The things we call ourselves: British titles

One of the joys of living in Britain is seeing what titles that pop up when I fill out a form online. I’m not talking about book titles or album titles, but personal titles. In my former life in the U.S., I got to choose between Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Dr., usually in that order.

In Britain, though? I was using a web site a while back and on the Personal Details page I pulled down the Titles menu. They offered me:

Mrs

Mr

Miss

Dr

M

Mlle

Mre

Sir

Lord

Ms

Lady, and

Reverend

None of the titles had periods after them. That may be a cost-saving measure. Those periods can get expensive, even when you buy in bulk.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Wild Thing and I argued about what Mre was. She favors Meals Ready to Eat, but I lean toward a misspelling of Madame: Mme. Exactly why a British web site needs to have French titles, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because someone imported it from another web site, which happened to be French.

These things happen. When I worked as a freelance writer, some real estate developer hired me to write a brochure, and I was told to basically copy it from some other company’s brochure. Why they needed a writer to do that I have no idea, but they were willing to pay me for it and it didn’t seem like a good time to argue.

The original brochure said the apartment complex had an indoor elevator. I copied that in, but at almost the last minute I asked the woman who’d hired me if that didn’t seem, um, strange. She looked at the original. She admitted that, yes, it did seem a bit odd since elevators had a habit of being indoors.

We changed it. We also changed the drawings and enough of the wording that we couldn’t get nailed for plagiarism. So I do understand how easy it is to import very odd stuff into unimaginative text.

That only makes me more curious about how those French titles ended up on the list.

But back to the actual list I pulled down: Prosaically, I checked my standard Ms. But it did remind me that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Full disclosure: Wild Thing and I never were in Kansas. We were in Minnesota. Where they do get tornadoes but where Lord or Lady don’t show up in pull-down menus. Neither does Reverend, despite the U.S. being a more aggressively religious country than the U.K.

Further full disclosure: Although Wild Thing and I got married last summer—we both think it was in June but, romantics that we are, we’ve already managed to forget the date—neither of us goes by Mrs. We can’t see why women should be stamped with their marital status every time they fill out a form or open the mail. It’s a holdover from the days when a woman’s marital status determined her legal status and, hell, her entire life. Calling me Mrs. is a reliable way to make me bristle. I mention that in case making me bristle appeals to you.

For as many titles as Britain offers, Ms isn’t as commonly available as it is in the U.S. I’m sure it means something, although I don’t know what.

But let’s not get stuck on Ms. and Mrs. when we have so many other titles to play with.

I once took part in a letter-writing campaign to the House of Lords, which was considering a bill that has since made a complete hash of the National Health Service. As an American, I’m all too aware of what the alternative to the National Health Service looks like, so I was passionate about this. So passionate that I was willing to write to the members of an antiquated, expensive, and silly branch of government.

A government web page helpfully explains how to write to the lords who populate the House of Lords, because if you’re a lord you just might take the question of how you’re addressed very seriously. And if you’re not a lord but a letter writer trying to convince a lord of something, you don’t want to piss her or him off with your first line. So you read what the government writes and you don’t snark about it until later, when you get to write a blog post and can get as snarky as you want.

To the women lords, you say, “Dear Baroness Whoever,” but to the men you say, “Dear Lord Whoever.”

It’s interesting that you don’t say, “Dear Lady Whoever,” to the lady lords. I would have thought that lord and lady went together. You know: bacon and eggs, bread and butter, lord and lady. But lady must mean something different—probably the wife of a lord. Or—well, how would I know? I’m a barbarian and happy to remain so.

Somewhere deep in the convolutions of the British civil service is a department staffed with people who not only know all this stuff but care.

I was tempted to add a discreet touch of italics to my letters to the men, “Dear Lord,” hoping it would call up an image of my head drooping hopelessly onto a supporting hand, but diplomacy won out and I kept the whole line in respectful Roman type (which is what non-italics are called, so now 96% of you will have actually learned something from this post; an additional 3% already knew it; and the remaining whatever% stopped reading paragraphs ago).

All my discretion didn’t help a bit. The bill passed in spite of my Roman type, and the NHS has turned into organizational hash, which was the goal all along, because the American health companies are circling it like vultures around someone lost in the desert and barely able to crawl. But I won’t go on about that because I’m too angry to be funny.

One baroness did write me back, at length. That seemed like a hopeful sign. She didn’t even open her email, “Dear Plebian.”

So I wrote her back. And she wrote me back. And on we went for maybe half a dozen long emails on each side, and they got increasingly strange, because we seemed to be writing past each other rather than to each other. In other words, she wasn’t interested in what I was saying, so why was she taking her time? I was taking mine because she had some power, or at least the semblance thereof, and for quite a while I suffered from the delusion that I might convince her of something. Gradually, though, I began wanting to ask, “Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

I was grateful when at long last she stopped writing.

Her name later showed up on a list of lords who had financial interests in private health care companies, which should have disqualified them from voting on the bill but didn’t.

Dear lord.

I still want to know why she took the time to write me. Is she so at sea in the House of Lords that writing pointless letters to a random stranger gives her some feeling of purpose?

I notice that Baroness isn’t one of the choices on the pull-down Titles menu. If the baronesses use the site (and I have no idea at this point what the site actually was), They have to be either Lord or Lady. Or if they want to go slumming with the rest of us, Ms or Meals Ready to Eat.

How people find a blog, part 5ish

Bloggers are obsessed with how people find their blog, and how to get more of them to find it. So let’s take a sensible, sober look at how people use search engines to find Notes from the U.K. Because what, I ask you, is more important in your lives than my blog?

Why nothing, thanks for asking.

First, a few notes of explanation: 1, I know how people find Notes because in the administrative background of all WordPress blogs is a page that (among other things) lists the questions that lead people to it. Most questions appear as “unknown search terms,” which annoys the hell out of me because of the fun I might be missing out on. So what follow are some of the terms that aren’t unknown. 2, For some reason, almost no questions use capital letters. I did once find a cap hidden in the middle of a word, but otherwise you can’t have ‘em. I’ve followed that style here, although I’ve had to fight Word to keep it from capitalizing all sorts of things. But when something’s really unimportant, I’m relentless. 3, None of the questions have question marks. I’ve kept that style too. Just thought I’d explain, because it makes strange reading. 4. I feel compelled to answer some of these questions, since it’s only polite. Even though, yes, I know the people who wrote them aren’t likely to still be around.

Irrelevant, and by now out of season, photo: foxgloves.

Irrelevant, and by now out of season, photo: foxgloves.

Let’s approach this by topic:

Great Britain

My most common search question is why Great Britain’s called Great Britain. This comes in various forms. Here are a few: why is england called great britain (it’s not, dear; it’s called England; Great Britain is called Great Britain); when were we called great britain (we still are; it’s a geographical term, not a compliment and not a historical judgment).

I just plonked that into a search engine myself (it’s the easy way to find my original post so I can link back to it) and, holy shit, I’m above Wikipedia, although below Quora.

This time I also found a question about great British runners—a topic on which I’m stunningly ignorant and on which I’ve never written. But the search engine found great. It found Britain. Maybe in the same post I said I wasn’t running for office. I doubt it, but it’s true that I’m not. Close enough. Match made, the search engine said. I’m outta here. Whoever asked that, my apologies. Hope you tried again and found someone sensible.

Wigs

The next most common question, although I admit this is guesswork since I haven’t bothered to count, is about the wigs British lawyers and judges wear in court, and these questions always come with an adjective. For example, why do brits wear those stupid wigs in court (only the judges and lawyers wear them; you need to know this; if you’re the defendant and turn up in one, no one will think you’re cute; except me, so let me know and I’ll be there taking notes) and why do british lawyers wear those dumb wigs (it’s only the barristers, and they have to).

What’s begun to fascinate me about these questions is that they’re mini-essays, every last opinionated one of them. People who want to know about the wigs just can’t help sounding off. They’re horrified (no one ever says those wonderful wigs) and they want the world and its search engines to know it.

And in case you landed here through one of those essaylets, whatever adjective you used, I agree with you.

Food and Drink

Most of these are about brussels sprouts. Really. The latest ones are boxing day/why brussels sprouts and how do british eat sprouts (with their feet while lying under the table, of course; I thought everyone knew that).

Now I’ll admit that this isn’t a full survey of what people want to know about British food. The only questions that lead to Notes are the ones about topics I’ve written on (with a few exceptions that will come up later), so that limits things, but I’ve also written about insanely expensive Easter eggs, Pancake Day and sticky toffee pudding. Is anyone interested? Nope. Either the search engines or the searchers themselves stare right past those. My best guess is that they’re not what the rest of the world thinks of when they think of British food.

The rest of the world, however, does think of beer when it thinks of Britain, and I get a steady trickle of questions about British beer and—getting right down to what matters—its alcohol content.

I also get a small group of questions about tea. Nothing fits the British national stereotype better than tea. This latest survey’s tea question is not actually a question. It’s a statement: i always ask for an extra pot of hot water with my pot of tea. Which is, in its odd way, charming. It’s a tiny snapshot from someone’s life. What’s it doing in a search engine? I have no idea. What did the writer hope to find? A kindred spirit? In case they did, if you always ask for an extra pot of hot water, please type me too into Google and see if you can connect. I’m just sure the spirit of the great googlemaster will be happy to connect you.

And since all the advice I usually ignore tells bloggers that they should link back to their old posts because the world is just panting to read more, more, more of them (and incidentally because if people clink onto another post they register as more page views), I’ll say here and now that I’ve written more about tea than anyone who doesn’t live in a tea-drinking nation will think is physically possible. Here’s one. If you want more, you’ll have to search. Because even though I’m tucking in an obnoxious number of back links this time, I really don’t kid myself that you want to spend your whole day here.

Intercultural Mayhem

Americans in particular want to know what the British think of them, and as far as I can tell what a lot of them are really asking is why the British hate them. There’s an interesting cultural/political lurking study lurking at the bottom of that if you’re in the mood to do it. In this latest group of search questions, the one that expressed this best was things that british hate about american tourists (oh, I dunno; maybe the assumption that they’ll all hate you?).

The flip side of that is the question what do tourists think of america (various things; it’ll depend on who they are and where they go and what thoughts they brought with them, not to mention where they’re from; it’s kind of like what tourists think of Britain; they don’t all get together and put their thoughts to a vote, then throw out the ones that don’t win).

That leads to the question what do the english talk about (the weather; all other topics are banned; it gets really boring around here sometimes).

No, that question deserves a fuller answer, which can’t fit inside parentheses. What people say here a lot (as janebasil of Making it Write reminded me at some, ahem, length in the comments section of my Absurdistan post) is either “thank you” or “sorry.” The problem is that these aren’t a topic. You can’t actually discuss them, all you can do is say them. Repeatedly. Many times during the course of a day. Or an hour. Or five minutes. Sorry to have taken your time with that, but thank you for reading it.

Someone else asked, why do the uk like narrow roads, and this is so tempting that I have to break out of parentheses to answer it. 1. The entire nation’s agoraphobic and gets anxious on wide roads. 2. Austerity. They used to be as wide as American roads but the government’s been selling off the margins in an attempt to balance the budget. Yellow lines are on sale this week. If you want one, you’d better hurry. And you get a further discount if you buy a pair. 3. It traces way back into their childhoods and would take several years of mass analysis to tease out.

Enough. I’d google why do people ask silly questions but I’m afraid I’d end up on some other bloggers list of silly questions if I click through to whatever Google suggests.

Another search term was the single word emmits. (Ooh, I’m at the top of the list here, above the Urban Dictionary. That’ll change my entire life.) To do a search on emmits, you have to either be Cornish or have spent some time here, because it’s the Cornish word for ants—and by extension for tourists from anywhere that isn’t Cornwall (not just, or even primarily, Americans). Like most words meaning people who aren’t us, it’s not a compliment.

Why did someone do a search on it, given that they already knew the word? It’s another one of the internet’s mysteries.

That leads neatly to a sensible question, what’s it like being an incomer in cornwall. By way of an answer, let me tell you a story that someone who moved here several decades ago told me: She mentioned to someone Cornish that she’d been warned the Cornish wouldn’t talk to her but that in here experience they’d had been friendly.

“Well,” he said, “you talk to us.”

Which does make a difference.

Someone else wanted to know about british class system foreigners. I don’t know what the answer there is, mostly because I’m not sure what the question in, but my sense is that as a foreigner I stand outside it. I’m happy there, but if your goal is to be an insider, I doubt it’ll work. See last week’s post about black shoes if you’re wondering how easy it is to break in.

Language

inconsistency of american english, someone wrote. Inconsistent with what? British English? Itself? Nuclear physics? English is an inconsistent language, in all its varieties. Don’t expect anything else and you won’t be unhappy. Except, of course, if you’re studying for a spelling test. Or trying to memorize the grammar. Or trying to look literate in print, because English is always hiding some damn thing you aren’t sure of.

And don’t expect American English to act like British English. Or Australian. Or Liberian. Because It’s not British. Or Australian. Or Liberian.

Someone else wanted to know about british musical terminology and would be better off going someplace sensible, although I did once get dragged kicking a screaming into the thicket of crotchets, breves, semibreves, and hemisemidemiquavers that the musically competent Brits I know mention with the serene conviction that they can communicate with me. I understand that they communicate with each other perfectly well, in spite of using those words, and I have tried to make sense of them. Honestly I have. But if I inhale I get the giggles and go away knowing nothing more than when I started.

I’m not sure whether this last query goes under language or intercultural mayhem, but somebody typed in, yes tickety boo. Twice, either because they didn’t find what they wanted the first time and thought they’d try again with exactly the same phrase (and follow the same link that didn’t get them what they wanted) or because they liked what they found and wanted to go back to it. But what did they want? A world where everything’s tickety-boo? Maybe, because it means, basically, fine. As ways to improve the world go, typing that into a search engine strikes me as one of the less effective possible approaches. But who am I to criticize? We all do what we can.

Miscellaneous

One of my favorite queries in this batch is compartive of the weter. I’m going to cut this one some slack on the theory that it’s a second-language question, and you’d have to be a victim of my French to know how deeply uncritical I should be of second-language oddities. Or while we’re at it, my Italian. Even my Spanish, which isn’t bad given that Americans are, if you’ll forgive a generalization, godawful at languages, but it’s still a bit strange.

The question here is, What made a search engine decide that I knew something about this? I do use the word of. And the. Frequently. Beyond that, though, I can’t claim much expertise.

Someone else wanted to know about lupine leaf curl treatment and should really have been directed to a sensible site. I grow lupines, or I did before I stopped slaughtering slugs for about a month this summer and the horrors chewed through the leaves like a horde of locusts. I think I’m going to have to replant. But before all that happened, I took and posted a photo. And the caption used the word lupine. That’s all it takes to become an expert.

Two questions came through on topics I do know about: how to decline an award nomination and spidery corners, although the person who typed that second one may have been looking for advice about spiders, not this blog, which is about the spidery corners of British culture–or so I claimed when I set it up. But I do have spiders in the corners of our house, and I’m damned if I know how to get them out. If anyone has advice, I’d be grateful.

And there we are for another week. Now go to Google and have some fun. You’ll baffle a blogger somewhere.

How to control world finance

Did you ever wonder how the 1% keeps control of the world—or at least of the world’s money? The answer just leaked out in a government study of social mobility: They do it by wearing black shoes.

Yes, folks. Forget your intricate conspiracy theories, because it’s that simple. Anyone who wears brown shoes to a job interview in what’s known in Britain as the City (more about that in a moment) is instantly marked as Not Our Kind and is quietly dumped in the Not-Our-Kind file, also known as the trash.

Or maybe trash is an Americanism. I forget. They may not do trash in the City. Like my not-black shoes, my vocabulary may be tipping people off to my origins.

Irrelevant photo: Montbretia, which is pronounced, as far as I can figure it out, mombretia. It's as invasive as it is beautiful.

Irrelevant photo: Montbretia, which is pronounced, as far as I can figure it out, mombresha. It’s as invasive as it is beautiful. Run. It’s coming for you.

But I need to fill in some background before I go on, in case you don’t know the shorthand. Which, by the way, is as bad as wearing brown shoes to an interview. So here you go:

The City is London’s financial district.  It’s also the original city, dating back to Roman and medieval times, and it maintains its status as both a city and a county within the much larger city of London. Are you confused yet? If not, you don’t understand what I’m telling you. Just hold onto the idea that it’s one of the world’s major financial centers and don’t worry about the rest.

The City is capitalized. The city of London isn’t. The City is also called the square mile because it doesn’t measure a square mile. In fairness, it’s close enough to remind the casual observer of one. Which tells you how few people it takes to run a substantial amount of the world. Not the entire world—there are other financial power centers, but the people who work in them could probably be condensed into similarly small areas. And that includes space for all the people who don’t run the world but clean things up and deliver the mail and tap the computer keys and cook and serve the food and do whatever else needs doing. So the people who do the actual world-running? They’d fit in a shoe box.

Which brings us, ever so subtly, back to our topic: shoes. Apparently they’re not the only way the elite identify their own. Interviewees have to look comfortable in a suit and wear the right kind of tie. And of course the suit also has to be the right kind. The world contains so many wrong kinds and so few right ones. Which is, of course, why all this works.

In a separate article on all this, Paul Mason estimates that the right kind of suit would set you pack £6,000. He doesn’t get bogged down in the shoes. He goes into haircuts and accents and unpaid internships and all sorts of lovely detail. It’s worth a read.

The interviewees also have to have two hard-to-define qualities, polish and an aura. No, not the kind of aura that people who keep crystals on their bookshelves see. This kind comes from generations of upper-classiness. It’s the kind of aura that only people who have one can spot.

The article I read talks about graduates with “first-class degrees from elite universities” being locked out if they fail the dress test. (First-class degree needs translation if you’re not British—or at least it does if you are American. The people who have them graduated with top grades, so you’re supposed to be impressed.) In other words, the article’s talking about people who get top grades at elite universities but still aren’t good enough to run the world’s finances because they don’t know the dress code.

Well, of course they’re not right for the job. You wouldn’t trust the world’s finances to some guy in a loud tie and brown shoes, would you? I mean, think if the damage he could do. Remember the crash of 2008? That was probably somebody in the wrong tie.

Shoes get top billing in the first article I linked to above, but if you read further you’ll find—and this shouldn’t be a surprise—that this isn’t about shoes, it’s about where you went to school. If you went to one of the top public schools (those are private schools and that’s as confusing as the city and the City, but never mind, what you need to know is that the top schools are where the British elite replicate themselves; it’s not actually done in bed)—.

Where were we? You shouldn’t let yourself get distracted every time beds are mentioned.

If you went to one of the top schools, and from there to one of the top universities, the interview is a formality, because going to the top schools indicates that you’re the right kind of person. Unless you show up in brown shoes and someone from the same background wears black ones, in which case the job goes to the black shoes. But the assumption is that if you went to the right schools you’ll know better than to wear the wrong shoes. Because that’s the kind of thing you learn in the top schools. Or maybe you learn it in the kind of families that send their kids to the top schools. I wouldn’t know, and I thank all the forces that organize the universe into the messy wonder it is that I don’t.

All this is comes to light to show us that social mobility is being undermined, but I’ve always been suspicious about social mobility. It’s fine for the people who mobil their way upwards, and I’m grateful that they can, but what about the people who don’t? Are they just the unhappy background that’s necessary for the fairy tale to satisfy its listeners? Or does society owe them something too—like maybe decent pay, decent working conditions, a basic guide to acceptable ties so the economy doesn’t crash again?

Speaking of ties, as far as I can tell from the pictures and the text, most of this applies only to men. Which will come as no surprise to some of you—especially those of you who are yourselves not men. I’m sure a few women are hired these days, but it must be hard when the dress code is about ties and you can’t wear without falling foul of the dress code.

However, if you’re intent on breaking into the top levels of British finance, you heard it here first: What matters is either an upper-class background or a flawless imitation of it. And black shoes.

As for me, I wear running shoes. I’m not particular about the color as long as it’s not too hideous—or pink, which is pretty much the same thing. It’s hard enough to find a shoe my foot will put up with; color sits pretty far down the list of things I worry about. Besides, I’ve always been dyslexic about fashion. It came as a great relief when I stopped trying to understand, never mind follow, the rules. But I’m not applying for a job in the City, and that’s for oh so many reasons. If nominated for one I will not run. If elected I will not serve. If drafted I will stay in bed and pull the blankets over my head, during which time I will have to hide my not-black shoes in the entryway with the door closed so the dog won’t drag them around.

In the interest of upward mobility, if you have your heart set of crashing into the top levels of finance, what the hell, go for it. But keep an eye on the economy, will you? It hasn’t been well lately, and I don’t know that all those expensive suits are helping.

A quick visit to Absurdistan

Our times are so rich in absurdity that it’s almost embarrassing. Not because public figures embarrass me when they’re being ridiculous. I love that. It’s the embarrassment of being given too much good stuff. You know—this can’t all be for me.

Some historian (don’t ask who; I almost never know who I’m quoting) said that revolutions happen when countries become ungovernable. I heard this back in (I’d guess) the early sixties, which were really an extension of the late fifties. I was not only living in the U.S., it had never occurred to me that I’d live anywhere else. Life looked infinitely stable and my imagination couldn’t stretch far enough to understand how a country could be ungovernable.

Now though? No problem. Neither of my home countries is at that point yet, but I have no trouble imagining it.

Irrelevant photo: hydrangea.

Irrelevant photo: hydrangea–an apparently stable one.

So, what’s falling apart?

Let’s start with the Labour Party, which is in the middle of a highly public nervous breakdown and recently kicked out a member—no one prominent; just a member—over a Facebook post.

What did the member write? “I fucking love the Foo Fighters.”

She also posted something about animal-free cosmetics and veganism, but the Foo Fighters quote gets top mention in everything I’ve read about it, so apparently that was her real transgression.

Since I’m a thousand years old and not only never listened to the Foo Fighters but don’t even feel bad about it, I went to YouTube and—well, you know what it’s like when your expectations are set by a band’s name? I mean, what’s foo anyway? A weapon? An ideal? If it’s an ideal, are they for foo or against it?

What does it all mean, bartender?

Anyway, I figured that if they were fighting with, for, or against foo, they’d scream a lot, and I hate screamy bands. But they don’t scream. At least not compared to punk or new wave, both of which I survived, although I didn’t listen to any more of either one than I absolutely had to.

The Foo song I listened to (most of) starts with a single guitar, and it’s not even over-amped. True, the lyrics do mention an arsonists’ choir, the chorus does use the word fuck—a lyrical word if there ever was one—and by the time the other guitars and the drums get to work it does all get kind of loud, but are our sensibilities really so delicate that somebody should be thrown out of a political party over it? Or was the problem not that the member loved the band but that she fucking loved it?

I’m old enough to have worked on an underground newspaper, back in the late sixties, that lost a printer because one article used the word fuck. But that was a long time ago. Surely times have changed.

By now, of course, I’m wondering how many readers I’ll lose over using the word fuck so much here. Be strong, folks. It’s just a word. We’re not even talking about sex.

What’s behind this member getting the heave-ho? If you’re not British, you need some background: The Labour Party used to be leftist. Then it went centrist under Tony Blair’s leadership. Or center-left, but most definitely center. (There are nuances to all this that I’m skipping over and/or don’t know. It’s a quick summary, so don’t worry about them. Unless, of course, you want to comment about them, which would be wonderful.) By the time Blair moved on, the party machinery and most of its Members of Parliament were solidly rooted centrists. Then a bunch of stuff happened and I’ll skip over it or this would go on forever but at the end of it all Jeremy Corbyn—a leftist—was elected the new head of the party. If you’re American, you can think of him as Bernie Sanders, but with a beard and an accent you won’t hear in American election battles.

To people who feel disenfranchised or disengaged—okay, to some of them—this was exciting stuff and the party picked up a raft of new members. Some are my age and left the party over the Iraq War, but others are young and new to politics. Still others are—oh, never mind. We’ll toss them in with the nuances and the stuff that would take too much time to go into.

Parties usually like having members, but this batch threatens to bring change, and the MPs and party bureaucrats are furious—at Corbyn, at the new members, and probably at Bernie Sanders for being a point of comparison. Or for quite possibly liking the Foo Fighters. Or for not having a beard. Who knows. They’re not in a good mood and this isn’t the best time to ask. So they set up an election that was supposed to force Corbyn out but Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey of British Political Opinion reports they’re going to lose. Massively. Even though they’ve kept a whole bunch of new members—presumably Corbynistas and possibly even Foo Fighteristas, but who can tell since no one’s asked?—from voting.

So throwing someone out for posting that she fucking loves the Foo Fighters? Hell yes. It won’t tip the election, but you have to know it felt good to whoever made the decision. Before, that is, it got into all the papers and made the party look incredibly silly.

Without getting heavily ranty here, I want to say that I don’t fucking love the Foo Fighters, but I don’t hate them either and I do swear a lot and if anyone would like to throw me out of the party for saying so, I’d just love it. I can’t think of anything more entertaining. And if you’re going to toss me out for any of that, let’s do it as publicly as possible, okay?

But it’s not just the Labour Party, or even just the left, that’s having a nervous breakdown. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation is also turning on itself, although it’s not clear what the fight’s about.

This being a gun organization, one person has “been accused of saying” (notice how wishy-washy that wording is; everyone involved denies saying everything) that “the only thing that cunt wants is a bullet between the eyes.”

Another “is said to have said,” “I swear I will kill you, you cunt.”

I’d like to point out that both threats are grammatically correct. Grammar’s important when you’re threatening people. You could add a comma after “I swear,” but the rules of punctuation have loosened up in these degenerate days of ours and it’s not strictly necessary. Besides, they were spoken threats, so that’s some reporter doing the punctuation.

In addition, the threats are either sexist or extremely sexist. There’s a certain type of man who thinks that possessing female body parts is inherently humiliating, and although in my experience people who are called cunts tend to be female, since—. I don’t really need to explain that, do I?

I didn’t think so. Anyway, as far as I can figure out the British are happy to call both men and women twats. That may carry over to calling people cunts. I’m not sure and I look forward to someone enlightening me on the subject. The point is that the article I read is worded so that I can’t be sure if the target’s male or female. Or, now that I think of it, even if it’s one person or two.

It’s an odd thing, but calling a man a cunt is offensive whereas calling a woman a cunt is considerably more offensive, at least if my reactions are anything to go by.

Back to our story, though: All this is happening in a country with minimal gun crime and strict gun laws, where shootings are genuinely rare. But it’s okay, kids, because guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

The lone moderate in the fight is quoted as saying—sorry, as allegedly saying—“You will live to regret this.” I have no idea what the this is, but someone is said to have “breached fiduciary duty.” In other words, money’s involved.

Money’s almost always involved, isn’t it?

Just to clarify things, a staff member (who very sensibly didn’t want to be named and who may be male, female, both, or neither) said it’s not clear who’s resigned and who’s been suspended but that the situation’s toxic and anyone who questions “them” gets a threatening letter.

Who’s them? No one’s named in the paper and we might just want to stay out of this fight.

Anyway, the BASC says its primary aim is to foster “a strong and unified voice for shooting.” That’s good, because I can’t think what they’d be like if they weren’t unified.

Trademarking the English language

A U.K. company has just trademarked the word should’ve. And just for safety, in case its competitors can’t spell, it threw in shouldve, without the apostrophe.

It’s ridiculous, but lots of odd stuff gets trademarked. A while ago, Val at Quiet Season  mentioned that the Royal Mail has trademarked the shade of red it uses on its trucks and on mailboxes. Okay, it calls them post boxes, and since it owns them I suppose it gets to decide what they’re called. Maybe it should trademark post box and see if that doesn’t catch the attention of stubborn Americans who continue to mail their letters instead of posting them.

Irrelevant photo: Last sighting of my petunias before the slugs go 'em.

Irrelevant photo: Last sighting of my petunias before the slugs destroyed ’em.

Sadly, trademarking the color doesn’t mean it can then sue anyone who uses that shade of red to knit a hat or a pair of socks. Ditto with a word. The Should’ve Corporation can’t sue us for saying “should’ve.” (No, Should’ve Corporation isn’t its name but I’m not in the mood to give it the tiny bit of extra publicity I have at my disposal.)

Why do I say “sadly” when I’m talking about them not being able to sue people? Because I do so love it when businesses and governments and all those other fine folks with power at their disposal overreach. Britain’s courts are already in a quiet and unpublicized meltdown because the government slashed access to legal aid. That’s meant that people who can’t afford lawyers but who are now ineligible for legal aid are having to represent themselves, and predictably enough a lot of them are making a time-wasting mess of it, and cases are backing up. I know that’s not funny, it’s tragic, but it also is bitterly funny. All we need to do is pour everyone saying “should’ve” or wearing the wrong shade of red into the courts on top of that to make a real mess.

But no, that’s not what trademarking is about. It means that if you go into competition with the trademark owner, you can’t use the trademarked whatever. If you compete with the Royal Mail, you can’t use their color. If you’re in the apple pie business, though, you can use any color you like, although you might want to be careful of the word apple because some corporation or other (its name has slipped my mind) owns that and may give you grief about it. Because even if you’re not really in competition, you won’t find clear lines here and it all gets silly very quickly. Sky TV trademarked the word sky and then sued Skype—even though they’re not in the same business—because it’s logo looks like a cloud. Or so the article I linked to above says. To me, it looks like a blue blob. But as a court explained, “clouds are to be found ‘in the sky.’ “

I can’t argue with that. I can’t understand its relevance, but it’s true beyond the reach of logic, and maybe what I just looked at is the new sky-free logo.

Sky also sued the makers of the video game No Man’s Sky, although they too seem to be in another kind of business. Even as I type, some court may be weighing the question of whether the sky is to be found in the sky.

To date, the entire language is still available for noncommercial use, but keep your eye on this space. I’ll let you know if that changes.

Refugee camp in Calais

Refugees in the Calais camp are going hungry. I don’t like using this blog for fundraising, or to talk about politics (as opposed to making fun of politics and politicians, which I love doing) but this sounds like a crisis. So no jokes today. Sorry.

The French authorities have been trying to close the Calais camp for some time, and one of the actions they’ve taken is to close down its restaurants, including one that fed unaccompanied children. As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, the number of refugees keeps increasing while Europe dithers about what–if anything–to do them. This puts an additional strain on the kitchens that are still operating. To cut a long story short, they need money.

The Refugee Community Kitchen writes that it needs to double its food output. “Conditions in the camp are abhorrent and the team at Refugee Community Kitchen strive to ensure that everyone who wants it can at least receive one large, fresh, nutritious, hot meal every day.”

If you can make a donation, they have a fundraising site that I think will accept various currencies. Some people I know are also using this site to send sleeping bags and other much-needed gear to the camp directly. As far as I can tell, this one only accepts pounds.

For a glimpse of what the camp is like for children, take a look here.

How the village cleans a beach

I hate to get all hopeful and upbeat on you—it messes with my carefully cultivated image as a crank—but I attended a village event that could leave a careless person feeling good about life. At least briefly.

It was a beach cleanup, and this is how it came into being: For about a year (you know better than to think that number’s accurate, right?), J. and P. did spontaneous, two-minute beach cleans on their own, and as everyone who isn’t me does these days, they posted about it on social media. Which led to people wanting to join in. Some of them might even have done it. I went never got past the thinking stage.

Irrelevant photo: meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Irrelevant photo: Meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Eventually, they organized a weekly beach cleanup, making it easier for people to join them. And that led to some organization or other donating gloves and squeezy pickup thingy-sticks (sorry for the technical language here) and plastic rims to hold garbage bags open and it’s all gotten very organized. P. even gives a safety briefing, which he apologizes for but does anyway, because this is Britain and safety briefings run deep in the culture. You can’t pour tea without a safety briefing. At an indoor event, a safety briefing might be something like, “The fire exits are there and there. The tea’s very hot. Please don’t wear it. Please don’t throw knives. If you need a defibrillator, it’s across the road at the store. Thank you. Thank you very much, thank you.”

Thanking people is also very British. It may or may not be a safety issue. I’m not immersed enough in the culture yet to report on that reliably. Thank you for being patient with my limitations.

Really. Thanks.

Saying please is also very British. But enough of that. We were talking about the cleanup.

At the beach, P.’s safety briefing was something along the lines of, “This is a beach. It can be a dangerous place. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Since the beach cleaners drifted in one by one and two by six, P. had to give the safety briefing over and over before sending people out to work. I was the only one there for the rendition I heard, and since P. puts up with me unusually well I felt free to jump in and list the beach’s dangers—wild animals, unbridled sunburn, melted ice cream, all that sort of thing—and it threw him off his stride. Which is a way of saying that I don’t really remember what he said except that he had apologized before I started making jokes and might have even been relieved when I did. Who’s to say? He’s a good sport and if he finds me annoying he hides it well.

For which I should thank him but I haven’t. I’m just not British enough.

While P. waited for more people, J. and I took our plastic bags and wandered in different directions, looking for anything that wasn’t sand, stone, seaweed, or jellyfish. It doesn’t take long before the eye trains itself to spot the things that don’t belong—fishing line, bits of commercial fishing net, candy wrappers, broken styrofoam and plastic, nails from the wooden pallets people burn for bonfires.

More people drifted in—26 in all, a mix of residents and visitors—and we bumped around like those automatic vacuum cleaners I keep hearing about. You know about them? They travel through a house, changing direction when they bump into furniture and dogs and that missing TV remote you’ve been looking for all week. It seems random, but give them enough time and they clean the entire space.

As an aside, F. told me about a friend who had to lock hers in the garage. If she left the door open, it would escape and vacuum the yard (which she calls the garden). If she left the gate open, it would vacuum as much of Cornwall as it could reach before it ran out of power.

I don’t know if we covered the entire beach. It started out fairly clean that morning, P. had reported, so if we missed a part it wasn’t obvious. The amount of junk depends on the wind, the tides, the currents, how hard the sea monsters flap their terrible tails during the night, and of course human activity.

We worked for about an hour, stopping to trade news and greetings when we crossed paths with people we knew, then we pooled what we’d found and P. weighed it, which made what we’d done measurable and left us all feeling like we’d accomplished something. We had 11 kilos of trash and two dead and very stinky half fish. One of the kids found a Lego figure and took it home with her. I found three bits of sea glass and did the same with them.

The next morning, J. (that’s a different J.) left a note on Facebook saying that the beach was looking “a bit sorry for itself” when she looked, so she’d done her own cleanup. You can’t just clean the beach and expect it to stay that way. We throw our junk in the sea–or on the land, or in the rivers, and it ends up in the sea–and it comes back to us. Or it doesn’t. It gets eaten by fish instead, and they die with stomachs full of plastic. Or it does assorted other depressing damage, which I won’t go into because either you already know about it or you can google it and find someone who’s posted a far more competent summary than I could. Depressing as it is, it’s worth knowing about because it’s, you know, reality, and what we don’t know will bite us in the ass the first chance it gets.

A few days later, P. posted that he’d found and cleaned up the wreckage from a party, including cans, a vodka bottle, a disposable kite, and a collection of women’s clothes—outer and sexy under—that some partygoer must have decided were also disposable.

That leads me to ask why, at least in the straight world, it’s always the women who take off their clothes, not the men.

Okay, I don’t know for a fact that it works that way. It’s been a long time since I immersed myself deeply enough in that section of the straight world to know who takes what off when these days. But I’m reasonably sure I’ve got it right, so let’s explore this a bit: Does it work that way because men are shyer? Or have we been programmed by movies to believe women’s clothes drop away spontaneously while men’s are stuck to their bodies by some mysterious force no one’s bothered to study yet? Or when men start taking their clothes off, does everyone shout, “Put that back on. We don’t want to know what’s under there”?

Do, in fact, straight men ever take their clothes off in public? Do they take them off in private? Do they actually have bodies under their clothes or are they like Ken dolls, which can be undressed only as far as their bathing trunks. Or their underwear. Or whatever it is that Ken wears.

Oh hell, am I even right about Ken dolls? Do they undress down to an anatomically incorrect mound of plastic?

Yes, I do remember what’s anatomically incorrect. It’s been a long time, but it was still in this lifetime.

I’m not asking this out of prurient curiosity but because the different strands of our culture need to understand each other if we’re to foster mutual respect. So I can hardly wait to find out what you-all are going to tell me. I’m sure we’ll all be wiser by the end of the discussion.

We had a topic, though, and I’ve wandered, so let’s go back to it: Cleaning the beach is a tiny gesture toward the serious work that needs to be done, but at least it gives us a chance to do something more than moan. And it makes us think about where all this junk is coming from and what, on a larger scale, we can do about that.

It also lets us gossip about the way other people behave on the beach, and boy did that underwear start some discussions. Isn’t that what life’s about?

There. I’ve returned to my usual cranky self. What a relief.

How to block a road

Our friend J. lives on a back road, which since we’re in Britain is called a lane, but what matters isn’t what it’s called but that it’s narrow and has two ninety degree bends where anything bigger than a little red wagon risks getting stuck forever. It also fords a small, unimpressive stream which can rise enough that driving across it would be really, really stupid.

I may have exaggerated those bends by just the smallest amount. If a normal car couldn’t make the turns, the hamlet would have been cut off for centuries and evolved its own language and customs. And probably its own form of government. So yes, an average-size car with a competent driver who’s used to our roads will be fine. If the driver’s an emmit, though—that’s a tourist, to give you the short definition—a normal car won’t get stuck but the emmit may go paralytic with fear and have to be rescued by someone local who has a calm manner and a gentle voice.

Delivery vans can also get through, and residents have been known to order who knows what-all off the internet: groceries, anvils, sex toys—the same odd mix of the necessary and the even more necessary that people throughout Britain rely on the internet to bring into their lives.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I'd have missed it, but J. pointed out that it says, "Expert Logistics" on the side. Great logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I’d have missed it, but J. points out the lettering on the side: “Expert Logistics.” Great work on the logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

But even though delivery vans have been known to enter the hamlet and leave unharmed, tales circulate of larger trucks getting stuck on the bends and—well, the longer the story circulates, the longer the truck is caught on the bend and the more complicated the rescue becomes. By the time the story drifts to the far edges of the parish, houses will have to be demolished and put back together again, stone by stone by stone, and half a dozen tow trucks and rescue vehicles will be stuck as well. They’ll be there for months. Possibly years. A campsite has been set up to house them.

When J. talked about what happens on the lane, she mentioned both trucks and lorries. If you don’t know what the difference is, don’t look to me to clarify the situation because I don’t either. I could look it up but something about the murkiness of the British/American miscommunication appeals to me.

On the morning I started writing this, I had to drive down the lane and through both bends because the police had closed off what we call the main road (anyone who doesn’t live here would call it a back road) after an accident. That made the lane the shortest way around the roadblock. No trucks were caught in either bend. No rescue vehicles were stranded. So I can testify that the road’s open after whatever the last rumored incident was–whenever it may or may not have happened.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: We have no secrets in the village, but we do have a lot of inaccurate information. I’ve also written about this particular set of bends and rumors before. The reason I’m coming back to it now is that J. and A., who also lives on the lane, are trying to get it designated a quiet lane so that sat-navs (make the GPSs if you’re in the U.S.) won’t be able to direct drivers down it. Because right now they do, even when a different route would be easier. Even when it would be not only easier but shorter.

Why do they do it? Because, as the kids where I grew up used to say. (The italics are there because they said it in italics. And that was before any of us knew what italics were.) Once because was the answer, the conversation was closed and logic wouldn’t help. No appeal was possible.

More trouble, same lane. Aren't you glad not to be the driver? Photo by Duncan Walker.

More trouble, same lane. You begin to get a sense of the problem here, right? Photo by Duncan Walker.

One grocery delivery outfit tells its drivers to follow their sat-navs no matter what, so even if they know a route’s insane, they follow them. In Cornwall, that can be lethal, and I mean that literally. Sat navs can take you the wrong way down a highway exit ramp. Less lethally but more locally, some of them will take you up a washed-out, unpaved road that will eat your axles for an appetizer and then come back for your springs and your window glass. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that if you gave your sat-nav an address in Ireland it would take you straight into the ocean. Because, hey, it is the most direct route.

Are the grocery delivery drivers supposed to keep their foot on the accelerator as the water rises? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that they follow their sat-navs around those two tight, stone-walled bends, although there’s a much simpler way to get almost anywhere. Because, like anyone else, they want to keep their jobs.

So here’s this quiet little settlement plagued by drivers who don’t want to be there and who are sporting that panicked, I-have-a-sat-nav-but -where-the-hell-am-I? look.

A. has committed herself to fixing that. She can be a real terrier, and a terrier’s what’s needed for this. She’s already called a couple of the sat-nav companies and gotten the lane taken off their list of ways to get from point A to point everywhere else. But to back all the companies down, the road has to be designated a quiet lane and the parish council has to impose a twenty-mile-an-hour speed limit.

Last I heard, J. and A. were headed for a parish council meeting and it will be taken care of.

But that won’t entirely solve the problem, because sat-navs don’t update themselves. Their owners have to update them. Which involves paying money—something people may quite reasonably not want to do since they already paid money for the damn things and if they’re not broken, why throw more money at them?

We actually did update a sat-nav once. The update wrecked it. Or maybe the problem was connected to that sledge hammer. Me, though? I blame he update.

So—if I understand the situation—the current generation of sat-navs may have to die before the problem will be solved.

Even so, the hamlet’s closer to a solution than places with equally difficult roads but no resident with the skills, the energy, and the commitment to back down half a dozen sat-nav companies and a grocery delivery service. Trucks will get stuck in those places. Rescue vehicles will pile up behind them. Rumors will grow, but they’ll do that anyway.

All of this leads me to a question: What’s going to happen when driverless cars are turned loose on our roads? My partner, Wild Thing, has macular degeneration and has had to quit driving, so we have a more than intellectual interest in driverless cars. Is she going to end up in a car that decides the best route home is up an unpaved road that will eat one axle and both front doors? Or that takes her down the exit ramp to the A30–Cornwall’s main highway? Or to Ireland by way of the Atlantic Ocean?

She has enough vision left to see where she is, and I’m assuming passengers will be able to stop driverless cars somehow, and maybe even reprogram the route. But what happens to passengers with no vision? Do they have to wait until the feel the water rising? Will the driverless car need a driver? A navigator? An editor? Is all the work focused on how the cars follow the road and avoid accidents instead of on the routes they’ll follow?