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Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Friday, 11 April 2008 17:01 UK

Loose change

New coins

By Clive James

Some institutions need to be changed, but altering the ones that are just fine as they are just adds to uncertainty, says Clive James.

Charlton Heston died last Saturday. He was a pillar of conservatism and there were many who despised him on that account, but before we get to that, let's consider some other news that broke about the same time.

The Royal Mint, it was announced, has redesigned the coinage. The Royal Mint was suddenly a news story.

The first astonishing thing about the story was that the Royal Mint is still called the Royal Mint. You would think that by now it would have been rebranded as MintTM, in line with the way that the Royal Mail became Post OfficeTM so that it would be fully streamlined for its upcoming task of closing its own branches.

Clive James
Whether or not we should enjoy such bungles is a question easily settled - if we're in them, we hate them, and if we aren't, we love them

But no, the Royal Mint is still called the Royal Mint. It now proves, however, to have other means of moving forward into the permanently transitional era that Post OfficeTM has already occupied.

The Royal Mint's mode of embracing the future is to take those old coin designs that did nothing except to tell you what they were worth and turn them into works of post-modern art. This raises the question of whether there are any limits to the extent to which art should influence everyday life.

You might have thought that this question had already been answered by British Airways. Long before BA's participation in the recent and ongoing Terminal 5 launch happening - a multimedia event which has reinterpreted the connection between passengers and their luggage - BA turned the tailfins of its aircraft into display areas for modern paintings.

British Airways tail fins
These were ditched by BA...

Though the BA PR brains who conceived the tailfin art initiative were convinced that their handiwork vouched for the nation's thrusting creativity, the travelling public made it clear that they felt safer in an aircraft that had no visible connection with an art gallery.

There might be an art gallery in the city that the passengers left, and another art gallery in the city they were flying to, but they didn't want to be in an art galley as they flew between art galleries. Correcting the error cost almost as much money as committing it, but eventually things were put back more or less the way they were.

British Airways tail fins
...and the Union flag returned

If turning the coinage into an art gallery similarly proves to be a mistake, it's going to be harder to find the money to correct it, because this mistake is being made with the money.

So far there is no mention of turning the banknotes into Picassos - a possibility that would certainly not have appealed to Picasso, who was a keen collector of banknotes in all denominations, but who preferred them to look as traditional as possible.

The coins, however, will be turned into small works of art, and post-modern art at that. In other words, they will deconstruct traditional concepts of coin design. The Royal Shield of Arms will be broken up into pieces, one piece per coin across the range, thus providing us with a comment on the shield's previous unity, while releasing new possibilities of the asymmetrical and the unexpected.


The young winner of the Royal Mint's design competition, one Matthew Dent, aged 26, has himself put the purpose of his breakthrough into words: "To intrigue, to entertain, and raise a smile."

It's been argued that foreign visitors to Britain might have trouble with the denomination of coins that do not feature any numerals, only words. But as a foreign visitor who can read the words, I have to say that I'm having my troubles too.

We might have predicted that Naomi Campbell would throw a luggage-related wobbly

I have studied the designs closely, and so far I am intrigued only in the sense of wondering how on earth this latest case of the fidgets has been allowed to get so far, and I am entertained only in the sense that a previously dignified nation's ability to commit cultural self-mutilation is getting beyond a joke, and I am smiling only in the sense that if I laugh aloud it hurts.

Most of this adverse reaction will surely pass. When I get the actual coins in my hands I will no doubt be intrigued enough as I occupy some of my spare time in Terminal 5 trying to fit the bits of the Royal Shield of Arms together. Fitting round coins together so that they form the appropriate square picture sounds like a task for a particle physicist, but it could be intriguing to try.

And it might be entertaining for my granddaughter when I explain to her that the various fragments of design add up to a decontextualised commentary on an obsolete symbol which has been simultaneously retained and rendered ironic, a bit like Thomas the Tank Engine.

The bra-cam

But I'm afraid my smile can be raised no further. It's becoming a fixture, and I've started seeing it on the faces of other people too. It's the smile worn by anybody who can't help wondering why there is such a passion for changing anything stable at a time when instability can be relied on to rise like an unstoppable tide. It's practically the only thing that can be relied on.

We might have predicted that Naomi Campbell would throw a luggage-related wobbly in or near Terminal 5. After all, almost everybody else did.

Charlton Heston
Remember his civil rights courage?

We might have predicted that Madonna would take her Blackberry to bed so as not to miss the chance of making an important note about the mysteries of the Kabbalah, but would you have predicted that a sex worker in a Chelsea basement bordello would have captured the activities of one of her customers on a camera built into her bra? Would you have predicted the bra-cam? Neither would I. Yet after we read about these things, suddenly they seem normal.

They seem normal because abnormal happenings happen at such a rate that they cease to be differentiated. It remains true, of course, that if you weren't plugged into the news you would miss the full force of this tumult of innovation.

But a lot of it would still get to you even if you boarded up your windows, and the same would be true if you could be magically transported to ancient Rome. In fact it would feel worse. That was why the ancient Romans had so many gods and temples. It was because the flux of the arbitrary was so overwhelming. What's new about us is not just that so many things alter, but that we give so much leeway, and even honour, to those who pride themselves on altering what doesn't even need to be altered.

America is the great land of permanent innovation but nobody tries to revamp the money, and indeed the Americans go on minting one-cent coins even though it costs more than a cent to make each one. Andy Warhol painted dollar bills but if he had been allowed to design a dollar bill it would have been an intrusion of art into reality that would have devalued art and reality, which are separate things, neither of which would be interesting if they weren't separate.

There are things that need to stay the same because everything else doesn't

When a chair features in a cubist painting by Picasso, it can intrigue, entertain and raise a smile. Look, there's one leg, and there's another, and there's the bit you sit on. Even my granddaughter will realise that it's brilliant, when she's old enough to grasp that the thing and the picture of the thing can be fascinatingly different.

But Picasso, though he painted cubist pictures of a chair, still wanted a non-cubist chair he could sit on, just as he wanted money that told him where it came from, and how much it was worth: money which, no matter how carefully designed it was, still left the actual art to him. Since his death there have been stamp issues in both France and Spain that carry reproductions of some of his most wonderful pictures, but never while he was alive did anyone dream of asking him to redesign the coinage, and if anyone had he would have packed his bags and left immediately for some country where the philistines were still in charge of the mint.

There are things that need to stay the same because everything else doesn't. This attitude is sometimes called conservatism, which finally brings us to Charlton Heston. In his later years he wanted to conserve the second amendment to the constitution, which supposedly guarantees the right of private citizens in the US to own guns. People who want that amendment changed thought he was dangerous.

I myself sympathised much more with them than with him. There is such a thing as an institution that needs to be abolished, because it is no longer any good. But there are other institutions that need to be kept. Some of those are obviously vital, and even those that might seem not to be can still have the inestimable value of providing us with a hand-hold in the storm.

Uncertainty overdose

Earlier in his life, Heston was a radical who wanted another constitutional principle conserved: that all are created equal. One of the tallest white champions for civil rights, he marched for justice in the open air and could easily have been shot by one of the people whose right to bear arms he later strove to protect.

His memory should be respected for trying to conserve a principle so important. He's more likely to be remembered for trying to conserve the gun laws, because he did that more recently, and only the recent counts.

But that's the very reason for trying to conserve things that are neither plainly crucial nor obviously noxious: just recognized parts of a civilised existence, and not to be replaced without adding to the uncertainties of which we already have a surfeit.

You could call them the small change of life. There was a case for decimalising the coinage. But for turning it into a jig-saw puzzle? Save us.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The coin design is certainly something new and I find refreshing, also coins have been changing in designs to many untraditional images for years, which you'd know unless you've not looked closely at coins for the past 20 years. This change has been expected, if you wanted to do something about it perhaps you should have started when they first removed Britannia from the fifty pence piece? Art can enrich us all, art is a part of our every day lives, so why not have artistic coinage? Can we not aspire to something better than staid, stuffy and gray in our country, in our lives?
James D, Derby, U.K.

Change for its own sake is no virtue. All change should first be evaluated by means of a long range, widest viewed benefit/cost analysis to determine whether or not it has net benefit for the purpose of optimizing the evaluator's lifetime happiness.
Kitty Antonik Wakfer, Casa Grande AZ USA

I love how much vitriol has been spewed by columnists about the new coin designs. I don't know what the most eloquent or articulate way of saying this is but: THEY'RE COINS, THEY'RE STILL WORTH THE SAME AMOUNT, CARE ABOUT MORE IMPORTANT THINGS
Adam, Leicester

I agree with Clive generally that we appear to be grasping change for change's sake with both hands and snogged it senseless. However, I would argue that changes to coinage have been around for a long time, even if they have not been in the headlines. If you look at the 1 already in circulation they have aspects of our history on them. Two of the designs represent the United Kingdom with the Royal Arms and the Royal Shield, and the three regional sets of four - the Floral Series, the Heraldic Series and the Bridge Series represent the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Other coins such as the 50p and 2 both have been issued in what might be called 'special editions' to commemorate events or anniversaries. With this in mind, I'm not quite sure why Clive is so worried by all of this. Congratulates to Matthew his success.
Alex M, Leeds

This article is extremely depressing, it comes across as a general moan. I think the new design is fantastic. I love Britain and our coins are one of the last few items that are still truly British. With the Queen on one side and a 'decontextualised commentary on an obsolete symbol which has been simultaneously retained and rendered ironic' on the other a.k.a. Royal Shield of Arms. Sometimes I feel all we do as Britons is moan. We moan about tax, foreigners entering the country; the weather. You name it we're just not happy unless we're whinging about something. I work in the police which seems built on a foundation of miserable, whinging officers. I realise that I to am also having a moan and therefore being somewhat hypocritcal, but I think it's about time we start praising things a little more and concentrating on our successes as opposed to our failures.
Alison, London

Clive James is brilliant as usual. He's right. Lets preserve what needs to be preserved, change what needs to be changed; and pray to God we can understand the difference.
Kripamoya Das, Radlett, Herts, UK

The design change is ludicrous. Why is it that outrageous amounts of cash are thrown at this sort of pointless "rebranding" exercise (and then at correcting, to some - usually unsatisfactory - degree the horrendous mistake), but not on airy fairy concepts like the NHS, education, ridding ourselves of the chasm between rich and poor? Someone's pal is getting their palms greased. As to Heston, I admired his commitment to equal rights for non-white Americans. I was less than thrilled with his hatred of queer people, not to mention becoming the public face of the NRA at a time when it had allied itself with the religious right against a raft of civil liberties. Every time I watch one of his films, it's with the knowledge that the concept of the Hero is too simple for mere mortals to achieve.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

Having just returned from a trip to the Far East, where I have been wholly reliant on the numerals, I consider it would be crassly stupid not to include the numerals on our own currency! As for the design, OK but it lacks Britishness, sort of anonymous, is there a hidden agenda here? To echo Clive's real point, if ain't broke don't fix it, and please don't waste my money unnecessarily farting around.
Marcus, Milford Haven

Clive of Indecision is right! What prat gave this art student the okay to muck around with the family silver? Like so many works of 'art' this art school exercise would be best left on the wall as a picture "To intrigue, to entertain, and raise a smile." Call me old-school pragmatic but I want coins that work.
John , Christchurch, NZ

Interested to read that US still make the 1 cent coin even though it costs more than a cent to make. I wonder how many English 1p pieces do it take to make 1lb in weight as at the moment scrap values have risen to about 1.40 per lb. Maybe it's profitable to weigh them in.
Alan Pollard, Stockport


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