How the scone discovered Britain

Like so many of the things I write about here, the history of the scone is murky.

But first a definition. And if you already know what a scone is, stay with me for the pleasure of watching me fall on my face as I struggle to do something simple.

Definition

Lord Google will tell you that the scone is a small, unsweetened or lightly sweetened cake. Lord Google couldn’t find his ass with his many floury hands. A scone is not a cake, it’s a baked thing made without yeast.

And that, my friends, is why I’m not in the dictionary business.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Oh, hell, I think I used this one not long ago.

Wikiwhatsia does a more accurate if less specific and less linguistically convincing job by defining it as a baked good.

Can a baked good survive without enough friends to become baked goods, plural? And if it can, is a baked evil lurking out there somewhere? Don’t we have enough to worry about in the world today?

The first stumbling block in defining the scone is that what things taste like runs off the edge of the English language. And probably of other languages.

The next stumbling block is that different recipes find different ways to make the dough rise, so you can’t define it by that. It can be made with assorted combinations of baking powder; cream of tartar; bicarbonate of soda, which Americans know as baking soda; self-raising (or self-rising) flour, which is cheating but go on, it’s your kitchen and no one’s watching. So you end up defining it by what it doesn’t use: yeast.

Defining things by what they don’t include is inherently dangerous. Scones also don’t include chopped liver. Or gravel. They don’t include fire extinguishers or (at least in my experience) pickled onions. The world is rich in things they don’t include.

But in spite of that, let’s charge in where angels fear to bake and talk about what a scone isn’t: It’s not highly sweetened. It’s not a cake. It’s not a baking powder biscuit. It’s not an American scone because the American scone takes the British scone and adds steroids. It’s also not an anvil or a soup or an armchair.

You’re welcome. I do try to be helpful.

And there endeth in failure my attempts to define the thing. Aren’t you glad you stuck around?

Variations

Whatever the scone is, the British eat it happily, generally with butter and jam or (in the southwest, if they’re going to hell in a handbasket) with clotted cream and jam. Or if they’re me (which of course they’re not; I’m more American than British, no matter how long I’ve been here), just with butter.

All that changes if the scones are savory, which means not sweet and spelled with an extra U but it went wandering somewhere and I can’t be bothered looking for it just now. Savory scones can involve cheese or herbs or anything along those lines, in which case skip the jam and stuff and just slather on some butter and be happy.

History

The scone’s origins (and we’re back, at last, to where I should have started) are murky.

A food reference site tells me they were either originally Dutch (from the Dutch for beautiful bread, schoonbrot, or Scottish, a descendant of the Scottish oat cake. Let’s take those possibilities one at a time.

I humbliy petitioned Lord Google to translate schoonbrot for me. First he corrected my spelling: It’s schoonbrood. Then he told me it means clean bread.

I told him to dust the flour off his hands because he was getting my screen dirty, but if he’s not listening I’ll admit to you that I can actually see a connection there.

I slipped a few more words into his all-devouring maw and learned that schoonbrot is Middle Dutch, so I can keep my snarky remarks about the site where I found the word to myself.

A WikiWhatsia article translates the Middle Dutch as fine bread and says the language was first brought to England by about a third of William the Conqueror’s soldiers, who came from Dutch-speaking Flanders, and more bits of it were brought by Flemish refugees between the eleventh until the seventeenth centuries, who were fleeing floods, overpopulation, and warfare.

“When England’s population numbered 5 million, London alone had tens of thousands of Flemings, while an estimated third of the Scottish population has a Flemish background,” it said.

That’s not the same as saying that a third of the population of Scotland was Flemish, but never mind. The point is that the English language picked up a pretty fair dusting of Middle Dutch and (irrelevantly) that Britain has assimilated large numbers of refugees in the past without losing its essential Britishness, whatever the hell that may be.

So there, and also harumph.

All of that is actually more interesting than scones–at least to me–but, sigh, we’re talking about scones so let’s go back to our topic.

I made a quick effort to find out what schoonbrood was (and may still be) and found that it’s a company that sells “art by a number of painters” (a “perfect gift for someone starting his/her life in Maastricht. or leaving the city after graduation”) and also a not-uncommon last name. If it’s yours, I can point you at ways to trace your ancestry or to a possible relative who’s raising money for pancreatic cancer. Not, I assume, for the disease itself, which needs no help from us and isn’t interested in money anyway, but either for research or to support people who have it.

None of which was what I was looking for.

I tried “schoonbrood recipe” and came up with a recipe for harissa coleslaw with pomegranate and an article on emulsion polymerization (no idea what that is–I know my limits). It’s that last name business. So never mind. We’ve spent a lot of time on this and learned almost nothing. We’ll just have to assume the one baked good and the other baked good are in some way related to each other and are willing to form the happily pluralized phrase baked goods.

We’ll also assume that both are very clean because around here we wash our hands before cooking.

But where are my manners? Thank you, Lord G. I have left the usual offering of data. I’m not sure how much is in there. More than I expected, I expect.

And with that, we can move to the next possible origin for scones: Scotland in the early 1500s. These proto-scones would have been rolled out to the size of a smallish dinner plate, baked on a griddle, and cut into wedges, and they’d have been made without baking powder (or soda) because baking soda only became commercially available in 1846 and baking powder hit the store shelves a bit later. Although the ancient Egyptians did use baking soda as part of the mummification process.

If that doesn’t put you off the next baked good you see, I’m not sure what will.

Baking powder, to be technical about it, is just baking soda plus some other stuff that makes it easier to use, but it revolutionized baking. You can find an explanation here.

The scottish proto-scone would have been made of oats and barley. Or of just one of them. Whatever was grown locally, I expect.

And now we get a bit where scones go upmarket.

According to the food reference site I linked to above (and you’ll need several grains of salt to do with this, so have some at hand, please), “Scones became popular and an essential part of the fashionable ritual of taking tea in England when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788 – 1861), one late afternoon, ordered the servants to bring tea and some sweet breads, which included scones. She was so delighted by this, that she ordered it every afternoon and what now has become an English tradition is the ‘Afternoon Tea Time’ (precisely at 4:00 p.m.). They are still served daily with the traditional clotted cream topping in Britain.”

The site’s American, which you can spot by its recipes (cups, not grams and millithingies) and by its conviction that England stops dead at 4 p.m. and has afternoon tea. Also by its claim that all of Britain has scones with clotted cream.

Geez. Who knew Americans were so easy to spot?

So that’s two grains of salt.

The third one? A food historian, Joyce White, says the Duchess of Bedford’s early teas would have been dainty bread-and-butter sandwiches, not scones.

It is true, however, that the D of B introduced the idea of food with her afternoon cup of tea, because until she got loose on the tradition, having a cup of tea involved nothing more than having a cup of tea. After a longish evolution and the democratization of tea (because in her day it was both expensive and aristocratic), it’s indirectly thanks to her that we now have people talking about eating their tea. No one except outsiders like me thinks that’s an odd thing to say.

The D of B also started that business of high tea and low tea. Low tea was set on a low table. High tea involved a meal and was eaten off a table high enough to slide chairs under.

I tried to find out when the scone escaped the D of B’s elegant clutches and lowered itself to be eaten by the likes of you and me, but Lord Google and his minions (of whom, in spite of myself, I am one) aren’t interested. But escape her they did, and they now cost less than half a pound for ten at a discount supermarket. Or more. It all depends where you shop.

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Now that the scone’s baked, bagged, and priced, we can move on to tea. Because what’s a scone without a cup of tea? In the next couple of weeks, I hope to inflict on you first a post about tea and then one about opium, which most people don’t ask for with their scone and tea but is related anyway.

More news from Britain–and (as a bonus) New Zealand

This wasn’t supposed to post until next week, but what the hell, here it is: bonus.

It’s happening again: Ordinary people are weighing in on the great symbols of British culture in a struggle to reshape them to suit the modern world. The last time we followed one of these moments in any depth was when 124,000 people voted to name the UK’s newest, biggest, best, most advanced, and cleanest (since it hadn’t been used yet) polar research ship Boaty McBoatface.

They lost, as people who fight for good causes so often do, but at least something on the ship was named Boaty McBoatface. The name only gets italicized if it belongs to a boat or a ship and I can’t remember if the name was stuck on a small remotely operated sub or a mop and bucket (the mop being Boaty and the bucket McBoatface), so we’ll leave off the itals. I wouldn’t call it a win, but it was a gesture in the direction of justice.

We can blame the Natural Environment Research Council for asking what people wanted to name the ship and then ignoring the vote when they didn’t like the answer. They named the ship the Sir David Attenborough. As one headline put it, “Sir David Attenborough launches ‘Boaty’ polar ship.”

It’s got to be tough, being upstaged by something named Boaty McBoatface–and even worse when that isn’t the thing’s name.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: The white cliffs of–nope, not Dover. They’re in Dorset, near Swannage.

Having learned from that fiasco, the government isn’t asking whose face the Great British Public (GBP) wants to see on the forthcoming, horribly plasticated £50 bill. But that’s not stopping the GBP. Campaigns are underway. Give the GBP a silly cause and it will rise in its glorious thousands.

Small- and large-C conservatives are pushing for Maggie Thatcher’s image. Lefties are–typically, I suppose–pushing in several directions at once. I got a petition promoting Mary Seacole, a black Jamaican-born Briton who worked as a nurse during the Crimean War, even though Florence Nightingale wouldn’t have her. She came to be much loved, was known as Mother Seacole, and was awarded the Victoria Cross. Others are backing Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy in occupied France who died at Dachau and was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

So far, so sensible, but when I last checked the petition with the most signatures was for a picture of England defender Harry Maguire riding an inflatable unicorn and wearing not much at all. I tried to find out who Harry Maguire was and what about England he could defend on an inflatable unicorn, but the information came in a package marked, “May contain sports,” and I have a serious sports allergy so I didn’t open it. You’ll have to google him yourself. The unicorn, though? That’s a mythical beast that does not exist in the world we live in and never has. Making it all the more appropriate to grace something associated with finance.

Or at least its non-existence is true in the world where I live. The world’s weird enough that I don’t want to make assumptions about where you live or what you might be using by way of facts.

There’s also a suggestion that two stars from Only Fools and Horses should be on the bill (or note, if we’re talking British) dressed as Batman and Robin. 

That’s a sitcom reference and my allergy to sitcoms is milder than my allergy to sports, but I was too bored to open the box. You’re welcome to look inside if you want, but I’m voting for the unicorn.

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I really meant to stop writing news posts, either permanently or for long enough to convince myself I’d given everyone a much-needed break, but the news has been too good lately, although not all of it has been British.

Point of clarification: By good, I don’t mean containing good news. I don’t think there’s enough good news out there to fill out a thousand-to-two-thousand-word post. I mean that the news has contained moments of lunacy that damn near lift the depression that settles over me when I open the newspaper. To wit:

New Zealand asked the Great New Zealand Public (GNZP) to vote on its bird of the year and it chose the kereru, a Maori word that’s pronounced with a light tap on the Rs and the accent on the first syllable. I hope you’re impressed that I know that and I hope to hell I got the accent in the right place.

A tap, in case you want to try this at home (it’s quite safe), is when you tap (surprise!) your tongue on the top of your mouth, just behind the front teeth. Do that and give it some air. It should work.

The kereru (which should have a long line above the U but I have no idea where to find one or not much of an inclination to look) is basically a wood pigeon on steroids–the kind of pigeon you wouldn’t want to meet late at night in a dark alley. It’s got huge shoulders, a big chest, and a little bitty head. It’s native to both the north and south islands and to rural areas, urban areas, and dark alleys.

A wood pigeon, in case you don’t live in wood pigeon territory, already looks like a pigeon on steroids, but a lower dose than the kereru.

Why does the GNZP love the kereru? Maybe because it’s known for eating fruit that’s so old that it’s fermented, getting itself drunk on the stuff and falling out of trees. [You’ll have to fill in the blank here, because I’m not sure who actually does this] scoops them up and takes them to wildlife centers where they can sober up.

The centers won’t release them until they participate in a two-step program (they tried a twelve-step program but birds just don’t have the concentration), then they go back out and do it all over again. The recovery rate is zero, but that doesn’t stop the centers from trying.

In its sober moments, the kereru also swallows (whole) the fruit of several native trees and then plants the seeds wherever the mood takes it, along with a carefully measured bit of fertilizer. Not many birds are big enough to do that, so drunks that they are, they play an important role in the ecosystem.

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While we’re sort of on the subject of the Maori language, Coca Cola introduced a New Zealand ad campaign that–okay, I’m even more of an outsider than usual here but I think I can safely say they were looking to pick up a bit of cool by using the Maori language. So they wrote, “Kia ora, mate,” all over vending machines.

They were doing okay with kia ora, which means hello and is recognized by pretty much any New Zealander.

Mate, though? In Maori, it has two syllables and means death.

Hi, Death. Wanna Coke? 

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Back in England, the city of York has been discovered. Not by Vikings this time but by hen and stag parties.

Old as I am, I wasn’t around for the Viking raids, but if you put together an argument that the hen and stag parties do more damage than the Vikings ever did, you’d stand a fighting chance of convincing me. It’d be bullshit, of course, but it’d be funny bullshit.

Hen and stag parties are known for staggering off the trains and heading into the walled city center, where they drink themselves witless, wave inflatable penises (that’s the hen parties), and pee in the streets (that’s not just the stags).

In the interest of promoting hysteria, a local paper and unnamed city leaders said the city center had become a no-go area on Saturdays. Even though crime isn’t actually up. It’s not about danger, it’s about inflatable penises and peeing in the street.

Ah, but there’s worse to come. The thing is that when the British get drunk, they sing, and to bring order back to the city center, York is trying to keep buskers–a British word for street performers–from handing their mics over to the drunks. Because there’s nothing a British drunk wants more than to sing into a microphone. Sloppily, badly, and publicly. Patrols are handing out laminated cards that performers can show the drunks saying, more or less, “Sorry, but if I hand you my mic the Vikings will attack and so will the neighbors, and it’ll all be your fault. Go home and sleep it off.”

And since it’s on a laminated card, of course the drunks will respect it.

Has it occurred to anyone other than me that hens and stags probably shouldn’t marry each other? I don’t like to think I’m narrow minded, but cross-species marriages have some inherent problems. Especially when they’re as far apart as a mammal and a bird. Maybe if instead of getting married, they just, you know, dated or something–.

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In the interest of efficiency, Britain’s Royal Mail was partially privatized in 2013, and this year its incoming chief executive got a £5.8 million bonus for walking through the door efficiently. That would’ve been enough to hire 252 postpeople, whose starting pay is, according to one source, £23,000, although according to another the average (not the starting) pay is £22,500.

Or maybe the lower pay was for a different category of postal worker, but it’s close enough. We don’t need details to spot a small difference between the pay at the top and the pay at the bottom. 

The Communications Workers Union thought it might be worth knowing that postal workers’ pensions were cut just months before the bonus was agreed on because the Royal Mail absolutely, no fooling around, had to save money.

The outgoing CEO got a bonus of £774,000 plus twelve months’ salary, which was £547,500. For walking out the door efficiently.

Three quarters of its stockholders refused to back the incoming CEO’s bonus but it went through anyway because the vote’s only advisory. It can embarrass the company but that’s about it. Royal Mail promised to “reflect very carefully” on shareholder concerns and has admitted that it is indeed embarrassed over not having engaged with shareholders ahead of time.

You may have already guessed that “engage with shareholders” isn’t my choice of words. I stole them and I’d have loved to replace them with the kind of words that actual human beings on this planet use instead of the ones inflatable unicorns speak on some mythical planet, but I can’t think of anything a human being would say in that situation so I left them.

The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest

A man was arrested in October for trying to steal a copy of the Magna Carta. Or–depending on what news source you like–on suspicion of trying to steal it. It happened in Salisbury, where it was on display in the cathedral, so for all we know he may have been a public-spirited citizen who wanted the city to be known for something other than novichok poisonings.

But enough about him. Let’s talk about the thing he was trying to steal.

We’ll start, while we still remember that someone tried to steal it, by saying that only four copies of the 1215 Magna Carta survive. They’re written by hand (as everything was in those days) and in Latin (as everything that mattered was).

In 2015, a version from 1300 was found in the archives in Maidstone, Kent. Stay with me and you’ll see why they have different dates. It had somehow gotten filed inside the pages of a Victorian scrapbook and was (don’t ask me how these two facts can coexist) cuddled up next to a Charter of the Forest. We’ll get to the Charter of the Forest eventually, but in the meantime we can pretend it was in the scrapbook as well.

Irrelevant photo: hemp agrimony–a wildflower.

Part of this newly found version of the Magna Carta is missing, but it was still valued at around £10 million. So stealing one? Yeah, you could make a few bucks that way. Or quid, if you prefer. But put your wallet away, because it’s not for sale. It belongs to the town of Sandwich, which decided to use it as tourist bait. Presumably it’s worth more that way, at least in the long run.

The find supports the belief that the Magna Carta was issued more widely than historians had thought–that it was sent to at least fifty ports and cathedral cities.

So let’s talk about what the Magna Carta is and why it matters.

The story starts, or at least can start, as many stories from this period of English history do, with the English fighting in France, parts of which belonged to England. Or at least the English thought they belonged to England, and so did what passed for international law at the time. We’ll skip the details. What matters is that however many times England won or everyone involved worked out a peace deal, France was still across a big damn chunk of water, England’s French lands were still on the other side of the aforesaid water, and the next thing anyone knew everyone involved was fighting again.

That’s why I feel free to skip the details. Just when you get the kids all settled down to eat a meal in peace, they start the whole thing over again. If it’s not fighting over who said what to who, it’s over who lost the remote and who was the first one to throw food. Besides, we’ve already got a long post here.

All that fighting took money. Lots of money. And that money had to come from somewhere. Keep that in mind while we swerve left to avoid a pothole and explore a bit of church history.

In 1205, the archbishop of Canterbury died. The monks of Canterbury and King John couldn’t agree on the next archbishop, so they appealed to the Pope (if that sounds peaceful and cooperative, it wasn’t), who had a third candidate in mind.

King John did what any sensible adult would do in that situation, he banished the Pope’s candidate, and the Pope did what any pope would do and placed an interdict on the country, which meant that no religious services could be held. Church bells couldn’t be rung. According to one source, people couldn’t be buried, but I seriously doubt they were left lying where they dropped. Let’s agree that for the sake of public health they were put in the ground but without the religious rituals that people of the time considered necessary.

Eventually, the Pope excommunicated John, which meant his subjects were freed from their oaths of allegiance and the French were free to invade, which they did, although not until a sentence and a half from now. John felt free to confiscate church property, which he did. Then he sold it back to the church, making a profit that he used, in part, to create a navy, which he used first to invade Ireland (in case he didn’t have enough trouble) and then to defeat the French invasion that happened at the beginning of the paragraph, which has been in suspension until we got to this point.

John’s  excommunication also gave some of his barons the excuse they needed to start plotting against him. John grew suspicious. Tensions rose.

John accepted the Pope’s candidate for archbishop, humbled himself publicly, and paid 100,000 marks to compensate the church for the trouble he’d caused. That got him re-communicated. Tensions fell. Everyone kissed and made up and buried the dead bodies they’d left lying around, but none of them (that’s the living people, not the dead) liked each other any more than they had before.

Then John invaded France. It didn’t go particularly well and he returned to England trailing a whiff of cowardice, at which point the barons who’d been plotting rose against him, because if there was one thing aristocrats of the era couldn’t stand it was the scent of cowardice. The accusations of cowardice may or may not have been justified, but it didn’t matter. They’d been in conflict with him for a long time and this was a great excuse, so a few of them met with the Pope’s shiny new archbishop (who might just possibly have harbored a resentment or two) at Bury St. Edmunds and swore to fight the king if he didn’t grant them a charter.

Keep the thought of a charter in your mind while we wander off again. The story’s full of potholes. We’ll get to the charter eventually.

Charter, charter, charter, charter.

A few barons put clothespins on their noses to block that whiff and declared for John, but most of them burrowed deep in their beds and waited to see who’d come out ahead, John or the rebels. A few baronial families did even better than that: They split their allegiance, planting family members on both sides. Whatever happened, the family would come out ahead.

The rebels chose Robert FitzWalter was their leader. He’d been tangling with the king for years. But although personalities loom large in the tales that lead up to the Magna Carta, they’re not what matter most. The world’s full of personalities and conflicts between them, and most of the time they’re not much more than a background hum. It’s only occasionally that events give them space to flower. The root of the trouble seems to be what the monk Roger of Wendover described as the king’s “unjust exaction which reduced [the barons of England] to extreme poverty.”

You might want to think of that as relative extreme poverty. They were still barons. Their poverty would’ve been a peasant’s most outrageous dreams of more-than-plenty.

The newly re-communicated King John got the Pope’s backing against the rebel barons, so he had god’s support and could take the field as a crusader. The Pope excommunicated the rebels, but they also had god’s support–they declared themselves the Army of God and the Holy Church, even if the church was backing the other side.

If you believe in the same god they did, you can assume that he was, at best, confused and might understandably have decided to sit this dance out.

The barons sent John a list of demands. He read it and said, “Go fish.”

Okay, he didn’t say, “Go fish.” That’s from a kids’ card game that hadn’t been invented yet. What the kids of that era did to keep themselves out of trouble I can’t imagine. What John actually said was some era-appropriate version of “When I see pigs fly by this arrow slit that I call a window, I’ll put my name to this piece of crap.”

The barons responded by besieging Northampton, where John defeated them, but London opened its gates and FitzWalter and his Army of God marched in. King John, with his own lower case army of god, held onto the Tower of London.

The two sides negotiated and eventually met at Runnymede, a field of no particular distinction at the time but now famous for being the place where they met, where they’d agreed that John would sign the Magna Carta, which wasn’t called that yet and was the same thing John had called an era-appropriate version of “this piece of crap.” It guaranteed the rights of the Church–an interesting provision, given that the rebels were still excommunicated. It also limited some of the ways the king could exploit feudal customs, confirmed people’s rights under Common Law, and protected the barons’ from any repercussions of their rebellion.

One clause said twelve knights would be elected within every county to investigate abuses by sheriffs, foresters, and other royal officials. Another set up a committee of barons to enforce the settlement. In return, the rebels promised to surrender London.

Both sides crossed their fingers behind their backs and John signed.

Neither side kept its side of the bargain, or meant to. The rebels kept London. For his part, John sent out copies of the charter but put the sherriffs in charge of investigating abuses by the sherriffs and their cronies. He also sent a copy to the Pope, who (as John had expected) promptly nullified it. He wasn’t about to have either a king–or by extension, a pope–rule under the supervision of his subjects.

But for all that no one planned to abide by it, the charter bought both sides a short stretch of peace, which was all they’d hoped for. Then the two sides were fighting again. You had the remote last. Yeah, but you threw mashed potatoes at me. With gravy. The rebels offered the English crown to Prince Louis of France. Predictably enough, Louis’ proud father, Philip, sent troops.

Things looked bleak for John. By now, a good two-thirds of his barons had gambled on the French, and John and his troops were being harried through the countryside. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, when his army and, more importantly, his baggage train were crossing some muddy tidal flats of Lincolnshire that are called the Wash, a rising tide swept away his treasury and the crown jewels. The land there is flat and the tide, according to the BBC, which knows these things, can rise faster than a running man. Or, presumably, woman. At the full and new moons, it can outrun a horse without stopping to ask if it’s male or female.

It was all looking pretty grim for John when he played a card that turned a losing hand into a winning one: He caught dysentery and died, the clever devil. His son was crowned Henry III and he reissued the Magna Carta, which left the rebels without much to rally around. Barons changed sides and suddenly the French troops looked more French and less English than they had a few minutes before. The war changed from a civil war to a war of resistance against the French.

Louis was defeated, in a nice bit of balance, at Sandwich, which appeared early in our post, making a sandwich of the intervening potholes, detours, and information. Less helpfully, he was also defeated at Lincoln, which has nothing to do with our tale.

He withdrew in 1217.

And the Magna Carta? It was re-reissued in 1225 and again whenever the king and some element of his country were at odds with each other. In the 1270s, the Church demanded that a copy of Magna Carta be displayed on the door of every major monastery and every cathedral church.

What made the Magna Carta so important? Well, it made the king subject to the rule of law. That was not just new, it was shocking. It established the idea that taxation depended on the consent of the kingdom. A few hundred years later, the American Revolution dropped that thought into the social media of the time and it went either bacterial. Or viral–no one knew the difference then.

It–it being the Magna Carta here–also made taxation all the more necessary because it blocked many other sources of kingly revenue. So the great and powerful (although sub-royal) would now have to be summoned to give their consent to new taxes, and that opened the door, for the first time, to what would become a parliament.

In theory (and I’m borrowing this thought from a British Library video by professors David Carpenter and Nicholas Vincent) it put an end to arbitrary kingship, although in practice kings went right on being arbitary. They continued taxing and tyraninzing. “What mattered about Magna Carta . . . was Magna Carta the idea, not necessarily Magna Carta the political tool. It survived long after the tyranny of any individual king and therefore it became a point of principle rather than of practical politics.” 

Now let’s go back to the Charter of the Forest, which you could be forgiven for having forgotten was found sandwiched in with the Magna Carta in the Sandwich archives.

The Charter of the Forest was issued in 1217, when Henry III issued a new version of the Magna Carta. By then, roughly a third of the country (or of southern England, depending on your source) had become royal forest, and the king made a big honkin’ chunk of money from fining people for various offenses within its bounds. The charter reduced its area by un-foresting everything that had been added since Henry II’s time. It also got rid of capital  punishment and mutilation for poaching (which is basically hunting game that belongs to some aristocrat). People could still be fined or imprisoned for poaching, but hey, they weren’t being killed or mutilated. Progress has a  bleak sense of humor.

It allowed  free men (notice the limitations there) who had woods within the forest to put up buildings and clear land for farming.

How can people have woods within a forest? Forest, as it turns out, didn’t mean forest. Ever since the Normans conquered England, it meant an enclosed area claimed by a king or lord, along with all the huntable animals in it and the vegetation they fed on. A forest could be forest, grassland, wetlands, whatever–blue sky, presumably, if you could enclose it. The royal forest grew big enough to create a hardship for people trying to do frivolous things like farm, fish, gather fuel, pasture animals, and generally feed their families.

Where the Magna Carta was most immediately about the rights of the powerful, the Charter of the Forest was about common people’s rights. Some of its clauses stayed in force until the 1970s.

At the same time that the Charter of the Forest was issued, the Magna Carta was modified so that widows could refuse to remarry and could retain some of their husbands’ land and their rights to the common, which meant they could still make a living–a reduced one, but better than what they’d been able to do before.

It was the Charter of the Forest that established the name of the Magna Carta, which wasn’t called the Great Charter because it was fantastic, wonderful, and better looking than your average charter. It was bigger than the little charter–the Charter of the Forest. Calling it Magna was a way to keep them straight.

The Charter of the Forest isn’t as well known as the Magna Carta, but for hundreds of years every church had to read it out four times a year. It provided a legal basis for commoners–meaning people with a right under feudal law to use a common plot of land–to defend that right for centuries to come.

England has never had another king named John.

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Someone left me a comment about the Charter of the Forest a good long while ago. I’d never heard of it and without that shove wouldn’t have found it. The information’s easy enough to find, but even so you won’t find it unless you look. My thanks, and my apologies for losing track of who you are. Give me a shout and I’ll post a link to your blog.

News from Britain. And elsewhere

When Boris Johnson became Britain’s foreign secretary, he had to give up his–well, I don’t know if I should call this his day job or his night job, so let’s say his newspaper job. He was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph while he was a member of pariliament.

It’s not unusual for MPs to have outside jobs–roughly a fifth of them do. After all, their basic salary is only £79,397 plus expenses. It’s tough, but in this age of austerity what more can they expect? They have to set an example for the nation.

And the expenses? Well, after the 2009 scandal, when it turned out that one MP had claimed for a duck island and another put in a receipt for having his moat cleaned (and both claims were accepted), expenses went down for a while. Then they started up again. and in 2014 -15 they ranged from a low of around £4,000 to something in the neighborhood of £200,000.

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower. A montbretia, to be more exact–an absolutely gorgeous wildflower that spreads like mad and gives gardeners the heeby-jeebies.

Expenses are supposed to cover travel, the cost of living in London while parliament’s meeting (or in their constituency–it’s complicated, but it depends on what they claim as their primary residence; did you really want to know?), and the cost of running an office. But every so often, you know, the moat really does need a good cleaning. Mine has gone way beyond the limits of decency, but I’m waiting till I get elected because the maintenance on the damned things is just ridiculous.

But back to Boris Johnson having an outside job. Now that he’s no longer in the cabinet, he’s free to make a little much-need money, because who can live on £79,000 plus up to £200,000 in expenses? The Telegraph took pity and rehired him. For £275,000 a year, in return for which he writes a weekly column that he’s said takes ten hours a month to write. That’s £2,291 per hour. Or I trust it is. I’m riding on someone else’s calculation there. Given my gift for math, it’s better to trust even the least reliable source than mess it up myself. That way if it’s wrong I get to blame someone else. In 2009, he described the income from his column as chickenfeed.

I’d love to see the size of his chickens.

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A Costa Coffee ad has been banned from the airwaves because it bad-mouthed avocados. According to British advertising guidelines, ads aren’t allowed to discourage people from eating fruit and vegetables.

The ad talked about avocados taking 18 days, 3 hours, and 20 minutes to ripen, then going bad after 10 minutes. Costa has argued that it was only joking. The Avocado Defense League has said it doesn’t care.

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Full disclosure: There is no Avocado Defense League. Two listeners and half a dozen highly distressed avocados complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but it wasn’t a coordinated effort.

In the process of making sure that the league didn’t exist (it’s a strange world out there and you never know until you check), I learned two things; 

One, that drug cartels have been extorting money from Mexican avocado growers, because avocado export is big business. The war on drugs has had some very weird results. That’s a more important story than an anti-avocado ad, but I’m a sucker for a silly story and I can’t find much to laugh about in the serious one. 

Two, that some economic sages think the reason the millennial generation is broke is because they eat avocados. On toast. The reason these kids can’t buy a home, they say, isn’t because housing prices are too high, wages are too low, and work too unstable. It’s because the silly little hedonists frivel their money away buying avocado toast.

The ever-helpful BBC has created an avocado toast index. It tells us that in New York, you’d have to forgo 12,135 avocado toasts to save up the downpayment on a home. That’s 33 years without avocado toast. In San Francisco, you’d have to give up 12, 975 avocado toasts, waiting 44 years. London? It’s 24,499, or 67 years.

That’s calculated on the basis on one serving of avocado toast a day.

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Four East London schools closed because they were infested with false widow spiders, which can bite but don’t seem to have gotten around to it. They were too busy keeping up with their homework.

False widows arrived in Britain in 1879, in a bunch of bananas from Madeira disguised as real widows, black veils and all. Having been in the country for this long, you’d think they’d have graduated by now, but homework’s difficult when pens and pencils aren’t made for your species and you don’t have internet access.

There are four species of false widow in Britain. The ones in the London school are the noble false widow, the biggest of the bunch at around 14 mm (the males are smaller, 10 mm, or roughly a third of an inch). Still, compared to a pencil, that’s not very big. I’d make a joke about noble false widows but I can’t think of one that works well enough to be worth our time. It’s a car crash of a name, though. 

And in case you’re as clueless as I am, Madeira’s an island off the coast of Portugal. Politically, if not quite geographically, it’s part of Portugal. It’s one of those places I didn’t know I couldn’t locate until I had to locate it.

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A new typeface, sans forgetica, is supposed to help readers remember what they’re read. The theory is that by making readers work to decipher what they’re looking at, the font will–okay, I’m making this up on the spot, but it sounds credible–engage more of the brain, making the content harder to forget, or possibly even easier to remember. The font’s back-slanted and the letters have gaps that make it hard to read. I read a small piece of an article in it and have no memory of what it said. You’re welcome to try it if you like.

If you’re thinking of using it, my advice would be to forget the font and the make the content more interesting.

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Britain had another royal wedding: Prince Andrew’s daughter Eugenie married–oh, somebody or other. He works as a brand ambassador for a tequila company.

This is a job?

Andrew apparently wanted the BBC to cover the event live and in full, excruciating detail but it declined, so ITV stepped in. Three cheers for keeping the public up to date on the things that affect our lives. The aforesaid public didn’t pick up the cost of the wedding but paid for the security, which an anti-monarchist group estimates at £2 million.

I wasn’t invited. It’s all very sad, because I have a very nearly respectable pair of black jeans that I’ve been meaning to wear someplace only somehow I never do because they’re too dressy for most of the occasions I’m welcome at.

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Our solar system has a newly found dwarf planet on its outskirts, somewhere beyond Pluto. It’s been named the Goblin. Astronomers found it while they were looking for a large planet they assume is out there but haven’t located, which they call Planet Nine. The Goblin seems to be under the gravitational influence of something large but so far unseen, so the find adds to the belief that Nine is out there.

The Goblin is about 300 km, or 190 miles, across and takes 40,000 years to complete one asymmetrical orbit of the sun.

The Goblin’s formal name is 2015 TG387, but a member of the team that discovered it explained that “human examination of the candidate slow-moving objects occurred in roughly the Halloween timeframe.”

You followed that, right? It was close to Halloween when they found it.

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A free speech row has broken out over the use of the word bollocks. The founder of a London plumbing company, Charlie Mullins, was told to take down a sign saying, “Bollocks to Brexit,” which is highly visible above the company’s office.

It replaced a sign that read, “Nobody voted to be poorer,” which hung there for six months without offending the council (which is British for the local government), so Mullins is assuming the problem is the word bollocks, although he points out that a 1977 case involving the Sex Pistols ruled that the word is not obscene.

The definition of bollocks–and if you’re not British you might need this–is either testicles or nonsense, rubbish. Its origin is Middle English, which is irrelevant but interesting. At least it’s interesting if you’re something of a language geek.

Mullins said he’s prepared to go to jail but he’s not taking the sign down. To which the council says, “Bollocks.”

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A Banksy spray painting was sold at auction for more than a million pounds. Then it shredded itself.

It did what?

It shredded itself. Or the lower half of itself. Banksy–a graffiti artist who’s managed to stay anonymous while building a worldwide reputation–had somehow rigged a shredder into the frame and the canvas dropped itself neatly down into the blades, emerging in strips just after it was sold.

As I write this, a lot of things aren’t clear, including how it was done, who bought the painting, whether the auction house will hold the buyer to the contract, and whether the piece is now worth more or less or nothing at all. [A late note: The buyer decided to buy it anyway. What’s it worth? Probably a lot more. The world is insane.]

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Now that Toronto’s rid of the mayor who was caught on video smoking crack, you’d think its problems would be over, but they’ve only just started. Raccoons are riding the subways. They’re breaking into banks, crashing baseball games, and stealing donuts.

One resident found three in her kitchen eating bread. Two ran off but one not only held its ground, it grabbed hold of the broom handle the woman poked at it and yanked it. Which for reasons I can’t entirely explain seems more threatening that just grabbing the thing.

A great deal of growling and hissing went on, all of it on the part of the human.

When the raccoon had eaten every bit of bread in the house, it yawned, scratched its belly, and left through the window. The woman locked the window and the raccoon spent the next two hours scratching to get back in. It must have seen the stale hamburger bun that fell behind the refrigerator the week before.

At one point, the city tried to deal with its raccoon problem by introducing a raccoon-proof trash can with a hand-turned lock. In no time at all, the little beasts had figured out that they could tip them over, triggering a gravity-operated opening mechanism that allows the cans to be dumped into trucks.

To date, no one’s caught the raccoons smoking crack on video. They’re too clever to do it around anyone with a phone.

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Salisbury’s image has been tarnished this year by the Novichok poisoning first of a Russian resident and his visiting daughter and then, just when the city thought it might recover, of two homeless people who picked up the bottle used to transport the poison. Visitor numbers are down. Business is suffering.

What does a city do in a situation like that? Why, it hires consultants, and it asks them to rebrand the city.

Visit historic Salisbury: It’s more than just Novichok.

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In September, Megan Markle–the newly minted Duchess of Wherever and wife to Prince Whoosit–was caught on camera closing her own car door.

Yes, folks, that’s print-worthy. The BBC interviewed an etiquette and protocol coach, William Hanson, to make sure the monarchy would survive. He was reassuring and said it wasn’t a protocol breach.

I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am. If you’re not, you should be. The Guardian was so relieved that it printed rumors about what Prince Charles, Meggy’s newly minted father-in-law, won’t do for himself. You’re welcome to chase the full list down if you’re interested, but my favorite is that he has a valet iron his shoelaces. 

Allegedly.

Cold off the press: News from Britain

Let’s start with news from Britain, since that’s what we allegedly talk about here. Then we’ll wander off topic, as we usually manage to.

In June, scientists took water samples from Loch Ness to see if they could find a “biological explanation” for reports of the Loch Ness monster.

The plan was to test fragments of scales, skin, feathers, fur, feces, and urine–all that fun stufff that gets left in the water and carries DNA. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin your swim, but really, what did you think happened in there?) They expected to find invasive species and unspecified surprises down there (I know, it’s in the nature of surprises to be stuff you can’t list, so I shouldn’t complain, but I will anyway). What they didn’t really expect to find was Nessie, but dropping her name isn’t a bad way to get attention. And even scientists like attention–or some of them do anyway.

I haven’t seen any reports on what the study found. Probably because Nessie doesn’t like attention. She eats researchers if they get too close to the truth.

You heard it here first.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Or a small bit of it anyway.

To keep ourselves from being eaten, let’s take a couple of giant steps back from the water and talk about politics instead. I’ve been convinced ever since–wait: let me take my mittens off so I can count. Hmm. Turns out it’s since the Conservatives took power that I’ve been convinced the country’s being run by a random collection of amateurs. But that’s come into focus in a new way recently.

In early November, then-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told a technology conference that he “hadn’t quite understood” how heavily the U.K. relies on the crossing between the ports of Dover and Calais. The full quote is, “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.” Which led to headlines about him having just discovered that Britain is a island. And to some of his allies feeling that they had to tell the press that of course he knows it’s an island.

On behalf of all voters in the country, I’d like to say that we were relieved to know that. Every last one of us.

Dom has now resigned and is once again a lowly member of parliament. Having negotiated the Brexit agreement, he resigned to protest it. If I’m missing a piece there, someone please let me know where it got to. I’m happy to blame the cat for shoving it under the couch.

But back to this passing whim Britain had to turn itself into an island: In case your geography’s as hazy as Dom’s is, Dover’s in Britain. Calais’s in France, Paris is the capital of Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia has been divided so that the blouse is now separate from the trousers (or pants if you’re American). It just didn’t work as a jumpsuit but it still looks very nice with a scarf.

Rhode Island is not an island.

I hope that helps.

Anyway, welcome to the world, Dominic. No man is an island, but any number of countries are.

Dom isn’t alone in bringing limited knowledge, limited talent, and an impressive amount of candor to his [now former] job. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said in September, “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.”

If you’re American, that’s sort of like someone in charge of civil rights legislation saying they hadn’t known the country has a history of slavery, or that it still matters. Only, of course, the U.S. isn’t doing civil rights legislation anymore. All that unnecessary regulation is being rolled up and stuffed in the back of the closet, right next to the jeans that haven’t fit since 1964. By people who haven’t noticed that our history of slavery still drips toxins into our civic bloodstream. Or who’ve noticed but think it’s fine.

Sorry. I tried to be funny about that. Honest I did.

On a brighter note, U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, who’s responsible for media as well as culture, announced that he doesn’t read newspapers. That led the prime minister’s office to announce that she does read newspapers. 

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Yes, we all think as one over here.

When Wright became culture secretary, to prove he was up to date with modern media, he quick set up a Twitter account. I took a quick scroll through it just now and found him pleased, delighted, feeling very positive, and feeling really positive. It was all I could do to tear myself away but I knew you’d want me to report back, so here I am, energized and enlightened by my trip. 

Four days after he announced that he didn’t read newspapers, he was in the news again to explain not what he doesn’t do but what he does: He plays with Legos.

“Putting Lego together and pulling it apart again is a very therapeutic process,” he said. He mentioned having built a Death Star from 4,500 Lego bits.

It explains a lot about how policy gets assembled.

Enough politics. If we do any more of it, we’ll all get depressed.

In the Netherlands, a 69-year-old went to court to change his birth date so he’ll be twenty years younger. He compared being the wrong age to being transgender. He was born in the right body but the wrong year, although he didn’t put it quite like that.

What he did say was this: “When I’m 69, I am limited. If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work. When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”

He will also be less prone to arthritis. Now that I’m 23 again, my joints are like a 23-year-old’s. I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

But enough about me. This is about him, because he sounds like the kind of guy who’d want it to stay that way.

“It is really a question of free will,” he said.

His website says he’s in a long-term relationship with–oh, I don’t know, it was some moderate description like the most wonderful woman in the world. He’s so much in love that he spends his time on Tinder.

Humans. They make me crazy.

For no good reason, that makes my atheistic mind turn toward religion–not as in converting to one or several but as in thinking about the fact that they exist. The Church of England has created a program that allows Alexa–that clever little eavesdropper in your home (or not; I have no idea how you live or what you drag into your living room)–. Can we start that over? I made a mess of it. It programs Alexa to tell you who god is. Pour it in her electronic ear and she’ll also be able to answer questions like “what is the Bible?” and “what is a Christian?” She can say prayers for you, find nearby churches, and answer questions about weddings and funerals.

I can also answer questions about weddings and funerals: At a funeral, you bury someone. Or cremate them. Ideally, they’re dead before this happens. At weddings, two people agree to spend some absurd amount of money feeding their friends and family and getting them drunk. At the end of it, the community agrees to recognize them as a couple. Without the food and alcohol, tradition holds that they would still be single.

In some traditions, neither event is complete unless there’s a fight.

But the Church of England isn’t the only religious group to have enlisted Alexa. She’s been converted to any number of religions, even though they all claim that theirs is the only real god or set of gods. In a way I can only think of as godlike, Alexa embraces them all.

Google, meantime, has introduced Smart Compose, which will complete your sentences as you type an email. You thought predictive text was getting you in trouble? This will bring you a whole new level of mayhem to your life, introducing bland insincerity, cliched phrases and emotions, and things you didn’t mean to say at all. You write, “I haven’t” and it supplies “seen you in a while.” Since the cat’s about to jump on your keyboard, you don’t notice that you haven’t actually typed “had a chance to tell you how sorry I am to hear about your father’s death.”

Then the cat lands on the keyboard and hits a few random keys, triggering an onslaught of pre-programed joy at your upcoming reunion.

“Let’s get together soon,” Smart Compose writes. “Glad to hear life’s treating you so well.”

I love technology.

The army’s been taking a non–technological approach to predictive text. It’s been accused of dictating what soldiers say when they talk to the press.

Child Soldiers International spotted a series of identical quotes from graduates of the Army Foundation College. They date back to 2015. And the graduates didn’t even have to type that initial word.

I can’t find a link between this and the last paragraph, but Scotland’s ahead of England in finally putting a woman’s face on the £20 note. Who’s the trailblazer? Kate Cranston. What did she do? Um, she gave Charles Rennie Mackintosh enough money to start his famous Mackintosh tearooms. At least the papers (I do read the papers) tell me they’re famous, which I’m grateful for because I’d never heard of them. But I’m a foreigner here, on top of which Scotland’s at the far end of the island and that’s a long way to go when all you want is a cup of tea and you’ve got a perfectly good kettle on the counter.

Cranston was “a leading figure in the development of the tearooms.”

Now there’s the stereotype-smashing spirit that would make any feminist proud.

Speaking of pride, the midterm elections in the U.S. saw a dead pimp elected to the Nevada state assembly on the Republican ticket. 

Can Britain, for all its amateurishness, match that?

A quick history of English castles

The world–which doesn’t include you and me, of course, since we’re way too smart for this–thinks it knows about English castles. They have big walls, lots of stones, men in tight pants, women in pointy hats, and Walt Disney off to one side saying, “Make the tower higher. And narrower. No narrower. And the moat–make that wider.”

Then you go stomping around England, you get your shoes muddy, and you follow some little sign that points toward a castle and find not a building with a high tower and a moat clean enough for ducks (and possibly a wandering hero) to paddle in, but a big mound of earth encircled by a dry ditch, and maybe a bit of wall but maybe not. You slog back to the sign and read it again just to be sure.

Yup, it said castle.

Welcome to castles before the Norman invasion.

Relevant photo: A bit of ruin from Corfe Castle, complete with tourists.

For centuries, whoever the British were at the moment (layers of invasion and migration meant the British weren’t always the same people and didn’t always call themselves British, but let’s keep things simple and pretend they did) had been using fortified hills to defend themselves against the enemy of the moment. They’re sometimes called hill forts and sometimes called castles.

Take Maiden Castle (from the Celtic Mai Dun, Great Hill), in Dorset, by way of example. It dates from 3000 BCE–the late Stone Age–and was extended and enlarged during the Iron Age.

An article on the BBC’s history website says that Bronze Age and early Iron Age hill forts don’t show much sign of having been permanent settlements. It speculates that they might have been used for gatherings, for trade, or for (the archeologist’s fallback explanation for anything that doesn’t make some other kind of sense) religious rituals.

By 450 BCE, many hill forts were going out of use but the ones that weren’t got rebuilt with multiple banks and ditches and complex entrances to make them harder to attack. And–big change here–the  settlements inside them became permanent. Around 100 BCE, in parts southern England, more hill forts were abandoned. The reasons aren’t clear but one possibility is that the tribal states has become more stable.

And then the Romans came and all the cards were shuffled and dealt out again, only this time the Romans got to make up the rules. I haven’t been able to find any information on whether the hill forts were any of any military use in fighting the Romans. One source tells a tale of Roman troops fighting a bloody battle against the Britons at Maiden Castle, but another source says it’s complete bullshit, although it’s maybe a little more diplomatic than that. What seems clear is that the Romans destroyed some hill forts (presumably because they still had a military value) and recycled others. At Maiden Castle, they built a temple. To the goddess of outdated military strategies.

In more or less 60 CE, when Boudicca led a rebellion, she took the battle to the Romans instead of plonking herself down on a hill fort and yelling. “I double dare you to come get me.” Not Boudicca. She burned London, Colchester, and Verulamium before they defeated her. She went down in history as a hero to Britons, to women who like a kick-ass heroine, and to people who admire names with multiple spellings. A short chat with Lord Google yielded not just Boudicca but also Boudica, Boudicea, and Boadicea. You almost can’t spell it wrong.

A few hundred years later, the Romans toddled off back to Rome and someone struck a gong to mark the beginning of the medieval era. Lord Google tells me that by 410 the last Romans had left England. He also says the medieval period started in the fifth century, neatly coinciding with the last Roman splashing his or her sandals through the surf to board the last ship, and ended in the fifteenth.

Thank you, Lord Google. I have left the usual offering of data at your door.

Would anyone living through the shift have known that the era had changed? Of course they would. Not only was there that gong, Walt was off to the side calling for costume changes. Shuck off those togas and the feathery helmets. I know, they do suit you, but they’ve got to go. Put on some chain mail and–oh, hell, it’s still early in the medieval period so throw in a bearskin or two. With the Romans gone, these people are half barbarians anyway.

The women? Oh, if tf they’re young, give them something floaty and long with about a six-inch waist. If they’re old, it doesn’t matter. Got any bearskins left?

So yes, the costumes changed and so did the military situation. The Celts, Angles, and Saxons looked at those hill forts and thought, Hmm, we could do something with those. For the Celts, they became a place to defend themselves against Anglo-Saxon invaders, For the Anglo-Saxons, they became a place to defend themselves against Viking invaders. For the Vikings, they became a damn nuisance.

The Anglo-Saxons also built walls around their towns, but they still weren’t anything Walt would recognize as a castle.

In the eleventh century, before the Norman invasion and when the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor was still on the throne, a French-style castle, or possibly two, was built. A chronicler wrote in 1051, “The foreigners had built a castle in Herefordshire, and had inflicted every possible injury and insult upon the king’s men in those parts.”

What the insulting foreigners built was new enough that the Anglo-Saxon chronicler had to borrow a French word for it.

You wouldn’t think an eleventh-century chronicler, writing with a quill, would have a website, would you? Follow the link above, though, and you’ll see how wrong you were.

Then the Normans invaded and built castles all over England. Or if you want to think of it this way, they introduced a new, French technology: the castle as those of us who saw too many Disney movies know it.

Sort of. Because these places weren’t the elegant palaces of Disney dreams. They were heavy on military might and short on romance, especially at first. William granted land and lordships to his followers and the new lords built castles to solidify their hold on their land and to keep their subjects subjected.

Their subjects? They were at the very least grumbly about the change and in places were armed and dangerous.

A lot of the earliest castles were no more than wooden stockades on earthen mounds, and the mounds were sometimes borrowed from an existing hill fort. The Normans were a few thousand fighters in a country of 2 million conquered people and they faced multiple rebellions. They didn’t have time to build anything elaborate. 

Within a couple of generations, the Normans had built between five hundred and a thousand of castles. And within roughly the same amount of time, the rebellions were over.

When time allowed, the wooden castles were rebuilt in stone.

Much later, when England conquered Wales, it followed the same pattern: Conquer, plant a castle, water it with fighting men, and when the inevitable rebellions grow, cut them down.

But let’s go back to the ways the new castles on English soil were different from what came before. HIll forts covered a large piece of land and were meant to defend a whole community. The French castle was smaller and taller and was meant to filled with fighters. Not only didn’t they defend the community, initially at least they defended against the community.

They were often built on important roads and rivers, where they could protect trade as well and, just incidentally, allow the lord to control and profit from it.

They were also symbolic, saying, I can build big and I can tower over everything and who do you think you are, you ant? That symbolism was meant to be taken in not only by the Britons but also by other Norman lords–the castle builder’s rivals for power–and by the king. A lord wouldn’t convince anyone he was powerful unless he had a powerful castle, and to prove that his was bigger than everyone else’s he had people pile rock on top of rock to create a cold, giant shell where he could dispense what passed for justice to the lower orders and entertain (which is to say, impress) his near-equals.

That is as depressing as it is predictable. It reminds me of high school. If you didn’t have the right clothes, you were no one. Fortunately, no one in my school had a castle. Or a sword. Those of us who were of the female pursuasion did have tights, using either the British or the American definition. 

What’s the difference? What the British call tights, Americans call pantyhose. They’re sheer things that you wear over your feet and legs and they get runs (which the British call ladders) when you most want them not to. And they go up to the waist. Also (at least as I remember from a hundred or so years ago, when I last wore them) they’re a perfect match for the world’s least comfortable clothes.

What Americans call tights the British also call tights. They’re the same thing but not sheer, and they’re heavier an usually black. They don’t run. Because they’re more practical, they’re less acceptable in formal situations, because formality demands misery. If you don’t want to wear them but sill need to impress someone, just build a very high stone wall around a patch of land the king’s given you.

Nobody who lived in a castle ever wore tights because the fabrics that makes them possible and technology to do something with it hadn’t been invented.

If you’re interested in castles April Munday, of A Writer’s Perspective, has a series of posts on the various elements of the castle–the gate, the hall, the tower, and so forth–covering not only what they looked like but what role they played. They’re well worth your time. The link is to one of them. From there, you’ll have to wander around and find the others. I don’t think she has a separate post on tights, but she did once tell me, in answer to a comment I left, that men of the period wore tight–I think they called them hose. Tight trousery things over their legs, which Americans would call pants-y things. And yes, movies aside, they would’ve bagged at the knee.  

Raisin Monday: Another great British tradition

October 22 was Raisin Monday at St. Andrews University.

It was what?

Why Raisin Monday, of course, the day when, in a centuries-old tradition, first-year students (known as bajans or bejants, and I haven’t been able to find out what the difference is) presents the older students who’ve acted as pseudo-parents with a pound of raisins to thank them. The parents have to give their children receipts to prove that they’ve gotten the raisins, because families are difficult and you never do know when sweet old Uncle Whatsit’s going to say, “Raisins? What raisins? You didn’t give me any raisins.”

The receipt has to be in Latin. And since modern students can’t be counted on to know any more Latin than veni, vedi, vici (and not necessarily that much), the student union website provides a text for them to cut and paste.

Irrelevant photo: Cotoneaster, which is pronounced ka-TONE-ee-aster. not cotton-EAST-er. The birds plant it everywhere, and very lovely it is, even when it’s just a smidge out of focus.

Traditionally the receipt had to be on parchment. These days–what with parchment being hard to get hold of–the more bizarre the thing it’s written on, the better, and as a result the student union advises that “your Raisin Receipt should be of reasonable size and safe: oversize, electrical, stolen or otherwise illegal raisin receipts will be confiscated and you and your kids will face disciplinary action. Please also remember that regardless of type, all raisin receipts will be thrown away before the academic kids enter the quad. If you or your academic child would like to keep their receipt make sure to hold on to it for them while they are in the foam fight!”

The foam fight? We’ll get to that.

Why is raisin receipt sometimes capitalized and Sometimes Not? Because these kids don’t know their Latin. What’s the world coming To?

These days, Raisin Monday takes up a whole weekend (when I last looked, most weekends didn’t include a Monday, but never mind) and first-year students have both an academic mother and an academic father. In the old days, they made do with just a father, because women–as as would have been screamingly obvious to everyone at the time–didn’t belong in universities. You know what women are like. On average, they get better grades than men, and if that’s not enough they eat all the raisins.

Of course you want a source for that. Or try this one if you prefer. 

I won’t cite any studies for that business about the raisins. Everyone knows it’s true.

But times change and traditions evolve. Women have invaded universities. So the first-years are expected to bring first their mothers and then their fathers a “nice gift, “ which is more likely to be wine than raisins. The mother then dresses the child in a ridiculous costume. The father hands over the receipt.

The student union warns that dressing your kid as a condom “won’t impress anyone.” They’re wrong about that of course–the world always contains some dimwit who will be impressed–but the warning’s as well intentioned as it is inaccurate. News articles about the event mention students dressed as bananas, gnomes, robots, and police boxes.

Do I have to explain everything? A police box is an extinct British institution that’s the size and shape of a British phone booth (also rapidly becoming becoming extinct), but blue instead of red. They were introduced in the 1920s and were installed around the country so that people could pick up the phone and call the police when they needed to. If you watch Dr. Who, you’ll know that the tardis is disguised as a police box. If you don’t watch Dr. Who, you have no idea what I’m talking about. 

I may be wrong to call police boxes an institution when they’re objects. I could also be wrong to say that an institution or an object can go extinct. And I could also be wrong to trouble you with copy editors’ quibbles, but I can’t be bothered coming up with a more accurate phrase. Can we move on?

Since the receipts have to be in Latin, we should all probably learn that the Latin for raisins, according to Lord Google, is contritae passo excipiuntur, but that didn’t look right to me and I asked him to translate that back to English. The English was crushed grapes. According to the sample receipt posted on the union’s website, it’s uvarum siccarum–dried grapes. Or possibly dry grapes. I don’t actually know Latin, I’m working from Spanish, a few broken fragments of Italian, and guesswork.

I speak guesswork fluently.  

Not many of us will need to know the Latin for raisins, but if anyone knows the real word, it would make a wonderful gift. Just leave it in the comment box. I’ll owe you a pound of virtual raisins.

The website mentions that the Raisin Monday tradition is about “much more than drinking.”

This is verifiable. It’s also about squirting each other with foam and dressing up as police boxes. So let’s talk about the foam fight. ITV News describes it as the messy culmination of a weekend of festivities involving hundreds of students.

Paloma Paige, association president for the students’ union, explained the tradition this way: “I know some people ran in saying, ‘What is this, what are we doing?’ but nobody really knows and that’s the whole fun of it.

“The foam hasn’t gone back centuries, especially the shaving foam. It’s just evolved throughout the years and this has now become the quintessential part of the whole weekend.”

And there you have British tradition in a nutshell. We don’t know what we’re doing and we don’t know why, but we know it’s a tradition. Hand me the shaving cream.

An unnamed student was quoted as saying, ““I have foam in my eyes –it’s quite painful.”

Shaving cream (or foam, if you like) was invented in the early twentieth century but didn’t become a squirtable, fight-worthy aerosol until the 1950s. St. Andrews was founded in 1413. If anyone knows the year when Raisin Monday started, they’re keeping it to themselves.

Ancient British traditions, from bun throwing to shin kicking

Back when I lived in the New World, we imagined that Olde Worlde Britain was made up of lords and swords, decorated with a picturesque handful of peasants in thatched-roof hovels, not to mention some overstuffed upper-class accents and many unnecessary letters at the ends and in the middle of words. It’s not a coherent picture, but you’ll understand, of course, that all New World inhabitants think exactly the way I did and that I would never bullshit you about the inner workings of my mind.

What we didn’t imagine was the ancient art of shin kicking.

Welcome to the absolutely true and wonderful world of British traditions.

Shin kicking can be reliably traced back to the seventeenth century, although that’s not to say it didn’t start centuries earlier. For all we know, it dates back to King Arthur, who got so tired of his knights kicking each other at dinner that he ordered a round table from Ikea so they’d pay attention to the business at hand, which was getting drunk enough to convince each other they’d actually had the adventures we know them by today.

But that’s all legend. We don’t know that Arthur even existed, and Ikea itself may be mythical. We do know that shin kicking was documented in the early seventeenth century, when a contest took place as part of a larger event, the Olimpicks, on Dover’s Hill in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.

Irrelevant photo: These are cyclamen. I stole the photo from an earlier post because, hey, who’ll notice?

By the 1830s, 30,000 people are said to have attended the Olimpicks and the event continued into the 1850s, when it was outlawed becasue it was associated with rowdiness, thuggery, and all-around no-goodness. (See below for an alternative explanation of why it was stopped. When you write about a subject as improbable as this, accuracy is important. Not to mention impossible.)

Robert Wilson, an organizer of the more recent event by the same name, said about the original games, “It was vicious in those days, there was a lot of inter-village rivalry and lads used to harden their shins with hammers and were allowed to wear iron-capped boots.”

I’m not convinced about the hammers, but you’re welcome to believe what you like. As if you needed my permission.

An 1883 New York Times article documents a New World shin-kicking contest. They called it purring and the article says that “heroic Englishmen of a certain class” considered it a sport.

What class is that supposed to be? Off the top of my head, I’d say a class the reporter felt free to look down on even while he (and I use the pronoun advisedly) wasn’t too grand to show up and trade fleas with the onlookers.

Okay, the reference to fleas was uncalled for and can’t be substantiated by any reputable source. I apologize. 

The article also claims that shin kicking originated among Cornish miners, who may or may not have considered themselves English. The Cornish language had died out by then, but I don’t know if Cornwall’s sense of itself as a nation had.

I bring that up because you might put it on one side of the scales when you weigh up the accuracy of the reporting. The New York Times of that era wasn’t the grand lady we know today.

That gives us two documented–or at least authoritatively alleged–origins for shin kicking, Gloucestershire and Cornwall. Since shin kicking isn’t on the list of things that most record-keepers kept track of, I’m inclined to think shin kicking may have been more widespread and older than can be documented. Recording what ordinary people do got respectable only recently–especially what people of, ahem, a certain class do, or women or other despised and out-of-power groups. 

These days keeping track of it isn’t only respectable, it has a name, social history, and it makes great reading.  

The shin-kicking fight that the Times reported on ran for 23 rounds and lasted from midnight to 2 a.m. By the time it ended, the loser couldn’t walk anymore. He would have quit earlier, but “was forced to continue under violent threats from the gang of ruffians who were betting on him,” the reporter wrote with glorious objectivity.

And a good time as had by all.

Shin kicking was revived in Gloucestershire in the 1950s, but it’s a milder sport these days. Contestants pad their shins with straw and wear soft shoes. The organizer reports bruises but no broken bones.

Oh for the old days, when you could tell a real man by the blood running down his legs.

The judge, by the way, is called a stickler, a word that dates to the sixteenth century and means umpire. It’s from an Old English word meaning “to set in order.”

The modern shin-kicking event is part of a larger revival of the original event, now called the Dover’s Hill Olimpicks, and for this I’m relying on The English Year, by Steve Roud. I  recently bought the book, thinking it would come in handy for the sort of insanity I throw at you each Friday, and I’m happy to have found a use for it so quickly.

Robert Dover (1582-1652) started the first games in 1611 and he may have been riding the coattails of an older feast or event. Dover seems to have been a skilled bullshit artist (Roud calls him a self-promoter) and his Olimpicks took on a much higher profile than most local events of the time. Contests included sledgehammer throwing, fencing, dancing, chess, and horse racing. Roud doesn’t mention shin kicking. Silly man.

Dover’s Olimpicks started just as the country was debating what sort of sport was decent, especially on a Sunday, with Puritans increasingly wanting to ban all sports because the participants might accidentally have fun. By that standard, I’d have thought  shin kicking was farily safe, but I admit I haven’t tried it. I know some people whose shins I wouldn’t mind kicking. It’s the prospect of them kicking back that slows me down.

The games stopped during the Civil War (1642-1651) but were started up again by Dover’s grandsons.

In Roud’s version of events, the Olympicks ended not because people were having too much thuggish fun but because the area was enclosed. (You can get a quick history of enclosure in an earlier post. Scroll about halfway down to the “History” section.)

In 1929, the National Trust became the owner of the land and in 1951 the Olimpicks started again, but near Weston-sub-Edge (is that an English place name or what?) instead of Chipping Campden. Chipping Campden had its own smaller celebration, called Scuttlebrook (god, I love English place names) Wake. A wake is an annual festival, not a watch over the dead. It sounds like an unremarkable event: a May queen, a procession, rides, and so forth. Then in 1966, the bigger event moved to the smaller place, bringing (how could it not?) shin kicking with it.

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If you think spelling olimpicks with an I is easy, do try it. My fingers are convinced it’s wrong and I’ve had to go back through the entire post and change most of the mentions.

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Just to prove shin kicking isn’t an isolated bit of insanity, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, they weigh the incoming and outgoing mayors and members of the corporation (I think that translates to the local government) outside the Guildhall every May, in front of a crowd. The macebearer (well, of course they have a macebearer, silly; who else would carry the mace?) compares the outgoing officials’ weight and  calls out the number, saying “and then some more” if they’ve gained weight or “and no more” if they haven’t.

If they’ve stayed the same or lost weight, they’re cheered. If they’ve gained weight, they’re booed.

This isn’t some modern-day bit of fat-shaming. The theory is that if they gained weight it came from good living at the taxpayers’ expense and if they haven’t it’s because they’ve been working hard while they were in office.

The custom dates back, according to one source, to medieval times, according to a second at least to the nineteenth century, and according to a third to the Victorian era. Take your pick. (The last two overlap but aren’t identical.) 

The scales are an elaborate brass tripod with a seat, and the macebearer is dressed in traditional costume. Some mayors do traditional dress as well.

Traditional to what century? Not ours and not any of the medieval ones either. Beyond that, I’m out of my depth.

Want photos? Of course you do.

What else do people get up to? In Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, if the town council votes to mark a royal occasion or the occasional extra special non-royal occasion, the councillors all have to put on their ceremonial robes (of course they have ceremonial robes; what else would they wear to ceremonies?), climb to the top of County Hall, and throw currant buns at the crowd. If you follow the link, you’ll find a video.

The tradition can be reliably traced back to 1809, when it was done to celebrate George III recovering from an illness (probably one of his sporadic fits of craziness). Go back any further than that and all the records say is that buns were distributed, with no mention of how.

When Victoria took the throne, a thousand buns were launched. In contrast, four thousand were thrown to celebrate the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the borough being granted its charter. Take that, queenie.

Since the 1980s, the number of bun-worthy occasions has increased enough for bun-watchers to notice and comment on it. Maybe they bring in tourist dollars. If I was close by, I’d go. How often do I have a bun thrown at me from the top of a tower?

The Abingdon museum has a collection of buns that you can go and see. Admission is free, and no, I have no idea how (or whether) they preserve them or how old they are. Maybe they use the same system that keeps Lenin intact in his tomb and maybe they’re replicas of currant buns. You can probably go to a bakery and see the same thing. They won’t be free but at least they’ll be edible.

The world gurning championships are held at the Egremont Crab Fair, which dates back to 1267, although–carelessly–no one recorded whether or not it included a gurning contest. The first record of that is from 1852.

The fair has nothing to do with crabs. Egremont’s near but not right on the coast, at least if we trust the map instead of the town website, which says it’s coastal. But wherever the town is, the fair is about crabapples. Traditionally, crabapples were thrown at the crowd around noon, but these days they’ve been replaced with apple-type apples, which have got to hurt more than currant buns. And more than crabapples. There’s also a greased pole contest (the winner not only climbs it but brings down a sheep’s head or leg of mutton that’s tied on top) and a pipe smoking contest. The winner, um, smokes a pipe. I have no idea how you win or even how you lose, never mind how you judge it or whether the judge is called a stickler.

There’s also a ferret show where you can show your ferret.

That’s all well and good, Ellen, but will you shut up and tell us about gurning? Happily. It’s a country custom where you compete to make the most horrible a face you can. The winner is often someone who can take their teeth out. You can see photos of people gurning here. Someone snuck in a picture of Donald Trump.

Towns and villages across Britain also host events that we’ll have to call latecomers. Bonsall, Derbyshire (pronounced, for no apparent reason, Darbyshire), holds a hen race. The event’s only been going for a hundred years. Fighting between the hens is strictly forbidden and any hen violating the rules will be given a severe talking to. Bog snorkling in Llanwrtdyd, Wales, started in 1976. That’s so recent I won’t say anything about the event, but since I had to go and bring up the subject of pronunciation I’ll tell you that I can pronounce the first syllable of Llanwrtdyd (and only the first syllable) fairly credibly for a non-Welsh speaker (in my own, non-Welsh-speaking opinion), but I’m convinced that it can’t be spelled in English so I won’t offer a guide. The first syllable wouldn’t be much use to you anyway.

Wasn’t that helpful?  

Moving on, worm charming dates back only to 1980. Barely worth a mention.

Something about living in this country draws people into a competition to create the looniest event and convinces them that it’s the most natural thing in the world to do that.

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My thanks yet again to Deb C., this time for links that led me to this insanity.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part I’ve forgotten what

It’s time to review what the world wants to know about Britain.

How do we measure that? Why, by looking at what leads people to the definitive voice on all things British, a.k.a. this blog. As usual, I’ve preserved the questions in all their original oddity, including the odd spelling and the lack of question marks and capital letters. Where I’ve gotten several related (but equally odd and therefore worthy) questions, I’ve combined them.

FOOD & DRINK

make cross in sprout religious; is there a religius reason we put crosses into sprouts; english eating brussel sprouts

As we edge closer to Christmas, the flow of questions about brussels sprouts gets heavier, but they form a steady drip throughout the year. I can only assume these come mostly from British people because who else knows that brussels sprouts are as essential to the British Christmas as two desserts and eight reindeer?

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: hydrangea

The crosses at the bottom? The religious justification as I heard it (and don’t ask where because by now I haven’t a clue) is that it was to let the devil out. Or the evil spirits. That may or may not be what anybody in the past actually believed. People have a habit of working backward to come up for a reason for something they see being done.

So why did people start doing it? Probably so the stems would cook as quickly as the leaves. I used to nick the stems but haven’t bothered in years. It doesn’t seem to make a difference and if I’ve eaten any evil spirits I’m none the worse for it. But then, I wasn’t very good to start with and I’m not a fussy cook, so you shouldn’t take my word for it.

But why do the English eat sprouts at Christmas? Because they do. And because they ripen at a time when not many other vegetables can be bothered to.

In 2015 I wrote a post about this and said, recklessly, that the British eat them at Christmas because the Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout. I thought I was very funny and was convinced it was a ridiculous enough claim that no one would take me seriously. Then some blogger linked to it as if it was Truth with a capital R. I still thought I was funny but had just enough decency to also feel bad about it.

In late September of this year, someone else linked to it, this time treating it as Truth with a capital U. So I’ve now prefaced the post with a health and safety warning (the British are big on health and safety warnings; the Druids really did worship them) explaining that no one knows much about what the Druids did, that the article contains a slight exaggeration, and that the writer may contain nuts.

I also sent the other blogger an apology.

The worst of it is that I still think it’s funny. Although I continue to feel bad. I’m sure that makes it okay.

do they have peeps in the uk

That has to be from an American wondering if civilized life is possible outside the borders of the U.S. of A., because Peeps are the measure of civilized life.

Peeps are bright colored, over-sugared, marshmallowy things that have been extruded from some pipe in an industrial kitchen, which forms them into vaguely chickish shapes. At least they look like chicks if your eye’s been trained to see them as chicks. They’re known for giving nutritionists conniption fits. What’s a conniption fit? No idea, but I have it on good authority that you don’t want to have one.

Twenty seconds of research tells me that peeps are  sold in the U.S. and Canada. So yes, civilized life is possible outside of the U.S., but only in Canada.

Why did anybody look deeply enough into the question to read whatever I may have written on the subject? Because, people, Peeps matter.  

our American beers weaker; compare alcohol content budweiser uk and canada; beer alcolohol content uk vs isa; why does beer in england taste better than usa beer?

The strength of American and British beer occupies a large portion of the internet’s collective mind. And by the time that mind goes online to research alcohol content, it’s addled by all the hands-on research it did first. 

That explains the typos.

british peopme chocolate chips; leom drizzle where did it come from

These are what people want to know about once they’ve drunk all the beer in the house.

what do the british call baking-powder biscuits

For the most part, nothing: 97.6% of British citizens have never heard of them. And 93.7% of all statistics are made up. But gasp, wheeze anyway because the world contains people who never heard of baking powder biscuits. The thing is, people don’t just talk differently in different countries, they eat differently.

When I lived in the U.S., my partner and I just called them biscuits, but she’s Texan and we didn’t need to explain what we meant. Now that we live in Britain, we call them baking powder biscuits so that friends won’t expect them to be cookies, because what Americans call cookies the British call biscuits.  

WEATHER

londoner never talking about weather and how miserable (x2)

There are two  things the non-British think they know about Britain: 1. The place is wet, which means it’s miserable. 2. People talk about the weather and nothing else. Beyond that, I don’t know what the question means but someone does because I got it twice.

PLACE NAMES

why is worcester only 2 syllables

Given the oddities of English spelling and the even odder oddities of British place names, there’s only one possible answer: Because.

are we still called great britain

Yes, dear. It’s a geographical designation and no one’s sawed off a part of the country yet.

widemouth bay pronunciation   

Widmuth.    

how to pronounce river eye uk

I can’t even begin to guess, but I can tell you how to find out. First you have to locate it, which is going to be messy because there are two of them, one in Leicestershire (talk about pronunciation oddities) and the other in Scotland. The Scottish one is also called the Eye Water. And at its mouth is a town called Eyemouth.

You have to love this country. It’s weird enough to make your eyes water.  

Once you’ve figured out which river you want, you have to find someone local–preferably someone without a sense of humor–and ask how to pronounce the river. If at all possible, avoid trying to pronounce it when you ask, because you’ll get it wrong. Warning: If you’ve asked someone with a sense of humor, they’ll tell you it’s pronounced “brussels sprouts” and then spend the rest of the year giggling.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

No one without a strong local connection can be trusted to do anything more than guess at the pronunciation of anyplace in Britain. I recently got an automated message reminding me that I have an appointment coming up in Tavistock, which is pronounced TAVistock. The voice pronounced it tavISStock. And Tavistock’s one of the easy ones.

british place names that sound like clothes

Sorry, but I can’t think of any. If you want kitchen appliances, though, Towster is pronounced toaster. The kitchen appliance department is straight ahead, toward the back of the store. The clothing department is hauntingly empty and needs to be filled, so if you know of any pronounced like clothes (or, what the hell, other kitchen appliances or body parts or anything else particularly bizarre), do contribute to the general weirdness by leaving a comment. 

WIGS

I probably get as many questions about wigs as I do about beer. Most of them repeat the ones I’ve already quoted, but every so often a new one comes in. Including this:

attorney living with wigs with you and orange on the bishop hat

Anyone who knows how to answer that, please oh please leave a comment. I can’t do this alone, people.   

BRITISH CULTURE

what do british people think of american accents

Oh, every last one of them thinks they’re fabulous. The British are known for all thinking the same thing. That’s why the two main political parties are so gloriously united.

show me a tricorn hat worn in the house of lords

I could, but it’s not nice to make fun of the sartorially challenged.

Oh, go on, then. You twisted my arm.

what does it mean when it says I hope your birthday is tickety-boo

It means someone sent you a birthday card that’s been around since the 1930s.

do british people say spifing

No. They might, just remotely, say spiffing, but you’ll go blue in the face if you hold your breath till someone does. I also get questions about spiffing. I am now Britain’s formost spiffing expert.  

in what way is folk music similar to christmas carols

Well, both are music and as such involve musical notes. They also involve words. Both can be sung either well or badly but you could say that about all songs. A large part of both can be sung by people without much musical background–that’s their beauty and their limitation. They come out of a tradition where people sang because they were having a good time, or at least because they were drunk. Some people were better at it than others, but no one–originally–was a professional. Both lean toward the idea that people will join in.

Christmas carols were originally a folk tradition and for a while were looked down on for it.

Sorry to get all serious on you. 

PROBLEMATIC ASSUMPTIONS

why was great britain named england in victorian times?

It happened back when the country was a teenager and had one of those identity crises that teenagers are prone to. The country thought England sounded better than Britain and hoped that would make it more popular. It changed its name back to Britain after Victoria died and it doesn’t like to talk about it now, so could we move on, please? Show a little respect here. We were all young once. And if you’re still young, you were once younger.

And no, please don’t link to that to explain how to unmuddle the names Britain, Great Britain, England, and the United Kingdom. Try this post instead. 

in england, the speaker of the house is not allowed to speak

Which is why he (and at the moment he is a he) is called the speaker.

photograph of cockwomble

A womble is a  creature invented for a BBC children’s show. You can hear the womble song here, and I’m sure you’ll be a better person if you have to fortitude to listen all the way to the end. I didn’t, but then I’m not a better person. It’s not, technically speaking, a photograph, since the creatures run around with tubas (have you ever tried running with a tuba while dressed in a womble suit?) and other stuff, but it’s close enough. 

The cockwomble was not invented by the BBC and if you’ve been called one you were not on the receiving end of a compliment. You won’t find a photo of one because it’s not an actual thing, as in it doesn’t exist, but you can find images for cockwombles here. My favorite is the ribbon for International Cockwomble Day. 

letterboxes invented in uk

Well, no, they don’t seem to have been invented in the U.K. They were introduced in Paris, in 1653. As far as I can tell, the first one in Britain was introduced in 1809. 

I haven’t dug into this very deeply, so I’m not 600% sure the dates are the absolute firsts. But the world–or at least the internet, which isn’t exactly the same thing but does exist within the world–contains a pretty large group of people interested in mailboxes. Or letterboxes, which are the same thing in a different place.

I’m not sure why the wording is that they were introduced, not invented but we’ll work with it.

what is causing all the problems with letter boxes in England

It’s true that British letterboxes have been gathering in city centers late at night to guzzle beer and sing Christmas carols. Residents report feeling too intimidated to ask them to keep it down and the police haven’t taken the situation seriously enough to intervene effectively. No one knows what’s causing it. And no one knows why I put this in the incorrect assumptions section.

Don’t link to this either.

CORRECT ASSUMPTIONS

england is not britain

It took a while, but we finally got that straightened out.

why is it wrong to say we all came from britian

Just off the top of my head, I’d say it’s because not all of us did. But credit for knowing something was wrong there.

ODD QUESTIONS

puffing pants; puffling pants

I was baffled by why the phrase was leading anyone here. Other than wearing a random selection, what do I know about clothes? But it turns out that back in 2016 (remember 2016? It came right before 2017) John Evans left a comment that said, “In the recent BBC4 comedy series about Shakespeare (Upstart Crow), there was an episode in which Shakespeare (brilliantly played by David Mitchell) encounters ‘puffling pants’. Ah, life would be so much more fun if everyone wore puffling pants.”

So that explains why questions about puffling pants find their way to me. It doesn’t explain why so many people care, but I got enough question about them, with a variety of spellings, to make me wonder if humanity really should survive.

For a while, I thought they were some current style. I’m dyslexic about fashion, so be a little kind about that, okay?

See what you’ve done, John?

saudi news

I’ve made no headway in figuring out why this one landed on my doorstep. Lord Google, explain thyself.

onterage goshen ny

Ditto. But that’s probably entourage.

what is hefeweizen

Wheat. In German. Lord Google helped me out with that one, because the only German I know is gesundheit, and by now that’s English.

but he prefers keeping his private life out of the media as much as possible

I can see why he’d feel that way. Whoever he is.

coke fabric yard

I get regular blasts of this question, and I can’t resist quoting it when I review the questions that lure people into my spider web. Unfortunately, quoting it reinforces the link between the phrase and Notes. In another couple of years, I’ll be the world’s foremost expert on whatever the hell it means.

best trader joe’s meats

I’m a vegetarian and probably the wrong person to ask about this.

And with that, I think I’ve enlightened you enough for one week. Stay out of trouble if you can. It’s a very strange world out there.

That was your health and safety warning. Be healthy. And safe.

Cops and donuts in the U.S. and Britain

There’s no limit to the ways that Britain isn’t like the U.S. and I’ve just found a new one. But the story starts back a step or two. Mine always do.

In my most recent post, which wasn’t one of my best, I mentioned that in Britain cops and donuts aren’t fused together in the public mind the way they are in the U.S. That led Dan Antion to ask how on earth British cops managed to waste time if they don’t hang out in donut shops. Dan always finds something inspired to drop in the comment box, even when I’m not at my best.

As it happens, I thought I was well placed to answer that and I asked a friend who’s a retired cop and who will remain anonymous even though he’s retired and anyone who knows him could figure out who he  is. But never mind. It adds to the mystique. Let’s call him–oh, let’s say his name is Anon.

Anon, I asked, how do British cops waste their time if they don’t eat donuts?

Well, he said, looking as if he’d been waiting all his life for someone to ask him exactly that question, his team had a rule: Anyone who was late had to buy donuts for, so they did eat donuts. Lots of donuts, because someone was almost always late. That led to a competition over whether they could eat a donut without licking their lips, and the only way to do it, he said, since donuts always leave sugar on your lips, is to stuff the entire donut in your mouth in one bite.

Yes, but how did they waste time? Did they hang out in cafes with all-day breakfasts?

He ignored the second question, which I took as a no, and launched into this story:

Back before CCTV was everywhere, between 3 and 5 a.m., when the streets were empty, they could close off a stretch of street with a police van at each end, set a line of traffic cones down the middle of the street, and take one of the small cop cars at they used at the time, which had a choke, and they’d set the choke so it would drive slowly, then stand on top of the car and use two dog leashes attached to the steering wheel to slalom the car through the traffic cones.

Is that even physically possible? Did he make it up? All I can tell you is that if it isn’t the truth he made it up  in record time. 

Can any American cop top that?