Shakespeare to Seuss: literary connections at the Bank

The Bank of England’s literary connections run deep. Shakespeare, Dickens, George Eliot, TS Eliot and Grahame – and most recently, of course, Austen – are among the names who have either featured on Bank notes, or been inspired in their writing by the Bank’s awesome facade and interiors.

The TS Eliot connection I wasn’t aware of until recently. But it says on the Bank Museum website that he wrote much of The Wasteland while working across the road at the former Lloyds Bank office on Cornhill. I have worked in that building myself. So I can only assume that the view across to the Bank inspired him more than his Lloyds Bank surroundings, which are at best mundane.

Either way it was a nice surprise to chance on another, slightly unexpected, literary connection. This one was courtesy of The Independent’s reporting of remarks made by former deputy governor Minouche Shafik at the Hay Festival last May.

Those remarks highlighted that the Bank had been consciously taking a leaf out of the book of another writer famous for his humour, clarity, simplicity and common touch. And no, I don’t mean Andy Haldane, although he is (famous for those things).

I mean Dr Seuss.

It’s Often Been Said, There’s So Much To Be Read

What Minouche went on to say, as reported by The Independent, was that she and her Bank colleagues had been studying the good doctor’s writing style. This was in a conscious effort to make their communications more succinct and understandable for the general public.

It was also in response to findings that the quarterly inflation report is only understood by a small percentage of the reading public. Minouche added that economists often fail to engage with politicians and the general public because of their dry, logical manner. They should be making more effort to tell their stories clearly.

To my ear, as a writer, editor and trainer aiming towards greater clarity, the Seuss connection was apt. It’s completely consistent with the efforts the Bank is making across a huge range of publications, audiences and channels, to make its output more clear, comprehensible and engaging.

Fashions change, of course, in language and literary circles as anywhere else. Plain Language is now in vogue, for reasons which are sound and in line with the technological, cultural and financial advances we have made in the last few decades. This trend has accelerated with changes in the relationship between government, the authorities, financial institutions and consumers; both before and since the financial crisis.

Back to the old days

32 years ago the Bank made the surprising decision to offer me a place on its graduate entry scheme. I joined in August 1985, in the same cohort as some much more eminent characters, including FCA Chief Executive Andrew Bailey and The Times columnist and author Oliver Kamm.

My first job was down the road at New Change, in the old Registrar’s Department. This was a slightly old-fashioned but highly professional and committed organisation. At the time data processing was in its infancy and the early computers that did exist were powered by steam and donkeys. Well, they weren’t, but you get the picture.

The Registrar’s Department looked after the register of government (gilt) stockholders. And did so to admirable standards of customer service, befitting the central bank of the nation. And it was in this august environment that I learned how to write.

One of my first assignments was in the Chief Registrar’s Office, known as CRO. I can only describe CRO as a high-calibre writing factory. Rows and rows of smart, articulate, ambitious clerks hunched over their dictaphones, with a few highly experienced older staff. Many of those had decamped from the old Exchange Control Office when the new Thatcher government lifted those restrictions in 1979.

In the middle of this writing factory there was a huge central pile of customer files. These were sent on to the CRO by other offices that dealt with transfers, dividends, changes in legal title, probate and the like. If there was anything awkward or sensitive about a query – such that a pre-printed standard letter (known as a Roneo, since you ask) wasn’t suitable – the file would be sent to the CRO drafters to deal with.

Principles of good writing

Which is what we did. It was a pressurised environment. Once we had dictated a letter it went into a busy typing pool. It was then finally checked, signed by a senior clerk, and sent out on the most beautifully expensive embossed paper. The CRO expected you to get through a decent number of letters in a day, anything from a dozen to 60-70 if you were an experienced drafter.

Doing this job I learned to write straight from my head onto the page via a rather overworked typist. It was a formative experience. But what interests me most, looking back, is how the same principles of good business writing that we espouse today were the same ones we needed to survive in the CRO writing factory. Brevity, clarity, accuracy, courtesy and consistency were the standards you adhered to. The aim was to preserve the good name of the Bank and provide a high-quality service to our stockholders.

Not everything has changed

Language fashions have changed, but those key principles haven’t. To my mind, they still lie behind everything that the Bank is trying to achieve in its communication strategy. Re-building trust, improving engagement, increasing understanding, and reinforcing credibility.

Personally I appreciate the elements of excellence, continuity and tradition that the Bank represents. Of course the world has changed beyond recognition since 1985. And the Bank has moved with it in many respects. But I find it pleasing that some things haven’t changed. In the writing world technology, fashions and delivery channels have evolved hugely. But the essential principles which support high quality writing haven’t and shouldn’t.

Or as Dr Seuss put it:

They say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast

I don’t think Mr Walker, the rather stern, forbidding head of CRO back in the 1980s, would have been impressed if we’d cited Seuss as our inspiration. Then again, he wouldn’t have recognised Andy Haldane’s regional Town Halls, the Bank Underground blog, or the very idea of the Bank Museum.

Let’s finish as we started, with Dr Seuss. Even Mr Walker would probably have approved of these lines, which seem to apply just as well today:

That’s why my belief is
The briefer the brief is,
The greater the sigh
Of the reader’s relief is

Typewriter and Glasses