The enigma of our national pin-ups

I'd like a really offensive depiction of the Battle of Waterloo on our last banknotes before the euro
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The Independent Culture
THE NEW pounds 20 note is unveiled today, with a different national hero on the back. Michael Faraday is gone, with his demonstration of electricity, and, in his place the composer Edward Elgar. It's an interesting choice. Even 30 years ago, Elgar would have been quite a controversial figure to stick on a banknote. Then, he seemed a figure primarily associated with the Edwardian Empire; the Pomp and Circumstance marches, the figure whose symphonies explicitly celebrate King Edward VII.

Now, the Imperial strain seems a part of his work, but by no means the most significant part. To us, he seems the composer of the Enigma variations and of the mysterious, spare last works; undeniably English in spirit and voice, but an Englishness which seems veiled and visionary rather than triumphant.

In short, Elgar has become an appropriate national figure - and there are no more ubiquitous national figures than the ones on the bank notes - only when his music stopped voicing national themes. It won't altogether do to make too much of Elgar popping up on the banknote; there are plenty of pressing concerns which make some faces more suitable than others for representation.

The Bank, as it turns out, was unhappy about another strong contender for the pounds 20 note, Jane Austen; the only known representation of her is that boring bun-faced picture by her frightful sister Cassandra. That, apparently, didn't offer enough of a challenge to counterfeiters. What Elgar had in his favour, in the end, was not so much his music as his moustache. Elaborate facial hair and, presumably, complicated wigs are as useful as the little silver strip in foiling criminals.

All the same, there are plenty of people with moustaches around who would have done, and it's nice to live in a nation with a proper choice of heroes to stick on the notes. One of the odd things about post-1989 Europe is that in so many tiny countries re-emerging from the Cold War empires, it's obviously a challenge to come up with half-a-dozen national faces to whack on the banknotes. With large areas of the past declared no-go areas, a lot of newish countries can run to only two or three national figures.

The no-go area for us, it has become quickly apparent in the last few years, is our imperial history. What has replaced it is our cultural history, and the scientific revolution. George Stephenson, Michael Faraday, Shakespeare, Elgar, Wren, Florence Nightingale and Dickens are all right; the Duke of Wellington and Nelson, on the whole, not so much so.

Personally, I would rather like a really offensive depiction of the Battle of Waterloo on the last bank-notes to be issued before the Euro makes it all a distant memory - I envisage a Gillray-like scene, with the unwashed French scampering off and the Prussians arriving too late to make any difference. I do see it isn't likely to happen, even while retaining a vague sense that scenes of imperial glory and national heroism are more appropriate for bank notes than the cricket match in Pickwick Papers, the representation of which on the pounds 10 note still gives me a mild shock of distaste.

Luckily, there are plenty of cultural icons around, certainly enough to see the pound out. It's odd not to find more artists, given that we usually know very well what they looked like - how wonderful the Hogarth self-portrait with the pug would be on a tenner. Blake would be a great choice; a baffling scene of Emanations and Prophets and Angels to one side would be a considerable improvement on the cricket match against Dingley Dell.

But the more we worry about offending other people with our national icons, the more likely we are to find ex-governors of the Bank and nice nurses on our bank notes. So let's say stuff it, and put the Duke of Wellington back where he belongs. Let's stop worrying about whether we should have had an empire at all, or whether we wouldn't all have been better staying at home and getting on with knitting, and recognise Robert Clive and James Cook for the great men they were, on the back of a pounds 5 note. But if we really want a great national icon, then I don't think we could do better than Scott, whose disastrous and deeply admirable journey to the South Pole strikes a deep responsive chord in the English character.

And when we've settled that, can we have a go at getting rid of the old woman on the other side?