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'Vast white five-pound notes'

Former prison doctor and writer Theodore Dalrymple writes about money -

. . .When I was born, it cost one and a half times as much to send a letter as it did 100 years earlier. In my childhood, during the fifties, we still used the same coins, with the same denominations, that people had used during the Victorian era. The silver coins were still made of silver, not a worthless silvery metal. Occasionally, we would even come across pre-Victorian coins. Their continued use was not absurd: though prices had risen, they still bore some resemblance to what they had been in the earlier time. When my grandmother gave me a florin—one-tenth of a pound—I felt rich. It was enough, in any case, to buy a paperback book; between 50 and 60 times as much would be required now.

I also remember the vast white five-pound notes, as grandiose and almost as large as professional diplomas or nineteenth-century share certificates, that my father kept in a roll in his pocket, only 100 or 200 of which would have been needed in those days to buy a decent house. And it was still possible for a boy like me to buy something—albeit only a stick of gum—with the smallest coin of the realm, a farthing, worth one-960th of a pound. That something could be sold for such a tiny fraction of money might seem a sign of general poverty. But though the Britain of my youth lagged economically, it was far from poor.

The regime of relative price stability soon collapsed. During the sixties and seventies, the sums of money of which everyone spoke increased, first by a little and then by a lot (and how nonchalantly we now speak of trillions of dollars or euros!). All that had seemed solid, to paraphrase Marx, melted into air.

At the time, I gave no thought to the effects of this inflation. . .

You can read Dalrymple's meditation on inflation in City Journal.

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