Stale news from Britain

Racing News: The Great Knaresborough Bed Race took place in June. It follows the tradition of bizarre British festivals, although it’s different from a lot of them in that it asks contestants to stay sober. The rules say all runners have to stay sober until after the race.

Each team is expected to provide:

A bed decorated in the theme for the year

An audible air horn / hooter

A helmet for the passenger

A life jacket for the passenger

Irrelevant photo: A California poppy in Cornwall.

The beds have to be this height, that width, and some other length. They have to have wheels. The wheels have to meet so many specifications that I passed out reading them and had to be revived by two shih tzus and a cat, who wanted supper or they’d have let me solve my problem all by my unconscious self. The beds also have to float, because they’re going to cross the River Nidd. And they have to have ropes attached, although the ropes can’t be attached to any person. The ropes allow the runners can pull the bed when they start swimming.

All beds have to keep to the left except when they’re overtaking. Overtaking means passing. It is not the opposite of undertaking. English is a very strange language. Do not discuss this while swimming a bed across the river Nidd.

The whole thing sounds terrifyingly well organized.

Inevitably, the official video shows people in fancy dress, which means in costume, which, this being Britain, means a fair number of men dressed as women. 

No, I don’t know why they do that. It’s just something men do here. And just so we’re clear, these aren’t drag queens. Drag queens have flair. These are straight guys and they’re aiming for the Cinderella’s stepsister look. Maybe that’s what they think women look like.

The race (as I said above; pay attention, please) took place in June. If you join in next year, do send photos.

Social Media: While we’re talking about being late with a piece of news, last January the Conservative Party held a training session for its Members of Parliament. The idea was to help them use social media to present themselves to their constituents as real people so that younger people would love them and instantly run out and vote for them, even before an election was called. Several MPs responded by rushing out and posting frozen pictures of themselves standing in the kind of expensive buildings where politicians do business. They did not look like real people. They may not have been real people. I didn’t rush out and vote for them, but then I’m not in any of their constituencies and I wouldn’t have voted for them anyway. But I’m just saying, it didn’t work for me.

Then in March, Conservative MP Bob Blackman got so real that he posted an article claiming that the sexual abuse of white British children was part of Somali culture. It didn’t go over well and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was sorry if he’d hurt any feelings. That translates roughly to I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt when I stated the truth with less tact than I might have but gee isn’t everyone touchy these days?

Blackman uses social media so fluently that he joined a number of Islamophobic Facebook pages but when contacted about it by Vice said he didn’t know he’d been added and removed himself.

One of the groups, Britain for the British, is (or was–this happened in May) “administered by British National Party supporter Steven Devlin. It features numerous comments which praise Hitler, and many more which wish violence upon Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, accusing him of being an ‘Islamofascist’ and ‘traitor,’ and hoping that he dies.” 

Does it strike anyone other than me as a bit odd that a site where any number of people praise Hitler consider fascist an insult? Or is it only an insult when you add Islam to it?

If the party has held any more social media training sessions, it’s managed to keep them out of the news.

Snakes: This past summer has been unusually hot by British standards, and that’s led to an unusual number of snake sightings.

First, a quick review of the native reptiles. The BBC reports that “England is home to grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes, and to common lizards, sand lizards and slow-worms, slug-eating legless lizards.” The only one that’s poisonous is the adder, and they’re more of a worry for dogs than people.

Not that dogs worry much.

According to the Forestry Commission, “Adders have the most highly developed venom injecting mechanism of all snakes, but they are not aggressive animals. Adders will only use their venom as a last means of defence, usually if caught or trodden on. No one has died from adder bite in Britain for over 20 years. With proper treatment, the worst effects are nausea and drowsiness, followed by severe swelling and bruising in the area of the bite. Most people who are bitten were handling the snake.”

Some people don’t worry much either, and should.

I’m still trying to understand why the slow worm is a legless lizard instead of a snake. It looks like a snake and it quacks like a snake, but a lizard it is.

“It is illegal to kill or injure any of [the reptiles], with fines of up to £5,000 and six months’ imprisonment for offenders,” the BBC says.

But forget all that. A fair number of non-native snakes have been sighted this summer, according to the Guardian. A boa constrictor was spotted on a London street, wrapping itself around a pigeon. 

In Exeter, a man found an 8-foot (or 2.4-meter, if that works better for you) python in his bathroom, asking to borrow his razor and shaving cream. It seems to have escaped from a pet store in the building and found its way to his bathroom through the plumbing. It wanted to shave off its beard, give itself a new name, and start a new life.

About that “seems to have.” I’d have thought a store would know if it was missing an 8-foot python, but the article I read said “apparently.” Maybe shaving the beard worked–they didn’t recognize it as the 8-foot snake they were missing.

Meanwhile (or before, of afterwards) back in London, a woman woke up to find a 3-foot- (1-meter-) long royal python curled up next to her in bed. And a runner found a baby boa constrictor in the bushes just before a race. What was the runner doing in the bushes? Relieving himself, as the paper so delicately puts it.

He hasn’t peed since.

And finally, a royal python that’s probably pregnant is (as I write this, which means was as you read it) missing in Manchester, although she may be hiding somewhere in the apartment of the woman who thinks she owns her.

Manchester’s a long way from where I live, but Exeter’s not much more than an hour’s drive. I’m hoping the python hasn’t learned to drive.

An estimated 2 million snakes live as pets in Britain. Pythons and corn snakes are particularly popular.

Egg Throwing: And finally, to follow up on our theme of old news and bizarre contests, Deb (who’s popped up in the last three posts) sent me a link to a contest held in 2010, and since it’s news to me (and probably to you), it’ll do. A Lincolnshire egg-throwing contest wasn’t content with the traditional way of throwing eggs, where you take the egg in your hand, pull your hand back, and launch the thing as far as you can. This one introduced trebuchets.

A trebuchet? It’s a medieval weapon developed to launch stones during a siege. You put a heavy weight on one end of the arm, pull the unweighted end down, load a stone in its basket, and let fly. Do this often enough and you can break down a city wall and massacre the residents. 

Fun, fun, fun.

So yes, it’s a kind of catapult,but one with with a long range. I’d never heard the word till I moved to Britain.

Did I say it was medieval? It was, but it was used in China as early as the fourth century B.C.E. (That’s B.C. in [Britishism warning] old money.) Only it wasn’t called a trebuchet there. What a surprise.

You don’t have to call it a trebuchet if you don’t want to. Call it a catapult. What matters here is that it’s not meant to launch an egg.

In the competition, the target–every throwing or launching competition needs a target–was a person. I’m going to guess that each team had to supply its own, but understand that I’m making that bit up.

The BBC reported that “World Egg Throwing Federation president Andy Dunlop said 4,000 people were expected to attend the event, which has a total of 200 participants.”

The World Egg Throwing Federation? It does exist, you can find it on Facebook, and you can even watch a video of a launch that was banned from competition because it used a tube that appears to turn the egg into a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile.

The site comments, “Banned attempt at trebuchet competition. Disqualified because 1. Its not a trebuchet. 2. Its illegal to construct a shoulder launched egg launcher having a range of 1200 yds. (The Police complained)”

Can we stop for a minute, though, and talk about the World Egg Throwing Federation president? That is a position, kiddies, that a person can be proud of. Put it on your resume and you’ll be guaranteed interviews. I’m not saying anyone will hire you, but they will want to see what you look like.

You’ll do even better if you follow the advice offered by my partner, best known as Wild Thing: Change that title. Anyone can be a president. You want to be the Great Hen. Even if you’re male.

The link I gave you above leads to a 2010 contest, but the contest continues year after year. Why would something this important stop? I could give you a link to the more recent one but since we’re dealing in stale news this week, we’ll stay with 2010.

And now a bit of background on my research into this story. Understand first of all that no amount of research is too silly for me to undertake. When Deb first mentioned the contest, she misremembered it as a gravy throwing competition. Her brain apparently contained one egg throwing and one gravy wrestling competition and the combination led to a short circuit, producing a gravy throwing competition.

When I googled the phrase gravy throwing competition, I  found videos on how to throw a gravy boat–not as in now to launch it across a field but as in how to put a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel and make one. It was disappointing, but we can salvage something out of this: If your village is looking for a good fundraiser, you won’t find any others holding gravy throwing contests. There will be some problems to work out, but I can almost guarantee  press coverage. Great press coverage. And please, send me an invitation.

But back to egg throwing: I wrote about this festival before, but it was in the context of the presence of beer at summer festivals. (If you think I remember what I’ve written, you have no idea how my mind works and you can consider yourself lucky.) I can’t think how this happened, but in the earlier post I missed the trebuchets.

That earlier post led Fragglerocking to drop me a line about egg jarping–an Easter tradition from the northeast of England. I was going to wait for Easter to tell you about it, but since you brought it up I’ll drop it in here. 

“Well what do you expect from soft southerners?” she wrote in response to I can’t remember what–something soft and southern. Possibly chocolate eggs. “Up here where we hold the Annual Egg Jarping Championships every Easter, we’re still using hard boiled proper non-fake eggs!”

To jarp (is it a verb?), one contestant holds a hard-boiled egg with the pointed side up. The other one brings another hard-boiled egg down on it so the pointed sides crash. The winner has an undented egg. The loser cleans eggshell off the floor. If neither egg breaks, the players trade roles and try again. No beer is involved and you don’t have to organize an entire village or town to do it, although you can.

What do you do if they both break? For all I know, that’s physically impossible, but just in case, I recommend making sandwiches.

While I was googling egg throwing (I just love the research I do for this blog), I found an article on last May’s convention of the U.K. Flat Earth Society–a group of people dedicated to the idea that, evidence be damned, you can believe whatever you want. It should be getting wildly popular these days, what with folks making up their own facts, although they have more of a sense of humor than most of the people who don’t demand evidence before dedicating themselves to a set of beliefs.

The reason Lord Google led to to it was that the conference included a three-hour presentation about the earth being shaped like an egg. I’m not sure how you fill three hours with that, but I’ll admit to having known people who could fill three hours with less. And I won’t mention any names because they’d only call me.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

We’re going back to the England of the 1830s, with all its romance, not to meniton its mud and its misery. But first, a health and safety warning, because England—or Britain, really—of the twenty-first century just loves its health and safety warnings: Our trip will be heavy on mud and misery and light on romance. We’ll be in a rural area. If you’re not familiar with farm animals, please understand that they are not pets. Above all, do not pet the bull. He has no sense of humor, even if you borrow the U from bll and move in into humour. Please stay with the group. Waterproof shoes are not required but are recommended. Above all, don’t do anything stupid.

Good, with that out of the way, here we are in the 1830s and, as a newspaper article from the British Library archive puts it, the life of an English farmworker is “dismal. Rent and a basic diet of tea, bread and potatoes would cost a typical family 13 shillings a week. But exploitative landowners, given land by the Enclosures, paid their workers as little as 9, 8, even 7 shillings.”

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a geranium.

Enclosures? You can catch up on that by going to an earlier post about hedges, which were used to enclose the fields. Scroll down to the section on history, then scroll another few paragraphs below the subhead and you’ll find a bit about enclosure. I’ve been on a history binge lately.

Or you can skip the background and simply understand that farmworkers weren’t getting paid enough to keep their families fed a very minimal diet of starch and caffeine.
Helping produce this general misery were the Corn Laws, which were in force from 1815 to 1846. They taxed and restricted the import of grain, keeping prices high. That was great if you were selling the stuff and a disaster if you were trying to buy it on 9 shillings a week. Or on 7. (Corn, just so this makes sense to everyone–or as to many people as I can manage, anyway–is British for grain.)

Not many years before the time we’re visiting, the Swing Rebellion had swept through southern and southwestern England. Rebellious farm workers and craftsmen demanded higher pay, lower tithes, an end to rural unemployment, and a few other things along those lines. Barns were burned. Farmers were threatened. The well-fed (to generalize) were frightened. The rebellion ended with 19 executions, 500 people transported, and none of the rebels’ demands met.

It was a perfect set-up for another uprising.

But that’s not what happened. What took place in Tolpuddle isn’t the sort of tale that makes a good action movie. No barns were burned. No one went to a Shao Lin temple to meditate for six years and emerge able to do flying kicks and avenge the evil landowner who murdered their mother/father/entire family/pet bull.

There weren’t even any drunken fistfights. The central people involved were Methodists, which meant they didn’t drink.

What happened was that in 1833, in Tolpuddle—a village in Dorset—a handful of men founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, whose goal was to stop the lowering of agricultural wages. It wasn’t an uprising, it was an attempt to organize.

What’s a friendly society? A mutual aid group. I haven’t been able to date the first ones in Britain, but one website dates them, with criminal vagueness, to the Industrial Revolution. Most were very local, although a few started out that way and then expanded. Some involved no more than a few families. Members paid in a small amount each month and could count on help if someone got sick or died—or sometimes even if a cow died, which when a family’s livelihood hung by so thin a thread could be almost as catastrophic as a wage-earner dying.

This was a time when most people had somewhere between very little and nothing at all to fall back on. If things went wrong, they could become vagrants—homeless beggars. And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, vagrancy was illegal. So, as far as I can tell, was compassion except in small and humiliating doses. What help was offered came from the parish, which translates to local government, and it was miserly, punitive, and given at the discretion of the local gentry.

To modern ears, the Tolpuddle group sounds more like a union than a friendly society, but the categories were still fluid. And the organizers may well have thought that putting together a friendly society was safer than organizing a union. Unions had been illegal as recently as 1824 and were still considered reckless, revolutionary, dangerous, and several other scary adjectives.

Modern writers tend to talk about the group as a union. It’s always simpler in retrospect.

The group’s members took an oath that if any master reduced wages, all members of the society would walk out. They also swore not to tell anyone the group’s secrets and agreed that anyone who did would be hunted out of the society, not just locally but throughout the country.  As far as I can tell, the group was strictly local, but that’s the wording they used. They had ambitions, I guess.

Initiates also had to wish that their souls would be “plunged into eternity” if they broke their oath. Within three months, some 40 people had sworn, and at least one of them must have plunged his soul into eternity, because a local landowner and magistrate, Squire Frampton, heard whispers about the group and wrote to the home secretary for advice about how to respond. The home secretary recommended prosecuting the leaders under the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797, an obscure law that outlawed secret oaths.

To understand the squire and the home secretary’s reaction, remember that not only was the Swing Rebellion in the very recent past, the French Revolution was also still alive in their minds. I have no idea if it was alive in the minds of Tolpuddle’s farmworkers, but the people who considered themselves the farmworkers’ betters were haunted by the fear that something similar could happen in England’s green and hungry land.

In February 1834, three months after its founding, six members of the friendly society were arrested. As far as I can establish, the group had done nothing more dangerous than gather members, swear oaths, and exist. But swear a secret oath they had, and all six were convicted and transported to Australia. The jury, the BBC notes, was made up of “farmers and the employers of the labourers under trial.”

It was all very efficient, and it backfired. After the conviction, the six became popular heroes, known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. A huge meeting and a march were held in their defense (one site calls it the first mass trade union protest) and a petition for their pardon gathered 800,000 signatures. And not on the internet. Remember paper? Copies of the petition had to be passed from hand to hand and then delivered physically to whoever it was addressed to in government. And since quills–or even birds–hadn’t been invented yet, it had to be signed with sharpened dinosaur bones.

The most imaginative part of the campaign involved a call to prosecute the Duke of Cumberland—who just happened to be the King’s brother—under the Unlawful Oaths Act, since as head of the Orange Lodges of Freemasons he’d also taken a secret oath. Hey, if one secret oath was illegal, weren’t they all?

In the meantime, the families of the transported men were destitute and applied to the parish for relief. The people deciding whether they were worthy of it included none other than the man who’d set the prosecution in motion, Squire Frampton. To no one’s surprise, they were turned down. Unions across the country raised money to sustain them.

In 1836, the six were pardoned and returned to England. Only one, James Hammett, re-settled in Tolpuddle. The other five eventually emigrated to Canada, which must have promised a kind of freedom they couldn’t imagine in Dorset, and in one of those little ironies that history’s so good at, they settled on land which would have been snatched from its original settlers, the Indians.

So who were the Tolpuddle Martyrs? Five of the six were Methodists, and their leader, George Loveless, wasn’t just a Methodist but a preacher. Methodism had begun in the previous century and had become a powerful force among working people. It preached the priesthood of all believers, and that led some of those believers to decide that if god valued them, so should their employers.

The sixth, Hammett, wasn’t a Methodist, hadn’t been at the initiation ceremony, didn’t move to Canada, and had been arrested once before, for theft. He may (or may not–who can tell at this point?) have allowed himself to be convicted to protect his brother. He seems to have been an outsider in an otherwise tight-knit group.

After the Tolpuddle prosecution, the National Archive says, “the harsh sentences discouraged other workers from joining trade unions, and many of the nationwide organisations, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, collapsed.” But in spite of that, union memebership continued to grow and by the 1850s and 1860s trade unionism was again on the rise.

Today, the Tolpuddle Martyrs are commemorated by a museum and a yearly festival. I haven’t gone, but judging from the festival posters it encompasses sober political discussion, open mics, and concerts by groups that this year included the Barstool Preachers.

I just had to work their name in. I doubt the five Tolpuddle Methodists would have approved.

But we’ve been serious long enough, so let’s talk about place names: Before we’d heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, my partner and I drove through the area reading the signs that pointed to nearby towns and villages and laughing hard enough to make ourselves a hazard on the road. In addition to Tolpuddle, we found Affpuddle, Briantspuddle, Piddlehinton, Piddletrenthide, Puddletown, the River Piddle, Tincleton, and Throop.

Throop didn’t fit the theme, but somehow that only made it funnier.

My friend Deb swears that Little Piddle, Upper Piddle, and Lower Piddle are around there somewhere. I don’t doubt that she’s right but we, sadly, missed them.

*
My thanks to Emma Cownie for mentioning the impact of the Corn Laws on food prices in this period. And to Richard for dropping me a line about Lord Byron’s speech about frame breakers. I haven’t gotten my claws into that yet, but if you have no idea what I’m talking about (and why would you?), it’ll all make sense eventually.

England’s lost patron saint

The world of patron saints is a murky one. Job descriptions are hazy, the hiring process is opaque, job security’s nonexistent, and conflicts of interest are so much a part of the system that it’ll take a revolution to get rid of them. Take England’s patron saint, George–or St. George as he prefers to be known. As well as being the patron saint of England, he’s also the patron saint of  Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia (which is named after him), Greece, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia. And Genoa. England more or less rented him from Genoa.

You can read about St. George, rent, and Genoa here

But as happens so often on this cloudy island, the story isn’t that simple, because England had an earlier patron saint, Edmund.

Edmund started his career as the king of East Anglia at a time when England didn’t exist yet. The space it now fills was occupied by a collection of small and usually warring kingdoms. If you’re used to kingdoms being the size of–oh, let’s randomly choose England as an example, then you can think of him as a kinglet, but he wouldn’t have appreciated the description. He was a king, thanks, and we can all just take that seriously.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion (or possibly one of a few thousand flowers in Britain that look like dandelions but aren’t), doing its bit to help its species take over the world.

Edmund was born in 841 C.E. (in old-school reckoning, that’s 841 A.D.) and became king in 856 when he would’ve been–oh, good lord–all of fifteen. He was a Christian and fought with King Alfred of Wessex against the non-Christian Vikings and Norse–or as the Historic UK website puts it, “against the pagan Viking and Norse invaders (the Great Heathen Army).”

Thanks, guys. I appreciate an even-handed approach to history.

What am I complaining about? They were invaders–I can’t argue that, although the Angles themselves had invaded Celtic land not long before. It’s the “pagan” and “heathen” that make me want to tip the sentence into the recycling bin. Both are Christian words meaning, give or take a shred of exaggeration on my part, ignorant savages who don’t share our religion and who we don’t have to think of as fully human.

Even my description of them as non-Christian uses Christian as the default setting, which is both biased and historically inaccurate, but I’m not sure what else to call them and I’ve already spent two paragraphs on it, so let’s leave the word where it is. I’m not sure what else would work.

Before we turn to another source for balance, I just have to quote the interfering pop-up box that appears on Historic UK’s website, inviting the world at large to “get to know us a little better by following our occasionally entertaining musings on Facebook.”

Thanks, guys, but I’ll pass. Back when I worked as an editor, I read enough letters introducing unsolicited articles to know that when someone tells you their writing is amusing, it isn’t. If anyone had said it was occasionally amusing, I’d have slit my wrists. The people whose work is genuinely funny? They write something funny. Then they get out of the way.

But back to our search for balance: A Wikipedia entry says that very little is known about Edmund’s life, because the Vikings devastated his kingdom and few records survived. His date of birth is guesswork, and so is the identity of his father, who may have been an East Anglian king and may have been a Germanic one.

So take your pick on any of the detail, because chroniclers of his life wrote with a free hand and a fair bit of imagination. Some have him born on December 25. Others have him crowned on December 25. Both were happy coincidences, no doubt. He was, of course, a model king in all possible ways, except for the minor problem of him having been defeated by the Vikings. 

His ally King Alfred was, presumably, also defeated, but the focus is on Ed, who was captured and told he’d have to renounce his religion and share power with the Vikings. When he refused, he was killed. Which is why he’s also called Edmund the Martyr.

As the story was told some hundred years later, he was beaten and tied to a tree and shot full of arrows and then (just to make sure) beheaded, but his head was reunited with his body with the help of a talking wolf, who called out to Edmund’s followers, saying, “Hic, hic, hic,” which is Latin for here, here, here.

Why did the wolf speak Latin, not whatever the Angles called their language? (A brief interruption: We call their language Old English, but they wouldn’t have called it that any more than the Vikings would’ve called themselves heathens and pagans. It’s not loaded, like heathen and pagan, just a bit later-day hindsighted. End of interruption and back to our question, which was why the wolf spoke Latin.)

Because Latin was the language of the church and this was a Christian wolf.

Or else it was a wolf with hiccups.

I can’t confirm this, but I seem to remember that being buried whole was important in the Christian belief system of the time: On Judgment Day, Christians would rise from their graves and be physically resurrected. Being resurrected headless could be awkward.

Tradition holds that Edmund was killed by Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba (or Ubbe; you can take your pick here too; this was long before anyone fussed over spelling).

No, I did not invent Ivar the Boneless. I wish I had the kind of mind that could. Ivar the Boneless was a real person, a Viking (or Norse, or Danish–I’m not sure how different those were at the time) warrior who led the invading army that Christian chroniclers called the Great Heathen Army. He was reported to be tall enough to dwarf his contemporaries and to be both powerful and ruthless.

Why was he called the boneless? There’s lots of speculation about this and no agreement. Contemporary theories run the spectrum from great flexibility to impotence.

In the 1980s, Martin and Birthe Biddle discovered the skeleton of a Viking warrior who they believe was Ivar the Boneless. This was in Repton and the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok does say that Ivar was buried in England, so it’s not out of the question. If the Biddles are right, it would lead us to believe that Ivar the Boneless did have bones.

A seventeenth-century excavation of the same site claims to have discovered the body of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. Or, depending on which source you like, the Biddles found the skeleton of a nine-foot-tall Viking warrior. I’m a little skeptical that nine-foot-tall humans ever lumbered across the earth, but at five foot not very much, what do I know about being very tall? I’m just glad I didn’t have to dig the hole big enough to bury him in.

Are you getting the sense yet that some of the sources we’re working with here are less than entirely reliable?

Let’s leave Ivar’s body in peace and talk about Edmund’s, which was not left in peace. What was left of it after a few hundred years (and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they got the right set of bones) was moved in 902 and reburied in, handily, Bury St. Edmunds, which was then known as Bedricsworth. King Athelstan founded a religious community on the site, which became a popular pilgrimage destination. English kings patronized the abbey, the cult of St. Edmund grew, and everyone involved became wealthy.

Or some did, anyway, the abbey among them.

Bury St. Edmunds is named after Edmund but, to my disappointment, the bury part of the name doesn’t come from him having been buried there. It comes from the same root word as burg, by way of the Angles, who were a Germanic tribe before they became a British one, and who brought their language with them, as people do. It means city, fortress, castle, that kind of thing.

I haven’t found a date for when Ed became England’s patron saint. In fact, I can’t find an exact date for when England became England, so let’s dance away from that and hope no one notices. What I can tell you is that his cult continued after the Normans conquered England in 1066, adding a bit of weight to my belief that when you conquer a place, in one way or another it also conquers you. As that reputable site Historic UK tells the tale, “Such was the influence of St Edmund that on St Edmund’s Day in 1214 rebel English barons held a secret meeting here before going to confront King John with the Charter of Liberties, the forerunner to Magna Carta which he signed a year later. This event is reflected in the motto of Bury St. Edmunds: ‘Shrine of a King, Cradle of the Law.’ ”

When Henry VIII dissolved the English monasteries, Edmund’s remains–and by then there couldn’t have been much left–were moved to France.

Or possibly not. The BBC says simply that they disappeared. It also says that one version of Edmund’s death has him hiding under a bridge when the Vikings found him. Which sort of lacks glory. The other sites don’t mention it.

Then in 1199, Richard I got bored with Edmund. He visited a shrine to St. George during the Third Crusade, went on to win a battle, and adopted George as his patron saint, renting his banner from Genoa.

Genoa got consulted about this. George and Edmund did not. Saints don’t get any say about who adopts them. They just get stuck with these annoying little beings, always wheedling: Can I have a victory, or rain, or sun, or a trip to the movies? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. And just when it looks like the saints have gotten their humans settled down to watch the show, they start whining for candy, popcorn, ice cream, fizzy drinks. It’s endless.

And after all that, the humans abandon their original saint and dedicate themselves to some new one who just happens to sashay past at the right time, loaded down with goodies. What ungrateful wretches humans are.

And what does the ex-patron saint do? I’m no religious scholar, but If I believed in saints, patron or otherwise, I’d think long and hard before I worked up the nerve to abandon one. 

In 2006, a petition asked the government to reinstate Edmund as England’s patron saint. (England’s government and the Anglican Church are still intertwined, so that would be a governmental decision.) The campaign failed and in 2013 another campaign asked for the same thing. You’ll understand how deeply religious the impulse was when I tell you that the second campaign was backed by a brewery based in Bury St. Edmund.

It also failed, but Edmund did become the patron saint of the Suffolk County Council.

How are the mighty fallen. I’m not sure who I’m quoting–or misquoting–there, but it’s somebody famous. When in doubt, claim it was Shakespeare.

The news roundup from Britain

Good Cop: During July’s heatwave, police in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, rescued local ducks by setting up two paddling pools beside their pond, which was disappearing, and then keeping the pools topped up with good fresh water.

You’d think that would be an unmixed good deed, but the ducks report high levels of anxiety over when the bad cop’s due to show up.

Crime and Politics: It may not be the bad cop they should worry about. It could be the bad politician. Stephen Searle, a former councillor (that’s a member of a council, which is the local government, making him a local politician), was recently convicted of killing his wife. Not sordid enough for you? Some months before, he had an affair with their son’s partner–the mother of one of their grandchildren.

If that’s still not sordid enough, you’re out of my league and need to look elsewhere for your recreation.

Searle stood for office on the UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) ticket. UKIP is the party that brought us Brexit and it attracts such top talent that it’s had five leaders in slightly less than two years. The first four melted down in quick succession, each one finding his or her own unique route to political oblivion but none quite in Searle’s category.

In a display of deep thinking, fellow UKIP politician Bill Mountford said about the Searle case, “These things happen.”

Irrelevant photo: Leaves. But you probably guessed that.

Politics: You may remember Chris Chope–that’s Sir Christopher Chope to you–the MP who made his name not long ago by blocking a bill that would have criminalized upskirting, or taking a picture up a woman’s skirt without her knowledge and permission.

Everyone who writes about upskirting sooner or later has to use that phrase, “without her knowledge or permission.” I’m just askin’, but when did you or anyone you know last give permission for someone to take a picture up your or her or, in fairness, his skirt?

Never mind. Ol’ Chris is back in the news for having blocked a motion that would allow a Women MPs of the World conference to use the House of Commons’ chamber when the house isn’t in session.

This is not a conference of wild-eyed radicals like, for example–and I’m pulling an example from the air totally at random–me. It’s hard to get much more respectable. It’s organized by the Foreign Office, the Equalities Office, the Department of International Development, and the British Council. It will be so respectable that everyone attending will be asleep in their seats by 10 a.m.

You heard it here first.

The government swore blind it would have the bill back before Commons and passed the next day. And in fairness, it may have actually done that, but if it made the news I haven’t found it. It’s not half as much fun.

I’d like to thank Chris personally for doing his bit to add to the reputation politicians already struggle with.

Let’s change the subject.

Food and Outer Space: In July, St. Anselm’s School in Derbyshire launched a bakewell pudding in the general direction of space. You don’t need a compass or any real sense of direction to do this. You just point upward and hit Launch.

The school lost touch with the pudding at 52,500feet, or 16,000 meters if that works better for you.

This raises a question: If St. Anselm’s loses a pudding on its way to outer space, how well does it keep track of its students?

It also raises another question: How close did the pudding actually get to space. 

Compliments of Lord Google, I can answer that one. Space starts, very roughly, 100 kilometers above the earth. So how many kilometers in 16,000 meters? Nowhere near enough. Only 16.

How many lost-touch-with students were smoking in the toilets during the bakewell pudding launch? Nobody’s saying. What we do know is that the pudding was found–uneaten–almost a month later by a farmer walking his dog in an asparagus field in Lincolnshire.

Apparently I’m not the only creature who thinks bakewell puddings are better launched into space than eaten.

A bakewell pudding, in case you need to know this, is not the same as a bakewell tart. The bakewell tart is a standard British dessert. The bakewell pudding is regional, and bakeries and cafes in the town of Bakewell, Derbyshire (prounounced Darbyshire), spill a good bit of ink in the cause of educating visitors about the difference. 

Lord Google (or the snippet of WikiWhatsia that Lord G displayed for me) says there’s no evidence that either of them originated in Bakewell. Think of that as just one more mystery of the British Isles.

If you’re about to leave a comment telling me how wonderful either the bakewell tart or the bakewell pudding is and how ignorant I am not make unkind jokes about them, please do. I welcome spirited discussion on important issues. You’re even welcome to write, as a recent comment put it, that what I said is complete codswallop.

Codswallop? “Perhaps named after Hiram Codd, who invented a bottle for fizzy drinks (1875); the derivation remains unconfirmed.” Or so says Lord G, although it doesn’t explain much.

But back to our alleged topic: In 2016, a meat and potato pie was launched into space–or an area well short of space but in the general direction of space, which is to say, up. The people who launched it were hoping to get it 30 kilometers above the earth to see if molecular changes would mean it could be eaten more quickly.

Eaten by who? The articles don’t say. Probably by the launchers, because this happened just before the World Pie Eating Championship, and winning a pie eating contest, as I’m sure you’ll understand, takes some serious effort.

I’m not sure how much that explains–I’ve never been inside the mind of anyone who’s entered a pie eating contest–but it does at least set a context.

The pie landed in a field 38 miles away from the launch site, but I haven’t found an article that mentions what was growing in the field or if the farmer had a dog. If only the news reported the important stuff, the world would be a better place.

“First indications are that it did not reheat on entry,” an article in the Guardian reported with a straight face. 

In case you want to try a similar experiment, both launches used weather balloons, which means neithern of them really launched, they just kind of rose. You can use any kind of food you like, but if it’s too gooey you’re going to end up wearing it.

Food and History: This has nothing to do with Britain, but archeologists have managed to date the origin of bread back to before humans developed agriculture. Charred crumbs that have been identified as bread were found in two ancient fireplaces in Jordan. The fireplaces date back 14,000 years–at least 3,000 years before humans first cultivated plants.

The bread was made from foraged wild grain–probably wheat, oats, and (or possibly or) barley–and was found with an assortment of other wild plants. Bread wouldn’t have been a staple food yet. Foraging for wild grain would’ve been too labor intensive. Think of it as their version of chocolate–you don’t get much of it but damn it’s good. 

Modern-Day Foraging: Charging 5p for the plastic bags that stores hand out has reduced the use of plastic bags in Britain by 86 percent. If you’re American, 5p is 6.6 cents–or at least it was on August 1. The exchange rate will have changed by now. If you’re neither British or American, it’s not much money in comparison to what people are spending on the groceries or clothes or whatevers that would’ve once been put in those bags.

I’m not complaining. I’m happy to see fewer wind-shredded bags hanging from the local trees and hedges or slopping around in the ocean. But it’s an odd thing about humans. Tell us something’s free and we accept it and throw it away. Tell us it costs nothing much and we say, “Thanks all to hell and back, but I brought my own.”

Shopping and Teddy Bears: In July, a chain of stores that sells expensive, custom-made teddy bears announced a sale: For one day, customers could buy a bear for only £1 for every year of their child’s age. Since the bears can cost as much of £52, that sounded like a great idea to 110% of the population of the British Isles. Lines formed–or queues, as the British call them. Huge lines.

The British are generally good about queues. They join them at the back end and wait patiently until they get to the front end. Queueing runs deep in the culture. It’s soothing. It makes people feel right about the world. It means the stars are all where they’re meant to be, the bakewell pudding’s headed into space, and they themselves are occupying their proper place in the great scheme of things.

This time, though–and the trouble may have begun when the stores ran out of bears–fights broke out. Not between kids, who seem to have behaved well enough, with maybe some whining here and there. You have to expect that from kids in lines that last, as at least one did, five hours. No, it was the parents who started the fights. They’d promised Dear Little Whatsit a teddy bear. And not just any teddy bear, but a very upscale bear–the kind a kid can show to a friend and say, with all the charming innocence of childhood, “Bet you don’t have one this expensive.” So no, the parents couldn’t just drop into the pound store and see what was available. It had to come from the Build-A-Bear store, so that Dear Little Whatsit could pick out its furry little hide and I have no idea what else, then watch while it was filled with stuffing, had a cloth heart inserted, and got sewn up.

Then Dear Little Whatsit would be tempted by all sorts of extras–clothes, accessories, and probably little bitty teddy boarding schools and horseback riding lessons and the horse to go with them. Which would come to much more than her (I’m assuming gender here, and apologies if I get it wrong; pronouns are such a pain in the neck) age and could possibly equal her parents’ monthly rent or mortgage.

So kids were in tears, wailing, “But you promised.” Which is the kind of thing that can drive bear-buying parent to drastic action. Any action. In one store, a pregnant employee was punched in the stomach, and not by a kid. In other stores, employees were pulling down the shutters and disguising themselves as store fixtures and wailing children.

In another store, employees called the police, saying customers were getting violent. Which brings us to our next news snippet.

Police Emergencies: The Essex police recently publicized some a few of the stranger emergency calls they received. They suffer from the delusion that publicizing them will cause us to think seriously before we pick up the phone.

I doubt it will, but it gives us all something to read while the world goes to hell around us.

What are the latest calls? A woman called the emergency line because a pizza place delivered a mushroom pizza instead of a meat feast. And to make it worse, the pizza place insisted that she’d ordered mushroom even though she’s allergic to mushrooms.

And a man called because a sign on a fence said there was a bull in the field. He wanted to know if there really was a bull in the field or if the farmer “was just messing around.”

Crime, Politics, and Irony: A socialist bookstore in London was attacked by about a dozen masked protesters who turned over displays, yelled, threatened, and ripped up publications. So that accounts for the politics and the crime parts of the headline, but where’s the irony? Well, they appear to have spun off from a far-right protest held earlier that day, which was against censorship.

The Index on Censorship has since sent six books that have been banned or challenged in various places to three UKIP members who were charged with the attack, saying, “We hope the books will introduce them to different ideas.” The other attackers, as far as I’ve been able to make out, haven’t been identified.

The books are: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Color Purple, The Qur’an, His Dark Materials, Fahrenheit 451, and The Jungle.

UKIP suspended the three members and then reiinstated one. A party member said there was no evidence that she had been involved. The remaining attackers don’t seem to have been identified.

Crime, Farming, and Medieval Warfare: Theft from farms is on the rise, and Britain’s farmers are going medieval, according to news stories, using banks, ditches, and stockades to protect their equipment and livestock. They’re also using electrified gates. Did you know that medieval England pioneered the use of electrified gates?

To quote from a different article than the one I linked to, they’re also using “geese, llamas and dogs as low-tech alarm systems, much as landowners did hundreds of years ago.”

Medieval Britain did not have llamas. Llamas first came to Britain when Victoria was on the throne and the government hadn’t yet pulled down the shutters on immigration. (Llamas never have passports. Give a passport to a llama and it’ll eat the thing.) That was a while back, but not hundreds of years. And like so many immigrants, llamas have made a contribution to their adopted land, but they are not medieval.

The theives are after things like quad bikes, Land Rovers, and farm machinery, some of which seems to be stolen to order. A lot of it is shipped abroad to be sold, but heavy equipment has been used a few times to smash into local shops and steal cash machines. Which were also not present in medieval Britain.

*

 My thanks yet again to Deb for alerting me to the story about the ducks. What would I do without her to guide me to the weirder corners of British life?

I welcome links to odd bits of British news. And most other forms of communication. 

Brazilian spiders invade a British parking lot

Someone abandoned a box of Brazilian spiders in a parking lot in Derbyshire (which, irrelevantly, is pronounced Darbyshire, not that the spiders cared).

The were big spiders. Or at least they were baby spiders that will grow big enough to eat birds, something I know because they’re called Brazilian bird-eating spiders. If that isn’t enough to freeze the blood of an arachnophobe, they’re a kind of tarantula.

You can stop reading now if you’re going to have nightmares. If you’re not going to sleep at all, you can stop reading a couple of paragraphs ago.

The box was hit by a car, or “a vehicle” as the articles I’ve read put it, which could mean a car and could mean a truck, a tractor, a motorcycle, a kid’s scooter, or a skateboard. I think those last two are vehicles. Anyway, the box was hit by something with wheels and the driver told a woman in the parking lot that he thought he’d seen two bigger spiders scuttling away without a backward glance at their offspring.

Spiders aren’t particularly doting parents.

No, not Brazilian spiders but still (read on) a rare and relevant photo. It’s of a rhododendron in bloom. Ooh, is that a spider there on the right?

The woman called the RSPCA–the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals–which collected the spiders and brought them to a specialist, who when last heard from was keeping them warm in the hope that more eggs would hatch, even though (or possibly because) when he opened the little pots they came in one ran up his arm.

And where did mommy and daddy spider go? No one knows. The BBC (and everyone else who wrote about it) reports that “no bodies were found so it is assumed they may have escaped.” 

They all seem to be rewording, and sometimes quoting wholesale from, the same press release.

Full grown, the spiders measure ten inches from non-existent toenail to non-existent toenail. That is, the papers and the BBC helpfully explain, the size of a dinner plate, although dinner plates vary in size, so you can’t count on them being a perfect fit for yours. In addition to small birds, they eat lizards, mice, and insects. But they like a warm, damp climate and were let loose in a warm, dry one (we’ve had a heatwave and a drought here lately; when that ends, if it ever does or if it has [I write this stuff well ahead of time], they’ll find themselves in a cold, damp climate, which will suit them equally badly), so they may not make it.

On the other hand, they may have crawled down to the foot of your bed and be waiting for you to snuggle in tonight.

Sorry. I could’ve gone all day and not typed that.

Imported species are a major issue in Britain. The place is an island. That means (do I have to explain everything?) that it’s surrounded by water, and often a lot of it. As a result, most non-native species need help to get here. That tempts people to think they can be controlled, but an awful lot of non-native species got all the help they needed a long time ago.

We’ll get to that. In the meantime, it’s now illegal to release non-native species into the wild, or to allow them to escape, and it has been since 1981. See above for how successful that’s been.

Okay, I don’t really know how successful it’s been. All learned when I tried to find out is that a group of Buddhists released 361 American lobsters and 35 Dungeness crabs as part of a religious ceremony and got hit, in what I can’t help thinking is a secular ceremony, with fines and compensation and victim surcharges that added up to £28,220. Or over £15,000, depending on which source you read.

The government does try to stay on top of this and maintains a Non-native Species Secretariat, whose list of non-native species includes everything from the American skunk cabbage to the Siberian chipmunk, not to mention the sacred ibis, the killer shrimp, and the rhododendron.

I’ve never seen–or heard of, until now–a sacred ibis. Maybe I don’t hang out at churches enough. But rhododendrons? At least in Cornwall, they’re everywhere, including my backyard. They were introduced into Britain from the Alps in the seventeenth century, and in the eighteenth century, a British collector sent 600 dried specimens home from China. I haven’t been able to find out whether anything grew from his samples or if they just sat around as non-growing curiosities. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Britons began importing them from China in serious numbers.

That’s about the time that Britain went rhododendron mad, and as a result the gardens of many large estates have endless species of them. One not far from us, Lanhydrock, is now owned by the National Trust and has hillsides of them. They’re beautiful in the spring, and if you come in the back way you, perfectly legally, don’t have to pay the hefty admission price.

But those are the fancy ones. Some propagate themselves. A species from Armenia took to Britain well enough that some regions are “overrun” with it, according to an online history of the plant. I’m hoping you don’t need to know when the Armenian one was imported, because I have no idea. What matters here is that they’re not a native species but they settled into the landscape and claimed it as their own.

The buddleia, or butterfly bush, did the same thing and now grows along railroad lines, in backyards, in (yes, in) walls, and pretty much anywhere people don’t pull it up. It’s a persistent little beast and it took me about five years to get rid of one that had planted itself in between two bits of paving in my backyard. It was introduced to Europe from China in the nineteenth century, and Defra–the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs–considers it invasive and in 2014 asked gardeners to clip the seedheads after it was done flowering to keep it from spreading any further. Since it will happily grow taller than me and my partner if I were standing on her shoulders, this is a lot to ask.

At the same time, it’s not an irrational thing to ask. It can “cause damage to buildings, such as crumbling brickwork – its tiny wind-blown seeds can germinate in decaying mortar.”

Who am I quoting from there? Sorry–I’ve lost the link. Someone who knows what they’re talking about. Possibly Defra. 

Butterflies and bees love the plant, and they need all the help they can get these days, but even on conservation sites, where you’d think it would be valued, it can become a problem, squeezing out other plants that butterflies also need.

Enough about plants. Non-native birds and animals include the gray squirrel and the edible dormouse, which is more politely called the fat dormouse, because who likes to scurry through the world with edible as part of their name? The Romans introduced the fat dormouse to Britain, and ate them, but they don’t seem to have escaped into the wild until a century ago.

A certain number of humans (we are a difficult species, and you could construct a convincing argument that we’re not native to Britain either) get up in arms about the incomers, sometimes for good reason and sometimes just because they’re incomers.

What’s a good reason? The fat dormouse can chew through wiring in houses and strip the bark from trees. Mink that escaped from mink farms can force water voles out of areas where they were established. The Chinese mitten crab burrows into riverbanks and may undermine flood defenses. Himalayan balsam grows fast enough and spreads madly enough to smother other plants.

So basically, sometimes they throw off the balance of the ecosystem (whatever kept them in check in their home territories is absent here) and sometimes they annoy us.

The most annoying of the non-native plants is probably Japanese knotweed, which is so invasive that it can grow through walls, pipes, and pavement. It can damage foundations. It plays rock music at such a high volume that the walls of Jericho crumble. If you own a home and the stuff moves onto your property, the price of your home just bungee-jumped off a bridge, but not necessarily with the bungee attached. You may not be able to sell the place at all, because many companies won’t approve a mortgage if the stuff’s present.

Google “Japanese knotweed” and the first things that come up are offers to (a) get rid of the stuff and (b) sue someone for letting it get there or letting you buy the place to begin with. Which demonstrates that the U.S. didn’t copyright the idea of suing people as a way to solve your problems. You can’t copyright ideas, only their unique expression.

That’s probably why non-native species haven’t copyrighted the idea of annoying humans. Farmers (to generalize) blame the badger, which is native, for spreading bovine TB and for digging holes that their cattle break legs in. The government–after endless controversy about its effectiveness, never mind its humaneness–has backed a badger cull. 

The native fox will kill lambs when it gets a chance. Nature is not sentimental.

But for some people, being non-native is a good enough reason to get rid of a species. Every so often, a newspaper opinion piece will call for the extirpation of a relatively benign non-native species like the rhododendron, so that Britain can return to the innocence and beauty it had back in [you can choose your century here, because introductions have been going on at least since the Romans ruled the place and probably well before that].

Tear up all the rhododendrons. Eliminate the gray squirrels. Get rid of the butterfly bushes. Off with their heads. 

I probably hear those voices more loudly than they merit. It’s the paranoia that comes of living in an age when anti-immigrant sentiment is running wild. I  can’t help thinking that this urge to return Britain to a time when it was free of non-native plants and animals is related to the myth that there once was, and could be again, a Britain free of non-native humans. At which point this non-native human would remind you that we’re all imports here, and we’re all mixed, and that waves of immigration started at the end of the last ice age and have been going on pretty much continually ever since.

Oddly enough, even the most strident voices aren’t calling for the elimination of onions and garlic, which are also non-native. Even though both grow wild. They’re quietly accepted as either British or close enough not to call any attention to themselves. They’ve been here so long that when they write they use a -que when they spell cheque.

The Swing Rebellion

Let’s visit the England of more or less 1830. William IV is the king–or to put it officially, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and King of Hanover–and in his portrait he looks kingly enough, wearing a blue sash and multiple medals that were given to him for having been clever and brave enough to be born into the right family.

But that’s not the England we’re going to visit. We’re headed for rural England, where people are hungry and farm workers and craftspeople are setting haystacks and farm machinery on fire. We’re dropping in on the Swing Rebellion.

I’d never heard the Swing Rebellion, so I’m going to assume you haven’t either. It’s also called the Swing Riots, and you could make a good argument for calling it either a rebellion or a set of riots. It doesn’t seem to be as well organized as a full-on rebellion but had more focus than the scattered fury of riots. Think of it as a peasant revolt, if that helps–an uprising by people whose living conditions pushed them toward revolt or riot or violence or something, but who, structurally, didn’t have a chance in hell of seizing and holding power.

Irrelevant photo: Sweet William

What was pushing them toward riot or rebellion? Let’s say it’s the 1830s and you’re a farm worker. Not all that long ago, when you found work it lasted all year. As a result, you and your family developed the habit of eating all year.

That was a bad move, it turns out, because times have changed. More and more land has been enclosed (you’ll find a bit about enclosure in my last post), and that involved evicting tenants and smallholders and throwing laborers out of work. According to some sources, this is important background to the Swing Rebellion, but one source claims the rebellion happened in areas where enclosure had been relatively light, making it a less important factor. Flip a coin to decide who you believe. Either way, farm work has stopped being year-round. It’s casual work, paid by the day or the week, and you can’t count on it to keep you and your family fed. When the job you were hired for is done, you’re out of work. Again. And again and yet again.

You can think of it, if you like, as the nineteenth-century equivalent of the zero-hours contract, only you don’t have a phone, so you don’t get that call saying, “Drop everything, put the kids in the freezer, we need you this morning.”

And if work being unreliable isn’t enough, wages are falling. In 1830, a farm worker’s weekly pay is nine shillings. By 1834 it’s down to six shillings.

What’s a shilling? A out-of-date unit of money. Try not to think about it, because understanding it won’t make you happy.

You’re thinking about it, aren’t you? Fine, we’ll stop and do shillings: There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. There were also 2 shillings in a florin, 5 shillings in a crown, and 21 shillings in a guinea.

I told you it wouldn’t make you happy.

A guinea? It was considered “a more gentlemanly amount than [a pound]. You paid tradesmen, such as a carpenter, in pounds but gentlemen, such as an artist, in guineas.”

Forgive me for saying so, but Britain is a very weird country.

Guineas don’t matter to you, though. You’re a farm worker. You’re not likely to catch sight of a pound, and never mind a guinea. Not only are wages falling, the labor market’s flooded, so you have a lot of competition for whatever work is available. Your shillings will fly out of your hand as soon as you earn them, frivolled away on silly things like food. You won’t hold them long enough for them to condense into a pound.

Not unconnected to all this, the crime rate is rising, and most of the rise is accounted for by crimes like poaching (illegal hunting or fishing) and the theft of food. People are hungry. 

But all that is background. What sparks the rebellion is the introduction of a horse-drawn threshing machine. You and your fellow zero-hours farm workers are now looking at a world with even less work, even lower pay.

Predictably enough, you’re not happy, so let’s rescue you from your plight by abandoning the present tense and returning to this best of all possible centuries, the twenty-first, which we’re toddling into with such–well, I don’t know about you, but what I’ve seen of it so far scares the shit out of me. Most of us eat more and better than our equivalents did in 1830, but I’m still worried.

But that isn’t today’s topic, so let’s check back with the people who we left stuck in the 1830s, and let’s do it (somewhat joltingly) by shifting into the past tense: Some of them hit their limit and farmers began receiving notes signed by Captain Swing, saying that unless they destroyed their threshing machines, their  “barns, haystacks and house[s] would be burned down, probably while [they and their families] were asleep.

“Night after night fires started by roving mobs lit up the countryside. For many farmers, danger and destruction was a matter of when, not if.” 

That’s the more lurid version of the tale (with a was where a were should be but there’s no need to be snotty about it, Ellen), from WestSussex.info. In other versions, arson tended to happen (as opposed to being threatened) only when local people had a grudge against a farmer. Since I rescued you before you had a chance to witness the events, we can only guess at which version’s more accurate.

If you’re inclined to criticize the rebels’ methods, keep in mind that these were people with no vote and no political power. Their choices were limited.

If an actual Captain Swing existed, no one knows anymore who he was, but hundreds of thousands of demobilized soldiers had poured into the workforce fairly recently. Maybe an actual captain was involved and maybe not, but farm workers (who were about as likely to be captains as I would’ve been) weren’t the only people involved in the rebellion. Craftspeople (who weren’t likely to have been captains either) took part, and former soldiers may have as well. Rural England wasn’t a happy place.

As time went on, the rebels got bolder. They demanded not just the destruction of the machines but higher wages, an end to rural unemployment, lower rents, and lower tithes.

A tithe? That was the part of people’s income or produce that the church demanded–and rest assured that the church was in a position to enforce its demands. The tithes were often more than poor people could afford, and they weighed heavily even on those who could afford them. Anyone who thinks countries should be run along religious lines should read up on the history of established churches. It doesn’t make happy reading.

According to History Home, farmers supported the demands for lower tithes–and, to my surprise, lower rent. That probably means they were themselves the tenants of large landowners. Compared to farm workers, they were well-to-do, but they too were struggling–or considered themselves to be.

It wasn’t a simple picture.

Poor houses were another target of the rebellion. For a quick picture of poor houses, let’s look at the Dorset Page: “Vestry minute books tell of the ‘misery and degradation’ caused by the old (Elizabethan) Poor Law. The Stalbridge poorhouse stood under the Ring tree, and the yard at the back was surrounded by hovels in which paupers were lodged. As late as 1826, 3 women (and 1 child) had 1/- a week for their support, and only one bed between them. A coroner’s jury found the parish officers guilty of causing Mary Cole’s death by neglect. The curate declared dogs were better off, as they had clean straw to lie on.”

That 1/ is, I think, a shilling.

As the rebellion grew, according the the West Sussex site, “Excited and now-experienced rebels travelled by night across the countryside to strike at farms who would not comply with local farm workers’ demands. . . . Often people were forced to join up with the rebels against their will.”

It’s hard to run a rebellion and stay pure.

Hell, it’s hard to run anything and stay pure.

The counties involved included Sussex, Hampshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Devon, Dorset, Huntingdonshire, Gloucestershire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Kent–counties “where enclosure had taken place on a grand scale.” (Or not, depending on who you want to believe.) According to History Home, “Most of the rioters were of good character–not the criminal element. Their conduct usually was fairly civilised.”

Wikipedia said, when I last checked, that “despite the prevalence of the slogan ‘Bread or Blood’, only one person is recorded as having been killed during the riots, and that was one of the rioters by the action of a soldier or farmer. The rioters’ only intent was to damage property. Similar patterns of disturbances, and their rapid spread across the country, were often blamed on agitators or on ‘agents’ sent from France, where the revolution of July 1830 had broken out a month before the Swing Riots began in Kent.

“Many people advocated political reform as the only solution to the unrest. . . . The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, replied the existing constitution was so perfect that he could not imagine any possible alternative that would be an improvement. When that was reported, a mob attacked Wellington’s home in London. The unrest had been confined to Kent, but during the following two weeks of November it escalated massively, crossing East and West Sussex into Hampshire, with Swing letters appearing in other nearby counties.

The sources I’ve found disagree on whether the riots wound down on their own or ended because they were suppressed, but suppression there was. Nineteen people were executed and more than five hundred transported.

For the participants, it must have felt like a defeat. Hell, it was a defeat–nineteen people executed, five hundred transported, and none of their demands met. Agricultural workers, according to History Home, “continued to be the worst paid, worst fed and worst housed of all the working communities.”

But change did come. At my age (I’m 103, and on bad days 203), I’m not particularly given to quoting my parents, but I will here: They were union organizers during the Depression and World War II, and they used to say that no strike is ever lost. I spent a lot of time when I was younger thinking that one over.

The Wikipedia entry I quoted above catalogs the rebellion’s impact on political reform. I’ll let you chase that if you’re interested. Less respectably, its influence was felt in Tolpuddle, Dorset, where equally desperate farm workers tried a different approach to forcing change, and eventually I’ll do a post about that. In fact, this post was supposed to be about Tolpuddle, but the background took over and here we are, some 1800 words later and I’ve only just mentioned the place.

Links and assorted good stuff I can’t let you miss

Readers have sent in a few great links lately, and they’re good enough that I’ll bother you with them.

WeggieBoy sent a link to this surprisingly short, clear explanation of the British flag and how it came into being. As a bonus, if you stick around after it ends, you get a fast-talking explanation of the differences between England, Britain, the United Kingdom, the Crown Dependencies, and much more. You won’t remember it all, but some bits and pieces may stick to your brain. And if not–well, I’m going to assume that anyone who reads much Notes for long enjoys accurate confusion, so enjoy this. You have to love a country that can’t ever stop explaining what it’s called.

In response to the post about English hedges, Mick Canning sent a link to Atlas Obscura‘s entry on the 1,100-mile hedge that Britain built to divide India so it could impose a tax on salt. It’s a great tale of imperial over-reaching, complete with smugglers, fire, rats, and cats. It’s short and well worth a read.

And finally, Bill Roberts sent in some information about Cornish hedges that I’ve added to the hedge post, but if you read it when it first came out you will have missed it. So here it is–complete with a link, as promised in the title:

“There is a unique distinction between a Cornish hedge and a dry stone wall. Where the dry stone wall is as it says, a wall made of a single course of stones without mortar, usually seen in the northern counties of England, a Cornish hedge is completely different. It is built in two halves, with an earth core. It is wide at the base tapering as it rises to about 1.2 metres with a concave profile each side called a Batter. It supports the structure like an arch supports a bridge. The stones are laid sloping into the centre. The top of the structure is usually covered in earth and planted with hedging plants like blackthorn, or hawthorn to increase the height, which are ‘laid’ like a conventional hedge. There are examples still in use that date back to the bronze age, and Cornish hedges are supposedly the oldest man-made structures in the world still being used for their original purpose.”

For more information about Cornish hedges, see the Guild of Cornish Hedgers website.

A quick history of English hedges

Every country has a mythology about itself, and the countryside figures heavily in England’s. Never mind that three-quarter of the population (give or take a few percentage points) lives in cities–or urban areas if we’re trying to sound impressive about this. When England looks in the mirror, it sees countryside: green fields, shiny clean lambs, and hedges.

I’m limiting this to England, leaving out the rest of Britain, whose history and laws are different. And against my better judgment, I’m counting Cornwall as part of England. That’s not a statement about whether it should be part of England or culturally is part of England. The law treats it as part of England and I know enough about its hedges that I don’t want to leave it out. So all you Cornish nationalists, grab a cup of salt and sprinkle it over your computer screen. I’m talking about hedges here and nothing else.

A rare relevant photo: Cornish fields divided by hedges.

If you’re new to hedgeology, you can think of the hedges (at least the ones that aren’t made of bare stone) as long, narrow woodlands. They grow crops and they shelter and feed wildlife and provide them with safe travel routes. They also define field boundaries, look gorgeous, and embody both history and tradition. Back when rural life was all about staying alive from one harvest to the next, they were an important source of fruit, nuts, wood, and medicine. They were valued for that as much as for their ability to define and divide territory.

And the stone ones? They do most of that but for the bare ones you can forget the long, narrow woodland part.

Why am I mentioning stone walls when this is about hedges? Because the Cornish hedge is made of stone. Some are so heavily covered in plants that you can’t see the stone undernearth and some grow nothing more than a few volunteer wildflowers and small plants. You can find stoneless hedges here, but stone ones (according to my small and unscientific survey) outnumber them. Cornwall’s rich in stone. It’s not a great way to get rich in either money or food, but stone comes with the territory so people put it to use.

[A late addition to the post. In a comment, Bill Roberts added some information about the Cornish hedge that’s worth including here:

[“There is a unique distinction between a Cornish hedge and a dry stone wall. Where the dry stone wall is as it says, a wall made of a single course of stones without mortar, usually seen in the northern counties of England, a Cornish hedge is completely different. It is built in two halves, with an earth core. It is wide at the base tapering as it rises to about 1.2 metres with a concave profile each side called a batter. It supports the structure like an arch supports a bridge. The stones are laid sloping into the centre. The top of the structure is usually covered in earth and planted with hedging plants like blackthorn, or hawthorn to increase the height, which are ‘laid’ like a conventional hedge. There are examples still in use that date back to the bronze age, and Cornish hedges are supposedly the oldest man made structures in the world still being used for their original purpose.”

[For more information about Cornish hedges, see the Guild of Cornish Hedgers website.]

Making hedges

The hedges we’re talking about here aren’t the simple lines of bushes you find around a city or suburban yard–or garden if you’re British. Traditionally, you start by planting some trees or bushes in a line, but then you cut the trunks part of the way through and bend everything above the cut to one side. After that I’m out of my depth and have to refer you to a video.

As the plants grow, all sorts of vining plants work their way through–blackberries, honeysuckle, and whatever else grows locally. By the time the hedge is established, sheep and cattle won’t be wandering through it, and neither will people. Years ago, my partner and I managed to lose our way on a walk and ended up crawling through a hole in a hedge that wasn’t well maintained (the hole wouldn’t have been there if it was well maintained). Crawling through made sense at the time, or seemed to. I came out the other side with a powerful understanding what it means when someone says “you look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.” 

A well-maintained hedge is an effective border, and hedging’s a skilled job.

In the Cornish hedge, the stones are traditionally laid without mortar. That means you have to pile the damned stones up so that they don’t wander off. A good stone wall can last for hundreds of years. A bad one? Well, I built a bad one and I have to put the stones back in place several times a year. Not all of them, but enough to remind me of the difference between a good Cornish hedge and a bad one. So that’s a skilled job as well.

History

One source I found traces the English hedge back to the Roman occupation of (much but not all of) Britain. Another, which I suspect is more accurate, traces them back to around 1500 BCE, when hedges would’ve been used to mark the boundaries of fields, to enclose clusters of houses, and to fence animals either in or out. By 300 BCE they might have taken on a symbolic value, announcing, “We’re powerful enough to build a bigger hedge than we need, so don’t mess with us. And by the way, this is ours.”

Pre-Roman Britain was tribal and its hedges wouldn’t have indicated individual ownership so much as use, or possibly group ownership, although I’m not sure how well the modern idea  of ownership translates to that period. It wasn’t until the Roman occupation that hedges began to mark individual ownership.

Somewhere between not much and nothing at all is left of those early hedges. Hedges need upkeep, and what needs to be fenced in or out changes, so some wouldn’t have been worth the bother of maintaining. And although rock may last more or less forever, if you build a wall out of it, the wall itself will need maintenance. Still, even if they’d all disappeared completely, they set the pattern. Hedges had become part of the landscape and they were a tool farmers could reach for.

According to the North Wales Wildlife Trust, “Two thirds of England has been continuously hedged for over a thousand years, so many of our older hedgerows are a window into our past. They can range in date from medieval boundaries to the results of the 19th century Enclosures Act when many of the open fields and commons were divided up into smaller pockets.”

We’ll get to enclosure in a minute. We won’t get around to why a North Wales organization is writing about England’s hedges because I don’t have an explanation to offer.

I read somewhere–it’s lost now, so forget finding a link–that you can tell the age of a hedgerow by the variety of blackberry plants in it. The greater the variety, the older the hedge. This is useful if you can tell one variety of blackberry from another, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that blackberries not only grow wild in England, they do it enthusiastically. The fruit’s nice but they’re thorny and they build tiny engines to spread their seeds to new places (these are called birds), and one night they’ll reach through every bedroom window in the country and strangle us all in our beds. They’re only waiting for the signal.

You can also tell the age of a hedge by the variety of species in it. They add roughly one every hundged years. I think that’s in a thirty-meter stretch. It all has to do with Hooper’s Hedgerow Hypothesis.

I can’t can’t put Hooper’s hypothesis to work, but I can tell you that some hedges are old.

The 13th century marks the start of the Enclosure Movement, and hedging more common. Enclosure meant that large landowners, and occasionally smaller ones, enclosed–used a hedge to fence off–what had until then been common land. That allowed the landowner to claim it as his own, and in this period the landowner would almost invariably have been a his.

Common land was recognized in feudal law, which gave the juiciest rights to the lords but granted some to the peasants, and the use of a common–a piece of land owned by the landlord but set aside for the tenants–was an important one. And yes, the common is, at least in part, the origin of the word commoner. Even today a commoner is still someone with the right to use one of the few surviving pieces of common land.

The commoners’ rights were clearly defined. They might be able to graze animals, gather wood or reeds, fish, dig peat, or take sand or coal. The specific rights varied from common to common. Even though the commoners didn’t own the common, their rights were clear and protected by law and tradition.

Until suddenly they weren’t and commoners found the common pulled out from under them. We think of feudalism as oppressive, and it was, but as feudalism broke down former serfs found themselves personally free but also homeless and starving, which didn’t count as an improvement.

As an anonymous 17th-century poem put it:

          The law locks up the man or woman

          Who steals the goose from off the common

          But lets the greater felon loose

          Who steals the common from the goose.

The first enclosures were relatively limited and mostly, or so I’ve read, about a landowner using the land for something like a deer park, but enclosure became more widespread during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Wool prices had gone up and raising sheep was more profitable than growing grain. By now, the commons were no longer the only land being enclosed. Entire villages were destroyed and their people turned out, becoming vagrants at a time when vagrancy was illegal. According to WikipediaIn the sixteenth century, lack of income made one a pauper. If one lost one’s home as well, one became a vagrant; and vagrants were regarded (and treated) as criminals.”

This was a time of impoverishment, eviction, unemployment, uprooted people. The wool trade became the base of the English economy, but the shift left it dependant on foreign grain and prone to famine.

Hedges became a greater and greater part of the English landscape.

Starting in 1489, Parliament passed eleven acts over 150 years to stop enclosure, to limit its effects, or to fine the people responsible for it, all without managing to stop the process, although it may slowed it down and prevented even greater social havoc.

By the time the Civil War began (that’s 1642, according to Lord Google), Parliament’s leaders supported the rights of landlords. The king had been serving as a brake on enclosure, but with the overthrow of the monarchy, the brakes were off.

By about 1650, wool prices had settled down and wool was no longer driving enclosure, but changes in farming practices continued to. Large-scale farming was more profitable than small scale.  

The Wikipedia entry I quoted above says, “The enclosure movement probably peaked from 1760 to 1832; by the latter date it had essentially completed the destruction of the medieval peasant community.”

The effects of enclosure are hard to overestimate. Riots and rebellions are sprinkled throughout the period, beginning in the 16th century. People destroyed hedges and tried to reclaim pastures. The most organized and ambitious of these were the Diggers. Around 1650, they formed communities and declared the earth a common treasury, cultivating common and unused land in the hope of restoring all land to its “rightful owners, the common people, rather than the king, nobility and gentry who had usurped it.” 

Basing their beliefs on the bible, they called for the overthrow of the nobility, an equalization of wealth, and the abolition of property rights. As the radical priest John Ball had asked in the 1380s, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

The movement spread rapidly, provoking “a fierce reaction. The Surrey Diggers were persecuted by local gentry with legal action, economic boycott and violence. In April 1650, just one year after the original settlement was founded, the Diggers’ shelters were burned down and their crops destroyed. Other communities met a similar fate to the Surrey group and the movement was effectively suppressed by the end of 1650.”

Their legacy echoes on, though. Wigan has a yearly festival commemorating them. This year’s features a list of musicians that includes Attila the Stockbroker, whose website describes his group’s latest album as “early music meets punk.” I can’t claim to love his voice but his name? Why didn’t I think of it first?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, parliament passed laws promoting enclosure. As WikiWhatsia puts it, “These parliamentary enclosures consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units, and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes [uninhabited or unused land]. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent. Enclosure consisted of exchange in land, and an extinguishing of common rights.”

Fast forward, then, to modern times. With the introduction of tractors, farmers fell out of love with hedges. A bigger field’s easier to plow, and this may well have been true back when they still plowed with horses. This led to some hedges being torn down and others being allowed to decay, but depending on their length, location, and importance, it can be illegal to tear out a hedge. Some are protected by a law from the 1990s and others, in a nice piece of irony, by ancient enclosure laws.

Conservationists watch over them carefully, because they’ve become an important part of the ecosystem.

The modern role of hedges

The North Wales Wildlife Trust says, “Older hedgerows support an amazing diversity of plants and animals and often have archaeologically important old banks and ditches associated with them.”

I was going to list the animals, insects, birds, and plants that hedgerows protect and are made up of, but the quotes lean heavily and unsuccessfully toward poetry, so maybe we’d do just as well to skip them. Hedges keep long lists of wildlife and plantlife alive. For our purposes, that’s enough.

They also slow field runoff, keeping soil and fertilizer in the fields and out of the rivers. They capture carbon and pesticides. They embody a part of England’s history and self-image. They’re also incredibly beautiful.

So here we are, protecting the hedges that once destroyed a way of life.

England, St. George, and the flag

The mayor of Genoa wrote to the queen recently, demanding the back rent on England’s flag, the St. George cross.

I’ll come back to that, but first let’s talk about the flag itself. It’s a red cross on a white field and if you’re not British you may be thinking of the wrong flag. This isn’t the red, white and blue one with crosses and Xs running every which way. That’s Britain’s flag. We’re talking about England’s.

Here’s how it works. England is a nation. Britain, however, is the country that the English nation’s part of. Think of England as a ping-pong ball. Now think of Britain as the fish tank someone threw the ball into at a fair. Someone who had good aim and won a stuffed goldfish and walked away happy, leaving England inside the British fish tank.

Irrelevant photo: Yeah, any serious blogger would show you a picture of the English flag. This isn’t a flag. It isn’t even England. It’s a stone circle in Scotland.

A week later, the someone looked at the goldfish, wondered why they thought it was worth winning, and dropped it off at a second-hand store (or since this is about Britain, a charity shop).

But the ping-pong ball stayed inside the fish tank. And it brought a flag with it. Also (the metaphor’s breaking down quickly) some of its own laws. The fish tank has a different flag, which incorporates the ping-pong ball’s flag, along with the flags of some of the other ping-pong balls that were thrown in. So the English ping-pong ball has two flags, its own and the fish tank’s.

Like the English ping-pong ball, the tank has a set laws, and they apply to all the ping-pong balls.

The point is not to confuse the ping-pong balls with the fish tank.

Did that clarify things?

I didn’t think it would, but I had to try because–and I have no excuse for this–I often read questions on Quora, and I’ve come to understand that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a ping-pong ball and a fish tank. Or between England and Britain. Or between a hole in the ground and a part of their anatomy that you’d think they’d have familiarized themselves with by the time they’re old enough to leave questions on a public website.

I used to not just read questions on Quora but answer them. I’ve pretty much stopped now because it was bringing out the worst in me. That’s not hard, but I don’t much like myself when I make fun of people publicly. At least, not after the first rush of damn-that-was-fun.

I’m not being snotty about people not knowing Britain from England, by the way. That’s just a lack of information. It’s the deeper ignorance that I’m talking about. But I am, as usual, off topic.

So, briefly, repetitiously, and more sensibly: Britain has a flag. That’s not the one we’re talking about. England also has a flag. So do Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall (which isn’t recognized as a ping-pong ball but has its own flag anyway; take that, England). Northern Ireland’s also part of Britain and it’s recognized as a nation but it doesn’t have its own flag because all hell would break loose if it tried to choose one. This symbolism stuff can turn ugly pretty easily.

To read a Greek immigrant’s explanation of the Northern Ireland flag situation, follow the link.

With that out of the way, let’s move on:

Genoa adoped St. George as its patron saint in 1190, during the Crusades, and with the saint came his flag. Why was that particular design his flag? Haven’t a clue and by now I doubt anyone else does either, although I expect it was clear at the time. Milan uses the same design but calls it St. Ambrose’s cross. If there really are saints, they’re probably up there arm wrestling over who owns the design.

Or laughing their immaterial asses off.

In the thirteenth century, the English (who weren’t yet British; the fish tank hadn’t been invented yet, never mind the ping-pong ball) adopted the flag from Genoa and, according to an article in the Week, agreed to pay for the privilege. It was “to be flown by its navy to deter enemies from attacking.”

The article doesn’t say why that particular design would deter enemies. Maybe because Genoa was a scarier naval power, but I’m guessing.

Wikipedia (when I last checked) called the Genoa connection a common belief in Victorian times but says it can’t be substantiated. It adds that Richard the Lionheart was supposed to be responsible for adopting the saint and his flag.

According to the Flag Institute (yes, there is such a thing–or at least a website that makes it look like there is), during the Reformation “all religious flags and other saint’s banners, except for St. George’s, were abolished. St. George’s flag had first been used as a maritime flag seven years earlier.”

It was the Flag Insitute–she said defensively–that put the apostrophe in the wrong place. It’s a quote, so I left it. Three points if you spotted the problem.

Those dates don’t match up with the quote from the Week, but let’s not agonize over it. It won’t be on the test. It argues for what Wikiwhatsia said, that it can’t be substantiated.

But England didn’t just buy–or rent–the rights to St. George’s flag, it got George himself as a patron saint. So let’s talk about who he was.

Legend says George was a Roman soldier, born in what’s now Turkey. According to an article in the Independent, “In 303 [the Roman emperor] Diocletian, as part of a crackdown on the growing influence of the Christian community, ordered that all Christian soldiers in the army should be expelled and all Roman soldiers be forced to make the traditional pagan sacrifice.

“St George refused and denounced the edict in front of his fellow soldiers, declaring he was a Christian.

“Diocletian initially tried to convert him with offers of wealth and land but when he refused he was beheaded on 23 April 303.”

Legend has George slaying a dragon at some point–presumably before his death. It was feeding on townspeople. But freedom from dragons doesn’t come free: He’d only do it in if the entire town converted to Christianity.

Nothing in legend connects George to England, but in 1327 Edward III made him the country’s official saint anyway. The beliefs of the time didn’t demand that a patron saint have anything to do with the country that drafted him. He had to embody the country’s characteristics–or to be more accurate about it, the characteristics it wanted to think it had. Or wanted its enemies and possibly even friends to think it had.

There was no practical way for the saints to be consulted about this. They didn’t get to say, “No, I don’t like this country–its topography offends me, its language is too complicated for me to learn, and if that isn’t enough they eat fish and chips and back when I was alive I hated fish.”

They got drafted, and if people prayed to them in a language that was too complicated for them to learn, that was the people’s problem. They prayed for rain and their warts disappeared.

It explains a lot.

So St. George got landed with not just England but also Portugal, Venice, Beirut, Malta, Ethiopia, Georgia, the Palestinian territories, Serbia, and Lithuania. And, of course, Genoa. I don’t think any of the other countries thought they had to rent him from Genoa and why England started that arrangement I don’t know.

I haven’t been able to untangle what flags–if any–all those other places consider to be St. George’s, but I do know that if you google St. George, flag, and Lithuania (I chose Lithuania because it was at the end of the list, not knowing that my fingers don’t like the sequence of the letters), you come up with lots of flag images, the red cross on a white background being only one of them.

What was George expected to do if two of his countries or territories went to war with each other? Intervene on both sides? Pull the covers over his head and weep for humanity? I’m no a expert on religion. In fact, I’m not religious and my lack of religion doesn’t even from this particular religion, so I won’t try to answer. All I can do is raise awkward questions.  

But back to that agreement about the saint and the flag: For years, England paid Genoa for the use of the flag, but it stopped when Genoa was occupied by Austria in 1746. And now, after all those years, Genoa’s mayor is making a claim for unpaid rent, writing to the queen, “Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that from my books [it] looks like you didn’t pay for the last 247 years,” He is, apparently, digging through the archives to figure out how much that comes to.

“That means we are owed over 250 years of back payments,” he wrote, before admitting he was only “half serious”.

“Instead of cash, we could ask England to restore one of our old palaces or make a donation to charity.”

Why is he claiming both 247 years’ worth of payments and over 250 years’ worth? Especially when 1746 was neither 247 or 250 years ago? I can’t answer that. Maybe he sat, dazed, though the same math classes that I did, with roughly equivalent results. I’m in no position to criticize.

What happens if England doesn’t pay up? Genoa isn’t likely to declare war, and if some court has authority over a medieval agreement that can’t be verified, I’m not sure which one it would be. Some European Union court, maybe, but Genoa had better hurry.

How do people read the symbolism of a saint’s cross in the modern world? Most people, I suspect, don’t think about saints when they see it. England’s pretty relaxed about religion.

Personally, I find it a bit weird to live surrounded by flags with religious origins. I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist. I don’t think about either of those things daily, but they set me apart in both predictable and surprising ways. Cornwall’s flag is St. Piran’s cross–white on a black background. I tend to see a symbol of Cornwall, but it is a cross and I can’t not see it as a cross. British history’s bound up with Christianity, with all its symbols and its wars and its beliefs. I accept that. What else could I do with it? It’s not as if it would change if I didn’t. But it reminds me regularly that I’m an outsider here.

The St. George flag doesn’t get much official use these days. Sports fans backing an English team use it some but, awkwardly, the English ultra-right and neo-nazis have adopted it as their emblem, so when you see it displayed you can’t tell if you’re looking at a sports fan or a nazi.

There are, mercifully, more sports fans in the country than neo-nazis and unless the context is clear, I tend to assume sports fan. Still, it’s not something you–or at least I–can put out of your (or my) mind.

The queen may well decide to skip the payment.