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The times they have been a-changing

17/08/2017

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 a 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.

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