It was appropriate that Dermot should deliver the container of coins. He drove a van for Peter Lyons’s bakery in Drogheda, a van that advertised gold-medal-winning bread, gold medals from London in 1883 and 88. The medals were depicted on the van. I thought that Peter needed to lift his game, seventy years on. You’re only as good as your last loaf. It was nice bread all the same. Perhaps English tastes had changed, over the years. He made lovely buns too. Taste is a strange thing. I remember bread vans passing one another in opposite directions, to and fro. The goods from elsewhere are always more exotic, even if it’s only from Drogheda or Navan. When we got old enough to be cool, we referred to money as bread. Very cool.
Dermot conveyed the coins for a young Drogheda swain who fancied my sister. The swain ( a ludicrous word, inviting amused ridicule) wasted his time in being nice to the young brother. I got to ride on his racing bike—one leg under the crossbar, not quite Anquetil or Fausto Coppi. There were loads of gears and a derailleur to catch the unwary. (Derailleur—sounds like an accident.) I didn’t need bicycle clips, as I was still in short trousers. I still have most of the coins. The swain got nowhere. ‘On yer bike,’ the most peremptory of dismissals. I knew a student who brought his bicycle clips when he went out drinking, but we needn’t dwell on that.
Some of the coins disappeared into our childrens’ school projects. Our grandchildren use them to make roads for toy cars. They are no longer in mint condition, no longer ’eminently collectible,’ as they say on the antique shows, I like to think that I have lost hundreds of thousands of Euro in value, through my neglect. It’s only money. What is money? I never understood it. Somebody out there dials numbers into my account. I don’t see any cash. I stick a plastic card into a machine and (occasionally) cash comes out. I can offer this card in shops and dial in a secret code. Nobody gets any cash, but on a good day, I walk away with goods. (Economists use the singular form, a good.) ‘Can I help you, Sir?’ ‘Yes please. I wish to purchase a good.’ ‘Very good, Sir.’ Economists tell us that this carry-on saves the banks a great deal of money. I ask for nothing from the dismal scientists, nada, nowt, nichevo, zilch, zero, maybe a few zeros on the end of the sum dialled into my account. It can’t hurt anyone to add a few nothings. It would stimulate trade. I would feel good.
I got an email inviting me to invest in Bitcoins. When I opened it, the screen was blank. The attraction of Bitcoins is that they don’t exist. A finite number of Bitcoins was “mined”. You can create a “virtual wallet” in which to store them. They increase in value because they are rare.They don’t rain from Heaven. You can’t spend an idle afternoon tossing them on a street corner. They don’t jingle in your pocket or drop, when you get the joke, or realise something that had eluded you for years. You can’t stick one in a machine and win a jackpot. I suspect that they exist only in an algorithm, a word beyond the ken of ordinary mortals. The modern alchemists transmute numbers into wealth, or so they assure us. Don’t forget the little spot, the decimal point. Things that are rare, have value, like the emperor’s new clothes.
By a circuitous route, this brings me to King George V, Rex Ind Imp Fid Def and more. His butler brought the freshly ironed newspaper to him, one morning. ‘I see, Your Majesty, that someone has paid £40,000.00 for a stamp.’ Light early morning conversation with the King-Emperor. ‘What idiot would pay that amount of money for a stamp?’ The king was a keen stamp collector. ‘Actually,’ rumbled His Majesty, ‘I am that idiot.’ (Figures open to revision.) Philately will get you nowhere. I grouped the coins with his image, to represent some of the colonies collected by him and his forebears. He wears the imperial crown abroad, but rarely at home. Still, he looks the part. [click on the large group and then click on individual coins] I loved the sense of elsewhere: British Borneo, Rhodesia, Suid Afrika, Canada, Hong Kong, East Caribbean States, Guernsey, Straits Settlements (Dire, or otherwise?) Hibernia and of course, the Jewel in the Crown, British India. I loved the artistry of the coin makers, the arms of the colonies, emu and kangaroo rampant, the echidna, the weapons and implements, the flowers and wildlife. It was a wide world. There are a few silver ones but no gold.
Why gold? There will be no more gold. It was formed at the heart of a supernova. It is finite, in this galaxy anyway. It drives people mad. They go out into lonely places and tear the earth apart in the quest for this precious metal. You can make teeth out of it. Ancient emperors made grave goods out of it, in an effort to take it with them. A former TB patient told me that he was just in time for the new drugs. Shortly before his time, patients got trial gold injections. They perked up immediately but after a week, they turned blue and died. You can buy gold-plated bathroom taps and possibly a gold-plated car. It doesn’t tarnish. Most of all, it backs currencies–or used to. Theoretically you can exchange a note for its equivalent in gold, but you can’t. The pound note guaranteed that you could exchange it for a pound in silver, not a pound of silver, but ten florins, made of nickle. They were called silver coins.
It’s a nice chair, but it could do with some cushions. The arm rests are too thin. They would cut off the circulation if you tried to read the paper.
During World War II, South Africa provided Britain with its gold. There are ships at the bottom of the sea, packed to the gunwales with South African gold ingots. There are even sunken submarines full of gold. The South Africans resorted to smelting the gold for Britain and storing it in vaults, pending the end of the war. They issued certificates for the equivalent amount of gold. Then they hit upon a wheeze. Why not leave the gold underground in the mines, where it was safe, instead of mining, smelting and guarding it in vaults —under the ground? Brilliant! They issued certificates for the value of the gold that they didn’t mine. The certificates were made of paper. They worked just as well as the metal. Nowadays they would be electronic transactions. Like the alchemists of old, the important thing is to believe.
The Irish coins, above, show sturdy farm animals, fish, a hound, poultry. I’m missing a few, a hare, a woodcock, a pig. I put a Spanish horse beside the Irish hunter. The Spanish horse is rearing up in flamboyant fashion. The first designs for our currency were made by an Italian, altogether too extravagant for us. Percy Metcalfe took things in hand. He gave us our own animals, not a lot of Renaissance, over-endowed bulls and stallions scandalising the spending public. You may see the rejected designs in the National Museum. The Portuguese like ships, expressive of their great seafarers and their colonial empire. Empires like eagles, spreadeagles and two-headed eagles. My all time favourite is the American buffalo five cent piece. There is a Native American on the other side, a story of a vanishing history. ‘In God We Trust’—all others pay cash.
A bruised and aggrieved gentleman took a young lady to court for assault and battery. ‘Why did you strike the gentleman?’ asked the judge. ‘ ‘Because he called me a two-bit hooker, your honour,’ she replied. ‘And what did you strike him with?’ ‘I hit him with a bag of nickles, your honour.’ It might have been safer to tender her a cheque.
Our Minister for Justice rented a house in Skerries for a month in the summer. Dermot knew nothing about this change of occupancy. He arrived with his usual delivery. It was raining. He sprinted for the door, with an armload of bread. Suddenly he was pinned to the ground by two armed Special Branch men. On another occasion he sprinted to my neighbour’s house with a similar armful. It was also raining. The neighbour’s wife opened the door. Dermot’s momentum carried him into the parquet floored hallway. They both slipped. The bread went everywhere. They couldn’t get up. My neighbour, hearing the commotion, ran out to find his wife on the flat of her back and Dermot spreadeagled on top of her. Did he notice that Dermot had lovely buns? He never mentioned that.
Our sturdy coins have dwindled, just as King George’s Empire has dwindled. The shilling bull has shrunken to a 5c calf. The salmon has become a sardine. It costs more than 1c to mint a 1c coin. The gold is in the stories, not in the sovereigns, guineas or medals. If you find that your faith in money has been shaken by any of the foregoing, you may send your cash to me. I will put it under my mattress and keep it safe, like the French peasants were always reputed to do when war was threatening. No Bitcoins please. Coin of the realm only. I will give you a receipt.