I also need to renew my passport. It’s a surprise to discover that Her Majesty’s Passport Office is only too happy to comply with my unusual restrictions. HMPO accepts postal orders, a curious little throwback to the 18th Century that has lately experienced a resurgence in popularity. Postal orders enable money to be sent securely between individuals without drawing on a personal bank account, like a cheque would. Like the air miles, I can buy one in advance, but this time through official channels. Accepted throughout much of the British Commonwealth, they have become a popular way to settle small transnational debts, such as those that come with eBay sales. The fee for making one out to HMPO is £12 – a whopping 15% surcharge on top of the cost of a passport, but, given how my other efforts to avoid handling sterling are going, it’s a small price to pay for the victory it bestows.
Organising the weekly grocery shop – the final item on my list – was less successful. At first, I didn’t feel any need to be worried. Every major supermarket in Britain has a loyalty card scheme, several of which have grown so big that they’ve spilled out to cover restaurants, leisure centres, gyms, florists and much more. It would be easy, I thought. The points weren’t real money, but were widely accepted as such. It was perfect. So I buzzed the team at Nectar to ask where I could get a loyalty card pre-loaded with points. “I’m not quite sure how that would work,” the befuddled rep responded. “The only way to get points on the card is to start collecting...” It turns out the problem with loyalty cards is that you’re expected to show loyalty by regularly spending money on other things, earning a few points on each occasion. I scour eBay, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a trade in pre-loaded Nectar cards. This is in contrast to the US, which has a roaring grey-market trade in exchanging electronic food stamps for cash. These electronic welfare cards can’t be used to purchase cigarettes or alcohol, so inevitably some people are willing to sell them for liquid currency. A motion for a similar system in the UK was quietly withdrawn in 2012 out of fear of the unregulated trade that might arise.
Eventually, I manage to convince a friend to give me an antiquated Nectar card, under the solemn promise to reimburse her in kind for however many points happen to be abandoned on it. Arriving at the self-service checkout believing that I have enough points to pay for a week’s supply of pizza and beer, I run the card once, twice, three times through the scanner. It beeps plaintively but offers nothing more. I take the card to the customer service desk, hoping they won’t notice the incongruous gender difference between the cardholder’s name and the man standing before them, only to discover the Nectar card has wilted over time and is thoroughly unresponsive. Chalk up another advantage to sterling – even the coins and notes that get ripped and dirtied in your pocket still work in shops.
By now it should be fairly obvious that my plan to live outside official channels has a fundamental problem. Even if transactions are free of sterling at the point of sale, I’m still forced to rely on old-fashioned pounds and pence to buy into these systems, whether they be Totnes pounds, postal orders or Nectar points. Government-backed currency underlies all of these exchanges. I cast around for something that, once purchased, could at least offer a similar level of liquidity, practicability, and stability as traditional currencies.