Since someone picked up the world's economy and threw it into a massive pit a few years ago, alternative currencies have made a resurgence as a makeshift damper against the inflation and general Holodomor of terrible that is the current incarnation of the Pound Sterling. Bartering systems and community currencies have been used before, of course – during the Great Depression, for example – to help small businesses and consumers through times of financial chaos, but the emergence of alternative currencies in today's society, where Pound is gospel even against the Euro's unholy surge, still seems a little odd.
Whether it's because of the area's history of political radicalism and social disobedience or because the notes have David Bowie's face on them, I'm not sure, but the Brixton Pound has become arguably the most successful local currency in the UK. It's now accepted in over 200 local shops and cafes, which goes some way to demystifying all that misinformed, stigmatised stuff people who've never been to Brixton say about Brixton, and reinforces the sense of local community you feel if you have actually visited the area once or twice.
I wanted to see what the heart of any community – the drug dealers – thought about their local currency, but figured I was best off chatting with Simon J Woolf, one of the original founders of the Brixton Pound, first. This is what he said.
VICE: Hi Simon. Tell me a bit about the Brixton Pound.
Simon J Woolf: It was dreamt up as a grassroots scheme by a bunch of people who were active in an organisation called Transition Town Brixton. The idea of transition towns is to create communities that can re-skill themselves as it becomes unaffordable to import products from thousands of miles away. So people learn to grow foods and recycle. Sustainability, basically. We tried to find a similar solution for Brixton’s problem, which – like in many other massively multicultural areas – is poverty.
How does the currency help that?
Because our high streets are dominated by large chain stores, not much wealth is retained locally. These outlets suck money out of the community and send it to their headquarters overseas. With the Brixton Pound, we tried to create a device that makes people spend their money on smaller, independent businesses, which are far more likely to then spend their revenue locally and directly contribute to the local economy.
Right. I read somewhere that there's around B£70,000 in circulation.
Actually, it recently crept over B£100,000. It’s still quite small, but we hope to have around a million in circulation over the next three years. The curious thing is that traditional currencies aren’t as stable as we once thought, and we might end up seeing massive instability in global currencies. If that happens, projects like ours will become a lot more attractive, because we can offer an alternative that’s not subordinate to investment banking at all. In a way, we are preparing for the unknown.
Are you planning to expand to the whole borough, or will you stick to Brixton?
Well, we're planning a Lambeth-wide trade network that will involve the Brixton Pound, but it will be separate. The thing, is Brixton has a very strong identity and that couldn’t be rolled out to other districts. Due to its ethnic makeup and its history of being quite a radical place in terms of politics and arts, there’s an extremely strong community feel that's contributed to the Brixton Pound’s success.
A man doing something with some sticks in Brixton.
So, while buying drugs probably isn't the kind of "morally sound socio-economic project" Simon was talking about, I still wanted to put Brixton's dealers to the test of civic allegiance their peers are always chatting about in those SW9 bars on YouTube. After all, it's all well and good pledging your undying allegiance to an area in an internet freestyle, but we all know the real test of a true postcode warrior is whether he accepts local currency for a ten bag.
The author, trying and failing to buy drugs.
I bought B£20 from Morleys department store and went out in search of a dealer who appreciated a sense of community pride. The first guys I ran into just off Atlantic Road said I could get some "food" if I hung around for five minutes, but changed their minds as soon as I grabbed the Brixton Pounds out of my wallet. "No, man, I ain't ever seen that shit round here before. Better go to the shop and change it back." I tried to explain that it was Brixton money – something that does a great deal to support the local economy – but to no avail.
Guessing that the kind of people who deal class A drugs would be much more relaxed and open to people offering them money that doesn't have the Queen on it, I called a number I found on my phone after a party one morning and was told to find a certain type of car parked at the end of a nearby road. Knocking on the window, introducing myself and asking whether the guy would accept Brixton's own currency, the guy laughed at me, tutted and said, "You're taking the piss. I'll take Brixton Pounds when I can fill up petrol with it. Go away, mate." I apologised for wasting his time and went back to looking for weed.
Passing a group of Jamaican guys smoking a spliff, I held out my Brixton Pounds and asked if they had anything for me. "Ah, nice one," one of them said. For a split second, I thought that was it – that I'd finally succeeded. Until the guy opened his mouth again: "Brixton Pound – our people are on them. We can't take it, though. You gotta go to the market to spend that."
The author, again trying and failing to buy drugs.
With three sources confirming that there’s still only one kind of money in Brixton for illegal produce (real money), I decided my best course of action was to spend my unwanted tender on a drink before calling it a night. The only problem with that was that neither The Prince or The Prince Albert wanted to take my money, either. The first person I found who offered a welcoming hand all day was the barmaid at the Market House, who gave me a pint of Budweiser, a double whiskey and £9.50 change to my B£10. She appreciated me not pocketing the extra change she'd given me and explained that she still isn't used to the local currency.
"The Brixton Pound doesn't make a big difference to the business, but we accept it for the sake of Brixton. It’s a good sign of community spirit to have your own money,” she told me. Instead of ordering a second round, I left and bought some books from a second-hand store with the remainder of the money, then slouched back home on the tube, thinking about Simon's optimistic idea.
After three years of exponentially growing circulation, the Brixton Pound is now a crystallised part of the neighbourhood’s persona – although still more for the novelty of having the Thin White Duke on the bill than for any difference it makes in native wallets. The currency clearly needs more time to settle, but it actually doing so is far from a certainty, especially when similar schemes have been described as "too much hassle" and "an accounting nuisance". But if there's one place that's known historically for holding its own against mainstream British convention, it's Brixton, so perhaps ten years down the line I will finally be able to buy some weed with my crisp David Bowie notes.
Follow Harry on Twitter: @harrymatei
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