In those far off and, please God, never-to-be-repeated days of the war, the powers that be ordained that your scribe should pass his
days (and sometimes nights) in carrying out certain duties entirely unconnected with savings banking. It was further decreed that,
in order to perfect himself in the performance of these duties, he should from time to time attend certain training courses. At one
of these a resemblance to an SBI Vocational School could be detected in that on the last night of 'Term' a Grand Concert took place.
An additional feature of this concert was the 'Ceremony of the Can'.
In the centre of the otherwise empty stage was placed a
large black metal container marked 'CAN' in bold red letters. A bedraggled individual dressed in a shabby uniform, bereft of all indications
of rank but obviously one who had served for many years, entered and picked up the CAN. Of course, he didn't know what to do with
it and looked around in a puzzled and dejected way, brightening up only when a figure wearing a grossly exaggerated single stripe
entered from the opposite side. Naturally he promptly received the can, which he in turn passed on to an apparent superior. So it
went on, each successive entrant being dignified with more stripes, more pips, more silver braid until the can was in the hands of
an officer who could hardly stand upright for the weight of decorative insignia he wore.
This, thought the lower ranks in the
audience, is where the can ought to remain; but no, the man at the top succeeded in passing it down the chain until the original finder
was stuck with it.
This parable has often come to my mind in the years since, when I reflect on our human need to find someone
or something, real or imagined, to take the responsibility for things to go awry. We like to think, when smarting under a rebuke,
that the blame lies elsewhere and that we are the victims of circumstances, and forget that often the fault lies not in our stars,
but in ourselves.
Sometimes the blame lands fairly and squarely on the appropriate shoulders - the can grows continually heavier
and eventually flattens its possessor, in spite of his efforts to pass it on - the managing director of the bankrupt motor insurance
company finds himself in prison; whilst his clerks are merely out of a job.
The desire for a kind of natural justice extends
to the realm of nature, we are reluctant to admit that disasters are part of the order of things; savages blame illness on the malicious
activities of enemies; civilised men blamed bad summer weather on heavy gun fire across the Channel or later on, at least keeping
their superstitions up to date, considered the cause to be atom-bomb tests - I suppose satellites and space-probes are now the culprits.
are some classic examples - the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins in 'David Copperfield' is the arch-type - poor Jorkins was held out as
the power behind the scene, an Eminence Grice who prevented the colourful Mr Spenlow from shining as he wished to - but I think that
the period of Western history when there was the greatest scope for practicing the art of passing the buck must have been during the
Roman Empire. Civilisation had progressed so far that it had created bucks to be passed but had not developed to the point of providing
machinery for their speedy return to the passer before he had time to extricate himself. 'Refer to Drawer' in those days often meant
an exceedingly unpleasant and violent reference.
Take the case of Saint Paul, as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles - Festus
simply didn't know what to do with him until Paul decided to appeal to Caesar. What a golden opportunity for Festus to lumber his
superiors with this troublesome fellow! Considering the length of the journey, the perils of shipwreck or piracy by sea and attacks
by bandits on land, Paul might well never get to Rome. Moreover, if (for security reasons, of course) the papers in the case went
by a different route, it was quite likely that they and the defendant would never match up and Festus would be in the clear.
So with us today; the worst of us see that someone else suffers, the best of us own up and take the consequences but most of us hedge
and wriggle out of our responsibility if we can.
Many are the scapegoats we use to cover up our shortcomings - the manager -
the inspector - head office - the postal service (or lack of it) - the clearing system - an Oedipus complex - being frightened by
a dog in childhood, etc, etc.
Nowadays, it is said, we live in an age of marvels (mankind always has, if only we realised it)
and modern science, which is of course wonderful, provides a continuous stream of marvels ranging from non-stick saucepans to poisoned
fish in the river Rhine, and we have now been presented with that alibi of alibis - the COMPUTER.
None us know what a computer
is or what it does and we are sure that our depositors don't know either. Just mention the magic word to the man-in-the-street and
an immediate rapport is established. The 'We - You' relationship vanishes - we are fellow victims, just like two sciatica sufferers
comparing notes as to where the pain grips them.
So - away with the late delivery of letters, etc, away with all our old excuses
- if Mr Jones' credit hasn't arrived, if Mrs Smith's interest is £10 short, if Master Robinson's passbook is missing after transfer
from Downtown branch, it isn't us - it's the COMPUTER!
Of course, this happy state of affairs won't last forever, a day will
come when, as Macaulay nearly said, every schoolboy knows all about computers. Then we shall have to seek for something else to explain
away all our deficiencies and, human nature being what it is, I expect we shall find what we are looking for.
article by Gelbie appeared in the Journal of the Savings Banks Institute: Volume 13, Number 1, January 1971. Gelbie was the nom
de plume of Godfrey Boden)