Camden Passage in Islington, the borough the size of an asteroid
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last week, scientists informed us that the earth was being preceded in its orbit round the sun by "an asteroid the size of Islington". Only four or five years ago, Islington was just another London borough. Then, as the future of the country began to be plotted at the tables of Granita, Islington became a political philosophy. Now, it seems, the Islington is a standard measurement. But the phrase "the size of Islington" raises several disturbing questions. Are we talking area here, or volume? Does our asteroid include Highbury and Finsbury or is it just the length of Upper Street? How big would two Islingtons be? After all, an asteroid twice the length of Upper Street would have four times the area and eight times the weight of its one-Islington neighbour. And that could play havoc with property prices.

Of course Islington is not the first place to be used as a unit of measurement. Not so long ago, it seemed that anything huge appearing on the horizon was invariably described as "the size of Belgium". The largest iceberg ever seen was floating in the South Pacific in 1956 and covered an area "the size of Belgium". The area of rainforest chopped down each day was also "the size of Belgium".

This made excellent sense. For until recently all the standard metric units were defined by comparison with hunks of metal kept at constant temperature in dust-free, corrosion-proof environments in a physics laboratory outside Paris. The standard unit of large area was clearly the Belgium, also preserved as close to France as possible.

As our disillusion with metrication grew, however, we have increasingly been using the Wales as a convenient area. (The conversion formula, incidentally, is three Waleses = two Belgiums.) In the same system, the standard unit of length is the London bus, but, oddly enough, is used only when measuring dinosaurs.

The rise of Islington to the status of scientific unit might have been predicted from its steadily growing influence in other spheres. The following table illustrates the number of times the word "Islington" has appeared in our database of a typical cross-section of British newspapers. The slight drop in Islingtons in 1996 seems only a temporary blip when one sees the inexorable rise each month so far this year. Indeed, based solely on the first five months' figures, we can look forward to a total of some 2,350 references to Islington by the end of the year.

The implications may be judged from our second table, which identifies the number of times certain words have been mentioned in the same sentence as Islington in a period extended back from the present day to 1993. Despite the priorities given to education, education and education in recent times, it is perhaps not surprising to see "Blair" establishing a clear lead over "schools", though it is interesting to note by contrast that football leads politics. Perhaps these figures provide an answer to one of our earlier questions: yes, Islington does include Highbury.

And, as all good gastronomes, it also includes sun-dried tomatoes and, more recently, polenta. However, do not let the figures mislead you, for the tomatoes are set to lose their lead, for seven of the 12 Islington polentas have been sighted this year, while the tomatoes peaked in 1994. As far as we know, neither sun-dried tomatoes nor polenta are available on the asteroid (see below).

William Hartston

Research by Jodie Inverne

The Rise of Islington

1994 1,612

1995 1,825

1996 1,737

1997: January 133

February 152

March 191

April 253

May 251

The Islington Factor

Blair 830

schools 679

property 150

Arsenal 87

politics 79

sun-dried tomatoes 16

polenta 12

asteroid 1