Refugee camp in Calais

Refugees in the Calais camp are going hungry. I don’t like using this blog for fundraising, or to talk about politics (as opposed to making fun of politics and politicians, which I love doing) but this sounds like a crisis. So no jokes today. Sorry.

The French authorities have been trying to close the Calais camp for some time, and one of the actions they’ve taken is to close down its restaurants, including one that fed unaccompanied children. As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, the number of refugees keeps increasing while Europe dithers about what–if anything–to do them. This puts an additional strain on the kitchens that are still operating. To cut a long story short, they need money.

The Refugee Community Kitchen writes that it needs to double its food output. “Conditions in the camp are abhorrent and the team at Refugee Community Kitchen strive to ensure that everyone who wants it can at least receive one large, fresh, nutritious, hot meal every day.”

If you can make a donation, they have a fundraising site that I think will accept various currencies. Some people I know are also using this site to send sleeping bags and other much-needed gear to the camp directly. As far as I can tell, this one only accepts pounds.

For a glimpse of what the camp is like for children, take a look here.

How the village cleans a beach

I hate to get all hopeful and upbeat on you—it messes with my carefully cultivated image as a crank—but I attended a village event that could leave a careless person feeling good about life. At least briefly.

It was a beach cleanup, and this is how it came into being: For about a year (you know better than to think that number’s accurate, right?), J. and P. did spontaneous, two-minute beach cleans on their own, and as everyone who isn’t me does these days, they posted about it on social media. Which led to people wanting to join in. Some of them might even have done it. I went never got past the thinking stage.

Irrelevant photo: meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Irrelevant photo: Meadowsweet, a wildflower that was once used to flavor mead. Or so my flower book tells me.

Eventually, they organized a weekly beach cleanup, making it easier for people to join them. And that led to some organization or other donating gloves and squeezy pickup thingy-sticks (sorry for the technical language here) and plastic rims to hold garbage bags open and it’s all gotten very organized. P. even gives a safety briefing, which he apologizes for but does anyway, because this is Britain and safety briefings run deep in the culture. You can’t pour tea without a safety briefing. At an indoor event, a safety briefing might be something like, “The fire exits are there and there. The tea’s very hot. Please don’t wear it. Please don’t throw knives. If you need a defibrillator, it’s across the road at the store. Thank you. Thank you very much, thank you.”

Thanking people is also very British. It may or may not be a safety issue. I’m not immersed enough in the culture yet to report on that reliably. Thank you for being patient with my limitations.

Really. Thanks.

Saying please is also very British. But enough of that. We were talking about the cleanup.

At the beach, P.’s safety briefing was something along the lines of, “This is a beach. It can be a dangerous place. Don’t do anything stupid.”

Since the beach cleaners drifted in one by one and two by six, P. had to give the safety briefing over and over before sending people out to work. I was the only one there for the rendition I heard, and since P. puts up with me unusually well I felt free to jump in and list the beach’s dangers—wild animals, unbridled sunburn, melted ice cream, all that sort of thing—and it threw him off his stride. Which is a way of saying that I don’t really remember what he said except that he had apologized before I started making jokes and might have even been relieved when I did. Who’s to say? He’s a good sport and if he finds me annoying he hides it well.

For which I should thank him but I haven’t. I’m just not British enough.

While P. waited for more people, J. and I took our plastic bags and wandered in different directions, looking for anything that wasn’t sand, stone, seaweed, or jellyfish. It doesn’t take long before the eye trains itself to spot the things that don’t belong—fishing line, bits of commercial fishing net, candy wrappers, broken styrofoam and plastic, nails from the wooden pallets people burn for bonfires.

More people drifted in—26 in all, a mix of residents and visitors—and we bumped around like those automatic vacuum cleaners I keep hearing about. You know about them? They travel through a house, changing direction when they bump into furniture and dogs and that missing TV remote you’ve been looking for all week. It seems random, but give them enough time and they clean the entire space.

As an aside, F. told me about a friend who had to lock hers in the garage. If she left the door open, it would escape and vacuum the yard (which she calls the garden). If she left the gate open, it would vacuum as much of Cornwall as it could reach before it ran out of power.

I don’t know if we covered the entire beach. It started out fairly clean that morning, P. had reported, so if we missed a part it wasn’t obvious. The amount of junk depends on the wind, the tides, the currents, how hard the sea monsters flap their terrible tails during the night, and of course human activity.

We worked for about an hour, stopping to trade news and greetings when we crossed paths with people we knew, then we pooled what we’d found and P. weighed it, which made what we’d done measurable and left us all feeling like we’d accomplished something. We had 11 kilos of trash and two dead and very stinky half fish. One of the kids found a Lego figure and took it home with her. I found three bits of sea glass and did the same with them.

The next morning, J. (that’s a different J.) left a note on Facebook saying that the beach was looking “a bit sorry for itself” when she looked, so she’d done her own cleanup. You can’t just clean the beach and expect it to stay that way. We throw our junk in the sea–or on the land, or in the rivers, and it ends up in the sea–and it comes back to us. Or it doesn’t. It gets eaten by fish instead, and they die with stomachs full of plastic. Or it does assorted other depressing damage, which I won’t go into because either you already know about it or you can google it and find someone who’s posted a far more competent summary than I could. Depressing as it is, it’s worth knowing about because it’s, you know, reality, and what we don’t know will bite us in the ass the first chance it gets.

A few days later, P. posted that he’d found and cleaned up the wreckage from a party, including cans, a vodka bottle, a disposable kite, and a collection of women’s clothes—outer and sexy under—that some partygoer must have decided were also disposable.

That leads me to ask why, at least in the straight world, it’s always the women who take off their clothes, not the men.

Okay, I don’t know for a fact that it works that way. It’s been a long time since I immersed myself deeply enough in that section of the straight world to know who takes what off when these days. But I’m reasonably sure I’ve got it right, so let’s explore this a bit: Does it work that way because men are shyer? Or have we been programmed by movies to believe women’s clothes drop away spontaneously while men’s are stuck to their bodies by some mysterious force no one’s bothered to study yet? Or when men start taking their clothes off, does everyone shout, “Put that back on. We don’t want to know what’s under there”?

Do, in fact, straight men ever take their clothes off in public? Do they take them off in private? Do they actually have bodies under their clothes or are they like Ken dolls, which can be undressed only as far as their bathing trunks. Or their underwear. Or whatever it is that Ken wears.

Oh hell, am I even right about Ken dolls? Do they undress down to an anatomically incorrect mound of plastic?

Yes, I do remember what’s anatomically incorrect. It’s been a long time, but it was still in this lifetime.

I’m not asking this out of prurient curiosity but because the different strands of our culture need to understand each other if we’re to foster mutual respect. So I can hardly wait to find out what you-all are going to tell me. I’m sure we’ll all be wiser by the end of the discussion.

We had a topic, though, and I’ve wandered, so let’s go back to it: Cleaning the beach is a tiny gesture toward the serious work that needs to be done, but at least it gives us a chance to do something more than moan. And it makes us think about where all this junk is coming from and what, on a larger scale, we can do about that.

It also lets us gossip about the way other people behave on the beach, and boy did that underwear start some discussions. Isn’t that what life’s about?

There. I’ve returned to my usual cranky self. What a relief.

How to block a road

Our friend J. lives on a back road, which since we’re in Britain is called a lane, but what matters isn’t what it’s called but that it’s narrow and has two ninety degree bends where anything bigger than a little red wagon risks getting stuck forever. It also fords a small, unimpressive stream which can rise enough that driving across it would be really, really stupid.

I may have exaggerated those bends by just the smallest amount. If a normal car couldn’t make the turns, the hamlet would have been cut off for centuries and evolved its own language and customs. And probably its own form of government. So yes, an average-size car with a competent driver who’s used to our roads will be fine. If the driver’s an emmit, though—that’s a tourist, to give you the short definition—a normal car won’t get stuck but the emmit may go paralytic with fear and have to be rescued by someone local who has a calm manner and a gentle voice.

Delivery vans can also get through, and residents have been known to order who knows what-all off the internet: groceries, anvils, sex toys—the same odd mix of the necessary and the even more necessary that people throughout Britain rely on the internet to bring into their lives.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I'd have missed it, but J. pointed out that it says, "Expert Logistics" on the side. Great logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I’d have missed it, but J. points out the lettering on the side: “Expert Logistics.” Great work on the logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

But even though delivery vans have been known to enter the hamlet and leave unharmed, tales circulate of larger trucks getting stuck on the bends and—well, the longer the story circulates, the longer the truck is caught on the bend and the more complicated the rescue becomes. By the time the story drifts to the far edges of the parish, houses will have to be demolished and put back together again, stone by stone by stone, and half a dozen tow trucks and rescue vehicles will be stuck as well. They’ll be there for months. Possibly years. A campsite has been set up to house them.

When J. talked about what happens on the lane, she mentioned both trucks and lorries. If you don’t know what the difference is, don’t look to me to clarify the situation because I don’t either. I could look it up but something about the murkiness of the British/American miscommunication appeals to me.

On the morning I started writing this, I had to drive down the lane and through both bends because the police had closed off what we call the main road (anyone who doesn’t live here would call it a back road) after an accident. That made the lane the shortest way around the roadblock. No trucks were caught in either bend. No rescue vehicles were stranded. So I can testify that the road’s open after whatever the last rumored incident was–whenever it may or may not have happened.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: We have no secrets in the village, but we do have a lot of inaccurate information. I’ve also written about this particular set of bends and rumors before. The reason I’m coming back to it now is that J. and A., who also lives on the lane, are trying to get it designated a quiet lane so that sat-navs (make the GPSs if you’re in the U.S.) won’t be able to direct drivers down it. Because right now they do, even when a different route would be easier. Even when it would be not only easier but shorter.

Why do they do it? Because, as the kids where I grew up used to say. (The italics are there because they said it in italics. And that was before any of us knew what italics were.) Once because was the answer, the conversation was closed and logic wouldn’t help. No appeal was possible.

More trouble, same lane. Aren't you glad not to be the driver? Photo by Duncan Walker.

More trouble, same lane. You begin to get a sense of the problem here, right? Photo by Duncan Walker.

One grocery delivery outfit tells its drivers to follow their sat-navs no matter what, so even if they know a route’s insane, they follow them. In Cornwall, that can be lethal, and I mean that literally. Sat navs can take you the wrong way down a highway exit ramp. Less lethally but more locally, some of them will take you up a washed-out, unpaved road that will eat your axles for an appetizer and then come back for your springs and your window glass. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that if you gave your sat-nav an address in Ireland it would take you straight into the ocean. Because, hey, it is the most direct route.

Are the grocery delivery drivers supposed to keep their foot on the accelerator as the water rises? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that they follow their sat-navs around those two tight, stone-walled bends, although there’s a much simpler way to get almost anywhere. Because, like anyone else, they want to keep their jobs.

So here’s this quiet little settlement plagued by drivers who don’t want to be there and who are sporting that panicked, I-have-a-sat-nav-but -where-the-hell-am-I? look.

A. has committed herself to fixing that. She can be a real terrier, and a terrier’s what’s needed for this. She’s already called a couple of the sat-nav companies and gotten the lane taken off their list of ways to get from point A to point everywhere else. But to back all the companies down, the road has to be designated a quiet lane and the parish council has to impose a twenty-mile-an-hour speed limit.

Last I heard, J. and A. were headed for a parish council meeting and it will be taken care of.

But that won’t entirely solve the problem, because sat-navs don’t update themselves. Their owners have to update them. Which involves paying money—something people may quite reasonably not want to do since they already paid money for the damn things and if they’re not broken, why throw more money at them?

We actually did update a sat-nav once. The update wrecked it. Or maybe the problem was connected to that sledge hammer. Me, though? I blame he update.

So—if I understand the situation—the current generation of sat-navs may have to die before the problem will be solved.

Even so, the hamlet’s closer to a solution than places with equally difficult roads but no resident with the skills, the energy, and the commitment to back down half a dozen sat-nav companies and a grocery delivery service. Trucks will get stuck in those places. Rescue vehicles will pile up behind them. Rumors will grow, but they’ll do that anyway.

All of this leads me to a question: What’s going to happen when driverless cars are turned loose on our roads? My partner, Wild Thing, has macular degeneration and has had to quit driving, so we have a more than intellectual interest in driverless cars. Is she going to end up in a car that decides the best route home is up an unpaved road that will eat one axle and both front doors? Or that takes her down the exit ramp to the A30–Cornwall’s main highway? Or to Ireland by way of the Atlantic Ocean?

She has enough vision left to see where she is, and I’m assuming passengers will be able to stop driverless cars somehow, and maybe even reprogram the route. But what happens to passengers with no vision? Do they have to wait until the feel the water rising? Will the driverless car need a driver? A navigator? An editor? Is all the work focused on how the cars follow the road and avoid accidents instead of on the routes they’ll follow?

An improbable link about surgery in Guatemala

I don’t do reblogs here, and I’m sparing even about linking to other blogs. I normally limit my links to posts that are tightly related to my topic. Which is–oh, hell, what is my topic?

Never mind. We don’t have to know that just now. What matters is that I have several reasons to link to this one at Zipfslaw:

  1. The post introduces an organization called Surgicorps, which provides surgery–in this case in Guatemala–to people who wouldn’t have a hope in hell of being treated in any other way. And in case anyone’s interested, no I don’t believe medical treatment should depend on goodwill, volunteers, and charitable donations, but in many parts of the world (including, mentioning no names, if you’re poor enough in one of the richest countries) it does just now.
  2. The post gives us all a chance to donate money to keep the group going. If you’re interested, follow the link above and look for the link in the post.
  3. The post is a fascinating look at language and interpreting.

Even if you’re not in a position to donate or aren’t inclined to, it’s worth your time.

How people find a blog, part 4(ish)

It’s that time again, kids—the time when I dig deep into the questions people type into search engines that lead them, however bizarrely, to Notes from the U.K. I’ve left actual quotes in lower case, as search engines do.

Let’s start with:

Old favorites

The most common question I get is why Britain is called Great Britain. Sometime in June, as Britain wobbled toward the referendum on whether leave the European Union, questions about this went through the roof.

Admittedly, I have a low roof, but still, they increased noticeably. I’m not sure if this is because I became more active online (I started answering questions on Quora, which may have convinced search engines that I actually know something or may be completely irrelevant) or because people wanted to be reassured of the greatness of the place that, without the European Union, would be all on its own again. If it’s the latter, I disappointed them, because all great means in this context is big. I doubt anyone changed their vote because of that, but it’s worth knowing.

The question came in an assortment of forms. The most interesting was, “whistle great britain called great britain.” I’m going to guess that’s predictive text. Why do people keep using predictive text?

Irrelevant photo: a dry stone wall, with lichen. Or if you want to see it as a metaphor, feel free.

Irrelevant photo: a dry stone wall, with lichen. Or if you want to see it as a metaphor, feel free.

One person wanted to know “why are we no longer called great britain?” We are, dear. It’s just that there’s this whole set of overlapping names for the landmass, the country, and the component nations. If by the time people reach the end of the list they’re too tired to say “Great Britain” and settle for a breathy “Britain,” it’s no wonder.

A small but steady number of people want to know about lemon drizzle cake—a post I completely blew and should take down but never remember to. It’s not the only recipe I’ve posted, but does anyone want to know about baking powder biscuits, or scones? Nope, it’s always lemon drizzle cake.

A fair number of people wanted to know about storms that hit the U.K. and Ireland in 2015 or 2016. I may (or may not) have amused them, but I doubt I told them what they want to know. But search engines don’t distinguish between information and a simple mention. Sorry, folks.

Another question that comes up each time is about lawyers and their wigs. The most interesting of these was “do british lawyers own their wigs?” (I’ve added the question mark, although search engines leave it off. I just can’t help myself.) The answer, of course, is no. They just grab one out of a box as they go into court, hoping the last wearer didn’t have head lice, then throw it back in when they leave. It’s sort of like the dress-up box in a preschool. If they run short—too many lawyers one day and too few wigs—the last one has to grab a dry mop and set it on his or her head. Sometimes a wise guy will sneak in a bridal veil and someone will be stuck wearing that—and someone will not necessarily be female. In both cases, everyone pretends not to notice the difference.

Of course they own their own wigs.

I just went back to read my original post about lawyers and wigs. I did manage to answer the question. Even though, keep in mind, that when I wrote it no one had asked it.

Every so often, someone will vary the question and ask about judges and wigs, but mostly it’s about lawyers.

One question was whether British barristers feel foolish wearing them. (The wigs, in these questions, are always described as silly. I won’t argue with that.) I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know, but I’m guessing that after a while you stop thinking much about it. I once wore a gorilla suit. I felt extremely silly. But you know, if I’d worn it a second time, I’d have felt less silly.

I made an extremely short gorilla, in case you need to know that.

Whenever I review the search engine questions, I’ll find a handful of Americans who wanted to know what the British think of them. Mostly they want to know if the British hate them (settle down, folks; the rest of the world doesn’t spend all its time thinking about you), but one wanted to know “what brits love about americans.” As far as I can tell, it’s the accent.

One person wanted to know about tourists who hated England. I’m sure you could find a few out there. For everything (turn, turn, turn, if you’re old enough to remember the song) there’s someone out there who hates it.

Another person wanted to know what British sprouts are. This is probably about eating brussels sprouts at Christmas. And if it isn’t, that’s what they landed in the middle of anyway.

Next topic:


Someone wanted to know about “Britain aunties hot.” I’m guessing that’s about sex, not weather. I’m also guessing they didn’t find what they were looking for here, but who’s to say what gets another human being going? As long as they don’t bother me or anyone else who isn’t interested, that’s fine.

Another search was for “sex maniac american english.” This may be about language—do we use the same phrase? Yes, dear, I believe we do. Or it could be about a person. Or—. Oh, stop. I don’t want to know.

Someone wanted to know about a British sex scandal in 2015. I’m sure there was one but I can’t think what it was. I’m pretty sure I didn’t write about it.


Now that fewer people smoke, what should follow sex if it’s isn’t tea? The most charming of these questions read, “dropped by to have a nice cup of tea.” Since they didn’t physically do that, I’ll guess the phrase was all they could reconstruct of something they once read. I have a post that uses the phrase “a nice cup of tea.” Link made. The search engine congratulated itself and went home for the day.

Several people seem to have been looking for a poem about—or possibly called—tea on the lawn. One wanted an explanation, others were only looking for it. I tried Bartleby, which is good at tracing down literary references, and I got nowhere. I began to suspect that some class somewhere had an assignment involving the poem and googling is what passes for research these days. (Damn, I sound old. And crabby.)

Anyone know the poem?

After a week or two, the queries disappeared.

Boaty McBoatface

This was another popular item. Queries included: “boaty mcboatface not the titanic” (unarguably true, even if I don’t know what it means), “where are the answers to boaty mcboatface post?” (I’m not sure; where are the questions?), and several references to Boaty McBoatface and Blackadder. I seem to have become an official Boaty McBoatface site. I couldn’t be prouder.


Someone wanted to know how cold it gets in Cornwall. Answer: not very. That’s not a scientific measurement, so how about this? In the ten years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen it drop below freezing at night, but not all that often. I can’t remember a day when it didn’t rise above freezing. I won’t swear that it’ll always be like that, but ten years seems like a fair sample.

Searches that made sense

People looked for anglophile blogs, for Americans in Cornwall blogs, for Americans in Britain blogs. A couple of people, bless their hearts, typed in my name and The Divorce Diet, which (she said casually) just happens to be my most recent novel. It was only a few people, but they makde me feel good.

Strange searches

“thanksgiving.hoo.” No idea what this means, but I expect they landed on a post about Thanksgiving. Hoo, boy.

Now that I’ve bumped those two words up against each other, if anyone else googles thanksgiving.hoo, that’s where they’ll land.

“gotten manor isle of wight.” I googled this and didn’t find my blog, but I may not have gone deep enough. I can’t reconstruct the sentence that brought gotten close enough to manor to set off sparks, but I’m sure it’s buried in here somewhere. Several Gotten Manors exist around the country, along with at least one Gotton Manor.

“lonetransparency.blogspot.” I googled this and ended up on Pinterest. Want a pair of transparent socks? Or a shot glass shaped like a cowboy boot? That’s what I found there.

“cornish story book with work camp.” Googling this brought up a bunch of storybook links, including one featuring the Famous Five—a series of British kids’ book that includes the worst line of dialogue ever written: “Woof woof,” said Timmy.

Timmy, in case you’re worried, is a dog.

I know, if you’re British and over I’m not sure what age, you probably have a warm spot in your heart for the Famous Five books, and I don’t want to be either culturally insensitive or just plain snotty, but they’re really, truly, completely awful. “ ‘Woof woof,’ said Timmy”? Come on.

“shiner book uk.” I have no idea what this means. Neither does Google, which asked if I wanted shiner bock. Oddly enough, another question was about “shiner bock uk.” Which seems to be a beer, although Google also offered me stain removing powder.

Strange searches that almost make sense

Someone typed in, “improving myself and the lord’s house.” If this turned up on a religious bloggers site, it would make sense. Here, though? I don’t do religion. I don’t do self-improvement. I don’t mind if other people do as long as they don’t get all evangelical on me. I can only assume that the search engines are developing a sense of humor.

One person typed, “remembering latin grammar.” I never knew any Latin grammar to remember or forget but may have used the phrase Latin grammar in writing about a few absurdities that have been imposed on English because they echo Latin grammar.

Damn. I’ve used the phrase again, increasing the chances of muddying some poor soul’s search for information about Latin grammar. Whoever you are, I apologize.

Someone else was looking for “notes from the avon and somerset police.” Sigh. If you need a matchmaker, don’t use a search engine. I did mention the Avon and Somerset police. My blog title uses the phrase notes from. Put the two together and you have something other than what the person was looking for.

And finally, “strunk and white lawnmowers.” Bizarrely enough, I know exactly what this one’s about. It has to do with the distinction (in American but not British English) between that and which, which (not that) the grammar reference by Strunk and White illustrates with a couple of sentences about lawnmowers.

How strange is it that someone with a lousy memory can pull that out of the murky depths, without having to look it up? I didn’t remember writing about it, but I did, and if you want to find it, it’s here.

How to flood a road

I used to copy edit for a magazine whose editorial standards—I’m trying to be diplomatic here, and that’s never easy—were less than stratospherically high. (This doesn’t sound like it’s about floods, but we’ll get there. Stay with me.) Editing for them was hack-and-slash work whose goal was to create something marginally coherent. I’d clear out the irrelevancies, bolt in a few bits of basic grammar, then run like hell before the whole structure fell in.

One day, because it was grammatically correct, I zipped past a sentence that said, “Water here has no choice but to run downhill.” I’d gone three sentences further on before I ground to a halt and thought: Wait a minute. What does water do someplace else? Stop and ask directions?

I deleted it and I’ve gotten more than my share of laughs from it over the years.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Imagine how I felt, then, when I found out the writer really did know something, even if he didn’t say it in a way that gave the rest of the human race a shot at learning from him: The structure of the underlying rock in the area he was writing about—a part of southern Minnesota—doesn’t allow water to filter into the ground easily, so most of it runs off.

It has no choice but to run downhill.

Well, water in Cornwall (and possibly the rest of the country, but I don’t want to go out on a limb here) has no choice but to run downhill. Some of it filters into the ground, but less than I’m used to. During the time I lived in Minnesota, I saw a six-inch rain and a ten-incher. The streets flooded, the roof leaked, the neighbors got out hammer and nails and started building an ark, and our street, which I’d have sworn was as flat as an ironing board, turned out to have a dip where the water gathered and the parked cars bobbed around in the (literal) wake of a passing bus.

Over by the University of Minnesota campus, two people canoed down the street.

In north Cornwall, we can get that kind of drama (minus the canoe) out of two inches of rain. Or one if it comes down fast enough. Especially if it falls on saturated ground. And boy, have I learned to recognize saturated ground.

So my definition of a heavy rain has changed. Even the rain gauge we bought here reflects that: In Minnesota, our rain gauge went up to six inches. Here, it tops out at two.

What happens in a heavy rain here? Drive the back roads and you’ll see water pouring off the fields, often in small waterfalls. Wild Thing once saw it bubbling up through the pavement itself. Some of that water will flow into the ditches and through them to the nearest river and some of it, in the absence of a ditch or in the presence of a blocked ditch, will flow down the road so that the road itself becomes part of the drainage system.

But before it gets to that nearest river I mentioned, some of it will form scenic little lakes in low spots on the roads, most of them shallow enough to drive through but a few of them deep enough to kill an engine. One rainy year, a low spot on the way into our village claimed two cars. The drivers either didn’t notice the flood until they were already in it (that happens surprisingly easily, especially in the dark or just after a blind curve) or they misjudged the depth.

And when the water makes it to the rivers? They rise quickly. This is hilly country, and water around here—oh, I can’t help myself—has no choice but to run downhill. Even tame little streams can go feral and flood roads, houses, bridges, fields, villages, towns. Every so often a car gets swept off the road, and people drown. It’s nothing to fool around with.

Wild Thing and I had to drive to Plymouth once just after a heavy storm, and the roads were flooded in several places. Wild Thing grew up in Texas and Oklahoma and is used to fords. She claims her parents had her wade across so they could see if it was safe for the car. She never did get swept away, so we can’t prove child endangerment. I’m guessing the water wasn’t as high as she thought, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Me, though? I grew up in New York City and my idea of what to do when the water rises is go home and eat bagels.

So even though I was driving, Wild Thing was the one who had to decide if we could get through. An orange traffic cone was bobbing around in one flooded bit, and I did have second thoughts about going through it. And third thoughts. But she swore we could get through and we did, in spite of how low our car is.

By the time we came back, the flood had drained away and the Tamar—the river that separates Cornwall from the rest of the country, which had been out of its banks—had already dropped. The writer who taught me about water and choices might well have added that it also has no choice but to flow downstream.

Nine reasons I ignore SEO

Let’s start with basics. SEO is short for search engine optimization. Bloggers (along with other people, but never mind them) obsess about it. Our goal is to lure in innocents who are searching the internet. Won’t you step into my parlor, said the blogger to the fly. Won’t you read 107 of my posts and hit Follow and stay here forever, thus bumping up my stats.

Stats? They’re the things that tell you how many people read what bits of your blog, and what country they’re from, and assorted other stuff, and they’re never high enough. We all want more, more, more.

So to get more people to stop by, you try to make yourself as visible to search engines as possible. You optimize yourself. You dig a niche out of the crumbling riverbank of the internet. Or maybe that’s the crumbling riverbank of what was once your creativity. The metaphor’s a little crumbly itself, but I’ll come back to that issue about creativity. You do all sorts of stuff, some of which borders on the corporate (all that stuff about becoming a brand) and some of which works at least some of the time.

Yet another irrelevant photo

Yet another irrelevant photo: flowers.

If you’re good at it, you provide what searchers looking for and they’re happy and either stay or come back, and you’re almost happy, although your stats are still never high enough. Addiction’s like that. You check your stats and see that your views have shot up. Or that they haven’t, in which case you tweak your S. You maximize your O. You tone down that pesky E.

You check your stats again. You remind yourself that yesterday’s stats won’t have changed but you check them again anyway. Because addiction’s like that.

I do check my stats, partly because I’m addicted and partly because the questions that lead people to my blog can be bizarre and finding a particularly good one adds a dash of insanity to my day. The insanity I generate on my own isn’t half as much fun. But the serious SEOing? I’ve read about it. In spire of what I’m saying here, I’ve appreciated the advice and learned from some of it. I’ve even made good use of some of it. But it has a way of taking over your brain. So although I’m not arguing that anyone else should follow my example, for the most part I ignore it.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that as I wrote this I couldn’t help imagining people arguing with me. So if you want to, argue with me. Or agree. It’ll make an interesting discussion. And to the people who write about SEO and do it well, I do appreciate what I’ve learned from you. It’s just that taking it too seriously was threatening my writing.

Why am I offering you nine reasons? Because the internet loves numbered lists. Offer people three reasons they shouldn’t use nail files, eleven ways to charm wild rabbits, or five reasons to paint their walls midnight blue, and they’ll click on that link. Or a certain number of them will. Even though they’ve been terrified of rabbits since childhood, their landlord does the painting and only buys white, and because their English isn’t great they only understand file in the context of papers and file drawers, so nail file makes no sense to them. But it’s a list. It involves numbers. The just have to click.

So. I ignore SEO because:

  1. I hate numbered lists. They’re about simplicity, and life isn’t simple. The interesting stuff—and most of the good jokes—involve complexity. It’s true that numbered lists are a nifty organizing tool, but honestly, people, they’re not the only one. They’re overdone.
  2. What people are looking for from numbered lists, whether they know it or not, is advice. I don’t give advice.
  3. If I do give advice, it will be in a moment of weakness and highly suspect. I advise you to ignore it. I have your best interests at heart here.
  4. SEO is about niches and I don’t exactly have a niche. Travel? Not really, although travelers may be interested. Expat? Expats are nothing but immigrants with a coating of education, money, culture, invisible ethnicity, or some combination of the above. If other people want to call themselves expats, fine by me, but I’m an immigrant. Google immigrant blog, though, and you’ll find one or two, but mostly you’ll find sites campaigning against immigration or offering information and advice about how to immigrate. Immigrant blog is not a niche. Besides, people trying to immigrate are so desperate for a toehold in this hostile world that making jokes about it from my own safe position borders on the obscene. Or forget borders. It’s planted dead center in the middle of it. Is this a humor blog, then? There’s something dismal about hanging a sign above your work saying, “This is funny.” When I worked as an editor and a cover letter told me the enclosed was a humorous article, I counted myself forewarned. It wasn’t. Ever.
  5. Even if we were to decide that in spite of everything Notes is to some extent an expat blog (I read several, and a couple of them are funny; others are worth reading for other reasons), that doesn’t mean expats are the only people I want to talk to. Or even the main group. I write for anyone who’ll laugh at my jokes, anyone who wants to know about living in Britain, anyone who wants to read about the oddities of living in a culture that isn’t your own. There aren’t enough people in those categories as it is, so why narrow things down? I know, I know: When you define your target audience you’re not limiting it. If you know where to find your audience, you can address it. Book publishing works on the same principle. You write a cover letter or book proposal and say, “This book will appeal to 36-year-olds who have never had a manicure and who didn’t wash their dishes yesterday.” Niche marketing holds that men don’t want to read about a woman protagonist, whites don’t want to read about blacks, adults don’t want to read about children, straight people don’t want to read about gays, etc. etc., ad fucking nauseum. To sum that up, dominant groups don’t want to read about non-dominant ones. It you’re in the non-dominant group, you’re niche. If you’re in the dominant group, you’re mainstream. Unless of course a niche book breaks out, at which point we all worship it. What am amazing writer to have done that. What wisdom. What a gift it is to be so deeply rooted in a vibrant culture. Do you spot just a touch of irony in that? [If this weren’t a numbered list I’d start a new paragraph here, so take a small breath.] I have yet to find the niche that makes me think I’ve found mine. Niche-ing makes sense in some situations: if you write about blogging; about food; about parenting, which is usually code for mothering; about travel; about books; about writing; about transgender issues; about hunting wild mushrooms in Maine; about politics or a given political outlook—about any established or sharply defined category. But some of us sprawl between categories. Some of us write in small categories and want to break out of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not focused—we may keep a tight focus on our awkward topic. But we don’t fit neatly into an established category, and I, at least, don’t want to narrow what I’m doing in order to fit.
  6. (And this is, really, the main issue) I don’t want my writing controlled by my efforts to game the search engines. Again, I have no quarrel with people who do. It works, and it’s a legitimate choice. To maximize my page views, I could, in theory, find out what people want to read and then write about it, repeating the key words in all the key places. I get a steady flow of people, for example, wanting to know why Great Britain is called Great Britain. They push my page views up and I like this because (a) it makes me feel good and (b) I’m hoping that when my next book starts making the rounds, the blog will convince a publisher to consider it with just a bit more respect, so my stats may have an impact on something of more use in the world than my silly damn ego. People also want photos of cats. And dogs. The appetite for them is endless. Should I be sitting at my computer, then, and wondering what else people want and how I could produce it? Possibly, but if I do, will I be able to keep my writing sharp enough to make it worth reading? To the extent that Notes works, it depends on me making myself laugh. That’s not an easy river to channel, and it dries up altogether when I give too much thought to what people think and whether I’m making them happy. Which leads to:
  7. The only reason I can keep this blog fed is because early on in the process of creating it I stopped giving a rip. I ignore much of what I learned about writing, and a good part of what, in turn, I taught. And if you were a student of mine, whatever I taught you I taught in good faith. We all change, and maybe I needed to learn it before I could set it aside. But I apologize anyway. What exactly am I ignoring? I haven’t checked in with the rules in my head long enough to be sure. These days, I pretty much let myself sit at the keyboard and riff. I can’t do that and worry about SEO. I won’t complain about people who do as long as they can do it with some subtlety, but it’s not going to work for me.
  8. If you read about SEO long enough, someone will tell you to think of yourself as a brand. I am not a brand. I’m a writer. I’m a cantankerous human being. I’m any number of other things, but I’m not a brand.
  9. I did say nine, didn’t I? I lied. It has a better resonance than eight. And I’m sure the search engines like it better.

A quick visit to political absurdity

In these dark times, it’s comforting to know that the waters of political absurdity are forming such a gorgeous ocean.

In the U.S., the Republican convention’s in full swing. Ohio—the state that hosts the city (Cleveland) that’s hosting the convention—allows people to carry guns openly and to carry concealed weapons if they have a permit. Mind you, the police can’t stop someone and ask if they have a permit for a concealed weapon. They can only ask if they have some other reason to stop them—say a tail light that’s burned out.

What would the police do without burned-out tail lights?

I’ve read that the Black Lives Matter movement is boycotting the protests outside the convention, feeling that their movement was being hijacked by the protest organizers, but I’m guessing that both the city government and the police were already edgy about the Black Lives Matter movement anyway, and became more so after cops were shot in several cities. The shootings don’t seem to have been by movement activists but they were surely related to the anger that fuels the movement.

So let’s guess that Cleveland’s cops, and possibly the city government, are less than happy knowing that firearms are washing around legally.

So what does a nervous city do? It establishes a zone around the convention center and bans a variety of other things there, including toy guns, umbrellas with sharp tips, knives, ropes, and tennis balls. It sounds like the weapons from a game of Clue (or Cluedo, in British). Inside the convention center, the Republican Party itself has banned fresh fruit. And canned fruit. And—what will the National Rifle Association say?—real guns.

So, to sum up, you can carry a real gun near the convention center but not a toy gun. Or a tennis ball. And you cannot attack the candidate with a sharpened banana.

Update: I just read that when a number of armed blacks (as opposed to armed whites) began showing up on Cleveland’s streets, the head of the police union asked the governor to suspend the right to carry arms openly. “I don’t care if it’s constitutional or not,” he’s quoted as saying.

I have some sympathy for cops operating in a world that’s awash in guns, but this serves as a reminder that very little in the U.S. is racially neutral.

In a deep bow to the state of the world’s economy, the convention’s being held in the Quicken Loans Arena. Quicken Loans is a mortgage lender. I don’t know that there’s anything dodgy about it, but I can’t get the phrase subprime loans out of my head. I’d weep if I weren’t laughing so hard.

Meanwhile in the U.K., Boris Johnson—one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, whose career briefly looked like it was over when his fellow Brexiteer Michael Gove destroyed his chance of being Prime Minister—held his first press conference since being appointed foreign minister. It was a bumpy ride. He was asked if he planned to apologize for the less than diplomatic thing he’s written and said about world leaders. What did he say? In the one comment that’s (more or less) quoted, he called Obama half Kenyan and a hypocrite. We’ll let that stand in for the rest. Having followed Johnson a bit in the papers, I have no doubt there’s plenty more.

In addition to his diplomatic skills, Johnson’s known for playing fast and loose with the facts—he lost his first journalism job for faking a quote and went on to make a career out of exaggeration, distortion, and various other forms of inaccuracy—and reporters took him on for some of the “outright lies” he’d written. I’m not sure who I’m quoting there. Presumably one reporter, not all of them.

Fun. But not half as much fun as his references to the crisis in Egypt, by which he apparently meant the crisis in Turkey. And in case you think it was a slip of the tongue, he said it twice.

So that’s Britain’s new foreign minister. Turkey, Egypt, you know, what’s the difference? They’re all a bunch of foreigners.

Sleep well tonight, my fellow citizens of planet earth. The world’s in good hands. And I’ll be back on Friday with something less political.

Driving in Britain: courtesy and narrow roads

British drivers are—at least to an American eye—amazingly considerate. Where two lanes narrow down to one, they merge in turn like the two sides of a zipper instead of edging each other out. When you’re stuck on some side street and losing hope that you’ll ever be able to cross the closer lane of traffic and turn into the far lane, someone will hold back and wave you across. And when the road’s too narrow for two cars to pass, most drivers will pull over if they’re close to a wide spot and see a car coming toward them, or they’ll back up if they know a wide spot is behind them.

You’ll notice, though, that I left myself some wiggle room in that first sentence: I said, “at least to an American eye.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, British drivers believe that [other] British drivers are rude, thoughtless, and hovering every second on the brink of lethal road rage.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

They also—again, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly—believe that the sky’s not as high as it used to be. But it’s hard to truly know what other people believe. That’s why I turn to tea leaves. I started buying loose tea not long ago, so I’m ready to check the tea leaves for an answer any question.

I do not, however, guarantee accuracy.

But even given my low standards for courteous driving, there’s always someone who’ll break the pattern, and I met him on a very back road some years ago.

It was the kind of road that hasn’t been graded (that, I think, is an Americanism; it means scraped until the humps fill in the potholes and you can drive it without jarring your fillings loose) since Henry VIII was in power. It also had stone walls on both sides and they were are set very close to the road. And for a long stretch, it had exactly one lane to accommodate traffic that ran in two directions. A lot of roads in Cornwall are like that, but this was a particularly narrow one.

I was halfway down it when another car showed up and instead of waiting for me to reach the end of the narrow stretch the driver drove straight at me. Since we were on the only straight road in Cornwall, he either saw me or was driving with his eyes closed. I assume he thought he could make me back up.

When roosters lay fried eggs he could. I kept going and when we were within pitching-a-fit distance of each other, I pulled as far toward the hedge as I could and turned the engine off. And there we sat. If I’d had a deck of cards, I’d have laid out a game of solitaire on the dashboard, but the best I could do was turn on the radio and stare serenely out into space. Eventually, he pulled as far to the left as he could and started nosing past me. Anything so he didn’t have to back up. There’s a bumper sticker around here that says, “Welcome to Cornwall. Your car’s not as wide as you think it is.” Well, mine is as wide as I think it is, and so was his, and I folded my wing mirror in but even so I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t both end up wearing each other’s paint jobs. And that was before his car tipped gently toward mine as his wheels rode up on a (really, very narrow) grassy stretch beside the road.

At this point I rolled my window down and said, “Are you okay?”

It was a serious question.

He stopped inching and said, “What did you say?” and if I’d wanted a fight I could have had one at a discount, although I can’t see how either of us would have gotten out of our cars unless we’d poured ourselves out the windows.

I repeated what I’d asked, and I don’t remember that he answered me, but he turned away and started inching again, and eventually he got past me and I started my engine and left.

I don’t’ know what, if anything, that tells you about driving in Britain. But it does tell you not to take cultural generalizations too seriously. Even when they’re true, you can always find an exception.