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A symbol of what?!

The American comedian Lenny Bruce once memorably quipped that, if Jesus had been executed in the 20th-century United States, children brought up in the Catholic faith – I deliberately avoid the phrase ‘Catholic children’, since no child can make that personal choice – would be not be wearing tiny crosses round their necks, but tiny electric chairs.

Failing as ever to ‘turn the other cheek’, the Catholic church affected to find the joke deeply offensive. What I find deeply offensive is the whole idea of requiring children to wear a replica of any instrument of execution (whether it be a noose, a cup of hemlock, a samurai sword, an electric chair or a cross). This is manipulation verging on child abuse, which as we should by now all know is part and parcel of the Christian religion, and almost surely of religion in general.

Although there have been many complaints from Christian quarters that Muslims ‘flaunt’ their religion by imposing strict public dress codes on women (and, to a far lesser extent, on men), they refuse to see the conspicuous wearing of crosses as in any way similar. Britain’s newsreader Fiona Bruce was incensed to be told that her very visible cross conflicted with the BBC’s code of social impartiality, and that she must no longer wear one during broadcasts – but unfortunately the BBC backed down after a ‘public outcry’. Personally I’d ban the lot. When the French government decided some years ago to outlaw the wearing of overt religious symbols in public places, particularly schools, it quite rightly extended the ban to include visible Christian crosses. Anything less would have been deeply discriminatory, by implying that France was not a secular country but an intrinsically Christian one – which it nowadays quite clearly is not.

What draws my attention to this whole issue is a Wikipedia article on the use of the ‘cross necklace’ as an overt symbol of Christian belief – which includes the following fascinating paragraph:

‘In two highly publicised British cases, [nurse X] and [flight attendant X] were disciplined for wearing cross necklaces at work, in breach of their employment terms. Both took their cases to the European Court of Human Rights … In light of such cases, in 2012 the former Archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Communion, Lord Carey, and the then head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, have urged all Christians to wear cross necklaces regularly.’

We have to consider here the recent actions of both Lord Carey (a curiously aristocratic title for the leader of a church that supposedly promotes humility) and Cardinal O’Brien, both born in the 1930s and still living comfortable lives in their eighties. Although Carey is not directly guilty of child abuse, he is indirectly so for having covered up proven abuse by the Anglican bishop Peter Ball (who has been sentenced to a paltry 32 months’ imprisonment for sexually abusing young men over many years). As for O’Brien, who has vociferously opposed legislation designed to improve the lot of gay people in Britain, he has finally confessed to repeated sex abuse against younger men over whom he had authority, usually priests.

These two supposed paragons of virtue have seen fit to call on the rest of us to make a point of wearing the symbols of Christian faith.

Even if I believed in a god – which ‘thank god’ I don’t – I’d be ashamed to show myself in their company by doing any such thing.

 

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The Cornishman’s corn, and why countries aren’t businesses

One of the most popular modern Irish folk songs is The fields of Athenry (pronounced not as ‘At-Henry’, but with ‘Athen’ as in ‘Athens’ and ‘ry’ as in ‘rye’ – the name of a small town in the west of Ireland). The song, a tear-jerker if ever there was one, tells the story of a young Irishman called Michael who in the midst of the country’s devastating potato famine 170 years ago is caught stealing some of ‘Trevelyan’s corn’ to feed his starving family, and is punished by being sent for life to Britain’s penal colony in Australia, never to see his family again; by implication, his wife Mary and his children are thereby condemned to die of hunger.

Unfortunately, the reality of the Irish famine was even far worse than this, and one person is generally held to have made a major contribution to it: a heartlessly zealous British civil servant called Charles Trevelyan, the son of a Cornish clergyman.

Given his Cornish descent and typically Cornish surname (the ‘tre-‘ prefix means ‘farm’ or ‘homestead’), you might think Trevelyan would have felt a particular affection for his fellow-Celts in Ireland (and in the Scottish Highlands, to which the same potato disease would spread a few years later). But, on the contrary, he seems to have harboured a deep contempt for them; and he was determined that famine relief efforts must not interfere with the smooth flow of British trade. Although he ‘generously’ conceded that Irish people should not actually be allowed to starve to death – presumably because this would reflect badly on his government’s administration of the island – his misguided laissez-faire policies, which foreshadowed the worst excesses of today’s ‘free-market capitalism’, ensured that at least a million of them did. In fact, Trevelyan could clearly not have cared less, for he believed that the potato famine was God’s punishment for ‘the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the [Irish] people’, as well as ‘an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population’; he was a follower of the no less cynical economist Thomas Robert Malthus, who saw ‘excess’ population as a threat to economic growth, and ipso facto a bad thing.

When the impoverished crofters of Western Scotland began to suffer the same fate as the Irish before them, Trevelyan’s ‘solution’ was to found the ‘Highland and Island Emigration Society’, which encouraged them to quit their homes and take ship for Australia – not officially as a punishment, but the effect was much the same. This was the time of the infamous ‘Highland clearances’, in which large numbers of Gaelic-speaking tenant farmers were evicted by rich landlords, and left to their fate. True to type, Trevelyan seems to have believed that he was helping the victims – but his main concern was once again to maintain the smooth flow of British trade, and to get rid of ‘surplus population’.

So what exactly was ‘Trevelyan’s corn’, as mentioned in the Irish song? Irish potatoes were of a particularly nutritious kind, and millions of people had managed to survive on very little else; indeed, when the famine first made its appearance in 1845 the island had an astonishing nine million inhabitants, making Ireland the most densely populated part of Europe (the scale of the subsequent decline through mass starvation, disease and emigration can be measured by the fact that even today the total population is less than 6.5 million, and will probably never return to its former level). But when the ‘potato blight’ spread from North America to continental Europe in 1844, this one-sided food source became a death sentence for Ireland’s people. In 1845 and again in 1847 the potato harvest failed throughout the island; and although people in the wealthier cities of the north and east could find plenty of other things to live on, this option was not available to the poor in the south and west. Not only did they have nothing left to eat, but they could not earn money by selling their surplus crop – for the entire crop had rotted in the ground. In desperation, starving people tried to eat the foul-smelling, blackened mush that remained; but that was not only devoid of nutritional value, but also carried disease. Farmers had been used to replanting pieces of potato (known as ‘seed potatoes’) that would generate the following year’s crop; but now, for want of any alternative, they began to eat these too, thereby ensuring there would not even be a new crop to fail.

At first the British government tried to provide relief, but the scale of the catastrophe proved overwhelming. Potato blight was a hitherto unknown disease; various suggestions were made about how to tackle it, but all in vain. And now Charles Trevelyan’s racist, bureaucratic, laissez-faire zeal came to the fore. Throughout the famine years whole shiploads of food continued to leave Irish ports; while Britain’s international trade kept flowing, millions of its citizens were abandoned to their fate. To add insult to injury, the notion arose that the supposedly ‘improvident’ Irish had brought all this on themselves by becoming so dependent on a single source of food. Thus did the British authorities attempt to shrug off what was clearly their responsibility as rulers of a country they had conquered  by force centuries earlier.

But the horrific consequences of this deliberate neglect were soon too evident to ignore; and, perhaps mindful of his public statement that Irish people should not actually be allowed to starve to death, Trevelyan came up with a seemingly satisfactory solution: imports of ‘Indian corn’, a.k.a. maize. This was the ‘Trevelyan’s corn’ that Michael stole. But relief was above all not to be provided free of charge – for that would interfere with ‘free’ trade. Since the by now destitute people in the south and west of Ireland could not afford to pay for the expensive corn, they continued to starve, but a ‘solution’ that looked good on paper in London had been provided – and too bad for the ‘improvident’ Irish if they failed to take advantage of it. To make matters worse, not only could a crop like maize hardly thrive in Ireland’s damp, cold climate, but Irish people were completely unaccustomed to growing it, let alone cooking it – yet more ‘improvidence’, not to say ‘sloth’ (perhaps the fact that Trevelyan’s father was a clergyman played a part in such biblical condemnation of a whole starving people).

And when people like young Michael in The fields of Athenry resorted to theft, they were of course punished with the full force of the colonial law: life imprisonment on the other side of the world.

170 years ago, Trevelyan was doing in Ireland what Donald Trump is today trying to do in the United States: run a country like a business, and to hell with the impact on flesh-and-blood people. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now – unless you think mass suffering is an acceptable outcome of free-market capitalism, and the victims’ own fault.

I don’t, and nor should anyone with any kind of conscience – especially the ‘born-again Christian’ Republicans who tend to support the likes of Trump. But of course their main faith is in their own money.

Arabic Afrikaans

Since South Africa’s Dutch-based Afrikaans language inevitably became associated with the country’s white-supremacist apartheid regime, the idea that there was ever such a thing as ‘Arabic Afrikaans’ may seem like a contradiction in terms. Until recently I’d never even heard of it; but it most certainly did exist.

We now tend to think of South Africa as one of the world’s English-speaking countries. Although since the restoration of democracy with Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994 it has had no fewer than 11 official languages, 9 of them indigenous African (Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, etc.), the one that almost everyone knows well – and that serves as a bridge between its linguistic groups – is, almost inevitably in today’s world, English. But the first European colony established at the Cape of Good Hope (the ‘good hope’ being the fact that 15th-century ships had finally got as far south as they needed to in order to sail round Africa – still a largely unexplored void on the map – and could finally turn north-eastwards towards the ‘Indies’ with their spices and other riches) was a Dutch commercial enterprise; and Dutch was the language those first colonists spoke.

By 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck’s expedition made landfall in South Africa, the Dutch were already developing a lucrative colony in the East Indies (now Indonesia); and ships to and from the mother country still had to ’round the Cape’ on voyages that then lasted many weeks (it would take more than two centuries for the Suez Canal to be dug in Egypt, greatly reducing the duration and cost of travel between European countries and their colonies in Asia – see also my earlier post Merge or die). The staging-post at the Cape would allow the ships’ crews to recuperate, and stock up on fresh produce before travelling on. It was by then already known – although the medical reasons were not yet clear – that fresh fruit and vegetables (which turned out to contain vitamin C) were effective in preventing a deadly disease that had afflicted sailors for centuries – scurvy.

But as time went on – perhaps unintentionally? – the small Dutch colony expanded further inland. At first the settlers came into contact with the local Khoikhoi peoples (long known by the pejorative name Hottentots); but eventually they also ran into the black peoples who were simultaneously exploring the region from the north-east. For once, then, it was not a question of white people taking over lands already occupied by black people; instead, they both moved into South Africa from opposite directions at about the same time, subjugating the Khoikhoi and the San (long known by the hardly less pejorative name Bushmen) in the process.

But the Dutch were strict Protestant Christians, whose religion dictated that all non-white peoples were inferior, and hence could be oppressed with God’s full approval – and we cry out in horror at today’s Islamic fundamentalists! This they proceeded to do with pretty much everyone that crossed their path, enslaving those that submitted, and killing those that did not; and by the time of the French Revolution in 1789 they had established – with full backing from Amsterdam – a racist colony that extended far into the South African interior.

But just twenty years after Van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape, Holland’s fortunes began to change for the worse. In the rampjaar (‘year of disaster’, or annus horribilis) 1672 the ‘Dutch Golden Age’ effectively came to an end. Although in 1688 the Dutch king William managed to take over the English crown, his home country was entering a century of economic and military stagnation. And when Napoleon seized power in France and dispatched his armies to conquer the rest of Europe, Holland itself became a French colony, eventually ruled by the emperor’s own brother Louis – who valiantly tried to learn Dutch, but apparently described himself as the konijn (‘rabbit’) rather than the koning (‘king’) of his new realm.

The South African outpost was now officially governed from Paris; and when Napoleon’s empire collapsed in 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo, the British acquired the hitherto Dutch territory – for it was a no less useful staging-post on the way to Britain’s own lucrative colony in India (the Suez canal still lay more than 50 years in the future). Although Holland was now a self-governing monarchy, it did not have the power or funds to resist the takeover; and the new ‘Cape Colony’ became part of the still flourishing British empire.

And in 1834 a newly enlightened British government did something that horrified most of its Dutch-speaking subjects (who were still a majority at the Cape – British immigration had been encouraged, but had still never really taken off): it abolished slavery throughout its worldwide dominions, destroying the very foundations of the Dutch colonists’ way of life. Within a matter of years many of them ‘voted with their feet’, migrating further inland in their iconic ossewaens (‘ox wagons’) to areas beyond the reach of British rule, where they were to set up two Dutch-speaking republics of their own: Transvaal (‘beyond the River Vaal’) and the Orange Free State (named for the traditional orange colour of the Dutch monarchy).

But these states were no longer Dutch in the true sense of the term, for they were entirely self-governing; and, after many years out of touch with the distant ‘mother country’, even their language was evolving in a new direction. Dutch was still used for official purposes; but it was the Dutch that had been spoken and written back in the 17th century and could still be read in the hefty bibles they carried with them on the Groot Trek (‘Great Trek’), as the migration famously became known. What they themselves were by then speaking – and, increasingly, writing – was something more simplified. Noun genders disappeared; so did verb endings (as in English); and the number of verb tenses was reduced. Meanwhile, words were borrowed not only from the Malay spoken in the East Indies, but also from the Portuguese spoken in neighbouring colonies, and even from indigenous African languages (and eventually whole phrases would be copied from English). South African ‘Dutch’ was well on the way to becoming ‘Afrikaans’ – although it would take until 1925 for this to be recognised as one of South Africa’s two official languages, alongside English. Today, despite what is often claimed, spoken Dutch and Afrikaans are no longer mutually intelligible; and during the apartheid regime Dutch journalists invariably interviewed Afrikaner politicians in what was by then their best common language, English, and left such apartheid terms as ‘township’ and ‘banning’ in that language rather than use more direct Dutch translations of the Afrikaans equivalents lokasie and inperk.

In 1899, a decade after the discovery of vast gold reserves in Transvaal, the British empire determined to conquer the two refractory republics; and the bloody ‘Boer War’, in which the British distinguished themselves by imprisoning large numbers of Afrikaner women and children in some of the world’s first concentration camps (where tens of thousands died of ruthless neglect), left a deep scar in their opponents’ minds. In 1948 the Afrikaners got their revenge, with the election of the white-supremacist National Party (South Africa’s black majority had been denied the vote for decades, and once the ‘Nats’ took power the same happened to the mixed-race ‘Coloureds’) and the introduction of apartheid (literally ‘separateness’, which effectively meant that non-whites were denied full participation in society – with lower wages, substantially worse education and health care, and complete lack of political rights). In essence, restoration of the slavery which the British had abolished back in 1834 – and which, in the interests of ‘white harmony’, they had tacitly approved after annexing the two Afrikaner republics at the end of the Boer War in 1902.

Although the country was now officially bilingual, every one of South Africa’s presidents from 1948 to 1994 was a native Afrikaans-speaker, and so were most of their ministers; and the language inevitably became synonymous with racial oppression – perhaps another reason why Dutch journalists used English in their interviews. Indeed, what triggered the 1976 Soweto uprising – and ultimately the downfall of the regime two decades later – was the government’s foolish decision to impose Afrikaans-language education on the non-white population. Almost overnight, the Africans’ subservient Ja, baas (‘Yes, master’) became Nee, baas (‘No, master’).

Ironically, although Afrikaans is still widely spoken in South Africa, most of its speakers are nowadays not descendants of the original Dutch settlers (including some French Protestants who had fled an aggressively Catholic France for a more tolerant Holland and eventually emigrated to its distant colony – hence such typically Afrikaner surnames as Du Toit, Naudé and Theron, as well as the development of South African wine), but mixed-race coloured people.

And this brings us back to the curious phenomenon of ‘Arabic Afrikaans’. Many of the immigrants to South Africa had come from the Dutch East Indies; and their native language, Malay (today known in that part of the world as Bahasa Indonesia, ‘Indonesian’), was then often written in Arabic script, most of the population being Muslim. And so, by a curious process, a version of Afrikaans written in Arabic letters developed in the 19th century: Arabiese Afrikaans. It largely consisted of transliterated Afrikaans words, interspersed with Arabic and Indonesian ones – but all in Arabic script.

Of course, under the apartheid regime this aspect of the baas‘s language tended to be played down, for it did not sit easily with the regime’s still strongly Protestant Christian ethos. But the fact remains that Afrikaans is far less a European, ‘Christian’ language – and far more an African/Asian, ‘Islamic’ one – than might at first be thought. It’s certainly no longer Dutch.

 

Special relationship

In preparation for another month-long trip to Slovenia I’m re-reading Nismo angeli (‘We’re no angels’, published in Ljubljana by Mladina in 2003), a collection of newspaper columns by the respected Slovenian political commentator Jurij Gustinčič (who, as I now discover, died in my usual coastal haunt, Piran, just three years ago, at the ripe old age of 92).

The columns were written over an eight-year period, from 1995 (a year before Slovenia signed an agreement with the European Union in preparation for membership) to 2003 (a year before Slovenia joined the Union). Not surprisingly, Gustinčič wrote many columns on what membership might mean to Slovenia; and one part of the collection is entitled Europe: what it is and what it isn’t. Although sceptical about whether joining the EU was a good idea, he eventually decided that Europe is the lesser evil – the title of the first column (written in 1995) in that section of the book. A year later, however, he wrote another one called Patriotism during and after the Olympics (the much-criticised Atlanta games had just ended), in which he questioned whether people from European countries did in fact feel European, and basically concluded that they did not, particularly when it came to sport:

Everyone likes the idea of a united Europe; but the medals have to be French, German, Belgian … In my day I observed ‘European patriotism’ in America [where the author worked for many years as a correspondent for a leading Yugoslav newspaper]. There it emerged instantly. If people from several European countries happened to meet somewhere in the Middle or Far West, there was no end to the hugs and cries of enthusiasm about how exceptional Europe was. There, and only there, were we proud of being Europeans.

As soon as we board different planes and fly off to different European countries, this shared patriotism vanishes.

Would we be willing to join forces in competing with America for medals? If we were, Europe would win more golds. But we aren’t willing to do that … Will all that really change tomorrow?

Someone has announced that in future there will no longer be any national basketball teams. A European league with impersonal ‘dream teams’. How awful!

The columnist then went on to criticise the ugly outbursts of American chauvinism that had marred the Atlanta Olympics (for instance, during a match against US star André Agassi the Indian tennis player Leander Paes was loudly applauded whenever he made an error).

Although I agree with much of what the perceptive Gustinčič wrote, I cannot accept his out-of-hand dismissal of the idea and existence of European patriotism. I do feel European; and when I travel to other parts of the continent I have a sense that I am visiting other regions of my own homeland (indeed, since the Brexit vote I have found that this feeling now fades when I cross the Channel). And there is at least one very good example of cooperation between European countries in the field of sport: the Ryder Cup.

Although there is considerable evidence that an early form of golf was being played here in Holland back in the 13th century, the modern game is generally held to have developed in Scotland; and it was from Britain that it spread to the rest of the world, including the United States. In 1927 the first official Ryder Cup tournament (named after its main sponsor, a British businessman) was played between teams from the UK and the US. Every two years the venue of the Ryder Cup alternated between the two countries; and at first they were fairly evenly matched. But after the Second World War the Americans began to predominate so strongly that there was no longer any real competition; and in the first 50 years of the tournament the British team (which had also included Irish golfers from the 1950s onwards) won just three times, as against 18 American victories (with one tie). The whole thing was becoming an embarrassment (I’m reminded here of the footballer Gary Lineker’s hilarious self-deprecating quip during the 1990 World Cup, just after the English team had lost to Germany: ‘Football is a simple game – 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end the Germans win’).

So in 1977 the US golf star Jack Nicklaus suggested to the head of the British professional golf association that it might be a better idea to field a pan-European team that included golfers from continental Europe. Young German, Spanish, Scandinavian and other European players were already making a name for themselves; and despite the embarrassing admission that their golfers were simply no longer a match for their American rivals, the Brits bowed to the inevitable. Competition immediately hotted up; and since 1979 the Europeans have won no fewer than 10 times, as against 8 for America (again with one tie). Far from dying out for lack of interest – as must have seemed likely by 1977 – the Ryder Cup has regained its former popularity, as has the game in general; and it is a shining example of what Europeans can do if they work together.

Perhaps this could only have been achieved in such a traditionally ‘gentlemanly’ sport as golf, in which, moreover, individual players rather than whole teams are pitted against each other and the spectators as well as the players tend to be quiet and well-behaved. It’s hard to imagine such international cooperation in football, where chauvinism reigns supreme and the spectators, as well as some of the players, are noisy and often very badly-behaved.

But another example of international cooperation can be found, on a much smaller scale, in tennis. Although there have been occasional bursts of chauvinism, for instance around Britain’s new star and international champion Andy Murray (though this may be because British players had for many years failed to win a single major tournament!), tennis fans the world over seem perfectly happy to support players from other countries and simply admire their skill at the game; good recent examples are Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Germany’s Steffi Graf (back in the 1950s and 1960s my mother was particularly fond of the Brazilian star Maria Bueno, and later Australia’s Evonne Goolagong). And when it comes to doubles (men’s, women’s and mixed), players from different countries have been teaming up – and, yes, winning tournaments! – for almost a century: America’s Bill Tilden and South Africa’s Brian Norton in 1923, Spain’s Lilí Álvarez and Holland’s Kornelia Bouman in 1929, France’s Suzanne Lenglen and Australia’s Gerald Patterson in 1920.

What made the Brits agree to Jack Nicklaus’s suggestion about working with continental Europeans for the sake of the game? Partly, of course, the humiliation of realising that they had long ceased to be the masters of a sport they had launched upon the world; but perhaps also – dare I hope this? – a sense that working with others is better than working against them.

In 1977 it was just four years since the UK had joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the EU, and just two since support for its membership had been confirmed in a national referendum; and Margaret Thatcher, with her essentially chauvinistic political agenda, would not come to power for another two years. A brief window of opportunity in which the advantages of European cooperation had already been glimpsed, and the supposed disadvantages of ‘lost national sovereignty’ had not yet been exploited by populist politicians to further their own careers.

Will British golfers still be able to compete in the Ryder Cup after Brexit? Presumably so, since the tournament was expanded to include players from ‘continental Europe’ (although not, at the time, the still Soviet-dominated countries behind the ‘Iron Curtain’); the first tournament between the US and ‘Europe’ included the two Spanish players Severiano Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido, and Spain would not join the EEC for another seven years. So membership of the EU will presumably not be a criterion for membership of the European Ryder Cup team.

However, there will be something incongruous about Britain withdrawing from European cooperation on the one hand, yet proceeding with it on the other; and there will surely be more such incongruities, for in the end there is nowhere else for Britain to go. Whatever Theresa May might like to pretend, and Donald Trump might like to trumpet when he’s in that particular mood, the US and the rest of the world are nowadays only interested in Britain as a gateway to the EU. If – or rather, when – it ceases to be one, they will look around for alternatives, of which there are now plenty.

Like Britain’s former mastery of golf, the ‘special relationship’ is long gone.

Codes and cables

Reading Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War, one of the leading English-language books on the eponymous conflict in South Africa from 1899 to 1902, I’m struck by the fact that during the war telegrams and coded messages were regularly being sent not only within South Africa, but also by undersea cable between South Africa and Britain.

Computers as we know them did not yet exist, let alone the Internet, and ‘wireless’ (radio) telegraphy was still in its infancy – the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s system had only been around since 1894, and was not patented until after the war had begun. But cable telegraphy had been invented back in the early 19th century, along with Samuel Morse’s dash-and-dot ‘code’. This was not a code in the true sense, for it was easy to learn, widely published and hence not secret – indeed, it was intended to be read by as many people as possible (by 1861 the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA were linked by Morse telegraph, eliminating the need for the Pony Express horseback mail system). But the speed of the system revolutionised military communications by allowing orders and other vital information to be transmitted over increasingly long distances – not instantly, as the cables and wires could at first only cope with a limited amount of traffic, but in any case far faster than ever before. A practised Morse operator could send messages at speeds of 20 words or more a minute.

The electric-powered telegraph was already in use during the Crimean War (fought in southern Russia in the mid-1850s), and by the time the Boer War broke out nearly half a century later it was standard practice to link up South African towns and military positions with telegraph wires. These were of course vulnerable to enemy attack, for they were mounted on highly visible poles; and the famous siege of Ladysmith in the British colony of Natal began when Boer forces cut its telegraph links to the rest of South Africa, and to Britain (whereas the Boers’ own links to the Transvaal government in Pretoria remained intact for most of the war). The wires were also vulnerable to tapping; and at one point quite late in the war Boer telegraph operators were able to listen in to Morse messages that revealed much of their enemy’s strategy (it seems the possibility of the wires being tapped had not occurred to anyone in the British high command, so the messages were not even in code – real code, as opposed to Morse).

The purpose of real codes has always been to keep key information secret by presenting it in a form that – if all is well – only the sender and the recipient can understand. It is not known exactly when code systems were first invented; but they essentially depended on writing systems, which are believed to have first developed around 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait, more or less). Like Morse code, writing systems were meant to be widely understood; whereas code systems were meant to be secret, and so warfare came to depend on them.

Until quite recently codes simply involved taking the letters of the ‘plain’ message and converting them into different letters (or numbers, or both). This was not always simply one-for-one: as early the 16th century an Italian called Giambattista della Porta came up with a coding system based on pairs of letters, which were turned into series of numbers that recipients could only decode if they knew the key (and this could be changed as required, as long as the people who needed to know were kept informed). Variations on this theme continued to be developed, and during the Boer War the British army was using a similar system named after the Lord Playfair who popularised it. The pairing system made the code far harder to ‘break’, for it was almost invulnerable to one of code-breakers’ classic tricks: frequency analysis.

Every language with a relatively small number of letters (such as those written in Latin script) has a known frequency for each of the letters. In English, for instance, the most frequently used letter is E: in this sentence it occurs 15 times in the space of 114 letters (13% of the total). The frequency of letters can also be seen from the ‘letter score’ in the English version of the board game Scrabble – E, like the other five vowels and the letters L, N, R, S and T, scores just 1 point, whereas the far less frequent letters Q and Z score 10 points each (in other languages the letter scores are different: in Basque and Breton Scrabble the far more frequent Z scores just 4 points, and there is no Q at all, since that letter does not occur natively in either language).

A one-to-one coding system can thus easily be broken by frequency analysis – especially if the system makes the elementary mistake of presenting the encoded words in the same groupings and order as the ‘plain’ words. If, for example, the English word TREE – which contains three of the most frequently occurring letters in the language, all with Scrabble scores of 1 – also appears as a four-letter group (say AZKK) – it should not take the code-breaker very long to work out that A = T, that Z = R and that K = E. This can then be applied to other groups of letters: AFKZK = T-ERE (almost certainly THERE), then we can work out the meaning of AFKJAZK = THE-TRE (quite definitely THEATRE), and so on. If key military words like TARGET (which includes 5 of the 6 letters in THEATRE), REGIMENT and CASUALTIES can be identified in this way, it is only a matter of time before the whole code is broken; and as long as the enemy still thinks it is secure, you can continue to read the messages at your leisure.

Modern coding systems have therefore long ceased to rely on one-to-one transposition of letters and words. Another coding trick is to write the message in, say, a specified number of rows and columns (left to right, then on to the next row), but change the order of the letters according to a secretly agreed system (such as going down the first column and up the next one, then back down the next, and so on). Take the message ABOUT TO ATTACK EAST TRENCHES (which can easily be read without spaces between the words):

A  B  O  U  T

T  O  A  T  T

A  C  K  E  A

S  T  T  R  E

N  C  H  E  S

 

If you read down the first column, up the next and so on, then write the letters out in new horizontal blocks of five, you get:

A  T  A  S  N

C  T  C  O  B

O  A  K  T  H

E  R  E  T  U

T  T  A  E  S

 

You can also, to take just one example, spiral downwards from the top right-hand corner (T) of the ‘plain’ message and on round the block until there are no letters left, and present all that in blocks of five letters – the last one will then be K (I’ll leave you to work it out).

But of course even these are tried-and-tested methods which code-breakers are perfectly familiar with; and although it takes a bit longer, experts can eventually work it out. Of course, if the messages are written in a foreign language (and encoded on that basis) you’ll need someone with a very good knowledge of the language concerned to help you work it all out.

Which is why both the American and British armed forces have increasingly used native speakers of less widely spoken languages such as Navajo, Comanche, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic to encrypt their communications. It seems that Welsh-speaking British soldiers were called on to perform this linguistic service over the radio as recently as the war in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But back to cables. From the mid-19th century onwards, telegraph cables were laid on the ocean floor by specially equipped vessels; and as early as 1872 Australasia became the last inhabited continent to be connected to the rest of the world by telegraph, with a link from Darwin in northern Australia to the island of Java in the then Dutch East Indies (though it would take until 1902 for Australia to be linked to Canada by a trans-Pacific link that completed the global circle). In any case, throughout the Boer War urgent telegrams could be freely and rapidly sent back and forth between Cape Town and London.

And, unlike overland wires and cables, submarine ones could not (yet) be tapped – being under water, they were well out of reach. So all the world’s leading military powers took good care to have their own international cable networks – Germany’s, for instance, ran to France, Spain and the mid-Atlantic Azores islands, and from there to the USA and the rest of the Americas.

And when the First World War broke out and Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the very first thing the British Admiralty did was send out a ship to drag up all five of the Germans’ international submarine cables from the bottom of the sea and cut them – leaving Germany dependent on the by now well-developed radio communications (Marconi’s invention had won him the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909). But the problem with radio messages was that they were freely accessible on the airwaves, and could be intercepted. In a matter of weeks the Admiralty had set up a secret radio interception unit known as ‘Room 40’.

Of course, intercepting Germany’s transoceanic military messages required a good knowledge not only of the German language, but above all of the three German military and naval codes: the Imperial Navy codebook Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine (SKM), the commercial Handelsschiffsverkehrsbuch (HVB) used by the German submarines (U-boats) that sought to blockade Britain’s trans-Atlantic trade routes and food supplies, as well as the Zeppelin airships that were soon bombing London, and the Verkehrsbuch (VB), used to communicate with warships and embassies abroad. These codes were not easy to break, but by astonishing strokes of luck all three codebooks very soon fell into British hands: (1) a month after the outbreak of war a German cruiser carrying a copy of the SKM ran aground in Estonia, then still part of Russia, which was allied with Britain and France; the codebook was seized and immediately passed on to London; (2) two months later the Australian Royal Navy (Australia was of course allied with Britain) boarded an Australian-German steamer that was carrying a copy of the HVB, and also passed it on to London; and (3) a month after that a British trawler recovered from a sunk German destroyer a safe that just happened to contain an intact copy of the VB. So by Christmas 1914, just three months into the war, Room 40 had copies of all three codebooks, which it of course put to good use in intercepting German radio traffic. Throughout the war the Germans had no idea this was happening.

The most significant intercepted message was the ‘Zimmermann telegram’, in which Germany’s foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann attempted to draw Mexico into the war on the German side by encouraging the country to invade the USA and, with luck, recover its ‘lost’ territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Hardly believing its luck, Room 40 gleefully released the intercepted information to the US government just when President Woodrow Wilson was struggling to persuade his still reluctant compatriots that intervention on the side of the Allies was both politically and morally desirable.

Germany’s implicit threat of war against the USA is widely believed to have tipped the scales in favour of American intervention, and hence to have helped the Allies win the war. Every effort was made to conceal the source of the information, for Room 40 did not want the Germans to realise it had been reading their radio traffic for the past three years; and even now the Berlin government did not grasp what had happened.

After the First World War countries began to develop primitive computers which, it was hoped, would withstand traditional code-breaking methods. In the 1920s Germany produced the famous Enigma machine, which it continued to use up to and throughout the Second World War. However, using information supplied by a French spy in the Germany military, Polish cryptologists very soon managed not only to discover how the machine worked, but also to build an Enigma machine of their own. In 1939, shortly before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, British and French intelligence officers were taught the secrets of Enigma by their Polish counterparts, and provided with one of the Polish replicas; and within a year Alan Turing and other British cryptologists at the modern equivalent of Room 40, a country house in south-east England called Bletchley Park, had begun to break the German codes. Once again, the Germans had no idea, and crucial messages were intercepted throughout the war. For more on how the Enigma code was broken, as well as Alan Turing’s sad life, see my early post AMT: a man tormented (1).

How things have changed since then. Not only is today’s world riddled with cables and wires, but we now have a completely ‘wireless’ system of communication, the Internet, all of it vulnerable to interception and distortion not only by the military but even by civilians – from teenage ‘hackers’ wrecking vital communications from the safety of their bedrooms to hostile governments (above all Putin’s Russians, who are the only ones to deny it, so we can safely assume the accusations are true) seeking to disrupt other countries’ elections and social systems in their favour.

Today’s computers have made traditional coding systems obsolete, and all cable systems, whether on land, below the sea or in the atmosphere, have ceased to be secret and reliable – as the recent privacy-raping shenanigans by the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which they no longer even try to deny, have made only too clear. The problems of coding have entered our everyday lives via the Internet, for more and more organisations require us to make up ‘passwords’ just to gain access to our own medical files or bank accounts; and if the passwords we make up are simple enough for us to remember but not sufficiently complicated to be ‘secure’, they’re rejected – as if it’s our fault.

Not the kind of world I ever wanted to live in – but we aren’t being given a choice in the matter.

Of fifth eggs, and recycled fire engines

When I worked for the United Nations in Geneva (and was in far better condition that I am now!) I learned one of the very few sports I’ve ever enjoyed: skiing. The UN had its own skiing club, and from November to April of each year we could spend our weekends (if we so chose) above the blanket of grey cloud that settled permanently on the city in winter, amid brilliant blue skies and dazzlingly snow-capped mountains. There were literally dozens of places to ski within an hour or two’s drive, either in Switzerland or in France (these were often closer, and always cheaper). During the Easter holidays we could even spend a whole week away in some more distant place where the mountains were high enough still to have plenty of snow; and one year we flew to Málaga in Spain to ski in the Sierra Nevada (Western Europe’s second-highest mountains after the Alps, and close enough to North Africa for us to pick out the Atlas mountains in the heat haze on the far side of the Straits of Gibraltar).

One of the odd things I still remember about the trip was sitting in a ‘gondola’ lift and hearing a friend say with a malicious grin ‘You know these are the fifth eggs?’ Because of their shape, the gondolas were nicknamed les œufs in French (‘the eggs’, obviously a far more suitable name, which Geneva’s English-speakers borrowed). But ‘fifth’ had me puzzled – so, still grinning, the friend ‘explained’ ‘Well, when the Swiss have finished with them they sell them to the Germans, who sell them to the French, who sell them to the Italians, who sell them to the Spaniards – so these are the fifth eggs!’ It’s hard to imagine a greater collection of racist stereotypes in a single sentence (my friend was British), but the implications were clear: the Swiss were only satisfied with the acme of technology and safety, the Germans were rather less fussy (and their own brand-new gondolas were more expensive but still less safe than the Swiss hand-me-downs), and so on down the line to the devil-may-care, technologically incompetent and impoverished Spaniards, supposedly happy to make do with everybody else’s rejects. This was in fact a gross calumny, for the skiing installations at the Sol y Nieve (‘Sun and Snow’) resort were perfectly good, though perhaps not quite as gleaming as their equivalents in Verbier or Zermatt. But we laughed anyway – so much for any idea that working in a multilingual international environment cures you of your prejudices.

But what puts me in mind of all this is the recent proliferation here in Holland – and perhaps elsewhere? – of strangely shaped, old-fashioned road vehicles, usually painted bright red or cream, and now used as campervans reminiscent of Britain’s Dormobiles and Germany’s Volkwagen Westfalia Campers, or simply for transporting bulky loads. The colours are significant – most of them still bear their original German lettering, which identifies them as former fire engines/trucks (the red ones) or ambulances (the cream ones).

It’s just possible that the vehicles were still in service throughout Germany until some years ago before being sold to their new Dutch owners; but their remarkably old-fashioned appearance makes this unlikely (high-tech Germany would surely have replaced them decades ago). What I think has happened is this: they were still in service in a particular part of Germany, and have only recently been phased out there. I’m talking, of course, about ‘East Germany’: the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), which was only united with its wealthier neighbour a quarter of a century ago, and where it has presumably taken the firefighting and ambulance services a long time, at great cost, to catch up with their Western counterparts.

Since the GDR was reputed to be the technologically most advanced country in the former Eastern bloc, I did briefly wonder if such vehicles were still being used even there; but a Google search has unearthed a German publication called Feuerwehr- und Rettungsfahrzeuge der DDR, 1945-1989 (‘Firefighting and rescue vehicles in the GDR, 1945-1989’) – and it’s full of the very kind of vehicles I now see so many of on Dutch roads. All credit to author Dieter Nase and the Stuttgart publishers Schrader Verlag for producing this gem back in 1998.

No idea if it was Dutch people who first thought of buying up the obsolete fire engines and ambulances for use as campervans-with-a-difference, or the firefighting and health services in the former GDR that decided to make much-needed money by selling them off outside Germany (they could presumably not be used on German roads in case they were mistaken, if only momentarily, for the real thing); but it’s a wonderful way to recycle vehicles which, although still perfectly roadworthy, are no longer deemed suitable for their original use. Perhaps one of the conditions of sale is that the former lettering and colour are preserved; and perhaps they are mainly sold in countries (such as Holland) where people can easily read German and see what they were once used for. The lettering is invariably in German, whereas I’m sure there’s no shortage of Czechoslovak, Polish and Hungarian equivalents – but hardly anyone here could understand the words.

There’s something amusing about the idea of getting into one of them and being told by the driver ‘You know this used to be an East German fire engine?’ And it’s a nice twist on the ‘fifth eggs’ story – for not only is it founded in fact, but it’s an example of how supposedly obsolete things can still be put to good use, rather than end up on a scrap heap.

The times they have been a-changing

Re-reading two books by famous British thriller writers from the 1960s, Gavin Lyall’s Midnight plus one and Len Deighton’s Only when I larf (the correct spelling – an ironic twist on laugh, since there’s little in the book to laugh about), I’m struck by just how much has changed in the course of my life. Take phones.

The telephone was invented back in 1876 – that’s over 140 years ago – by a Scottish-American engineer whose mother and wife were both deaf. Alexander Graham Bell had been experimenting with a system of ‘visible speech’ (first developed in a primitive form by his father) which he hoped would help integrate deaf people into the rest of society – and spare hearing people the trouble of having to adapt to them. Although sign languages had started to be systematised in the 18th century, first in France and later elsewhere, 19th-century worshippers of technological progress looked forward to a time when deaf people would no longer have to rely on what was often ignorantly dismissed as mere ‘mime’ (whereas sign languages are now acknowledged to be full-fledged languages with grammars of their own). Unfortunately, the main, almost accidental result of Bell’s endeavours was the telephone – which over the following decades would create a society that was increasingly dependent on long-distance transmission of sound. To be sure, it took until the late 20th century for telephones to be almost ubiquitous in people’s homes (when I was a child in the 1950s quite a few of our neighbours were not ‘on the phone’, and phone numbers were still short, reflecting just how few of them there actually were); but as more and more jobs required access to the new device, and the ability to use it, more and more jobs became automatically closed to people with hearing loss. One story by a deaf author wrote of someone driving all the way across town to visit a friend who might or might not turn out to be at home, and passing dozens of telephone boxes (which were of course of no use to him) on the way. It would take until the 1960s for the first telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDDs) or teletypewriters (TTYs) to be invented, finally enabling deaf people to communicate over long distances (though the machines were bulky, generally unavailable outside the home, and dependent on a good knowledge of the written language); and only the spread of e-mail from the 1990s onwards allowed deaf people to communicate not just with other deaf people, but also with hearing ones. Today the advent of the smartphone has made all that obsolete, for deaf people can now even see each other over long distances, and so communicate in the way that comes most naturally to them: sign. But it’s taken us well over a century to get there.

When Lyall’s book was written back in 1965, the plot depended on a good deal of long-distance phoning, including across national borders – something that had only recently become possible without going through a switchboard operator (or even booking calls hours in advance), thanks to the then brand-new ‘direct dialling’ system. In these days of smartphones and e-mail, at least younger readers must be surprised to see sentences such as this (the underlining is mine):

Look up this place [in the Michelin Guide] and find me the post office – I want to ring Merlin [another character], if there’s a phone box there.’

‘This place’ was the town of Vannes, in north-west France – hardly a metropolis (it still only has a population of 50,000), but the idea that there might not be a phone box at the post office (in those days the French postal, telephone and telegraph services were jointly run by a single state agency called the PTT) makes clear that the availability of telephones could not be taken for granted even by the mid-1960s in one of Europe’s most prosperous countries. And later we read:

He nodded at the roadside. ‘[The village] has got four phone lines. It could have a gendarme too.’

I had to stop and think for a moment what the character had been nodding at, and what it had told him. Then I remembered that in those days the signs announcing your arrival in French villages and smaller towns included details of how many phone lines they had. Not only were there often just a handful (as in this case), but it was also taken for granted that travellers could make use of them if they needed to (which was why the information was provided in the first place) – for outside the larger towns they were evidently still a rarity. And I daresay the information even served to advertise how ‘modern’ the village or town already was – look, we have phones here!

But perhaps the most telling detail on the scarcity of phones just 50 years ago is this:

We’ve got to take a train now. If he follows us on, at least he won’t be doing any telephoning.’

As the previous quote shows, the characters were being chased by the French police – and the ‘he’ in this case was a Sûreté Nationale detective who had pursued them all the way into Switzerland (where they were wondering whether to continue their journey by train, their car having been damaged beyond repair in a gunfight back in France). In other words, even an elite police officer had no means of communicating with his colleagues while he was on a train, something almost inconceivable in today’s world, when our train journeys are so often punctuated by fellow passengers calling people to say ‘I’m on the train’ – to which I sometimes wish the rest of us would respond with a loud chorus of ‘And don’t we know it!’ Nor, it seems, did the detective have a walkie-talkie or other radio link – at least, not one that would work over even such relatively short distances as from French-speaking western Switzerland to France.

But now for another big change. What do the initials LSD mean to you? First another  quote, this time from the Deighton book, which was published in 1968 (again the underlining is mine):

Give me ten bob and [the diamond ring] is yours… Seven and a tanner – I need it, son’… I gave [him] three half crowns… He shuffled back into the [pub] and I knew the seven and six would be gone inside five minutes.

Clearly the underlined references are to money – but how much, and in which currency? To simplify things, note that the last three (seven and a tanner, three half crowns and seven and six) are all the same amount, and that they are three quarters of the first one (ten bob). The currency was Britain’s pound sterling. But when I was in London last month I was amazed to meet a young, local-born barman who had no idea what any of these expressions meant. And to him the initials LSD could mean only one thing: the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide, known for short as ‘acid’. But a middle-aged British woman at the other end of the bar did know its other meaning, and smiled at me gratefully. To his credit, the barman was fascinated by this to him unknown part of his country’s history, and assured me he would check it all out on the Internet.

By the time Deighton’s book was published, plans were already well advanced for a radical change to the UK’s monetary system. Ever since the early 19th century there had been proposals to ‘decimalise’ British currency, but these had repeatedly been rejected – and so in the late 1960s Britain still had a ridiculously complicated three-tier system in which the pound was divided into twenty shillings, which were in turn divided into twelve pennies (‘pence’). So, whereas most other countries now had a two-tier decimal system in which the subunits were one hundredth of the main unit – 100 centimes to a franc, 100 cents to a dollar, 100 kopeks to a ruble and so on, Britain had one based on 20 x 12 = 240 subunits. To complicate matters still further, there were also half-pennies (colloquially known as ‘ha’pennies’, with the ‘a’ pronounced as in ‘pay’), worth one 480th of a pound; and until 1961, when I was nine years old, there had even been quarter-penny coins called ‘farthings’ (with ‘th’ pronounced as in ‘other’), worth just one 960th of a pound! I still remember seeing them with their characteristic picture of a wren on the reverse, and being able to buy a small amount of sweets with one.

Although Brits were perfectly used to this system, it was thoroughly confusing to Britain’s many foreign visitors, and made currency conversions unnecessarily difficult. Prices were quoted in three parts, separated by the oblique strokes nowadays known as ‘slashes’: for instance £5/10/6, read as ‘five pounds, ten shillings and six pence’, or colloquially ‘five pounds ten and six’ (often with ‘pounds’ reduced to ‘pound’, a survival from older forms of English). So the ‘seven and six’ in the quote from the Deighton book meant ‘seven shillings and six pence’; and the six-penny coin was colloquially known as a ‘tanner’, so ‘seven and a tanner’ in the same quote meant the same amount.

More than any other country, Britain seems to have delighted in giving its coins special names, some of them official, others more slangy – the only real exception being the penny coin (but even that was sometimes referred to as a ‘copper’, after the main metal used to mint it). We’ve already seen the ‘farthing’ and the ‘ha’penny’; but it didn’t stop there. The fact that the shilling was divided into 12 rather than 10 subunits meant it was natural to have three- and six-penny coins: the former, a thick, twelve-sided brass coin, was called the ‘three-penny bit’ (with ‘three-penny’ invariably pronounced as ‘thruppenny’, just as the amount of two pence was called ‘tuppence’), and the latter, a small, thin, silver-coloured coin, was a ‘sixpence’ (with the stress on ‘six’) or a ‘tanner’ – it was so very small that highly manoeuvrable cars, such as the traditional black London taxis, were described as being able to ‘turn on a sixpence’. The next coin up, the shilling, was colloquially a ‘bob’ – hence ‘ten bob’ in the above quote (‘bob’ always remained in the singular). There was also an annual ‘bob-a-job week’ in which children (mainly boy scouts) were encouraged to earn small amounts of money by doing menial tasks for their neighbours, such as watering the garden or walking the dog, originally with a shilling (‘bob’) as payment: ‘a bob a job’.

Next came the two-shilling coin, for some reason officially known as a ‘florin’, an older name of Holland’s pre-euro currency the gulden (in English, guilder), which is why the Dutch abbreviation for the currency was f; but, further up, the system got more complicated still. Just as the shilling was divided into quarters (the thruppenny bit and the sixpence), so was the pound; but this involved dividing up 20 subunits rather than 12. The obvious subdivisions were 5 and 10 shillings; and there was indeed a 10-shilling note (in the 1960s the amount was still substantial enough to warrant a paper note rather than a metal coin, and the pound was then still paper). At one point there had also been a 5-shilling coin, which again had a special name: the ‘crown’. But for some reason this was taken out of circulation back in the 19th century, and replaced by a large, heavy coin worth half its value (two shillings and six pence), officially known as a ‘half crown’ (whereas the original ‘crown’ had disappeared). So, in the above quote, ‘three half crowns’ stood for the same amount as ‘seven and six’ and ‘seven and a tanner’: 3 x 2/6 = 7/6.

On the eve of ‘Decimal Day’ (15 February 1971), there were thus no fewer than eight different subdivisions of the 240-pence pound: in descending order the 10-shilling note, and the half crown, florin, shilling, sixpence, thruppenny bit, penny and ha’penny coins (nine if you include the recently defunct farthing).

The sudden switch to a 100-pence pound, and the disappearance of the intermediate shilling tier, were obviously far-reaching changes – and, as usual, older people had great problems dealing with them. A public information film at the time, showing a young boy explaining the new system to his grandmother, was cleverly entitled Granny gets the point (the former ‘slashes’, as in £5/10/6, were to be replaced by a single decimal point). Perhaps today it would be a young girl explaining the system to her grandfather, or two grandchildren, a girl and a boy, explaining it to both their grandparents; but society had not yet progressed quite that far.

None of the names in the quote from the Deighton book would be used again – no more ‘ten bob’ or ‘seven and six’, no more ‘tanners’ or ‘half crowns’. The name ‘pound’ was retained, and so was ‘penny’ (plural ‘pence’), whereas they had been replaced by the American ‘dollar’ and ‘cent’ when Australia and New Zealand switched to decimal currency some years early; but all the rest vanished, and no colloquial names have emerged for any of the new subunits in the 45 years since the changeover.

Which brings us back to LSD. Among its other quaintnesses, Britain’s old monetary system had inherited ancient Latin names for notes and coins: librasolidus and denarius, corresponding to the pound, shilling and penny respectively. Hence the former abbreviations L, s and d (the full Latin words were never used). 7/6 (‘seven and six’) could thus also be written as 7s. 6d. The L of libra appeared in the ornate form £, which has survived to this day (though the young barman I met had no idea where it came from – to him it was just a random symbol that still appeared on modern British banknotes, and on the chalked price list behind the bar). And LSD was a common British colloquialism for ‘money’ in general – but once again the barman had never heard of it, and only knew about the drug.

To emphasise the change, the confusing old abbreviation d. for ‘penny’ and ‘pence’ (s. for ‘shilling’ was no longer needed) was replaced in 1971 by the more logical p. – and people soon began to use this letter to refer to the new coins (pronounced as ’50 pee’, ’10 pee’ and so on).

However, high inflation in the years following Decimal Day would lead to constant changes in the system, above all the sizes of the coins (which soon ended up being worth more than their face value as pieces of metal). At first there was a new ha’penny coin, worth 2.4 times the old one; but it rapidly declined in value, and this, together with the inconvenience of including a ½ in the otherwise neat-looking decimal prices (the new equivalent of £5/10/6 was £5.52½), led to its withdrawal from circulation as early as 1984. The small 1p and 2p coins have survived virtually unaltered; but the other three (for there are now only five remaining subdivisions of the pound) have not.

At first the 5p and 10p coins were deliberately designed to be exactly the same size and weight as the 1s. and 2s. coins they had replaced. This was because shillings and florins had been used for decades to ‘feed’ millions of household gas and electricity meters (the money was collected by ‘meter readers’ who regularly visited homes, and ‘have you got a shilling for the meter?’ was a frequent question in mid-20th-century Britain); redesigning the frankly antiquated apparatus to deal with two completely new coins would therefore have been immensely costly. But coin-fed meters were gradually phased out, allowing the two increasingly worthless coins to be substantially reduced in size (the present 5p coin is slightly smaller than the already tiny old sixpence). Much the same happened to the seven-sided 50p coin that had replaced the 10s. note at the very start of the changeover (which got underway in stages, from 1969 onwards). Finally, the £1 note was replaced by a coin, and new £2 coin was introduced.

The shift to coins appears to have stopped for the time being; the long-established £5 note was recently replaced by a smaller and more durable polyester version, and other paper money is scheduled to become polyester rather than metal in the years to come.

But rapid inflation was to continue in the years after the two books were first written. The editions I have been reading – there have been many reprints, a sure sign of success – were published in 1973 (Lyall) and 1985 (Deighton), and there may have been many more since. They are both paperback, are both more or less the same length (222 and 251 pages), are both printed in a similar typeface, and both deal with similar popular themes – so you would expect them to have cost much the same in any given year.

The prices are clearly printed on the covers of both editions. Lyall’s 1973 edition cost 30p; Deighton’s 1985 edition cost £2.25. That’s a more than sevenfold increase in the space of just 12 years. Not exactly hyperinflation, but still quite enough to frighten the British public back then (see my earlier post Money down the drain? Maybe not), and almost certainly a contributing factor to Margaret Thatcher’s election victories from 1979 onwards, since she promised greater economic stability and prosperity – while neglecting to tell voters that her policies could only benefit the already rich, whose increased wealth would never in a month of Sundays ‘trickle down’ to the rest of society (as she and her American crony Ronald Reagan swore it would).

As both of them knew (or should have known) full well, wealth tends to stay exactly where it is, and if anything trickles up rather than down.