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Brits give ground on the pound


LONDON -- Come Sunday, the inch dies. So does the foot and the yard. And the pound and ounce go on life support.

After more than 20 years of re-education and assimilation, the British are dumping some of the final vestiges of their old imperial measuring system and going nearly all-metric. And not everybody is thrilled.

Shoppers are griping about buying packaged British bacon by the kilo and gram, instead of the pound and ounce. Store owners are grumbling about spending millions on pamphlets to educate the public.

There's even a chartered surveyor and real estate agent from Scotland who has formed the Imperial Measures Preservation Society.

"Would you recognize a kilonewton if you fell over one in the dark?" demands Vivian Linacre, who has received 500 letters of support in the two weeks since he created the society.

In Mr. Linacre's trade, a kilonewton is used to calculate a building's floor-bearing capacity. There isn't a metric measure to gauge Mr. Linacre's anger over the changes ordered by the European Union.

"I'm capable of thinking and working with metric or imperial," he says. "Vive la difference. There are many instances where metric is more convenient. But there are at least as many, if not more, where imperial is more convenient and safe. If the metricators are so convinced their system is superior, then, why not let the laws of supply and demand operate. If they're right, the imperial system will just wither away. If not, . . ."

The metrication fuss isn't just a matter of weights and measures. Britain has long had difficulty coming to grips with its loss of empire and its reliance on continental partners. The issue of Britain's place in the European Union fractured the ruling Conservatives last summer, and forced Prime Minister John Major to challenge his "Euro-skeptical" critics in a "put up or shut up" election for the party's leadership.

For a vocal and influential minority, the adoption of the metric system -- forced down their throats by foreign bureaucrats of the European Union headquarters in Brussels -- is yet another blow to Britain's prestige.

This, after all, is the nation that gave the world the mile -- and then produced the first man to run the distance in under four minutes.

The imperial system flows through the nation's greatest literature. Shakespeare's Shylock wanted to extract a pound of flesh in "The Merchant of Venice," not 454 grams. And had the metric system been in use when Shakespeare wrote "King Lear," "Ay, every inch a king," would have come out, "Ay, every centimeter a king."

In a sign of how contentious the metric issue remains, the British government has emphasized that one of the nation's ways of life -- and measurement -- remain sacrosanct. Pint glasses of beer in pubs and pint bottles of milk delivered to the front door will still be available. And nobody is going to mess with the mile markers along the roads.

Still, the anti-metric crowd is furious.

"People call this progress," says Alan Sked, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party. "But why should anyone bother. The only need to have Britain go metric is to bow to this ideology of one European everything."

Adds Russell Lewis of the pro- British group, European Forum: "The metric system makes my hair stand on end. Why should we be subjected to this madness. It's just bureaucrats gone mad."

But it's a battle as lost as Hastings and Dunkirk. Fact is, the British have been on the metric road since a 1972 government vow to conform with the continental system.

Metric education became part of the school curriculum in 1974. Metric weights have been introduced in the grocery stores in stages since 1977.

Now, consumers wanting a new carpet will have to deal with square meters instead of square feet. In grocery stores, all packaged food -- including meat -- will be weighed under the metric system. Stores can still weigh out loose items in pounds and ounces until the end of the decade.

Most of the major chain grocery stores adopted the new rules weeks ago. To ease the transition, the major stores handed out weight conversion guides.

Some shoppers, though, may never grasp the conversion.

"I detest it," says Audrey Brown, 83, while shopping for luncheon meat at Sainsbury's grocery store in the affluent Kensington neighborhood.

4 "I'd rather get a pound of something," she says.

"I guess if you're a young person you can handle it."

Mark Dorman, 78, says he has mastered the metric system and he believes it's about time the British accept the inevitable.

"Sooner or later we have to muck in with Europe," he says.

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