Cash Dethroned on the King’s Road


Cash is not king nowadays. Certainly not on the bustling King’s Road in Chelsea, where my efforts to buy a coffee were frustrated by a ‘card only’ regime. On principle, my bank card stayed in my pocket, as I offered the exact coinage (typically over three quid for a flat white in this posh part of town). Consequently I walked a long way, and only got a cup of the brown stuff through the sympathy of a barman at a gastro-pub. I felt levelled with the Big Issue sellers, who presumably still take cash.

Having arrived in Chelsea at noon, early for my 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 I learned that my cash was worthless.

‘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, who 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.

The next attempt was at a tiny outlet with five of six stools. Let’s call it Coco Coffee Lounge (I don’t know all of the names of these places, and frankly they don’t deserve publicity). A young guy had just opened up, but the 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 another 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 that is hardly needed on a street that has left cash behind. 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 initial answer. Because 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 premises of 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 apron smiled at such naïve rhetoric. Onlookers became extras in my little bit of theatre, as I declared ‘customer walks out’.

Heading south on the King’s Road and the prices are heading north. After two other futile bids I entered Moonama Cake Bar (another 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 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 then 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 merely come as a customer paying money 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, clearly this establishment was trading as a high-class restaurant with merely remnants of the original function. Immediately I asked the barman if he’d take cash, telling him that I’d walked the length of King’s Road in vain. Shrugging his shoulders, 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 pounds 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 jumping 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.

Niall McCrae is a Registered Nurse and officer of the Workers of England Union. 

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