I cannot yet bring myself to refer to this time of year as "The Holidays" (but you will, Oscar, you will), though I suppose if we think of it as a shorthand for "the afterglow of Christmas, when a child can consider with a certain degree of satisfaction and anticipation this year's haul of present-giving, before the decks are cleared for the mysterious adult rite of New Year's Eve, and the inevitable gloom when the impending return to school is finally contemplated" then it does meet a need. So, in the, ah, Holidays I always find myself remembering, with great affection, the old ten bob note. Smaller, and with a longer, thinner aspect ratio than the old pound note, and coloured a subtle, bruised reddish-brown, it was what uncles and aunts tucked inside a greetings card in lieu of a present.
It never occurred to me to think of this as laziness or thoughtlessness. Thoughtless would have been giving the same Airfix kit as last year, and lazy some dreary football annual. In the words of Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford: "Gimme money – that's what I want!" (what? You thought Lennon & McCartney wrote that?). In fact, in the early 1960s the classic "bagged" Airfix kit cost 2s 6d (or "half a crown"). That's four new kits for ten bob! Um, and that's 12.5 pence and fifty pence in "new" decimal money – risible amounts, nowadays. Risible and not very divisible.
So, every year around this time, I also find myself explaining Ye Olde Money to my bemused kids. It's become a bit of a tradition: gather ye round, my dears, while your old father tells terrible tales of pre-decimal days... My daughter, especially – who, like me, is arithmetically-challenged – recoils in horror at the idea of twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound. Why, in olden tymes, even a shop-girl had to be genius at sums, father! Why, yes, child: in fact, before the advent of the electronic till, shop-girls had to be especially brisk with their mental arithmetic. Too much "No, wait... That can't be right..." and customers would become restless. I think I have floated the idea before that, surely, there is no other reason to make children recite their multiplication tables up to twelve? Eleven nines are ninety-nine, twelve nines are ... are ... Do other, more rational countries – with their pathetically easy-to-calculate decimal currencies – bother with this? If not, why on earth do we still inflict this torment on our kids?
But, back to the ten shilling note. A crisp new note was a thing of beauty. As a child, banknotes did not often pass through my hands, and I can't have been the only one to have gazed in wonder at those elaborate, asymmetrical-yet-rhythmic engraved swirls and repeated rounded shapes, a design masterclass, where typography and penmanship met the Spirograph (another very 1960s childhood experience). Thinking about it, I don't recall ever seeing any pre-Elizabeth II notes, probably because, unlike coins, banknotes have a very limited life. But I've already rhapsodized about the longevity of the old pre-decimal coins, so won't do it again. I do miss them, though, despite the attendant mental arithmetic. (108! Got it! Twelve nines are 108!).
Notoriously, an enclosed banknote* was a temptation to postmen, especially to the temporary ones enlisted around Christmas. The temptation was compounded when, idiotically, the note had been pinned to the card "for safety" – until 1969 there was still a cheaper postal rate for unsealed mail – and the head of the pin could easily be felt through the envelope. Most, I'm glad to say, did make it through the post. Though I suppose an enterprising postman working the wealthier neighbourhoods could have made a few bob swapping ten shilling notes for any pound notes that turned up...
No-one sends me money, now, of course; that is my job. But I still can't help opening each new Christmas card carefully, just in case there is an exciting enclosure, and I still automatically check the envelope one more time before binning it. You never know.
Nice, but a ten bob note was prettier...
* Or "treasury note", as our pompous headmaster would call them, mystifyingly, in morning assembly, whenever one had been found lying around in a changing room. It took me years to realise what he was talking about. I had been imagining something altogether more grand, like the million pound job above.