39. DEATH TO DOSH - A REQUIEM FOR CASH
This summer I returned to the 'home country' - post-Brexit, post-Boris and, so it seems, post-cash. From Scotland to the very southwestern tip of England, and from parking fees to pub drinks there was not a coin or a note to be had. It was contactless payments wherever you went. Which made everything easy-peasy, pudding and pie, but also very soulless. Gone is the search deep into your trouser pocket for that coin that could get you that extra tanner you needed ('tanner' being slang for sixpence in the pre-decimalisation currency, and worth 1/40 of a pound or half a 'bob' or shilling). Ah, how I mourn the loss of the complicated maths of buying an ice-cream.
'Quid' pro quo
Not only the mathematical complexity of a national currency being divisible into 240 units but the richness of language that has seemingly disappeared with not only a conversion to the decimal system in February 1971 but the rapid rise of contactless payments in the roaring twenties of this century. I was a teenager during the first revolution and remember how it took years for the new system to catch on in the day-to-day language, especially among local markets and traders. Ten pence would still be called a couple of bob and items priced at 2½ p would occasionally be referred to as a tanner but for the farthing (1/960 of a pound) and the old threepenny bit (1/80 of a pound), decimalisation was the death knell. Mind you, great footballers were, and still are, able to turn on a sixpence and land a pass on a threepenny bit. And you still have to watch out for people who are as crooked as a (non-existent) nine-bob note. A penny-farthing is still an almost unrideable bicycle. So, half a century ago the great imperial GBP was sterilised, washed clean of diversity and oddities, and a penny was simply a penny until you reached 100 when it then became a pound. Of course, despite this, some expressions could remain unchanged: a pound is still a 'quid' and we are advised to look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.
Farewell to francs and florins
This revolution was not confined to the 240-unit pound sterling - all the European signatories to the euro were affected and I suppose so was the vernacular of the national coinage. I'm sure there is plenty of literature available on this, from Portugal in the west to Greece in the east. And as in Great Britain, it took a long time before market traders and others were able to shuffle off the habits of a lifetime and finally accept the euro as a fact of life. Indeed, I remember around thirty years ago visiting a flea market somewhere in the Ardennes where some traders were still pricing their items in 'francs', which made it very confusing for me, though perhaps not to the locals. Go to a car-boot sale or a flea market nowadays and you'll see the traders with their hand-sized pin machines and a hand-written notice at the stall reading "cashless payments only". Fortunately, there is no notice that reads "no haggling allowed". And the third revolution? Crypto? The jury's still out.
Just a jingle
So while my trip across the water provided a rich vein of 'Britishness' and saturated my need for fish and chips, sticky toffee pudding, English breakfast and a pint of bitter along with all that green and pleasant land and bucketsful of history, fantastic banter and cheer ... unconsciously I still compare the England of now with the England of my youth and, upon leaving Dover, I realised that I, an Englishman by birth and upbringing, was returning 'home' on my Dutch passport and closing what may turn out to be the last page of my Proustian quest. In my pocket were a few unspent British coins that remained from the 'just-in-case' cash pinned upon arrival when all I had needed was my smartphone. I'll keep them to jingle from time to time but as for the rich language of cash as once was, in the words of Shakespeare ('Hamlet'), "the rest is silence."