Cashless pub? Not round ‘yer mate.

Cashless in the country

The finer points of country living challenge my drive for cashlessness

The world of payments is evolving fast. You may not know it, or care, but it is and the ‘payments industry’ – if you can believe there is such a thing – is all abuzz. Several new payment platforms have been launched in the UK since the beginning of the year and the competition is hotting up for the biggest share of your ‘spend’. Or at least, it is if you live in a big city. Out here in the sticks, in what the industry now refers to as ‘cashpoint deserts’, it’s a different story.

Surviving without cash ought to be easy you’d think. Everyone does everything on their phones now don’t they? In fact, just this week I discovered that my bank (HSBC) has launched a digital cheque scanning facility on its app that means you can now pay in cheques from your phone without having to visit a bank or Post Office. That’s just as well given that, in mine and all of the surrounding villages for a 10-mile radius, the banks have all gone and only a few Post Offices remain, serving up their inspiring blend of tasteful greetings cards, jiffy bags and 1950s bureaucracy.

‘Pay in cheques by phone?’ I imagine you thinking (by which I’m assuming you exist at all), ‘Who knew?’ Well, unless you’re in the payments industry – and let’s face it, outside of London, who’s going to admit to that? – pretty much no-one. To say digital cheque scanning has had a soft launch is something of an understatement. Apparently the system was launched in October 2017 and all major banks were scheduled to have a working interface by summer 2018. Again, ‘who knew?’ First Direct still hasn’t launched the service for its app, though it did have something cool on its web site called ‘Reality cheque’ about something entirely unrelated.

So whaaaat, you could be forgiven for sighing. Who still uses cheques anyway? Well, I can help there: anyone with elderly relatives for a start. And of course, the elderly relatives themselves. Plus, anyone who has clients who want to appear to be paying you, but who don’t actually want you to have the money for at least another week – and I still have one of those. In fact, mentioning no names Terry (not real name), I still have a client whose MD signs a load of blank cheques before he goes on holiday so that invoices can be paid while he’s away – no fraud risks there at all. Perversely, the same individual monitors the company’s account on his phone while he’s away.

The fact is that cheque-use has declined dramatically. In 1990, around 4 billion cheques were cashed in the UK. By 2016 it was just 477 million and falling, fast. And that’s just how the banks like it: processing and clearing cheques is so last century. Even with digital clearing, cheques are the dinosaurs of the payments world, so banks don’t really want to breathe new life into them by giving their scanning facilities a huge fanfare launch. They fear a ‘dead-cat bounce’ – as should we all since it sounds so gross. A revival of cheques would be like Jurassic Park (dinosaurs – keep up) all over again, only with hipster millennials with beards and trousers that only reach their calves opening up pop-up stores and bars that only accept payment by cheque, throwing evolution into reverse and heralding a new age where Access (‘Shut up fat wallet!’) and Barclaycard are regarded as edgy and retro, like scratched vinyl. BTW (yoof), cheques are still massive in America, just like the cars.

Takeaway trials

Anyway, going cashless, while not impossible, is proving to be quite a challenge. I said last time out that Deliveroo might not reach this far out and I was right. But our village curry house does deliver – even to ‘the other side of the hill’ where we live. And very nice it was too: I can recommend the daal masala, but the onion bhajis are too big – like a savoury fried cricket ball (pointless distinction – would a sweet one be any better?).

So, we had an ‘it’s-Friday-I-can’t-face-cooking’ night with my teen daughter and her friend. I called, they took my order and that was it, until one of my daughter’s other friends sheepishly turned up in our driveway with a bag of food.

‘Sorry, but it’s cash-only on delivery. Didn’t they say?’ No, actually they didn’t.

But, once the girls had come out from under the table where they were hiding in embarrassment while I was speaking – actually speaking! – to someone they knew from school, we scraped together the necessary readies from various bags and pockets. Annoying though; card readers are 10-a-penny these days and, frankly, there’s more chance of a delivery driver turning up without a car or a moped than of them arriving without a phone to connect it to.

I’m not the egg man

Pivot. Do you love eggs? Yeah, me too. In fact, we all do. Nature’s protein blast and, living as I do out in the country, there are loads of chickens and loads of places that sell fresh, free range, happy-chicken eggs. They’re just one of the ways we offset the carbon we emit as we drive around in our 4x4s (necessary honestly) to find a bank, post office or roadside egg stall. Guess what though – honesty boxes don’t take cards let alone Apple Pay. Cash only. Bloody bumpkins! They don’t even take cheques, though with the introduction of digital cheque scanning that may change. Perhaps that’s why the banks have introduced it, for egg sellers and other honesty-box-retailers selling courgettes (marrows really, come on, be honest), damsons or dog-eared Wilbur Smith novels.

When we still lived in London, we would always drop by the egg stall near my mum’s before returning so that we could stock up on proper fresh eggs – you know, really fresh, odd-sized and with feathers and excrement on them. My sister still does this, even though she lives in Surrey, land of the Egg-loo garden chicken shed. In fact, my daughter’s friend (the one under the table) has a weekend job picking the eggs at that very farm. So, in the country at least, if you want a proper, authentic egg, then you’d better rock up with some genuine jack in your jeans (or chinos if it’s the weekend). And don’t worry about the wall-eyed farm dog: he’s very friendly really.

Cash on tap

Finally in this sweep of the rural economy, while The Boot, in Freston near Ipswich, may have gone cashless last year and received huge media attention – almost as if someone was doing a PR job on it, a more cynical person might think – the best pub in the world doesn’t even take cards, never mind contactless or (you what mate?) ApplePay. The Crown at Churchill is hard to find, squirrelled away up a narrow lane, but well worth it. The furniture is all old, mismatched and wonky, like the floor, but the welcome is warm, the food good and the drinkers an eclectic mix of locals, townies in the know and teenagers. There’s no TV, no fruit machine and the toilets are outside in a freezing-cold, dark shed. There’s a choice of real ales, drawn from the cask by hand not pump, and five or six ciders – none of which are served with ice you philistine. But, there’s just one way to pay: good old cash.

So, while AliPay may be launching across the nation to compete with Apple, Samsung and the rest, there is a tiny corner of Somerset that is holding out against the tide – and it remains the best-possible reason for keeping a few quid in your pocket, next to your phone and cards. Cheers.

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