Recipe links: scones, clotted cream, and other good stuff

I’ve run a series of posts about food, in response to which Jean at Delightful Repast sent me links to recipes, all for several things that have either I or someone leaving a comment mentioned. I thought I’d pass them on for the benefit of anyone out there who cooks. Or who knows someone who can be bribed or strongarmed into cooking.

Clotted cream. A number of people asked what it is, so here you go–make your own.

Scones. Because what’s clotted cream without a scone and jam?

English muffins, which Jean swears are just called muffins in England, although I’d swear I saw them sold as English muffins once at the Co-op.

Crumpets, which I can’t think of anything to say about. Except that I’m ending that sentence with a preposition and, yeah, it’s okay: The English language likes to end sentences with prepositions. (I tried to maneuver “with” to the end of that sentence, but I can’t do it.)

Teacakes, a.k.a. toasted teacakes, but you have to toast them before you can calll them that.

And finally, a brandy-soaked British fruitcake. This works for Christmas and for weddings, although not if you’re in the U.S., where wedding cakes are cut from sponge rubber and then iced elaborately.

Crime in London: a bonus post

In an effort to find material for an article, the New York Times asked  for people’s experiences of petty crime in London. Then the Times tweeted the article and nothing’s been the same since. To read the responses for yourself, you can follow the link or search Twitter using the hashtag #PettyCrime, which for no reason I understand calls up a whole different set of answers. I’ll quote entirely too many. I lost the better part of a rainy afternoon to the thread and I don’t see why you should be spared.

“An American talked loudly on his mobile in a restaurant then drank red wine with a fish course. Gave him an extra loud tut.”

“Increasingly people respond to the question ‘How are you?’ With ‘I’m good’ instead of the grammatically correct (and far more polite) ‘I’m very well, thank you.’ It’s only going to escalate.”

Only the excessively boastful and self-satisfied would respond with “I’m very well, thank you”! The acceptable answers are a) ‘not bad’ and b) ‘not too bad at all’ from which we can infer a) ‘my life is falling apart’ or b) ’I’m positively ecstatic’ “

“I fell down a flight of steps at Bank and immediately apologised for causing such a kerfuffle and holding up people’s journeys. So ashamed of myself”

“I once offered a class set of rubbers to a fellow American teacher, trying to offer some good old Limey hospitality. The response was criminally rude and the offer was declined.
I never knew pencil erasers were so contentious”

Ah, yes, friends. Rubbers are one of those things that shouldn’t be discussed with people from the opposite side of the Atlantic. On one side, they’re prophylactics (translation: birth control, as worn by the male of the species). On the other side, they’re erasers–things you use to rub out pencil marks.

“This morning, in Streatham South London, I said ‘good morning’ as I walked passed a fellow pedestrian, they didn’t say ‘good morning’ back. So rude. This will stay with me all day. Traumatised.”

“I left the house after lunch and a street-sweeper said ‘mornin’ to me.  I had to bite my lip not to correct him.”

“On the tube a young man got up and offered me his seat as the carriage was busy. I saw it as a ploy to mug me so I called the police.”

“I stood on someone’s foot on the train today, and they didn’t even say ‘excuse me’. I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“I recently took my 10 month old daughter on the underground. She stared at people, it frightened them. She doesn’t know the code. She now lives in the north. The tube is safe once more.”

“I asked a man directions to a Burmese restaurant on Edgware Road, he pointed me in the right direction and said it would take 3 minutes to walk there but it actually took 20. Admittedly I stopped for a pint but he should have factored that in.”

“Kitten stole my croissant. Despite obvious trail of crumbs, stolen item was not recovered”

“I fear I’m responsible for a #PettyCrime as on Monday I took a crowded tube, lost my balance and ended up grabbing the arm of a fellow passenger (who I didn’t know!) in a panicked attempt to stay upright. Totally unacceptable behaviour.”

“I was in a busy pub just yesterday, I knew the gentleman a few people to my right was there before me but he was looking at his phone. I placed my order without alerting him. I haven’t been sleeping since.”

“I was blatantly blocked on escalator by a left standing tourist… I didn’t just sigh loudly but also tutted AND HARRUMPHED. To no avail. Said sightseer turned and looked at me. Obviously I apologized, moved to the right and carried on sighing. These people should be locked up.”

“I stopped to let another car pass down a narrow road. They did not gesticulate a thank  you. I have the police report if you wish for more details.”

“I was waiting for a bus recently. When it came, someone who had arrived at the bus stop after me got on before me.”

“A man got on my tube train wearing brown brogues when everyone knows a gentleman only wears brown in the country and black in town.  It was shocking”

“A close friend and I, approaching from different ends of the street, accidentally acknowledged each other outside a polite speaking distance.  I pretended I was waving goodbye and hid in the nearest shop until they were gone. We have never spoken of this.”

“I witnessed an Italian tourist standing on the left side of the up escalators at Piccadilly Circus station preventing people from walking up. Naturally I said nothing but stood close behind them seething and encouraging fellow commuters to join me in silent rage.”

“I have had entire conversations without mentioning the weather. I’ll go quietly, officer.”

“Some guy didn’t apologise to me once after I bumped into him. I was very dissapointed in that exchange and think he should be banged up”

“When I was 21 years old, I worked in a London hotel and one morning I was asked, by an American couple, how to use the microwave in the room. It was the safe deposit box.”

“A publican of fine reputation went rather overboard with an extra splash or two of Tabasco in my Bloody Mary recently. I was so flustered I nearly told him”

*

My thanks to Mardi for sending me a link to the BBC’s coverage of these outrages.

How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.

*

After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

How the scone discovered Britain

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

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

Definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Variations

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So there, and also harumph.

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

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

None of which was what I was looking for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we get a bit where scones go upmarket.

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

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

Geez. Who knew Americans were so easy to spot?

So that’s two grains of salt.

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Hi, Death. Wanna Coke? 

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: hemp agrimony–a wildflower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charter, charter, charter, charter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He withdrew in 1217.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

England has never had another king named John.

*

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

News from Britain. And elsewhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

This is a job?

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

It did what?

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Allegedly.

Cold off the press: News from Britain

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

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

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

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

You heard it here first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhode Island is not an island.

I hope that helps.

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

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

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

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

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

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Yes, we all think as one over here.

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

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

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

It explains a lot about how policy gets assembled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humans. They make me crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Britain, for all its amateurishness, match that?

A quick history of English castles

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

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

Yup, it said castle.

Welcome to castles before the Norman invasion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raisin Monday: Another great British tradition

October 22 was Raisin Monday at St. Andrews University.

It was what?

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

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

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

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

The foam fight? We’ll get to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I speak guesswork fluently.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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