Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I think I’ve worked out where the British capacity for mental arithmetic met it’s demise. It wasn't, as you might think, when the pocket calculator came along. Nor was it when they stopped teaching real maths in school because it was too hard. No, the rot set in back in 1971 when we converted our currency to decimal.

Before then we had a wonderful system based on pounds, shillings, pennies and ha'pennies. There were two ha'pennies in a penny. Twelve pennies in a shilling. Twenty shillings in a pound. Or, if you wish, two hundred and forty pennies in a pound. Oh, and you also had a guinea which was twenty one shillings. Expensive items like cars and fridges and fancy clothes were often priced in guineas. Some places still use guineas today but it's somehow lost its romanticism now as it's £1.05. You also had weird coins like the half crown which was two shillings and sixpence and a thrupenny bit which was three pence. I'm too young to remember farthings which were worth a quarter of a penny.

To work in this currency, you had to be able to add up in base 12 and base 20. If you bought two items, one costing seven shillings and sixpence and the other costing four shillings and eightpence it would add up to twelve shillings and two pence (or tuppence). This was expressed in writing as 7/6 + 4/8 = 12/2. Verbally, 7/6 was expressed simply as "seven and six".

When you reached twenty shillings (20/-), you got a pound. But that didn't neccesarily mean that you expressed the pound in notation. Some people just kept adding up the shillings so one pound seventeen shillings and sixpence would often be written as 37/6 but could also be £1/17/6.

Added to this, certain denominations had nicknames, so a shilling was usually called a bob. A two shilling coin was called a florin. A sixpence coin was called a tanner. A quid was, and still is, a pound.

I was eight years old when they got rid of this system yet I can remember being able to easily add up sums of money using this system. It came completely naturally to me as it was ingrained in the culture, like language. Lots of people of my generation and of course my parent's generation can do the same but present this system to a teenager today and they're bewildered.

When we converted to a decimal currency, all the old coins were retained and new ones introduced alongside. So an old sixpence was now worth 2.5 new pence. An old shilling was worth 5 new pence. A half crown was worth 12.5 new pence. Working with two sets of coins in my small pockets was easy as well. This was money - it was important you didn't make mistakes so you learnt it fast!

Mental arithmetic was and still is easy. It was at least another five years before even the simplest pocket calculator was available and these were too expensive for most people to afford anyway. I remember the anger expressed by many people who said that introducing a decimal system would be too confusing. It would simply be a way for shopkeepers and the government to put up prices without people noticing.

If you want a numerate society, I suggest reintroducing the above system. A fiendishly complex currency is a great way of learning how to add up quickly in your head.

Happy days.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Hitler and the Bunnies


At his living room table, 92-year-old Rochus Misch shows me some of his old photo albums. Private pictures he had taken more than 60 years ago. There are colour images of Mr Misch in an SS uniform at Adolf Hitler's home in the Alps, snapshots of Hitler staring at rabbits, and photos of Hitler's mistress and future wife Eva Braun.

"....snapshots of Hitler staring at rabbits" ?????

Having read this, I see Hitler is a completely different light.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Wasted Potential

Gordon Brown's talents are wasted. Here we have a man with undoubted potential. A man who has a singular but great skill. A skill and ability that he has so terribly failed to exploit. At a press conference today he exhorted the young people before him to make the most of their lives. And yet Gordon Brown has failed to do that single act for himself.

Somewhere, on an industrial estate, perhaps in a quiet corner of northern England, or maybe even in his own beloved Scotland, there is a goods warehouse, and down at the back of that warehouse is a little office, and in that little office is a small, but functional computer (no internet connection). This computer handles the stock control for the warehouse. It makes sure everything that comes in and goes out of the warehouse is recorded. Right now, this neglected but functionally perfect little machine needs someone to enter important information.

Someone, with the essential backroom skills ideally suited to a mundane job in a micro-society of one. It requires no interpersonal skills, marginal real intelligence but a rudimentary and single-minded application. This person needs little or no understanding of what is going on around him. Someone who, cannot be distracted by, or susceptible to changing events around him. Someone perhaps who is so embedded in his own little world he cannot really understand or analyse anything beyond him and his beloved computer. Somebody who just hunches over that computer for eight hours a day obsessively and diligently recording the comings and goings of this little world. Someone so lacking the tiniest iota of imagination that most of the time he is simply unaware of anyone or anything around him. Gordon Brown is that man.

The fact that he has been cruelly thrust into running one of the major world economies is a terrible waste of his potential. Daily he is required to understand and deal with major events in a fast-moving and politically turbulent world and daily he shows us how ill-equipped he is, on almost every level, to carry out this task. A great and possibly tragic loss to a small warehouse somewhere in the north of England (or possibly Scotland).