Monday, 8 March 2010

Bred in a handbag!

Our clock predates the French Revolution by some decades. If the Revolutionaries had had their way, it would have been made redundant. As it is, their ideas about time lasted less than ten years. The French tried again in the late 19th Century, but were persuaded of the folly of their ways. Not only had they wanted the year to begin on a significant Revolutionary date (which happened to be September 22nd, the autumn equinox) but they also tried dividing months of thirty days into weeks of ten days; and since working men could not be persuaded of the benefits of working nine days non-stop, they had to insert a mid-week break also.

So many foolish but entirely rational notions those revolutionaries held. As, for instance, the value of dividing everything into ten. I was fortunate in being born into a pre-decimal England. So I learned that everything does not have to be worked out to the base 10. Pounds, Shilllings and Pence involved learning about adding and subtracting with a base 20 (of shilllings in the pound) and 12 (of pence in the shilling) and of 4 (the farthings in a penny). I can still usually beat the machine at the checkout when it comes to totting up a bill, simply because we had to learn the principles of maths (or math, as our Colonial cousins will call it).

One of the disasters of the decimal system was reported yet again in today's papers. A child died because of an overdose.... it was given just ten times the required amount of medication. So common are such mistakes that you would suppose that the medical profession would want to revert to the older system of weights and measures, but like so many people they have been lured into decimals because they were "New".

Interestingly, digital watches do not seem to have become as accepted as the ones with hands and dials. Dials like our Grandfather Clock's enable you to envisage how time has elapsed, how much time you have left, how long before your next appointment, without juggling numbers (and hoping you get the decimal point in the right place). You can SEE the time.

Dear Lady Bracknell was right in this, as in so many things. 'To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution'. How very true! And equally one is reminded of those excesses whenever the Government gets itself wound up over greengrocers selling produce by the pound, or proposing yet again to put our road signs into Kilometers.

Had we started with digital watches, and then invented ones with a dial, no doubt we would have seen the advantage of NOT relying on the mathematics of those who can only count with their fingers. Of course, all this might be just the result of my getting old - but I think not. The French were eventually ridiculed for their attempts to divide circles into four hundred degrees. When the world is a wiser place we shall perhaps give up degrees Kelvin or Reaumur or Celsius for Fahrenheit, and realise that it is much easier to envisage measures which relate to the human body (the foot... the fathom... the inch) rather than the Procrustean nonsense of making everything divide by ten.

Perhaps, too, we shall realise that dull modern liturgies are also the result of the logic and pedantry of the Philosophes. They thought by wrecking the Calendar they would undermine the Church. Perhaps we should fight back and seek to abolish the metric system; for if you give them an inch, you can be sure they will take 1.33333 Kilometres.