Too much cheese late at night for Boris?

The old Weights and Measures office in the Seven Sisters Road

By Jeremy Miles

So when he wasn’t being distracted by cheese, dancing to Abba, yelling at the dog or attending hard-drinking work meetings, our hopeless Prime Minister was trying to dream up a wizard scheme to nail the nostalgia vote.

That of course was before he was booed at the Jubilee Celebrations, persuaded his wife – not seen in public for weeks – to join him at the Royal bash and discovered that 148 of his MPs and Ministers want him gone.

Tough times for BoJo but at least he didn’t have to worry about Cliff Richard from performing at the Jubilee knees-up. Cliffy was kept dafely bfrim the stage possibly amid fears that he might have burst into an impromptu rendering of his 1989 hit Carrie (doesn’t live here anymore). 

But hey, back to the nostalgia thing. It had been such a good idea. ‘I know’, Boris had told himself as he wandered into the Downing Street larder and sliced another piece of stilton.  ‘I’ll pretend we are reintroducing imperial measures’. Yaroo! What better way to impress the Little Englanders during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Celebrations?

Er perhaps not. The idea bears the classic Boris Johnson hallmarks of being ill-thought through and a piece of pointless populism that actually isn’t very popular at all.

Hardly anyone under the age of 50 understands or has any use for pounds and ounces, feet and inches and most of them couldn’t give a flying firkin if their beer glass has an imperial pint crown on it. 

None of these things impact too much on the over 50s either. We already live in a society that is largely comfortable with a mix of measures. Many of us switch happily between pounds and kilos, pints and litres, miles and kilometres, while clothing is often sized in both inches and centimetres. It’s not a big deal. Almost everyone thought it a bit stupid.  There was one exception.

As I listened to people discussing the matter last week, a woman in her eighties earnestly joined a discussion in my local butcher’s shop. “Oh yes”, she said gleefully. “They’re bringing back pounds, shillings and pence.” There was instant silence. Everyone looked at her and gently explained that that wasn’t going to happen.

Distressingly, I am old enough to remember the official arrival of the decimalisation of our currency back in February 1971. I had just got a job as a junior reporter on my local newspaper so it wasn’t surprising that for several weeks I was regularly despatched to cover meetings and arguments about the imminent switchover to decimal coinage. 

The decision to ditch the nation’s familiar pounds, shillings and pence and replace them with decimal coins had caused a furore. It may have looked like a no brainer to divide the pound into 100 new pence but there were howls of protest from those to whom the then-current pound with its 240 pennies seemed so much more logical…and British.

 To them, decimalisation smacked of bowing to foreign ways. They liked their farthings, halfpennies, threepenny bits, florins and half-crowns too. There were conventions, old and relatively new, that relied on LSD as it was often known. Given the distorted logic of the protestors, it seemed an apt label. I met one man who said that he knew that an old Haig Dimple whisky bottle would hold exactly £40 in sixpences. How was he to save £40 now? 

Shops held training sessions, bank managers gave familiarisation talks, and a booklet was issued with pictures of the new coins. One pensioners’ group I was sent to talk to argued that the Bank of England should wait until ‘all us old uns are dead’ before bringing in the new coinage. 

There was even panic buying. One afternoon I was sent with a photographer to a house that had effectively been turned into an emergency store depot by its elderly owner. He had been buying canned and dried food for weeks, convinced that he would never be able to work out how to pay for anything ever again.

It was clear that messing with a fiscal system that had origins dating back nearly a thousand years was not without its perils. Steps had been taken to integrate the new coins. Several, like the 5p and 10p, had already been introduced alongside existing coinage. 

These were identical in size and shape to the old shilling and florin or two bob bit as it was known. Their presence in people’s change didn’t cause too much of a stir. The nation’s traditionalists weren’t so calm in the Autumn of 1969 when the new 50p coin was introduced to replace the old ten-shilling note. There was an outcry. 

The press called it ‘a monstrous piece of metal’ and, despite it having seven sides, people complained that it was too easily confused with the old Half-Crown. The unfamiliar shape of the new 50p coin annoyed one retired army officer so much that he launched an official protest group, the Anti-Heptagonist Society. 

Even though the new coin featured a portrait of the Queen with Britannia on the reverse, a furious Colonel Essex Moorcroft told reporters: “I have founded the society because I believe our Queen is insulted by this heptagonal monstrosity.” The Queen remained dutifully silent on the issue and by the time Decimalisation Day finally arrived, on 15th February 1971, the furore that had raged so fiercely in the tabloid press seemed already destined to be eclipsed by history.

And that’s why it’ll take a whole lot more than resurrecting the use of a few ancient weights and measures for Boris Johnson to find favour with anyone beyond a certain lunatic fringe. Were he still with us, I’m not even sure that Essex Moorcroft would be on Johnson’s side.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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