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Ice-cream and banking
By John Kuti
Russian ice-cream is great. Any shop or street seller can offer a choice of different ones for less than ten roubles, that’s about 20p in British money, which I think is a fair price. They have natural fruit flavours and they are made with thick creamy milk. I always feel good when I buy an ice-cream, and this article explains where that good feeling comes from. It’s not only because I like ice-cream.
In my childhood world of 1970s Britain, ice-cream was cheap. It was cheap because it was made in huge factories from a kind of margarine. There was very little milk in it at all, and I don’t think there was any cream. By the way, the inventor of this industrial process was a young chemist called Margaret Thatcher. (More about her later.)
Ice-cream was cheap, but my family was poor. My parents were poor and strict. They gave me pocket money, but I think this money was designed to be part of my moral education. It wasn’t for buying things with - it was for saving. So, when it began, my pocket money was 5p. Of course prices were different then – it was a period of high inflation. But my pocket money was never quite enough to buy an ice cream. I had to learn to wait until next week for ice-cream.
My parents would probably agree with the advice that Charles Dickens’ father gave him… "Annual income, twenty pounds; annual expenditure, nineteen pounds; result, happiness. Annual income, twenty pounds; annual expenditure, twenty-one pounds; result, misery." (In fact his father didn’t follow this advice but that’s another story.) Later, he put these words into the mouth of Mr. Micawber in his book David Copperfield.
Most people in Britain believe that it’s a good idea to save money and try to avoid being in debt. This is an important part of the culture, or at least it was in the past. One of the main motivations for the co-operative movement was to help poor people stop using credit from shop-keepers. Working class people put their money into “friendly societies” which helped when a member was ill, or one of their family died. They also set up building societies. Building societies at first only existed for the time it took to build houses for the members. They were an example of the philosophy of “self-help”. People would join together and save their money until they had enough to build a row of houses, or an estate. Often the streets were named after famous radicals of the period – liberal campaigners for democracy and against alcohol.
In the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher became a popular politician by saying that borrowing money was bad for governments too. It was an idea that lots of people liked exactly because their parents had told them that debt was immoral and that you should never spend more than you earn.
The world has changed plenty since then. Margaret Thatcher is now one of the most unpopular British politicians of all time. Some building societies still exist, but many of the biggest have become banks – that is to say they don’t have members. They are run in the same way as other big businesses and they just have customers. People in Britain seem to be quite relaxed about using the banks’ services – credit cards, overdrafts, loans of different kinds. In August 2004 the amount of debt in British families reached one trillion pounds. That’s £1,000,000,000,000 or £17,000 for every man, woman and child.
This is not all bad of course. A lot of people work in banks. London is the world centre for a lot of different sorts of financial activity. If we compare it with Frankfurt – where the European Central bank is, then the same number of people work in financial services in London as the whole population of Frankfurt. As for me, well, I have a credit card. But I only use it in emergencies: for example when I run out of money and feel like an ice-cream.