Cold off the press: News from Britain

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

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

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

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

You heard it here first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhode Island is not an island.

I hope that helps.

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

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

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

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

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

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Yes, we all think as one over here.

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

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

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

It explains a lot about how policy gets assembled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humans. They make me crazy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Britain, for all its amateurishness, match that?

A quick history of English castles

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

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

Yup, it said castle.

Welcome to castles before the Norman invasion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raisin Monday: Another great British tradition

October 22 was Raisin Monday at St. Andrews University.

It was what?

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

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

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

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

The foam fight? We’ll get to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I speak guesswork fluently.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient British traditions, from bun throwing to shin kicking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a good time as had by all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want photos? Of course you do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t that helpful?  

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

FOOD & DRINK

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

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

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: hydrangea

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

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

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

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

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

I also sent the other blogger an apology.

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

do they have peeps in the uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

That explains the typos.

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

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

what do the british call baking-powder biscuits

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

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

WEATHER

londoner never talking about weather and how miserable (x2)

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

PLACE NAMES

why is worcester only 2 syllables

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

are we still called great britain

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

widemouth bay pronunciation   

Widmuth.    

how to pronounce river eye uk

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

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

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

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

british place names that sound like clothes

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

WIGS

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

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

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

BRITISH CULTURE

what do british people think of american accents

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

show me a tricorn hat worn in the house of lords

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

Oh, go on, then. You twisted my arm.

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

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

do british people say spifing

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

in what way is folk music similar to christmas carols

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

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

Sorry to get all serious on you. 

PROBLEMATIC ASSUMPTIONS

why was great britain named england in victorian times?

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

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

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

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

photograph of cockwomble

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

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

letterboxes invented in uk

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

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

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

what is causing all the problems with letter boxes in England

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

Don’t link to this either.

CORRECT ASSUMPTIONS

england is not britain

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

why is it wrong to say we all came from britian

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

ODD QUESTIONS

puffing pants; puffling pants

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

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

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

See what you’ve done, John?

saudi news

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

onterage goshen ny

Ditto. But that’s probably entourage.

what is hefeweizen

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

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

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

coke fabric yard

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

best trader joe’s meats

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

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

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

Cops and donuts in the U.S. and Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can any American cop top that?

Budget cuts, crime, and technology in modern Britain

In the spirit of making up the rules as we go along, we’ll start and end off topic. If you get bored along the way, just skip to the end.

In 1947, Jack Kerouac, of Beat Generation, to-hell-with society’s-expectations fame, wrote his mother asking for $25 so he wouldn’t have to hitch through the desert and mountains to get from Colorado to California. The letter went on sale recently. For $22,500.

So much for irony. Let’s talk about crime. Residents of Shoreditch–a London neighborhood–decided to simplify life for local drug dealers by posting signs warning drivers to “give way to oncoming drug dealers.” Other signs marked a crack pickup point and a parking spot reserved for drug dealers. 

The mayor (not of London but of Tower Hamlets–it’s complicated and for our purposes doesn’t matter) sympathized but said the council (that translates to local government) isn’t in charge of policing (which is true) and that budget cuts meant they had 200 fewer cops on the streets. I can’t verify the number but it’s a suspiciously round one, so for the sake of accuracy you might want to add or subtract a few cops. You’ll almost surely end up with the wrong number, but it’ll look more convincing.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I’m not sure if that’s 200 fewer in London or in Tower Hamlets. If I had to guess, I’d say London. But never mind, I can swear or affirm that budgets have been cut and fewer cops are on the streets and behind the desks. If we were talking about the U.S., I’d say there were also fewer in the doughnut shop, but the link between cops and doughnuts turns out, mysteriously, to be an American thing. 

According to Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, which put up the signs, it’s not just police cuts that are the problem. “Drug programmes have been cut, mental health programmes have been cut, and it’s a perfect storm.”

After (or possibly before) the mayor expressed sympathy with the group, the council took the signs down, saying something that translates roughly to, “Very funny, kids. We’ll just put these away where the neighbors won’t ask about them. Now, who wants ice cream?”

The drug dealers had no comment.

So how’s a council supposed to save money and fight crime when budgets are being cut? By using technology, of course. At least five local councils are pouring data (not to mention that scarce resource, money) into a predictive analytics system to flag up kids who are at risk of being abused or who are vulnerable to gang exploitation. I think that means the kids are likely to be recruited by gangs, not to be victimized by them. If you’re being victimized, go create your own algorithm.

The theory is that this will let councils target their interventions better and, in this age of politically induced austerity, be more effective with less money. Which was what the government swore everyone would do as a result of austerity. 

What sort of data are they pouring in? Information from schools on whether kids are attending or being thrown out. Police records on antisocial behavior and domestic violence. Housing information, but only on council tenants (if you’re American, that means public housing tenants). The housing information includes repair records and being late with the rent, because people who are late with the rent are likely to do anything from abusing their kids to spending their money on silly things like food.

That’s the trouble with poor people: They never have enough money.

This means, of course, that if you live in council housing and kick in a wall, you go into the database and get watched. If you own your own home or rent from a private landlord, you can rampage through it as much as you like as long as no one calls the cops.

It also means that if you complain about–oh, let’s say fire hazards once too often and make the wrong bureaucrat mad, it’s not impossible to think you’ll end up in the database. Because people who annoy bureaucrats are likely to abuse their kids. Or am I being too cynical?

Is it possible to be too cynical?

Some categories of information were later excluded from consideration, but I’m damned if I could find out which ones.

Critics are saying that algorithms aren’t neutral–they incorporate their writers’ biases–and that the poor will be monitored more closely than the non-poor. The articles I found didn’t mention this, but surely someone out there is raising the possibility that once a person gets trapped by an algorithm and labeled as a risk, they may not be able to prove the contrary. If the computer says they’re a risk, they’ll be treated as a risk.

Is this just a way for cash-strapped councils to spend silly money because someone’s cousin runs a predictive analytics business (she asked cynically)? Possibly, but it’s also being looked at as a way for the councils to make money.

The Guardian writes, “Under the Troubled Families scheme, councils are paid £1,000 for each family they sign up to the programme, with a further payment of £800 when the family meets certain criteria.”  

It’s called payment by results and it means that if you’re trapped in an algorithm, it’s not just because no one can turn the computer off, it might also be because no one will have an incentive to.

In another approach to saving money and being more efficient, the East of England ambulance service wants to improve its response time by allowing ambulances with stable patients to divert to life-threatening emergencies before taking the stable patient to the hospital, although–as a paramedic pointed out–stable patients don’t always stay stable and the ambulance crew might be put in a position of having to choose which patient to use life-saving equipment on.

What’s worse, no one would get to pass Go.

A benefit of doubling people up, however, is that ambulance patients would meet new people and watch exciting scenes of paramedics saving lives, something they’d otherwise have to turn on the TV to see. Loneliness is a serious problem in first-world countries and it diminishes both the length and quality of people’s lives. This is a great way to combat it.

East of England also proposed asking the Royal National Lifeboat Institution–better known as the RNLI–to respond to emergency calls, although loading the lifeboat onto a trailer and dragging it inland is going to be time consuming.

When it was asked to comment, the RNLI said it couldn’t locate the request.

Check the circular file, people. Someone thought it was a joke and tossed it there.  

The East of England service has one of the ten slowest emergency response times in England but a high rate of people hearing their proposals and giggling.

How else can local government save money? By closing public toilets, and many have. Some areas don’t have a single public toilet anymore. I’d have said “some cities,” but the article I read carefully avoided the word. In Britain, the definition of a city is specific–it has to have a cathedral. In the U.S., it’s just a big place where a lot of people live. How big? Oh, you know, pretty big. 

But back to toilets: The country now has a third fewer public toilets than it did twenty years ago, according to data from the British Toilet Association.

I never had a chance to quote the British Toilet Association before. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.

Not having public toilets won’t shock Americans, although calling them toilets will. We don’t like to be reminded of what we use them for so we call them almost anything but toilets.

Setting the language issue aside, though, American cities don’t do public toilets. If you need to pee, what are you doing out in public anyway? We don’t actually say that, just act as if we had. Which is why so many New York subway stations smell the way they do. Or they used to, anyway. I grew up in New York but haven’t been there in a long time. When I first moved to Britain, I was impressed that the country had worked out a way to handle something so basic.

The toilet association is urging businesses to display a sticker letting people know that their toilets are available to non-customers. There’s no word on how many businesses are actually doing it, but I’m going to guess the number isn’t much above zero.

Since we’re talking about being short of money, this might be a good time to mention Katie Hopkins, a commentator who once said that poor people who get into debt have no one to blame but themselves. In September, Hopkins applied for an insolvency agreement to avoid going bankrupt. In other words, she owes more money than she has. Which reckless people might just call being in debt.

It all started when she wrote a tweet claiming that food writer Jack Monroe (who is, just to complicate things, a woman, so watch your pronouns) supported defacing a war memorial. Monroe asked Hopkins to apologize and donate £5,000 to a migrants’ charity.

Hopkins refused, the whole mess ended up in court, and Monroe won. When this surfaced in the papers, in September, Hopkins owed Monroe £24,000 and was stuck with legal costs large enough that if she paid them in pennies the stack would stretch from the top of the Tower of London to the moon unless it toppled over first.

She won’t be allowed to stack them that high because it would constitute a safety hazard. Britain is very careful about health and safety. What’s more, I may be overestimating the height of the stack. I’ve never put more than ten pennies in a pile and I don’t actually know the size of the legal bill. So if I’m wrong about this, please don’t sue me.

Just to complicate things, Hopkins’ mainstream media career collapsed (should I write, “is said to have collapsed,” just to be safe?) when she called for a “final solution” after the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena. Was she aware that she was echoing the Nazi plan for the elimination of the Jews? I’m not inside the woman’s mind, so I can’t say. But it’s all okay, because she’s not poor so the current situation isn’t her fault.  

On a cheerier note, Britain has a new hobby: magnet fishing. To do this, you attach a powerful magnet to a line and drop it into a body of water.

What do people catch? “Mainly junk,” according to magnet angler Gareth Bryer. “A few pedal bikes, shopping trolleys, fences, road signs.” Also three guns, a crossbow, a samurai sword, machetes, knives, a grenade, and a cash box with £100. Other magnet anglers have recovered a cannonball from the English Civil War and an Enigma machine, which was used to decode German communications during World War II.

A bylaw (of what I don’t know) forbids taking things out of waterways owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust. Let’s assume, for safety’s sake, that the trust owns pretty much any public waterway. The fine is £25 but it doesn’t seem to be enforced much. Still, technically, taking junk out of public waters is illegal, which is why I’ve shoehorned it into this post.

By way of clarification, a pedal bike is what Americans call a plain ol’ bike. It’s also called a pushbike in British, to keep it from getting confused with a motorbike. And a supermarket trolley is what Americans call a supermarket cart. I’ve never had any reason to lift all four wheels of one off the ground at once (given the shape, I’m not sure I could), but I’m pretty sure they’re heavy enough to make them hard to haul out of a canal. And then there’s the question of what you do with it once you have it neatly deposited on the canalside path, where people walking past with their dogs will stop to ask, “What’re you going to do with that, mate?”

And you’ll still have to get it to your car on wheels that won’t be rolling smoothly anymore.

Then there’s that grenade…

I’ll give you a link somewhat at random, because the internet’s full of information about magnet fishing, most of it geared toward helping you take up the sport. If you want to part with some cash, you’ll find all sorts of equipment out there.

Without a single magnet in sight, Britain’s Conservative Party attracted the wrong kind of attention and more or less hacked itself. Just as its conference was getting ready to open, someone discovered that its app not only made its leaders’ private information available to anyone who logged on as attending, it allowed them to modify it. And to make it public, which someone or other gleefully did. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnsoon’s photo was briefly replaced with an unspecified pornographic image and  his title was changed to something that starts and ends with D and has a bunch of asterisks between them. I thought I swore fluently, but that one has me stumped.

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s photo was replaced with one of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The story appeared on the same day the Conservative government announced that it will introduce guidelines on how much time kids should be allowed to spend on social media. If the kids spend less time at it, that should free up time for the adults in the party to learn how it works.

This next item is crime related but from the wrong country: An American self-published romance writer, Nancy Crampton Murphy, has been taking her research seriously. Having written a blog post called “How to Murder Your Husband,” she went ahead and murdered him. Allegedly. That’s allegedly as in it was allegedly her. There’s nothing alleged about him being dead.

I’d give you a link to her post but it’s been made private. CBS News says it listed the pros and cons of murdering your husband and quotes it as saying,  “Divorce is expensive, and do you really want to split your possessions?”

Tough question, right?

This next one has nothing to do with technology, crime, or budget cuts, but a love song by English singer Lily Allen, “As Long As I Got You” includes the line, “Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose.”

And here you thought romance was dead.

And quick, while we’re dipping into a few bits of irrelevance, a tourist to Cornwall posted a complaint on a private beach’s Facebook page. It turns out a rock was covered by waves so that she couldn’t see it and so she hurt her leg on it. And here I said Britain was health and safety conscious. What were they thinking, letting the waves come up over the rock like that?

Other comments on the page have at times included, “What time do the waves start?” and “When will the dolphins appear?”

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My apologies for leaning so heavily on a single news source this week. I try to spread it out a bit, but it just didn’t work out this time. I was going to quote the Huffington Post on one story, but it wouldn’t let me read the article unless I signed an agreement with its new owner, Oath, allowing it to collect all my data in a stack that reaches the moon and presents a clear hazard to the public. 

When I tried to modify the agreement, as it so kindly invited me to do, I couldn’t find any modifications that made the least bit of sense. I swore many an Oath and thought I’d better leave before I clicked a button  that put me into a database of people at risk of being recruited by a drug gang.

Although that  would at least guarantee me a parking spot in London.

None of the buttons I found allowed me to say no to anything and I couldn’t find a box that said, “Leave me the hell alone.” My choices amounted to saying, “Yes, I’m happy for you to do whatever you want with my data because you have my best interests at heart.”

All this clicking and modifying is, I think, supposed to bring them into alignment with a European Union directive on privacy and data, which was in turn supposed to give us choices about who has our data and what they do with it.

I do love having choices.

And if I haven’t (as I suspect) been particulary funny this week, here by way of apology are a couple of corrections from far more respectable publications than this one. The first few are relatively pedestrian. Stay with me.

The Brazilian magazine Veja initially said that a political candidate liked to spend his free time watching Toy Story. Their apology explained that it should’ve said “reading Tolstoy.”

The New York Times had to correct itself after giving a Muslim scholar’s Snapchat handle as Pimpin4Paradise786. Turns out it’s imamsuhaibwebb.

To be even handed, the Guardian, which quoted these and which is famous for its typos, also called attention to one of its own mistakes, which was a recipe calling for 13 kilos of lamb instead of 1.3 kilos. One of my favorite Guardian misprints is a photo labeled “caption caption caption caption caption caption caption.”

Ah, but Lord Google supplies better Guardian corrections than that, including a one that read, “Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peaches Probiotics . . .  [but] the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.”

Well, damn, that’s disappointing. What am I supposed to tell people if they point out that mine smells like a vagina? That it’s supposed to smell like that?

I think we’ll move on now.

Another correction read, “The ommision of a hyphen after the word ‘sheep’ meant readers were informed that the ancient Philistines of the Gaza coast were attacked by a curious combination of ‘savage sheep and goat-herding Hebrew tribes.’ ”

Ah, but there’s more: “An unwanted hyphen, introduced in the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, in Vincenza, Italy, was ‘named for the 17-stone nani, or dwarfs, that surround the home.’ To clarify: there are seventeen dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.”

A stone is a measure of weight in Britain. It equals 14 pounds or roughly one twelfth of a stone dwarf. (No, I don’t know how much they weigh either, but 97.5% of all statistics are made up.)

And then there’s the time when they quoted the chair of a football club as saying they had the worst team in the division. Turns out he said they had the worst tea.

The Guardian‘s very good at corrections and has enough practice at correcting itself that it’s developed a sense of humor about them. Its readers know the paper as the Grauniad.

How English is England? a quick lesson in geology

England’s creation story as we once knew it went like this: In the beginning, whatever god(s) you like to give credit to, along with all the ones you don’t, separated England from France because they thought it would be better that way, and all the humans with an interest in either country agreed that, yea, this was wise.

It wasn’t easy for the humans to do this, because humans only joined the planet some 2.8 million years ago and the separation of England and France took place 400 million years ago. But the tension between the English and the French is pronounced enough that it could have easily predated the human race by some 397 million years, give or take a few months.  

Gods, as it turns out, can be vain–it’s an occupational hazard–and they were so pleased with all that human praise that many million years later they poured the English Channel into the space between the two countries to mark their accomplishment. And lo, the humans lavished them with more praise.

Endangered species: This is a relevant photo–see below for a comment about
stone monuments, although in keeping with tradition this isn’t quite the kind of monument I was talking about.

To be marginally more scientific about this, until very recently the belief was that Britain–that’s England, Scotland, and Wales–was formed when two ancient landmasses, Laurentia and Avalonia, met and married. France had nothing to do with it–it was on a landmass called Armorica–and a marriage can only take place between two landmasses. The third could have been, at most, a witness.

It’s true that this was before marriage had been invented, and possibly even before sex had been invented, but for richer and for poorer, for better and for worser, the two landmasses became one and everyone was happy with the arrangement, especially the English, because there’s something about being English that compels even the most broad-minded people to get sniffy about the French.

We’re going to assume that the French were just as happy, because (at least in my limited experience) they can be sniffy about the English as well. I’m basing that on the number of people my partner and I met in France who asked, “Are you English?” and when we said we were American said (more or less, and in French), “Oh, wonderful. We like Americans.”

That was back when it was easy to tell people what nationality we were. These days it’s complicated. Are we American? Yes. Are we British? Yes. So are we British-Americans? Americo-Britoids? Passport-hopping cosmopolitan nuisances?

Never mind. Let’s go back to our origin story. Here was an arrangement that suited both parties. The English were from Laurentia-Avalonia and the French were from Armorica and never the twain would meet. They didn’t have to trace their geological histories back to a common point.  

It turns out, however, that it didn’t happen that way. Some wiseacres from the University of Plymouth have spoiled it all by taking rock samples from southwestern Britain and Brittany (in western France), playing geologist games with them, and announcing that the deposits left from volcanic explosions in part of Cornwall and Devon match those in France.

This explains why the mineral deposits in the southwest (primarily tin, but also copper, antimony, arsenic, a bit of silver, plus in case you’re still interested, tungsten, uranium, zinc, and occasional supermarkets cart–called a trolleys–that show up when they drain canals) match what’s found in Brittany (with the possible exception of the supermarket cart) but not what’s found in the rest of Britain (again with the exception of the supermarket cart).

So geologically speaking, a fair chunk of southwest England is French, including most of Cornwall, which culturally and historically may not be part of England at all, but let’s not argue about that, I only brought it up to complicate things. And because people I know bring it up regularly, so I feel a kind of duty to toss it into my posts.

What can we learn from this discovery? That marriage is more complicated than anyone imagined and can indeed involve three landmasses. That everyone should settle down and stop being sniffy about whole swathes of people because if we go back far enough we’re all related, as is the land we live on. That we should all save our spikiness for deserving individuals. And for the people we’re closely closely related to and have to play nice with on holidays.

We can also learn that it’s good to have our brain molecules rearranged periodically. That’s the lovely thing about the sciences. They start with a theory, they test it, and when they find information that contradicts it they either update it or throw it out altogether.  

*

But the French-Southwest England connection is more than just geological. The cultural links go back to the Neolithic age–that’s the late stone age–when the people of southwest Britain traded with the people of what’s now France. It couldn’t have been easy sailing stone boats back and forth across the channel, never mind hollowing them out, so they must’ve wanted to see each other really badly.

If anyone decides to link to this, please, please note: that’s a joke about stone boats. I had another joke go wrong again recently and I’m feeling just the slightest bit sheepish. If sheep can giggle (sorry, I can’t help myself), which I’ve never seen them do but can’t rule out.

The two groups would’ve shared shared overlapping cultures, because both spent their free time setting huge stones in place to mark we’ll never really know what. Their presence, maybe. It’s too weird an activity not to mark an overlap.

English Heritage (the name doesn’t play universally well in Cornwall) says that “by the later Iron Age, southern England’s principal trading partners were northern Gaul (France) and Armorica (Brittany).” 

If we slip forward to the years after the Romans left Britain, we’ll  find Celtic refugees fleeing the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–or so it’s said. Archeologists are challenging that belief, but we’ll get to that some other time. If the Celts did indeed flee, they left with their language folded neatly into their suitcases. And where did they land? Armorica, which they renamed Brittany.

Then in the eleventh century, the Norman French invaded England, changing the language to French and completing the circle on influence, connection, resentment, and bizarre spelling. They didn’t care about landmasses, they just wanted the land. And its people.

We, of course, live in an enlightened age and do care about landmasses. Please take a few minutes to feel smug.

To hell with Britain: news from all over

Department of Religious Freedom: A Dutch court ruled that a woman does not have the right to wear a colander on her head in her passport and driving license photos. And just to be clear, that’s not because she’s a woman. A man doesn’t have that right either.

That strikes me as fair enough, but the story’s more complicated than it appears. We’re talking about religious freedom here.

The woman in question, Mienke de Wilde, was (this was in August, when the story appeared in the press) considering an appeal the the European Court of Human Rights. She’s a law student and I’m sure she’ll learn a lot from it. And talk about having something to put on your resume . . .

Irrelevant photo: If I remember my wildflowers correctly, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Dutch law bans headgear in identity photos but people can claim an exemption on religious grounds, and de Wilde was claiming one. She’s a Pastafarian, a member of a religion whose members worship an invisible, undetectable god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who created the universe. They wear colanders on their heads as a tribute to the god, although they consider it disrespectful to explain their beliefs without wearing full pirate regalia.

Why? “Because He becomes angry if we don’t,” the U.K. Pastafarian website says. I should probably have read the Dutch site, but I don’t read Dutch and don’t trust Lord Google to translate anything this important.

Since I’m short on pirate regalia, I’ll leave a full explanation of Pastafarian beliefs to someone with a better wardrobe, but I can at least say that believers are expected to be nice to all sentient beings and to eat a lot of pasta.

Pastafarianism is recognized by both the New Zealand government and the spell check system on my toy typewriter. The Dutch court didn’t exactly say it isn’t a real religion. It said, with the sobriety of which only a court is capable, “It may be the case that the colander is considered a holy object for Pastafarians, worn in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there is no obligation to do so. In fact, Pastafariansm has no obligations or restrictions.”

That does seem to be true. Pastafarianism’s short on obligations and don’ts. The church originally had ten I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts, but two got lost, so now it has only eight. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t demand or forbid much of anything. Except that  business about the pirate costume.

Department of Shhhh, This Is a Library: A librarian called in a bomb hoax to delay his plane because he was running late. That held it up for 90 minutes, but he still didn’t make it and was arrested when he got abusive with airline staff.  

Kind of changes your image of librarians, doesn’t it?

Department of Corporate Overreach: Procter & Gamble is trying (or at last reading, in August, was trying) to trademark some bits of the alphabet soup spread by text messaging, including LOL, WTF, NBD, and FML. I’ll translate those for the acronymically impaired: laughing out loud, what the fuck?, no big deal, and fuck my life.

The applications went to USPTO–the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Is P&G going to release a product called Fuck My Life? If so, can I sit in on the meetings where they work out a marketing strategy? Please?? I really need to be there and I promise to take notes and report back.

Sadly, it looks like all they want to do is use the letters to advertise existing products so that the millennial generation will think they’re cool. Or whatever today’s equivalent of cool is. Hot. Lukewarm. Fried. Acronymed. I’m 103 and exempt from having to be cool, hot, or anything in between.

The truth is that I never was cool but I no longer give a fuck (which just might make me cool–who knows?). It’s one of the lovely things about getting older, and we can reduce that to an acronym if my language offends anyone: INLGAF.

The USPTO asked P&G for clarification (I’ll bet they did), but according to the Independent, the BBC, and the Guardian, P&G declined to comment to the press.

Of those three, only the Guardian was willing to spell out what all the acronyms stand for. The others hid behind asterisks and “too rude to spell out.”

I think I said this before, back when the Royal Mail trademarked the shade of red it uses on trucks and mailboxes, but I never got around to doing anything about it: I’m going to trademark the word and. That means every time anyone else uses it, they have to put a little ™ (meaning trademark) sign beside it. Otherwise I get to sue them.  

Department of Truth in Blogging: That last paragraph contains a bit of urban mythology. When I worked as an editor, I ran into one or two writers who were convinced that if they mentioned a brand name they had to add ™ to avoid lawsuits and other forms of apocalypse. They didn’t. We didn’t. You don’t. Companies use the symbol to show that they’re claiming the word as a trademark. An R in a circle means roughly the same thing only more so, but WTF, let’s skip the details–they’re boring. The claim only matters to you if you’re another company in more or less the same field and want to use the word / name / phrase / color /acronym.

Department of Friendly and Accessible Government: Britain’s minister for immigration Twitter-blocked two applicants who, in desperation, tweeted her to ask for help when the Home Office wouldn’t reply to their appeals or to letters from their MPs. One was a citizen trying to prevent his long-term partner from being deported to Australia. The other was a citizen trying to get British passports for his Filippino-born adopted (and already British) children. The snag is that they have Filippino passports with their pre-adoption names. To change their names on the Filippino passports, the family would have to take the kids out of school and move to the Philippines, then he’d have to re-adopt the kids. It could take up to 18 months.

What the hell, people and their needs are all so complicated. It’s simpler just to block them.

Department of Endless Updates: Britain’s Home Office has updated its immigration rules 5,700 times since 2010. Or that was the number as of late August. That means they’ve more than doubled in length. They’re now 375,000 words long.

By way of comparison, the minimum length of a novel these days is (give or take a few ands or a the’s) 40,000 words. Most are between 60,000 and 100,000.

At least seven times, new guidelines were issued a week after the last ones were issued.

Judges and lawyers are tearing at their wigs in frustration. One said, “The changes are often hurried out, which means they can be badly written. They can be very difficult to understand, even for judges and lawyers.”

Another called it (with typical British understatement) “something of a disgrace.”

Department of Urban Wildlife: In August, New York City subway crews found two goats on the tracks of a Brooklyn subway line that was closed for repairs. The goats grazed their way down the line–I’d like to say happily but I wasn’t there and even if I had been I don’t know goats well enough to read their mood. But graze they did, right alongside the electrified third rail, until they were tranquilized and moved to a rescue center in New Jersey, where, even though I’m not there and et cetera, I’m absolutely sure they’re happy.

The area where they were found is close to some slaughterhouses and the goats are thought to have escaped from one. So yeah, good food, a nice wide river between them and the slaughterhouse? They’re happy.

Department of Technological Wonders: An article about policing the Notting Hill Carnival mentioned that the police aren’t going to use facial recognition software again this year. They tried it out for two years running and among other successes it managed to confuse a young woman with a balding man.

I struggle to recognize people–it’s called face blindness and I was endlessly relieved when I found a name for it that wasn’t Ellen’s clueless. But mixing up a young woman and a balding man? Even I’m not that bad.  

Department of Archeology: A 90,000-year-old bone fragment found in a Siberian cave turns out to be from a teenager whose DNA contains fragments from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Denisovans? They’re a recently discovered member of the human family tree and not much is known about them yet. The National Geographic says they were “a sister group of the Neanderthals, splitting from a common ancestor some 390,000 years ago. They likely lived until around 40,000 years ago, around the time when Neanderthals were also starting to fade away.”

This is the first evidence that the two groups interbred and raises the possibility that the lost groups weren’t wiped out by conflict or competition with modern humans, who arrived in Eurasia some 60,000 years ago,  but absorbed into the population.

Department of Lucrative Language: Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of the Lloyds Banking Group, announced that “our differentiated, customer-focused business model continues to deliver with our multi brand, multi channel approach, cost leadership, low risk positioning, investment capacity and execution capabilities positioning us well for sustainable success in a digital world.”

He gets paid £6.4 million a year to say stuff like that.

Department of Modern Royalty: Once upon a time, a dispute over royal succession would’ve ended up on the battlefield or with a nice, quiet assassination. Today, someone who thinks he was cheated him out of Monaco’s throne is suing France for 351 million euros. The switch from one branch of the Grimaldi family to another took place in 1911, and France was, in fact, involved. 

Louis Jean Raymond Marie de Vincens de Causans said, “I want the truth to come out and this injustice perpetrated by France on my family to be put right.”

And, incidentally, he wants 351 million euros. And a few extra names, because six doesn’t seem like enough for someone of his caliber.

Department of Police Being Soft on Crime: The German police rescued a man who was being chased by a baby squirrel. When the police arrived, the man was being chased down the street, but the chase ended with the squirrel suddenly lying down and going to sleep.

Police officer Christina Krenz said that “squirrels that have lost their mothers look for a replacement and then focus on one person.”

The squirrel was taken into custody and instead of being charged is now a police mascot. It’s going to grow up thinking this sort of thing is acceptable behavior.

Department of Terrorist Threats: A man traveling from Belfast to London to see his father, who was starting treatment for cancer, missed his flight when airport security refused to let him take his wheelchair repair kit on the flight. The toolkit had some wrenches (called spanners in Britain), some spare wheel nuts, and medicine for diabetes.

When he challenged security over it, saying he needed the tools in case his wheels broke and so he could adjust his chair to fit into the car he’d rented on the other end,  they said the wrenches could be used to “dismantle the plane.”

I didn’t make that up.

Okay, how about if the cabin crew looked after the toolkit until he left the plane?

Nope.

Could it go with the luggage?

Sorry, there was no time for that.

His partner publicized the incident on social media, and that had no connection to the apology he later received from the airport. The airport has agreed to make a donation to a disability charity, which is nice but doesn’t strike me as being anywhere close to enough.

I admit, I’m not sure what would be.

The Clameur de Haro and the legacy of feudalism

In August, Rosie Henderson, a douzainer in Guernsey–that’s an elected official–invoked a medieval law, the Clameur de Haro, to stop a roadwork project that she felt would “endanger pedestrians and motorists alike.” Invoking the law involved going down on one knee on the roadworks site, clasping her hands, and in the presence of two witnesses saying, “ ‘Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide mon Prince, on me fait tort.”

Then the claim had to be registered in court, which (this being Guernsey) is called the Greffe.

The words of the clameur translate to “Haro! Haro! Haro! [That doesn’t seem to translate.] Come to my aid, my prince, I have been wronged.” The prince in question is thought to be Rollo, the first Viking ruler of Normandy (roughly 860 to 930 C.E., or A.D. if you prefer). He was also called Rolf and as an adult became too heavy for any horse to carry. So what with him being long since dead and all, even if he was likely to help anyone he couldn’t be expected to get there in a hurry.

Semi-relevant photo: A wild pony on the cliffs in Cornwall. This is one of the many horses Rolf (or Rollo, if you like) couldn’t ride. Not just because he was too heavy but because by the time this horse was born he was too dead.

I’m tempted to explain this business of calling on a long-dead, horseless prince (or duke–there’s no record of him using either title, or any at all) by saying that tradition’s a powerful force in Britain, but we’re talking about Guernsey, which isn’t Britain. We’ll dive down the rabbit hole of the island’s relationship with Britain about midway through the post, but for now knowing that Guernsey isn’t Britain is enough and we’ll skitter on before anyone has a chance to ask questions.  

In one version of the way clameur works, the complainant, known as the criant, also has to invoke the Lord’s Prayer. Other explanations don’t mention that. If you plan on clameur-ing, you might want to do the Lord’s Prayer part just to be safe, although what invoke means in this context isn’t clear–or at least it isn’t clear to me. Do you recite it? Do you mention it? Do you remind the people around you of its existence? Whatever you do, I recommend doing it once in English and once in French, because I’m not sure which language you’re supposed to be working in. Or in ‎Guernésiais, the regional language, which 2% of the population speaks fluently and 3% understands. (That could be 3% on top of 2% or it might include it. Does it really matter?)

Citizen’s Advice recommends getting legal advice before messing around with the clameur, so if you’re wise (not to mention well funded) you’ll have someone who can lead you through the details.

As soon as the amateur dramatics are out of the way, building work has to stop until the court decides whether you’ve been wronged. Assuming, of course, that the people on the building site understand what you’re doing and don’t just shrug you off as some random nutburger.

If the work doesn’t stop, the person being asked to stop it risks a fine. The person invoking the clameur also risks a fine if they’re found to have raised it incorrectly. The injunction lasts a year and a day, just like the curses and assorted other spells that we find in fairy tales.

The clameur dates back to the tenth century and works only in Guernsey and Jersey, a.k.a. the Channel Islands. It was meant to work as an injunction when someone’s possession of a piece of land was interfered with, which is why the Greff threw out Henderson’s plea the next day: The land is owned by the state and the clameur is only applicable to land (or as the court put it, an immovable object) in the criant’s posssession.

Henderson argued that the state holds the land for the people. She is, inarguably, a person, so it’s a fair argument even if it didn’t win. 

New as the clameur is to me, it seems to be old news in Guernsey and Jersey. It even has its own website, which comes with its own warning, “Content researched from historic texts. May contain errors or opinions contrary to legal practice of judgment and case law. . . . For research only. Seek legal advice from advocates.”

It may also contain peanuts. People with allergies to either nuts or the law should consult a physician before opening.

While they’re doing that, why don’t the rest of us trace this bit of weirdness back in time? Because some things can’t be understood any other way. Or to rephrase that, it’s time to dive down the rabbit hole I mentioned earlier.

We’ll start in medieval times. The Channel Islands are a part of Normandy, which makes a kind of geographical sense. They’re 20 miles off the French coast, so if they’re going to belong to anyone other than themselves, they might as well be assigned there.

Then 1066 rolls around and the TV flashes a reminder to William the Conqueror (a.k.a. William the Bastard) that the show he’s been waiting for is about to begin: It’s time to invade England. He invades and becomes King of England, and since (as Duke of Normandy) he already owns Guernsey and Jersey, they’re now possessions of the English crown. And of the Norman duke, who’s the same person.

It takes some work for a modern brain to accommodate the idea that a person and a state aren’t separate things at this point, and that the English king and the Norman duke are the same guy. In case you’re having trouble with this, allow me to make it worse: The current queen reigns over the Channel Islands as the queen but is also their duke. Channel Islands royalists will toast her as “the queen our duke.”

Only they’ll capitalize both queen and duke.

They may or may not be sober when they do that. I don’t know much about toasts.

Between 1204 and 1214, King John (that’s of England) lost control of his lands in northern France but kept control of the Channel Islands. In 1259, this was formalized in the Treaty of Paris: England gave up its claim to any land in France and France gave up its claim to the Channel Islands. The Islands, however, continued to be feudal possessions of the English king and were never absorbed into England–or into its successor kingdoms, Great Britain and the United Kingdom.

The treaty didn’t keep England and France from continuing to fight over them, but let’s not get into that level of detail.

Because the islands weren’t absorbed into England, they kept some of their customary Norman law while both England and France moved on (although for all I know England  has other thousand-year-old laws, unrepealed and unused, on its books).

The islands have their own parliaments and responsibility for their own finances, although they’re not constitutionally independent. What, you ask (or probably should ask), does that mean? It’s a good question, to which you’re not likely to find get a good answer because the government(s) admit(s) that it’s murky.

According to the Ministry of Justice,” the Guardian writes in a desperate effort to make sense of the situation, “ ‘the constitutional relationship between the Islands and the UK is the outcome of historical processes, and accepted practice. . . . The most recent statement of the relationship between the UK and the islands is found in the Kilbrandon Report. It acknowledged that there were areas of uncertainty in the existing relationship and that the relationship was complex. It did not try to draw up a fully authoritative statement.’ “

In other words, after almost a thousand years, we’re still trying to figure it out.

The U.K. is responsible for the islands’ defense and for international relations.  The islands have their own flags and print their own version of the pound. Scotland prints its own pound as well, and you meet various degrees of disapproval when you spend them in England, although they’re legal tender. All Scottish pounds spent south of the border are sent back to Scotland by way of a fleet of carts pulled by rottweilers, and all English notes spent in Scotland are sent south by return dog, so that the only notes given as change in either nation are the geographically correct ones. It’s anyone’s guess how much it costs, in both cash and dog food, to do this.

I shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Someone’s going to believe that bit about the dogs. Anyway, we weren’t talking about Scotland. Could we please stay on track here?

When Britain joined the European Union, the Channel Islands didn’t, but they did join the E.U. customs territory. Any citizen of the islands is a British citizen and, since Britain is (at the moment and for at least the next twenty minutes) part of the E.U., is also a European citizen. But only citizens with close family ties to the U.K. have the right of free movement within the European Union.

If you’re not confused yet, you’re not following this. And it gets worse:

Under the UK Interpretation Act 1978, the Channel Islands are deemed to be part of the British Islands, not to be confused with the British Isles. For the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981, the ‘British Islands’ include the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland), the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, taken together, unless the context otherwise requires.”

In other words, the British Isles and the British Islands are two different things. Unless the context demands that they all get up and run around the chairs until the music stops, at which point the one who doesn’t find a chair is out. If, however, it speaks Norman French it can call on a long-dead prince, who may actually be a duke, to bring an extra chair and the game stops until he does. Which takes a while, because he can’t ride a horse.

What’s the economy of the Channel Islands based on? Tourism’s a major industry, but in the 1960s the islands reinvented themselves as an offshore financial center, which both are and aren’t regulated by Britain but aren’t regulated by the E.U. We’ll skip lightly over the claims that they’re money laundering centers–goodness gracious, who could believe such a thing anyway?–and say that after some maneuvering a 2018  anti-money laundering bill that required British overseas territories to publish a list of company owners registered there managed, at the last minute, to exclude the Channel Islands. Much (I have to assume) to the relief of the Channel Islands, or at least those with money planted there invisibly. 

For the sake of simplicity (you have no idea how much more complicated this could get) and because they’re the political subdivisions, I’ve been talking about the Channel Islands as Guernsey (population 63,026) and Jersey (population 100,080), but a few other inhabited islands and some uninhabited ones are part of the package: Alderney (population 2,000), Sark (population 600), Herm (population 60), Jethou (population 3), and Brecqhou (population not given).

The absence of population numbers for Brecqhou may or may not have something to do with it being privately owned (you want to talk about feudal) by twin brothers, and our tour of the rabbit hole isn’t complete without a quick glimpse of the place.

Since 1993 . . .  Brecqhou has been owned by the Barclay brothers, the co-owners of The Daily Telegraph newspaper and former co-owners of The Scotsman. The brothers bought the island for £2.3 million in September 1993. . . . Since the purchase the Barclays have been in several legal disputes with the government of Sark, and have expressed a desire to make Brecqhou politically independent from Sark. They drive cars on the island, and have a helicopter, both of which are banned under Sark law.”

The argument about Brecqhou’s independence or otherwise from Sark has to be based on feudal law and precedent–things like seigneurial rights and fiefdoms and letters of patent.

In 2008, the island held its first election after 400 years of feudal rule, and the Independent describes the brothers’ relationship with the island’s elected representatives as one of simmering tensions.

The brothers complained that there was no true democracy on Sark. Their opponents claimed the brothers wanted to “turn the island into a personal tax haven through propaganda and coercion.” The whole thing ended up in (a U.K.) court and in 2014 the twins lost. A House of Commons committee reported, that same year, that the tension between the brothers and the elected government “threatened to blight” the island’s future.

Our tour ends here. It’s already gone on longer than I meant it to. You leave the rabbit hole by way of the gift shop–a joke that’s gone stale in Britain but that the National Trust reminds us regularly hasn’t yet gone out of date. Apologies for not coming up with something fresher.