If Charles Darwin taught us anything, it’s that nothing is permanent. Things change. It’s inevitable.
Back in April, the Bank of England announced that Sir Winston Churchill is to replace Elizabeth Fry on its £5 note. Good call, if you ask me: Churchill certainly had his faults, but he is perhaps our most famous statesman, was a great orator, and was our leader in what many people think of as our finest hour; Elizabeth Fry is mainly remembered, when she’s remembered at all, for, well, being on the back of the £5 note. It sounds like a total no-brainer.
And yet, over the last couple of weeks, the Bank of England has been severely criticised for its decision to replace Fry with Churchill on the fiver, as it means that, the queen excepted, there will no longer be any women on any of its bank notes. Finally, having been put on the spot last week, the bank’s outgoing governor, Sir Mervyn King, hinted very strongly that Jane Austen could soon replace Charles Darwin on £10 note (he actually said Dickens, not Darwin, but we knew what he meant).
To be honest, I’ve been bracing myself for the inevitable loss of the Darwin tenner. Having campaigned to have Darwin celebrated on a bank note, I’ll be very sad to see it go. But it’s only a piece of paper. When it comes to imminent extinction events, there are far more important things we should be worrying about.
It’s not just women who are in short supply on our bank notes. There are no representatives of ethnic minorities. There are, as far as I know, no gay men or lesbians. There is no one from the North of England (by any northerner’s definition of the North of England at least). There are no Welsh. There are, however, two Scots (James Watt and Adam Smith)—even though Scotland has its own banks and bank notes. Go figure. To add insult to injury, once Darwin goes, there will be no beards—although, if you ask me, Her Majesty is starting to show a hint of five o’clock shadow.
But it’s a moot point: how on Earth do you decide who deserves to go on the next bank note? There’s no right answer.
Oh, for Pete’s sake!
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that not a single man in possession of a Y-chromosome is going to want such a misfortune. Yes, yes, I know, Jane Austen is superb. She must be: everyone says so. And they all say so because they all heard so from someone else who hasn’t actually read her. Or, if they have read her, it’s only because they were forced to read her for English Lit., when they had to say she was superb to avoid getting an ‘F’. And they probably didn’t even read her then; they probably just bought the study guide, and watched the latest TV series/movie on DVD. Trust me, kids, you really can get away with stuff like that in English Lit.—I write from personal experience (grade A ‘O’ Level, 1981, and I still haven’t read two of the books).
True, Jane Austen did come a magnificent 70th in the 2002 BBC 100 Great Britons national poll—a mere 66 places behind Charles Darwin, and a mere 67 places (I kid you not) behind Diana, Princess of Wales. So it seems only fair that Austen should grace a bank note before the likes of Captain Cook, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Sir Cliff Richard (or any of the 55 other people who came ahead of her in the poll, but who also haven’t yet appeared on bank notes).
Not that I think we should decide such important matters by way of specious TV celebrity beauty contests, you understand. No, if it were down to me, I would do away with the notion of one denomination, one note. Why not have twenty different fivers, thirty different tenners, and so on? The countries in the Eurozone seem to manage perfectly well with lots of different versions of the same note. That way, everyone wins: we could keep Fry and Darwin; introduce Austen, Pankhurst, Franklin, Stopes, and loads of other women; and keep the bolshie northerners happy with the likes of Cook, Turing (honorary northerner), Cobden and Carter. And why stop there? Who says bank notes have to have people on them? Why not a robin, Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, Durham Cathedral, Mallard, or even scenes from Shakespeare and Tolkien?
But, if it really does have to stay one denomination, one note, and if Darwin really does have to go, and if it really does have to be a female author of superior chick-lit who replaces him, try this for Persuasion… Forget Jane Austen; let’s put the Brontë Sisters on the tenner! Perfect! There were three of them! That would almost redress the male/female (and north/south) imbalance in one fell swoop! The Brontë Sisters: a frankly brilliant, far less Austentatious choice!
This article appeared on my Friends of Charles Darwin blog.