Worry no longer about that piece of string

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The Independent Online
A FEW weeks ago, Bunhill started trying to annihilate overused "unanswerable" questions by answering them. The most worn of all, of course, is: "How long is a piece of string?"

Brian Goggin of Castleconnell, County Limerick, has looked up "piece" in the Oxford English Dictionary and comes up with a number of options. A piece of muslin is 10 yards; of calico, 28 yards; of Irish or Hanoverian linen, 100 double ells or 128 yards. The OED also cites a strange discrepancy in Young Every Man his own Mechanic, of 1639, which says that a piece of English paper is 12 yards long but a piece of French paper about 912 yards. There is also a quote from Anne of Green Gables: "We've got to drive a long piece haven't we? Mrs Spencer said it was eight miles." All this proves, it seems to me, is that however long a piece is, it isn't metric.

My colleague William Hartston asked the same question of Independent readers a while ago. They're a brainy lot over on the daily, and one of them, Chris Johnson, said that "according to Einstein's theories of General and Special Relativity, the apparent length of a piece of string is dependent on its motion relative to the observer. But according to Quantum Mechanics, we cannot simultaneously know the position and momentum of the string, so we cannot both measure it and know its speed." Which means, I think, that he doesn't know the answer either.

We might be satisfied with more philosophical answers. "Twice as long as it from either end to the middle," according to FW Chamberlain of Whitland, Dyfed, or "as long as it needs to be", if Samuel Monk (aged seven and three-quarters) is right. But the whole point is to give a definite answer, to crush use of an abominable cliche. I shall therefore use the ancient Droits de Bunhill to declare that string has an uncommon acquaintance with Hanoverian linen, so the answer is 100 double ells. They're not metric either (I hope).

I WAS interested to see a signpainter filling in the lettering on a brand new Davy's wine bar in Canary Wharf. "Old ale and port house" it said. If the ale is old, I'm not going there. If the ale house is old, Davy's idea of old and mine are rather different. I suppose it all part of the "instant ageing" business that has brought us Crabtree and Evelyn, founded in the Sixties but going on 18th Century, and the ancient shirt maker Thomas Pink (founded 1984). Come to think of it, Bunhill and his wig probably fit into the same category, so I'd better shut up.

Mind you, it is a fundamental Bunhill belief that the past is more interesting than the present, because there is more of it, so I insist on my right to cast my mind back to the Seventies, when I was at university. I received a glossy brochure from the University of Sussex a few days ago, and was shocked by the way things had changed. Then, the main aim of the students was to stop the Vietnam War (even though it had already finished), to denounce Barclays (we weren't so stupid, you see), and to declare that exams were elitist (ditto). Now, Sussex has its own credit card and travel service, and is trying to sell me house and car insurance. It also wants me to send it money, which I refuse to do - at least until the Americans pull out of Vietnam.

Calling cards

IT IS always amazing to hear what other people collect. The Schlumberger Telecard, pictured here, is apparently the British Guyana Penny Black of the telephone card world. It was produced by Schlumberger to honour the visit of Gerard Long- uet, who was France's Industry Minister, to the company's factory in 1986. Only a handful were produced, and they have an estimated market value, I am told, of $6,800 (pounds 4,330).

Just in case you thought that was the last astonishing fact about telecards you would learn today, here is another. We almost had telerings. In 1974, Roland Moreno, a science journalist, devised a revolutionary payment system that allowed a user to "load" an electronic ring with money. It was the size of a bracelet, which would surely have led to a natty new line in jewellery. Shame he decided to stick his electronic chips on to bits of plastic, which are never likely to make it on to the catwalks.

A LATERAL question. Imagine you are a policeman carrying out speed checks. You clock a car driving at 2.9 miles per hour. What is the driver up to?

He is 1)kerb-crawling 2)misreading the decimal point on his digital speedometer 3)driving a BMW Seven Series and Eastenders is still on?

And the answer is 3). The new BMW has a little screen on the dashboard that shows all sorts of information - but that also picks up the telly. It has been a great hit with chauffeurs, who have to sit around for hours waiting for their bosses to emerge from meetings. But it switches off when the car hits 3mph, and I am told it is quite an art keeping it on in traffic jams. Maybe somebody should start giving low-speed driving lessons?

Tighter money belt

EUROMONEY, the publishing money machine that recently issued a profits warning, takes its hard times seriously. Diane Chaplin, formerly secretary to the chairman, Sir Patrick Serge- ant, and now office manager, was spotted carrying a kettle out of the offices. She had, I am told, confiscated it from an unfortunate hack because it used too much electricity.

Mind you, things have always been tough at Euromoney. Ten years ago, a memo went round saying that staff could fly first-class "only in an emergency". When an attack of acute champagne deficiency struck, presumably.

AT LAST, a reader has found a British-built machine that is more than 100 years old and still whirring away. RS Hustler of Egham says he visited a sugar mill in Madeira with a steam-powered crushing plant that had been in regular use for the last 120 years. "The mill produces molasses and rum, both excellent."