Do You Speak Metric?

I'm from an odd generation who are fluent in two languages. Well, languages of sort. We were raised during Britain's crossover between old and new measurements. So, while we were taught the metric system at school, our parents used only imperial terms. As little children in the 1970s and teenagers in the 1980s we were tots when the UK decimalised its currency and were among the first children to be exclusively taught the metric system.

In fact I put my total inability to cope with anything mathematical down to this confusing upbringing. I'm quite a traditional girl. I like our quirky British mashed-up ways, but I am a huge fan of metric, at least when it comes to calculations. Firstly, it's much easier to work things out in multiples and divisions of ten. Seriously, as much as I love old traditions, what kind of brain invents a system where there are 12 pennies in a shilling, 20 shillings in a pound and, therefore, 240 pence in a pound? Who wants to keep changing between multiples of twelve, three and one thousand seven hundred and sixty (that's how many inches in a foot, feet in a yard, yards in a mile)? Secondly,  and this is important, it's a darn site easier to write. I mean, say you want to label something worth £1.58. That's so much easier than having to write (or type - trust me I now know) than £1 11s 3d.  I don't mind that the origins of the letters are archaic (d for penny came from the Roman denarius, after all). In fact I love the history of it, but I do mind that it was all so darned complicated. My Dad, however, proud of his grammar school education and a bit of a traditionalist with such things, used to confuse the heck out of me. Throughout my childhood (when I needed all the extra help I could get with maths), Dad used to insist on adding up the cost of shopping by first converting it to pounds, shillings and pence, doing the sums, then converting it back again! I found it bewildering. He could never understand why. But I was a week off my second birthday when Britain went decimal and at school we simply never used imperial measurements. He might as well have been speaking in Mandarin. I'm still not entirely sure he doesn't secretly do the same thing today, and he certainly prefers not to deal in metric at all, although I suspect it may be more deliberate than necessary.

My Mum, on the other hand, has made every effort to convert to metric, although not always that successfully. Now let me say that my Mum is amazingly practical, so much so that she's had neighbours come round to borrow her toolbox. But I can't count the times I've had to accompany her to a shop to 'translate' measurements from imperial to metric. It's not that she doesn't make the effort, but rather that she has the charming habit of measuring one dimension in imperial and the other in metric so confusing shop assistants with request for a piece of curtain fabric 140 cm by 29 inches. But in her defence  the measurements you have to use changes depending on the age of the assistant. Granted you need metric for the 20-somethings, but get an assistant over 50 and they're likely to convert it back to inches anyway.

And that's just the problem. In Britain we, rightfully, treasure our traditions. So, while we are forced to buy our veggies in kilos, we measure the distance to the greengrocers in miles. We can buy our milk by the litre or by the pint but our beer only in pints and half pints. My passport states that I am 1.68 m tall, while I know I stand at just a tad under 5ft 6ins. And there's just something better about buying certain things in old measurements. It's just not quite the same buying 100g of barley sugar instead of a 'quarter'.  I can picture a quarter of sweets in my head, I know how much room it will take in the bag, know what it will feel like in my hand, and roughly how long it will take me to eat it. But 100g? Well, my brain tells me it's almost the same, but it doesn't seem like it is. But I wouldn't dream of going into a sweet shop and demanding a quarter of anything. I've always been a rule follower, but I have to admit there's an element of pride involved. Although I'd much rather be rebellious and order a quarter, I never do. I toe the line and ask for a 100g for fear of seeming out of date. You see my generation is caught between two worlds. One where shops had wooden escalators, savings stamps and were closed on Sundays and the other 24/7, online, offline, high-tech one. And sometimes it's easy to fall through the gap in between. So the way we cope, at least in my case (and I suspect in many of my generation's) is by measuring things in metric while judging them in imperial. 'I need 2.5 m of plywood' but 'it must have been about 3 feet long' and so on. And while we can cope (just about) in both the imperial world  of our parents and the metric one of our kids, we're constantly in danger of using the wrong one at the wrong time, or just not properly understanding either. In fact the entire country, now almost 50 years into our supposed metrication, still uses such a mix of old and new that we are probably the only people who truly understand it. For visitors to our shores - whether it be from metric Europe or imperial America (and don't get me started on their pints being smaller than ours) - it must be baffling. But it might just be part of our charm …