Buffalo nickel

London, N7
24/02/2014  •  786 words

Listening to: We Will Rock You by Queen

Dig through your couch cushions, your purse, or the floor of your car and look at the year printed on the first coin you find. What were you doing that year?

I have a tub of coins in a drawer in my desk. It’s my Coinstar box – the place I keep my coins before swapping them out for useful money. Anything less than a 50p coin gets dropped in there, and when the box is full I take it to the supermarket and pay for a week’s groceries.

The box is pretty full at the moment, meaning that I’m going to get a few free lunches before long. It also means that I had lots of coins available to me. Among them were a 10p coin from 1992 and a 5p one from 1990, the respective years they reduced in size to their current format. Earlier coins of the bigger size are technically out of circulation, so these should be the oldest such coins in my box. Sadly, I was not out of nappies during those years (only just in nappies, in the second case) so I wasn’t doing much but crying and eating and sleeping and making dirty messes in aforementioned nappies.

Also in my box of coins, though, were several 1p and 2p coins from 1971. This was the year of decimalisation, so they are the earliest such coins I could have. The inscriptions read “New Penny” to distinguish the decimal system from the old one, though why this should be necessary is beyond me.

The most striking thing about my box of coins is that every single one of them, since 1971, bears the image of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse. At the time of writing, she is a mere 562 days off becoming the UK’s longest reigning monarch (after Victoria). The world has changed more under her reign than under any previous monarch; her era will rightly be remembered as an enormously significant one in the nation’s history, and she herself as a towering figure. She has been so solid, so reliable, for so long that it’s hard for people of two or three generations to imagine the nation without her as its head of state. (My parents were born after her coronation.)

For raw political philosophical reasons I suppose I have a bit of a republican streak to me. I’m rather fond of Her Majesty, though. She’s a dedicated public servant, and UK and Commonwealth nations will be much poorer without her.

We ought to be thankful that, for all the temptations of monarchy and all the awful monarchs in history who have succumbed to them, Elizabeth II has been a good queen.

An abbreviated inscription of her title is carried on every coin in circulation, including my penny from 1971. It reads elizabeth ii d g reg f d. In fuller form, this is elizabeth ii dei gratia regina fidei defensor or, for those who haven’t much Latin, Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith.

The Queen is important enough to put in profile on every coin minted. But her title is important enough to include also, even in abbreviated form. We carry with us in our wallets and purses several reminders that the Queen is the head of state in this land, but that she is so by the grace of God. Her power and authority, even if it is merely constitutional window-dressing nowadays, is subservient to the King of Kings. Her primary role – the first item in her job description – is to be the Defender of the Faith.

A large part of the goodness of Elizabeth II’s reign has been that she has taken seriously her title. By all accounts she has reigned in the manner befitting one who does so by the grace of God. She has been a temperate but unswerving champion of her faith, as one would hope but not necessarily expect from the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

I’ll try to think of the Queen next time I am spending a penny (in the literal, not idiomatic sense). I’ll try to think of those little letters that represent the powerful Latin words that speak of where the authority of the throne comes from, and by what means, and for what purpose. I’ll try to give thanks for Elizabeth, who I fear too many of us have taken for granted for too long.

For as long as we have a monarch in this land, my hope and prayer is that they are of one mind with the present Queen in hearing the full form of their title and seeking to put it into practice.

Long live the Queen.