Joan Bakewell: Goodbye, cheques. Farewell, fivers. I'll miss you

I sense I am being prised from the close watch I keep on my money, into an abstract world of free-spending
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Next year will see the death of money... or at least of some forms of it. As cheques finally meet their nemesis and £5 notes dwindle into tatters, its clear to those of us who began life with pounds, shillings and pence, that the money we handle or, nowadays, manipulate at a distance, changes the way we think about wealth, about transactions and about the really mystical nature of money.

None of it is, of course, worth anything, intrinsically. Think of all those films in which the thieves end up with a hoard of gold in the desert and die for want of water to drink. Money is only a token of value in so far as people accept the same myth as yourself and are willing to deal on that basis. Try passing on those crumpled notes of some arcane currency tucked inadvertently away in your wallet notes when you return to the land of dollar, euro or sterling, and you can understand how they came to paper the walls with paper money in the Weimar republic. Money itself is worthless.

Not long ago I decided to baulk at the entire edifice. I cut up all my credit and debit cards but one, and decided to live on cash. The problem came when I tried to check into an New York hotel. I had a passport and a booking made by the BBC, but no plastic. The hotel refused me. They simply wouldn't take cash. I had to be bailed out by a sympathetic but bemused BBC producer.

How had I become so detached from reality. In fact I was trying to peel back the layers of hypothetical trust in certain pieces of paper and plastic that underpin the entire trading system of the world. I was quickly back in order, and as conformist as the rest. But now the earth is moving under me. They want - they insist - that I give up paying by cheque.

Like many things that seem to have always been there - Christmas trees and the railways - the cheque isn't that old. It first caught on in 16th century Amsterdam at the height of Holland's golden age. But not here. The first British cheque wasn't printed until the late 18th century and legal banking controls weren't introduced until 1882.

The chequebook first appeared in fiction in Vanity Fair in 1888. Strangely it took a hundred years before the heyday of the cheque arrived in the 1990s when some 11 million were issued each day. Now the tide is running the other way with the rush to debit and credit cards become a tsunami: 40 million in 2005 compared with 24.4 million just ten years earlier. Boots, Asda and Tesco all now refuse cheques. Petrol stations long ago claimed writing them holds up the queues of restless impatient drivers, and went for plastic only in mid-2005. Chip and pin earlier this year have dealt the death blow.

It's widely agreed that the move, like much new technology, will hit the oldest hardest. I have over decades practised and perfected my own idiosyncratic way with personal accounts that depends on my handwritten details on shelfloads of cheque stubs. What will happen when I don't have them? The chilly bank printout with its codes and acronyms, its misspellings and inaccuracies is impersonal and uncomprehending. The warmth has gone out of the transaction, as has the backup information.

I sense I am being prised away from the close watch I keep on monies spent, into an abstract world of free spending that might help fuel the world economy (not much, obviously) but of which the reckoning when it finally comes will be mine alone. I don't want to be there. I want to have either a wad a crumpled notes under the mattress or a clutch of chubby stubs that spell out the story of my life.

But the notes are going too. There are 220 million pristine £5 notes sitting in Bank of England vaults; it has issued only 63 million this year. The banks don't want them. The fiver slows down transactions at cash machines and when you get one in your shop change it is now a sorry and bedraggled tatter. So are banknotes on the way out too? Will they go the way of the florin and the farthing, coin denominations so small they were phased out by inflation and decimalisation? How long before dealing in cash is over and we each have a microchip implanted under the skin that will take care of all our payments? And, given the frequency of banking and techno error, are you happy with that?

All these moves are in the interests of speed and efficiency - for the banks, that is, not the consumer. My bank stub system was fast and efficient for me. I'm told internet banking will take over entirely and my relationship with what I'm worth will finally be subsumed into a vast and impersonal abstraction.

Gone will be the subliminal but ever-present tribute to the nation's finest: Elizabeth Fry has graced the £5 note: images of Florence Nightingale, Michael Farraday, Charles Dickens and George Stephenson left us in no doubt this was British currency we had in our hands. With their passing another identifying mark of Britishness goes. We are all global traders now. Except, of course, those who never had anything at all. What matters to them is a failed harvest or war-ravaged crops. Strangely, all the money in the world doesn't seem to solve their problems.