23 September 2021
Measure for Measure
Ringing the changes.
By Robert Kilconner
The proposal that now we have left the EU it should no longer be compulsory for suppliers of foods et cetera to use the metric system will leave plenty of scope for confusion. For once, however, it will be the younger generation who are confused; we oldies will just need a quick glance at the tables to be back on the ball. “How many pints in a quart? That is two of course. Don’t you youngsters know anything?” What a satisfactory revenge for years of patronising statements like “the reason your computer isn’t working is because you haven’t turned it on”. A great opportunity to get rid of ageism at a stroke.
It will also help those of us who have never quite moved over from the old system and so have to spend time recalculating the information provided to us. My particular bugbear is temperatures where I still remember a hundred degrees Fahrenheit on an Italian motorway with the car overheating so that you had to run the heater full blast, as being distinctly unpleasant, and I tend to judge temperature by reference to that. That means taking the heat in centigrade, dividing by 5, multiplied by 9 and adding 32 to come out with a comparative figure. It is a cumbersome process as indeed was trying to cool that car. The only way to do that, incidentally, was to use the floor mats to create a tube from the heater vent out of the window with disastrous consequences if the person holding the tube lost concentration.
Some measurements, alas, will never come back. The split of the pound into 20 shillings and 240 pence made a great contribution to the mathematical dexterity of the nation. Then there were guineas; 1 pound and one shilling, or £1.05 in newspeak, the units in which lawyers and tailors used to render their bills. Most exciting of all was the half crown, which, weighing in at 12.5 new pence, outclassed the florin, at 10, and was slightly larger and heavier. I will never forget the tension as, an impecunious schoolboy, one wondered which it was that one was drawing from one’s pocket. The King’s Head in Islington continued to quote prices in old money for years after the changeover had been made, but the waters have really closed over the old currency now.
Still, that leaves plenty of scope. How long before some enterprising traders starts selling butter in ounces and pounds and ironmongers begin to talk in feet and inches? We will all need to be much more mathematically adept.
The best thing about the change is the people it will annoy. Why should we alter the system, they will say, just because we happen to have come out of the EU? Surely the rationalisation of weights, measurements and temperatures is efficient and, if the Lord had meant us to count in 16s, He would have given us more fingers. That is all very true but it misses the point. The question is not whether we should use the old system or the new or even a combination of them. It is whether we should all be allowed to use whichever system we want. Why should the government decide on the size of your block of butter? Surely it is something which can be left to the market. This particular change is a wise one.