Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The last cheque I will ever write

I am probably the last non-pensioner in Britain to carry a cheque book, despite the fast diminishing range of opportunities to use it.

Perhaps it is because I still remember how grown-up and liberated I felt when I wrote my first cheque in 1972. Until recently I also took pleasure in using cheques that were perfect museum pieces of fine copperplate calligraphy, from a bank that even styled itself “Messrs” (a title once universal in business, but now as defunct as that of Prince Bishop). Naturally, like everything else in this country that is old-fashioned, quirky and uplifting, these have now been modernised into bland conformity.

Because we remained in denial about the demands of parenthood until our son actually arrived, it dawned on us rather late in the day that we needed to replace my wife’s car, since it could accommodate neither a baby seat nor a buggy. We duly went out one Saturday morning, in the teeth of the worst recession in living memory, and clinched a deal in the first car showroom we could find that was not completely overrun with eager customers.

Most regrettably, this was in Cheshire, because that was the location of the car Mrs Hann wished to trade in. Yes, I know that the basic idea of cars is that they are mobile. But while she has very many excellent qualities, driving is definitely not my wife’s strongest suit. She likes to proceed along the crown of the road at a steady 40mph, attracting ridicule on motorways (where she has been known to reach 50mph downhill), anger on single carriageway A-roads, and a steady stream of speeding tickets in town. Couple this with the fact that she has no sense of direction, and you will appreciate why having her follow my car for 220 miles to Northumberland was not top of my list of fun ideas for summer 2009.

I have been buying vehicles from dealers in Newcastle and Alnwick for decades and, being no fan of expensive credit, have always simply gone in, signed some paperwork, handed over a cheque, shaken hands and driven off. The dealer in Cheshire, by contrast, was clearly very put out when I rejected his offer of motor finance and said that I would pay in cash. Then, remembering the sign in an Alnwick garage warning that payments of over £9,999.99 in notes and coins would fall foul of the money laundering regulations, I added that I meant I would pay by cheque. I got much the same reaction as if I had offered to settle the bill in cowrie shells, so I considerately asked if they would like me to hand it over in advance, so that it would clear before I collected the car. They affirmed that they would.

So far, so good. Any fule kno that cheques in this country take three days to clear, as they have always done. Well, not in the wonderful world of my motor dealer. No, there they take “ten working days”, as they informed me on Friday when I tried to collect the vehicle for which my cheque had cleared on Tuesday, according to my bank. Which belatedly added the important lesson that there is no limit to the amount I can pay by debit card so long as I have the requisite funds in my account.

Yet I now find myself in a ludicrous impasse where I cannot stop my cheque and pay by debit card because my bank insists that the garage already has my money; and the garage says that Mrs Hann cannot have her car because they have not been paid for it.

There are two important morals to this little story. Never make purchases by cheque, and always buy your cars in the North East, where the people in the trade are so much nicer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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