A Nation of Shopkeepers
ANNETTE ON THE ROAD Money Makes the World Go Askew. The View from London
Napoleon (French military leader/strong man ruler, not the pastry) usually gets the credit for sneering at the Brits that they were “a nation of shopkeepers”.
Whoever said it may not have been Napoleon, but he was certainly French. Maybe he was jealous because the British economy in the 19th century was booming, what with factories churning out stuff for the entire world, while France's . . . wasn’t.
Still, he wasn't wrong about the shopkeeper thing.
I have at least three shopkeepers among my recent ancestors, and I sometimes think wistfully how much I would enjoy keeping a little shop. Instead, for years, I contented myself with selling and signing my books at the occasional book festival.
Small shopkeeping has been in decline in Britain for quite a while now. Big chain stores put an end to any dreams I might have had of starting my own shop here. And if they hadn’t, online shopping would have.
Still . . . I sometimes think how opening my own exclusive bakery would provide a more lucrative living than writing.
I'm not just guessing at that. Back in 2008, having quit my job as a tenured history professor, I sold baked goods on Saturdays at my local farmers’ market, for a little cash.
Turns out that selling treats is far, far easier than selling books. How about that? I could have been South Georgia's shortbread queen. Sadly, I have a powerful and delusional sense of duty, a mission to do good in the world, and making people fat and diabetic isn’t really that, is it?
When I realized that, here in London, so many of the things I'm thinking about right now are basically about buying and selling, about spending money and making money, in the last three centuries, I thought again of that quote from Napoleon (or Monsieur Whoever).
The most important British buying and selling has mostly been on a much, much bigger scale than the shops run by my lower-middle class family.
Buying and selling, profit from treats, is the story of the modern world, and especially the story of Britain, and most especially the story of London, which emerged as the world's financial capital at the same time as it emerged as the world's shopping capital.
The thing is, life, society, and an economy based on buying and selling isn't working out so well in the UK right now. People are struggling to afford housing and groceries. Food banks, unknown in my childhood, are now everywhere. And there's a strong sense that, finally, it's all reached the crisis point. This has been obvious for a very long time in a lot of cities, like Dundee, that lost their major local employers decades ago. The message has now landed on most doorsteps.
Meeting with a beloved friend in London, a caring woman from a wealthy family, but who now says, with no nonsense, that the wheels have come off the bus in 2023 and that it’s time to shake up the system, was very interesting.
And so was Hoosen and me finding ourselves surrounded by expensively-dressed city businesspeople in the heart of the financial district of London, listening to a talk on history.
Annette and Hoosen Go to the Bank
“I’ve never been to the Bank of England,” I said to Hoosen, my long-suffering spouse. “And, ooh, look, they have a museum! And they’re doing an exhibit on slavery!”
It didn’t quite work out like that. We did indeed catch the Bank of England Museum's exhibit on slavery, but that needs its own post.
If the Bank of England’s lobby is magnificent, and I’m sure it is, we didn’t see it, because we didn’t get time. The museum is in the Bank, but its entrance is round the back of the building.
I did get a photo round the Bank of England's front, and it looks more like Gringott’s Bank (run by goblins) in the Harry Potter movies than I had assumed, because of course it did.
Just like Gringotts, the Bank of England looks like three banks stacked on top of each other. That's because the architects of each new version of it wanted to pay homage to their predecessors.
It took us a while to find our way here, though. Turns out that the building on Threadneedle Street that first catches your eye, and which I had always assumed was the Bank of England, was, in fact, the Royal Exchange. It hogs the attention, sitting on an island between Threadneedle Street and Cornhill.
The Royal Exchange was London’s first purpose-built business center, opened by Queen Elizabeth, in 1971 . . . Oops, no, that’s wrong, sorry. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth the First, in 1571. That's how it got “royal" in its name.
Sharp-eyed NBH readers might recall that the Royal Exchange is where a destitute 18th century London craftsman called William Moraley came in search of a free trip to America as an indentured servant. The building we see now is the third version, the first two having burned down.
See the statue of the guy on the horse in my photo? That’s Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington. He was a member of the aristocracy from birth, but he was made a Duke when, as Britain’s commander-in-chief, he got revenge on Napoleon and the French for that shopkeeper remark, by beating the French Army at Waterloo and winning the Napoleonic War in 1815.
Just as General Eisenhower would enter politics after winning WWII and become president, Wellington entered politics and became prime minister. But I digress.
Wellington certainly helped with keeping Britain stable and prosperous, by sending the French packing.
Behind Wellington and the Royal Exchange, though, is London’s ultimate reward for its role in inventing globalization, and all the problems that have come with it: An ugly great skyscraper.
When I was a kid, St. Pauls Cathedral was London’s tallest building. Not anymore. Mind you, Brits have tried to humiliate pushy and pretentious skyscrapers by giving them silly nicknames: The Shard (looks like a bit of glass), The Gherkin (looks like a pickle) and the Walkie-Talkie Building (looks like an antique phone). I still hate them all. They're symbols, and George Whitefield would have appreciated this Christian comparison, of hubris, of excessive human pride, and of enormous, insatiable greed.
I digressed again! Time to go into the Bank, round the back, and see what the Museum holds in store. Honestly, my intention was to pop in, do the slavery exhibit, then take off. But you know me better than that by now. Of course I got distracted. I always do.
Saying Things Aloud
Right in the lobby of the Bank of England Museum, the King and Queen were waiting to greet us!
Okay, no, not Charles and Camilla, but portraits of Britain's only jointly ruling monarchs, William and Mary, or, to quote 1066 And All That, a classic book making fun of British history, Williamandmary.
Williamandmary has been dead for quite a while now. While some of my American fellow academics get their knickers in a knot, convinced the British establishment is covering up the monarchy’s involvement in the slave trade, here’s a full and cheerful confession in a label in the Bank of England itself:
WILLIAM AND MARY PORTRAITS
William III was the King of England from 1689 to 1702 alongside his Queen, Mary II (who can be seen in the portrait opposite). As well as being one* of the original subscribers establishing the Bank of England, William and Mary were also patrons of the slave-trading Royal African Company (RAC). This meant the monarchs and their supporters were key beneficiaries of the RAC's trade in West Africa.
*One? I told you it was Williamandmary!
If that’s a cover-up, it’s not a very good one, is it? It’s even written in plain English, so the kids in the visiting school groups who were all over the museum could get the point.
The friendly receptionist explained to us that there was a special event that day which might make things busy, as well as the numerous kids.
What is this event, I asked?
“The Festival of Mistakes,” she said. My heart went all a-flutter.
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