Britain’s Corn Laws: that bit of history you slept through turns out to be fascinating

Britain’s Corn Laws are a bit of long-repealed legislation whose history is wrapped around the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, Ireland’s potato famine, and the struggle for workers’ rights and universal suffrage. So if (as I assume) you slept through them in some half-forgotten history class, it’s time to catch up.

They not only matter, they’re interesting.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom

 

The Napoleonic Wars and the politics of wheat

Let’s start with the Napoleonic Wars. That’s 1803 to 1815, and I had to look them up too. I don’t actually know anything. I just ask Lord Google questions and arrange the information he gives me, usually in odd patterns and after filtering the sites he suggests, because he does try to slip me some losers. 

I also have a growing stash of books on British history. Some are more useful than others.

Where were we?

The Napoleonic Wars. Before going nose to nose with revolutionary France, Britain was in the habit of importing a lot of its wheat, which was its most important grain. It was also in the habit of using the word corn for any old kind of grain. It still is. What Britain calls corn, the US calls grain. And what the US calls corn, Britain calls maize.

How we understand each other at all is beyond me.

There’d been corn laws since as early as the twelfth century, but they didn’t become a political focus until the nineteenth, and that was because during the Napoleonic Wars Britain couldn’t import wheat from Europe, so British farmers patriotically planted more wheat and filled the gap as best they could. Then came the end of the war and British farming patriotically demanded that its price had to be protected from interloping foreign corn that spoke funny languages and, worse yet, cost less. 

Now that’s what I call patriotism.

In 1812, corn cost 126s. 6d. a quarter. Three years later, it cost 65s. 7d. Forget the complicated math it takes to understand that: What you need to know is that the price dropped. Drastically. https://spartacus-educational.com/PRcorn.htm

Okay, okay, we’ll break the numbers down. Don’t blame me if we can’t get them back together: 

A quarter, an s. and a d. are long-dead measurements that everyone took seriously and knew how to work with at the time. An s. is a shilling and a d. is a penny, because shilling starts with S and penny doesn’t start with d.

You can see how much sense this is going to make, right?

There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, although for reasons I can’t begin to understand no one seems to have shifted from shillings to pounds here when they got to 21, they just kept adding up the shillings. It’s a mystery that only people who’ve lived with the system can explain–maybe–and if we stick around a while it’s possible that one of them will. Friends, I invite you to the comments box.

A quarter is eight bushels. Its full name is quarter-hundredweight and it’s a quarter of a hundredweight. Hang onto that, because it’s the only bit that’ll make sense. A hundredweight doesn’t weigh a hundred of anything: It’s 112 pounds, or 8 stone. In the US, a hundredweight used to mean 100 pounds, but then people stopped using the term. It was too confusing, having a hundredweight weigh a hundred of something.

Try not to think about it too long or your brain will turn to jelly. Which in the US is something you spread on toast but in Britain is a fruit-flavored dessert made with gelatine–that stuff Americans call by the brand name jello, minus the capital letter. We stole the word from the manufacturers.

And how much wheat is 8 bushels? Enough to cover your living room floor nicely, thanks. 

I know. Sometimes it seems like we’ll never get to the point, but here we are.

When wheat prices dropped, British landowners patriotically pushed Parliament to protect their prices (the alliteration’s accidental but fun), and I doubt it took much pushing because the country’s political structure was weighted heavily in favor of landowners. And that last sentence is why the Corn Laws are more than just some ancient bit of legislative history but an entry point to a long battle over the right to vote.

 

Money and power

At the opening of the nineteenth century, women couldn’t not vote, the poor couldn’t vote, and most of the not-so-poor couldn’t vote. The richest industrialists could vote but that wasn’t enough to give them the political power that would’ve made such a fetching match for their money, and they weren’t happy about that. Because what good is one measly vote when you need Parliament to pass the laws that protect your interests and your business? For that, you want some serious clout. 

Parliament made no pretense of representing the country as a whole. The lords of many a constituency were able to appoint its Member of Parliament, who the few people allowed to vote would duly elect. In other constituencies, candidates openly bought votes. Big industrial cities often didn’t have their own Members of Parliament, although what were called rotten boroughs, with next to no population, did. To (atypically) get to the point, the House of Commons was safely under the control of landowners, as was the House of Lords.  

In 1815, to protect the price of wheat, Parliament passed the Corn Law, slapping a hefty import duty on foreign wheat unless the price of domestically grown wheat rose to 80s. per quarter. The duty was steep enough that wheat wasn’t worth importing. This protected not just the farmers producing the wheat but also the landlords who owned the land the farmers farmed. If the price of wheat dropped, farm rents would have to drop. And since landowners held the power–

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

Rioting broke out in London while the bill was being debated and soldiers surrounded Parliament to protect it. What with the war and several years of bad harvests, people had lived with high grain prices long enough. This was a time, remember, when you didn’t take it for granted that you could keep yourself and your family fed. Some huge percentage of the population lived on the edge. 

The bill passed anyway–who thought it wouldn’t?–and that focused a lot of people’s attention on getting the vote. In other words, it fed the demand for political reform.

The 1816 harvest was bad, pushing prices up, and that was followed by food riots and strikes for higher pay. 

Which brings us to our next point: If the Corn Laws were a disaster for people who were just scraping by, but they also pissed off industrialists–those rich people whose political power wasn’t a good match for their money. When the price of grain went up, their workers pushed for higher wages so they could afford to eat. People can be so picky about that. For industrialists, that meant either industrial unrest or less profit. 

They didn’t like either choice.

 

Who gets the profit?

From the 1820s through the 1840s, Conservative and Liberal governments tinkered with the Corn Laws but didn’t repeal them, and landowners argued that manufacturers opposed them only so they could drive down workers’ wages and increase their own profits. This was despicable, since the landowners preferred to have the profits in their own pockets. In an improbable convergence of opinion, the Chartist Movement, which was socialist, agreed, as did Karl Marx. 

From what I can see, there was some truth in the argument. A certain amount of profit was kicking around the country and the question was whose pocket was it going to end up in?

Of course, it could go into workers’ pockets through a combination of lower bread prices and stable or higher wages, but, yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.  

Marx seems (waffle word there; I’m working from second-hand sources instead of reading all 74 volumes of Capital plus his 6,739 assorted pamphlets, letters, and whatever’s left) to have gone a step further and seen the battle as one where the industrialists needed the workers’ help against the landowners, but as far as I can tell many of the struggles against the Corn Laws and for the vote came from the ground up, not the top down. Abolition of the Corn Laws was one of the demands at St. Peters Field, site of the Peterloo massacre, where people also demanded universal suffrage.

By which they meant, of course, universal suffrage for men. But that’s a different tale. You can find it here

The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1838 and advocated peacefully for repeal, and in 1844 the Duke of Richmond countered by founding the Central Agricultural Protection Society (called CAPS) to campaign in favor, which makes it sound like he felt that the pressure against the laws was serious. 

Then 1845 combined a bad harvest in Britain with the potato blight in Ireland, which was very much under British control. If Britain was facing scarcity–and it was–Ireland was facing starvation.

The combination convinced the prime minister, Robert Peel, that the Corn Laws had to end, and for a while it looked like Parliament would rescind them, but after some political jockeying, complete with prime ministers resigning, the laws were still in place. CAPS campaigned fiercely against abolishing them, in some places (according to the New World Encyclopedia) it practically supplanted the Conservative party.

One of the arguments offered in the parliamentary debate was that repeal would weaken landowners socially and politically, destroying the “territorial constitution” of Britain by empowering commercial interests.

In 1846, the Corn Laws were finally repealed, but the potato famine had moved well beyond the reach of half measures. It’s a separate story, and a bitter one. Estimates put the number of Irish people who died of hunger and disease at a million, all in the name of letting the problem work itself out through natural means. 

 

The effects of repeal

Repeal did keep the price of corn down in Britain. Between 1850 and 1870, it averaged 52 s. Britain became increasingly dependent on imported corn and British agriculture went into a depression notable enough to have its own name, complete with capital letters: the Great Depression of British Agriculture. Agricultural laborers left the land and migrated to the cities, feeding the Industrial Revolution.

You can chalk all that up to the repeal of the Corn Laws if you like, or you can chalk it up to railroads and steamships making North American grain easier to import. Britain and Belgium were the only corn-growing countries in Europe not put to a tariff on the stuff.

The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 gradually, under pressure and with much gnashing of teeth, expanded the vote. Repeal of the Corn Laws hadn’t destroyed Britain’s territorial constitution–whatever that is or was–but power was shifting.

The Corn Laws are often presented as a battle between free trade and restrictive tariffs, and that’s how my high school history textbook so forgettably explained them, after which it dropped the subject and my entire class sleepily murmured, “Did something just happen there??”

It wasn’t on the test, so the answer was no, nothing happened.

Free trade is, legitimately, a thread you can follow through the debates and battles over the Corn Laws, and it’ll carry you effectively enough into the next couple of centuries, but unless you’re a policy obsessive it may be the least interesting way to understand the story. I’m a fan of the way political power realigned itself to more nearly match economic power, and how people who had neither kind of power battered away at the system until they forced it to make a bit of space for them. 

All the lovely people in the news

After the good Lord Sumption hit the news for telling a woman with stage 4 cancer that her life is less valuable than other people’s, reporters started digging into his past writings and some clever devil found that when he was a Supreme Court justice he was involved in a case weighing whether doctors should be able to help patients end their lives.

The sanctity of life, he wrote, is a “fundamental moral value.” 

Unless it involves the country going into lockdown, which he’s against. If it ends lockdown, we get to ask which life is less sanctified. 

In fairness, he’s trying to dig his way out of that hole by insisting that it was all a misunderstanding: He didn’t say the woman’s life wasn’t at all valuable, only that it was less valuable. 

And besides, he didn’t mean her specifically. Just, you know, people like her.

I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

Irrelevant photo: Moose. Because we need something cheerful here.

 

Switching countries

These next stories come from the wrong country–I’m supposed to be writing about Britain here–but I can’t pass them one up: 

A Texas real estate agent and radio host flew to Washington DC  in a private plane (a cute guy invited her, she said; who could turn that down?) and she social-media’d the whole experience, from getting on the plane to invading the Capitol.

“We’re gonna go and storm the Capitol,” she said in a Facebook video. “We are going to fucking go in here. Life or death. It doesn’t matter. Here we go.”

As she climbed the steps, she said to the camera, “Y’all know who to hire. Jenna Ryan for your realtor.”

Having since been arrested, she’s outraged:

“I’m facing a prison sentence,” she told a news program. “I think I do not deserve that. I would ask the president of the US to give me a pardon.” (For clarity, that was still Trump when she said that.) She’d been “displaying her patriotism,” she said. “I listen to my president who told me to go to the Capitol.”

If you ever need to define entitlement, think of Jenna Ryan. If you need a realtor–well, you’ll make your own decisions, of course, but I’d think of someone else.

Now that the dust has settled, a lot of it has settled on her and in the cold light of morning, when you’re running around with a feather duster trying to clean up you image for the courts, she’s said, “What I believed to be a peaceful political march turned into a violent protest.” 

She added that she doesn’t condone violence and that we should all come together, Republican and Democrat and independent and resolve our issues in peace. 

Then we’ll sing “Kumbaya,” have a group hug, and accept a presidential pardon.

One of the things she posted, peacefully, from the attack was a picture of a broken window. It said,  “Window at The capital. And if the news doesn’t stop lying about us we’re going to come after their studios next.”

Oh, lo-ord, kumbaya.

*

With the Trumps leaving the building, the news is leaking out that Ivanka and her husband wouldn’t allow the Secret Service officers assigned to protect them to use the toilet in their house. 

I’m sure you understand. They only had six.

Sorry, six and a half.

Or to put that in American, they wouldn’t let them use the bathroom. In American, it’s not polite to mention that porcelain thing you sit on. It reminds us of what you do on it. In British, toilet’s a fairly normal word, although you get into all sorts of weirdly British class issues about who will use the word and who’ll avoid it. But never mind the complications: Some people will use it and no one will call a toilet a bathroom.

A hundred years ago, when I was new to Britain, I asked someone who worked in a fast foodery where the bathroom was. She did a visible double take, thinking I wanted to wash up.

Which in British is what you do with dishes, not (as it is in American) what you do with your own grubby body. So she thought I was looking for a tub of water to jump into.

But back to our point: First the Secret Service set up a porta-potty outside, but the neighbors objected. Then they used the houses of the Obamas and of the Pences, plus the occasional local restaurant. Since 2017, they’ve been paying rent on a studio apartment just so they can use the toilet/bathroom/loo/can/etc. That cost $3,000 a month. 

A White House spokesperson denied the story, saying it was the Secret Service’s decision. The Washington Post, which broke the story, stands by it. It’s being called WaterClosetgate.

Can you catch Covid outdoors? 

If you work at it, yes, you can catch Covid out of door, but fresh air dilutes the virus, moves it off in directions that aren’t toward you, and it dries up the little liquid space suits it travels in. And sunlight kills it. 

Zap. Take that, virus.

So far, somewhere between one case and very few cases of outdoor transmission have been documented. But not documented isn’t the same as impossible, so let’s look at the risks.

At the riskier end of outdoor contact are extended face-to-face conversations where people get too close to each other. We still need to keep our distance, especially during the colder weather, because the virus likes the cold. 

Also risky are what in Britain are called market stalls–outdoor markets that are often under three-sided tents–don’t have the advantage of being fully ventilated. They’re safer than the indoors, but the air doesn’t circulate freely through them. Ditto bus shelters. 

And crowds. 

In those situations, the experts recommend masks, even outdoors.

Irrelevant photo: A wallflower. Yes, it’s a plant, not just someone who clings to the wall at a dance.

But Professor Cath Noakes said she doesn’t “want people to be terrified of passing each other in the street.” To transmit the virus that way, someone would have to cough right at you and you’d have to inhale at just the wrong moment. On the other hand, running with someone so that you’re following in their slipstream for an extended period of time might be a problem.

“The sad fact is that your greatest risk is from the people you know.”

It’s not impossible to pick the virus up from a contaminated surface, but it’s a lot less likely than breathing it in. 

 

Lockdown: the effect and the politics

On Saturday, Covid cases in parts of England were starting to level off. Or by a different set of calculations, the number of infections  is declining in the country as a whole, although it’s still going up in a few regions (including mine, thanks). Either way, the lockdown seems to be having an impact. But I’m going to have to leave you linkless on that, because every link I can find is behind a paywall. I got it from an actual piece of newspaper that I spilled tea on yesterday.

Quite a lot of tea. 

You can’t do that to your computer and expect it to survive.

*

A former Supreme Court judge, Jonathan Sumption–known to his friends and family and all the kids who were in kindergarten with him as Lord Sumption–has made a name for himself as an anti-lockdown advocate. Let the old and vulnerable isolate themselves, he argues, while the rest of the world carries on as usual. 

And so it came to be, children, that he was on a TV show telling a woman with stage four bowel cancer that he hadn’t said her life wasn’t valuable, he’d only said it was less valuable than other lives.

Not just telling her, interrupting her to tell her. Because what some people have to say is more important than what other people have to say.

Don’t feel bad for her. She held her own.

“Who are you to put a value on life?” she said. “In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living.”

Lord S. has since said that his comments were taken out of context.

*

A group of Conservative Members of Parliament, though, is getting twitchy about lockdown. Some 70 of them have formed the Covid Recovery Group, which worries about “draconian restrictions” and wants to know when “our full freedoms will be restored.” They can be assumed to be after Boris Johnson’s job–but that’s an assumption. And they can’t all have it.

 

Covid testing and the schools

Somewhere back there, Boris Johnson presented us with a plan to reopen the schools safely by testing the kids every week. Or every day. Or every minute of every day. It was going to be miraculous and world beating and headline grabbing. What’s more, it was going to work, which would make a nice change. 

Or maybe it wasn’t going to work, because the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (known to its friends as MHRA) wouldn’t authorize the tests. It’ll give people a false sense of safety if they test negative, it said. 

This is a £78 million plan and part of the government’s £100 billion Operation Moonshot, which involves not putting a shot glass on the moon but mass Covid testing of various and miraculous sorts. 

The testing started in secondary schools and was scheduled to expand into primary schools (vulnerable kids and the kids of key workers are still in school), and move from there to universities and workplaces. 

The government’s already spent £1.5 billion on lateral flow tests made by Innova, which are fast and, unfortunately, not accurate. They miss a lot of people who are carrying the disease, and miss even more when nonprofessionals use them. 

In response to the MHRA not approving the plan, the government said, “So what? We don’t need regulatory approval because this is assisted testing.” (You understand that I made up that quote, right? But it’s true to the spirit of what they said.) 

Assisted testing is when someone sticks the swab down their own throat and up their own nose. Under supervision–that’s the assisted part, I believe. So it’ll be a seven-year-old supervised by a teacher with no medical background. Using a test that works its imperfect best when done by a professional.

I don’t have a problem with that. Do you?

The plan is that the close contacts of confirmed cases will be tested every day for seven days. If they’re negative, they can stay in school.

The MHRA, on the other hand, said it “continues to advise that close contacts of positive cases identified using the self test device continue to self-isolate in line with current guidelines.”

 

Tipping right over the edge

A super-Orthodox rabbi in Israel has warned people not to get vaccinated because the vaccine can turn people gay

He should be so lucky.

The logic is as follows: “Any vaccine made using an embryonic substrate, and we have evidence of this, causes opposite tendencies. Vaccines are taken from an embryonic substrate, and they did that here, too, so … it can cause opposite tendencies.” 

Are you following this? 

I’m not doing so well with it either. I did ask Lord Google about embryonic substrates and he was resolutely unhelpful, so I’ll nod vaguely, say, “Uh huh,” and sidle quietly out of the room while the good rebbe’s attention is distracted. Being ultra-Orthodox, he (and I admit I’m guessing here, and probably being influenced by stereotypes as well) probably doesn’t have a lot of time to talk with women anyway. 

In response, an Israeli GLBT etc. organization (that stands for gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato, with whatever else you can fit between two slices of bread without disaster ensuing)–

I’ve lost the thread there, haven’t I? An Israeli GLBT etc, organization has announced that it’s gearing up for a massive influx of new members. 

Israel has managed to vaccinate a large swath of its population–2 million people in a population of 9 million have had at least the first shot. So far, no noticeable change in their sexuality has registered on the Richter Scale. 

What Israel isn’t doing is vaccinating the Palestinians who live in territories under its control. 

A public service announcement

For the record: I am not related to Senator Josh Hawley–much to his relief. 

Unintended consequences: from Brexit to bitcoins

Ah, the unintended consequences of Brexit.

Forget the fish rotting on the docks and the emptying of supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland. One of the least expected consequences may be that Dutch customs officers are confiscating sandwiches from drivers as they enter from Britain. The new rules don’t allow anyone to import meat or dairy products from Britain. Or–in case you need a fuller list–fruit, vegetables, or fish. I’m not sure what that leaves. Is chewing gum made from organic substances?

Water, maybe. 

One driver asked if he could give up his sandwich fillings but keep the bread. 

No, the customs official said. “Welcome to the Brexit, sir. I’m sorry.”

Irrelevant photo: primroses.

Another unintended consequence is that truckers now need a permit to enter Kent if they’re planning to go on to Europe. 

Yes, Kent’s still part of Britain. But the system avoids pile-ups at the channel ports, or at least it’s meant to. Who know what unintended consequences it’ll have. The permit’s called a Kent access permit, or kermit. If truckers don’t have one, they’re liable for a £300 fine and they’ll be turned back.

The good news is that they can keep their sandwiches until they cross the channel. 

 

Bitcoins

With the price of bitcoins soaring, two people have been in the papers lately over lost coins.

One is a computer engineer in Wales who managed to throw away a hard drive “containing,” as the paper put it, bitcoins worth £200 million.

Yeah, it could happen to anyone. 

He’s offered the local government £50 million if they’ll dig it out. Assuming of course that they find it. And if it still works. He says there’s a good chance he could rescue the data. The local government–called the council in British–says it would cost millions of pounds to dig up the landfill, it would have a huge environmental impact, and anyway their licensing permit doesn’t allow them to do that. 

It also says it’s told him all this before.

He started mining bitcoins in 2009, when they were worth nothing much and when mining them was something you did on the computer, not physically in the local dump. He says he has an international hedge fund “willing to put up anywhere between £2.5m to £3.5m to do a professional search operation of the landfill.”

The council still doesn’t sound interested.

The other bitcoin owner is from San Francisco and hasn’t lost his computer but he has lost the password that would let him get at $250 million worth of bitcoins. He was given 7002 of them as payment for making–yes I do hear the irony–a video on how bitcoins worked, and I’m sure he included a snippet that said, “Don’t lose your password.” But no one listens to themselves, do they? You have to at least cross state lines to be an expert. He stored his bitcoins safely in an IronKey wallet, wrote the password on a piece of paper, had a nice cup of coffee, went on with his life, then discovered that he’d lost the paper.

When he got the coins, they were worth somewhere between $2 and $6 each. The price has gone wild during the pandemic, though, and at one point they were worth $40,000 each. They will have gone up since then. Or down. Or possibly sideways. Bitcoin’s a cryptocurrency. It can defy the laws of gravity and economics if it wants to.

He’s tried eight passwords. If he tries two more wrong ones, he might as well try searching a dump in Wales. 

Around the world, some $140 billion worth of bitcoins are either lost or locked away from their would-be owners, or so says Chainanalysis, which somehow knows these things.

 

“Baying mobs”

The government wants to introduce legislation to protect statues from being removed by “baying mobs” “on a whim.” 

Yeah, they really do talk that way. Or write that way, anyhow, since the quote’s from an article by the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, who’s just brimming over with understanding of the communities he–

Okay, I don’t actually know what a communities secretary’s supposed to do in relation to all those communities the country’s made up of. 

The statue of Edward Colston, which was dumped in the Bristol harbor last year, wasn’t pulled off its plinth on a whim. People had spent years trying to get rid of it through respectable avenues, and they’d gotten nowhere. Pull it down, though, and somehow the picture changes.

Jenrick mentioned an attempt to erase part of the nation’s history “at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies.” I’d be interested to know what he had to say when the statues of Saddam Hussein were being pulled down with the help of Britain’s ally, the U.S. I seem to remember the papers in general greeting that as liberation, not an attempt to erase history.

 

How Boris Johnson fucks up a free lunch. Again.

In case anyone suffers from the delusion that Boris Johnson’s government learns from its mistakes, it’s proving them wrong by screwing up free school meals. Again.

 

The free school lunch saga

When schools are in session, the poorest kids are supposed to get a free lunch. Last year, though, when schools were locked down and what would normally have been a school holiday rolled around, the government announced that it’d be fine if the kids missed lunch for a few days. They weren’t the government’s problem during the holiday.

It held that position until a football player, Marcus Rashford, who grew up poor and hungry, kicked the issue squarely into social media and made the government back down. 

Now, with schools locked down again, a mother posted a picture of the sorry collection of food that was delivered for her kid. It had about £5 worth of food, although the company that’s contracted to deliver it swears it cost £10.50 to buy, package, and deliver. 

And profit from, of course. All hail the great god of privatization. 

Irrelevant photo: cotoneaster, pronounced ka-tone-ee-aster. The birds plant them.

The food was either supposed to last five or ten days, depending on who’s right about this, but either way it hasn’t impressed nutritionists or parents or the public at large. I don’t imagine it did much for kids either. 

Rashford waded in again, at which point Boris Johnson condemned the parcels and the company apologized, saying it would toss in a free breakfast starting on January 25. 

Yes, folks, it was a miracle.

Parents and campaigners are asking, Why not just give the parents a voucher? That way they can buy what their kids like, what they’re able to prepare, and what suits the family’s preferences and diet. And guess what, if you do that, nobody has to pack, deliver, and profit from it.

Last I checked, the government was ignoring the suggestion. Because what’s the point of feeding kids if no one can make a buck out of it? Or a quid, since I’m supposed to be, at least marginally, writing British here.

Has the government learned anything? Don’t be silly. When the next school holidays come up in February,  England plans to suspend the free school lunches again

But the final word on this has to go to Conservative MP Pauline Latham, who said, “It’s only their lunch, it’s not all meals every day.”

We’ll give her this week’s compassion award, okay?

And having nothing to do with free lunches but on the subject of MPs so clueless they sound like something I made up, her fellow Conservative MP, the Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, greeted the mess that Brexit’s unleashed on the fishing industry by saying, “They’re now British fish and they’re better and happier fish for it.”

He’ll have to wait for gets next week’s compassion award, since I lost last week’s and, um, last week’s over. But I award him next week’s not just to honor his sympathy for dead and dying fish but also his sympathy for the fishing industry, which is losing £1 million a day because they can’t get their catch to the European markets. 

Fish are reported to be rotting on the docks. Happily and Britishly.

*

We need a shift in tone here, don’t we?

Scotland’s schools run under different rules than England’s, but even without the spur of England’s mean spiritedness, a group of chefs and hospitality workers in Edinburgh have delivered a quarter of a million meals to families during the pandemic. It’s all cost 50 p. per meal. (The p. stands for pence.) Each meal includes a main course, soup, bread, and a snack, and it’s free to anyone who asks. 

And it’s for the whole family, not just kids. Because you know what? Adults need to eat too. And while more affluent people have saved money during lockdown (no night at the pub, no meals out, no cappuccino on the way to work), the poorest people don’t have those small luxuries to give up and have had to spend more on food, gas, utilities, and the costs that go with home schooling. 

The Edinburgh program is organized by run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts and funded by donations, and it’s run by Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts.

 

The numbers

By now, over a hundred thousand people have died of Covid in Britain since the start of the pandemic. That’s almost one in every 660 people. Or to put that another way, one in every six deaths in the country can be traced back to Covid. 

Of course, whether those numbers are right depends on what you count as a Covid death. The government started out by counting everyone who’d had Covid (as far as was known) and later died, then it switched to a system that only counts people who die within 28 days of a positive test. Both are inaccurate. There’s no perfect system, but the government’s system, conveniently, gives us a lower inaccurate number.

If I was cynical, I’d think that was why they bought it in that color.

Even using the lower figures, though, Britain’s death rate per hundred thousand people is ahead of the United States’. That surprised me enough that I checked it with a second source, which confirmed it. I thought Britain was doing better than the US. Maybe that’s because the British government gives some semblance of sanity. It recognizes that the disease is real and makes noises about fighting it. Even if it gets it wrong almost every time.  

A member of the government’s science advisory group, SAGE, said, “The UK ranks seventh in the world in terms of numbers of deaths per million population through the pandemic. During the last week, our rate is the second highest in the world–a record that is ‘world-beating’ in all the wrong ways.”

Which not only confirms that we’re in deep shit but that the government’s own advisors can’t pass up a chance to whack Johnson over the head for bragging about the world-beating ways Britain was going to respond to the virus.

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Whatever the numbers, intensive care patients are being moved from overloaded London hospitals to others as far as 300 miles away. But lockdown does seem to be working. The R number, a measure of how many people each infected person gives the disease to, seems to be going down.

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Since we were talking about kids a minute ago, let’s talk check in on their parents. Over 70% of the women who ask to be furloughed from their jobs because the schools are closed have been turned down, or so says a survey of 50,000 working women. 

Nowhere near as many men asked for furloughs because of childcare (167 compared to 3,100) but 75% of them were turned down.

How are any of them managing? Some are taking any leave they’ve accumulated. Some are cutting back their working hours. Others (I’m extrapolating here) are managing it all and either quietly or noisily losing their minds.

The difference between furlough and any of the other alternatives is that people are paid 80% of their wages or salary if they’re furloughed. The government kicks in most of that, but the employer kicks in part, and that’s where the reluctance comes from.

 

Vaccine updates

Britain’s drive to vaccinate as many people as possible is being slowed down by an inconsistent supply of vaccine. Doctors’ offices aren’t able to schedule patients more than a few days in advance because they don’t have enough notice of when the vaccine will show up.

That’s called a push model: Doctors can’t order the vaccine. Instead they have to be ready to jump in and use what appears. 

Although having said that, our local GPs are almost through vaccinating the over-80 group and are scheduling the 75- to 80-year-olds. How those two pieces of information fit together is anyone’s guess.

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Internationally, 95% of the vaccine doses that have been punched through human skin have gone to people in just ten countries: the US, China, the UK, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Russia, Germany, Spain, and Canada. 

It will be March before Africa gets its first vaccine doses from COVAX, an international effort to be sure vaccines reach the poorest countries. More doses are expected in June, but doses from COVAX are expected to cover just 20% of the population–by what point I can’t say.

The continent has about 30,000 new cases per day now. During the first surge, it had 18,000.

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Back in Britain, there’s talk of the second vaccine dose being postponed even further than originally planned, depending on whether the first group to be vaccinated, the over-80s, turns out to be well protected by the initial dose. Public Health England says it’ll be reviewing infection data weekly to track how well the first dose works.

Some evidence is surfacing that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may get more effective with a longer time between the two doses, but you’ll have to follow the link if you want more information on that. It involved too many numbers. I fled.

But I can tell you what the rationale is behind vaccinating the elderly before younger people: According to Professor Wei Shen Lim, for every 25 to 40 people vaccinated in a care home, one life is saved. For every 250 over-80s vaccinated, ditto: one life. You’d have to vaccinate thousands of train operators to save that one life. 

To make sense of that, though, we’d have to understand the definition of a train operator. Are we talking about the person sealed into the booth at the front who drives the train–what Americans call the engineer and the British call the train driver? Or does it mean people working with and sharing air with the public? 

Does that number hold true for bus drivers or does there have to be a train involved? What about people working in supermarkets and warehouses and meatpacking plants? People working in hospitals? I have no idea. I’m passing it along because it’s an insight into how these decisions get made. 

English history: the yeoman

In the stratified world of medieval England, the yeoman was wedged into a slot between the gentry and the peasants. Then history came along and blurred the categories, leaving confusion in its wake.

History will do that if you let it. 

Irrelevant photo: foxglove leaves after a frost

The hazy definition of a yeoman 

One way to define both the medieval aristocracy (they had titles) and the gentry (the people just under them, who didn’t), is to say that they owned land but didn’t (god forbid!) get their hands dirty by working it. So we can define yeomen as people who owned some land and also worked it.  

There were more yeomen than either gentry or aristocrats, but nowhere near as many of them as of the people below them–the serfs and free but poor laborers. Above all, yeomen were free. In an age where most people who worked the land were serfs, that was hugely important.

If that all sounds clear, stay with me. I can get laundry muddy while it’s still in the machine.

Yes, thank you. It’s a gift.

A yeoman could hold a fairly wide range of land and still be a yeoman. In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (you might want to get your hands on a copy, because you never know when you’ll need it, do you?), Ian Mortimer tells us (or me, since you haven’t gotten your copy yet) that the most prosperous yeomen would have been well fed and comfortable, with servants to help with both the  housework and on the land. Some, in fact, rented whole estates from lords, ran the manor courts, and effectively functioned as lords. After the plague, this became relatively common, although some definitions will tell you that owning land was central to the definition. 

So some yeomen owned land and some rented it. Owning land was central to the definition of the yeoman and also wasn’t necessary.There’s your first bit of clarity breaking down, so let’s confuse the picture more.

They weren’t all in the same economic situation. Well below the most prosperous yeomen were others with some thirty acres of land, a third of which (like all land in this period) needed to lie fallow each year, leaving them with twenty acres that produced crops each year. In a good year, they’d be okay. In a bad year–in a series of bad years–they wouldn’t be. 

And below them? A yeoman might have no more than eight acres, and a bad year might force him to sell it, leaving him and his family to find whatever way they could to support themselves.

In his sixteenth century Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed (don’t feel bad; I never heard of him before either) described yeomen as having free land worth £6 per year and as not being entitled to bear arms. 

Other sources will also tell you that yeomen kept arms and fought for whoever their lord was, with yeomen becoming a category of soldier. The contradiction might be explained by the passage of time: What century was it when you opened the shutters and looked out at this green and pleasant land? 

It’s also possible that it can’t be explained that way. A yeoman’s son left an account of his father fighting for the king against the Cornish rebels in 1497–before Holinshed– and being not just armed but on horseback.

Aren’t the gaps and contradictions in the historical record fun?

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen talks about the terms yeoman, husbandman, ploughman, and hind coming into use in the fifteenth century, replacing the earlier division of the rural population into villein, bondman, and cottar, whose point of reference is the manor. Do what you like with that.

 

Were yeomen a class?

That will depend, at least partly, on how you define class. In an age when land ownership was the measure of your social standing, a yeoman who rented his land from a lord might have gone against expectations by being materially better off than a yeoman who owned only a small piece. Their role in village life would have been very different and their economic interests might have been different. What united them as a category was that in a time when most people who worked the land were serfs, they were free. And, of course, that they weren’t gentry, even if at the top end they brushed up against the gentry.

So were they a class? 

Forget it. I’m staying out of this.

A village’s more prosperous yeoman families (yeo-families?) were likely to fill the local roles, becoming the ale tasters, the jurors, the haywards, the constables, the tithing men, the churchwardens. They might also have become the lords’ retainers and so part of the lords’ households, and at some point, the word came to mean retainer, attendant, guard, subordinate official. 

But you noticed the word man tucked inside yeoman, right? Landowners were entirely or overwhelmingly male, and power (and with it, the slant of thought and language) was overwhelmingly male, but this was an age when adults married and if they could, had kids. So what were the wives and daughters of yeomen called? Ask Lord Google about yeowomen and he’ll lead you to only the most marginal of dictionaries. The respectable ones blink their eyes hazily and say, “Yeo-what?” 

The absence of yeo-words for the yeoman’s family members weighs (as far as I can tell, and keep in mind that I have no expertise in this field whatsoever) on the side of them not being a class or definable group that’s expected to behave as a group and restock itself.  

On the side of seeing yeomen as a cohesive group, though, if not necessarily a self-perpetuating one, were the Sumptuary Laws of 1363, which forbid yeomen or their families from wearing silver, gold, jewels, enamelware, silk, embroidery, or any of the more expensive furs. Their clothing had to be made from fabric that cost no more than £2 for the whole cloth.

What does the whole cloth mean? My best wild guess is a full bolt, because £2 was a shitload of money at that point. 

Ditto an act of 1445 that prohibited anyone of yeoman status or below from sitting in Parliament.

On the side of not seeing them as a cohesive group, some of the more prosperous yeomen intermarried with the gentry. Some might apprentice their children to tradesmen–the more prosperous ones to the more lucrative trades and the less to the less. On either level, though, they moved into a different category within the medieval social structure.

The children of some yeomen might become servants in other households, and here we need to stop and look at the role of servants.

In How to Be a Tudor, Ruth Goodman says that servants were often in their teens and likely to work only a few years before marrying and setting up their own households. The divide between servant and master or mistress wasn’t huge, and it wasn’t just the rich who had servants. The servants of the non-rich, though, weren’t there to provide personal services. A small-scale husbandman–a category of farmers below the yeomen–might take on a servant to help with the housework or the land, and there was always plenty of that.

The servant’s work depended on the household they served, and being a servant was less a question of class than of age. The child of a prosperous yeoman might serve in a richer household, and a Tudor-era description of dinner at a viscount’s house (dinner being at 10 a.m.) involved the gentleman usher, the yeoman usher, the yeoman of the ewery (in charge of hand washing and towels), the gentlemen waiters, the yeoman of the cellar, and I have no idea how many other people running around and bowing (even to an empty room). 

For our purposes, what matters in all this silliness is yeoman seems to be a title here, not a distinct class of person. He’s not the top servant in the dining room, but he’s there and he has a job title, matching one of the definitions in the Collins Dictionary: a lesser official in a royal or noble household. They also toss in a subordinate to an official (a sheriff, for example) or to a craftsman or trader.

 

Yeomen and the military

Henry VII created the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, known to their friends and family as the Yeomen of the Guard. They’re the oldest military corps in Britain, having guarded not just the kings and queens but Charles II during the Commonwealth, when II was in exile in France and the king of nothing at all. 

Their job traditionally involved guarding the inside of the monarch’s palaces and tasting his (or occasionally her) meals in case someone was trying to poison him. Or her. One of them got the monarch’s bed ready and one slept outside the bedroom. In a very un-British defiance of tradition, that bit of rigamarole’s been abandoned, but the job titles–sorry, ranks–still exist: Yeoman Bed-Goer and Yeoman Bed-Hanger. 

If there was a title for the food taster, I haven’t found it. I suggest Yeoman I’m Not Sure That Tastes Right, Maybe I Should Have a Second Bite. Or Yeoman You Got Any Dessert to Go with That? 

Don’t confuse the Yeomen of the Guard with the Yeoman Warders. The Warders still guard the Tower of London and the two uniforms are similar but the Warders wear a red cross belt that runs diagonally across the front of their tunics.

A what? 

Damned if I know. Can we talk about something else?

Thanks. Let’s backtrack: 

In 1794, Britain eyeballed the threat from revolutionary France and then eyeballed its military, which was a combination of draftees (you only had to serve if you couldn’t afford to pay for a substitute) and volunteers, and it decided the structure was too shaky for the weight a war was likely to put on it.

Its solution was to form volunteer units that would be subject to military discipline. More radically, when they were called out, they’d be paid. The cavalry units were to be recruited–at least theoretically–from yeoman farmers. They owned horses, after all, so there were halfway there. You didn’t expect the government to provide them, did you? Recruits also provided their own uniforms, but the government supplied their arms and ammunition.

Their officers were from the aristocracy or the gentry, because that was the natural order of things.

Those units became the yeomanry, or yeomanry cavalry, and they continued as a volunteer military force that could be called out in case of an invasion or to put down revolts. Because they were less than fully trained, they played a disastrous role in the Peterloo Massacre

In 1907, they were merged into the Territorial Army. The Royal Yeomanry continues as a light cavalry force within the British Army Reserve.

The Royal Navy and Marines have the ranks yeoman of signals and chief yeoman of signals. They’re petty officers. None of that has much, if anything, to do with original meaning of the word except that they keep the sense of someone who’s not high up the ladder but who’s recognizably not on the bottom. 

And finally, let’s come back to yeo-women. Women are now members of the Yeoman Warders, and they’re called yeomen. Ditto–and more interestingly–in the U.S. women became yeomen during World War I. The military had no entry points for women except an accidental one. The Naval Act of 1916 said the reserve force would include “all persons who may be capable of performing special useful service for coastal defense.” 

Who’d have thought, when it was written, the a person might be a woman? So they left a loophole and women got through it. The military needed bodies,  and the secretary of the Navy and the Bureau of Navigation (which translates into the personnel department) decided that nothing in the language kept women from enlisting in the reserves. In 1917 they started actively recruiting. Women became radio operators, stenographers, nurses, messengers, and chauffeurs, truck drivers, cryptographers, and mechanics. 

Most of them were yeomen (F), meaning female yeomen.

Nobody had figured out what they were supposed to do for uniforms, though. Wearing anything other than a skirt or dress still lay outside the wildest official (and for the most part, unofficial) imagination, so they were given some money and some guidelines and told to find themselves something vaguely uniformish. 

They had to find their own places to live as well.

Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

If the Nobel committee ever gives a prize for incompetence, please, someone, can I nominate Britain’s current government?

It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s jump in with the government deciding to go off-label and give people their second dose of the Covid vaccines later than the manufacturers recommend. That set off a good bit of screaming by doctors and scientists, not because they know it’ll be a problem but because no one knows how it’ll work. 

But that’s serious stuff, so forget about it. What about the people who’d already gotten their first dose and were given appointments for the second one? 

Well, on the same day that the minister for Covid vaccine deployment (no, I didn’t know we had one either) said it was doctors could let patients keep their second-dose appointments, National Health Service England said the appointments needed to be “cancelled and rearranged.”

So that’s clear.

Irrelevant photo: skimmia japonica, I believe. 

Meanwhile, a Labour peer is suing the government over its decision to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Not the Oxford vaccine as well? 

Nope. Its clinical trials offer some evidence that getting the second dose later might not be a problem. Might. Some. Pfizer, though, has said there’s no evidence to support delaying its second dose. So that’s the stronger case.

Her argument is that the decision is unlawful and potentially unsafe.

Two notes before I go on: One, a Labour peer is, in normal language, a member of the House of Lords who’s a Labour Party member. If you live in the real world that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but if you follow British politics long enough it starts to sound frighteningly normal. 

Two, something I read the other day objected to calling the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine simply the Oxford vaccine. I’m sure they’re right, and it’s annoying as hell. I really should do it right.

 

Lockdown in a hall of mirrors

The government has changed the lockdown rules sixty-four times since the pandemic started, according to a human rights lawyer who sat down and counted them. That’s an average of one change every four and a half days–and that’s just the actual laws, not advice or guidelines. So basically no one knows what we’re supposed to be doing.

That’s led to cops, lawyers, and government ministers not knowing law from advice or their ass from an apple. 

A lot of the information on lockdown that filters out to the public doesn’t reflect the actual law, and the average cops on the beat get their information from the same not-necessarily-accurate sources as members of the public. They’re not lawyers and they don’t read the new laws every four and a half days. 

What the ministers’ excuses are, I don’t know, but Boris Johnson’s recent bike ride reminds us that they’re as muddled as we are.  

What I’m talking about is that Boris Johnson, allegedly our prime minister, although I’m not sure how much of his time or attention the job claims, took a bike ride and a member of the public spotted him seven miles from home. That was after two women were fined £200 (each) for meeting five miles from their homes to take a walk. Because, after all, we’re in lockdown.

They were supposed to stay local, the cop who fined them told said.

The fines–after lots of embarrassing publicity–were withdrawn, but the incident did set a context. Was Johnson staying local? What does local mean?

The policing minister (I didn’t know we had one of those either) said, helpfully, that whether seven miles is local “depends on where you are.” 

And while we were all chewing our way through that, syllable by unhelpful syllable, he added, “Seven miles will be local in different areas.”

I hope that clarifies the issue. 

 

Deaths and other serious stuff 

On January 13, the UK had 1,564 Covid deaths–more than we saw on any day of the first pandemic wave. The best estimates are that those were people who’d been infected before the great Christmas germ exchange, so we can expect the daily number of deaths to rise when the Christmas cases start rolling in.

The situation in some hospitals is serious enough that to free up beds for Covid patients they’ve started discharging some patients to their homes, where they can at least theoretically be cared for by family, and others to hotels, where they’ll be cared for by volunteer organizations, medical people from the military, and (less realistically, since they’re already overstretched) NHS personnel. 

These are patients who they’d otherwise keep in the hospital. 

The NHS has also asked care homes to start accepting Covid patients who don’t have a recent negative test as long as they’ve been in isolation for 14 days and have no new symptoms. I don’t know about you, but I see trouble coming there.

No one sounds happy about any of this. It’s a measure of how bad things look right now. 

 

The vaccine in Britain and around the world

London is getting fewer doses of vaccine per person than other parts of the country, and it’s not being quiet about it. But the country as a whole is getting fewer doses than it was promised. We were told we’d have 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine in our eager (and very cold) little paws as soon as it was approved. By Christmas, half that amount had made its presence known.

For the Oxford vaccine that I now have to call the AstraZeneca vaccine, 30 million doses were supposed to materialize immediately. By Christmas, 4 million were available.

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That hapless minister in charge of vaccine deployment said the government would absolutely switch the mass vaccination centers to 24-hour-a-day operations if that became necessary or possible. Then the prime minister’s press secretary said there hadn’t been any clamor for the centers to stay open overnight. 

I hate to side with Johnson’s office, but people do need to sleep–especially overstretched medical people. 

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While many countries are vaccinating their oldest people first, Indonesia is prioritizing people who are between eighteen and fifty-nine. Professor Amin Soebandrio said, “We are targeting those that are likely to spread the virus”–people who “go out of the house and all over the place and then at night come back home to their families.”

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The first reports on the Sinovac vaccine (it’s called CoronaVac–Sinovac’s the maker) said it was 78% effective, but new reports say it’s more like 50% effective at preventing the disease but 78% effective at keeping people from needing medical treatment. That makes it a perfectly workable vaccine but the first vaccines reported such high numbers that we’ve started to expect fantastic instead of just workable. 

SinoVac was tested in Brazil, where it’s become a political football, with the president, Jair Bolsonaro, feeding into an antivaccination movement and the governor of Sao Paolo, João Doria (who hopes to run for president), championing the vaccine.

 

And a bit of research that doesn’t fit anywhere else

Researchers are reporting that double-masking–wearing one on top of another–can protect not just the person on the outside of the mask but you, the person on the inside, especially if the masks are thin. You don’t want to get so crazy with this that it’s hard to breathe, but two relatively flimsy masks can approach the effectiveness of the N95 masks that medical workers wear. 

The researchers also say you can get a better fit out of a mask with add-ons: ties from ear loop to ear loop or nose bridges to keep it in place. And you’ll be in the height of fashion. I felt like a bit of an idiot, but I did wear two masks yesterday and it wasn’t much different than wearing one. 

 

Herd immunity, sterilizing immunity, and the current best guesses

Britain is now the proud operator of several mass vaccination centers, with more promised shortly, and general practitioners are scheduling their oldest patients for vaccination. But that doesn’t mean we’re out of trouble. The number of hospital cases is still rising and there’s talk of the current lockdown not being tight enough.

And we just approved a third vaccine, Moderna’s. Not long ago, Boris Johnson was crowing at Scotland (which on average isn’t happy about having left the European Union) that if they’d stayed in the EU they wouldn’t have gotten vaccines so quickly. So it’s a nice little piece of irony to read that, approved or not, we won’t get or hands on this third vaccine until April because we’ve left the European Union.

I know I shouldn’t think that’s funny, but I can’t help myself.

 

Irrelevant photo: heather

Are we close to herd immunity?

The latest statistical modeling says one in five people in England may have already had Covid. How did they come up with that number? Since the official statistics inevitably underestimate the number of infections (a big chunk of people don’t get sick but carry the disease without knowing it or showing up in the statistics) and since the track and trace system is widely recognized as being roughly as useless as it is expensive, they get their statistics by comparing the number of deaths in an area to the estimated infection rate, putting them in a blender with a few other number and a dash of cinnamon, then baking at 160 C. for fifty minutes. 

In some areas, they estimate that one person in two has had the disease. The number of infected people may be up to five times higher than the number on the test and trace books.

Is that herd immunity? 

Nope. Exactly how many people would have to have had the bug to create herd immunity is still unknown, but a computational biologist estimates that 70% of the population will need to be vaccinated to stop the pandemic in the US. But that only applies to the US; it’s not a fixed number. People behave differently in different places, which upsets the numbers–they’re touchy little beasts–so they arrange themselves into different patterns. 

The number also depends on how long immunity lasts–no one knows yet–and on whether the vaccine turns out to keep people from passing on the infection. 

Most of our commonly used vaccines prevent severe illness but don’t give us what’s called sterilizing immunity. In other words, they keep us from getting sick–or at least from getting very sick–but they don’t kill off every bit of the disease that’s running around inside us. 

On the positive side, having less of the disease circulating inside our complicated little innards may (notice how much wiggle room I’ve left myself there) mean we pass on a milder form of the disease if we do give it to someone else.

An experiment with a chicken virus and a flock that was half vaccinated found that the unvaccinated birds came down with a milder disease than if the whole flock had been left unvaccinated. So even if the current vaccines don’t give us sterilizing immunity, Covid may yet follow that pattern and become milder once a significant portion of our flock has been vaccinated.

May. No one’s offering us a guarantee.

And no, none of the vaccines currently in use will cause us to grow feathers.

 

Transmission and hospitalization

In Britain, the current crop of hospitalized Covid patients are younger than they were during the first peak of the virus. People under 65 now make up 39% of hospital admissions. In March that was 36%. It’s not a huge change, but it is a change, and it’s worth noticing. 

The best guess is that the over 65s are more likely to be out of circulation. We left the party early and are tucked up in our little beds just now. That makes us less likely to become infected and less likely to show up in either the hospital or the statistics. But so much emphasis has been put on the elderly being vulnerable that we tend to think the non-elderly are made of steel.

They’re not. They can get very sick from this thing. In particular, pregnant women seem to be more vulnerable than non-pregnant women (or non-pregnant men, for that matter) in their age groups. 

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Half of all Covid transmissions come from people with no symptoms, including from people who never do develop symptoms. 

What does that mean in practice? That every one of us needs to act as if we could be carrying it. And that we need to look at our friends and family and neighbors as if they could be carrying it. That we need to look at other human beings and think, Oooh, yuck, germs! 

That’s not, I admit, a policy recommendation. It’s not even a real recommendation. It’s just an observation on how much it goes against the grain to live this way.

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A study reports that Covid can still be transmitted after seven days. Or after ten days. After ten days, 76% of the people tested still had detectable levels and 86% did after seven. 

So recommending a shorter period of isolation is a gamble. On the one hand, the theory goes that people are more likely to actually isolate themselves if you demand a shorter time. On the other hand, they can still be shedding the virus at the end of it.

The problem is not only that some people are jerks and don’t put the safety of others first. The larger problem is that a lot of people can’t afford to miss a day’s work–they’re living on the edge as it is. So when mass testing’s offered, they don’t show up because they can’t afford to be told to stay home. If they do end up getting tested and are positive, they stagger to work for as long as they can anyway. Because the hounds of hell are nipping at their heels. 

Already 70,000 households have become homeless during the pandemic and some 200,000 are teetering on the edge. There’s money available to people who have to self-isolate, but not to everyone and it’s not enough to cover the bills anyway. 

And if that doesn’t hold your attention, some people are still being told they’ll be fired if they don’t come to work.

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On a happier note, my partner’s been scheduled for her first vaccination. If all goes well (stop laughing–it could) I should be in line in mid-February. 

Brexit, paperwork, and bad metaphors

What’s been happening in the US these days makes Britain look like an island of sanity. Yes, we’re led by a buffoon who can’t remember from one minute to the next which direction he’s leading us in, only that he wants to lead, but at least he’s not inciting armed mobs to storm Parliament.

Admittedly, Boris Johnson did–with only a bit of exaggeration on my part–invite a virus in to storm the population, but the times we’re living through set a low bar for political wisdom. The last time I looked the bar was underground and you could shuffle across it without having to lift your feet out of the dead leaves. So yes, he lost control of a pandemic through stupidity and for political gain–not to mention financial gain, although I have no evidence that he’s personally one of the beneficiaries. But hey, look, no armed mobs inside Parliament! 

So yeah, we’re doing fine. Let’s check in on Brexit, shall we?

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil after the rain. It has been raining a lot, and the first daffodils really are coming out, but I stole this from an earlier year.

Brexit

Brexiteer Bill Cash (he’s a Conservative and a Member of Parliament, known as Sir Bill to his nearest and dearest) compared Brexit to the end of the Stuart dynasty. 

How’d the Stuart dynasty end? Not well if you were a Stuart. Well enough if you weren’t either a Stuart or Catholic. We could call the transition either a coup or an invasion, depending on our mood. Since I haven’t decided what mood we’re in, we’ll leave both possibilities on the coffee table.

The last Stuart king was (gasp!) Catholic. That upset enough powerful people, but then he had the temerity to have a son, who even before he was out of diapers was clearly a Catholic-in-training. In fact, he’d barely had time to get into diapers before England’s Protestant elite invited William of Orange (whose wife, Mary, was the king’s Protestant daughter) to invade. Which he did, and James looked at the cards he was holding and–probably wisely–fled.

But having been invited to the card party, Will and Mary found that the hosts got to decide how the game was going to be played. And that, kiddies, is called the Glorious Revolution, because the hosts limited the monarchy’s power, handing it to Parliament. 

It’s also called that because the winning side went on to write the schoolbooks. 

Is Brexit the Glorious Revolution all over again? Only if the Brexiteers get a free hand in writing the schoolbooks. 

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But we’re not far enough away yet to worry about schoolbooks. We’re worried about the country getting slapped in the face with the dead fish of a half-thought-through border arrangement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

That’s a horrible, half-thought-through metaphor. Sorry. If it hadn’t made me laugh–and if it didn’t have some truth to it–I’d replace it with something marginally more sensible.

What I’m talking about is that during the endless Brexit negotiations, relatively sane politicians were afraid of restarting the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so Boris Johnson was under a lot of pressure not to mess up the Good Friday Agreement which (a) ended them and (b) established an  invisible border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It let goods and people flow between the two without so much as a wave or a wink from an official. 

The problem was how to keep that when the rest of Britain separated from the E.U. and the laws and regulations go out of synch, making barriers and inspections and paperwork necessary. The negotiators never found more than two possibilities: Either you have a visible, functioning border dividing the two parts of Ireland or you have one between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. Britain didn’t like either solution, and the problem stumped savvier politicians than Johnson, including Theresa May. 

I never expected to say anything good about May, but there you go, I just did: She had the smarts to know it was a problem. Johnson just signed an agreement putting the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, lied about it, and figured something would come along to save his hash. Paperwork? he said. There won’t be any paperwork. It’ll all be seamless.

It’s not, and the transition has found any number of companies in Britain waking up to discover that they need all the paperwork Johnson told them they wouldn’t. Trucks are getting stuck at what’s now an internal border somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea. We’re hearing tales about British companies that no longer deliver to Northern Ireland, although I have no idea if we’re talking about two companies or several thousand.

Presumably that will settle down once companies figure out the paperwork, but the long-term effect on Northern Ireland and its union with Britain should be, um, interesting.

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An online group that campaigned for Brexit, Leave.eu, has found that an unexpected result of winning the Brexit battle is that it had to choose between keeping its domain name and leaving Britain for the EU, because .eu domains are limited to, you know, the EU. 

So the group re-registered itself in Ireland, using the contact details for businessman Sean Power, who when a newspaper contacted him about it seemed surprised said he had no links to the group.

 

And in other news

A new study says that if the world can stabilize carbon emissions at net zero, the planet’s climate could also stabilize within a couple of decades. The belief had been that the world would tip into runaway heating, but if the new model’s correct we have some hope.

We do need some hope. 

Net zero? It’s sort of like when you run water into the bathtub and the phone rings and it’s only going to be a minute so you don’t turn it off but you do go in the other room so you can hear yourself think but you lose track of things and by the time you come back the water’s up to the rim. If you’re going to put yourself in there (and what’s the point of all that water if you’re not), you have to take some water out. That’s net zero. You have to balance the amount of carbon you dump into the atmosphere with the amount  you take out. Otherwise the floor gets wet.

Over a hundred countries have pledged to reach net zero by 2050. 

Do they mean it? I wish I knew, but more and more businesses and people with money and power are starting to notice that an overheated planet looks promises to be expensive, so maybe they’ll do more than mouth good words. Watch this space.

This space being not my blog but our planet. It’s the only one we’ve got. Even if you lose the URL, it’ll be easy to find.

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A study in JAMA Internal Medicine tells us that even rich Americans have worse health than people in twelve other industrialized countries. They’re more likely to die from a heart attack or cancer, or during childbirth. They’re more likely to have an infant die. The only area where the U.S. did better is in treating breast cancer.

That’s comparing rich, white, non-average Americans to average other-industrialized-country people. In other words, comparing people who get far better care than their average and below-average fellow citizens to an average of citizens in countries with less fragmented health systems. 

The comparison countries were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. 

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Experts have found a correlation between traffic accidents in Asia and major football games in Europe. 

Let’s tackle the important questions first: Experts in what? In intercontinental football/traffic accident correlations, of course. 

Honestly. I have to explain everything.

That leaves us with the question of why there should be a correlation, and the answer may have to do with time zones. More people watch football–by which, if you’re American, you have to understand that we mean soccer–than any other sport, but the highest profile games are played in Europe. And they’re popular enough that people stay up to watch them. If a game starts at 8 pm somewhere in Europe, people in various parts of Asia may have to stay up till 4:30 to see the end. Or 5:30. And you know how it is: Once they see the beginning they have to stay up for the end. Then they spend the day sleep deprived. And since we live in a car-based, not-net-zero world, they get behind the wheel and end up in a ditch.

The researchers estimate–and it is only an estimate–that football games might be responsible for Singapore cab drivers having 371 accidents a year. 

Aren’t you glad you learned that today?

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An HG Wells memorial coin issued by Royal Mint uses images from “The War of the Worlds,” including a tripod with four legs. 

Tri,” a Wells biographer wrote. “The clue is in the name. . . . [But] at least the clock numbers round the edge don’t go up to 13.”

Dwile flonking: another strange English tradition

If you ask the BBC about dwile flonking (and who doesn’t at some point?), you’ll find them asking a question of their own: 

Does dwile flonking really date back to the Suffolk harvests of 400 years ago or is it just a good excuse for getting drunk and celebrating Christmas in August?

They don’t answer the question and neither can I, but in my relentlessly shallow exploration of the topic I did find some faint linguistic evidence either that the game has a long history or that whoever invented it did their homework. Dwile comes from the Dutch word dweil, meaning floor cloth. Or it seems to, anyway. The word was probably introduced to England by Flemish weavers during the Middle Ages. Or, as Wikiwhatsia says (at the moment–it could change at any time), dwile is Dutch for a mop and the word worked its way into the Norfolk dialect. 

Irrelevant photo: The fields after a frost.

I try to avoid using Wikiwhatsia as a reference, but for dwile flonking? Why not? It’s right in the spirit of the game. It also says that flonk is “probably a corruption of flong, an old past tense of fling.”

Who knows. It might even be true. And when no one’s looking, sheep could just possibly type. If they had typewriters. 

The BBC agrees that flonk could be an archaic past tense of fling. If you squint hard. Meanwhile, Etymology Online gives us as a Middle English past tense flang with the past participle flungen. Which is no help at all but likely to be more reliable than anything else in the past few paragraphs. 

What is reliable is that Flonk is also a brand of ale, but that’s got to be recent than the rest of that mess. 

If you feel the need to watch dwiles being flonked (and if the pandemic ever ends), period costume is encouraged. I expect that’s in the spirit of imitation authenticity, although I’m not sure there’s any agreement on what period we’re talking about, so either pull one out of a hat (then wear the hat) or check out one of the videos on YouTube and do whatever you think best. After a few beers, no one will care and neither will you. 

Preliminaries

To play (did I say that dwile flonking’s a  sport?), you need two teams. Then you toss a sugar beet (which the BBC misspelled, she said without in the least betraying how smug she felt about catching that) to decide which team flonks first.

Then you choose a dull-witted person to serve as referee. That’s the jobanowl. He or she starts the game by shouting, “Here y’go t’gither!”

But wait. Before the match can start (and quite possibly before the jobanowl calls out his or her line), the teams have to sing “Here we ‘em be together.” It was written by Amos Thirkle, who was adopted as the patron saint of dwile flonking.

And why shouldn’t he be? Without even progressing past the letter A, I found patron saints of abdominal pains (Erasmus), for protection against mice (three, in fact: Gertrude, Servatus, and Ulric, and they were listed as “Against mice, protection against,” which is a double negative, but saints may be above grammatical quibbling) and of pain in the arms (Amalburga). 

You can make me the patron saint of pain in the ass if you like. Informally. Thirkle isn’t listed with the Church-approved saints either. 

I also found Amand, the patron said of bartenders, bar keepers, and bar staff in general. He’ll be busy during the match, and after. 

Rules

Here’s where it gets complicated and where I damn near decided to write about toadstools, or anything else that might turn out be less peculiar. But you can’t grasp the basic insanity of the game without slogging through the rules, so let us slog:

The team that isn’t flonking holds hands and dances in a circle (that’s called girting) while one person from the other team (that’s the flonker) stands in the middle with a driveller–a 2- to 3-foot pole made of hazel or yew. On the end of the driveller is the beer-soaked dwile. 

Remember the dwile? The floor rag/mop?

The flonker turns in the opposite direction from the girders and flonks the dwile at the opposing team, trying to hit someone. If the dwile hits a girter’s head, that’s three points. If it hits the body, it’s two points. A leg shot’s worth one.

If it misses, it’s called a swadger and the flonker takes a pot of ale and  has to drink it all while the girters form a line and pass the dwile from hand to hand, chanting, “pot, pot, pot.”

The pot? It’s what’s known as a gazunder–a chamber pot, called that because it goes under (goezunder–blame English spelling if you can’t make sense of the joke there) the bed. 

Well, what do you drink your ale out of?

When everyone’s had a chance to flonk, the game’s over and the points get counted up.

Teams lose a point for every person who’s sober at the end of the game. 

Dwile flonking is not recommended for people who go to AA meetings.

Want photos? Of course you do. These are from Beccles

And from Coventry, where the opposing team didn’t show up,

And more generally, from the BBC Suffolk, which describes the game as an adult version of All Fall Down.

And of course, you’ll want a video. YouTube is happy to oblige.

So now that you have this information, what do you do with it?

Well, once we get past the pandemic (nothing to it) you could always organize a dwile flonking competition where you live. Failing that, you could go down to the bar or pub and throw a beer-soaked rag at someone, then tell them they just participated in the ancient ritual of dwile flonking. 

One of two things will happen:

  1. They’ll stop in their tracks, wondering why they seem to have a beer-soaked rag on their heads when just a moment before they didn’t have a beer-soaked rag on their heads. (You’re not dancing around, so let’s assume you get a three-point hit. And you’ll have thrown the rag in the normal way, which will improve your aim. No magic two- to three-foot magic dwile flonking wands in the bar. ) If you’re in England when you do this, the other person will think, Dwile flonking. Of course. Because even if they’ve never heard of it–which is likely–England understands mysterious celebrations. Cheese rolling. Flaming tar barrels. Why not dwile flonking? Or,
  2. They’ll hit you so hard you’ll fall off your bar stool. 

Life’s a gamble. 

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Endless thanks to Autolycus for suggesting that I write about this. I do worry about him. He also mentioned something about rhubarb thrashing. I’m saving that. It’s good to have something–however bizarre–to look forward to in these dark times.