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Donkin's World: Time To Measure Up

"I belong to the UK's last generation that dealt exclusively in pints, quarts, pounds and ounces. It's been a confused generation because in our lifetimes we have had to accommodate metric measurements so that we exist today in a kind of metric limbo,'' writes Richard Donkin.

Now it seems that our coalition Government wants to extend that limbo, ensuring that primary school children know the difference between a mile and a kilometer. Why? What earthly good will this serve? To my dying breath, even if Alzheimer's has taken away every other component of my mind, I will know there are 63,360 inches in a mile. But I won't know what that means.

The French have had a tough time of it in the progress of western civilization. Their colonies have gone, their language is under siege. Let's cut them a bit of slack on the metric system and admit that measurements climbing in tens make a lot of sense when it comes to adding up and multiplication.

Whether they have more meaning is debatable. Imperial measurements are full of meaning. There is also an overlap in the mile, with its nod to the Roman mile of five thousand paces. Our statute mile of 5,280 ft, is the nearest we could get, since the Anglo Saxons preferred to measure their distances in furrow lengths. The statute mile is 8 furrow lengths, a furrow length being 220 yards (10 chains as it happens). Why so? Well that was the distance reckoned to be enough before the plough-pulling oxen needed a rest. How an ox knew this, I do not know.

I love imperial measurements. Their history and richness is part of who we are as a nation. How else would we know Sir Roger Bannister, for example? We have strong emotional ties to those imperial measures. I don't buy much weighed out food these days, but when I do, I still use imperial measures. I know that 10 oz of herring roe is perfect for covering two slices of toast for breakfast. So I ask for 10 oz and the counter staff at Waitrose always oblige me (I've never yet come across one who east herring roe - I always ask).

But I guess it wouldn't be too difficult to go the extra kilometer and learn the weight in grams. Being British, however, we couldn't quite bring ourselves to swallow the metric system whole. Instead we now have this extraordinary state where constantly we convert and reconvert.

I can't put a coat on without doubling the Centigrade (sorry, Celsius) and adding 30 to check the temperature in Fahrenheit. I can't get drunk in France without making a weird calculation for their glass-size then factoring in a figure for their weak beer. But I can't get drunk on beer in the UK very easily, either, since all the pubs have either shut or turned in to restaurants where I'm expected to tip the bar staff. Bugger that!

No, we beat them at Trafalgar and Waterloo, we've learned how to out-cook them (steady on!) and we trashed them in the Olympics, so let's extend some entente cordiale over metrication. After all, we beat them just as well in metres. OK, so it's not cricket. It'll never be that. No need to change your run up any time soon.


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