London buses as a unit of quantity

I heard BBC commentators the other day trying to put the scale of the Covid death count into some form more intellectually digestible. Not an easy task. But in some arenas, the use of apparently ludicrous measures is commonplace. Like dinosaurs for instance – the size of these creatures is always described not in feet and inches or even metres and centimetres but London buses. Tyrannosaurus may be one London bus whilst a good-sized diplodocus could be as many as three. At the other end of the size spectrum, the principal currency is minis or, for those who can remember, London phone boxes. “These creatures were so small that you could fit thousand million into a London phone box”. Or “a colony of these tiny little birds would fit in the boot of a mini”. And although I haven’t seen the footage, I’ll bet that David Attenborough has used those units somewhere on camera. And so on.

Why on earth a London bus should be chosen as the definitive unit of dinosaur size heaven knows. It’s the same with those daredevil motorcycle riders. Once again their achievements are measured in London buses. Evil Knievel could jump 15 London buses say whilst his rival Hamish McRubbish could barely clear 12. On the other hand his forte was London taxis where he thought nothing of clearing 20.

Okay I’m making this up but merely to illustrate a point. We may not be great fans of the metre or the kilogram, foot, pound, furlong, chain or whatever. But that’s no justification for randomly allocating new units inappropriately. Where will it end? I rather like the idea of fish as units. And in inappropriate scales. A pint of beer might be 2.6 deci-haddocks. A night out for two in Chinatown might leave you little change from a giga-halibut. And talk about inflation – rising by more than 19 milli-shrimps in the Covid aftermath.

Now Covid, there’s a good point. The commentators on the BBC told us that we had lost the equivalent of a medium-sized city in deaths due to Covid. Averse as I am to novel units, this somehow made sense. Indeed, why stop there? Why leave it at “a medium-sized city”. Let’s be more precise.

Since the first Covid related deaths in the UK on 5 March 2020, the death toll rose quickly. Three weeks later we had lost just over a thousand, the equivalent of some small unnamed village. Chipping this, Greater and The Other upon sea. By 11 April however we were on the map, or rather for the town concerned (Skipton), off it. We had already long lost the equivalent of Marlow, Troon, Enniskillen, or Newport Pagnell. By the beginning of May, the Grim Reaper had put paid to Ripon, Saffron Walden, Tonypandy, Buxton or Godalming, barely resting in Belper, Arbroath or Felixstowe on its way through to Skegness, Newton Abbot or Melton Mowbray.

The whistlestop tour continued. By the beginning of June Covid had taken the equivalent of Ashford, Pontypool, Stratford-upon-Avon, Sevenoaks, Windsor or Motherwell, barely catching its breath while heading for Leatherhead, Morecambe, Pudsey, Billericay or Bridlington. By the end of July, release from lockdown had taken the toll, by way of Falkirk, Haywards Heath, Canvey Island, Cleethorpes or Great Yarmouth as far as Tonbridge. 74,265 dead.

By the time we reached the beginning of December and everyone began to think of Christmas, the virus had devoured Braintree, Bexhill-on-Sea, Salisbury, Inverness, King’s Lynn, Durham or Royal Leamington Spa. By the arrival of Christmas, coronavirus had taken Altrincham, Gravesend, Aldershot or Tunbridge Wells. The release of the lockdown over Christmas, whilst compassionate, was ill judged. By New Year, the virus had rampaged as far as Lowestoft, via Bognor Regis, Walsall, Paignton or Harrogate. Death toll: 108,165.

As the self-flagellation began over the Christmas relaxation blunder, the virus pressed on, through Paisley, Londonderry, St Albans, Hastings or Bath. After taking the waters, the Covid roadshow passed Lincoln, Stockport, Doncaster, Maidstone, Cheltenham or Gateshead.

In a grim sort of way, these units mean something. Probably more so if you happen to come from any of these towns or cities. To think of those towns empty of people is a surprisingly potent way of driving home the message.

Today, the totaliser stands at at the equivalent of High Wycombe with just under 126,000 casualties. I wonder what that is in London buses.