Stephen McGinty: Taking a swipe at changes
When one thinks of the £1 coin, the curious case of the artist, the padlock and the Victorian gas lamp-post does not spring immediately to mind. But of the things to admire in Arnold Michin, who 30 years ago this month saw his particular design of the monarch’s noble countenance grace the new coin, first there was his considerable artistic ability and second there was his considerable appetite for confrontation. The traditional Englishman’s approach to an example of bureaucratic irritation is to sigh heavily, but, mind, not too heavily and then pen a sturdy letter of complaint to the Times on the theme of: ‘Why, oh why?’
Then again, Michin was never one to pen a pointed missive when it could be replaced by a physical act of courage, which is why in the summer of 1956 the Master of Sculpture at the Royal Academy could be found chained to an old metal lamp-post outside his villa in Stoke-upon-Trent.
Unlike protestors today who, prior to applying themselves via coils of bound steel to an inanimate object, prefer to first dress in a blue boiler suit so as not to ruin their clothes in any future altercation with the police, Michin believed that one should dress as a gentleman while in the defence of beauty against acts of municipal barbarism. So, in the old black and white photograph that later appeared in the local press, he is dressed smartly in tie and three-piece suit and looks rather dashing beside his “date” for the day, a classic example of, as he would say it, Victorian architecture.
When speaking to the press from his new perch, he explained that he did so not just because councillors had seen fit to replace a perfectly good, and rather beautiful, utilitarian object for a new concrete lamp, but to protest “against the destruction of all the beautiful things which is going on in this country”.
Just as his protests against the Second World War as a conscientious objector had failed to secure peace without war – but did earn him a nine-month prison sentence – so, too, did his protests against Stoke Council’s arbitrary vandalism end in failure. But instead of a prison sentence, he was allowed to keep the lamp with which he was briefly in bondage and he planted it in his garden.
I can find no comment on what Michin made of the decision, 30 years ago this month, to replace the perfectly adequate £1 note with a small, heavy coin made from 70 per cent copper, 24.5 per cent zinc and 5.5 per cent nickel. Surely he must have been outraged at the beautiful, papery slip being sent off to the furnaces of the Bank of England, to be replaced by this heavy little thug.
Did he not see the dangers of taking the pound, that most crucial unit of financial measurement and re-zoning it from a note to a mere coin, banishing it from the snug warm of the wallet or purse where it had so long nestled beside its fellow notes, the £10, the £20 and, well, once in a while, that sophisticated red filly, the £50 note?
In such moneyed company the £1 nurtured aspirations to grow, to band together with four others of its fellows and metamorphose, from green chrysalis to blue butterfly, and eventually emerge as a fiver.
By being cast out, then re-cast as a coin, the £1 was evicted from the purse and wallet to the pocket, where he was required to slum it with coppers and other coins. His aspirations to grow were too easily diminished as he found himself not traded up for a £5 note, but broken down to a 50p piece and five tens. For the introduction of the £1 coin reframed our attitude to money. Within 21 years, £1, once valued, was reduced in 57 per cent of people’s minds to “loose change” and it is sure to have tumbled further still in the last nine years.
I feel sure there is an appropriate analogy to link the introduction of the £1 to Thatcherism but, as of 1:28pm on Friday afternoon I’m stumped as to what it actually is, if I do finally think of something, or better still, if someone suggests something that I can pass off as my own astonishing insight I shall announce it in a future tweet.
But the curious thing is that, although it was introduced under her watch, Mrs Thatcher didn’t seem to be too keen on these little coins, (you can imagine the grocer’s daughter brooding on the seismic shift of rearranging the till, shunting what once was a note down among the coins) and, less than nine months after the introduction, announced in parliament that the phasing out of the £1 note may not happen on account of the unpopularity of the little fellows.
Neil Kinnock, by comparison, did like them as they allowed the leader of the Labour Party to mock the Prime Minister for he insisted the new coin should be referred to as a “Thatcher” as it is “thick, brassy and thinks it’s a sovereign”. OK, I get the reference to what can technically be described as the first £1 coin – which was minted in 1489 by Henry VII, was made of pure gold and became known as the sovereign – but even in 1983 could anyone really accuse Thatcher of being thick? Unless, of course, he was referring to the density of her leathery carapace.
Still, we know that the poor £1 note was phased out in 1988, except in Scotland where Royal Bank of Scotland, in an astonishing display of fiscal prudence, thought it best to keep the £1 note for a rainy day. Apparently there are still 17 million circulating around Scotland, five million from the last batch printed in 2001 and each bearing the signature of Fred Goodwin. Apparently, if you hand these ones into the bank you get tuppence back.
So, under the Union, we Scots enjoy the best of both worlds, allowing our £1 notes to breed into £5 or break down as coins into loose change. And then there is the Royal Mint’s advisory committee on the design of coins, medals, seals and decorations, founded in 1922 and previously chaired by Prince Phillip (it is the Mint’s job, for instance, to debate Britannia’s bra size and conclude, for the sake of consistency, that she is a 36B. Honest.).
Between 1983 and 2008, the committee ensured that every five years we Scots got our very own £1 coin ringed with the Latin inscription: “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit (No One Provokes Me With Impunity)”, the motto of the Order of the Thistle and a reverse side that featured, among others, the Lion rampant (1994) and the Forth Road Bridge (2004).
In the first year, the Royal Mint produced 443,053,510 £1 coins and today there are more than 100 billion in circulation of which roughly 4 per cent are counterfeit or, to put it another way, one in 35.
For those of a loose moral character, who find it tiresome to pay full price for a vending machine Twix and a packet of Golden Wonder Worcester Sauce flavoured crisps, it might be worth noting that the lilangeu, a Swaziland coin is of exactly the same size, weight and dimensions as the £1 coin but of considerably less value at just 7p, leaves the average vending machine confused. It should, however, be pointed out that this does constitute fraud.
So, how should we feel as they celebrate their 30th birthday on 21 April. I’m not quite sure. I prefer having a few £1 notes tucked in my wallet for the greater – though entirely imaginary – feeling of fiscal security as compared to having two £1 coins in my pocket.
Wait a minute, I’ve just fished two of the coins out of my pocket, one from 1990 and a 2004, but what is most interesting is how much weight the Queen has put on during those intervening 14 years, that once taught jaw-line which she seemed to hang on to for an extra few decades has sadly now begun to sag. (The dispensation received from the Royal Mint’s advisory committee against the ravages of time has clearly been rescinded, I wonder if Phillip had to recuse himself.)
One thing is for certain – like many of Thatcher’s children – the £1 coin is not destined to last. Can I really imagine it celebrating it’s 60th birthday as the world thunders towards increasing digitisation and when debit cards and banking apps on smartphones allow us to pay for even the smallest purchase with a swipe instead of a fumble for loose change? Not really.