Funding the Church of England

England has an official state church, called, imaginatively enough, the Church of England. Once upon a time, having an official church was serious business, and not belonging to it was even more serious. England has a history of trying to stamp out religious dissent, and that weighed heavily with the folks who wrote the U.S. constitution, which forbids the establishment of any state religion.

These days, it’s easy to float through English life and forget that there’s an established religion. Most people consider religion (or the lack of it) a private matter—not something to get passionate about in public and not something that should set public policy. Dissent isn’t so much tolerated as assumed. Or it looks that way to me, although you have to remember that I’m an outsider here.

But who funds the church? A while back, someone asked me if it’s funded by the taxpayer, but I’ve lost track of who that was. Apologies. My organizational skills are just a shade less than perfect. Let me know who you are, will you?

Semi-relevant photo (see below): What happens to a religious building the isn’t kept up. This was once a convent on Iona, in Scotland.

The C. of E., as it’s known, does have a few bucks to its name. Or a few quid, really, quid being British for buck, although the quid involves pounds, not dollars. According to the Daily Mail (sorry, I tried for a more reputable-sounding source but couldn’t find one), in 2013 its income was £1.37 billion, which sounds like enough to keep it in communion wafers for a week or three, although I’ve never bought communion wafers and for all I know they’re outrageously expensive.

The Mail doesn’t say a word about communion wafers. What it says instead is that £1.37 billion would pay for every Big Mac, McChicken Sandwich, and McFlurry sold in Britain that year. Which strikes me as a pretty strange point of comparison, but it does tell us that we’re spending a shocking amount of money on fast food. The paper didn’t say if anything would be left over for a cup of tea, although in England you’d have the right to expect tea with your McProcessed Chickfood.

But what about spending? According to Wikipedia, “In 2005 the Church of England had estimated total outgoings of around £900 million.”

Now, I’m terrible with numbers, but even I can see that the gap between those two leaves enough money for tea. I tried to find a comparable number for 2013—the year the Mail’s using—and I failed. However, I failed in an interesting way, so let’s spend a minute following my trail: Since WikiP calls that money outgoings, I thought, clever beast that I thought I was, I’d just google “Church of England outgoings 2013.”

What did I learn? That bishops were exhorting their members to be outgoing, gracious, and cooperative. And to drink tea. I’m sure it was all very effective and that the church is now full of better, more outgoing, and more cooperative tea-sodden worshipers.

Me, though? I had a cup of tea and gave up. If you want figures for matching years, go find them yourself. I never really expected the numbers to match up. They never do for me. 

But let’s go back to income. We were doing fairly well with that. Almost half of it was donated by churchgoers.

How many people are we talking about? It’s hard to say. The C. of E. does keep a church electoral roll, and adding your name to it allows you to vote on church matters, but not everyone who goes to C. of E. churches bothers, so the statistics I found also track things like how many people show up at least once a year, or at Easter, or on most Sundays.

By any of those measures, attendance is down and still sinking.  The Wikipedia entry puts C. of E. attendance at 1.4% of the population of England and Wales in 2014. It’s inconvenient that Wales is in there when we were talking about England, but we’ll add that our list of mis-matched figures and wobble onward.

Another source–and I’ve lost track of which one–says that U.K. (as opposed to English) church membership has declined from 10.6 million in 1930 to 5.5 million in 2010, “or as a percentage of the population; from about 30% to 11.2%. By 2013, this had declined further to 5.4 million (10.3%).”

That’s a major difference. It could be accounted for by the difference between church membership and attendance or by one of both organizations allowing someone like me to do the counting. I checked a few more sources without clarifying the picture at all. What’s clear is that membership and church attendance are shrinking.

On average, each church member contributed £700 per year in—oh, I think that was 2014. Close enough. In other words, per person donations are high. But an average is a deceptive measure. One gazillionaire making a huge donation will, when you average things out, make everyone look rich and generous. Still, the average donation is all we’re going to get.

Where did the other half of the church’s income wander if from? Historic endowments are a major source of income. These are gifts that were given to the church at some point in the past. (You don’t make a lot of money on gifts given in the future.) Way back when, if someone rich gave the church a gift, it was likely to be land, and the church once owned a lot of it, but it’s converted most of it, unromantically and unsentimentally, into stocks and bonds. These are managed by church commissioners and pay for “a range of non-parish expenses, including clergy pensions and the expenses of cathedrals and bishops’ houses. These funds amount to around £8 billion . . . around a fifth of the church’s overall income.” (We’re quoting WikiP here.)

The C. of E. has its own investment fund and in 2016 it generated an income of £230.7 million.

Does all this add up to 100%? It doesn’t look like it. Donations? Half. Stocks and bonds? A fifth. The investment fund? Sorry–that’s not a percentage and we’d be smart if we don’t trust me to turn it into one. Whatever the rest may be? I’m not sure. Parishes raise money in various ways. I have no idea how much that adds up to. Plus the church gets grants from English Heritage, and possibly other groups, to maintain buildings, and it also gets government money for the upkeep of the buildings.That’s where the taxpayer comes into it.

Those old buildings can absorb any amount of money you care to throw at them and still need more.

The National Secular Society argues that the church is sitting on a £4 billion surplus and should fix its own leaky roofs.

“In this week’s budget [sorry—I can’t tell you which week that was] the Government allocated a further £40 million funding to support “vital” roof repairs in Listed Places of Worship over the next two years.

“The lion’s share of this money will go to the Church of England as it is  responsible for maintaining 45% of the grade I listed buildings in the country and the majority of all parish churches are grade II or higher. [The grades refer to historic buildings that should be preserved.]

“Few would feel that our finest architectural heritage should fall into terminal disrepair. An inevitable consequence of the continuing decline in church attendance is that there are far fewer in the congregations to shoulder the repair burden. When they are unable to do so, who else should pay and under what circumstances?”  

So yes, taxpayer money goes to the church–not exactly to fund church activities but to maintain its historic buildings. Still, it is taxpayer money, it still flows to the church, and that does allow the church to use its own money for other purposes. Or to sit on it and let it accumulate. 

Apologies

Sorry–I just published a post too early, so I’ve done my best to un-publish it by marking it private. It’ll show up publicly at the end of the month.

I really can’t be trusted with the Update buttons.

Toilet doors in the U.S. and Britain

Float around the internet for long enough and you’ll find Americans asking what the British think of the U.S. Or what the English think of it, because a fair number of Americans are convinced that Britain and England are the same place. And in their defense, it’s not easy when a country has overlapping names and when American history textbooks start out by talking about England, then swap that for Britain without bothering to tell anyone why they’ve done it or what the difference is.

On top of which–let’s be honest here–my beloved country does cultivate a powerful strain of ignorance about the outside world.

So you might expect that people calling their country by the wrong name would get a mention when the British form their opinions of the United States. And you might be wrong about it. Here’s the real, unvarnished truth, direct from a neighbor, Melanie, who was in the U.S. recently and posted the following on Facebook.

Observations about America:

  • Your breakfasts are excellent.
  • Your supermarkets are something else.
  • People really are super nice.
  • Roads are easy to drive on.
  • But where the fuck has the bottom part of your toilet stall doors gone?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, added for the sake of balance.

If she’d asked me about the U.S. before her trip, I wouldn’t have mentioned toilet doors, but the Rapid Response Team here at Notes has come to work early on a Wednesday morning to explain the question, research the answer, and then shut down the computer and make an American breakfast. Then it’ll go back to bed, because this isn’t going into print for several weeks. The Rapid Response Team isn’t in charge of scheduling. Once it responds, it hands things over to the Pokey Publishing Team.

But to Melanie’s question: There is no secret location where the bottom part of toilet doors get dumped. They were never there to start with. 

The doors on American public toilets start–and I’m guessing at the measurements here–some 12 inches above the floor. They’re low enough to cover the relevant body parts but high enough to show the user’s feet and ankles, with a fair bit of leg attached. They’re high enough for the average adult to slide under. And, although Melanie didn’t mention it, they don’t go anywhere close to the ceiling. The dividers are roughly the same height.

What about British toilet doors? They’re doors. And the walls are walls. They may not go quite all the way to the ceiling, but they go high enough to give the user a comfortable illusion of privacy.

Before we go any further, let’s figure out what we’re calling the walled-off area around a toilet. Is it a stall or a cubicle? Divided by a Common Language (an authoritative site kept by a linguist) says the British call them cubicles and the Americans call them stalls. I’d been calling them cubicles and figured I’d slipped into British usage without noticing it. I’ve lived in Britain for–good lord, I think it’s twelve years now. I don’t think my accent’s changed, but a few words have walked out on me and their British twins have replaced them. It’s not what I want–as a writer, I’d like to sound like I’m from some geographical part of this planet, not a mix-and-match of several–but it does happen.

Then I reread Melanie’s comment and noticed that she wasn’t saying cubicles but stalls. Did Divided get it wrong? Did those breakfasts lure Melanie into using American English? Do different classes in Britain use different words for the spaces that enclose toilets? For that matter, do different regions of the U.S. call them different things?

Good questions. I can’t answer any of them.

Divided does point out that in the U.S. a cubicle is a semi-open bit of office space marked off by movable dividers. The British call that an open-plan office. In British English, stalls are a category of theater seats or what someone sets up in a market to sell stuff. In American English, those are called–um, something, but I don’t know what. In a market, stands, probably. In a theater? I still haven’t figured out what the stalls are, so I’m not much use with that.

But back to toilet doors: When I was in grade school–American grade school corral kids from roughly age six to twelve, keeping them off the streets and giving them the illusion of something useful to do–some percentage of the kids thought it was a great idea to climb on one toilet and look over the divider at the person sitting on the one next to it. Or–before they grew tall enough to look over the dividers–to lie on the bathroom floor and look under the door. Or to lock the door from the inside, slide under the door, and toddle merrily off to class, leaving the janitor to slide under and unlock it. If the janitors in your school weren’t the friendliest people in the building, this might explain why.

And that was the girls. I can only imagine what the boys got up to.

In I can’t remember what grade, some kid asked about the doors, the dividers, the general openness of the cubicles. Whatever teacher we had that year told us they had to be that way in case someone got stuck in one. And I believed that until recently. Because a teacher said it and teachers know these things. 

In hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was a desperate grab for some sort of logic in a logic-free zone. Imagine that you’re teaching a class of, let’s say, fourth graders, kids who are roughly 9 and 10 years old, and in the middle of a class about volcanoes or the Louisiana Purchase one of them asks about toilet doors. You don’t feel free to say, “How should I know? We’re talking about magma.”

Or maybe you would, but this particular teacher didn’t. She or he (I’m damned if I remember which but I’m pretty sure it was one of the two) gave us an answer, and even if it was a complete on-the-spot fabrication, we believed it. Because it came from a teacher.

It’s enough to make me wonder what else I should have thought to question.

So what’s the real answer to why American toilet doors are so sketchy? It’s probably not so rescue crews can extract kids from toilet stalls where they have, with the the predictable unpredictability of kids, locked themselves in. Or extract adults who’ve collapsed from heart attacks, strokes, or overdoses.

It’s probably also not so Woman A can ask Woman B in the next stall if she has paper in there because Woman A just discovered that her stall doesn’t have any. That happens, and it’s handy, but it’s an effect, not a cause. I don’t know if men do that. I suspect not, because in researching this post (in case you think reading this stuff is weird, you should just try writing it) I read several comments from men who say that men don’t talk to each other in what Americans call restrooms and the British call toilets. Women do. I’ve had some short but memorable conversations with strangers in them.

I might as well take this opportunity to say that Americans, despite the openness of the walls in their public toilets, don’t like to be reminded of what we’re doing there and go to extreme lengths to avoid calling toilets toilets. We’ve created plenty of euphemisms–restrooms, ladies’, gents’, the facilities–but the most generic word, I think, is bathroom, although even that has a bit of an unpleasant ring. That’s the problem with euphemisms. Eventually you figure out what you’re talking about and after that bathroom sounds too much like toilet and you end up asking for the little girls’ room.

And yes, it’s odd that a culture so phobic about calling a toilet a toilet leaves the user in not-quite-public view. I’m not even going to try to explain it. The way adults handle it is to pretend we don’t see them.

In Britain, the generic word for toilet is toilet. The bathroom is where you take a bath. Ask where the bathroom is in, say, a cafe and you get a strange look. It’s also called the loo if you’re either polite or a bit fussy. Or–well, I’m an immigrant here. I don’t understand the resonances. Like most things in Britain, what word you use has to do with what class you come from or what class you want to sound like you belong to, and it might have a layering or regional difference on top of that. I don’t expect to ever get the subtleties right. 

So in the journalistic tradition of using multiple sources–we want to be sure something this important is accurate, don’t we?–I googled toilet-door-related topics and found an assortment of comments from shocked Brits. Some were worried about the gap at the bottom and others about the gaps on the sides of the door, which are variously described as a quarter of an inch wide, a full inch wide, or the width of a finger. Whose finger? Which finger? I live in Britain and can’t go to a random selection of American restrooms to see if Cinderella’s glass slipper fits between the edge of the door and the edge of the frame. There’s a gap. That’s all we really need to know.

In addition to shocked comments, I found a selection of explanations for why the doors are the way they are, including that they make the floors easier to clean, that they discourage drug taking and sex, that they’re cheaper, and that anyone passing out in one would be easier to see,  although that assumes they’re clever enough to fall on the floor instead of staying seated.

A few people (including one architect) commented that the more money the users of an American restroom are likely to have, the more privacy they’re likely to find. Now that, unlike the British signals of class, I understand.

My best guess is that the doors are the way they are because they are the way they are. Some things in a culture can be explained. American racism? Go back to slavery and it all begins to make sense. The British gift for not learning languages well? The place has been an island since its early in its pre-history, and on top of that it had an empire so it could convince (or force) other people to learn English. American toilet doors, though? They started that way and so they continue to be that way.

There is a downside to British toilet doors. I know two people who’ve gotten locked in toilets, one child and one adult. It took a bit of work to get them out, but both were  extracted after a bit of pounding and yelling. I also know a woman who got locked in a toilet cubicle at the Vatican. It took so long to get her out that when she finally walked free she announced that she’d been beatified.

*

My thanks to Melanie for letting me quote her. I don’t suppose I’ve been helpful, but I’m glad to hear people were nice over there. And the breakfasts? They really are wonderful.

 

Teaching English to the English

This is a multiple choice test. Circle one answer. Circling more than one answer will cause a nuclear explosion. How is English taught in England?

(A)  Meticulously

(B)  Fussily

(C) Ineffectively

You are free to choose an incorrect answer, but be aware that your choice will follow you for the rest of your school career.

Time’s up. Please hand in your papers.

No, you cannot change your answer. Your papers will be returned to you the end of this post. Marking has been outsourced to the London Zoo, since capuchin monkeys working on zero-hours contracts are a cost-effective alternative to humans, and considerably less troublesome.

Totally irrelevant photo: a camellia.

While they’re working, let’s explore the subject to help you understand why your answer was wrong. It’s too late to help on the test but it will let you contemplate your mistakes in glorious detail.

Americans—and for all I know people from all non-British countries—tend to assume that British kids get a better education than kids in other countries. I got that impression knocked out of my head a few years after we moved to Britain, when we helped a kid study for her GCSE (a standardized test) in American history. Some of what she had to memorize was inaccurate. Some of it was true enough but pretty much irrelevant to the flow of American history. All of it had that random-collection-of-facts quality that made my own junior high and high school history classes so snorably pointless and guaranteed that tests were damn near impossible to study for.

That complaint, by the way, comes from someone who did well in history, in spite of snore-inducing textbooks. I only mention that so I don’t sound like a disgruntled non-employee. I’m fascinated by history, which is why I’m outraged at the way it’s taught.

But we’re supposed to be talking about how English is taught.

A year or two after we were introduced to the official English version of American history, the girl’s brother was studying a few chapters of Dickens for his GCSE in English. Not the whole book. Maybe the national curriculum didn’t allow time for an entire novel, maybe kids that age can’t be trusted with too many words, and maybe the Department for Education didn’t see the point of reading a whole novel when, after all, it was only a bunch of stuff Dickens made up. Your guess is as good as mine. What I do know is that the kids were supposed to put miniature samples of Dickens under the microscope and obsess over them.

They will, forever after, hate Dickens.

Okay, I’ve mentioned the national curriculum, so I should explain. We’re talking about England’s national curriculum: not Scotland’s, not Wales’s (or Wales’ if you like), not Northern Ireland’s.

The national curriculum was introduced in 1988, with the intention of making sure every child in a state school got the same standard of education. Or, depending on who you listen to, it sets a minimum standard. A 2008-9 report from a House of Commons committee says it accounts for–and I’m paraphrasing–every blessed second of teaching time in every year, so there’s no time for improvisation, responding to the students’ interests, or taking off on an inspired riff. Because everything will show up on a standardized test and the entire staff of any school with too many kids below average will be fed into a shredder.

All students are expected to test well above average. *

Okay, the report doesn’t exactly say that. It does say, “At times schooling has appeared more of a franchise operation, dependent on a recipe handed-down by Government rather than the exercise of professional expertise by teachers.”

Once the national curriculum was established, every government that came into power has fiddled with it, but the fiddler-in-chief was Michael Gove, who was so popular as education secretary that teachers celebrated when he lost his job in 2014.

He moved into another post, but his nit-picking continued to make good headline fodder. He’d been in the Ministry of Justice for two months when he posted a set of instructions to civil servants warning them not to use impact as a verb and to spell out does not instead of using a contraction.

“The phrases best-placed and high-quality are joined with a dash, very few others are,” he announced, splicing together two sentences that should have had a semicolon or a period between them and not bothering to either italicize or put quotation marks around the phrases in question. And, gee, that’s not a dash, Mike, it’s a hyphen.

The article where I found the quote goes on to say that he “also disapproves of ‘unnecessary’ capitalisations and the word ‘ensure’, which his civil servants must always replace with “make sure.’ ”

But we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the trail of scent Gove left as he wandered through the high-end jobs of Conservative politics. You know how easily I get distracted. Why do you bring these things up?

The incident that drew my attention to how English language skills, as opposed to English literature, are taught was a neighbor’s Facebook comment that she was struggling with fronted adverbials.

Struggling with what? I asked myself.

Myself didn’t answer. She didn’t have a clue.

I was saved from my ignorance by another neighbor, a teacher, who linked us to a post by Michael Rosen that not only explained what they are but why they’re not worth teaching. He didn’t go quite as far as saying they’re not worth knowing about but I doubt he’d argue with me if I said it.

The phrase “fronted adverbial” describes what you’re doing when instead of saying “we left at ten,” you say “at ten, we left.” You moved the adverbial clause from the back to the front.

I’m not sure it’s correct to say “I just fronted an adverbial,” but I did just say it. Or at least I typed it. It wasn’t as much fun as you’d think.

In some sentences, Rosen argues, it’s hard to work out whether the words you just, ahem, fronted apply to the subject (in which case they’re not adverbial) or the verb (in which case they are). What’s more, if you have trouble with figuring out which is which, the fault isn’t yours but the concept’s.

And if you can’t follow any of this, don’t worry, because you don’t need to. This kind of teaching isn’t about writing well, it’s about wriggling your human-shaped brain through Gove-shaped hoops.

Kids, however, are supposed to master it when they’re seven, give or take a few months. And pass a test to prove that they have. They’ll come away thinking that “at ten, we left” is better than “we left at ten.” Why? Because it’s been singled out as something they need to learn. If you can front an adverbial, you’re clever.

Our neighbor is I’m not sure how many decades over seven and I have no idea why she felt the need to get her head around the concept. I was too disoriented to ask.

At (if I remember correctly) the same age, the kids are also supposed to understand—

No, I don’t have the heart to give you the full list. Let’s grab a few terms and then run screaming from the room: determiners; clauses; subordinate clauses; and relative clauses.

Enough. We’re outta here.

Sorry, we’re back. I just found modal verbs. What effect does modal have on verbs? Well, when you stick modal on a clothing label it means the fabric’s a bio-based knit or woven fiber. When you stick it on a verb, it indicates that it’s washable.

Does that help?

Does learning grammar improve kids’ ability to write? According to TES, there’s no evidence to show that it does.

What’s TES? A weekly publication aimed at U.K. teachers. It’s been publishing since 1910 and is so well known that doesn’t feel the need to tell you what the letters of its name stand for, but I sent my spy Lord Google to find out and he tells me it was once called the Times Educational Supplement. 

The TES article doesn’t address the question of whether learning grammar puts kids to sleep in class, but you can bet your fronted adverbials that it does.

So there’s your brief introduction to the teaching of English today. We’ll hand your papers back in just a moment, but I can’t leave without a little more Gove-bashing. According to Zoe Brown in the Independent (the link’s above, under “teachers celebrated”), Gove also introduced “Latin lessons, chanting poetry, British values and children having to identify the past progressive tense before they could identify the UK on a world map. It was out with GCSE drama, dance lessons and To Kill A Mockingbird (because there are no lessons to be learnt from that novel).”

We’ve covered GCSEs, but what are British values? That’s a problem, because when they were first proclaimed to be the schools’ responsibility nobody seemed to be sure, and every politician who stumbled into print on the subject offered a different list, so the Department for Education created its official list of British values, and state schools have to stick their feet into it periodically, like Cinderella’s big-footed step-sisters, to remind themselves what their feet would look like if they were prettier.

Brown writes that Gove is “a traditionalist and an ideologue and his reforms seemed to be a desperate attempt to try and recreate his own education. So it was out with the Year Six Calculator Paper—because really who needs to know how to use a calculator in the 21st century? In with specific formal written methods that Gove himself approved. It wasn’t about teaching children to add and take away it was about teaching them to add and take away the way Michael Gove learnt to.”

He also had a copy of the King James Bible sent to every school, with a special foreword by—yes—his own brilliant theological self. If his theology’s as shaky as his writing, it should make an interesting read.The head teacher in one school (if you’re American, that’s a principal) wrote, “Ours is keeping my office door open as I write. A school where 86 per cent of the children have English as a second or third language and 82 per cent of children are Muslim has surprisingly little use for a King James Bible.”

King James alone knows how much the printing and sending cost.

The monkeys have delivered your papers. The correct answer was A. Those of you who gave the wrong answer are invited to impale yourselves on your number 2 pencils.
———————-
* For the joke followed by the asterisk, I’m indebted to Garrison Keillor for his creation, Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.
** A friend and fellow writer commented that my posts have seemed angry lately. Bizarrely enough, I hadn’t noticed. Now I can’t notice anything else. The problem is, I keep reading the newspaper. If I stop being even remotely funny, I trust someone will let me know, because I probably won’t notice that either. You’d be doing me a favor.

The Gloucester Cheese Rolling: a handful of links

Here in Britain, we’re recovering from the bank holiday (which is a strange phrase meaning a long weekend) by soaking in a bit of rain and looking back to one of the more bizarre events in a country full of bizarre events, the Gloucester Cheese Rolling, which took place over the holiday. The link you just skidded past will take you to an earlier post about it. Briefly, it’s a race in which contestants chase a cheese down a very steep hill.

I mention this because Ubi Dubium was kind enough to send me a link to an article about this year’s cheese race. Follow it and you’ll find lots photos of people who’ve fallen over and are rolling downhill, as well as a description of the race as “twenty young men chasing a cheese off a cliff and tumbling 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital.” Except that when I was there it involved a lot more than twenty and they weren’t all men. Other than that, I won’t quibble.

Okay, they weren’t paramedics. The local rugby team was at the bottom of the hill. Still, it does give you the flavor of the thing.

As long as we’re at it, here’s another article on the race, about a runner who’s won his twenty-first gloucester cheese, setting an all-time record. Among other things, it tells you that he doesn’t like gloucester cheese. He eats cheddar. The trick to winning, he says, is to stay on your feet. Which is like saying the that the trick to winning a marathon is to be faster than everybody else.

And since we’re talking about cheese, you can also read about the much tamer Stilton Cheese Rolling Championship by following this link or you can go vegan and read about the World Pea Shooting Championship here.

After all that, will anyone dare say that reading Notes isn’t educational? Or that Britain isn’t a very strange country?

Beneath London’s streets

Deep beneath the streets of London lurks a monster that knows how Londoners live today–what they eat, how they clean themselves, what gets them through the day. What will it do with the information? Either write a cheesy screenplay and make a fortune or come up through the plumbing and eat everyone it finds. Probably the first, because it’s eating well. It doesn’t need human flesh, which not only fights back but screams. Or at least it does in cheesy movies.

The monster’s called a fatberg, and in the best tradition of promos for cheesy movies, I’ve misrepresented it. The biggest one (roughly 750 meters long) has already been killed and autopsied. The ones still lurking underground are smaller, and although they’re growing, not one of them is alive. 

Fatbergs are made of solidified fat, sewage, and all-purpose gunk. And they’re clogging up the sewers not just in London but in other big cities around the country. So British TV being what it is, the big one was autopsied for our viewing pleasure.

This isn’t just an irrelevant photo, it’s stolen from an earlier post. I’m putting this post together on a toy typewriter and, what the hell, it’s available. Given the topic, we could do with a few flowers.

What do I mean about British TV being like it is? Well, it does a lot of nonfiction, which ranges from glorious to turn-the-channel. This one was somewhere in between. Beyond that, I’m not the best person to sum it up. I figured I was being vague enough that I could get away without having to explain what I meant, thanks. It may not have been enlightening, but at least it’s accurate.

Fatbergs form when a bit of cooking fat–or several gallons of the stuff–is poured down the drain and combines with the calcium it finds in the water to form a solid, which then sticks to a rough bit of sewer wall. Then a wet wipe comes along (wet wipes were the villains of the piece) and sticks to it. Then more fat sticks to that, and anything else that gets flushed down the toilet piles in on top, on the bottom, and on the sides, and while you’re still watching British TV, deep below you is 750 feet of solid crap–in the literal sense of the word– and other stuff blocking the sewer. Whatever gets flushed down the sewer, except the purest of liquids, can be part of a fatberg.

Isn’t your Friday getting off to a great start? Isn’t it just uplifting to read Notes?

So what did the autopsy tell us about how folks live in London? Well, they use cocaine, ibuprofen, caffeine, syringes and needles, paracetamol, morphine, heroin, condoms, magic mushrooms, steroids and gym supplements, tampons, amphetamines, sweetcorn, and hair tonic.

It’s the hair tonic that does the damage.

You didn’t think anyone has used hair tonic since the 1950s? Or maybe that was the 1920s? I didn’t either. I suspect they mean–to use a technical phrase–is hair goop. Or what the British call products. Not even hair products, just products. As if nothing else gets produced in the country.

A word about paracetemol: When my partner, Wild Thing, and I first moved to Britain, we figured it was some strange oracle the British consulted about aches and pains. Every country has its superstitions. As an outsider, you learn to live with them and not make funny faces. It turns out, though, that it’s what Americans know by the brand name Tylenol.

It’s not that Americans are more heavily oriented to brand names than the British. The British call vacuum cleaners hoovers, and using one to clean the floor is hoovering. Presumably Hoover made the first vacuum cleaners to hit the market here. The thing is, the British and Americans choose different things to call by brand names, making us sound eccentric to each other. But that’s a different post. Let’s go back to the fatberg.

So, Londoners use paracetemol. They also eat out a lot, because restaurants are the source of a lot of that cooking oil. The pattern is use, cool (presumably), pour down drain. Of course, home cooks contribute their share. From each according to their deep fat fryer…

And our bodies contribute whatever we put into them. The residue from prescription medicines, including antibiotics and estrogen. All those lovely bugs that cause digestive disasters–e coli, campylobacter, listeria. And antibiotic-resistant bacteria, although those may not come directly from us but from the uncontrolled combination of antibiotics and biota. I don’t know that. I’m guessing.

The things we drink out of also makes a contribution. Plasticisers from cups and plastic bottles can  mimic estrogens, and they’re in there too. The ones that don’t get trapped in fatbergs make their way into the rivers and oceans, doing some very weird stuff to the fish.   

The folks whose job it is to free up the sewers do it the modern way: by hand. They suit up, drop down into the sewers with shovels, and chop pieces off, which their buddies up top winch to street level. They manage not to pass out from the smell, or even complain about it. The only high-tech part of the job (and we’re relying on my memory here, which is an iffy proposition) is the gizmo (I love high-tech words) that beeps when it finds a toxic gas buildup.

On screen, they were not only good humored but very funny. In short, they’re heroes.

What can we learn from this? That image tourists have of historic Britain? It’s not the whole picture.

Modern life in historic Britain

Britain wears its history with style. Why wouldn’t it? It has so much of the stuff that it can change clothes every hour on the hour and not repeat an outfit in years.

The dry cleaning costs are horrendous, but hey, it’s worth it.

History or no, however, Britain’s a modern country. So let’s spend a moment or six talking about technology in Britain. And elsewhere, since technology crosses borders more easily than beleaguered humans are allowed to.

You may have read that Alexa, that sorcerer’s apprentice in your home (or not–I don’t really know you, do I? she said inserting a question into a statement in a very British way), has been known to eavesdrop on conversations that aren’t addressed to her. Or, in one case, to eavesdrop on an ad on television in which someone asks Alexa-on-the-screen to order cat food, so the Alexa-in-someone’s-home woke up and ordered cat food. 

Friends, do not let Alexa watch TV.

Irrelevant and now out of season photo: rhododendron budding despite the snow.

The owner was able to cancel the order before the house filled up with cat food but was disturbed enough by what happened to lodge a complaint with Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency, which after due consideration cleared the ad, or the company behind the ad, of any wrongdoing. On what grounds? That Alexa’s programmed to need human confirmation before it completes an order. So creepy as it is, it’s all okay.

A similar thing happened in California when a six-year-old told Alexa to order a $170 doll’s house and four pounds of sugar cookies, only in that case when Alexa asked, “Do you really want me to order expensive stuff and make your parents really, really mad at you?” the six-year-old said, “Hell, yes.”

If she’d been English, she’d have said, “Yes, please,” not, “Hell, yes.” And of course I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly. Not what she would’ve said if she’d been British, only what she and Alexa really did say.

The story hit not just the newspapers but radio and TV newscasts, prompting Alexas all over the wherever–nation? state? I’m not sure how far the story spread–to ask whoever was around if they should order doll’s houses. As writer Hari Kunzru tweeted, before long we’ll all have to “prevent our fridges gambling our savings in Vegas.“

Ah, but all those cloned Alexas do more than ask if they should order doll’s houses. For a while there, the press was full of stories about Alexas laughing spontaneously, for no reason their creeped-out owners could identify. Amazon reset them all–it’s done centrally; the only way the owners can seize control is to turn them off–so that they stopped laughing. Which might be even creepier. The suspicion lingers, like a whiff of garlic, that they know something we don’t. Only now they’re keeping any hint of it to themselves.

But it’s not just Alexa who orders us stuff we didn’t want. Starting in January, Tiffany Crow was besieged with stuff she didn’t order. She doesn’t have an Alexa listening to her household’s every belch and whistle, so however this happened that wasn’t it.

What kind of stuff? Oh, wireless speakers, fitness wristbands, projectors, globes, and I’m not sure what else–over 100 items, she said. None of it stuff she wants, unfortunately. She tried getting the deliveries stopped but got nowhere, so she started giving it to the neighbors, but even they reached their limit. She lost her sense of humor about it pretty quickly, because each delivery came with endless packaging, which had to be sorted and recycled. Plus there was all that stuff to get rid of.

So does she have the right to keep it or give it away? According to U.K. law, yes. She informed the company, she didn’t order the stuff, she didn’t order anything like it, and she didn’t order one of them and type in 1,000 by mistake. So it’s hers. She and her neighbors get to keep the loot. Even if they don’t want it.

I know someone who got eight kilos of chocolate-covered Turkish delight by typing in the wrong amount. He had to pay for it, but I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about the mistake.

If you want that in pounds, multiply it by 2.2. That’s one of the few things involving numbers I trust my memory on.

Evenutally Tiffany Crow got the Guardian‘s Money section involved and Amazon miraculously found a way to turn off the loot faucet and apologized but “declined to offer an explanation.”

A glitch on this scale can only happen electronically, so it’s time to quote Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, who says automation not only didn’t speed up the company’s car production line, it slowed it down. I’m cheating here, because it’s not a British company, but then California’s not a British county/state/province/colony/dependency either. I do cheat when it suits me. Just look the other way if it bothers you.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he said. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”  

Our final high-tech success story is from a British bank, TSB, which used to stand for something but now only stands for TSB. It was recently bought by a Spanish bank, which directed it to update its computer programs, so it tried to transfer 1.3 billion customer records and–you see it coming, don’t you? Not only did they lock people out of their accounts, they gave some people access to other people’s records and created phantom credits and withdrawals. One customer found himself £13,000 to the good. Another found that he’d paid a direct debit to Sky Digital 81 years from now.

A member of the House of Lords discovered that he had a balance of £0.

TSB said it was having a few intermittent problems. Then it said it was having a few more serious problems than that. Then it said a bunch of other stuff but nobody believed anything it said anymore. Its chief executive, whose name really is Paul Pester, admitted that a week after the problems started the bank was on its knees. He refused to answer questions about his bonus, which was said to be £1.6 million and was supposed to be paid once the data migration was complete.

A little while later he was publicly giving up his bonus, which by then had grown to £2 million.

That sound you hear? It’s Alexa laughing.

*

A quick note: I meant to write about the Commonwealth this week, in the hope of learning something about it, but I got lost in the detail and lost my sense of humor over the current scandal involving the government, Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, and plain ol’ racism. The scandal recently brought down the home secretary. I may manage to write about some bits of it yet, but I can’t promise. If you want to know what I’m talking about (and if you live in Britain you almost surely know already), you can start by googling “windrush generation landing cards destroyed.”

Some topics work out, others don’t. This one hasn’t.

The ducks of Britain

What’s life like for the ducks of Britain? I can’t speak for all of them, but–. Okay, I can’t speak for any of them, but I can guess that it’s not bad for this group.  Apologies for having to send you on a wild duck chase if you want to see the photo. I still haven’t figured out how to snatch photos from news stories. What the hell, they copyrighted anyway. It’s worth a click.

My thanks to Deb for sending me the link, which I’d have missed without her.