One of the editors of Metric Views has been reading a book entitled “Eleven minutes late” by Matthew Engel. The book is subtitled “A train journey into the soul of Britain”, and may provide a clue to why the UK is taking so long to adopt fully a modern measurement system.
In the first chapter of the book, Mr Engel refers to the closures of railway lines in Britain in the 1960’s:
“ … in utter contrast to the 1830s when railways were the epitome of modernity, the railways were now seen as its antithesis.”
But then he notes a change in mood:
“The 1970s saw a swing back to more traditional British values ie a misty-eyed nostalgia. Country cottages, which previously could hardly be given away, became more desirable than new homes. The modern British arcadian dream took shape: living in a cottage (always ‘with roses round the door’) close to an oak-beamed pub selling real ale, and cricket on the green. And the vanished branch lines and steam trains became an important part of the make-believe idyll. The railways were no more popular than they ever had been but they now had a fixed place in the landscape of the imagination.”
Mr Engel points out that running preserved railways became a particularly British pastime. He writes:
“By 2008, the European Federation of Museum and Tourist Railways (Fedecrail) included 102 passenger-carrying preserved railways in Britain and Ireland among its members. In the rest of Europe combined, there were 117. Its meetings were said to be totally dominated by the British.”
He also observes:
“The Thomas the Tank Engine books were modestly popular in my childhood in the 1950s, rather went out of fashion in the Beeching era of the 1960s before returning with a vengeance to become a publishing and marketing phenomenon.”
Britain’s metric changeover started in earnest in 1965. Four years later, the UK Metrication Board began its first report, entitled “Going metric: first five years 1965-69”, with the words “Britain will be a metric country before 1975”.
1975 came and went with much work still to be done on the changeover. In 1978, the Government, perhaps influenced by national feelings of misty-eyed nostalgia, put off fixing cut-off dates for the metric changeover in key sectors of the UK economy. And after a general election in 1979, the pretence of carrying out a planned changeover was abandoned. When it came to measurements, many dreamed of drinking pints of real ale in country pubs and watching cricket on pitches umpteen yards long.
The country’s railways have come a long way since the 1970s. But misty-eyed nostalgia still appears to influence many British people and politicians when it comes to the matter of measurement units. Can this be sustained in a “global Britain” in the 21st century? It looks as if we shall have to wait and see.