Aristotle once said that every object has two uses.
First: that purpose for which it was created. And second? As an item to barter.
His assertion, in his book ‘Politics’ (Book 1, part 9) cuts to the heart of the principle of exchange. In early times men swapped their stuff; and then systems of tokens began to be used for uniformity.
But each land has its tokens, and the tokens have to be compared with those of other countries. Thus, as I speak, one American dollar is worth about 0.8 of those strange European tokens, the Euros.
The Euros are an oddity, here in Britain, where we hold firmly onto our pounds. And recently the Euro has been looking awfully shaky.
As the Greek people voted on whether to elect officials sympathetic to the Euro, their membership of the common currency hung on a knife-edge. For complex reasons they were staring at the real possibility of returning to a devalued drachma, and an untenable cost of living.
The streets of Greece have already seen unsettling signs of unrest. What would have happened, had they been forced to use drachmas which could not buy the food they needed?
It would not been the first time tokens fell short of their remit.
The story of Germany’s desperate state after the First World War is a well-told saga. But none told it better than one of the cleverest, sparest writers of the first half of the 20th century: Ernest Hemingway.
He was reporting in Paris for the Toronto Star when he wrote a piece chronicling the real face of hyperinflation.
Hemingway chose the place where two currencies met: Kehl, Germany, just a bridge away from Strasburg, capital of French Alsace-Lorraine. In the twenties the French were comparatively affluent: and the Germans forced on spare, hard times.
In September 1922, Hemingway crossed the bridge into Kehl, and another world where the business of exchange made the French wealthy.
He talked to a young man in a Strasburg motor agency. No need, the young man advised, for a visa to enter Germany; just a stamp. “I live there now,” he told Hemingway, “because it is so much cheaper. It’s the way to make money.”
Hemingway has a journalistic brevity, stripped of sentimentality. He tells it how it is: and this unequal exchange is cruel.
His team stops to buy apples, five for 12 marks.
And a nice looking bearded old man timidly asks: how much did you pay for the apples?
But when Hemingway tells him the price he is wistful. “I can’t pay it, ” he says, “It is too much.”
“He went up the street,” says Hemingway, “walking very much as white bearded old gentlemen of the old regime walk in all countries, but he had looked very longingly at the apples. I wish I had offered him one.”
The Germans have always made excellent pastries. The French were not permitted to buy up all Germany’s cheap goods, but they could come over, eat pastries, and then file back home over the bridge.
In one pastry shop, “the place was jammed with French people of all ages and descriptions, all gorging cakes, while a young girl in a pink dress….took as many of their orders for fruit and vanilla ices as she could fill.”
But the proprietor was surly, Hemingway adds. He was not happy even when all the cakes were sold. Mainly because the mark was falling faster than he could bake.
Spare writing for spare times. Economic hardship may not have the same cost as wartime; but it beggars belief how man can stand alongside his fellow man without a shred of compassion for his fate.
It does not seem fair exchange.