Britain and Minnesota: taking the weather personally

A long time ago, when we were all still rolling stone tablets into our manual typewriters and I was trying to find an agent for my first book (Trip Sheets, she said so casually that no one would think she was promoting it, which in fact she may not be since it was her first book and, hey, she’s moved on), one agent turned it down in the friendly but critical way that, if you know how to read your literary tea leaves, lifts your spirits even while it depresses the hell out of you. She ended her critique by saying, “and then there’s all that weather.”

The book was set in fictionalized Minnesota city, and Minnesota—even fictionalized Minnesota—has a lot of weather. The central character was working her way through school as a cab driver, and cab drivers live with the weather—not to mention in it and by it. I’ve seldom been as hot or as cold as I was when I drove cab. I’ve lived in hotter weather, but it never made me as hot. And living by it? Rain meant good business. Snow and ice meant slow traffic and accidents. On a cold day with dry streets, you’d start counting your money before you even got to work. Everybody wanted a cab in cold weather.

Marginally relevant photo: These are cyclamen, which bloom in the winter.

Marginally relevant photo: These are cyclamen, which bloom in the winter.

Heat and cold and rain and snow meant I was out in heat and cold and rain and snow.

I wanted to write the agent back and say, “Life has a lot of weather.”

I didn’t. She’d made her point, I’d heard her point, and it made no sense to argue. That’s one of the laws of literary life. If an agent or editor doesn’t want your work, you don’t argue. You won’t win and even if you’re right you’ll look like a jerk. Besides, she might have been trying to tell me that the weather wasn’t moving the story forward. If that was true, it was a legitimate gripe, and once a publisher accepted it we did cut a snowstorm or two.

But in addition to being an agent, she was also a New Yorker, and when I lived in New York, even though I got (very) hot and what I then thought was cold (when I moved to Minnesota, I realized I hadn’t been cold at all, just the slightest bit chilly), I didn’t live with weather the way I did in Minnesota. In some places, weather doesn’t just happen, it happens very personally to you. Minnesota’s one of those places.

As is Britain, but for different reasons. It’s one of those cultural things. It you’re British, you believe the country is cold, gray, and rainy. You believe the weather’s terrible. It’s a form of patriotism.

You also believe that going someplace hot and sunny will solve your problems, whatever they happen to be. You’re also likely to believe that sunscreen is for other people and a raging sunburn is the perfect holiday souvenir.

I may get us thrown out of the country for saying this, but having moved here from Minnesota, Wild Thing and I still think we’ve moved to the tropics. In the winter, when we stop to commiserate with friends and neighbors about how cold it is (because it would be rude, not to mention unpatriotic, not to join in a short moan-fest), they sometimes say, “It’s freezing.” And it hit me this winter that when they say that, they mean it literally: It’s not a generalized word for cold; they mean the temperature has crossed over and is now below water’s freezing point.

Which in Minnesota terms means it’s spring. It’s just below freezing? Hooray! Go dig the lawnmower out of the snow bank, because we’ll need it soon. Take a long walk. Put a bet on how long it’ll be before you see a runner dressed in shorts and showing off frighteningly red legs.

Place a side bet on how long it’ll be before he—and in my experience it’s always a he, and he always has light enough skin for the red to show—ends up in the emergency room with frostbite.

Not long ago, here in the village we were all complaining to each other about how cold it was. Was that a week ago? Two weeks? Whenever it was, I joined in with fewer than usual reservations, because it was damp and windy, and that does have a way of cutting through you. On the other hand, I was wearing what’s known here as a winter raincoat.

I’d get my ass laughed out of Minnesota for talking about a winter raincoat, but in this climate it makes sense, because it’s going to rain and it’s going to get—compared to summer—chilly. So: lining; waterproofing. You’re set.

In Minnesota, you’d want a jacket roughly the same thickness as a futon. Forget rain because it’s too cold. I did see a winter rain once and it was almost apocalyptic. It got spookily warm and rained hard, then the temperature dropped faster than I would’ve thought possible and all that water froze in the drains, backing the water up onto the streets, which turned into skating rinks. Then a heavy snow fell on top of the ice and the city shut down. I drove cab the day after the storm, along with maybe half a dozen other drivers. Not because I was gung ho but because I wanted to use the cab to jump-start my car, my friend’s car, and her brother’s car, which had all decided it would be wise to sleep until spring.

It was too cold and none of them started, but by that time I was committed to putting in a day’s work. It was, in a skiddy sort of way, sublime. Everything happened in slow motion and near silence. I was so caught up in it that I don’t even remember what kind of money I made. Probably not much—it was all moving too slow.

But for all that I learned to take the weather personally, I was never a real Minnesotan, only a New Yorker who happened to live there for forty years. In the same way, I’m not really Cornish, I’m just someone who lives here. But the weather? I love it. I join in the moan-fests because it’s the only decent thing to do, but honestly? The weather’s great.

We’re all immigrants, or will be

When you live in a culture you didn’t grow up in—

No, forget you, because we both know I’m talking about me. So let’s try that again:

Because I live in a culture I didn’t grow up in, I’m forever stubbing my toe on cultural differences. Is that last meal of the day—to give you an unimportant example—dinner or supper? If I invite a friend over for dinner (I usually say “supper,” but who knows, I might try to go all British and accidentally use the more ambiguous “dinner”), will she show up at noon when I didn’t plan to start cooking until five?

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what's-it-called.

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what’s-it-called.

M. came over for whatever that meal’s called recently—showing up just when I thought she would—and as I set the table my mind wandered off into an extended meditation on the intercultural use of spoons. It’s another of those silly differences. Americans will set the table with a fork, a knife, and a small spoon, but the British will add a big honkin’ soup spoon if they plan to pull dessert out of a hat, a cupboard, or a refrigerator at the end of the meal. Because that’s what they’ll eat it with.

At our house, sorry, you don’t get two spoons.  I learned to set a table the American way, and the younger you learn a thing the more some irrational and very powerful part of you is convinced that it’s right.

And by you, as we all know by now, I mean me, because I’d feel roughly as comfortable setting out two spoons as I would wearing a tutu.

For the record, I don’t own and have never worn a tutu. I do have both size spoons, though, so I debated which ones to use. A small spoon’s good for stirring milk into tea, and M. takes her tea with milk. When I make a pot, I pour the milk in before the tea so it doesn’t need stirring, but it was evening and Wild Thing and I would want herb tea (ah, we get wilder every year), so I’d make M’s in the cup, meaning I couldn’t add the milk first. All that weighed on the side of small spoons.

On the other side of the balance, she could stir her tea with a big spoon and then use if for dessert and feel right at home if a little barbaric. For that matter, she could stir her tea with the handle of her knife. Or her thumb if the mood took her. She’s family. It wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.

I put out small spoons. Some of us stirred our tea with them and some of us left them on the table, American style, because I’m not going to pretend that the American way of setting the table makes more sense than the British way. We put out small spoons because we put out small spoons, not necessarily because anyone will use them. What matters is that the spoons are available.

On such moments are entire cultures balanced.

We used forks for dessert—those of us who didn’t use our fingers. It was American coffee cake, which isn’t one of those things that demand a fork. The fork’s so we can show each other that we’re housebroken.

It was all, I’m sure, a very unBritish meal.

End of example and a chance to move on to my real point, which is that British/American cultural differences aren’t the only kind I stumble over, so let’s move on to a new example:

I’ve been gathering a information on U.K. publishers recently. I published a political satire, Open Line, back in the U.S. in 2008. It’s about alternative facts and fake news, although it doesn’t use either phrase, and it’s become sadly relevant recently, so I’m looking around for a U.K. publisher that might want the British rights. My U.S. publisher’s all for it and that’s as much help as they plan to give me. Index cards struck me as the best way to organize what was quickly becoming a mess.

Now, you have to be over a certain age to know what index cards look like, never mind to understand what they’re for or why they seemed like a better idea than putting it all on the computer. I’m not sure what that age is, but you’ll know which side you’re on and we can all do some guesswork from there.

Our nearby town has a stationery store and right beside it an almost-stationery store, which sells newspapers and lots of toys as well as gum and some school supplies. The stationery store, I was pretty sure, would have index cards, but I got there on a Saturday afternoon and it was closed. That’s a British thing, the half day on Saturday. Not all stores observe it, but when one does I shouldn’t be surprised.

I both was and wasn’t. Cultural differences and all that. If you—and by you of course I mean I; or me, but let’s not get into that because it’s a grammatical rat’s nest—don’t plan for these cultural differences, you stub your toe and swear a bit, then you move on. My feet have thick callouses by now. I went next door.

The store had been reorganized since my last visit, so nothing was where I remembered it. I could have wandered around looking for the stationery section but it would have meant spending time with My Little Pony and Bob the Builder and I couldn’t face either of them just then. Instead, I found the cash register, which would be called the till (I think). Two young women looked up with that bright-eyed, can-I-help-you face people make, and I was struck by how immensely young they were. So young that I thought, No, you probably can’t, but I asked anyway: “I don’t suppose you have index cards, do you?”

And by you, I meant you. Which is grammatically less complicated than the I/me snarl.

One of them turned to the other, looking blank and quietly panicked.

“It’s a generational thing,” I said, meaning it’s a cultural difference and there was no reason she’d know what I was talking about.

The second clerk asked if they weren’t those dividers—.

“Not the dividers,” I said. “The things they divide.” Because it made a skewed kind of sense to me that they’d know about index card dividers but not the cards themselves. Why? Because I had a pack of alphabetical dividers at home, which proved to me that they still existed. The cards I wasn’t so sure about.

No, you didn’t miss anything. That set of connections is at least as irrational as the business about the spoons.

The second clerk showed me where the dividers lived. They were the size of a notebook and not at all what I wanted, but they were near something vaguely related to index cards and I figured they were the closest thing I’d find on a Saturday afternoon, so I bought them.

Which brings me to my point: Cultural differences exist between all kinds of groups, not just immigrants and the native born or majority populations and minority groups. Anyone who thinks immigrants or minority groups should just shut up and adapt to every twitch and wriggle of their new country or of the majority, think about your grandmother. Or your great-grandmother. Or yourself if you’re old enough. Because if we live long enough, we all become immigrants to a world we didn’t grow up in. We adapt to some parts of it and not to others. Humans are like that. Some deep part of our selves insists that this will all make more sense on index cards than on the computer, even though she/you/I know(s) perfectly well how to work the computer. Or looks at the soup spoons and thinks, That’s a ridiculous thing to eat dessert with and I’m not setting it on the table.

No, it’s not exactly the same, but maybe it’s enough to make us stop and think.

Welcome to diversity. It’s more diverse than you think.

*

And, although it has no connection with that, I’d like to report that Britain is suffering from a plague of automated phone calls. Some are annoying but confirm medical appointments, so we put up with them because we don’t want our appointments canceled. And by we I mean every ragged one of us.

Others, though—.

Today (and by today I mean the day I wrote this, which as I edit it has already slipped away) I’ve had five automated calls that start, “This is an urgent announcement…”

I hang up at that point, so I haven’t figured out what the scam is, I just know there is one.

Two came when I was cooking and my hands were oily and Wild Thing wasn’t able to answer the phone so I had to pick it up, slathering oil as I went, in case it was someone real. One came when I was ready to stuff the phone down the next caller’s throat, because the last two had been an urgent announcement.

The next call, which I almost answered by saying, “This is an urgent announcement,” was not only someone real, it was someone I don’t know well enough to pull that sort of stunt on. I was glad that good sense had gotten the better of me, however briefly.

We’ve been getting these calls for months, along with a series that start, “Boiler replace for free.” They also arrive in herds.

Wild Thing registered recently for something that promised to track unwanted calls. It did not promise to get rid of them and so far it’s kept that promise.

I’m not sure who thinks it’s a good investment to pay some company to make these calls. By my calculations, they’d cover Wales in urgency to a depth of six inches if we could only round them up. Calculating that slightly differently, I can also report that they’ve called every landline in Britain 74 times by now.

Does anyone who didn’t take the bait the first time take it on the 73rd?

Paddling in the shallows of the news

Is it possible to dip a toe into the news these days and not drown in sorrow? It is. I’ve been exploring the shallows of the (mostly) British news. Come on in. The water’s silly.

One of our local papers, the Western Morning News, reports that a driver passed PC Mark Freshwater on Tavistock Road while eating pasta “off his lap with a fork.” PC Freshwater gave him “words of advice which he took on board.”

But what really matters here—and you can trust the Westie to focus right in on this—is that “the container appeared to be Tupperware.”

The Westie is a true model of local journalism. No article about a murder, explosion, or other form of violence is complete without a quote from a neighbor, who’s either shocked or horrified or both shocked and horrified. PC Freshwater doesn’t seem to have expressed either emotion, but then this wasn’t a violent crime, and he’s a professional, not a neighbor, so he was able to focus on what mattered, which was the Tupperware. And, I guess, the fork, although it was the Tupperware that sent me over the edge.

That’s the kind of training a cop gets here in Britain. By the time they’re turned loose on the street, they know what matters.

As an aside, I might as well say that I’m both shocked and horrified that the driver was using only a fork, not a knife and fork, as any proper British eater will. And no, anonymous driver, driving is no excuse for bad table manners. Neither is not being at a table. I may be American, and I may have bad table manners, but I do know that much.

I’d give you a link but I couldn’t find the article online. I read my newspapers in print. Screw it, I’m old. If I want to be old fashioned, I’ve earned the right. And if I read all my news online, I’d have missed this and we’d all have been the poorer. I did google “driver eating pasta” and was offered several articles about drivers eating cereal and one about a driver eating pasta, but that was in a different city and a different year. Plus the driver was a different sex. And wasn’t using Tupperware.

Irrelevant photo: This was in bloom in December.

Irrelevant photo: This was in bloom outside our bedroom window in December. December. Don’t let anyone kid you about the British having terrible weather. After 40 years in Minnesota, I’m prepared to swear that this is the tropics.

It is with regret that we now leave PC Freshwater and wade on over to see what’s happening in government security. In December, an article reported that least 1,000 government laptops, computers, and data sticks had been reported missing or stolen since the general election in May of 2015. From the Ministry of Defense alone, the average loss was one item a day. And that’s just from the departments that actually reported their losses. Many managed not to.

When Wild Thing and I first moved to Britain, we regularly saw news stories about secret government documents and computer disks being left on trains. Why did other countries waste their money on spies? we asked each other, when all they needed to do was have their people ride the trains and see what fell into their hands–free and legally.

Then at some point the articles stopped. We missed them but thought maybe the government had gotten better at this stuff. I’m heartened to know that the incompetence continues.

What’s the news from the war on drugs? Antwerp has overtaken London to become the cocaine capital of Europe. But only on weekends. On weekdays, London leads the list.

Go, London.

How does anyone know? You have to test the concentration of cocaine in the sewers. Then you account for how long cocaine takes to work its way through the system and you count backward.

Who’s using all that cocaine? A separate study identifies them as people with household incomes of £50,000 or more.

What’s happening in international relations? In December, in a live TV interview, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was asked to name France’s foreign minister and happily identified him as “mon ami” whatever his name is. Then he was asked to name South Korea’s foreign minister and stormed off in a huff. The game was more fun, apparently, when he knew the answers.

The huff was drawn by four milk-white steeds wearing bells.

Does it mean anything that this item follows the cocaine report? Absolutely not. But PC Pasta recommends Tupperware for all your storage needs.

But let’s move now to the U.S., where unnamed White House sources report that Trump believes female staffers should “dress like women.” Sounds simple, doesn’t i?

I am, or so I’ve been told all my life, a woman, and I’ve never had any reason to question that. As I type this, I’m wearing jeans, a turtleneck, a fuzzy pullover-type thing that probably has a name but I have fashion dyslexia and don’t know it. I’m also wearing slippers. And–forgive me if I shock you–a variety of undergarments and two socks, one on each foot.

Am I dressed like a woman? It’s not a trick question, but it’s not a simple one either.

Predictably, people of various sexes (but mostly women) have cut loose on Twitter, using the hashtag #DressLikeAWoman.

Enough confusion. Let’s check in on the religious front, because that’s where you find eternal truths, right? A theological college connected to the Church of England held a GLBT (that’s gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato, in case you’re not in the know) service where people had entirely too much fun and everybody involved has had to explain that they’re very, very sorry and that when they referred to god as “the Duchess” it was–they really are so very sorry–a typo. And when Psalm 19’s line “Oh Lord, my strength” appeared as “O Duchess, my butchness,” it was an extended typo.

Guys, it could happen to any of us. And in case I haven’t mentioned it, they really are very, very sorry.

And finally, former British chancellor George Osborne has explained that yes, he did earn something in the neighborhood of £600,000 from speaking fees and work as an advisor to a fund management company while he was a Member of Parliament, but it was only because he was sure it would improve the country. By, um, well, you know. When money moves from one bank account to another, the GDP goes up. And computers are employed to make the transfers, which helps keep their little silicon families in fed and clothed.

Thanks, George. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we appreciate what you’re doing for us.

 

What people really want to know about Britain, part something

Let’s take a break from the way the world (or at least the U.S. as I once knew it) is imploding and ask what people really want to know about Britain. Because I don’t know about you, but I need a break from reality.

If you haven’t been reading Notes for long, here’s how I figure out what the world wants to know: I read the questions that lead people here. It’s highly unscientific, since people who want to know about Roman walls wouldn’t have, until today, found anything to lead them here, but what the hell, it’s the method I have to hand.

 

A rare relevant photo: A bit of Roman wall, now fencing off someone's garden in Exeter.

A rare relevant photo: A bit of Roman wall, now fencing off someone’s backyard in Exeter.

As always, people wanted to know about judges’ wigs, and occasionally about lawyers’ wigs. Someone wanted to know why barristers wear wigs, and I live to inform the curious multitudes. It’s because they want to. In spite of all the studying they had to do to become barristers, they watched too much TV and it left them with the impression that they’d look important if they ran around with white, sideways Shirley Temple curls on their heads.

No, I can’t explain it either.

Bonus relevant photo: A single stone, carefully placed in the same yard, which I'd call a garden if I weren't, at heart, American. Our best guess is that that the wall was hit when Exeter was bombed during World War II.

Bonus relevant photo: A single stone from the Roman wall, carefully placed in the same yard, which I’d call a garden if I weren’t, at heart, American. Our best guess is that that the wall was hit when Exeter was bombed during World War II.

A related comment (it wasn’t really a question) read, (and as usual, these come with no capital letters or question marks), “the wig which judges wear in uk courts is a with answers.”

Got that? If the writer’s correct, all those judges share a single wig. This has to be awkward, since although Britain looks small if you’re sitting in a big country like the U.S., it actually takes quite a bit of time to drive a single wig from courthouse to courthouse, stopping at every last one from Land’s End to John O’Groats and from Fishguard to the white cliffs of Dover. No wonder the courts are building up a backlog. It’s not budget cuts, it’s because that damned wig got caught in traffic.

Why do the judges have to wait for the wig to arrive? Because they’ve also been watching too much TV, but also because, as the writer says, “is a with answers.” The wig has the answers. Want to know the correct precedent for the case in front of you (and this is especially important in a country with an unwritten constitution that consists of a random number of historical documents and every damn precedent ever precedented)? The wig knows what it is.

And then it moves on.

Americans, as always, want to know what the British think of them, and especially if they hate them or like them. What is it with my fellow countrypeople? Is crossing the border into a foreign country so terrifying that we have to slip a message in a bottle before we take the risk, asking, “Is anyone out there? Do you hate me?”

Right now, a lot of the people I run into are asking what’s wrong with us (the us here being Americans), and I don’t have a good answer. If you’re American and visit Britain, please don’t take that as personal hostility. It’s political. And it’s a not a bad question.

Within a few days, over a million Britons signed a petition asking to ban Trump from making a state visit to the U.K. But relax, friends, no one’s doing anything extreme like proposing a ban on anyone with an American passport if they were born into one religion or another.

Several questions this time around asked about the phrase tickety boo. One person just typed in the phrase. Another wanted to know who says it. J. does from time to time. So do other people. Does that help?

Probably not. Here’s where I tell you everything I know about it. And more.

As always, a few people wanted to know about British beer and a few others wanted to compare American and British swearing. For all I’ve written about tea, no one who wanted to know about it was led here, they were all seized by larger sites. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Someone wanted to know, “how to drive straight in a narrow.” Um,  you do that by not turning the wheel. Someone else typed in, “uk narrow streets dangerous for driving.” Oh, I dunno. If you’re careful not to hit anyone, they’re okay. They may be more work than a wide street, but I’m not sure they’re any more dangerous.

A third person asked, “Why are englands roads so narrow.” Because, my friend, a whole shitload of them were built before the first car was ade. They were the widths people needed (or could afford) back then. And—you know how this works—folks built their houses alongside them. And then cars were invented and traffic got out of control and even though people tried shoving the houses back a few feet it didn’t work, so they left them where they were and there they sit to this day. And when one or two of them fall apart or get torn down, they’re replaced by newer buildings but since the neighboring buildings are usually still standing, the road stays narrow.

And that’s how the crocodile got its tale.

Aren’t you glad I’m here to sort this shit out?

The usual wheelbarrowload of people wanted to know why Britain is called Great Britain, or simply why it’s called great. It’s not a moral judgment, it means big. Someone did ask, though, why it was called Britain, which is an interesting twist on the question and if life ever settles down a bit I’ll see what sort of answers I can dig out.

Almost as many people asked about brussels sprouts (usually in the form of why they’re eaten at Christmas) as asked about why Britain was called great. Now that tells you what’s important in the culture.

Someone wanted to know about “Russian hotel aftermath/torch [explicit].” That was before the allegations about Trump and golden showers in a Russian hotel, although maybe somebody knew something even then. Do the allegations mention a torch? I don’t remember any mention of that.

I also didn’t write about that. The search probably landed here because of a post about a hotel fire in Exeter. Which is not in Russia, it’s in Devon. And no one seems to be saying the place was torched.

As far as explicit goes, the post was pretty mild. Sorry if I’ve disappointed you. I lack imagination.

A few questions came from the clued-up. A few people wanted to read about emmits. It’s not something you ask about if you don’t already know a bit. Someone else wanted to know about “tutting in a queue.” Again, you have to know a bit about the British religion, which is standing in line—otherwise known as queuing—and British disapproval, which often takes the form of tutting, before you can ask the question. I’d give you a link to whatever I wrote about all that but I have no idea where it is. Google “tutting in a queue” and “Notes from the U.K.” and you may or may not find it.

Someone else asked, “why do mps walk five steps and bow.” Wow. Good question. Do they? Always? No wonder it’s so hard to accomplish anything sensible. The MPs (that’s Members of Parliament to the uninitiated) are all running around the Westminster chess board like knights with a twitch, one step forward and two to the side, then they bow. With two hops in the middle so it adds up to five.

Can I go watch?

One lone soul asked about kitten post it notes. I’ve used the word post, sometimes in the context of blogging and sometimes in the context of the Royal Mail. And when Fast Eddie was a kitten, I posted (and there’s that word again) photos because I was threatened with a boycott if I didn’t. So there you go. It all comes together.

Someone wanted to know about cockwombles. It was one of my more profound posts, if I do say so myself.

And finally, someone wrote, “notes i have my own rules to.” Uh huh. I have a few of my own rules, and lots of notes. I can even decipher some of then. Others are as much of a mystery as that comment is. I’ll leave it for you to figure out.

Stay sane, people. The world’s getting crazy. And speak up, because this is when it matters. It really, really matters.

Two links on what’s happening in the U.S.

Sue Ranscht sent a link to an article by Yonatan Zunger that argues, in convincing detail, that what we’ve seen happening in the U.S. this week is, as Zunger’s headline puts it, a trial balloon for a coup. It’s worth your time.

And Zipfslaw sent a link to an essay by Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa arguing that non-Muslim women should not wear the hijab in support of Muslim women. I see their point, but in terms of tactics and timing I’m not sure I agree.

I’ll try to pull together something cheerier for Friday.

Following Captain Ahab into deep, deep water

I admire absurdity, especially political absurdity, but I’m finding it hard to laugh right now. As I write this (late Sunday, January 29), people with visas, and possibly with green cards—it’s not clear what’s happening right now, as opposed to what’s being said—with every legal right to enter the U.S. are being barred because they’re Muslims and from the wrong countries.

No, make that presumed Muslims, because I’m sure no one’s asking what they believe. I mean, c’mon, they might be terrorists, so why should anyone listen to them?

It echoes one of America’s moments of national shame, the World War II detention of Japanese-Americans, not because of anything they’d done, or even believed, but because their Japanese heritage meant they must be the enemy.

Is the current detention illegal? You bet your ass it is. It’s discrimination on the basis of religion. It’s refusing people who have a legal right to enter to country permission to enter the country. It violates a 1965 law that forbids discrimination against immigrants on the basis of their national origin.

Although several courts issued temporary stays of execution, Al Jazeera reports that the Department of Homeland Security said it would ignore them. The New York Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security said it would comply with the rulings, but it would also enforce the executive order. Are both things possible? Hard to say. In a world of alternative facts, I’m not sure we’re supposed to care.

The Times also reports that it’s not clear how consistently airport officials are complying with the court order.

When I was a kid, we were taught that the U.S. Constitution’s checks and balances were a stroke of genius of the part of the nation’s founders and the reason for America’s stability. From where I’m sitting, on the far side of the Atlantic, it sounds like the Trump administration wants to throw all that out the window. The executive branch is ready to ride over a federal court because they don’t like what it said. Because they don’t have to. Because who’s going to stop them?

As we used to say when I was a kid, “You and whose army?”

There are bright spots in the picture. Lawyers flooded to airports, volunteering their help. They filed suits, they did all the things lawyers do, except they did them for free. In places they seem to have been allowed to see detainees. In others, they seem not to have been. Protesters also materialized at airports. And at New York’s JFK airport, cab drivers staged a one-hour strike in protest.

On a personal note, my goddaughter—Catholic by baptism, I’m no longer sure what by belief—is considering wearing a headscarf as a gesture of solidarity. I don’t know if she’ll do it—it’s not an easy step to take and she’s concerned that it might actually offend the people she wants to support—but her courage and her commitment are humbling.

If I lived in the U.S., I’d be advocating that all women do it, but I’m an ocean away and don’t feel I have a right to advocate an act I’m in the wrong place to take myself. I’m increasingly uneasy at not being where I ought to be right now.

The U.S. hasn’t slipped irrevocably into one-man rule yet, but the signs are chilling. We’re far out into uncharted waters, friends, and Captain Ahab is at the wheel. I don’t know how long we have to turn the ship around. Although I’m not sure how much impact online petitions have, I’m signing them like mad because it’s something I can do. Because we have to do whatever we can.

Modern life on ancient streets

A few weeks ago, an armored truck parked on one of Launceston’s ancient streets to collect modern money from a store.

To someone born in Britain, Launceston’s streets might not seem ancient, just old. There’s so much older stuff around, it’s easy to get spoiled. Sure, they’re narrow and twisty, and the gatehouse from the old town walls is still standing. I can’t find a date for it, or for when the town walls were either built or torn down, so we’ll  have to settle for knowing that it’s old. The castle was built in 1070 and now a fixer-upper. The church dates to the sixteenth-century but has a tower from the fourteenth century.

But modern life has crept in around all that. Or marched in with hobnailed boots. New buildings have been added to the old, and the stores in old buildings have adapted them to modern uses. It’s easy to walk through and forget everything but the errands that brought you here: a stop at the chain stationery store, the bakery, the antique store (what’s more modern than an antique store?), even the lingerie shop if you have a lingerie kind of disposition.

On the day the armored truck parked, I wasn’t thinking about ancient streets but about the loaf of bread and two scones I was buying, but I gradually became aware of an un-ancient, automated kind of ruckus outside. Wild Thing had stayed outside with the dogs and by the time I joined her a crowd had gathered, not around her but around the armored truck, from which a flat, automated voice was repeating, on a loop, “Help. Help. G4S driver needs assistance. Call the police.”

No one was calling the police. It’s hard to get excited about a looped announcement saying, “Help. Help.” Whoever taped the announcement hadn’t managed to sound like she needed help. She wasn’t real and we all knew it.

Still, she might have done better if she hadn’t mentioned G4S, which is one of those outsourcing companies that does stuff governments no longer want to do themselves. Its focus is on security—something that’s subtly hinted at by its slogan, “Securing your world.” It’s best known for winning the security contract for the London Olympics and then failing to recruit enough staff. It had to be bailed out at the last minute by the army.

I shouldn’t laugh. I know I shouldn’t.

G4S also runs prisons (and “lost control” of one recently: translation, there was a riot), and they a similar company, Serco, had a contract to do electronic monitoring of convicted offenders. As the Telegraph put it, “anomalies were found in the data G4S handed over” to the government and the company had to pay back £109 million. It was all an oversight, I’m sure, and what’s £109 million between friends, but the Serious Fraud Office launched a criminal investigation. I haven’t heard that charges were filed.

What did those bland anomalies consist of? Among other things, they charged the government for monitoring people who either were back in prison or dead.

The dead are so easy to monitor. You can understand the temptation.

So, no, it’s not one of those companies people love, although I probably feel a bit more strongly about it than most of the people clustered around the back of the armored truck.

I asked Wild Thing what was going on and she told me the driver had locked himself inside, but the back door was now open and he was on stage. Which didn’t stop the tape from playing: “Help. Help. G4S driver requires assistance. Call the police.”

What G4S driver really required right then was a bit of privacy to pull himself back together, not to mention a way to stop the damn tape, but he wasn’t getting either of those things. The crowd lingered. And stared. And didn’t call the police. And he couldn’t close the door for fear of locking himself in again.

We left before the tape stopped. For all I know it played for the rest of the day and the driver’s still recovering.

The streets, however, remain as ancient as they were before he locked himself in.

And now a brief aside: When I was looking up dates for the various bits of the town, I consulted Wikipedia. It’s easy, it’s online, and it’s, um, often reliable.

At the end of the entry for Launceston, I found a list of notable residents: a poet, a New Wave guitarist, a sailor, an “antiquary and…oriental traveller,” and at the end of the list, “Emily Lovell, the biological and spiritual successor to Mao Zedong.”

The what?

The link from her name led to a Wikipedia entry on Maoism, where (surprise, surprise) no mention of ol’ Emily jumped out at me. Just to be thorough, I typed her name into Google, which offered to connect me to assorted Emily Lovells via LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, etc. They struck me as unsuitable hangouts for the biological and spiritual heir to Mao Zedong, so I skipped them.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed her at the end of the Launceston entry.

British understatement

Every so often, I ask what people want to know about Britain or the U.S., and every so often they answer. Zipfslaw wrote, “I’d love to know how to understand British understatement. Like, I’ve heard that ‘at your earliest convenience’ means ‘RIGHT NOW’,’ but I don’t really know how it all works.”

Neither do I, so I went running to my strange friend Dr. Google and found a 2001 Guardian article, which gives a memorable example of what happens when the British and non-British try to communicate.

During the Korean War, a British brigadier informed General Soule, his American superior in the U.N. joint command, “Things are a bit sticky, sir,”

He meant they were in serious trouble. “His men were outnumbered eight to one, stranded on every side by human waves of…attackers…. But Gen. Soule understood this to mean ‘We’re having a bit of rough and tumble but we’re holding the line’. Oh good, the general decided, no need to reinforce or withdraw them, not yet anyway.”

More than 500 British soldiers were captured and 59 were killed or missing. Only 39 escaped.

So, yes, I can see why Zipfslaw’s question is worth asking.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

From the Guardian, I went to a site I never expected to visit, Debrett’s, which calls itself “the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement.”

Yes, and modesty as well. Haven’t they heard about understatement? Well, sure they have and here’s what (as the recognized–note the American Z I’m using, please–authority) they say about it:

“A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’. The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour.”

So that’s the answer aimed at aristocrats and those anyone who wants to behave like aristocrats. J., however, tells me that Northerners and the working class in general are generally more direct than the upper class(es) and people from the Southeast. (I’m not sure where that leaves the Southwest, never mind Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Midlands, since I didn’t think to ask, but let’s keep this simple.) Notherners and the working class may be the only reason anyone on this island ever gets out of a burning building: Everyone looks around for someone bold enough to shout, “Fire!” instead of murmuring, “It may soon become a bit warmer here.”

J. told me about a scenario in which an aristocrat offers a working class person a lift, expecting to be politely turned down. But the working class person thinks it’s a genuine offer and accepts it.

Inevitably, it would be raining. I’d have accepted too. The aristocrat would be put out but too polite to say so, and I’d have no idea I just broke the rules. Subtlety’s wasted on me.

At roughly the same time, a different friend whose name also starts with J. sent an email saying something I’d written wasn’t half bad, then added, “(British upper class understatement from 1930s). In fact its a  jolly decent letter.

“Not sure it is just a public school thing though. Consider the (working class ) phrases “fair to middling” and “mustn’t grumble,” which are responses to “How are you?” when the person is actually unwell. Then there is professional middle class mealy mouth. A girl at my school hit a student teacher over the head with a book. On her term report, the teachers wrote, ‘Amanda must not allow her keeness to learn to overcome her natural good manners.’ “
Now that’s understatement.
This is probably a good place to note that “not bad” (depending on the tone of voice) can mean very good, but “not terrible” means bad, although probably not disastrously so.
As people used to say in the U.S. when I was a kid, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
I only threw that in because I suspect it’ll be as baffling to anyone who doesn’t already understand it as the not bad/not terrible distinction is to the rest of us.
You can see that understatement quickly shades over into indirectness, or even opposite-of-what-you-mean-ness. On Quora, someone wrote that “incidentally” means “the primary purpose of our discussion is.”
I was beginning to think that you’d have to grow up with this to understand it, but then I found Anglophenia, which along with a few other sites ran a translation chart for a range of phrases. As an example, “I’ll bear it in mind” means I’ve already forgotten it.

Before you decide that expanding your head so it encompasses understatement is all it takes to understand people over here, I’ve also heard classic British overstatement. Friends periodically tell me they’re gasping for a cup of tea, although I have yet to hear an actual gasp. Or that they’re perishing for one, although so far none of they have died when no tea materialized. But then I don’t (thank whatever laws of the universe control these things) hang out in Debrett’s kind of circles.

I’d add more examples here but the only Briitish overstatements I’ve been able to think of involve tea. That’s worth pondering.

In the U.S., Minnesotans are known for their understatement. I’m working from memory, which is an invitation to disaster, but Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan had, I think, a segment about a guy using a welding torch near a car’s gas tank. What does the Minnesotan watching him say? “Y’know, a feller might not want to do that.”

So all I can say in answer to Zipfslaw’s question is, Consult your translation chart. It’s incomplete, but that may be a result of classic British understatement.

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Apologies to anyone who read this a week and a half ago when I accidentally posted a draft. Since then, I’ve moved three commas, put two of them back where they started, removed a stray URL, and added a photo. You can see, it’s a massive improvement.

I’ve also added J. emailed comment, which is a genuine improvement.

Finally, this P.S. gives me an excuse to mention another crucial cultural difference between the U.S. and Britain that the Guardian quote reminded me of: We do the dash differently. American publishing uses what’s called an em dash–a dash the width of the letter M–with no space on either side. British publishing uses an en dash–the width of the letter N–with a space on either side.

People, this matters.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. They take me places I wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise.

How the U.K. and U.S. differ

Let’s address the important cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Because here at Notes we’re passionate about what divides and unites our countries. We’re high minded and think deeply, and if that isn’t enough we’re suckers for strange questions. And yes, I’m arrogant enough to speak for you, dear reader, because I’m alone at my computer and by the time I publish this it’ll be too late for you to stop me.

And that’s how democracy works.

Sorry. I’ve been involved in the latest farcical public consultations. They don’t bring out the best in me.

First, then,Barb Taub asked in a comment, “Why are British fridges tall and narrow? Why are washing machines in kitchens? Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?”

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick mine. The mine tunnels themselves went out under the sea.

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick Mine (look down the cliff, where it meets the water). The mine shafts run under the sea.

Conveniently, reader John Evans answered all three questions, and he did it almost immediately, but in case you missed it I’ll quote him:

“>Why are British fridges tall and narrow?

“To fit in tiny kitchens in small British houses.

“>Why are washing machines in kitchens?

“Because few British houses have basements or outhouses (where Americans put their washing machines).

“>Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?

“Because long ago it was recognised that 240 volt electricity supply and wet hands and bodies in bathrooms do not mix well. (240 volts can easily kill a person, especially a wet one.) Shaver sockets in bathrooms use a special isolating transformer, so they’re safe in wet conditions. Normal household mains sockets don’t have isolating transformers, so they’re not safe in wet conditions.”

All I can add to that is that no American would say “outhouse” when talking about the building where a washing machine lives. In Ameri-speak, an outhouse is an outdoor toilet—the kind with a hole in the ground, no running water, and a distinctive odor. An outbuilding, on the other hand, is a building. Outside the house. Which can be used for any purpose other than to house a no-flush, hole-in-the-ground toilet. Language is a funny thing. It all seems to make sense until you step half an inch outside it and realize how completely random the alignment of words and meanings is.

I’ll also add that if you don’t read the comments here at Notes, you’re missing half the fun. Possibly more.

In another comment, Gilly noted that the British use washing up liquid for the kind of job that makes Americans reach for dish soap. I’d add that the British say “I’ll wash up” when they’re going to make dirty dishes clean. Even after ten years in this country, I half expect them to dash to the bathroom and scrub their armpits. Or at least remove three layers of dirt from their hands. If someone asks, “Have you washed up yet?” my first instinct is to tell them it’s none of their damn business. That was what my mother asked before a meal if she suspected my hands hadn’t been in conversation with clean water since that morning. But even she stopped asking as I approached adulthood. And these people aren’t my mother.

An American would say, “Have you done the dishes?” Or possibly, “Have you washed the dishes?”

Gilly also wrote, “May I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker.”

A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?” We can’t manage that level (or form–you notice how I’m hedging my bets here?) of politeness. Or indirectness. Our brains would explode. But I’ll shut up about that and let her continue.

“The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

“And Debenhams [that’s a department store: e.h.], wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.”

If you’re not British you need (yes, need—how could you live without this?) to know that “knob” is slang for penis. Or a general term of abuse, roughly interchangeable with “dickhead.”

Again, I’m not sure what I can add to Gilly’s comment, except that I’m glad I wasn’t in the firing line when Debenhams noticed they had a problem on their hands.

Stop that giggling in the back row. That’s not what I meant and you know it.

In a comment on a different post, Penny Hunt wrote, “As the older generation would say in Australia: it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ‘a corker’? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.”

Well, I know Australia’s not in Britain, and if my memory’s still working it’s not in the U.S. either, which sets it outside of my usual focus, but I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Wordnik defines “corker” as the last word on a topic—something that, like a cork, acts as a stopper. From there—and this is a guess—it’s not a big leap to the meaning I grew up with: something good. It’s listed as British usage, but I can testify that it’s also American, although probably antiquated usage by now.

I’ve gone a bit antiquated myself lately.

But that didn’t help with “bottler”, and here the search got strange. The Urban Dictionary says it’s London working class slang for a coward. Try “bottle,” though, and you find out it means nerve, as in, “Do you have the bottle?”

So a bottler doesn’t have the bottle.

In Cockney rhyming slang, “bottle” means arse.

It what? How does that rhyme?

Bottle and glass go together, and glass rhymes with arse, although you may need to say “glarse” to make it work. Or something along those lines. Don’t ask me. I’m American and live in Cornwall. Cockneys are born in London. I’m out of my depth here. but I can tell you, in case you’re American, that “arse” means ass. Which rhymes very nicely with glass.

If you specify Australian slang when you google “bottler,” it means something good, but we already know that. It’s also used in New Zealand, but then if a Kiwi want to insult you they’re likely to say you’re an egg, which brings me back to how strange language can get. That has nothing to do with our important topic, but I couldn’t let a mention of Kiwis and slang go past without mentioning it.

I never did find the origin of the Australian/New Zealand use of “bottler” and stopped looking after I’d overdosed on websites offering me bottled gas and bottled Coke.

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Apologies

If you got a notice that I’d posted “British Understatement” and then found it didn’t exist, that’s because I meant to schedule it for January 20 but forgot to set the date, so it posted immediately. I’ve taken it down for now but it will be back. Really. In the meantime, welcome to a glimpse of my real life.