The signs of obsolescence are all around. A long queue of forlorn faces at Victoria Station in London when the card-readers are down, and cash is all the ticket-folk can accept. The sighs of shop staff, and their long pauses before they deliver change, as if they no longer remember which coins are which, or what they add up to. I enjoy the quick mental exercise of totting up what’s owed and the neat satisfaction of snapping down “the exact”. They would be far happier to hear the brisk beep of contactless on a screen. My attachment to cash, however, runs deep.
I wouldn’t miss paper money – insubstantial, springy and somehow detached from the value it claims to represent. But coins have weight: sometimes, as in the case of the British two-pence piece, more than they can possibly be worth. They have been minted, forged, proved. They can be interestingly quirky, two-coloured and multi-sided, milled or not, gouged by desperate chisellers, embossed with curious devices. As a child I treated coins like jewels. None was prettier than the sixpence, with its bouquet of national flowers, and none more impressive than the half-crown, with its solid medieval shield, like a rare stone. I even had a special purse for farthings, a red leather tube that could take around 30 of the tiny copper coins, each marked with a wren.
Farthings were already history then, but history is the joy of coins. The silver threepenny-bits, with a smudged head of Edward VII, that went into the family Christmas pudding every year. The gold sovereign I found with joy on our lawn as I pegged out washing, before I realised that it had fallen from our “museum” shelf into the laundry basket. A copper quadrans of the Emperor Nerva, spotted by my husband as we were strolling through the wasteland of the Circus Maximus in Rome: the price of a loaf of bread, possibly dropped by a hasty slave. And, most ancient and thrilling, a bronze coin of Pontius Pilate from Judea, bought from a curio shop, paper-thin but still finely legible, with an augur’s staff and an olive branch. When I look at this coin I am in Pilate’s Judea, watching the auguries taken from the flight of birds, plucking ripe olives from a leaning tree.
But then, in an almost vertiginous rush, comes another feeling: a sense of the hundreds of hands through which this coin has passed. Old coins bring in a press of ghosts; and new ones, too, evoke crowds. On my first trip to Europe after the euro came in, passing from Belgium into France and back, the identical coins seemed to flow as easily and naturally, holding peoples peaceably together.
History has been made this way, largely as fingers place coins in the palm of another. It is extraordinary, I suppose, that we are still doing so. But the habit is hanging on. Outside Victoria Station, a homeless man with a slumbering dog asks me to spare what change I can. Down in the Underground, a busker with a violin hopes for the same. They do not ask for a lot – only as much as is contained, these days, in disappearing metal discs. But those ubiquitous small carriers of value, tokens of acquiescence, motions of kindness, are the weft of our human lives. A brief beep on a machine cannot replace their consequence.•