`People get furious at the suggestion that the Queen's head should be removed from bank-notes, but it's only been there since the Sixties'
Saturday 15 February 1997
It has to be admitted that few Western rulers have missed the chance to impress themselves upon brass in pockets. One of the first coins you see in the gallery bears an image of Caligula doing a spot of slaughtering. Next to it is a denarius of his predecessor Tiberius (AD14-37), the coin which prompted Christ's "Render unto Caesar" riposte. The appearance of money was one of the great coincidences of human history. It was simultaneously invented around 650BC in both China and Lydia in western Turkey, where the king was Croesus, famous for being not short of the odd bob. Naturally, the first coins were rapidly followed by the first cases of forgery.
Like counterfeiting, the use of gold coins for jewellery of dubious taste has been around a long time. The exhibition includes a "Barbarian gold ring set with a Roman gold coin from the reign of Trajan AD98-117". Such striking adornments are still favoured by the barbarians of south London.
Even the much-feared single European currency turns out to be nothing new. Between 1865 and World War One, a union of five European countries issued coins of uniform weight and size which were transferable across borders. "It goes without saying that Britain didn't participate in the Latin Monetary Union," Mr Burnett pointed out.
If you've ever found your pockets ballasted with a massive quantity of worthless coppers, spare a thought for the 17th-century Swedes, who had to lug round copper coins the size of tea-trays when their government ran out of silver. The example on display is over two feet long and weighs 33 lbs. Unsurprisingly, the first paper money in the West was issued in Stockholm in 1661.
Over in one corner glitters one of the first bimetallic pounds 2 coins manufactured at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, south Wales (known in numismatic circles as "the hole with a mint"). You can expect the two-tone two-spot to be making holes in your trouser pockets from next November. When Kenneth Clark introduced the coin at the Money Gallery a fortnight ago, press photographers preferred to pose the Chancellor with a pink plastic piggy- bank from Toy Story. "It's my least favourite object in the gallery," murmured Mr Burnett, distastefully regarding the luminous porker.
As I gazed awestruck at the BM's largest gold coin, a Zeccino Grande, issued by the last Venetian Doge (it looks like one of those chocolate coins you get at Christmas), the Keeper of Coins and Medals revealed that there was one aspect of money which continued to puzzle him: "My colleagues think I'm mad, but I always wonder why coins are round." Any ideas?
Did you see the absorbing Horizon series on "Ice Mummies"? The first concerned the "Ice Maiden", whose corpse was preserved in the Siberian permafrost for 2,500 years. After some argy-bargy with Moscow, this beautifully tattooed body of a 25-year-old woman, believed to have been the story- teller of a nomadic tribe, has now been placed in a Siberian museum. The curator, though pleased to have secured her return, was uneasy about putting her on show. "I think she should really have been returned to her grave," she sadly declared. In the second programme, about a corpse of a prehistoric shepherd frozen in the Italian alps for 5,000 years, the archaeologist who led the investigation expressed similar concerns. He said that displaying the body "would not be compatible with human dignity".
A touch over-sensitive, I thought, until I happened to come across "Linden Man" during my visit to the British Museum. This is the poor chap who was ceremonially strangled in Cheshire sometime between 300BC and AD100. His preserved body was discovered in a peat bog in 1987, but only after it had been sliced in half by a peat-cutting machine. What is left of him is now displayed, like a large, wrinkled tobacco-pouch, in a low, glass case, which enables visitors to lean over for a good squint. The cord which throttled him is still round his neck. Most visitors approach him with tender concentration, as if peering at an intricate art-work. But I also saw a party of school-children whooping in horrified amazement while hammering on the case. Later, a trio of beery breathed louts cracked jokes as they swayed over the mangled corpse. His glass coffin, all smeary with fingermarks, is an entirely unsatisfactory mode of display. It is hard to imagine a more disrespectful resting place for this poignant fragment of what was once a human being. To be gawped at after being garrotted is adding insult to injury.
Though some may have thought it a trifle self-indulgent, Melvyn Bragg's two-part TV essay about his disillusionment with America will live long in my memory, if only for the sight of Melv cringing at a dinner table while a gaggle of Californians trilled "God Save the Queen". The second programme was mainly a polemic against the infantility of Hollywood, illustrated by an extended sequence devoted to Universal Studios in Los Angeles. (I should explain to the uninitiated that this is actually a theme park where visitors can explore movie sets and thrill to set-piece stunts.) At the urging of Mrs W, during a stay on the West Coast, I once went to this famous attraction - but I never saw the shark from Jaws snapping in the studio tank nor the exploding petrol tanker from (I think) Die Hard With A Vengeance. In fact, I didn't see anything at all.
I wish I could say that my refusal to go through the gates was a rebellion against American cultural imperialism, but, in fact, it was prompted by the catastrophic entrance price. The Yorkshire in me bubbled to the surface and I issued a veto. As we left the carpark, the attendant couldn't believe we had stayed so briefly (it was still before 10am). "You Brits sure take your pleasures quick," he quipped unpleasantly. But it might come as some consolation to Mr Bragg that, though the British might be lured by the cheap thrills and shoddy razzmatazz of America, our stinginess should save us in the end.
Between its feng shui restaurant guide (Grr!) and pages of adverts for plastic surgery ("Call 1-800-BEAUTIFY"), the latest issue of Los Angeles magazine is mostly taken up with a guide to the city's real estate. Though prices are on the up, we learn that "elite Brentwood is a lot less expensive than it used to be. In 1990, the median price peaked at $1,681,000 and then dropped to $585,000 by early 1996". The mag doesn't mention it, but the best-known resident of this West LA suburb is one Orenthal James Simpson. Following last week's verdict, it's a fair bet that a large estate on Rockingham Drive will soon come on the market. With prices still 14.75 per cent behind 1988 levels, it's a good time to buy. One thing's for sure, the purchaser would never be short of visitors
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