The Spanish Armada
Volume 53, Number 6, June 2016
Worthy of note BANKNOTES have been in the news recently–—on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only have there been some excellent sales with some simply stunning prices paid (a unique Palestinian £100 trial piece hammered at £85,000, a Straits Settlement $1,000 hammered at £70,000 and a St Lucia 5 /-made £24,000) but in the wider world notes have been very much in vogue too. In the past few weeks the Bank of England has announced that the next face of the £20, Britain’s most popular note, will be the painter Joseph Mallard William Turner, depicted alongside one of his most famous paintings The Fighting Temeraire. Turner, the “painter of light”, is a fitting subject for an English note—he’s reasonably well known, he’s inspirational, he’s dead (always a criteria) and he’s a painter—we haven’t had one of those before and yet we’ve had two writers (Dickens and Shakespeare) and are about to get another (Jane Austen). However, eagle-eyed viewers will have spotted that he’s also male and, inevitably, that has led to the old chestnut of too many men being represented on our notes being dragged out again (at least in certain areas of the media anyway). As I have said before, this argument doesn’t hold much water as, for right or wrong, the pool of famous and inspirational men from history is larger than the pool of famous and inspirational women. That’s just how it is, how this country’s history has panned out. It will change, is changing, but right now if you want somebody who is well-known, inspirational, not too contentious and historical (i.e. dead) you have far more men to choose from than women. That though hasn’t stopped the Scots with the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) announcing that their new £5 note will feature author Nan Shepherd, whilst their £10 note will feature scientist Mary Somerville. The US Treasury have gone even further with their note redesign: for some time now there has been a campaign to change the face of the $20 bill (www.womenon20s.org) with numerous opponents of the “old white man” image of American notes insisting it’s time for a change. Sure enough Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew has recently announced that Harriet Tubman, renowned abolitionist and herself a former slave, will be the new portrait on the $20 (getting rid of both “white” and “man” in one fell swoop) with the $10 and $5 also redesigned to feature women, most notably the leaders of the suffrage movement on the $10 and Eleanor Roosevelt on the $5. Such change has, for many, come none too soon but others are already complaining that this is all being done in the name of “political correctness” and actually there are far more worthy candidates for banknote immortality than those chosen. I can, I think, forgive the US Treasury their choice of Harriet Tubman, after all the abolition of slavery was a huge turning point in American history, caused the bloodiest of wars and forged the modern nation as we know it today, so commemorating somebody who was instrumental in that seems logical; Tubman surely shaped American history as assuredly as any Founding Father. Of the Scottish choices I’m not quite as convinced, Mary Somerville was hugely influential in her own right, hailed as “The Queen of Nineteenth Century Science” and is reasonably well known across Britain but I’m not certain the same can be said of Nan Shepherd. Is she really as well-known as, say Alexander Fleming, John Logie Baird or Alexander Graham Bell? Or if they desperately wanted a writer is she more famous than, say J. M Barrie, author of Peter Pan? The problem is with something like this is that maybe Nan Shepherd would have always been on the shortlist for RBS notes, maybe she would have won in her own right but because of the shouting and fuss made in certain quarters there are many who are saying that she’s only there because she’s a woman and not because she was especially influential. The same is being said in the US with opponents of the changes insisting the whole thing is just so much PC claptrap. This surely belittles the women who have been chosen to grace the notes, their presence there tainted by the accusations of favouritism and positive discrimination—how does that in any way help the cause of women? If people think a woman is only featured because someone shouts loud enough how does that promote equality in any way? Perhaps it is time to look again at the design of our notes and accept that putting people on them just causes division—maybe we should take a leaf out of the Euro’s book and just feature architecture in future. Although as was pointed out in Yanis Vaoufakis’ excellent book And the Weak Suffer What They Must? the Euro is used in countries with some of the most beautiful architecture in the world but because of divisions and in-fighting the bridges and arches featured have had to be invented lest they represent one country too much over others. It seems that in the world of banknotes anything can be seen as contentious!
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