26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 22


As an American living here, Robert Haeger

laments the surrender of Britain's weights, measures and light bulbs

AFTER living in this country for some years, the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana summed it up this way: `England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies and humours.'

Seventy-odd years later, those items sur- vive pretty much unchanged — except for the anomalies, where vast growth has taken place. That's due to the Europeani- sation which is creeping inch by inch (or must one now say centimetre by centime- tre?) from across the Channel.

I suspect that we non-EU foreigners — I am American — tend to be more aware of this process than the natives. After check- ing in at Heathrow or Dover, it doesn't take long to bump into something new and European that has either replaced or aug- mented something traditionally English, but which the local citizenry seemingly has already become accustomed to.

As we are told every day, the really big question — pound or euro — won't be officially answered for years to come. Meanwhile, the list of EU-inspired changes keeps growing. It's both easy and accurate to identify these as trivial, but the lives of most humans are saturated with trivia which can't be ignored. I wouldn't venture to claim that my knowledge of this area is complete, but anyone could com- pile an impressive inventory on any high street, a region seldom penetrated by the mighty of Westminster.

Thanks to the metric invasion, the supermarket is now a place both perplex- ing and irritating. Time was when it had only one system of measurement, the imperial. Now there are two. Accordingly, for many months, shop walls have been decorated with charts aimed at educating customers as to how many grammes there are in a half-pound and the relationship of the centilitre to the quart.

Some food producers think this is inade- quate. They do the same thing on their labels, telling the buyer that, for instance, 142 millilitres equal five fluid ounces. Or that three ounces is just as much as 85 grammes.

Fresh fruit and veg have their own kind of duplication. Ready-packed in plastic containers, they're sold metrically. Or buy them loose — imperially. Fresh fruit juices come by the litre. Right next to them you find pints and quarts of milk. Real coffee is still packed the old way. The powdered stuff — obviously and incredibly far more popular — is metrically measured. So is tea. And so on, ad infinitum.

The double-measure pattern is spread- ing. Estate agents' plans of flats give dimensions both ways. Various clothing stores offer two sizes for each garment. But chemists seem to have become wholly metric.

Changes of a different kind have hit electrical appliances. The non-European three-prong plug survives, but dealers admit that Brussels decreed a fundamental change: the plug has to be attached to the appliance — no more dangling bare wires. A handful of passionate DIYers aside, this is probably one of the few EU alterations that is genuinely popular. A footnote on matters electrical: the' European-style screw-in bulb is gaining rapidly in sales versus the old native bayonet.

The most thorough Europeanisation is taking place in, surprisingly, the pub. Nat- urally, and of secondary importance, the litre — or, more accurately, its fractional offshoots — has come to stay. Gone are the gill and parts thereof, long used to measure tots of spirits. Instead, the calcu- lation is now made in millilitres (118.291 to the gill).

Things aren't so clear-cut for the beer- drinker. Like the groceries shopper, he is subject to the dual-measurement phe- nomenon. Bottles and cans are metric, draught is not. The pub pint, for some rea- son, is exempt from the European wave and seems set to be available indefinitely.

But a pint of what? Certainly not what it was 20, or even ten, years ago. There has been a huge switch from traditional ale to chilled and foamy lager. Unlike so many other recent innovations, this one is entire- ly voluntary. No Brussels bureaucrat dic- tated a revision of taste buds on this side of the Channel.

Not only that. Most of the lagers have European names as well. Pronounceable English brands are almost invisible, as pubs routinely offer multisyllabic brews from Denmark, Holland, Germany, Belgium, France and more faraway lands. This array is phoney in that much of it is produced right here under licence.

And there's been a non-European brew- ing development that strikes me as amaz- ing. Some thirsties here are actually opting for American products. A few decades ago, this idea would have been laughed out of the pub. As a cliché of the time had it, any- body who drinks American beer will emerge from the experience sadder Bud- weiser.

A peculiar shift is taking place in regard to temperature measurement. One Euro- pean system (the Swedish Celsius) is over- taking another, the more complicated German Fahrenheit. Fine. But why call it Celsius? The same thing is well established in the English-speaking world under the name centigrade.

Those who are unhappy about the mounting tide of Santayana's anomalies can derive consolation from the fact that other elements of daily life, some of them unique, are stubbornly resistant to change. Among them: Quarantine. Many well-informed Lon- doners tell me that the century-old six- month quarantine for pets is doomed. I wouldn't bet on it. The anti-rabies kennel operators haven't buried a rabies victim in ten years, but, while charging about £1,500 per dog and £800 per cat, they have presid- ed over the deaths of some 1,300 animals from other causes. Formidable defenders of the status quo.

Excise taxes. Neither Gordon Brown nor any successor is going to kiss goodbye to mountains of revenue by going European as regards taxes on alcohol. Brewers will keep moaning about French taxes on beer being one-sixth as high. Wine merchants won't stop being envious of even that, as they face something like a 100-1 tax gap. And those who operate the burgeoning illegal cross-Channel traffic in booze will keep on purring.

Clocks. The notion, widely believed, that time zones are established on a west-to- east basis isn't accepted here. Enter a later time zone in Paris — by flying south. Or, even more contrary, achieve the same thing be heading west to Brittany.

Miles. The litre has wiped out the gallon at petrol stations. But that litre has to be used to cover non-metric distances. Some- how, the mile has been allowed to survive, which provides solid hope that the big events in one's life will never have to be referred to as kilometrestones.

The author was bureau chief for Newsweek and US News & World Report in London and Bonn.