British traditions: Lammas, sheep racing, and nightgown parades

Lammas is a quiet British church festival that was traditionally celebrated on the first of August, although these days it suffers from moments of inattention and wanders off to whatever Sunday’s closest to the original date. We’re too late for either the right date or the closest Sunday, but we’re not fussy here at Notes and we’re not celebrating anyway, just marveling at the intricacies (that’s a nice word for oddities) of British tradition.

Those of us who aren’t British, if we’ve heard of Lammas at all, never bothered to learn what it is. We saw it mentioned in some novel or other and our eyes hopped over the word, sending our brains a signal that we don’t need to know about this.

Our mine did anyway. I don’t really know about you lot. I only pretend to when I’m writing. For what it’s worth, though, Word Press’s spell check thinks I made the word up. Or that I’m spelling it lamas wrong. 

No one has mentioned Lammas to me in the thirteen years that  I’ve lived in Britain. That’s how quiet a festival it is.

Irrelevant photo: Poppies. They used to grow wild in fields of grain. Here they’ve had considerable encouragement.

But however quiet it may be, it happens in August and this is August. so let’s find out about Lammas. Because that’s what we do here at notes: learn about things we never thought we wanted to know. 

Lammas is an inheritance from the Anglo-Saxons. The word comes from the Early English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you like; same thing, different name) for loaf mass–a church celebration of the first grain that’s been harvested. Or as the British insist on calling the stuff, corn. What I and my fellow Amurricans call corn, they call maize. I’m still need a crib sheet to keep it all straight.

But what Lammas isn’t is at least as important as what it is: It’s a harvest festival, but it’s not the harvest festival: That comes at the end of September. It’s also not a lamb mass, although it sounds enough like one that in the nineteenth century some churches misunderstood their own traditions and, in an effort to go back to their roots, introduced one. In York, farmers who rented their land from the cathedral had to bring a lamb in to be blessed. 

That’s how it was back then. If the landlord said you had to haul a sweet little lamby, all baa-ing and terrified, out of its fields, away from its mama and its flock, and into the cathedral, you brought the poor beast. Your tenancy depended on it.

Yeah, those were the good old days. If the landlord had told you to dress it in a pink tutu, you’d have stayed up all night, trying to get a signal on your phone so you could find a tutu pattern that just might remotely fit a lamb. 

Whoever cleaned the floors after the blessing would have done some blessing of their own–a literal shitload of it. You can be sure that the idea for a lamb mass didn’t come from them.

Then in 1945, a minister started a campaign to revive the loaf mass, along with several other Anglo-Saxon festivals that had dropped out of use. He became the patron saint of all church cleaners.

But Lammas wasn’t just a religious date. British religious and secular life twined around each other for such long time that it’s sometimes hard to separate them. So Lammas was also a day for doing all sorts of secular stuff: paying rent, settling debts, changing jobs and houses. The rents make an intuitive kind of sense: If you harvest your grain and owe part of it to the landlord, everybody involved will want to set a date that falls after the harvest. And if you owe the landlord money, you’re most likely to have some after you’ve sold your grain. Everything else that fell on Lammas, I expect, trotted meekly behind that. 

What do people do on Lammas if they don’t have debts to settle and don’t have to bring a little lamby into the cathedral? Observation says most of them don’t do anything they wouldn’t do on some other day. The tradition’s obscure enough that the link I gave you back at the start of the post is to a newspaper article explaining it to the clueless people whose ancestors (genetic or cultural) once took the date seriously. When a tradition’s in working order, news outlets don’t feel the need to do that.

What people used to do was take a loaf of bread into church to be blessed. It’s nowhere near as messy–or as complicated–as taking a lamb in.

In some parts of the country, people then broke the loaf into four pieces and left one piece in each corner of the barn to protect the harvest. 

From here on, we may be slithering from traditional traditions to modern (or, if you like, made up) traditions: If you feel the need to mark the occasion next year, you can make a bundle of twigs (what could be more fun?) called a besom, or make a doll out of, um, something grainish. If you were in the Americas, you’d use corn husks, but for this you’ll want to use what the British call corn, which has narrower leaves and strikes me as harder to work with, so I can’t give you any guidance. 

You can also bake bread dough into a kind of plaque that that looks like a bundle of grain, an owl, or the–hang on a minute: the corn god? When did Christianity acquire a corn god?

I don’t make this stuff up. The article I linked to mentions one, and if the corn god’s wandered in, it means one of two things: 1, Lammas derives from a much older, pre-Christian celebration, or 2, the modern-day pagans have been busy reclaiming a heritage that, since it was pretty thoroughly erased, they make up as they go along, connecting Lammas with Lugh, a Celtic god whose festival was celebrated around the same time of year. 

Or possibly both 1 and 2. I can’t tell. They may be onto some real connection and they may be mixing up a loaf-mass and a lamb-mass.

The article has a couple of photos of gorgeous bread, along with a couple of recipes in case you have a gift for fancy baking.

Eastborne, Sussex, has a Lammas festival, and you didn’t miss it because it took a break this year. It’ll be back in 2020, with music, drumming, morris dancers (everything comes back to morris dancing sooner or later), and booths selling stuff. Selling stuff is as an essential part of any festival as morris dancing. 

What other traditions does Britain have in August? 

Why the Staithes Nightgown Parade. This year, it’s on August 16, which means you missed it, but  it’s been going on for as long as anyone in the village can remember so you should be able to catch it next year. 

In spite of the name, participants can also wear pajamas, and even bathrobes, but the men will probably be wearing nightgowns. It’s a British thing, straight non-(otherwise)transvestite men wearing what they think are women’s clothes, although I’m prepared to testify that I’m a woman and wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the things they wear. Never mind. They’re happy thinking that they’re dressed like us and none of them have been tempted to raid my closet, so I’m happy too. 

If anyone can explain the whole British cross-dressing thing to me, please do. A reader here once linked it to the time when women weren’t allowed on stage and young men and boys played the women’s roles. It’s a good start at an explanation, but it doesn’t stretch as far as telling us why the tradition escaped the stage, went free range, and is still wandering loose in someone else’s nightgown.

Staithes is a fishing village and the event raises money for the lifeboats, and no one can object to raising money for the lifeboats.

The Moffat Sheep Races were canceled in 2017 after 80,000 people signed a petition saying it was cruel to the animals. 

Where were all those people when those lambs were being hauled into church? They hadn’t been born yet, that’s where they were, so they get a pass on this one.

The sheep raced with knitted jockeys fastened on their backs, and in the video I watched they were being chased by a boy with a checked shirt on his. I can’t be sure, but the boy seemed to be having more fun than the sheep.

Bad hair centuries: wigs and powdered hair

Let’s start our survey of inexplicable English hairdos in 1660, when Charles the Sequel came back from exile. The Puritans, with their sober hair and their sober clothes and their sober sobriety, had lost power and paid for their hubris by being buried under a froth of lace and frills and ribbons. 

And that was just what the men wore. 

Among the things Charles brought with him were wigs–human hair wigs, horsehair wigs, yak hair wigs. Looking like you had a yak on your head was the height of fashion. Or just below the height. At the absolute height were the most expensive wigs, made of human hair. But a yak? That cost less. It’s easier to persuade a yak to part with its hair than it is to persuade a human.

No, I did not make up the yak hair and no, I don’t know where they got their yaks. The yak is not native to Britain and if you google “yaks in england” (it’s important not to capitalize Google searches) you’ll find wildlife parks and sites that sell livestock, but they’re all in the wrong century. I only mention them to report on the pointlessness of it all. 

Irrelevant photo: These are called, um, something. I always forget. They’re wonderful to touch, though. I do remember that, always.

You can probably figure this out for yourself, but in the seventeenth-century it was only affluent men who wore wigs. Ordinary men had to wander through life with their own sorry mops on their heads. Can you think of anything more embarrassing?

But let’s go back to the excesses and absurdities at the top of the social heap. I won’t keep repeating who it is that we’re talking about, so it’s up to you to make a note and remember. 

The men wore their–or, more accurately, someone else’s–hair long and curling. It was shoulder length or (if you happened to be the king) longer.

Women’s hair styles? By the end of the seventeenth century they were extreme enough that they needed wires to support them. After the hair itself was assembled, it was topped with lace that stood to attention on the top and might or might not droop down the sides. The whole construction looked sort of like some unrelated species had landed on the lady’s head and made a home there.

Women also wore wigs, but much less often than men. More commonly, their own hair was styled around padding, but they might have hair pieces worked in. 

In France, women powdered their hair, but in England they left that to the men.

You wouldn’t want to climb trees in any of this. Some men–soldiers and travelers show up on the list–tied their (or whoever’s) hair back in a low ponytail to make the mess more manageable.  

How did it get to this point? The blame for the men’s wig–the peruke or periwig–seems to fall on Louis XIII. That’s Louis the French King to you. Everyone who wasn’t French was convinced that the French knew whatever there was to know about fashion, so if the man put a yak on his head, everyone else had better do it too.

Although, of course, he had human, not yak, hair to work with, just not his own. 

That brings us to the question of why someone else’s hair should be better than your own, and there’s an almost sensible explanation for that. Or several, really. 

One reason is that wearing a wig was a way for the rich and powerful to show that they were different from those lowly folks who trudged through life underneath their own sorry hair. If someone has enough clout to wear your hair instead of his own, that person must be powerful indeed.

Even if the you in question turned out to be a yak.

Of course, wearing someone else’s hair also had a cost that couldn’t be measured in money: The wearers worried about who’d been walking around in their hair before they bought it. Had it been grown by a criminal? A prostitute? A dead person? Not just a dead person but a dead person who was dead because they caught the plague? Think about that too much and it could make your scalp itch under that wig.

Another reason, according to one source, was that Louis XIII was going bald, so getting everyone to wear a wig made perfect sense. 

Yet another was that people didn’t wash their hair often and head lice were a constant menace. With a wig, you could shave your head, plop someone else’s hair on it, and take it (the wig, not the head) off to disinfect it, clean it, and style it. If you had to, you could boil the sucker.

Or, given the class of people who wore wigs, you could have someone else do all of that for you. 

With your own hair, a lot of that–especially the boiling–is awkward.

Wigs could also hide some of the symptoms of syphilis–hair loss, rashes, scabs. 

Don’t you just wish you’d lived back then?

None of that explains why women didn’t do the same thing, but we’ll just shrug and move on.

So much for reasons. Let’s talk about maintenance, and stay with me, please, because wigs are about to sound even more appealing.

Hair powder originally came into the picture as a degreaser, and it was added daily. White came into style because wigs made of white hair were rare and expensive, but powder could also be brown, violet, pink or–well, the punks didn’t invent anything new when they started dying their hair green and purple. The stark white wigs we see in movies, though, seem not to be historically accurate. Put white powder on a dark wig and you get one or another shade of gray. Put it on light hair and you get a lighter blond. 

Pomade was also slathered onto both wigs and people’s own hair. Recipes for this varied but could include apples, suet, and some fragrance or other. The fragrance would cover the smell if–or maybe I should say when–the suet announced its own fragrance. The degreaser starts to make sense now, right? The pomade allowed the wig to be shaped into the frozen curls that came into fashion around 1700.

A wig would be powdered daily, and some houses had a small separate room to do this in. Ever wonder where the phrase powder room came from? It wasn’t originally about powdering your nose.

Every day, a hairdresser would comb out the old pomade and powder and put on new ones. The hairstyle itself, though, could sit undisturbed for weeks. Or so they say. How anyone combed out the pomade without disturbing the hairstyle is a mystery that we’ll sneak away from quietly.

Putting all this mess on a wig made it heavy. For the large periwigs of the 1730s, it could add as much as two pounds to your weight.

It was during this time that various professions adopted specific styles of wig–an inheritance the British legal system has yet to shake off. 

But we’ve lost track of women’s hair. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it was worn close to the head in soft curls, but by the late eighteenth century it gained height and the tops of women’s heads had become exhibition venues, full of ribbons, jewels, flowers, and stuffed animals. The peak of the trend was a hairstyle that involved a warship riding waves of hair. 

Again, all this had to be held in place by something, and lard was commonly that thing–or at least part of the thing–which made rats a real hazard. More than one source says, casually, that they made homes in the hairstyles. Which, as far as I can find out, didn’t keep anyone from slathering lard on their hair the next time. 

Is some element of exaggeration creeping in here? I’ve begun to wonder, but I’ve done my best to avoid the total nutburger websites. The rat reference came from an archeologist writing for whoever it is that maintains and runs George Washington’s farm. She was writing about (among other things) his hair. 

For eighteenth-century men, wigs were for formal occasions. For an informal occasion, they’d powder their own hair and tie it low on the neck with a black ribbon in a kind of ponytail. Some men–George Washington is an example, even if he’s on the wrong continent–styled their own hair to look like a wig. 

By the end of the century, both wigs and powder were going out of fashion. Older, more conservative men would still wear them, but younger men showed off their own hair. Then in 1795 the government put a tax of one guinea per year on hair powder. Exactly how you enforce a yearly tax on something people wear is beyond me, but the goernment must’ve had it figured out because people stopped using powder.

If you’re inclined to think that all taxes are always bad, consider that this one brought something like sanity to the outside, if not necessarily the inside, of people’s heads. 

The Brexit Update

In case you haven’t been tracking Britain’s political cannon fire, let’s take a quick dash through the shrapnel. The shooting’s metaphorical, so we should be safe enough, but do stay together. We’ll be moving quickly.

We’ll start at the moment when the members of the Conservative Party (all 42 of them) chose our prime minister. 

Why did they get to do that? Because their party came out of the most recent election with a whopping a majority of two in the 650-member House of Commons. That gave them the right to form a government. Forming a government means they choose the prime minister. And when the first prime minister they chose resigned in despair, they got to choose her replacement, even though the replacement, Boris Johnson, told everyone who’d listen (and several who wouldn’t) that he was going to move the country in a new direction, meaning not the direction the electorate might have thought they voted for.

But hey, that’s democracy for you. You cast your vote and you take your chances.

Does the Conservative Party really have 42 members? No. It’s something in the neighborhood of 180,000. Labour has upwards of 485,000. The Scottish National Party has 125,000. The Liberal Democrats have 115,000. Sorry, I’d give you a link on all this but it has to be downloaded and the link won’t work. If you’re worried about it, ask Lord Google.

How many registered voters does the U.K. have? Upwards of 46 million. 

Did the Conservative Party really have a majority of two? Yes, but it’s down to one now. Long story and we’ll skip it. Remember where I said we’d be moving quickly?

Why do I ask so many questions? Because it’s an easy way to structure a piece of writing. It’s cheesy, but it does let you know where I’m taking you next. And we’re in a hurry. I need to get this online before it all changes.

The point here is that a very small proportion of the electorate got to set the country’s direction. Instead of a negotiated exit from the European Union, we were now barreling toward an exit at any cost: Johnson promised that the country would leave the EU by October 31, “do or die”–in other words, with or without a deal. So it was no surprise when EU leaders announced that he showed no interest in renegotiating the Brexit agreement his predecessor had negotiated and then failed to find support for.

Johnson prefers a no-deal Brexit, they said.  

Does not,” the British government said. 

“Does so too,” the EU said, 

Et cetera, with lots of links to make up for the one I couldn’t give you a few paragraphs back.

But a majority of MPs oppose a no-deal Brexit. What’s Johnson’s next move, then? Well, even before he became prime minister, he was playing publicly with the idea of proroguing Parliament.

Of pro-whatting Parliament?

Shutting it down. Sending the MPs home at exactly the time when they might be able to stop him from crashing the country out of the EU.

Here’s how that would work: Crashing out of the EU is the default setting in this process. If the time limit for a withdrawal isn’t extended and if an agreement isn’t reached, the country crashes out, no matter what Parliament says. So to crash out in the face of parliamentary opposition, all you have to do is kidnap 650 MPs at the right time, which will keep them from interfering. 

But that’s illegal and offends most voters’ sensibilities, and the logistics are a nightmare, so you can do something simpler: You can send them all home, where their magic powers dissolve. And you don’t have to feed them or even tie them up, which you would if you kidnapped them. 

As I write this, the MPs are at home–they left Westminster meekly for the usual summer break–and the ones who oppose a no-deal Brexit are plotting the moves left to them when their powers return in September.

The obvious one is to pass a vote of no confidence in the government. At that point, the prime minister’s magic powers are supposed to dissolve and parliament has fourteen days to find a prime minister with the backing, however reluctant, of a majority of MPs. 

To date, though, no one can agree on who that should be. All the major parties are waving their hands in the air, yelling, “Me! Me! Pick me!”

If Parliament can’t find a majority to back any candidate, Parliament is dissolved and the prime minister’s supposed to call an election and resign. 

In the meantime, Johnson’s advisor–and quite possibly his brains–Dominic Cummings has reportedly said that Johnson might refuse to resign, even if Parliament does form a government. 

If that happens, he could presumably sit in the prime minister’s residence reciting nursery rhymes in Latin and entertaining the prime ministerial cat while the ship of state drifts toward the Brexit iceberg. 

“Look!” he can say. “My hands aren’t even on the wheel.”

The cat’s name is Larry. He–or someone very like him only human, with thumbs and without fur–tweets at @Number10cat. Larry is known to snub fawning politicians without regard to their policies, powers, or parties, in full and satisfying sight of the cameras. As the nation’s chief mouser, he’s outlasted a small handful of recent prime ministers and done considerably less damage to the country. He may or may not be interested in any amusement the prime minister can offer.

During this time, Johnson would, presumably, call an election, but while it was being organized the country would crash out of the E.U.

When Johnson was asked if he might refuse to resign, he refused to answer. 

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and assorted important and formerly important people have warned, in a variety of ways, that refusing to resign would cause the worst constitutional crisis since Charles I was beheaded. Okay, since the Civil War, but that did lead to Charles being executed. As far as I can tell, no one’s advocating that, although they might be dropping a subtle hint about where this could all lead.

There’s been talk of getting the queen involved. She’s supposed to be above politics –or locked out of them, if you want to think of it that way–but she is the person who formally asks the leader of the parliamentary majority to form a government, so presumably she also has the right to ask the prime minister to resign if he no longer commands a majority. She apparently can “overrule ministerial advice” in a grave constitutional crisis. But focus on the words apparently and presumablyThis is all new territory, because elections are controlled by a law that’s too new to have had much road testing. That may be why the wheels are wobbling so wildly. 

A few voices have argued that refusing to resign would be plenty constitutional under the new law, thanks. 

Parliament also has another possible way of blocking a no-deal Brexit: It could pass a law–not a motion; motions don’t have the power of laws–outlawing a no-deal Brexit or forcing the government to ask Europe for an extension. But to do that, MPs will have to take control of the Commons’ calendar, which the government normally controls. It can be done, but not easily. An assortment of precedents will have to be parked out in the hall while it happens.

To force Parliament to break precedent, which is always hard in a country that takes its traditions seriously, the government will have to refrain from introducing any new legislation between the time the MPs come back to work on September 3 and Brexit day, October 31. That includes legislation preparing the country for a no-deal Brexit. Why? Because MPs can amend any bill that comes before them in any way they want.

A third way to block a no-deal Brexit involves the courts. One lawsuit has been filed and others are said to be in the works. The one that’s furthest along would prevent Johnson from shutting down Parliament. Others (or another–the wording’s ambiguous) would force Johnson to resign if a no-confidence vote passes.  

In the meantime, Britain first announced that it would leave the Interrail train scheme, which lets a ticket holder travel throughout both Britain and Europe, then a day later, when there was a lot of shouting about that, announced that it wasn’t leaving.

Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

What people really want to know about Britain, part sixteenish

What do people ask their search engines to tell them about Britain? Or, to be more modest about it, what do they ask that leads them to Notes? A few sensible things, but never mind those, we’ll explore the stranger ones. 

Place Names

british place names pronunciation dictionary

A pronunciation dictionary would be handy but the whole point of spelling your hometown one way and pronouncing it some other way is to leave outsiders looking silly. Dulwich? That’s pronounced like a dull itch. Beaulieu is Bewlee. The unpronounceable-looking Ightham Mote? That’s Item Mote. And (I always toss this one in) Woolfardisworthy is Woolsery. 

Semi-relevant photo: The waterfall at St. Nectan’s Glen, which is pronounced St. Nectan’s Glen, which in turn is no fun at all so it’s also called St. Nectan’s Kieve, which is pronounced keeve.

why do they not call england great britain anymore

Please sit down so the shock doesn’t leave you with a torn muscle: They never did. But the universe holds an inexhaustible store of ignorance about this so we’ll never be rid of the question.

Of course it would help if the country very formerly known as England, then known as the United Kingdom, and after that as the United Kingdom of several confusing places and in other contexts, for rational but confusing reasons, known as Britain and also as Great Britain and occasionally as You There, would settle on one name and somehow get rid of all the others even though they make perfect sense if you can only get your head around their differing uses and meanings. 

Guys, I know its your country and you can call it what you like, but are you sure this is a good idea? For a good portion of  the rest of the world, wrestling with your name(s) is like reading a Russian novel: You have to figure out that Ivan is the same person as Vanya and Vanechka (if I’ve got that one right–don’t trust me too far on it) and Ivan Borisovich and Grushkov, but they’re all used for different reasons by different people and convey different relationships to him. And of course, there are fourteen other important characters and twenty-five minor ones, all with an equal number of names. 

But to answer the question, they never did call England Great Britain. You’ll find a link to an actual explanation of this further down. But in the meantime, since we’re talking about Russian novels:

War and Peace

berwick still at war; also berwick on tweed at war with russia

It’s not. What’s even more disappointing (since this would have been a bloodless war, without even diplomatic consequences), it doesn’t seem to have ever been. 

The story goes that little Berwick-upon-Tweed was listed in the declaration that started the Crimean War but was left off the peace treaty, stranding it forever in a war that it had to carry on all by its tiny self. I’ve done just enough research to learn that people who do genuine research have discredited the tale. Although, hey, it could all be a conspiracy to cover up something huge and dangerous. You can’t prove it isn’t, can you? The absence of evidence could be evidence of how big the cover-up is.

The story of why it might have gotten a separate mention in either a declaration of war or a peace treaty, since larger towns didn’t, is (like many things British) convoluted and interesting. You’ll find it here

Profound Philosophical Questions

why do we saygreat britain

What was the person who typed this trying to ask? Was it:

  1. Why do we say “Great Britain” at all? or
  2. Why do we say, “Great, Britain,” in a tone of encouragement or celebration? or
  3. Why do we say “Great Britain” when we could say, for example, “saxophone” or “peanut butter”? 

If it’s 3, it’s probably because Great Britain is on our minds at the crucial moment and peanut butter and saxophones aren’t. 

Is it unwise to think of peanut butter and saxophones at the same time? It’s not good if you’re a saxophonist. If you’re not, it’s probably okay, although if you let the mental image get too vivid (and I have, unfortunately) it can be unpleasant.

If it’s 2, it means Britain’s doing well in some international sports uproar.

If the question is 1, however, it’s because that’s the place we were talking about, so saying “France” or “Puerto Rico” or “Berwick-on-Tweed” wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But honestly, why do we say anything at all?

I do hope that helps, although I’m not optimistic about it. 

What does it all mean, bartender?

It means I should embed a link to an earlier post on the subject, that’s what it means.

why does beer in london taste better than thr us

Because you had too much before you sat down at the computer. Also because you were a tourist in London and happier there. It wasn’t your real life. It’s (relatively) easy to be happy when you’re not in your real life. Even the beer tastes better.

It’s also made differently. Different countries, different brands, different approaches to making the stuff. Way back when I was less than a hundred years old, one of the Minnesota beers ran an ad campaign implying that the water made a difference. I don’t mean to sound naive, but maybe it does.

If it makes you feel any better, the bagels are better in New York. 

Tourism

how english people feel about american tourists

Let’s start with the American part of the question, although without getting into the problem attached to calling one country by the name of two entire continents. English people (at least the ones who are willing to go on record) all (every last one of them) think our accents are charming. Or they claim to. Maybe they’re being diplomatic. 

Everyone seems to agree that we’re noisy, and there’s a lot of empirical evidence to back this up. 

A lot of them think we say water and butter in the most amusing way possible.  

Beyond that, I’m not sure you’ll find any sort of unanimity.

The tourist part of the question? Tourists anywhere are a pain in the neck. Local economies are desperate for their money, but that doesn’t mean anyone loves them. 

Sorry. I thought someone had better tell you.

americans are more tolerant of brits than the other way around

Sez who?

how do people recognize american tourists?

I asked for help on this one.

M. says it’s by their shorts and tee shirts.

Both I. and C. say it’s by their noise level.

I say it’s by the way they butt into line–or (since a British friend had no idea what I meant when I said this), jump the queue. 

Were you hoping to skulk around incognito? 

Requests Important for Cultural Information

do they have brownies (desserts) in the uk

Do you mention “(desserts)” to distinguish them from the junior version of Girl Scouts who in the U.S. are called (no, I have no idea why) Brownies? In that case, no. They have Girl Guides in the U.K., not Girl Scouts, and girls as young as five can join. You don’t want a junior version when five is the minimum age. It leads to crying and running into the street. 

People who type questions into search engines have an obsession with brownies (of the dessert variety). And with whether they exist in (depending on the phase of the moon) Britain, Great Britain, the U.K., or England. The answer is no. In order to distract us from the Brexit fiasco, a tyrannical government has banned them. To shut off the supply, spy networks have been established to search out people who deal in them.

This, of course, means there’s a lot of money to be made, so restaurants sometimes take the risk but hide them under random combinations of ice cream, whipped cream, fruit,  and chocolate syrup.

Someone’s going to take that seriously. I just know they will.

in england what color are the mailboxes and boobs

Well, dear, the mailboxes are red. The boobs are generally the same color as the rest of the person wearing them, although on people whose skin has tanned they’ll be a bit lighter than the parts that see the sun. Unless, of course, they’ve also seen some sun.

Why did you feel you had to ask?

visiting britain do they talk about the weather

Not as often as people ask about whether they talk about the weather.

I’m reasonably sure the British unleashed that stereotype on themselves, and that they think it’s funny. But correct me if I’m wrong.

In fact, the British do talk about the weather, but then so do Minnesotans. Both groups also talk about other things. Both groups believe they have a lot of weather to talk about. 

It’s okay, O prospective visitor. You can drop by without packing a prefabricated set of weather observations. If someone says the weather’s wonderful, all you have to do is agree with them. If someone says the weather’s terrible, you agree with them too. Don’t tell them how much better or worse it is where you come from. Nothing awful will happen if you do, but you won’t kept your side of the unwritten bargain.

is bell ringing dangerous?

Mostly, no. But after you stop giggling, you can google bell ringers’ injuries and find out about everything from rope burns to broken bones to why giving the rope a good hard yank if one of the bells is hard to ring might just bring the bell down on your head.

what do the english think of americans right now?

That we’ve made some, um, strange political choices. Or possibly that we’ve lost our minds. That’s not a universal opinion but Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that it’s fairly common.

As for me–sorry to get serious on you–I am completey horrified by what the country’s been doing on the Mexican border. I’d like to say that I don’t recognize the country I grew up and lived most of my life in, but that’s not entirely true. The seeds of this have been lying around for a long time. This flowering has left me thinking about how easy it is to come to terms with evil. 

does english beer have less alcohol than united states; also enhlish beer compared to usa

The United States is a big country. Not as big as Russia. Not as big as Canada or China. But still, big. On the other hand, since it’s a country instead of an alcoholic drink, it’s hard to find a reliable measurement of its alcohol content. Or its taste if that’s what the second question is asking about. 

That’s not taste as in the famous H.L. Mencken quote, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”–especially since that isn’t what he actually wrote. He wrote something baggier, snobbier, and less memorable. 

But no, we’re talking about the taste of English–on enhlish–beer compared to the U.S., which is like comparing apples and radial tires. That makes it a question no one can answer.

As an aside, lots of people want to know about British (or English, or Enhlish) and American beer. Mostly they want to know which is stronger. If I wrote about nothing but beer, I’d have more subscribers but they’d all be too plastered to read.

church of england prdinad funding

If they get any money that way, I haven’t been able to find out about it. It could be another cover-up.

Miscellaneous

what did people call themselves if they were from great britain and ireland

Some called themselves Saoirse, which was awkward for English-only speakers, because they go into brainlock when that many vowels bump up against each other. Some called themselves–well, you don’t want me to go into the full list of possible first names, do you? 

I’m not sure what time period we’re supposed to be talking about. The past tense covers a long stretch of time, but if it’s a relatively recent period we’ll just remind ourselves that in these days of intercultural mingling (and they’ve been going on much longer than most people think) they’re no longer limited to names that comes from English and Gaelic. They could call themselves Ahmed or Svetlana and still be from both places. And other people could call them that as well.

If, on the other hand, the person who asked that was looking for British a parallel for Irish-American, I doubt they’ll find anything as compact. A friend describes herself as being British, of Irish heritage. It’s clunky but its accurate, and it’s  not at all the same thing as Anglo-Irish.

putting the kettle on

I have no idea what someone was hoping to find by typing this into a search engine–maybe an invitation to drop in and have a nice cuppa. 

As far as I’ve been able to figure out, this brushes up against one of the friendliest things you can say in British: either I’ll put the kettle on, or Shall I put the kettle on? 

I’m not sure why it has to be shall instead of should, but it does seem to work that way. 

Footnote: I’ve lived in Britain for thirteen years now but I still don’t have a great ear from British speech, so I could be wrong about that shall. I can tell you, though, with absolute certainty, that getting dialog right in someone else’s version of your language is no easy trick. I’ve seen British journalists, whose training emphasizes getting their quotes right, substitute the British phrases they thought they heard for the ones some American they were interviewing would have said. The examples I can remember involve an American talking about his mum and someone else talking about a drinks cabinet.  

We–or most of us, anyway–seem to have an over-eager little translator built into our brains, who takes any number of the interesting things we hear and turns them into the predictable things we expect to hear and then engraves them in our memories that way. Which is a long-winded way of saying what I already said: I could be wrong about the shall.

It’s also a warning: Unless you’re goddamn good, don’t try to write (never mind speak) in someone else’s version of your language.

ellen hawley

I deny all knowledge of her. She’s a know-it-all and a nuisance.

The Gordon Riots: Religion, Poverty, and No Revolution

“How did the American Revolution affect Britain?” an American reader asked me a good long time ago. I didn’t have a clue, so I plugged some version of the question into Google and Lord G.’s answer seemed to imply that no one in Britain much noticed it. Or, since that’s just the slightest exaggeration, that life went on pretty much as it had before.

But getting a decent answer is all about knowing what to ask, so let’s talk about the Gordon Riots of 1780.

What was happening around that time? Britain was losing the war in its thirteen colonies. Gentlemen wore wigs when they dressed formally and powdered their hair when they were being informal. Was there a connection? Don’t jump to conclusions. George Washington may not have worn a wig (the Smithsonian magazine says he didn’t), but he powdered his hair and floofed it out on the sides so it looked wiglike. It was time consuming, but for formal battles it was important to get the look right. 

Absolutely relevant photo, because what’s a riot without a flower or six?

I mention the wigs as a reminder that the upper classes had both time and money that they could afford to piss out the window. London was a city of what Professor Jerry White calls “almost unimaginable inequality. And inequality was underpinned by a deeply-loathed system of ‘justice’, its key component the London prison system”–which among other things imprisoned people for debt. (That link will, if life and the internet are kind, lead you to a pdf of an article on the riots. It’s five pages long and it’s good, but you’ll have to download it.)

The cost of living had gone up and (you’ve heard this about other time periods, right?) wages hadn’t. Funny how that works.

You can think of inequality and a war that was going badly (there’s the American Revolution again) as your standard-issue liquid fuel. The match that ignited it was an act allowing Catholics to join the army and buy land if they took an oath of allegiance. It didn’t go as far as giving them freedom of religion, but this was pretty radical stuff for its time and place. 

The act had come into force in England and Ireland in 1778 without setting off any sparks, but when it was introduced in Scotland in 1779 it was met with anti-Catholic rioting that was so serious that Catholics themselves asked the government to withdraw the bill, which it did. 

Then London’s Protestants looked at their cold fireplace and thought that setting fire to the chimney might just be a good idea. Because there’s nothing like a bit of religious, ethnic, or national intolerance to take your mind off your problems. 

Enter Lord George Gordon. He was twenty-nine, an MP, the third son of a duke, and generally considered a religious nut. “His speeches were wild and unbalanced,” according to Prof. White. His hair was also wild and unbalanced. Or, as White has it, long and lank. Either way, he managed to look like one of the Puritans from a century before his time. 

The Catholic Relief Act, Gordon said in an audience with George III, was “for the diabolical purpose of arming the Papists against the Protestant colonies in America.”

If you strip away the insults and the ranting, that wasn’t an entirely unbalanced belief. The war needed soldiers, and Catholics looked as good in a bright red coat as well as anyone else did.

A quick interruption while I talk about sources. The George Gordon quote comes from a book, The English Rebel: One Thousand Years of Trouble-making from the Normans to the Nineties, by David Horspool. It’s informative and well written and everyone should rush out and buy six copies or go to the library and borrow one. Among other things, it’s left me thinking about how we define rebellion. And a mob. It’s a rich source of blog fodder. But it’s not online, so no link.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming. If you’d stop interrupting, we could get to the point faster.

In a well-organized campaign, the Protestant Association had been handing Parliament petitions against the Catholic Relief Act ever since it passed, and in 1780 some 50,000 to 60,000 people gathered to hand in a petition with 44,000 signatures. They marched from St. George’s Fields into London, flying flags and singing hymns. Outside Parliament, in the usual spirit of hymn-singing, they attacked members of the House of Lords, who were just rolling up in their carriages. 

The Commons were already in session and the mob (the word didn’t carry the same overtones it does today; it meant an excitable crowd–and this one does sound like it was excitable) swirled into the lobby, where Gordon excited them a bit more, reminding them that the Scots hadn’t made progress against the act until they “pulled down the mass-houses.” 

MPs expected the mob to break into the Commons chamber at any moment and White says several were ready to draw their swords and one (who happened to be Gordon’s uncle) announced that he’d put his sword through Gordon if anyone broke through the door. 

I know. Most of us have at least one relative we feel that way about.

What were the MPs doing with swords when a statute from 1313 bans anyone coming armed (or in armor) to Parliament? No idea. Sorry. I’d love to know.

As it turned out, no one broke in and no one ran Gordon through, although it wasn’t for lack of wanting to, I’m sure. But oddly enough, no one stepped in to stop Gordon running out to make sure the mob maintained its level of excitement.

Parliament voted not to receive the petition, with only nine members wanting to accept it.

In the middle of this mayhem, the Duke of Richmond introduced a motion to extend the vote to all men. It was the height of lousy timing. What, give the vote to “the people” when “the people” were just outside, punching lords as they arrived in their carriages? 

The secretary of state argued against universal male suffrage on the grounds that the British constitution was “the wisest that had ever been created.” And no one could prove it wasn’t, since it’s (oh, so wisely) never been written down. It would be like arguing that the Invisible Man wasn’t devastatingly handsome. 

The motion lost.  

That evening, the mob attacked several Catholic chapels, including private ones belonging to Catholic ambassadors. Then things settled down for a while. And then they unsettled. Catholic churches, schools, and homes were attacked. Soldiers were called out but didn’t have clear orders about what to do. Politicians who took unpopular positions had already been attacked, so no one wanted to give the order to shoot. 

The rioting continued. The poet George Crabbe  (no, I never heard of him either, but the opera Peter Grimes is based on his work, so somebody has) wrote, “I met a resolute band of vile-looking fellows, ragged, dirty, and insolent, armed with clubs, going to join their companions. I since learned that there were eight or ten of these bodies in different parts of the City.” 

By now, the nature of the mob had changed–it was poorer and more desperate–and so had its targets. They were attacking the justice system, burning criminal records, freeing prisoners, and destroying prisons. 

Again, George Crabbe, talking to a tavern waiter: “I asked him what could induce him to do all this? He said the cause. I said, do you mean a religious cause? He said no; for he was of no religion. He said, there should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”

White describes the next couple of nights as civil war. 

When the soldiers finally received orders to shoot, the first ones who did were commanded by Gordon’s brother-in-law.

We can, I think, reasonably assume that the family’s Christmas dinners were strained.

The next day, gangs started knocking on doors, demanding money for “the true religion.” Buildings that had already been attacked were systematically looted. The Bank of England and toll houses on Blackfriars Bridge were attacked. A distillery owned by a Catholic was set alight and either the vats of alcohol caught fire or gin was pumped on the fire accidentally, instead of water. The second version sounds unlikely but I prefer it.

It took two days, 210 shot dead, 75 wounded (and, according to one source, later dying in the hospital), and an uncounted number dying or recovering at home before the riots were over. Soldiers, magistrates, and peace officers made their way through poor neighborhoods, arresting people, including criminals, wage earners (journeymen, apprentices, domestic and public house servants) street sellers, assorted other men working marginal jobs, and a few women whose jobs weren’t recorded, although it was recorded that one of them was black.

Ten times more property had been destroyed than was destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution, and far more prisoners were freed than were freed from the Bastille (1,500 compared to 7). But in the end the French had a revolution and Britain had riots.

Horspool points out that the attacks focused on prosperous Catholic institutions, which he takes to mean that it was “the success of the hated group as opposed to their existence that was resented.” He also points out that Catholics had less to fear from the rioters than MPs did, although I doubt they’d have agreed with him. 

And Lord Gordon?

He was indicted for treason but acquitted on the grounds that he hadn’t intended any treason. It helped that he hadn’t taken any direct part in the riots.  According to the Jewish Magazine, which is more sympathetic to Gordon than either Horspool or White, he came out of the trial a more religious man. He was drawn to the Quakers for their pacifism and work to help the poor and to the Jewish community (only recently returned to England after some 400 years of exile) for their efforts to care for the poor. The story is that he was walking through a Jewish neighborhood in Ipswich and saw a sign saying, “All who are hungry enter and eat.” He went in and struck up a lifelong friendship with the householder, Isaac Titterman.

In 1787, Gordon was jailed for libeling Marie Antoinette, the French ambassador, and the English justice system. 

Then, in case you think anything’s simple, this most Protestant of anti-Catholic Protestants converted to Judaism–according to one source when he was in prison and according to another, more detailed one, before. Having converted, he became strictly observant, to the point of refusing to talk with Jewish men who shaved their beards. In court, he refused to remove his kippa. Since the court saw it as a hat, making it a sign of disrespect rather than a religious observance to keep it on, it was pulled off his head and he tied a nightcap on his head with a handkerchief. 

What he was doing with a nightcap in  court is beyond me. I’ve never heard that there’s anything in the many, many (many, many, many) Jewish laws and traditions that involves nightcaps and court appearances. But then, I’m no expert. Never mind. He covered his head. Both sides, presumably, were unhappy with the outcome, although maybe not equally unhappy.

He served out his sentence but couldn’t be freed unless two people guaranteed (apparently with money) his good behavior. But the people who appeared for him were Polish Jews, who the court refused to recognize. Whether that was because they were Jewish or Polish is anyone’s guess, but my money’s on Jewish. His brothers and sister offered to cover his bail but he turned down their offer.

He was returned to prison and died of prison fever–typhoid–at forty-two.

Horspool mentions speculation that his conversion came out of a belief that if the Jews returned to Israel it would bring the second coming of Christ, but his letters from this period, along with his willingness to have religious alterations made to a body part that men are generally pretty sensitive about, make his conversion sound less complicated and more genuine than that.

Oh: The British lost the war.

Britain gets a new cabinet: an update

Britain has a new prime minister, who even though he’s never been prime minister of anyplace before has the look of a second-hand car about him–the kind whose odometer broke when someone tried to set it back. So far, he’s told us that everything’s going to be wonderful with him in office. We’ll leave the E.U. by Halloween, with or (possibly preferably) without a deal, and this will make the country prosperous and united.

We’ll all have 100,000 fewer miles on our individual and national odometers.

In anticipation, the pound dropped against both the dollar and the euro.

More concretely, he’s appointed a new cabinet. So let’s check in on what a few of them have done in their limited time in government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the new leader of the House of Commons and he’s banned metric measurements in his office. And if something comes into the office speaking metric and has to go back out in the same form? Presumably it will have to be translated into imperial units to be read and then translated back out of them before it rejoins the world. 

He’s also banned a series of words and phrases, including (but, oh, so not limited to) hopefully, very, due to, ongoing, equal, yourself, lot, got, pleased to learn, and unacceptable.

Equal? Yeah, it’s on the list. It will, hopefully, prevent staff members from saying, “Go fuck yourself,” when they’re told that asking for equal pay is unacceptable.

A couple of the entries (lot, got, and I am pleased to learn) have been reported but are unconfirmed. I mention that because this stuff is important and I want to be sure we get it right. I’m an immigrant here, so to a certain kind of person the way I use the language is always going to be suspect. Which makes me very much want to say, “Go fuck yourself.” Due to having an ongoing bad attitude.

Rees-Mogg’s staff has also been instructed to use a double space after a period–which in British is called a full stop, and I’m sure he’d insist on it being called that–and not to use a comma after an and

It is possible to use a comma after an and but it’s not easy. I’m not going to bother working up an example when I’ve got a lot of simpler ways to break the rules.

Staff members should also avoid using is too often. How often is too often? You’re on your own there. Do be careful, though, please. I care about you, and the world’s a dangerous place.

I is also on the list of banned words. Maybe, like the queen, he prefers one. One is–. Nope, can’t use is. One might be pleased to find a less awkward way to avoid its use.

Since he became an MP, R-M’s speeches have used words from the banned list 1,189 times. It may have gone up since that report, so let’s take that as a minimum, especially since uses of the word  I, mysteriously, weren’t included. And yes (ha! got the comma in after and), if you’re going to be such a public nit-picker, someone will sit down and count. Gleefully.

R-M also demands that any man who doesn’t have a title get the suffix Esq. added to his name. Women, presumably, are too unimportant to worry about. Or maybe the language doesn’t have an equivalent. I wouldn’t know.

Admittedly, the guidelines were established at his old office as a plain old MP and have been transferred wholesale to his new, elevated position as Micro-Manager-in-Chief, so presumably this hasn’t occupied all his time. That is, however, speculation.

He’s commonly known as the Honourable member for the 18th Century.

After that, anyone else is going to be a disappointment, but let’s go on.

Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, has announced a two-page limit for briefings and says he will “pay attention to the font size and margins.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has brought his favorite pink cup to his new office. As far as I know, it’s not a sippy cup. 

Oops. Did I just start a rumor?

Priti Patel, the new home secretary, has a £1,000-an-hour contract with a company that supplies products and services to the same government she works for. She also earns £45,000 a year for working 20 hours a month for an accounting software firm. If she cares about the spacing after a period, limits her intake of government documents to picture books, or drinks from a sippy cup, it’s not on record but it might be preferable. 

Now let’s go back to that business about a double space after a period. If WikiWhatsia is correct (and I’m not going any deeper into this than a WikiWhatsia article, earthshaking though the topic may be), a double space after a period is called English spacing. A single space is called French spacing. There are other differences between the two, but let’s stop there. We’re not setting type, just reporting on it. 

So far, it sounds clear, but the phrases are often used in exactly the opposite way, and WikiWhatsia gives a good solid list of examples without managing to help me understand why or how that happened.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the trend in typesetting has been toward a single space after a period. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper, since in a book that small change can save a fair bit of paper. And many people think it looks better.

The U.S. seems to have made the shift to single spacing before the U.K., although even there high-end publishing stuck with the double space for a while. With the introduction of computers, designers and typographers have increasingly leaned toward the single space. In my experience, it dominates the publishing world.

So is R-M dedicated to the double space because he thinks it’s high end? Or because he thinks it’s English as opposed to French (and the English, if you’ll forgive a generalization, have a thing about the French)? Or because it was done that way in the eighteenth century and that’s his century? I can only ask, not answer. If he knew that in the early 1960s, when all girls with fingers were taught to type, no excuses accepted, I was taught that it was necessary, right, and moral to double space after a period. I was (partly deliberately, partly by nature) a monumentally bad typist, but for years I double-spaced after periods.

If that doesn’t take the shine off the double space, I don’t know what will.

More news from Britain. And elsewhere

In case you think no one ever learns, allow me to prove you wrong: The U.K. Seti Research Network is conducting a public survey about contacting alien species and they’re not throwing it wide open by asking what we should say if we get a chance to talk with alien life forms. They’re channeling the responses by asking whether people think it’s a good idea that we broadcast signals into space, what source they’d believe if it told them that humans had made contact with another species, and that sort of thing. Controllable questions, in other words. Except for that box where it says, “Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?” Yes, it’s going to get strange inside that box, but they can throw out any answers that say, “I was kidnapped by supermarket oranges in space-going juice squeezers.” The public never has to know about them. 

Why does that mean humans are capable of learning? Polls consulting the British public on important questions have, at best, an uneven track record. Oddly enough, I’m not talking about Brexit, I’m talking about the Boaty McBoatface poll.

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Irrelevant photo: poppies growing with corn marigolds.

Archeologists working in Leicestershire found a 2,500-year-old  bark shield. Or maybe it was only 2,300 years old. The sell-by date was illegible, so accounts differ. Either way, it was made during the Iron Age and had been preserved in waterlogged soil. It’s the first of its kind found in Europe, although the Aboriginal people of Australia made bark shields up until the nineteenth century.

Is a bark shield any more useful than (to use a Britishism) a chocolate teapot? The team that found it fooled around until it re-created one, using alder and willow, and it turned out to be plenty tough but incredibly light. Highly recommended for your next sword battle.

Please note: I don’t get any money for recommending bark shields, but even so you only want to trust me just so far on this. I’m taking someone else’s word on their effectiveness instead of testing one in battle myself.

Sorry. The village has been quiet since we stopped trying to put together a Neighborhood Development Plan. If we’d kept on, I could’ve tested that shield.

*

More archeology: Back in 2003, archeologists in Essex were surveying a site where a road was going to be widened and found a burial chamber from what historians no longer call the Dark Ages. 

We’ll come back to the burial chamber, but first, why don’t they call it the Dark Ages? Because the sun came up every damn morning, and even back then it was bright. Also because humans had known about fire for eons. They’d been lighting fires, cooking food with fires, keeping themselves warm with fires, and setting their roofs on fire with fires. So no, calling it the Dark Ages doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, I’m attached to the label because when I first read about the period in my junior high school textbook I asked my teacher what happened back then, since the textbook said something along the lines of, “And then the Dark Ages happened. Now we’ll move on.”

“Nothing,” she said.

It’s not that I didn’t believe her, but I spent a lot of time wondering how nothing could happen and what that would’ve been like. I’ve wanted to know about it ever since. I wonder if telling kids there’s nothing to know wouldn’t create a generation of self-motivated learners. 

If you’ve read my tale of junior high and the Dark Ages before, apologies. I do repeat myself. Not everyone’s been around as long as you have, the lucky souls. 

So this burial chamber was from the period formerly known as the Dark Ages, but before we get to that, let’s take another detour, because this is Britain, where roads and detours are inextricably linked. 

Archeology and construction are also closely linked, because anywhere you put a shovel in British ground, you stand a good chance of unearthing some bit of history, and that means assorted laws and regulations protect–or try to protect–Britain’s archeological heritage from destruction. It makes archeology and the construction industry uneasy partners, but it means that amazing stuff is found by accident. Before the bulldozers level everything, archeologists get a chance to look and, if necessary, sift. Let’s not go into how the decisions get made about where they turn up and where they don’t. The world should have some mysteries left. They turned up on this road-widening project and found wonders.

The Prittlewell burial chamber really was a chamber–a square room that was originally furnished with a folding stool, cups, a lyre, a sword, a candelabrum, a gaming board, a gigantic cauldron, a silver spoon, a gold-foil cross, and a painted box. Oh, and a coffin. Personally, I prefer a couch, but then I’m not dead yet. When I am, I promise not to object if I’m not buried with a couch.

The room also had hooks so that a good part of this lovely stuff could hang on the walls and no one would trip on it, even though the room’s only occupant was well past tripping on things.

The chamber was clearly built for someone both rich and important, and the mix of the cross and the grave goods indicates a person (or a community) with one foot in each of two religions–Christianity, judging by the cross, and pre-Christian, judging by the grave goods. Either he or they were hedging their bets.

You can read more about it here.

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A pair of storks have built a nest in an oak tree and become the first wild pair breeding in England in 600 years. The last breeding pair are believed to have nested on St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416. Unless, as it’s also claimed, storks were run out of England during the Reformation. The idea of running storks out of a country on, I assume, religious grounds is bizarre, since last I heard storks don’t have any religion–or at least no human religion–so I asked Lord Google for further information. He claimed to know nothing on the subject. If anyone can fill me in, I’ll not only be grateful, you’ll get bragging rights for being a step ahead of Lord G.

How wild is this wild pair? Quite. They were lured in by storks with clipped wings who’d been brought over from European sanctuaries. The hand-reared ones will be released over the next few years to create a colony large enough to sustain itself. 

One stork from the colony, however, released itself, despite its clipped wings, and went wherever it wanted. Not on foot, I assume.

As of late May, the wild pair were brooding three eggs. So far, there are no reports of the storks having delivered human babies but stay tuned.

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It turns out that those gizmos that track your sleep so you can live a well-rested, perfectly balanced, digitally documented life are giving people insomnia. They’re not giving it to every user but to enough that it’s worth a mention. 

The news traces back to Guy Leschziner, a sleep disorders specialist at Guy’s Hospital in London. And no, despite the name overlap, it’s not his hospital. It’s just a guy thing.

It’s hard to talk patients into deleting their sleep apps, he said, probably because his approach to figuring out if you’re getting enough sleep is deeply stone age: “If you wake up feeling tired . . . then you know you’ve got a problem. If you wake up . . . and feel refreshed . . . then you’re probably getting enough sleep.”

Well, who in their right mind wants to listen to that? 

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On a personal note, since we’re talking about insomnia, Fast Eddie came in at four the other night, carrying something that squeaked. 

I should probably say, in case it’s not clear, that Fast Eddie is the cat. 

The squeaking activated the dog, Moose. So now we have four (or three, since the moose is–well, I guess you’d say virtual) animals bumping around in the bedroom. Plus me, a squeamish vegetarian in a nightshirt, trying to pretend I’m Switzerland, a neutral country, while hiding in my mountainous bed and feeling guilty about choosing that role instead of trying to rescue the (presumed) mouse. My partner, who’s not a vegetarian and is only squeamish about the things I’m not squeamish about, can sleep through village sword battles and the excavation of massive damn burial chambers. She got a full and unfair night’s sleep. Switzerland didn’t wake her up, and neither did I. 

Eventually everyone settled down and the cat jumped on the bed. I turned on the light and searched him for mice but didn’t find any. I’ve been suspicious of him ever since the time he upchucked a second-hand mouse all over the quilt.  

He went to sleep. I strapped my sleep-tracking gizmo to his wrist and when I checked it the next morning it said that, with a brief interruption around 4, I got as good a night’s sleep as any creature with no conscience can. For some reason, though, I felt tired.

I’m not sure what happened to the mouse.

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Last year, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump planted an oak to symbolize–oh, I don’t know. How much the two countries love each other. How well their leaders get along. How much hope there is for the world, in spite of everything we know. 

In June, the tree died.

If you follow the link just above, you can wince at a photo of the two presidents playing at tree planting while wearing expensive suits and wielding gold-colored shovels. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I wear when I’m working in the garden.

But before I go on any more about the photo, let’s talk about the tree planting ceremony. As soon as it was over and the photographers had packed up their cameras and left, the real tree people came along and uprooted the sucker. Why? Because it came from France and had to be quarantined. They promised to re-plant it as soon as it was declared disease free and had learned enough English to pass the citizenship exam.

It never made it out of quarantine. 

Can we have a moment of regret, please?

Thanks. Now let’s go back to the photo. You can, if you like, wince a bit more at the wives of the presidents looking even more absurd than their husbands as they waft around the lawn, keeping discreetly to the background while wearing high heels and stockings.

Have you ever tried walking on grass in high heels? If you haven’t, do try it once, especially if you’re male. You’ll understand sexual (or gender, or whatever the hell) politics better afterwards. I don’t have much experience with heels, but I did mix them with turf once. In my defense, I was young and those were very different times. We kind of had to wear them sometimes back then, or we thought we did. The heels punched into the earth and when I shifted my weight forward, which is what you do when you walk, they didn’t come with me. I caught my balance just before I brought  a friend’s wedding to a screaming, swearing halt. 

*

A–I guess you’d have to call it a biblical theme park in Kentucky is suing its insurer for not covering the full cost of damages caused by a heavy rainstorm that didn’t exactly wreck the ark but did wreck the access road leading tourists to it. 

The ark, theme park spokesfolks say, was built to the specifications in the bible. Which is important. The road (they didn’t say) wasn’t, since the bible’s silent on the subject of access roads, so their dimensions and materials are either guesswork or blasphemy. It’s also silent on admission charges, so those weren’t set at biblical levels either, and maybe that was the problem. 

Anyway, the road needed a lot of repair, apparently, and the insurers weren’t interested in most of them or impressed by biblical arguments. 

*

While researching a biography of Maria Branwell, the mother of the Brontë sisters, Sharon Wright discovered that Maria’s father, and therefore the Brontës’ grandfather, wasn’t the gentlemanly merchant we all thought he was–those of us, that is, who thought about him at all, that is. (I confess: I never did.) He did business with smugglers–as many a Cornish businessman did in those days–and in 1788 was indicted for “obstructing the Customs Officers in searching his dwelling.”

It was his tainted money that made it possible for the sisters to first publish their work. And there’s a moral in there, although I’m not sure what it is. Choose your grandparents wisely, maybe.

Everything You Need to Know about Brexit

Quick, before the Conservative Party announces our new Blusterer in Chief, here’s everything you need to know about Brexit and how we got tot his point:

Brexit starts in 2015, when David Cameron, as Britain’s prime minister and the leader of the Conservative Party, makes an election promise to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. This is smart politics. Isn’t Davey a clever boy? After the election, he’ll be back in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they’ll veto the referendum and that means he won’t have to throw himself, his party, and his country, out the fifth-story window labeled Brexit. But he’ll have shut up the Leave voices in his own party, the Leave voices in the U.K. Independence Party, and the Labour voices rumbling at him from the far side of the House of Commons and saying things he doesn’t pay attention to but that get on his nerves anyway.

Irrelevant photo to give you some relief from an otherwise grim picture: a field with corn marigolds.

Then the election’s held and his party wins a majority. Who knew so many people liked him?

Wave bye-bye to the nice coalition, Davey, because it’s going away.

Davey edges close enough to that fifth-story window and looks down. It’s a long way to the ground.

What’s a clever politician to do? He schedules the referendum and tells the country that it’s safer, stronger, and much better looking in Europe, so it should vote Remain. He promises to limit immigration by widening the Channel and to make the sky a tasteful and long-lasting shade of blue using paint from Farrow and Ball, which is what people with any kind of taste at all buy.

Remain loses. Britain will be leaving the E.U.

Why does Britain vote Leave? Because leaving will make Britain great again. Because it will let Parliament take back control. Because Rupert Murdoch said it was a good idea. Because Facebook is fun.

Davey resigns the leadership of his party and with it the prime ministership, and he retreats to a shed in his backyard, which being British he calls his garden.

What he calls a shed is nicer than some people’s apartments. Which he’d call flats.

He starts writing a book. He waits for someone to ask what it’s about but no one does. They’re focused on the window he left open. Several prominent Conservatives are writhing on the floor in front of it, trying to stab each other. The winner will get to lead the party and find a way from window to ground. One that doesn’t break bones. Or that does. The referendum didn’t say that no bones could be broken.

Theresa May emerges as leader of the party, largely because no one thought she was worth stabbing.

What, the press asks her while the other contenders lie bleeding at her feet, is Brexit going to mean.

“Brexit,” she says, “means Brexit.”

Yes, but what does it mean?

It means Brexit.

Oh.

Negotiations between Britain and the E.U. begin. The E.U. negotiators spread papers and studies and printouts on the table. The British negotiators set Etch-a-Sketch pads in front of them.

Time passes. Terri May calls an election, which will prove that, um, remind me, what will it prove? That the country backs her. That’s it.

That’s probably it. Also because it will increase her majority in Parliament.

She loses her majority and is held in place (the place in question being 10 Downing Street) only by duct tape and a small Protestant party from Northern Ireland.

A lot of time passes. According to the rules of the game, only so much time can pass before Britain has to go out that window, whether the two sides have managed to build a ladder or not.

An agreement is announced.

Everyone hates the agreement. Even the people who support the agreement hate the agreement. Britain’s negotiator resigns because he hates the agreement he negotiated.

Britain’s Parliament also hates the agreement, so Theresa May goes back to Europe to change the part of the agreement that talks about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It’s the only part of the agreement she can let herself think about.

The E.U. says it’s tired of talking to Britain.

Britain is also tired of talking to Britain. The Conservative Party can’t agree on what it thinks Brexit should be. It can’t agree on whether Brexit should happen. A group of backbenchers ask, “Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just closed the window?”

No one listens to them.

The Labour Party also can’t agree on what Brexit should be or whether it should happen, although it does agree that Brexit shouldn’t be what Theresa May negotiated. If that sounds like it’s more united than the Conservatives, it’s not. It can’t agree on whether it’s a socialist party, whether its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, should be its leader, or whether it’s doing enough–or anything–to combat anti-Semitism in its ranks.

It also can’t agree on the definition of anti-Semitism.

It does agree that the Conservative Party is anti-Muslim, but no one wants to talk about that so it wanders around mumbling to itself that it’s not anti-Semitic, really it’s not, but no one’s listening.

The Liberal Democrats agree that Brexit’s bad. Unfortunately, after their coalition with Davey, only three of them are left in the Commons.

Or maybe that’s twelve. Or eight. Does it matter?

The Scottish National Party is united: Brexit is bad. The Green Party’s also united, but it only has one MP, which isn’t enough for a decent split.

MPs leave the Labour Party.

MPs leave the Conservative Party.

They form a group that isn’t a party and fend off arguments about what they’d stand for if they did become a party by discussing the weather. Then they do become a party, adopting the name of an online petition group that they’re not associated with. They pass a resolution about the weather.

The online petition group objects.

Theresa May promises Parliament a meaningful vote on Brexit.

She promises Parliament a later meaningful vote on Brexit. But before that can happen, she has to go to Europe to negotiate an even better deal than the existing deal even though the E.U. has said there’s nothing left to negotiate. Many people–which is to say, me and possibly one other person–suspect she goes in and out of offices asking if they have any coffee made. She’s too English to ask if they’ll make some just for her.

When they do have some on hand, she sips it slowly while reading a magazine, since no one will talk to her. She drinks it black, because no one asks if she’d like milk.

If she drinks enough coffee, time will run out. Hickory, dickory, dock, Terri May ran out the clock. Parliament will look out the window and vote for her ladder because it’s five floors down and no one else has made so much as a rope out of torn sheets.

She lets the House of Commons vote on the deal she’s negotiated and it loses. She moves all the commas three words to the right and lets it vote again. Why? Because three is an important number in fairy tales. Three wishes. Three chances. Three brothers.

Hell, it’s as good as anything else going on.

It still loses.

To see if it can’t find a rational way out of the crisis, the House of Commons asks itself a series of questions: Should we leave the EU without a deal? Should we hold a second referendum? Should we drag Britain 50 miles to the west and whenever we pass the E.U. in the Channel pretend we don’t see it?

No proposal wins a majority. TV newscasters are mandated to use the phrase no one knows how this will play out at least once in every program. They use the phrase constitutional crisis almost as often.

Why is it a constitutional crisis? Because Britain has an unwritten constitution. This means that no one really knows what’s in it. It may prevent Theresa May from making herself the country’s second Lord Protector (Oliver Cromwell was the first) but it will be years before anyone’s read through enough papers to know for sure.

Isn’t this fun? We’re watching history being made.

Terri May promises to resign and dance the rhumba the length of Downing Street if the Commons will only pass her deal. She promises to delete every comma in the agreement. By hand. In glittery green ink.

Water floods into the House of Commons during a Brexit debate. A group climate-change protesters take off most of their clothes show the MPs their backsides.

All the possible jokes about both incidents have already been made.

Theresa May goes back to Brussels and drinks the Kool-Aid.

No, sorry, that was Jonestown and an American reference, not a British one. She drinks more coffee and is granted another extension. It expires on Halloween of 2019. All the possible jokes about that have been made that too.

A person can drink so much coffee and eventually Theresa May resigns, leaving the Conservative Party to search for a new leader. Every Conservative MP announces his or her candidacy. Every third one confesses to having used drugs. The ones who haven’t used them express regret at having misread the spirit of their age.

In the interest of democracy, several of the candidates promise to suspend Parliament so they can fulfill the will of the people.

After a series of elimination votes, the two candidates are Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, but they seem to have agreed that Boris will win and Not Boris will have a nice job in his cabinet.

What happens next? Nothing good, I suspect, but that’s history for you: It’s one damn thing after another.

Britain goes metric. Except where it doesn’t

Britain adopted the metric system in 1965.

Mostly.

How well has it worked? In 2015, 60% of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds didn’t know their weight in kilos; 54% didn’t know their height in centiwhatsits or in a combination of centiwhatsits and full-grown whatsits. For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the slightly older group, twenty-five- to thirty-nine-year-olds, did better in both categories. After that, it went downhill.

For measuring short distances and for cooking, the number of people who use the metric system goes up. For long distances, though, people measure in miles. Well, why wouldn’t they? British roads are measured in miles,so folks drive in miles, regardless of how they measure walls.

All this–or the data part of it anyway–is from a YouGov poll. No one can say YouGov dodges the important issues. The poll also reports that the middle class is more likely to use metric measurements for short distances and for cooking than the working class is.

From this I gather that the upper class is too good to take surveys.

Irrelevant photo: A rose. By any other name.

Most people you’ll find on hanging around on any random street corner on any random day won’t be frothing at the mouth about this, but you’ll find pro- and anti-metric advocacy groups and they do manage to keep themselves worked up enough to function. One anti- group argues for the inherent logic of feet and inches because the foot divides so neatly into quarters. So let’s take the argument seriously enough to look at how this eminently sensible system developed.

England emerged from the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages with a rich collection of measurements. Here’s a quick and highly incomplete survey. The data’s mostly from the Britannica and the link covers only a few bits of it. I could turn the whole post blue with Britannica links but one will get you into the general vicinity. You can to explore from there if you want it all.

The furlong started out as the length of a plowed furrow–a distance that would have varied from place to place and field to field. 

The rod varied from nine to twenty-eight feet and was sometimes called a perch or a pole.

An acre was the area that a yoke of oxen pulling a wooden plow could plow in one day. Predictably enough, that varied too.

The foot was initially based on the human foot–which you may have noticed isn’t a standard size. That’s why they don’t make one-size-fits-all shoes.

The mile was based on a Roman measurement, the mille passus, which was a thousand paces as measured by your average Roman legionary, who by the Middle Ages wasn’t around to measure it anymore so they had to settle for your average English peasant. Or possibly your average English aristocrat, who would have been better fed and probably taller, with a longer stride.

And here we’ll abandon boldface type so I can rearrange my sentences a bit.

In 1500 (or thereabouts, since we’re using imprescise measures), the old London mile measured eight furlongs, or 5,000 feet. How big was a foot just then? Funny you should ask. They were using the Germanic foot, which was bigger than the foot England adopted a little later, under Elizabeth, which meant the mile changed to 5,280 feet.

I don’t know what went into the decision to change it. Maybe Liz had small feet.

The Irish mile was 6,720 feet and the Scottish mile was 5,952 feet.

Meanwhile, Cornwall was working with a whole different set of measurements. The mile was 16,694.32194 feet, or a bit over three of I’m not sure who else’s miles–probably the ones we use today. The Cornish bushel was three Winchester bushels, or 18 gallons, and used for barley, wheat, and potatoes.

The what bushel? The Winchester bushel was a royal standard, named after the capital of tenth-century England, where Edgar the Peaceable kept a royal bushel to measure other bushels against. It sounds like something out of a fairy tale: If your bushel was too small, you’d have to find your way out of a subterranean labyrinth with only a potato to guide you –and the potato hadn’t made it to England from the Americas yet.

Edgar is also notable for having divorced an Elfleda to marry an Elfrida.

Winchester is not in Cornwall and Cornwall was an independent country in Edgar’s time. The Winchester bushel is just a point of reference–a rare standard measurement in an unstandardized time.

The Cornish apple gallon was seven pounds, although a plain old gallon was ten pounds. The Cornish pound was eighteen ounces but that seems to have applied only if you were measuring butter.

The warp was four fish. The burn was twenty-one fish. The mease was five hundred and five herrings. A knight’s fee was four Cornish acres.

Let’s cross the Tamar–that’s the river that forms Cornwall’s border–before we get too dizzy to find our way.

In 1215, the Magna Carta called for standard measurements with the desperate-sounding phrase “let there be one measure.” It wasn’t one of its more effective clauses. No one was around to enforce it, and over the years various gestures were made in the direction of standardization. Let’s review a random few of them:

In the sixteenth century, the rod was defined as the length of the left feet of sixteen men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church. That was easiest to measure on a Sunday unless you wanted to assemble and choreograph the crowd yourself.

No, I don’t know why it had to be the left feet. Or leaving a church. Do feet change size during church services? 

That was–I suppose we should have guessed this–meant as a way to memorize the length of the rod, not as a standard for it. I probably shouldn’t include it as a gesture toward standardization, but it’s too good to leave out.

In 1668, John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, was still calling for standardized measurements and added that units should increase by a factor of ten and create some simple relationship between length and volume. He was accused of being a spy for the European Union and since it didn’t exist yet he was banished into the far future, where he went on to lead a pro-metric organization.

In 1707, England celebrated its union with Scotland by imposing the English measuring system on Scotland. If Scotland didn’t vote, then and there, to join the European Union, the Euro, and the metric system, it was only because none of them had been created yet. It’s one of those lost opportunities that history’s so full of.

But enough. Let’s talk about Imperial measures.

The British Imperial System was created by a law passed in 1824 and again in 1878, which may speak to the effectiveness of the first one. Anything before 1824 was an English unit, and anything after was an Imperial unit. The Imperial gallon now held the same amount whether it was full of wine, ale, wheat, or dog sick. The yard and the pound were standardized. The rod and the chaldron (you measured coal with that) were abolished. So was lining up heel to toe after church.

The system was eminently sensible: A pound weighed a pound. A stone weighed fourteen pounds. A hundredweight weighed a hundred and twelve pounds–and still does. Please don’t ask me to explain that.

The U.S., just to be difficult, adopted most of the same measurements but gave them different values, ensuring that no conversation would be understood the same way if the participants came from opposite sides of the Atlantic. This leaves us with not just a ton but a short ton and a long ton, a short hundredweight (which, unfathomably, weighs a hundred pound) and a long hundredweight.

But we’re not done with the Imperial System: It kept the troy pound (240 pennyweight) and the avoirdupois pound (16 ounces or 7,000 grains). And of course, apothecaries’ weights.

The troy pound is used for precious metals and jewels. Apothecaries’ weights are a version of troy weights but not quite the same. Because why should you have one pound when you can have three?

I could go on–grains, drams, scruples, gills, minims–but let’s stop.

The point is that any fool can memorize this between the morning’s first sip of tea and the second one, before the caffeine has even had time to kick in. It’s simple: You have 16 ounces to the pound, 16 drams to the ounce, and 27.344 grains to the dram.

Of course, that’s only for the avoirdupois pound. Troy pounds have 12 ounces to the pound, 20 pennyweight to the ounce, and 24 grains to the pennyweight.

We’ll leave apothecaries’ pounds alone. That’s where you get into scruples. I have a few of those left, but like all apothecaries’ measurements they’re very small.

Skip forward, then, to the twentieth century, when the metric system was sneaking into Britain by way of scientists and businesspeople. One group liked to have measurement-related conversations with colleagues from countries that already used the metric system and the other group exported to those countries. Both thought it’d be simpler if they could use a system any fool could understand. Assorted committees and politicians talked about introducing the metric system but then looked down the barrel of history, heritage, and the tabloid newspapers and lost their nerve.

Until 1965, when the government announced a ten-year program during which the country would shift over voluntarily. Goals were set. Measures were recalibrated. Change was encouraged. Eventually, Britain would shift to the metric system and everyone would be happy.

This wasn’t simple. You had hard metrication, where the size of standard objects changed. You had soft metrication, where the object stayed the same but was measured in a new language. And you had viagra metrication, where the user needed a bit of help to toggle between soft and hard metrication.

Service stations changed over more or less by accident. Petrol (or gas, if you speak American) pumps were built to switch between liters and gallons so they could continue working in gallons for the time being, but that only worked when the price was under £1.999 per gallon. Above that level, they spoke metric and only metric. So when the oil prices went up, the industry threw its hands in the air and asked to be switched over so they wouldn’t have to pay for new pumps.

Many things changed and some didn’t, and no one could have predicted which would fall on which side of the divide: Road distances and speeds are still measured in miles and yards. Land is measured in acres. In pubs, cider and beer on tap (or draught if you speak British) are still sold in imperial units, but wine, whiskey, rum, and all their friends and relations are sold in metric units. Which makes perfect sense to a country that invented the gill, the scruple, and the minim. 

And even though Britain still sells petrol (or gas) by the liter, it measures fuel efficiency in miles per gallon. 

British politics and trade became more deeply integrated into Europe and a deadline was set for Britain to go metric. But by 1979, metrication had stalled. Polls were taken and people didn’t seem happy. Britain asked for a later date for the shift to the metric system. Then it asked for a later date than that.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who was the not-happiest of all? Why, the retail industry was the not-happiest of all, and eventually the postponements came to an end. That’s when a group of market traders got themselves arrested for boycotting the metric system. They weighed their produce on scales that used only the Imperial System and posted their prices only in pounds and ounces. When they were arrested, they called themselves the Metric Martyrs, and they were convicted and lost their appeals all the way to the House of Lords (which didn’t want to hear about it) and the European Court of Human Rights, which didn’t think using the Imperial System was a human right.

The original court case considered precedent all the way back to the Magna Carta, so let’s dredge up the full quote from the M.C. instead of the shortened form I quoted earlier. In true micro-managing form, it said, “Let there be one measure for wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure for ale, and one measure for corn, namely ‘the London quarter’; and one width for cloths whether dyed, russet or halberget, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same with weights as with measures.”

An ell is a measure used only for cloth. Russet in this context isn’t a color, it’s a kind of cloth–one common people wore. No one knows quite what halberget is, which seems appropriate. Listing the various kinds of cloth gives me the impression that they not only didn’t measure distance the same way they measured cloth, they didn’t measure any two kinds of cloth the same way.

The defeat of the Metric Martyrs brought Britain fully into its current  ideal and semi-metric chaos.

Voting once is such fun, they’re voting twice: How Britain chooses a prime minister

It’s already strange that 160,000 (give or take we don’t know how many) members of a single party will choose Britain’s prime minister without the rest of the country getting a say, but the strangeness doesn’t end there. The election of the Conservative Party’s next leader is run by rules the party makes for itself, and the winner gets to lead the country because the Conservatives have–.

Okay, this is awkward. They don’t have a majority in the House of Commons. They have more MPs than anyone else and they borrowed several from a Northern Ireland unionist party to make a thin majority. But hey, everyone else is such a mess that it looks like a commanding position right now.

So what do they do? Having narrowed their leadership candidates down to Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, they sent out ballot papers so all their members could choose between them. And to some they sent two ballot papers.

The BBC reports that ” the Conservative Party and the independent body hired to scrutinise the running of the leadership election were both unable to say how many ballot papers had been sent in error.” But the Conservative Party says it’s all going to be fine because the ballots say you mustn’t vote twice, so of course no one will.

“I know that they won’t vote twice, however tempting it might be,” Not Boris Johnson, who’s behind in the polls, said. “I’m asking them not to because we want this to be an absolutely fair election”

He also said, “Of course I’m going to trust the result.”

The two candidates have been trying to out-Brexit each other, out fight-crime each other, and out-depress the rest of us.

The vote closes on July 22 and the results will be announced on the 23rd. And now excuse me while I go see if ice cream really does cure depression.