250 grams of 1p rice
250 grams of treacle
That’s the way the Euros go
But not the British people
Not much good, I admit, but there are limits to what you can do with a gram. And would anyone celebrate the birth of a healthy baby boy weighing 3.5 kilograms? “We are an old country,” says The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer. Our literature and our folksongs are peppered with references to traditional measurements. Our architecture, our towns and our landscape are all calibrated to miles, yards, feet and inches.”
I am delighted that common sense has prevailed in the matter of pounds and ounces. So is Heffer:
Thanks to a determination by successive governments - the last Tory one was just as bad as the present incumbent - to accept every directive sent from the EU without so much as a whimper, our traditional system of measurements was about to be consigned to the dustbin. Now, and no thanks to our supposed rulers, that won't happen.
It never ceases to amaze me how governments wilfully ignore strong feelings by the public about such matters. Ever since the prospect was first raised, there has been visceral opposition in this country to metrication.
To the more historically minded it might just be a resistance to Bonapartism - it was under his aegis that the system was invented. For most of us, it is all about a profound distaste for the wanton destruction of a central part of our fast-vanishing culture.
I’m with Simon Heffer so far. Anything that comes out of the EU, particularly any invention of the French, should be viewed with hostility, suspicion and contempt. French ideas are guilty until proved innocent.
However, when Heffer starts harrumphing about decimalisation, he and I must part company:
Many of us, too, are scarred by an earlier experience in these matters. People under the age of 40 cannot imagine how we coped with a monetary system in which there were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound.
Well, for a start (and this was in the age before calculators) we were all trained to be rather good at mental arithmetic, a skill largely unknown these days. How often did 6s 4d go into £123 9s 9d? No problem.
But it was more than that. We loved our coinage, for they were pieces of history in our pockets. It was not unusual, even in the 1960s, to have in your change a bun penny of Queen Victoria's, or a beautiful half-crown of George V with an opulent royal coat of arms bursting out of the garter that framed it. History, pageantry and substance seemed to be on every coin, and seemed to help root us in our past.
This is nonsense. First, we can collect pre-decimal coins if we wish. More importantly, many of the old coins of which Heffer speaks so fondly would probably have been phased out. Inflation has eroded their value, and decimalisation did not cause inflation. The old coins would have met the fate of the half-pence piece, no longer legal tender. Pound notes would have been replaced by pound coins and the two-pound coin would have been introduced, as happened after decimalisation. Decimalisation was, in fact, very well managed. Britain rightly kept the pound. Shillings were five new pence, and for a long period shilling pieces were the same size as, and interchangeable with five pence pieces. Going decimal was not a betrayal of our past. Adopting the Euro certainly would have been, and the ease with which Continental Europe abandoned its currencies made me more certain than ever that Britain is not in spirit, and should not in law, be a part of Europe.
I find it interesting, nevertheless, to look at old accounting textbooks such as John McKechnie’s Rational Book-keeping – is there another kind? – and to see the columns for shillings and pence. For pedagogical purposes, these are left blank and all amounts are whole pounds. This is a very basic text, which instructs us to “take a few sheets of plain paper and fold them vertically down the middle”, a most rational act.
B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry is a period piece because it was published in 1973, just two years after decimalisation, and perhaps conceived, if not written, at the time of the changeover. Christie would have grown up with old money, but his accounts are in decimal. I imagine B. S. Johnson, who must on - and in - no account be confused with Boris Johnson, would not have approved of those new-fangled coins. Hugh, no I haven’t forgotten that you introduced me to Mr Malry in an idle moment at JW, where Luca Pacioli was mentioned. In fact I haven’t forgotten that you thought that Pacioli had a second c in it and had to correct yourself. Such things are not easily forgotten.