Medieval England’s piepowder courts

In the Middle Ages, English fairs and markets had a fast-acting justice system called–well, what it was called sort of depends on how you want to spell it, and then your best guess about how to pronounce it. This is English, remember. Pronunciation and spelling aren’t often on speaking terms, and in the Middle Ages spelling was still a liquid–years away from taking on a fixed form.

The spellings I ran into most often were pie poudre and piepowder, but the West Sussex Records Office adds “pyepowder, pipoulder, pepowder, and pipoudre,” and notes (gleefully) that the spelling sometimes changed within the same document. How do you pronounce it, then? I consulted Lord Google, as I so often do, using the pie poudre spelling, and he led me to a website that asked if the phrase was Catalan, Mandarin, or Australian English. It didn’t matter what I chose, though, because it couldn’t actually hack up a pronunciation in any of them, but that was fine since by then I’d pretty well lost my trust in it.

YouTube, however, looked me right in the eye and swore the correct pronunciation is pie powder. I have no reason to think YouTube knows what it’s talking about, but let’s go with it anyway. It’s hard to remember a set of letters unless your brain can tack a pronunciation onto them. Or that’s how my brain works, anyway. When it works at all.

However you pronounce and spell it, though, we’re not talking about an instant pie mix. The name came from the French for dusty feet, pieds poudrés, or so Lord Google, in the authoritative person of the Encyclopedia Britannica (with a little help from the West Sussex Records Office), assures me. 

We’ll come back to that and I promise it’ll almost make sense, 

Irrelevant photo: a California poppy after the rain.

What was the piepowder court?

It was the lowest level of common-law justice in medieval England. As the Britannica puts it, it was constituted by merchants. It then defines constituted in several different ways, leaving me to wonder if it was made up of merchants or if merchants organized it or if they actually established it. 

Screw it. It existed. Merchants were involved. Let’s move on. 

The court dealt with problems that came up at markets or fairs–and medieval fairs, remember, were places where business got done. So they heard arguments about who cheated who, who stole whose spot, and who was a disorderly nuisance. 

The piepowder court would meet for as long as the market or fair lasted, and people could drag each other into court to be judged on the spot by the merchants in charge. With the dust of the market still on their feet.

You get a sense of medieval snobbery from that, don’t you? Dusty feet? The horror!

Let’s go back to West Sussex for its take on dusty feet:

“What this is referring to is most likely the people who travelled to towns from far and wide for market days–travellers and vagabonds. Within modern French, pieds-poudreux is supposedly used for travelling beggars. Another given reason is how it relates to the speedy justice that was administered. Or perhaps another origin comes from how members of the piepowder courts were constantly walking around the markets, the dust coating their feet as they moved.  It’s possible the term references them, rather than the travellers and merchants. In my mind the first is the most obvious answer, but it is likely the true answer is a combination of all three.”

An alternative explanation is that justice was done as speedily as dust can fall from a person’s foot. We’ll probably never know, so take your pick.

 

How did they work?

Once someone accused someone else of whatever, the court had to make its decision within a day and a half. Markets and fairs attracted people from outside their areas, and they couldn’t hang around, waiting for the court to get around to them. 

The piepowder court in Bristol, at least, had three or four judges, and it was up to the accusers to prove their cases. Then the defendants could argue their innocence and present their evidence. This was unusual in medieval courts. They generally relied on oaths. People would bring in a set number of their equals who’d swear they believed the oath.

Piepowder courts could punish a person with a fine or the pillory, and if they didn’t pay up the court could seize their goods.

 

Opening the court

West Sussex still has a record of how to open the court at the Chichester Sloe Fair. 

“Let the Cryer make Proclamation on the South Side of the High Cross as follows – at 8 o’clock:

“Oyez – All manner of Persons that have to do or intend to have to do At the Ancient Pavillion Court of the Right Rev. Father in God Sir Wm Ashburnham Bart. Lord Bishop of Chichr holden on this Day [at the Gate commonly called the Canon Gate] for this City and the Liberties there of with the Fair called the Sloe Fair, for the time and space of Eight days beginning this Day being the Eve or Vigil of the Feast of St Faith the Virgin come forth and give your attendance. God save the King.”

For that, the town crier got a cut of the court’s income.

Yes, of course the court made money. Even if justice is supposed to be blind–and I doubt the phrase wandered into the language this early–it sure as hell doesn’t do its work for nothing. And fairs and markets were all about making money. The Sloe Fair’s income went to the Bishop of Chichester.

A sloe? It’s the fruit of the blackthorn and grows wild or in hedgerows, although History Extra reminds us that hedgerows didn’t really proliferate until the 16th and 17th centuries, with the full blast of the enclosure movement. It looks like an oversized blueberry but I doubt you’d wouldn’t want to pop it in your mouth without cooking it–and sweetening it if you can. Ask Lord G. about recipes and he’ll tell you about sloe gin, about jelly, and about cooking it with meat. Mostly, though, it’s about the gin these days.

 

The end of the piepowder courts

The Chichester court last sat in 1834.

Bristol’s piepowder court was active until 1870 and  Hemel Hempstead’s last sat in 1898. The Courts Act 1971 formally abolished them, which by then was just a formality, and as far as I can figure out without taking on more research, the Administration of Justice Act 1977 did the same thing all over again. 

The Bristol court, by the way, prefers to call itself the Court of Pie Poudre, thanks.

What foods are native to Britain

Every so often, somebody starts a campaign to run some non-native plant out of Britain. With a few, that makes sense–when they got loose in this new climate they turned hazardous, choking out native growth, growing through the foundations of houses, running for parliament so they can run other non-native plants out of the country. But setting those few aside, the rest of it, I suspect, is about returning Britain to some imagined state of purity. 

But what really is native? For the sake of simplicity, let’s stick with food.

This comes with a warning: The further back in time we go, the sketchier the notes people left behind. So I can’t guarantee 600% accuracy. Take it–as is appropriate for food–with a grain of salt.

 

A rare relevant photo: St. John’s Wort, which isn’t used as a food but is traditionally medicinal. It’s native to Britain but a couple of varieties were introduced in the 17th century. So it’s native but also not. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

Imports

The first chicken bones show up in the Bronze Age–around 800 B.C.E. That makes them–not to mention their eggs–foreigners.

The Romans (start counting in 43 C.E.) brought rabbits, pheasants, and brown hare (not to be confused with brown hair, which was already present). Also cabbages, leeks, onions, garlic, basil, thyme, turnips, walnuts, and grapes. And alexanders, which went wild. Foragers still eat them and everyone else pretty much ignores them. They’re sometimes called wild celery. 

Incomers, the lot of them.

As an aside, by the time we get to the medieval era, cabbage was peasants’ food and not fit for the upper classes. It was thought to cause melancholy and nightmares but also to cure drunkenness. 

According to one source the Saxon word for February was Sprout Kale–the month when the cabbages sprout. If you’re not a fan of kale, you can blame it on the Saxons. It won’t be fair, but it’ll keep your mind off worse things. (Another source says it was April, but it’s outvoted. Let’s go with February. It’s shorter, and I’m not a big fan of kale.)

You won’t find sugar until 1099–or at least you won’t find it mentioned until then–and for a long time it was the wildest of luxuries. From the 12th century through the 15th, you’ll find monasteries cultivating apples and pears. Or you’d find them if you could get back there. They would’ve been luxuries.

Turkeys and rice showed up in the Tudor period, and potatoes, corn, and tomatoes didn’t arrive until Europeans started bothering the New World. 

Beets–or as the British call them, beetroot–probably came from the Mediterranean. Broccoli showed up around 1700, chocolate bars around 1847, and baked beans in 1886.

Yes, I did switch from raw ingredients to processed food. You’ve got to keep an eye on me every minute. I’ll pull a fast one on you every time.

 

Native foods

Wild carrots do grow in Britain and as far as I can untangle things they’re native, but a foraging guide describes them as tough and stringy. You’d want to put these in stews, not eat them raw. The plant they come from is also called Queen Anne’s lace and looks a lot like hemlock, which is toxic, so I wouldn’t recommend munching your way through the hedgerows hoping to figure out which is which. 

Cultivated carrots seem to have wandered into England in Elizabethan times, so they’re not exactly native. Emphasis on seems. I got that from a site whose information appears to be solid but whose writing is murky. 

Peas? Probably native, although some people argue that the Romans brought them. 

Of course, someone out there would surely argue that the Romans brought Nintendo. I’d make the argument myself, but I’m trying to keep this brief. 

Cultivated peas are related to vetches, a category of wildflower that does well in Britain without human interference. The early ones would’ve been smaller than the peas we know, and probably bitterer. And if we’re to judge from that last adjective, harder to pronounce. The best thing to do with them would’ve been to put them in pottage–something eaten widely in medieval Britain and varied enough that if you think of it as anything that can be tossed in a pot and cooked with liquid, you won’t go too far wrong. 

It’s not until you get into Tudor times that peas become sweeter and the elite start eating them as a delicacy.

Oats, rye, wheat, and barley are all native. As is brewing alcohol from at least some of them and getting shitfaced. 

Native fruits would’ve been small purple plums, sloes, wild currants, brambles (that means blackberries), raspberries, wood strawberries, cranberries, blackberries, redberries (no idea what this is; they’re probably red), heather berries (Lord Google tells me they’re edible but nasty), elderberries, rowan berries (edible if cooked; toxic when raw), haws, and hips (that’s probably rose hips). To summarize, the native fruits ran the gamut from delicious to nasty.

The wild apple, crabapple, and cherry would might have been rare or absent, although the British apple seems to have predated the Romans. You notice how much of a workout the word probably is getting? Not as much as it should’, I expect. 

We haven’t talked about the nuts and leaves, but let’s skip them, okay? 

The Corby Pole Fair

If nations could be patron saints, England would be the patron saint of weird-ass traditional festivals. Since it doesn’t work that way, it’s had to settle for holding them and glorying in its own oddity. 

Allow me to welcome you to today’s strange traditional festival, the Corby Pole Fair. 

What’s strange about it? It’s held once every twenty years.

Why’s that? Nobody knows.

Marginally relevant photo: A traditional British phone box, now converted into a second-hand bookstore that’s raising money to maintain a village defibrillator.

Anytime you write about one of these festivals, you’re pretty much required to use the phrase “nobody knows.” More than once. If I use it more than 15 times here, I owe you a drink. Of course, you’ll have to catch me first.

But before we go on, let me try to unbraid what’s English from what’s British–something I do regularly and usually get wrong. I’m not sure whether the other nations that make up Britain–or the UK, which isn’t quite the same thing but never mind that for now–are as strange about their festivals as England is. The spotlight falls most often on English weird-assery, so let’s go with that. I’m happy to hear arguments and corrections from anyone even remotely knowledgeable about these things. Or if not knowledgeable, funny. That’ll do at least as well. 

 

The Fair

The Corby Pole Fair dates back (according to one article) “to the 13th century, when Queen Elizabeth I granted the town a charter in 1585.” Which is awkward, because Liz hadn’t been born in the 13th century, and neither had 1585.

Okay, it was a typo and we can all stop being so smug. It’s not like we haven’t written something at least as embarrassing.

Typo aside, though, an alternative explanation of the fair’s origins is easily available. One–or two, or three–almost always is. Or are. That same article tells us that some people say, “It’s after the monarch was rescued from a bog by villagers.”

Is the it in that quote the fair or the charter? 

Hard to say. 

Do we care? Yes, but only a little. Guesswork will do well enough, so let’s nod as if it all makes sense and move on. 

A more coherent attempt at explaining the fair’s origins comes from the BBC–working, I’m sure, from the same press release but reading it more carefully. It says, “Some say it [that’s the fair] goes back to the 13th Century, some to 1585 when Queen Elizabeth I was rescued from a bog by Corby villagers and others to the 17th Century when Charles II granted the town a charter.”

Yes, I checked. Liz was alive in 1585. I can’t verify that she was in a bog or, for that matter, anywhere near Corby but we have at least taken a step in the right direction. 

The fair could also date back to 1226, when Henry III granted Corby (or someone, anyway) the right to hold a fair.

Was Elizabeth I ever rescued from a bog, by Corby villagers or anyone else? Possibly, but I can’t verify it. I asked Lord Google and got referred to scholarly papers that opened with her wanting to build a stable, peaceful country, but nope, no bog.

Next I found something about Queen Elizabeth and a blog. 

Did Queen Elizabeth keep a blog? Well, she did try, but the technology of the time didn’t support it and she gave it up to devote her efforts to more era-appropriate occupations. 

Lord Google’s related questions included, “What is Elizabeth the First known for?” Related answers do not include being rescued from a bog. 

So no, I can’t find any evidence that she was rescued from a bog. Equally, I can’t find any evidence that she wasn’t.  

 

Fairs and Charters

Why did they need a charter to hold a fair? Because that’s how things worked. The National Archive says that  “Early markets and fairs were generally held in one of two ways. . . . If they were held: 

  • “by virtue of a specific royal grant, you are likely to find a charter recording it; 
  • “by prescriptive right, that is, based on immemorial custom, you may not find any charter evidence.”

Charters could be issued to an individual or to something like a town or church. One fair, in Stourbridge, ran for three weeks. In addition to giving everyone a chance to let off steam, they also made money for whoever held the charter. And for whoever came to trade. 

Does any of that still matter today? Oddly enough, yes. The Ilkeston Charter Fair has permission to run for four days, and for more or less 800 years that’s what it did. Then, in 2018, it decided to run for a fifth day and had to apply to the home secretary for permission. Which meant it had to figure out what the correct procedure was. It’s that unusual. And if it got the procedure wrong, it could lose the right to hold the fair at all. 

And that’s where I bailed out and scuttled back to our Corby Pole Fair.

Corby resident Paul Balmer has looked for Liz’s charter but found only a later one, which dates from “1670 or 1682 depending on who you listen to.”

I’d love to explain that phrase to you, but that’s all I know. 

You see why the phrase “nobody knows” comes up so often?

 

Historical accuracy

The fair includes what Balmer says is a Viking tradition of riding the stang. 

“If you didn’t pay your toll [that’s your admission to the fair] you were carried on the ‘stang’ to the stocks and had to pay a penny to get out, but the villagers, because of the charter, were exempt from the toll.”

Why Viking tradition? Corby started out as a Viking settlement.

“Then there’s the greasy pole, which is most probably associated with the ox roast. The lord of the manor often gives an ox to villagers when they are celebrating a fair or a big occasion, the grease from the ox is put on a pole with a ham on the top and if you climb the greasy pole you get to keep it.”

This year, there’ll be a pole but no one gets to climb it. They couldn’t get insurance. 

Then there’s that charter. Remember the charter? At 6 a.m. the bells ring a.m., calling everyone to come hear the charter read out loud at all the entrances to the village.

There’ll also be historical re-enactments, including some Viking-type stuff. You know, a little light looting and pillaging. Some jousting. Some road closures. What could be more historically accurate than road closures? 

In the interest of historical accuracy, the decision to hold this year’s fair was made after surveying the community, holding focus groups and workshops, and meeting with groups and individuals and businesses, not to mention filling out and filing grant applications and advertising the whole mess–and then putting a discussion of it up on the website, presumably to prove the fair has community support.

Decisions about the content of the fair were also influenced by what funding bodies would (and wouldn’t) be willing to pay for,” it says. I worked around nonprofits long enough to recognize a near-universal truth in that.

Town dignitaries get carried around in chairs. There’s a free breakfast for residents.

The fair also offers music. I haven’t seen any mention of morris dancers, so this may be the only safe festival in England for morris-haters.

 

The Details

When is it held? It was on June 3 this year, which means we’ve missed it and will have to wait until 2042. The date for that one hasn’t been set yet.

What? Do I look like a tourist site? You want to know about these things in advance, go someplace sensible.

There. I made it through without saying “nobody knows” more than twice. Or maybe that was three times. Either way, go buy your own drink.

How no-confidence votes work in Britain

Boris Johnson, Britain’s alleged prime minister, survived a vote of no confidence this week, and we could get all mopey about that if we wanted to, but instead let’s take the opportunity to have a good old crawl around the dusty corners of the British political system and see what we can find. Old coins? Abandoned rulebooks? Spiders? 

Nope, sorry. We find the no-confidence vote, in all its convoluted glory.

 

What is the no-confidence vote? 

The one Johnson just survived was an internal party affair, run by the Conservatives, the party with a majority in the House of Commons. That’s because what they’re voting on isn’t just the leader of the country but the leader of their party, and what takes precedence is the party, since–as should be clear to everyone–that’s more important. So it was only Conservative members of parliament who got to vote.

The same was true last time they held a no-confidence vote, back when Theresa May was prime minister. We could go back further, but I’m getting full of cobwebs so let’s head off in another direction. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a peony

While Conservative MPs cast their votes, the rest of the country got to sit back and wonder how many would vote which way. It’s like catching the clowns crawl out of that tiny car at the circus and wondering how many more there’ll be. Except the clowns are running the country.   

If it strikes you as odd that a single party gets to choose the head of the country, we’re nowhere near the center of the issue yet. The party also gets to set the rules on when and whether there’ll be a vote and how it’ll be run.

Yes, this business of having an unwritten constitution’s a barrel of laughs. I recommend it to any country that feels like the fun’s gone out of politics. 

 

The rules

Under the party’s current rules, if 15% of the Conservative MPs send a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to something called the 1922 Committee, then the committee has to call a vote.

At least I think it has to. What I’ve read goes a little hazy there. Maybe they have to and maybe they don’t but always have. So far, they’ve always called a vote.

The 1922 Committee, by the way, is called that because it was set up in 1923.

We’ll move on before we get upset, okay?

The committee’s an arm of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons and seems to insert its nearly-hundred-year-old hand into every Conservative leadership battle. It meets weekly, gathering up the backbench Conservatives–and by backbench I mean the MPs who don’t hold government positions, the ones down the food chain who aren’t personally in power even when their party is.

So the committee gathers the backbench Tories (Tory means Conservative but takes less time to type) and gives them a forum, allowing them to “air their concerns” and be a pain in the keyhole of Number 10 Downing Street, where the people who really have the power both govern and (since we’re talking about the current bunch), drink, fight, party, and vomit. 

To repeat myself, since I’ve wandered: Once the committee collects the letters from 15% of the Conservative MPs, it calls for a vote. Given the current breakdown of the House, it took 54 letters to trigger a vote. Once that happens, a prime minister then has to win a majority of the Conservative MPs plus one–in the current situation, 180–to stay in office.

The letters can be anonymous or the writers can make them public. They can also withdraw them if a) they decide the timing’s wrong, b) they were threatened thoroughly enough, or c) they were offered a juicy government post. 

Government posts? Johnson had already handed out 173 government jobs, making his MPs everything from members of the Cabinet to junior ministers to dog wranglers to extras who don’t have any lines but do hang around the edges of the scene in costume and then hope they don’t get edited out of the final cut. 

If you happen to hold one of those jobs, you’d think two or three times before voting yourself out of it.

Johnson carried 60% of his MPs–211 votes–which was a smaller-than-expected number according to at least according to one newspaper.

The party’s rules say that, having survived the vote, a prime minister is safe from another challenge for a year.

So is he in the clear? Well, no. The last time the Conservatives held a no-confidence vote, Theresa May was the prime minister and she scraped together a larger proportion of her party than Johnson has, but within eight months she was out on her ass.

How’d that work? Well, the committee threatened to change the rules and allow another vote before the year was up unless she set a date for her resignation. 

Better to jump than be pushed, she figured. Johnson, however, will need to not only be pushed, he’ll need to be wrapped in canvas, tied, and thrown overboard.

But there’s talk that the MPs who voted against Johnson may not wait for that. If they refuse to vote with the government–not necessarily voting against it but abstaining–they’ll deny Johnson hte powerful majority he’s had in Parliament, paralyzing him. Since they represent all the available wings, feet, and claws of the party and refer to themselves as a coalition of chaos, it’s hard to know if they’ll do anything that coordinated.

 

What happens when a prime minister loses a no-confidence vote?

They limp on as prime minister until they’re replaced, because the country has to have a prime minister, however vague and ineffective. Meanwhile, the party that tossed them out selects a new one–according to its own rules.

But that’s if it has a majority. If it doesn’t–say if two parties governed as a coalition–or if the party’s so badly split that it can’t come up with a candidate, it gets messy.

You thought it was already messy? Ha. Shows what you know.

I’ll simplify this, but basically if someone–anyone–can gather enough support for a new candidate, there’s a confidence vote held in 14 days. If they survive that, they’re the prime minister. If not, there’s a general election and all the MPs have to run for their seats again–something they very much don’t want to do unless, of course, they think their party can come back with a big majority, but that’s always a gamble. It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra is said to have said.

If no candidate emerges, then somewhere along the way the prime minister has to advise the queen that there’ll be an election, because the queen needs to know stuff like that.

The queen says, “Oh.”

Then everyone involved tears off their clothes and runs around Westminster Palace playing either banjos or tubas and throwing confetti.

Okay, I made some of that up. If you want a full (and sane) explanation of how it works, go look at the BBC’s graphic.

 

How other parties run a no-confidence vote

So far, I’ve only talked about how the Conservative Party holds a no-confidence vote, but since each party sets its own rules, they have no bearing on what other parties do in a similar situation. So let’s take a wider look.

Labour: Okay, this is awkward. I haven’t found a clear explanation of how the Labour Party holds a no-confidence vote. Possibly because it doesn’t really hold them. When Jeremy Corbyn led the party (which was the opposition then, not the government), his fellow MPs held a no-confidence vote but he didn’t resign since the party doesn’t have any rules governing what that meant or what to do about it if it should happen. He argued that his support among the members outweighed his lack of support among MPs. And you know what? Why shouldn’t it? When your party doesn’t have any relevant rules, it doesn’t have any relevant rules.

Liberal Democrats: I couldn’t even find that much for the Lib Dems. 

Other Parties: I gave up, leaving a few parties floating free.

What does it all mean? I haven’t a clue. A party being able to dump its leader, as the Tories can, sounds democratic but in practice it seems to give a lot of power to small groups within the party, such as the extreme Brexiteers. If that’s true, you could argue that the forms of democracy are giving a great deal of power to a minority at the expense of the majority, but I’m raising that as a question rather than offering it as an analysis. 

 

Parliamentary votes of no confidence

It’s also possible for parliament as a whole, not just the majority party, to hold a no-confidence vote, and if the government loses, that would, once upon a time, have triggered a general election. But the rules changed when David Cameron was the prime minister. He introduced a new system called-fixed term parliaments. Since then, nobody has a clue what happens. 

As the House of Commons Library explains it, “The consequences of a government losing what would have been considered a question of confidence before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have not been tested since the Act was passed.”

In other words, it hasn’t happened since the rules changed. Maybe everyone moves one seat down the table and cries, “No room, no room.” Maybe we go back to the scenario with the confetti and the musical instruments. We’ll all just have to wait and see. 

Remember what I said about how much fun an unwritten constitution is?

 

The important stuff

Can we get to the stuff that really matters now? Sooner or later, Boris Johnson will be carried out of Number 10 kicking and screaming and wrapped in canvas, and the question on everyone’s mind is, What will happen to the wallpaper? 

What wallpaper? The horrible and very expensive wallpaper that Johnson and his wife paid for, but only after they were caught trying to have a major party donor pay for it.

I’m not prone to imagining myself in public office, for oh so many reasons, but I can’t help putting myself into  his successor’s comfortable slippers–you know, the ones she or he puts on after work when he or she tries to turn back into her or his real self if (could we use the plural here, please?) if they still remember who that is.

Where were we? I was putting myself in that person’s slippers and  looking at the wallpaper that Johnson will leave behind (but only because you can’t take it with you). On the one hand, it was ruinously expensive–£840 a roll. You can’t just tear that down, can you? On the other hand, it’s awful. Who could live with it? And what sort of impression does it give other heads of state? You couldn’t have a serious conversation in front of it. I’m not sure you could eat a frozen pizza in front of it either.

I’m not sure what you can do in front of it other than run.

Is the next prime minister going to have to break with tradition and live somewhere else? I wouldn’t rule it out.

By now, of course, you want to see it. You’ll find a couple of photos here, along with a discussion of the money and who’s related to who in what way. It’s all deliciously scandalous and, except for the occasional wallpaper joke, has been pretty much forgotten by now.

Celebrating the queen’s WTF jubilee

Let’s start with basics: The queen in question is Elizabeth, and she’s been on the throne since 1066 or thereabouts. Surely that calls for a party, so here in Britain we’ve been handed a spare holiday, a dessert recipe so simple that can be prepared in two days by half a dozen trained snipers, and lots of encouragement to hold our own street parties, band concerts, and whatever else sets our suggestible little hearts a-racing. 

It’s not easy, if you live in Britain right now, to ignore all that, but I had planned to until I realized how gloriously parts of it could go wrong. 

Let’s start with Wincanton, in Somerset, which is holding the Wincanton Town Festival. That comes with a logo showing a be-jeweled crown on a purple background with, as Dorset Live puts it, “a diamond-encrusted WTF welded to the top.”

You know the acronym WTF: Wincanton Town Festival. 

If you want to attend a WTF Jubilee (even I will give that a capital letter) garden party, it’s on June 3 so you’ll have to either hurry or time travel, but I’m sure you’ll be welcome.

Nothing could be more British. Just try to keep a straight face.

*

English Heritage, which manages the Stonehenge site, is celebrating by projecting color images of the queen onto the stones. The effect is–

The word bizarre doesn’t begin to capture it. There stand these rough, prehistoric stones, in all their timeless majesty, and they’re being used as a screen to show photos of an old woman dressed in the colors of toy Easter chicks.

I’m not disparaging her for being an old woman, mind you. I’m not what you’d call young myself. But you won’t find me on an ancient monument dressed like an Easter chick.

But English Heritage is proud of their decision, and since nothing that happens really happens unless it’s on social media, they tweeted a photo, with the predictable results. And just to prove I don’t make this stuff up (who could?), here’s the tweet.

A few of my favorite comments are:

“Pointless, outdated, ancient monument to a bygone era. Projected onto Stonehenge.”

“Things Stonehenge and the Monarchy have in common? How the fuck did this get here?”

“Something ancient and now pointless that we keep under the guise of tourism, projected onto stone henge”

*

But we’re not done yet. Boris Johnson–he’s our prime minister when he finds time between parties–wants to celebrate by bringing back imperial measures. Or at least letting shops use them if they’re in the mood.

Oh, c’mon, you know what imperial measures are. Generations of schoolkids sacrificed (cumulatively speaking) months of their lives memorizing that a foot is 12 inches long, a yard is 3 feet, and a mile is 1760 yards. Also that a cup holds 10 ounces if you’re in Britain but 8 if you’re in the US, and that a quart holds 4 cups while a gallon hold 4 quarts. In either country, although the cups won’t be the same size, so why should anything that follows from them?

Mind you, those ounces that make up the cup aren’t the same ounces that go into a pound. They’re liquid ounces and a pound is a measure of weight, so it uses different ounces. Unless that pound is measuring money, which it does as a second job. It doesn’t use ounces for that at all–it drops them off at home when it stops in for a quick bite to eat.

In case all that business with 4 cups and 4 quarts made you think the number 4 is magical when you work with liquid measures, a pint holds two cups. You can’t rely on anything.

We won’t get into hogsheads and firkins and bushels and furlongs, but oh, we could, my friends, and we’d have such fun. Still, it would be irresponsible to move on without telling you that a hundredweight is made up of 112 pounds and a pennyweight is 12 grains.

So you can see why imperial measures are simpler, more logical, easier to understand, and all-around better than the metric system: They keep out the riff-raff and the numerically challenged.

But silly as it may seem, Johnson’s proposal’s done wonders for my stats. An old post on Britain’s halfhearted adoption of the metric system and on the old system(s) of measuring has attracted some ridiculous number of hits lately.

That’s ridiculous given the scale I work on. We’re talking about hundreds, not thousands. If you want to read about rods and furlongs and apple gallons and Cornish miles, it’s all there. And if you think the past was a simpler place, I recommend it.

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What else happens dring the jubilee? Why, the queen’s jubilee-themed tree-planting program. This encourages people to plant a tree for the jubilee, which not only rhymes (if it hadn’t, what would they have come up with?) but is promoted as a way to reforest the country.

It’s been busted for having sponsors with links to deforestation. But in other countries. Ones with more forest. And less power. So that’s okay. 

According to a campaign group, the program’s platinum sponsors include McDonald’s, with beef linked to the deforestation of the Amazon, and the bank NatWest, with links to deforestation in Uruguay. And so forth.

Everyone involved says they have no links to deforestation or are committed to doing better or have planted a tree at midnight in a neighbor’s yard and we should all go mind our own business, thank you very much, so we’ll move on.

*

Because that’s not all the queen’s doing. She’s giving Britain eight new cities

No, not like that. She doesn’t build them herself. What she does is wave her magic feather over someplace that already exists and declare that what used to be a town is now a city. This doesn’t make it any larger, although some research suggests that it may make it richer, since (and I’m quoting the BBC here, which doesn’t explain the mix of singular and plural but does give me someone to blame it on) “it put them on the international map as a place to do business.” Presumably, businesses ask Lord Google about a place, find out it’s a city, and get so excited they’d push little old ladies out of the way in their rush to do business there. Even little old ladies dressed like Easter chicks.

Listen, don’t ask me. I’m not the one making the argument. The survey seems to be based on a sample of one, the former town/now a city of Perth (it’s in Scotland), which for all we know grew richer for other reasons. But never mind, we can’t rule out the queen’s magic feather.

I should mention, in case you don’t already know this, that in Britain a town doesn’t become a city by democratic consensus–you know, by people noticing how big it is and calling it a city. It happens by decree and has precious little to do with size. The smallest British city has 1,600 residents. For all I know, the queen could make herself a city. Or make you one. You wouldn’t be any larger, and neither would she.

 

But speaking of democracy…

…jackdaws decide when to leave the roost in the most democratic possible way. Each bird literally has a voice. 

In the winter, jackdaws roost together overnight, and in the morning they take to the air in a mass. When a bird thinks it’s time to leave, it calls out, and each call is a vote. The noise level and the speed at which it increases both influence the flock’s decision to take off. 

As many as 40,000 of them can roost–and lift off–together. They don’t care if you call it a city or not.

 

Will everyone who isn’t Banksy please stand up?

We’re still talking politics here. William Gannon, a town councillor in Pembroke Dock, Wales, resigned in an attempt to squish a rumor that he’s the anonymous street artist Banksy. The rumor, he believes, was started by someone who wants his seat on the town council and, he said, it was “undermining my ability to do the work. . . . [People were] asking me to prove who I am not and that’s almost impossible to do.”

Gannon is an artist and does make street art, which his website describes as “Banksy-esque, not intentionally,” but that’s not the same thing as him being Banksy, and to prove that he’s handing out buttons saying “I am NOT Banksy.” He wears one himself, but then, as many people have pointed out, that’s exactly the sort of thing Banksy would do.

You can’t win this game.

 

And in unrelated clashes with the law…

…a pair of herring gulls have nested on a police car in Dorset and can’t be moved off because they’re members of a protected species. The car’s out of use until the chicks fledge. In the meantime, the adult birds are helping the police with their inquiries.

 

This one stayed out of court, but…

…the Star Inn at Vogue, which is in Vogue, Cornwall and known locally as the Vogue, was threatened with a lawsuit by the owners of Vogue magazine for using its name. The pub owners found that hilarious and wrote back to say the pub had been in place, under that name, for hundreds of years.

“I presume,” Mark Graham wrote, “that at the time when you chose the name Vogue in the capitalised version you didn’t seek permission from the villagers of the real Vogue. I also presume that Madonna did not seek your permission to use the word Vogue (again the capitalised version) for her 1990s song of the same name.”

The magazine wrote back with an apology, which is now framed and on display.

 

And finally, leaving the UK behind

A year ago, a two-day promotion by a restaurant chain in Taiwan offered free sushi–on an all-you-can-eat basis–to anyone with the Chinese characters for salmon in their name, and also to the people they brought with them. That led 331 people to change their names. It doesn’t cost much, at least when compared to the price of a tableful of sushi. So the country suddenly acquired a bunch of people named things like Salmon Dream and Dancing Salmon. Some of them built a social media following on that basis. (There’s no explaining social media.) Others started small (and short-lived) businesses, charging people to go out for sushi with them. 

It was called Salmon chaos, and the government was not amused by the administrative cost of it all. 

Most people changed their names back as soon as the promotion ended, but a few got trapped, because the government only allows a person to change their name three times. Last I heard, the government was debating a change in the law, but in the meantime a few salmon were still trapped as salmon. 

Monkeypox and inflation: the news from Britain

The monkeypox puzzle

When I first started writing this, Britain had 20 confirmed cases of monkeypox, and more than 100 had shown up in other non-African countries. Both numbers have grown since then, but let’s stop counting. 

That they’re showing up outside of Africa is significant, because Africa’s the only place the disease is endemic. So let’s ask the question: Is it time to panic?

Well, those aren’t huge numbers, but the last few years have primed us to overreact when diseases we never heard of knock on the door. We hide behind the couch. We yell through the door and throw things. We eat too much of whatever’s on hand. It’s as natural as it is pointless. 

Still, what’s happening is odd. Monkeypox doesn’t spread easily. It’s shown up outside of Africa in the past, but as isolated cases, not as chains of infection, which is what at least some of these are. 

Monkeypox is a milder relative of smallpox and comes in your choice of two designs: the West African and the Congo. The Congo strain is fatal in 1 out of 10 reported cases and the West African in 1 out of 100. In both instances, you should put the emphasis on reported, because a lot of milder cases never do get reported. In other words, the virus is less lethal than the statistics make it sound. 

So far, only the West African strain has been found in Britain. Reports aren’t in from the rest of the world. 

Most people recover from monkeypox in a few weeks and don’t need treatment, although it can cause complications in  pregnancy, including stillbirths, and is generally more severe in children than in adults.

Both an antiviral treatment and a vaccine exist. What’s more, anyone who was vaccinated against smallpox as a baby probably has some protection against monkeypox. But smallpox vaccination wound down in most countries before 1980. 

How does monkeypox spread? Not easily. It likes to travel on large dro

Irrelevant photo: Osterspermum (I think) surrounded by may.

plets–those things we breathe out no matter how delicate we pretend our manners are. But large droplets don’t travel far, so you have to be in relatively close contact to be exposed. The World Health Organization doesn’t talk about it as an airborne virus.

You can also get it from contact with skin lesions (it causes a rash) and from contact with materials. What kind of materials? A New Scientist article talks about the “clothing, towels or bedding used by an infected person.” 

The World Health Organization also doesn’t talk about it as a sexually transmitted disease, but (don’t you love how a but slides in and contradicts everything that comes before it) it can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact–not to mention by heavy breathing in close proximity. It can also be transmitted by contact with the rash it causes, and if the rash is in a sexually relevant place, contact becomes almost inevitable. So yes, sex with an infected person would be a great way to catch the disease. In Britain, the current crop of cases are clustered in gay and bisexual men, not because they’re any more prone to it but presumably because some of them were prone with an infected person.

The most recent report I’ve seen traces a lot of cases to two raves, one in Spain and one in Belgium.

Charlotte Hammer, an expert on emerging diseases, said, “I am certain we are going to see more cases,” but that doesn’t mean we’re looking at a replay of Covid. The experts will be looking for more cases, and GPs can now be expected to recognize any that show up. So infections that would have gone unnoticed will now be noticed. And since the disease has an incubation period of one to three weeks, it’s about time for people who were exposed early on to come down sick.

Why, thn, do we have such an unusual number and range of cases showing up outside of Africa? Hammer said we’re looking at two possibilities, although it sounds to me like two and a half. We’ll count it out my way, since she’s not watching.

1, The virus is inherently different now,

1a, our susceptibility has changed,

or 2, a perfect storm of conditions has allowed the virus to spread the way it has. 

She thinks number 2 is the most likely. Let’s back that up with a quote from Keith Neal of Nottingham University. “Has the virus changed? Well, it does not actually appear to be any more lethal, though something may have affected transmissibility. And don’t forget, this is a DNA virus and is unlikely to mutate at the rates that RNA viruses do. . . . I am not too worried.”

Researcher Romulus Breban thinks that, given the number of people who have not been vaccinated against smallpox, this was waiting to happen.”

“Our immunity level is almost zero,” he said. “People over 50 are likely to be immune, but the rest of us . . . [are] very, very susceptible.”

In short, this doesn’t sound like the next thing that’s going to kill us all. So settle down, everyone. Just be careful who breathes into your face, whose skin you rub, and whose bedding you handle. Not to mention who you go to bed with. 

That last part is probably good advice anyway.

*

I skimmed through Twitter the other day and spotted an early-stage, monkeypox-related  rabbit hole, which told me that the bad guys are working the good but credulous folks into a state of hysteria over nothing. Again. Not that they need to bother if hysteria’s their goal. The Twitteratti are doing it for them.

Who are the aforesaid bad guys? Depends who you ask. Dr. Fauci, George Soros, the Pfizer corporation, and the government (choose your least favorite or simply the one where you live) all got a mention, and all that was before I’d read for more than a minute. I’m sure the list is longer–and if you believe the theories, they’re all in it together. If I’d dug deeper, I expect I’d have found an international conspiracy of woke neo-Marxist professors of post-structural critical race theory and a cabal of international communist Jewish bankers. 

Has anyone noticed how few bankers turn out to be Communists, and vice versa? How you can find enough to mount a decent conspiracy is beyond me, but never mind. Why ruin a good theory? Whoever they are, they’re out to get us.

I’m not actually sure the denizens of this incipient rabbit hole have to agree on who the they here is. Or are.The whole business puts as much of a strain on grammar as it does on logic. 

 

The inflation news 

With inflation rising at a level Britain hasn’t seen in 40 years, a handful of Conservative MPs (that’s members of parliament) have demonstrated a breathtaking understanding of what it means to live on a low income. 

Lee Anderson opened the discussion by saying the country doesn’t need all those pesky food banks. The problem is that poor people don’t know how to budget or cook from scratch. If they did, they could make themselves a meal for 30 p. (To translate that to dollars, about 40 cents.)

So Welsh chef Gareth Mason took up the challenge.

 “I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “These meals I’ve done, as soon as you put any protein or dairy into them, it’s not feasible to do it for 30p.

“If you eat beans on toast for every meal, it might work, but even if you did cheese on toast, the cost of cheese would be more than 30p on its own. And you have the cooking cost on top of the cost of the food.”

Yes, money’s tight enough and energy bills are high enough that people are asking themselves whether they can afford to turn on the oven. Or the stove, although they’d call it a cooker.

“Even if this MP is talking about batch cooking army food, even the smallest amount of spaghetti bolognese is going to go above 30p.”

An adult, he said, would struggle to get the recommended number of calories.

I’m grateful to Mason for doing the research, because it gives those of us who already knew it was rubbish someone authoritative to quote.

*

Meanwhile, Rachel Maclean said people struggling with the cost of living should get better jobs. You know, the kind of jobs that pay more. Or they should work more hours. 

See, that’s the trouble with poor people. They don’t think of things like that. 

If poor people became MPs, for example, they could claim–as the average MP does–£203,000 just for expenses, although Maclean claimed £10,000 more than that.  

She, by the way, is the government’s minister for safeguarding, meaning she’s in charge of protecting an assortment of vulnerable people from the kind of stuff they’re vulnerable to. I haven’t noticed any of that going particularly well, but never mind. The pay’s good and–see?–she’s not poor, so maybe the two are connected

*

So how bad is inflation? At the beginning of April, it hit 9%, and the less money you make the higher your personal inflation rate is, because you spend more of your income on food and energy, which have risen more than (and I write this next bit with without checking either my figures or my stereotypes) yachts and champagne, pushing your personal inflation rate in the double digits. Silly you; if you had your priorities straight, you’d forget about food, rent, and heat and spend your money on something with a lower inflation rate.

To put numbers to that, the inflation for the poorest 10% of the  population is 3 percentage points higher than it is for the richest 10%.

The situation is bad enough that Andy Cooke, the chief inspector of constabulary, said police should use their discretion in deciding whether to prosecute people who steal because they need to eat. 

Which led Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, to say the idea that inflation would cause more crime was “old-fashioned.” He’s told officers not to let people off just because they’re desperate and stealing food. 

Okay, he didn’t mention desperation. I’m not sure he understands its connection to money. Or hunger.

What he did say was, “I have to challenge this connection between poverty and crime. What we’ve found in the past, and where there is now growing evidence, is that actually crime is a contributor to poverty. That if you remove the violence and the crime from people’s lives they generally prosper more than they otherwise would.”

So first we take away the violence. As a result, people’s paychecks get larger. Their rent gets lower. Why hasn’t anyone mentioned this before? All we have to do now is figure out how they feed themselves and their kids while they wait for the magic to kick in. 

What do all these people I’m quoting actually do? The chief inspector of constabulary heads the independent body that assesses police forces in England and Wales.  The policing minister is part of the government–in other words, a member of the party in power (the Conservatives, known for their compassion, their competence, and the parties they threw when they’d locked down the rest of the country). He does something or other in that connection, although I have no idea what and I’m not convinced that he does either.

*

We’ll give the final word to the prime minister, who tells us that work is the best way to get out of poverty. This from a man who can’t tell work from a party, which is why he ever so accidentally broke his own lockdown rules. 

*

Nah, let’s not give him the last word, let’s give it to Oxfam, which reports that, worldwide, the pandemic has created a new billionaire every 30 hours–and it expects a million people to be pushed into extreme poverty every 33 hours this year. 

Billionaires’ wealth has risen more in the first 24 months of COVID-19 than in 23 years combined. The total wealth of the world’s billionaires is now equivalent to 13.9 percent of global GDP. This is a three-fold increase (up from 4.4 percent) in 2000. . . .

“The fortunes of food and energy billionaires have risen by $453 billion in the last two years, equivalent to $1 billion every two days. Five of the largest energy companies (BP, Shell, TotalEnergies, Exxon and Chevron) are together making $2,600 profit every second, and there are now 62 new food billionaires. . . .

”The pandemic has created 40 new pharma billionaires. Pharmaceutical corporations like Moderna and Pfizer are making $1,000 profit every second just from their monopoly control of the COVID-19 vaccine, despite its development having been supported by billions of dollars in public investments. They are charging governments up to 24 times more than the potential cost of generic production. 87 percent of people in low-income countries have still not been fully vaccinated.”

Just sayin’, as one of our godkids used to say.

Are the expiration dates on Covid tests for real?

I raise this question because I’m an expiration date-denier, at least in most situations. I’ll bake with flour that’s older than I am. I don’t toss food out until it reeks or evolves new life forms. I don’t take orders from the small print on food packaging. 

To my lasting disappointment, though, test kits do get to boss us around. When they pass their use-by date, they start returning false negatives. And the worst of it is, they expect us to be at least a little sympathetic about it. Wouldn’t we get tired of sitting on a shelf and waiting for someone to decide they might have a use for us? And don’t we also turn a little negative with all that passivity and waiting? 

So apologies, but we really do need to pay attention. 

When do the ones on my shelf expire? Haven’t a clue. I should go look but I think I’ll wait and go into a panic about it when I need one.

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

*

Remember everything hopeful I’ve written about the possibility of universal Covid vaccines? 

Of course you do. You memorize every word I write. Which is good, because I don’t.

I ask because we’ve got some new Omicron subvariants working their way into the pandemic pipeline, and although they don’t seem to be any more vicious than the old versions, they do seem to be better at immunities. 

The one spreading in the US is called BA.2.12.1, which as far as I can tell means it’s a variant on Omicron 2.0. The others were spotted in South Africa and are called BA.4 and BA.5, which are, at least, easier to remember.

Is it time to panic? Nah. There’s always time for that later. 

The new subvariants are able to infect people who had the first version of Omicron–the one that came out before Elon Musk bought the entire genome. They can also infect people who’ve been vaccinated. But the picture isn’t simple. A lot of vaccines are out there and the study couldn’t cover them all. They may provide greater protection. And in case that doesn’t introduce enough unknown quantities, the variants’ ability to slither past people’s immunities could be, in part, because people’s immunity was starting to wane. It could also be because so many people spell Musk’s first name wrong. So don’t jump to conclusions.

What does it all mean for the fight against Covid? A lot of experts are asking that, including the vaccine makers, who could tweak their vaccines to target Omicron and find themselves, yet again, three steps behind a virus that knows the Greek alphabet better than they do. Translation: We don’t know what the next variants will look like (never mind what letter it will be named after), but we do know that a new variant will appear. And experience tells us that Covid’s good at finding ways to dodge our immune systems.

The obvious solution is a vaccine that targets all forms of Covid, and possibly its coronavirus friends and relations as well, and any number of scientists are chasing after that. But they haven’t caught it yet. It’s fast, it’s clever, and it’s small enough to hide in the undergrowth.

Another possibility is to use a mix of monoclonal antibodies that target various strains of Covid. 

A mix of what? A brew made from antibodies created in response to assorted forms of Covid. Pour the mix into an infected person’s system and it can get to work on whatever it finds.

The problem is cost. One dose currently costs $1,000 per patient, so at best it would have to be limited to the most vulnerable people, and only in countries that can afford it. Or if you’re in the US, it would be limited to individuals who can afford it.But if the brew could be gotten down to $50 or $100 per dose, it would be cheaper than constantly updating vaccines.

What does seem to be certain–at least to observers who haven’t drunk the KoolAid labeled “What the Hell, Let’s Say It’s Endemic and Move On”–is that letting the virus spread and mutate while we shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves to live with it is a recipe for trouble.

Sorry–make that more trouble than we already have, since we’re hardly trouble-free just now.

 

Studies, updates, and patent pools on the spread of Covid

According to one study, you’re a thousand times less likely to catch Covid from touching stuff than you are from breathing in its presence. That’s true not only of you, but also of your friends, your relatives, and your enemies (if you have any, and if you don’t please substitute a few people you never managed to like. And also of me. So if you’re still trying to find that pack of disinfectant wipes you lost at the back of your cupboard (or your neighbors’ cupboard–who knows how these things happen?), relax. You may not need them.

Emphasis, as usual, on may.

Details? Oh, you fussy people. The study was done when lots of antibacterial cleaning was going on and crowds were nonexistent, so let’s not go off the deep end and decide it translates completely to the world we’re living in now. Still, it’s information and it’s worth reading:

The riskiest places, in terms of both air and surface samples, were gyms, with gym drinking fountains rating high on the list of things to avoid. The exercise equipment itself didn’t turn up any positive samples. 

In offices, the study found few positive samples on keyboards, light switches, tables, microwaves, or refrigerator handles. In schools, the same was true of desks.

The survey estimates that the chances of getting Covid after airborne exposure are one in a hundred. From a contaminated surface, it’s one in a hundred thousand–factoring in, of course, that a lot of cleaning was going on at the time, so you might want to move a zero or a decimal point in some random direction to make up for that.

The study didn’t look at the surfaces in people’s homes, dorms, or other places where people live together. I’m not sure how useful any of it is, but I thought I’d mention it.

*

A different study looked at the effect of what it called layered controls–basically, masks, distance, and ventilation–and found that the three used together would reduce Covid transmission by 98% in 95% of the scenarios it studied. The study involved the gloriously named atmospheric scientist Laura Fierce. She gets a mention solely on the basis of her last name. 

Ventilation alone doesn’t do much to reduce transmission, although if you add in a distance of six feet it does, and masks reduce the safe distance from six feet to three. 

This is all wonderfully sensible, but are we going to do it? Hell no. The pandemic’s over, hadn’t you heard? If you get sick, it’s your own silly fault.

It’s infuriating. Allow me to refer you to the scientist mentioned above. We need to clone her. 

*

A research team in Japan is developing a decoy virus receptor that promises to keep the virus so entranced that it never finds the human cells it set out to infect.This is in the early stages yet, so we don’t know if it’ll keep its promises, but if it does it should stand up to Covid’s shape-shifting ways, at least for a decent interval. 

It doesn’t sound like the decoy would completely neutralize the virus. They’re still talking about less severe infection and increased chances of survival. But staying a step ahead of the virus’s evolution would be good.

*

And finally, a bit of good news: The US has put the licenses for eleven Covid-related technologies into a patent pool so that low- and middle-income countries can access them. 

I gather that we don’t have poor countries anymore. We have low-income ones. 

Never mind. The patents include vaccines, drugs, research tools, and diagnostic whatsits. 

The bad news? In some cases, this only gets rid of one roadblock. Countries that want to work with these technologies would still need to negotiate with other patent holders, since nothing about this disease is simple, including who owns what. Nonetheless, it could help pressure companies to do the decent thing, and it could also increase the odds of the World Health Organization making medicines and vaccines available more quickly in the future.

Or so I read. It’s not as if I actually know this stuff.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” according to James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, which pushes (reckless radicals that they are) for intellectual property to be shared so it benefits the public. 

Sexism and tractor porn in British politics

You’ve gotta love British politics. Not for what it does or how it works but for its sheer insanity.

At the end of April, Neil Parish, a Conservative MP, was looking at porn sites in the House of Commons–so that’s during working hours and in public–when a couple of his fellow MPs couldn’t help noticing. 

A couple of female fellow MPs, wording that calls attention to the underlying fuckedupedness of the English language, since the word fellow tells us we’re talking about the male of the species, although we’re not. The language doesn’t offer us a parallel word for females or for humans of both or unspecified genders. But never mind that. It’s the language we have, so let’s work with it. We can argue about fixing it when we have the time. In, say, a few hundred years if the species (not to mention the language) is still functioning.

My spellcheck program (since we’ve taken a break to talk about wording) doesn’t stub its toe on fuckedupedness. It just smiles and continues across the kitchen to pick up the mouse parts the cat left in the night. So let’s assume it’s a word English relies on heavily.

At long last, I bring you a relevant photo: This lovely flower is called honesty. What could be more appropriate?

But back to our friend Neil: The aforesaid fellow MPs went public about him watching porn at work and all hell broke loose. And since the incident followed on the heels of another public incident of sexism in the House of Commons, it all turned into a particularly shit-filled shitstorm. (Spell check also accepts shitstorm. Don’t you love the way language evolves?) 

The earlier incident? One of our trashier national newspapers quoted an unnamed MP as saying that Angela Raynor, a leader of the Opposition (that’s the Labour Party), made a point of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the prime minister (who’s from the Conservative Party and male) when he was speaking. 

The nerve of her. Any decent woman would have wrapped said legs in burlap. (That’s hessian in British.) Honestly, none of this would be necessary if women would stop showing their ankles in public. How are men supposed to concentrate on running the country with women’s body parts on display everywhere they look?

Where were we before I indulged in that fit of decency? All hell had already broken loose about sexism in Parliament, and in rode Neil Parish and his (I assume) smart phone, although for all I know it could’ve been a laptop, with a bigger screen showing bigger pictures of improbably enlarged body parts.

After a bit of unconvincing waffle (he might have looked at porn, but it might have been by accident), he admitted that he’d watched porn in the Commons twice, but the first time it really did happen by accident. See, he’d been looking for pictures of tractors when up popped (so to speak) this porn site.  

It could happen to anyone. And to be fair, it’s no sillier than the excuse someone offered for one of Boris Johnson’s breaches of his own lockdown rules: He was ambushed by a birthday cake.

Which might or might not have been on a tractor.

*

All of this opened the door to a public discussion of sexism in Parliament, and (refreshingly) it’s not just the opposition parties doing the talking. Women in the Conservative Party–again, that’s the party in power–have waded in, with one suggesting that male MPs should all keep their hands in their pockets, because there isn’t a woman in Parliament who hadn’t been subjected to “wandering hands.” 

What the suggestion lacks in effectiveness it makes up for in evocativeness.

I’ll spare you the specific examples. You’ve heard it all before, and if you’re of the female persuasion you’ve experienced it, but last I heard 56 MPs had been accused of sexual misconduct in one form or another.

To demonstrate how thoroughly the government doesn’t get it, the business minister announced that although there were some bad apples, “that doesn’t mean the entire culture is extremely misogynistic or full of male entitlement.”

If you’re ever following a recipe that calls for a half pound of entitlement and you don’t have one in the refrigerator, you’re welcome to dump that one into the frying pan: The person who doesn’t experience the problem tells the people who do that it’s not as extensive as their silly little minds let them think it is. Because he understands the situation better they possibly could.

*

Not entirely unrelated to this is a 2020 survey reporting that MPs drink more heavily than the general population, with 29% of the ones who answered the survey falling into the risky drinking category. The survey doesn’t seem to have looked at whether they drink at work or after, but the building that houses Parliament is full of bars, and the booze is comparatively cheap. My money’s on a lot of it happening during working hours.

The business secretary (remember him?) said closing the bars would be an “excessively puritanical” response to the problem of sexism in Parliament.

At least he didn’t say “boys will be boys.” At least not in public.

 

The role of traffic cones in British politics

The combination of Tractorgate, Partygate (that’s Boris Johnson breaking his own lockdown rules), and epidemic government incompetence led me to learn a new political phrase: a cones hotline moment. It came into existence when John Major’s government had lost its way in the dark and decided it could generate light by launching a proposal so spectacularly lightless that it became Westminster shorthand for the moment when (warning: metaphor shift ahead) the rising water reaches the governmental nostrils and the only thing anyone can think to do is spend money on a phone line so people can complain about something they know won’t change. In Major’s case, the subject was roadworks. Which is disappointing. Based on the name, I was hoping it was about rogue traffic cones.

I owe thanks to Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, for that information.

Has the Johnson government reached its cones hotline moment? Possibly. As the cost of living soars and increasing numbers of people struggle to pay the rent, stay warm, and feed themselves (choose two, or in some cases one and a half), what does the government offer by way of help? Well, if you own a ride-on mower or a golf cart (called a golf buggy in British), it will save you some £50 a year by scrapping a European Union requirement that you insure it as if it was a car. 

Then it called on us to admire the glories Brexit has brought us.

Embarrassingly, the EU’s already scrapped the requirement. And it did so before Britain got around to it. But if the initiative appeals to you, I have a traffic cone hotline that I’d be happy to sell you. If you hurry, you can get it for 30% off.

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As people struggle to keep up with inflation and the government reorganizes the traffic cones on the Titanic, another Conservative MP delivered his informed opinion about food banks: The only reason people are using food banks is that they don’t know how to cook cheap, nutritious meals from scratch. And they can’t budget, the silly creatures.

The best answer came from Jack Monroe, a food poverty campaigner and a single mother who actually made a career out of recipes using cheap food:

“You can’t cook meals from scratch with nothing. You can’t buy cheap food with nothing. The issue is not ‘skills,’ it’s 12 years of Conservative cuts to social support. The square root of fuck all is ALWAYS going to be fuck all.”

 

In the US, Sarah Palin faces off with someone she’d have thought was an ally

From there, it’s only a small step to American politics:

Remember Sarah Palin? John McCain picked her as his running mate in a presidential election and a lot of silly people–I was one of them–thought US politics could sink no lower. 

Yeah, some jokes aren’t funny but I keep trying.

Sarah’s running for the House of Representatives, hoping to complete the term of someone who died in office, possibly of embarrassment. One of the people running against her is Santa Claus. He lives in North Pole, Alaska, possesses a luxuriant white beard, and changed his name from Tom O’Connor in 2005.

Yes, now that you ask, the new name has caused him problems with airport security once or twice. 

He used to work in law enforcement and although he’s politically unaffiliated his politics have more in common with Bernie Sanders’ than with Palin’s.

This is where I should insert something approximating a punchline but I haven’t come up with one. Sorry.

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In other US news, three former US officials–all unnamed, although presumably they had names soon after birth–told Rolling Stone that Donald Trump asked his aides, repeatedly, if China wasn’t maybe, please, using a “hurricane gun” to create hurricanes and send them to the US. And could the US retaliate militarily.

Maybe, he suggested, they could destroy the storms with nuclear weapons.

One of his press secretaris, Stephanie Grisham, said, “Stuff like that was not unusual for him. He would blurt out crazy things all the time, and tell aides to look into it or do something about it. His staff would say they’d look into, knowing that more often than not, he’d forget about it quickly – much like a toddler.”

 

Vigilantes face down the vigilantes

Remember Canada’s convoy of honking trucks protesting Covid restrictions? Well, a similar convoy gathered, complete  with bullhorns, outside a California lawmaker’s home to protest her work on a bill that would end coroner investigations of still births and require state businesses to mandate Covid vaccines for their employees.

That’s one bill? Apparently. Or maybe they’re two separate bills these guys objected to. Don’t ask me.

This convoy was run out of town by the legislator’s neighbors, who threw eggs and jumped onto the trucks to go nose to nose with the drivers. 

That’s the annoying thing about threatening, vigilante-type behavior: It’s only fun when you’re winning. 

 

And from the world of conspiracy theories

Have you heard of the claim that birds aren’t real? It occupies an uncomfortable space between conspiracy theory and satire. It started right after Trump was elected, when a guy named Peter McIndoe was watching the women’s march in Memphis and noticed some counterprotesters, who he described as “older, bigger white men, . . . aggravators .  . . encroaching on something that was not their event.”

He made a placard saying, “Birds aren’t real,” and joined them. The idea was to make an absurdist statement. When people asked what it meant, he ad libbed, saying he was part of a movement that had been around for fifty years and had tried and failed to save American birds, which were destroyed by the deep state and replaced with feathered surveillance drones.

Someone filmed him and put it on Facebook, where it went viral. Then it became a movement. People have chanted it at high school football games and shown up here and there with banners and signs. Admittedly, it didn’t spread all on its own. Once he saw what was happening, he gave it a fair bit of encouragement and some organizational structure. 

So how many people get the joke? 

Some. 

McIndoe gives interviews in character as a conspiracy believer, and some of his interviewers–the shock jocks of the world–treat him not quite as if he’s bringing the truth down from Mount Whatever but not as an obvious nutburger. They don’t say, “You do know that’s bonkers, right?” They’re noncommittal. They say things like, “Huh. That’s bad.”

“Real conspiracy theorists will approach me like I’m their brother,” McIndoe said, “like I’m part of their team. They will start spouting hateful rhetoric and racist ideas, because they feel as if I’m safe.” 

It sounds like that’s evolving, though. Now “they think Birds Aren’t Real is a CIA psy-op. They think that we are the CIA, we’re put out there as a weapon against conspiracy theorists.”

For the people who do get the joke, though, “It is a collective role-playing experiment. There is true community found through this, it breaks down political barriers. We have taken pictures of a car park at a Birds Aren’t Real rally. There are people who will show up with a US flag on their car, Republican, patriotic, and a car right next to them with Bernie Sanders stickers. I was a Bernie guy myself. You see these people marching together, unified.”

I wouldn’t count on it to heal the fractured country, but it might offer us a short vacation from focusing on the conflict.

 

And unrelated to any of that

I just discovered that Yahoo, in its wisdom, has been dumping several categories of WordPress notifications into my spam folder, which I haven’t checked since our older dog was a kitten. I thought it had gotten quiet out there, but I’ve been stretched thin enough that I didn’t give it much thought. On top of that, WordPress itself has indulged in a badly judged fit of self-improvement and most of its notifications no longer let me drop in on the blogs of the people who send them, which I enjoyed doing before WP tripped over its own feet and made that somewhere between difficult and impossible. So if you’ve noticed my absence (I wouldn’t have, so I’m not expecting you to be moping over it), we have two entities to blame–and neither of them are me.

Other People Manage

Other People Manage is a novel about hard-earned, everyday love. It’s about family, about loss, about the pain we all carry inside and the love that gets us through the day. 
 
It begins in 1970s Minneapolis, with Marge and Peg meeting at the Women’s Coffeehouse. They stay together for decades but live in the shadow of a tragedy that struck early in their relationship. Then Peg dies, leaving Marge to work out what she has left in her life and if she still belongs in the family she’s adopted as her own.
 
“It is rare that a novel of such quiet observation and gentle introspection moves me as profoundly as Other People Manage. . . . A tender and beautiful addition to the literary canon, and a mirror for LGBT readers.”
                                                                                       – Joelle Taylor, in The Irish Times
“A quietly devastating novel about our failings and how we cope.”
                                                                                 – Patrick Gale
“A story that is painful and difficult at the same time that it is deeply rewarding”
                                                                                 – David Huddle
If you already know about the book, my apologies. The thing is, when you publish a book it’s your duty to pester everyone within shouting distance. If I’ve already bothered you, wear earplugs.
You can find a review here.
If you live in Britain–or within reach of the British publishing world–it’s available in bookstores and online. If you’re in the US or anywhere else outside the reach of British publishing, you can order it from Waterstones (they ship internationally and also carry an e-edition). Or get it from the Evil Amazon.
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Sorry not to offer a real post this week. I’ve been meaning to send this out anyway, and I need a short break. Back next week with some form of mayhem.

Saffron in Britain: a quick history

People in fourteenth-century Europe were desperate to get their hands on saffron, which they used, among other things, as a medicine against the plague. Or they were if they could afford it, which most people couldn’t because it was wildly expensive, so let’s add “rich” before “people” in that sentence. It was expensive enough that pirates often preferred saffron to gold–it was worth more and easier to lift.

C’mon, even pirates can get bad backs.

 

How saffron got to England

According to legend, saffron got to England as an illegal immigrant, traveling inside a Crusader’s hollow staff. He picked it up, still according to legend, returning from the Middle East by way of Spain, and if you’re a fan of irony, you might enjoy knowing that it was  the Arabs–the people that hollow-staffed Crusader would’ve been fighting–who brought saffron to Spain so he could steal some.

Why did the Crusader (in a sanitized version of the tale,he was a pilgrim) have to smuggle it? Because he’d stolen it. Places that produced saffron wanted to prevent competition, so for example Basel (which admittedly wasn’t in Spain, even during the Crusades) made it illegal to take a corm out of the city and guards protected the plants when they were growing.

A rare relevant photo: The ones in the foreground are crocuses.

Was that true in Spain? Dunno. It’s a legend. Let’s slip that illegal corm into a pocket and move on before anyone notices the geographical switcheroo.

What’s all this corm business, though? 

Well, kiddies, saffron comes from the crocus plant–the Crocus stativus–which grows from a corm. And a corm is what you and I, in our ignorance, would probably call a bulb. The difference is that a corm is–oh, hell, it’s complicated. A corm is rounder than a bulb and it’s solid. That’s enough to let us pretend we know something. 

You can probably smuggle a corm inside a hollow staff if you don’t pound it around too much and if you just happen to have a hollow staff on hand, but whatever happened took place outside the range of the CCTV cameras, so we’ll never know for sure. 

A different version of saffron’s British history has it landing in Cornwall multiple centuries earlier, not necessarily as a corm but in the form of a spice that could be traded again and again for Cornish tin. As far back as three thousand years ago, Cornwall was trading with the Middle East, so it’s entirely possible that tin was traded for saffron, but the ice is getting thin here and we might want to scuttle back to shore before we break through.  

Before I dump a new subread on you, though, I should explain that the word sativus in Crocus sativus doesn’t mean the saffron crocus is related to Cannabis sativa. Sativa or sativus is Latin for cultivated, not for formerly illegal and still mind bending.

 

How to get from crocus to saffron 

So much for legend. What’s clear is that saffron arrived in England (and by this time Cornwall was part of England), and from the fourteenth century onwards it was an important commodity. It was used in dying, in cooking, and in medicines, and (sorry to repeat myself) it was and is incredibly expensive. These days, it’s the world’s most expensive spice. 

That’s not because it’s rare or hard to grow–make a crocus plant happy and it will spread all on its own–but because you only use a small part of it to make saffron. According to the Britannica“What we use . . . is actually the stigma (plural stigmata)—the pollen-germinating part—at the end of the red pistil, the female sex organ of the plant.” 

Harvesting those tiny little sex organs (try not to think about it; you’ll be happier) involves crawling along the ground and cutting a very low-growing flower, then throwing away most of it. Along the way, you have to separate the stigmata (each plant has three) and their stems (those are the pistils) and dry them. 

Do that with 75,000 plants (or 150,000, depending on your source) and you’ve got yourself a pound of saffron. In 2018, that pound sold for $5,000. 

The next most expensive spice, vanilla, sold for $600.

 

Could we get back to English history, please?

Fine. If we can agree that the stuff’s expensive, we’re ready to go back and look at it as a luxury item.

Starting in the fourteenth century, England became a major producer of saffron, and the chalky soil of Essex and south Cambridgeshire turned out to be well suited to it. Smallholders–people raising crops on small amounts of land–who’d once been subsistence farmers planted it as a cash crop, probably not replacing all the crops they lived on but as an addition. An acre planted in crocuses could bring in £6–a hefty amount of money at the time. Saffron became so important to the local economy that the town of Chipping (or Chepyng–they couldn’t spell for shit back then, but it  meant market) Walden changed its name to Saffron Walden.

According to the historian Rowland Parker, successful cultivation depended heavily on unpaid labor, which was a major part of the farm economy for a couple of the centuries we’re talking about. Serfs owed labor to their lords. Smallholders had families, preferably large ones. 

I relied on WikiWhatsia for that. I avoid it when I can, but I’m tired this week and can’t be bothered. My apologies to the world at large. In general, it’s as reliable as the grown-up encyclopedias, but when it fucks up it can do it spectacularly. And I did confirm a few bits, so the entry looks reliable, at least at the moment.

The Cambridge colleges used saffron heavily. Smallholders who rented land from them could pay their rent in it, and some of the colleges used it to pay their own bills, making it a kind of currency. 

But currency or not, academics also used it in food and as medicine. And they sprinkled it on floors and tossed it into their fires (talk about burning money) as a disinfectant. That was probably just a few academics–the richest ones, making a point of being the richest ones.

 

Nothing lasts forever, though, does it?

Change came in response to several things. As the spice trade grew, other offerings became available, and they weren’t only new and exciting, they were cheaper. The elite could spend their money on vanilla, tea, chocolate, and coffee. All of those were outrageous luxuries for a while.

Saffron? That was so last century.

Synthetic dyes also began to replace natural ones. And as the wage economy grew, people left the countryside and that pool of unpaid labor wasn’t around to dip a seasonal bucket into. Growers replaced saffron with the newly introduced crops: potatoes and corn. 

Corn? Sorry. I’m still basically American. The British call it maize, since they call pretty much any old grain corn

If that list of changes doesn’t sound like enough to explain saffron’s decline, consider the Puritans, who wandered in to disapprove of this saffron-burning culture of excess. They wanted their clothing plain, their food plain, and their fires unbothered by show-off gestures. 

Saffron cultivation and usage declined, but in Cornwall, saffron buns and saffron cakes are a long-standing tradition. 

How long-standing? The sources I’ve found hide behind some vague wording about them being traditional, which means they don’t have to commit themselves on how far back the tradition goes.

 

Saffron Buns

I haven’t posted a recipe in an age, but I do make a mean saffron bun–and if you don’t speak American, mean in this context is a good thing. In spite of my accent, they sell well at bake sales and the local farmer’s market.

Don’t be put off by what I said about the cost of saffron. You won’t be buying it by the pound. All you’ll need is a pinch. 

 

Ingredients

A large pinch of saffron

300 grams of bread flour (or whatever substitutes for that where you live)

65 grams of butter, softened

25 grams of sugar

1 tsp yeast (use fast acting–it’s easier)

90 grams currants (or raisins if need be)

45 grams of candied peel (I never do get around to adding this)

Milk (the recipe I started with calls for 120 milliliters, but I always need more)

 

What to do with the ingredients

Crush the saffron and soak it in just enough boiling water to cover it. Cut the butter into the flour. Mix in the sugar, salt, yeast, and fruit. Add the saffron, in its water, and enough milk to form a dough. Don’t let it get too wet, because the buns have to hold their shape. 

Knead it until it’s silky–about 10 minutes by hand, about 5 in a mixer. Cover and let it rise. How long will depend on the temperature of your kitchen, but if you have to punch it down and let it rise again, it’ll be fine. 

Cut into 8 pieces and form into rolls. Bake them on a cookie sheet–called a baking tray in Britain–and use greaseproof paper or baking parchment if you have it. Otherwise, oil the tray. 

Let them rise half an hour or so, until the dough has a little spring in it.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes at 170 C. (that’s 350 F., give or take a bit). To check if they’re done, turn one over and tap the bottom. It should sound vaguely drumlike.

Cool. Butter. Eat. Toast if that appeals to you.