Monday, 17 November 2008

The Full Shilling

When I was small, my mother used to work in a shoe shop. As it was known that I was interested in Old Things, the women in the shop would keep an eye on the till, in case any old coins turned up in the change. In the days before decimalisation, this happened surprisingly often. Victorian coins were still in everyday circulation, and older ones would turn up from time to time: the Georgian "cartwheel" penny of 1797 was not uncommon, usually worn to a richly smooth, deep bronze-brown patina. As these fat pennies weigh exactly one ounce, they had often been kept and used as kitchen weights. No doubt they were regularly put back into circulation when granny died and her kitchen was cleared out.

A pocketful of pennies was not a negligible thing when I was a boy. The standard 20th century penny weighed 1/3 of an ounce, and measured 1.25 inches across, a substantial chunk of metal. Trouser pockets were deeper and made of tougher stuff than they are today, and even a dainty purse resembled a feed bag. The traditional English male affection for baggy tailoring can perhaps be attributed to the need to accommodate a veritable cosh of loose change slapping against a chap's thigh. (Please insert your own "... Or are you just pleased to see me?" joke here).

My prize find from the shoe shop's till, though, was a silver William III sixpence, dated 1697 and in fine condition: fully one hundred years older than even a cartwheel penny, itself 165 years old in 1962. Its age seemed prodigious to me, and I would often simply gaze at it, as evidence that the past had really existed. In fact, I still do from time to time.

Tokens of the past like this are now very rarely turned up in the present by the plough of everyday life. No coin now in circulation in Britain was minted before 1968. With decimalisation and the abolition of the shilling, we entered a new world. British children no longer had to learn to divide and multiply by 12 and 20 (and yet: ever wondered why UK primary schoolkids still learn "times tables" that go up to twelve? A nation of shopkeepers, indeed). Life became easier, but a lived connection with the past had been severed. Old expressions were devalued: "The King's shilling," "Not the full shilling," etc. -- these are more foreign now than a "groatsworth of wit" was then. After all, it made perfect sense in 1962 to say that a groat was "fourpence"; but now it's equivalent to about 1.666666666666666667 new pence ... I suppose it's a sign of age when your stories require explanatory footnotes.

I'm not a coin collector, but recently I developed a craving for an Elizabethan penny. We have recently seen three brilliant Shakespeare productions with our kids (Rupert Goold's Tempest at the Strand, Much Ado About Nothing at the National Theatre, and Filter Theatre's Twelfth Night at the Nuffield, Southampton), and I've also been caught up in the latest round of Shakespeare-bio fever (The Lodger and 1599, etc.). I wanted to own a penny piece of silver, which had been the price of admission to the theatre in Shakespeare's time -- ideally from around 1597, for obvious reasons of symmetry.

As it happened, I didn't have to look far. A local jewellery shop had several for a few pounds each, tiny and worn but with a clear grey ghost of a queen in the silver mist. I'm told the heads on Elizabethan coins are frequently worn like this, as people kept them as "touchpieces", rubbing the old queen's head for luck; there's also often a hole where they have been sewn into someone's clothing. These pennies are almost as small and as delicate as sequins.

A year ago my mother died. She had a hard last few years, bewildered and adrift in dementia, her store of memories and experiences in tatters. On the way to her funeral, I stopped off in our old home town. The shoe shop was long gone, of course. More surprising, the block of flats where we lived had been demolished and was being built over. It had only been built in 1952. "Only" being 55 years ago, of course. Sometimes it can seem as if the world is just passing the time, busy doing nothing: endlessly renewing and tidying itself out of existence. Prospero's words from The Tempest come to mind:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a wrack behind.
A few years before she vanished into dementia, Mum gave me some other coins that I'd always wanted: four, tiny silver threepenny bits from her first wage packet, given as rent to my grandparents somewhere around 1939. They had never been spent, and for decades the coins lived in an enamelled metal eggcup on their sideboard. I was allowed to get them down and look at them on Sunday afternoon visits. Two of them, Victorian, are even more worn than my Elizabethan pennies. Almost gone, but still here, you might say.

So, pace Prospero, perhaps the odd old coin can slip through a crack in time, to keep us company from the past.

The one on the left has been in one pocket for one year
The one on the right has been in and out of many pockets for 265 years

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