Once, years ago, when I was both more stupid and more vigorous than I am now, I decided to make a large, wall-mounted display cabinet with sliding glass doors. It was not going to be a top-quality job, but it was probably a brave effort.
My cabinet needed a hardboard back, and it was important that this back board should be accurately cut and have clean edges. Hardboard was regularly used in those days to do the jobs that thin MDF sheet does now, and it was awful stuff to cut cleanly. I really did not fancy my chances of making a decent job of the back board with the Stone Age tools I had available – this one-piece backboard was going to be around five feet wide and about 3-and-a-half feet high. You may, if you wish, share the vision I had of trying to measure and cut a flexible board of this size with a hand saw, supported on a row of dining chairs or something equally useless.
I had a great idea, though. I phoned up my local DIY store, and spoke to a very nice girl, who promised that they would cut a sheet to the exact dimensions I specified, with perfect right-angle corners and crisp edges, and would deliver it to my house in a few days. Excellent. My measurements, needless to say, were correct to a sixteenth of an inch, and the girl took a careful note of them and read them back to me. She explained to me that they had recently started doing all measurements in millimetres, but there was no problem, since they would simply convert my exact measurements and everything would be fine. I paid by credit card, arranged for the item to be left with a neighbour, and quietly congratulated myself on having removed one major headache from the job.
Later the same week, my elderly neighbour reported that he had received a large item addressed to me, and there it was – packed around the edges with padding, and looking really good. Secure in the knowledge that the back board was all ready to be fixed on, I cracked on with the cabinet, but when the time came to add the back, I was horrified to find it was a few millimetres big in both directions. I checked everything – they had cut it perfectly, but it was a little too big.
I got to bed that night about 4 a.m., having trimmed the board and faked up the two new edges as best I could. It was not really very good – I arranged to have the more ragged edges at the top and near the corner of the room, but I would always know they were there. You know how it is? – something else to gnaw away at you forever – another little failure...
I phoned the store, and got the same girl, who remembered me very clearly (I would rather not think about just why she remembered me). She found the spec sheet, with the exact measurements, and could not understand what had gone wrong.
“They would have converted your measurements exactly, but we always round to the higher centimetre, to be on the safe side.”
I was dumbstruck by this last piece of information, and asked why they did this, and she said,
“Company policy – it’s what our customers want – and, anyway, all items measured in metric are always bigger.”
This should have some upsides, you would think – petrol bought in litres should give you more in the tank (though of course the kilometre journeys would be longer – hmmm...), metric cans of beer should quench a bigger thirst and so on. In fact, some rounding is a sensible thing to do – I recall visiting
in the 1980s and being very impressed that they had erected some smart new
European signs advising motorists that the speed limit in town was now 48 kph –
the metric equivalent of the old speed limit of 30 mph.
I digress. The cabinet was finished, though I never quite forgave it. It developed another problem over the years, since the weight of the glass doors gradually pulled it a little out of shape, and the doors did not shut properly. Eventually I dismantled it and put it in a public rubbish tip, and I felt somehow cleansed when it was gone.
But I have never forgotten that metric items are always bigger. There are occasions in one’s life when a sudden light-bulb of understanding turns on, and I believe that we have to embrace these moments when they arrive.