Back to LSD

The Euro has, to a large extent, been a failed experiment. Perhaps it is now time to reconsider our own currency blunder. Talking of the old pennies made me regret the passing of LSD - pounds (£ or L), shillings (s) and pence (d) – in 1971. Sadly, the most wonderful thing about the old coinage has gone for ever. I can remember the great feeling of history encompassed by every handful of coins. Not only were many of the pennies, halfpennies, farthings and florins (2 shilling coins) Victorian (I can’t remember seeing a Victorian half-crown in circulation), many of them were old enough to bear the portrait of Victoria as a young woman. Such pennies were called ‘bun pennies’ because she wore her hair in a bun.

Decimalisation was introduced for the convenience of modern computerised systems. The irony is that, if the politicians had foreseen the rapid increase cheap computing power, they would have seen no need for the move. Modern tills, computers, etc. would convert LSD to dollars, Yen, or what have you in the blink of an eye. The retention of the old currency would have helped to retain at least a pretence of mental arithmetic amongst the population. Now that is gone – students are even allowed to take calculators into exams these days.

The main objection to a return to LSD is that the original conversion stimulated a lot of inflation as shopkeepers rounded prices up. This would still be a danger moving in the other direction, but a lesser one, since one would be converting each p into 2.4 d, allowing the less greedy merchants to round down as easily as round up.

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Bring Back Britannia

britannia.1910Antoninus_Pius_Æ_Sestertius_RIC_0742

When Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer he banished Britannia from our coinage. His reason was apparently that he felt that she was a symbol of Britain’s former colonial power. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first coins with Britannia on them were issued by the Romans when they were the colonial power in Britain. If we choose to sing Rule Britannia! we should remember that the proud boast that ‘Britons never, never shall be slaves’ is rather ironic – when Britannia appeared, her people were enslaved. Incidentally, the is an alternative version: ‘Britons never, never, never shall be marri-ed to a merma-ed at the bottom of the deep blue sea.’

I do not wish to make light of the question of slavery. Along with the opium wars, it is one of the great blots on or country’s history. However, Britannia does not embody our colonial history but everything, good or bad, in our history. It is time to recall her to her proper place on coins of the realm.

I have a particular interest in Britannia’s fate. My father contracted polio when I was about four and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair. When I looked at Britannia on the reverse of pennies, I mistook the her shield for the wheel of a wheelchair and the union flag with which it was emblazoned for the spokes. Clearly, she, like my father, could not walk. Even at the age of five or six I could see that the perspective wasn’t right but who was I to argue with the Master of the Royal Mint?

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One Rule for Most of Us...

Years ago, it was very common for well-paid senior managers to set up limited companies. The company which previously employed them then contracted for their services through the new company. This arrangement saved the individuals quite a lot of income tax. To put it another way, it deprived the government of revenue which meant that all the other income tax payers had to pay more to make up for it. For obvious reasons, the tax authorities clamped down on this.

It now appears (see the Guardian report) that many senior civil servants (but they are not officially civil servants) have been doing this for years. Why has HMRC not been investigating these arrangements? I would be very surprised if they were all legal and above board.

There seems to be one law for the rich (i.e. senior civil servants – whatever they choose to call themselves) and another for the poor mugs who actually pay their wages.

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The Ultimate Portable Reading Device

The ultimate (or so it seemed at the time) portable reading device was invented in about 1450 – the printed book. The Aldine books of the late fifteenth century were fine examples of the ability to cram large quantities of text into small and portable objects, aided by Griffo’s compact but elegant italics and Aldus Manutius’s fine presswork. Later, pocket Bibles printed on India paper achieved even greater compactness.

When Penguin appeared on the scene in 1935, not quite inventing the mass-market paperback but certainly raising it to new heights, the portability of their books was a major attraction. This continued even onto the sixties and seventies, with the typical whodunnit seldom exceeding a spine width of 2cm and often much nearer 1cm. Slowly, though, spine widths started to increase, led, it must be said, by publishers other than Penguin. The increasing bulk was not caused by longer books, although there were some authors around whose logorrhoea was in inverse proportion to their skill. Rather, the bulk was increased by publishers using thicker and thicker paper. Where once they might have used an 70gsm vol. 12 paper, giving a book of 240pp a spine of about 10mm, they might use a bloated 80gsm vol. 18 with a spine width of more than 17mm. Increase the extent (number of pages, if you’re a layman) and the volume of the paper further and you are looking at a book which is 5 or 6 cm thick. I have a 5cm-thick life of Prince Potemkin beside me as I write. This may fit in your handbag as long as you leave your purse behind; it won’t fit in your jacket or coat pocket, so a book which would have been an ideal read on a long train journey will be left behind and perhaps never read.

Roll on the age of the ebook reader and people are saying, ‘Wow this is so slim, much slimmer than the paperback I’ve been lugging around in my extra large briefcase!’ And the sad truth is that they’re right. The publishers have shot themselves in the foot, almost literally, because not only can you not cram most modern paperbacks in your pocket, you cannot fit many on a foot of bookshelf. This must have a disastrous effect on the profitability of bookshops which are already suffering from the competition from Amazon and the rise of the ebook reader. You could quite literally halve the floor space of the average bookshop if you halved the thickness of the paper, without any reduction in the stock held. Think of the savings in rent and business rates!

It is probably too late to save the printed book, but, please, fellow publishers, go back to printing on thinner paper!
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