I was ten years old in 1971 when Britain went decimal. Out with the old money (twelve pence to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound) and in came the new. It seemed like a good time to collect coins. It was a short lived craze that I probably shared with thousands of others who saw 1971 as an opportune moment to quickly amass a sizeable collection of newly worthless coins (though my avaricious little mind imagined untold riches in the future). Pennies, halfpennies, threepenny-bits, shillings, half-crowns – some worn thin with use – were quickly accumulated. The constant touching and sorting of coins was a slightly queasy affair: your hands quickly began to smell of money – a sort of acrid metallic sweat. My favourite job was dipping the coins in vinegar to clean them.
To ‘touch’ someone, in a vernacular sense, can mean to extract money from them, so that to be an easy ‘touch’ is to be someone who lends money easily but with the inference that you are not so much generous as just a little bit gullible. The person putting the ‘touch’ on the other is the operator; the person being ‘touched’ may never get their money returned. To be touched can also mean to have a mental disability, though I don’t think anyone has ever quite associated chronic gullibility with mental impairment (but I could be wrong here). Touch and trust, touch and money, touch and mind. One of my favourite sentences in the whole wide world is a question that the Mass-Observation team used to ask in the 1930s (quickly and amidst a barrage of other questions): “do you welcome or shrink form the contact by touch or smell of your fellow men?”
At some point between decimalisation and today the manner by which cashiers gave you your change changed. It used to be that cashiers and shop-keepers would count the money into your hand, starting off with the lowest domination and working upwards. You could pocket the money as you went along. Then someone must have decided that this was not the way to behave. Perhaps people just shrank from placing coins into hot sweaty hands; perhaps it was a security measure; perhaps it was an efficiency drive. At any rate something changed. Today when you pay for some sweets with a ten-pound note you will receive your change as one packet: a five pound note with various coins stacked upon it. I used to find this particularly awkward as I tried to pick the coins out while holding the note and trying to stop the coins sliding off, but now I’ve learnt to bend the note so as to shape into a funnel so that I can pour the coins into my purse: one less touch of flesh and metal money.