Will that be paper or plastic?


Britain is about to have new bank notes. By ‘about’ is meant three years from now, after a suitable period of reflection. The new notes will be plastic, rather than the current linen-based numbers. Australians, who have had plastic notes for more than 20 years, find the three-year delay hilarious. If a job’s worth doing, the idea seems to be, don’t do it now.

A country’s money speaks volumes. Not just about money, but about national character. The two strongest currencies in recent history, the US dollar and the Swiss Franc, have not changed their form in donkey’s years. They are stable currencies, and their form reflects that.

The US denominates its currency in ones, twos (rarely used), fives, 10s, 20s, 50s, 100s and some larger notes. Britain, on the other hand, which has a currency that is almost worthless, reflects that fact by having notes of £5, £10, £20 and a £50 note that no one uses because no one (other than drug dealers) will accept them. The average lifespan of a £5 (about $8) note is 18 months, for two reasons: being the smallest notes, they are used most frequently, and they are made of a material severely inferior in practicality to plastic.

Stable currencies devalue less dramatically than weaker ones. That’s why the US has retained its dollar bill, despite its being worth only about one-tenth of Britain’s smallest bill. Now is not the time to discuss British coinage, which is a catastrophe roughly akin, on a cumulative basis, to the explosion of Krakatoa.

At heart, the British aristocracy subscribes to the theory that money is a dirty business. Hence the phrase ‘filthy lucre’ and other similar put-downs. No thought is given to how ordinary people might use currency, since none of those charged with managing the currency ever do so.

The US currency might be faulted for all being of a similar size, which one would think would be inconvenient for the blind. On one occasion, I was hanging out with a blind musician when the union wallah came round to collect my friend’s dues. Thirty bucks was the levy. George, blind since birth, handed the man a $20 bill and a $10 bill.

Intrigued, I asked George how he knew that he had parted with $30, and not more or less. “You’re a smart guy,” he said, “you tell me.” But I couldn’t, so George had to explain it to me. You try to work it out: the answer is at the end of this article.

For three years, I have tried to set aside any pristine British banknote that came my way. In that time, I’ve managed about a dozen £20 notes and one astonishing mint fiver. I suppose I should spend them, but something (nostalgia?) keeps me from doing so.

Roll on the plastic money, I say.

(Answer: George placed notes of different denominations in different pockets. The 20s lived in his left-hand trouser pocket, the 10s in his inside jacket pocket, etc.)

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