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Change is in your pocket

11 April 2008

Felix Cohen (London, oD): Change is afoot, both here and across the Pond. Except more literally here. The Royal Mint has announced the introduction of new coins designed by Welsh designer Matthew Dent (more on his Welshness shortly).

Meanwhile, in the States, the new $5 bill is soon to be launched. It's so ugly I don't even want to put it in this article, but you can see it here. The dollar bill has always been something of an accessibility problem; people with poor sight find it hard to differentiate between the notes, which are not significantly differently sized or coloured (unlike the wonderfully accessible and ornate British notes). So the addition of a big, ugly, Helvetica numeral in the bottom right corner probably does help somewhat, but at the expense of eye-bleeding ugliness. (nota bene: I'm not a Helvetica hater)

Anyway, back to the British coinage, which is a numismatic wonder. What you may not be able to see from the image above is that the coins, when arranged just-so, form the Royal Arms.

Which is stunning; and a very modern, precise design for the Mint to have suggested. The shield of the Royal Arms, however, seems to be a surprising choice for a Welsh designer, as it leaves out any Welsh emblematics (for historical reasons): covering instead, clockwise from bottom left, the harp of Ireland, the 3 lions passant of England (also in the bottom right) and the Scottish Lion Rampant. No leeks, no Dragons.

Now, I'm just a design nut, so when Anthony first suggested to me that there is something more deeply significant here, I was nonplussed. Reflecting on the design later, though, I can see it. The fragmentation of the Royal Shield across the new coinage (which one imagines will be in service for at least a few years) is rather symptomatic of a devolved, parliamentarily separated UK. Even though the £1 coin, the most valuable of the collection, shows the complete shield, each other coin only shows fragments of our country's identity.It's emblematic, therefore, not so much of a United Kingdom, but of the government's struggle to come to terms with what Britishness means; a citizens summit sans Northern Ireland, a new coinage sans the Welsh, though of course never ignoring the Scots, who hold Labour's future in their hands. Gordon's Britain is like these coins; from a distance, it forms a lovely jigsaw puzzle, seen close up, the pieces don't fit and every edge has gaps.

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