Friday, 18 January 2008

Real floods, real money and real trouble coming

Sarah Hall's dystopian novel The Carhullan Army has just won the John Rhys Llewellyn Prize and its plot is starting to unfold. The waters are starting to rise. The heavens have opened yet again and the flood meadows around my small fen town have become a peaceful lake, punctuated by the odd tree and swan. I have had to take detours as roads are flooded, Ely is denied me, except by a roundabout route. The ditch gouged out of the meadows to help the eels is submerged and no doubt the eels are busy swimming across the fields. The winter world is fast becoming not one of snow and ice but rain and floods. I have looked into the face of global warming and seen the fens returning to marshland, the dykes becoming an old archaeology to be explored by divers in the future. My resolution about water did not mean this.

As per another resolution I went to pay the paper bill yesterday and the Huckleberry Hound newsagent behind the counter was somewhat mystified. “You only paid last week.”. “Yes I know” I replied, “ but I’m trying to keep up”. “Keep up?”. “ “Keep up with the payments so I don’t get behind and then discover that The Guardian and the TLS cost a fortune if you let it slip.” “The Sun can mount up too, if you let it, debt is no respecter of readership.” He responded gloomily, circling my account in his big black book with a red biro. “The pensioners used to pay when they came into get their pensions on Thursday and the Mums paid when they got their Family Allowance but people are having it paid straight into their bank account these days. Stamps and parcels seem to be the only reason these days why people come in, that’s why they forget to pay their paper bills, it’s a special trip in for them." The newsagent's shop, I should point out, for those that haven’t yet twigged, is also a sub post office. He carried on circling my payment in the book for the third time , as if to ensure this momentous moment of promp payment should not be forgotten, "My wife misses the little chats she used to have with people when they came and got their money but it’s a no cash world these days.” I gave him a real fiver and he seemed almost pleased.

Money is becoming more and more virtual is seems, payment by credit card, direct debits, standing orders, switch cards, pay pal. I note that even PayPal is advertising that it is acceptable on Facebook now. The purchase of new friends by pay pal would be good, they don’t seem to sell friends on Ebay yet , although with my luck I will probably be outbid on a particularly good type of friend in excellent second hand condition ( the photo will show someone smiling and not too attractive as to be disheartening or intimidating in mixed company) , with excellent listening skills, super social contacts that I can piggy back on into great dinner invitations, parties and week-ends in the country and a holiday home to offer me in Provence. Luckily when I received their e mail invitation to use PayPal on Facebook I was aware that I had excellent friends already and did not require more, in fact I needed to spend more time with the ones I already have and not acquire more.

So this use of virtual money didn’t appeal but as with the newsagents sad wife I do rather miss the whole real money exchange. I do know someone who refuses to use cards of any kind relying solely on a cheque book and cash. He has had to accept that work deals in virtual money only and that the concept of the wage packet, with tenners and the odd coin in, is now out of the question in his line of work. However when he retires he tells me he intends to do little cash in hand jobs in which real money will be exchanged for his services which he will keep in a secret teapot in order to pay for small treats, the odd bill and carol singers.

I can see the allure and the common sense of real money. Would the build up of huge credit card debt occur if people had only cash to make purchases with? I sense that the whole economic world of Western Europe and America would crash should people return to having teapots full of cash instead of bank accounts. There would be a shortage of notes and coins. Tills in shops would groan under the weight of it, On-line stores would fold and people would be left with unsold second hand Beswick figures or Next dresses, the old pawn shop would become relevant to all strata of society again. Those in real poverty may not be the only ones counting out their change at the till in order to see if they can afford a loaf of bread and some beans, if the all powerful world of the credit card disappeared. It would be interesting if, just for a week a month, people committed themselves to cash only transactions. Virtual money perhaps leads to the concept of virtual debt; if you can’t see it, touch it, smell it, does it really exist? Taking a caseload of money to buy a new car, a new house or a holiday would at least make you think twice about handing the money over. Do I really need to give them this may be more of a real question to us if we physically beheld the cash or felt its weight?

I am becoming the grumpy old woman, the economic Luddite, the queen of the teapot misers? No, just a grumpy old hypocrite because I write all this knowing I have used my debit card four times today, that bills have been paid on line this week and that something I wanted but didn’t need has been put on the plastic. Put it on the plastic. I wonder whether we are busy putting the world on the plastic.

Live now pay later. My carbon footprints yesterday and today; tomorrow the floods at my door. Move over Mr Gore is there room up on your soap box for a woman with a teapot, my feet are starting to get a little damp?

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