by John Morrison


69: The Wherewithal

Wounded Man wishes he'd spent the last pound in his pocket on a lottery ticket, instead of just another packet of joss sticks. He's convinced himself that the numbers on the last draw were exactly the kind of numbers he probably would have picked. But he's too late for this week's draw; he'll have to settle instead for the comforting smell of jasmine and patchouli to counteract the more familiar stench of financial incompetence.

He slips his card into the cash machine - more in hope than expectation - and taps out the pin number. He finds that the usual message on the screen ('Don't make me laugh...') has been replaced by an altogether more cheerful proposition: 'Would you like cash?'. Wounded Man is gobsmacked; it is a moment of almost religious clarity.

On the whole, money is a puzzle to him. He doesn't have a clue about PEPs and TESSAs, and a 'basket of currencies' is something he can only guess at. He's totally foxed by stags, bulls and bears: the menagerie of the stock market. He's virtually innumerate, and working through a set of figures is a concept as alien to him as lifting up the bonnet of his ageing Vauxhall Ashtray. Whenever he glances at his bank statements, the numbers wander erratically across the paper like foraging ants. A man could have made a tidy fortune simply by looking at all the financial decisions Wounded Man has made over the last twenty years... and doing exactly the opposite.

Money has its own momentum, its own byzantine logic, its own arcane language. But it's not a language in which Wounded Man is fluent. So it's probably for the best that he wound up here in Milltown, where a proficiency with figures is not seen as an essential ingredient for a long and happy life. Where a man in a good suit braying "Buy pork belly futures... sell my grandmother" into his mobile phone can still turn heads and stomachs.

We're all expected to know about complex financial issues, but how do we actually find out? Most school-leavers can name the principle exports of Ecuador and the six wives of Henry VIII... but have never been taught how to balance a cheque account. Wouldn't it be useful, for example, to have a little caveat printed on the cover of every chequebook: Just to let you know that you are dealing with a bunch of unprincipled bastards. Have a nice day . Or on your mortgage documents: Your house, your reputation and everything you hold most dear will be at immediate risk if you so much as think about missing a payment ...

Conversely, the simplest aspects of life often seem to be spelt out in superfluous detail. Like the instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle... as though someone old enough to go shopping would actually be washing their hair for the very first time. And, amongst the bewildering variety of shampoos available, why do you never see one that's 'especially formulated for dirty hair'?

Or a packet of breakfast cereal: you'll get lists of every mineral, vitamin and trace element... per flake, per bowlful, and per hundredweight. What you won't see is: Another useless product. Ingredients: crap, mostly. OK, you can get one-twentieth of your daily vitamin requirements. Big deal, you could get much the same nutritional value from nibbling the contents of a full Hoover bag . And what about that serving suggestion: Try a bowlful with cold milk ? What else would you be doing with corn flakes? Scatter them on the floor? Pour them into your hat?

When it comes to product labelling, there are things you really need to know... and things you frankly don't. A toilet roll, for example, gives you the size of every sheet, the number of sheets per roll and the total length if, like one of those Labrador puppies, you were bored enough to unravel it. Instead of more pertinent information, such as: Have you ever wondered why these toilet rolls are so cheap? It's because they're made out of low-grade sandpaper and there are no perforations. Sorry ...

Then there are all those products which have consumer helplines. What bizarre set of circumstances is going to make a customer ring the number printed on, say, a bottle of mineral water? Unless it's to ask: "Can you help me? I've just spent good money on a bottle of water that costs about ten thousand times as much as the stuff that comes out of the tap. Perhaps you could recommend a good psychiatrist."

There's even a phone number printed on cans of Special Brew. What kind of job is that, fielding calls in eight-hour shifts from the people who drink this stuff on a daily basis? "So you've just drunk five cans of Special Brew, and your legs don't seem to work? Well, thank you for calling"...

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