Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen was laid to rest 200 years ago this week, was the venue chosen for the unveiling of the new £10 bank note, which will feature a portrait of the English novelist. On a humid July day, tourists, pensioners, banknote geeks and a few noisy children packed the aisles.
The atmosphere was expectant, as worshippers gathered to get a glimpse of ‘Reverend’ Carney at the pulpit. Smartphones were whipped out as soon as he started speaking. I travelled with my family as an off-duty journalist and was expecting the rather dry and technical explanations favoured by the Bank of England governor in the inflation report.
But on this occasion he showed his human touch, paying tribute – as a Canadian – to British achievements in the arts and sciences and patiently fielded esoteric questions from members of the public: ‘Who will be on the new £50 note?’. ‘Will the notes be printed on BRITISH printing presses?’
The almost inevitable Doctor Who question – ‘Does Jane Austen’s face on a banknote represent girl power too?’ – caught him slightly unawares, but he dealt with it with diplomatic grace.
Of course the only question from an actual journalist was designed to catch Mr Carney out. The quotation on the note – ‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!’ – is spoken by a character called Caroline Bingley who in fact has no interest in books and is merely trying to impress Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy, a potential suitor.
Was this a mistake, the Reuters reporter’s question seemed to imply? Mr Carney played a straight bat. ‘It captures much of her [Jane Austen’s] spirit, at least in my mind,’ he said. ‘It draws out some of the essence of some of her social satire and her insight into people’s character.’
The governor then added, gently mocking the interrogator in a rebuke that Austen herself would have admired, that the irony works on ‘multiple levels’ and can be understood ‘even by a wires service journalist’.
Mr Carney then made a few self-deprecating jokes about bankers and handed over to Jane Austen expert Dr Gillian Dow from Southampton University, who gave a fascinating and impassioned speech about the relevance of Austen today.
She imagined how proud the novelist would be that her note would travel around the world in the wallets of British tourists. She also hoped that those putting off reading Austen may get a gentle reminder from their cash to give it a go.
The back story to this handsome, multi-featured banknote was not without controversy. The campaign to put a woman on the new note brought abuse – and even death threats to campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.
The previous polymer £5 note had barely come into circulation before vegans objected to the use of animal fat in the production process. The Bank is working on a solution to this. The new £20 note will feature a man, JMW Turner, although female artists were shortlisted, and the Bank of England will no doubt come under pressure to put a female face – not including the Queen of course – on the new £50 note.
Members of the public can get hold of the new £10 note on September 14 when it comes into circulation. It will be larger than the new £5 note and has a range of security features (such as holograms), and a braille feature for the partially sighted.
Bank of England officials were careful not to let members of the public walk off with the new notes, although people were allowed to touch them, take photos of them, and take selfies with ladies in Regency costume, who carried white parasols.
You can’t buy much with a tenner these days, but with UK inflation unexpectedly falling to 2.6% in June, perhaps you can buy just a little bit more.