Not even an April Fool


I can remember my first encounter with the metric system very clearly…
In the Summer of 1972 the British Army mobilised in massive numbers to end the “no go areas” that had sprung up in nationalist areas of Belfast and elsewhere over the previous two and a half years. Operation Motorman was to be the biggest ever “peacetime” military operation in the UK since the end of the Second World War.

One of those areas was in Lenadoon where my school, Blessed Oliver Plunkett, was based.  As the Army took over the two tower blocks on the estate as observation posts, the residents left and bedded down in the only place available – the school.

The result was that, to all effects and purposes, the school was closed and I – like hundreds of others – started the next academic year somewhere else – in my case at Holy Child Primary School (in consequence of “Olly Plunkett’s” closure, and the rapid expansion of the Catholic population of West Belfast,  Holy Child that year became the largest ever school in the UK – with over 2700 pupils.)

On my first day in Mrs MacManus’s class we had a maths lesson and I was confronted, for the first time, with these strange metric measurements, the centimetre, the gramme and the millilitre.

My point is this – in the UK, even in the bits of the UK that were least keen on being in the UK, we have been teaching our children in metric measurements since 1972 – 42 years.

Yet, along comes the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last night, and this happens:

“I think I’d still go for pounds and ounces, yes I do,” Cameron told BBC2’s Newsnight when asked which should be taught predominantly.

I admit, I am no fan of David Cameron to begin with. But where do you begin when faced with such idiocy?

I suppose you can start with the fact that Cameron is a graduate of PPE – politics, philosophy and economics – and plainly knows nothing, or next to nothing, about science and the fact that sciences have been taught, the world over, in some form of metric measurement since at least the 1950s. Teaching our children in imperial measurements would be to actively seek to disadvantage them.

Then again I could just recall that John Stuart Mill was moved to remark to the House of Commons: “What I stated was, that the Conservative party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. Now, I do not retract this assertion; but I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.” (My emphasis).

With Cameron one never quite knows of course – and this may just be the latest piece of his rather desperate efforts to appease the anti-Europeans in his party who want him to follow the lead of the hard-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP’s platform is built on two propositions – that it would be better if we returned to the 1950s and that all that is bad in the UK emanates from the European Union. In metrication they find both enemies – modernity and Europe. At least in their minds they do – given that the UK did not join the then EEC until 1973 I am not sure Europe really is “to blame” for the end of the rood and the chain and the rise of the hectare and the metre.

Already the Tories have thrown a bone to the cave men of UKIP by bringing back rote learning of “twelve times table” – once an essential for a country where twelve pennies made a shilling but an anachronism since “decimalisation day” – 15 February 1971. So maybe this is next.

Or, more likely, it is Cameron not having the guts to stand up to them in public, even on such an obviously rational issue as the use of the metric system.

1 March 1971


English: St. Agnes' Church Andersonstown. Cele...
English: St. Agnes’ Church Andersonstown.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forty-three years ago this day – in Belfast – was much like this day – in York (I am in the University library as I write this) – sunny and bright, not very warm but showing signs that winter was on the way out.

That morning, in school, our P1 teacher did as she always did – and asked us to suggest a topic for the “diary” we would write in our jotters.

My hand went up – and I suggested that we should write that it was the first day of Spring.

The suggestion was not a popular one. Most of the boys (it was an all boys class) lived in Lenadoon, and that weekend (1 March 1971 was a Monday) there had been serious rioting there. At that time Northern Ireland was on its headlong plunge into semi-civil war (the nadir was the following year) and Lenadoon was very much in the front line. As Ed Moloney details in A Secret History of the IRA, escalating the conflict through rioting was the central tactic of the Belfast leadership of the IRA at this time – and, of course, the British Army were more than happy to facilitate them in that.

The teacher picked my suggestion – and I am sure she was right to cling to the hope that the children might want to concentrate on something other than armed conflict – though some of the boys still wrote and drew about their weekend of CS gas, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.

I was marked out as a teachers’ pet – a key moment in my education experience. And I suppose there is also the metaphor of me picking “science” over “politics” – a choice I have been making and remaking (with different answers at different times) ever since.

Things only got worse in Lenadoon. That summer the Northern Ireland government – in a further and more or less final demonstration of its fundamental ineptitude – introduced internment with out trial – managing to both inflame opinion by negating human rights and, in general, putting the wrong people in jail anyway.

Then, in early July 1972, Lenadoon was at the very centre of the conflict with the IRA and British Army exchanging gun fire along Lenadoon Avenue (see the video) while at the end of that month the British Army moved in with overwhelming force in “Operation Motorman” and occupied a number of buildings in the estate.

The displaced families then moved into the school – Blessed (now Saint) Oliver Plunkett – and, essentially, the school closed, and I moved to Holy Child in Andersonstown, joining the great Mrs McManus’s P3 class.

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