Sunday, 19 October 2008

Metric martyrs

For a little more than half my life I have been using the decimal system of currency in which 100 pennies make a pound. This now seems to be the norm anywhere in the world, but I do sometimes think our quirky pre-decimal system was more adaptable. In that system we had pounds, shillings and pence. Twelve pence made one shilling and there were twenty shillings in a pound. That might at first glance seem cumbersome, but having 240 pence in a pound was actually very convenient: after all, 240 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 etc whereas 100 is divisible only by 2, 4, 5, and 10. Anyway, back in the early 1970s, Britain lost its ancient system of currency.

But we retained our equally quirky system of weights with eight ounces to the pound, fourteen pounds in a stone, eight stone in a hundredweight and twenty hundredweight in a ton. The arithmetic did become a little complicated, but we all learned our tables at school and generally had no problems.

Then the Government decided that our weights should go metric - 1000 grams in a kilogram, and however many kilos to a metric ton. If we had been allowed to acclimatise ourselves to this gradually it might not have been too bad. But no. We had to switch over all of a sudden. And worse, it became a criminal offence to sell food such as apples and bananas by the pound. So the little old lady who was accustomed to buying half a pound of butter, two pounds of apples and four ounces of tea suddenly didn't know what she wanted.

Some traders, particularly market traders, were quite happy to accommodate there customers by selling in the old weights. Then along came The Law in the shape of local authority jobsworths and one market trader was taken to court and fined for selling somebody a pound of bananas. Not surprisingly, many people contributed towards a defence fund to pay for his appeal (which was turned down). Steve Thoburn died this year of a heart attack at the age of 39. There has been speculation that the heart attack was brought on by the stress of the original conviction and subsequent, unsuccessful appeals, even the European Court of Human Rights having turned him down this year.

When all this was brought in, we were told it was being imposed on us by Brussels. Whether or not that was the original position I don't know, but I do know that Brussels, in the form of one of its commissioners, this year stated that there was no reason why Britain should not keep using its pounds and ounces.

All the same, Janet Devers was ordered to pay costs of £5000 this month when she was given a discharge on various charges relating to the sale of goods on her market stall. (See the story here)

Now it seems that somebody in Whitehall has had an attack of common sense The Government is to produce new guidelines to prevent local authorities taking market traders to court for selling goods in imperial weights.

Could this be the dawn of a new age? I somehow doubt it!

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