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About A Week: Come Back Mr Micawber

Peter Hinchliffe finds himself in a country which is floating on a sea of debt.

My first experience of high finance involved a cylindrical metal box supplied by Dewsbury Building Society. Around its outer edge were slots for pennies, threepenny bits, tanners, two bob pieces and half-crowns. Narrow "windows" allowed glimpses of how many coins had accumulated.

In my case, you would have had to stare very hard to see anything but pennies.

My father handed me the box when I was eight years old, then announced that I would be getting regular spending money. "A tanner a week. And make sure you put at least half of it in here." He rang a shilling against the lid of the box. "This is to start you off. Let's see you put it in."

I put the coin into the appropriate slot. This was worse than throwing it into the middle of a pond. I could still see it, but it was no longer mine.

Up to then, money had only one meaning. It was the stuff you handed over the counter at Mrs Senior's sweet shop, one penny at a time. Saving was a new idea. I didn't like it. Not one bit. What use was money if you couldn't hold it in your hand, trot up the road, exchange it for two ounces of mint humbugs?

Dutifully, I put money in the metal box for a month. Then one evening I took the box to the village school. Two white-collar workers at local pits ran a sub-branch of Dewsbury Building Society in their spare time. One of the men opened the box with a special key. "Two shillings and one penny," he said with great precision. "Should I credit it to your account?"

"No, no," said I, blushing. "Give it me now."

For more than a year, I regularly took the box to be emptied, returning home with amounts varying between one and two shillings. My father had hoped to inspire me with Mr Micawber's philosophy. Income sixpence, expenditure five-pence, happiness. Income sixpence, expenditure sevenpence, misery.

The wrong message came across. Saving was a bind. A waste of time. A long walk to the village school, when I could have been playing out.

The saving habit did not catch on with me when I was eight and nine. It didn't catch on in my teens. Nor in my early twenties.

There wasn't much scope for saving on a trainee journalist's salary. At 20, I was on 4 4s a week. All right, you could get egg, chips and beans, plus a pot of tea, for one-and-sixpence. But there was always too little cash, and too much to spend it on. Clothes, for instance. And the odd pint or two of Ramsden's Stone Trough bitter. (I was a trainee journalist, remember.)

When I was 26, I decided I wanted to work in America. There was no fairy godmother to pay my way there, so I saved, and saved, and saved. Just enough for the boat ticket to New York, and a one-way bus ticket from New York to Texas.

At the end of my first week as a reporter on the Wichita Falls Times, I was down to my last two or three dollars, waiting to receive my weekly pay packet. Horror and woe! We weren't paid in cash. We were paid monthly, not weekly, and the money went directly into a bank account.

I got a small advance on salary. Enough to buy a couple of sheets for my bed. A mug, a glass, a plate, a knife, fork, spoon. I couldn't afford to put much on the plate. :

A friendly Greek, Gus Gioldasis, who ran the Seventh Street bar, next to the Wichita Falls Times office, took pity on me. He had been an immigrant himself. He knew what it was like to arrive virtually penniless in a strange land.

Gus gave me free hamburgers, free cheese sandwiches. At 8pm every day, he phoned in an order for supper to Luby's Cafeteria. He would order double portions, then tell me he had too much, so could I please help him eat it all.

We feasted on Reuben sandwiches, fried chicken, cherry cobbler. Gus fed me when I couldn't afford to feed myself.

By the time my first pay-day came around, I had opened an account at the First Wichita National, the Big Blue Bank as it called itself in its advertisements. There I was, 27 years old, with my very first bank account.

Up to then, I had been suspicious of banks. Come on, Hinchliffe, own up. It wasn't suspicion. It was a feeling of inferiority. Banks were for solicitors, doctors, accountants. Not for the likes of me, a provincial journalist with an embarrassingly modest income.

I always imagined a slight curling of the lip from whoever was on the other side of the bank counter.

"There's a nice little building society just down the street, sir. I believe they cater to customers such as yourself."

When I returned to England from America, I did open an account with one of the big high-street banks. Each time I entered its impressive Victorian portal, I adjusted my tie, wondering whether I looked like a member of the middle classes.

Times change. Banks are now common-or-garden money shops. Every blue-jeaned anybody has an account. Those who still receive their wage in a brown envelope are as outdated as the dinosaur.

Little metal savings boxes designed to encourage children to save are now museum pieces. The savings habit is actively discouraged by credit card companies.

Britain is afloat on a sea of debt. Come back Mr Micawber. Your counsel is still needed even if you failed to follow your own advice.


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