Paper money – once so ubiquitous that shifting hefty amounts of it required several armoured vehicles that were nevertheless extremely vulnerable to a certain criminal element; no British TV cop series of the 70s was complete without at least one episode devoted to a ‘blag’, most of which were inspired by endless and regular real-life robberies that were inevitable when all money was physical and banks and businesses had no other way of transferring cash from A to B. Everyone carried a purse or wallet stuffed with paper as opposed to cards back before the ‘invisible money’ that constitutes so many transactions today became the norm. In many respects, it is the old-school appeal of paper money that now renders it almost quaint or, dare I say it, kitsch.
A new £5 note goes into circulation today. Not only does it have a new face gracing the flipside of Her Majesty – Sir Winston Churchill – but it is also smaller than the current model and comes in a new format; no longer bog-standard paper, but polymer. Polymer is a form of plastic that has been introduced in order to give the new fiver a lifespan longer than that commonly associated with the usual paper banknote, particularly the £5. The average fiver has just less than two years in circulation before being withdrawn and reissued, probably because it’s the most used of all the banknotes; during that period, it will be exchanged approximately 258 times. Tenners last slightly longer, around three years; just fewer than six is the average for £20 notes, whereas that rare beast the £50 note is estimated to last about 40 years. When polymer eventually becomes the standard material of which British banknotes are made, the lifecycle of the £50 note is expected to stretch to a century.
Anyone old enough to remember the old £1 note might recall the final incarnation of it, introduced in 1978; Sir Isaac Newton was on the reverse, the one and only time the lowest denomination note featured anyone other than the Queen. Considerably smaller than its predecessor – in fact, closer in size to the pre-decimal Ten Bob note – it was finally withdrawn from circulation ten years after its introduction, succeeded by the pound coin. I remember cursing the change when I lost one of the first pound coins to find itself in my wallet, surmising I’d dropped it on the soft carpet of a book shop once I realised it was gone; my theory at the time was that I’d never have lost a pound note in the same way. Possibly true, but I think I was also mourning the loss of the first banknote to vanish in my lifetime – the first banknote I had regular access to when even a fiver had a magical aura around it, the first banknote that would occasionally appear in birthday cards from generous relatives. I even preserved one in a plastic folder just before it disappeared for good. If it had been made of polymer, perhaps it might still be with us.
The need to upgrade and update banknotes in terms of design and the materials from which they’re made is a relatively recent development. As an iconic aesthetic object, the banknote has come on in leaps and bounds from the centuries when it was little more than a piece of paper with a fancy script printed upon it. The monarch’s face has only been seen on notes since 1960, though her presence is exclusive to Bank of England notes issued in England and Wales; she is noticeably absent from those issued in Scotland and Northern Ireland – though most of us in this part of the UK would find it hard to imagine such an absence. Prior to the debut of Brenda on the banknote, this aspect of the currency was a fairly anonymous-looking article. As for Great British cultural figures on the flipside, they’re an even more recent innovation.
The first non-Royal face to feature on a Bank of England note was William Shakespeare, who debuted on the £20 note on the eve of decimalisation in 1970; he held the spot for a record-breaking 23 years until finally replaced by Michael Faraday, whose decade on the note was ended by Elgar. The composer made way for the current star Adam Smith at the beginning of the 2010s, though the Scottish economist himself will be superseded by JMW Turner around 2020.
The two that stand out from childhood for me were – tellingly – on lower denomination notes, and a pair that also had a lengthy run: the Duke of Wellington and Florence Nightingale. Appearing on the £5 (from 1971) and the £10 (from 1975), these nineteenth century giants enjoyed a couple of decades on the reverse of their respective notes and became so associated with them that it was difficult to envisage anyone else in their place. But Wellington was succeeded by George Stephenson and Elizabeth Fry, whilst Nightingale was replaced by Dickens and then Darwin.
The ludicrous storm that broke when the campaign to get the face of Jane Austen on the flipside of the tenner was announced as a success unleashed some extraordinary vile bile online, which either proves a) There are a lot of nasty bastards out there; b) There are even more out there who are too thick to read books with the kind of superlative wit and expert study of human nature that Austen mastered; or c) People still care passionately about their paper money. It’d be nice to think the third of those options was the case, but I imagine the unpleasant furore probably owes more to the first two. Having said that, I have a feeling people do still care about paper money.
Whilst those with a vested interest in the alternatives are forever predicting the demise of paper money, it nevertheless soldiers on and the arrival of a new and apparently more durable version suggests it will be with us for some time to come. And I for one am quite happy with that; there’s still nothing quite like that crispy note in your hand to make you feel like you’ve won the Pools – even if you haven’t.
© The Editor