A pound coin (like our rupee) is in itself an admission of devaluation. When I first came to England 63 years ago, a £1 note (first issued by the Bank of England in 1797) was a substantial sum of money. So was 10 shillings (half a pound), which was also a note. After the 10-shilling note was withdrawn in 1970, the pound became the smallest denomination note but it wasn’t abolished until 1988 in favour of the new-fangled coin.
As Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism noted, the rupee suffered an even more sensational fall (“Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side”) under incompetent, uncaring and not especially honest governments. Indian coins are tawdry. An eight-anna — sorry, 50-paise — piece now closely resembles a rupee, both light bits of unconvincing alloy. All contemporary Indian coins seem extraordinarily cheap.
The Bank of England has promised to change the 500 million one-pound coins still circulating as well as the 433 million others that are lost down the backs of sofas, forgotten in car ashtrays or — most often — stashed away in piggy banks across the country. That reminds me of my own childhood piggy bank packed with the copper one-pice coins with a hole in the centre. Old people looked askance at them during World War II.
People expected the pound sterling to be eternal like the silver Maria Theresa dollar, which remained legal currency in the Persian Gulf for centuries. Sheikhs and sultans happily minted it with the empress’ head, but bearing the last year of her reign as Empress of Austria. The gold English guinea with the imperial head enjoys similar immortality in India but for a different reason.
Doctors and lawyers no longer quote their fees in guineas, and no one carries a bag of guineas for small change, like the historian Tapan Ray Chaudhuri’s father did. Guineas are prized for their metal although — perhaps because of that — they do play a role in ceremonial exchanges in certain milieus. In Bengal, for instance, it was customary for a new son-in-law to make his first obeisance to his mother-in-law with a guinea. She blessed him in return with two guineas.
As the price of gold soared, so did counterfeiting. In the era of England’s gold sovereigns, unscrupulous operators shaved off the precious metal round the edges, which prompted the Royal Mint to introduce the fine ridges round the edge called milling. The new pound is described as the “most secure coin in the world”.
Bombast and insecurity go hand in hand with politicians. May hasn’t blamed this year’s seven terrorist attacks in Britain on the currency. But with one in 30 old pounds in circulation being fake, she may wonder how many shekels it will take to bring her government down. Not that anyone has reported carloads of doomed pounds being rushed across the border. Nor does Britain’s prime minister blame any neighbouring country for her troubles. Despite Brexit and the pound’s deterioration, it’s still the proud coin of a self-confident realm.