaporised, which became the custom circa AD 2020.