Quotes from politicians who should have shut up

Two quotes from politicians to carry you through the week:

From the Ministry of Mixed Metaphors comes Tim Farron, who was trying to explain why he stepped down as leader of the Liberal Democrats: “I had bet the farm on our position of Brexit but I was content that if I went down with the ship I went down fighting.”

Once the ship goes down, the fields will to be too muddy to plow for a long time, Tim.

And from the Committee for Resurrecting Dead Authors comes Andrea Leadsom, who was briefly in the running to lead the Conservative Party. In what sounds like a desperate attempt to one-up a Labour MP who was praising women’s achievements, she said, “I would just add one other great lady to that lovely list…and that’s Jane Austen, who will feature on the new £10 note, who I think is one of our greatest living authors.”

Austen dies 200 years ago. Waterstones bookstore jumped onto twitter and asked if anyone knew who her agent was so they could book her for an event.

British beer and summer festivals

An ad insert in the Saturday paper last month claimed to be a guide to “the best beer, food and good times in the UK this summer.” Mostly, though, it was a guide to beer, but if you drink enough of the stuff you’ll probably decide you had a good time. Even if you don’t remember it.

Anyway, the insert had a lot about beer and a little about food (some of it cooked in beer), but it threw in a few festivals—where beer’s sold—so no one had to feel like they were reading Alcoholics Weekly.

And it all came with a generous side of pretension.

Irrelevant photo: a blackberry bush–or bramble–in flower if not in perfect focus.

Because I blog, though, I read the thing instead of tossing it in the recycling the way I would have in my saner days. I only do these things for you, and I hope you appreciate it.

So what did I learn? That you should pour your beer at a 45-degree angle, just the way you’d pour champagne.

Sorry, you didn’t know how to pour champagne? What kind of barbarians am I hanging out with?

I learned that beer should be served in “glassware that maximises its notes and taste.”

How can you tell if it maximizes them? This will vary with the alcohol content of your brew, but as a general rule, if your beer hits a pure A above middle C you’ve maximized too many notes and it’s time to go home.

Let someone else drive, will you?

I learned that beer has fewer calories than red wine. And possibly than white wine, although it only gave statistics for red.

It also has fewer calories than the entire contents of a restaurant refrigerator, but the supplement didn’t brag about that.

The statistics were for 4% beer, although the beers whose alcohol content was mentioned ran as high as 4.7%. How much of a difference does that make? I have no idea. But do you want my advice? Of course you don’t. Do I care? Of course I do, but I won’t hear from you till long after my fingers have stopped typing so what you might have said is kind of irrelevant, isn’t it?

So here’s the advice: If you’re counting calories, drink water. And don’t eat the entire contents of the restaurant refrigerator.

Since I just did something particularly British, I should take a moment to point it out. Embedding a question your listener can’t answer (“isn’t it?”) into a statement (“what you might have said is kind of irrelevant,”) is a very British way to put a sentence together. I’m not sure what it tells us about the culture, but even after eleven years in this country it still throws me. Someone could be explaining physics, or how to count time when you’re mangling a jazz standard—two topics about which I’m deeply ignorant, although I mangle all too well—and at the most intricate and baffling point in the explanation they’ll ask for confirmation of it all by saying, “isn’t it?” or something along those lines.

And I’ll nod. It’s automatic. Or worse, I’ll say yes, although for all I know they made the whole thing up. How could I tell? Especially since the British count musical time in breves and crotchets and hemidemisemiquavers and I learned (barely) to (not quite) count them in whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes.

I don’t think that eighth note doesn’t take us down as far as the hemidemisemiquaver, but when I was (not quite) learning this stuff, notes any smaller than an eighth scared me into catatonia. I’d look at all those marks on the page and see a particularly intricate and intimidating form of no information at all. So I’ll stop with the eighth note.

The hemidemisemiquaver really does exist, even if it sounds like something Dr. Seuss made up. I’m not sure how much time one takes up, but little enough that if I thought about it too long it would scare me much more than any eighth note ever did, so let’s move on.

I still haven’t figured out what the British do when they’re tossed a question like, “That’s a hemidemisemiquaver, isn’t it?” Do they agree, even if they don’t know? Do they ignore the question mark and wait for the speaker to go on, since it’s not really a question? For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve managed not to notice.

But we were talking about beer. Which is essential to British culture, so forget the fripperies. Let’s get back to the core of our conversation.

How do I know beer’s essential to British culture? (That’s not an isn’t-it? question, it’s a lazy way of structuring a piece of writing and lazy writing crosses cultures comfortably.) I know because the guide says so: “Eccentricity,” it says in a desperate effort to charm, “is an essential part of Britishness; as much a part of our national identity as beer drinking, apologizing too frequently and making a cup of tea at the first sign of trouble.”

We’ll skip the apologies and the tea in this post and instead work our way toward exploring that eccentricity, because almost as essential to British culture as beer are summer festivals, and the guide lists a handful. Most—and I’m sure this is coincidence—are beer festivals, but when they’re not, it helpfully tells you where to look for a beer if you attend.

“Make a date with beer,” it says.

A date? Damn. When I drank the stuff, it didn’t insist on a date. If you were at least minimally solvent, you could just wander into the nearest liquor store and pick some up. You didn’t have to bring it flowers or even wear clean clothes. But beer’s gone upscale. It took a course on improving its self-esteem. So make a date. Wash your clothes. Take a shower. People can tell.

The guide says food and beer festivals “aren’t just fun—they can be highly educational too.” One festival is described as “upmarket camping” and includes a bar on wheels (if you can’t catch it, go to bed; you’ve had enough) and a stargazing session led by an astronomer—presumably sober and not in an acute state of despair over what it takes a highly educated professional to make a living these days, but I don’t really know. People who couldn’t catch the bar can lie on their backs and be educated until they pass out.

But I promised we’d come back to that business about eccentricity, didn’t I?

Sleaford, Lincolnshire (actually the nearby and smaller Swaton, where as far as I can figure it out the festival takes place), held the World Egg Throwing Championships on June 25 this year. It was mentioned in the beer supplement, but we’re going to abandon the supplement at this point and go to primary sources.

In one contest, the goal is to hit a target—probably a real person but I can’t swear to that. With an egg, of course. In another, contestants toss an egg back and forth , moving further and further apart until the inevitable happens. In a third, they pass an egg down a line as quickly as possible.

But the best contest is Russian Egg Roulette, where each contestant gets a tray of six eggs and breaks them, one at a time, against his or her forehead. Five of them are hardboiled. One’s raw. I’m guessing that if you pick that one, you lose.

The event is also—helpfully—be a beer festival.

George Clooney declined an invitation to attend, although I can’t think why. He was invited after organizers read that he had an egg-flinging machine at home to discourage paparazzi.

The article I read didn’t say who has to clean up the eggs George flings. I’m guessing it’s not him.

Stories I found online show the competition going back to 2010, so I wouldn’t say this qualifies as a traditional British festival. If you’re thinking about entering next year, a small change in your google search will call up a set of links about the physics of egg throwing, which might or might not be useful, depending on your ability to understand them.

Another recently invented competition is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship, which is held in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, and is now in its thirty-second year. Contestants swim two lengths of a 60-meter (or 55-meter, depending on who you want to believe) trench that runs through a peat bog. They can’t use any conventional swimming stroke but they can use a snorkel and (as far as I can figure out) must dress in some sort of ridiculous costume. I don’t know how they decide who wins, or if anyone cares.

The pictures are great. It seems to be held in August, so there’s still time if you want to enter.

Moving on, Bognor Regis holds the Birdman Competition in which people jump off the end of a pier and either try to fly or just have a good time dropping into the water. (Beer may also be involved here. I couldn’t possibly comment.) . My favorite contestant was the guy dressed as a box of popcorn.

Disappointingly, some of the contestants actually did manage to glide. I do know that birds, in general, fly, and that flying’s probably the goal here, but given the choice I’ll still root for the box of popcorn plunging feet-first into the sea.

I watched the videos with the sound off. If they say anything truly obnoxious, I didn’t catch it. You’re on your own.

Our final festival is a traditional one, dating back to the ninth century. Or the sixteenth, depending on who you want to believe. This is a truly inspired event: The Dog Inn, in Ludham Bridge, Norfolk, hosts a dwile flonking competition.

The official website says:

“Dwile Flonking is normally played by two teams dressed as country ‘yokels’ (or any other fancy dress including team T-Shirts/uniform etc). One team joins hands to form a ring which circles round, leaping into the air as they do so (Girting). A. member of the other team goes into the middle of the circle and puts a beer-soaked dwile on the end of a stick (Driveller). He spins round and has to project (Flonk) the dwile off the driveller with the object of hitting one of the players circling round him. He scores points for his team according to which part of the body he hits. When all the players in one team have flonked, they then form a circle and girt, while the other team takes turns to flonk. The team with the most points at the end being the winners.

“So the point is to flonk your dwile off the driveller and hit a girter.”

If you break the rules, the referee calls a foul flonk.

The original rules required the flonker to drink a pot of beer—somewhere between half a pint and a pint of the stuff. But in these milder times we live in, flonkers have the choice of drinking the beer or pouring it over their heads and drinking an equal amount of ginger beer.

And—just to prove a claim I made in some much earlier post which I’m not going to go looking for, that the British sing when drunk—there’s a song involved: “As the teams, enter the playing area, and after the game, they: may feel like singing the flonking song “Here we’em be t’gether”. The first verse plus the chorus is normally sung at the start of the game, the full song may be sung at the end (if they have enough breath left).”

And no, I’m not slandering them when I say they’re drunk, I’m just taking their word for it. One of the verses goes:

Now the game it do end and down go the sun,
And one team ha’ lorst and the other ha’ won.
But nobody knows of the score on the board,
Cos they’re flat on their backs and as drunk as a Lord!

Championships are listed in Coventry and Nottingham as well as Ludham Bridge, and I find a reference to dwiling in Suffolk as well. Wikipedia (at the moment) calls it a traditional English game and quotes a source that says, “’The rules of the game are impenetrable and the result is always contested.”

I believe both statements, even if someone’s gone through and changed them by now.

Breaking news: Trainy McTrainface meets the public

Official Sweden has a better sense of humor than official Britain. They asked the public to name four trains running between Stockholm and Gothenburg, and when Trainy McTrainface won, they didn’t launch a coup. One train is now Trainy McTrainface.

If you want the back story, you’ll find it here. And a bit more of it over there as well.

We now return to our regularly scheduled midweek silence, but this was too important to wait.

High tech news from around the world

As a rule, I write about Britain, but nothing’s more British than thinking the weather’s better someplace else, so let’s take a quick and random tour of the world, by way of the stranger bits of news I’ve found lately.

Irrelevant photo: elderflower–with a nettle snuggling up to it on the right.

Germany: An exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther tacking his 95 theses on a church door, and in the process kicking off the Reformation, includes a robot named BlessU-2, which can bless you in one of five languages (or eight according to a different source) and beams light from its hands. It can also recite a bible verse–maybe the same one over and over and maybe one per customer; I’m not sure.

The five languages are German, English, French, Spanish, and Polish. If you’d like to be blessed in any other language (or in any other religion, while we’re at it), you’re shit outta luck (unless there really are eight), but you can choose either a male or a female voice, which might ease your pain.

Just for the record, Luther’s theses were in Latin. Latin doesn’t seem to be one of the languages you can choose. There’s not a lot of call for it these days.

The Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau “is behind the initiative,” whatever that means, and hopes the robot will provoke debate, especially about whether a machine can bless you.

That kind of left me speechless, so I turned to a video of the robot (it’s in the first link), hoping for a little drama. Sadly, all that happens is that its hands light up. I was hoping lighting bolts would shoot out of its hands. Now that might make me feel I’d been blessed.

Britain: The church of England isn’t installing robots, but it is planning to add a digital dimension to its collection plates. It’s trying out contactless payment systems in 40 churches—if, that is, it can get around the problem of how to pick up a signal through the massive stone walls of those ancient churches.

May the robot bless it in any of five (or eight) languages and help it find a strong signal.

China: A Buddhist temple in China now has a robot monk that can chant mantras and explain basic Buddhist beliefs. I have no idea what it said in the video clip I just linked to, but the listeners thought it was pretty funny.

Canada just introduced its first—in fact, anyone’s first—glow-in-the-dark coin. It’s worth $2. Canadian dollars, in case that isn’t boringly obvious. If you turn off the lights, the coin’s northern lights glow green and blue.

I want one.

In India, a government ministry recommends that pregnant women avoid meat, eggs, and “impure thoughts.” Also “anger, attachment, hatred, and [in case it’s not the same thing as impure thoughts] lust.”

We can only wish them luck. Impure thoughts can travel through walls—yea, even through those of massive stone temples (or churches, not to mention the flimsiest bedroom ones)—and are extremely hard to avoid.

Or so I’m told.

Back in Britain, politicians are using WhatsApp to plot against (or possibly even for) each other and to make deals. Being electronic and all, the messages are highly leakable. So far, most of the leaks seem to be deliberate, but one MP, Angela Rayner, apparently forwarded a message to the wrong group, after which she apologized for “being a cow.”

I’d heard politicians were out of touch but honestly: Cows don’t use smart phones, Angela. The little buttons are too small for their hooves.

As long as we’re back in Britain, let’s stay a minute and drop in on a squabble of authors, even if only one side is squabbling. Joanna Trollope ripped into J.K. Rowling for using Twitter. She said it was a threat to the literary industry.

“Creating this mass following and tweeting several times a day is like wanting to be…Kim Kardashian,” she told the daily Mail. “Some writers like JK Rowling have this insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time, and that’s entirely driven by their ego.”

And talking to the Mail? That’s driven by a desire to engage in the most high-minded literary discussion, because that’s what people buy the Mail for.

Rowling (wisely) hasn’t bothered to respond, but all the way down here in Cornwall I heard her rolling her eyes.

And finally, everywhere: Or everywhere Gmail’s fingers reach, anyway. Google’s launching Smart Reply (it’s actually a relaunch, but never mind that)–an automated reply system that reads through your email and suggests answers you might want to send. According to Wired, “Google is assuming users want to offload the burdensome task of communicating with one another.”

I’m sure we do. I’ll have my robot contact your robot and they can meet for coffee. You and I don’t need to be involved at all.

British schools: kids, commas, and tests

We interrupt our scheduled mid-week quiet time to report on a bit of educational nit-picking. But first, a bit of preamble:

In the interests of improving British education, students here get tested. A lot.* The idea is to make sure all schools meet some minimal standards, then to make the minimal standards higher than minimal, and after that to correct the problems that grew out of or were revealed by any earlier testing, which you do by adding more tests. At the end of which the kids–as Garrison Keillor put it–will all be above average.

Garrison Keillor’s a Minnesota reference that Americans from the other 49 states may or may not recognize and that non-Americans probably won’t. Don’t worry about it. He’s a funny guy but he’s a side issue.

If the answer to all educational problems is to test, it seems fair to ask what they’re testing for.

Why, things they can mark, of course. And more than that, things they can mark easily.

Irrelevant photo: Valerian. This will not be on the test.

It’s not impossible to mark stuff like deep thought, good writing, and comprehension, but it’s harder than marking yes/no, right/wrong, up/down, which means it costs more, and anyway it involves an element of subjectivity and, um, thought. All that really good stuff is hard to quantify. So if you’re setting up a foolproof system, what you do instead is set standards that make the process–not to mention the product– so prefabricated that you’re no longer worrying about fluff like thought and good writing, you’re checking whether the kids have done what they were asked–sorry, make that told–to do.

And there we have standardized testing. In the lower grades, the schools look good if their kids do well and look bad if they don’t. In the upper grades, ditto, but now the kids’ chances in life depend on doing well. So the schools teach to the tests and everything narrows down.

Isn’t childhood fun? Don’t you just wish you were a kid again?

When the national average on the tests does down, everyone panics. Our kids aren’t learning. Our schools aren’t teaching. Our country’s falling apart. And when they do do well? A smaller number of people panic, but they do it so well that surely the numbers don’t count. The tests have been dumbed down. Too many kids passed. We’re not asking enough of them.

So, that’s the preamble.

In the most recent primary school tests, kids lost points because their commas weren’t perfectly curved and their semicolons had floated too far away from the words they followed.

The directions for people marking the tests are so specific that if I were grading papers I’d need a see-through ruler. And Prozac. One section says, “The comma element of the semicolon inserted should be correct in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation. . .  Where the separation of the semicolon is excessive, neither element of the semicolon should start higher than the the letter ‘I’. The dot of the semicolon must not be lower than the letter ‘w’ in the word ‘tomorrow.’ ”

Which is very different from the “w” in the word “water.”

In spite losing points for straight commas and oversized semicolons, 61% of the kids met their targets in reading, writing, grammar, and math, compared with 53% last year.

Which proves the tests have been dumbed down and the country’s falling apart.

 

  • A cross-party committee of MPs warned that the some of the tests were endangering both kids’ learning and their well-being. So far, that doesn’t seem to be slowing anyone down.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part sixish

The search questions that lead people to Notes have been killingly dull lately, but I did find a few with some spark. So let’s visit to the minds of those good folks who, day after day, search the internet for answers to life’s most improbable questions.

Language

A search asked about “british places ignored syllables.” Well, silly me. I thought it was people who ignored the syllables, not the places. But no. The way it works is that Derby gets bored with being Derby after a century or ten and decides to be Darby. But all those road signs are already in place, and do you have any idea how expensive they are? So the spelling stays Derby but now we all have to say Darby or we’ll piss the place off.

And Woolfardisworthy? It can’t be bothered to mumble anything longer than “Woolsery” these days. It’s old. It’s tired. Show some respect, people: Call it Woolsery.

C’mon, that’s at least as sensible an explanation as the truth. If you want something marginally more sensible, try looking here.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what this is. Other than a flower, of course.

A related search read, “pronunciation of geography.”

Ooh, I know the answer to that. It’s pronounced almost the way it’s spelled, which makes it unusual in our language: gee-OGG-ruh-fee.

Someone asked, “what would be the british dialect for ‘tube of toothpaste.’ ”

Um. that would be “tube of toothpaste.”

I can’t comment on how well or awkwardly English dialects other than American match up with British, but I can tell you this: If you’re American, you’ll get by as long as you stick to dental hygiene. It’s when you get to clothing and the casual words for a few significant body parts that you should start worrying.

Someone wanted to know about the pronunciation of the Stone of Scone. Here’s what you need to know: The thing you eat rhymes with either cone or con, and which one you rhyme it with depends on where you live, where you grew up, what color your hair is, whether you’re wearing earrings today, what class you belong to or want people to think you belong to, and a variety of other factors too complicated for a mere foreigner (and remember, I am one) to understand. The Stone of Scone, though, is not edible and I wrote about it once already, so I’m going to hide behind myself and refer anyone who’s interested to my earlier post.

I’m not actually going through my search questions so I can refer you back to earlier posts. Blogging experts tell us to find excuses to do that because it bumps up your stats (translation: makes it look like you have more readers), but I check my search questions and write about them because they’re absurd. And what’s life without absurdity? Linking to earlier posts keeps me from boring either myself or those of you strange enough to have stuck around here for a while.

Someone wanted to know the British name for the semibreve. It’s the semibreve.

Since I’m reduced to helpless giggles anytime I’m around someone British discussing musical notes, I thought I’d better check with with Dr. Google before I went any further. Dr. G. says a semibreve is “a note having the time value of two minims or four crotchets, represented by a ring with no stem. It is the longest note now in common use.”

Sorry. It’s not just the names, although I find them hysterical. It’s the act of defining something incomprehensible by comparing it to something equally incomprehensible–something you’d only understand if you didn’t need to ask the meaning of the first word–that finishes me off.

But to go back to the question: It’s the Americans who call the semibreve something else—a whole note.

What’s a full breve? An antiquated note with the value of what I learned to call two whole notes.

Google, as it so often does, offered to translate semibreve into French. It’s semibreve. (Somehow or other, I left it set to French, but it has a whole list of languages it can mangle a word into.) The semibreve is also a semibreve in Spanish. No translation is available for Amharic, but in Russian it’s целая нота. Which, even though my Russian’s minimal at best, I understand better than “semibreve,” because if you take the words apart it translates to English as whole note.

Excuse me for a few minutes. I’m going to hide in the corner and giggle helplessly while I repeat “minim,” “crotchet,” and “quaver.” Why don’t you go ahead and read about wigs until I pull myself together?

Wigs

As always, a bunch of people asked about wigs: “why british lawyers still wear those wigs in court” is typical enough to stand in for almost all of them. Short answer? Because they have to. They’re bald. Men, women, and everyone in between—even the very few dogs who passed the bar exam. Every last one of them is bald. And they don’t want to talk about it.

Another query asked, “what do british lawyers wear to court.” (Almost no search question arrives with a question mark in tow. Or a capital letter. No one can be bothered using a question mark or a cap these days. They know they can get away without them so they don’t even pretend to make an effort. The ox cart of civilization, my friends, is rattling itself into little pieces on the bumpy roads of modern communication.)

Where were we. (See? No question mark. I tell you. Kids these days!) What British lawyers wear to court—other than wigs, of course. Why, swimwear. The men wear budgie smugglers, the women wear two-pieces, and the dogs wear water wings. Any lawyer who doesn’t fall into one of those basic categories can mix and match any old which way.

You’d think people would know these things by now.

The judges wear robes (no, not the bath type; the Harry Potter type) and haven’t been able to stop laughing since the new rules were introduced. They don’t find quavers and crotchets amusing, they don’t crack a smile at the wigs, but the swimwear? They’ve lost all dignity over it.

Someone else wanted to know if British solicitors wear wigs in court. I’m fairly sure the answer’s no, because solicitors are responsible for the out-of-court half of the lawyer business. It’s the barristers who appear in court.

Since the topic of wigs comes up so often, I guess it’s time to say that Britain makes an odd connection between the law and funny headgear. I mean, can we forget the wigs for a minute? Have you looked at the hats cops wear? The strategy, I think, is to disable the criminals (or villains, as they—yes, really—say here). Have you ever tried to start a football riot when you’re doubled over laughing?

Another question was about British legal wigs, and it’s a relief not to have to write about the illegal ones, because sooner or later, you know, we were going to get caught.

Okay, I’m faking my way through this. I don’t know anything about the legal wigs. Dangerous as it was, I was on firmer ground when we were out there on the edge with the illegal ones, so let’s move on, okay?

Manners

Someone asked about “tutting in a queue.” This is a well-informed search question. The writer knows what tutting is: the almost inaudible sound of someone British disapproving (violently, in their opinion) of whatever you just did. If you were raised to know the power of a tut, you will crumble to dust when tutted. It’s the modern version of banishment or outlawing. It shoves you—the tuttee—outside of the human community, where you will no longer receive friendship, sympathy, or the protection of law.

And if you weren’t raised to know its power? You’ll never know it happened.

So that’s the what, now let’s get to the rest of the question. A queue is what Americans call a line, and the British create one in all situations involving more than one person: Then they wait their turn, without shoving, elbowing, or behaving badly.

So what happens if you find two people waiting (in a queue) for a bus and you stand off to one side till the bus comes and then get on first? You will be tutted within an inch of your life. And while you’re busy pushing your way in, the two people will still be in their line—you didn’t expect them to step out of it, did you?—so the tutting will be from the queue if not exactly in the queue.

That was the search question, remember: “tutting in a queue.”

It gets messy, wandering onto the shaky ground where prepositions build their homes. You know prepositions, right? Anything you can do with a cloud—be in it, on it, with it, of it, around it, near it. They’ve got to be one of the messiest elements of any language, because either they follow no logic or they follow a different logic in each language.

A few of quick examples: 1, Are you on a chair or in a chair? It depends on the language you’re sitting in. 2, The Yiddish-speaking immigrant garment workers in New York bequeathed to my generation a sentence that made, I’m sure, perfect sense in Yiddish: I work by buttons. I’m seventy and still haven’t quite figured it out. 3, Look up the overlapping (to an English speaker) meanings of the Spanish por and para and you’ll get a sense of why prepositions are one of the things a second-language speaker consistently mangles.

But back to our search question. If the tutter is in the queue, can we also say that the tut in the queue? Or is it the act of tutting that’s in the queue? Actually, can anything as insubstantial as a tut be in anything physical?

Well, yes. A room.

I’m going to stop before I combust. The best I can do is leave you with those questions to ruin your weekend, because I’m moving on.

Another question was about road courtesy, and I have to say, the roads in Britain are extremely courteous. As are the drivers, although I’ll never convince anyone British of that. They tell me that today’s drivers have lost all respect for other people and for common decency. They’ll use the phrase road rage, which in this country tends to mean yelling at someone, not shooting them.

To be clear, it does occasionally mean someone gets punched, which can take the fun out of a trip to the beach, but by American standards? That’s not road rage, just bad temper.

What today’s drivers need is a serious tut.

Several people wanted to know about British profanity and one asked about “british swear insults.” They’re imaginative, which is why a couple of queries about cockwombles found their way to me, since it’s a question I did address.

I just love being an expert on something.

Great Britain

Invariably, a raft of people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. (Is a raft of people plural or singular? What a messed-up language we have. The more I know, the less I’m sure of anything.) I’ve written about why it’s called that and I’m bored with it. The more interesting questions ask things like “why is Britain Britain,” so let’s talk about that instead.

It’s because Britain’s stuck being Britain, the same way I’m stuck being Ellen Hawley. I could change my name—I thought about it at one point, and if you’re interested I’ll tell the tale, probably in the comments since it’s not worth a whole post—but even if I had, I’d still be me. Only the packaging would have changed.

That leads me to ask what a Britain is. You can’t deal with why it’s something until you figure out what you’re talking about.

Britain’s not—surprise, surprise—a country. The country is the United Kingdom. Britain’s a geographical term (I’m still bored with it; go see the earlier post if you want something marginally sensible). It’s also not a nation. The nations in the U.K. are Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England. And Cornish nationalists would add Cornwall to the list.

So I’m going to assert—in the absence of any audible opposition—that I’m not being asked about Britain’s culture (nation) or history (country) but about its location (geography). Therefore, the answer to the question is as follows:

Britain is where it is because the British can’t move it. Most British people believe they’d like to live in a different climate (most of them, one that’s drier and warmer), so if towing were possible they’d have moved it somewhere else by now. Being human, they’d have spent their travel time arguing over whether this was the best direction to tow it in and when to drop anchor, but they would have moved it somewhere.

The problem is, or was, that it’s glued down. It’s not going anywhere.

Have I clarified that? I thought so.

Strange questions

Someone typed “little lamb and dog disappeared in u.k.” And they found me. Why? Well, I use the word dog in a heading, and U.K.’s in the title. So “What the hell,” the algorithm said to itself. “Where else am I going to send this? Dump it on that Hawley woman. It’ll keep her out of trouble for a while.”

As it happens, my partner and I have found lambs out wandering, but they were with their mother, not with a dog, and it was a while ago, so it would’ve been a different lamb. I’ll keep an eye out, though, if it’ll help.

Could someone let me know who to contact if I find them?

Someone else was—well, looking for something. All I can say for sure is that someone typed in “who use 6ish.” I probably did. I’m an –ish kind of person where numbers are involved, but I suspect I wasn’t what they were looking for. I did, though, in honor of whoever was looking, use sixish in the title of this post. One of these days I’ll figure out how many of them them there are in this category.

The fact that the question came to me probably means I claimed an earlier post in this category was also the sixthish. Sorry.

And finally, someone asked, “what do brits think of disney world.”

Wild Thing—my partner, who I haven’t written about in ages, not because I’ve forgotten about her but because the blog’s taken a less personal turn lately—was in Orlando, Florida, for a conference a hundred years ago, and she swore the place was full of British tourists wearing mouse ears and moaning about how they couldn’t find a decent cup of tea and what kind of motel/hotel doesn’t have a kettle in every room anyway?

For years, whenever someone in Britain told us they’d been to the U.S. she’d ask where they’d been. If they said Orlando—and they often did—she’d say, “We really don’t all wear mouse ears.”

I’m not at all sure they got the joke. Or recognized that they’d heard one. She got tired of finding out how many people go to Orlando and doesn’t usually ask these days.

Anyway, I think the answer is that the Brits who like it are happy to wear mouse ears. And the ones who don’t? They aren’t.

Does that help?

Of potholes and politics

People involved in British politics swear that politicians get elected (and unelected) mostly over potholes and garbage pickup, although it isn’t called garbage in Britain it’s called, um, something else. Not trash. And not dust, although the thing you put it in a dustbin, or a bin for short.

Okay, I googled it: It’s called rubbish, which is also what you’d call a team someone else supports.

Calling a team that is a great way to start a fight if you’re in a pub and it’s getting late and everyone’s well oiled. Just in case you need to know.

But I’m off topic again, aren’t I?

If, as someone famous once said, all politics are local, the residents of Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire are at the heart of political life. They’re worked up about their potholes. The council—that’s what you call local government, for those of you who need a translation—has been ducking the pothole issue, residents say, so in mid-May, after a rain had filled the potholes nicely, they floated a mass of rubber ducks on them. And called the BBC, which put some nifty photos online. I’m sure there’s a way to post them, but I have no idea what it is. You’ll just have to follow the link.

Relevant but fake photo: This is–as you may have figured out–a rubber duck. Or a plastic one but they’re called rubber ducks, so let’s not argue. We were getting on so well. The point is, it’s not in a pothole, it’s in a bowl in our back yard.

The Poke calls it the most British protest ever. I’m not sure what makes it so British, although duck races are a big thing at fundraisers and village fetes around here.

Fete, by the way, is pronounced fate. No, don’t ask me. I don’t understand it either. Besides, we’re talking about rubber ducks and it’s rude to interrupt.

For years, Wild Thing and I saw signs along the roads announcing duck races and for years we meant to go to one and didn’t. Then we found out they involved rubber ducks, not real ones, so now Wild Thing wants to raise a duck and show up with it tucked under her arm, saying, “I’ll thank you to enter my duck in the race.”

If it ever happens, I promise to post pictures, but I’m not sure a duckling and a cat are a good long-term combination.

Anyway, the only other reason I can think of for this being the most British protest ever is that the sense of humor has a particularly British tinge—dry, in spite of all that rain—but even so the claim seems a bit overdone in a country known for understatement. So maybe that should be “A moderately British protest.”

The BBC read through the county council’s website and quotes it as saying that any pothole the “depth of a coke can or the size of a dinner plate on a quiet carriageway” may need urgent attention.

If the ducks haven’t gotten them filled by now, I suggest that the residents follow up with a picnic—Coke cans, dinner plates, and whatever Oxfordshire offers as a substitute for the Cornish pasty.

You’ll find additional inspired ways to celebrate potholes in a second post on the Poke.

A quick introduction to morris dancing

Morris dancing is—.

Oh, hell, I haven’t finished the first sentence and already I’m in trouble.

Morris dancing divides people. You love it or you hate it, and if you hate it you go out of your way to make fun of it. It’s one of those things people in Britain compare to Marmite, a brownish paste that’s made in Britain (6,000 tons of the stuff a year, filing some 50 million jars) and that you can spread on toast and eat if you like it or run from, screaming, if you don’t. No one’s neutral about Marmite.

No one’s neutral about morris dancing either, but morris dancers turn out at fairs and festivals with their bells and sticks and streamers and flowers, and they dance as happily as if they knew for a fact that everyone loved them. You can’t help admiring them for that.

Or I can’t anyway. And I want to present this as neutrally as possible–especially since I’m not in love with morris dancing but people I like are.

Rare sighting: a relevant photo here at Notes. These are morris dancers at the Royal Cornwall Show. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Morris dancing is an English tradition. And a Cornish one. I add that because some people consider Cornwall English and others very emphatically don’t.

How traditional is traditional? I’m not the only person who can’t answer that. The Morris Ring writes, “The earliest confirmation of a performance of morris dancing in England dates from London on 19 May 1448, when ‘Moryssh daunsers were paid 7s (35p) for their services.’ ” The S is shillings. The P is pence. Your guess is as good as mine what that bought back then. They may have been highly valued and they may not have been.

A Wikipedia entry dates Cornish morris dancing back to 1466, but it doesn’t give a citation.

In the Elizabethan era (that’s 1533 to 1603), it was already considered ancient.

According to RattlejagMorris, its origins are lost, but there’s no evidence to associate it with pagan festivals, as some people do. “Very little is known about the dances per se, though there seem to have been two types: a solo dance, and a dance in a circle around a ‘maiden’ (who could have been a man in women’s clothing) for whose favours the dancers compete.

“By the early sixteenth century morris dancing had become a fixture of Church festivals. In mediaeval and Renaissance England, the churches brewed and sold ales, including wassail. These ales were sold for many occasions, both seasonal and sacramental—there were christening ales, bride’s ales, clerk, wake and Whitsun ales—and were an important means of fund-raising for churches.”

Which isn’t immediately relevant but it’s interesting, so I left it in. And all that drinking seems to have given it a raucous reputation.

Later in the century, it became associated with May Day and village festivals and fetes.

By the nineteenth century, it had gone into decline, but some villages managed to keep it alive. When it was revived toward the end of the century, it was used as part of an effort to build up the mythology of Merrie Englande. In the early twentieth century, its fortunes rose with an increased interest in folk music and dance, and women as well as men began to take part.

Some morris dancers black their faces. The first time I saw this, I assumed it was part of the racist minstrel show tradition of white entertainers pretending to be black, which started in the U.S. but took hold (and still casts its long a creepy shadow) in Britain as well. I couldn’t think of any better way to react than to pretend they didn’t exist (I know: great moments in political activism), but Wild Thing went over to a dancer and asked about it.

She–or maybe it was he; I don’t remember–told us (and I’m paraphrasing heavily) that It came out of the time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans suppressed Whitsun ales, morris dancing, and anything else where people might be in danger of having fun. Besides, morris dancing had a whiff of pagan carrying-on about it. The dances continued in either secret or semi-secret, but the dancers blacked their faces to disguise themselves.

However, other explanations also circulate.

Border Morris page on Wikipedia says (or said when I checked), “During the hard winters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, out of work labourers and builders sought to anonymously supplement their income by a bit of dancing and begging. The use of blackface as a form of disguise is established in early eighteenth century England. In 1723 it became a capital offence under the Waltham ‘Black Act’ to appear ‘in disguise, either by mask or by blackened face.’”

Another theory traces the word morris to Moorish and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers, or a Moorish king and his retinue. And yet another theory traces the black faces to the minstrel shows. In support of this theory, morris dancing is recorded to have been referred to colloquially as “going niggering”.

Yes, I’m using the word. We’re talking about racism and we need to talk about what we’re talking about. Look it in the eye, friends, because it’s still with us.

A few songs that morris dancers use, like “Old Black Joe” come from minstrel shows, although most are far older.

My best guess is that an older tradition, or more than one of them, crossed paths with the minstrel shows until now it would be hard to tease the strands apart.

If you look, you’ll find quite a bit of public argument about whether white dancers appearing in blackface is inherently racist. No one’s asked my opinion, but here it is: Whatever its origin and however innocent its intent, it’s time to stop doing it. Even if it has to do with Cromwell or disguise for some other reason, audiences will be bringing a whole different set of associations to it, and whether you mean to or not you’ll be aligning yourselves with some really unsavory elements of our culture. Which is another way of saying that you’ll be passing them on, regardless of what’s going on in your mind.

And no, I don’t really expect anyone to listen to me. There seems to be a cast-iron conviction among a category of white people in Britain that if they don’t intend anything racist by [fill in the blank, including a few songs I hear sung, which should be left to a folk music preservation society but retired from active use], then to hell with the impact it has on other people or the world at large, it’s not racist. Because they mean well.

And some—although by no means all—of them genuinely are people of goodwill.

That sound you’re hearing? That’s a long and frustrated sigh brushing across my keyboard.

But let’s go back to morris dancing in general so we can end on a cheerier note: It never made much sense to me until G. explained that morris clubs were just drinking societies with a dancing problem. I’m not sure how many morris dancers would agree with her, but it made an odd kind of sense to me.

I can’t swear that she’s right and I’m happy to hear from anyone who wants to correct me. Or her. Or anyone else.

On any subject.

British traditions: May Day in Oxford

May Day swept past weeks ago, but that won’t stop us here at Notes. We’re not so small-minded that we’ll be bothered by a little thing like the calendar. I learned about the Oxford May Day celebrations from a newspaper photo and caption, and the clipping just rose to the top of the swamp I call my computer table. So let’s slip back in time.

Oxford celebrates May Day in traditional style, and Britain takes its traditions seriously. At 6 a.m., the Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin; don’t ask; no answer will make sense of it anyway) College choir sings “Hymnus Eucharisticus” from the Great Tower as the sun comes up.

A quick reality check before we go on, though: The sun came up at 5:36 that day. I just looked it up. But who am I to argue with tradition?

Marginally relevant photo: This is a flower–a lupine if you want to be specific. May Day has to do with the coming of summer, when flowers bloom. I know, it was a stretch, but we got there.

According to one source, the choir has been doing this for 500 years. Presumably not with the same singers. According to another source, the song was composed in the 17th century. I just counted on my fingers and that would make it 400 and some years old (probably—we can’t trust my fingers when they’re counting stuff), but if tradition says it’s 500 years old and the sun’s just coming up, okay, it’s 500 years and the sun just rose. See its little red dome poking over the horizon?

Yes, England is a cloudy country. That’s why it can have a 500-year-old tradition and in all that time never notice that it’s mis-timed the sunrise.

After the song, the bells ring out for twenty minutes and everyone goes deaf.

Sorry, that’s “approximately twenty minutes” and everyone goes deaf. I don’t want to misrepresent this.

After that, there’s morris dancing on the streets, breakfast in cafes and pubs all over the city, and if I’m reading this right, a whole shitload of drinking, which starts the night before and continues until everyone falls over. Or (see below) jumps into the river.

Oh, and there’s some deeply traditional samba dancing.

Samba was introduced to Britain in the 1980s by, among others, the passionate anti-apartheid activist Steve Kitson. Since then, Britons have been dancing it so intensely that by now it’s been going on for 500 years.

Magdalen (pronounced—oh, one way or another; I’ll get to that in a minute) Bridge is closed to traffic from 3 a.m. till 9 a.m., but it’s open to pedestrians. In the 1980s, people started jumping off it into the river Cherwell, and in 2005 some 40 people were hurt, including one who was left paralyzed. The river can be low at that time of year. The city works madly to discourage jumpers. Some of whom have been drinking for 500 years by then.

I’m going to be deeply discouraged if someone convinces me that the song really is 500 years old and that the sun rose at 6. In the west.

Now, about Magdalen Bridge. The college is pronounced maudlin. Magdalen Street is pronounced magdalen. Magdalen Road is pronounced maudlin. The bridge? I don’t know. My best guess is that the M, G, D. L, and N are silent.

I’ll write about morris dancing in a separate post. Stay tuned.