All my life I’ve had to watch people tear up and tear down beautiful things in a strange search for a shiny new utopia.
Yet it always ended in desolation, a view of treeless wilderness and cracked concrete, like a giant parking lot.
I’ve lived long enough to see many of the shiny, shiny, ugly new things they built crumble and peel away, and be torn down in turn, having lasted less than a quarter of the life of the structures they built. they replaced.
In my childhood, they had a great frenzy to destroy the hedges. It would apparently make things more efficient. Wherever they could find a harmonious and beautiful old downtown, they liked to tear it down and spoil it with something ugly and new.
Rail spur lines were closed – then actively cleared in case they were reopened. Hundreds of old high schools have been destroyed and replaced by comprehensive schools. It would be easier to untangle an egg than to put it back as it was.
Crown stamps on pint glasses, like the one pictured here, could make a comeback under new government proposals
All of these things were mistakes. Everyone now knows that those were mistakes. But what was fascinating about them was the zealous fury with which they were done.
Almost anyone who tried to stand in the way had about as good a chance as the poor guy standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. The poet John Betjeman saved some good things, but far too little.
Then came the changes to our currency and measurements – and the hissing, blind rage and scorn you encounter if you try to suggest there was something good in what was lost.
Over the past week on social media I have been ridiculed, reviled and generally scorned for saying that I hope the government does what it promises and stops trying to scrap our lovely weights and measures customary.
The BBC’s most smug programme, Radio 4’s More Or Less, yesterday devoted several minutes to an ignorant, chuckling mockery of the usual measures.
As we know, this frenzy led 20 years ago to criminal proceedings against traders who dared to sell goods by the pound to customers who liked to buy them by the pound. Legal pursuits? In what kind of country is this a crime?
For years I mourned their loss, feeling that something good and rather beautiful had disappeared from the world. I couldn’t understand why it was important.
I was told meanly that I was “obsessed” with a trivial matter. Why should I prefer a meter to a meter or a pint to a litre? Stupid old fool. But then it came to me. Erasing those familiar things wasn’t my obsession. It was the obsession of those who destroyed.
The metric and decimal systems were part of the French Revolution, and a particularly unpleasant part of it. The Parisian troublemakers wanted to erase all the landmarks of life before taking power so that no one could remember or wonder if times had in fact been better in the past.
It was a cruel process. They killed anyone who got in their way, cutting off their heads or drowning them by the hundreds. They desecrated churches, sometimes dancing prostitutes on their altars. They abolished the old French counties, replacing them with numbered “departments”. They even said that the world started over, renumbered the years and tried to decimalize time.
It failed. But only because people hated ten-day weeks in which they rested even less than before, and because the laws of the universe, which govern the rotation of the Earth and the orbits of the planets, cannot be measured in tens.
Britain and the United States were spared this revolution because they were so free and had the rule of law. Loud fanatics wanted to impose meters and liters on them, but failed because no one wanted them. In general, metric measures arrived in most countries, either because they were conquered by a foreign power, which imposed them, or because some kind of revolution put them into use.
The Bolsheviks – even as they were busy murdering and imprisoning thousands of opponents, abolishing religion and waging a giant civil war – still found time to vet Russia. They didn’t think it was trivial.
Hitchens argues that imperial and metric measurements can happily co-exist without the need to remove a system from existence.
Almost the only exception to this rule was the Commonwealth countries, which adopted the meter because they wanted to be different from the mother country. But again, it’s all about politics.
I don’t want to prevent anyone from using metric measurements if they want to. I’m not like my opponents, who hate the metrics I love and want them buried in a museum.
I just want to end the effort to eradicate something that I consider poetic, polished in use like the old tools I inherited from my father and grandfather, and above all, being based on the human body rather than on an invented bureaucratic scale.
You will find them in the Bible and in poetry from William Shakespeare to Robert Frost. Their invented metrical replacements, inserted into literature or verse, look and sound ugly and out of place, like botched repair work. Frost’s beautiful lines on “miles to go to sleep” fall flat when converted to kilometers. And imagine a horse race without furrows.
There’s absolutely no reason why the two systems can’t co-exist, now that electronic machines can convert them in an instant. My scale can tell me how big I am in stones and pounds (which I understand and respond to) or, at the flick of a switch, tell me how big I am in kilograms ( which means nothing to me, but might to you).
The secret of good government is to leave men alone. Let me keep my pounds and my ounces, my chains and my furlongs, my pints and my gallons. And you can keep your litres, meters and kilograms.