What people really want to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The search engines have been kind lately, washing all manner of collector’s items onto my shores. So let’s see what people want to know about Britain.

But first, for the sake of clarity: It’s in the nature of search engines to wash people to places they’ll never visit again, so I trust I’m not insulting anyone by being just a touch a wise-ass about their question. If I am, take heart from knowing that at this very minute someone somewhere else is making fun of the questions I left behind.

 

Irrelevant photo: A tree. Pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds. Also, incidentally, a repeat, since I forgot to toss in a photo until the last minute. But who’ll notice?

The endless search for knowledge about Britain

why is two fingers an insult in britain

Why is anything an insult? It all has to do with intent, and with the conviction behind the words or gesture. If you can pull together enough toxin, you can insult someone by calling them a fish fry, but it’ll be more powerful if the weight of social agreement says that fish fry is an  insult, or that you’re part of a category of people who can be freely insulted. We’re social creatures, and it makes us vulnerable to hostility from our fellow humans. Even if we don’t share the assumptions their insults are based on, they get to us.

Take the word fat. These days it’s an insult, but only because of the culture’s belief that thin in good. At different times and in assorted cultures, being fat was good. It was healthy, it was sexy, it meant you were rich, or at least solvent. Being skinny? That was the insult. 

As for the two-finger insult, it’s not clear why it’s an insult. The generally accepted explanation is generally accepted to be bullshit. It’s an insult because it’s an insult. And because it’s understood as one.  

sticking two fingers up as a greeting in different cultures

As a general rule, if you’re wandering around a culture you don’t understand, don’t try out a bunch of random hand signals to see if one of them turns out to be a greeting. I can’t prove this, but (humans being what we are) I’m pretty sure the world contains a lot more insulting hand signals than friendly ones. That would mean that, the odds are against your coming up with anything friendly.

british understatement

I keep getting these questions, and in the midst of the Brexit uproar it finally hit me: British understatement? How did the country ever get a reputation for that? MPs in the House of Commons bray and roar at each other and call it debate. The Brexit mayhem has included a prime minister accusing the opposition of surrender at a time when the country isn’t at war. The word betrayal is flying around often enough to pierce the serenest citizenly moment. So understatement? What would happen in public life if the country’s reputation rested on over-reaction? 

Which brings us to the next question.

brexit forgetting evrything you blieved in

Yes, a lot of people have done that.

And that takes us to the next question.

why is britain so great

Well, it invented the scone. And the shortbread, thank you very much. Not to mention the two-finger insult, Brexit, and understatement. If I’d done any of those things–.

No, if I’d done the first two things, believe me, I’d brag about it. In an understated sort of way, and since I’m American no one would expect that.

It’s also managed to con a lot of people into thinking that a geographical description is a statement about its general wonderfulness. 

cuntegrope

Well, of course this question found its way to me. I attract strange questions. It’s part of my understated charm.

I have a vague memory of writing about British street names at one point, and Cuntegrope Alley, or something along those lines, came into the discussion. Along with an Isis street, alley, or place, named after a nearby river and causing no end of trouble for the residents in these twitchy days.

was the uk always called the uk

No. Once upon a time, it wasn’t called anything. No one who used language lived here–or anywhere else. Then people came. We’ll never know what they called it, but the place wasn’t united and it wasn’t a kingdom, and English hadn’t been invented, so almost surely something else. Besides, the area we’re talking about had no reason to think of itself as a single country.

After a while other people came and called it other things. We’ll speed this up because I’m getting bored. The place has been called a lot of things, and oddly enough it still is, with varying degrees of formality: Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom. Check back with us in a decade or two and we’ll let you know if we’re still using the word united.

enclosure movement 16th century

Holy shit. This is a sensible question. It’s more than a little frightening to find myself passing as a source for genuine information. I do everything I can to keep this mess accurate–really, I do–but I’m no historian, and posting something weekly means my research is necessarily shallow, even when it’s wide. Cross your fingers for me, folks. Or wish me luck. Or wish the rest of the world luck. I do my best. Let’s hope it works.

isuk road are nartow

Probable translation: Is UK road are narrow. 

No. In most places, they’re wide enough for two conjugations of the same verb to pass each other with barely a scrape.

can i drive a ninefoot wide vehicle on british roads?

That’ll depend in part on how well you drive.And on where you plan to find a 9’-wide vehicle. A Hummer (the widest thing I could find in a short and uninteresting search, although I’ve never seen one in Britain) is roughly seven feet wide. If we jump out of the car category–you did say “vehicle,” not “car”–your standard semi (called an articulated lorry here) is 8’ 4” wide, plus a few decimal points. I’ve seen them squeeze through amazingly tight slots, and one of them did it backwards. 

On the other hand, periodically one or another of them gets stuck between two houses that are less than 8’ 4” wide. And shows up in the papers.

If you’re holding out for the full 9’, though, you could load a prefab houses on the trailer. They’re wide enough to travel with escorts carrying  Wide Load signs. 

Can we assume you have a license to drive one of these things?

photo of wooden floor in tudor times

Taken with an actual Tudor camera, please. Post in the comments section. Reward offered.

photos of british female wigs

Wigs are not, strictly speaking, either male or female. They reproduce asexually.

what are brussel sprouts called in britain

Brussels sprouts. The real question is what they’re called in Brussels.

 

Questions using the U.S. as a reference point

american in britain “legally obliged” brought weather with you talk about weather

Americans are not legally obliged to bring their own weather to Britain. Even in its most nationalist and mean-spirited phases, the country invites visitors and immigrants alike to share in whatever weather the country has going–all the more so because the British generally figure that anything the weather offers will be terrible. So why not share?

Neither are the British legally obliged to say anything about Americans having brought the weather with them, although the occasional Briton may fall back on that old joke because she or he can’t think of anything else to say. 

I have a hunch–and I can’t support this with anything like data–that the joke about bringing the weather with you is usually made by men. As always, I’d love to know if I’m completely wrong about that.

The British are also not legally obliged to talk about the weather. That would be like passing a law requiring everyone to respect gravity. 

Visiting Americans are welcome to talk about the weather, but they’re not legally obliged to either.

As always, I hope I’ve been able to clarify things. I do think it’s good when we learn about each other’s cultures.

alcohol content us vs uk

Are we talking about the alcohol content of the people? At what time of day? Do we exclude children under the age of five? Or is that the alcohol content of the countries themselves? The first question’s tough, but I don’t know how to even approach the second one. The land–the rock and soil and so forth–I think we can safely exclude. The water–or at least the sewage–may show some second-hand alcohol content. I’m not sure what’s left once the body processes it. I know it shows traces of cocaine, estrogen, antibiotics, and other fun stuff. 

Sorry. I don’t think I’m the right person to answer this.

what do brits really think of americans?

Really, really think of Americans? You mean, when they’re not being understated or hopelessly polite? I could gather up a random patchwork of things people have told me and pretend they stand for what one entire country thinks of another one, but the real question is why you care. I can’t help wondering if this is a particularly American form of paranoia –a sense that the world beyond the borders is hostile territory. 

Does any other group of people worry as much about what other nationalities think of them as Americans do? If anyone has any experience with this, I’d love to hear from you. 

what brits like about americans

  1. Our accents.
  2. The chance to make fun of our accents. In the kindest possible way.
  3. Our brownies.

 

Questions about the U.S.

why does america have saloon doors on toilets

Because there’s no feeling like swaggering out of the toilet cubicle with your jeans newly re-buttoned and your hands on your six-guns, ready to shoot everyone washing their hands at the sinks. 

Yeah, I watched too many westerns as a kid. The person asking the question did too. May parents warned me.

do canadians talk louder thena americans

No.

how do us mailboxes work

They’re magical. You drop your letter in. Someone who works for the post office comes along and takes it out, along with all its newfound friends and acquaintances, and delivers it to the post office, where someone asks where it wants to go and sends it on its way.. 

What an amazing system.

 

Mysteries

what do brits think.of pulisic / what nationality is gulibion

I thought these were both typos, but it turns out they’re questions about sports figures. I have a severe sports allergy and have no idea how either question got here. 

The Peasants’ Revolt: England, 1381

Last week, we scrambled through the mud of medieval England meeting the serfs. Or as they were also called, the villeins. You will, of course, remember every word I wrote, which is good because I don’t and someone should take the trouble. 

We ended, as any good miniseries does, on a cliffhanger: Individual serfs–by no means all of them, but some–were challenging their place in the system, trying to prove in court that they weren’t serfs.  When that starts to happen with any consistency, I claimed (and, of course, I know these things), it’s a sign that the system’s starting to crack. An increasing number of people didn’t fit into the old slots, but society was doing its damnedest to keep them stuffed in there. 

Obviously relevant photo. This is Fast Eddie, free cat of this village. He is relevant to everything that matters.

In The English Rebel, David Horspool says that before democracy (or anything that passed for it) wandered onto the scene, popular rebellions seemed to pop out of nowhere. The country’s rulers knew next to nothing about the people they ruled, and the ruled had no way to make their voices heard. Self-preservation advised them to keep their opinions to their unworthy and unwashed selves. So basically there were no tea leaves for the experts to read. Tea hadn’t been imported from Asia yet anyway.

Still, there were hints for anyone who knew how to read them. One of them was those scattered people going to court to prove they weren’t villeins. 

Another was—. Well, let’s back up a second. The Black Death had swept through the country, leaving a labor shortage. That happens when, oh, maybe a third of a country’s population dies. And farm laborers and artisans noticed that friends and co-workers were missing. How could they not? 

So what did they do? They took off, looking for better pay, better work, a breath or two of free air. Or they stayed put and tried to get a better deal where they were.

If you ruled the country, you could take those as hints or you could follow the example of those wise those caring people who actually did rule the place and pass the 1351 Statute of Labourers, freezing wages, restricting movement, and punishing offenders by, variously, putting them in the stocks, fining them, and tossing them in jail. And doing twice as much of it if they broke the law again.

It’s worth mentioning that while wages were frozen, prices were rising.

The statute’s goal was to contain the “malice of servants,” which was doing “great damage of the great men, and impoverishing of all the said commonalty.” All you laborers, back in your uncomfortable little slots. The stability of the entire society depends on you shutting up and acting like you’re making that space work for you.

Interestingly enough, the statute also covered unbeneficed priests–priests who didn’t have a church appointment, which meant they didn’t get the income a church appointment brought with it. I haven’t found any information on why the statute applied to them or how it affected them. Maybe unbeneficed priests were considered the laborers of the church and had their pay fixed along with everyone else’s. I might as well confess that I didn’t read the full text of the statute. It listed so many job categories–hostelers, harbergers, workmen, servants, dairymaids,tailors, tawers of leather, and assorted others–that I got too dizzy to read on. 

But never mind that. Can I offer you a warning instead, just in case you wake up some morning and find you’re the ruler of a wildly unequal society (and aren’t we lucky not to live in a world where they’re easy to find)? Be careful about letting the everyday poor make common cause with people whose education has set them up to nurture an expectation or three. Because when those two get together, they make an explosive combination, and unbeneficed priests (along with artisans) were strongly represented in the Peasants’ Revolt, even though it’s still called the Peasants’ Revolt, not the Peasants’, Artisans’, and Unbeneficed Priests’ Revolt. 

The people in charge of England at the time not only didn’t have the advantage of my advice, they didn’t see people going in search of higher pay as a hint of trouble to come. So they followed up on the Statute of Labourers by introducing poll taxes, which were taxes on “each person in the land, both male and female.” 

Isn’t it nice to see women mentioned for a change? 

The phrase poll tax comes from middle English. Poll meant head. If you had a head, it was taxed. Or it was if you’d had it long enough, because the tax did have a minimum age limit. It’s unseemly to tax newborns.

Poll taxes were imposed in 1377, 1379, and 1380, and the last one triggered the rebellion–or it helped to, in a last-straw kind of way. It was a flat tax–the richest and the poorest had to pay the same amount: a shilling from everyone above the age of fifteen. That was three times the amount of the poll tax that came before it.

To translate that, with complete accuracy, into modern terms, a shilling was a shitload of money. Or it was if you were poor. So if you couldn’t scratch up a shilling, you could pay by handing over your tools, your seeds, your cow. And if it left you unable to feed your family, maybe you should have thought it through before you grew such an expensive head.

Why all the taxes? Because England was in the middle of the Hundred Years War with France. (How do you respond to a disaster like the Black Death? Why, you keep right on fighting an endless war.) England was more or less always at war with France. Let’s not go into the reasons. It was like smoking: one of those habits that’s hard to give up. And like smoking, it was an expensive habit. That’s why all the taxes.

In response to the third tax, 450,000 people magically disappeared from the record books and the government appointed a commission to find them and collect all those missing shillings, one by one by one. In three Essex villages, Fobbing, Cottingham, and Stanford-le-Hope, a royal commissioner ran into trouble. A hundred or so people gathered, refused to pay, and when he tried to have them arrested ran him out of town.

Then they “went to the woods for fear of his malice,” according to a contemporary chronicler. By the time another commission came to arrest them, they’d gone from town to town, gathering support. The commission thought better of the job and left the rebels in control of the county–some 50,000 of them according to a contemporary estimate, although you might want to think twice before you take medieval numbers seriously. It’s better to think of that as a poetic way to say “a lot of people.”

The rebels sent letters to Kent, Suffolk, and Norfolk, calling on people to rise with them, and they may have been written by John Ball, so let’s take a minute to talk about him. He was a priest who for some time had been preaching the coming of a classless society and backing up his argument by drawing on the same religion that normally backed up the existing class hierarchy. 

“When Adam dalf and Eve span,” he preached, “who was then a gentleman?” 

Dalf? That’s means  dug, although I’ve usually seen it as delved. Span means spun

Ball was excommunicated in 1366 but went right on preaching, although not in churches anymore. He preached in churchyards and open marketplaces, and every so often he was thrown in jail for it.

Even though being excommunicated meant people weren’t supposed to listen to him, it didn’t seem to have dented his popularity. When the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, he had enough of a reputation that the rebels broke him out of Maidstone Prison and he joined them.

And now, instead of going backward let’s take a stop to one side:

In Kent, the rebellion was sparked not by the tax but by a dispute over whether or not a local man was a villein. It was one of those court cases I mentioned earlier, although I can’t tell you why this particular one sparked the rebellion instead of half a dozen others. But it did and local rebels seized the local castle. After that, some half of the rebels said, “Job done,” and went home, but the other half stuck around to burn records “so that once the memory of ancient customs had been wiped out their lords would be completely unable to vindicate their rights over them.” 

Burning the records seems to have marked a turning point in the rebellion. It took on a larger aim, and it’s at this point that Wat Tyler emerged as a leader. Not much is known about him. He might have fought in France–which also says he might not have. We’re doing well to have his name.

It’s hard to put all this together in any sort of coherent narrative. The chroniclers of the time were universally hostile to the uprising, and the rebels didn’t leave much in the way of documents. Their letters calling for risings are an exception, and they’re rich in imagery but light on concrete detail. In modern English, part of one says, “John the Miller hath ground small, small, small / The King’s son of heaven shall pay for all.”

If you’re going to invite me to a local uprising, could you please be more specific? I appreciate the poetry and all, but I’m a who-what-when-where-how-and-why kind of person. But the people who received the letters must have understood, because rebels gathered from across the southeast. One strand of rebels headed to Canterbury, where they demanded that the monks elect a new archbishop. They also executed a few folks, who were handed over to them by “the people.”

Which people? Dunno. How enthusiastically or unwillingly did they hand them over? Dunno that either.

Eventually the various groups of rebels gathered outside London, although other parts of the country also saw uprisings. Chroniclers of the time estimate the London group at 100,000. Modern historians, who are more accurate but nowhere near as much fun, guess the number at 10,000, but that was still bigger than most armies of the time and way the hell more than the government could call up at short notice.

England had no standing army at this point, remember. Or–well, why should you remember? They didn’t. New information. If they wanted an army, they called up aristocratic warriors, and they called up the armed free men under them and little by little an army gathered itself. 

Unless, as occasionally happened, it didn’t. But even at its best, it took time, so the rebels had the advantage.

The rebels included free and unfree peasants, tradesmen, laborers, unbeneficed priests, artisans, and some minor gentry, including a knight or two. Their enemy–as they saw it–was the king’s government and advisers, not the king himself. They were loyal to the king. 

Across the Thames from London, they attacked the Marshalsea prison, setting debtors and felons loose. They attacked the archbishop’s manor, where they burned more records. Then guards opened both London Bridge and the city walls to them, either out of fear or sympathy–we’ll never know. 

Inside the city, the rebels were violent but well focused, and they were joined by “the commons of London.” They opened more prisons and burned the much-hated John of Guant’s Savoy Palace without looting it. In the lawyers’ section of the city, the Temple, they destroyed both property and records, beheading eighteen individuals who were targeted for reasons that, as far as I’ve been able to find out, are lost to history. 

Some sources say the violence was more widespread and included slaughter of Flemish residents. When in doubt or anger, blame the immigrants. The point Horspool makes, though, isn’t that the rebels were saints but that they had effective leadership. This wasn’t simple rioting, it kept a political focus. 

The King–Richard, in case you care, who was all of fourteen–and his advisers hied their asses to the Tower of London, which had (and still has) its own set of walls. There his advisers went into a collective meltdown and couldn’t come up with any advice to offer their kinglet. It was the kid who decided to talk with the rebels. 

Which he did, at Mile End, while a few rebels somehow got into the Tower and executed a handful men they particularly hated, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Well, they had called for him to be replaced.

Meanwhile, out at Mile End, the rebels presented their demands to the king: “that henceforward no man should be a serf nor make homage nor any type of service to any lord, but should give four pense for an acre of land. They also asked that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant.” 

The king said, “Yup, sounds fine to me,” and the meeting broke up. The killing in London continued that day and the next. 

Richard called the rebels to meet again and spoke with Wat Tyler, who (apparently; remember, we’re getting the story from a limited range of chroniclers who weren’t journalists) again presented their demands, expanding them to include an end to outlawing, the dividing up of Church goods, allowing provision for the clergy, and no lordship except for the king’s. 

Again the king agreed and issued pardons and charters of manumission–a way of releasing people from serfdom. 

Then the mayor of London tried to arrest Tyler, who stabbed him through his armor. The mayor stabber Tyler in the neck, someone else in the king’s entourage ran him through, and Tyler fell off his horse and called on his followers to avenge him.

How did everybody stab everybody when they were on horseback? No idea. Maybe we’re talking about swords, not knives. Maybe they were closer than I imagine them. Again, we’re getting the story from medieval chroniclers and they weren’t journalists. For all I know it’s not hard to stab someone when everyone’s on horseback. I have a shocking lack of experience with this.

The rebels, in spite of their overwhelming numbers, hesitated. This was the king–the person they’d pledged their loyalty to. The good guy who was surrounded by bad counselors.

Or they didn’t hesitate but drew their bows. As usual, accounts differ. The most common one is that Richard rode toward the rebels, calling that he would be their captain and leader, renewing his promise of freedom and pardons.

Whatever the exact events were, the rebellion was effectively over.

The charters of freedom were promptly forgotten. Rebel leaders were executed. John Ball was hung, drawn, and quartered, and his assorted body parts set outside London’s walls. I mention that in case you’re inclined to focus on the rebels’ violence. It was far from one sided. When the government finally gathered up an army, it marched into Essex, where there was still some resistance, and slaughtered five hundred rebels and killed a hundred more later on. Or some other large numbers, since we’ve agreed that any number over one is unreliable.

And the king’s promise? It disappeared without leaving so much as a puff of smoke behind. He now told rebel envoys, “You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live and, by God’s grace, rule over the realm, we will strive . . . to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity.” 

The Statute of Labourers was reinforced in the next few decades. England never formally abolished serfdom. It died out, but slowly.

On the other hand, no one tried to impose any more poll taxes. And, as these things tend to do, the legend of the rebellion lingers on, often in romanticized form.

Life at the bottom of the heap in medieval England

Let’s visit the England of the middle ages. 

Why should we do that? Because making the occasional visit to the past is good for us. Finish your spinach and we’ll be ready to go. 

Medieval England was shamelessly hierarchical and society was generally thought of as being divided into three parts. We’ll start at the top, since they would have: The clergy were in charge of people’s spiritual wellbeing. This probably meant telling them all the ways and reasons they could end up in hell, but I don’t have a source for that, I’m just guessing. The clergy also prayed, which was considered a contribution to society.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

The warriors–for which you can read the aristocracy, upper and lower–fought when they were called on. Or at least they were expected to. If you rummage around in all the loose bits of history that no one bothered to file, you’ll find times when they were called on and said, “Sorry, I’m washing my hair right now.” That belongs in a different tale, but it explains why “at least they were expected to” snuck in at the top of the paragraph. 

Finally, at the bottom of society, the peasants, the laborers, and the and-so-forths kept everyone fed and housed to and and-so-forth’d, and they did whatever the other two groups told them to, because who were they to ask questions or have ideas of their own? 

And these divisions were sanctified by religion, which permeated every aspect of life. They would have been almost as self-evident as the knowledge that if you drop things they fall.

Hang onto the almost from that last sentence. This is a two-post visit and we’ll need it when we get to next week’s section.

In English Society in the Later Middle Ages, Maurice Keen—. 

But I need to interrupt myself here so I can apologize. We’ll be short on links today; I’m working largely from books. You remember books? They’re what came before pixels. 

Keen quotes the fifteenth-century Order of Chivalry, which said, “To the knight it sufficeth not that he be given the best arms and the best beast, but also that he be given seignory,” which Keen translates as lordship over lesser men. 

That includes women, of course. Look inside any medieval man and you’ll notice flocks of tiny, unacknowledged, and unquestioning women, cooking the food and washing someone else’s dirty linen. Not to mention sewing, spinning, planting, winnowing, weeding, brewing the ale, and looking after the chickens and cows. And if the family was high enough up on the social scale, embroidering.

Funny how they could do all that and still not be noticeable. I’m delighted that in our happy time we’ve left injustice, hierarchy, and inequality in the past. 

Giving us a wider glimpse of society, Master Ralph Acton wrote, “When God could have made all men strong, wise and rich, he was unwilling to do so. . . . He willed these men to be strong and healthy, wise or rich, that they might save their own souls by helping others through love of them: those others he willed to be weak or foolish or in want, that they might save their souls by enduring hardship in patience. Hence God says, the poor ye shall always have with you.”

Who was Master Ralph Acton? Possibly a fourteenth-century scribe. Also possibly somebody who didn’t exist, in which case we don’t know who wrote that. But the writings themselves do exist, and for our purposes that’s good enough. They reminded the reader that society’s divisions were created by god, so all its inequalities were for the best. 

Occasionally somebody would notice that the three-part division was a little rough and would work out a more detailed picture. The twelfth-century John of Salisbury structured society as a human body. The priesthood was the soul, the king was the head, the warriors were the hands, the laborers and craftspeople were the feet.

And the people who collected taxes? They were the intestines. 

Did he notice the implications of that? Your guess is as good as mine, and mine is that he did. Throughout history, tax collectors haven’t managed to collect much love.

John’s system included a few more body parts, but by now we have enough.

In the countryside, most people were villeins–peasants bound to the lord. And now that we’ve introduced them, to hell with the hierarchy, they’re the people we’re going to spend our time with. In 1290, they made up 60% of the rural population–or to be more accurate, of the rural population living on arable land. They weren’t just bonded to a lord, they were also bound to the land itself. Some definitions draw a line between a serf and a villein. Others count them as the same thing. Let’s not split hairs. We’re using the terms interchangeably here.

And by we, of course, I mean I

Villein, for all you word hounds out there, is the origin of the modern word villain. Not because the villeins were evil but because they were thought of (not by themselves, of course, but by the people who counted themselves as their betters) as uncouth in “mind and manners.” From there, it’s a short distance to being no good at all–a complete villain. 

The key to villeinage was the land. If the lord sold the land, the villeins went with it. But from about 1200 on, he (and lords had a habit of being he’s, although they could also be churches, monasteries, convents, or the very occasional she)–. Let’s start that over: After roughly 1200, he couldn’t just pick them up and sell them separately from the land. The kind of slavery that saw people bought and sold outright was common in Anglo-Saxon England–that’s before 1066, when the Normans stomped in and conquered the place–but became less common afterward. You can mark the shift as starting when William the Conqueror (the big, bad Head Norman himself) imposed a ban on selling slaves to other countries. 

It’s not clear why the shift took place. Morality might have driven it, but it wouldn’t have hurt that serfdom accomplished pretty much the same thing as slavery. And riding herd on villeins might have been easier than riding herd on slaves. 

So villeins weren’t free, but they weren’t exactly slaves either.

At the heart of the feudal system was the manor, which was run by the lord. Each manor had its own rules governing the relationship between lord and villein, and some were harsher than others. The tenants knew the rules as well as the lords did, since although the rules favored the lords heavily, they kept him from having complete, arbitrary control over their lives, leaving him only partial, semi-arbitrary control. 

Now let’s toss in another source, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages, by Martyn Whittock. 

The manor was made up of (1) desmesne land, which was farmed for the lord’s benefit; (2) land farmed by villeins, who paid for it by, among other things, farming the demesne; (3) land farmed by free tenants, who paid their rent in cash; and (4) common land, used by tenants in carefully defined ways. 

Villeins owed the lord a set amount of service, and the lord had the right to decide what services he wanted from them during that time. On one estate in the twelfth century, villeins owed five days a week. They might also owe a portion of their crops and animals, and they might owe cash on top of that. 

Villeins couldn’t marry or sell their property without the lord’s permission. They might owe tallages (unpredictable amounts of money that the lord could claim), wood silver (a fee for access to the lord’s woods), boon work (extra services at plowing and harvest times, just when the tenant’s own land needed the most work but who cared about that?), and heriot (the family’s best animal being owed to the lord when the tenant died). They might have to grind their grain at the lord’s mill, at the lord’s price. They might have to pay a fine for having taken part in some forbidden sexual activity–and any imaginative sexual activity was forbidden, along with a lot of activities that didn’t take much imagination. (The link there is to an earlier post on the subject.)

Surprise, surprise, this particular fine fell on women more often than on men. Suddenly they were noticeable.

The list goes on, but you get the picture. 

Villeins could and often did pay a cash rent as a substitute for service. Basically, they were buying back their time. But that didn’t make them free. They were still villeins.

Most serfs could also make wills and buy and sell land if they paid for the privilege. They could be evicted, but until the enclosure movement came along that was rare. (Again, the link’s to an earlier post. The enclosure movement wanders in about halfway down.) The tendency was for tenancies to be passed from one generation to the next–for a fee. If you think of anything a villein might want to do as involving the lord’s permission and a fee, you won’t go far wrong. 

I said serfs couldn’t leave the land. I should have said they couldn’t leave it legally. If they ran away and managed to live in a town for a year and a day, they became free. It’s an odd loophole in the system, and I don’t know its origin. But if they were caught and returned, they were subject to the lord’s justice. There are records of serfs bound in chains to keep them from taking off again. 

The lord ran the manor court, which had the right to impose physical punishments or fines for any act that broke the rules of the manor. And, conveniently enough, any fines the court imposed went to the lord.

Yes, of course the manor courts were impartial and justice was served. I hate it when you get cynical.

Now let’s complicate the picture. Free tenants lived among villeins, in the same villages. Keen paints a picture of village life in which two hierarchies intertwined and people’s social status depended not just on whether they were free or bonded but also on their prosperity. And the two didn’t necessarily line up neatly. A free cottager could be desperately poor. A villein could be prosperous, although most weren’t. It all depended on how much land a person had. A small minority might have upwards of thirty acres. The poorest free cottagers might have no more than a garden and depend on working for others to keep themselves and their families fed.

Telling a free man (which may also mean a woman; I’m not sure) from one who wasn’t free was a complicated business, and it came up in court cases, since only free men could use the royal courts. Villeins were stuck in the (utterly impartial) manor courts. It also came up because people looked for all possible loopholes to so they could be ruled free.

And here you need a warning about health and safety. Or truth in advertising. Or something along those lines. I’m compressing a long time period into a short space. When you compress time, sometimes you get wine, sometimes you get spontaneous combustion, and sometimes you get inaccuracies. So keep in mind that the royal courts weren’t in existence for the whole medieval period, and that even once they sprouted out of the damp ground of medieval politics, they didn’t sit there unchanged until the country rang a huge bell and the medieval period ended. Like any mushroom or bit of government, the courts grew and changed. As did the conditions of rural life.

Now go have a glass of wine and try not to set anything on fire.

To establish whether a person was free, the courts looked at all the things a villein might owe his lord. Did he have a pay a fee to give his daughter in marriage? Did he have to show up a fixed number of days to work for the lord with no clue what work he was going to be doing? Did he pay tallage? If the answer was yes, a serf he was and a serf he remained.

An assortment of people challenged their status as bondsmen, but what they were challenging was their individual status, not the system of bondage itself. Still, when a fair number of individuals pop up and say, “I don’t belong in this category,” you can take that as a sign that the system’s beginning to crack: The old categories don’t fit the realities of life.

Which is probably a good place to tell you that next week we’ll watch the system sprout a big honkin’ crack. In other words, we’ll look at the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

I do love a good revolt.

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Anyone missing Brexit news should check out the Brexit Blog. It’s clearly written and to the point.

News from the fringes of Britain’s election: a midweek bonus post

Elections are serious business, and this one is especially serious, so let’s take you on a tour of its crazier fringes. 

The most important fringe is unraveling in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a London suburb where Boris Johnson, also known as Britain’s prime minister, is trying to keep his seat in parliament. At the last election, his majority was small–in the neighborhood of 5,000 votes. If he loses his seat but his party wins a majority in the Commons, it will have to find itself a new leader, he’ll have to find himself a new hobby, and the new leader will be the new prime minister. 

Johnson’s most serious challenge is from Labour, so we’ll skip that. We’ll also skip the Liberal Democrat, the Green Party candidate, and anyone else we’d have to take seriously.

The most interesting challenges come from Count Binface and Lord Buckethead. We’re looking at a particularly bitter fight there, because Count Binface used to be Lord Buckethead but had an unpleasant set-to on, as he put it, planet Copyright and had to reincarnate as Count Binface.  

Are you keeping up with this?

Neither am I. Lord Buckethead was–or, I guess, still is–a character in a 1984 movie, Hyperspace, that no one ever saw.  Or so says one newspaper. Another says he was a character in a 1980s Gremloids, another movie that no one ever saw.

Do we care which movie it was? No. Here at Notes, we’re completely nondenominational about bad movies. All we care about is that a comedian, Jon Harvey, appropriated the character.

Buckethead likes to run against prime ministers. He’s run against Theresa May, David Cameron, John Major, and Margaret Thatcher. I believe someone else was being Buckethead part that time, but do we really care about that? Probably not. 

This business of popping around the country to run against prime ministers is made possible by an election law that doesn’t demand that candidates live in the areas they hope to represent.   

The law also doesn’t make candidates use their real names in elections, and that’s a gift to those of us whose spirits need lifting in these dismal times. It doesn’t even make them define real. All they have to do is file papers and pay money. 

So the man who used to be Lord Buckethead is now running as Count Binface, but someone else is running–also in Uxbridge and et cetera–as Lord Buckethead. Count B. has said he looks forward to a “receptacle to receptacle debate” with him.

As Count B. (writing on Twitter as @CountBinface) explained, “At a time when political precedent is being broken all over the place, I find myself effectively standing against not just (current) Prime Minister @BorisJohnson but also myself. I think that’s a first.”

In a separate tweet, he explained that he’d renounced his peerage because in an earlier campaign he’d promised to abolish the House of Lords. 

The current Lord Buckethead is running on the Monster Raving Loony Party ticket.

Guys, I don’t make this stuff up. I only wish I had the sort of mind that could.

Another candidate running against Boris Johnson in Uxbridge and Wherever is William Tobin, who announced that he doesn’t want anyone’s vote, he’s only running because as a long-term British resident in the European Union he’s no longer eligible to vote, although he is eligible to run for office. He wants to raise the profile of 7 million disenfranchised voters who will be affected by Brexit but get no say in British politics. 

I haven’t confirmed that number. Can we agree that there are a lot of them, though?

Enough for Uxbridge and So Forth. In other constituencies, the most interesting fringes I’ve found belong to the Monster Raving Loony Party, whose candidates include: the Incredible Flying Brick, Earl Elvis of Outwell, Howling Laud Hope, Citizen Skwith, and the Baron and the Dame, who must have found a way to run jointly, because they’re quite clearly two people. I struggle to recognize people, but even I can manage to tell them apart: One’s shorter and the other has a long, scraggly beard. They’re both male. One of them being called the Dame is a British thing and has to do with pantos, which are–oh, never mind. It’s too complicated to explain in a short space but but it’s not about trannies or queens. It’s a recognized theatrical form, and a strange one. 

The Monster Raving Loony manifesto includes a proposal to “reduce the national debt by selling the castles back to the French. (Buyer dismantles.)” 

Wish us luck, world. We need it right now.

Mistaken identities in the (partially British) news

A video showing what seemed to be–if looked at the right way–a Chinese version of the Loch Ness monster paddling around near the Three Gorges Dam turned out to be a twenty-meter-long industrial airbag. Or in some articles, a long piece of tubing, which may or may not be another way of saying the same thing.

What was the right was way to look at it? Mind-altering substances (a category that includes alcohol) have been shown to be effective.

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Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: a begonia

In California, a robocop was mistaken for a robocop. It was rolling through a park, demonstrating that it could do everything the police force had said it would do: patrol large open spaces and use its microphone to deter crime. So when a fight broke out, a witness ran up to it and pushed the emergency alert button. 

What did it do? It said, “Step out of the way.”

Eventually she stepped out of the way and it rolled off, stopping now and then to tell people to keep the park clean.

Another witness just called the police on an old-fashioned phone.

The robot turned out not to be connected to any actual police. It called the company that made it. Which may or may not have called the police. I don’t really know.

Its video camera also wasn’t connected to the police department. Its ability to read license plates and track cell phones? Ditto. It will, eventually and presumably, get connected, but in the meantime it runs around playing cops and park attendants and costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year. 

It has not yet been mistaken for the Loch Ness monster.

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A cash machine in London mistook a fake £20 bill (or note if you’re British) for a real one. Which would be understandable enough except that the bill said, “Twenty poonds” on the back. Not to mention, “This is play money.”

The machine apologized for any problems it might have caused and explained that it can’t actually read.

You can by counterfeit twenties on the internet. They go for around £8 each, although if you’re okay with money that announces that it’s not real you can get ten for around £15.

No, I’m not recommending it. It just seemed like something you’d want to know.

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The person in charge of the US nuclear arsenal mistook an internet hoax for something real. Rick Perry, the secretary of Energy, reposted a warning having to do with Instagram being able to use people’s photos in accordance with a treaty that the US isn’t part of. 

The good news is that he didn’t run up to a robocop, push a button, and expect it to protect the nuclear arsenal. 

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“Jerusalem” was voted the U.K.’s favorite hymn. Or at least the favorite of the people who listened to the BBC’s Songs of Praise and took the trouble to vote. 

What’s that got to do with mistaken identity? The song’s almost universally mistaken for a hymn. The words are by William Blake, who was intensely religious but nothing like an orthodox Christian. Among other things, he didn’t attend church and didn’t believe he needed a god to redeem him. The Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being,” he wrote in “A Vision of the Last Judgment.” 

But let’s be fair and separate the writer from the words he wrote. Did he, in spite of himself, write a hymn? Here it is:

Jerusalem
   And did those feet in ancient time
   Walk upon England’s mountains green?
   And was the holy Lamb of God
   On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
   And did the Countenance Divine,
   Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
   And was Jerusalem builded here,
   Among these dark Satanic Mills?

   Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
   Bring me my arrows of desire:
   Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
   Bring me my Chariot of fire!
   I will not cease from Mental Fight,
   Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
   Till we have built Jerusalem,
   In England’s green & pleasant Land.

It’s stunning, but is it a hymn? He’s asking if the countenance divine shone forth upon our clouded hills, not saying it did. He only gets into statements when he calls for building a Jerusalem, and that’s in the England of this world, not in the next. I’ll admit that using Jerusalem as a metaphor means drawing from Christian imagery, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Blake had no use for organized religion, and especially for state-sponsored religion. So inevitably his poem has been adopted as the hymn of a state-sponsored religion.

The music that goes with it was written in 1916. (Blake died in 1827.) It’s also beautiful. This version comes from the movie The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

And I still say it’s no hymn. 

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Five out of ten flies will mistake a cow for not-a-cow if you paint it with zebra stripes–which of course you will sooner or later. They register their belief that this is not a cow by not landing on it and not biting it. The cows painted as zebras still identify as cows. They register this belief by mooing and eating grass and allowing themselves to be milked.

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A national police database in Britain mistook thousands of cybercrime and fraud reports for a security risk and quarantined them, creating a backlog of 9,000 cases and leaving some of them there for a year. The problem is that the reports include words and symbols that the database’s program recognized as risk markers, so yeah, it quarantined them.

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Rory Stewart–Member of Parliament; former candidate for leader of the Conservative Party; former member of the Conservative Party; and currently independent candidate for the mayor of London–mistook three Irish musicians for minor gangsters.

Stewart’s plan was to walk through every London borough while he was running for Conservative Party leader, and he asked the men if he could film them. They agreed, then found out he was a politician and said they “didn’t fuck with politics.” They left. 

So far, so good, and if he’d left it at that he’d have been fine, but at a later event he talked about meeting three “sort of minor gangsters” who told him he was an idiot. 

The people he was talking to turn out to be a band called Hare Squad, from Dublin. They’re black, which is presumably why Stewart decided they were gangsters. 

“We’re all about peace and love,” one of them, Lilo Blues, said. 

In addition to being denounced as a racist, Stewart was also asked, “What the hell is a minor gangster?”

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A four-year-old was mistaken for a neighborhood menace when the Birmingham Council (that’s the city government, and we’re talking about Birmingham in Britain, not in the U.S.) sent her a letter saying she’d been accused to antisocial acts –shouting, banging, and visitors. Presumably that’s disruptive visitors. Visitors aren’t inherently a problem. 

Her mother says the girl has eczema and sometimes cries at night. 

The kid was invited to contact the council if she had any questions. I don’t know if she did, but when I was four my questions would’ve been something along the lines of “what’s for dessert”–nothing the council could’ve answered. 

What’s worse, I couldn’t write yet. Or read. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she can’t either.

Well, no wonder she’s getting in trouble. What’s wrong with the schools today?

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An early Renaissance masterpiece was mistaken for some old thing hanging in a French kitchen. An auctioneer spotted it when he came to value the furniture after the woman decided to move. 

It was auctioned off for 24 million euros.

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A Viking warrior was mistaken for some other Viking warrior’s nice little wifely homemaker in Norway. For years. Apologies for the heavy use of stereotypes there, but I’m not the only person dragging them into the story.

The good news is that it didn’t bother the warrior, because she’d been dead for years. The thousand-year-old body was correctly identified as a woman, but even though she was buried with an armory big enough to take down several English or Irish villages, when she was first found they disregarded all that because she was a woman and–hey, we know this: Women aren’t warriors and never were. She was just buried with that stuff because, um, they were cleaning house and the weaponry was in the way.

Now a new team of scientists have reinterpreted the skeleton, looking at the partially healed battle wound to her skull, probably made with a sword. A reconstruction of her face–never a 100% reliable thing–shows one tough-looking woman.

Some of the people working on this were from the University of Dundee, so the story does actually have a British connection.

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This final item has nothing to do with mistaken identity but I had to put it in: Scientists in the US have discovered that driving tiny electric cars lowers stress levels in rats, in theory because of the pleasure of learning a new skill. They used a mix of lab-raised rats and rats from the real world. The real-world rats turned out to be significantly better drivers than the lab rats. 

The point of the experiment was to explore the possibility of drugless treatments for mental illness, but it might be more useful to know that if you’re hitching a ride with a rat you’ll want to look for one raised in the real world. The safe life isn’t necessarily the best preparation. And I tell you that as a former cab driver. 

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My thanks for Bill, who in response to last week’s post tells me that there is a culture out there that puts the year first when they write the date: the Japanese. Thank you, Bill. Also domo arigato gozai mas.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The butterfly net I use to trap strange search engine questions has been filling up quickly, so even though I did a what-the-world-wants-to-know post just a few weeks ago, I can’t let riches like these go to waste. The questions are in italics and appear in their original form, however odd it may be.

The search for important information about Britain

england is not another name for great britain!

A-plus for the answer (or in British, A*, pronounced A-star). But what’s your question? And more to the point, why are you bothering Lord Google about something you already know?

Irrelevant photo: roses.

do brits just talk about weather

Before we can answer this, we have to figure out what it means. This should depend on which word just is hanging off of, but English-language writers dump just into sentences according to what sounds good, then figure that what they’ve written means what they think it means. But any grammar obsessive could tell them that the location determines the meaning. I’m not going to rant about that. The language is used the way it’s used, regardless of what the grammar books say, and I’m on both sides of these issues anyway. Passionately.

Still, it leaves me not knowing what the writer meant. So what are the possible variations here? 

Do Brits just talk about the weather as opposed to doing anything about it? Well, pretty much, yeah. You know how it is. We’re all like that when you come down to it. Talk, talk, talk. And the damned rain keeps coming down.

Or, in defiance of the order the words come in, do they talk just about the weather as opposed to, say, talking about feel-good topics like Brexit and global warming? Well, no. The British talk about all sorts of things. Shoes and ships and sealing wax. Brexit and potatoes and school buses.

Okay, not so much about sealing wax these days. And that’s a Lewis Carroll poem that I’m mangling. His version rhymes.

Or–I’m stretching a point here, but what the hell–do just Brits, as opposed to other people, talk about the weather,? No, it’s  a pretty common topic, given that most of the world’s countries (and therefore people) have something that passes for weather.

I’d go on, but the question only gave me three words to dangle just off of.

I hope I’ve been able to help.

why are we called great britain

Am I the only person who hears something plaintive in this? It has a kind of Mom-why-are-they-callling-me-names? quality.

It’s okay, sweetheat. They don’t mean anything by it. It’s because you’re big. Why don’t we sit down and have  a nice cookie?

Or maybe we should call it a biscuit.

ceremonail position in british government black rod

I’m tired of Black Rod, probably because I’ve heard entirely too much about parliament lately, what with Brexit and all. But yes, Black Rod has a position in the British government. Whether you consider it ceremonial or essential is probably a matter of opinion. Me? I’d call it ceremonial to the point of silliness, but I would, wouldn’t i? 

P.S. You misspelled ceremonial. I nevr misspell anything.

ploughman’s lunch history

It starts as a full plate–cheese, a roll, a pickled onion, chutney, butter if you’re lucky. Three grapes and a twisted slice of orange you’ve gone someplace fancy. Then it gets eaten. Or most of it does and the odd bits get left and someone takes them back to the kitchen and scrapes them in the trash and that’s it. End of history. 

It’s wasteful. I ordered a ploughman’s once or twice because it sounded more appealing than a cheese sandwich, but it’s nothing but a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich. 

characteristics of an aristocrat person how do they act

All aristocrats have exactly the same characteristics, to the point where every morning they call each other to work out what they’re going to wear. 

Okay, I shouldn’t get put off when people ask about this, because I wrote a snarky post about some titled idiot behaving badly and I gave it a clickbait heading about behaving like a British aristocrat. So it’s my own doing if I get search engine questions about it.

But if we’ve established that, let’s go on: Behaving like an aristocrat isn’t about having perfect manners, it’s about (a) considering that your manners, however horrid, are perfect, and (b)looking down on people who don’t behave the way you do–or who try to but who have to learn the secret handshakes from Lord Google.

Lord Google  will never tell us all the secret handshakes, just enough to leave us exposed as wannabes. But even if we find the missing bits and behave exactly like the aristocrats, we were still foolish enough to choose the wrong ancestors so we can’t be part of the club.

Silly  us.

It’s depressing to know (or think I know) that someone out there is trying to play this game. Don’t do it, folks. Aristocracy is a closed and toxic club. They don’t want us in and if we have a brain in our heads, we don’t want in. 

when will we know more about brexit sept 2019

We all wish we had the answer to that. And September’s already well in the past.

does a map show you how narrow a road is

Yes, but measuring the width of the map’s lines to the nearest micro-whatsit won’t help. You have to look at the letters associated with the roads. They won’t exactly tell you the width, but they’ll let you figure out how slow your drive’s likely to be, which is a related question. 

M roads–they have an M before their number– are motorways, the best roads the system offers. A roads–A followed by a number–come next. Some of them are hard to tell from motorways. They’re divided highways with a 70 mph speed limit and make a nice straight line from wherever you started to wherever you’re going. And other A roads are nothing like that. They’re two lanes, and they run through the middle of every town along the route. But they’re better than what comes next: B roads, which may be two lanes but may have one-lane stretches.

Then there are roads that no one bothers to give numbers to. Or they give them numbers but don’t bother to tell anyone what they are. In the summer, in touristed areas, they’re lined with nervous visitors who’ve plastered their cars to the hedges, letting the oncoming cars figure out if there’s room to pass.

There almost always is.

how do british cars pass on such narrow roads?

On the narrowest ones, everyone gets out and disassembles the lighter-colored car, moves it past the darker one, and puts it back together.

Why the lighter one? It’s a simple, non-judgmental way to choose, and it saves time-consuming arguments. 

And if they’re both the same color? Well, that’s where your arguments start. We need a better system. Everyone agrees, but we have to settle the Brexit mess first.

what was uk called before great britain

England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. Unless you want to go back to Latin, the Celtic languages, and Anglo-Saxon. And Pictish. For part of that time, though, we’re dealing with micro-kingdoms and it gets messy.

why do british people eat brussle sprouts at christmas?

Because it gives them the strength to face Boxing Day, that extra holiday that comes on December 26.

 

The search for important information about everything else

what is the actual date of 2019/09/04

I can answer that: It was 2019/09/04. 

But let’s talk about dating systems, since someone’s brought them up.. The American system starts with the month, follows with the day, and ends with the year, making 04/09/2019  April 9, 2019. The British and European system flips the first two elements, so the same numbers give you 4 September 2019. 

Isn’t this fun?

The British and European system doesn’t use a comma before the year. Or after, in case the sentence straggles on. The American one does.

Moving back and forth between the two systems means that you can’t be sure what date anyone–including your own bewildered self–is talking about unless they name the month or bring in a day that’s larger than twelve.

I don’t know any dating systems that open with the year, so I have no way to tell what, if anything, the date in the question means. I asked Lord Google for help but he told me I wasn’t asking the right question, so I ended up as fodder for someone else’s post about strange search engine questions.

Lord G., as is his way, wouldn’t tell me what the right question was. Dealing with Lord Google is like being trapped in one of those fairy tales where bad things happen because bad things happen and the world doesn’t reward the just and kind.

So what’s the actual date? My best guess is that it doesn’t exist.

is a vigilante sticking up for someone

It never rains weirdness but it pours it down by the bucketful. Is a vigilante sticking up for someone? Not as often in real life as in the movies. Has someone seen too many movies? Probably. Is a movie watcher having trouble finding the line between fiction and reality? Most definitely. 

For what it’s worth, friends, if you’re facing injustice and overwhelming odds, don’t look for a vigilante. And for pete’s sake, don’t become a vigilante. Vigilantes can propel decent shoot-em-up plots–or if not decent, at least popular–but in real life they end up as lone nuts with guns who leave grieving families in their wake. Try organizing. It’s slower and it’s less dramatic, but it spills less blood and it just might do some good in the long run. 

I have no idea why that question came to me. 

how to respectfully decline an award nomination

Be nice. Explain your reasons. Say thanks. Shut up. 

whats cultural about brownies

They like literature and classical music. They’re not much on visual art.

medieval catholic teaching sex

All the medieval Catholics are dead. So are the medieval everybody elses. That means none of them are teaching sex anymore. But they weren’t much good at it, so don’t worry about having missed out.

The Brexit update, with elections

Britain’s went into election mode this past week, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute, but let’s do some background first.

Before we could schedule an election, first we had to argue about whether to have an election, and if so, when and how. And by “we,” of course, I mean “them”: Our politicians and their many, many advisers. Parliament had to agree before anyone could schedule an election.

At one point in the wrangling, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, threatened that if parliament wouldn’t agree to hold an election before Christmas the government would do only the bare minimum. Then, faced with headlines about the government going on strike, he backed away from the threat, but he did say he’d park his Brexit bill until an election was scheduled. 

I’m reasonably sure that was to keep parliament from tacking amendments onto it. The whole point of trying to shove the bill through in three days, as he tried and failed to do, was to get the beast through unexamined and unamended.

Yeah, we’ve been champions at cooperation and compromise lately. 

In the meantime, the European Union agreed to a three-month Brexit extension, although it can be shorter in the unlikely situation that we all agree on anything other than how terrible the weather is. With that announcement, we all drew a deep breath and started using up the three cans of tomatoes and six cans of baked beans that every household had stockpiled in case of a no-deal Brexit emergency. 

As far as I know, no one’s drawing down their private stockpiles of medication. And since my partner and I both hate baked beans, we don’t have any to use up. Some other household has our portion stashed away and is responsible for using it up. These things all average out.

While everyone was focused on the election that we might or might not have, a leaked document showed that, in spite of vague governmental noises about maintaining EU standards on workers’ rights and the environment, the Department for Exiting the European Union has drafted plans saying that “the government is open to significant divergence from EU regulation and workers’ rights.”

That should matter to us all, but it hasn’t gotten much attention. So little of the important stuff has. We act as if Brexit was a yes / no question when in fact it’s not even multiple choice, it’s an essay test.

Another thing we’re not paying much attention to is the report from a cross-party parliamentary committee about Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum. The committee expected Johnson to approve and release it. The government’s saying it always takes more time than that. The committee says, “Oh, no it doesn’t,” and the government says, “Oh, yes it does.”

And if that doesn’t sound like a joke, keep reading. It’s a British thing.

Cue accusations of a cover-up.

Cue denials of a cover-up.

Some of the wrangling over whether to hold an election was focused on whether to hold it on December 9th or December 12th. The theory is that this matters because on the 9th more students will still be at their universities, where they’ll be more likely to vote. Parties that appeal strongly to younger voters wanted the election on the 9th and parties that appeal to older voters wanted it on the 12th. 

No one’s motives are pure.

It’ll be on the 12th. 

Holding an election right now is a massive gamble for everyone. Polls show the Conservatives–Johnson’s party–with a lead but nothing like a majority. That should make them (relatively) confident, but they’re not. And there’s no reason they should be. They went into the last election with a lead in the polls and lost ground. And Johnson’s a wild card. A new scandal could emerge at any time. And he was tightly controlled during the campaign for party leadership, but he’s the kind of guy who could have a meltdown this time around. 

Another problem they face is that Johnson hasn’t delivered Brexit by October 31, which he swore he’d do and which will almost surely allow the Brexit Party to eat into the Conservative lead. 

As for the polls, they can be deceptive. Among other things, what matters is the number of votes each candidate gets in each seat, so a nationwide lead may not translate into a majority in parliament. If that’s not clear, I’m sure Hillary Clinton can explain it.

So the party was split over calling for an election. Johnson might’ve done better to push ahead with the Brexit deal he negotiated. In the British system, parliament packs up and goes home before an election and all the bills under consideration die. The bill would probably have gathered amendments he didn’t like, but according to Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog, he could have dropped those later on. I can’t explain how that would have worked and Gray doesn’t seem to think he needs to, but he’s a hell of a lot better informed than I am and I’m going to trust him on this.

Some Labour MPs are also hesitant about an election. The polls show them behind the Conservatives. On the other hand, in the last election they did better than they were expected to do and they’re hoping that rabbit’s still in the hat. They’re scuffling their hands around at the bottom, feeling for fur.

Meanwhile, the smaller opposition parties–the Liberal Democrats; the Scottish National Party; probably the Greens–want an early election. They look like they’d benefit from it. 

All the parties, however, are publicly predicting great and wonderful victories. 

Before the election date was set, we were sprlnkled with so many reasons that holding an election before Christmas would be a problem that they fell upon us like fairy dust.

First, polling places are getting harder to book, especially since they’ll be competing with Christmas shows, especially pantos. 

For anyone who isn’t British (or isn’t from a country that picked up the custom from Britain), I’d better explain that: A panto is a form of kids’ theater. They start around Christmas time, run for a while afterwards, then go dormant for the rest of the year so everyone can recover. They’re (very) loosely based on fairy tales. The leading woman is (wildly over)played by a man. At some point, the audience is expected to yell, “He’s behind you” while some clueless character wanders around doing everything but looking behind him- or herself, and at some other point two characters will fall into an exchange that runs something like, “Oh, yes I will,” / “Oh, no you won’t.” After the first half dozen repetitions, it starts to be funny. Or maybe I laughed so hard because it wasn’t funny. It’s hard to say why it works.

That long digression was to make the point that one problem with a pre-Christmas election is that the pantos may get a larger audience than the election itself. This election really does matter, and a lot of people feel that. On the other hand, we’re all sick to death of everything linked to Brexit. 

Will most people vote? Oh, yes they will. 

Oh, no they won’t. 

Oh, I haven’t a clue. 

Second (we were counting problems with a pre-Christmas election, you’ll of course remember), the postal workers just voted to go on strike sometime before Christmas. I don’t think a date’s been set yet, but if it comes at the wrong time absentee ballots will be held in purgatory until such time as the strike is settled. 

Third, the less time is left between an election being declared and an election being held, the more polling places cost to rent. That cost falls on local governments, which have been starved of funds for the past–um, sorry, this involves numbers. Austerity started in late 2008. I’ll leave you to figure out how long that’s been.

Weighing against all those negatives is the possibility that the election will end the parliamentary gridlock. 

Of course, if it does (and that’s a big if), no one knows which side the change will favor, and once the new parliament is in place it won’t have much time to figure out (a) what if anything it can agree to and (b) how to do it before the next Brexit deadline.

No one knows if Brexit will be the only issue deciding how people vote. Voters themselves may not know yet. If it is, the Liberal Democrats (anti-Brexit) and the Brexit Party (pro) can be expected to pick up votes from Labour and the Conservatives, even though no one (possibly including the two parties themselves) has a clue what they stand for on other issues.

I’ve mentioned before that both Labour and the Conservatives are deeply split over Brexit, but they’re not the only ones who are split. We’ve had a nationwide sale on divisiveness lately, so everybody’s splitting with somebody and every available party is bitterly divided on something. (With a few smallish exceptions, but less not mess up a good image.) The People’s Vote Campaign, which has been pushing for a second referendum, is badly divided, with firings, walk-outs, threatening letters, and calls for the chair to resign. On the other side, the Brexit Party split from the UK Independence Party (better known as UKIP) some time so. Since then, UKIP has burned through leaders faster than the Catholic Church burns through candles. And the Brexit Party was split over whether to contest every seat or stay out of some races to keep from siphoning votes from the Conservatives. It’s too early to say whether some residue of that division still hangs over them.

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Setting aside all the important implications of this election, it means that unless something startling happens I’ll stop doing Brexit updates for a while. I may even start sleeping late.

But before I set Brexit on a top shelf where it can gather dust, a quick note to readers who’ve taken the time and trouble to argue with me about Brexit posts: I appreciate your willingness to stay with me when you disagree and I appreciate it that you’ve bothered to argue. It’s not easy to read opinions you disagree with, and at least for some people it’s not easy to argue. Thanks for doing both.

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In case you’re staying up nights wondering about this, members of the House of Lords can’t vote in British elections. The queen can but in the interest of neutrality doesn’t.

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At least some people had trouble following the emailed link to Friday’s post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and I’ve asked WordPress to help me sort out the problem. I may end up re-posting that to make sure it reaches everyone. If you get it twice, my apologies.

The Jacobite Rebellion: Who Was Jacob?

Let’s talk about the Jacobite Rebellion. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart tried to grab the British throne back for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart. In other words, the Jacobite Rebellion revolved around two men with a whole string of names, but Jacob is nowhere on the list.

Unless, of course, you switch to Latin, in which case you can call James Jacobus. Or Jake if you’re a close enough friend. 

He didn’t have friends who were that close, so you might want to give it some thought before you call him that. 

Irrelevant photo: This is orange. And a flower. You’re welcome.

The Jacobite uproar started when Elizabeth the virgin queen of England died without an heir. Sorry, you don’t get a prize for guessing that business about her not having an heir. The Stuarts–a line of Scottish kings who were vaguely related to her–became the kings of England as well as Scotland, and England being larger and richer than Scotland, they made it their base. That lasted until one of them, James, outed himself as a (gasp) Catholic and was replaced with his Protestant daughter and her husband, an equally Protestant European prince. 

These two were supposed to create a line of reliably Protestant monarchs, but bringing in replacements had set a precedent: If an individual in the new line died childless, Britain could always borrow another vaguely related Protestant from Europe. Think of Europe as a lending library for vaguely related Protestant monarchs. 

If any genuine historians are reading this, you have my deepest apologies. I’ll be happy to dodge anything you want to throw at me,

But the Stuarts didn’t disappear just because they’d been booted off the throne. They sat in Europe like the last, heavily thumbed book on the library shelves–the one nobody wanted to borrow. 

You can see trouble coming, right? 

Starting in 1708, a couple of bungled rebellions tried and failed to bring James back. Sometimes foreign powers were involved. France is the country to keep your eye on here. Britain (or England if we’re talking about an earlier period–it’s confusing and we’ll get to that in a minute) and France hadn’t gotten along for centuries. 

In 1744, France sent ships to launch a Jacobite invasion of England. France didn’t take the Stuarts seriously, but what the hell, if it lobbed them onto British soil, it could hope to tie to government in knots for a while. But winter storms sank some of the French ships and drove the rest back to port, after which France called off the plan. 

Sorry, Stuarts. 

So Charles–remember him? Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart who wasn’t named Jacob and was going to grab the throne for his dad, who also wasn’t called Jacob? Without asking France if it was okay, Charles consulted his Scottish contacts about a landing in Scotland. 

Why Scotland? It had been bundled into a union with England in 1707, and a lot of Scots weren’t happy about it. Before that, Scotland and England had been two countries that shared a king but not a government. Now they were one united country, dominated by England. Scottish landowners got a few nice presents out of the union, but what most people got were heavy taxes along with forts and soldiers planted by a government that they felt had been imposed on them. So the Jacobites could count on the backing of a Scottish clan leader or three, which would give them a good base in a land full of grievance.

In one of history’s nice little ironies, these clans were largely Protestant. 

Sit down and get comfortable for a minute, because we’re going to take a detour into Scottish (and English, not to mention Irish) religious history. 

When the Church of England was formed, the central issue was that the monarch was going to replace the pope as the head of the church, . All members of the clergy had to swear an oath to him or her. So when James became the king, they swore.

Then James was replaced with William and Mary, leaving a number of clergy members wondering what to do next. James was still alive. So what did their oath mean? Some shrugged their shoulders and swore an oath to the replacement parts that had been fitted into the royal machine. Others, out of principle, refused. They felt that their first oath still held. 

In England, this was largely a matter of religious (as opposed to political) principle, but in Scotland refusing to swear an oath to the replacement parts was highly political, a statement that the country was ruled by the Stuart king, even if he was sitting in France (or Rome) and ruling nothing more than what time lunch was on the table. Cue lots of political and churchly infighting that we won’t get into.  

What matters for us is that this strange bit of history, where elements of a Protestant Church held out for a Catholic king, provided a reservoir of Jacobite support and a bit of religious and intellectual backing for the cause.

The Jacobites also had support in Ireland, where the Stuarts’ Catholicism was crucial. England (which had by now become Britain) had confiscated Catholic-owned land on a massive scale there. The Irish Jacobites wanted their land back in an independent, Catholic Ireland. 

Zip over to England and a fair bit of Jacobite support was Protestant again. It came from people who were against Britain’s involvement in European wars. They wanted that money for the navy, which could protect British trade. Many of them were strongly anti-Catholic and pro-Church of England. English Catholics? Some were Jacobite and some supported the Hanoverians–the replacement parts in the royal machine. 

In other words, the only thing Jacobites agreed on was being Jacobites. The Stuarts were a handy basket into which you could toss any disagreement with the existing government. Think of them as populist politicians running against the government. Try that strategy and you’ll find it can work until you become the government. After that, unless you’re a genuine revolutionary–and few of populist politicians are–it’s a tough act to maintain. You’ll need to find a new enemy, and in the time of the Stuarts, Remainers and the liberal elite hadn’t been invented yet. Immigrants had but–.

Never mind. I’m wandering off topic. The point is that if James had managed to seat his butt on the British throne, he’d have had serious trouble keeping his supporters behind him. 

Lucky him, he never had to face that.

What did the Stuarts themselves stand for? They believed in absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. They were Catholic. Since a fair number of their supporters opposed arbitrary rule, the union, and Catholicism–well, yeah, you can see why they were all drawn together.

Now let’s go back to Bonnie Charlie consulting his Scottish contacts. They said, “Look, guy, nothing personal, but without French support this doesn’t look promising.”

But Charlie, remember, believed in absolute monarchy, and even if he wasn’t an alleged king, only an alleged prince, he still knew best. He set sail, rallied support in the Scottish highlands, and marched on Edinburgh, helped along by the roads and bridges the British government had built after those earlier Jacobite risings in order to make Scotland easier for the military to control. 

History has a bitter sense of humor.

The Jacobites didn’t manage to take Edinburgh castle, just the city, but even so it was all going well. Charlie declared the union of Scotland and England to be over, along with the Act of Settlement, which barred Catholics from the throne. The French–as he’d gambled they would once he’d set himself on Scottish soil–sent money, supplies, and weapons. Everything looked rosy.

Except that Charlie’s autocratic style and Irish advisers had started to worry some of the Scots, and they imposed a council of advisers on him. Everyone argued about whether to invade England or consolidate their position. 

Charlie wanted to invade, though, and invade they did, getting as far as Derby, a couple of hundred miles from the Scottish-English border on the A1, which if it existed wasn’t called that and hadn’t been paved. Then they turned and headed north again for fear of getting cut off by English forces. They had the advantage of speed but that was about it. They were lightly armed and the English Jacobite support they’d counted on turned out to be minimal. As did French support.

We’ll skip over a siege and a battle or two back in Scotland. Winter came and both sides settled down to wait for better weather, which given what both the Scottish and the English think of Scottish weather could easily have meant waiting for decades. 

The Jacobites were also waiting for French supplies, but the British navy was out there waiting for French ships. A few got through, but by spring the Jacobites were short of food, money, and weapons. 

What do you do in that situation? You give the dice a good hard shake, kiss the hand that’s shaking them, and spill those dice on the table. 

They didn’t land the way the Jacobites needed them to. The final battle of the rebellion was at Culloden and it was over in about an hour. Some 1,500 Jacobites were killed and 500 were taken prisoner. Compare that to 50 British soldiers killed and around 250 wounded. 

Charlie ordered his surviving troops to disperse and he fled for France, leaving British troops to search out rebels, confiscate cattle, and burn the meeting houses of religious groups who pissed them off. Of the 3,500 Jacobites who were indicted for treason, 120 were executed, 650 died before trial, 900 were pardoned, and the rest were transported.

Culloden marked the end of the Scottish clan lords’ power–not because of the defeat itself, but because the government set out to break them. Estates were confiscated. Laws were designed to undermine them. By way of making the point symbolically, highland dress was outlawed unless it was worn in the (need I say, British) military and the bagpipes were declared an instrument of war, so playing them was banned, although they continued to be played in secret. 

If anyone knows how to play the bagpipes in secret, do let me know. They’re not a subtle instrument. And yes, I do understand that the highlands weren’t densely settled and that even though the sound carries a long way it can’t circumnavigate the globe. Still. In secret?

The government set about mapping the highlands and building more forts, roads, and bridges to help the military control them. The Jacobite Rebellion was over.

Irish Jacobitism continued but it was focused on independence, not on the Stuarts, and it was eventually absorbed into the Republican movement.

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My thanks to Sheila Morris for suggesting the topic. I’m always open to suggestions but I don’t promise to follow all of them. Some of them work and some don’t, and I can’t predict what will fall into which category.

The news from Britain: hedgehogs, space aliens, and golden toilets

A £1 million golden toilet was stolen from Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born. 

But this isn’t a story about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth–or a golden pot under your hind end. Churchill didn’t grow up with the thing. It’s a recently installed piece of art. Or at least everyone involved says it’s art, raising the question, What is art is?

It’s a great question and we’re not getting into it unless anyone wants to tackle it in a comment, in which case things might get interesting.

Oh, go on, say something about it, please.

Irrelevant photo: A begonia.

Before it was stolen, the golden toilet was available for public use, although only to people who’d booked a time slot.

The toilet, or the piece of art, if you prefer, is titled “America,” which does, at least, argue that it’s not just a golden pot, it–or its creator–has something to say. But what? Dominic Hare, the Somebody Important of Blenheim Palace, said the pot was a comment on the American dream. 

No, I didn’t make that up.

I say that a lot, don’t I?

“[It’s] the idea of something that’s incredibly precious and elite being made accessible, potentially to everybody, as we all need to go when we need to go.” (Or at least when the time slot you booked rolls around, and let’s hope it coincides at least vaguely with need.) 

So presumably the theft was in the spirit of the artwork. Someone marched it and made it not just available, potentially, to everybody, but (sorry, I’m shifting to the first person here) to me and I’m gonna take it before somebody else does. 

The American dream (at least in my opinion) is open to interpretation, and that may or may not be the spirit of the American dream that the artist or the Somebody Important had in mind, but it does raise interesting questions about what the dream is, and what America is, and what a golden toilet’s all about. And, of course, what art is, but we said we weren’t getting into that.

Or I said. I have no idea what you’re saying.

Blenheim Palace is the ancestral seat–and this really is what it’s called; I’m not making puns–of the Duke of Marlborough. The duke’s half brother, who founded the Blenheim Art Foundation, said when the toilet was installed that they weren’t going to guard it because it was plumbed in and wouldn’t be easy to steal. Besides, the toilet was open to the public, so a thief wouldn’t know who’d used it last or what they’d eaten.

That quote should open a collection of things it would be best to shut up about. The thief wasn’t squeamish and didn’t care who’d used it last, or first, or next to last. Not only did someone steal it, yanking all that plumbing loose created an expensive flood precisely because it was connected.

It’s been recovered. I don’t know if it’s been reinstalled. Or guarded.

I could probably construct an argument that the theft was situational art. If the alleged thief’s lawyer would like to contact me, I’m available for consultatioins for a smallish fee. 

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Speaking of smallish: A smallish poll asked Britons who should be in charge of responding if Earth is contacted by aliens. 

The poll was put together not because anyone from outside had contacted Earth but because a lawyer and an astrophysicist wondered who had the moral authority to make decisions for humanity as a whole. Most people polled (39%) thought scientists were the best bet. Holding a referendum came at the bottom of the list, with 11% of the vote. 

However, if a referendum is held, 56.3% would vote in favor of making contact. That compares with 20.5% who didn’t know, 14% who’d vote against, and 9.2% who wouldn’t vote, maybe because they don’t care and maybe because they figure they’ll have better things to do that day.

Remain voters were more heavily in favor (66%) than leave voters (54%), which is interesting although I don’t know what it means.

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A flight leaving the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, stopped during a takeoff so the pilot could let a baby hedgehog cross the runway. The passengers weren’t polled, but they were kept informed. 

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Want to know what Britain does at night? Some people sleep, some try to sleep, some work, some drink, and some have sex, although probably not all night, but the rest shop online. One out of every fifteen things bought on a credit card is bought between midnight and 6 a.m. About two-thirds of the buyers are women but male shoppers spend more. 

What does it all mean? I have no idea, I just thought you might want to know.

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A drug deal on an island off the coast of Australia went wrong when a seal got involved. 

The tale starts with the yacht that was supposed to pick up the drugs getting stuck on a reef (or at least appearing to–I’m not sure about that part of the tale), triggering a rescue effort because a dinghy was missing and hey, someone might be in trouble out there. Planes searched the area and the drug smugglers, sensibly enough, hid in the scrub, where a fisherman noticed them. One of them had on a hot pink shirt and it wasn’t good camouflage. 

If they hadn’t hidden, they probably wouldn’t have stood out.  

Cops showed up and found more than a ton of meth, cocaine, and ecstasy, worth £556 million (which is more than the golden toilet is worth), under some seaweed. 

Make that an awful lot of seaweed. 

The raid-ees made a run for the dinghy but between it and them was a big honkin’–or, more accurately, bellowing–seal, which didn’t look happy with them. The smugglers decided the cops were a better bet.

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Apps that women are using to track their periods have been caught sharing data with Facebook and other businesses, including information on what contraception the women use, what  physical symptoms they have, and when they have sex. Not all the apps do that, but some do.

What’s Facebook doing with that information? Good question. Possibly nothing, but possibly not nothing. 

Who else has access to the data? No idea. How much personal information should we be dumping into the opaque workings of the internet? Also a good question. Quite possibly less than we do.

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One of my favorite organizations, even though I haven’t had any first-hand contact, is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Its followers call themselves Pastafarians and two of them are asking the European Court of Human Rights to consider their religious rights.

Yes, seriously. If I could make this stuff up, believe me, I would, but I’m not that creative.

One of the plaintiffs is Dutch and the high court in her country ruled that she couldn’t wear a colander–a spaghetti strainer, in plain English–on her head for her identification photo. The other is an Austrian member of parliament who wears a colander in his official photos but is asking for Pastafarianism to be recognized as a religion. At least four countries have already recognized it.

Pastafarianism is–or so I’ve read–the world’s fastest growing religion and it asks its followers to wear colanders on their heads, although I wouldn’t say it demands that they do. It’s not a demand-making kind of religion.

The lawyer defending the Dutch Pastafarian said, “I started out thinking this was just a big joke, but the more you look at it, the more you see it is about fundamental principles…. [Pastafarianism advocates] non-violence, tolerance, loving each other–the same principles as many established religions.” Theologians have “never really been able to agree on what constitutes a religion, so should the state really get to decide?… We say, as long as there are special rights for believers, they should apply to all religions.” 

Pastafarians hold that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe by using His Noodly Appendages–probably after drinking heavily. 

Go on. Prove it ain’t so.

The (short) Brexit update, with pumpkins

It gets weirder over here by the minute. First, the House of Commons passed Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill. Only that wasn’t a decisive vote. It was the bill’s second reading, which is (the name’s a bit misleading) the first chance the Commons gets to debate a bill. If a bill passes the second reading, all that means is that the Commons approves the general principle of a bill, and then–at least in any normal situation–it goes to a committee, which considers all the clauses, the amendments, the commas, the footnotes, and the implications. Then the Commons can make a more informed decision.

But Johnson was demanding that the bill go through all its stages in three days, one of which had already been mostly used up, so it was second hand by the time the schedule was put to a vote. Commons would have to forget the commas, the clauses, the 110 pages of text, the fact that the chancellor had refused to issue any prediction about the agreement’s economic impact. To keep up with the schedule, the bill needed to leave the ball before the horses turned into mice and the coach turned into a pumpkin.

Why? Because Johnson said Britain would be out of the EU by Halloween and he had his sizeable ego caught up in this thing. Which is convenient, since it gives me a headline. 

We’ll cut to the chase here. After the bill passed its second reading, the commons voted down his timetable, at which point Johnson said he’d withdraw the bill and call for an election. Then he said he’d pause the bill but Britain would still leave by October 31.

He also said he’d talk to EU leaders about an extension–preferably a short one. Donald Tusk, the EU council president, has said he’ll recommend a three-month extension that can end earlier if a deal is finally completed.

Do we have an election coming up? Hard to say. Johnson would love to leave the ball right now, if only to return with a new dress, two slippers, and a mandate. Do you know how awkward it is to run around in one high-heeled slipper, especially a glass one with no flexibility? On the other hand, he may think he can get his deal through, in which case he’ll want to do that first. 

Will Labour support an election? Possibly. The experts are still reading the tea leaves on that.

Most predictions are that any election would return another deeply divided parliament, but I wouldn’t recommend putting money on any of this.