43 years late

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.

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3 Responses to 43 years late

  1. Daniel Jackson says:

    All hope may not be lost. Just when you think the other side has won the war and it is the darkest hour, the sun finally pokes through. I posted this to under another topic, but I think it belongs here:


    This article in the Daily Wail is meant to be anti-metric , but the author points out that people are using metric units freely without being told to. There may be a nostalgia for old trains but not for old measuring units. Read the article and see if you don't get the same feeling I'm getting.

    The author is literally upset because people in the UK are freely choosing to use metric measures even when they don't have to and this bothers him. Maybe in 2001 there was a strong pro-imperial bias in the shops, but 20 years later the people are freely choosing to do business in the metric system.

    His own words of lament:

    "But as with so many other aspects of our lives, they were destroyed with slow subtlety and cunning, and resistance is left to a few eccentrics, such as I am, fuming hopelessly against a loss nobody else can see."

    These fuming eccentrics may hope there is a reversal of attitude come Brexit, but a Brexit with no deals (and there shouldn't be any - Brexit means Brexit) with any country, not just the EU, will prove economically disastrous for the UK economy. The supporters of Brexit, mostly older people will bear the wrath of the younger generations, who support both remain and metrication.

    The battle is just beginning.

  2. derekp says:

    From yesterday's "Metro" free newspaper:
    "The BBC dealt a body blow to its TV rivals as political thriller Bodyguard pulled in twice as many viewers as Vanity Fair on Sunday night.
    (Bodyguard) attracted 6.6 million viewers, compared to the 2.9 million tuning into the lavish period drama's debut."
    Bodyguard is set in the 21st century, Vanity Fair in the nineteenth. So there could be hope for modernisers.

  3. Sven G says:

    ... BTW, what units does/would/could Doctor Who preferably use, in the original British TV series...? That would set the mile-... ooops, kilometre-stone (well, only on Earth and similar planets: elsewhere, greater prefixes would probably be needed), for the present and the future...! 🙂 Really, Doctor Who being almost a popular British institution (and thus potentially stimulating the “other”, a little too lazy, “real” (?) institutions)... perhaps could very well contribute to finally complete the metric switchover - anyway, why not...? 🙂 Maybe...


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