Friday 13 August 2010

money money money

We went out to buy some fish and chips the other evening. It’s not something we do often – a large wodge of cholesterol-wrapped calories, no matter how yummy, doesn’t exactly get much of a menton in my cardiologist’s “Hints for a Long and Healthy” leaflet. Except filed under “Don’t even think about it, Fatty”.

But we’d had a gruelling day, I didn’t feel in the least like cooking supper, and suddenly, unbidden, the Chippie sprang to mind. And as you know, when a fancy for fish and chips comes upon you, absolutely nothing else will do. “Aw – go on then” said Susie “ It can’t hurt us just occasionally”.

So off we trotted to our local fryery. I was a bit badly parked, so I gave Suse my last £20 note, and sent her to do the necessary while I sat in the car in case a traffic-gollum slithered over our horizon.

Eventually, back she comes, carrying a tantalisingly miasmic parcel, gets in the car, and hands me a crumpled fiver, three pound coins, and some small change.

“How much”? I squeaked. “ The best part of twelve quid for two portions of fish and chips? Talk about the Piece of Cod That Passeth All Understanding!”

Because when I was young, you could buy the same delicacy for about half-a-crown (12.5p for you under-fifties) a go. Two bob for the fish, and sixpence for the chips. .And you’d get some interesting (if somewhat greasy ) reading matter thrown in as wrapping, flavouring the contents with a subtle hint of printer’s ink. Of course, the Brussels elf-‘n’-safety Gestapo soon put a stop to this early attempt at re-cycling as unhygienic, with scant regard to the fact that it hadn’t hurt a soul in a century or so. And fish ‘n’ chips without its newspaper packaging never tasted the same thereafter.

But it set me to thinking. Not about the seismic inflation rate since decimalisation, (well not after a time, anyhow) but about how much I miss the old money itself. There was the half-a-crown, a big, chunky coin, the earlier examples of which were made of real silver, as was the shilling, and the 2 shilling piece, or florin. The twelve-sided bronze threepenny bit, and its little silver forbear, much beloved of Christmas Pudding makers and Tooth Fairies. The old copper penny, much bigger than any coin we have today, and with more real purchasing power than most of ‘em. The farthing, or quarter-penny, which in my boyhood days still had some value, in my case for confections such as bullseyes, toffees or gobstoppers. The old white fiver, about the size of two paperbacks laid side to side, and printed in serious no-nonsense black on crackly crisp white watermarked paper. Serious money, in more senses than one.

And the lovely slang names we had. The half crown was a tosheroon or half-a-dollar, the sixpence a tanner or zack, the shilling known to all as a bob, the two bob bit, the ten bob note or half-a-bar, the oncer or (slightly earlier) the Brad (named after a Mr Bradbury, Chief Cashier of the Bank of England, whose signature was on the pre-war £1 Note.)

There were also some solid gold coins that were technically legal tender, albeit nobody in their right mind would proffer one – the gold content was worth far, far more than the face value. The Sovereign (Eastenders still talk of ‘Sovs’ , meaning pounds,) and that most elegant, useful and less-understood unit of currency, the Guinea.

A throwback to Georgian times, the guinea was worth 21 shillings (£1.05). Gentlemen, the Upper Classes, the professional middle class, and some auctioneers with delusions of grandeur dealt in guineas (as Gentlemen of the Turf still do. )

I say ‘useful and less-understood’, because as I saw it the first attribute was a direct result of the second. The main advantage was in adding to the confusion of Johnny Foreigner, whose mental decimal-based calculator was already having a nervous breakdown with the “twelve pence in a shillng, twenty shillings in a pound” concept. I used to work in a shop in Central London, and the sight of a vacationing citizen of Deepshit Arkansas running out of fingers to count with was one of the minor pleasures of life.

But for me, the guinea had some domestic advantage, as well.

When I had my Antique Dealer’s hat on I used to spend much of my time buying at auction – albeit very much at the the other end of the spectrum to the Christeby’s mob.

The bidding would rise, usually in one pound increments, which the auctioneer would call, as usual. But every so often, just as the hammer was about to fall, I’d call out “Guineas, Sir!” which in effect is a 5% increase on the previous ‘pounds’ bid – easy to work out for a round number, but not so for - say - £23 or £57. So by the time the any potential underbidders had done the maths, the hammer had fallen and I’d bought yet another lot.

Today’s cash is far less satisfying, somehow. But then it’s only a stopgap. Within a decade or so everybody will have to flash the plastic or set up an online payment on their voice-activated mobile computer (by then only periphally a phone) for every purchase. Inflation will make the coinage effectively worthless, and cash money will disappear altogether, with the result that every single transaction we make, no matter how insignificant, will be recorded somewhere, and open to inspection by any licensed snooper, corporate busybody or Credit Agency that takes a fancy to do so.
But why should I care? By then I'll have well and truly cashed in my chips.