British news you almost missed

In a form of protest that brings the Colyton laundryline rebellion to mind, someone recently decorated the office door of Christopher Chope, MP—that’s short for Member of Parliament—with a string of women’s underpants that the papers describe as lacy. I’d have described them thongs myself. Or thongs with tiny ruffles. There isn’t enough room on a thong for big ruffles.

Or much of anything. I know I’m a thousand years old and I never did think underwear could make a person sexy, but if that was all I was going to wear, I’d just as soon do without. I’d be more comfortable.

Anyway, lacy may have sounded more daring than thong. Or less uncomfortable, although no one’s wearing the things. But the photo’s below so you don’t have to believe either me or the papers, you can consult your own lyin’ eyes and see what you think. And with that, I’ll leave the decision to people who care enough about underpants to argue about them.

This all started when fellow MP Wera Hobhouse introduced what’s called a private member’s bill that would have criminalized upskirting—taking pictures up a woman’s skirt without her consent. (Has anyone actually given consent for someone to take a picture up her skirt? I’m just asking.) The rules governing private member’s bills are as bizarre as everything else in parliament and I’m not fool enough to try and explain them, but what we need know is that Chope shouted out an objection to the bill and that was enough to kill it.

At which point all hell broke loose. MPs—who consider shouting at each other an important part of the job description—shouted, “Shame.” Reporters rubbed their hands in glee. Even Chope’s own party, the Conservatives, turned against him.

Private member’s bills normally have as much chance of becoming law as I have of becoming queen, and Chope could have quietly let this one run full-speed into the same wall most of them run into, but instead he accidentally promoted it to the legislative equivalent of crown princess. The prime minister suddenly saw the wisdom of supporting the bill, and if she and her party can stop trying to murder each other over Brexit for long enough she’ll put it forward on the government’s behalf. Or so she says. The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings, and Theresa May is stylishly–you might even say bloodlessly–thin.

Meanwhile, Chope explained to anyone who’d listen (which was pretty much everyone at that point) that he didn’t object to the content of the law, he just didn’t like private member’s bills in general, and he might’ve gotten away with that if some reporter hadn’t checked the records and found that he’d introduced 31 of them in the past year.

A rare relevant photo: The underwear that decorated Christopher Chope’s office door. Photo from the Guardian.

What Chope had to say for himself was, “The suggestion that I am some kind of pervert is a complete travesty of the truth.”

Is that great quote or what?

Chope was knighted in 2015 and is now Sir Christopher Chope. We’re supposed to call him Sir Christopher.

Good luck with that, Chris.

His other accomplishments include blocking a bill that would “help families reclaim items looted by the Nazis.” He has voted against human rights legislation, same-sex marriage, equal pay, hunting bans (that probably means fox hunting), and smoking bans. But he’s not against everything. In 2009, he voted for abolishing the minimum wage and he favors banning the burqa in public places.

And please remember that he is not a pervert.

Many thanks to Deb for letting me know about the underwear protest. I’d have missed it otherwise, and my life would’ve been that much poorer. Thanks also to Elle at Elle Superstar for showing me a simple way to copy photos from the internet. And thanks to Leda, who showed me a different way but I’m technologically impaired and couldn’t make her system work.

And while I’m thanking people, I’m grateful to Jane at Making It Write, who wrote about drunken seagulls in Somerset, which let me follow her link to the original article. I won’t try to recreate her post–go read it–but I can tell you what I learned from the Bristol Post:

Early in July, the RSPCA–that’s the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals–noticed that seagulls in West Hatch, Somerset, were drunk on their feathery little asses. The first theory was that they were drinking leftover beer at the beaches, but the newer theory is that they’re eating brewing by-products that they’re finding somewhere.

The gulls get so drunk they can’t walk, never mind fly. They fall off the roof. They throw up on fire fighters. Since they’re British, I figured they’d start singing as soon as they got tipsy, but apparently not. They still just squawk like seagulls. Alcohol, it turns out, doesn’t improve your voice, it just makes you think it has.

The West Hatch RSPCA now has a drunk tank where the birds can sober up.

From the Manifesto Club, I learned that a couple in Bexhill-on-Sea, in East Sussex, has been banned from looking at their neighbors’ house. Or from walking past or appearing to look at their neighbors’ house.

The ban defines appearing as being “perceived by any person to be looking into any neighbour’s property.”

The ban grew  out of a disagreement with a couple (couple #2), who bought the house next door and started redoing it. The now-banned couple (couple #1) objected to I’m not sure what about the construction. That’s how a lot of neighborhood wars start in this country.

Couple #2 managed to get couple #1 served with a Community Protection Notice, called a CPN. Awkwardly, CPN also stands for community psychiatric nurse. If couple #1 ignore the notice form of CPN, they could get slapped with a fine or, theoretically, a prison sentence. The police have been involved and at one point asked Couple #1 why they were loitering on the local beach. 

Because that’s what people do on a beach.

The notice form of CPN was created to address “anti-social behaviour affecting a community’s quality of life,” and it was one of those well-intentioned ideas that’s turned out to have its own anti-social side. To get one issued, you don’t have to go to court. A constable (that’s a cop in Ameri-speak), “the relevant local authority,” or someone “designated by the relevant local authority” can do it. 

What’s a relevant authority? ” ‘The relevant local authority’ means the local authority (or, as the case may be, any of the local authorities) within whose area the conduct specified in the notice has, according to the notice, been taking place.”

In other words, the relevant authority is the authority relevant to that place. And the place is the place in which the conduct is conducted.

If it would help, I can ask a friend to translate that into Latin. She might get it wrong, but how many of us would know?

I went online and managed to find information on how to issue a CPN, what kind of behavior a CPN can address, who can be issued with a CPB, and how to appeal a CPN, but nothing about what evidence is needed before one is issued. I’m left with the impression that the relevant authorities aren’t necessarily rigorous about demanding any.

I don’t know what happens next in this case. The publicity it got may have helped couple #1, but I don’t get the impression that good sense is carrying a lot of weight here. Couple #1 is planning to ask for a judicial review.

As for the seagulls, they were thrown in the drunk tank without any form of due process and as soon as they sober up enough to take that in, they’ll object. In the meantime, they say that even when they’re sober they sound better than those goody-two-shoes robins.

Christopher Chope hasn’t commented further (as far as I know), but our neighbor Peta tells me that upskirting is now known as Chope-ing.

And finally, a quick apology for the deluge of news. I meant to follow last week’s news post with some history, but all this lovely insanity found its way to my inbox, and the thing about history is that it doesn’t go out of date the way news does.

More news from Britain

What’s happening in Britain? Let’s start in Colyton, Devon, where a woman hung out her wash. Because people do that here. Dryers aren’t as common as they are in the U.S. If people get any sunny weather, out go the clothes.

So how is this news? Well, after this earthshaking action, she got an anonymous letter asking her “with kindness not to put your washing out at the front of your house” because visitors would see it. “Help us all keep Colyton a town we can all be proud of,” the letter said, and it suggested she “consider using a tumble dryer or hanging the washing indoors.”

The writer claimed to represent both local businesses and the entire neighborhood. Not to mention all of England and probably Jersey (that’s old, not New Jersey) as well. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

This being modern (as opposed to Victorian or, say, Arthurian) Britain, the whole thing got splashed all over the town Facebook group and in no more time than it took to wash a load of laundry (I’m making that part up; I don’t know how long it took), neighbors had hung out their own washing. Underwear hung from artfully displayed laundry lines in shop windows. Laundry dangled out of windows. Someone hung pyjamas across the town square and ran a bra up the flagpole. I’m old enough to remember when boys thought it was harmless (or maybe didn’t care if it was harmless) to steal some girl’s bra and run it up a flagpole, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was put up by an individual of the female persuasion in the joyous spirit of take that, you old busybody.

There’s talk of it becoming an annual event.

So here’s to the anonymous letter writers of the world. Long may their efforts backfire.

Meanwhile, in sports news, 4,500 doughnuts were accidentally delivered to the Old Trafford cricket ground. Or maybe that’s the Old Trafford Cricket Ground. My sports allergy is bad enough that I don’t know if that’s the formal name and therefore capitalized or an informal name and therefore lower case. You probably–and wisely–don’t care. We’ll move on.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the incident except that the kitchen was left “reeling.”

A single doughnut has 425 calories. Give or take a few hundred, since we don’t know the size of the Old Trafford doughnuts or of the imaginary one whose estimated calories I googled, or whether either of them are frosted. But let’s go with 425. It’s a reliable looking number. That means the Old Trafford kitchen was (at least briefly) in possession of 1,912,500 calories’ worth of doughnuts.

I think. At my best, I’m a hazard around numbers, but I’m pretty sure I got that right. Even if I didn’t, though, we can agree that it’s over the recommended daily allowance for pretty much anybody. Even someone who’s simultaneously male, in training for a marathon, breastfeeding, and pregnant.

If anybody could figure out how much space 4,500 doughnuts take up, I’d love to know, because I assume the Old Trafford kitchen isn’t huge. You can arrange them in any pattern that suits you and measure them either metrically or in imperial measures. Or you can compare them to the size of a double-decker bus, a football field, a phone booth, or Wales. Or Delaware. Your choice, although I’m pretty sure Wales and Delaware are too big to be much use. 

Since we’re talking about food, it must be time to mention that Britain was grappling with a shortage of carbon dioxide in late June and its largest wholesalers had begun rationing beer and cider–cider being a popular alcoholic drink here. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, this happened just when the country was in the grip of a twin drinking emergency caused by the conjunction of the World Cup and a heatwave.

At the end of June (which is when I’m writing this), the word was that supplies were expected (maybe) in early July, which would be just in time to prevent a complete national disaster. If, in fact, they come in as predicted.

The shortage also affected soft drinks and the production of dry ice. Not to mention the meat industry and some medical procedures.

It wasn’t just a British problem but a European one, and it was caused by a combination of high demand and routine maintenance shutdowns. But the price has been low, so in spite of the looming meltdown, manufacturers haven’t had a big incentive to get production up and going again.

What kind of plants produce carbon dioxide? Ammonia and bioethanol plants. Which makes me realize how little I know about how those little bubbles get inside the water.

There’s a certain irony in having a carbon dioxide shortage when the world’s facing global warming caused by too much of the stuff, but it comes from having too much in the wrong places and not enough locked away inside those cans and bottles. The drink manufacturers have done their best to hire people who’ll pick it out of the air, but with Brexit looming there’s already a shortage of people to harvest strawberries, so where are they going to find anyone willing to pick carbon dioxide bubbles?

In case you think this is funny, the shortage also affected the nation’s crumpet supply.

The British Beer and Pub Association, which knows how to address a crisis, called on the government to increase its “storage capacity . . . to ensure this does not happen again.”

By the time you read this, enough carbon dioxide to keep the nation guzzling may well have fizzed its way through the supply chain, but if you’ve been reading about an increase in the suicide and homicide rate, you know the cause.

In other news, a mugger in Crawley robbed a man but left behind a plastic bag with 123 candy bars.

Was the candy worth more than the money he got? A quick and highly inaccurate survey of candy prices tells me that bars range from £.50 (note the decimal point–that’s half a pound, not fifty pounds) to £1. So should we say, fairly randomly, that he’d have to have taken in more than £85 to come out even?

The closest I can get to how much money he got is that it was “a small amount.” So he lost money on the deal.

The police checked with local stores but none of them reported that many candy bars missing. 

A hundred and twenty-three candy bars is not enough to cover an area the size of Wales. Or even a football field or a double-decker bus. It is enough to fill one plastic bag, although we don’t know the size of the bag, which is why it’s not one of the standard size comparisons that newspapers use.

Unlike the guy in Crawley, the writer Ian McEwan got mugged by a standardized test. He’s well enough established that one of his books is assigned as part of the national curriculum. You’d think that’d be great, wouldn’t you? Well, it has its problems–ones I wouldn’t mind having, but problems all the same. 

McEwan’s son (let’s call him McE 2.0) read McE 1.0’s book for his A-levels, which is the standardized test I just mentioned. So before the test, McE 1.0 spent some time going over the novel with McE 2.0, discussing points he could make in his essay.

McE 2.0 got a C plus. Because what does the author know about the book he wrote?

Meanwhile, whoever wrote the English literature questions for a lower-level standardized test, the GCSE, mugged him- or herself, along with some 14,000 students, by mixing up the Montagues and the Capulets in a question about Romeo and Juliet. The question assigned Tybalt to the wrong one of two feuding families and ended up asking an unanswerable–not to mention nonsensical–question.

You could, in theory, answer the question by tearing it apart, but that would be a good way to flunk the test since the standardized marking doesn’t create a lot of latitude for creative thinking.

This marks the introduction of the new, tougher GCSEs. So far, they’ve been a stunning success. Slip in an unanswerable question and you can really thin the herd.

The exam board has apologized but to date it hasn’t fallen on its sword.

From there, let’s move on–not to the recent wedding of Megan and Whatshisname but to the people who pontificated on it. Or one of them, anyway.

Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, Esq., appeared regularly in TV interviews during the uproar. He’s described as having “a posh British accent, traditional attire, and a sense of authority on all things royal.” He’s also “the founder of the British Monarchist Society and Foundation.” But it turns out that his name is actually Thomas “Tommy” Muscatello and he’s from Bolton Landing, New York.

He got the Britishness bug when he was cast in a school production of Oliver Twist and apparently learned an upper-class British accent for the role. You can believe that if you want to, but I’ve heard too many Americans who think they learned a British accent. They’re embarrassing. The best I can say for his accent is that none of the articles about him say that he got it wrong.

They also don’t say that he got it right.

As far as I can tell from the articles I’ve seen, no British media outlet interviewed him. I’m going to take a rash guess and say they picked up some whiff of phoniness. Possibly a strong one.

Since I mentioned at the beginning that we had a heat wave, let’s end by acknowledging that Britain doesn’t have any official definition of what a heatwave is, but the Met Office is working on one.

The Met Office? That’s Britain’s weather service and it’s not to be confused with the Met, which is London’s police department. And if you have trouble with that, it gets worse: Scroll down far enough through Lord Google’s offerings and you’ll find the Met Office offering the police weather forecast.

Do the police have different weather from the rest of us? Possibly, but to make the whole thing even more mysterious, the page I found offered me the police weather for Poland, although it was–I checked twice–from the British weather service. 

Polish police didn’t seem to be expecting a heatwave. Unless of course they define it differently there.

However you define a heatwave, though, Britain isn’t good at heat. Train tracks were buckling in 30 degree centigrade heat. What’s that on the other side of the Atlantic? It’s 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is hot but on the normal side of normal in a Minnsota summer.

I never heard of train tracks buckling in the heat in the U.S. The rails are laid with a small bit of expansion room between one section and the next. Britain’s rails don’t seem to be, presumably because 86 degrees is a heatwave. I can understand why no one wants to pull them all up and lay them down differently, but if this is the new normal we’re going to have problems.

What the world really wants to know about Britain, part 10ish

What do the wide-eyed innocents of the internet want to know about Britain? Or, to change that to a more accurate form of the same question, what do they ask that leads them here?

All sorts of strange stuff. Sometimes even sensible stuff, but we’ll skip that. It’s boring. As usual, the questions appear wearing the clothes they wandered in with, which usually means they don’t have question marks or capital letters and they sometimes use creative spelling. I’ve added italics so we can tell the questions from the answers.

what do mps wear

Clothes, and as a rule not particularly interesting ones. You want exotic, go see what Black Rod wears.

Irrelevant (and, um, soft focused) photo: a bee (yes, it is there) in a strange flower whose name, as usual, I don’t know.

why are there hedges on the side of the roads in england

This came in twice–same wording, different days–so someone, not having found the answer they wanted, came back to see if they couldn’t find the answer they wanted in the same place where they didn’t find it the day before. So it must be important. Let’s answer it:

It was hard to drive when the hedges were in the middle, so many and many a year ago the Department of Middle-of-the-Road Hedges became the Department of Roadside Hedgeways and all hedges were moved from the center to the side. The accident rate went down dramatically and everyone has been much happier. They didn’t live ever after–the would be asking too much–but they did live longer.

Wiseassery aside, however, England’s hedges are monuments to a lot of history and shelter to a lot of wildlife. I’ve been meaning to write about them for a long time but somehow never get around to it. I’ll write myself yet another note and see if I actually do it this time.

who has right of way on one lane country roads

This is complicated. Unless a sign gives priority to traffic from one direction, no one in particular. This leads to the occasional standoff, but they’re rare. Basically, the person who’s closer to a wide spot where two cars can pass should back up. Sometimes, though, one driver (generally a visitor) freezes, in which case the more competent driver should take charge of the situation and back up. Or the nicer one.

For the most part, drivers are impressively polite about it, working it out seamlessly and finishing with the driver who did’t back up giving a small wave to the driver who did, which the second driver returns. Occasionally, though, someone is clearly being a pig–entering a one-lane stretch when another car’s already there, say, or refusing to back down when the other car would have to back into traffic or would have to back a long distance or back around a miserable bend–and that’s where you get standoffs. I did once turn my car off while the other driver fumed. I know someone who claims to have poured himself a cup of tea and opened the paper.

For more extensive tales about the right of way on narrow roads, allow me to refer you that widely unknown expert, myself.

are all country roads in england one way

Yes. And they all lead north, ending eventually at Dunnet Head, the northernmost point in Scotland. When enough people–and of course their cars–collect there, a ferry takes them south, distributing them at various points along the way to Land’s End, on the southern tip of Cornwall. By which time the ice cream’s melted. It’s inconvenient as hell and makes grocery shopping a nightmare, but unless you’re going to walk, what can you do?

I just love being an expert.

is devon road very narrow?

Devon has–maybe you should be sitting down when you read this–more than one road. Some of them are narrow. Some of them are not, although your idea of what’s narrow depends on what you’re used to. If you’re American, they’re all narrow. If you’re from Cornwall, they range from normal to wide.

And they all go north.

what are chocolate chip cookies called in England

They’re called chocolate chip cookies.

Yes, it is confusing.

the secret of lawyers wear white wigs

It’s hard enough to keep a wig secret when you’re sporting one that tries to look like your own hair, but it’s impossible when it’s as unlikely looking as the rugs British lawyers slam on their heads. If any of you happen to run a spy network, please, save your time and money That is not their real hair. Everyone knows it and you can’t blackmail them about it. Go ferret out some more useful secret.

The world–or at least the online world–is full of people who are obsessed by British lawyers’ wigs. They could, I’m sure, be doing worse things with their time, but it does strike me as strange. A quick sampling of recent wig questions brings us history of ill fitting wigs, what are english trial wig, and british lawyers build case against wigs. 

From the world of wigs, let’s drop briefly into the inscrutable:

circle the sound that you here .wants to meaning

I have no idea what that means or how it led here. I only reproduce it here because I didn’t want to be left alone with it.

manners in uk yes sir

Yes, sir, the British do have manners. Of course, everyone has manners, it’s just that they differ from place to place and culture to culture, and my manners may look to you like no manners at all.

People from cultures that are (or once were) dominant have a habit of thinking their manners are manners and everyone else’s are an absence of manners. And often enough, other people believe them. So any number of people think the British know how to do manners and could teach us barbarians a thing or six.

What the question probably means by “the British” is the British upper class, although I can’t swear to that. What I can swear to is that Britain isn’t one uniform culture. The manners that work in one class look either ignorant or silly if you transplant them. Not that people are judgmental about these things…

If the question is whether people in Britain say, “Yes, sir,” then (in my experience) no. Except on cop shows, and even there the “sir” tends to drag in a beat or two after the “yes” to prove its reluctance.

My answer may be colored by the fact that not many people call me “sir,” except over the phone from time to time, since my voice is low. I’ve been called “madam” once in a while when I’m buying something, although to my ear it often takes on a hostile tone. I’ve worked with the public. I understand how it can make people hostile, although my temper never took that particular channel. But “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am”? I can’t remember hearing either.

I’m grateful for that.

tell me about village life

People are born. They die. In between, they live. And that in-between period can be interesting. Not to mention messy.

I don’t know about all villages, but where I live most of the young people move away. Some want to live in a city, with all its opportunities. Others would love to stay but can’t. There aren’t many jobs around here and what jobs there are don’t pay well. If that isn’t enough of a problem, housing’s insanely expensive. Some do manage, but the village is aging.

How is village life different than city life? There are fewer people (to state the obvious), so we tend to know each other, or at least know of each other. In cities, you hear short stories about other people’s lives. Here, you get the entire novel, sometimes in multi-generational form. There are no secrets, although there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

why do americans have mailboxes

To get their mail. Also to mail their mail. Same word. Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone get mixed up about which one does what.

A few related questions also came in:

a row of letterboxes in the hamptons; a row of letterboxes in uk

If “the Hamptons” refers to the overpriced cluster of towns on Long Island, then you won’t find a row of letterboxes, although you might find a row of mailboxes. The two countries are still trying to negotiate a treaty that would allow them to call the things by the same name. This has been going on since the U.S. declared independence.

If you think Brexit’s difficult…

do amerians not have post boxes

No, Amerians do not have post boxes. Or maybe that’s yes, Amerians do not have post boxes. Either way, see above. They have to make do with mailboxes. It’s shocking, I  know. Amerians do, however have a C in the middle of the word that describes their nationality.

But this gets us into another difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: In British, “Do Americans not have” is a perfectly normal way to phrase that question. In American, it wouldn’t be. We’d be more likely to say, “Don’t Americans have.”

how do american mailboxes work

Well, you drop a letter in and it sits there, out of human sight. It communes with all the other letters people have dropped in. This is good, because otherwise it might worry about the wicked witch who lives in a gingerbread house in the forest. The someone comes and picks it up, along with all its new friends, and takes them to a sorting center, where they get (yes, this will surprise you) sorted. Then–but we’ve gone past the limits of the question, which was about the box itself.

Unless of course the question’s about the mailboxes people put outside their house (or that landlords put in apartment buildings) for incoming mail. The letter carrier drops the letter in and it sits there till someone takes it out.

It truly is an amazing system.

swearing in public uk magna carta

The Magna Carta was an agreement that King John and his barons signed in 1215. Neither side honored its commitments and in case that wasn’t enough it ended up being nullified by the Pope. Great moments in diplomacy. At least they didn’t have to agree about what to call that thing that holds letters. The mail (or post) hadn’t been invented yet.

As far as I can tell, the Magna Carta wasn’t sworn, just signed. It re-entered British political life after King J’s death and is now part of Britain’s unwritten constitution.

What’s an unwritten constitution? Good question, and I keep asking it myself. You gather up every element of precedent, every major political agreement, every major court decision, and the sweepings from every last one of London’s hair salons, and you interpret them for the present day.

Good luck.

Is there much public swearing in Britain? That depends very much on what you count as swear words. And who you hang out with. By anyone’s reckoning, I do enough swearing that I don’t always much notice how much other people are contributing. Good manners might tell me to leave more room for them instead of monopolizing it. I’ll give it some thought.

I have never yet heard anyone swear about the Magna Carta. It’s way in the background of everyday life.

In a brief, sensible aside, let me add that any public oath a person has to take in Britain allows them to either swear, which is a religious form of saying you’ll tell the truth, or affirm, which is a non-religious form. I appreciate the space made for a non-religious person not to have to be a hypocrite in order to say they’re telling the truth.

swear words uk vs us

Oh, surely you don’t want two entire lists, do you? Sex organs tend to go by different slang names in the two countries, which is why the American movie title Free Willy cracked up the British. Bloody isn’t a swear word in the U.S., it’s a description

This is very much off the top of my head and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, but the important thing is that you can insult someone from one country using the other country’s swear words and pretty much count on being understood. And if the detail gets lost, the tone of voice will carry it.

*

In an effort to add this post in my stack of upcoming posts, I hit Publish weeks ago, before I’d changed the date and ended up sending it out too early, at which point I did my best to disappear it. Apologies to anyone who wasted internet time chasing it after it disappeared. I’d apologize for looking like a lunatic but I’m not sure that’s apology material. And I’d reassure you that I’m not, but since I haven’t sworn or affirmed it, I might not be telling the truth.

Chasing the gray lady

Blogging has its hazards. In a comment on one of my posts, Cat 9984 wrote, “Britain is a very mysterious place sometimes. I asked a woman what the difference was between a grey lady and a ghost. She said there isn’t any.”

I don’t know what Cat 9984 expected me to say something in response–I didn’t think to ask. Maybe nothing. Maybe she just wanted me to join appreciate of the mystery that is Britain with her. But since I pass myself off as a close and baffled observer of the country, I expected myself to sound informed, in my usual uninformed way. 

The problem was that I had no idea what we were talking about, so I turned to the internet, hoping it would save my hash, and punched “grey lady, define” into Google.

Irrelevant photo: rhododendron

What did I learn?

The first definition told me that the gray (as opposed to grey) lady is the New York Times. Which I knew, I’m American and I grew up in New York. It’s the paper Donald Trump calls “the failing New York Times.” Every time he says it, the paper’s circulation goes up.

Keep talking, Don.

You might want to note (since it will be on the test) that when the color gray crosses the Atlantic, the E changes to an A. Or the A changes to an E. It depends on whether the color’s headed east or west.

What does this have to do with ghosts or with Britain? Nothing, so I moved on.

Merriam-Webster defined a gray lady as “a volunteer worker of the American Red Cross who provides nonprofessional care and services for the sick and convalescent usually in hospitals.” Which is also an American definition and so no help to us, since we’re supposed to be talking about Britain.

It’s also short a comma. When I’m done typing, I’ll send M-W a handful with a request to sprinkle them around randomly. One of them should land in the right place.

GoogleDocs, by the way, disagrees with M-W’s spelling of nonprofessional. It takes some nerve to disagree with a dictionary on spelling. GD probably does it to distract M-W While it sells M-W‘s data to Cambridge Analytica, or whatever its successor company’s called.

Before I left, M-W offered me a chance to sign up for the word of the day. My days already have lots of words, so I passed.

Next I learned that there was a grey lady in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Who was she? Helena Ravenclaw. And who was she? Oh, hell, I forget. It’s not on the test, so we can move on.

The link after that took me to the Urban Dictionary, which is where it got truly weird. One definition was, “A grey ghost of a lady that every primary (at least in my area) had. Usually found in the lads or girls toilets (depending on if you’re a lad or a girl). Appears at night or when someone says ‘grey lady’ three times and switches the light off. No primary school kid dared try it and if they did they left before she could appear (apparently).”

This is the only definition that was even remotely relevant to Cat’s question, but by this time the search had overtaken the reason I was searching, so I kept on.

The next definition was, “1. A nickname for a submarine. 2. Also, a person who drops a depth charge and farts in an area to be occupied by an unsuspecting victim.”

Aren’t you glad you asked, Cat?

Just under that was an ad suggesting that I buy a Grey Lady mug for my father-in-law, Jerry. This seemed oddly personalized, except that I don’t have a father-in-law. My partner and I couldn’t get married back when her father was alive, and his name was Wendell anyway. He would’ve just hated being my father-in-law. He did his best with the situation, but it was hard enough being my father-out-law.

Even if all that hadn’t gotten in the way, however, a mug that said “Grey Lady” doesn’t strike me as something he would have wanted, even if he was still alive and even if he’d have wanted a present from me.

Who do you suppose sold the data that said I had a father-in-law named Jerry?

Wikipedia mentioned an American catamaran ferry and a couple of movies, and then moved on to folklore, listing a series of ghosts said to haunt houses in England, Scotland, New Zealand, Malta, and the U.S. (specifically, North Dakota). Then it mentioned “The Grey Lady, the given name of the retired British Shorthair champion cat residing in New York City. However, the cat prefers the name Chicken.”

Since this was in the folklore section of the definition, maybe we have to accept being told what the cat liked to be called, although I’m not convinced of it. Personally, I wouldn’t dare call my cat Chicken, although he will accept being called Kitty if the word’s accompanied by food.

What have we learned about British culture from this excursion? Not bloody much. Some weeks are like that. If you’ve got a more sensible topic to suggest, jump in. I may not be able to do anything with it, but if I can I will.

Funding the Church of England

England has an official state church, called, imaginatively enough, the Church of England. Once upon a time, having an official church was serious business, and not belonging to it was even more serious. England has a history of trying to stamp out religious dissent, and that weighed heavily with the folks who wrote the U.S. constitution, which forbids the establishment of any state religion.

These days, it’s easy to float through English life and forget that there’s an established religion. Most people consider religion (or the lack of it) a private matter—not something to get passionate about in public and not something that should set public policy. Dissent isn’t so much tolerated as assumed. Or it looks that way to me, although you have to remember that I’m an outsider here.

But who funds the church? A while back, someone asked me if it’s funded by the taxpayer, but I’ve lost track of who that was. Apologies. My organizational skills are just a shade less than perfect. Let me know who you are, will you?

Semi-relevant photo (see below): What happens to a religious building the isn’t kept up. This was once a convent on Iona, in Scotland.

The C. of E., as it’s known, does have a few bucks to its name. Or a few quid, really, quid being British for buck, although the quid involves pounds, not dollars. According to the Daily Mail (sorry, I tried for a more reputable-sounding source but couldn’t find one), in 2013 its income was £1.37 billion, which sounds like enough to keep it in communion wafers for a week or three, although I’ve never bought communion wafers and for all I know they’re outrageously expensive.

The Mail doesn’t say a word about communion wafers. What it says instead is that £1.37 billion would pay for every Big Mac, McChicken Sandwich, and McFlurry sold in Britain that year. Which strikes me as a pretty strange point of comparison, but it does tell us that we’re spending a shocking amount of money on fast food. The paper didn’t say if anything would be left over for a cup of tea, although in England you’d have the right to expect tea with your McProcessed Chickfood.

But what about spending? According to Wikipedia, “In 2005 the Church of England had estimated total outgoings of around £900 million.”

Now, I’m terrible with numbers, but even I can see that the gap between those two leaves enough money for tea. I tried to find a comparable number for 2013—the year the Mail’s using—and I failed. However, I failed in an interesting way, so let’s spend a minute following my trail: Since WikiP calls that money outgoings, I thought, clever beast that I thought I was, I’d just google “Church of England outgoings 2013.”

What did I learn? That bishops were exhorting their members to be outgoing, gracious, and cooperative. And to drink tea. I’m sure it was all very effective and that the church is now full of better, more outgoing, and more cooperative tea-sodden worshipers.

Me, though? I had a cup of tea and gave up. If you want figures for matching years, go find them yourself. I never really expected the numbers to match up. They never do for me. 

But let’s go back to income. We were doing fairly well with that. Almost half of it was donated by churchgoers.

How many people are we talking about? It’s hard to say. The C. of E. does keep a church electoral roll, and adding your name to it allows you to vote on church matters, but not everyone who goes to C. of E. churches bothers, so the statistics I found also track things like how many people show up at least once a year, or at Easter, or on most Sundays.

By any of those measures, attendance is down and still sinking.  The Wikipedia entry puts C. of E. attendance at 1.4% of the population of England and Wales in 2014. It’s inconvenient that Wales is in there when we were talking about England, but we’ll add that our list of mis-matched figures and wobble onward.

Another source–and I’ve lost track of which one–says that U.K. (as opposed to English) church membership has declined from 10.6 million in 1930 to 5.5 million in 2010, “or as a percentage of the population; from about 30% to 11.2%. By 2013, this had declined further to 5.4 million (10.3%).”

That’s a major difference. It could be accounted for by the difference between church membership and attendance or by one of both organizations allowing someone like me to do the counting. I checked a few more sources without clarifying the picture at all. What’s clear is that membership and church attendance are shrinking.

On average, each church member contributed £700 per year in—oh, I think that was 2014. Close enough. In other words, per person donations are high. But an average is a deceptive measure. One gazillionaire making a huge donation will, when you average things out, make everyone look rich and generous. Still, the average donation is all we’re going to get.

Where did the other half of the church’s income wander if from? Historic endowments are a major source of income. These are gifts that were given to the church at some point in the past. (You don’t make a lot of money on gifts given in the future.) Way back when, if someone rich gave the church a gift, it was likely to be land, and the church once owned a lot of it, but it’s converted most of it, unromantically and unsentimentally, into stocks and bonds. These are managed by church commissioners and pay for “a range of non-parish expenses, including clergy pensions and the expenses of cathedrals and bishops’ houses. These funds amount to around £8 billion . . . around a fifth of the church’s overall income.” (We’re quoting WikiP here.)

The C. of E. has its own investment fund and in 2016 it generated an income of £230.7 million.

Does all this add up to 100%? It doesn’t look like it. Donations? Half. Stocks and bonds? A fifth. The investment fund? Sorry–that’s not a percentage and we’d be smart if we don’t trust me to turn it into one. Whatever the rest may be? I’m not sure. Parishes raise money in various ways. I have no idea how much that adds up to. Plus the church gets grants from English Heritage, and possibly other groups, to maintain buildings, and it also gets government money for the upkeep of the buildings.That’s where the taxpayer comes into it.

Those old buildings can absorb any amount of money you care to throw at them and still need more.

The National Secular Society argues that the church is sitting on a £4 billion surplus and should fix its own leaky roofs.

“In this week’s budget [sorry—I can’t tell you which week that was] the Government allocated a further £40 million funding to support “vital” roof repairs in Listed Places of Worship over the next two years.

“The lion’s share of this money will go to the Church of England as it is  responsible for maintaining 45% of the grade I listed buildings in the country and the majority of all parish churches are grade II or higher. [The grades refer to historic buildings that should be preserved.]

“Few would feel that our finest architectural heritage should fall into terminal disrepair. An inevitable consequence of the continuing decline in church attendance is that there are far fewer in the congregations to shoulder the repair burden. When they are unable to do so, who else should pay and under what circumstances?”  

So yes, taxpayer money goes to the church–not exactly to fund church activities but to maintain its historic buildings. Still, it is taxpayer money, it still flows to the church, and that does allow the church to use its own money for other purposes. Or to sit on it and let it accumulate. 

Apologies

Sorry–I just published a post too early, so I’ve done my best to un-publish it by marking it private. It’ll show up publicly at the end of the month.

I really can’t be trusted with the Update buttons.

Toilet doors in the U.S. and Britain

Float around the internet for long enough and you’ll find Americans asking what the British think of the U.S. Or what the English think of it, because a fair number of Americans are convinced that Britain and England are the same place. And in their defense, it’s not easy when a country has overlapping names and when American history textbooks start out by talking about England, then swap that for Britain without bothering to tell anyone why they’ve done it or what the difference is.

On top of which–let’s be honest here–my beloved country does cultivate a powerful strain of ignorance about the outside world.

So you might expect that people calling their country by the wrong name would get a mention when the British form their opinions of the United States. And you might be wrong about it. Here’s the real, unvarnished truth, direct from a neighbor, Melanie, who was in the U.S. recently and posted the following on Facebook.

Observations about America:

  • Your breakfasts are excellent.
  • Your supermarkets are something else.
  • People really are super nice.
  • Roads are easy to drive on.
  • But where the fuck has the bottom part of your toilet stall doors gone?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, added for the sake of balance.

If she’d asked me about the U.S. before her trip, I wouldn’t have mentioned toilet doors, but the Rapid Response Team here at Notes has come to work early on a Wednesday morning to explain the question, research the answer, and then shut down the computer and make an American breakfast. Then it’ll go back to bed, because this isn’t going into print for several weeks. The Rapid Response Team isn’t in charge of scheduling. Once it responds, it hands things over to the Pokey Publishing Team.

But to Melanie’s question: There is no secret location where the bottom part of toilet doors get dumped. They were never there to start with. 

The doors on American public toilets start–and I’m guessing at the measurements here–some 12 inches above the floor. They’re low enough to cover the relevant body parts but high enough to show the user’s feet and ankles, with a fair bit of leg attached. They’re high enough for the average adult to slide under. And, although Melanie didn’t mention it, they don’t go anywhere close to the ceiling. The dividers are roughly the same height.

What about British toilet doors? They’re doors. And the walls are walls. They may not go quite all the way to the ceiling, but they go high enough to give the user a comfortable illusion of privacy.

Before we go any further, let’s figure out what we’re calling the walled-off area around a toilet. Is it a stall or a cubicle? Divided by a Common Language (an authoritative site kept by a linguist) says the British call them cubicles and the Americans call them stalls. I’d been calling them cubicles and figured I’d slipped into British usage without noticing it. I’ve lived in Britain for–good lord, I think it’s twelve years now. I don’t think my accent’s changed, but a few words have walked out on me and their British twins have replaced them. It’s not what I want–as a writer, I’d like to sound like I’m from some geographical part of this planet, not a mix-and-match of several–but it does happen.

Then I reread Melanie’s comment and noticed that she wasn’t saying cubicles but stalls. Did Divided get it wrong? Did those breakfasts lure Melanie into using American English? Do different classes in Britain use different words for the spaces that enclose toilets? For that matter, do different regions of the U.S. call them different things?

Good questions. I can’t answer any of them.

Divided does point out that in the U.S. a cubicle is a semi-open bit of office space marked off by movable dividers. The British call that an open-plan office. In British English, stalls are a category of theater seats or what someone sets up in a market to sell stuff. In American English, those are called–um, something, but I don’t know what. In a market, stands, probably. In a theater? I still haven’t figured out what the stalls are, so I’m not much use with that.

But back to toilet doors: When I was in grade school–American grade school corral kids from roughly age six to twelve, keeping them off the streets and giving them the illusion of something useful to do–some percentage of the kids thought it was a great idea to climb on one toilet and look over the divider at the person sitting on the one next to it. Or–before they grew tall enough to look over the dividers–to lie on the bathroom floor and look under the door. Or to lock the door from the inside, slide under the door, and toddle merrily off to class, leaving the janitor to slide under and unlock it. If the janitors in your school weren’t the friendliest people in the building, this might explain why.

And that was the girls. I can only imagine what the boys got up to.

In I can’t remember what grade, some kid asked about the doors, the dividers, the general openness of the cubicles. Whatever teacher we had that year told us they had to be that way in case someone got stuck in one. And I believed that until recently. Because a teacher said it and teachers know these things. 

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was a desperate grab for some sort of logic in a logic-free zone. Imagine that you’re teaching a class of, let’s say, fourth graders, kids who are roughly 9 and 10 years old, and in the middle of a class about volcanoes or the Louisiana Purchase one of them asks about toilet doors. You don’t feel free to say, “How should I know? We’re talking about magma.”

Or maybe you would, but this particular teacher didn’t. She or he (I’m damned if I remember which but I’m pretty sure it was one of the two) gave us an answer, and even if it was a complete on-the-spot fabrication, we believed it. Because it came from a teacher.

It’s enough to make me wonder what else I should have thought to question.

So what’s the real answer to why American toilet doors are so sketchy? It’s probably not so rescue crews can extract kids from toilet stalls where they have, with the the predictable unpredictability of kids, locked themselves in. Or extract adults who’ve collapsed from heart attacks, strokes, or overdoses.

It’s probably also not so Woman A can ask Woman B in the next stall if she has paper in there because Woman A just discovered that her stall doesn’t have any. That happens, and it’s handy, but it’s an effect, not a cause. I don’t know if men do that. I suspect not, because in researching this post (in case you think reading this stuff is weird, you should just try writing it) I read several comments from men who say that men don’t talk to each other in what Americans call restrooms and the British call toilets. Women do. I’ve had some short but memorable conversations with strangers in them.

I might as well take this opportunity to say that Americans, despite the openness of the walls in their public toilets, don’t like to be reminded of what we’re doing there and go to extreme lengths to avoid calling toilets toilets. We’ve created plenty of euphemisms–restrooms, ladies’, gents’, the facilities–but the most generic word, I think, is bathroom, although even that has a bit of an unpleasant ring. That’s the problem with euphemisms. Eventually you figure out what you’re talking about and after that bathroom sounds too much like toilet and you end up asking for the little girls’ room.

And yes, it’s odd that a culture so phobic about calling a toilet a toilet leaves the user in not-quite-public view. I’m not even going to try to explain it. The way adults handle it is to pretend we don’t see them.

In Britain, the generic word for toilet is toilet. The bathroom is where you take a bath. Ask where the bathroom is in, say, a cafe and you get a strange look. It’s also called the loo if you’re either polite or a bit fussy. Or–well, I’m an immigrant here. I don’t understand the resonances. Like most things in Britain, what word you use has to do with what class you come from or what class you want to sound like you belong to, and it might have a layering or regional difference on top of that. I don’t expect to ever get the subtleties right. 

So in the journalistic tradition of using multiple sources–we want to be sure something this important is accurate, don’t we?–I googled toilet-door-related topics and found an assortment of comments from shocked Brits. Some were worried about the gap at the bottom and others about the gaps on the sides of the door, which are variously described as a quarter of an inch wide, a full inch wide, or the width of a finger. Whose finger? Which finger? I live in Britain and can’t go to a random selection of American restrooms to see if Cinderella’s glass slipper fits between the edge of the door and the edge of the frame. There’s a gap. That’s all we really need to know.

In addition to shocked comments, I found a selection of explanations for why the doors are the way they are, including that they make the floors easier to clean, that they discourage drug taking and sex, that they’re cheaper, and that anyone passing out in one would be easier to see,  although that assumes they’re clever enough to fall on the floor instead of staying seated.

A few people (including one architect) commented that the more money the users of an American restroom are likely to have, the more privacy they’re likely to find. Now that, unlike the British signals of class, I understand.

My best guess is that the doors are the way they are because they are the way they are. Some things in a culture can be explained. American racism? Go back to slavery and it all begins to make sense. The British gift for not learning languages well? The place has been an island since its early in its pre-history, and on top of that it had an empire so it could convince (or force) other people to learn English. American toilet doors, though? They started that way and so they continue to be that way.

There is a downside to British toilet doors. I know two people who’ve gotten locked in toilets, one child and one adult. It took a bit of work to get them out, but both were  extracted after a bit of pounding and yelling. I also know a woman who got locked in a toilet cubicle at the Vatican. It took so long to get her out that when she finally walked free she announced that she’d been beatified.

*

My thanks to Melanie for letting me quote her. I don’t suppose I’ve been helpful, but I’m glad to hear people were nice over there. And the breakfasts? They really are wonderful.

 

Teaching English to the English

This is a multiple choice test. Circle one answer. Circling more than one answer will cause a nuclear explosion. How is English taught in England?

(A)  Meticulously

(B)  Fussily

(C) Ineffectively

You are free to choose an incorrect answer, but be aware that your choice will follow you for the rest of your school career.

Time’s up. Please hand in your papers.

No, you cannot change your answer. Your papers will be returned to you the end of this post. Marking has been outsourced to the London Zoo, since capuchin monkeys working on zero-hours contracts are a cost-effective alternative to humans, and considerably less troublesome.

Totally irrelevant photo: a camellia.

While they’re working, let’s explore the subject to help you understand why your answer was wrong. It’s too late to help on the test but it will let you contemplate your mistakes in glorious detail.

Americans—and for all I know people from all non-British countries—tend to assume that British kids get a better education than kids in other countries. I got that impression knocked out of my head a few years after we moved to Britain, when we helped a kid study for her GCSE (a standardized test) in American history. Some of what she had to memorize was inaccurate. Some of it was true enough but pretty much irrelevant to the flow of American history. All of it had that random-collection-of-facts quality that made my own junior high and high school history classes so snorably pointless and guaranteed that tests were damn near impossible to study for.

That complaint, by the way, comes from someone who did well in history, in spite of snore-inducing textbooks. I only mention that so I don’t sound like a disgruntled non-employee. I’m fascinated by history, which is why I’m outraged at the way it’s taught.

But we’re supposed to be talking about how English is taught.

A year or two after we were introduced to the official English version of American history, the girl’s brother was studying a few chapters of Dickens for his GCSE in English. Not the whole book. Maybe the national curriculum didn’t allow time for an entire novel, maybe kids that age can’t be trusted with too many words, and maybe the Department for Education didn’t see the point of reading a whole novel when, after all, it was only a bunch of stuff Dickens made up. Your guess is as good as mine. What I do know is that the kids were supposed to put miniature samples of Dickens under the microscope and obsess over them.

They will, forever after, hate Dickens.

Okay, I’ve mentioned the national curriculum, so I should explain. We’re talking about England’s national curriculum: not Scotland’s, not Wales’s (or Wales’ if you like), not Northern Ireland’s.

The national curriculum was introduced in 1988, with the intention of making sure every child in a state school got the same standard of education. Or, depending on who you listen to, it sets a minimum standard. A 2008-9 report from a House of Commons committee says it accounts for–and I’m paraphrasing–every blessed second of teaching time in every year, so there’s no time for improvisation, responding to the students’ interests, or taking off on an inspired riff. Because everything will show up on a standardized test and the entire staff of any school with too many kids below average will be fed into a shredder.

All students are expected to test well above average. *

Okay, the report doesn’t exactly say that. It does say, “At times schooling has appeared more of a franchise operation, dependent on a recipe handed-down by Government rather than the exercise of professional expertise by teachers.”

Once the national curriculum was established, every government that came into power has fiddled with it, but the fiddler-in-chief was Michael Gove, who was so popular as education secretary that teachers celebrated when he lost his job in 2014.

He moved into another post, but his nit-picking continued to make good headline fodder. He’d been in the Ministry of Justice for two months when he posted a set of instructions to civil servants warning them not to use impact as a verb and to spell out does not instead of using a contraction.

“The phrases best-placed and high-quality are joined with a dash, very few others are,” he announced, splicing together two sentences that should have had a semicolon or a period between them and not bothering to either italicize or put quotation marks around the phrases in question. And, gee, that’s not a dash, Mike, it’s a hyphen.

The article where I found the quote goes on to say that he “also disapproves of ‘unnecessary’ capitalisations and the word ‘ensure’, which his civil servants must always replace with “make sure.’ ”

But we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the trail of scent Gove left as he wandered through the high-end jobs of Conservative politics. You know how easily I get distracted. Why do you bring these things up?

The incident that drew my attention to how English language skills, as opposed to English literature, are taught was a neighbor’s Facebook comment that she was struggling with fronted adverbials.

Struggling with what? I asked myself.

Myself didn’t answer. She didn’t have a clue.

I was saved from my ignorance by another neighbor, a teacher, who linked us to a post by Michael Rosen that not only explained what they are but why they’re not worth teaching. He didn’t go quite as far as saying they’re not worth knowing about but I doubt he’d argue with me if I said it.

The phrase “fronted adverbial” describes what you’re doing when instead of saying “we left at ten,” you say “at ten, we left.” You moved the adverbial clause from the back to the front.

I’m not sure it’s correct to say “I just fronted an adverbial,” but I did just say it. Or at least I typed it. It wasn’t as much fun as you’d think.

In some sentences, Rosen argues, it’s hard to work out whether the words you just, ahem, fronted apply to the subject (in which case they’re not adverbial) or the verb (in which case they are). What’s more, if you have trouble with figuring out which is which, the fault isn’t yours but the concept’s.

And if you can’t follow any of this, don’t worry, because you don’t need to. This kind of teaching isn’t about writing well, it’s about wriggling your human-shaped brain through Gove-shaped hoops.

Kids, however, are supposed to master it when they’re seven, give or take a few months. And pass a test to prove that they have. They’ll come away thinking that “at ten, we left” is better than “we left at ten.” Why? Because it’s been singled out as something they need to learn. If you can front an adverbial, you’re clever.

Our neighbor is I’m not sure how many decades over seven and I have no idea why she felt the need to get her head around the concept. I was too disoriented to ask.

At (if I remember correctly) the same age, the kids are also supposed to understand—

No, I don’t have the heart to give you the full list. Let’s grab a few terms and then run screaming from the room: determiners; clauses; subordinate clauses; and relative clauses.

Enough. We’re outta here.

Sorry, we’re back. I just found modal verbs. What effect does modal have on verbs? Well, when you stick modal on a clothing label it means the fabric’s a bio-based knit or woven fiber. When you stick it on a verb, it indicates that it’s washable.

Does that help?

Does learning grammar improve kids’ ability to write? According to TES, there’s no evidence to show that it does.

What’s TES? A weekly publication aimed at U.K. teachers. It’s been publishing since 1910 and is so well known that doesn’t feel the need to tell you what the letters of its name stand for, but I sent my spy Lord Google to find out and he tells me it was once called the Times Educational Supplement. 

The TES article doesn’t address the question of whether learning grammar puts kids to sleep in class, but you can bet your fronted adverbials that it does.

So there’s your brief introduction to the teaching of English today. We’ll hand your papers back in just a moment, but I can’t leave without a little more Gove-bashing. According to Zoe Brown in the Independent (the link’s above, under “teachers celebrated”), Gove also introduced “Latin lessons, chanting poetry, British values and children having to identify the past progressive tense before they could identify the UK on a world map. It was out with GCSE drama, dance lessons and To Kill A Mockingbird (because there are no lessons to be learnt from that novel).”

We’ve covered GCSEs, but what are British values? That’s a problem, because when they were first proclaimed to be the schools’ responsibility nobody seemed to be sure, and every politician who stumbled into print on the subject offered a different list, so the Department for Education created its official list of British values, and state schools have to stick their feet into it periodically, like Cinderella’s big-footed step-sisters, to remind themselves what their feet would look like if they were prettier.

Brown writes that Gove is “a traditionalist and an ideologue and his reforms seemed to be a desperate attempt to try and recreate his own education. So it was out with the Year Six Calculator Paper—because really who needs to know how to use a calculator in the 21st century? In with specific formal written methods that Gove himself approved. It wasn’t about teaching children to add and take away it was about teaching them to add and take away the way Michael Gove learnt to.”

He also had a copy of the King James Bible sent to every school, with a special foreword by—yes—his own brilliant theological self. If his theology’s as shaky as his writing, it should make an interesting read.The head teacher in one school (if you’re American, that’s a principal) wrote, “Ours is keeping my office door open as I write. A school where 86 per cent of the children have English as a second or third language and 82 per cent of children are Muslim has surprisingly little use for a King James Bible.”

King James alone knows how much the printing and sending cost.

The monkeys have delivered your papers. The correct answer was A. Those of you who gave the wrong answer are invited to impale yourselves on your number 2 pencils.
———————-
* For the joke followed by the asterisk, I’m indebted to Garrison Keillor for his creation, Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
** A friend and fellow writer commented that my posts have seemed angry lately. Bizarrely enough, I hadn’t noticed. Now I can’t notice anything else. The problem is, I keep reading the newspaper. If I stop being even remotely funny, I trust someone will let me know, because I probably won’t notice that either. You’d be doing me a favor.

The Gloucester Cheese Rolling: a handful of links

Here in Britain, we’re recovering from the bank holiday (which is a strange phrase meaning a long weekend) by soaking in a bit of rain and looking back to one of the more bizarre events in a country full of bizarre events, the Gloucester Cheese Rolling, which took place over the holiday. The link you just skidded past will take you to an earlier post about it. Briefly, it’s a race in which contestants chase a cheese down a very steep hill.

I mention this because Ubi Dubium was kind enough to send me a link to an article about this year’s cheese race. Follow it and you’ll find lots photos of people who’ve fallen over and are rolling downhill, as well as a description of the race as “twenty young men chasing a cheese off a cliff and tumbling 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital.” Except that when I was there it involved a lot more than twenty and they weren’t all men. Other than that, I won’t quibble.

Okay, they weren’t paramedics. The local rugby team was at the bottom of the hill. Still, it does give you the flavor of the thing.

As long as we’re at it, here’s another article on the race, about a runner who’s won his twenty-first gloucester cheese, setting an all-time record. Among other things, it tells you that he doesn’t like gloucester cheese. He eats cheddar. The trick to winning, he says, is to stay on your feet. Which is like saying the that the trick to winning a marathon is to be faster than everybody else.

And since we’re talking about cheese, you can also read about the much tamer Stilton Cheese Rolling Championship by following this link or you can go vegan and read about the World Pea Shooting Championship here.

After all that, will anyone dare say that reading Notes isn’t educational? Or that Britain isn’t a very strange country?

Beneath London’s streets

Deep beneath the streets of London lurks a monster that knows how Londoners live today–what they eat, how they clean themselves, what gets them through the day. What will it do with the information? Either write a cheesy screenplay and make a fortune or come up through the plumbing and eat everyone it finds. Probably the first, because it’s eating well. It doesn’t need human flesh, which not only fights back but screams. Or at least it does in cheesy movies.

The monster’s called a fatberg, and in the best tradition of promos for cheesy movies, I’ve misrepresented it. The biggest one (roughly 750 meters long) has already been killed and autopsied. The ones still lurking underground are smaller, and although they’re growing, not one of them is alive. 

Fatbergs are made of solidified fat, sewage, and all-purpose gunk. And they’re clogging up the sewers not just in London but in other big cities around the country. So British TV being what it is, the big one was autopsied for our viewing pleasure.

This isn’t just an irrelevant photo, it’s stolen from an earlier post. I’m putting this post together on a toy typewriter and, what the hell, it’s available. Given the topic, we could do with a few flowers.

What do I mean about British TV being like it is? Well, it does a lot of nonfiction, which ranges from glorious to turn-the-channel. This one was somewhere in between. Beyond that, I’m not the best person to sum it up. I figured I was being vague enough that I could get away without having to explain what I meant, thanks. It may not have been enlightening, but at least it’s accurate.

Fatbergs form when a bit of cooking fat–or several gallons of the stuff–is poured down the drain and combines with the calcium it finds in the water to form a solid, which then sticks to a rough bit of sewer wall. Then a wet wipe comes along (wet wipes were the villains of the piece) and sticks to it. Then more fat sticks to that, and anything else that gets flushed down the toilet piles in on top, on the bottom, and on the sides, and while you’re still watching British TV, deep below you is 750 feet of solid crap–in the literal sense of the word– and other stuff blocking the sewer. Whatever gets flushed down the sewer, except the purest of liquids, can be part of a fatberg.

Isn’t your Friday getting off to a great start? Isn’t it just uplifting to read Notes?

So what did the autopsy tell us about how folks live in London? Well, they use cocaine, ibuprofen, caffeine, syringes and needles, paracetamol, morphine, heroin, condoms, magic mushrooms, steroids and gym supplements, tampons, amphetamines, sweetcorn, and hair tonic.

It’s the hair tonic that does the damage.

You didn’t think anyone has used hair tonic since the 1950s? Or maybe that was the 1920s? I didn’t either. I suspect they mean–to use a technical phrase–is hair goop. Or what the British call products. Not even hair products, just products. As if nothing else gets produced in the country.

A word about paracetemol: When my partner, Wild Thing, and I first moved to Britain, we figured it was some strange oracle the British consulted about aches and pains. Every country has its superstitions. As an outsider, you learn to live with them and not make funny faces. It turns out, though, that it’s what Americans know by the brand name Tylenol.

It’s not that Americans are more heavily oriented to brand names than the British. The British call vacuum cleaners hoovers, and using one to clean the floor is hoovering. Presumably Hoover made the first vacuum cleaners to hit the market here. The thing is, the British and Americans choose different things to call by brand names, making us sound eccentric to each other. But that’s a different post. Let’s go back to the fatberg.

So, Londoners use paracetemol. They also eat out a lot, because restaurants are the source of a lot of that cooking oil. The pattern is use, cool (presumably), pour down drain. Of course, home cooks contribute their share. From each according to their deep fat fryer…

And our bodies contribute whatever we put into them. The residue from prescription medicines, including antibiotics and estrogen. All those lovely bugs that cause digestive disasters–e coli, campylobacter, listeria. And antibiotic-resistant bacteria, although those may not come directly from us but from the uncontrolled combination of antibiotics and biota. I don’t know that. I’m guessing.

The things we drink out of also makes a contribution. Plasticisers from cups and plastic bottles can  mimic estrogens, and they’re in there too. The ones that don’t get trapped in fatbergs make their way into the rivers and oceans, doing some very weird stuff to the fish.   

The folks whose job it is to free up the sewers do it the modern way: by hand. They suit up, drop down into the sewers with shovels, and chop pieces off, which their buddies up top winch to street level. They manage not to pass out from the smell, or even complain about it. The only high-tech part of the job (and we’re relying on my memory here, which is an iffy proposition) is the gizmo (I love high-tech words) that beeps when it finds a toxic gas buildup.

On screen, they were not only good humored but very funny. In short, they’re heroes.

What can we learn from this? That image tourists have of historic Britain? It’s not the whole picture.