Saturday 24 March 2012

Coining it in

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In 1999 the United States Mint issued the first of its 50 State Quarters. Over the next 10 years, each state in the Union would be showcased on its own shiny quarter dollar coin. The law passsed on 1 December 1997 as United States Commemorative Coin Program Act was controversial, with some officials claiming it marked the ‘Disneyfication’ of US currency.

From Delaware to Hawaii, the 50 State Quarters programme would see almost 35 billion coins minted with the states featured in the order that they ratified the U.S. Constitution. An additional 636,200,000 quarters were minted as part of the follow on programme for the District of Colombia and US Territories (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands).
The number of coins minted for each state varied widely, with more than 1.5 billion coins depicting Virginia but only 453 million Wisconsin quarters leaving the US Mint – less than a third of Virginia’s total. The coins all featured a portrait of George Washington on the obverse, with the different state designs on the front. High resolution pictures of these designs are available in the thorough Wikipedia article on the programme.

As well as providing patriotic Americans with a unique collection that highlights some of the unique feature of each state, it also provided the U.S. Treasury with a massive windfall of at least $3 billion and potentially up to $6.3 billion in total. This is because of seigniorage – the concept that once coins are collected and effectively taken out of circulation, the government makes a profit.
This numismatic trick shouldn’t be confused with the other meaning of seigniorage – the concept of lordship or rights pertaining to lordship (e.g. the right to take the newly married bride of one of your vassals for a lordly romp).
The US government profits from the 50 State Quarters programme because it costs approximately 5ȼ to make a quarter. If the ‘purchaser’ of a commemorative quarter decides not to spend it (i.e. keeps it as a collectors item), the government keeps the remaining 20ȼ. The success of the 50 State Quarters programme, with approximately half the American population taking part, made this one of the most successfulnumismatic programmes in history.
Commemorative coins are big business and a serious source of revenue for governments. In 2012 alone, the UK’s Royal Mint is issuing at least eight commemorative coins – celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the London Olympics, the bicentential of Charles Dickens, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the 500th anniversary of the maiden voyage of the Mary Rose, the 90thbirthday of Prince Philip, the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the 50thanniversary of the foundation of the World Wildlife Fund.
Finally, and for a little light relief after the numismatic seriousness above, read theOnion’s spoof report that the U.S. Mint Gears Up To Issue Commemorative County Pennies.

Friday 24 February 2012

Battlefield regicide

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“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!
Alarum. Enter KING RICHARD III and RICHMOND; they fight. KING RICHARD III is slain.”

Richard III, William Shakespeare

Richard III was slain during the battle of Bosworth Field. He became the last king of England to be killed in battle but was not the only one to suffer this brutal fate. King Harold was slain whilst opposing the Norman invaders and a clutch of earlier Saxon and Alpin kings would die in English and Scottish battles respectively
Scottish kings were even more prone to battlefield deaths – two kings from the House of Stuart would be killed within 61 years of Richard III’s death. James III died fighting an army led by his son in the Battle of Sauchieburn. His son would become James IV, and would suffer the same fate as his father but this time at the hands of the English in the battle of Flodden Field.

Richard III was also not the last English king to go into battle. A number of subsequent monarchs commanded their troops personally, a royal tradition that ended with George II’s command at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743.
The battle of Bosworth Field was a particularly bloody, brutal and confused affair. Although historians are sure that Richard III died on the battlefield, nothing else about his death is certain. Thomas Penn writes in the Winter King that Richard received so many blows to the head that his helmet was lodged in his skull.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Stalling for surrender at Stalinburg

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On 30 January 1943 Friedrich Paulus was promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. On the very next day, this freshly minted field marshal did something no German field marshal had ever done before: he surrendered.
Just one year earlier things were very different for the Germans. In January 1942, Paulus was promoted to the rank of general and commander of the German Sixth Army. In this role he led the attack on Stalingrad, his mechanised forces surging down the River Don valley towards the River Volga.

By August, the Germans had reached the city. They had no way of knowing that their advance would mark the furthest extent of German control. From this point, the Soviet steamroller would steadily, mercilessly and irresistibly roll back German conquests.

Stalingrad was one of the most brutal battles in a war of staggering brutality. The ruined city proved a formidable theatre for vicious street fighting. Battles lasting days and weeks were fought for each block and the close quarters rewarded the defenders and their improvised weapons.
By the time the Russian winter fell, the German position was hopeless. The Soviets had executed a brilliant pincer manoeuvre to completely surround the German Sixth Army. Soviet air power had increased and improved, preventing the Luftwaffe from successfully supplying the beleaguered land forces from the air.
By January 1943, the soldiers were slowly starving. Thousands of miles away, German Army headquarters were trying to prevent the army from surrendering. Adolf Hitler sent Paulus a telegram on 22 January rejecting Paulus’s request to be able to surrender and making clear that the army’s orders were to fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet”.
Paulus’s promotion on 30 January was a clear message from Hitler and army headquarters – fight to the death or retain honour by suicide – surrender to the Bolsheviks was not acceptable. Paulus ignored the pressure from the ‘Bavarian corporal’ and surrendered the next day.

Are Zurich? If not, live somewhere else

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New York may be the unofficial capital of the world, but it doesn’t have the highest living costs to match. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Worldwide Cost of Living Survey New York is only the 47th most expensive place to live out of 131 cities.
This year’s priciest place is Zurich, largely thanks to the rising strength of the Swiss Franc. The Swiss financial centre displaces Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city.

There have been some other big changes over the past decade. Sydney has ridden the highs of Australia’s mineral boom and proximity to Asian markets to become the world’s seventh most expensive city. In 2001 it was only in 71st place.
It might surprise hard pressed Londoners to discover that their city is only the 17thmost expensive this year, with Paris, Frankfurt and Oslo all pricier places to live.

Fixing the shape of the Stars and Stripes

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The flag of the United States of America is so instantly recognisable and ubiquitous that it is hard to believe its design was only formalised in 1912. On the 24th June 1912, President Taft signed Executive Order 1556 stipulating the correct proportions of the flag and specifying the proper arrangement and orientation of the stars.
Until then, the basic design was well known – there were always thirteen horizontal stripes alternating in red and white and a blue canton featuring as many white, five-pointed stars as there were states. But within these parameters there remained a great deal of flexibility in how Old Glory was designed, a flexibility that was used to political effect both during and after the American Civil War.

In the north, anger at the southern cessationists manifested itself in flags with a ‘southern-exclusionary star count’. At a strike, the 14 rebellious states are removed from the banner, suggesting that their actions had forever removed them from the bounds of union and amity with the others.
At the other side of the country, southern pride and defiance was marked in flags that buried the Confederate Flag’s diagonal cross of stars amidst the other stars in the blue canton.
These, and other flag designs, were highlighted in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellentArt of America, repeats of which can be seen on BBC Four.

The magnetic Mr Dickens

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Earlier this week I highlighted Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Charles Dickens. I have been pleasantly surprised by the numerous revelations of surprising idiosyncrasies and quirks that make him a particularly fascinating subject.

One of the most surprising facts is that Dickens was a passionate believer in mesmerism (sometimes referred to as magnetism). He even went so far as to practice this unconventional form of medical treatment with his wife as a frequent patient.
In the nineteenth century, mesmerism, magnetism or animal magnetism (as the practice was variously known) was controversial, influential and excited the popular imagination. The basis of mesmerism was found in the work of Anton Mesmer. Mesmer held European audiences enthralled (or, perhaps more appropriately, mesmerised) by his theories that embraced physics, metaphysics, spirituality and the healing power of the mind.

The core of his philosophy was that the cosmos was permeated by an invisible magnetic fluid. This fluid greatly influenced all life, including humans, and could be encouraged and strengthened by the use of magnets. He also believed that the mind could be healed whilst in a state of trance.
By the time Dickens came into contact with mesmerism its use in medicine was well established. Dickens was strongly influenced by John Elliotson, an eminent and controversial doctor who had been shunned by the mainstream profession because of his strong beliefs in the power of mesmerism.

Dickens went on to absorb Elliotson’s teachings and go so far as to practice them. His sister-in-law and wife were successfully induced into a trance but Dickens was less successful on his dour Scottish friend Charles Macready. His most intensive treatment was reserved for Augusta de la Rue, treated by Dickens during his family’s extended visit to Italy in 1844.
All of this may not be as mad as it first appears. Although some of mesmerismsclaims are now completely discredited, the idea of healing the mind via trance-like states is the basis of hypnotism. Hypnotism is an accepted weapon in a wider arsenal had has been successfully deployed in the treatment of stubborn mental health issues

Like maggots in nuts – Dickens in the Inn

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In a year that is crowded with major anniversaries and major events, the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’s birth looms large. The BBC has been awash with documentaries, adaptations and readings and exhibitions on the great man are being staged across London, Portsmouth and Rochester.
My own ‘tribute’ has been to read Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. It is a cracking biography, and provides a fascinating insight into the man as well as the writer. One fact that arrested my attention was the revelation that Dickens seriously considered becoming a lawyer and went so far as to become a member of the Middle Temple.
Dickens’s fiction reveals his familiarity, fascination and pointed disdain for the law and his books are packed with assorted legal flotsam. Lawyers are portrayed at best ambivalently (as with Mr Jaggers in Great Expectations), as lazy (Mr Lightwood in Our Mutual Friend), scheming and manipulative (Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House) or as downright crooks (Mr Brass in the Old Curiosity Shop).
At the start of his career, Dickens worked as a solicitor’s clerk - first in the offices of Ellis and Blackmore and then for a brief spell at the law firm of Charles Molley. He gained further experience of (and a distinct distaste for) the legal profession from his early career in journalism as a court reporter working in Doctors’ Commons (the distinctly musty and archaic courts of the civil law branch of the English legal system).

But what is more surprising is that Dickens was already a published and successful author by the time he took the decision to enter Middle Temple. He was admitted to the Inn in 1839, by which time ‘Sketches by Boz’, ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ had all been released. He only finally relinquished his membership in 1855. Why did the superstar writer consider entering a profession he had already so mockingly lampooned?
Biographer Michael Slater suggests it was to provide a security blanket in case his celebrity and riches were fleeting:

Aware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.”

Dickens would probably have made a fine advocate, but I think I prefer him on the outside and writing distinctly unflattering portrayals of the profession. Of all the many great quotes on the legal system and lawyers in Dickens, I’ll provide just a couple of my favourites:

The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Garden, into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now; and in these shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.”

If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”