Friday, January 13, 2012

Brass In Pocket — The Half-Penny: A Love Story

When my brothers and I were released every day by the North London gulag that was our secondary school, my mother stopped off at a neighborhood convenience store, not in our neighborhood, for after-school treats. I know that the English don’t use the term “convenience store,” a distinctly North American type of shop selling a little of everything one might need at the drop of a hat, right around the corner, at often inflated prices, for the convenience of not having to drive to the supermarket. But that’s what it was.

Convenience stores are heralded by their lurid display of brightly lit advertising and a window full of the kind of knick-knacks imported from China that always stupefy you to think that anyone, at any time in human history, would have decided were a good idea to make and which could find a customer. I’m talking cartoonish bloodhounds dressed up like Elvis, flags emblazoned with the logo of the US World Cup soccer team, lava lamps, and things of that nature.

Typical Tuck Shop
They are not the same as the traditional “corner store,” though they appear to serve a similar purpose. For one thing, corner stores are literally on corners, meaning they legitimately cover the territory encompassing four whole blocks. There are no more corner stores, because they specialized in selling cabbages, candy and comics — their walls lined with bug tubs of penny sweets sold to youngsters in a paper twist. What killed the corner store wasn’t the supermarket, but the demise of childhood. Children stopped being allowed to run down to the corner store to pick up some milk for Mum, or spend their pocket money on nothing but sugar. Corner store purveyors will probably blame the supermarkets though. As do the butchers, the bakers, and the candlestick makers.

The store my mother frequented was conveniently located on a street with ample parking, run by an Indian family who were particularly fond of adding a half-pence to the price of every single thing they sold. So much for the government’s argument that the half-penny prevented costs from going up. This was back when inflation hadn’t yet killed off the half-pence, the smallest coin of the realm. The way they sang out the total in their not-quite-assimilated accents, always ending with “…and a half pence, please” is one of the most distinct sound memories I have from my childhood, notable because like so much of that aural landscape, it is now defunct.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we stopped going to that store when the half-penny was retired from use at the end of 1984. Suddenly, hearing that a chocolate bar cost a figure inevitably ending in “nine” fell flat on the ear. Currency has a music — it jingles and jangles in the pocket or coin purse, or clinks onto a counter with a weight signaling its worth. The language of money is musical too, as numismatists will attest. Europe lost more than individual currencies when it adopted the Euro; it lost the Franc, the Centime, the Lira, the Drachma, the Deutsche Mark, lovely words all. When decimilization laid waste to the quaint, ancient, and inexplicable old sterling, we lost shillings and florins and farthings and sixpences and guineas and half-crowns and thr’p’ny bits too. We kept the word “quid,” even if we lost the green rustle of paper money emblazoned with Sir Isaac Newton on it, replaced by the solid, thick and heavy pound coin, which doesn’t have the same ring.

Along with a change in currency came a change in vocabulary and pronunciation. The old English ha’penny — a half pence — which had been on the tips of people’s tongues for 700 years, vanished overnight. So too, went the poetic “penny ha’penny” (1 1/2d). Only foreigners use the word “pence”; natives simply reduce it to “p.” The half-penny suffered a metallurgic demotion in keeping with its new lowly status as a worthless bit of loose change — where once it was stamped of silver, and then bronze, it was now reduced to brass. Even the word “brass” implies something distasteful, old-fashioned, or regimental.

The half-penny had a short life, as coins go. Introduced in 1971 as part of that great shift to decimalization, it was designed to preserve gaps in value by more accurately representing costs in New Pence. A great irony is that it preserved the now redundant fraction half in a world where a half was now 0.5. (One can only imagine the discussion at the Royal Mint: in order to facilitate the adoption of the new decimal money, let's introduce a coin whose denomination is a fraction! That won't confuse anyone!) After everyone got used to the new money, there was no need for it except as a handy fundraising tool — drives to collect as many half-pennies as possible were popular among youth organizations because people were so happy to get rid of them, and their value only really amounted to anything meaningful in large volume. The truth is they weren’t very convenient at all. For those who set store by lucky numbers, the half-penny was the unluckiest of them all, its run lasting only 13 years.

The advent and loss of the half-penny also signaled a larger change in the way we think of numbers. The denomination ½ sits proudly wearing its crown on the coin’s reverse, to remind us that during its circulation the imperial measurement system was still alive and well. It may only be a fraction, but it required a working knowledge of mathematics that was used to thinking of the world in parts of a whole that was still measured according to conceptual and symbolic models, rather than pure arithmetic. Feet and inches, pounds and ounces, stones and gills and drams and miles and eighths and sixteenths — to calculate with a crown on your head meant having to visualize fractions in ways that today’s students no longer learn as a matter of practical application. One of the agonies of my education was in the endless drills we were subjected to converting fractions to decimals and back — it all seemed so pointless. In the end it was; the metric system won out with its easy but unimaginative points and zeros.

All this seems a lifetime ago, though it has only been 28 years since we last felt that tiny disc between our fingers, leaving its brassy, metallic aroma on our skin. Even the Queen looks young on the obverse, though she wasn’t, even then. She’s looking East, as if gazing at what her family’s Empire had been, looking perhaps for the sun to once again rise and never set on countries bearing her face on their currency. The galleon lends the humble coin and all who pass it a reminder that Britannia ruled the waves. The portraits stamped on coins have always been profiles, only half a head. You can’t buy sweets by the penny any more, only by the pre-wrapped pack, which, though you get more, is only half as satisfying. You never could buy anything that just cost half a penny to begin with. Nothing has a price on it either, just a bar code keyed to whatever that week’s sale is. Prices fluctuate. Purchases, like so many things made in a factory, flow along a conveyor belt before being scanned and sheathed in plastic.

At the Indian store, our chocolate bars and rolls of Polos and Spangles and bags of Hula Hoops and Jelly Babies were rung up on a cash register, its keys counting numbers like a typewriter talking the language of commerce, each sentence ending with a tap on the ½ key, shiny with use, the print having long ago been rubbed away. We fished for our half-pennies and handed them over, the brass glinting in the afternoon sun.

We should all be so lucky to be touched so much that we shine. Even when our days are numbered. That’s love.

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