Law-abiding citizens of many countries have switched to unofficial currencies, especially during cash shortages. At the beginning of the 19th Century, Britain lacked the necessary low-denomination currency for day-to-day transactions, forcing people to get by on trust, barter, promissory slips and scrips until some bright spark invented small change. As recently as 2012, British supermarkets were reporting bulk thefts of chewing gum, which is used in some parts of Romania as a substitute currency. Surely with the aid of 21st -Century technology, I’d be able to shake off sterling’s chains? I had a list of goals, and if I could carry out these transactions without touching pounds or pence (real or electronic), I could claim it is possible to live in the UK without the country’s official currency.
As it happens, the Happy Apple cafe is one of the few places in Britain where I might be able buy a coffee while complying with this self-imposed challenge. Totnes residents have a reputation for being fiercely loyal to local businesses, and have been running their own version of the Worgl experiment since 2007. It’s just one of a variety of alternative currency projects in operation around the UK. Foremost amongst these is the Bristol Pound, with £140,000 ($210,000) currently in circulation. Brixton, Stroud and Lewes also boast their own local currency schemes. The driving force behind these initiatives—the Transition Towns movement – encourages communities to build local resilience to outside economic and environmental forces. Like its kin, the Totnes Pound is only accepted within the town itself, a restriction that is intended to keep money circulating within the local economy instead of being leaked farther afield.
For all its virtues this system doesn’t seem to work for one simple reason – I can’t find anyone to sell me some. “People take them home as mementos,” the owner of a gift store sighs. “They’re forever having to print more, and obviously they can’t charge for the notes – a pound is a pound – so it’s a problem.” The shop is a clutter of porcelain figures, tea towels, crystal jewellery, calendars, fudge, snowglobes and postcards. A couple of damp tourists pick at the goods, waiting for the rain to stop. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to buy the first item on my list – a wedding gift – without resorting to cash. “So long as I get the real pound, I don’t care,” the man winks as he rings up my purchase. I fail.
Above all else, I need somewhere to live. I put the question to my landlord – or rather, the tenancy holder who sublets my room to me. Could we come to some kind of alternative arrangement? “If I owned my place then I could be interested in swapping rent money for decoration, house renovation, gardening, cooking type deals, stuff I have less time for,” she says. But how many cut lawns and mopped floors equate to a month’s rent? “I guess I would likely convert the rent money into hours of work, depending on level of job and technical details,” she says. The point is moot though. “As I do not own my house,” she concludes, “I would only be interested in wonga.” (Wonga being slang for cash.)
Booking a holiday – the third task on my list – also presents a unique set of problems. I’d assumed the flights would be fairly straightforward, with a well-established air miles system in place for most major airlines. After a few calls, I’ve found a friend willing to trade a large stash of Avios air miles with me in exchange for cold, hard PayPal dollars. However, it turns out that all air miles are not created equal. Airlines have coalesced into groups, each offering their own loyalty system. I have my heart set on flying to Bangkok with KLM because Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport offers the best stopover experience, with free wi-fi, plentiful soft furnishings and a library. But the Dutch airline is partnered to the Flying Blue group. So instead of KLM, I’d have to stump up nearly double the price for a direct flight with British Airways, or travel with one of the other members of OneWorld Alliance, such as Cathay Pacific, which flies via Hong Kong at three times the price of a KLM ticket. My cash card jeers at me from my pocket. Three-nil to sterling.