Anthony Burgess on decimalisation.

This quote made me wonder about the cognitive impact of decimalisation. There seems to be a consensus that cognitive challenging activities help to reduce and/or delay dementia, and I wonder, aside from the poetic and cultural losses Burgess enumerates, could the change from the rich arithmetic complexity of l. s. d. to the simplicity of the decimal system have had some kind of epidemiological effect? And now, with the abolition of cash openly mooted , the corresponding loss of the calculation of change – which I assume is one of the commonest conscious arithmetic calculations we make – well, who know what will happen?

Probably not all that much. Or possibly a lot. I haven’t been able to find solid empirical research or much theoretical discussion of the topic.

Anyhow, here is Anthony Burgess from his 1990 autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time  on decimalisation:


“Before the shameful liquidation of the British penny into a p, there had been an ancient and eminently rational coinage, with twelve pence to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. This meant divisibility of the shilling by all the even integers up to twelve. Time and money went together: only in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is there a ten-hour clock. Money could be divided according to time, and for the seven-day week it was only necessary to add a shilling to a pound and create a guinea. A guinea was not only divisible by seven, it could be split ninefold and produce a Straits dollar. By brutal government fiat, at a time when computer engineers were protesting that decimal system was out of date and the octal principle was the only valid one for cybernetics, this beautiful and venerable monetary complex was abolished in favour of a demented abstraction that was a remnant of the French revolutionary nightmare. The first unit to go was the half-crown or tosheroon, the loveliest and most rational coin of all. It was a piece of eight, a genuine dollar though termed a half one (the dollar sign was originally an eight with a bar through it). It does not even survive as an American bit or an East Coast Malayan kupang. Britain’s troubles began with this jettisoning of a traditional solidity, rendering Falstaff’s tavern bill and ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ unintelligible. I have never been able to forgive this.”

Entertainingly enough, while searching for this quote online to save me having to type it out, I came across this page on the Royal Mint Museum’s website  – which quotes the “beautiful and venerable monetary complex” and nothing else!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s