In The Bank was a Writing Squad / Manchester Literature Festival project.
The brief was broad enough to be irresistible: I was to do some writing with a group of poets, bloggers, prose fiction writers and dramatists during a residency lasting several weeks. The residency would take place inside a bank – the big HSBC in St Anne’s Square, Manchester, and we’d get to see behind the scenes during working hours. I would go in, not as a tutor, but as a collaborator – to steer the writing process and keep the writers asking questions. During the residency we developed a way of working with each other that involved workshops, tours of the bank premises, detailed and wide-ranging interviews with bank staff and management, research and discussion time, one-to-one tutorials, reading aloud to each other, experimenting, editing, brain-storming and a little bit of hair-tearing-out.
It was brilliant.
But a bank? What’s interesting or inspirational about a bank – they’re sterile, soulless places, aren’t they? What stories would we find there that haven’t already been splashed across the news in the past few years? Were we glorified PR people, producing a particular image for the bank to use in its marketing? How free were we to critique what we saw? What exactly was the function of these pieces of writing we were hoping to create? Should writers be working with big companies in the first place – is that what we’re for? The group spent lots of time discussing these big questions and getting to grips with what it means to be a writer in residence.
We discovered – and you’ll see this discovery enacted in every single piece of writing here – the beauty of being ‘in residence’ – of becoming, as far as you can, at home. Becoming immersed in the ordinary detail of life lived within the bank – from as many perspectives, points of view and positions as we could manage. We became temporary insiders and were gifted the time and space to ask awkward questions of ourselves and our hosts and to observe people working in a place that perhaps had become invisible to us through over familiarity. It gave us the chance to become intimate strangers. To change our minds about what we thought we knew.
Writing does that to you. It makes you see things you thought you already knew off-by-heart in an unfamiliar way. Writing allows you to show surprising secrets both to readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of behind-the-scenes banking, as well as to the staff whose knowledge of the processes and environment have made it almost invisible. And because of this the work was a true collaboration – not in the sense that we co-wrote these pieces; each writer had their own perspective on our joint experiences – but because the process involved long conversations with each other, as happens so often in creative-writing workshops – as well as between workshop exchange of works, and the patient, generous and dedicated attention of the HSBC staff (particularly Susan, Shaun and Steven).
Each staff member we spoke to balanced their professional obligation to keep premises and information secure with their desire to show us what we wanted to see. What would happen if a cleaner tried to rob the bank? Who controls HSBC radio? Can I see the vault? Are there gold bars here? What are your staff parties like? Can you smoke in the break room? What would happen if you got locked in? What’s the worst thing a customer has ever said to you? What’s the best thing? Writing does that to you to – it makes you curious. It keeps you curious.
How to introduce this varied, sensitive, surprising and ambitious collection of work to you? Think of these words: value, exchange, secure, transaction, forge, surveillance, inherit, indebted, robbery, currency, trust, profit, loss, obtain, mortgage, service, consume, V.I.P., credit, debit, red, black, underwritten, written off, bankrupt, solvent, paid.
All of human experience is there, isn’t it? Enjoy.
Jenn Ashworth, Summer 2014