Immigration, body language, and the apostrophe

A few weeks ago, I had one of those moments that remind me how immigrantish I am, even after eleven years in Britain. I mention it because so many anti-immigrant complaints come down to this: Immigrants too immigrantish. Why can’t they just be like us?

Mind you, I don’t think everybody staying in the cultural boxes they were born to is a recipe for universal happiness, let alone world peace. But those immigrantish moment do remind me why people who live in cultures they didn’t grow up in don’t instantly blend into the new one.

What happened was this: My singing buddy, G., and I were working on a song and decided we’d sing the chorus twice because it’s short and In the kind of music we sing joining in on the chorus is eleven tenths of the fun. So, we figured, let’s give ‘em more chorus.

Then managed to forgot how many times we’d sung it. So, clever me, I thought I’d keep count on my fingers: index finger, one time through; index and middle finger, twice through and time to move on.

By the time I realized what I’d done, I was laughing too hard to sing.

If you’re not British, you have no idea what I’m talking about. Holding up two fingers (if the palm’s facing the owner of the fingers) is right up there with flipping someone the bird. Or is flipping the bird only understood in the U.S.? It’s right up there with holding your middle finger in the air, all by its lonesome. If I’m still basing myself too heavily in the insults and explanations of my native culture, let’s try this: It’s a serious insult.

A photo that would’ve been relevant to last week’s post: This is the National Trust/Cadbury poster promoting their egg hunts. You’ll notice that for all the complaints about Easter being airbrushed out, the first line that the eye picks up uses the word.

I’ve lived in the U.K. long enough to know that, but my nerves and muscles haven’t. They’re stubbornly American. On the instinctive level, which is where they do their work, two fingers are just two fingers. If I want to order two teas and there’s some confusion about how many I asked for? May all the gods I don’t believe in protect me, those are the fingers I’d be most likely to hold up. It’s long-distance communication. Communication that carries over the noise of a cafe.

It’s also a good way to very seriously insult someone.

But that’s the thing about nerves and muscles. They work faster than the brain. Faster than the thought, You’re in a country where you don’t count on your fingers that way.

So that’s one reason immigrants are so stubbornly immigrantish: Unless you move to a new country when you’re young, some parts of you just don’t change. Even if you set out to adapt your habits, one by one by one, as I haven’t, there’s always something left.

How do people count on their fingers here? I have no idea. In some countries, I’ve been told, you start with the thumb. Two coffees? That’s the thumb and index finger. Hold up the thumb and middle finger and you’re likely to end up with three coffees.  But in Britain? I can’t remember anyone waving fingers around to let someone else know how many teas or coffees or beers they want. For all I know, it’s an un-British way to communicate.

D. swears that if a doctor asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” it will always be three. I don’t remember the reason it won’t be one, but she says they’ll be afraid to hold up two and are too lazy to hold up four or five.

Why is sticking two fingers up an insult? No one seems to know. The usual story has to do with the Battle of Agincourt, which was won by English archers and the longbow. The English are still sticking two fingers in the air to show the French they haven’t lost the ones that matter to an archer. Unfortunately, every place I found it explained that way also said it probably wasn’t true.

But if you hear about me getting into a brawl somewhere, it’ll be because it was noisy and I was trying to ask for two of something.

*

From body language, let’s move to the written language. My relocated friend J. pointed me in the direction of this story;

A vigilante has been roving night-time Bristol for thirteen years now, correcting the apostrophes in signs. Yes, friends, someone has dedicated his life to that, and the BBC interviewed him early in April.

Is what he’s doing illegal? “It’s more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place,” he said. And although proofing your own writing is a losing battle (I’ll quote on that anytime I have to explain a typo on the blog), I’ve proofed that quote three times to make sure the apostrophe was in the right spot.

The interview led a newspaper columnist, Catherine Bennett, to point out that he’s not the grammar vigilante he claims (somewhere; I’m not sure where) to be, because grammar’s one thing and punctuation’s another. And that’s a powerful argument for not claiming to be an expert on anything: Sooner or later you’ll get something wrong and someone else will find it. And point a finger at you and feel clever about it. That someone may not be an expert themselves, but it takes a whole lot less expertise to find one mistake than it does never to make any.

All this led me to learn that chain stores are dropping their apostrophes all over Britain’s high streets. So far, no pedestrian casualties have been reported.

If you’re in the American Midwest, the high street is the equivalent of Main Street. If you’re anywhere in the U.S. except New York, it’s the equivalent of downtown. If you’re in New York, you’ll just have to muddle through without a translation. Waterstones—the bookstore chain that was once the bad guy in literary circles because it was forcing out independent bookstores but has become the good guy because it’s at least a real bookstore, not Amazon or something else on the internet—has dropped its apostrophe because that works better online. Barclays, Marks and Spencer, and a few others have done the same.

If you want more examples, the comment on this story has more of them than the story itself, which is pretty minimal.

In the U.S., place names are apostropheless because the U.S. Post Office doesn’t believe in them. Harpers Ferry comes to mind. If apostrophes are clothing, Harpers Ferry runs around stark naked.

In Britain, the rule on place names seems to be, Do anything you damn well please. Earl’s Court has an apostrophe if it’s the tube station but not if it’s the event venue, which is Earls Court. (Sorry, event venue is a ridiculous phrase but its the description I found and it knocked any real language out of my brain) On the other hand, the Barons Court tube station has no apostrophe. I could go on, but enough.

The Bristol vigilante will never be out of work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pay.

A British Easter and the established religion

Easter’s creeping up on us and I’m living in an officially Christian country, which can be a strange experience for this Jewish atheist from the U. S. of no established religion A. In the U.S., I got used to people at least nodding once or twice in the direction of diverse beliefs. Even if those nods were sometimes more form than content, they were better than no nods at all.

Here, at least in rural Cornwall, spring brings Easter and only Easter—a solemn time of year when people gorge on chocolate and, in our village at least, kids roll eggs down a hill. For some people it’s a religious holiday, but for many it’s all chocolate, all the time. Still, religious or not, it is Easter. Almost everyone for miles in any direction, including up, down, and out to sea, is from a Christian background. Religious or not, the Christian holidays are part of their landscape.

Semi-relevant photo: A rhododendron, getting ready to bloom. Come on–it’s a spring flower in a post about a spring holiday. That’s as close a match as you’re likely to find here.

Britain has an official religion, but that’s not the same thing as being a deeply religious country. I have a theory I can’t prove, but for what it’s worth I believe making a religion official drives people away from it in the long run.

I’m not sure how long that run is, mind you, and that’s handy, because if we’re discussing a place where it hasn’t played out that way I get to say, “Give it time.”

If I’m right and you happen to have a religion you like enough to want an entire nation to adopt it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This year the Church of England—the country’s official church, remember—accused the chocolate company Cadbury and the National Trust, which owns a gazillion historic properties and runs tourists through them and their associated gift shops in the classiest possible way, of “airbrushing faith” out of its Easter egg hunts.

What did they do? Well, instead of holding Easter egg hunts, this year they called them Cadbury egg hunts. The church is apoplectic. Or, in fairness, parts of the church are apoplectic, but let’s keep using shorthand and say it’s the church as a whole. The sentences get too complicated otherwise, because I’m not sure exactly which parts of the church we’re talking about.

The National Trust pointed out that Easter is mentioned 13,000 times on its website, and furthermore that it was up to Cadbury to name and publicize the events they cosponsored. To translate that, they’re saying nothing happened and we didn’t do it.

Cadbury defended itself by saying that they use the word Easter multiple times elsewhere in their publicity, but the church still isn’t happy. If the word Easter doesn’t appear in the egg hunt name, it just isn’t Easter.

It all reminds me of a game we played when I was a kid, Captain, May I? The kid who was It told someone to take a step forward—a giant step, a baby step, a banana step. I don’t remember what a banana step was, but on 75th Street we had one. Kids who took the step without saying, “Captain, may I?” went back to the starting line.

Well, Cadbury forgot to say Easter in the right line of the publicity and has to go back to the starting line.

A BBC article reproduces one of the egg hunt promos, showing the phrase “enjoy Easter fun” in more eye-catching type than the Easterless egg hunt phrase. But it’s just not good enough. The National Trust has to go back to the starting line too.

The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said that not mentioning Easter in the egg hunt name was like “spitting on the grave” of John Cadbury, the chocolate company’s most Christian founder. But Cadbury’s several-times-great- granddaughter Esther McConnell spat back (firmly, gently, and metaphorically) that as a Quaker Cadbury didn’t celebrate Easter. “He believed that every day is equally sacred and, back then, this was expressed by not marking festivals.”

Take that, Archbishop.

The humanist society has called the whole thing a storm in an eggcup, but in case the flap wasn’t silly enough, the prime minister, Theresa May, waded in and said the decision to drop the word Easter was “absolutely ridiculous.”

Thanks, Terry. That deepened the conversation beyond measure.

Or do you prefer Terri?

Several articles have asked (and generally not quite answered) the question, Are egg hunts actually Christian? According to a Huffington Post article, the tradition of decorating eggs predates Christianity. But from an early stage, the egg was also claimed by various Christian groups as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. So far, so ambiguous. A Wikipedia article (never mind a link—it will all have changed by now) said more or less the same thing. So the egg seems to be both Christian and pre-Christian. And quite possibly non-Christian, although no one I found addressed this.

And the hunt? Nobody seems to be saying.

What about the Easter bunny? That symbolizes how irresistible little fuzzy animals are. The basket of eggs symbolizes breakfast. No religion has an exclusive claim to eggs, bunnies, or breakfast. You can call them what you like without fearing the wrath of an archbishop.

Bunnies, in case you’ve ever wondered about this, do not lay eggs. They don’t eat them either, which is why the Easter bunny’s willing to deliver them to humans.

And chocolate eggs? They symbolize candy companies making a lot of money. In the most religious possible way.

What fascinates me about this whole uproar is that the Church of England seems to be taking the position that it owns Easter and any organization large enough to be seen from space has to pay rent in the form of proper wording. But the holiday long since slipped out of church hands and it’s now a secular as well as (not instead of, mind you) a religious holiday.

That’s the price a religion pays for having dominated the national conversation for so long—and here we’re back to my unproven theory. Some of its holy traditions became folk traditions, and when the folk wandered away from the church, as most people from Christian backgrounds have in Britain, they do whatever they want with them. If they want chocolate rabbits or Easterless egg hunts that include, as some bit of commentary put it, people of all religions and none, then they’ll have them. And other than fussing, there isn’t much the church or the prime minister can do about it.

*

While we’re on the subject of chocolate and silly upsets, let’s talk about a social media storm claiming (oh, the horror of it all) that Cadbury is selling halal chocolate.

We’ll get to what halal chocolate is in a paragraph or two, but first, what’s wrong with that? Well, gasp, Muslims can eat it. Shock. More horror. What will become of the country if it appeases Muslims by changing its time-honored chocolate recipes? Britain will cease to be British, that’s what.

What makes food halal? It has to be porkless, and any meat that’s involved has to be slaughtered in a certain way.  Compared to the complexities of keeping kosher, keeping food halal is simple. Keeping kosher means, no pork, no shellfish, meat slaughtered in a certain way, meat and dairy have to be kept separate, and don’t get me started on what you have to do on Passover because I understand it in only the vaguest way, There are probably other rules, but that’s enough for a quick snapshot.

Jews and kosher, though, aren’t the bogeyman of the moment. Muslims and halal are.

But let’s go back to chocolate candy. It doesn’t have any pork. It doesn’t have any meat. It’s not made anyplace where it could be contaminated with either one. I used to work in a candy factory, so I’m prepared to testify on that. It was pigless, meatless, underpaid work. And my hair smelled like disgustingly chocolate.

So is chocolate halal? Um, sure. So are carrots. So’s lettuce. Ban carrots! Ban salad! Add lard to your chocolate bars! They’ll taste terrible and clog your arteries, but at least they won’t be halal. We’ll starve out the terrorists.

And what product was the flap about? According to the article I found, Cadbury’s Easter eggs. Which Cadbury’s was—as far as I can make out—calling Easter eggs and which probably aren’t marketed heavily to the Muslim market.

The photo accompanying the article was apparently from the Asia-Pacific market and showed someone with a halal certificate and instead of Easter eggs a couple of chocolate bars. Which symbolize the trouble you can get into on the internet by doing nothing more than making chocolate according to the recipe you’ve been using for years.

*

And finally, a quick roundup of grotesquely overpriced chocolate eggs, because here at Notes from the U.K. that’s how we celebrate Easter.

Hotel Chocolat sells the Ostrich Egg–Classic for £90. The dash in the name is theirs, although purists please note, I changed it from an en dash to an em dash, originally so it wouldn’t form a mid-dash break at the end of the line but once I changed the layout because I’m too lazy to change it back. It’s over a kilo of chocolate and the text says, “Ostriches lay the largest eggs of any living bird–and we measured a real one to create the heftiest shell in our range!”

First point: As a general rule, dead birds don’t lay eggs. So you don’t, strictly speaking, need to say “living.”

Sorry, I can’t help myself. I worked as an editor and copy editor, which is a way of saying that I misunderstood people for a living. Some things stay with you even after you retire.

Second point: That bit about the “heftiest shell in our range”? It’s like saying that at five foot not very much I’m the tallest person in my category. The problem is, what category are we talking about?

Poof. The text just disappeared in a puff of semi-organic cocoa.

But let’s move into a higher range. Fortnum & Mason sells the Collosal Egg for £90. It’s 1.4 kilos of chocolate and F & M defies anyone “not to be impressed” by it.

I’m not impressed, because Bettys (there’s no apostrophe in the name) of Harrogate sells its Imperial Easter Egg for £250. It weighs 5 kilos and is delivered personally, whatever that means. You have to call to work out the details–that’s how personal it is.

Winning the competition, however (and remember, this isn’t really a competition you’d want to win) is the Hotel Cafe Royal, which sells an Easter egg for £600. It weighs more than the planet it rests upon and takes three days to make. I have no idea how you’d buy one because it’s so exclusive the hotel website doesn’t mention it. That keeps the riffraff from trying to buy stuff that’s above their station.

That’s a very British concept, getting above your station. I should write about it but I understand it even less than I understand the intricacies of keeping kosher.

I also don’t know how the monster egg is delivered. Maybe you have to arrange to be born inside so you can eat your way out, but that’s not the kind of information the riffraff need to have, so I just don’t know.

For a final bizarre note, the Evening Standard calls a £57.50 egg from Bettys “reasonably priced” but recommends the £37 version “for those on a budget.”

That’s a hell of a budget. And no, if you live somewhere else and are trying to figure out what life in Britain is like, this is not real life.

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year—if you celebrate anything—I wish you a good, non-hysterical, and financially sustainable holiday.

The Oxford comma and political activism

Back when I, very occasionally, taught fiction writing to grade-school kids (if you’re British, that would be—I think—primary school kids, and if it isn’t, little kids will get close enough to follow the story), some nine- or ten-year-old would always ask, “Do we have to use punctuation?”

“Only if you want me to understand what you write,” I’d say if I had my act together that day. If I didn’t, I’d just say yeah, they probably should, and move on.

But I loved the question. It’s so nine- or ten-year-oldish, and that age group was always the most fun to work with. The enthusiasm hadn’t been squashed out of them yet, and they had to skills to actually write something. Plus they asked questions like that.

Well, if somewhere deep inside you’re still wondering whether you have to use punctuation, and why, here’s a story for you:

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, on the grounds of Caerhays Castle–which given that most people around here don’t pronounce the R in any way I recognize as an R sounds like Ca’haze to me.

First, though, a bit of punctuation lore. There are two ways of using the comma when you’re listing things: 1) I ate eggs, toast, and bacon. 2) I ate eggs, toast and bacon. I’m a vegetarian but I’m not so pure that I won’t eat the imaginary stuff. But in the second sentence, I don’t get to eat the final comma, because it disappears.

In the U.S., we called that third comma the series comma, and it’s optional. In Britain, it’s the Oxford comma, presumably because the University of Oxford style guide recommends it although the dominant style says not to use it.

When I was in third grade, our teacher told us that we could either use it or not, and we should decide which style we liked. The series comma was more formal, she said. (My third-grade teacher was a man, but memory insists a woman taught us that. Maybe we had a student teacher, that day, or a substitute, although if it had been a sub there’d have been too much chaos for me to remember anything except, maybe, flying sandwiches. But let’s pretend memory knows what it’s talking about and call the teacher a she.)

I decided I’d use the informal style, because even then I knew informal suited me. I was very taken with the idea that I had a choice.

Years later, when I worked as an copy editor, I learned that most book publishers use the series comma. I didn’t ask why, I just went with house style, because that’s what you do when you’re a copy editor.

It turns out that lawyers like the series comma too.  According to the Guardian (I’d give you an American source–I found several–but they wouldn’t call it the Oxford comma, so we’ll go with a British one), a Maine law says that employers in three forms of work aren’t required to pay overtime:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…” three kinds of food—don’t worry about which kinds.

Drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy won overtime pay because the lack of a comma means it’s not clear that distribution is a separate kind of work—the law could well be talking about packing for shipment or distribution. And those drivers are distributing.

According to Maine law, an ambiguity in laws covering wages and hours has to be interpreted “liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose.” It’s not mentioned in the story, but the list of foods that I said not to worry about uses semicolons instead of commas, but it does use one to separate the final item–a series semicolon–so I’m guessing the intent was exactly what the court ruled.

Why those categories of work shouldn’t be covered by overtime is beyond me, but that’s a different issue.

One of the many odd things about Britain is that people—okay, a small group of people—can actually get worked up about the Oxford comma. I’m not sure what I think about that. It’s heartening that somebody cares. On the other hand, good lord, people, will you look what’s happening in the world? The comma’s the least of our problems.

But–maybe the comma really could save us–before I move on to a story about something else that’s happening in the U.S., here’s my third-grade teacher’s lesson on why we needed to use punctuation. He wrote some words on the board:

“The man ate the waiter watched”

Then he punctuated them two ways:

“The man ate. The waiter watched.”

“The man ate the waiter. Watched.”

We were third-graders, so we giggled hysterically.

I don’t remember anyone asking if we needed to use punctuation after that. And I only remember the words he wrote because in the second version watched was left hanging off the end—not a full sentence and not a satisfying sentence fragment, although I wouldn’t have had the words to explain why it bothered me at the time.

We end up remembering unfinished, bothersome stuff like that.

Okay, a story about the U.S., I don’t live there anymore, but I do follow what’s happening as best I can, and like anyone who’s politically active online, even marginally, I get emails urging me to write one politician or another, or to call about something, or to sign a petition. Lately, those emails seem to come by the thousands. And because I’m a citizen of two countries and a loudmouth in both, I get them from two countries.

So what happens to all those opinions that pour into politicians’ offices? A New Yorker article did a great job of tracing that recently. I won’t try to cover it all—go read it; it’s interesting, and if you wonder whether any of this matters it’ll give you some answers.

Briefly, most communications politicians receive fall into three categories:

Category one is communications about nonpartisan and often technical issues. These can often be effective, calling a politician’s attention to something neutral and fixable. Doing something about these things is safe and makes the politician look and possibly even feel good.

Category two is communications about partisan issues. These are unlikely to change the politician’s basic orientation, although they can call politicians’ attention to parts of their constituencies that they hadn’t been aware of—as in, Oh! I hadn’t realized I had a politically active Iranian-American community in my constituency. Maybe I’d better make some gesture in that direction as long as it doesn’t piss off some other, larger constituency or set of donors. (I do hope I don’t sound cynical here.)

Category three is related to category two in that it consists of opinions about partisan issues but a separate category forms when they arrive in a flood, which indicates that something important is going on out in the real world. That makes politicians worry about their reelection prospects. And that has a way of catching their attention.

Lately, the U.S. Congress has been flooded. Emails have been bouncing back from overstuffed inboxes. Phone lines have been busy and callers haven’t been able to get through. (This is a bit dated but may still be true–I’m not sure.) A Democratic senator reported that his correspondence from constituents went up by 900%. A Colorado Republican got 3,000 calls in a single night and a Washington Democrat got 31,000 in three weeks.

“The thwarted and outraged took to Facebook or Twitter or the streets,” the article says. “The thwarted and determined dug up direct contact information for specific congressional staffers. The thwarted and clever” sent faxes.” One Republican senator received 7,276 faxes in twenty-four hours. “The thwarted and creative phoned up a local pizza joint, ordered a pie, and had it delivered, with a side of political opinion, to the Senate.”

Much of the outpouring has been spontaneous, rather than in response to organizational requests to call or write so-and-so about such-and-such. No one knows if it will continue. But whatever the response turns out to be, it is being heard. Something’s going on out in the real world.

Lately, I’ve been getting a swarm of emails asking me to take a one-click poll about some burning political issue or some politician. Do I like/dislike? Agree/disagree. They need to hear from me. My opinion’s crucial.

I hit delete. Some of the polls reappear. Ellen, the emails say, we haven’t heard from you.

I wrote back to one, asking, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are?”

Oddly enough, no one got back to me on that, although I really did need to hear from them.

Britain: money laundering, sandwiches, poisonous snakes

Because the British government’s taking a hard line on money laundering, it’s not easy to set up a bank account here. Banks and potential customers have to work their way through all sorts of requirements. And yet somehow or other, Britain’s a world money laundering capital.

Funny how that works, isn’t it?

A year or three ago, Wild Thing had to set up a checking account for a small organization that had a treasury of less than £100. Probably a lot less, but I don’t remember. It took four trips to the bank with her passport, a utility bill, and a note from her mother, who is—inconveniently, although not surprisingly given Wild Thing’s age—dead. The note was hard to get and not entirely convincing.

The second person who was going to sign checks had to make two trips and the third had to make just one. Then Wild Thing had to drive back to the bank to pick up the checks.

Couldn’t they have just sent them? Don’t ask me. The bank’s roughly half an hour from our house. Why make things easy?

Irrelevant photo: The daffodils have been in bloom since late January. This one, as you can see, is not involved in money laundering.

At least one of those trips, I admit, was because Wild Thing hadn’t double checked that the name J.’s known by is her actual passport-authenticated, birth-certificate name, and it turned out not to be. But the others? They were part of business as usual.

But that was nothing. For a different organization, she tried to set up an account at a different bank and it took three months. Then the bank closed its branch in the town. We didn’t mourn.

I shouldn’t complain about this being so difficult, because in fact I have laundered money. I’ve also spin-dried it, but I don’t think I ever washed anything larger than a five dollar bill, and it may be in the interest of combating money laundering that the British government introduced its new plasticky five-pound note (no one but me calls them “bills” here) that can be run through the laundry but will shrivel up and die if is it’s run through the dryer. We don’t have a dryer, so however we manage to lose money, it won’t be that way.

But we’re small time money launderers at my house, so it’s—let’s say it’s mildly annoying to learn that in spite of our branch bank’s care in observing the anti-laundering protocols, Britain’s banks laundered £740 million for Russian criminals with links to the Russian government and the KGB.

Allegedly. I do need to say allegedly.

Deutsche Bank is also accused of laundering Russian money. And it lent $330 million to Trump, but it’s okay because the bank’s investigated itself and reports that there’s no link between those two acts. Which lifts a weight off my mind.

What else is happening here?

I’ve just learned that Britons eat a lot of sandwiches. I don’t know how British sandwich eating compares with other countries’, but the numbers–however meaningless they are without a point of comparison–sound impressive. Over the course of a lifetime, the average Briton will spend more than £48,000 on sandwiches. That’s a lot of money, in case you hadn’t noticed. It buys roughly 18,000 sandwiches. If you ever need to know what a lifetime supply of sandwiches consists of, there’s your number.

The typical eater will need eight mouthfuls and six minutes to finish a single sandwich and will prefer to have it cut on the diagonal. The list of favorite fillings is mostly boring, but number 12 is a chip butty–a butty being a sandwich and chips being what I grew up calling french fries, so bread stuffed with fried potatoes. Number 25 is mayonnaise and nothing else.

The list of “unusual” (for which you can read “disgusting” if you like, but far be it from me to push you in that direction) fillings includes mayonnaise and crisps (which I grew up calling potato chips); instant noodles (raw? cooked? six weeks old? I don’t know); lasagna; onion rings and ketchup; mashed potato and sweetcorn (which I grew up calling just plain ol’ corn); leftover carryout (called takeaway here: curry and Chinese food are mentioned); baked beans and cheese; cheese and chocolate spread.

I’m not sure why baked beans and cheese are considered unusual. Baked beans show up in everything except apple pie here, and the firm doing the research is, as far as I can tell, British. But while I’m going off on tangents. I feel the need to mention that British lasagna includes a heavy, pasty layer of white sauce, which I consider an insult to Italian cooking. Or maybe that’s Italian-American cooking. Or American cooking. I don’t really know–I’m not Italian and haven’t studied the evolution of lasagna. What I do know is that I grew up with a different kind of lasagna and consider the British stuff heresy.

Not that I’m stuck in my ways or anything. I just happen to know what’s right. I’ll come back to that below.

The press release spells it lasagne, not lasagna. That’s not enough to condemn an entire nation’s eating habits, but it does call its Italian credentials into question.

What else is in the news? The Western Morning News warns dog walkers that poisonous snakes are on the loose. I can’t find the story online, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But hey, would I lie to you without a good reason?

Snakes on the loose didn’t strike me as particularly funny when Wild Thing read me the headline, so she asked where else snakes would be.

Ah. Good point.

The story below the headline is that a dog walker saw an adder—the only poisonous snake native to Britain—and it reared up and hissed at him. So how did he deal with the threat? Why, he pulled out his phone and filmed it for five minutes.

Are you getting the sense that this wasn’t a life-or-death moment? I don’t particularly want to get bitten by an adder and I won’t shove either of our dogs or the cat in front of one, but adders aren’t generally lethal. Since 1876, there’ve been only 14 known human fatalities. Most dogs, being smaller than your average adult human, are more vulnerable, but the expert the Westy interviewed recommended getting a dog that’s been bitten to the vet asap—carrying it if possible, walking it slowly if necessary. Dogs, he said, generally make a full recovery.

But, guys, I don’t have all that many readers so you need to take care of yourselves out there, okay? I can’t spare you, and poisonous snakes are on the loose. During the winter it was safe enough. They stayed inside, drinking tea and nibbling digestive biscuits while they watched movies on TV. Now, though, the days are getting longer, they’re getting the itch to mate, and they’re outside. On the loose. Be careful, people. You’re not expendable.

And if you do get bitten, please recruit a substitute until you’ve recovered.

But let’s move on while you’re still well, because there’s more news to report.

Thousands of protestors—or maybe I should call them celebrators, or, well, people; let’s settle for people. Thousands of people in London marked the European Union’s birthday by showing their opposition to Brexit in—well, I wasn’t there, but it sounds like the most restrained demonstration ever. Signs included one saying “I’m quite cross” and another saying, “I’m British. I am on a march. Things must be bad.”  The article I read describes it as “not so much a march as a very patient and stubborn queue.”

A queue, in case you need a translation, is a line of people waiting patiently for something. Forget the Church of England; queuing is the national religion.

The march wasn’t all patience and good manners, though. A third sign said, “Buck Frexit.”

Onward.

I’ve been living in Britain so long now that I’m not sure how to call directory assistance in the U.S. anymore. When I was a kid and a young adult, it was free—and they’d give you the associated address as long as you asked for the phone number first. The phone company ran directory assistance, so it was only polite to pretend you wanted to call someone. Then later on, four calls were free. Then one. Then none—they’d started charging, but at least you didn’t need a calculator to figure out how much it would cost.

Britain, though, has a series of directory assistance numbers, and they’re allowed to charge a flat fee of up to £15.98 per call plus £7.99 per minute—and if they put your call through for you, they can go on charging for the every minute you talk. The average charge per call costs less than the maximum but it’s still absurd: £6.98. The services are heavily advertised and are used mostly by the elderly—or those among them (at, ahem, a mere 70, I clearly don’t qualify) who don’t use the internet.

This got into the paper because one 90-year-old was charged £501. No, I didn’t leave out a decimal point. That’s five hundred and one pounds for a single directory assistance call.

A spokesperson for Ofcom, which stands for We’re off meeting with someone powerful and important and don’t have time to communicate with you, said, “We are carefully monitoring the impact of the adoption of these new higher charges and are actively considering whether further action is justified.”

Yup. There’s a lot to consider here. You wouldn’t want to rush into it.

Next we come to a couple of stories about the brain. Only one involves Britain, but let’s not split hairs here.

The first is a New Yorker article that reports on research demonstrating that facts don’t change our minds. Given two sets of facts supporting opposing positions on, say, the death penalty, people will find the one they already agree with more convincing, better researched, and presented in a far superior typeface. The opposing one? It’s a piece of crap.

Appealing to people’s emotions may be a more effective way to change their minds. It doesn’t, unfortunately, guarantee a great decision-making process.

No, I don’t know what to do about it either, but if you’d like a name for it, it’s called confirmation bias. And I fall into the trap as easily as anyone else does, except that I’m right so it’s okay.

The second story is about a series of brain scans that document what we all suspected: that using a sat-nav (make that a GPS if you’re in the U.S.) turns off parts of your brain. This explains why people have been known to drive into the sea in an attempt to reach an island if a sat-nav told them to. It also explains the driver Wild Thing and I tried to convince not to drive up an unpaved, washed-out road a mile from our house. He kept pointing up the hill and repeating, “But the sat-nav says.”

Luckily for him, the road was muddy and he spun his wheels and had to back down before he got to the part that would’ve eaten an axle. Because poisonous snakes could well have been on the loose up there. You can never be sure.

And finally, to reward you for reading this far, I’d like to tell you that the last Friday in April is National Hairball Awareness Day. Break out the cat food. Refresh the kitty litter. We need to celebrate–even if you’re in the wrong nation. (The nation in question is the United States.)

My thanks for Flo for letting me know about this. How could I have lived so long and not found out about it before?

What happens when British manners break down?

Let’s talk about manners. And anger. And Britain.

Large print: The British value manners and avoid conflict.

Small print: Except when they don’t.

And there, in two lines, you have the problem with generalizations and stereotypes. They make the world so simple and they fall apart so embarrassingly.

The small print means it’s easy for one mannerless, angry person to turn a roomful of polite people into emotional hostages. I’ve been in two stereotype-smashing situations recently, which is why I’ve been thinking about this, and in a rare moment of discretion I’m going to make every effort not to tell you where they took place or who was involved.

Sorry. It would be a hell of a lot more fun to fill in the details, but no one but me (or I if you want to be formal about this) signed on to be blogged about. So I’ll tiptoe around any identifying information while I try to find something solid enough to be worth reading.

Irrelevant photo: crocuses. It’s spring.

What happened in both situations was that two or three people broke the unwritten group rules by shouting, accusing, or mocking. And what happened next?

Well, not a hell of a lot. In the first situation, our opening move was to pretend it wasn’t happening, or at least try to. And that included the very un-British me. When it happened a few more times, some weeks later, several people had what folks here call “a quiet word” with someone about it. A quiet word is polite and discrete, although a few of them were spoken in places where they could be overheard, but as far as I’ve been able to establish they weren’t disruptively public. In this case, at least, they didn’t fix the problem, because it happened again. After that, no one knew quite what to do next. Several of us stewed and fumed to each other, which (at least as I understand it) is very British. I think it’s Kate Fox, who wrote Watching the English, who defined moaning (and I’m paraphrasing a bit) as complaining about a problem to the people you’re absolutely certain can’t fix it.

Our moaning wasn’t entirely useless. A few more quiet words were had. A few letters were written. A few quiet conversations were held, and some of them were with the person who could solve the problem. I don’t know yet if we have a solution, but it looks like we might.

But it took a long time to get to that point, and the important question is probably, What didn’t happen along the way? No one stood up publicly and disruptively to say, “Hey, knock it off.” Including, I’m sorry to say, me, because it just plain didn’t occur to me. I get trapped by politeness as surely as anyone else does. On top of that, the most recent time it happened I managed not to quite pick up on what was happening. Afterwards, with twenty-twenty hindsight, I geared myself up to be loud and public when it happened again, but then it didn’t.

Would it have helped if I’d pulled myself up to my full five foot not very much and made a scene? I have no idea. But when playing by the rules doesn’t work, it’s always worth asking yourself if you shouldn’t break them.

The second situation was a fairly formal meeting. Two people refused to shut up when the chair asked them to stop disrupting the meeting. The chair was good, I thought, at acknowledging what was going on while still avoiding a full-blown, let’s-all-get-in-a-wrestling-match confrontation. I didn’t take on one of the people who was being disruptive—I’m not sure why—but when the other one talked through the chair, I talked through her, so neither of us could be heard. When she stopped, I shut up with a powerful feeling of relief because I was running out of words and was only talking to keep her from holding the floor.

No one acknowledged what had happened, and for all I know, although she’d alienated most of the people in the room, I may have embarrassed them by being impolite. And public. And loud.

How would those challenges have played out in the U.S.? I’m not sure. It might depend on region, ethnicity, and age group. It might depend on those here as well. For whatever it tells us, both groups I’m writing about had an average age of, oh, maybe 60, although a few people were a good bit younger. As a general rule, that means no one’s likely to start a knock-down, drag-out fight just for the joy of it or because they need some exercise, although in the second situation a fight might have happened if the chair had been hard nosed.

As for place and ethnicity, both groups were in Cornwall. Cornwall’s startlingly white, and so were both groups. I’m not sure how either of those facts affected what happened. I’ve lived here eleven years now, but I’m still American and there’s some stuff about the culture that I just can’t read.

What I do know is that a good number of people here talk about the embarrassment of being noticed in public—because they tripped on the street, say, or because someone with them did something visible like (gasp) waving wildly. It’s not a mindset I understand, but I do understand that it’s real. It’s not something I remember people talking about in the U.S.

So one strain of the culture pulls toward invisibility and conformism.

There’s also a streak of violence running underneath all that politeness and restraint. It shows up in sports, where getting in a fight is, for some people, part of the fun of going to a game. Or it was—I don’t read about that happening as much as I did when we first moved here.

I’m guessing the people who go to a game to get in a fight aren’t the same people who’d be embarrassed to stand next to someone waving too enthusiastically, but as usual, I don’t know. They coexist, however uneasily.

It’s not–do I even need to say this?–that the U.S. isn’t a violent country. The number of gun deaths in the U.S. and our attitude toward guns regularly throw the British into shock. All I’m saying is that violence lies under the surface in both cultures but pours itself into very different forms. Which is an inconclusive way to end a post but the best I can do today.

All insights on the subject (or off the subject) are very welcome.

How to get arrested in New York, 1964 edition

This has nothing to do the joys and absurdities of British culture. But Kris asked, “Would ‘please?’ be enough to get you to relate your court experiences?” [I dropped a passing comment about them in this post. It may not be worth going back to, but the blogging rule book says you have to link back to your own stuff because otherwise the world will end ten minutes sooner than it would otherwise. And it’ll all be your fault. Enjoy your extra ten minutes, folks.)

So go on, then, Kris, twist my arm. The tone’s different than what I usually write, but I was looking for an excuse and this is as good as anything else I’ll find.

Our story, children, begins in the United States—that’s a largish country on the North American continent, sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, although Mexico doesn’t go from edge to edge so it acts more like half a slice of bread than a whole one—and it takes place at a time when the civil rights movement had swept from the American South into the North, where it was taking on the less obvious forms of segregation.

Or maybe we should make that less obvious to whites, since if you lived on the wrong side of those invisible lines they’d have been obvious enough.

Screamingly irrelevant (and late) photo: Rhubarb, just coming up. I took this in February–early in the month if I remember right. After living in Minnesota, I can’t believe what we get away with here. If rhubarb comes, can spring be far behind?

I was both white and seventeen, and I was aware of the invisible lines but—well, let’s say I was aware of them in the way a white seventeen-year-old might be and leave it there, because it’s too complicated to get into where it’s not the point. The point is that, with a friend or two from high school and in a teenage sort of way, I’d been involved in the civil rights movement for some years.

It was 1964 and New York was about to host the World’s Fair, so various civil rights organizations had planned demonstrations. The U.S. called itself the leader of the free world, and racism, segregation and the unaddressed legacy of slavery were a source of national shame. Probably not for everyone, but other countries weren’t impressed. It made sense to say publicly, in front of an international audience, “Address this.”

One of the movement’s most powerful tactics had been passive resistance—sitting down, sitting it, refusing to get up when arrested, and generally being peacefully disruptive. So at a meeting before the opening day’s demonstrations, those of us who planned to go were asked if we planned to get arrested and we divided into three groups: yes, no, and maybe.

I joined the maybes, knowing that I meant yes but wasn’t ready to say it yet. I’m not sure why that was. Something about being seventeen at the time means that I’m now left with a lot of blank spots where my motivations lay. It could have been that as simple as not wanting to talk to my parents about it beforehand, but I’m genuinely not sure. I may not have known at the time.

Long story short, I got arrested when a few people who’d been more certain of their commitment blocked traffic into the fair and were carried into a police wagon—what was called a paddy wagon at the time. I’m not sure if they’re still called that. I watched the arrests, then I climbed onto the hood of the van to keep it from leaving. It was as unplanned an act as it was unsurprising.

A couple of cops hauled me down and I should have gone limp but forgot. I heard someone on the sidelines say, “Is she okay?” and took it to mean, Why isn’t she going limp? but mid-arrest seemed kind of late to collapse, so I climbed into the van instead of being carried.

Great moments in civil disobedience.

I appeared in court that afternoon and when my name was called my mother appeared. I have no idea who called her or how they found her number. Maybe we’d all given contact numbers before the demonstration. At the time, I was young enough that my mother appearing seemed natural. I was released on bail, feeling both relieved and reduced at being handed over to her.

My parents were activists—they were working as union organizers when they met—and they were proud of what I’d done, although I don’t remember either of them saying so. Maybe it didn’t need saying or maybe they said it and it seemed so obvious that I didn’t register the moment. I was seventeen. Seventeen-year-olds can be heartless that way.

Fast forward. I got a notice to appear in court and found that my case had been merged with the cases of fifteen or twenty other demonstrators. One by one we were called to the front of the court and the charges read out.

The case was adjourned.

I got another notice to appear. By now it was summer and I’d graduated high school.

Same routine. I thought a few more people had been added, but I wouldn’t swear to it. The bailiff stood below the judge’s throne, facing us, and read name after name, including one woman Sandy Something, who had a string of charges that were threaded through the list instead of being gathered in one place, so that he called her over and over. With each new name, the courtroom had to wait while the person worked their way past the everyone sitting between them and the aisle and then came forward to join our small mob. It seemed to go on for hours.

As he got further into the list, the bailiff began a quiet monologue that the judge couldn’t hear.

“And Sandy Something,” he said. “Don’t forget Sandy Something.”

We couldn’t laugh. We were facing the judge and had to stand there like nothing was going on.

New name. Someone else stood and came forward to join our group.

“And Sandy Something, Let’s not forget Sandy Something.”

Finally we were all assembled. The prosecutor talked. Our lawyers talked. The judge talked. It was all going to be postponed again. The lawyers and all the arresting officers were trying to find a date they could all manage.

“I’m so glad it’s Friday,” the bailiff said. “I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t Friday.”

We couldn’t laugh.

The lawyers and arresting officers tried a different date. Somebody different would be on vacation. Another date. Someone else would be gone.

No one asked us if we’d be on vacation. No one asked the bailiff either. He kept talking, although by now, in the interest of keeping a straight face, I’d tuned out the words. I couldn’t afford to know. The whole thing was bizarre. Here was this guy, chatting away to us, while this whole formal dance went on around us.

Another date, another conflicting vacation.

The judge stood up.

“You figure it out,” he said. “I’m leaving.”

And the law, in all its black robes and majesty, huffed out of the courtroom, leaving a moment of stunned silence behind.

As I remember it, they didn’t take much time finding a date after that and we all went home.

That was my last court appearance. The lawyers worked out a deal. The people who’d blocked the doors on subway trains leading to the World’s Fair pleaded guilty to an out-of-date law, interfering with a steam engine, and were fined $5, which even then wasn’t an oppressive amount of money. For the rest of us, charges were dropped.

Which is why, when I’m asked if I was ever convicted of a crime, I get to say no.

I’m not sure what that tells us about the legal system in the U.S. My best guess is that it’s only in New York that a bailiff would carry on that monologue and a judge would huff out of his own courtroom, It’s one of many ways that I miss New York. But in fairness, I haven’t made a full survey.

Singing buildings, smart condoms, immigration, and other stuff in the news

The Guardian printed a report on singing buildings recently.

Are singing buildings a sign that the world’s ending? As far as I know, no religious text says it is. Mind you, I haven’t read any religious book from end to end. I tried reading the bible once, when I was young and thought it was something I ought to at least crack the covers of. I got as far as the begats, which bored me into insensibility, before admitting to myself that (a) I didn’t get it and (b) I wasn’t getting anything out of the exercise. So I am officially no expert. But singing buildings do sound harmless: Apparently, when the winds are high enough—and I’m not sure how high that is—certain buildings get the urge to sing. I do some singing myself, so I understand how powerful the impulse can be.

The list of singing buildings include Manchester’s Beetham tower. Several fixes have been tried, and the architect has apologized, but the building sings on, hitting a note close to middle C. If anyone reading this is trying to fix the problem, better breath support should bring that note in right on key. Or so I’ve been told when I go a little flat.

The Cityspire building in Manhattan (who names these things?) used to sing but no longer does. Instead, it’s being treated for depression. That actually might herald the end of the world, and it could be that religious texts need to be updated as architecture and technology evolve.

I’d give you a link for all these claims—they do sound like something I made up—but the Guardian online is mad at me for using it too often and thinks I should subscribe. I would—it’s a fine paper, and I understand how difficult the business climate is for newspapers today—but Wild Thing and I already pay for the print edition and unless you have a tablet you can’t access the online edition based on a print subscription.

Or something along those lines. Google “the strange case of the singing buildings” and you should find it. And in case I wasn’t clear, I was talking about an electronic tablet, not a stone one.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is a whatsit plant. In our garden.

What else is happening in the world? Smart condoms are now for sale. How smart are they? Not smart enough to solve your relationship problems or even your (assuming you to be either male and equipped with the relevant organ or female and involved with a male equipped with etc.) sexual—we shouldn’t say “problems” in this context, should we? Issues, then. All it does report back—speed, frequency, girth, skin temperature, and so forth. All those things a thrilling lover needs to know.

Do I hear hysterical laughter from the alto and soprano sections?

The Guardian gave me access to that story. They understand what matters.

Smart condoms probably aren’t a sign that the world’s ending either, but they could evidence that it deserves to.

By the way, as far as I can figure out, they’re not actual condoms, they just work in the vicinity of the real ones. They won’t prevent either pregnancy or venereal disease. They may prevent relaxation and fun.

Moving on:

The CIA, Wikileaks announced, is spying on us through our smart TVs, smartphones, and antivirus software. At our house, we’re assuming some British agency does the same, since Britain helped develop the technology, and that they’ve been listening to everything we say in the living room. Wild Thing’s delighted.

“My opinion finally counts for something somewhere,” the spokesperson for our household said.

[Update: I just checked the link on that story, and (who knows how) I linked it to one of my own posts–about village life and chasing chickens. I’ve left it for the pure silliness of it–and because I thought it was a good, if irrelevant, post. For relevant information, try this link instead.]

What else is happening? A 99-year-old from the Dutch city of Nijmegen had herself arrested because—and I’m making an assumption here—she thought it would be fun. Apparently she’d always been a good girl and, as her niece explained it, she “wanted to experience this.”

O ye who have never sinned enough to be arrested, there is still time to repent. But I warn you: I was arrested in a civil rights demonstration a hundred or so years ago and I didn’t find it a whole lot of fun. Neither, to the best of my knowledge, did anyone I was arrested with. But maybe we went into it for the wrong reasons. Instead of trying to end racism, we should have been trying to have fun, fun, fun.

The tales from our court appearances were pretty funny, but I’ll need a different excuse to tell those.

The 99-year-old isn’t alone. A 102-year-old from Missouri had herself handcuffed and delivered to an event at her retirement home in a police car. It had been on her bucket list.

So let’s talk about bucket lists. I’m all for acknowledging our mortality, but a list of ridiculous things you want to experience before you die? Don’t we have anything better to do with our lives, and if not why are we bothering the planet with our presence here?

For reasons known only to its algorithm, the Guardian gave me access to this story.

From there, we go to immigration. Britain, having held a referendum in which we voted to jump off a cliff of unknown height in a fog so thick that we can’t see what’s at the bottom—this is known as the Brexit referendum, in case you’re not getting the allusion—is now pretending that what we voted for wasn’t to leave the EU but to  get rid of foreigners. As many as possible, and for any reason.

Why?

Well because they’re foreign, silly.

Did I say “they”? Sorry. Slip of the tongue. I’m a foreigner here myself, and citizen or not, I always will be.

So who are they getting rid of? For one, a grandmother who lost her indefinite leave to remain because she spent too much time outside the country caring for her dying parents. You can see why she’d be dangerous. She was held in a detention center for a month and was given no chance to say goodbye to her British husband of 27 years, her two sons, or her granddaughter before being hustled through the airport by the arms and tossed on a plane to Singapore. She had £12 in her pocket and the clothes on her back. That happened on a Sunday, presumably to keep her family from getting hold of a lawyer.

For the government, it’s all about numbers. The more immigrants they throw out, the better the politicians (with rare, brave exceptions) think they look. They’re like people with anorexia—they look in the mirror and never think they’re thin enough.

It turns out that being a citizen is less protection than Wild Thing and I thought when we took citizenship. The home secretary can revoke the citizenship people who weren’t born here if it’s not “conducive to the public good.” No court has to approve it and the person doesn’t have to have been of—or even charged with—a crime. When our current prime minister was in charge of the Home Office, 70 people lost their citizenship that way.

I’d make a joke about that, but I’m afraid I’d suddenly find myself in Singapore. So let’s move on.

The town of Rochdale plans to ban swearing. Also begging, unauthorized collections for charity, loitering, antisocial parking, loud music, drinking in public, and skateboarding. Not to mention bad temper, bad attitudes, bad hairdos, and stupid laws. It’s already made a difference. Asked by a reporter what he thought about it, a resident said, “It’s a load of bullshit.”

Onward. The most hated household chore in Britain is ironing. That’s why I live here. Ironing is against my religion and people don’t laugh when I explain that.

A dog swallowed a toy train and was rushed to the vet for emergency surgery. I believe it was a Thomas the Tank Engine. I am grateful for the existence of a free and fearless press.

Former chancellor George Osborne, who’s still an MP, has been moonlighting at BlackRock, a fund management company. He declared a salary of £650,000. For working four days a month. And then there’s the £800,000 he made in speaking fees.

You know, in a pinch, a person could live on that.

The National Trust has started charging for parking near the Levant mine, in West Cornwall, which has become popular because of the BBC’s Poldark series. The mine was the site of a 1919 disaster in which 31 miners died. The National Trust’s pay-and-display machinery had already been ripped out of the ground once. This time, the coin slots were filled with expanding foam.

I know I’m not supposed to think that’s funny, but I can’t help myself. Expanding foam in the coin slot. Haven’t you ever wanted to do that yourself?

Cornwall’s St. Piran’s flag—a white cross on a black background—was painted onto the information board, just in case the Trust didn’t get the message.

*

And finally, as a reward for slogging through the parts of this that weren’t funny, here’s a comment I just dug out of my spam folder: “Attractive portijon of content. I simply stumblled upon your web site and in accession capital to assert that I get in fact enjoyed account your bpog posts. Anyy way I wiull be subscribingg to your augment or even I achievemewnt you get entry to constantly rapidly.”

Yes. Finally. I aim to establish my bpog as a portijon of content and I’m flattered all to hell that someone noticed.

What, you ask, is a portijon? It’s what you get when you cross a portable toilet with a demijohn. And I—thank you for the applause—have cornered the market.

British storms

In a fit of jealousy that other countries get all the attention for their hurricanes, the Met has started naming lower-grade storms. That’s kind of like being jealous of your sister because she got all the attention what with that polio she had, but you know what humans are like. We’re a difficult species.

But before I go on, a note about the Met. There are two of them: One deals with weather and the other deals with London policing. How does anyone know which is which? Context. That’s the same answer you get when you ask how anyone knows if a speaker just said “there,” “they’re,” or “their.” Or “there, there, there.”

This indicates that living with the English language has made everyone so crazy that a succession of governments hasn’t seen any reason not to call two major governmental bodies by the same nickname. Every so often, someone mixes the Met up with the Met and tries to arrest a storm, but it doesn’t happen often.

I’ll be talking here about the Met that deals with weather. I haven’t been arrested in London yet, but if I am, I’ll tell you everything I learn about the other Met.

Irrelevant photo:

Irrelevant photo: Winter jasmine

Storm Doris hit us last week, just before my last post about the weather went live. A better blogger would’ve rushed in to update the post, but me? I made a couple of mental notes, then I made apple bread. It was a good day to be indoors. I like apples.

I did walk the dogs, and the wind was high enough to make my cheeks flap like rubber. That’s not a scientific measurement, since it’ll happen at a lower and lower velocities the older I get and the rubberier my cheeks get, but it is an indication of a high wind. If you need another measurement, local blogger Bear Humphries wrote on Facebook, “High winds—well, 60-70mph ish—meant loads of pictures on Twitter showing blown over wheelie bins with the words ‘Carnage here.’”

It was carnage. Our empty compost bin blew over.

If you look at the photos the BBC posted, you’ll learn that a barely measureable snowfall slowed traffic to a crawl somewhere north of us (almost the whole country is north of us; the snow may have been heavier north of where the photo was taken, but it may not have been), that trees fell, that waves smashed against breakwaters in the most scenic possible way, and that in the City, which is London’s financial district, a man’s tie was blown to the left—which is to the right in the picture since the photographer was facing him.

It was a blue tie. That may be significant.

If you try the Guardian, you’ll find pictures of women’s hair going feral, cars flipping over, more cars pancaked under trees, trucks jackknifing, and King’s Cross train station turned into a storage area for spare humans, all of whom were stashed in an upright position.

Al Jazeera shows a gritting lorry—translation: a truck that spreads a sand and salt mixture—on its side after a skid. That was in Scotland and it must’ve been embarrassing.

on more than one of those sites, you’ll find pictures of umbrellas trying to devour humans, who are doing their best to hold them off. Why do people take umbrellas out into high winds when they must know it’ll aggravate them? Is the umbrella a fashion statement or something?

Remind me, someone: What is a fashion statement?

But we were talking about Doris: Ferries and flights were canceled. Train travel was disrupted, as train travel always is when the country experiences weather. Any sort of weather, including good. The standing joke when a train’s delayed is that there were leaves on the line, which was genuinely given as an excuse once, although whoever said it said not just that there were leaves on the line but that they were the wrong kind of leaves. Which either makes it better or worse but I don’t think anyone’s been able to figure out which.

The Met classified the storm as a weather bomb, and gusts reached 94 miles per hour in Wales. Unless you turn to other sources, in which case they reached 100 kilometers per hour. Or according to other sources 100 miles per hour. A kilometer’s .62 miles, making 100 kph and 100 mph very different beasts–say a Maine coon cat and a lion.

Anyway, you can take your choice of both wind speeds and measuring systems, because it’s mix and match day here at Weather Station Hawley.

Why do some places report wind speeds in kilometers per hour and others in another in miles per hour, while a few others report them both ways? Because Britain in only intermittently metric. When it grows up it will have to commit itself to one system or the other, but for the moment, folks, give it some space to experiment. It’s just a phase. I’m hoping that if we don’t make an issue of this the country won’t either. Because we’re going to be leaving the E.U. soon, and if we don’t handle this carefully we may go back to measuring in cubits and barleycorns and firkins.

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.