Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Sunday 3 January 2016

It’s all about the Money

None of us carries as much cash as we used to. We’re all accustomed to using debit and credit cards for most of our purchases. We do, however, still use small change and the five pound note for bits and pieces. It’s true that we can now pay for parking and taxis using phone apps, but most shops, especially the independents and family run places that I prefer to use, don’t like to take cards for payments of less than a tenner, and since they’re charged for every card transaction, I can’t say I blame them.

We all use less cash, but the Mint still prints money, and, from time to time, they come up with commemorative editions to celebrate various events, like the Olympic Games, for example, or a Royal Jubilee. 2016 is no exception.

This year, the Mint will be issuing a set of commemorative coins, remembering events and lives from British history. It all seems fine to me. It gives the Mint an opportunity to do what it’s supposed to do, which is print money, and it gives it a chance to make money too. It also gives hobbyists an opportunity to collect.

My father used to collect First Day Covers of new editions of stamps when I was a kid. He was a hardworking family man and he didn’t have a lot of hobbies. He didn’t drink or smoke, and he didn’t take part in or watch a lot of sports, but he did collect stamps when I was a child, and I clearly remember him enjoying getting his First Day Covers at regular intervals. There are people who collect new editions of coins, too.

This year marks 950 years since the Battle of Hastings, 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, 350 years since the Great Fire of London, 100 years since WWI and 90 years since the birth of Queen Elizabeth II. There are coins to commemorate all of these things in 2016.

I had heard talk of a coin to commemorate the birth of Beatrix Potter 150 years ago, but can find no  mention of it on the Mint’s website. It would have been nice to see a woman (other than the Queen, of course) represented in the list. 2016 marks 200 years since Charlotte Bronte’s birth, Royal Academician and miniaturist Mary Green was born in 1766, 250 years ago. The first English feminist, Mary Astell, advocated for equal educational opportunities for women, and was born 350 years ago in 1666. Mary Tudor was born in 1516, and Elizabeth of York was born in 1466. In 1566 Agnes Waterhouse was the first woman executed in England for witchcraft; she was hanged.

I didn’t intend this to be yet another feminist rant, but I’m sure you take my point.

Let’s get back to good old Bill Shakespeare, the Great Fire of London, the First World War and the Battle of Hastings. Let’s get back to boys’ stuff and the patriarchy.

1916 was probably the bloodiest period of trench warfare during World War I. Verdun and the Somme will both be commemorated by the Mint in their World War I coin this year. Two million men died as a result of those two battles.

Every man who fought in the Great War and survived is now gone. Those who fought and died in the Great War did so out of duty and obligation, and out of loyalty and patriotism. The First World War should be studied, and those studies should be as objective as possible. I think it’s time to let go of the jingoistic fervour we have long held, and the righteous attitude some of us still espouse when it comes to historic wars. Sometimes, embedded in war there is, of course, right and wrong (we can all point at the Holocaust and believe in the evil of a regime), but war is generally about politics, ideologies, circumstances, strategies and alliances.

A hundred years on, it only remains for most of us to remember the lives lost and the soldiers who died doing their duty, whatever their nationalities. We remember our own first, of course we do, but for every branch of our own family tree nipped in the bud, a young man died who spoke another language, but might have been equally honest, hardworking, caring or talented.

The Mint has been striking coins to commemorate World War I since 2014, and I expect it will continue to do so through to 2018. It seems right and appropriate that it should.

The other war that will be commemorated by the Mint in 2016 is, of course, the Battle of Hastings. This is still one of the first things that most kids learn about in their first history lessons in school, or at least I assume it is. Dates aren't taught as much as they used to be, but say 1066 to anyone, and The Battle of Hastings has to be the first thing that springs to mind. I suppose, with a history as long and as colourful as ours has been, it’s inevitable that key moments resonate: The Battle of Hastings, the signing of Magna Carta… That sort of thing. In fact the eight hundredth anniversary of Magna Carta was celebrated with a £2 coin from the Mint last year.

Inevitably, the image chosen for the coin is from the Bayeux Tapestry, and even less surprisingly, it’s the death of Harold Godwinson, taking an arrow through the eye. It’s the first of several violent or morbid images on the coins this year. You’ll see others below. This one’s a particular niggle for me, because the Bayeux Tapestry is still being studied, and this image is highly debated. The arrow appears to be a later addition, and this might not be Harold at all. The King might be depicted in another panel, killed with a sword, the script above his head, ‘he is slain’. It’s all rather confusing, but the jury’s still out. It would have been more appropriate, perhaps to have used another panel from the tapestry, depicting the coronation of William the Conqueror.
Commemorative coins available from the Royal Mint

Let me say that I have no problem celebrating Shakespeare. I’m a fan. I wish his work was more widely studied. We all have a lot to learn from reading his work, as writers and readers, and as people. His plays were still widely read when I was at school thirty-five years ago, or so, and the sonnets, too. My children read him less than I did, and I wonder if he’s studied at all in schools now. It’s a pity.

My problem is that this has clearly been reflected in the choice of images for the coins that are to commemorate his death this year. The Mint has decided that the three coins dedicated to Shakespeare will depict a fool’s motley, Yorick’s skull and MacBeth’s crown and dagger. Motley isn’t specific to Shakespeare, and nor is the idea of a court jester or fool, so this is rather a generic idea, and I can’t help thinking that it’s a bit of a cop-out. That leaves us with the depiction of two tragedies, and probably the two plays that the British public is most familiar with. “Alas poor Yorick…” and “Is this a dagger I see before me…” are, perhaps the most quoted and quotable lines from Shakespeare. I’m not sure they’re the best, most representative, most interesting, enlightening or even (dare I say) the nicest images that might have been chosen. Are we entirely sure we want a skull and a dagger on our coins? Is it all rather morbid? Add these two images to the image of Harold Godwinson (?) taking an arrow to the eye in the coin to commemorate the Battle of Hastings, and a theme begins to emerge.

The Great Fire of London is something else that most of us know very little about, except what we might have learned in primary school. We know the date, I suppose, and that the fire took four days to bring under control. We know the story about Pudding Lane, and we might remember that Pepys was writing his diary at the time. Some of us might remember that the fire put an end to a nasty bout of the plague… On the other hand, I could be making all this up, and how many of you would know?

The devastation of our capital city seems like a strange thing to celebrate, to me, or are we commemorating it? Are we remembering that seventy thousand of the eighty thousand Londoners were displaced? I don’t know. Are we remembering the dead? I rather doubt it, since we don’t know how many died in the fire, or of smoke inhalation. We don’t know how many died in the chaos that followed. At the time, deaths from the fire were numbered in single figures, but I imagine those were the deaths of important people. How many bodies were destroyed so utterly in fires that reached temperatures up to 1700 degrees centigrade that there was no way to count them, and no one to do it? With 87 parish churches destroyed, who remained to record those deaths in parish records? 

London rose once more from the ashes of that devastation, as it has from other disasters. We are proud of the city and its long history. I wonder at the choice to celebrate or commemorate this destruction, though. I wonder what the intention is. I wonder whether we want to see an image of our city burning when we daily feel the threat of it happening again. 

Perhaps, after all, this is a positive reminder that London prevails, that despite everything, and whatever the threat, London has always survived. I hope that’s the intention, because I can see no other reason for this coin.

I rather like the idea that the Royal Mint produces coins to commemorate events and people from our history. I don’t entirely object to its choices for this year’s coins. I do have one or two issues, though. I regret that no women, apart from the Queen, are to be represented in this collection, when there were clearly women to choose from. I’m sorry, too, that more positive events in our history couldn’t have been rooted out. In the end, it’s the images themselves that I’m rather sad about. Death and destruction seem to have prevailed. It is only right that the World War I commemorative coin should be sober, solemn, even, but Shakespeare was so full of fun and wonder that much lighter images might have been found for his coins. The Battle of Hastings could have been represented by one of the beautiful images from the Bayeux Tapestry, which was, after all, made in England, but why this image? And depicting the Great Fire of London with the actual conflagration simply baffles me.

I won’t be ordering a set of the coins, and I don’t imagine I’ll see a great many of them in circulation, but I’ll certainly be taking a look at next year's collection to see what the Mint can come up with for 2017.

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