Concensus?                                                                                                                                                           Posted 29th October 2013

'Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form'

SOMETIMES I like to begin by saying something deeply significant, so I quote. The words are W H Auden's from a poem called The Fall of Rome. Remember them. They’re your compass.

At the time of writing I still haven't received my new bank card. I no longer have a key to the hole-in-the-wall, that modern equivalent of Ali Baba's Cave. But I think I can still remember how you do it. You let your card be sucked mysteriously into the slit of the mouth in the machine. Don't you? You punch in the magic sequence of digits, known only to you. You try to think of a realistic number and enter it. Open Sesame.

Forgive me if I reminisce a little but in relation to bank cards all I have left is nostalgia. It is coming up for two months since I first applied for a new one and it still hasn't arrived. I sometimes take out the old one of an evening and just sit and hold it for a while. It's split in two now and quite useless. But it reminds me of those far-off days when I had casual access to my own money.

Yet it should all have been so simple when I went into my local branch in early June and showed them my card, which looked like a war veteran. The Napoleonic Wars perhaps, since it seemed to have been sabred in half. No problem. A form was filled in. Something was said about "seven clear days". Those words would return to haunt me.

Time passes. Long weeks they seem to have in banking. Time passes. Perhaps they meant seven consecutive cloudless days. In Scotland that could take a year or two. I make several phone calls over several days. Eventually, one of the anonymous voices says she knows me. I taught her English. She will sort things out. She phones me back to tell me all is well. The card is on its way.

I have to go on holiday without it. When I return three weeks later the card still isn't there. More phone calls. "Lost in the post" is mentioned. Another form, another posting, other calls. Yet another voice tells me the second card has been "cleared" on July 29.

That was quick. And, by the way, she can't tell me anything more precise because the cards are issued from Leeds. But, she cautions, "Seven clear days."

I'm still waiting. So here I sit, with a lorryload of rage and nowhere to dump it. For in the course of at least seven phone calls I haven't spoken to the same person twice. With each new call the voice at the other end doesn't know what the hell I'm talking about.

I can't phone my own branch direct any more. When I dial the number, a disembodied voice tells me that, in the interests of efficiency, my call will be dealt with centrally. In the interests of the bank, you mean, so that the legitimate outrage of the client doesn't clog the machinery. There is no one you can effectively complain to, since there is no one directly to blame. They're all just ciphers in the system. You're on your own, mate.

That touch about "lost in the post" doesn't help. All it means is that the postal service is as contemptuous of the customer as the banks are.
I know that already. I've lived in the same house for 10 years now and I'm still redelivering mail to neighbours, wondering as I go walkabout who has received mine and what they may do with it. I don't receive recorded mail any more. I receive a card telling me I have to collect it within days. The card is often pushed through the letter box while I'm in the house.

I know, I know. These are trivial things, like midges. But when you find yourself living inside a perpetual cloud of midges they begin to seem not so insignificant. In fact if they persist long enough they could drive you mad. And the midges are gathering, I can tell you.

This is when thoughts of Auden arrive. What his poem suggests is that, when the Roman Empire was disintegrating, there were all kinds of small disparate signs of it. But nobody could fit them into a coherent message precisely because social coherence itself had been lost. The separate machineries of state churned on in isolation from one another, not relating seriously to the reality of people's lives. The state had become a virtual state rather than a real one. Its various parts worked for themselves, not for a central common purpose. There was no central purpose.

Okay, he was talking about the Roman Empire and I'm just talking about the disintegration of social structures. But I think there are analogies between the two. Banks, which used to be a mortar for society, a means to help us to be careful with such savings as we had, are now emblazoned with posters encouraging us to take out loans for cars and houses which we can't afford. They're less concerned with consolidating our money than multiplying their own.

Millions of the less well-off are in hock to money lenders because banks won't handle their affairs since the profit margin involved isn't big enough. They don't sustain society so much as they feed off it for their own purposes.

Consignia has made a disaster of the postal service because it has used low-paid, almost casual labour. Its main purpose has been profit. The delivery of the mail was just an unfortunate by-product, the commodity in which they were obliged to deal, so they reduced its quality, making it as cheaply shabby as possible, and still couldn't turn a profit. The trades, utterly crucial to the effective functioning of any society, have been largely de-unionised and abandoned to the frequently untender mercies of the smaller entrepreneurs since they don't yield the kind of profits the big operators seek.

I could go on. (Social workers, for example, tend to focus on individual problems as a separate entity, unconcerned with whether the aid they bring to one person or group is a help or a hindrance to the health of society in general). But perhaps you can fill in the spaces for yourself.

What I think it all means is that we live in a society the various agencies of which are concerned only with putting fresh stucco on their part of a structure the foundations of which are rotting. The double-beds of the rich may be warmer than ever, but one concomitant of that fact is that the bitterness of the "unimportant clerks" becomes colder than ever outside those double-beds.

A society knows itself by the justice of its social consensus, the coherence of its shared vision. When that vision disintegrates into a multitude of eyes just looking for the main chance, it doesn't know itself as a society at all. Does ours?

(First printed SoS - 4 August 2002)