I watched his brain fry and his eyes glaze. Lsd has that effect on the uninitiated.
“It damned near is psychedelic…” said my son as I explained its mysteries. The complexity of working with the pounds, shillings and pence of pre-decimal currency… which we wrote as ‘L’, ‘s’ and ‘d’ in our primary school maths lessons… is enough to boggle any mind unused to adding and subtracting in anything other than units of ten. The ‘L’ was actually supposed to be the traditional pound (£) sign, the ‘s’ was for shillings and the ‘d’ for the old Roman denarius stood for the pennies.
I could understand his reaction… as I demonstrated how bizarre the mathematics of ‘old’ money seems to modern eyes, even while I marvelled at how deeply ingrained those early maths lessons had become. Decimalisation here took place in 1971, the ‘old’ money disappeared, and I haven’t had to do anything more complicated than straight maths since.
At school, from the earliest age, we had learned both standard mathematical addition, subtraction, division and multiplication and the same operations with the ever-so-slightly more convoluted requirements of our archaic but much-loved currency.
Where now we have a simple one hundred pennies to the pound and no non-numerical sub-divisions, before decimalisation, each pound consisted of twenty shillings of twelve pence each. Or you might find things priced in guineas, which were units of twenty-one shillings.
To make things even more interesting, in addition to pennies, shillings and pounds, when I was born there were farthings, of which there were four to the penny, ha’pennies or half pennies, ‘thruppenny bits’ which were worth three pence, sixpences or ‘tanners’, florins (two shillings), half crowns (two shillings and sixpence) and crowns (five shillings). That was without the ‘ten bob’ or occasional pound note that granny sipped into your birthday card if you were very lucky.
“I know why you are good at mental arithmetic now,” said my son.
Quite apart from the mind-boggling mathematics involved in any kind of accounting, the coinage was, for the most part, large, unwieldy and heavy. On the up side, you were always aware of what money you had… there was none of this flashing of plastic back then. You knew what you had to play with every week and I think the physical weight of the coins reminded you to value the fact that you had them at all, while plastic distances you from that understanding.
The change to decimal currency was not liked. The ‘new’ money was catechised as play money…there was neither weight nor substance to the coinage and your purse and pockets felt light. There were awful and expensive anomalies where traders, not understanding the new currency…or trying to make a fast buck from those who didn’t… simply changed to the same price in new currency… making, for example, a one shilling purchase cost twelve new pence, the equivalent of around two shillings and fivepence. Many people, used to working with the maths of old money, could not get to grips with the simplicity of the new coinage or the value conversions.
The conversation with my son had started with the trend towards a global and digital currency that seems to be a logical next step and with which many organisations are already experimenting. As we are already using ‘virtual’ money daily, with credit and debit cards being flashed over readers and purchases being made online, it seems inevitable that, at some point, the process of transferring funds between banks and businesses behind the scenes will be simplified. Perhaps coinage will disappear altogether in favour of sci-fi -esque ‘credits’.
Although I eventually welcomed the change to a simpler system back in the seventies, I did love the old coins. They had presence and character… and a lot of folklore attached to them. I showed my son the one old coin I carry everywhere in my purse, one of a pair of coins my grandmother gave me on my wedding day to put in my shoe. One was a silver sixpence that I passed on to my erstwhile daughter-in-law on her wedding day, the other a silver threepenny piece from 1878, bearing the head of the young Queen Victoria. Granny’s gift was a bit of sympathetic magic… if you walk on silver, you will never be completely without money. The same logic applied to bringing in a silver coin with the coal and Christmas cake at New Year or placing a coin in the pocket of every new coat or purse.
Although we still have coins, many of those old traditions are now dead or dying, which seems a shame to me. Change is inevitable as the world turns, and many of the changes that we anticipate with dread turn out to be positive… like the simplified maths and relative weightlessness of the abhorred ‘new money’. What we tend to forget, though, is the domino effect that accompanies any change… like the loss of traditions and the sense of value in this case. Many of the changes we encounter in life are imposed upon us and we can do nothing except accept and adapt, but the domino race of small changes that follow the main event is often within our control and we can choose how we carry them forward. We can assure the future by carrying a metaphorical coin in our purses, or find our pockets empty.
As for me, I have carried my silver thrupenny piece for forty-five years now… and cannot see that changing any time soon.