Thursday, August 09, 2007

Museum on the Mound -Edinburgh

The other day I bumped into God while waiting at the supermarket payout. She was clutching a dozen’s pack of Royal apples and was standing immediately behind me in the long queue at the till. Yes, God is a ‘she’ of course. And, as the Fourth Estate has of late solemnly declared ‘actor’ to be the correct usage for thespians of both sexes, I am logically and theologically extending the unisex terminology to the Almighty too – progressive elaboration, that is.

“Have you ever gone to the Mound, my dear boy?, God whispered to me with a twinkle in Her eyes.

“Did you say Mount or Mound, mom? And whatever it is, is someone still standing there clutching clumsily those funny tablets of freshly issued divine commandments or paracetomol?”

“You are as silly as in the manner born”, God chided me sounding very much like my own mother when I occasionally broke the tea cup in the morning, which was a regular occurrence till a few years ago - not that I do not break tea cups now but dear old mamma left for her para terrestrial abode some years back.

“Next please”, the till lady’s voice did not appear to sound that friendly. God and I had to break our chat abruptly rushing to make the payments unto the angels behind the cash machines.

And here I am now, visiting the Mound as per the Divine communication. To be precise, it is the Museum on the Mound in the city of Edinburgh, at the Head Quarters of Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS).

1696. Mark that year. I would love to be someone alive and kicking in 1696. If I were then in India, that is, in my native Kerala, I would have witnessed Raja Keralaverma thampran passing a royal edict to outlaw an age old queer custom – ‘if you happen to behold an unmarried lady after sunset on a rainy night, shout ‘I have seen you’ and throw a stone at her; she is all yours’. Not a nice way to get married of course, as there is almost a certainty of reverse stone throwing and shouting in retaliation for rest of the life!!

And if I were in London in 1696, I would have been equally thrilled with another royal proclamation ‘lifting the ban to report cricket matters in the newspapers’. Now, tell me, what is a newspaper worth buying if not for those interesting stories about match fixing, Vaseline greased palms, swearing at the umpire.. well, I mean, wonderful cover drives, square cuts, run outs and caught behinds..

“Welcome gentleman to this interesting and informative museum on the banking history of the nation”, the official at the reception greets me with a bright smile. Returning the compliments earnestly, I casually pull out a self guide pamphlet from a nearby wooden shelf and troop in. I am indeed now transferred to 1696, in Scotland, mentally wearing an elegant kilt and moving forward majestically a la Mel Gibson, with a couple of enormous bag pipes providing the perfect background score, set to Carnatic music.

Here I am standing in front of the display containing an ancient hand-written document dated circa 1696. I can bet my shirt or the kilt on the fact that the writer of this historic document would have certainly been a calligrapher with a financial bent of mind or it could well be the other way round. With those ornamental alphabets intricately carved, progressing like a team of synchronised swimmers all with heads held high and regally slanting a little to the right, this parchment informs about Bank of Scotland opening its doors for business in February 1696 with a working capital of 120,000 Scots.

Now, this old British currency system. I rush to God for assistance and She suggests making a Google search as She herself hits the Net nowadays when She is searching for anything from the car keys to those to the golden gates of Heaven. And here is the information on the old currency system.

Not quite long ago, which is somewhat 100 years ago, 12 pennies made a shilling. 20 shillings made a pound and 21 shillings made a guinea. And of course, two shillings made a florin and two and a half shillings made a ‘half crown’. Coming to 120,000 Scots which was the working capital of Bank of Scotland during formation, well, one Scot was then equal to a penny. Now you can make the necessary currency conversions yourselves or use the web to KISS.

Next to the document on the working capital, there is the very large ledger with the names and complete details of the Bank’s subscribers – who were the partners in this joint venture – and the details of their subscription. This runs like a virtual ‘who is who’ list of luminaries of Scotland during those times. A copy of the Act of Parliament of Scotland which enabled the formation of the bank is also on display nearby, with an interesting final clause attracting my attention – ‘ all Forraigners, who shall join as Partners of this Bank, should thereby be and become Naturalised Scotsman, to all Intents and Purposes whatsoever’. (Spelling, Circa 1690).

This fabulous clause, I observe was repealed by the Parliament in 1920, about 225 years after its proclamation. Being one born and brought up in a parliamentary democracy, I do agree this repeal after the initial proclamation really had been swift and fast. Nonetheless, I am equally surprised as to what provoked such summary rejection of this innocuous clause, I being a naturalised Scot myself for the past two years, having only vegetarian Haggis for breakfast, Scotch whisky for my weekends and Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Muriel Spark providing company when I am sobre, as my favourite authors. (JK Rowling is for kids, isn’t she?)

It is time to be back to the Museum on the Mound. This historical building underwent a massive renovation not long ago and was thrown open to the history lovers again since end 2006. During the renovation, an old window of the Bank’s Head Office was ‘discovered’ behind the maze of bricks and mortar. This window was previously covered with a wall when structural changes were made during 1850s, we are given to understand. Along with the window, there is a newspaper page belonging to that age, appearing as the adjuscent display. This one looks so fresh like it was off the press only this morning, an one penny large sheet with easy to read headlines and interesting news stories about Edinburgh, advertisements for wine, leather, legal services et al in a somewhat archaic but nevertheless interesting reportage style – it is something to buy, possess, read and reread. I would have done so, had I been there with a lot of the then newly minted one Scots and florins in my pocket (do we have pockets in a kilt?)

The cash chest of the bank in 1701 that crosses my way now is a solid iron box with intricate padlocks and a provision for double locks requiring two officials to come together to open it. The now universally accepted ‘four eyes’ principle was originally put into practice some 300 years ago to ensure utmost security at the times of turbulence and political upheaval of the 17th century, a period of foreign wars and Jacobite and rebellion of all other sorts. Though I must admit that even with four eyes or hands working in tandem, it would still have required an army of muscle men to just lift the cash chest. And that will be without taking into account its heavy metallic coin and paper money content besides other valuables under pledge stored in it.

‘Retirement is only for mortals; gadgets are made to stop functioning and then they reluctantly step back to take forced rest’. This new knowledge dawns upon me when I set my eyes on the next display, a document copier. A rugged bronze and iron metallic device, albeit simple to operate, this one has the distinction of having an unblemished service record of more than 120 years – from early 1800s to 1920. All that the grandpa ‘photocopier’ expects from you is to place in it the document to be copied and on its top, a wet piece of rice paper; now turn the handles with all your might and lo and behold, you have a faithful copy of the document creeping out of the copier, a bit wet of course. I am anxiously searching for the ancestral version of a document shredder nearby. I am quite sure it should be there somewhere – like someone who would have used it gleefully thinking that it IS the copier.

Welcome to the rogues gallery. There lie the dies and casts for making bank notes and coins. Bank of Scotland through the Parliamentary proclamation has the right to issue bank notes and coins since its inception. Edinburgh being an industrious city, there was and is no dearth of creative and skilful artists and artisans here. A miniscule portion of them long back, had an interesting thought – if the Bank can issue notes and mint the coins, shall we not help them or more specifically ourselves, by pitching in with our knowledge and craftsmanship? And 1920s saw the emergence of such a master forger.

It appears this gentleman mysteriously had a liking for florins, though sterlings and pounds were also items in his innovative inventory, presumeably with a low priority. To his credit, it should be admitted that even the banks could not find anything in their appearance to even vaguely suspect these coins he minted were genuine fakes. Such exercise in perfect craftsmanship had to come to an end, like all good or bad things one day, with the police swooping on the forger and arresting him, confiscating the equipment and infrastructure he was using in his noble endeavour. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison and the confiscated machinery is a prominent display in the Museum, I am standing before now.

And interestingly the story does not end there. In 1964, at the ripe old age of 80, this forger was picked up by the cops again. He was at his old trick, we are given to understand, at the time of the second imprisonment. Age does not blunt an artistic bent of mind, as I admit, though I am not quite sure whether those geriatric hands trembling with age forged the good old florins once again, blissfully ignorant of the fact that the florins had long been withdrawn from circulation.

The bank’s currency notes issued till the turn of last century were the other items the other forgers took enormous interest in. As far back as 50 years ago, one pound note was the most prominent in circulation all around UK. (I have one which my grocer gave me recently and it did help me to get much attention at Boots in Covent Garden, London where the ladies at the counter emitted cries of sheer joy and surprise when I produced it for their perusal). These one pound currency notes of the bygone days were more like half of an A4 size sheet of paper in size, with intricate designs, lines, curves, laurels and the picture of good auld Sir Walter Scott thrown in for a good measure.

The rogues’ gallery contains the displays of the ‘artefacts’ of one pound notes produced by a skilful forger. This one was really industrious and did not go for any hi-tech method for his work. Being an ace copy-cat and a master painter, he hand crafted each pound note with each and every little curve, laurel, flowers and the glint in Walter Scott’s eyes faithfully reproduced. Had he only used his undoubtable skills and immense efforts to work on real pieces of art, I am sure his displays would have ended up in Scottish National Gallery of Art instead of being here.

And now I am nearing the next display. Mel Gibson’s Brave Heart within me now beats so fast that I fear it may stop any moment. There, in front of my eyes, is an interesting stockpile of cash. 1 million pounds. All in crisp 20 pound notes. Arranged and staked in neat bundles one upon another and occupying a massive glass case.

It appears that I am not destined to have it – even if I win the ultra modern Sharuk Khan version of Khon Banega Crorepathi. Each and every 20 pound note in the treasure trove behind the glass case is stamped ‘CANCELLED’ in letters of the size of screaming headlines in the newspapers informing of a share market boom or bust. No regrets, I now know what a million pounds look like.

Just next to the million pounds is a high rise chair with the finest upholstery. Is it a chair? I should be calling it as a functional version of the royal throne. This is the seat occupied by the bank’s security personnel at night, again for more than 100 years till the current sophisticated security systems were in place. With a genuine satisfaction that the vacant but still awe inspiring security desk would deter the forgers behind the glass case displays against moving towards the million pounds of cancelled bank notes, I walk past to the other sections.

I look at the next display – a humble bank pass book. Through the glass case, I am able to read it belonged to whom. Mrs.Robert Burns. Wife of the great national poet of Scotland – rather, his widow – opened this account only days after his death in penury. A short time before that, he had had written a short poem at the back of a pound note (a scarce commodity for him, I understand) lamenting about the uselessness of life without money. The passbook shows a series of credit entries, all being donations received from friends and wellwishers of the great poet. Friends in need indeed, but a wee bit late to act.

Walking ahead, I realise that bankers of the last three centuries breathed banking instead of oxygen, with the ‘lup-tup’ of their heart beats sounding ‘debit-credit’ for a change. When one of the directors of the bank expired in the 1800s, a fellow banker from Glasgow writes a condolence note – ‘when called to pay back the principal Debt to the Supreme Being, we have to, as our foremost duty …’. As I read the displayed epistle, I murmur in agreement, ‘No write off, my dear Sir, under any circumstance, alas’.

It is really interesting to know the bank embraced technology even as far back as in 1906. The arithometers in display next belong to that period. With their intricate knobs and sliding counters for performing mechanically all arithmetic functions, these are sheer pleasure to watch, I have to say. If only I could exchange my old lap top for one of these .. at least the arithometer does not require a memory or software upgrade every now and then, I believe.

Turning around the hall, I happily realise that the first computers entered the bank, hold your breath, in the late 1950s - when this writer was a toddler and most of the readers (are there any?) had their would-be parents under similar circumstances. Extremely attractive, let me confess, are these displayed photographs of the mainframes and their operators in the year of Grace, 1961. And this compliment goes in equal measures to both the systems and the charming girls operating them. Most of these dear ladies would have been venerable grandmothers by now, enjoying a happy retired life and communicating with their ex-colleagues in machine code, I presume.

I should visit the museum again with one of them. Have to search for when I go to the supermarket next time. After all, everyone shops there.

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