A Decent World

It’s time to announce a new novel.

(Sorry, did you want a regular post? Come back next week.)

A Decent World is the story of  Summer Dawidowitz, who’s spent the past year caring for her grandmother, Josie — a lifelong Communist, a dedicated teacher, and the founder of an organization that tutors schoolchildren. When Josie dies, everything that seemed solid in Summer’s life comes into question. What sort of relationship will she have with the mother who abandoned her? Will she meet with Josie’s brother, who Josie exiled from the family? Does she really want to go back to the non-monogamous household she was part of before she moved in to take care of Josie? And finally, does she still believe a small, committed group of citizens can change the world, and if so, how?

A Decent World is about grief, family, and love. It asks the broadest of questions about the form of society we live in. It will be in UK bookstores from June 15 or can be ordered now, in the UK or abroad, from Waterstones, Swift Press, or–inevitably–those folks I work hard to avoid, Amazon.


It’s never the big things: small scandals in British politics

The real scandals aren’t the ones that bring politicians down. It’s the little ones that get them. The stupid ones. The ones we understand. So Suella Braverman, Britain’s home secretary and my nominee for this year’s Wicked Witch of the West Award, isn’t likely to lose her job over abusive treatment of immigrants and refugees or for cranking the national racism dial a few notches higher. Instead, it’s her handling of a speeding ticket that’s put her job in danger.

Braverman got nailed for speeding last summer, and if you’re not too far over the speed limit the law allows you to take a speed awareness course instead of paying a fine and getting points on your license.

Points? You don’t want those. If you rack up twelve, your license disappears in a puff of smoke, and if you try to drive after that you disappear in a much larger puff of smoke. 

And your car turns into a ham sandwich.

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s flowering bush. No idea what it’s called, although more than one person has told me.

Braverman was eligible for the course but didn’t want to rub shoulders with the kind of lowlifes who show up at a speed awareness course. People might confuse her for one of them, and that would have been politically embarrassing. So she allegedly asked civil servants to see if they could arrange a personalized course for her own important self.

They (allegedly) replied with the diplomatic version of, “Fuck, no,” so she asked a political advisor to see what sort of wiggle room could be made for her. When the answer (apparently) was “none,” she paid a fine and got three points on her license instead of taking the course. 

In case you need help with this, three is several points short of twelve, so no smoke and no ham sandwich.

What’s the problem? Ministers aren’t supposed to involve civil servants in their personal lives. Civil servants aren’t there to pick up ministers’ dry cleaning, park their cars, or mediate between them and the speed awareness course people. 

The flap has only recently emerged into the light of public disapproval, and Rishi Sunak, our prime minister of the moment–we burn through them quickly these days–is having to answer awkward questions, like whether he’ll launch an investigation into what happened. Initially he said things like, “I know she’s expressed regret” and that he’s “availing” himself of the information.

I’m not sure what you do when you avail yourself of information. Is it like when I buy the paper but don’t read it? It’s available on my kitchen table. It’s not available in my brain, but it could be. Easily. 

Braverman’s said things like, “[I’m] content that nothing untoward happened.”

After the requisite amount of dithering, Sunak decided he was also content and the issue didn’t need investigation. So for the moment, officially speaking, nothing untoward happened. Watch this space, though. Watch several other spaces. In one of them, surely, something interesting will happen.


Okay, what’s my problem with Braverman?

I’ll refrain from the full-blown documentation my Wicked Witch nomination requires. Sorry. I did include in when I sent in the paperwork, but for the purposes of this blog–well, she’s beyond anything I can be funny about. I will say, though, that she seems to be  positioning herself as the rightest of the right wing candidates for next leader of the Conservative Party.  Political gossips–at least the ones who don’t like her–hold that she’s not known for her competence, but as recent history demonstrates, that doesn’t disqualify her for a top job.  A former and carefully unnamed minister who worked with her provides the best quote: “I don’t often say people are completely useless, but if her desk had not been occupied I wouldn’t have noticed.” 


And from the Department of Marie Antoinette Reincarnated comes this

Ann Widdecombe–once a Conservative MP, once (in the full spirit of irony) a Member of the European Parliament for the Brexit Party, and now a member of the post-Brexit creation Reform UK–was asked, on a BBC politics show, what she’d say to people who couldn’t afford the ingredients for a cheese sandwich. 

“Well, then, you don’t do the cheese sandwich,” she said. Compassionately.

She went on to remind us that we had no right to simply expect prices to stay stable and that if wages rose they’d only add to inflation. She didn’t advise people not to eat until prices come down, but it is the logical conclusion.


Meanwhile, the Diplomacy Department’s been busy

In a precedent-setting move, Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, showed up at the coronation–that’s the recent coronation, in case I haven’t been clear–bringing along his partner, Matt Barrett. So make that two precedent-setting moves: Ireland shows up at the coronation of a British king and a political leader brings his same-sex partner.

Not content with that, though, Barret–that’s the partner, in case you got lost in the last paragraph–set a precedent of his own, posting throughout the show to the 350 followers on his private Instagram account.

“Holy shit,” he wrote from the car before they got to the abbey, “I think I’m accidentally crowned king of England.”

During the ceremony itself, he posted about Charles’s crown, “Was genuinely half expecting it to shout ‘GRYFFINDOR.’”

About the Right Rev. James Newcome’s title, Clerk of the Closet, he said, “Had this job until my early 20s.” 

Of course, private account or not, it all went public. 

The taoiseach said, ““We’ve spoken about it and it won’t happen again.” 

He has not confiscated Barrett’s phone or grounded him for six months. In fact, his response is refreshingly sane: Barrett’s a “private individual and [whether he apologizes] is obviously up to him.”

Barrett has apologized. Unreservedly. 


Lost any luggage lately?

Have you ever wondered how many pieces of luggage the aviation industry lost, delayed, or damaged last year? We’re talking globally here, and the answer is 26 million, or 7.6 bags per 1,000 passengers. That’s not quite double the year before, but it’s close enough for a numerophobe like me. 

Covid’s getting the blame, which works well since it’s in no position to defend itself.

That may explain why James Cleverly, our foreign secretary, chose a private jet for his eight-day tour of the Caribbean and Latin America.

Okay, maybe political honchos all fly private jets. They need room for their briefcases and their aides and their security details. But Cleverly cleverly chose “the creme del la creme of private business jets,” which rents for more than £10,000 per hour and comes with a master suite that includes a queen-size bed, a private toilet, and a shower. Anyone who’s left to suffer in the lounge area at least has a big-screen TV. 

I’m not sure who I’m quoting on that creme de la creme comment. It was unattributed in one of the articles I read, and I know I could’ve stolen the accent marks along with the quotation, but as a writer I have strong feelings about plagiarism. 

In the interest of accuracy, I should mention that a second source lists the cost as £12,000 per hour, including fuel, and that when one source asked the rental company for a cost estimate for a similar trip, it came out at £348,000. 

I’m reasonably sure Cleverly’s luggage, aides, and security entourage were not lost in transit.

Bathrobes, political scandals, and crime: it’s the news from Britain–and elsewhere

Liz Truss–best known as Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister–was back in the news after the Cabinet Office sent her a £12,000 bill for her use of Chevening house. Chevening’s a grace and favor home, which means it’s owned by the state but used by–well, sometimes the foreign secretary and sometimes the prime minister. If they use it for work, the government pays. If they host friends and family, it’s on their dime. 

Or not their dime. Britain doesn’t have dimes. That’s me going American on you again. They’re expected to foot the bill. Britain does have feet. 

How much hosting can you do for £12,000? By my standards, enough to outlast the time Truss was in office and possibly our time on this earth, but then I’m not prime ministerial material. 

The bill includes £120 for  missing bathrobes and slippers. Much to my disappointment, no one’s saying how many bathrobes and slippers that covers.

Truss disputes parts of the bill. The argument is over the line between a work event and a party (some work events are said to have turned into parties), and between government business and Conservative Party business. No one seems to dispute the missing bathrobes and slippers. Someone must’ve mistaken them for work papers and taken them to the office.

Why is this worth mentioning? Because the real scandals are never the ones that hold our attention. They’re too damn hard to follow. Stealing government bathrobes, though? We all know someone who’s packed up motel towels and taken them home, right?

Irrelevant photo: A poppy about to open.

Meanwhile, in France

France’s version of the silly scandal is that the economy minister has published a novel with a sex scene that’s sometimes described as steamy and sometimes as toe-curling. I’ll confess to not having gone looking for the full scene. The sentence-long snippets I’ve seen are enough to put me off, and I’ll spare you even those. Apply to Lord Google yourself if you’re really interested. He may decide you’re tough enough to survive them with your interest in sex intact.

People would have made fun of the book anyway, but since its publication coincided with a political meltdown over raising the retirement age, a lot of people thought he should maybe be spending his time thinking about the economy, and they’re furious. 

He, on the other hand, says it’s all part of keeping a decent work/life balance.

They, on the other hand, think retiring at the age they expected is part of a decent work/life balance. 


Getting to the roots of crime

In an effort to stamp out crime, Romford, in east London, has banned hoods, motorcycle helmets, and ski masks, although to be fair you can have a hood hanging down your back, you just can’t pull it up over your head. You can probably put your ski mask over your hand and pretend it’s a sock puppet or carry a motorcycle helmet like a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday.” You just can’t have them on your head.


Getting to the royalties of crime

And just when I think I haven’t found enough odd stories to make up a post, I stumble over this: A Utah widow who, after her husband’s death, wrote a kids’ book on grief is now suspected of having poisoned him.

Guys, I’ve struggled through long stretches of writer’s block, so I know what it’s like to feel you’ve run out of anything to say, but this is not the solution.


What is art?

A South Korean student went to a museum displaying an art installation by Maurizio Cattelan and ate it

Not the museum. He ate the art installation, which was a banana duct-taped to a wall. Then he taped the peel back on the wall.

Why? He told museum officials that he’d skipped breakfast and was hungry, but he told a broadcaster that “Damaging a work modern art could also be artwork.”

What the hell, the banana’s replaced every few days anyway. When the artist was told about the incident, he said, “No problem.”

The banana–okay, the banana and the duct tape, or the concept, or maybe that’s the artwork. Anyway, whatever you want to call it, it’s sold twice now, each sale being called an edition, once for $120,000 and once for $150,000. For that, I assume you get a banana, a piece of silvery duct tape, and permission to tape it to a wall.


What is crime?

In Old Bridge, New Jersey, someone dumped more than 500 pounds of unboxed pasta in the woods. Or since it’s important to get the facts right, more than 500 pounds of ziti, spaghetti, and other noodles.

The township doesn’t have a bulk trash pickup–you have to pay to get big items hauled away and not everyone can afford to. Local people say they know who did it but aren’t saying. It’s a sensitive situation, and I guess it’s worth saying that it’s not an art installation.

The coronation bling: what does it all mean?

Now that those of us who live in Britain can once again turn on the news without fear of getting mugged by coronation news, let’s sneak into the space that’s opened up and review a bit of the bling that’s been put back in storage.

But before we do, I have to remind you–I believe it’s a legal requirement–that every bit of that bling signifies something. The king’s scepter? It signifies his temporal power (such as it is). The orb? That symbolizes that his power’s derived from god. If you doubt that, feel free to ask either the king or god, whichever one you figure is more likely to give you an answer.

Sadly, explaining what things signify goes against all my writerly instincts, which insist that if symbols work at all, they’ll explain their own damn selves. So my explanations will be, at best, sporadic.

Yes, the headline was just a touch misleading. I should be ashamed.

The Photo of Irrelevance


The stone

The Stone of Scone, also known as the Stone of Destiny, making it sound like a prop from an Indiana Jones movie, isn’t what you’d call bling. It’s roughly carved sandstone and the size of three pillows piled on top of each other. It weighs 152 kilos. That’s 335 pounds, or 23 stones.

A stone? As an out-of-fashion way to measure weight. One stone equals 14 pounds, and it does seem sensible to measure the weight of a stone in stones, even if it makes for confusing sentences.

The Stone of Scone was seized from Scotland in 1296, back when England and Scotland were two separate countries with two separate monarchs and an enduring habit of going to war with each other. It was a symbol of the Scottish monarchy, which is one reason the English wanted it. The other reasons were: 

2) That legend connected it back to the biblical Jacob of Jacob’s ladder, who was supposed to have used it for an extremely uncomfortable pillow. People took that stuff seriously back then. 

3) That taking it really pissed off the Scots and gave the English bragging rights.

The earliest written record connecting a Scottish king to the stone comes from 1249, when Alexander III was kinged at Scone Palace, which was not a cafe serving tea and baked goods but a palace with, um, you know, a stone. An important stone. Legend and poetry trace it back further but we’ll move on, reminding ourselves as we go that the English hauled this 23-stone stone south at a time before railroads had been invented and possibly before the wheel had been.That’s how badly they wanted it.

The English then proceeded to crown their own kings on it. Edward I (1239 – 1307) was so pleased with the thing that he had a coronation chair built to hold it, and 26 monarchs have put their kingly butts on it while being crowned. Everyone took it seriously enough that during World War II it was buried for safekeeping. Because if the Nazis took over the country, at least they wouldn’t get their hands on the stone, right? Just imagine if they had. All those 1950s World War II movies would’ve had the Nazis talking with Scottish accents instead of German ones.

In the 1950s, four Scottish students stole it, breaking it in the process. Or else, they discovered that the Suffragettes had already broken it when they bombed the chair in 1914. Either way, the students ran off with both pieces. Or not exactly ran. Even in two pieces, it was still a hefty hunk of rock. They hid them in odd places–a garage; a factory, a hole in the ground (it’s a stone; who’d notice it?)–before finally getting it to Scotland, where it stayed briefly before (the point having been made) it was returned to England. The students were never prosecuted.

In 1996, England gave it back to Scotland, which means it had to be hauled south again for Charles’s coronation.  

So that’s 335 pounds of sandstone being schlepped north and south so it can sit under a chair for a few days, looking like the lump it is, while people run all around it wearing fancy costumes.

Maybe you have to be British for that to make sense to you.


The swords

You need five swords to be kinged, apparently. The sword of offering, the sword of temporal justice, the sword of spiritual justice, the sword of mercy, and the sword of state, which was originally one of two swords but somewhere along the line the other one was covered with a cloak of invisibility and no one’s seen it since.

One sword gets blessed by a bishop and given to the newly minted king, who lays it on an altar then buys it back for 50 shillings, which no one uses anymore so they’ve substituted newly minted 50-pence coins. I don’t know if the king has to cough those up himself or if someone hands him the money the way a parent slips a kid some money in a candy store so they can think they’re paying for their own candy. 

Each of those moves symbolizes something, but you have to keep a straight face to explain it all, so I won’t try.


The bracelets

The bracelets of sincerity and wisdom have been around so long that no one knows quite what they’re supposed to do–other than make you sincere and wise, of course. Didn’t Wonder Woman’s deflect bullets? I can’t help wondering if anyone’s tried using them that way. 

Anyhow, since no one’s sure what their powers are, they’re given to the king, who “acknowledges” them, then they’re put back on the altar. He doesn’t wear them.

Back in the dark ages, when I was in my teens, women were expected to wear lipstick and– 

This is relevant, so stay with me. 

–women were expected to wear lipstick and I spent some time trying to figure out what to do with the stuff and ended up doing more or less the same thing as the king does with the bracelets: I acknowledged the Lipstick of Adulthood by smearing some on my lips, then looking in the mirror, deciding it was ridiculous, and rubbing it off. Since we didn’t have an altar, I put it back in the medicine cabinet and went out into the world a quick smear closer to adulthood and with no one any the wiser. 


The glove

Yes, singular. The king has one coronation glove. He puts it on, then he takes it off. That makes it a bit like the Lipstick of Adulthood, only more expensive. Much more expensive. It symbolizes that the king thought it might be cold in the church and then decided it wasn’t. 


The gold spurs

Once upon a time, they were buckled onto the king’s legs. I’d have though ankles, but what do I know? The article says legs. Anyway, these days they’re only tapped against his ankles. They symbolize that in a ceremony this long, it might be wise to make sure the main character stays awake.


The crown

English kings before the Norman conquest might (it’s unclear) have settled for a relatively simple ceremony and a blinged-up helmet instead of a crown, but as a usurper William the Conqueror had a point to make–I’m your legitimate king, not some nobody who arrived in a small boat–so he went all out with both his crown and his coronation ceremony. So much so that the ceremony included having the people in attendance call out in unison that they accepted him as their king, and they were noisy enough that they spooked the soldiers Will had left outside, who did what any group of sober, armed men would do in that situation and set fire to the place. William stuck around long enough to get the holy oil poured on his head, giving the church’s seal of approval to his hairstyle, as the church went up in flames around him.

Since he didn’t end up getting deep-fried, the business with the oil is still with us. It now has its own special spoon. 

It would take J.K. Rowling to make this stuff up. 

The front and back of the current crown look so much alike that one of the past kings–I’ve lost track of which–was never sure he had it on right. And if he’d gotten it wrong, all the other kids would’ve made fun of him.


Gold Stick in Waiting

The tradition of the Gold Stick in Waiting dates back to Henry VIII. There really is a gold stick involved, but as soon as we introduce capital letters we’re not talking about the stick itself but about the bodyguard who rides behind the royal coach after the coronation, carrying a gold-tipped stick with which to protect the monarch from, um, bling-phobic assassins and whatever else you can ward off with a gold-tipped stick. I’ll experiment with one someday. 

Anyone got a gold-tipped stick I can borrow? 

For the recent coronation, the role went to the king’s 72-year-old sister, who’s almost as fearsome (and almost as old) as I am.

The article I stole this from thought it had to mention that the role’s now symbolic, but honestly, I’d guessed that already.


Other stuff

Over the centuries, no coronation’s been complete unless someone added a new bit of ceremony. Let’s settle for talking about just one: Medieval kings prepared for their coronation by bathing. That must’ve been unusual enough to get a mention. So iIn 1399, when someone introduced the idea of turning a few marginally normal humans into knights on the eve of the coronation, it only made sense to call them Knights of the Bath.

Settle down in back. It’s not that funny.

Okay, it is that funny but put away the rubber ducks, please. 


Money and protest

How much did the coronation cost this time around? A thousand civil servants are still punching numbers into their computers and palace officials are looking embarrassed and saying some of the published estimates are “more fanciful than others,” but Lord Google informs me that it’s in the neighborhood of £100 million.

Or by another Lord Google estimate, between £50 million and £100 million. Or by the estimate a friend mentioned this afternoon, £150 million.

Whatever the figure is, it’s been paid out of taxes. 

Fifty-two anti-monarchist protestors were arrested along the coronation route under a newly passed law that criminalizes not just causing a public nuisance but being prepared to cause one. Or fixin’ to get ready to harbor the intent to be prepared to cause one. The police have since “expressed regret” about six of those arrests. One of the six, a leader of the anti-monarchy group Republic, said he’d spent months working out legal tactics with the police only to be arrested on the day. He’s not in the mood to  accept an apology, which is good because he hasn’t exactly gotten one.



If you’ve read all that and still a little something to remember the mayhem by, what’s available? The Guardian’s list of souvenirs includes a lifesize cutout of the king that sells for £36.99. You never know when you might need one, but you don’t have to settle for that if it doesn’t match your lifestyle. Heinz made some commemorative ketchup. The recipe’s the same-ol’, same-ol’, but the packaging’s different. Hug (they make pet food) came up with a special dog food. Our dog’s not a royalist, so we didn’t buy any. 

Celebrations (they make candy) made a bust of the king out of their very own chocolates. It weighs 23 kilos, or 3.6 inedible stones, and (sorry) you can’t buy it. They only made one. It’s pretty strange looking but better than the beauty-queen busts the Minnesota State Fair carves out of butter. 

I’m not sure what they’ll do with it now the coronation’s over. Would it be disrespectful to eat it? Is there a respectful way to throw it out?

You can also buy the more pedestrian mugs, tea towels, plates, paperweights, and teddy bears. Or flags or–well, whatever someone can find a way to slap a crown or a face on, it’s for sale. Remember kids, today’s cheesy souvenir is tomorrow’s treasured keepsake. Or next week’s landfill. 

British politics: how all-party parliamentary groups work

I’ll never completely understand British politics, but that’s okay because no one else does either. If you doubt that, just look at Britain’s politicians these days. They haven’t a clue. So I’m going to section off a small corner of British politics and explain it to you–and to myself as I work my way through it: Welcome, my friends, to the corner labeled all-party parliamentary groups, known to admirers and detractors alike as APPGs, which makes them sound vaguely like something motorized and hazardous.

They’re neither, but if you feel safer wearing a crash helmet, no one here will make fun of you for it. At least not while you’re listening. 

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s tulips.

How do APPGs work?

The positive side of APPGs is that they give Members of Parliament and of the House of Lords who share an interest in–oh, let’s say crash helmets a chance to get together and discuss the topic informally. Because they cross party lines, they have at least the potential to calm political rivalries, allowing some actual thought to go on. Members–at least in theory–can listen to evidence and consider the shape of a problem and maybe even find a solution or two. They can bring in experts, campaigners, interested parties, lobbyists, and anyone else who seems relevant. 

As Parliament’s website explains, APPGs have “no official status within Parliament. They are run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, though many choose to involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities.”  

Pay attention to the phrase about involving individuals and organizations from outside Parliament. We’ll come back to it in a minute. In the meantime, let’s look at the APPG for London as an example of how they work. Its goal is to “strengthen the capital’s voice in Parliament.” And, as it happens, “London Councils [‘the collective of local government in London‘] provide the secretariat to the group.” If I understand that correctly, it means London Councils do the work that keeps the hands of the APPG clock circling the dial. All the MPs and Lords have to do is–well, as much or as little as they want. Show up. Talk. Drink tea. I’m not sure and I’m starting to make things up so let’s cut away before I visibly make a fool of myself.

Members of the APPG could, of course, dig deeply into the numbers, read conflicting interpretations of them, meet ordinary people who live in London, become experts on the subject, and generally impress the hell out of us. But it’s not required. They could also sit back and let the secretariat discreetly set the group’s agenda and direction.


The line between registered and unregistered groups

There are also unregistered groups that don’t meet the qualifications for an APPG. They don’t get to use Parliament’s nifty little logo on their publications and letters and they can’t use the words all-party or parliamentary in their names. They also can’t use the words and, but, it, or the in their correspondence. They have a lower priority when booking rooms.

Groups that do make the cut have to register themselves, meet, and follow the rules. They make boring reading but, sadly, they do matter.   


Why would anyone object to APPGs?

We-e-ell, because of that business of an outside group providing the clockwork that makes the hands move.

Sorry, did that metaphor get too weird? Because APPGs are an entry point for lobbyists, official and unofficial. Let’s say you’re the Crash Helmet Manufacturers’ Association. Or the Crash Helmets Are Dangerous and Anti-Democratic Advocacy Group. You’ll want to provide all the help you can to the APPG that’s talking about crash helmets. You can offer to supply secretarial services or researchers. You can give the group money or buy tangible stuff or services on its behalf. For all I know, you can bring it ice cream. You can find–and pay–experts who will supply the committee with your position, all neatly wrapped up with an impressive bow, and they can hand the members–who for the most part aren’t experts, remember–with arguments, sound bites, justifications, and all the facts that fit your position.

When Parliament’s website explains what services you as an outside group can provide, it doesn’t mention ice cream but does list office cleaning, publishing reports, and web support. If there are limits to how involved an outsider group can get, I haven’t found them. 

Outsider groups can also pay for “overseas visits, hospitality, event or travel tickets, receptions or other events, clothing, jewellery or discount cards, loans or discounts.”

I don’t know about you, but I can see where clothing, jewelry, and loans are essential when you’re learning about crash helmets. And as long as it’s all declared, it’s kosher.

If an individual volunteers their services? That doesn’t have to be declared. 

MPs and Lords also have to register the individual gifts–trips, accommodation, jewelery, whatever–that they received because they’re group members. Again, once that’s done, it’s kosher.

Any organization acting as an APPG’s secretariat will have to do some disclosing of its own, including its clients and major donors. That koshers everything. But whether a group runs an APPG or plays a smaller role, it still gets access to MPs and Lords, and it gets the prestige that being associated with Parliament lends it. 


Let’s run through a few examples

The cryptocurrency company Phoenix Community Capital sponsored one APPG and its co-founder spoke at an event put together by another one. The company’s online promotion pumped up its links to Parliament and to the APPGs.

Then in September 2022, it seemed to disappear. Its website went offline and investors couldn’t get at their money, no matter how much they pounded on their computers and yelled. In February, according to an article, Some of the firm’s assets and its name appear to have been sold to a new company run by an individual called ‘Dan’, who has told investors it has no obligation towards them, but that it would still try to make them some returns. . . .

“Phoenix Community Capital . . . gave £5,000 last year to the APPG on blockchain – the technology behind cryptocurrencies but which also has other uses.

“The company appeared on the APPG’s website as one of its corporate ‘partners.’ The group is co-chaired by Martin Docherty-Hughes, a Scottish National party MP who said he had no contact with, or knowledge of, Phoenix.”

Between 2019 and 2021, an APPG promoting medical interventions into obesity got from £178,500 to £183,000 from three private healthcare companies that make their money from surgery and other treatments for obesity. The APPG used the money to pay for a lobbyist to run the APPG’s secretariat. The lobbyist wrote on the APPG website that the group promoted “a shift away from the ‘move more, eat less’ mentality prevalent in obesity thinking and better utilisation of treatment for obesity and access to services.” 

If you’re tempted to shrug that off as nothing more than noise, it also says the APPG “had direct input into the government’s obesity strategy published in July 2020 through meeting with No 10 officials and the development of a top 10 policy wishlist.”

That kind of implies that its involvement matters.

The secretariat of the APPG on sustainable aviation is run by an alliance of airlines and airports. And the net zero APPG? From the goodness of their hearts, energy companies donated tens of thousands of pounds in the past year for the consultancy running it. 

Since 2018, the private sector spent more than £12 million on APPGs. (There are 755 of them–or were in February, anyway. They seem to be breeding like stray socks in a drawer. In other words, the number’s grown substantially in recent years.) Charities (if you’re from the US, that means nonprofits) and unions also coughed up money to support them. 

The chair of the Commons standards committee sees APPGs as enough of a problem that he made a public call for parliamentary authorities to be given the power to shut down the groups when there’s a  clear conflict of interest.

“When lobbying firms are effectively driving an APPG in the interests of their clients,” he wrote, “we should not only know who those clients are, but we should be able to close the group down where there is a clear conflict of interest. . . . It feels as if every MP wants their own APPG, and every lobbying company sees an APPG as an ideal way of making a quick buck out of a trade or industry body.”

How do we end this pesky inflationary spiral? 

If you believe the British government, you end the inflation by making sure people’s pay doesn’t go up. Rising profits, though? They’re not a problem. 

That helps explain why so much of Britain has been on strike lately. The headline-grabbing issue is that pay’s fallen behind inflation, and sometimes it’s been doing that for years, but look past the headlines and you’ll find working conditions and the government giving so little money to schools and the health service that they’re falling apart–sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. 

Between June and December of 2022 (sorry–that’s the most recent set of numbers I could find), 2,472 million working days were lost to strikes. It’s probably enough to know we’re dealing with a large number.

Why didn’t the Office for National Statistics roll over from millions to billions? Interesting tale and we’ll get to it in a minute. But first, since most of the strikers are in roles linked to government funding, the government’s been trying a tough-guy response, swearing they can’t afford more money and that even if they could–didn’t they already tell us it would be inflationary to raise pay? They have our best interests at heart.

And it’s a this point that the Bank of England’s chief economist, Huw Pill, waded into the conversation, advising us all that British households and businesses “need to accept” that they’re poorer. Stop trying to get pay increases, he says. All they do is push prices higher. 

“We’re all worse off,” he says, “and we all have to take our share.”

Our share? How much, then, does Mr. Pill get paid? Um, for his first five months and 24 days, he made £88,000, which would put his yearly salary at £180,000. Compare that to Britain’s median pay in 2022 of £33,000. If (as April Munday points out in a comment–thanks, April) they work 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year, but most people on minimum wage are on zero hours contracts, so they have no guarantee of a full week and no idea what they’ll bring home at the end of the week.  

Median? That’s the version of average that means half the people country earned more and the other half earned less.    

How much do you make if you’re working for minimum wage? We’ll be reckless and take the highest minimum wage, because it’s okay to pay younger people and apprentices less since, um, don’t worry about it, it just is. On that higher minimum wage, you’re making £21,673.60 per year. (Lord Google failed me and I had to do my own math there, so the numbers may be off a bit, but if we’re not within spitting distance of the right answer, we’re at least close enough to throw an eraser.)

With those numbers in our pockets, I’ll offer a bit of advice for public figures, who (as should be obvious by now) hang on my every word: if inflation means you had to cut back on smoked salmon, you’d be wise not to give advice to people who had to cut back on heating and food. Do it in public and it’s embarrassing. Do it at close quarters and you’re likely to get hurt. 


So what’s that business about a billion?

The world–messy place that it is–has two ideas of what a billion means

The word was introduced in the sixteenth century and it equaled a million to the second power, or a million millions–or as we’d say in the mathematical circles I’m at home in, a shitload of whatever you’re counting. 

A trillion and a quadrillion were a million to the third and fourth powers, which equals a superbig shitload.

Then at some point French arithmeticians (hands up anyone who knew arithmeticians existed) changed the meaning of a billion to a thousand millions, because it’s a long walk from a million to a million millions and a person might like to stop someplace along the way and have a drink. 

The US latched onto the new standard. Britain, however–following its habit of being sniffy about anything French–didn’t. What the rest of the world did I’m not sure. I’m dealing with numbers here. That means the ground’s unstable and I’m hesitant to go any deeper into the bog. 

Then, starting in 1951, Britain began to follow the US usage, but because Britain loves complicated measuring systems,both definitions of a billion are still in use.

Meanwhile, in 1948 the French reverted to the earlier, higher meaning of a billion. What I learned to call a billion, they call a milliard. You have to add three extra zeroes before you get a billion. Add three more and you get a billiard, which is not a game with colored balls and cue sticks but a very large number.

You’re welcome, and if you’re thoroughly confused now, my job is done and I’ll move on.



Research in Glasgow (and elsewhere, but I’m looking for a British connection) has shown that pet parrots felt less isolated when they could make video calls to other parrots. They were more likely to preen, sing, and play. 

How did they make calls? They were given tablets and a bell, or at least their humans were. They’d ring the bell, their person would turn on the tablet and pictures of other parrots would appear. They’d select a parrot to visit with and the human would make the call for them.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

Some birds would sing together, try to groom each other, or sleep next to each other. Parrots are sociable creatures who live in flocks. They’re not meant to live on their own.

Some of them have been asking for a blue tick.



The Royal Horticultural Society is asking British gardeners to look for rare giant willow aphids and send photos if they find them. Scientists are hoping to learn more about their lifecycle and what plants (other than willows) they like.

How do you spot them? They’re 6 mm long–something like a quarter of an inch–and have shark-like fins. Or fin: one each. 

Can most of us see a shark-like fin on a 6 mm insect? Mmm, maybe not. But colonies were recently found on quince trees, causing great excitement among a fairly rarified set of people. 

Sorry. I shouldn’t make fun of other people’s interests. This could be important. It could save the world. Something needs to. 

If you spot one, they’d love you to send a photo. 


A bit more about invertebrates

Researchers have found that worms soaked in cannabinoids get the munchies, just like people who’ve soaked themselves in cannabis. The study has all sorts of important implications but it’s more fun if we don’t go into them and leave it sounding like they researched this on a whim.

The researchers are not reported to have enjoyed their experiments, but I like to think they did anyway.


How to steal 2 million dimes

If you ever thought you had a bad day at work, a group of guys broke into a truck in Philadelphia, thinking they’d get something useful like–oh, I don’t know, TVs, maybe, or alcohol, or toilet paper–and ended up with four and a half tons of dimes.

A dime? That’s a US coin worth ten cents–a tenth of a dollar. It’s from a Latin word for a tenth, decimus, and made its way to the US from the French disme, introduced in the 1500s, when France first thought of dividing money into tenths.

A belated thanks to the good folk who came up with that idea. Ten is one of the few numbers I can reliably multiply and divide by. One also works. And two isn’t bad.

But back to our story: The problem isn’t that dimes aren’t money. The problem is that you need a lot of them before you can buy anything these days. It’s not like it was in 1776, when I was a kid and having a dime meant you could buy the big candy bar instead of the small one.

Four and a half tons of dimes is worth $750,000. Or maybe it’s worth the $200,000 the thieves got away with, because they had to leave a lot of the loot behind. The article I’m working from is ambiguous on that ever-so-important point and I don’t have enough on hand to weigh. Sorry. There are limits to how much research I’ll do for this blog.

They ended up scattering dimes all over the parking lot and the cleanup took hours. Which says not many people were around to help out by pocketing a handful or three. The truck was broken into overnight and the theft was discovered at 6 a.m.

It’s standard practice for truck drivers to pick up a load and park someplace overnight so they can get some sleep before they start their run. Even truck drivers need to sleep. It’s also become standard practice to break into parked trucks and see what’s available. 

How are the thieves going to spend 2 million dimes when half the city will be watching for people with wheelbarrows full of shiny coins? It’s a problem. Plug a lot of parking meters?


How to incubate a rock

A bald eagle called Murphy, who lives in a Missouri bird sanctuary, made it into the news because he got broody and was trying to incubate a rock. He built a nest. He sat on the nest. He waited.

The rock didn’t hatch, but when an eagle’s nest blew down in a storm and only one chick survived, the keepers introduced it to Murphy, who accepted it and before long was shredding up food and feeding it. 

Accepted it? Murphy was smitten. And they all lived happily ever after and are grateful not to be in Florida, where Ron DeSantis would have had them separated for challenging traditional sex roles. Not eagle sex roles–both sexes feed the young, and i think both brood the eggs–but it might confuse the human young so it would need to be edited out of the official story.

Why British history isn’t the story of a white country

A new BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has set off (heavy sigh) yet another conversation about whether British history is the story of a white country. 

Why? Because either the show’s casting was color blind, where actors are chosen without regard to their skin color, or because (and my bet’s on this) the directors deliberately placed Black actors in major roles. 

Cue the predictable emails/phone calls/howls of outrage. Cue mentions of wokeness and political correctness. Sadly, I doubt we can cue any repetitions of that glorious confection of manufactured outrage, “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.” The workerati had too much fun with it and the sleeperati had to retire it. But if you want to do your bit to keep the phrase alive, for £12.99 plus shipping and handling, you can buy a tee shirt announcing your reading and eating preferences.

It comes in a variety of designs, which says (a) it’s popular, (b) someone had too much fun to stop at one, or (c) it wasn’t all that popular and they’ve still got stock left. 

But forget the shirts. The assumption behind the complaints is that having a Black lawyer in a Dickens story is historically inaccurate and can only be explained by someone’s desire to rewrite history into something tofu flavored. 


Brief interruption for the sake of complete accuracy

I don’t like tofu. I can eat it–it’s not liver, after all–but I haven’t found a way to enjoy it and I’ve stopped searching for one. I do like the shirts, although I won’t be eating any. I probably won’t be wearing one either. I’ve stopped thinking people want to hear from my clothing.

Irrelevant photo: Cuckoo flowers–also called lady’s smocks, milkmaids, and mayflower. It’s a member of the Brassicaceae family, and yes, it will be on the test.


Meanwhile, back at the Complaints Department…

…the question we’re considering is, How likely would it have been in the Victorian (and slightly pre-Victorian) era, which is when Great Expectations takes place, to find a Black lawyer and an Indian law clerk? And would Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, Estella, be–um, it’s not immediately apparent from watching the series what her ethnicity is. I was going for someplace in Asia (it’s a big continent; surely it has a likely spot somewhere), but it turns out the actor playing her is of Mauritian and Thai heritage. She’s also described as an English-born Australian actor. That last bit isn’t relevant to the flap at hand but does remind us how complicated a person’s background can be. She has brown skin, though, and I’m assuming that does its bit to stir up the complainers.

To answer the question I’ve wandered away from, though: It’s quite accurate. English history is not all white, even if it’s often presented as if it were.


Georgian Britain

Let’s start with Georgian Britain, since that’s when Great Expectations begins (it then crosses into the Victorian era without needing to present a passport). The Georgian era ran from 1714 to 1830. Yes, I had to look it up, and I learned that it took four back-to-back Georges to cover that many years. 

At least 5,000 Black people lived in Georgian London, although that’s a minimum estimate, not a complete count. Data is (sorry: are) sparse–not just about Black people in London but about lots of people and things of the era. We have to work with what we’ve got. Many of them arrived as slaves and lived on in Britain as enslaved servants–it was quite the fashion among the upper class to have a Black servant in the household. Many of them escaped, though, disappearing into the general population. We know about them from newspaper ads calling for their capture and return. They’re often identified by the metal collars fastened onto their necks and by their scars.

Slavery within Britain itself was abolished in 1807, although the country continued to accumulate wealth from slavery in its colonies and trading relationships. Anyone who presents history as a simple picture is lying to you or themselves or both. So however ironically, British soil itself was free, and so were the people who stood on it.

Who, then, were these Black Britons? Most were poor and not lawyers in Dickens novels, but then so were most white Britons and you won’t find anyone offering that as an argument against casting a white actor as the lawyer. 

A few did become part of the middle and upper classes. 

How upper is upper?As far as I know, none of them inherited titles, but Queen Victoria  (you don’t get much higher in the class structure than that) had a ward and goddaughter, Sara Forbes Bonetta, who was Yoruba. 

So a Black lawyer? Entirely possible. 

As for the Indian law clerk and Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter, when a country conquers an empire,it will be changed by the countries it conquers. The British Empire didn’t  just bring back money, textiles, tea, spices, opium, and new recipes to break up the same-old same-old of British cooking. People came as well, some by choice and some not. They came to work, to study, to live, to do all the assorted things humans do. Some stayed a while and went home. Others put down roots and became British. Communities formed.

That’s not to say there was no racism. 



British racism was (and, I think, still is) different from the American brand. For one thing, intermarriage wasn’t uncommon in Britain, whereas during large parts of US history it wasn’t just uncommon, it was illegal in many states. I mention that in part because a lot of readers here at Notes are American and also because culturally speaking I’m more American than British. I do know the US isn’t the world’s focal point, but I can’t help using it as mine a lot of the time. 

In the Victorian era, science was dragged in, kicking and screaming, to explain why racism and empire were natural and whites–and especially whites of the British persuasion–were superior to whoever else you had in mind. They measured heads and found that–surprise, surprise–the heads that happened to be shaped like their own had more brain power than anyone else’s, proving that their little twig of the human tree was by far superior to the other little twigs. They catalogued humanity into races, and no matter how many times later scientists have demonstrated that science provides no basis for the divisions, we’re still fighting our way out of that paper bag.

So again, we’re looking at a complicated picture. Racism, yes, but also Black people distributed–however unequally–throughout society.

And for the benefit of American readers, who see the word Black and understand it to mean someone of African heritage, in Britain it often includes Asians, although I think that’s shifting.

The Victorians didn’t invent racism, though. As soon as the country dove into slave-holding and the slave trade, it began to tell itself that the people it was enslaving were a lower grade of human. All the Victorians did was sprinkle a bit of pseudo-scientific glitter over it.


Moving backwards

Historians have relatively recently begun tracing Black British history in the Tudor era, picking individuals out of the sparse records that are available, and again the picture isn’t simple. Miranda Kaufman writes about a weaver, a sailor, a porter, travelers, a salvage diver, and an assortment of others. Onyeka Nubia combed through marriage and baptism records and found Black people who often married whites and over several generations disappeared into the gene pool. As he put it when I heard him speak to an almost all-white crowd, “This is not my history [he’s of African extraction]. This is  your history.”

Peter Fryer covers some of the same territory, but he starts with Roman legionnaires. 

Most of the stories they give us are, of necessity, limited. The written records mark  brief moments in people’s lives, then they disappear. But they were here. They lived, they worked, they died. They’ve been written out of British history. If someone writes them back in, it’s an act of restitution, not tofu addiction.

Does racism go back as far as the Tudor era? I’m not sure, but if it does it was probably different from the racism we know today. 

As early as the Elizabethan era (1558-1603, and yes, I had to look it up) we can find Liz issuing two separate orders to expell Black people from Britain because they were eating food that should have gone to her people, and besides, most of them were heathens. Or some of them were heathens. Or, well, never mind, they ate, and getting rid of them was easier than wrestling with inequality and famine.

Except that she didn’t get rid of them. She issued a couple of proclamations and there (give or take a bit of historical running back and forth, which we’ll skip) it ended. You can find the full tale here. 

Does it matter whether Black people were targets because they were Black, because some of them weren’t Christian, or because they were an immigrant community (with some  descendants of immigrants added in)? I’m not sure. None of those positions are comfortable. 

Onyeka Nubia argues that the Tudor era was more open and it wasn’t until later that the contributions of Black Britons were written out of the official history. I’d give you details but I haven’t gotten my hands on his books yet. Expect me to come back to the subject.

Of chatbots and culture wars and imaginary incidents

One of Britain’s reputable papers (and with five words, I’ve already eliminated several) had an incident involving chatbots, and the tale’s worth retelling because it tells us a lot about the age we’re stumbling cluelessly into. Or maybe that’s the drain we’re being washed down. Or–well, it’s Supply Your Own Metaphor Week here at Notes, so I’ll leave you to come up with your own while I waddle onward.

One of the Guardian’s reporters got an email asking about an article that ChatGPT had cited but that wasn’t showing up on the paper’s website. The email’s writer wanted to know what had happened to it and the journalist went hunting. It was on a topic they reported on,so it sounded likely enough although they couldn’t remember the specific article or find it anywhere, so they asked other people in the office to turn the paper’s electronic pockets inside out and see if it fell out. Maybe it was in there with the shredded kleenex and the linty mint.

Irrelevant photo: camellia

It wasn’t. Because it had never been written. It turns out that AI not only invents facts–something I trust you’ve heard by now–but it also invents sources, and it can be convincing when it does. The nonexistent article was a good enough invention that the journalist hadn’t been able to say, “No, I never wrote that.” They easily could have. 

If you think it’s scary living in a world where a lot of people feel entitled to curate their own selections of alternative facts to back up their pre-existing worldviews–well, it’s about to get a whole lot weirder. And, I expect, scarier.


Imaginary drag queen teaches hallucinatory sex ed class

Did anyone mention alternative facts? The Daily Mail, GB News, and Fox News all reported that a drag queen appeared as  a guest speaker at an Isle of Man schooll and told “11-year-olds there are 73 genders–and made a child who said there are ‘only two’ leave the class.”

Seventy-three? Stop it, guys. I can’t count that high. If this goes on, I’ll have to give up my leadership position in the Gender Hyperawareness and Conservative Freakout Society.  

The story went on to say that “one teacher is also said to have had to teach pupils in Year 7 and 8 how to masturbate.”  

How old are kids in years seven and eight? Eleven to thirteen. Since it’s been a long time since I was anywhere close to that age, I asked Lord Google how old kids are when they begin to masturbate. The top-ranked answer was from the National Institutes of Health (that’s in the US) and said two years old. The next one said three. In fact, most of the articles I found were geared toward calming the parents of toddlers and preschoolers, saying, essentially, It’s okay. Kids that young discover that there’s something interesting where their legs come together and they’re not shy about exploring it

That wasn’t what I’d been looking for, but it did back up my hunch that kids don’t really need to be taught how to masturbate, although by the time they’re eleven to thirteen they may need reassurance that what they’re doing–or at least imagining–isn’t so different from what other people do and imagine.

But that’s not the point. The point is, that although the article I quoted is real and can still be found on the Daily Mail’s website, the facts were invented. The flap the reporting caused led to an investigation of the incident, which found that the incident never happened. 

But who waits for that? As soon as the story went public, people working at the school were deluged with threats and demands for staff to be fired, arrested, and executed–not necessarily in that order. 

What triggered the story? A man who does occasionally do drag spoke to kids “gender neutral language and the concept of gender in the LGBTQ+ environment.” He wasn’t in drag, though. So the question is, if a person has done drag, can they be allowed out in public in non-drag or do they have to be freeze-dried, vacuum packed, and kept in storage until the political winds shift? For the safety, you understand, of all 73 genders of our children.

As for the kid who said there were only two genders, the closest I’ve found to the incident was one kid who was taken out of the room by a teacher over some sort of behavior issue. 


The problem of defining drag in Britain

Cranking up the British about men in drag is going to be harder than cranking up Americans, because drag has a solid mainstream history here. Every Christmas panto season starts, and these are shows for kids, with the lead female role always (over)played by a man and the lead male role almost always played by a woman. It’s a thing. Among straight people. Is that drag or is it only drag if a man (over)dresses like a woman outside of a panto?

What, while we’re at it, does a woman dress like? I’m wearing jeans, a turtleneck, and an old sweater.

On our first visit to Britain, we watched a race where a lot of the runners were in costume. It’s a thing here. Give people a chance to run five miles dressed  as bananas or phone booths and they’ll, ahem, run with it. So in among all the bananas and phone booths and chickens were men dressed as ballerinas and nurses. Not the contemporary kind of nurses who wear practical uniforms, but the old-fashioned ones in white dresses and caps, who (I gather) inhabit the fantasies of some unspecified number of non-nurses. My gaydar insisted that the runners in nurses’ uniforms were straight. But even if my gaydar was off–it was tuned in a different country, after all–no one much cared. It was just another race through the streets of an English city. Enjoy the show, everyone.

So where do pantos and dress-up end and drag begin? 

I don’t know, dear. You tell me.


The problem of defining copyright and privacy

Now that artificial intelligence scrapes information out of every corner of the internet so that it can tell you, in perfectly grammatical prose, that the pope is made of custard, defining copyright and privacy is going to be as problematic as defining drag. Or more so.

Copyrighted material is probably being used to train AI systems. The word probably is part of that sentence because AI’s neural networks aren’t available for your average gawker–or even your non-average one–to examine, so no one knows what they’ve been reading, but a couple of AI systems have, embarrassingly, hacked up copyrighted photos from Getty Images, complete with the watermark Getty prints over the photos so that users will have to pay for a clean copy. 

Yes, there’s a lawsuit involved, but it’s about the smallest edge of the problem. Still to be discussed is the amount of personal data that’s being collected–and potentially disclosed–without people’s consent and the use of copyrighted material to train chatbots.


But speaking of privacy

Teslas have an in-car camera that Tesla assures the world “is designed from the ground up to protect your privacy.” Because customer privacy “is and will always be enormously important to us.” 

So important that from 2019 to 2022 Tesla employees were sending each other clips of, oh, you know, interesting stuff in people’s garages; road incidents, a man walking up to his car naked; you know, ordinary, everyday stuff that would embarrass no one. 

What are the camera’s limits? I’m not sure, but I’ve read that a Tesla parked in the right spot outside someone’s house could, potentially, film whatever’s going on inside through the window. 

One owner is suing Tesla. Some Chinese government compounds and residential neighborhoods have banned the cars. 

The moral of this story is that if someone goes out of their way to tell you how carefully they’re protecting your privacy, they’re calling your attention to a problem.

Archeology in Britain

Have you ever read about an archeological dig and wondered how history’s layers get buried? Is the planet stealing soil from someplace and using it to hide the past? Do we keep the same amount of soil but does the wind blow all those layers of dirt over the past’s leavings? And if it does, why doesn’t it unbury an equal amount of history someplace else?

A book I stumbled across recently–Digging Up Britain: a new history in ten extraordinary discoveries, by Mike Pitts–finally answered the question for me, at least in part. A city, Pitts tells us, accumulates people–people who weren’t born there; people who don’t live there. While they’re there, they work, they trade, they eat, they drink, they sleep, and they do much of that within walls if they can. 

Most of those activities involve physical objects, so the city brings in wood and stone for its buildings, and tiles, slates, or reeds for its roofs. It brings in food for its, um, food. Okay, the rhetorical pattern’s breaking down here. We’ll sneak away without anyone noticing. It brings in leather and metal and fabric (or the raw materials to weave fabric) and everything else that you can think of and I haven’t.  

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast

“Goods are also exported and people leave, but with time and decay, the city gains more than it loses. One generation’s walls become the rubble foundations for another’s. Every leather offcut, rusted nail, broken cup and lost penny finds its way into the teeming earth. Slowly, imperceptibly, the ground rises, covering the traces of the past.”

Well, yes, now that he’s planted the picture in my head, it’s a screamingly obvious one. The cause isn’t space dust. It’s people moving stuff from one place to another and wandering off without it. 



Pitts goes on to talk about some of London’s biggest ground-lifting events. Roman London had two fires that can still be spotted in layers of red earth. One of those would’ve been set during Boudica’s rebellion, when she burned London and two other cities to the ground. Then, when 1666’s Great Fire of London finally burned itself out and it was time to rebuild, stone was hauled in and a new city rose on the leveled remains of the destruction.

The biggest leveling of walls, though, was the blitz–the bombing of London during World War II–and when Pitts reaches this point, he focuses on a small area where two excavations found particularly rich Roman artifacts: On the night of May 10, 1941, bombing “disrupted” 8,000 streets, killing more than 4,000 people and seriously injuring 1,800. It wiped out most of the block he’s interested in, where there’d been 350 businesses “crammed into a warren of high Victorian terraces and narrow alleys.” They included cafes, a bookseller, a tailor, a dentist, accountants, and a postage stamp perforator.

Who knew there even were postage stamp perforators? I assumed that got done by some sort of machinery working where and when the stamps were printed. Or that someone with pointy little teeth came along and–

Never mind. Not much was left of the street, and in 1952, when it was redeveloped, the area was opened to archeologists just before an office building went up on the site. The digging had uncovered an underground temple to Mithras, and it was taken apart, and reconstructed (badly) above ground and facing the wrong way. And then in 2012, when the 1952 building was torn down and something newer and shinier was about to be built, archeologists got in there again, only with more time to do their job. What they found was “like a library of random news from across Roman London.” The area had been used as a dump, and archeologists love dumps. It turned out to be “the most productive single excavation of a British Roman site in modern times,” and included a horde of wood-and-wax tablets recording, for the most part, business transactions. It gave them a glimpse into the city before it had the grand public buildings we associate with Roman towns. This was a town in its early stages. 

The success of that second dig was made possible by a change in the relationship of archeologists and developers.


Archeologists and the construction industry

One of the major ways the past gets uncovered in Britain is that someone comes along with heavy-duty construction equipment and starts digging. They’re not hoping to find, say, a Roman villa or a Bronze Age settlement. In fact, they’re hoping not to. They want to build a parking ramp or a shopping mall. 

Until 1990, archeologists were dependent on the goodwill of the developers for access to their sites. Before that, if a developer stumbled into something of archeological importance, and if they didn’t sweep it under the metaphorical rug fast enough, archeologists had to rely on a mix of diplomacy, goodwill, and the public pressure set off by media coverage to get access. Because archeologists mean delays, and delays cost money.

In a showdown between history and national heritage on one side and money on the other, it’s not often that history and heritage win, but they did win when the foundations of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre were discovered by accident. A media storm set off a celebrity storm, which in turn set off a wider public storm, and under that pressure a delay was organized and the new building eventually went up over the theater’s foundations, which are now covered in water to keep the ground from cracking.


Irrelevant but interesting bit of information 

Exploration of the theater’s foundations brought us the news that hazelnuts were the popcorn of Shakespeare’s day. The shells were everywhere. 


The relationship changes

After the battle to save the Rose, things changed, and it kills me to say anything good about Margaret Thatcher’s government but I’m going to have to: they’re the ones who introduced Planning Policy Guidance 16–Archaeology in Planning, called PPG16 by its friends and admirers. 

PPG16 is a guidance paper that requires anyone building anything that needs planning permission–and in Britain, that’s just about any building at all–to consider its  impact on archaeology. According to Heritage Daily, PPG16’s impact was unintentional, but lovely, so I don’t have to be particularly nice about Thatcher’s government: they didn’t mean to do something good; they were just trying to shut everybody up.

Heritage Daily  describes the events at the Rose as an omnishambles, with “leading actors, including Sir Ian Mckellen and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, facing down the developers’ bulldozers, standing alongside archaeologists, the general public and local children waving placards declaiming, ‘Don’t Doze the Rose.’

“Faced with this highly public demand that the historic site be protected, the Environment Department, under Secretary of State Nicholas Ridley, proved utterly incapable of formulating a coherent policy to dig the developer Imry Merchant and the Government out of the mire. “

In the end, they cobbled together a system that had local and national governments, developers, heritage professionals, and the public working together to preserve whatever could be preserved in place, and to record, and sometimes move, whatever couldn’t be. It didn’t make developers or free-market purists happy, but it did keep politically damaging incidents like the Rose from happening again. 


The impact on archeology

All this meant archeology had to change. The profession came into this period as a mix of local heritage organizations, professors, and museums. None of them were equipped to meet the schedules or use “the same language as the architects and developers whose plans the system was designed to facilitate,” Heritage Daily says. 

After PPG16, “Archaeology as a discipline found itself putting on a suit, becoming a profession and sitting down in planning meetings with architects and developers to discuss fitting in an excavation alongside the other building site preparation and ground works.”

“It’s not perfect, but . . . once PPG16 and the concept . . . was in place, pipeline surveys and large scale infrastructure projects like Heathrow Terminal 5 and HS1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, did offer the chance to develop practice and sample large transects of landscape to sometimes startling effect.”

Some years ago, not far from where I live, a new sewage line uncovered enough Cornish history that the archeologists involved organized a presentation in the village hall, and it was packed. That was my first hint of the working relationship between archeologists and the construction industry, and I was impressed.

One of the finds they talked about was a series of Christian and pre-Christian burials. You could tell them apart because the Christians were buried so that they’d be facing east when they rose on–what is it? Judgment day? Whichever. If it happens, I’m sure someone will have set an alarm clock, so I don’t need to worry. Anyway, they were supposed to rise from their graves and be facing east. The non-Christians, on the other hand, were buried with grave goods–things they’d used in life and would, presumably, want in the next one. Or maybe the goods were a way for the living to grieve and pay tribute. Who can know at this distance in time? Whatever the reason, that’s how they buried their dead. 

But the archeologists had found a few people who were hedging their bets–or at least whose descendants were. They were buried facing east but also with grave goods. Whichever way the afterlife played out, they’d be ready.

In Pitts’ last chapter, he mentions an enlargement of the A14 (that’s a road) near Cambridge that’s been a particular gift to archeology. They’ve uncovered ancient villages, industrial zones, religious monuments, 15 tones of bones and artifacts, pottery kilns, field layouts and more, all of which could so easily have been dug up, scattered, and lost to history.

A king, three MPs, and a former prime minister walk into a blog post…

Let’s catch up with the news from Britain. 

King Charles–

No, not the King Charles who looks like his mustache is trying to get away from him. That’s Charles I and he was killed in a long-gone civil war. Also not the King Charles who looks like Bob Dylan in his older, seedier incarnations. That’s  Charles II. We’re talking about the bland looking and entirely mustacheless Charles III, who was supposed to go to France on a state visit and do I have no idea what there. Pose for pictures. Shake hands. 

No. You don’t do that when you’re a king, do you? You get bowed to. 

Would the president of republican France (revolution; La Marseillaise; you remember all that stuff, right?) bow to a king and what does the king do if he won’t? How many diplomats would it take to cut a way through that thicket?

Irrelevant photo: a hyacinth

Sadly, we’re not going to find out because the visit’s been called off. Too many strikes in  France. Too many protests. It’s postponed until “calm returns.”

That’s doubly disappointing because unionized public sector workers had already announced that they wouldn’t be rolling out the red carpets or hanging the flags that a state visit demands, so we also won’t get to find out what a state visit’s like in the absence of red carpets.

But let’s use the moment to remind ourselves that a few very real somebodies really do have to roll out red carpets if they’re going to be in place at the right time. In this case, the somebodies work at France’s National Furniture Service and they–or at least some of them–are on strike and said in a statement, “We ask our managers to point out to the ministry of culture that any request for furnishings will be seen immediately by workers as a provocation.” 

Their managers didn’t say anything like that, however. They said the carpets had already been delivered and nonunion workers would roll them out.

Who should we believe? We’ll never know how the story would’ve ended, but we could compromise and say that there might’ve been a bit of grandstanding on both sides.

I do like that line about any request being seen as a provocation, though. It lays the groundwork for quiet negotiations.


How different is it in Britain?

To the limited extent that I understand Britain after having lived here for 18 years, the country likes to think of France as a volatile, strike-prone, and generally unBritish sort of place, but the similarities are as striking as the differences lately. I got as far as asking Lord Google “who’s on strike…” and he intuited the rest of my question by adding (I couldn’t help but think, wearily) “…today in the UK?” So yes, we’re a tad strike-prone ourselves these days. The long-running strikes by nurses’ an ambulance paramedics’ are on hold while they vote on the government’s well-under-the-rate-of-inflation offer–an offer made after the government spent months swearing it wouldn’t and couldn’t offer more than a peanut butter sandwich and a bourbon cream biscuit. 

But even in their absence, the list of late-March strikes (ongoing, upcoming, and recent) is long and included bus drivers, professors (a.k.a. university lecturers), junior doctors (they’re not all particularly junior, but that’s what they’re called anyway), rail workers, passport office workers, teachers, and–sorry, I’ve lost track. Others. 

Most of those are government employees or people whose jobs are linked to the government tightly enough that when the government zips up its wallet, no settlement beyond the level of a bourbon cream is possible. And as the government keeps telling us, its wallet is staying firmly zipped because raising pay is inflationary, and they just can’t have that. We’re in a cost-of-living crisisl. This is no time to add fuel to the fire. People will learn to live on what they have.


So what have Members of Parliament learned to live on? Two of them, former health secretary and general laughing stock Matt Hancock and disgraced former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, told the representative of a non-existent South Korean company that they’d charge £10,000 a day to join its international advisory board and help its “clients navigate the shifting political, regulatory and legislative frameworks” in the UK and Europe. 

Kwarteng also offered to set up a meeting with Boris Johnson, the “best campaigner you will ever see.”

A third MP, Graham Brady, chair of the Conservative Party’s powerful 1922 Committee, settled for a measly £6,000 a day plus £500 an hour, but he did say he wouldn’t be able to advocate for the company. On the other hand, he could offer it advice about who to approach in government. 

Nothing about any of that is illegal as long as the MPs declare the income, the proper magic feathers are waved over the appropriate paperwork, and the correct formulas are spoken in broken Latin. 

As the old song says, it’s nice (and completely non-inflationary) work if you can get it.

The sting was set up by the unpredictable and inspired campaign group Led by Donkeys.


How about Boris Johnson?

He wasn’t part of the sting–why bother?–but pound for pound he leaves these guys in the dust. In the (more or less) six months since he was run out of office, he’s pocketed just short of £5 million in outside earnings.

Outside of what? Why his £84,000 salary as an MP, of course. And hs assorted expenses. That puts his outside earnings at something like £25,000 a day, much of it for giving speeches.

Why would anyone want to listen to him? Sorry, the world’s a much stranger place than I can possibly take in, never mind explain, but I will say that paying the man to speak doesn’t guarantee that anyone listens.


Who else has outside earnings?

If you pile all our current MPs in a heap and empty their pockets (let me know in advance if you can; I’d love to take pictures), you’ll find that in the past year, collectively, they earned £9.6 million outside of their MPs salaries. That’s up from a mere £6 million in the 18 months prior to that. 

Of this year’s take, 90% went to Conservatives.

You can sort the numbers out differently, though. If you look at how many MPs from which parties held second jobs in their desperate efforts to make ends meet in inflationary times, it works out like this: Among the Conservatives, some 43% work second jobs. Or at least, Open Democracy classifies the work as second jobs, although a lot of it looks like freelancing to me. Never mind. I’m quibbling. Among Labour MPs, that’s 38%. Among Scottish National Party MPs, it’s  34%. Among Liberal Democrats, it’s 57%, and among the Democratic Unionists it’s 37%.

Be gentle with those last two percentages, though. Open Democracy gave the last bits of data in absolute numbers and I turned to Lord Google for help in percentifying them. It’s risky, leaving me to transport numbers from one location to another, so I’m not offering money-back guarantees.  

One of the mysteries of British editing is that not everyone seems to notice how useful it is to put statistics into parallel formats. I don’t get it. But never mind that. We’re close enough to see that the parties indulge roughly equally but that the big earners are the Conservatives.

None of those numbers include rental income or shareholdings, presumably because making money that way doesn’t take up an MPs valuable time or influence their policies, so it’s okay if they’re invisible. Or maybe gentlemen are expected to make their money that way, so no one keeps track.


But the government’s not standing idly by…

…while the country falls apart. It’s going to step forward decisively and ban the sale of nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas and give the police extra super-powers to test for it. Experts say the ban’s disproportionate and likely to do more harm than good, but what do they know? Something needs banning and by gum, this is indeed something.


In the meantime, elsewhere in the solar system

. . . an asteroid big enough to wipe out a city has slipped between the orbits of Earth and her moon without hitting either one. It was approached by representatives of a doomsday cult and invited–even begged–to make full physical contact, but after a brief study of Earth and its inhabitants declined to get involved. 


An update on Hafiza 

Afghan artist Hafiza Qasimi has arrived in Germany on a three-year visa and is preparing to take part in an exhibition of Afghan artists and spend three months living and working in an artists village. In these days when most of what we hear is the sound of relatively safe countries slamming their doors in the faces of refugees, I’m happy to celebrate the freedom and safety of one brave human being. I only wish the opportunity didn’t come to us so rarely.