The measures of a man's life, taken

Riding hobby horses is a great sport. But it can seem a lonely one. So a recent report in this newspaper (Aug. 2, page 1) was music to my ears. It turns out that one of my horses is, in fact, part of a vast phalanx of resistance.

The theme is change - from imperial to metric. I am not alone, it seems, in my dislike of kilos and grams to weigh sugar or onions. We, the Resistance, much prefer good old-fashioned pounds and ounces. Apparently, even one of the United Kingdom's supermarket chains, Tesco, agrees. It has opted for imperial.

The thing is, I was brought up on a system of measuring things that may well have been enormously complicated but had been in place for a very long time and had worked OK for my forefathers.

For instance, a right angle was 90 degrees. It was rumored, though, that if Hitler had won the war he would have made a right angle 100 degrees. This impressed itself on me. I easily accepted the idea that 90 degrees was good, and 100 degrees was bad. Indeed, it was a notion conceivable only by tyrants and enemies.

As far as I have heard, a right angle is still 90 degrees. So Hitler lost.

But almost everything else, measurement-wise, that I was taught so painstakingly as a boy has been changed - mostly to something easily divisible by 100.

Instead of pounds and ounces, we have kilos and such. Instead of pints and gallons, we have liters and such. Instead of inches, feet, and yards, we have millimeters, centimeters, meters, and such. Even acres have given way to hectares, whatever they might be.

And as for our money! Well! Once upon a time we had a wonderful and totally incomprehensible arrangement called pounds, shillings, and pence. It was special. It was impossible, but it was different.

A pound was 20 shillings. A shilling was 12 pence. And then, on top of that, we had guineas. A guinea was one pound, one shilling - 21 shillings. Certain things were always bought in guineas: works of art for example. I sold my first paintings in guineas, not pounds. It was special. It was eccentric. I liked it, anyway.

Then one day (I do not mark the occasion with an anniversary), a trumpet sounded and we were all changed.

We got a whole range of strange-looking coins instead of the old lovelies we were used to. Instead of farthings and three-penny bits and shillings and half-crowns and stuff, we were issued "new pence."

Strangely, this happened when inflation was rampant, and so a certain confusion about the actual value of the new coinage seemed horribly like a distracting tactic.

Instead of 20 shillings to a pound, we suddenly had 100 new pence to a pound. Previously, we'd had 240 old pennies to a pound, though we never thought much in those terms. The coin we now used that looked most like an old shilling was a "five-pence piece."

New pence very quickly were denominated in popular parlance as "p's." So in place of "pence" we had "p's" - 10p or 25p or whatever p. It was all rather vulgar. And more or less overnight, the world was deprived of trusty old faithfuls like farthings and ha'pennies and threepenny bits and guineas.

SO IT no longer made sense to say that a London taxi "could turn on a three-penny bit." Or that someone's unvalued opinion "wasn't worth a farthing." Or that "frankly, my dear, I don't care tuppence." A whole culture of money-related expressions had gone with the wind.

And then feet and inches. There hath arisen in our land, verily, an entire generation of young people who no longer know what an inch is.

Think of it! They are inchless. Inch-deprived. Inch-ignorant. If you say to them that a house is about a hundred yards away, they look at you as if you are from Mars. The only thing "foot" means to them is the thing attached to their ankle.

But there is the Resistance. Some of us still talk among ourselves of inches and feet.

"Oh, don't worry," we say under our breath, "I'm an inch-man." It's vastly reassuring.

Of course I know that it is nonsensically complex to have 12 inches to a foot and three feet to a yard, rather than everything in hundreds and thousands. But I simply have no mental image of millimeters and centimeters.

And I still measure a meter by the approximate method - that is, a meter is a yard and then some.

The point is that an inch is the length of your thumb down to the first knuckle. That a foot is exactly the length of my foot in a Wellington boot. And that a yard is an average pace by an average-size man.

It seems amazing and admirable from the distant reaches of the Old World in which we UK citizens are destined to live - this old but metricized world - that in the New World our American cousins stick to the old inches, feet, and yards, regardless.

There was a rumor just the other day, though, that the good old American $1 bill is under threat from the coin-eager boys in the USA.

It can't happen, surely. Can it?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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