Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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Chelsea gives cash the red card


CASH is not king nowadays. Certainly not on the bustling King’s Road in Chelsea.

Having arrived there at noon, early for an appointment, I was in a relaxed state of mind. There was time for some reading and a caffeine boost, and not being fussy I entered the first café I found. This was a branch of Pret a Manger where despite offering the correct coinage I was told ‘Card only, sorry.’

I asked why, and received the unsatisfactory response that the company’s policy changed three months ago. So it was not like Caffe Nero, which stopped taking cash on the excuse of reducing the spread of Covid-19. This is simply the new normal of a digital world, and few question it.

My next attempt was at a tiny outlet with five or six stools. I can’t remember the name. A young guy had just opened up, but his first customer of the day was not to be served. Having entered the transaction on the till, he looked flabbergasted when I presented three coins. It was not that he didn’t recognise these metal discs, because a box for tips had plenty of them. But as means of payment – no, sir.

Across the road was a trendy joint named something like Olive to Olive. The coffee machine was stopped when the young woman at the till saw my antiquated currency. She pointed to a small sign. I asked why she couldn’t take the exact money and was told ‘it’s not allowed’. Whose rule, I queried, and why? She simply repeated her answer. Rules seem to be passively accepted in a society deprived of fundamental rights in the contrived Covid-19 crisis. Compliance is convenience.

Next was the cramped Jem, where I was advised by a friendly face that only oat milk was served. I was quite content with that, but my hopes were dashed again by cashless commerce. ‘The customer is always right,’ I remarked, and the woman in an apron smiled at such naïve rhetoric. Onlookers became extras in my little bit of theatre as I declared ‘The customer walks out.’ By now I felt on the same level as the Big Issue sellers, who presumably still take cash.

Heading south on the King’s Road and the prices are heading north. After two other futile bids I entered Moonama Cake Bar (a pseudonym) where a flat white was the princely sum of £3.70. My order was processed by one of the three staff, who outnumbered the two customers. Again I got a look of astonishment that I was offering the Queen’s tokens rather than a plastic passport. This was getting too much for me now. I pointed to the glass container half-filled with coins next to the till as evidence that they are not averse to cash. ‘That’s for tips only,’ he said, and his colleague gave an eloquent explanation of why I couldn’t put my money in that box instead of the till: ‘It’s the rule.’

I wanted to know the ideological rationale for this, as there was no material reason why they could not have made an exception for one stray visitor from the twentieth century. I had not raised my voice, but wanted them to justify refusing legitimate custom, but a bossy young woman who was seemingly in charge intervened: ‘Why is this behaviour (sic)?’

I am behaving normally, I replied, having come as a customer trying to pay for a coffee. She escalated her hostility, and my patience was lost. Shamefully, an expletive emitted from my mouth as I stormed out.  

Eventually I turned to the Cadogan Arms (real name) – surely a pub would not refuse cash? However, this establishment was trading as a restaurant with mere remnants of the original function. Before ordering I asked the barman if he’d take cash, telling him that I’d walked the length of King’s Road in vain. Shrugging, he said that normally they don’t accept cash; as a favour he’d let me pay, although he couldn’t give me any change. Four pound coins were handed over and I sat in a comfortable armchair to reflect on this experience.

King’s Road is at the vanguard of the digital transformation of everyday life. Affluence appears to correlate with a penchant for technological progress. The rich, least inclined to the traditional triumvirate of faith, flag and family, are diving head first into the post-human agenda of the Great Reset. For cafes and other businesses, abandoning cash is obviously efficient, but for customers there is no privacy on where their money is spent. Most people don’t care.

The only way to contest the ‘no card, no service’ tyranny is to maintain a mantra of our own: ‘No cash, no custom’.

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