Friday 15 January 2021 10:43 am

Why it’s easier to spend bitcoin than £50 notes

Recently a friend of mine came into possession of a number of £50 notes. If I told you too much I would have to kill you, but it apparently involved a number of Covid-19 tests, a trip to Pakistan, some Kashmiri carpets and a large man from Barbados. I know some interesting people.

I thought these denominations had long been demonised as a dodgy banknote and were no longer accepted, besmirched as the currency of money-washers, drug dealers and counterfeiters.

So, in this ongoing ennui of the Pandemic, I thought I’d flip my day, gamify my Wednesday and see where I could use them and how easy or difficult it was to do so, so I borrowed them off him… interest rates are low right now and I had a couple of masks in my pocket, fan of social distanting etc. I usually stay at home.

I began armed with a middle-aged man’s smile, reasonably smart clothes, a jacket with a pocket square and my oft-repeated line “Yes, really, you don’t see them around very often, do you? I suppose less so because of the £45 contactless limit. Be careful, they might be wet… I only printed them this morning – hohoho”. 

That’ll put them off the scent.

I started with the machines, interactions that didn’t involve my rictus and really funny printing story. 

Railway ticket machines immediately rejected them, parking ticket machines as well, paying into ATMs seemed to be so difficult that it felt like a subliminal ban and don’t even ask about the Post Office robot cashier; never going back there. 

Then to the humans. Small shops said no, Starbucks staff did accept them, but then the Starbucks managers said no, some big supermarkets said yes, others said no, ‘essential’ shops such as builders’ merchants said no.

But petrol stations said yes every time and then I thought of trying cinemas, bars, pubs, restaurants, tailors, betting shops and other similar emporia, but they are all, of course, closed… but I’m convinced bookies would have taken them, they take souls, so they take anything. 

Ergo, my experiment was certainly not peer-tested, it wasn’t even beer-tested, but then something wonderful happened.

As I walked through my town, a small art gallery seemed to be half-open with actual people inside. I sought their attention and pointed to the window and asked them if they sold wasps. The curator replied, what? Do you sell wasps, I said? You appear to have one in the window. 

That so-called gag was never going to work, it’s winter and there are no wasps, but it broke the Covid-ice, we started talking and I enquired about what was really in the window, a really interesting print of the (genius) artist Jean-Michel Basquiat on wood, overlaid with all types of textural weirdness.

It was beautiful and I’d just paid my tax bill, so I thought I might buy it as a well-deserved present for myself. The curator told me the price in fiat currency and I took a picture of, er, the picture and said that I’d have a think. 

As I walked away, and in a slightly nervous and crypto-arrogant way, I threw away the comment that my Bitcoin profits had to be spent on something. He then shoulted back that he’d happily take Bitcoin, there was a payment option on the website.

OMFG. I really could take my profits. What joy! I went home and had a think about it as I had said to him earlier. This is all very neat, very neat indeed, but I think the Bitcoin price is going way up, so if I take Bitcoin out to pay for the picture now, then I’m paying too much. But what is art and all that? Very confusing, mixing money with aesthetics.

I couldn’t sleep trying to work out this obvious mathematical problem. Then, before I knew it, I was in Sri Lanka at 5am, weighing insomnia and finance with the cricket First Test on the radio and naturally going with the cricket commentary.

Somewhat bleary and cricket-depleted on awakening, I thought again about the Bitcoin option and the £50 notes I had borrowed. If the Bitcoin price is going up, then better to pay with the £50 notes, that’s a sensible and optimistic thing to do. It would make economic sense.

So, I went back to the gallery yesterday lunchtime and offered him the cash option instead. But, like the parking ticket and the railway ticket machine, he said he would not take the notes and Bitcoin was his preference, even after the story about the notes being wet and so on. 

It went down like the wasp joke. He was like the woman-robot in the Post Office,  a very serious person without a sense of humour.

Even so. Great, crypto over fiat. It’s a revolutionary day. It was easy now, just both go on to CoinBase to do it laptop-to-laptop online. Peer-to-peer, the dream. Share screens.

I’d love to tell you that the bitcoin transfer went smoothly and we both beamed crypto-smiles at the facility and modernity of it all, but neither of us could work out how to do it and were both a bit scared about doing it, so we gave up.

I went back to the flat, offered him my mate’s fifties, which he checked with a strange pen and accepted, and I will pick up the picture at the weekend when the artist has signed it, after he undoubtedly checks the perennialy dry big banknotes as well.

Naturally, I need to pay my mate back in some form, probably a boring old bank transfer, but this week did signify that the crypto option was officially and culturally better than the £50 option. 

One way or the other, this is the future, but perhaps somebody smarter than me, or my mate, will be the one to ratify that. 

But the upshot is that I have a fantastic piece of art, bought in a pandemic. 

Even so, currency is weird and I’m now skint. Can anybody lend me a tenner? I’m good for it, notes or coins, I’ll take it. Stay home!