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5 March 2015

I blame my present woes on the abolition of old-school cash machines – remember them?

Money is becoming an idea actuated these days by an act no more physical than waving a card.

By Nicholas Lezard

And so farewell, then, the cashpoint down the road. Two cashpoints, really, but standing together, like conjoined twins, their screens now announce that they will turn for ever dark, and go gently into that good night, on 27 March, although they do not put it exactly like that. We’ve had some good times over the past seven years, that cashpoint and I. Actually, not that many. I think I can count the number of times I have queried my balance and been pleasantly surprised at what I have discovered on the fingers of one hand; a hand that, moreover, has been involved in at least one horrible accident involving agricultural machinery. The rest of the time I either look at the figure on screen with horror or just decide not to conjure it up at all.

The worst time was when bandits inserted some kind of gadget inside its very maw: my card was swallowed up, and later retrieved by them so that they could go on a shopping spree among the fleshpots of east London branches of Argos. But that was hardly the cashpoint’s fault. (Incidentally, fact fans, the term “cashpoint” is, unless Wikipedia is jerking our chains, a trademark registered by Lloyds TSB, so you can’t really use it unless you’re referring to a machine outside one of their banks. But if you do, I won’t tell.)

I remember the first time I saw one of these things. Younger readers are not going to believe what I’m going to say next, but it’s true, I swear. What happened was this: you got a plastic card (two, in my case) with, I am fairly certain, a few holes punched in it, like early computer programming cards; these, instead of any magnetic strip, constituted the card’s identity, distinguishing it from others. You put one in the machine, and out came £10. The machine ate the card, which would be retrieved by the bank and posted back to you. Whether you keyed in a code or not I cannot quite remember. We’re talking a long time ago now: the early 17th century, I suppose, around the time Milton was composing “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”.

A tenner in those days was a stupendous sum, especially to a teenager. You could buy five copies of Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division and still have change left over for a Wimpy with all the trimmings (a bun, some onions and a squirt of ketchup, as I recall). But the interesting thing about the system was the way it combined immediate with delayed gratification. The money came out at once, but you wouldn’t be able to make it do so again for a couple of days, unless you wanted to buy ten Joy Division albums and two Wimpys, in which case you used both cards at once, and then counted the days until they came back to you and you could do it all over again.

Such a system might, if it still existed, have gone some way towards preventing the financial crash of 2008. Well, maybe not that precise system, but one in which cash only came round every two or three days and you had to think carefully for those three days. I blame a good deal of my present woes on the ease with which one is allowed to bump up continually against the limits of one’s overdraft. (Though that is a piffling sum compared to the amount I’ve had to pay out over the past seven years as a direct result of ejection from the family home: a sum, I was rather perturbed to work out the other day, that could have bought me a couple of brand-new Aston Martins, never mind Wimpys, should I have wanted them.)

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Anyway, it does not do the heart good to dwell on such things, so instead I will contemplate the way that money is quitting its darksome house of mortal clay (Milton) and becoming an idea – the pulsing of electrons – actuated these days by an act no more physical or determined than a kind of feeble or noncommittal waving of a card at a device.

I bet you it won’t be long before you don’t even need the card; you’ll soon just be able to think about your supermarket bill and the transaction will be complete – assuming, of course, that you have sufficient funds in your brain. (Which reminds me to pass on a tip: the best way to curb your cash spending is to ask for cashback at the end of a shop for victuals. The resulting inflation of the bill will make you reel, and turn over every 10p bit several times before spending it in future.)

OK, over the road there’s a branch of another bank which isn’t closing that I’ll be able to use after 27 March, but it’s over the road.

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