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METRIC LAW SPARKS FURY AMONG BRITISH

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Britain inches its way toward the metric system Sunday with the disappearance of pounds and ounces from shop shelves, an assault on British life that has sparked fury among shopkeepers, anti-Europeans and even poets.

From Oct. 1, most goods in Britain will have to be sold in metric quantities to bring the country in line with the rest of Europe. Food sold loose like vegetables and meat must be sold in kilograms by the turn of the century.Although Britons' beloved beer will still be sold in pints and road signs remain in miles, the changes are proving unpopular for both practical and emotional reasons.

Consumer groups are worried that unscrupulous shopowners will use confusion over the new weights and volumes to introduce prices rises. Decimalization of the British pound was blamed for increasing inflation when it was introduced in February 1971.

Small shopowners, saying they received government guidance on the European Union metrication directive only last week, claim the work involved in adjusting labels, tills and packaging could put hundreds of village stores out of business.

Shopowners face fines of up to $7,900 if they do not comply with the directive, which the government estimates will cost each firm an average $316.

One retailer in the south of England has put huge signs outside his stores with slogans like "Rule Britannia - in inches not meters, pints not liters."

He is one of a large group of politicians, columnists and ordinary Britons who see the new metric measures as an evil plot hatched in Europe but organized by traditional enemy, France, which invented the metric system in the 17th century.

Traditionalists argue Britain has operated quite nicely, thank you, with imperial measures for around 700 years.

Imperial weights and measures were set in the 13th century. The gallon unit of volume arrived in 1824. Britain also measures temperatures in Fahrenheit degrees as well as Celsius.

If full metrication is in place by the 21st century, one branch of British life has vowed to stay loyal to the old ways.

Poets say metric words are ugly and will never carry the punch and lyricism of the imperial measures. In Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," Shylock's demand for his pound of flesh would lose a lot of its power if he wanted 500 grams, they say.

"We are inching ever closer to cultural catastrophe," poet Paul Matthews said in a letter to the Guardian newspaper. "Music-wise, rhythm-wise, image-wise those (metric) words are useless to the poet, and the introduction of them cuts off several kilos of flesh closest to Albion's heart."