It's almost 20 years since I left what was then Lloyds Bank, seeing the writing on the wall for the industry, and quitting while I was still young enough to begin a new career.
When I first joined the bank, way back in 1978, each branch was its own business centre and local managers had the autonomy and freedom (within reason) to run their businesses as they saw fit.
During the 17 years or so I worked at Lloyds (and I'm sure it was the same with all the UK clearing banks), I went on several residential training courses, which taught you a lot about running a commercial enterprise. Unfortunately, as the years rolled by, these useful skills weren't ones that you could put to good use in the bank itself, as managers became marginalised and were increasingly told in missives from Head Office what to do, how to do it, and when it needed to be done by.
The skills I picked up on those residential courses, however, weren't wasted, as I have successfully used them in my own businesses since I left the bank, and continue to do so to this day.
But back to 1978 - to the days of a dying Labour government, a tough economy and worryingly high unemployment. And the banks ? Well, they really were boring institutions, that basically just took in deposits and then prudently lent a proportion of them to creditworthy individuals, corporates and institutions.
In those days the banks opened their doors to the public at 9.30am (closing some 6 hours later). There was no Saturday working, no call centres, no credit scoring, no PC terminals on your desks, or pressure to sell insurance to your customers.
Managers called their male staff by their surname (the ladies were 'Miss' or 'Mrs'), staff weren't allow to buy a house that was deemed to be above their station in life, and the bank looked on in horror if you went even a little bit overdrawn without asking (and fully explaining yourself!).
But looking back, those were days of innocence, when a bank manager was still held in high regard in the local community, clearing banks were trusted institutions, and a job really was for life (or so we thought).
In truth, I never wanted to be banker. But this was 1978, and there were far fewer career opportunities then for East End kids like me, individuals from modest backgrounds who never went to university.
In fact, my original career choice was the police force. I applied to join and was invited to a 2-day selection centre, at 17-years-old by far the youngest there.
We had to take some basic intelligence tests, have a medical and fitness assessment, and finally an interview with two senior police training officers, who would determine whether we were a ‘good fit’ for the force.
The intelligence tests weren’t very difficult (as you’d expect if you were thinking of joining the police!), and the fitness assessment was a breeze. The medical and final interview panel, however, were more challenging.
I remember being asked to go into a cubicle, take my clothes off and putting on a robe. When my turn came, I walked through a door to be greeted by three middle-aged men in white coats seated on chairs behind a long desk. There were two black spots on the floor, and I was instructed to disrobe and proceed to the first spot.
‘Hmm’, said one of men in white coats, ‘Not very big, are we ?’.
My not overly-large penis, of course, had taken the opportunity to shrink back to almost nothing. I tried to make a smart comeback, but simply flushed. It wasn’t a good start.
I was then told to proceed to the second spot, which was two or so yards nearer to the table. I had to turn around and bend over, giving the three men a good view of my anus. I can only assume that, in these pre-diversity days, the gentlemen were looking for evidence that I had been violated and was ‘queer’ (we didn’t have ‘homosexuals’ way back then). ‘Queers’, of course, weren’t welcomed in the Metropolitan Police in 1978.
Despite the embarrassment, however, I made it through to the interview round, where two police training officers looked at me rather dubiously. And, looking back, I can hardly blame them. I was a short, snotty-nosed 17-year-old kid with long hair and bum-fluff. And I wasn’t properly dressed.
‘Do you own a suit ?’, one of the officers asked.
‘Yes’, I replied confidently, still not sure where this was going.
‘Well’, he continued, ‘Why aren’t you wearing it ? You do realise that you’re the only one among the candidates who didn’t arrive wearing a suit ?’.
Shit, I thought. Police wear uniforms, and here was I sat in this interview wearing an open-neck shirt complete with a huge rounded collar, looking like a drug dealer from Starsky and Hutch.
‘Plain clothes’, I replied weakly.
‘Sorry ?’, one of the officers replied.
‘I want to be a plain clothes officer’, I asserted, realising how stupid I was coming across, ‘Let the others wear the uniforms, and stick me on plain clothes duty’.
Needless to say, I didn’t make it to the next stage of the Police selection process (which I think was several weeks at the training centre in Hendon).
So, it was retail banking for me by default.
It was a bright Autumn day in 1978 when I brushed my teeth (at least I think I did), combed my over-long hair, put on my cheap grey suit and headed for the station to travel just two tube stops to Stratford, also part of London’s East End.
I walked towards the branch feeling slightly nervous; after all, I hadn’t a clue what went on in a retail bank and wasn’t sure what I was letting myself in for.
The door was opened by the ‘Sub-Manager’, an overweight man in his early forties who was chewing gum. Can’t be that bad, I thought, if you could chew gum at work (I soon learned that he wrestled with the Wrigleys all day as he had terrible halitosis).
I was quickly ushered in, given a quick and dirty tour of the premises (no introductions to any of the staff) and then shown how to open the front door, a task that was to become my job for the next 9 months or so, until I was transferred elsewhere (I was later ‘promoted’ to closing the door at 3.30pm too). Now you’d think that opening the front door at 9.30am each morning would be relatively simple, but no; you had to slowly look through the spyhole to the outside, making sure there were no armed robbers around. Then, if all appeared clear, you’d unbolt the door and quickly stand back as the throng of impatient customers charged towards the cashiers to go about their business.
I never did understand why we had to check for armed robbers before we opened the door (a ritual that was undertaken at all Lloyds Bank branches around the country for a number of years), because I always doubted that someone with a gun intent on walking off with the bank’s cash would actually be queuing up outside with the rest of the customers, waiting patiently to come in. But my job wasn’t to reason why, and I did as instructed, opening that door for months without major mishap.
Security, of course, was something that the bank took very seriously. Not only were we to be vigilant against those wishing to gain entry and steal our cash, but we had to guard against those criminals who might have broken into the branch overnight, and were hiding in wait for us to open the safe in the morning before they made their move.
So we had some elaborate ‘opening up’ rules which had to be followed on pain of dismissal. For a start, no-one was allowed to enter the branch on their own. No, a keyholder would likely be the first to arrive, and then had to wait at a safe distance from the branch until another staff member appeared. The keyholder would then enter the premises and make a thorough search – into the secretaries room, the manager’s office, the restroom, around the securities department, up the cashiers run, and into stationery cupboard, diligently examining every area and corner where bad men might lay in wait.
And once the search of the premises was complete, the keyholder would have to exit the branch and close the front door – thus proving to the other staff member that all was well.
Finally, there was the security sign that had to be put up – a signal to the rest of the staff that it was safe to ring the bell and come inside. For most of the time I was at Stratford, the sign was actually a money bag that was slung over a blind in the front window (although it was supposed to be changed every week).
Anyway, I soon settled into a routine, and learned to accept my place in the hierarchy of the bank – I was at the bottom of the totem pole and was expected to do all the odd jobs and the things that no-one else wanted to do.
And then there were the women, territorial females who ruled over the cashier’s run, supervised the back office and organised the secretarial pool. With them, I never stood a chance.
To be continued