Some people welcome a drift towards a cashless society, lauding the advantages of virtual transactions in which no actual money changes hands. This school of thought may underestimate the social and economic benefits of cash.
Furthermore, real solid money in the form of pennies and sixpences and shillings and two-bobs and half-crowns in the UK (and their decimal successors, although they haven’t become embodied in the national imagination in quite the same way) and folding notes of different hues, have for decades not only weighed down our pockets but have coloured the way we speak and the way we see the world.
And the beauty of coinage produced by the British Royal Mint deserves a mention too, not only the formal commemorative pieces but the striking designs for coins of all values, sometimes particularly the smallest denominations.
For a few dollars more
Coins jangling in your pocket and wads of notes in your wallet speak of enjoyment and largesse. Way back in 1958, Eddie Cochran’s C’mon Everybody evoked the teenage weekend with ‘Got some money in my jeans and I’m really gonna spend it right’.
Poor old Pat Boone, on the other hand, in his song Johnny Will faces losing his girlfriend if he can’t scrape together the money for two dance tickets. ‘My future happiness depends on one ten-dollar bill,’ he moans, as his rival, the no-good Johnny, stands in the wings, flaunting, we imagine, the crisp new note which will win the girl. (Actually, isn’t $5 quite a lot for a teenage hop in 1961?) The Coasters were told to take out the papers and the trash, or they would get no ‘spendin’ cash’. Yakety Yak indeed.
Flashing the cash has more resonance than waving a credit card. Leaving a whacking tip under a plate or in a glass has more oomph than automatically adding a percentage. A suitcase full of money is more dramatic than a row of figures. A row of tins in the kitchen, marked ‘rent’, ‘electricity’, ‘food’ tells its own story. A banknote in a garter or stuffed down a cleavage tells an entirely different story. Ooh la la.
Sayings and traditions which enliven our communication and colour our experience relate to physical money, usually coins that were in circulation in bygone years. They remind us of our history.
Pennies, in particular, have long lingered in our collective consciousness.
For years in the run-up to Bonfire Night on November 5 in the UK, children begged for a penny for the guy (an incomprehensible sentence to anyone born after — oh, when?) We say ‘The penny drops’ when something is belatedly understood, a reference to old penny-in-the-slot machines.
You still hear it said that an unwelcome person has turned up ‘like a bad penny’. This used to refer to a debased or counterfeit coin which sooner or later would end up back in your possession. The term is centuries old, first seen in print in the work Piers Plowman by Thomas Langland in the late 14th century.
And how about the delicate phrase ‘spend a penny’, dating from the time when it cost a penny to use a public convenience, and said conveniences were readily available. This phrase deserves to be in common use — so much more fragrant than other ways of putting it.
Coins of tiny value symbolise so much more than their fiscal worth. In the song Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime, the anthem of the Great Depression, the dime represents the depths of the despair to which the singer and all those like him have sunk.
In similar vein, the old nursery rhyme Christmas Is Coming asks us to please put a penny in the old man’s hat. It goes on to say that if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do. If you haven’t got a ha’penny, the rhyme concludes, God bless you. The penny, the ha’penny, the dime are minute physical representations of a system which throws those who have served it on the scrapheap, but at the same time they are a vehicle for evoking compassion and common humanity.
Pipped at the past
Literary examples of concrete cash can carry enormous emotional weight. Silas Marner, the lonely isolated weaver in George Eliot’s novel, sometimes mistakenly dismissed as a miser, looks at the ‘bright faces’ of his gold coins as a substitute for love and purpose in his life.
In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, our young hero, Pip, helped an escaped convict on the marshes to make his getaway, furnishing him with food and a file to saw through his ball and chain.
Some years later, an envoy of said convict seeks Pip out in his local pub, and displaying the very file as a signal of their source, passes Pip a gift of two one-pound notes. Pip views the notes with repugnance. They are ‘fat’ and ‘sweltering’ and seem to reek of the cattle market. They belong to the criminal world, which he had briefly experienced, and they relate to the old Pip, the kind, sensitive (if terrified) child who helped a fellow creature.
This Pip has disappeared, for the time being, and has become a pretty unbearable snob. We long for him to accept these notes for the gift of gratitude that they are, and to reconnect to the world of mercy and feeling.
Then there’s a great poem by Leslie Norris, called The Ballad of Billy Rose, in which the narrator encounters a blind man selling books of matches outside a football ground. He recognises the man as the former sprightly, gallant boxer, Billy Rose, who he and his friends used to cheer on in the ring, for the entrance fee of three pence. They were present the night Billy sustained the injuries which have brought him to this point. Stricken with guilt and remorse, the speaker ends the poem:
‘Poor Billy Rose. God, he could fight,
Before my three sharp coins knocked out his sight.’
Boom. It hits you, with its raw physicality. A contactless payment, swiping a card over a machine, could never have the same effect.