Sunday, 19 September 2021

Thinking about metric and imperial. Adapting to systems.

Metric or imperial? It’s been in the news recently. 

A German friend of mine confessed that she has always been confused by the imperial weights and measures system, this despite living in the UK for more than 40 years. I can sympathise with that. I find it hard to understand a person’s weight or height when its given in kilos and centimetres. As for the Americans giving their weight in pounds rather than stones and pounds, well, I have to do a quick mental arithmetic and have become good at dividing by 14. 

The system we have grown up with sticks in our heads. I can cope with miles to kilometres without problems. I have learnt to adjust to knitting patterns and sewing patterns that give measurements in centimetres. I have to work a little harder at recipes in metric but my scales and measuring jugs help with that. But still, if someone gives me a person’s height and weight in metric I have no idea what size they are until I’ve done a conversion into imperial. 

Some commentators seem to have made much about our being able to buy fruit and veg in pounds again, making it part of our “taking back control”. This has surprised me as nowadays much of our fruit and beg comes prepacked. Who actually goes to the greengrocer and asks for 5 pounds of potatoes and two pounds of apples any longer? Even when we buy loose fruit and veg we tend to select the number of carrots or apples or whatever we require from serve-yourself displays, rather than asking for the greengrocer to serve you a certain weight. And prices are given in both so much per kilo and so much per pound. Not a problem!

On the taking back control issue, we need to remember that we started to adopt the metric system well before we ever joined Europe, whether you call it the Common Market, the EEC or the EU. And the younger generation probably don’t know much about pounds and ounces, feet and inches or pints and quarts. Measuring people’s height is a different thing. Small children’s clothes are often sized in height in centimetres but once they reach a certain height they are measured in feet and inches, just like the grown-ups!  And most of us have never adjusted to measuring distances we travel in our cars in kilometres rather than miles.

The process of adaptation we go through when we change systems is interesting and seems common to all countries. Back in 1971 when we changed to decimal currency, we went through a time of converting pounds and pence back into pounds, shillings and pence. Similarly when the President De Gaulle changed old francs to new francs back in the 1960, the French people carried on talking about their money in old terms, for years it seemed. It was very confusing as a student to hear people refer to their money in terms I just wasn’t expecting. And then, many years later, I went to Romania just before they became EU members and just as they revalued their currency. I was not there long enough to even begin to understand their money. The Spanish also took a while accepting euros in place of pesetas. I remember talking to a restaurateur in Mallorca who was really worried about it. Years on I met people who still thought in pesetas, convincing themselves that things were more expensive because they were priced in euros and that general inflation has nothing to do with price rises! 

But in the end we all adapt.

In the middle of all this I came across this little news item: “Ministers have pledged to consider "very carefully" pardons for the "metric martyrs" – five market traders who were convicted for selling their wares in pounds and ounces....”

I had completely forgotten about this. A north east greengrocer was prosecuted and convicted in 2001 for selling fruit and vegetables by the pound. He’s been back in the news because he died recently. He must have been very young when he was prosecuted as he was only 39 when he died. 


“Fellow campaigner Neil Herron told the BBC Mr Thoburn died at home on Sunday.

Mr Herron said: "This man had the courage to stand up and be counted and it was a pleasure to know him.

"He was an ordinary person's hero - an extraordinary ordinary person."”

Four other market traders joined in the campaign and the five became known as the “Metric Martyrs”. There was even a Metric Martyr Defence Fund. Goodness me!

And now they look like being pardoned. What an odd story!

Life goes on. Stay safe and well, everyone!

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