Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Why 320kph trains do 200mph at Folkestone
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The Independent Online

Metric martyrs are like those "have-a-go-heroes": smacking teachers and householders who attack the Cupressus leylandii hedge in the garden next door. They represent a peculiarly British mindset – small, suburban and xenophobic. Such people don't usually interest this newspaper, but they often achieve a deal of noise and publicity.

The latest "martyr" – Janet Devers, a market stallholder from Hackney – got wide coverage last week in a fight against prosecution by her local council for selling apples and pears in pounds and ounces. At the same time, a 16,000-name petition calling for a pardon for four men convicted of selling in imperial measures in 2001 was handed in at the Commons. Here is a powerful lobby, which uses the metric system as a metaphor for a loathing of all things European, and is currently on a roll with the current row over the EU constitution.

But for ordinary folk who don't care a hoot about this war, the UK weights and measures system flummoxes the best of us. Reader Eric Jeffries, from Saffron Walden, emails: "I notice you employ kilometres in some reports and miles in others. Surely you should be consistent?" We should, Mr Jeffries. But sometimes it's not so easy. I recently filed a report on a record-breaking train journey from Brussels through the Channel Tunnel to London. Was it travelling in kph on the Continental side, switching to mph as it entered Kent? How would it be expressed in the official version in the record books? The 'Independent' stylebook tells us always to use metres rather than yards. But there are two imperial units we are stuck with indefinitely – the mile and the pint. Our style is to favour kilometres and litres, with an imperial conversion for older readers.

Absurd or what? The Government claimed in 1965 that the schoolchildren of that generation would be the last required to learn two separate systems, and that we would go entirely metric by 2010. But our motorways are still measured in miles while we fill up our cars in litres. We go on a diet, and talk about pounds and ounces instead of kilos. Most bizarrely of all, we buy milk in pint containers, but the contents are labelled in litres. In a sensible world, all this would be swept away overnight.

But no. The anti-metric campaigners have mugged the EU Industry Commissioner Günter Verheugen, who now says that Britain will never be required to drop the last remnants of the imperial system. Worried that the row is making the EU unpopular, he says: "I want to bring to an end a bitter, bitter battle that has lasted for decades and which in my view is completely pointless."

So I'm afraid you're going to have to grit your teeth and accept the current mess. But at least we might eventually see an end to all those irritating stories about "metric martyrs".

Corrections and clarifications

On 13 January we reported that a witness, Alain Willaumez, who still works for the Paris Ritz, told the Princess Diana inquest that Henri Paul was "walking like a clown" before the fatal crash. Mr Fayed's office has asked us to point out that later, under cross-examination and having watched the CCTV footage, the witness said he wanted to withdraw the word "clown".

Message Board: Are good neighbours a thing of the past?

One in three of us predict there will soon be "no such thing as society", the Prince's Trust said last week. Readers shared their views over the cyberfence:

s cooper

We like to live in a cocoon, a fortress, watching explosions on TV, not with a friend or neighbour, sharing a cup of coffee. People who never miss a day's work never invite a neighbour in. Do they think they will be robbed? No, they are too busy.

Jakers

This is a bit out of date. As more and more people start to work from home, so the local communities benefit (as do the workers). I'd say communities were getting stronger again as technology makes geography redundant.

Brian

I am an averagely sociable person, but in the two years I've lived here I've only seen one of my neighbours, once. There's no reason for more; we have no common interest apart from party walls.

gingertom

Older residents should show new arrivals like Brian how neighbourliness works. You help each other out with bins, post, pets, keys. It's about much more than walls.

Ann Beirne

Am I a rarity in knowing my neighbours? I also believe in community and am happy to be there for anyone. People don't work or shop locally any more, the supermarkets are killing off local shops. These were great places to meet and chat.

Jakers

I don't think you are a rarity. While the kind of shops you mention are disappearing, they're being replaced by "third place" spots such as coffee shops, co-working spaces, etc, and of course, we still have many flourishing pubs.

Alexis

I live in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. People here rarely know their neighbours. We mind our own business and may take offence if someone wants to become very neighbourly.

scotty

In Edinburgh's Old Town more and more areas are becoming a student campus, a tourist destination, a conferencing facility. We demolish homes and listed buildings to create a mall.

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