What Are England’s Home Counties?

If you spend much time reading about England, sooner or later you’ll stub your toe on the phrase Home Counties. That’s what you get for reading in the dark.

But what are they?

No one’s sure. Or lots of people are sure, but they don’t agree with each other, which is what makes the question interesting. A lot of the sources I’ve found say they’re the counties around London, and that’s safe enough but doesn’t tell us which ones, so whatever consensus we pretended to have falls apart.

 

The boundless wisdom of public opinion

A polling company, YouGov, tried to shed light on the issue (someone must’ve paid them to do that) and succeeded mainly in highlighting how dark it is out there. Because although it’s easy to come up with wrong answers (Wales not only is in the wrong part of Britain, it’s not a county), no one can say what the right answer is. So let’s look for the most common candidates. 

Irrelevant photo: wild sweet peas.

The most widely recognized in the poll were Buckinghamshire, Surrey, and Berkshire. For whatever that’s worth, which I suspect is not much, especially since none of them gathered any impressive amount of support. 

Historically, YouGov says, Sussex is usually included, but only 30% of the people in their sample included West Sussex, and only 29% included East Sussex. (East and West Sussex were divided into separate counties in 1974, although no one told me until today. Which is unforgivably rude.) 

By other definitions,  the Home Counties include Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, although only a third to a quarter of YouGov’s sample were convinced of it. You could also make a case for Hertfordshire, Kent, and Essex, which got 36%. 

 

Forget polling. What else do we know?

The simplest definition of the Home Counties is that they’re the six counties surrounding London: Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Kent. (I’m taking someone else’s word for that, but I have verified that the list has six entries. You can check for yourself if you need more certainty than that.) But you could also toss in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Sussex (or the two halves of Sussex) and not be wrong. 

And although London’s the reference point for all of this, London isn’t one of the Home Counties. It’s–well, it’s London. 

 

Does any of this matter?

No. And also yes. The Home Counties aren’t an administrative entity. They’re not a governmental division. No one runs for office to represent them or sets out parking regulations for them and only them, although the phrase does show up sometimes in official usage. Or so says WikiWhatsia, which I fall back on only in desperation. That I’m leaning on it now tells you how little information I could find anywhere else.

That covers the no, it doesn’t matter part of the answer. What about the yes, it does part? It matters as a reflection of reality and as a cultural reference reinforcing that reality.

London is Britain’s economic and cultural heavyweight. It’s where the wealth and the power and the glitz come together–along with a lot of the grit and the poverty and the problems, although in fairness those last three are pretty widely distributed. But let’s stay with the wealth and the et cetera. When you concentrate enough of that stuff in a small space, it forms a gravity well, drawing everything nearby into its orbit. So whatever the hell they are, the Home Countries matter because London’s sitting there in their middle.

In fact, London’s not just sitting there, it’s been nibbling away at the  surrounding counties and by now has swallowed MIddlesex almost completely.

The broad-brush image of the Home Counties (that’s a nice way of saying “the stereotype”) is that they’re comfortable, conformist,conservative, and consumerist. Also suburban and expensive to live in, but those don’t start with C.

 

History

According to WikiWhatsia (at the moment; you never know when it’ll change), the origin of the phrase Home Counties can be traced–unreliably–back to several periods. One is Tudor times, when they were the counties close enough for a London-based functionary to have a country home and still rush back to London when needed. Another is the 18th century (more or less), which  had the “Home Counties Circuit of courts.”

A third is the Anglo-Saxon period, although the entry doesn’t offer anything to justify that, but it’s true that many English counties were originally Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so what the hell, we’re close. Let’s move on before anyone notices how little we know about this.

Again, according to WikiWhatsia, the first mention of the phrase is from 1695, when Charles Davenant wrote “An essay upon ways and means of supplying the war,” arguing that the Home Counties were thought to pay a disproportionate amount in land taxes. 

Davenant included eleven counties. 

 

Yeah, but what about the shires

As long as we’re wandering around with an edgeless topic, and as long as counties with the word -shire in their names have come up, let’s talk about what the shires are:

They’re English counties that end in -shire. 

I  took the romance out of that, didn’t I?

The word’s roots are Anglo-Saxon–that language we call Old English and that modern English speakers couldn’t understand even if someone offered them a chocolate pie as a reward for deciphering a single sentence. Shire’s basically the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the French-based county. 

Talking about the shires will set off some cultural resonances, although I’m not the best-placed person to tell you what they are. What I can do is tell you that the Collins Dictionary says they’re in the Midlands and famous for hunting. 

Do what you can with that.

Fireflies and Covid vaccines meet conspiracy theories

If you’re vaccinated, you’ll be glad to know that the Covid vaccines will not make you glow in the dark. Or else you’ll be disappointed. How you feel about it is up to you, but the reality remains unchanged.

I mention this because Newsmax’s White House correspondent tweeted that “the vaccines contain a bioluminescent marker called LUCIFERASE so that you can be tracked. Read the last book of the New Testament to see how this ends.”

The last book of the New Testament? When’s it due out? I’ll pre-order it and get back to you with a spoiler as soon as I have it in my non-glowing paws. 

In the meantime, though, let’s talk about luciferase, which does exist, isn’t scary, and doesn’t need capital letters. It’s the stuff that makes fireflies glow at night. And (because we can’t take anything for granted anymore) they glowed well before Covid vaccines were created.

Irrelevant photo: Bindweed, also known as a morning glory

Is luciferase in any of the Covid vaccines? No, but it is used in labs–and again, and was well before any of us put the letters C, O, V, I, and D together in that order. 

Let’s turn to Axandra Becker for an explanation of what scientists at the Texas Medical Center did with the stuff earlier in the pandemic–and let’s switch to the past tense to do it: It was used to “develop faster and more accurate diagnostic tests for Covid-19 as well as to analyze potential therapies and gain a clearer understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself.” 

They inserted luciferase into the genomes of the Covid, Zika, and West Nile viruses. That produced light, which made it easier to track where they (I believe that’s the viruses we’re talking about) went in a cell culture, along with what they’re reading and what they do on social media.

Okay, I’m filling in a bit where the explanation of the tracking went wavery. All it said was that they could track what was happening in them.

Admit it, my version’s more fun.

What’s any of this got to do with Lucifer? Because we can’t take anything for granted, we’ll start on the ground up and work our way up. Lucifer’s the antagonist who makes sure that there’s a market for that forthcoming book of New Testament, because without tension, no one can keep a plot rolling for that many pages and through two testaments, and antagonists are a cheap and easy way to create tension. If you open with “And God created the world and everything was nice from there on,” you have a short book.

Lucifer’s name comes from the Latin for bringer or light, or morning star, so when scientists isolated the stuff that makes fireflies (and a few other lucky creatures) glow, some clever devil named it luciferase.

Okay, we’re done with the name, now let’s go back to the vaccines: There’s no luciferase in them. None. Zero. It was used in research only. I’m multiply vaccinated and even in this post-truth era of ours I still can’t see my arm after I turn off the light. No matter what religion you do or don’t adhere to, you can get your vaccine safe in the knowledge that Lucifer–whether you believe in him or not–is not in it.

And you’ll still need a light source other than your own lovely self if you want to read in bed.

 

“A disease of the unvaccinated”

A doctor who writes as the Secret Consultant (consultant is British for a senior hospital-based doctor) says that although some vaccinated people are hospitalized with Covid, they tend to be elderly or frail or have underlying health problems. In Britain, an unlucky few otherwise healthy people will be hospitalized briefly on the general wards, but in the intensive care unit, “The patient population consists of a few vulnerable people with severe underlying health problems and a majority of fit, healthy, younger people unvaccinated by choice.”

None of them glow in the dark. Do you have any idea how helpful it would be if they did?

 

An update on needleless vaccination

Assorted groups of scientists are working on ways to deliver vaccines without using needles. One group’s working on a Covid vaccine in pill form. A trial has been approved in South Africa and will start enrolling people any day now–if it hasn’t started already.

A second approach uses a patch with spikes so tiny you can’t actually see them. These deliver the vaccine into the skin, not the muscle, which turns out to be an advantage. Muscle tissue is–well, think of it as a semi-arid zone as far as immune cells are concerned. You won’t find many of them there. Skin, on the other hand, goes into high alert when you bother it with a bunch of teeny tiny needles. The immune system wakes up, asks, “Did you need something from me?” and sends out messengers, who quickly learn to fight what looks like an invading army.

But patches have other advantages as well: 

  • They use less vaccine than a needle.
  • Babies don’t scream when they’re vaccinated–or if they do it’s for some other reason. 
  • The vaccine in patches is stable at room temperature and keeps for longer than the stuff used for needles. 
  • Anyone who can find one arm with the other one could use them. That means you could stick the patches in the mail for people to use at home.

One version of the patch has been tried on mice. Other versions–well, I don’t know what stage they’re at. The problem at the moment seems to be how to produce them in large enough quantities. 

 

Antiviral news

Scientists working at assorted universities and institutes in India have found an antibiotic that also works as an antiviral by messing with Covid’s ability to replicate.

But let’s not pretend that I can explain how it works. The best I can do is try to scare you with phrases like “amino acids . . . present in the ‘finger’ subdomain of the nsp12 protein” and  “the viral protein’s ‘palm’ subdomain cavity and the linear form of Kannurin.”

What matters is that “this approach could help us address the pandemic threat when yet another novel coronavirus emerges and medicine needs new pharmaceutical treatments ahead of the development of a suitable and widely available vaccine.” 

It’s good to know that, however screwed up humanity is, we have people among us who can figure this stuff out. 

 

Why you should take candy from strangers

A test group of 3,000 people will be sent a piece of colorless hard candy every day for 90 days. They’ll sniff it and eat it and then log onto an app to report what flavor it is and how sweet or sour it is. If the app notices any drop in drop-off in their sense of smell or taste, it will tell them to quarantine and get a Covid test.

The goal is to see if this is a way to spot Covid in otherwise asymptomatic people. 

 

How does Britain fight Covid?

Why, by pissing money out the window, that’s how. 

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. It got a vaccination program rolling early and that’s been reasonably successful, although the government followed that up by encouraging us all to run out and infect each other, since, what the hell, we’re mostly vaccinated. 

Except for the people who aren’t. Or are too frail for the vaccines to spark a good immune response. But that’s okay, because compassion’s not a big thing lately so we don’ thave to care.

But let’s go back to the money: We’re in the midst of a sleaze-valanche, and every few days we get more news about conflicts of interest and politicians giving lucrative favors to friends and donors. 

Now comes the news that we’re spending roughly £1 million a day on consultants for the test and trace system.

Those aren’t consultants as in very senior doctors. Those are consultants as in the outsiders who fly into an organization, look important, and charge a lot of money for it. They may perform priceless services. They play Tetris all day. I wouldn’t know. Either way, they do charge lots of money. On average, test and trace is paying £1,000 a day (and in a pinch a person could probably live on that), but some are making as much as £6,000 a day. In September, test and trace had one consultant wandering the halls (or working from home–again, I wouldn’t know) for every civil servant doing the same.

A year ago, it was going to reduce the ratio to 60%, although I’m not sure which side of the balance was 60 and which was 40. It doesn’t matter, though, since it didn’t happen. 

What’s the country gotten for its money? Let’s fall back on the House of Commons spending watchdog, which said test and trace hadn’t achieved its main objective, which was to cut infection levels and help the country return to normal. 

So as of earlier this fall, it had spent £37 billion in the process of failing to meet its objective. I wouldn’t mention that–I mean, what’s a few billion pounds between friends?–except that I mention the government’s incompetence so much that I thought I’d give you a quick sample of what I’m talking about.  

Fighting climate change, one misplaced city at a time

COP26–the meeting to save humanity from itself, and the planet along with it–was held in Scotland earlier this month. That presented a problem for US broadcasters, who discovered that Scotland’s geography is–well, it’s specific to Scotland is what it is. In other words, it demands a level of knowledge about a foreign country that no American can be expected to possess. 

CNN’s news presenter Wolf Blitzer opened by announcing that world leaders had gathered in Edinburgh to discuss the climate crisis. Behind him was the magnificent backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. “I’m now reporting from Edinburgh in Scotland where 20,000 world leaders and delegates have gathered for the COP26 Climate Summit,” he tweeted.

The meeting, unfortunately, was in Glasgow–a whole ‘nother city that’s rude enough to be 42 miles west of Edinburgh. 

[Late addition: I’d originally written that it’s east of Edinburgh. My thanks to John Russell for noticing that. I hope the Glasburgians had  their flotation devices close at hand until I came back and relocated them.)

The absence of punctuation is his. It may have gotten lost somewhere between the two cities.

Irrelevant photo: Flowers (some sort of geranium, I’d guess) trying to escape a neighbor’s garden.

In an effort to restore the balance, Reuters’ Jeff Mason tweeted a picture of Joe Biden walking out of his plane “in Glasgow,” although in fact he’d landed in Edinburgh. Reuters is a British-based news agency, so you might expect them to get this right, but Mason is based in the US.

I’m grateful to both reporters, because when you’re staring down the barrel of planetwide destruction you just  naturally want something to laugh about, even if the laughter does slide over into hysteria now and then. 

Before we move on, a few notes about those cities: Having landed in (check your map, please, everyone) Edinburgh, and in the spirit of climate-saving irony, Biden and his whole damn motorcade drove from Edinburgh to Glasgow.  But let’s not go too hard on Biden, the bad-optics sweepstakes were won by Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, who made an appearance at COP26, then flew back to London in a private jet so he could have dinner with a climate-change skeptic at a men-only private club.

Then he announced at a press conference that COP26 had been held in Glasgow. Which he may or may not know is located in Scotland. And he may or may not be wondering why so many people in Scotland–wherever that may or may not be–want to leave the United Kingdom. 

*

After listening to entirely too many US reporters, a British reporter, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy–who knows his Edinburgh from his Glasgow and (I’m making assumptions here) his ass from a hole in the ground–tweeted to American reporters that the city’s pronounced glas-go, not glas-gow. English spelling being what it is, I’m sure they’re grateful to have instructions. No one can assemble the damn language without them.

 

The crime and canned food report 

If crime’s what puts a country on the map, Britain can claim its spot with pride. We’re suffering from beaning attacks and the police have asked shops not to sell multiple cans of baked beans to kids. They’ve also asked parents to check their cupboards to make sure no baked beans have wandered off unsupervised.

What’s going on? Kids are dumping baked beans on people’s driveways, doors, cars, and whatever else doesn’t run away, bite, or throw a decent punch. Then they post a video. It started on TikTok, andi it has its own hashtag, as any good crime wave should.

The article where I found this included a warning that baked beans are bad for dogs, which is what makes this is so dangerous. 

For the sake of clarity, I’ve made an assumption there that you’re human. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Lord G. also led me to a source that said the tomatoes in most baked beans aren’t healthy for dogs and to another that said they’re okay for an occasional treat. If you turn out to be a dog, I guess the best thing to do is eat them in moderation .

But back to the baked beans: A beaning attack doesn’t involve a whole drivewayful of the slop. The kids spill a can or two. I’d be annoyed about it, but I couldn’t see myself calling the cops. Of course, I haven’t been beaned. Maybe I’ll change my mind if I am.

 

And in other canned food news

The holiday season’s almost upon us and Heinz–the company that makes canned soups and other prefabricated edibles–has come up with a canful of British Christmas dinner. Yes, folks, this can (or tin in British) has everything you need for the holiday–turkey, pigs-in-blankets, brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, stuffing balls, gravy, and cranberry sauce, all in the form of a soup. 

They left out the mince pies and the Christmas pudding, which is probably wise but I don’t think they can call the dinner complete without them. 

 

The possible British crisis report

You may or may not have heard that Britain’s in a semi-permanent state of possible crisis. 

Possible crisis? Yup. We keep reading about it, but from where I sit not a whole lot seems to have changed, so although I don’t think it’s fabricated, I haven’t managed to get into a full-blown crisis mood.  

What’s happening is that we’re short of truck (or if you’re British, lorry) drivers, so things that should be getting delivered aren’t–although again, most of what I look for when I do the grocery shopping is on the shelves, and what isn’t I can work around.. Still, the shortage is real, and you can blame: 1, Brexit, 2, Covid, 3, anti-immigrant politicians limiting who can come into the country and for how long, 4, government incompetence (that’s my default setting but too complicated to explain in the list format I got myself stuck with), or 5, people’s unwillingness to work for poor pay and in lousy conditions. Pick one or more, as your mood and politics dictate. As far as I can tell, all or most of them have an influence. 

What are we short of and is it really a crisis? To answer the second question first, in spite of what I said above, you’re damn right it is because (we’re back to the first question now) we could run short of fake tan any day. You know fake tan: It’s the stuff that if you’re white you slather on yourself so you’ll look like you risked cancer to get a skin color you like better than the one you came in.

Or maybe you don’t slather it on yourself. I’ll confess to never having used it, but isn’t it fascinating that a culture which still–with apologies for the generalization–looks down its nose at people with darker skin is addicted to slatherable skin goop because people with lighter skin want to be darker? 

The reason for the shortage is that manufacturers are having trouble getting ethoxydiglycol, dihydroxyacetone, and erythrulose. Possibly because of how hard they are to spell. 

If this plays out as predicted, yes, we’re in serious trouble over here. If you live elsewhere and have friends or relatives in Britain, send fake tan! 

Before I leave the topic, though, we need two truth-in-reporting moments: 

1) Although we genuinely are short of delivery drivers, and the government genuinely is incompetent and also at the moment gloriously mired in sleaze reports (we’re in the midst of a sleaze-valanche and I’m having a wonderful time, thanks; it more than makes up for the fake tan crisis), neither of these seems to be the source of this particular shortage. I can’t rule out Covid, though. 

2) We have a crisis that’s getting less press than the driver shortage, and that’s an overwhelmed health system. This is only partially a Covid problem. The National Health System has been underfunded for years, all in the name of efficiency, and also partially privatized (also in the name of efficiency, and setting the NHS up to fail can be used to justify that). It’s also been disastrously reorganized,. And not enough doctors and nurses have been trained. Many are getting ready to retire, and already hospitals are reporting that they’re dangerously understaffed. I’d ask you to send trained medical people as well as fake tan–as a nation, we’ve relied on raiding the world for their trained medical people–but since we hate foreigners these days, not many of them would be eligible to work here. 

 

What’s the best way to honor veterans?

In Cheshire, two politicians (okay, one of them’s a former politician) who are both veterans decided that the best way was to hire a 7.8 ton tank and drive it through town to the local Remembrance Day event, where they forgot to set the handbrake–the thing Americans call an emergency brake. That allowed the tank to roll into the remembrance garden’s gates and smash hell out of them, thereby ensuring that even if other veterans are forgotten, the two of them will be remembered.

The tank rents for £950 a day, in case you want one. 

 

And finally a sensible story

As vaccine mandates push the reluctant to let themselves be vaccinated, a new idea’s entered the lune-a-sphere: getting that vaccine out of your body once it’s been put in. People are being advised that they can give into the mandate and keep their jobs but in the privacy of their homes make sure their bodies stay virginal and unsullied.

How do they do that? Well, according to one anti-vaxxer, who’s gotten enough views on TikTok to draw attention from the mainstream media, they take a detox bath of water, baking soda, epsom salts, and bentonite clay. Then they add a cup of Borax.

That soaks out radiation, poisons, and nanotechnologies.

What nanotechnologies? The liquidized computers in the vaccine that are turning us all into transhumans. 

How do the vaccine makers do that? They disassemble one of those old room-sized computers, put it in a blender, and add it to the Covid vaccine vats. 

Or–okay, I might possibly have made up the method, but we live in a post-truth world. Who’s going to challenge me? 

According to the experts, unvaccinating yourself is right up there with unringing a bell. Between the time the needle goes into your arm and the time you reach your car (assuming you have a car, and that you came in it) the vaccine will have started to work. 

It’s hard to pick a single element out of this and crown it the most controversial, but let’s try. We’ve got the claim that people can soak out a vaccine out of their bodies. We’ve got the claim that the vaccine (which one? does it matter?) activates radiation (no, don’t ask me), and we’ve got the claim that it contains a liquified computing system that will turn us into transhumans. But on an immediate damage-to-the-body level, the most controversial element surely is soaking in Borax. 

Now, Borax has its uses, and if you want to kill ants and cockroaches, it’s good stuff, but but soaking yourself in it isn’t recommended. It can irritate your skin and eyes. I’m not sure what it does to ants and cockroaches, but I’m sure it’s nothing nice. They haven’t offered any testimonials for the stuff. 

My advice? Dress warm, friends, and carry an umbrella, because it’s crazy out there.

Other People Manage

Other People Manage is a novel about the pain we carry and the love that gets us through the day. The publisher, Swift Press, describes is as “a powerful, moving, engrossing story of two women whose lives together start with an unexpected and terrible tragedy, and whose love for each other and their family endures the joys, disappointments and triumphs of life. This is that rare thing in the publishing world: an extraordinary book that was not bought for a six-figure advance in a twelve-way auction, but that will have a huge impact.”

It also happens to be mine, and although it’s not the first one I’ve published I’m incredibly excited about it. It will be available in April 2022, and (not that I’m trying to sell you anything, you understand) you can pre-order it from Waterstone’s. That’s a British bookstore, but it’s open minded enough to ship to other countries.

The reason I’m telling you about it now is that pre-orders can give a book a real boost and I’m shamelessly trying to do that for this one. I think (she said modestly) that it’s good, and I want to get it out into the world where people can find it.

You can find an early review here. And if you’re a reviewer yourself, you can get a copy from NetGalley. If you have any trouble with the link, let me know–I can get you in through the back door.

*

Next Friday, we’ll resume our regularly scheduled programming with a post about Britain. Or possibly the pandemic. In the meantime, thanks for you patience.

How a British town becomes a city

The English language plays tricks when it travels from one country to another, so if you asked me to define a city I’d have to ask you where the city is. Or where you are. 

Some days, I’d have to ask you where I am.

In the US, it’s fairly simple: A city’s a place where a lot of people live. How many? Um, yeah, no one’s drawn a clear line to separate it from a town.

In Britain, though, a town has to do more than get big to become a city. And in some cases, it doesn’t even have to get big.

 

The informal definition

Most people in Britain will tell you that a city has to have a cathedral, although one article I read claims a university will do just as well, and a few people think the town has to gather up a lot of people and convince them to live there.

But in Britain there’s a difference between people thinking of a place as a city and the place formally being one. To really be a city, the place needs the queen or king to wave a magic city-making feather over it.

Irrelevant photo: a begonia

Yes, really–except for that business with the magic feather. Because of course the queen or king has the final say over how many cities the country has. If they didn’t, for all we know every cluster of houses would dance around singing, “We’re a city. Look! We’re a city.” Order would break down. Trains would stop running. Long-established recipes would cease to work. 

Imagine Britain without its bakewell tarts and victoria sponges.* 

So yes, of course officialdom wants to put some limits on the number of cities.

Mind you, the king or queen doesn’t actually make the decisions about which town to citify. Officials do the choosing, but it’s the monarch who waves that feather, presumably while looking entirely serious about it.

Just to confuse the issue, though, any number of towns are governed by bodies that call themselves city councils. 

Why do they do that? Possibly because someone has delusions of grandeur and possibly because the language is at war with the country’s endless formalities. 

 

The formal process

Britain’s home to 66 officially recognized cities–50 in England, 6 in Scotland, 5 in Wales, and 5 in Northern Ireland. Not all of them have cathedrals. The belief that they had to comes from a time when building a cathedral really did make you a city. This led to small places like Truro being cities while much bigger industrial centers like Birmingham and Belfast weren’t.

In 1889, Birmingham became the first cathedral-less place to be recognized as a city, and these days you can leave all that stone in the ground and bid for city status through the Ministry of Housing and a Few Other Things. It’s less romantic than building a cathedral, but it’s cheaper and it’s easier on the fingernails.

There’s a catch, though: You can only apply on special occasions, when the Ministry opens up bidding to mark some occasion: the millennium, the golden jubilee, the silver jubilee, the arrival of a new kitten. Outside of those special times, towns have to shut up and wait.

What’s a jubilee? In dictionary terms, a celebration of anything from emancipation to becoming a king or queen, but in this context it has to do with Liz having become a queen some number of decades before. Or more accurately, the queen—something Britain as a whole takes seriously, even if not every single individual who lives here does.

 

How big does a city have to be?

Not always very. The U.K.’s smallest city is St David’s, which has a whopping 1,600  residents–not all that many more than the village I live in. It earned its status in 1995 to mark the queen’s 40th anniversary, and it was chosen because of its role in Christian heritage.

Yeah, the monarchy takes that Christian heritage flap seriously. It has to. If it didn’t, what’s to justify someone being the monarch instead of just one more citizen?

Part of the argument in its favor, though, was that it had a cathedral, so people already thought of it as a city. 

In practice, being big doesn’t guarantee official status as a city, and neither does being thought of as a city. London contains two cities–the City of London (called the City, as if the planet didn’t have any others) and the City of Westminster. But London itself itself isn’t, officially speaking, a city.

If you get dizzy, just sit down and rest a while. We’ll be here when you come back.

 

Mayors and cities

Most city councils (whether they govern cities or towns) will appoint a mayor, who does ceremonial stuff and shows up at special occasions in eye-catching and wildly outdated clothes, including gold chains that outdo anything a celebrity ever turned up in. If the queen (or king, as the case may be) has waved a different magic feather over the locality, the mayor may turn into a lord mayor. This will make no practical difference in his or her ability to climb stairs, lose weight, or push a car out of a snowbank. 

But having a lord mayor doesn’t make a place a city.

Sorry. Like I said, different magic feather, different result.

How do you address a lord mayor? You say, “Lord Mayor.” Or you say, “My Lord Mayor.” Or if appropriate, “Lady Mayoress,” or, “My Lady Mayoress.”

You do not laugh while you’re doing any of that upon pain of being banished from the event and left giggling hysterically on the sidewalk.

In a different category of officialdom, many towns and cities have an elected executive mayor, a title that sounds less impressive but comes with political powers, which ceremonial mayors lack. 

Having an executive mayor also doesn’t make a place into a city. 

 

Can a place stop being a city?

Yup. Rochester accidentally lost its status in 1988, when it reorganized its government structure and–well, you know how sometimes the cat jumps on the keyboard and your entire life disappears and next thing you know you no longer exist? It was like that. 

By way of demonstrating how important it is to have city status, four years rolled past before anyone noticed the city was no longer a city. 

It still hasn’t gotten its status back.

 

What are the benefits of being a city?

None, at least according to Professor John Beckett“There never have been any privileges. It’s always been a status thing, nothing more. There’s nothing to stop places declaring themselves a city–Dunfermline did it.”

The whole system, he says, “makes no sense” and just “gives a bit of patronage to government”.

Dunfermline declared itself a city in 1856. It figured that since it had been Scotland’s capital for 400 years, it had the right. The idea of it as a city never caught on, though, and it’s planning to bid for genuine city status when the queen’s platinum jubilee rolls around, in 2022.

*

* A victoria sponge isn’t something you wipe the kitchen counter with. It’s a cake-ish thing, as is a bakewell tart, although I’m stretching the definition of cake pretty thin in saying that.

The politics and economics of an English abbey

If your image of the monastic life centers on quiet and contemplation, allow me to mess with your head. 

Fountains Abbey is in York–that’s up in the north of England–and it functioned from the 12th century until 1529, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It may well have been a place of contemplation for some people, but it was also deeply involved in politics and the economy. And according to a new archeological find, it was a noisy and industrialized place, at least in the 12th and 13th centuries. 

 

Lay brothers and the social order

Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks who decided that their monastery in York was too rowdy. Idleness and guzzling get a mention. They moved some 30 miles away, to land given them by Archbishop Thurstan, and there they de-Benedictiined themselves, becoming Cistercian monks, so that–as the National Trust tells it–they could live a simple and devout life. The Cistercians were known as a more austere order than the Benedictines. 

The Cistercian goal was to be self-sufficient and live “far from the haunts of men,” and monks were expected to study and pray as well as work 30 hours a week. The problem was that 30 hours of work wasn’t enough to keep the fields plowed, the assorted works working, and the livestock–not to mention the people–fed. Since the hours spent in prayer and study were non-negotiable and even monks have to sleep, the small print in the Cistercian contract allowed them to incorporate lay brothers, who were called conversi

Everything that mattered back then happened in Latin.  

Irrelevant photo: I’ll never remember the name of this flower. A friend called it “that tall ethereal thing” and that’s blocked out the name.

The lay brothers were non-monks and they were there to do the heavy lifting. Also the skilled lifting, the stone quarrying, the horse breeding, the sheep shifting, and the–well, you get the drift here: the work that wasn’t suitable for monks. 

Lay brothers were part of the order but they weren’t full monks. Think of them as monklets. They wore a shorter version of the Cistercian habit so it wouldn’t get in their way, and they swore obedience to the abbot and followed the rules about chastity and poverty. Or they didn’t follow them–I wasn’t there and I can’t say for certain–but they were supposed to. Let’s settle for that. 

The division between lay brother and monk transferred the medieval class system directly into the abbey, which shouldn’t surprise us, really. It’s rare for people’s thinking to break the mold their society creates, and the religious groups that did quickly came into conflict with both church and state and developed a habit of getting squashed  Read the history of the Cathars if the topic interests you. I don’t claim to know it in any depth, but what I do know of it is fascinating. 

Lay brothers were from a lower class than the monks–or as a Herefordshire government post puts it, the lay brother was “often from a lower status background.”

Lay brothers lived separately from the monks, prayed a shortened form of the prayers, and were the secret ingredient that allowed the monastery to stay afloat. To the extent that the monks were able to retreat into contemplation and prayer, it was because the lay brothers were contemplating less and working more. They even had shortened prayers they could recite while working. The two groups formed separate communities within the abbey.

The order’s rules didn’t allow a lay brother to become a monk, quoting (what else) the Bible to back up the feudal structure, which was all encompassing and must have seemed inevitable: “Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.” 

Most lay brothers would have been illiterate, but the few that could read weren’t allowed to.  Jocelin of Furness tells a story of  a lay-brother who (as the Digital Humanities Institute tells the tale) “was influenced by the devil to learn to read, but ultimately realised the errors of his ways and repented of his sin.”  And so everyone was locked back into his slot, order was restored, and the devil took up crocheting, which was more satisfying anyway.

 

The monastery’s early years

It was winter when the original 13 monks moved to Fountains, and they brought not much more than some bread–and I’d assume some tools, although they don’t get mentioned. They slept under a tree, covering themselves with straw and anything else they could find that would keep them warm.

I mention tools because they built a chapel (the early buildings were wooden) and dug a garden. Unless you have stone-age skills, you don’t do that without a toolkit. But it makes a better story if they brought nothing but bread.

Have you ever tried felling a tree with nothing but a loaf of bread? 

The community struggled, surviving a famine year when they were driven to adding elm leaves to their pottage, making a bitter soup.

Austere living and vows of poverty are one thing, but this was a bit more poverty and austerity than they’d bargained for, and the abbot was in the process of negotiating a move to France, where they could start over on more promising land, when they were saved by the wealth of a new recruit, who’d been the dean of York Minster. He brought money, books, and furniture to the community.

Two more wealthy recruits, also from York Minster, followed. One of them, Serlo, wrote, “What perfection of life was there at Fountains! What rivalry in virtue! What zeal for the Order! What a pattern of discipline! Our early fathers departed from a wealthy monastery, but they made up for all that abundance of worldly riches by the abundance of their virtues. They became a spectacle to angels and to men and studied from the first to leave that rule of holy religion which by the favour of God remains to this day unimpaired.”

Which is ironic, coming from someone whose wealth helped save the monastery.

Money, gifts, and recruits flowed in and the abbey prospered and set up daughter houses elsewhere. Why a group of celibate males had daughter instead of son houses is anyone’s guess, but never mind. The abbey became an important force in both church and secular politics. Enough so that it got on the wrong side of an archbishop, which led to a mob attacking the monastery and burning everything except the church. 

Yes, friends, it’s a wonderful thing to sit among the powerful and piss people off.

They rebuilt, bigger and better (and in stone), and eventually made peace with the deposed and by then re-posed archbishop, who visited the abbey and died shortly afterward amid rumors of poison having been dropped into his chalice. I repeat how wonderful it is to join the games of the rich and powerful. Eat well, piss people off, and die young.

Before he died, though, the archbishop confirmed the abbey’s possessions, and he didn’t say this, so I will: The vows of poverty applied to individuals, not to the abbey itself. That business with the elm leaves in the pottage hadn’t been fun.

From there on, a lot of the abbey’s history is about more building, more recruits, and more daughter houses. Not to mention more money and more power, with breaks here and there for financial crises that it recovered from. 

When Henry VIII stomped in to dissolve it, it was the richest Cistercian abbey in Britain.

 

The abbey as a business

What was that wealth based on? Wool, which was also the base of much of England’s wealth at the time. Land, of course. The abbey’s land holdings were huge. Also lead mining, much of which was off site, and in the 15th century, the abbey came into an unseemly conflict with an Augustinian priory about mining rights.

At Fountains itself, it had an industrial-sized tannery, which has only recently been found.

The tannery was–necessarily–right on the river that runs through the abbey. Think about water pollution, if you would. Hides were tanned using lime and urine, and tanneries were known as dirty, smelly places. 

After the tannery’s discovery, archaeologist Mark Newman said, “We see now that the tannery was much closer [to the abbey] and a far cry from the idea of a quiet, tranquil abbey community.” 

The number of people working at Fountains would have been unusual for the time, making the monks “the first ones to apply themselves to these industrial scales of living and managing the landscape”.Fountains recruited hundreds of lay brothers. 

Today, Fountains Abbey is a picturesque ruin and its grounds are quiet and beautiful. But Newman said, “It is so easy with a place like Fountains to think this is exactly as the monks saw it. What we are finding is that there is a whole unrecognised history.”

Kids, Covid, and the Delta Variant

An article from the U.S. reports a sharp rise in the number of children hospitalized with Covid, especially in states with low vaccination rates. The article’s from September, although it’s still relevant. The U.S.–just to be clear–continues to exist even though September’s come and gone.  

The danger isn’t just that they’re at risk of dying, but that they’re also at risk of long Covid–the sometimes serious symptoms that drag on for no one knows how long after a percentage of people recover from Covid.. 

“These are children whose development and futures may be compromised,” said Dr. James Versalovic of Texas Children’s Hospital. “The collective impact when we look ahead is significant.”

In case anyone missed the point, he also said, “Children are our future adults.”

I’ve suspected that for a long time but I’m glad to have it confirmed by a medical professional. 

Irrelevant photo: Cut flowers at the village produce stall.

Are the numbers up because the Delta variant’s more dangerous to children? That’s not clear yet. Children are still less likely than adults to get severe Covid, even with Delta. But whatever we eventually learn about the percentages, the Delta variant is more contagious, so we’re dealing with a larger number of infections and from that a larger number of kids who draw the short straw in the great Covid lottery.  The doctors interviewed for the article called for more people to get vaccinated and for people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

“What really protects children are the interventions directed at the rest of society,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai of the health policy department at Harvard University. 

If asked, I’m sure he would have confirmed that children are society’s future adults, but no one did him the courtesy of asking.

 

Long Covid and vaccination

The latest news on vaccination and long Covid–or at least the latest I’ve found–is that being doubly vaccinated slashes hell out of your odds of developing long Covid. 

First, vaccination makes you less likely to get infected. In a study of 2 million vaccinated people, 0.2% tested positive. What’s the comparison number for unvaccinated people? Um, yeah, I should have that, but the article I’m working from was making a different point, so it didn’t hand me a comparison group. But in a different study of a different group, vaccinated people were three times less likely to get infected than the unvaccinated. 

To point out the obvious, that means only that they test positive, not necessarily that they get sick. 

Second, if you take that first group of infected vaccinated people and compare it with a group of infected unvaccinated people, the vaccinated group are only half as likely to develop long Covid.

The vaccinated group is also 31% less likely to get acute Covid symptoms, 73% to end up in the hospital, and 16% less likely to have had liver for supper. 

Sorry. I wanted to see if anyone was still awake. That won’t be on the test.

The bad news is that older people and people from poorer areas (also known as poor people, but the study didn’t have income data for individuals so it extrapolated from where they lived)– 

Should we start that over? Those two groups aren’t as well protected by the vaccines, which argues that they should be priorities for booster shots. It also argues that raising people’s incomes would be a great public health measure. I’d recommend lowering peoples ages as well, but no one’s worked out the mechanics of that. 

If I hear that anyone’s making progress on that, I’ll let you know. Right after I inform my knees, which will be very excited about it. 

 

Scientists are being threatened

A poll of 321 scientists found that 15% had gotten death threats after speaking publicly about Covid, and 22% had been threatened with physical or sexual violence. 

Not that sexual violence isn’t physical, mind you, but I guess it’s best to be specific about how ugly things are getting.

The most common issues that triggered the threats were vaccination, masks, and the effectiveness of specific treatments.

It’s heartening that we’re handling a worldwide crisis like adults.

 

And speaking of specific treatments…

The Thai government gave an herb, green chiretta, known as the king of bitters, to 11,800 inmates with mild and asymptomatic Covid and claims that 99% of them recovered. 

Which sounds great, but the problem is that it doesn’t seem to have been a controlled study–you know, the kind with a control group that doesn’t get the treatment, so you can compare them.. 

If they reported how many of them were asymptomatic, I haven’t seen it. An asymptomatic person making a full recovery is hardly headline news.

The herb’s widely used in Thailand to treat colds and flu, 

Just to complicate the picture, it’s hard to calculate Covid recovery rates. Don’t ask–the article I’m working from just tossed that in and moved on, so let’s do the same. 

By way of comparison,” the article says, “the recovery rates announced by Thai officials are somewhat higher than overall Covid recovery rates in India (32%-83%) or Australia (96% recovered after 120 days).”

That doesn’t explain why they’re hard to calculate, but if we’re looking at a range from 32% to 83%, we might want to agree that it’s not an easy number to come up with.

Two controlled studies of green chiretta are underway, one in Thailand and the other in Georgia. That’s Georgia as in the country where you’ll find Tbilisi, not as in the state where you’ll find Atlanta. 

 

And a quick glance at Britain…

…since that’s what I allegedly write about here. Sorry. The pandemic’s taken me on a long side trip.

It’s done that to all of us, hasn’t it?

Covid infections in Britain went up by 60% in a month. Or to come at the numbers in a different way, we had almost 50,000 new cases in one recent day. That’s some 19,000 short of our all-time peak. 

Britain’s infection rates are higher than those of other European nations. Yay us! We’re winning!

No, wait. I got carried away. We don’t want to win this race. 

Why are we ahead? It’s not clear yet. The puzzle has a lot of pieces and it’ll take a while before anyone figures out where they go. How does testing compare to other countries? What about mask wearing, ventilation, vaccination, school rooms, work, transportation? But we can give a few of the pieces a good hard stare: Some of these bullet points will apply to Britain as a whole and some only to England. Apologies for putting them in the same bag and shaking them together before baking. It’s been that kind of week. 

  • The kids are back in school and not wearing masks.
  • Lots of people who were working from home are going back into–well, wherever it is they once worked. Whether they want to or not.
  • Not unrelated to that, the government has reopened everything it could get its hands on. 
  • Mask mandates have ended, although they’re recommended in public indoor spaces.
  • Kids between 12 and 15 are eligible for vaccination but it’s not happening quickly.
  • Booster shots for vulnerable adults aren’t happening quickly either.
  • Immunity from vaccines may be waning. Because Britain started its vaccination program earlier than most countries, waning immunity would show up earlier.
  • A new sub-variant of Delta has been spotted. That may well not be significant, but I thought I’d mention it. 

On top of that, one article I’ve seen brings the news that the unvaccinated could get reinfected an average of every 16 months, although reinfection doesn’t necessarily wait that long. It can happen soon after the first bout. So it’s not just the vaccines that (apparently) wane, so does natural immunity. Reports are coming in of people getting reinfected not just once but twice. 

People who’ve been vaccinated are also reporting reinfections. How often? I haven’t seen a number, and I’d be surprised if decisive numbers are in yet. What we can say is that the vaccinated will, at least, have some protection against the severest forms of the disease.

“We still don’t know much about the risk factors for reinfection,” Nisreen Alwan, associate professor of public health, said, “but the theoretical assumption that once all the young get it the pandemic will be over is becoming increasingly unlikely.” 

So much for herd immunity. 

Widespread vaccination has meant hospitalizations aren’t going up as quickly as infection rates, but even so we’ve got something like 869 admissions to hospital every day and some 8,000 people in hospital with Covid–around 10% of them on ventilators. So this increase in cases isn’t cost free. Leaders in the National Health Service are calling for mask mandates, working from home, and other restrictions to be brought back before we all find ourselves neck-deep in unpleasant brown stuff. And the health secretary, while refusing to do anything that useful, is at least asking Members of Parliament to set an example by wearing masks in crowded public places.

Should Christmas parties be canceled? Oh, hell no. Just take a lateral flow test first. 

The UK’s fairly highly vaccinated, and that’s keeping deaths and hospitalization rates from rising as quickly as they did in the early days of the pandemic, but they are rising and an already underfunded health care system is struggling. 

*

To underline how complicated the picture is, Japan’s had an unexpected downturn in the number of cases, and it’s not clear why that’s happened either. No one’s complaining, but understanding it would be useful.

*

A joint report from the House of Commons’ science and health committees rips into the British government’s early response to Covid, which amounted to, “Let’s all get sick, then we’ll have herd immunity. Yeah, som people will die, but doesn’t everyone die sooner or later?” 

The government caused thousands of deaths by delaying a lockdown, the report says.

“Decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic–and the advice that led to them–rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” it says. 

Britain has had more than 137,000 recorded coronavirus deaths. That’s the second highest number in Europe. Only Russia has more–and it’s a hell of a lot bigger. 

We won’t get into how many unrecorded Covid deaths there were and are, or the varying ways a Covid death is defined, but let’s acknowledge that it’s not a number anyone can be accurate about. Still, the numbers we have give us a rough sketch of where things stand. 

 

The smoker’s paradox

Early in the pandemic, a small handful of studies reported that smokers seemed to be protected against Covid’s worst effects. Since that ran counter to everything we’d expect, it was reported widely as a man-bites-dog story.

You know about man-bites-dog stories? If a dog bites a man, it’s not news. If a man bites a dog, it is. This bit of wisdom came from the time before women were invented, hence their absence. 

I might as well admit that I don’t remember seeing articles about smokers being protected from Covid, but my memory’s more decorative than functional, so I may have known about it at the time.

Never mind. What was behind the stories? Less than meets the eye. A larger study has now shown more or less what we’d expect: that smokers are 80% more likely to be hospitalized with Covid than nonsmokers. 

If you’d like an interesting lesson on probability, do click through and read the article. It’s a great explanation of why science continually updates its conclusions. But I’m going to skip all that and tell you this instead: 

First, the initial studies were small and the more recent one is large, meaning it has a better chance of being accurate.

Second, some of the initial studies were funded by tobacco companies, which–oops–are still trying to sell cigarettes. So we might want to look for an element of bias. Which lead us to the next paragraph.

Third, the studies asked the wrong question. They looked at the number of people hospitalized with Covid and asked how many of them smoked.

It’d be more useful–if you want a scientifically useful answer, that is–to compare smokers and nonsmokers and ask how many in each group are hospitalized with Covid. 

If you approach the question the first way, you don’t take account of the people who die before being admitted or who are transferred to a hospice. 

My math’s terrible, but I suspect that if you have one category of people who die quickly and one of people who linger, the lingerers pile up, so there will be more of them when you count heads, making it look like the dead are protected. 

The larger, later study included a fuller range of the population, asked a better question, and got a more predictable result.

if COVID teaches us nothing else,” the article says, “it should teach us to hold extraordinary claims–about smoking, vitamin D, zinc, bleach, gargling iodine, or nebulising hydrogen peroxide–to high standards.”

So the Normans invaded England in 1066. What happened next?

Most people who know any English history know about the Norman invasion, that moment when Anglo-Saxon (and, um,yeah, somewhat Norse) England was taken over by French-speaking colonizers, guaranteeing that Frideswide and Aelfgifu no longer top the English list of popular baby names. But what happened after the conquest to make the country cohere?

More than I have space for, but let’s snatch a few stray bits of paper from history’s gale-force winds and see what we can do with them.

And by we, of course, I mean me, since you’re not actually here as I type this.

 

Obviously relevant photo: This is Li’l Red Cat, not William the Conqueror, but you can see why a person might get confused.

The replacement of the ruling class

Ten minutes before the Norman invasion, England’s old ruling class was Anglo-Saxon with a bit of Norse embroidery. By the time the conquerors solidified their hold, most of it had been replaced with Normans. William the Conqueror had followers to reward, and the thing about followers is that if you don’t keep them happy, they’ll turn on you. They’re big, they’re armed, and they can get nasty. And there are always more of them than there are of you. So he needed to hand them goodies, and we all know where goodies come from after a war: the people who lost. 

The land belonging to most of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class was confiscated and given to William’s followers. And since land and wealth were pretty much the same thing, we’re not talking about a new, Norman ruling class.

I’ll come back to that in a minute.

 

The non-replacement of the ruling class

But no story’s ever simple. William made efforts to keep the old ruling class on his side and pretty much limited his confiscations to the nobles who rose against him. So there was an Anglo-Saxon elite that collaborated with the Normans, kept their lands, and adopted the French language and culture. They became Frenchified and separated from the commoners. English was now the language of the peasants and French of the landlords.

 

Why didn’t England rise against the Normans?

The English outnumbered the Normans a hundred to one. So why didn’t they resist?

People who haven’t a clue what’s involved always seem to ask this about the conquered, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear a hint that it might be the conquered people’s own damn fault. They didn’t fight back, did they? They didn’t have the old warrior spirit. Or their weapons were too primitive. Or–well, you know, something.

The thing is, the Anglo-Saxons did rise against the Normans. Multiple times, and some of the uprisings presented serious threats. The thing is, they lost, and for multiple reasons. 

The leaders of all or most of the rebellions were the old aristocracy. At the time, there was an inevitability about that. The aristocrats weren’t just the governing class, they were also the warrior class. We’re still hundreds of years away from ordinary people leading their own rebellions. This was a hierarchical society. Soldiers fought. Peasants peasanted. Maybe their lords drafted them in to carry agricultural tools onto the battlefield and shout threatening slogans in front of the cameras, but they weren’t trained soldiers. So for the time being, the aristocrats are the people to keep your eye on. 

But after the Battle of Hastings, where the native English government was defeated, a big chunk of the aristocracy died. That was inconvenient, not just for them individually but for the chances of a successful rebellion, because there went its leadership. 

According to one theory, so many of them died because the Anglo-Saxons were behind the times militarily. The Normans swept into the Battle of Hastings using a new European tactic, the heavy cavalry charge, with the lances used for charging, not throwing. 

So although people did rise against the Normans, the rebellions were crushed. The leaders who didn’t die fled the country. 

Which was convenient for William, who handed their lands to Normans.

Another factor weighing against the rebels was that England was a country with a history not just of division but of outright warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse

Okay, not just warfare. They threw in a fair few massacres just to demonstrate how serious everyone was about this. So they wouldn’t have been an easy bunch to unite. And for many ordinary people, peace under a brutal leader who spoke a language no one understood might have looked better than more warfare.

The church would’ve been another place ordinary people looked for leadership, but it took the Normans’ side. So no help there.

Landscape may or may not have worked against the rebels. In some accounts,they melted into the woods, Robin Hood-like, emerging to fight a guerrilla war. In other accounts, southern England had no natural hiding places where a rebel army could base itself. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two accounts. It’s possible that the land could hide small bands, but not whole armies, but I wouldn’t take my word for that. It’s a reckless guess. I’ll leave it to you to resolve the contradiction.

Or not.

 

And those defeats led to what?

According to David Horspool, in The English Rebel, the risings against the Normans were persistent and serious, and one outcome was that William the Conqueror abandoned his early efforts to enlist the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in a Norman government. 

“The top of England’s post-Conquest society, both lay and ecclesiastical, became almost entirely Norman,” he writes.

They also led to a longstanding mythology of English rebellions, which holds that before the Conquest England was a free land. Then the Normans came and all that freedom died. 

That the Normans brought extensive suffering is unquestionable. That Anglo-Saxon England was a land of freedom, though, is at best open to argument. Especially since slavery was deeply woven into the structure.

 

A note on sources and theories

I’m drawing from two books here: The English Rebel, by David Horspool, and The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes. It may not really be the shortest–I found one with a lighter page count, but it may have more words. I confess that I haven’t counted them. They’re both well worth reading. 

Hawes’ argues that intermarriage meant the English elite was more open to new members than any other elite in Europe. All you had to be was rich, fluent in French, and willing to speak it at all social and political occasions. 

Of course, you also had to start as part of an almost-parallel elite. Entry wasn’t open to a serf. Or even, say, a free glove maker.

In the long run, this relative openness had important ramifications, one of which was that the Anglo-Saxon elite separated itself from the Anglo-Saxon commoners, leaving them leaderless. Another was that culture became synonymous with Norman culture. The Anglo-Saxon culture and language were left to people who–in the eyes of their rulers–had no culture.

Hawes says this it was an unusual pattern in Europe until England grew up and visited it on its neighbors when it became their colonizers.

Hawes is the only historian I’ve found who talks about the Normans having a technological edge in battle. Everyone else talks about Harold–the king who lost at Hastings–having just marched from the  north, where he fought off one invasion, to the south coast to fight with exhausted troops. They talk about his decision not to rest before this second fight. 

I have no idea if Hawes is onto something there. Again, I’ll leave it to you to figure out who’s right.

The future of Covid, and some updates on the fight against it

A while back, I summarized a theory that the Covid virus is unlikely to pick up the number of mutations it would need if it’s going to evade the vaccines. I felt a lot better after reading that, but let’s look at an opposing theory so we can all get depressed together.

This theory raises the possibility that in addition to the virus picking up small mutations over time (that’s called antigenic drift), there’s the possibility of antigenic shift, which involves more dramatic changes caused by the virus recombining with other human coronaviruses. Viruses do that. Basically, they hold a swap meet. Or a bring and buy sale if you’re more used to them. They don’t actually use money–their evolution hasn’t brought them to that exalted stage–but they do trade strategies for making money-using creatures sick.

If they swap the right bits of knowledge, the current crop of vaccines will need to be re-engineered. We’ll all move back to Go and start the game over again.

It’s also possible that Covid will infect animals we share space with and then cross back to humans in some more powerful form. That’s reverse zoonosis.

Irrelevant photo: Japanese anemone, with a bite out of it. That’s to prove the beauty of imperfection and all that deep philosophical stuff.

As a general rule, long-term evolution favors viruses that don’t make their hosts too sick. The very sick tend to crawl away somewhere and keep their germs to themselves, which (seeing this from the germs’ point of view) isn’t an efficient use of a host. And the dead die, which also limits their opportunities to share. That’s even more inefficient. 

From that base, any number of people argue that (after a trail of death and destruction) epidemic diseases get milder over time. Everyone who doesn’t die lives happily ever after. They point to the 1918 flu epidemic (or the Black Death, or some other cheery moment in human history) and assure us that this is the natural order of things. 

According to this theory, that is indeed one possibility but it’s not the only one. 

The British government’s group of scientific advisors, SAGE, thinks the virus isn’t likely to become less virulent in the short term. (Virulence isn’t about a disease’s ability to spread–that’s transmissibility. It’s about how sick it makes a person.) SAGE considers that a long-term possibility, but it also considers it a realistic possibility that a more virulent strain will emerge. 

Sorry. I don’t create the possibilities, I just write about them.

So what direction will it evolve in? Basically, no one’s sure.  

However, all isn’t lost. A lot of work’s being done on how to cope with Covid.

 

The Covid-killing mask 

A group of researchers have created a surgical mask that deactivates not just the Covid virus but any enveloped virus (that includes the flu), plus some antibiotic-resistant bacteria like a couple of the staphylococci. 

What’s an enveloped virus? I’m so glad you asked, because I have an answer right here in my pocket. It’s “any virus in which a nucleoprotein core is surrounded by a lipoprotein envelope consisting of a closed bilayer of lipid derived from that of the host cell’s membrane(s), with glycoprotein.”

You’re welcome. I didn’t understand it either, but I’m glad to get it out of my pocket.

The masks are the first ones that don’t just protect both the rest of the world from the wearer but also protect the wearer from the rest of the world. 

Okay, not completely, but virus- and staphylococcuses-wise, it will. If someone’s trying to hit you on the head with a hammer, the masks are no help at all.

I’ve seen masks promoted as antiviral. Advertising copy for masks with a copper layer, for example, talks about copper’s antiviral properties without actually claiming that the masks will kill Covid. From what I’ve read, they don’t have enough copper to do more than provide carefully worded hype.

The new masks are called FFP Covid masks, they come in adult and child sizes, and according to the article I read they’re very affordable.

How affordable is very affordable? After bumping around the internet for a while, I found some on sale for one euro. That’s not bad, but whether it’s affordable depends on how much you have in your wallet, and how long it takes to renew itself once you pull some of it out to buy masks.

Not to mention how many other calls you have on it.

Are the masks reusable? That’ll affect people’s opinion of their affordability, and the definitive answer is, I’m not sure. They look disposable, but that’s strictly a guess. 

Another limiting factor for most of us–since this is an English-language site–is that the only place I could find them for sale is in Spain, which is where they were developed. Presumably they’ll make their way into the rest of the world at some point. 

Still, whatever the mask’s immediate impact, it’s an important step.

 

Quick updates

Multiple new Covid treatments and vaccines are in the works. Here’s a sampling:

An inhalable powder works against Covid, MERS, and one version of the flu. In animals. It has yet to be tried in  humans–at least in this form. As a pill, it’s used against leukemia, but when you turn it into a powder and inhale it, it becomes a whole ‘nother thing. In addition to landing in a different part of the body and possibly needing a different dose, it opens up the possibility of Covid treatment taking on some bad-boy chic: You roll up a hundred-dollar bill and snort your meds.  

*

Repurposing a drug that’s already in use to treat a new disease isn’t, it turns out, as simple as it sounds. You may have to shift from a pill to a powder. You may need a dose so high that it turns toxic, at which point you may need to rethink the whole idea.

*

Another drug that’s already in use, this one to treat fatty substances in the blood (no, don’t ask me), could reduce Covid infection by 70%. Could. So far, it’s worked only in human cells in the lab. Two clinical trials are underway, though.

*

An antiviral called molnupiravir halves the chances of an infected, high-risk person needing hospitalization or dying from Covid, and Merck will be asking for emergency approval in the U.S. Molnupiravir doesn’t seem to be as effective as monoclonal antibodies, but because it’s a pill it can be used outside of hospital settings, so it’s much easier to use.. 

Down sides? It costs $700 for a five-day course of treatment, which makes it cheaper than and easier to type than monoclonal antibodies, but it’s still expensive. And some experts are warning about potential side effects. Plus it doesn’t seem to help patients who are already sick enough to be hospitalized. So although it’s gotten a lot of press coverage and is, without question, important, it’s not the answer to all problems.

Other antiviral pills are also in the works. 

*

Vaccines? Why yes. A new vaccine in development uses only a single shot and can be stored at room temperature for up to a month. In trials with primates, it gave near-complete immunity that stayed at its peak level for eleven months.

It’s called an AAVCOVID vaccine, AAV being the vector the vaccine uses. 

What am I talking about? The vector’s the horse the vaccine rides in on. Or if you want to sound marginally more sensible, it’s the  strategy the developers use. I’m not going to try to explain this one, because I’m pretty sure I’ll get it wrong. Let’s just say that if this strategy works, it’ll help get the vaccine out to places where refrigeration’s a barrier. 

The team that’s developing it is also exploring needle-less delivery systems.

*

Another vaccine in the works is using a new model that I’d love to explain but I’m not even close to understanding it, so let me quote: It combines “the advantages of the two types of traditional vaccines—virus-based vaccines and protein-based vaccines—by preparing a bacterial protein that self-assembles into a virus-like particle. By displaying a COVID-19 protein on the surface of this virus-like particle, researchers produced a novel vaccine that is well recognized by the mammalian immune system, but yet does not have any viral infectivity.”

If I understand that correctly, it behaves like one of those transformers kids used to play with, and for all I know still do. You introduce it into a body as a motorcycle, it clicks a few of its own pieces, turns green, and suddenly it’s the Hulk, chasing down unsuspecting Covid viruses.

Early tests show it being effective against the Covid variants and setting up a strong immune response.

Come to me anytime you need a high-grade scientific explanation.

 

Long Covid numbers

I’ve found some numbers on long Covid, finally: About a third of the people who come down with Covid get at least one long Covid  symptom. 

First question, who are we talking about when we say people who get Covid? As far as I can tell, it’s people who actually got sick, because the article talks about them recovering. So I think we can rule out anyone who gets infected but stays asymptomatic. 

We need all the good news we can get, so let’s play nice and say thanks for that.

Second question, how are they defining long Covid? You get to pick from nine core symptoms, and they have (or it has, if you only get one) to last at least 90 days. The most common ones are breathing problems, abdominal symptoms, fatigue, pain, and anxiety and depression.They’re more common in people who’ve been hospitalized and slightly more common in women than in men. The same symptoms occur after the flu, but they’re 1.5 times more common after Covid.

Next shred of good news? If long Covid symptoms are more common in people who’ve been hospitalized, less than a third of people with milder symptoms are likely to come down with it. 

The original Brexit, or when Doggerland sank

Before it sank, a tough neighborhood called Doggerland formed the highway between Europe and Britain. These days, when sea levels are rising and bits of Britain are falling into the sea, some of Doggerland’s secrets are coming to the surface. Not because they’re falling out of British cliffs, but because the Netherlands are (or possibly is*) dredging the seabed to build up artificial beaches as a protection against flooding. 

 

Doggerland 

Doggerland was inhabited for, oh, a million or so years before the lease ran out. Not just by modern humans but by Neanderthals before them and before that by an earlier version of our species that we call Homo antecessor.

Homo antecessor is Latin and translates very (very) loosely to the people who got here first, only since the name’s a carryover from the golden age of brainless sexism, it actually means the men who got here first. Because the folks in charge back then still hadn’t figured out that a species needs female participation if it’s going to last. 

Irrelevant photo: Fall is the season of red berries. I’m not sure what these are, but I’m pretty sure they’re inedible.

Glaciers grew and receded during this period, and as the climate got warmer Doggerland turned to grasslands, and that attracted animals, and later to it added forests and marshlands to its repertoire. 

What animals did it attract? Reindeer mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, giant red deer, aurochs. And all the animals I had nightmares about as a kid: cave lions, sabre-toothed cats, cave hyenas, wolves. 

I’d have had nightmares about aurochs if only I’d known about them. Count it as a wasted opportunity

So it was a tough neighborhood, but it was also a rich one. The hunting was good and the gathering wasn’t bad, even if the nearest corner store was thousands of years away. 

 

The flood

When the Doggerland lease ran out, the eviction process was brutal: 8,200 years ago, a  tsunami swept over the land. That was on what would otherwise have been a lovely Wednesday afternoon, even though the week as we know it hadn’t been invented yet. 

Or the weekend. Hunter-gatherers, the experts tell us, worked far fewer hours than we do today, so they had no need for a weekend.

The tsunami was caused by the Storegga Slide, an underwater landslide off the coast of what wasn’t yet Norway. It probably killed thousands of people, destroying their settlements, but it didn’t come without warning–at least if you knew how to read the signs. The glaciers were melting, sea levels were rising, and Doggerland had already lost acreage to the sea. 

But, according to Claire Mellett, the chief marine geoarchaeologist for Wessex Archaeology, “The life span of the people at this time was about 30 years, so [even] if sea level was rising, they probably wouldn’t have been able to observe it. But in geological history, it’s one of the fastest-rising sea levels that we’ve ever experienced.”

Try not to be too snobbish about their short sightedness. These days, we’re reading all the signs of climate change and sea level rise, but so far we haven’t impressed anyone with our ability to take action.

In most versions of the tale, Doggerland sank and that was that: Britain had become an island. Brexit had happened, but without the vote, the negotiations, or the headlines.

But some evidence points to Doggerland surviving for a few centuries as a series of islands, where the neolithic settlers who are believed to have brought framing to Britain might have stopped over on their journey. They’d have beached their boats, bought a sandwich and an eccles cake, picked up a booklet of crossword puzzles, and then forgotten where they parked. But once they found their boats again, they felt all the stronger for their stopover and were ready to once more brave the waves and weather.

In a nice little piece of irony, the mapping of Doggerland has been aided by oil companies drilling in the North Sea. I’m reasonably sure they’d prefer it if we didn’t compare the two experiences of rising sea levels. 

The exploration also got some help from a company siting offshore wind farms. 

 

Could we go back to those secrets that are surfacing?

Of course we can. 

The Netherlands’ artificially created beaches have drawn amateur archaeologists, who search them for Doggerland artifacts that spent eons on the seabed, and the amateurs have worked with professionals to piece together a picture of the drowned land and its people. 

“We have a wonderful community of amateur archaeologists who almost daily walk these beaches and look for the fossils and artefacts, and we work with them to analyse and study them,” said Sasja Van der Vaart-Verschoof of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. (That’s the National Museum of Antiquities to most of us.) “It is open to everyone, and anyone could find a hand axe, for example. Pretty much the entire toolkit that would have been used has been found by amateur archaeologists.”

The museum’s in the headlines because it’s hosting an exhibition of Doggerland objects, including fun stuff like petrified hyena droppings and mammoth molars. Also tools made from flint, bone, and antlers, arrowheads made of human bone, decorated animal bones, and jewelry made from amber and from boar tusk.

One find, a 50,000-year-old flint tool with a handle made from birch tar pitch, comes from the era when Neanderthals held the Doggerland lease and demonstrates that they made complex tools, with skill. Forget the pictures you saw when you were a kid that showed the Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging dimwits. We were sold a species-ist myth there. Neanderthals not only made tools, they made art. Some has been found in a cave in Spain and dated to a time when modern humans weren’t on the continent yet. It may not be great art, but it was deliberate, it was either decorative or symbolic, and it demonstrates thought, planning, and intention.

 

The exhibition

You can find the a webpage on the exhibit here.

______________

* I asked Lord Google if the Netherlands is singular or plural and found definitive answers saying singular and definitive ones saying plural. I could pick through that and consult a genuinely knowledgeable source–I used to be a copyeditor; we do that sort of thing–but it was too much fun to see people be so sure of themselves and in disagreement. I decided that I don’t need to know. You probably don’t either.