15th June 2012 – It’s 33 years ago today that I finished my A levels; 33 years ago today that I left my Sixth Form College to embark upon a very roller-coaster life. The occasion was marked by an evening of real ale and skittles with bread and cheese and pickle for supper. The softness of the bread and the tangy maturity of the cheese linger in the memory.
What’s the significance of 33 years? None really. But then, why should 25 years or 50 years be more significant than 33 years or 58 years? Why do certain numbers seem to have a hold over us?
100 seems to be a powerful number. I know that it’s because it requires a third digit, but in the overall scheme of things how important is it? Does a cricket player who is out for 100 contribute substantially more to his team’s score than one who is out for 99? The media and the record books will note that he reached a century; out for 99 and he will be deemed to have in some way failed.
When someone reaches their 100th birthday a great fuss is made, but how often does anyone ask whether there has been life in the person’s years as well as years in the person’s life? In a former parish there was a woman who eventually died in her 109th year. Bitter in her recall of the past and aggressive towards both the staff and the other residents of the home in which she lived, a local doctor who had known her since she was 80 said that she had always been thus. Yet because she had reached three figures there was a kind of awe surrounding her.
100 holds us in thrall – and because it’s so important, fractions of 100 and multiples of 100 are regarded with great importance – tens, twenty-fives, fifties, seventy-fives, centuries, thousands. Certain numbers are invested with far greater importance than others, nearly all of them connected with the decimal system.
Decimals didn’t always have the same hold on us. The old money system didn’t follow decimals – twelve pennies in shilling, twenty shillings in a pound, 21 shillings in a guinea. The old weight system didn’t follow decimals – sixteen ounces in a pound, fourteen pounds in a stone, eight stones in a hundredweight. Old measurements of length included twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, twenty-two yards in a chain, ten chains in a furlong and eight furlongs in a mile. Measurements of area were beyond comprehension; an acre was easier to measure with the eye than to define by dimensions.
Thirty-three years is as significant as any other length of time; 25 years, fifty years, whatever, it has all passed. It’s what’s in it that matters, not how it’s counted.