The End of Roman Britain: Instability and the Hoxne Hoard

Whatever shortages Britain’s facing due to Brexit and Covid, it hasn’t run short of archeology. The country entered this strange time of ours rich in buried history and since the stuff in question hasn’t gotten up and walked out of the ground, it’s still rich.

The tale I’m about to tell you comes from before Brexit, though, and before Covid. Never mind the logic of that. I needed an opening paragraph. 

 

The tale

Let’s begin in 1992 with a tenant farmer, Peter Whatling, losing his hammer. And since–well, you know how attached you can get to a hammer, he got hold of a friend, Eric Lawes, who’d taken up metal detecting when he retired, and out they went to the field where Whatling had been when his hammer wandered off.

Before either of them had time to get cold and go home for a nice cup of tea, Lawes picked up a strong signal and started to dig, but instead of the hammer he brought up shovelfuls of silver and gold coins. Lawes was an experienced enough detectorist by then to knew when stop digging. He contacted the police and the local archeological society. 

The next day, archeologists came and dug out the treasure with the earth still around it so they could move it, intact, to a lab and work out both its age and how it had been stored before it was buried. What Lawes had turned up was 60 pounds of silver and gold in the form of 15,234 (or 14,780; take your pick) Roman coins and what’s technically known as a shitload of fancy thingies of one sort and another.

Lawes got £1.75 million for the find, which he split with Whatling, although legally speaking he didn’t have to. 

Whatling also got his hammer back, and it’s now on display along with the older and more expensive stuff, which is called the Hoxne Hoard, after the village where it was found. And because the English language is insane, that’s pronounced Hoxon. 

Try not to think about it. It won’t help.

The hoard is particularly valuable not just for what it contains but because it was excavated whole instead of being scattered by a plow or an over-eager detectorist. 

Irrelevant photo: Once again, I’m not sure what these are. Let’s just call them some of the many red berries that cheer us through the fall and winter.

 

Why people bury treasure

Every time someone digs up a pile of treasure, someone else asks what it was doing in the ground to start with, and it’s a good question. Who buries these things, and when and why? 

In the case of the Hoxne Hoard, the who is easy to answer (sort of), because some spoons included in that shitload of fancy thingies had a name engraved on them: Aurelius Ursincinus. That can give us the illusion that we’ve answered one of the questions, although we haven’t, really. We know he was male and that he had a Latin name. After that, the record’s blank. We don’t even know for sure that he was alive when the hoard was buried.

As for when, the coins give us something more solid to work with: The newest ones were minted between 407 and 408 C.E. So logically speaking, they’d have been buried sometime after that. 

Why someone buried them, though, draws us into the land of speculation, which is a nice place to visit but it’s always foggy, so it’s hard to be sure of what we’re seeing. What we do know is that some clever devil thought to make a graph of all the dates of the treasure hoards in British Isles and found spikes in three time periods: when the Roman legions left Britain, when the Normans invaded, and when England divided up into two teams and fought a civil war. 

In other words, people bury treasure in troubled times, hoping they’ll be around to dig it back up when the danger’s passed. The ones we know about? Those people didn’t come back. The ones we don’t find and that no one will? Someone came back for those.

 

Roman Britain

I’ve read about the Roman legions leaving Britain and always kind of assumed they got a telegram from Rome: “Troops withdrawn Stop. Expect you home soonest Stop.”

Well of course they used telegrams. They didn’t have email yet. The problem is that you paid for telegrams by the word. Or maybe it was by the letter. Either way, no legionnaire would expect an explanation–it would’ve been too expensive. So off the legions toddled, leaving Britain to fend for itself.

Which goes to show what I know. It turns out that they didn’t all pack up and leave at once. But as we usually do around here, let’s take a step back before we go forward: 

In the mid-fourth century Britain was being raided by an assortment of barbarians–a word I use under protest and only because I don’t have a better one. We attach all sorts of judgments to it, thinking it describes people who are hairy and unwashed and brutal. Also uncivilized, as if civilization was a guarantee of good behavior. But all it means here is that they weren’t Roman. 

Mind you, they might also have been unwashed and hairy and brutal, but except for the unwashed part, so were a lot of Romans. And I’m not convinced that modern well-washed brutality is an improvement, but that’s a whole different issue. 

Let’s go back to late Roman Britain: In the barbarian corner and raiding Britain, we’ve got Picts and Scots (with the Scots coming from Ireland, just to mess with our heads) and Attacots, who I’ve never heard of either. It doesn’t look like anyone knows who they were. Also the Saxons, who we recognize from other storybooks. 

Since the small print of Britain’s contract with Rome specified that Britons couldn’t be armed, the country relied on Roman power to protect it. Or at least the part of Britain that Rome had conquered did.They never did hold the whole thing.

In the midst of this, the more central parts of the Roman Empire had troubles of their own by then. Barbarian invasions. Uprisings. Emperors. The deaths of emperors. Battles over who was going to be emperor. 

In 383, in response to an uproar in the empire that we won’t go into, the Roman army in Britain revolted and named its leader, Magnus Maximus, emperor. He could only be the emperor of the west by then, since the east now had its own emperor, but hey, an emperor’s still an emperor, and the title was worth fighting for. So he–and presumably some sizable chunk of his army–invaded Gaul and killed enough people for him to actually be the emperor. Until he was killed, that is, which disqualified him forever after.

What happened to the soldiers who left Britain with him we don’t know. It seems to be a fair assumption that they didn’t go back, so color the Roman army in Britain depleted.

 

Emperors and clipped coins

After 402, the bulk importation of Roman coins into Britain ended, and from that point on the British started clipping coins–shearing bits off of them and using at least some of the metal to make new coins, which were local imitations of the imperial ones. Since the metal itself was what made coins valuable, this meant the coins were worth less and less.

A good 98% of the Hoxne coins had been clipped, with some of them having lost a third of their weight. If you’re trying to get back into your pre-Christmas wardrobe, you should know that this strategy doesn’t work for humans.

In the midst of all this, we can pretty safely assume that the army wasn’t happy, because soldiers don’t like it  when they’re paid in coins that aren’t worth what they used to be. Or when they’re not paid at all. In 406, a rebellion of Roman soldiers in Britain declared someone named Marcus as their emperor. Then he was deposed by someone named Gratian, who was replaced by someone named Constantine, at which point he and his followers toddled off to Gaul–that was in Europe and a far more central piece of the Roman Empire’s jigsaw puzzle–to see if they couldn’t really make him emperor. 

He was beheaded and once again there’s no record of what happened to his followers, but it couldn’t have been nice.

And that telegram still hadn’t arrived. That was the problem with telegrams back then. They had to be carried by guys in sandals. On foot. If you paid extra, they’d jump on a horse or they’d set sail, but it was still slow. And precarious.

 

Not-so-Roman Britain

Soon after Constantine and Co. left, in 408 or thereabouts, Saxons invaded, and sometime after that what was left of Britain’s Roman government faced a rebellion. The Britons armed themselves, ran off the barbarians, and then, for good measure, ran off the Roman magistrates and set up their own government. Or so said the historian Zosimus.

It sounds good, but according to the far more contemporary historian Marc Norris, it was a disaster. Britain’s links with the empire were cut and the archeological record shows a country rapidly moving backward. The economy and social structure collapsed, along with trade and distribution networks. Cities, towns, and villas were abandoned. Norris assumes widespread looting, along with a couple of synonyms–pillaging, robbing, that kind of thing. 

Archeologists can’t find much stuff left in the ground from this period. Good-quality pottery disappears, along with things like iron nails. Entire industries, they conclude, failed.

In the absence of a working government and army, the rich would have privatized security for as long as they could–and buried their wealth, because they couldn’t know when their privatized security squad will notice that it doesn’t actually need them, all it needed was their hoard of coins and expensive goodies. The person who hired them didn’t actually contribute anything.

Norris assumes that barbarian raids increased, although as he points out raiders don’t leave much in the way of hard archeological evidence, so we can’t know for certain. 

According to Bede, writing much later, the Britons of this period were “ignorant of the practice of warfare” after so long under Roman rule. Which is why, fatefully, their leaders seem to have made a deal with the Saxons to defend them from the Picts. Emphasis on seem to. History goes a little hazy during this stretch of time. But the going theory is that they swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and that’s how Anglo-Saxon England came to be: The spider did indeed eat the fly by inviting the Anglo-Saxons in, and that left Romano-Celtic Britain with a Saxon spider that wriggled and jiggled and jiggled insider ‘er.

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In addition to the two links I’ve tucked in above, I’ve relied heavily on Marc Norris’s The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. It’s a highly readable and very useful book. I’ve lost track by now of who recommended Norris to me. Sorry, I have a note somewhere but I put it someplace safe and I’ll never see it again. So I apologize for not thanking you by name. But I really do appreciate the recommendation. Let me know who you are and I’ll include a link in my next post.

Can a vaccine protect against all Covid variants?

A vaccine designed to fight off all the current and future Covid variants has gotten through a small early trial and is ready to test on a larger group. 

Instead of targeting only Covid’s spike protein, which has been mutating madly, it backs that attack up with–um, yeah, something else. 

You want details? Fine: It drives “broad CD8+ T cell immunity.” I drive a little Toyota Aygo and the mileage isn’t bad but I bet the vaccine’s is better, because it also “enables inclusion of a wide array of highly conserved viral epitopes.”

Never mind. I didn’t understand it either. That’s why it’s in quotation marks: to keep it safe from sticky little editorial hands.

The vaccine’s designed as a booster shot, and it works at a much lower dose than the current ones. 

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s camellias just came into bloom. In January.

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The U.S. Army is also working on a vaccine that could be effective against all Covid variants, although I don’t think it’s progressed as far. A press release quotes Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad as saying, “Our strategy has been to develop a ‘pan-coronavirus’ vaccine technology that could potentially offer safe, effective and durable protection against multiple coronavirus strains and species.”

Notice that they’re talking about not just Covid but coronaviruses in general. And also that they’re talking about long-lasting protection, so we wouldn’t need repeated boosters. But the key word in the quote is potentially. Don’t bet a large sum of money on this one yet, or even on the first one I mentioned, but do allow yourself a nice jolt of hope. And maybe a little ice cream to wash it down. 

This may or may not be the universal vaccine that gets to the finish line, either first or at all, but like the one above, it’s a reminder: These aren’t the only efforts to find a vaccine that puts us ahead of a mutating virus instead of always running to keep up. The article I stole this from is oriented to the U.S. and mentions that major figures in the National Institutes of Health are behind the effort, indicating the government’s willingness to fork out some cash.

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Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Hong Kong are working on a vaccine that will–assuming everything works out as planned (and as the saying goes, the crick don’t rise)–keep Covid from setting up a home in people’s noses. 

That would close a gap left by the current vaccines: They’re good at reducing serious disease, hospitalization, and death, but they’re not as good at keeping Covid from spreading. This one, if it works out, could stop the spread, because in spite of what people who wear masks under their noses think, the nose has an active role in both catching and spreading Covid.

The vaccine’s at the human-trials stage of development.

You remember humans. A two-legged, furless species, and a problematic one.  

Professor Chen Zhiwei, who co-leads the research, said, “The biggest challenge for our COVID-19 vaccine development is that we do not have a vaccine manufacturing plant in Hong Kong, which has delayed the translation of scientific discovery into clinical use.”

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This next item isn’t about a vaccine, but since we’re talking about Covid and noses, let’s slip it in here: Researchers in Australia are playing with a nasal spray that they hope will stop the progression and spread of Covid. It involves heparin, which is used widely to treat and prevent blood clots and which can be kept at room temperature.

I never knew how friendly the phrase room temperature would come to sound.

Professor Gary Anderson explained how it works: “Covid-19 first infects cells in the nose, and to do that the virus must bind to Heparan Sulfate on the surface of nasal cells lining the nose.

“Heparin—the active ingredient in our spray—has a structure that is very similar to Heparan Sulfate, so it behaves as a ‘decoy’ and can rapidly wrap around the virus’s spike protein like a python, preventing it from infecting you or spreading the virus to others.

“Importantly, this nasal spray should prove effective for all Coivd-19 variants because the Heparan Sulfate binding site is essential for infection, and is likely to be preserved in new variants. Heparin binds avidly to the Omicron variant currently sweeping through the country.”

They expect to start clinical trials in the first quarter of this year. If it works out and promises to bring back what we so nostalgically call normality, some troll farm will unearth that python image and convince 24% of the population that they’d be spraying python eggs up their noses.

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In 2020, Amazon’s charitable arm, Amazon Smile, donated more than $40,000 to anti-vax groups. That’s a small proportion of Amazon Smile’s donations, but it can be a hefty amount for a small organization. 

Smile, everyone. The python eggs you ordered will be at your door tomorrow.

 

Antiviral pills

Meanwhile, Covid cases are still climbing, and even though the Omicron variant seems to be less fierce than the earlier ones, a hell of a lot of people are hospitalized with it. 

But “hospitalized with it” doesn’t mean that Omicron, or any other Covid variant, drove all of them to the hospital. Some of them were hospitalized for other reasons but also turned out to have Covid. So the good news is that not everyone included in that statistic is so sick from Covid that it’s driving them to the hospital, but the bad news is that since they have it coincidentally, the hospital has to turn itself inside out to keep them from spreading the damn thing. 

Okay, I admit, “a hell of a lot of people” isn’t, strictly speaking, a statistic.

But never mind that. How helpful are the new antiviral pills?

It turns out that they’re not a magic wand. And they won’t be given to everyone. They’re for people with mild to moderate Covid who have risk factors of one sort or another–people with chronic illnesses, compromised immune systems, a history of having celebrated too many birthdays. That sort of person. The sort of people Covid’s most likely to hospitalize. 

And the pills come with a list of thou-shalt-nots. One of them isn’t okay for kids under twelve or pregnant women. (It hasn’t been tested on pregnant men yet.) The other isn’t safe for people with kidney or liver problems. Both interact with other medications, which will rule them out for some people. 

According to William Schaffner of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, “It’s not like going to a machine, putting in a quarter and getting out a candy bar. It’s a serious prescription of a medication, and the health care professionals need to do some screening and education.” 

That’s me you hear out in the hallway, pounding on the vending machine and yelling that I want my candy bar. You know how much good it does.

The pills have other limitations: If they’re going to work, they have to be taken within five days of the first symptoms, so people in high-risk categories will need to get tested quickly. The Covid symptoms that the article lists (again, this is a U.S.-oriented article) are: fever or chills, cough, headache, difficulty breathing, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, fatigue, runny nose, and muscle or body aches.

But Britain, in its wisdom, is still listing only the original Covid symptoms: a high temperature, a new continuous cough, or changes in your sense of smell or taste. In other words, they’re not listing the new variant’s symptoms, and last time I looked if you’re  in Britain and want to book a PCR test–the slower, more accurate Covid test–you have to swear that you have one of the three symptoms or have been exposed to someone who et cetera. So if you have the newer symptoms and want to do the responsible thing and get tested, your best course of action is to lie through your teeth and claim the old ones.

You’re dealing with an algorithm. There’s no point in arguing. 

 

Shortages

So we’ve established that you need to get tested as soon as possible, right? Well, guess what both Britain and the U.S. are short of: No, it’s not irony, it’s Covid tests

They’re not the only countries where they’re running short, but I can barely keep up with two. Let’s focus on Britain, since that’s where I live.

In Britain, pharmacies–those things that Americans call drug stores–sent out a warning in December that they were going to run short of home test kits. Guess what the government did: zilch. It didn’t even answer the letter. So pharmacies are running out, and you can’t necessarily get home tests from the government website either. 

But the Department of Good Planning did offer to shorten the quarantine period for anyone with two negative tests on day whatever and whatever plus something, and it also urged people to test themselves before going to a New Year’s Eve Germ Exchange, thus increasing the demand for tests. And now that the schools have reopened, students are urged to test themselves more often. Somehow.

And to complete the picture, the country’s lone distributor of the home test kits received 2.5 million of the things, then shut for Christmas. It reopened on the 29th. 

Pharmacies can order 55 packs per day. Each pack has seven tests. 

It reminds me of an old rhyme: As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. Each wife had seven bags, each bag had seven cats, each cat had seven kits. How many were going to St. Ives?

One. No doubt someone high up in the government who thought it was a good time for a vacation.

In the meantime, health care workers haven’t been able to get tests, many hospitals are short-staffed, and the government’s talking about building temporary hospitals in parking lots to deal with any overflow.

If they’re talking about how to staff them, the word hasn’t filtered down to me.

It may be a coincidence that international travelers no longer have to isolate or take a PCR test after–or before–they arrive in Britain. (Those are the slower, more expensive tests. They’re in short supply too.) Instead, they can take the cheaper, faster test no later than two days after they arrive.

If they can find one. 

To quote PoliticsHome, on January 4, “the UK recorded 218,724 new Covid cases, the first time a daily rate has exceeded 200,000. The Omicron variant now accounts for the majority of infections and it is no longer believed that the travel restrictions will curb the spread of infection.” 

I believe that translates to, “This thing’s so far out of control that, what the fuck, we give up.”

The Foreign Office said it would get back to me about joining the diplomatic corps.

 

So how serious is Covid?

In 2020, Covid decreased in life expectancy in 29 countries. For a number of Western European countries, it was the biggest decrease since World War II. 

Why 29 countries? They had statistics available in a form the study could use, so the study covers the U.S., Chile, and most of Europe. That leaves out a fair number of countries that had severe outbreaks, so can we agree that the study underestimates the decrease?

Thanks. I thought we could.

The largest loss was among males in the U.S., whose life expectancy at birth decreased 2.2 years compared to 2019 levels.

One of the study’s lead authors, Dr. José Manuel Aburto,, said, “To contextualize, it took on average 5.6 years for these countries to achieve a one-year increase in life expectancy recently: progress wiped out over the course of 2020 by Covid-19.”

It might be tempting to think, hell, if we’re talking about one year at the end of a long life, how much difference does it make? But it takes a lot of deaths to lower the average–deaths of real people, with real lives. With real friends and real families, who feel real grief at their loss and whose lives may well have been torn apart by it, emotionally, economically, or both. 

And those deaths don’t necessarily come only to the elderly. 

That’s worth thinking about the next time someone implies that learning to live with Covid means we should all tear off our masks, unvaccinate ourselves, enter into germ exchanges, and go out and play in traffic.

The north-south divide in English history

If you’re in the mood to break England into bite-size chunks, look no further than the handy north-south divide. It’s scored so deeply into the body of the country that you can treat the place like one of those candy bars you’re meant to share with a friend.

You want north or south? Choose carefully, because your fortune will rise or fall depending on which you take.

The north-south divide is not only recognized by Lord Google, it’s the organizing thesis of The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes, which I’ll be leaning on heavily here. Focusing a history so heavily on a single thesis damn near guarantees oversimplification, but it also gives the story coherence, which makes for a readable book. If you’re looking for a manageable, memorable history of England, this one works well.

And in favor of focusing on the north-south divide, it does tangle itself into England’s history, economics, culture, language, and geography, and it influences Britain’s politics to this date.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, or rose-of-sharon.

 

What am I talking about? 

The difference between richer southern England and the poorer north, although when we’re talking about southern England, what we really mean is the southeast, which is in turn heavily weighted toward London and the area that surrounds it. 

Where does the country divide? Draw a line along the River Trent, if you can find it, then extend it to the west coast. Next draw a line along the River Tamar to keep Cornwall out of the discussion and another one down the Welsh border to do the same for Wales. The part of Britain on the lower right is southern England. The part at the top is northern England until you get to Scotland, then it’s not England at all. 

I’d have told you to draw a line along the Scottish border, but it moved around over the centuries and I don’t want you starting any wars. 

Let’s trace the divide through a series of colonizers:

The Romans: The Romans held the island’s richest agricultural land, a.k.a. the south. The division may have been a factor before the Roman invasion, but the thing about people without a written language is that they don’t write, so the pre-Roman Britons didn’t leave us much in the way of detailed history. We’ll skip them.

The Anglo-Saxons: In the 8th century, the chronicler Bede, who may be more recognizable if I call him the Venerable Bede, mentions a division between the north Saxons and the south Saxons. I can’t do much more than nod at that, unfortunately, and acknowledge that the division struck him as worth mentioning. The difference could trace back to the island’s geography or to the Romanization of the south or to both. Or it could just seep out of the rocks. 

The Vikings: When the Vikings shifted from raiding to colonizing, the part of England they colonized was the north, both reinforcing the differences and adding layers of cultural and political spice to the sauce. 

The Normans: When Hawes asks why the Normans, with a small fighting force, were able to not just conquer but hold England, one of the reasons he cites is that the English couldn’t mobilize the whole country against them. There was resistance, but it wasn’t the sort of coordinated uprising that might have succeeded. And so the Normans made themselves lords of both northern and southern England, and they kept their own language, Norman French, which not only separated them from the conquered English but at least for a while united the conquerors. 

 

Language

What about the common people–the English? Some small segment of the Anglo-Saxon upper class became Normanized, and the key to that was adopting the French language. Below that level, commoners spoke English, but by the fourteenth century, northern and southern English speakers could barely understand each other. Hawes quotes John of Trevisa on the subject, and we’ll get to the quote in a minute, but first, John of Who? 

John of Trevisa, a contemporary of Chaucer’s and not to be confused with John of Travolta, although Lord Google would be happy to take you down that rabbit hole if you’re interested. The J of T we’re interested in came from Cornwall and was a native speaker of Cornish, but his legacy is a body of scholarly work in English–not in Cornish but more to the point not in Latin and not in French. Choosing English over those last two was a radical act.

Are we ready to go on? Let’s do the quote: “It seemeth a great wonder how English, that is the birth-tongue of English men, and their own language and tongue, is so diverse of sound in this island. . . . All the longage of the Northumbres, and specially at York, ys so sharp, slytting, and frotyng, and vynschape, that we southern men may that longage scarcely understonde.”

Please appreciate that comment, because it hospitalized my spell check program.  

The things I sacrifice for this blog.

Lord Google and I are at a loss over what vynschape means, and we’re not doing any better with frotyng, although for no clear reason I have the illusion that I could understand it if I’d just give it another moment’s thought.

The linguistic divide was still holding in 1490, when a northern merchant was becalmed off the Kent coast, in the south. He went ashore to buy supplies, asking in northern English for meat and eggs, “And the good wife answered that she could speak no French.”

Was the aristocracy as divided as the commoners? By the end of the fourteenth century, court life was shifting from French to English, so the power of French to unite the Normans might–and I’m speculating here–have been on the wane. Either way, heraldry divided the aristocracy into Norroy (the northern realm) and Surroy (the southern one), and the aristocratic families built alliances and power blocs based at least in part on geography.

 

Power

Hawes presents the War of the Roses as a particularly bloody outbreak of the north-south divide and sees Elizabeth I as consolidating the south’s rule over the country. One result of this consolidation was that the southern version of English became the dominant one. The first handbook for English-language writers, from 1589, advised writers not to use “the termes of Northern-men . . . nor in effect any speech used beyond the river of Trent.” (George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie

England’s class structure did allow people to move up the ladder, but to do that they needed to speak southern English. Economic, cultural, and political power all wrapped around each other, and around language and geography. 

Let’s fast forward to James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, since after Liz’s death England imported him from Scotland in a desperate effort to keep England Protestant. This meant that, awkwardly, he was ruling two kingdoms, one stacked (at least on a map) on top of the other. He proposed to unite them and make himself the “King of Great Britaine.”

The English elite–for which you can read England’s southern elite–blocked the move. Parliament was by now a force in English politics and inviting Scotland to the party would’ve diluted southern power. 

From there we hit Fast Forward again and stop at the English Civil War, where Hawes sees the geographical divide still at work: The north was resisting rule from the south, and it was ready to make an alliance with the Celts–Cornwall and Wales (I’m leaving Scotland out of the discussion since it pops up on both sides of the war). In this reading, the king and Parliament, along with religious beliefs and demands for equality, aren’t incidental but they were being driven by underlying forces that generally go unacknowledged.

 

Union

When England and Scotland did finally become one country and Daniel Defoe traveled “the whole island of Great Britain,” he treated northern England and Scotland as more or less the same place. England, for him, was effectively the south. 

For a time, the Industrial Revolution changed the calculations. The south still had the richest agricultural land, but the north had coal, and it now fueled industries of all sorts. The northern elite got rich and northern cities got big. The drive to expand the vote was fueled in part by the northern elite’s drive to gain political power that would match to its economic strength. 

The north’s power lasted until finance outweighed manufacturing. 

Hawes talks about the country having two middle classes during at least part of the Industrial Revolution, one in the north and one in the south–and it’s worth mentioning here that the British middle class, especially at the time we’re talking about, sits higher up the social ladder than the American one. The southern middle class made its money in finance and commerce and the northern one in manufacturing. The southern middle class belonged to the Church of England and the northern one tended toward dissenting religions–and since that meant their children wouldn’t be accepted by the elite universities they started their own. 

By the 1850s, though, boarding schools for the middle class were opening. They were modeled on the elite boarding schools and their explicit purpose was to educate the sons of the northern elite to become like the sons of the southern. And it worked. Northern boys picked up the southern accent, learned what clothes would mark them as part of the in crowd, and played all the right sports. Basically, money and the fairy dust of southern culture allowed northerners to move upward. Not to the top rungs of the elite, of course–you had to be born into the right families for that–but to the bottom rungs of the upper rungs.

What the hell, upward is upward, and a lot of people were scrambling for those rungs.

Starting in the 1870s, the southern elite’s accent started to be called Received Pronunciation, or RP, and if you had any sort of ambitions, you damn well needed to sound like it was your natural accent. 

 

RP

In the 1920s, the BBC began broadcasting, and if you couldn’t reproduce RP convincingly, you weren’t one of its broadcasters . At roughly the same time, a report on teaching English in England insisted that all children should learn RP–as a foreign language if necessary.

RP was considered standard English and everything else was a dialect. And in case it’s not clear, dialect was bad. If you wanted to move up the ranks in the armed forces, you needed the right accent. If you wanted to be taken seriously in finance, in business, in education, you needed the right accent. Although as Hawes says, the ordinary English didn’t give a damn, they just wanted to sound like Americans. BBC English was no match for Hollywood films. 

 

Disunion

When Ireland became independent, the arithmetic of north-south power shifted. The Conservative Party’s base was southern England, and although it had opposed Irish independence, once Ireland left the party discovered that it was now easier for it to dominate the House of Commons. Reducing the number of MPs had made its southern base more powerful.

And if Scotland leaves the union–which the Conservatives oppose, at least publicly–they’re likely to find that Parliament becomes even easier to dominate–at least if they can hold onto their southern base. 

Wassailing and English traditions

If you dig a shallow trench into English traditions, you’ll find wassailing and Christmas snuggled up together. Dig the trench deeper, though, and wassailing’s lying by itself: It’s pre-Christian and like many things was taken over by England’s early Christians–possibly because it was easier to convert people if you let them carry over some of their beliefs and possibly because no one had a ability to stop them. What the hell, Christmas itself was folded into Christianity from earlier belief systems, so why not wassailing as well.

 

Wassailing

What do you do when you wassail? It depends where you are, and when, but basically on the twelfth night of Christmas you go to the orchard (of course you have an orchard, or someone does) and make noise. Maybe you sing songs. Maybe you bang pots and pans. Maybe you pour some cider on the trees as an offering. What you want to do is scare off the evil spirits (or wake the sleeping tree spirits, or possibly both; take your pick) to make sure the orchard’s owner has a good harvest next year. 

Almost surely, you’ll have a drink of some warm cider from a shared cup–cider being an alcoholic drink, in case that isn’t clear. The orchard’s owner would supply the drink. Because you scared the evil spirits away and made sure she or he will have a good crop next year. 

Thanks, folks. Really appreciate your help. But before you go, don’t forget to leave some booze-soaked toast on the branches. I expect that symbolizes something or offers something to someone. Your guess is as good as mine.

Irrelevant photo: Sunrise, January 22. 

But if you don’t live in an orchardy part of the country, you and your fellow wassailers will follow a different tradition and go house to house, wishing good health to the people in each one and being offered a drink before you move on–very likely ale. 

By the time you reach the final house, you might be grateful that the village isn’t any bigger.

A lot of England’s door-to-door singing traditions mixed entertainment and aggressive begging, and this strand of wassailing did as well. A wassailing song that’s become a Christmas carol starts out by saying, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,” and goes on to demand, “Give us some figgy pudding.” The singers threaten not to leave until they get some. From which we learn (a) that they might be given food as well as or instead of drink and (b) that when some singers threaten to give you another song, you’ll give them whatever they ask for.

The song also mentions that the singers aren’t “daily beggars that go from door to door.” They’re neighbors’ children. 

The “daily beggars” line tells us a lot about the period. Beggars are everywhere. People learn to dismiss them. But neighbors children? Bring out the pudding. That line, by the way, is the only place I’ve found wassailing mentioned as a children’s activity. Everything else is about adults. 

At this distance in time, it’s easy to think wassailing meant a community came together in perfect equality and serious inebriation. Everyone gave their neighbors drinks and was there for them again in the morning with era-appropriate hangover remedies. It’s doubtful, but what the hell, it’s a nice thought. It’s more likely that the poor sang for the wealthy and the better-off, who could afford to dish up figgy pudding and booze.

Whether they gave out ale or cider, it would’ve been warmed and spiced, possibly with honey and egg added. When you get to the egg, it sounds horrible, but I’m not going to try the recipe. My commitment to this blog only goes so far. 

 

Anglo-Saxon wassailing

The word wassail may come from the Anglo-Saxon waes hael–”good health,” or “be healthy.” We can hear the echo of that in the modern English word hale. That’s modern English as in the version of the language we speak these days. The word hale itself isn’t used much anymore, making it antiquated modern English.

Don’t think about it too much. Or at least make sure you’re sitting safely when you do.

Wassailing dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, to the time before they converted to Christianity. The lord of the manor would greet the–well, Historic UK calls them his followers, because Anglo-Saxon society involved a strong bond between the lord and his whatevers. Followers is as good a word as I can come up with. The bond would have been both military and economic. I’ve read that it was more of a two-way bond than the relationship between England’s feudal lords and their tenants after the Norman invasion. 

But before we decide that Anglo-Saxon England was a jolly place of glorious equality, remember that it had slavery. Whether the slaves were part of this greeting and drinking I don’t know.

But back to the lord and his followers: He’d say waes hal. And the followers would say drink hael–drink well. Because drinking and good health? What could be more tightly intertwined? 

Again, whatever they drank would’ve been warmed. It’s winter, remember. And they’d pass the bowl around instead of everyone having a cup of their own.

 

Twelfth night

When Christians absorbed wassailing into their own traditions, they pegged it to twelfth night, which falls on January 5. But nothing is ever simple, because when this happened they were using the Julian calendar. Later, they moved to the Gregorian calendar because over the course of centuries the Julian had gone out of whack with reality and the Gregorian–

Think of it as resetting a clock. They reset the calendar and fine-tuned the mechanism, and that happened under Pope Gregory, hence the word Gregorian. 

In the Julian calendar, though, twelfth night was January 17, so if you want to make a show of your purity–or your stash of not very useful knowledge–you can go wassailing on the 17th.

Later wassailing

After the Norman conquest, wassailing continued, and the lord of the manor would be expected to show some generosity in exchange for the peasants’ songs and good wishes. I like to imagine it as one of those rare moments when the peasants got to shake down the lord instead of the other way around.

While they’re drinking, let’s skip well ahead and land in the time when Oliver Cromwell and his band of super-Protestants ran the country. They banned wassailing, along with caroling and Christmas itself. It all smacked of paganism and fun, which weren’t a good fit in the Christian paradise they were trying to build. 

With the Restoration–that’s when the monarchy was cemented back into place and the super-Protestants put back in their box–Christmas and fun took on an intense level of thumb-your-nose-at-the-Puritans joy, and wassailing was in fashion again. I’m tipping into guesswork here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a certain amount of invented tradition didn’t creep in at this point. When there’s a break in a culture, reconstructing the old one can be an act of the imagination. 

What we know about the Omicron variant

With so many things about the Omicron variant still uncertain, I’m happy to find a bit of (apparently) solid news about it: five key symptoms. 

They’re not the same as the earlier variants’ symptoms. They’re extreme tiredness, night sweats, a scratchy (as opposed to sore) throat, a dry cough, and mild muscle aches. Officially, though, UK government websites are sticking to the old three: a high fever, a new continuous cough, and changes to your sense of taste or smell. 

So is Omicron milder? Possibly. Hopefully. The World Health Organization–a.k.a. WHO–thinks it is. Probably.

But what the hell, we don’t know yet, and Moderna’s chief medical officer, Dr Paul Burton, said it “poses a real threat.” He’s not convinced that it’s milder. With Covid, severe disease waddles in a couple of weeks behind infection, and South African reports that it’s mild may have to do with specific conditions there.

Burton says Omicron and Delta are likely to circulate together for some time. So if you’re reaching for your seatbelt buckle, thinking you could unsnap the beast because you won’t be needing it, you might want to wait a while. Nothing’s certain yet.

 

Irrelevant photo: Flowers from last summer’s village produce stall.

Could somebody give us a bit of good news, please?

Well, yes, although it’s not ready for use yet. Scientists at Aarhus University (that’s in Denmark, and I had to look it up too) have discovered a molecule that covers the nasty little spikes on the Covid virus, which then keeps it from entering human cells, spreading infection, and throwing those loud and drunken parties that have made the last couple of years so difficult for us all.

It’s not a vaccine but it uses some of the same building blocks that the mRNA vaccines do. No, don’t ask me. Just nod and look wise and someone will think you know what that means. 

One of the implications of this is that it’ll be cheaper and easier to make than the antibody treatments that are now used to fight the most serious Covid cases. 

It can also be used to detect the virus. And make coffee.

No idea. Just nod and look wise.

It’s done well on detecting the Delta variant, but it’s too early to have data on how it does with the Omicron.

*

It sounds like a new antiviral drug is in the pipeline, although it also sounds like it’s in the early stages. The article I got this from–let’s say the language could stand to be more considerate to your average blogging idiot. I think we’re talking about a pill–the article says it’s “orally available,” but then, so’s my tongue–and (unlike my tongue) it would only need to be taken once a day. 

Other information? It works against Covid and other respiratory RNA viruses–at least in animal models. It’s not coming off the assembly line yet, but it’s something to keep our eye on.

If it comes through, it will join the Pfizer and Merck antivirals that are a few steps ahead, approved in some places, and seeking approval in others. They can be used to treat mild to moderate Covid and keep it from progressing–or, basically, from killing you. Or landing you in the hospital. 

 

Spotting Omicron

Different countries use different tests for Covid, and one of them happens to be good at spotting the Omicron variant. Among other things, that means that information about the variant will be coming in at different rates from different countries.

 

Going beyond neutralizing antibodies

Early studies of the new variant have reported on how well prepared our neutralizing antibodies are to win a debate with it, and neutralizing antibodies are the focus because they’re easy to measure, but they’re not the only tool our immune systems have on hand. When it loses a debate, it can always fall back on a different, time-tested tactic: throwing chairs.

Okay, very small, metaphorical chairs. 

The body’s second line of defense is made up of binding antibodies, T cells, and memory B cells. They’ve got short tempers and long memories, and when they’re not actively fighting Covid they lift weights and make threatening noises. 

When they’re working, though, they target a different part of the virus than the neutralizing antibodies do–and in the Omicron variant it’s not as heavily mutated a part. 

So if you’ve had a booster shot, you’re not totally unprepared to fight this thing. This is, admittedly, early news, and more studies are needed before we’ll know how well they aim those chairs. 

 

Spreading Covid in the House of Commons

As Britain’s Conservative Party shakes itself apart over how to respond to the new variant, we’re being treated to scenes that make the House of Commons look like a Rubens painting. 

In case you’re lucky enough to have missed Rubens, he liked to paint his people in piles, sometimes adding an unexplained cow to the mob. (Apologies: The link won’t take you to the painting with the cow. I swear I saw it one–it’s not something my imagination’s capable of coming up with–but I reached my limit before I found it.)

Why is that a good parallel to the House of Commons? Earlier in the pandemic, MPs were allowed to basically phone in, working from home and voting safely from a distance. I don’t know if they were able to debate from home, but then no one listens to anyone else anyway, so what did it matter?

Cynical? Not me.

That ended, in spite of protests, and MPs now have to gather in absurdly small rooms to vote. As an MP from the Scottish National Party put it, “The only way to pass regulations to try and get Omicron Covid back under control will be for about 400 people to pack into a room big enough for 100 to record their votes.

“They’ll do this up to four times in succession. In between, they won’t be able to go too far so will pack out the lobbies at either end of the chamber waiting for the next vote to be called.

“Several MPs have tested positive for Covid in the last few days so there’s a very high probability that others are carrying the virus but have not yet shown symptoms or given a positive test. What could possibly go wrong?”

A Minnesotan admits, belatedly, that it does actually snow in Britain

Having survived 40 Minnesota winters, I can get snobbish about the British weather, but recently 61 people got trapped in at a pub by a 9-foot-high snow drift and downed power lines, so I’m now prepared to admit that British weather can, very occasionally, be extreme.

That happened during Storm Arwen (Britain names its storms these days). Even in Minnesota, we would have classed it as more than a nuisance snow. Most of the people were stuck there for three nights and they spent the time playing board games, singing karaoke, and doing pub quizzes. Two stayed an extra night, working up the courage to leave. 

Pub quizzes? They’re a big thing in British pubs and people love them. Don’t ask me to explain that. I’m a foreigner. I was glad to be done with quizzes when I left school. A single day of quizzes, board games, and karaoke would’ve sent me out into the snow drift. If I could’ve gotten the door open.  

The pub fed everyone for free but–wisely–charged for booze.

Irrelevant photo: Li’l Red cat in a basket.

Elsewhere, Storm Arwen was less fun. Thousands of people lost power, and with it heat, for, as I write this, more than a week. Why it’s taking the power companies so long to patch the network back together is anyone’s guess. There’ll be an investigation eventually, but in the meantime we’ve got some people who are too damn cold to think that far ahead.

The army and navy were finally called out to help. That would’ve happened sooner, but it took a while for anyone to remind the government that people up north do actually vote. 

Storm Arwen was followed closely by Storm Barra, and Storm Barra was preceded by wind and snow  warnings. Since storm news uses a traffic light system and warnings are yellow, we’ve been treated to yellow snow warnings.

Maybe you have to have lived in the US to find that funny–or disgusting–but Minnesotans consider it the height of humor to advise each other not to eat yellow snow, and here we are with warnings about the stuff falling out the sky. How the dogs managed to get near it before it hit the ground is anyone’s guess.

You have no idea how many things will change when you drop yourself in a new country.

 

Reviving a cat story

This happened it 2015, but it resurfaced recently and since I missed it last time around, I’m willing to bet someone else out there did too: A man in Yorkshire called 999–Britain’s police, fire, and ambulance  emergency number–because his girlfriend let the cat eat his bacon

Yes, and what, the operator asked, did he want done about it?

Well, he wanted to press charges, of course.

Against the girlfriend or the cat?

Against both of them.

“Right, sir,” the operator said. “it’s not a criminal offense to let a cat eat your bacon. And we don’t arrest cats. I’m very sorry.”

No word on what happened to the relationship, but I wouldn’t bet on him living happily ever after. With either the girlfriend or the cat.

My gratitude to CatLadyMac for pushing me in the direction of this story.

 

Neolithic mince pies

Archeologists at Stonehenge have been derailed by enough Christmas cheer that they’re claiming the monument’s builders invented the mince pie. Or at least that they ate something very much like mince pies, involving meat fat, nuts, and fruit. And possibly grain for a crust.

Or possibly not. They’re making a huge leap from what was available to what they might’ve done with it., and I’ve made enough questionable pies to tell you that you can’t draw a straight line from having the right ingredients to turning out a pie. Especially if you’ve never seen a pie before. 

In the interest of accuracy, let’s say that it’s probably not the archeologists making that leap from they had the ingredients to they made mince pies. That comes from English Heritage, which funnels visitors through Stonehenge, and sells them stuff–including, at this time of year no doubt, mince pies, since they’re a hazard of every British Christmas. English Heritage has made a “neolithic mince pie recipe” available. 

Those people you see standing on the sidelines rolling their eyes and silently mouthing, “Don’t blame me”? Those are the archeologists.

 

Covid news

In Italy, a man tried to get his vaccination certificate while still avoiding vaccination by presenting a fake arm. Because who’d notice, right? 

Colorwise, the arm was a pretty good match for the rest of him, but it was made of silicon and the rest of him was made of muscle, bone, and all those other things that are found in animate creatures. So yes, someone noticed, probably well before jabbing a needle into the arm.

I can’t help wondering whether he just handed the arm over or attached it in more or less the area where a real arm would normally grow. Either way, he didn’t get his proof of vaccination and he did get some attention from the local police.

And the press.

*

From the start of the Covid pandemic, a substantial number of people have told us that viruses inevitably get milder as time goes on. Didn’t that happen with the 1917 flu epidemic? Didn’t the Black Death eventually disappear? The conversation around that has gained in intensity with the arrival of the Omicron variant, which on early and incomplete reports appears to be more transmissible and maybe, possibly, hopefully milder. 

With the emphasis on maybe. The experts, though–spoilsports that they are–are holding out for actual evidence before they commit themselves.

But do viruses inevitably become milder? Not according to Alan McNally, the director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham. 

I know. Another spoilsport. The world’s full of them. He calls it “one of the most baffling misinformation myths peddled during the pandemic.” 

He’s joined by spoilsport Brian Ferguson, an immunologist at the University of Cambridge. “It’s really unpredictable what will happen to the evolution of the host or the virus. You can pick out examples of things going one way or the other depending on what point you want to make.”

One argument trotted out to defend the belief that viruses evolve toward being kinder is that indisputable fact that dead people don’t walk around much. This, the argument goes, limits their ability to spread any disease that may have killed them. 

I’ll confess to having trotted out that argument myself. Oops. I did mention that I’m not an expert, right?

The problems with it include Covid’s ability to spread before people know they have it, including people who never become sick and never know they were carrying the disease to spread it anyway.

And if that isn’t enough, a disease can be serious, both to individuals and to the society they live in, even if the people who get it don’t die. 

We have no way of predicting what direction this mess will go in. 

*

How’s the vaccination campaign going? Well, the Sicilian village of Monte delle Rosse (population 2,100) has a vaccination rate of 104%. And they accomplished that without vaccinating either the dead or any silicon arms. Here’s how it happened:

Italy calculates the vaccination rate by comparing the number of residents and the number of people vaccinated. So when people came in from the surrounding villages for their vaccines, they put little Monte delle Rosse on the map. 

The take-up there was particularly good because before the vaccines were available, the area had a bad Covid outbreak, started by a nun and a priest who came to town not knowing they were Covid positive. 

That sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it? Although they usually walk into a bar, not a Sicillian town. Sorry I can’t supply a punchline, but-you’re welcome to leave one in the Comments section. In the meantime, the outbreak really did start that way, and when a vaccination team arrived, word of mouth brought people flooding in.

The village mayor said, “There was almost an air of celebration at the vaccination hubs. It was like being at a popular town festival. People understood that, with vaccines, they were creating a shield that would protect their community, safeguarding the very survival of the village.”

It also helped that someone set up a What’s App group that responded “to fake news and reassured people about vaccine safety. I am convinced that, if we had spread the wrong information about the dangers of jabs, today we would be here to tell you another story–that of dozens of deaths from Covid that would have risked halving the inhabitants of this village.”

 

A follow-up on what makes a British city a city

In November, I wrote about how a British town becomes a city. It’s time for a follow-up, because the Cornish town of Marazion, with a population of 1,440, is making a bid to become a city.

How do they justify that? The boosters cite things like its wonderful people, its community spirit,  its history, and its beauty. Not to mention its clock tower and the possibility that it’s the oldest chartered town in Britain. Or that, if it isn’t, it’s among the oldest.

“Size is not important,” said a town councillor, who may or may not have understood what he was saying.

I’m working on a proposal to make my living room a city. It has a human population of two and a remarkable number of resident animals, along with stunning drifts of dog and cat fur. .

 

What Are England’s Home Counties?

If you spend much time reading about England, sooner or later you’ll stub your toe on the phrase Home Counties. That’s what you get for reading in the dark.

But what are they?

No one’s sure. Or lots of people are sure, but they don’t agree with each other, which is what makes the question interesting. A lot of the sources I’ve found say they’re the counties around London, and that’s safe enough but doesn’t tell us which ones, so whatever consensus we pretended to have falls apart.

 

The boundless wisdom of public opinion

A polling company, YouGov, tried to shed light on the issue (someone must’ve paid them to do that) and succeeded mainly in highlighting how dark it is out there. Because although it’s easy to come up with wrong answers (Wales not only is in the wrong part of Britain, it’s not a county), no one can say what the right answer is. So let’s look for the most common candidates. 

Irrelevant photo: wild sweet peas.

The most widely recognized in the poll were Buckinghamshire, Surrey, and Berkshire. For whatever that’s worth, which I suspect is not much, especially since none of them gathered any impressive amount of support. 

Historically, YouGov says, Sussex is usually included, but only 30% of the people in their sample included West Sussex, and only 29% included East Sussex. (East and West Sussex were divided into separate counties in 1974, although no one told me until today. Which is unforgivably rude.) 

By other definitions,  the Home Counties include Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, although only a third to a quarter of YouGov’s sample were convinced of it. You could also make a case for Hertfordshire, Kent, and Essex, which got 36%. 

 

Forget polling. What else do we know?

The simplest definition of the Home Counties is that they’re the six counties surrounding London: Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Kent. (I’m taking someone else’s word for that, but I have verified that the list has six entries. You can check for yourself if you need more certainty than that.) But you could also toss in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Sussex (or the two halves of Sussex) and not be wrong. 

And although London’s the reference point for all of this, London isn’t one of the Home Counties. It’s–well, it’s London. 

 

Does any of this matter?

No. And also yes. The Home Counties aren’t an administrative entity. They’re not a governmental division. No one runs for office to represent them or sets out parking regulations for them and only them, although the phrase does show up sometimes in official usage. Or so says WikiWhatsia, which I fall back on only in desperation. That I’m leaning on it now tells you how little information I could find anywhere else.

That covers the no, it doesn’t matter part of the answer. What about the yes, it does part? It matters as a reflection of reality and as a cultural reference reinforcing that reality.

London is Britain’s economic and cultural heavyweight. It’s where the wealth and the power and the glitz come together–along with a lot of the grit and the poverty and the problems, although in fairness those last three are pretty widely distributed. But let’s stay with the wealth and the et cetera. When you concentrate enough of that stuff in a small space, it forms a gravity well, drawing everything nearby into its orbit. So whatever the hell they are, the Home Countries matter because London’s sitting there in their middle.

In fact, London’s not just sitting there, it’s been nibbling away at the  surrounding counties and by now has swallowed MIddlesex almost completely.

The broad-brush image of the Home Counties (that’s a nice way of saying “the stereotype”) is that they’re comfortable, conformist,conservative, and consumerist. Also suburban and expensive to live in, but those don’t start with C.

 

History

According to WikiWhatsia (at the moment; you never know when it’ll change), the origin of the phrase Home Counties can be traced–unreliably–back to several periods. One is Tudor times, when they were the counties close enough for a London-based functionary to have a country home and still rush back to London when needed. Another is the 18th century (more or less), which  had the “Home Counties Circuit of courts.”

A third is the Anglo-Saxon period, although the entry doesn’t offer anything to justify that, but it’s true that many English counties were originally Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so what the hell, we’re close. Let’s move on before anyone notices how little we know about this.

Again, according to WikiWhatsia, the first mention of the phrase is from 1695, when Charles Davenant wrote “An essay upon ways and means of supplying the war,” arguing that the Home Counties were thought to pay a disproportionate amount in land taxes. 

Davenant included eleven counties. 

 

Yeah, but what about the shires

As long as we’re wandering around with an edgeless topic, and as long as counties with the word -shire in their names have come up, let’s talk about what the shires are:

They’re English counties that end in -shire. 

I  took the romance out of that, didn’t I?

The word’s roots are Anglo-Saxon–that language we call Old English and that modern English speakers couldn’t understand even if someone offered them a chocolate pie as a reward for deciphering a single sentence. Shire’s basically the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the French-based county. 

Talking about the shires will set off some cultural resonances, although I’m not the best-placed person to tell you what they are. What I can do is tell you that the Collins Dictionary says they’re in the Midlands and famous for hunting. 

Do what you can with that.

Fireflies and Covid vaccines meet conspiracy theories

If you’re vaccinated, you’ll be glad to know that the Covid vaccines will not make you glow in the dark. Or else you’ll be disappointed. How you feel about it is up to you, but the reality remains unchanged.

I mention this because Newsmax’s White House correspondent tweeted that “the vaccines contain a bioluminescent marker called LUCIFERASE so that you can be tracked. Read the last book of the New Testament to see how this ends.”

The last book of the New Testament? When’s it due out? I’ll pre-order it and get back to you with a spoiler as soon as I have it in my non-glowing paws. 

In the meantime, though, let’s talk about luciferase, which does exist, isn’t scary, and doesn’t need capital letters. It’s the stuff that makes fireflies glow at night. And (because we can’t take anything for granted anymore) they glowed well before Covid vaccines were created.

Irrelevant photo: Bindweed, also known as a morning glory

Is luciferase in any of the Covid vaccines? No, but it is used in labs–and again, and was well before any of us put the letters C, O, V, I, and D together in that order. 

Let’s turn to Axandra Becker for an explanation of what scientists at the Texas Medical Center did with the stuff earlier in the pandemic–and let’s switch to the past tense to do it: It was used to “develop faster and more accurate diagnostic tests for Covid-19 as well as to analyze potential therapies and gain a clearer understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself.” 

They inserted luciferase into the genomes of the Covid, Zika, and West Nile viruses. That produced light, which made it easier to track where they (I believe that’s the viruses we’re talking about) went in a cell culture, along with what they’re reading and what they do on social media.

Okay, I’m filling in a bit where the explanation of the tracking went wavery. All it said was that they could track what was happening in them.

Admit it, my version’s more fun.

What’s any of this got to do with Lucifer? Because we can’t take anything for granted, we’ll start on the ground up and work our way up. Lucifer’s the antagonist who makes sure that there’s a market for that forthcoming book of New Testament, because without tension, no one can keep a plot rolling for that many pages and through two testaments, and antagonists are a cheap and easy way to create tension. If you open with “And God created the world and everything was nice from there on,” you have a short book.

Lucifer’s name comes from the Latin for bringer or light, or morning star, so when scientists isolated the stuff that makes fireflies (and a few other lucky creatures) glow, some clever devil named it luciferase.

Okay, we’re done with the name, now let’s go back to the vaccines: There’s no luciferase in them. None. Zero. It was used in research only. I’m multiply vaccinated and even in this post-truth era of ours I still can’t see my arm after I turn off the light. No matter what religion you do or don’t adhere to, you can get your vaccine safe in the knowledge that Lucifer–whether you believe in him or not–is not in it.

And you’ll still need a light source other than your own lovely self if you want to read in bed.

 

“A disease of the unvaccinated”

A doctor who writes as the Secret Consultant (consultant is British for a senior hospital-based doctor) says that although some vaccinated people are hospitalized with Covid, they tend to be elderly or frail or have underlying health problems. In Britain, an unlucky few otherwise healthy people will be hospitalized briefly on the general wards, but in the intensive care unit, “The patient population consists of a few vulnerable people with severe underlying health problems and a majority of fit, healthy, younger people unvaccinated by choice.”

None of them glow in the dark. Do you have any idea how helpful it would be if they did?

 

An update on needleless vaccination

Assorted groups of scientists are working on ways to deliver vaccines without using needles. One group’s working on a Covid vaccine in pill form. A trial has been approved in South Africa and will start enrolling people any day now–if it hasn’t started already.

A second approach uses a patch with spikes so tiny you can’t actually see them. These deliver the vaccine into the skin, not the muscle, which turns out to be an advantage. Muscle tissue is–well, think of it as a semi-arid zone as far as immune cells are concerned. You won’t find many of them there. Skin, on the other hand, goes into high alert when you bother it with a bunch of teeny tiny needles. The immune system wakes up, asks, “Did you need something from me?” and sends out messengers, who quickly learn to fight what looks like an invading army.

But patches have other advantages as well: 

  • They use less vaccine than a needle.
  • Babies don’t scream when they’re vaccinated–or if they do it’s for some other reason. 
  • The vaccine in patches is stable at room temperature and keeps for longer than the stuff used for needles. 
  • Anyone who can find one arm with the other one could use them. That means you could stick the patches in the mail for people to use at home.

One version of the patch has been tried on mice. Other versions–well, I don’t know what stage they’re at. The problem at the moment seems to be how to produce them in large enough quantities. 

 

Antiviral news

Scientists working at assorted universities and institutes in India have found an antibiotic that also works as an antiviral by messing with Covid’s ability to replicate.

But let’s not pretend that I can explain how it works. The best I can do is try to scare you with phrases like “amino acids . . . present in the ‘finger’ subdomain of the nsp12 protein” and  “the viral protein’s ‘palm’ subdomain cavity and the linear form of Kannurin.”

What matters is that “this approach could help us address the pandemic threat when yet another novel coronavirus emerges and medicine needs new pharmaceutical treatments ahead of the development of a suitable and widely available vaccine.” 

It’s good to know that, however screwed up humanity is, we have people among us who can figure this stuff out. 

 

Why you should take candy from strangers

A test group of 3,000 people will be sent a piece of colorless hard candy every day for 90 days. They’ll sniff it and eat it and then log onto an app to report what flavor it is and how sweet or sour it is. If the app notices any drop in drop-off in their sense of smell or taste, it will tell them to quarantine and get a Covid test.

The goal is to see if this is a way to spot Covid in otherwise asymptomatic people. 

 

How does Britain fight Covid?

Why, by pissing money out the window, that’s how. 

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. It got a vaccination program rolling early and that’s been reasonably successful, although the government followed that up by encouraging us all to run out and infect each other, since, what the hell, we’re mostly vaccinated. 

Except for the people who aren’t. Or are too frail for the vaccines to spark a good immune response. But that’s okay, because compassion’s not a big thing lately so we don’ thave to care.

But let’s go back to the money: We’re in the midst of a sleaze-valanche, and every few days we get more news about conflicts of interest and politicians giving lucrative favors to friends and donors. 

Now comes the news that we’re spending roughly £1 million a day on consultants for the test and trace system.

Those aren’t consultants as in very senior doctors. Those are consultants as in the outsiders who fly into an organization, look important, and charge a lot of money for it. They may perform priceless services. They play Tetris all day. I wouldn’t know. Either way, they do charge lots of money. On average, test and trace is paying £1,000 a day (and in a pinch a person could probably live on that), but some are making as much as £6,000 a day. In September, test and trace had one consultant wandering the halls (or working from home–again, I wouldn’t know) for every civil servant doing the same.

A year ago, it was going to reduce the ratio to 60%, although I’m not sure which side of the balance was 60 and which was 40. It doesn’t matter, though, since it didn’t happen. 

What’s the country gotten for its money? Let’s fall back on the House of Commons spending watchdog, which said test and trace hadn’t achieved its main objective, which was to cut infection levels and help the country return to normal. 

So as of earlier this fall, it had spent £37 billion in the process of failing to meet its objective. I wouldn’t mention that–I mean, what’s a few billion pounds between friends?–except that I mention the government’s incompetence so much that I thought I’d give you a quick sample of what I’m talking about.  

Fighting climate change, one misplaced city at a time

COP26–the meeting to save humanity from itself, and the planet along with it–was held in Scotland earlier this month. That presented a problem for US broadcasters, who discovered that Scotland’s geography is–well, it’s specific to Scotland is what it is. In other words, it demands a level of knowledge about a foreign country that no American can be expected to possess. 

CNN’s news presenter Wolf Blitzer opened by announcing that world leaders had gathered in Edinburgh to discuss the climate crisis. Behind him was the magnificent backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. “I’m now reporting from Edinburgh in Scotland where 20,000 world leaders and delegates have gathered for the COP26 Climate Summit,” he tweeted.

The meeting, unfortunately, was in Glasgow–a whole ‘nother city that’s rude enough to be 42 miles west of Edinburgh. 

[Late addition: I’d originally written that it’s east of Edinburgh. My thanks to John Russell for noticing that. I hope the Glasburgians had  their flotation devices close at hand until I came back and relocated them.)

The absence of punctuation is his. It may have gotten lost somewhere between the two cities.

Irrelevant photo: Flowers (some sort of geranium, I’d guess) trying to escape a neighbor’s garden.

In an effort to restore the balance, Reuters’ Jeff Mason tweeted a picture of Joe Biden walking out of his plane “in Glasgow,” although in fact he’d landed in Edinburgh. Reuters is a British-based news agency, so you might expect them to get this right, but Mason is based in the US.

I’m grateful to both reporters, because when you’re staring down the barrel of planetwide destruction you just  naturally want something to laugh about, even if the laughter does slide over into hysteria now and then. 

Before we move on, a few notes about those cities: Having landed in (check your map, please, everyone) Edinburgh, and in the spirit of climate-saving irony, Biden and his whole damn motorcade drove from Edinburgh to Glasgow.  But let’s not go too hard on Biden, the bad-optics sweepstakes were won by Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, who made an appearance at COP26, then flew back to London in a private jet so he could have dinner with a climate-change skeptic at a men-only private club.

Then he announced at a press conference that COP26 had been held in Glasgow. Which he may or may not know is located in Scotland. And he may or may not be wondering why so many people in Scotland–wherever that may or may not be–want to leave the United Kingdom. 

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After listening to entirely too many US reporters, a British reporter, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy–who knows his Edinburgh from his Glasgow and (I’m making assumptions here) his ass from a hole in the ground–tweeted to American reporters that the city’s pronounced glas-go, not glas-gow. English spelling being what it is, I’m sure they’re grateful to have instructions. No one can assemble the damn language without them.

 

The crime and canned food report 

If crime’s what puts a country on the map, Britain can claim its spot with pride. We’re suffering from beaning attacks and the police have asked shops not to sell multiple cans of baked beans to kids. They’ve also asked parents to check their cupboards to make sure no baked beans have wandered off unsupervised.

What’s going on? Kids are dumping baked beans on people’s driveways, doors, cars, and whatever else doesn’t run away, bite, or throw a decent punch. Then they post a video. It started on TikTok, andi it has its own hashtag, as any good crime wave should.

The article where I found this included a warning that baked beans are bad for dogs, which is what makes this is so dangerous. 

For the sake of clarity, I’ve made an assumption there that you’re human. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Lord G. also led me to a source that said the tomatoes in most baked beans aren’t healthy for dogs and to another that said they’re okay for an occasional treat. If you turn out to be a dog, I guess the best thing to do is eat them in moderation .

But back to the baked beans: A beaning attack doesn’t involve a whole drivewayful of the slop. The kids spill a can or two. I’d be annoyed about it, but I couldn’t see myself calling the cops. Of course, I haven’t been beaned. Maybe I’ll change my mind if I am.

 

And in other canned food news

The holiday season’s almost upon us and Heinz–the company that makes canned soups and other prefabricated edibles–has come up with a canful of British Christmas dinner. Yes, folks, this can (or tin in British) has everything you need for the holiday–turkey, pigs-in-blankets, brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, stuffing balls, gravy, and cranberry sauce, all in the form of a soup. 

They left out the mince pies and the Christmas pudding, which is probably wise but I don’t think they can call the dinner complete without them. 

 

The possible British crisis report

You may or may not have heard that Britain’s in a semi-permanent state of possible crisis. 

Possible crisis? Yup. We keep reading about it, but from where I sit not a whole lot seems to have changed, so although I don’t think it’s fabricated, I haven’t managed to get into a full-blown crisis mood.  

What’s happening is that we’re short of truck (or if you’re British, lorry) drivers, so things that should be getting delivered aren’t–although again, most of what I look for when I do the grocery shopping is on the shelves, and what isn’t I can work around.. Still, the shortage is real, and you can blame: 1, Brexit, 2, Covid, 3, anti-immigrant politicians limiting who can come into the country and for how long, 4, government incompetence (that’s my default setting but too complicated to explain in the list format I got myself stuck with), or 5, people’s unwillingness to work for poor pay and in lousy conditions. Pick one or more, as your mood and politics dictate. As far as I can tell, all or most of them have an influence. 

What are we short of and is it really a crisis? To answer the second question first, in spite of what I said above, you’re damn right it is because (we’re back to the first question now) we could run short of fake tan any day. You know fake tan: It’s the stuff that if you’re white you slather on yourself so you’ll look like you risked cancer to get a skin color you like better than the one you came in.

Or maybe you don’t slather it on yourself. I’ll confess to never having used it, but isn’t it fascinating that a culture which still–with apologies for the generalization–looks down its nose at people with darker skin is addicted to slatherable skin goop because people with lighter skin want to be darker? 

The reason for the shortage is that manufacturers are having trouble getting ethoxydiglycol, dihydroxyacetone, and erythrulose. Possibly because of how hard they are to spell. 

If this plays out as predicted, yes, we’re in serious trouble over here. If you live elsewhere and have friends or relatives in Britain, send fake tan! 

Before I leave the topic, though, we need two truth-in-reporting moments: 

1) Although we genuinely are short of delivery drivers, and the government genuinely is incompetent and also at the moment gloriously mired in sleaze reports (we’re in the midst of a sleaze-valanche and I’m having a wonderful time, thanks; it more than makes up for the fake tan crisis), neither of these seems to be the source of this particular shortage. I can’t rule out Covid, though. 

2) We have a crisis that’s getting less press than the driver shortage, and that’s an overwhelmed health system. This is only partially a Covid problem. The National Health System has been underfunded for years, all in the name of efficiency, and also partially privatized (also in the name of efficiency, and setting the NHS up to fail can be used to justify that). It’s also been disastrously reorganized,. And not enough doctors and nurses have been trained. Many are getting ready to retire, and already hospitals are reporting that they’re dangerously understaffed. I’d ask you to send trained medical people as well as fake tan–as a nation, we’ve relied on raiding the world for their trained medical people–but since we hate foreigners these days, not many of them would be eligible to work here. 

 

What’s the best way to honor veterans?

In Cheshire, two politicians (okay, one of them’s a former politician) who are both veterans decided that the best way was to hire a 7.8 ton tank and drive it through town to the local Remembrance Day event, where they forgot to set the handbrake–the thing Americans call an emergency brake. That allowed the tank to roll into the remembrance garden’s gates and smash hell out of them, thereby ensuring that even if other veterans are forgotten, the two of them will be remembered.

The tank rents for £950 a day, in case you want one. 

 

And finally a sensible story

As vaccine mandates push the reluctant to let themselves be vaccinated, a new idea’s entered the lune-a-sphere: getting that vaccine out of your body once it’s been put in. People are being advised that they can give into the mandate and keep their jobs but in the privacy of their homes make sure their bodies stay virginal and unsullied.

How do they do that? Well, according to one anti-vaxxer, who’s gotten enough views on TikTok to draw attention from the mainstream media, they take a detox bath of water, baking soda, epsom salts, and bentonite clay. Then they add a cup of Borax.

That soaks out radiation, poisons, and nanotechnologies.

What nanotechnologies? The liquidized computers in the vaccine that are turning us all into transhumans. 

How do the vaccine makers do that? They disassemble one of those old room-sized computers, put it in a blender, and add it to the Covid vaccine vats. 

Or–okay, I might possibly have made up the method, but we live in a post-truth world. Who’s going to challenge me? 

According to the experts, unvaccinating yourself is right up there with unringing a bell. Between the time the needle goes into your arm and the time you reach your car (assuming you have a car, and that you came in it) the vaccine will have started to work. 

It’s hard to pick a single element out of this and crown it the most controversial, but let’s try. We’ve got the claim that people can soak out a vaccine out of their bodies. We’ve got the claim that the vaccine (which one? does it matter?) activates radiation (no, don’t ask me), and we’ve got the claim that it contains a liquified computing system that will turn us into transhumans. But on an immediate damage-to-the-body level, the most controversial element surely is soaking in Borax. 

Now, Borax has its uses, and if you want to kill ants and cockroaches, it’s good stuff, but but soaking yourself in it isn’t recommended. It can irritate your skin and eyes. I’m not sure what it does to ants and cockroaches, but I’m sure it’s nothing nice. They haven’t offered any testimonials for the stuff. 

My advice? Dress warm, friends, and carry an umbrella, because it’s crazy out there.

Other People Manage

Other People Manage is a novel about the pain we carry and the love that gets us through the day. The publisher, Swift Press, describes is as “a powerful, moving, engrossing story of two women whose lives together start with an unexpected and terrible tragedy, and whose love for each other and their family endures the joys, disappointments and triumphs of life. This is that rare thing in the publishing world: an extraordinary book that was not bought for a six-figure advance in a twelve-way auction, but that will have a huge impact.”

It also happens to be mine, and although it’s not the first one I’ve published I’m incredibly excited about it. It will be available in April 2022, and (not that I’m trying to sell you anything, you understand) you can pre-order it from Waterstone’s. That’s a British bookstore, but it’s open minded enough to ship to other countries.

The reason I’m telling you about it now is that pre-orders can give a book a real boost and I’m shamelessly trying to do that for this one. I think (she said modestly) that it’s good, and I want to get it out into the world where people can find it.

You can find an early review here. And if you’re a reviewer yourself, you can get a copy from NetGalley. If you have any trouble with the link, let me know–I can get you in through the back door.

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Next Friday, we’ll resume our regularly scheduled programming with a post about Britain. Or possibly the pandemic. In the meantime, thanks for you patience.