What the world wants to know about Britain, part I’ve forgotten what

It’s time to review what the world wants to know about Britain.

How do we measure that? Why, by looking at what leads people to the definitive voice on all things British, a.k.a. this blog. As usual, I’ve preserved the questions in all their original oddity, including the odd spelling and the lack of question marks and capital letters. Where I’ve gotten several related (but equally odd and therefore worthy) questions, I’ve combined them.

FOOD & DRINK

make cross in sprout religious; is there a religius reason we put crosses into sprouts; english eating brussel sprouts

As we edge closer to Christmas, the flow of questions about brussels sprouts gets heavier, but they form a steady drip throughout the year. I can only assume these come mostly from British people because who else knows that brussels sprouts are as essential to the British Christmas as two desserts and eight reindeer?

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: hydrangea

The crosses at the bottom? The religious justification as I heard it (and don’t ask where because by now I haven’t a clue) is that it was to let the devil out. Or the evil spirits. That may or may not be what anybody in the past actually believed. People have a habit of working backward to come up for a reason for something they see being done.

So why did people start doing it? Probably so the stems would cook as quickly as the leaves. I used to nick the stems but haven’t bothered in years. It doesn’t seem to make a difference and if I’ve eaten any evil spirits I’m none the worse for it. But then, I wasn’t very good to start with and I’m not a fussy cook, so you shouldn’t take my word for it.

But why do the English eat sprouts at Christmas? Because they do. And because they ripen at a time when not many other vegetables can be bothered to.

In 2015 I wrote a post about this and said, recklessly, that the British eat them at Christmas because the Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout. I thought I was very funny and was convinced it was a ridiculous enough claim that no one would take me seriously. Then some blogger linked to it as if it was Truth with a capital R. I still thought I was funny but had just enough decency to also feel bad about it.

In late September of this year, someone else linked to it, this time treating it as Truth with a capital U. So I’ve now prefaced the post with a health and safety warning (the British are big on health and safety warnings; the Druids really did worship them) explaining that no one knows much about what the Druids did, that the article contains a slight exaggeration, and that the writer may contain nuts.

I also sent the other blogger an apology.

The worst of it is that I still think it’s funny. Although I continue to feel bad. I’m sure that makes it okay.

do they have peeps in the uk

That has to be from an American wondering if civilized life is possible outside the borders of the U.S. of A., because Peeps are the measure of civilized life.

Peeps are bright colored, over-sugared, marshmallowy things that have been extruded from some pipe in an industrial kitchen, which forms them into vaguely chickish shapes. At least they look like chicks if your eye’s been trained to see them as chicks. They’re known for giving nutritionists conniption fits. What’s a conniption fit? No idea, but I have it on good authority that you don’t want to have one.

Twenty seconds of research tells me that peeps are  sold in the U.S. and Canada. So yes, civilized life is possible outside of the U.S., but only in Canada.

Why did anybody look deeply enough into the question to read whatever I may have written on the subject? Because, people, Peeps matter.  

our American beers weaker; compare alcohol content budweiser uk and canada; beer alcolohol content uk vs isa; why does beer in england taste better than usa beer?

The strength of American and British beer occupies a large portion of the internet’s collective mind. And by the time that mind goes online to research alcohol content, it’s addled by all the hands-on research it did first. 

That explains the typos.

british peopme chocolate chips; leom drizzle where did it come from

These are what people want to know about once they’ve drunk all the beer in the house.

what do the british call baking-powder biscuits

For the most part, nothing: 97.6% of British citizens have never heard of them. And 93.7% of all statistics are made up. But gasp, wheeze anyway because the world contains people who never heard of baking powder biscuits. The thing is, people don’t just talk differently in different countries, they eat differently.

When I lived in the U.S., my partner and I just called them biscuits, but she’s Texan and we didn’t need to explain what we meant. Now that we live in Britain, we call them baking powder biscuits so that friends won’t expect them to be cookies, because what Americans call cookies the British call biscuits.  

WEATHER

londoner never talking about weather and how miserable (x2)

There are two  things the non-British think they know about Britain: 1. The place is wet, which means it’s miserable. 2. People talk about the weather and nothing else. Beyond that, I don’t know what the question means but someone does because I got it twice.

PLACE NAMES

why is worcester only 2 syllables

Given the oddities of English spelling and the even odder oddities of British place names, there’s only one possible answer: Because.

are we still called great britain

Yes, dear. It’s a geographical designation and no one’s sawed off a part of the country yet.

widemouth bay pronunciation   

Widmuth.    

how to pronounce river eye uk

I can’t even begin to guess, but I can tell you how to find out. First you have to locate it, which is going to be messy because there are two of them, one in Leicestershire (talk about pronunciation oddities) and the other in Scotland. The Scottish one is also called the Eye Water. And at its mouth is a town called Eyemouth.

You have to love this country. It’s weird enough to make your eyes water.  

Once you’ve figured out which river you want, you have to find someone local–preferably someone without a sense of humor–and ask how to pronounce the river. If at all possible, avoid trying to pronounce it when you ask, because you’ll get it wrong. Warning: If you’ve asked someone with a sense of humor, they’ll tell you it’s pronounced “brussels sprouts” and then spend the rest of the year giggling.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

No one without a strong local connection can be trusted to do anything more than guess at the pronunciation of anyplace in Britain. I recently got an automated message reminding me that I have an appointment coming up in Tavistock, which is pronounced TAVistock. The voice pronounced it tavISStock. And Tavistock’s one of the easy ones.

british place names that sound like clothes

Sorry, but I can’t think of any. If you want kitchen appliances, though, Towster is pronounced toaster. The kitchen appliance department is straight ahead, toward the back of the store. The clothing department is hauntingly empty and needs to be filled, so if you know of any pronounced like clothes (or, what the hell, other kitchen appliances or body parts or anything else particularly bizarre), do contribute to the general weirdness by leaving a comment. 

WIGS

I probably get as many questions about wigs as I do about beer. Most of them repeat the ones I’ve already quoted, but every so often a new one comes in. Including this:

attorney living with wigs with you and orange on the bishop hat

Anyone who knows how to answer that, please oh please leave a comment. I can’t do this alone, people.   

BRITISH CULTURE

what do british people think of american accents

Oh, every last one of them thinks they’re fabulous. The British are known for all thinking the same thing. That’s why the two main political parties are so gloriously united.

show me a tricorn hat worn in the house of lords

I could, but it’s not nice to make fun of the sartorially challenged.

Oh, go on, then. You twisted my arm.

what does it mean when it says I hope your birthday is tickety-boo

It means someone sent you a birthday card that’s been around since the 1930s.

do british people say spifing

No. They might, just remotely, say spiffing, but you’ll go blue in the face if you hold your breath till someone does. I also get questions about spiffing. I am now Britain’s formost spiffing expert.  

in what way is folk music similar to christmas carols

Well, both are music and as such involve musical notes. They also involve words. Both can be sung either well or badly but you could say that about all songs. A large part of both can be sung by people without much musical background–that’s their beauty and their limitation. They come out of a tradition where people sang because they were having a good time, or at least because they were drunk. Some people were better at it than others, but no one–originally–was a professional. Both lean toward the idea that people will join in.

Christmas carols were originally a folk tradition and for a while were looked down on for it.

Sorry to get all serious on you. 

PROBLEMATIC ASSUMPTIONS

why was great britain named england in victorian times?

It happened back when the country was a teenager and had one of those identity crises that teenagers are prone to. The country thought England sounded better than Britain and hoped that would make it more popular. It changed its name back to Britain after Victoria died and it doesn’t like to talk about it now, so could we move on, please? Show a little respect here. We were all young once. And if you’re still young, you were once younger.

And no, please don’t link to that to explain how to unmuddle the names Britain, Great Britain, England, and the United Kingdom. Try this post instead. 

in england, the speaker of the house is not allowed to speak

Which is why he (and at the moment he is a he) is called the speaker.

photograph of cockwomble

A womble is a  creature invented for a BBC children’s show. You can hear the womble song here, and I’m sure you’ll be a better person if you have to fortitude to listen all the way to the end. I didn’t, but then I’m not a better person. It’s not, technically speaking, a photograph, since the creatures run around with tubas (have you ever tried running with a tuba while dressed in a womble suit?) and other stuff, but it’s close enough. 

The cockwomble was not invented by the BBC and if you’ve been called one you were not on the receiving end of a compliment. You won’t find a photo of one because it’s not an actual thing, as in it doesn’t exist, but you can find images for cockwombles here. My favorite is the ribbon for International Cockwomble Day. 

letterboxes invented in uk

Well, no, they don’t seem to have been invented in the U.K. They were introduced in Paris, in 1653. As far as I can tell, the first one in Britain was introduced in 1809. 

I haven’t dug into this very deeply, so I’m not 600% sure the dates are the absolute firsts. But the world–or at least the internet, which isn’t exactly the same thing but does exist within the world–contains a pretty large group of people interested in mailboxes. Or letterboxes, which are the same thing in a different place.

I’m not sure why the wording is that they were introduced, not invented but we’ll work with it.

what is causing all the problems with letter boxes in England

It’s true that British letterboxes have been gathering in city centers late at night to guzzle beer and sing Christmas carols. Residents report feeling too intimidated to ask them to keep it down and the police haven’t taken the situation seriously enough to intervene effectively. No one knows what’s causing it. And no one knows why I put this in the incorrect assumptions section.

Don’t link to this either.

CORRECT ASSUMPTIONS

england is not britain

It took a while, but we finally got that straightened out.

why is it wrong to say we all came from britian

Just off the top of my head, I’d say it’s because not all of us did. But credit for knowing something was wrong there.

ODD QUESTIONS

puffing pants; puffling pants

I was baffled by why the phrase was leading anyone here. Other than wearing a random selection, what do I know about clothes? But it turns out that back in 2016 (remember 2016? It came right before 2017) John Evans left a comment that said, “In the recent BBC4 comedy series about Shakespeare (Upstart Crow), there was an episode in which Shakespeare (brilliantly played by David Mitchell) encounters ‘puffling pants’. Ah, life would be so much more fun if everyone wore puffling pants.”

So that explains why questions about puffling pants find their way to me. It doesn’t explain why so many people care, but I got enough question about them, with a variety of spellings, to make me wonder if humanity really should survive.

For a while, I thought they were some current style. I’m dyslexic about fashion, so be a little kind about that, okay?

See what you’ve done, John?

saudi news

I’ve made no headway in figuring out why this one landed on my doorstep. Lord Google, explain thyself.

onterage goshen ny

Ditto. But that’s probably entourage.

what is hefeweizen

Wheat. In German. Lord Google helped me out with that one, because the only German I know is gesundheit, and by now that’s English.

but he prefers keeping his private life out of the media as much as possible

I can see why he’d feel that way. Whoever he is.

coke fabric yard

I get regular blasts of this question, and I can’t resist quoting it when I review the questions that lure people into my spider web. Unfortunately, quoting it reinforces the link between the phrase and Notes. In another couple of years, I’ll be the world’s foremost expert on whatever the hell it means.

best trader joe’s meats

I’m a vegetarian and probably the wrong person to ask about this.

And with that, I think I’ve enlightened you enough for one week. Stay out of trouble if you can. It’s a very strange world out there.

That was your health and safety warning. Be healthy. And safe.

Cops and donuts in the U.S. and Britain

There’s no limit to the ways that Britain isn’t like the U.S. and I’ve just found a new one. But the story starts back a step or two. Mine always do.

In my most recent post, which wasn’t one of my best, I mentioned that in Britain cops and donuts aren’t fused together in the public mind the way they are in the U.S. That led Dan Antion to ask how on earth British cops managed to waste time if they don’t hang out in donut shops. Dan always finds something inspired to drop in the comment box, even when I’m not at my best.

As it happens, I thought I was well placed to answer that and I asked a friend who’s a retired cop and who will remain anonymous even though he’s retired and anyone who knows him could figure out who he  is. But never mind. It adds to the mystique. Let’s call him–oh, let’s say his name is Anon.

Anon, I asked, how do British cops waste their time if they don’t eat donuts?

Well, he said, looking as if he’d been waiting all his life for someone to ask him exactly that question, his team had a rule: Anyone who was late had to buy donuts for, so they did eat donuts. Lots of donuts, because someone was almost always late. That led to a competition over whether they could eat a donut without licking their lips, and the only way to do it, he said, since donuts always leave sugar on your lips, is to stuff the entire donut in your mouth in one bite.

Yes, but how did they waste time? Did they hang out in cafes with all-day breakfasts?

He ignored the second question, which I took as a no, and launched into this story:

Back before CCTV was everywhere, between 3 and 5 a.m., when the streets were empty, they could close off a stretch of street with a police van at each end, set a line of traffic cones down the middle of the street, and take one of the small cop cars at they used at the time, which had a choke, and they’d set the choke so it would drive slowly, then stand on top of the car and use two dog leashes attached to the steering wheel to slalom the car through the traffic cones.

Is that even physically possible? Did he make it up? All I can tell you is that if it isn’t the truth he made it up  in record time. 

Can any American cop top that?

Budget cuts, crime, and technology in modern Britain

In the spirit of making up the rules as we go along, we’ll start and end off topic. If you get bored along the way, just skip to the end.

In 1947, Jack Kerouac, of Beat Generation, to-hell-with society’s-expectations fame, wrote his mother asking for $25 so he wouldn’t have to hitch through the desert and mountains to get from Colorado to California. The letter went on sale recently. For $22,500.

So much for irony. Let’s talk about crime. Residents of Shoreditch–a London neighborhood–decided to simplify life for local drug dealers by posting signs warning drivers to “give way to oncoming drug dealers.” Other signs marked a crack pickup point and a parking spot reserved for drug dealers. 

The mayor (not of London but of Tower Hamlets–it’s complicated and for our purposes doesn’t matter) sympathized but said the council (that translates to local government) isn’t in charge of policing (which is true) and that budget cuts meant they had 200 fewer cops on the streets. I can’t verify the number but it’s a suspiciously round one, so for the sake of accuracy you might want to add or subtract a few cops. You’ll almost surely end up with the wrong number, but it’ll look more convincing.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I’m not sure if that’s 200 fewer in London or in Tower Hamlets. If I had to guess, I’d say London. But never mind, I can swear or affirm that budgets have been cut and fewer cops are on the streets and behind the desks. If we were talking about the U.S., I’d say there were also fewer in the doughnut shop, but the link between cops and doughnuts turns out, mysteriously, to be an American thing. 

According to Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, which put up the signs, it’s not just police cuts that are the problem. “Drug programmes have been cut, mental health programmes have been cut, and it’s a perfect storm.”

After (or possibly before) the mayor expressed sympathy with the group, the council took the signs down, saying something that translates roughly to, “Very funny, kids. We’ll just put these away where the neighbors won’t ask about them. Now, who wants ice cream?”

The drug dealers had no comment.

So how’s a council supposed to save money and fight crime when budgets are being cut? By using technology, of course. At least five local councils are pouring data (not to mention that scarce resource, money) into a predictive analytics system to flag up kids who are at risk of being abused or who are vulnerable to gang exploitation. I think that means the kids are likely to be recruited by gangs, not to be victimized by them. If you’re being victimized, go create your own algorithm.

The theory is that this will let councils target their interventions better and, in this age of politically induced austerity, be more effective with less money. Which was what the government swore everyone would do as a result of austerity. 

What sort of data are they pouring in? Information from schools on whether kids are attending or being thrown out. Police records on antisocial behavior and domestic violence. Housing information, but only on council tenants (if you’re American, that means public housing tenants). The housing information includes repair records and being late with the rent, because people who are late with the rent are likely to do anything from abusing their kids to spending their money on silly things like food.

That’s the trouble with poor people: They never have enough money.

This means, of course, that if you live in council housing and kick in a wall, you go into the database and get watched. If you own your own home or rent from a private landlord, you can rampage through it as much as you like as long as no one calls the cops.

It also means that if you complain about–oh, let’s say fire hazards once too often and make the wrong bureaucrat mad, it’s not impossible to think you’ll end up in the database. Because people who annoy bureaucrats are likely to abuse their kids. Or am I being too cynical?

Is it possible to be too cynical?

Some categories of information were later excluded from consideration, but I’m damned if I could find out which ones.

Critics are saying that algorithms aren’t neutral–they incorporate their writers’ biases–and that the poor will be monitored more closely than the non-poor. The articles I found didn’t mention this, but surely someone out there is raising the possibility that once a person gets trapped by an algorithm and labeled as a risk, they may not be able to prove the contrary. If the computer says they’re a risk, they’ll be treated as a risk.

Is this just a way for cash-strapped councils to spend silly money because someone’s cousin runs a predictive analytics business (she asked cynically)? Possibly, but it’s also being looked at as a way for the councils to make money.

The Guardian writes, “Under the Troubled Families scheme, councils are paid £1,000 for each family they sign up to the programme, with a further payment of £800 when the family meets certain criteria.”  

It’s called payment by results and it means that if you’re trapped in an algorithm, it’s not just because no one can turn the computer off, it might also be because no one will have an incentive to.

In another approach to saving money and being more efficient, the East of England ambulance service wants to improve its response time by allowing ambulances with stable patients to divert to life-threatening emergencies before taking the stable patient to the hospital, although–as a paramedic pointed out–stable patients don’t always stay stable and the ambulance crew might be put in a position of having to choose which patient to use life-saving equipment on.

What’s worse, no one would get to pass Go.

A benefit of doubling people up, however, is that ambulance patients would meet new people and watch exciting scenes of paramedics saving lives, something they’d otherwise have to turn on the TV to see. Loneliness is a serious problem in first-world countries and it diminishes both the length and quality of people’s lives. This is a great way to combat it.

East of England also proposed asking the Royal National Lifeboat Institution–better known as the RNLI–to respond to emergency calls, although loading the lifeboat onto a trailer and dragging it inland is going to be time consuming.

When it was asked to comment, the RNLI said it couldn’t locate the request.

Check the circular file, people. Someone thought it was a joke and tossed it there.  

The East of England service has one of the ten slowest emergency response times in England but a high rate of people hearing their proposals and giggling.

How else can local government save money? By closing public toilets, and many have. Some areas don’t have a single public toilet anymore. I’d have said “some cities,” but the article I read carefully avoided the word. In Britain, the definition of a city is specific–it has to have a cathedral. In the U.S., it’s just a big place where a lot of people live. How big? Oh, you know, pretty big. 

But back to toilets: The country now has a third fewer public toilets than it did twenty years ago, according to data from the British Toilet Association.

I never had a chance to quote the British Toilet Association before. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.

Not having public toilets won’t shock Americans, although calling them toilets will. We don’t like to be reminded of what we use them for so we call them almost anything but toilets.

Setting the language issue aside, though, American cities don’t do public toilets. If you need to pee, what are you doing out in public anyway? We don’t actually say that, just act as if we had. Which is why so many New York subway stations smell the way they do. Or they used to, anyway. I grew up in New York but haven’t been there in a long time. When I first moved to Britain, I was impressed that the country had worked out a way to handle something so basic.

The toilet association is urging businesses to display a sticker letting people know that their toilets are available to non-customers. There’s no word on how many businesses are actually doing it, but I’m going to guess the number isn’t much above zero.

Since we’re talking about being short of money, this might be a good time to mention Katie Hopkins, a commentator who once said that poor people who get into debt have no one to blame but themselves. In September, Hopkins applied for an insolvency agreement to avoid going bankrupt. In other words, she owes more money than she has. Which reckless people might just call being in debt.

It all started when she wrote a tweet claiming that food writer Jack Monroe (who is, just to complicate things, a woman, so watch your pronouns) supported defacing a war memorial. Monroe asked Hopkins to apologize and donate £5,000 to a migrants’ charity.

Hopkins refused, the whole mess ended up in court, and Monroe won. When this surfaced in the papers, in September, Hopkins owed Monroe £24,000 and was stuck with legal costs large enough that if she paid them in pennies the stack would stretch from the top of the Tower of London to the moon unless it toppled over first.

She won’t be allowed to stack them that high because it would constitute a safety hazard. Britain is very careful about health and safety. What’s more, I may be overestimating the height of the stack. I’ve never put more than ten pennies in a pile and I don’t actually know the size of the legal bill. So if I’m wrong about this, please don’t sue me.

Just to complicate things, Hopkins’ mainstream media career collapsed (should I write, “is said to have collapsed,” just to be safe?) when she called for a “final solution” after the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena. Was she aware that she was echoing the Nazi plan for the elimination of the Jews? I’m not inside the woman’s mind, so I can’t say. But it’s all okay, because she’s not poor so the current situation isn’t her fault.  

On a cheerier note, Britain has a new hobby: magnet fishing. To do this, you attach a powerful magnet to a line and drop it into a body of water.

What do people catch? “Mainly junk,” according to magnet angler Gareth Bryer. “A few pedal bikes, shopping trolleys, fences, road signs.” Also three guns, a crossbow, a samurai sword, machetes, knives, a grenade, and a cash box with £100. Other magnet anglers have recovered a cannonball from the English Civil War and an Enigma machine, which was used to decode German communications during World War II.

A bylaw (of what I don’t know) forbids taking things out of waterways owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust. Let’s assume, for safety’s sake, that the trust owns pretty much any public waterway. The fine is £25 but it doesn’t seem to be enforced much. Still, technically, taking junk out of public waters is illegal, which is why I’ve shoehorned it into this post.

By way of clarification, a pedal bike is what Americans call a plain ol’ bike. It’s also called a pushbike in British, to keep it from getting confused with a motorbike. And a supermarket trolley is what Americans call a supermarket cart. I’ve never had any reason to lift all four wheels of one off the ground at once (given the shape, I’m not sure I could), but I’m pretty sure they’re heavy enough to make them hard to haul out of a canal. And then there’s the question of what you do with it once you have it neatly deposited on the canalside path, where people walking past with their dogs will stop to ask, “What’re you going to do with that, mate?”

And you’ll still have to get it to your car on wheels that won’t be rolling smoothly anymore.

Then there’s that grenade…

I’ll give you a link somewhat at random, because the internet’s full of information about magnet fishing, most of it geared toward helping you take up the sport. If you want to part with some cash, you’ll find all sorts of equipment out there.

Without a single magnet in sight, Britain’s Conservative Party attracted the wrong kind of attention and more or less hacked itself. Just as its conference was getting ready to open, someone discovered that its app not only made its leaders’ private information available to anyone who logged on as attending, it allowed them to modify it. And to make it public, which someone or other gleefully did. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnsoon’s photo was briefly replaced with an unspecified pornographic image and  his title was changed to something that starts and ends with D and has a bunch of asterisks between them. I thought I swore fluently, but that one has me stumped.

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s photo was replaced with one of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The story appeared on the same day the Conservative government announced that it will introduce guidelines on how much time kids should be allowed to spend on social media. If the kids spend less time at it, that should free up time for the adults in the party to learn how it works.

This next item is crime related but from the wrong country: An American self-published romance writer, Nancy Crampton Murphy, has been taking her research seriously. Having written a blog post called “How to Murder Your Husband,” she went ahead and murdered him. Allegedly. That’s allegedly as in it was allegedly her. There’s nothing alleged about him being dead.

I’d give you a link to her post but it’s been made private. CBS News says it listed the pros and cons of murdering your husband and quotes it as saying,  “Divorce is expensive, and do you really want to split your possessions?”

Tough question, right?

This next one has nothing to do with technology, crime, or budget cuts, but a love song by English singer Lily Allen, “As Long As I Got You” includes the line, “Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose.”

And here you thought romance was dead.

And quick, while we’re dipping into a few bits of irrelevance, a tourist to Cornwall posted a complaint on a private beach’s Facebook page. It turns out a rock was covered by waves so that she couldn’t see it and so she hurt her leg on it. And here I said Britain was health and safety conscious. What were they thinking, letting the waves come up over the rock like that?

Other comments on the page have at times included, “What time do the waves start?” and “When will the dolphins appear?”

*

My apologies for leaning so heavily on a single news source this week. I try to spread it out a bit, but it just didn’t work out this time. I was going to quote the Huffington Post on one story, but it wouldn’t let me read the article unless I signed an agreement with its new owner, Oath, allowing it to collect all my data in a stack that reaches the moon and presents a clear hazard to the public. 

When I tried to modify the agreement, as it so kindly invited me to do, I couldn’t find any modifications that made the least bit of sense. I swore many an Oath and thought I’d better leave before I clicked a button  that put me into a database of people at risk of being recruited by a drug gang.

Although that  would at least guarantee me a parking spot in London.

None of the buttons I found allowed me to say no to anything and I couldn’t find a box that said, “Leave me the hell alone.” My choices amounted to saying, “Yes, I’m happy for you to do whatever you want with my data because you have my best interests at heart.”

All this clicking and modifying is, I think, supposed to bring them into alignment with a European Union directive on privacy and data, which was in turn supposed to give us choices about who has our data and what they do with it.

I do love having choices.

And if I haven’t (as I suspect) been particulary funny this week, here by way of apology are a couple of corrections from far more respectable publications than this one. The first few are relatively pedestrian. Stay with me.

The Brazilian magazine Veja initially said that a political candidate liked to spend his free time watching Toy Story. Their apology explained that it should’ve said “reading Tolstoy.”

The New York Times had to correct itself after giving a Muslim scholar’s Snapchat handle as Pimpin4Paradise786. Turns out it’s imamsuhaibwebb.

To be even handed, the Guardian, which quoted these and which is famous for its typos, also called attention to one of its own mistakes, which was a recipe calling for 13 kilos of lamb instead of 1.3 kilos. One of my favorite Guardian misprints is a photo labeled “caption caption caption caption caption caption caption.”

Ah, but Lord Google supplies better Guardian corrections than that, including a one that read, “Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peaches Probiotics . . .  [but] the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.”

Well, damn, that’s disappointing. What am I supposed to tell people if they point out that mine smells like a vagina? That it’s supposed to smell like that?

I think we’ll move on now.

Another correction read, “The ommision of a hyphen after the word ‘sheep’ meant readers were informed that the ancient Philistines of the Gaza coast were attacked by a curious combination of ‘savage sheep and goat-herding Hebrew tribes.’ ”

Ah, but there’s more: “An unwanted hyphen, introduced in the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, in Vincenza, Italy, was ‘named for the 17-stone nani, or dwarfs, that surround the home.’ To clarify: there are seventeen dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.”

A stone is a measure of weight in Britain. It equals 14 pounds or roughly one twelfth of a stone dwarf. (No, I don’t know how much they weigh either, but 97.5% of all statistics are made up.)

And then there’s the time when they quoted the chair of a football club as saying they had the worst team in the division. Turns out he said they had the worst tea.

The Guardian‘s very good at corrections and has enough practice at correcting itself that it’s developed a sense of humor about them. Its readers know the paper as the Grauniad.

How English is England? a quick lesson in geology

England’s creation story as we once knew it went like this: In the beginning, whatever god(s) you like to give credit to, along with all the ones you don’t, separated England from France because they thought it would be better that way, and all the humans with an interest in either country agreed that, yea, this was wise.

It wasn’t easy for the humans to do this, because humans only joined the planet some 2.8 million years ago and the separation of England and France took place 400 million years ago. But the tension between the English and the French is pronounced enough that it could have easily predated the human race by some 397 million years, give or take a few months.  

Gods, as it turns out, can be vain–it’s an occupational hazard–and they were so pleased with all that human praise that many million years later they poured the English Channel into the space between the two countries to mark their accomplishment. And lo, the humans lavished them with more praise.

Endangered species: This is a relevant photo–see below for a comment about
stone monuments, although in keeping with tradition this isn’t quite the kind of monument I was talking about.

To be marginally more scientific about this, until very recently the belief was that Britain–that’s England, Scotland, and Wales–was formed when two ancient landmasses, Laurentia and Avalonia, met and married. France had nothing to do with it–it was on a landmass called Armorica–and a marriage can only take place between two landmasses. The third could have been, at most, a witness.

It’s true that this was before marriage had been invented, and possibly even before sex had been invented, but for richer and for poorer, for better and for worser, the two landmasses became one and everyone was happy with the arrangement, especially the English, because there’s something about being English that compels even the most broad-minded people to get sniffy about the French.

We’re going to assume that the French were just as happy, because (at least in my limited experience) they can be sniffy about the English as well. I’m basing that on the number of people my partner and I met in France who asked, “Are you English?” and when we said we were American said (more or less, and in French), “Oh, wonderful. We like Americans.”

That was back when it was easy to tell people what nationality we were. These days it’s complicated. Are we American? Yes. Are we British? Yes. So are we British-Americans? Americo-Britoids? Passport-hopping cosmopolitan nuisances?

Never mind. Let’s go back to our origin story. Here was an arrangement that suited both parties. The English were from Laurentia-Avalonia and the French were from Armorica and never the twain would meet. They didn’t have to trace their geological histories back to a common point.  

It turns out, however, that it didn’t happen that way. Some wiseacres from the University of Plymouth have spoiled it all by taking rock samples from southwestern Britain and Brittany (in western France), playing geologist games with them, and announcing that the deposits left from volcanic explosions in part of Cornwall and Devon match those in France.

This explains why the mineral deposits in the southwest (primarily tin, but also copper, antimony, arsenic, a bit of silver, plus in case you’re still interested, tungsten, uranium, zinc, and occasional supermarkets cart–called a trolleys–that show up when they drain canals) match what’s found in Brittany (with the possible exception of the supermarket cart) but not what’s found in the rest of Britain (again with the exception of the supermarket cart).

So geologically speaking, a fair chunk of southwest England is French, including most of Cornwall, which culturally and historically may not be part of England at all, but let’s not argue about that, I only brought it up to complicate things. And because people I know bring it up regularly, so I feel a kind of duty to toss it into my posts.

What can we learn from this discovery? That marriage is more complicated than anyone imagined and can indeed involve three landmasses. That everyone should settle down and stop being sniffy about whole swathes of people because if we go back far enough we’re all related, as is the land we live on. That we should all save our spikiness for deserving individuals. And for the people we’re closely closely related to and have to play nice with on holidays.

We can also learn that it’s good to have our brain molecules rearranged periodically. That’s the lovely thing about the sciences. They start with a theory, they test it, and when they find information that contradicts it they either update it or throw it out altogether.  

*

But the French-Southwest England connection is more than just geological. The cultural links go back to the Neolithic age–that’s the late stone age–when the people of southwest Britain traded with the people of what’s now France. It couldn’t have been easy sailing stone boats back and forth across the channel, never mind hollowing them out, so they must’ve wanted to see each other really badly.

If anyone decides to link to this, please, please note: that’s a joke about stone boats. I had another joke go wrong again recently and I’m feeling just the slightest bit sheepish. If sheep can giggle (sorry, I can’t help myself), which I’ve never seen them do but can’t rule out.

The two groups would’ve shared shared overlapping cultures, because both spent their free time setting huge stones in place to mark we’ll never really know what. Their presence, maybe. It’s too weird an activity not to mark an overlap.

English Heritage (the name doesn’t play universally well in Cornwall) says that “by the later Iron Age, southern England’s principal trading partners were northern Gaul (France) and Armorica (Brittany).” 

If we slip forward to the years after the Romans left Britain, we’ll  find Celtic refugees fleeing the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–or so it’s said. Archeologists are challenging that belief, but we’ll get to that some other time. If the Celts did indeed flee, they left with their language folded neatly into their suitcases. And where did they land? Armorica, which they renamed Brittany.

Then in the eleventh century, the Norman French invaded England, changing the language to French and completing the circle on influence, connection, resentment, and bizarre spelling. They didn’t care about landmasses, they just wanted the land. And its people.

We, of course, live in an enlightened age and do care about landmasses. Please take a few minutes to feel smug.

To hell with Britain: news from all over

Department of Religious Freedom: A Dutch court ruled that a woman does not have the right to wear a colander on her head in her passport and driving license photos. And just to be clear, that’s not because she’s a woman. A man doesn’t have that right either.

That strikes me as fair enough, but the story’s more complicated than it appears. We’re talking about religious freedom here.

The woman in question, Mienke de Wilde, was (this was in August, when the story appeared in the press) considering an appeal the the European Court of Human Rights. She’s a law student and I’m sure she’ll learn a lot from it. And talk about having something to put on your resume . . .

Irrelevant photo: If I remember my wildflowers correctly, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Dutch law bans headgear in identity photos but people can claim an exemption on religious grounds, and de Wilde was claiming one. She’s a Pastafarian, a member of a religion whose members worship an invisible, undetectable god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who created the universe. They wear colanders on their heads as a tribute to the god, although they consider it disrespectful to explain their beliefs without wearing full pirate regalia.

Why? “Because He becomes angry if we don’t,” the U.K. Pastafarian website says. I should probably have read the Dutch site, but I don’t read Dutch and don’t trust Lord Google to translate anything this important.

Since I’m short on pirate regalia, I’ll leave a full explanation of Pastafarian beliefs to someone with a better wardrobe, but I can at least say that believers are expected to be nice to all sentient beings and to eat a lot of pasta.

Pastafarianism is recognized by both the New Zealand government and the spell check system on my toy typewriter. The Dutch court didn’t exactly say it isn’t a real religion. It said, with the sobriety of which only a court is capable, “It may be the case that the colander is considered a holy object for Pastafarians, worn in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there is no obligation to do so. In fact, Pastafariansm has no obligations or restrictions.”

That does seem to be true. Pastafarianism’s short on obligations and don’ts. The church originally had ten I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts, but two got lost, so now it has only eight. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t demand or forbid much of anything. Except that  business about the pirate costume.

Department of Shhhh, This Is a Library: A librarian called in a bomb hoax to delay his plane because he was running late. That held it up for 90 minutes, but he still didn’t make it and was arrested when he got abusive with airline staff.  

Kind of changes your image of librarians, doesn’t it?

Department of Corporate Overreach: Procter & Gamble is trying (or at last reading, in August, was trying) to trademark some bits of the alphabet soup spread by text messaging, including LOL, WTF, NBD, and FML. I’ll translate those for the acronymically impaired: laughing out loud, what the fuck?, no big deal, and fuck my life.

The applications went to USPTO–the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Is P&G going to release a product called Fuck My Life? If so, can I sit in on the meetings where they work out a marketing strategy? Please?? I really need to be there and I promise to take notes and report back.

Sadly, it looks like all they want to do is use the letters to advertise existing products so that the millennial generation will think they’re cool. Or whatever today’s equivalent of cool is. Hot. Lukewarm. Fried. Acronymed. I’m 103 and exempt from having to be cool, hot, or anything in between.

The truth is that I never was cool but I no longer give a fuck (which just might make me cool–who knows?). It’s one of the lovely things about getting older, and we can reduce that to an acronym if my language offends anyone: INLGAF.

The USPTO asked P&G for clarification (I’ll bet they did), but according to the Independent, the BBC, and the Guardian, P&G declined to comment to the press.

Of those three, only the Guardian was willing to spell out what all the acronyms stand for. The others hid behind asterisks and “too rude to spell out.”

I think I said this before, back when the Royal Mail trademarked the shade of red it uses on trucks and mailboxes, but I never got around to doing anything about it: I’m going to trademark the word and. That means every time anyone else uses it, they have to put a little ™ (meaning trademark) sign beside it. Otherwise I get to sue them.  

Department of Truth in Blogging: That last paragraph contains a bit of urban mythology. When I worked as an editor, I ran into one or two writers who were convinced that if they mentioned a brand name they had to add ™ to avoid lawsuits and other forms of apocalypse. They didn’t. We didn’t. You don’t. Companies use the symbol to show that they’re claiming the word as a trademark. An R in a circle means roughly the same thing only more so, but WTF, let’s skip the details–they’re boring. The claim only matters to you if you’re another company in more or less the same field and want to use the word / name / phrase / color /acronym.

Department of Friendly and Accessible Government: Britain’s minister for immigration Twitter-blocked two applicants who, in desperation, tweeted her to ask for help when the Home Office wouldn’t reply to their appeals or to letters from their MPs. One was a citizen trying to prevent his long-term partner from being deported to Australia. The other was a citizen trying to get British passports for his Filippino-born adopted (and already British) children. The snag is that they have Filippino passports with their pre-adoption names. To change their names on the Filippino passports, the family would have to take the kids out of school and move to the Philippines, then he’d have to re-adopt the kids. It could take up to 18 months.

What the hell, people and their needs are all so complicated. It’s simpler just to block them.

Department of Endless Updates: Britain’s Home Office has updated its immigration rules 5,700 times since 2010. Or that was the number as of late August. That means they’ve more than doubled in length. They’re now 375,000 words long.

By way of comparison, the minimum length of a novel these days is (give or take a few ands or a the’s) 40,000 words. Most are between 60,000 and 100,000.

At least seven times, new guidelines were issued a week after the last ones were issued.

Judges and lawyers are tearing at their wigs in frustration. One said, “The changes are often hurried out, which means they can be badly written. They can be very difficult to understand, even for judges and lawyers.”

Another called it (with typical British understatement) “something of a disgrace.”

Department of Urban Wildlife: In August, New York City subway crews found two goats on the tracks of a Brooklyn subway line that was closed for repairs. The goats grazed their way down the line–I’d like to say happily but I wasn’t there and even if I had been I don’t know goats well enough to read their mood. But graze they did, right alongside the electrified third rail, until they were tranquilized and moved to a rescue center in New Jersey, where, even though I’m not there and et cetera, I’m absolutely sure they’re happy.

The area where they were found is close to some slaughterhouses and the goats are thought to have escaped from one. So yeah, good food, a nice wide river between them and the slaughterhouse? They’re happy.

Department of Technological Wonders: An article about policing the Notting Hill Carnival mentioned that the police aren’t going to use facial recognition software again this year. They tried it out for two years running and among other successes it managed to confuse a young woman with a balding man.

I struggle to recognize people–it’s called face blindness and I was endlessly relieved when I found a name for it that wasn’t Ellen’s clueless. But mixing up a young woman and a balding man? Even I’m not that bad.  

Department of Archeology: A 90,000-year-old bone fragment found in a Siberian cave turns out to be from a teenager whose DNA contains fragments from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Denisovans? They’re a recently discovered member of the human family tree and not much is known about them yet. The National Geographic says they were “a sister group of the Neanderthals, splitting from a common ancestor some 390,000 years ago. They likely lived until around 40,000 years ago, around the time when Neanderthals were also starting to fade away.”

This is the first evidence that the two groups interbred and raises the possibility that the lost groups weren’t wiped out by conflict or competition with modern humans, who arrived in Eurasia some 60,000 years ago,  but absorbed into the population.

Department of Lucrative Language: Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of the Lloyds Banking Group, announced that “our differentiated, customer-focused business model continues to deliver with our multi brand, multi channel approach, cost leadership, low risk positioning, investment capacity and execution capabilities positioning us well for sustainable success in a digital world.”

He gets paid £6.4 million a year to say stuff like that.

Department of Modern Royalty: Once upon a time, a dispute over royal succession would’ve ended up on the battlefield or with a nice, quiet assassination. Today, someone who thinks he was cheated him out of Monaco’s throne is suing France for 351 million euros. The switch from one branch of the Grimaldi family to another took place in 1911, and France was, in fact, involved. 

Louis Jean Raymond Marie de Vincens de Causans said, “I want the truth to come out and this injustice perpetrated by France on my family to be put right.”

And, incidentally, he wants 351 million euros. And a few extra names, because six doesn’t seem like enough for someone of his caliber.

Department of Police Being Soft on Crime: The German police rescued a man who was being chased by a baby squirrel. When the police arrived, the man was being chased down the street, but the chase ended with the squirrel suddenly lying down and going to sleep.

Police officer Christina Krenz said that “squirrels that have lost their mothers look for a replacement and then focus on one person.”

The squirrel was taken into custody and instead of being charged is now a police mascot. It’s going to grow up thinking this sort of thing is acceptable behavior.

Department of Terrorist Threats: A man traveling from Belfast to London to see his father, who was starting treatment for cancer, missed his flight when airport security refused to let him take his wheelchair repair kit on the flight. The toolkit had some wrenches (called spanners in Britain), some spare wheel nuts, and medicine for diabetes.

When he challenged security over it, saying he needed the tools in case his wheels broke and so he could adjust his chair to fit into the car he’d rented on the other end,  they said the wrenches could be used to “dismantle the plane.”

I didn’t make that up.

Okay, how about if the cabin crew looked after the toolkit until he left the plane?

Nope.

Could it go with the luggage?

Sorry, there was no time for that.

His partner publicized the incident on social media, and that had no connection to the apology he later received from the airport. The airport has agreed to make a donation to a disability charity, which is nice but doesn’t strike me as being anywhere close to enough.

I admit, I’m not sure what would be.

The Clameur de Haro and the legacy of feudalism

In August, Rosie Henderson, a douzainer in Guernsey–that’s an elected official–invoked a medieval law, the Clameur de Haro, to stop a roadwork project that she felt would “endanger pedestrians and motorists alike.” Invoking the law involved going down on one knee on the roadworks site, clasping her hands, and in the presence of two witnesses saying, “ ‘Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide mon Prince, on me fait tort.”

Then the claim had to be registered in court, which (this being Guernsey) is called the Greffe.

The words of the clameur translate to “Haro! Haro! Haro! [That doesn’t seem to translate.] Come to my aid, my prince, I have been wronged.” The prince in question is thought to be Rollo, the first Viking ruler of Normandy (roughly 860 to 930 C.E., or A.D. if you prefer). He was also called Rolf and as an adult became too heavy for any horse to carry. So what with him being long since dead and all, even if he was likely to help anyone he couldn’t be expected to get there in a hurry.

Semi-relevant photo: A wild pony on the cliffs in Cornwall. This is one of the many horses Rolf (or Rollo, if you like) couldn’t ride. Not just because he was too heavy but because by the time this horse was born he was too dead.

I’m tempted to explain this business of calling on a long-dead, horseless prince (or duke–there’s no record of him using either title, or any at all) by saying that tradition’s a powerful force in Britain, but we’re talking about Guernsey, which isn’t Britain. We’ll dive down the rabbit hole of the island’s relationship with Britain about midway through the post, but for now knowing that Guernsey isn’t Britain is enough and we’ll skitter on before anyone has a chance to ask questions.  

In one version of the way clameur works, the complainant, known as the criant, also has to invoke the Lord’s Prayer. Other explanations don’t mention that. If you plan on clameur-ing, you might want to do the Lord’s Prayer part just to be safe, although what invoke means in this context isn’t clear–or at least it isn’t clear to me. Do you recite it? Do you mention it? Do you remind the people around you of its existence? Whatever you do, I recommend doing it once in English and once in French, because I’m not sure which language you’re supposed to be working in. Or in ‎Guernésiais, the regional language, which 2% of the population speaks fluently and 3% understands. (That could be 3% on top of 2% or it might include it. Does it really matter?)

Citizen’s Advice recommends getting legal advice before messing around with the clameur, so if you’re wise (not to mention well funded) you’ll have someone who can lead you through the details.

As soon as the amateur dramatics are out of the way, building work has to stop until the court decides whether you’ve been wronged. Assuming, of course, that the people on the building site understand what you’re doing and don’t just shrug you off as some random nutburger.

If the work doesn’t stop, the person being asked to stop it risks a fine. The person invoking the clameur also risks a fine if they’re found to have raised it incorrectly. The injunction lasts a year and a day, just like the curses and assorted other spells that we find in fairy tales.

The clameur dates back to the tenth century and works only in Guernsey and Jersey, a.k.a. the Channel Islands. It was meant to work as an injunction when someone’s possession of a piece of land was interfered with, which is why the Greff threw out Henderson’s plea the next day: The land is owned by the state and the clameur is only applicable to land (or as the court put it, an immovable object) in the criant’s posssession.

Henderson argued that the state holds the land for the people. She is, inarguably, a person, so it’s a fair argument even if it didn’t win. 

New as the clameur is to me, it seems to be old news in Guernsey and Jersey. It even has its own website, which comes with its own warning, “Content researched from historic texts. May contain errors or opinions contrary to legal practice of judgment and case law. . . . For research only. Seek legal advice from advocates.”

It may also contain peanuts. People with allergies to either nuts or the law should consult a physician before opening.

While they’re doing that, why don’t the rest of us trace this bit of weirdness back in time? Because some things can’t be understood any other way. Or to rephrase that, it’s time to dive down the rabbit hole I mentioned earlier.

We’ll start in medieval times. The Channel Islands are a part of Normandy, which makes a kind of geographical sense. They’re 20 miles off the French coast, so if they’re going to belong to anyone other than themselves, they might as well be assigned there.

Then 1066 rolls around and the TV flashes a reminder to William the Conqueror (a.k.a. William the Bastard) that the show he’s been waiting for is about to begin: It’s time to invade England. He invades and becomes King of England, and since (as Duke of Normandy) he already owns Guernsey and Jersey, they’re now possessions of the English crown. And of the Norman duke, who’s the same person.

It takes some work for a modern brain to accommodate the idea that a person and a state aren’t separate things at this point, and that the English king and the Norman duke are the same guy. In case you’re having trouble with this, allow me to make it worse: The current queen reigns over the Channel Islands as the queen but is also their duke. Channel Islands royalists will toast her as “the queen our duke.”

Only they’ll capitalize both queen and duke.

They may or may not be sober when they do that. I don’t know much about toasts.

Between 1204 and 1214, King John (that’s of England) lost control of his lands in northern France but kept control of the Channel Islands. In 1259, this was formalized in the Treaty of Paris: England gave up its claim to any land in France and France gave up its claim to the Channel Islands. The Islands, however, continued to be feudal possessions of the English king and were never absorbed into England–or into its successor kingdoms, Great Britain and the United Kingdom.

The treaty didn’t keep England and France from continuing to fight over them, but let’s not get into that level of detail.

Because the islands weren’t absorbed into England, they kept some of their customary Norman law while both England and France moved on (although for all I know England  has other thousand-year-old laws, unrepealed and unused, on its books).

The islands have their own parliaments and responsibility for their own finances, although they’re not constitutionally independent. What, you ask (or probably should ask), does that mean? It’s a good question, to which you’re not likely to find get a good answer because the government(s) admit(s) that it’s murky.

According to the Ministry of Justice,” the Guardian writes in a desperate effort to make sense of the situation, “ ‘the constitutional relationship between the Islands and the UK is the outcome of historical processes, and accepted practice. . . . The most recent statement of the relationship between the UK and the islands is found in the Kilbrandon Report. It acknowledged that there were areas of uncertainty in the existing relationship and that the relationship was complex. It did not try to draw up a fully authoritative statement.’ “

In other words, after almost a thousand years, we’re still trying to figure it out.

The U.K. is responsible for the islands’ defense and for international relations.  The islands have their own flags and print their own version of the pound. Scotland prints its own pound as well, and you meet various degrees of disapproval when you spend them in England, although they’re legal tender. All Scottish pounds spent south of the border are sent back to Scotland by way of a fleet of carts pulled by rottweilers, and all English notes spent in Scotland are sent south by return dog, so that the only notes given as change in either nation are the geographically correct ones. It’s anyone’s guess how much it costs, in both cash and dog food, to do this.

I shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Someone’s going to believe that bit about the dogs. Anyway, we weren’t talking about Scotland. Could we please stay on track here?

When Britain joined the European Union, the Channel Islands didn’t, but they did join the E.U. customs territory. Any citizen of the islands is a British citizen and, since Britain is (at the moment and for at least the next twenty minutes) part of the E.U., is also a European citizen. But only citizens with close family ties to the U.K. have the right of free movement within the European Union.

If you’re not confused yet, you’re not following this. And it gets worse:

Under the UK Interpretation Act 1978, the Channel Islands are deemed to be part of the British Islands, not to be confused with the British Isles. For the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981, the ‘British Islands’ include the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland), the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, taken together, unless the context otherwise requires.”

In other words, the British Isles and the British Islands are two different things. Unless the context demands that they all get up and run around the chairs until the music stops, at which point the one who doesn’t find a chair is out. If, however, it speaks Norman French it can call on a long-dead prince, who may actually be a duke, to bring an extra chair and the game stops until he does. Which takes a while, because he can’t ride a horse.

What’s the economy of the Channel Islands based on? Tourism’s a major industry, but in the 1960s the islands reinvented themselves as an offshore financial center, which both are and aren’t regulated by Britain but aren’t regulated by the E.U. We’ll skip lightly over the claims that they’re money laundering centers–goodness gracious, who could believe such a thing anyway?–and say that after some maneuvering a 2018  anti-money laundering bill that required British overseas territories to publish a list of company owners registered there managed, at the last minute, to exclude the Channel Islands. Much (I have to assume) to the relief of the Channel Islands, or at least those with money planted there invisibly. 

For the sake of simplicity (you have no idea how much more complicated this could get) and because they’re the political subdivisions, I’ve been talking about the Channel Islands as Guernsey (population 63,026) and Jersey (population 100,080), but a few other inhabited islands and some uninhabited ones are part of the package: Alderney (population 2,000), Sark (population 600), Herm (population 60), Jethou (population 3), and Brecqhou (population not given).

The absence of population numbers for Brecqhou may or may not have something to do with it being privately owned (you want to talk about feudal) by twin brothers, and our tour of the rabbit hole isn’t complete without a quick glimpse of the place.

Since 1993 . . .  Brecqhou has been owned by the Barclay brothers, the co-owners of The Daily Telegraph newspaper and former co-owners of The Scotsman. The brothers bought the island for £2.3 million in September 1993. . . . Since the purchase the Barclays have been in several legal disputes with the government of Sark, and have expressed a desire to make Brecqhou politically independent from Sark. They drive cars on the island, and have a helicopter, both of which are banned under Sark law.”

The argument about Brecqhou’s independence or otherwise from Sark has to be based on feudal law and precedent–things like seigneurial rights and fiefdoms and letters of patent.

In 2008, the island held its first election after 400 years of feudal rule, and the Independent describes the brothers’ relationship with the island’s elected representatives as one of simmering tensions.

The brothers complained that there was no true democracy on Sark. Their opponents claimed the brothers wanted to “turn the island into a personal tax haven through propaganda and coercion.” The whole thing ended up in (a U.K.) court and in 2014 the twins lost. A House of Commons committee reported, that same year, that the tension between the brothers and the elected government “threatened to blight” the island’s future.

Our tour ends here. It’s already gone on longer than I meant it to. You leave the rabbit hole by way of the gift shop–a joke that’s gone stale in Britain but that the National Trust reminds us regularly hasn’t yet gone out of date. Apologies for not coming up with something fresher. 

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.