Paper Chase

Reported from Bangkok, June 24, 2006

Bank notes pass anonymously back and forth, of interest only while they're in our hands. Or maybe not. Steven Boggan trails one £10 note and ends up on a journey through modern British society

Saturday June 24, 2006
The Guardian

In the hands of Sybille Grandgeorge, wet from a lazy London drizzle on a cold June day, there is nothing remarkable about banknote BE66 393677. In common with the hundreds of millions of £10 notes issued by the Bank of England last year, it bears images of Queen Elizabeth II on one side and Charles Darwin on the other. To make it one of the most difficult notes in the world to counterfeit, it features a watermark, a hologram and a metallic thread visible on the back (the Queen's side is regarded as the front). These all tell us that this £10 note is genuine, but by no means unique.

What makes this note different from the £37,866,915,500 worth of banknotes in circulation is not its fabric or design, its history or fiendishly clever security features. It is this: it is a note that we have decided to follow, to track and chase, to pursue doggedly until we can pursue it no more. In short, we're going to spend a week with this £10 note.

Sybille Grandgeorge did not choose this particular note and neither did it choose her. Like 85 other people every second of every day, she simply inserted a cashpoint card into a hole in the wall and out it came. In her case, it was at the NatWest branch at Bank station in the City of London - where better to start? - and it was 12.52pm on June 1.

Grandgeorge, a 29-year-old Parisian working at a French bank in London, did not flinch when photographer Richard Baker and I approached her like a pair of grifters with a dodgy scam and asked if we could track one of her notes. Several others had clutched their cash and scuttled away, but she just laughed and led us to a patisserie. We realise that, for this project to work, we must only let the note get into the hands of people who don't mind some extra company.

According to the Bank of England, the use of paper money in Britain began in the 16th century, when goldsmith-bankers gave receipts for gold coins deposited with them. They were called 'running cash notes' and were made out in the name of the depositor, promising to pay the bearer the gold on demand. Today, the chief cashier is quoted on all notes, declaring: 'I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ...' £5, £10, £20 or £50. But you will no longer receive gold for your old notes if you take them back; they will just be replaced with new ones.

Our first transaction is chaotic. Dozens of people are queueing at Paul's Patisserie in Bow Lane, EC4, for baguettes, sandwiches and croissants.

Grandgeorge is a risk analyst. She's lived in London for four years with her husband Guillaume, a solicitor. They have a four-year-old daughter, Lucille, and one-year-old twins, Alice and Emmanuel. "It is so expensive here," she huffs. "It's crazy. When my twins are ready for school, we might go back to France."

She buys a cheese-and-ham sandwich and a croissant for £4.90, and hands the note to manager Paula Bulgarelli, a 38-year-old Brazilian. We watch, half in panic, as it vanishes into the till. Moments later it resurfaces and passes to Russell Christie, a 26-year-old Glaswegian who trades bonds for the merchant bank JP Morgan. This place is full of bankers.

Christie, a cheerful character in a smart City shirt, is wary, too. But yes, he says, he'll help us follow the money. He's going to a leaving do in the evening at a swanky bar and restaurant in Trafalgar Square. The time now is 1.30pm. He saunters back to work in Aldermanbury and all we can do is wait.

The Bank of England was founded in 1694 in order to raise funds for King William III's war against France, but it had no monopoly over the issue of notes which, in the early days, were handwritten. In fact, the last private banknotes in England and Wales were issued by the Somerset bank Fox, Fowler and Co in 1921. These days, only Bank of England notes are legal tender in England and Wales. (Scottish and Northern Irish notes are fine, but are traded by consent only.)

In 1696, the issue of new coins reduced the need for small denomination notes, and the Bank introduced a policy of not issuing notes for less than £50. Most people went through life without ever seeing one - the average income was less than £20 a year. One pound notes were first printed in 1797. Ten shilling notes were introduced by the Treasury in 1914.

We meet Christie and his friends at Albannach, a restaurant specialising in Scottish food and Scotch whisky. The Scots theme is everywhere, from the antler chandelier to the prints of Angus bulls on the walls. Here, you can buy a dram (50ml) of Glenmorangie for £6.50, or a 50-year-old Balvenie Cask 191 for £540 a glass.

It is 8.30pm and Christie is fresh-faced and cheerful, although he has every right to look exhausted: he has been trading on the Hong Kong market since 3am. He studied engineering at Glasgow University before moving on to a capital markets course in Brighton. His father is a retired director of Scottish Power, his mother a nurse. "I love my work," he says, above the racket. "It's challenging and it pays well, but don't get the impression that we're all money-obsessed. We're not. If you do this job, you can look forward to a comfortable life when you're older. But I'm young and single, and enjoy spending my money; I usually don't have a penny in my bank account by payday."

Almost immediately, our tenner changes hands. Christie owes it to Marc Stacey, another trader, a 27-year-old from Zimbabwe. He had bet Christie that Rangers would finish third in the Scottish Premier League, and he won. Stacey spends the money on an Alchemist, a cocktail knocked up by bar manager Jim Wrigley: it contains flaming whisky, a honey vodka liqueur and crème de pêche, and it sparks and crackles as Wrigley throws in cinnamon and citrus zest.

The boys are planning to head for Stringfellows later, and photographer Baker's eyes light up as he imagines BE66 393677 being tucked into the garter of a pole dancer. But the drinks flow, the beers and B52s line up, and the party begins to fragment. Lou, the departing trader, is looking the worse for wear. "Have you seen the film United 93?" he asks me; he is American. "Tragic." He looks at the floor. Suddenly Stringfellows doesn't seem such a good idea.

Instead, the note comes back out of the till (in exchange for plastic) as a tip for Gayane Mushegyan, a waitress from Ukraine. It's getting on for 1am and she says she won't spend the money until tomorrow lunchtime. We can speak to her at home first. That night, I dream of Gayane vanishing with our note, boarding an easyJet flight to Kiev.

The Darwin £10 note was introduced in November 2000 to replace Charles Dickens. The hologram changes from the number 10 to Britannia when tilted, and a red and green 10 shows up under fluorescent light. Add to that micro lettering visible only with a magnifying glass, a watermark of the Queen and raised print, and it becomes almost impossible to copy.

Last year, the Bank of England released statistics for 2004 which showed that, out of 585m £10 notes in circulation, only 15,000 counterfeits were discovered.

Gayane was born in Russia 28 years ago and grew up in far east Ukraine. She lives with her "darling" (she won't tell us his name) in a pretty garden flat in Earlsfield, south-west London. Like many eastern Europeans, she came to the UK to learn English, not just to earn money. At home, she gained a masters degree in chemical engineering. She is the daughter of an Armenian count, speaks four languages and, as we chat, sits at her piano playing Chopin.

"I was offered a very good job at home, but it needed a good English speaker, so I wasn't really qualified for it," she says. "So I thought I'd better come and learn. Almost immediately, I met my darling, and I've been here for a year and a half. I'm thinking of becoming a teacher. Most eastern Europeans come here to make some money and then return home and live a better life. In any restaurant kitchen in London, you can bet most of the staff are Polish."

How is she treated by her wealthy customers? "Everyone has been very kind. Our restaurant has very nice clientele who generally behave themselves. One thing I have noticed, though, is how much you English drink. There is a myth that all Russians drink too much, but that's not true. You wouldn't see young women there drunk and vomiting in the street. I think as a country you have a very bad drink problem."

Gayane spends her money on lunch at Riccardo's, an Italian restaurant on Fulham Road, west London. The note then passes to "Edward", a 30-year-old businessman from north London. He is a little shifty and won't give us his full name. He says he will cooperate only if he can bet the £10 note on a horse at the Derby the next day. We can meet him later, he says, if we can arrange for him to watch the race at Epsom.

Edward invites us to a dinner party in Islington that night and we are relieved; the note is still in sight. We arrive as the pasta bake leaves the table and the apple crumble appears. But Edward says he has a different dessert in mind. He takes a small wrap from his pocket, chops out a line of cocaine, rolls up BE66 393677 and sniffs deeply. A 1999 study commissioned by the BBC found that more than 99% of banknotes are tainted with cocaine. When the forensic chemists tested more than 500 notes of various denominations; only four showed no trace of the drug.

"So, you boys fix it?" he asks, wiping his nose. He means the Derby. I begin to tell him, but Edward interrupts: "I met Christopher Biggins once, you know. He's not as big as you'd think."

Edward's wife and two friends are all in their 30s and hold down professional jobs in and around Islington. He passes the cocaine to his friends and the apple crumble begins to lose its appeal. Only his wife, Jane, tucks into it.

So, do they take coke regularly? "At weekends," says Edward. "Everybody does. And Es." He's talking faster now. "It's so normal now. Once upon a time you might say people didn't, but now everyone does it. Helps the evening go with a bang. Lotsa fun. Just at weekends and then it's back to work to do our jobs. Pays for the coke, ha ha. Did I tell you I met Christopher Biggins once?"

I try to conduct something approaching an interview, but conversation falls apart. At 2am, Edward gives me the note and says he forgot to tell me he couldn't make the Derby. I exchange it for another and go out into the night wondering if the £10 chain has been broken. But no. Edward had intended to put the money on a horse at the Derby, so that's what we'll do. We'll keep it moving and see where it goes.

Bank of England notes are produced on special paper made from cotton fibre and linen rag. They go through three printing processes and more than 80 different inks are required for the four denominations. Ours is in pretty good condition.

The Derby isn't what it used to be, according to Barry Dennis, one of the racing world's best-known bookies. And he should know: he's been in the business almost 50 years. Now aged 66, he cuts a fine figure in a white shirt and bold braces on his "joint", or stand, at Epsom. "It used to be on a Wednesday, and the whole of London would pack up and come out for a bet and a good day out," he says. "Everyone was passionate about the racing. These days you get a lot more corporate people, more interested in the champagne than the horses.

"Over the years, I've seen my turnover shrink. Once upon a time you could only bet with on-course bookies or the illegal runner on your street corner. Now there are so many ways to bet - online, by phone, high-street bookmakers. The internet has made a complete horse's arse of on-course betting. People like me will be a thing of the past one day."

He advises me to bet £5 each way on Dylan Thomas and stuffs the note in with all the others.

The stands are churning with top hats and tails, while £16 jugs of Pimm's vanish as fast as puddles of equine pee in the baking sunshine. Below, in the Revelry picnic area, on the other side of the track, the less privileged eat hot dogs and open case after case of Beck's and Stella.

Sir Percy wins the race, with Dylan Thomas coming in third. Our tenner is paid out to 38-year-old Hayley McNally, who picked up £27.50 from a £2.50 bet. Hayley, who sells concourse space in shopping malls, is from Hereford, and is visiting her boyfriend, Tony Quy, who lives in Edenbridge, Kent.

They're going home soon, and plan to put the winnings towards Sunday lunch in Lingfield, Surrey. Again, we watch nervously as the note vanishes into the distance. But the next day there it is, at the Old Cage pub, where the couple are joined by Tony's children, Charlotte, 13, and Sam, 11, from a previous relationship. Hayley's children, Josh, 15, and Stephanie, 12, are with her former partner. Tony, who is 48, and Hayley work for the same property company, but he's in the London office, she the Hereford one. There is something terribly modern about their lifestyle.

"We're both very happy - except for the 163 miles between us," says Hayley. "It's interesting having a second family, but our kids get on very well."

She pays £23.50 for the food to pub manager Denis Parnell, 38, at 1.55pm. At 2.12pm, BE66 393677 is given in change to 36-year-old Carol Skinner and her partner, Mark Ford, 38. They're in Lingfield checking out property and the local amenities, including the pubs. They live in Beckenham, Kent, but homes here, slightly farther from London, are cheaper and the countryside appeals to them. She is an IT manager for a law firm, he an editor at a publishing firm. "We're both into golf and fitness, so thought we'd check out a golf and country club near here," says Mark. "Do you want to follow?" Of course we do. They have our note.

Ten minutes later we are at Chartham Park Golf & Country Club, a rolling course with a fitness spa, restaurant and bar. Here, it will cost you £600 for a full membership, plus £94 a month subscriptions. At a similar place closer to the capital, you might add another zero to that £600.

Mark and Carol spend the tenner hitting 100 balls on the driving range. It sits in the pro shop till, waiting for another customer who needs change. But none comes by closing time. We return next morning and stand among £300 Titleist drivers and £100 Footjoy golf shoes for hours on end. Still no one.

"It's a bit slow today," says the club pro, David Hobbs, 32. But there is another problem - anyone spending serious money at the shop uses credit cards and those buying small items are able to charge it to their membership. We watch the keen morning golfers come and go, the Lycra mothers jogging in for their daily workout, the armies of ladies who lunch, the afternoon rounds of pensioners and the mums with their uniformed schoolchildren. Still nothing.

Finally, at 3.03pm, when we've been kicking our heels for 24 hours, there is a stroke of luck. The club safe breaks and won't open. Operations manager Irvine Washington can't get change for the bar, so he comes to take it from the golf shop. Surely now ...

Two hours and 13 minutes later, BE66 393677 is given out in change for two pints of lager bought by Keith Ashton, a 59-year-old postman who isn't a member and so pays cash. He and a friend, 32-year-old Keith Glazier, have paid a special-offer price of £25 each for a round of golf - the usual fee is £50 a head. Keith is two weeks short of retiring from his round in Covent Garden in London's West End. "I'll be glad to go," he says. "I've been in the job for 26 years, but I've never seen the Royal Mail in such chaos. It's been totally run down and the management is awful." He asks where we hope to go with the note and sniggers when Baker says, "I've been dreaming of a long-distance lorry driver who'll take it up the A1."

Keith jumps in his car and we follow. At 7.06pm, he pulls in for fuel at the Q8 petrol station on the A22 in East Grinstead, West Sussex, and spends our £10 at the pumps. The sales assistant, Ramashan Para, 26, tucks the £10 note in the till and again we wait. Soon we will be whizzing to destination unknown - perhaps down to the coast at Eastbourne.

But by 9pm, when the station closes, nobody has been given a £10 note in their change. We return the next morning and watch as dozens of customers arrive and leave without BE66 393677. As the hours pass, I become familiar with every item on the shelves, from the microwaveable cottage pie (£1.99) and Woodward's Gripe Water (£1.79), to the dazzling array of DVD and magazine pornography (Filthy Fifties, £7.95; British Hot Sexxx Series: DP Fantasies with "Extra Long Live Shagging" at £9.99).

It is not until 1.11pm that the assistant now on duty, Dinesh Pushparajan, 26, uses the note to pay for the garage's supply of Calor gas. He gives £198.72 to Simon McKenzie, a 22-year-old driver for Jefferson Calor, which distributes throughout Surrey and Sussex. We're back in business.

The note has not been moving as quickly or often as we had expected, but Mike Bowman, senior consultant in the policy and markets unit at Apacs, formerly known as the Association for Payment Clearing Services, is not surprised. 'We are finding that plastic, and debit cards in particular, are taking over from cash,' he says.'At the end of 2004, spending on cards, credit and debit overtook cash, with £273bn on plastic and £272bn in notes. Last year, transactions on debit cards alone overtook cash payments. Fewer than 20% of adults now use only cash, and only one third of all cash transactions are for more than £5. So if you're in a golf shop surrounded by expensive items, they'll be paid for with plastic. Only lower-value transactions use paper money.'

Bowman is also unsurprised that our note has mostly been used in pubs and restaurants. 'These are areas where cash is still widely used,' he says. 'Where your £10 note isn't typical is that it hasn't yet been spent in a supermarket or a retail outlet.'

Simon McKenzie loves his job. "I really enjoy driving, and so long as I get all my deliveries and collections done, it feels like I'm my own boss when I'm on the road," he says. He lives in Portsmouth and covers around 140 miles to and from work each day. He takes home £1,500 a month after tax.

He has deliveries in Tunbridge Wells, East Malling, Sevenoaks and Penshurst in Kent, then Crawley in West Sussex, before zooming back to Portsmouth. We track him through back lanes and beautiful countryside on a blistering hot day. It is no wonder he enjoys his freedom.

That night, we hit the town with Simon and his friend and co-worker Jason Martin, 26. It is gone 10pm by the time they're cleaned up and ready to go out, so our options are limited. We have a pint in the Festing pub and then move on to Guildhall Walk, where these days more students than sailors are looking for fun.

Simon buys a round at Roast, a smart bar that specialises in Chinese food, and later BE66 393677 is paid out as part of Michelle Lister's wages. She is a 20-year-old psychology student working as a barmaid two or three nights a week to make ends meet. It is 12.42 on Wednesday morning. Michelle's term has ended and she is planning to drive to her parents' home in Thame, Oxfordshire, later that day.

The life of a £10 note ranges from 18 months to two years; £50 notes can last up to five years. According to the Bank of England, between February 2004 and March 2005, 215,355,730 £10 notes were destroyed and replaced with new ones. High-speed sorting machines assess the quality of notes and those in bad condition are sifted out for destruction in special security shredding machines. The residue goes to landfill.

It has taken most of the day for Michelle to pack and drive home. She is enjoying university but, like other students, finds it a bit of a financial struggle. "You get a basic loan of £3,500 a year, which goes immediately on accommodation at £90 a week," she says. "My parents help, but I have to work to support myself. The bar pays me the minimum wage, but they are very kind and try to give me work when I haven't got lectures the following morning. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, we work till 4am."

We are nearing the close of our seventh day and see no end in sight. If Michelle plans to go out in sleepy Thame, we could find ourselves in another pub with another paperchase. But she doesn't. Instead, she and a friend, Emily Ullathorne, a 20-year-old studying marketing and events management in Birmingham, decide to buy a £2.25 punnet of strawberries at Local Tastes, a delicatessen on the high street. It is almost exactly 5pm.

Sally Woodford, the shop's 26-year-old delivery manager, is proud of her produce. There are cheeses and wine, meat and beers, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. "You'd be surprised what producers are close by if you only look for them," she says. "We like to support our local farmers and producers. You could say we're a farmers' market in one shop."

Sally takes our £10 note and starts reckoning up the day's takings. They are bagged up ready for delivery to Lloyds bank in Thame. And that's it. After seven days and six nights, a couple of dodgy hotels, too many drinks with too many strangers, a cocaine party, a day at the races, hours and hours of waiting, and a sedate little shopping trip, we can follow it no farther.

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