Farrows was the corner shop and when I was very young and at home, I would often be sent down to the shop for an item or two. On weekends when my mum was baking or something, I would frequently be sent down two, three times on the trot when she realised she had run out of a particular ingredient. A bag of sugar. Half a dozen eggs. A packet of salt. And then I would also go down there when I had some money to spend. I still dream sometimes that I am in the shop, queuing up and ready to pay for something.
It seems as if we had more freedom in those days to run around as we pleased, without helicopter parents monitoring our every move. But it was still a small world, those few roads that formed a map of my universe. Less than a kilometre down to the park; the same distance – 800 metres – to my primary school. A ten minute walk, if that. A tiny world, constrained by hills and the main road into town; I was never more than a few minutes from home.
The fifteenth of February 1971 was D-Day, decimalisation day, and I was excited to obtain my first coin. This meant I had to take a sixpence (6d) and spend it on something worth two New Pence (2p), so that I would receive a half New Pence in change. Sixpence was about average in terms of spending money that might burn a hole in my pocket. My grandad would give me threepence when we visited – half a sixpence, as it were; sometimes you’d get a tanner (also sixpence) or a whole shilling. Very rarely two whole shillings in pocket money. That’s ten pence in new money.
So I ran (always running) all the way down to Farrows with sixpence burning a hole in my pocket and I picked up a… well, what was it? I want to say Mars Bar, but it might have been a Milky Way. Anyway, it cost two New Pence, and I solemnly handed over my old sixpence and received a shiny new half penny in return.
February fifteenth 1971 was, then, the first occasion on which I received an entirely useless, more or less unspendable, copper coin in change. Of course, there was back then a range of half-penny chews (the blackjacks and fruit salads, the sugar mice and the prawns), but the point on that day was to get my fist around a shiny new coin.
I still feel pleasure when I get a shiny new-ish coin. I still have a pot of unspendable copper coins. It probably costs more to make a penny than a penny is worth and the half pence coin was abolished years ago, and was missed by nobody.
A lot of people suspected (rightly) that retailers would take the opportunity to increase prices when decimalisation came in. The same phenomenon occurred in France and other countries of Europe when the €uro was introduced. What cost five Francs suddenly cost €1 and everything was 20% more expensive.
And what became of the Saucy Tanner, that precursor of the Cornetto: a cone of plastic with ice-cream in it, with a ball of bubblegum concealed at the bottom? Did it become the Saucy Two and a Half Pence?
I embraced decimalisation, though. I was forever confused by the lingering persistence of pounds and pints, and the brutal insistence on miles instead of kilometres. The way the British never quite took to metric measurements was all the sign you ever needed that our relationship with the EU was problematic, to say the least. I remember when the kids were born and people asked me the birth weights, I would give the answer in kilograms and then say something sarcastic in response to the inevitable question. This conservative clinging to the past is upsetting because it represents that deeper Conservatism, that working class Toryism that afflicts the country and our politics. How much is a pint of milk?