Is Berwick-upon-Tweed at war with Russia?

Legend has it that the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has been at war with Russia for decades. Or if you hear another version of the story, was at war for decades but made peace a while back. 

Berwick-upon-Tweed is England’s northernmost town, although if you tune in at another point in the long timeline of English-Scottish conflict, it was Scotland’s southernmost. It changed hands thirteen times in its history.

Its name comes from either the Old English word for barley or from the Celtic word for an estuary confluence. How that’s different from a plain old estuary I don’t know, but you can take your pick on its origins. Both languages are relevant,  and we weren’t there so we’ll never know for sure anyway.

When B-upon-T was founded, it was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which became part of England in the tenth century, taking little B-upon-T. with it. (That argues for the barley hypothesis.) Then in 1018, Scotland took the town over. By the middle ages, it was Scotland’s richest port, known as South Berwick to distinguish it from North Berwick, near Edinburgh. (That argues for the estuary.)

If you’re not confused yet, stay with me.

Irrelevant photo: After last week’s orange berries, we’re moving on to red berries. I really do need to get out and take some new pictures. There’s an entire world out there–or so they tell me.

In 1296, the town became English again, and so on back and forth. Some of those changes involved raids, sieges, massacres, and other stuff that wasn’t fun to live through. Or die from. Others involved the town being sold or ceded, which is high-handed but by comparison looks pretty good. Finally in 1482–.

Well, here’s where it gets complicated: The town became English, and legal documents called it a kingdom of England but not within England, and if you understand what that means you’re miles ahead of me. What I can tell you is that it was under English control but–.

But what? I’m not sure, but the but’s important.

The clearest explanation I’ve found comes from the Daily Beast, which says the wording made Berwick, like Wales, semi-sovereign. Any royal decree that didn’t specifically mention it excluded it. That continued until 1746, when the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act was passed, but the tradition of mentioning it stumbled on anyway.

Mostly.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that most of my information comes from Wikiwhatsia, a source I avoid anytime I can find one that sounds more respectable, but except for a BBC article and the Daily Beast, everything about Berwick is about how to visit the castle, the bridge, the town walls, and all the many, many places to spend tour money. Or else they were even less authoritative. So Wikiwhatsia it is.

Back when I worked as a copy editor, I did some work for the branch of Macmillan that published speciality encyclopedias and I vividly remember reading (I’ve forgotten where but probably in the local newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune) that on average Wikiwhatsia was at least as accurate as the more respectable encyclopedias. The editor I worked for at the time was less than happy to hear that, especially since the article mentioned the bio of a fictitious person that some pissed-off writer or editor slipped into a thoroughly respectable encyclopedia and that was repeated in subsequent editions. 

My sense of humor isn’t universally welcome.

Anyway, the trick with Wikiwhatsia is to catch your entry on an average day, since the wikiness leaves it open to brief moments of complete insanity.

But we were talking about Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Once it settled into English hands, it became a well-defended border town, and in 1551 it was made a self-governing county corporate.

A what?

A city or town important enough to be independent of its county. The category dates back to the medieval period,

So Berwick was governed by English law and was its own county, Berwickshire, until 1885, when it was folded into Northumberland. And there things sat until the 1970s, when four separate laws managed to simplify and complicate things. One of them, the Interpretation Act of 1978, says, without cracking a smile, that any reference to England in legislation passed between 1967 and 1974 “includes Berwick on Tweed.” And (for our purposes irrelevantly) Monmouthshire.

The legend that Berwick was (or is) at war with Russia grows out of all this murkiness. In 1853, the legend says, at the start of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria declared war on Russia by signing herself “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions.” Which is a bit like saying that I’m a citizen of Britain and my bathtub, but never mind.

The snag, according to this legend, is that the peace treaty that ended the war left out little Berwick, meaning it was still officially at war. According to the Daily Beast, the story was reported as fact in a New Zealand newspaper in 1914, then in a local (that means, I think, Berwickian) paper in 1926.

The Foreign Office investigated in the 1930s and again in 1965 (sometimes they run short of things to do and people who work there need to be kept  busy) and both times found no truth in the tale, but that wasn’t enough to put an end to it. In 1966, according to legend, a Pravda correspondent visited Berwick, met a town councillor, and the two of them declared peace. The councillor, Robert Knox, said, “Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Guardian’s supposed to have run a story on it. By the time the tale appeared in other papers, the Pravda reporter had become a Soviet official and the two sides had signed a peace treaty.

Did the papers really carry that story? I can’t confirm it and in a story where so many elements are questionable that would be worth doing. But they ran well before the internet sent its tendrils creeping into our brains and I don’t live where newspaper archives are easily (or even difficultly) available. If anyone wants to search, the original article is said to be in the Guardian of 28 December 1966. The follow-up articles are supposed to be in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. Your guess is as good as mine on the dates.

A 1970s BBC program went back to the original documents and found no mention of Berwick in the declaration of war, meaning that it’s not at war and making a disappointing end to the tale.

Allegedly. I haven’t seen the documents myself and I don’t know that anyone really did land on the moon. Or that any of you actually exist. You could all be elaborate fever dreams.

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So what’s Berwick-upon-Tweed like when it’s not at war against overwhelming odds? The BBC reports that Berwickers feel themselves to be Berwickers first and English or Scottish second. Not English second, you’ll notice, although they’re still oficially part of England. They still feel the choice is open to them, whether or not any particular government agrees.

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My thanks to John Russell for giving me a shove in the direction of this story. He also tells me that the Isle of Man is said to still be at war with the Kaiser. It’s roughly the same tale: They were–apparently–part of the declaration of war at the start of World War I but not of the peace. However, the only mention I’ve been able to find is on a discussion forum where someone wants to know whether, since the island’s still at war, he can shoot some random German.

I’d like to think he’s joking, or at least trying to.

I haven’t been able to find anything more authoritative–or more sensitble–than that. If someone can send me a link, I’d be grateful.

What people want to know about Britain, part thirteen-ish

It’s time to dip into the search engine questions that lead unsuspecting souls to Notes from the U.K. and see what it is they want to know about this green and pleasant land. The questions are in boldface type and I’ve reproduced them in all their oddity. And because my goal in life is to enlighten the ignorant world, I’ve done my best to provide the information they wanted. Even though the people who asked the questions will never wander back to find the answers. It keeps me occupied and mostly out of trouble.

CULTURE & LANGUAGE

good manners of britain

Yes, Britain has good manners. So do other countries, but no one notices because we’ve all been trained since early childhood to think British manners are good manners and other countries’ manners are rude flaming ignorance. We’ve also been trained to think a British accent is classy and other accents need a bath. This is all rampant bullshit, of course, and a hand-me-down from the British empire, but good luck convincing anyone of it.

When I say “a British accent,” what I really mean is an accent the listener can identify as British, which won’t come anywhere close to the full range of British accents. And when I say “no one” and “we’ve all,” what I really mean is the group of people I happen to be thinking about. I’m not quite silly enough to think I’m talking about everyone

Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

why do americans say derby instead of ‘darby’

Because that’s how it’s spelled. D e r b y: derby. Americans are naive like that. In spite of all the evidence that points the other way–and, boy, does the English language point the other way–they still think that if a word’s spelled with an E it gets pronounced as if it had an E.

Silly people.

brits think americans are too loud

THEY DO? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

swear words england vs american

If you have to look up swear words, they won’t work for  you. Swear words are very particular about who they’ll work for. Stick with the vocabulary you understand. It’ll have more impact. 

should word anglophile be capitaluzed?

Capitaluzed? No. Some people capitalize it, though. Others don’t. Because I’m retired (I used to be an editor; now I’m just an everyday fussbudget), I’m not going to chase down definitive sources. You’re probably safest capitalizing it, but you could defend either choice. 

Which isn’t much of an argument. People defend all kinds of stupidity. That doesn’t make it right.

POLITICS

should all male mps wear a jacket in the commons

Oh, absolutely. Otherwise British politics would degenerate into the kind of farce where people who support staying in the EU throw all their weight behind leaving because it keeps them in power for another twenty minutes; where people argue against a second referendum in the name of democracy; and where amateurs run the government. Heavens to Betsy, we wouldn’t want that.

stockings in the house of commons

It’s not smart to make guesses about anything as improbable as the British parliament, but I’m about to: I’m fairly sure Christmas stockings don’t play much of a role there. The MPs are too old to believe in Santa Claus, although a few still claim to. On top of which, they go home over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so if Santy exists, he has to look for them there.   

mps are not allowed to wear armor

This is as shocking as it is true: They are not allowed to wear armor in the House of Commons, and it’s a stain on British democracy.

On the other hand, they (like everyone else in the land) are allowed to wear armor outside the House of Commons. On the train going home, say. At the corner store. It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and they’ll get some odd looks, but I’ve never heard of a law that  prevents it.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS

If search engine questions are a fair representation of what the world’s interested in, the world is obsessed with brussels sprouts. I could turn Notes into the leading (and only) brussels sprouts blog and make a real success of it. Depending, of course, on how we define success.

Here’s a sampling of the brussels sprouts questions.

why do we eat sprouts at christmas

To make sure we’re on Santa’s good list.

why do we have sprouts at christmas bbc

Good question, BBC. The world’s waiting to hear from you on this important topic. Why are you leaving it to amateurs like me to fabricate answers? This is the height of irresponsibility.

the tradition of why we eat spr54otes

The truly traditional Christmas dinner doesn’t involve spr54otes, it involves plain sprouts, of the brussels variety. The 54 was added in recent years as people became aware of how important fiber is to a healthy diet. And the U? It still feels bad about Americans having dropped it from so many words and it’s sitting out this round to make a point about how much it has to contribute.

why do cross a sprout

To get to the other side?

plumpudding brussel

No, people. There is a limit. Never put brussels sprouts in your plum pudding.

OTHER FOOD & DRINK

what percentage is american beer

That depends on what percentage of what. The world’s beer output?

what do they call brownies in england

Brownies.

SIZE

why are english roads so narrow / why are english streets so narrow

Because of the houses on either side, some of which were there before cars came along. Also because of the fields. And the hedges, and the stone walls. And because, you know, they’ve been that size for a long time and it works, so why mess with it? And incidentally because they take less space.

Isn’t it odd how people go to another country, full of excitement to see something different, and then judge if by the standards of the place they left. And find it failed to meet them.

why is britain called great britain when it is small

Because it has an inferiority complex and needs to puff itself up as much as possible. We try not to talk about it, okay?

TRADITIONS

yale door company knob throwing contest

You can find Yale locks in many American doors. And, according to a quick internet search, also in Australian, Indian, New Zealand (New Zealandish?), and British doors. If the company makes doors, as opposed to locks, they’re keeping the information off the internet. But doors have door knobs, and some door knobs have locks in them, and Yale does make those. So we have a connection here.

But the whole thing breaks down after that. The Dorset knob throwing contest isn’t about throwing door knobs, much less whole doors, it’s about throwing a biscuity thing called a knob, which is a bit sweet and, at least as I remember it, too light to throw well, but you shouldn’t take my word on that, you should go and find out for yourself. The next contest is on May 5, 2019.

Leave your door at home. Also your door knob. They’ll provide all the Dorset knobs you need.  

 

Dark skies in England

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is asking people to help measure how dark England’s skies are. To participate, you look for the constellation Orion and see how many stars you can count inside it without using binoculars or a telescope. Only you have to do it sometime between this exact minute and February 23.

And if this exact minute happens to be noon? You wait till after 7 pm because night is when it gets dark.

Do I have to explain everything?

The best time to do this is the first week of February, when there’ll be less light from the moon. You also want to wait for a good clear night, otherwise the exercise is pointless. If you see ten or fewer stars (not counting the corner stars), you’re in a light-polluted area. Thirty or more is dark, dark, dark.

To find Orion, you read the article I linked to above, because there’s no point in me repeating it, then you take a look at the photo in this one, which gives you a better idea of what Orion looks like and where the corner stars are. Then you go back to the first site and report your findings.

The point of the exercise is to raise awareness of light pollution, which according the campaign interferes with sleep patterns in humans and messes with wildlife, and to get localities to modify their lighting as much as possible.

The point of me writing about this is that it’s good to know that someone cares, and that people can pitch in. Even though, I admit, it’s a long way from being the biggest problem we face.

British traditions: the ceremonial mace

Let’s talk about ceremonial maces. Because, um–.

Never mind the because. Let’s talk about them anyway.

In December 2018, an MP (that’s a member of parliament, and let’s not bother with the capital letters; they bore me) seized the ceremonial mace and started out the door with it.

What ceremonail mace? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why he grabbed it. It was to protest the way the government was handling Brexit. (A quick translation: Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union, and pretty much everybody, from every party and every point of view, was protesting the way it was being handled. Even the people who supported it opposed it, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s a sign that you understand the situation. It’s still a mess, but I write these posts well in advance and by now it’s a slightly different mess.There’s always room at the bottom.)

Irrelevant photo, to cheer us up after a mention of Brexit: This is not a ceremonial mace but an azalea. In a pot whose color doesn’t do much for the flowers. Sorry.

Now let’s go back to where we were before those pesky parentheses and the irrelevant photo got in the way. The MP grabbed the mace and headed for the door, walking as if he was leading some sober ceremony in full silly dress, complete with lace frills and an ermine robe. Not that he was wearing anything silly or that MPs get to wear ermine robes. That’s reserved for members of the House of Lords and only on special occasions. But carrying the thing made him surprisingly stately, either because of the weight of the mace or the weight of tradition. Even when you’re disrespecting it, the mace makes you move respectfully.

Before he got to the door, he let someone take it away from him and she carried it back to its place, equally ceremoniously.

And that was enough to create a huge flap. Because people take this stuff seriously. So seriously that he was probably relieved to let someone take it away before he got out the door and had to decide what to do next. Lean it in a corner in his office? Take it home on the bus and store it in the bathtub? Head for the pawn shop and see what it’s worth?

The MP told reporters, “The symbolic gesture of lifting the mace and removing it is that the will of Parliament to govern is no longer there, has been removed. I felt Parliament had effectively given up its sovereign right to govern properly.

“They stopped me before I got out of the chamber and I wasn’t going to struggle with someone wearing a huge sword on their hip.”

I’ve watched a video of the incident and I couldn’t see who had a sword, huge or otherwise, but given the symbolic silliness that goes on in parliament I’m sure he didn’t make it up. Of course someone would be running around with a sword. I doubt the sword’s sharp enough to cut anything tougher than cheese, but I don’t really know that. Maybe tradition insists that it has to be sharpened daily. I have a nice block of local cheddar in the refrigerator in case anyone wants to experiment.  

Now let’s go back to the question of what the mace is. The Radio Times–which isn’t the place you’d normally go for political reporting–says, “The ceremonial mace is a five-foot-long, silver gilt ornamental staff that represents the royal authority of Parliament. Without the mace, Parliament cannot meet or pass laws.”  

Seriously?

Well, they all think so, so they make sure it’s true.

Oliver Cromwell made an impressive demonstration of its power and at the same time won the prize for most effective mace-grab: In 1653, he got frustrated with the MPs and told the Commons, “I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting.” Then he told his soldiers to walk off with that “fool’s bauble,” a.k.a. the mace, which they did and since the swords were on their hips no one stopped them.

After that, he threw the MPs out of the House and locked the door. A month later, he formed another parliament–one he figured he could get along with. 

So there.

Whether he brought back the mace so they could pass laws or they went ahead without it I don’t know. If anyone does, I’d love to hear from you. 

According to WikiWhatsia, maces originated in the ancient Middle East during the late stone age and were symbols of authority. It says, “A ceremonial mace is a highly ornamented staff of metal or wood, carried before a sovereign or other high official in civic ceremonies by a mace-bearer, intended to represent the official’s authority. The mace, as used today, derives from the original mace used as a weapon.” 

The mace that the Commons depends on is a symbol of royal authority. It’s carried in every day by the “Serjeant at Arms. It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.”

In contrast, the House of Lords has two maces, probably to prove they’re better than the Commons. One is placed (ceremoniously, I’m sure) on the woolsack before the House meets but isn’t placed there if the monarch comes to the chamber. Presumably because the monarch represents royal authority more impressively than a five-foot silver gilt symbol of monarchy.

I have no idea where the other mace is. Probably gathering dust ceremoniously under the Lord Speaker’s bed.

The woolsack? That’s what the Lord Speaker sits on, of course.

Stop that giggling in the back. We’re trying to learn something here.

The woolsack tradition started when Edward III (1327–1377) ordered his Lord Chancellor to sit on a bale of wool while in council. At the time, the lord chancellor presided in the Lords, so that’s where the woolsack went to live and that’s where it stayed.

This wasn’t just wooly thinking. Wool was central to the economy. The lord chancellor was to remember that. 

You want scandal, though? In 1938, someone discovered that the woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. It was duly taken apart and restuffed with wool. By rights, they should’ve gone back and un-passed every law that had made its way through the Lords while the speaker was sitting on the imposter wool sack, but World War II wasn’t far away and people were distracted.

Sprinkle a little salt on that, would you? On the first part of the sentence, please, not the second.

Anyway, the Lords can’t meet or pass laws without their mace either. And if the woolsack’s stuffed with horsehair, they can’t know about it or they’ll all have to burn their wigs.

Salt, please.

By now the Americans among us (and possibly a few other nationalities; I can’t predict that) are laughing helplessly, not because I’m funny but because of all these sober traditions. I can predict the American reaction because I’m close to that state myself and I’m still mostly American. If anyone wants to discuss what it means to be mostly American, let me know. I’m happy to wander off down that dark alley. But for now, allow me to sober everyone up: The U.S. House of Representatives has its own ceremonial mace, and if it’s not in place, then the House isn’t meeting. That’s not quite the same as saying the House can’t meet without it, but the two symbols are within spitting distance of each other.

Any number of state legislatures have them as well.

If you’re still giggling, think about how many Americans get worked up over someone burning the flag. Not because the thing has any intrinsic value–it’s just a piece of cloth–but because of its symbolism. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in other countries, but  let’s agree that we can all get silly about this stuff and mistake a symbol for a law of physics.

Because the British mace is so freighted with symbolism, periodically some MP or other loses it and grabs the mace. Or doesn’t lose it but makes a calculated decision to grab the mace, because if you want to make a point–not to mention the front pages and the 6 o’clock news–grabbing the mace is a reliable way to do it. It probably won’t be good publicity, but they will at least spell your name right. Or try to.

Stale news from here and there

Heroic Medical Experimentation: Sometime last year, six doctors in the U.K. and Australia used themselves as guinea pigs and each swallowed the head of a Lego figure to find out how long it would take to find its way out.

The answer is between 1.1 and 1.7 days. To measure this, they developed the FART score (Found and Retrieved Time) and the SHAT score (Stool Hardness and Transit). Without those two scores, the experiment would’ve been just as measurable but wouldn’t have gotten half the publicity.

Toys are the second most common things kids swallow. I’m not sure what the first most common is, but our neighbor’s kid swallowed a coin and the clever devils in A & E (that’s Accident and Emergency–the equivalent of an Emergency Room) used a metal detector to figure out if it had gone into his stomach (safe) or lungs (dangerous). It kept them from having to expose him to unnecessary x-rays.

He’s fine.

Irrelevant photo: A cyclamen, one of those magical British plants that bloom in the winter.

Two things you should know about the experiement: 1. The researchers don’t recommend trying it at home. 2. The experiment doesn’t prove that Lego heads are smarter than mice. Mice in experiments run through mazes where they have to choose one direction or another. The Lego heads followed the only path available to them.

Kids do not, as a rule, swallow mice.

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Department of Eternal Youth: The man who asked a Dutch court to declare him twenty years younger than–how am I going to put this? It’s difficult, because what he asked for falls off the edge of the English language, not to mention the edge of logic. Let’s try it this way: He asked the court to change the year he was born because he didn’t feel his emotional state and physical condition matched the number of years he’d been bumping around the planet. Also because he wanted a better response on Tinder. Anyway, the court turned him down, saying he was free to feel and act twenty years younger if he liked, but his age would remain his age.

The photo that accompanies the article doesn’t make him look like a man who’s twenty years younger than his birth certificate claims. He looks like a man who’d doctor his mirror, mirror on the wall so it shows him what he wants to see.

He plans to appeal–either the court’s decision or the mirror’s.

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Defining Human Rights: While we’re on the other side of the English Channel, a Belgian prince claimed the government violated his human rights by taking 15% off his annual £280,000 endowment. Actually, it was figured in euros–308,000 of them, but I don’t have a euro sign on my keyboard, so I shifted to pounds, knowing that you’d never notice.

The relationship of pounds to euros in constantly shifting, depending largely on who’s screwed up how badly on Brexit and how recently. Forget about me updating it, because it’ll be out of date an hour later. That was the relationship between the two at some point. It almost surely no longer is, but it’ll do.

What did the prince do to make them cut his allowance? He’s been running around meeting with the representatives of foreign states, sometimes in full naval uniform, without the government’s okay. He’d have gotten away with it if he hadn’t tweeted a picture of himself.

The cut of 15%, he said, would “deprive him and his family of all livelihoods.”

It’s tough out there, kids. And the dry cleaning expenses for those uniforms are shockingly high.

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Great Moments in International Diplomacy; And now let’s zip across a bit more water to the United States. I don’t usually write about American politics, mostly because they make me lose my sense of humor. British politics can get depressing, but every so often the people involved will dress up in knee breeches or ermine robes or treat a centuries-old ceremonial mace as if it held actual power. That cheers me up every time. What can American politics do to match that?

Still, let’s have a quick visit: Back in June of 2018, the person Trump would later pick for ambassador to the U.N., Heather Nauert, displayed her grasp of history and diplomacy by saying, “When you talk about Germany, we have a very strong relationship with the government of Germany. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day landing. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government.

I don’t know if satire really is dead, but I do know it has a hell of a mountain to climb before it can exaggerate the stupidity that passes for normal lately.

Please note: I’m writing this in December and scheduling it for January. I often write my posts well in advance of the time they go live. If by the time you read this, we’ve had two or three more nominees for the post, or two or three different confirmed ambassadors, don’t blame me. If you want your news in a sensibly timely fashion, you need to read a newspaper.

What hasn’t changed in that time is history. The D-Day landing was not a high point in German-American cooperation and good will. 

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Feel-Good News: Two U.S. debt-collection industry executives had a life-changing moment, triggered by I don’t know what, when they realized the crushing effect that medical debt has on people. In response, they became former debt-collection industry executives. More than that, they formed a nonprofit, R.I.P. Medical Debt, that buys up medical debt for roughly half a penny on the dollar and then forgives it.

The group has wiped out $434 million worth of medical debt, freeing some 250,000 people (plus their families) from its burden. The organization targets people who are in financial trouble, facing foreclosure, or earning less than twice the national poverty level.

It’s an all-around feel-good story until you realize that the total past-due medical debt in the U.S. is more than $750 billion.

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Franz Kafka Department of Fighting Terrorism: An American-born theater historian, David Mayer, who lives in Britain, got on a U.S. terrorist watch list because a Chechen Isis member, Akhmed Chatayev, once used the name David Mayer, along with many others. You’d think it would be a simple problem to sort out since David Mayer the historian 1, isn’t Chechen, 2, was born decades before Chatayev, and 3, unlike Chatayev is both alive and the owner of a matching set of arms, one on the left and one on the right. Chatayev, before he died, was known as Akhmed the One-Armed.

No such luck, though. None of that’s been enough to prove that he’s a different person.

Being on the list means Mayer the historian can’t receive packages or mail from the U.S. Why would it endanger anyone if he did? No idea, but he can’t. He found out he had a problem when he tried to buy an old theater poster off Ebay. The U.S. wouldn’t let it out of the country.

He has been able to fly, but he carries his discharge papers from the Korean War to show with his passport. They’ve helped, although I can’t begin to explain why they’re more convincing than having two arms. Papers can be forged. Arms, at the moment, can’t be.

Mayer’s been trying to get himself off the list for two years but hasn’t even been able to find out what list he’s trying to get off of. 

In 2016, a Muslim ten-year-old in the north of England wrote on a school paper that he lived in a terrorist house. Teachers are required to report any suspected extremism, so they did and the cops turned up at his house the next day. His parents did their best to explain that he meant “terraced house,” which is British for a row of houses that are attached to each other by their side walls.

The police and county government issued a statement saying it was “untrue to suggest that this situation was brought about by a simple spelling mistake” and also that “No concerns were identified and no further action was required by any agency.” Those sound to me like they contradict each other, but what do I know about terraced houses?

The boy’s cousin said the kid was afraid to write anymore.

In 2018, a British woman filling out a visa waiver form for a trip to the U.S. accidentally checked yes in response to a question about whether she’d ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide.

And yes, that’s a perfectly a sensible question to put on a form, since anyone who’d done those things would, of course, say yes.

That moment’s inattention cost her more than £800. She had to rearrange her trip plus go through a couple of high-stress interviews with the U.S. embassy. She did at least get to go, and she can, as far as I can tell, still receive mail from the U.S.

She may or may not live in a terraced house.

It gets better: A three-month-old baby was identified as a terrorist by his grandfather, who was filling out the same form for him. The baby was summoned for an interview. The grandfather reports that the officials didn’t seem to have a sense of humor so it’s probably just as well that they didn’t dress him in an orange jumpsuit. The whole thing cost them an extra £3,000.

In 2016, a flight was delayed when the seatmate of a professor working some mathematical equations reported that he might be engaged in suspicious activity. The seatmate got off the plane. The captain interviewed the professor and decided it was safe to fly.

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Public Involvement: Back in Britain, the minister of a church in Aylsham decided to make services interactive by letting parishioners use an app to register their opinions on hymns and create a word cloud of things they’re praying for.

I don’t suppose it’ll make the papers when someone writes that they’re praying for the end of the sermon.

One of my favorite attempts to make people feel they’ve been consulted about things they don’t control sits at the end of a British airport security checkpoint. Let’s take a minute to visit it:

You’ve just dripped free from narrow end of the security check’s funnel, frazzled and shoeless, and you’re still trying to assemble your phone and computer and belt and change and, oh my gawd, where did you put your passport?, and there sits this panel with buttons, asking how your experience with airport security was today. The buttons are big, each one’s a different, attractive color, and you get to push one to say your experience was ecstatic, fine, tolerable, or terrifying.

Okay, I’ve made up the categories, but you get the idea.

When I walked past it, a girl and boy were punching the buttons, one after another after another after another. They were having a wonderful time, and their parents were so relieved to see them occupied with something that didn’t break, complain, or cost money that they let the kids slam their happy fists on the buttons for many minutes.

I don’t believe for half a second that anyone looks at the results of that survey, or even that the buttons are hooked up to anything, but it was a reminder of what it’s worth when a massive bureaucratic system asks our opinion.

Public consultation’s a thing in Britain. It has to be done, usually after all the decisions have been made, and if one more authority consults me about things they aren’t about to change, I’m going to start throwing things.

*

Swearing and Kids: People working in British nursery schools are reporting an increase in how often kids swear. I probably shouldn’t think that’s funny–I believe swearing should be reserved for those who understand the meaning and implications of the words they’re saying–but all the same, I do think it’s funny.

Someone I know used to work in a daycare center, and just when the inspectors from some important department or other walked through, Kid 1 was about to hit Kid 2 over the head with a toy truck. The person who told me the story magicked the truck out of Kid 1’s hands and said, “We don’t hit people here. Use your words.”

In response to which, Kid 1 said, “Fuck you, Kid 2.”

The inspectors were impressed all to hell and back.

But that was in the U.S. It has no bearing on swearing in Britain. It’s just a story I always wanted to drop in somewhere.

*

Swearing and Santa: Where are all these kids learning to swear? Well, a Santa Claus in Cambridgeshire, which is conveniently located in the U.K., came raging out of his grotto this past Christmas, tearing off his beard and yelling at fifty or so kids to “get the fuck out.”

A fire alarm had gone off and the kids were already on their way out, but apparently not fast enough. One parent speculated that thumping music from a kids’ rave (a kids’ rave? don’t ask me) downstairs had already driven Santa to the breaking point when the fire alarm started screaming.

Another parent said they told their kids that this wasn’t the real Santa and that he was going on the naughty list.

And this, my friends, is why you should never tell your kids that Santa’s real. You can’t predict when Santa’s going to tear off his beard and teach your kids to swear, after which all they’ll want for Christmas is another handful of those powerful, forbidden words. And they’ll never believe anything you tell them again.

I expect the shit to fly over my having said that, but I’m actually quite serious about it. 

*

What Santa Didn’t Bring You: It’s a little late for Christmas, but Harrods was (and probably still is) selling a hand-painted refrigerator for £36,000. 

I found several articles about it, with photos, so this seems to be far more real than Santa Claus, but I can’t find it on Harrods’ website, possibly because Lord Google knows I’m not a serious customer and tucked it away so it wouldn’t get shopworn. You don’t want unworthy eyes wearing the paint off it.

I did find a £500 hand-painted toaster and a £700 hand-painted blender. You can also buy a £600 kitchen mixer that isn’t hand painted. Just in case you’re struggling with the vexing question of how to get rid of your money fast enough and you don’t like hand-painted stuff.

You’re welcome. I’m here to help. But I still don’t think you should tell kids that Santa’s real.

Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.

If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.

Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:

Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.

I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. I know I’m engaging in un-British activities when I say this, but I’m grateful to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.

Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.

Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.

Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?

Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches. 

Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.

Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.

The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?

Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.

*

The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.

Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.

A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.  

Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.

The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”

MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”

If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.

All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.

All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.

So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country? 

The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.

*

But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.

That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.

*

But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves. 

Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.

*

A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along. 

A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:

“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.

*

Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.

The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.

How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.

I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.

Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.

But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.

For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.

I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.

The hazards of professional virginity

Like most people, Elizabeth I was born a virgin. Unlike most people, she made it into a career move.

Why wouldn’t she? She didn’t have a lot of conventional material to work with.  

Liz was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. When she was two and not yet thinking about career options, Henry had Anne beheaded and replaced her with an unsteady stream of wives. As wife replaced wife and minutely argued religious justification replaced tediously argued religious justification, Liz was alternately Henry’s legitimate child and his illegitimate child, a princess and not a princess, pushed off to the margins and brought into court to share in all the who-gets-it-next worries of Henry’s inner circle.

It all depended on which way the religious, political, and sexual winds were blowing. 

Irrelevant photo: A flower I don’t remember the name of.

Being born female wasn’t a great career move. Henry’s goal in life was to magic a male heir out of wife number whichever, and as he got older that seemed to depend more and more on magic, or at least on luck, than on the usual methods. And although Liz was said to be very bright, she never figured out how to grow the odd appendage that being a male heir depended on.

She was thirteen when her father died and her nine-year-old half-brother, Edward, became king. Or maybe he was ten. Maybe she was fourteen. It depends who you ask. I asked two different BBC posts, not some fly-by-night bloggers who make it up as they go along. (You know what bloggers are like.) The BBC’s generally reliable on these things, but Ed’s age a side issue, so let’s smirk and move on.

But let me insert a brief interruption here, since I’ve already interrupted myself. I’m about to stash Liz on the shelf for a while and talk about her relatives. And about religion. Because nothing in her life, including the whole virginity shtick, makes sense unless you know the background.

Edward was intensely Protestant (that’s a general link about the Tudors and the Reformation, not particularly about Edward), and more to the point, so were the men (or man–it’s complicated) who ran the country in his name. They set about consolidating the Protestant reformation that Henry, however inconsistently, had begun. If Henry can be said to have started the English reformation. Ask Lord Google something as simple as whether Henry was a Protestant and the answer seems to be yes. And also no. You can think of his Church of England as the Catholic Church but without a Pope. And with a bible in English instead of in Latin. And–

But we’re getting sidetracked. We weren’t talking about Henry, we were talking about Edward. He was Protestant, so everyone had to be Protestant, or at least live as if they were. Because that’s the way it was back then. The state and religion were as tangled together as that string of Christmas lights you drag out of the back of the closet every year. Or more so, because if you work at it you’ll get the lights untangled by Easter, but the religion and politics of the era were so completely welded together that you can just stop trying.

Liz was twenty (give or take a few months) when Edward died. After the collapse of a brief effort to put another Protestant on the throne, Liz’s sister, Mary, became queen. And Mary was as Catholic as Edward was Protestant, so now the country had to be Catholic. (The link is to a brief but interesting piece on Mary’s reign and the progression of her attempts to turn the country Catholic again.)

Mary brought back the old heresy laws. Protestants were burned at the stake. Everyone had a wonderful, time, thanks, and sent cards to say they wished we’d been there.

Then Mary died childless. It was a thing with the Tudors, not finding heirs where they expected them. So it’s time to take Liz off the shelf. 

Liz was now twenty-five, unmarried, female, and the new queen of an uneasy country. She was also Protestant, although more mildly so than Edward. She didn’t have a lot of choice about being Protestant. If she’d been a Catholic, her mother wouldn’t have been married, making Liz a bastard, which was an even worse career move than being a woman.

What kind of country was she now in charge of?

One that for years had been lurching from Catholicism to Protestantism to Catholicism, and now back to Protestantism. People holding church or public office had to swear that the queen, not the Pope, was the head of the English church. Everyone had to attend church or be fined for it. The service was in English, not Latin (score one for the Protestants), although it was full of fancy robes and incense and expensive toys (score one for the Catholis). The idea was to keep both sides happy and inside a single church. Liz famously said she didn’t want to open windows into men’s souls, meaing she didn’t care what they believed, but she did want them to play nice and do what she told them to, which included showing up at her church.

For a long time England had been a nervous place and it still was, with everyone looking over their shoulder, and over everyone else’s shoulder, wanting to know who hid Protestant books when the country was Catholic, who said an illegal Latin mass when the country was Protestant, who defended the Pope as the head of the English church when the monarch was its head or the other way around, not to meniton who claimed the queen was born not just a virgin but a bastard and who had a forbidden Jesuit priests hidden away.

And it wasn’t just individuals looking over their shoulders. Elizabeth’s government lived in fear of rebellion and invasion.

No one was being paranoid about any of this. Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth were real, as were rebellions. Spy networks searching for hidden Catholic priests were just as real. Catholic Spain tried to invade and was thwarted as much by the weather as by England’s navy. Everybody fought proxy wars in Ireland and the Netherlands. 

And just to complicate the picture, Protestant groups were pushing for a purer form of Protestantism, and predictably they weren’t all of one mind either. As soon as the bible became available in English for any literate person to read, it was also available for them to interpret, and their interpretations took them in a variety of directions.

Anabaptists believed in the separation of church and state and leaned toward social equality. Puritans wanted no bishops, no fripperies, no fun, and nothing that reminded them of Catholicism. We’ll skip over the other groupings and grouplets. It’s enough to know they existed. The one thing they all agreed on was that the Church of England was nothing more than a sugar-free version of the Catholic Church.

So this was a time of spies, plots, paranoia, torture, and bloodshed.

Who shed more blood, Elizabeth or Mary? I couldn’t find sources that would let me compare like with like, but I’m left with the impression that Mary wins–as in she killed more Protestants than Liz killed Catholics. But that hardly makes Liz’s reign a comfortable time.

Throughout this period, the country was split into three camps: 1. Catholics, who wanted freedom for their religion; 2. Protestants, who wanted freedom for their religion; and 3. people who were willing to be either Protestant or Catholic as long as whoever was in power would refrain from (a) throwing them in jail, (b) burning them at the stake, (c) fining them, or (d) noticing them at all in case they thought of something else to do to them.

This was before the introduction of public opinion, polls and if they’d been around you’d have had to be crazy to answer one honestly. Still, I think it’s a fair bet that the majority of the population fell into the third camp. They kept their heads down and if anyone had offered them a tin hat they’d have worn it as protection against the religious shrapnel that was flying in all directions.

What the country needed was stability–a nice long stretch of time when whatever the approved religion was didn’t change and people had time to get used to it. Enough time to remember what they were supposed to believe and, more importantly, what not to say in public.

And what did stability depend on? First off, the monarch had to not die.  Liz did a good job of that. Secondly, the monarch had to magic up an heir to the throne, preferably male, and here’s where Liz had a problem, because if there’s one thing everyone knows about virginity, it’s that it decreases the odds that you’ll produce a kid. And if your job title is virgin queen, you are now looking at an occupational hazard.

But virginity’s not a terminal condition, so why didn’t Liz marry?

There could’ve been a hundred emotional reasons, and if you’re writing historical fiction you have your choice of everything from early trauma to liking girls instead of boys. Sadly, we’re stuck with the facts, and we have none. Whatever Liz felt, she kept it to herself. This wasn’t a touchy-feely time. No one would’ve said, “Gee, Liz, that must’ve been hard. Want to sit down and have a good cry?”

So let’s look at the condition of women in Tudor England, because it explains a lot and it can be documented. Quick summary? It wasn’t a great time to be a woman. You can skip the next few paragraphs if that’s all you need to know.

Women were considered physically, intellectually, and emotionally weak. They not only weren’t fit to rule a country, they weren’t fit to rule a family. Hell, they weren’t fit to rule themselves. We’ll let the Scot John Knox stand in for an entire culture here. 

“God hath revealed to some in this our age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above man.”

Even a man who meant to praise Liz could only manage to say, “Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.” 

The era was still working with the medieval Great Chain of Being, with god at the top, followed by the various ranks of angels and after them the various ranks of humans. Among humans, kings were at the top, which gave them divine right to rule. Then came the varied ranks of nobles and the descending ranks of commoners. And in all these ranks, men were set above women. It was the natural order, as handed down by god himself. It was catalogued all the way down through dragonflies and snakes and plants and rocks.

Male rocks were set above female rocks.

Salt, please, someone.

So when Elizabeth took the throne, crown lawyers worked up a  theory called the king’s two bodies to legitimize her. She wasn’t a woman, exactly: 

“When she ascended the throne, according to this theory, the queen’s whole being was profoundly altered: her mortal ‘body natural’ was wedded to an immortal ‘body politic.’ ‘I am but one body, naturally considered,’ Elizabeth declared in her accession speech, ‘though by [God’s] permission a Body Politic to govern.’ ”

Got that?

Me neither. You pretty much had to be there for it to make sense. 

Now let’s back up a bit and talk about marriage in general. If women were weak, silly, emotional creatures, what happened when one of them married? Well, for everyone’s good, she stopped having to obey her father and started having to obey her husband, and any property she inherited became her husband’s. The best move a woman could make if she wanted her independence was to become a widow.

This, unfortunately, wasn’t always easy to arrange.

And if a queen married? She’d be expected to take second place to her husband, of course. When Liz’s brother was king, Thomas Seymour was executed for–allegedly–trying to marry Liz so he could rule the kingdom. The assumption was that as her husband he’d have that right.

Any queen who meant to rule her own kingdom would have been wise to stay single, because her husband would be expected to rule her and own the property she inherited–in other words, her kingdom.

So no marriage for Liz. She became a professional virgin, married to her country. She flirted diplomatically with the occasional suitor and shed them all when diplomacy either dictated or allowed.

Most of the available monarchs or near-monarchs were Catholic in any case. 

That left the problem of an heir. And I repeat, because it’s a complicated concept: Not producing children is an occupational hazard if you’re a professional virgin.

The best solution was to work up a cult around Liz’s virginity, turning it from a problem into a virtue. And so Liz has come down in history not just as an unmarried queen but as the Virgin Queen, ablaze with capital letters. England, its church, and its culture were only minutes away from Catholicism, and a cult around a virgin must’ve seemed natural. The culture already equated virginity–at least female virginity–with purity, which was useful. 

The cultural obsession with whether or not a woman’s ever had sex strikes me as completely bizarre, not to mention intrusive. But again, you had to be there. All cultures get trapped inside their ways of thinking, and when you’re inside one it’s hard to imagine any other way for a mind to work. If virginity equals purity, then who could step outside long enough to question it? 

The lack of an heir hung over her reign and she managed to avoid making a decision about who it would be until she was on her deathbed, when she made a sign that one of her advisors conveniently interpreted as meaning she’d chosen the successor he thought was the best of the available choices.

Funny how that works.

*

Now let’s take a minute to talk about sex in the Tudor era. It’s not exactly relevant, but I did stumble into some information and it’s not completely off the topic.

The Tudor Society website (“the Tudor Society is a well established Tudor history group,” whatever that means) says people “were forbidden to have sex during Lent, Advent, Feast Days, Fast Days, Easter Week, Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays…. Women were also forbidden to have sex when they were menstruating, pregnant, for the forty day period after giving birth or when they were breastfeeding.”

So few days were left that no business got done on non-feast, -fast, or -reproductively related Mondays, Tuesdays, or Thursdays. Or Fridays, when they were catching up on their sleep.

Salt.

“The act of sexual intercourse within marriage was to be done only in the missionary style and there was no room or allowance for experimentation. The Church also taught that the missionary position was the best way to conceive a male child and other positions could lead to creating a deformed child. The Church believed that both men and women needed to produce seed to create a child, therefore it was necessary that a woman obtained an orgasm. ” 

I’m not sure which church they mean here–Catholic or Church of England–but I doubt that particular set of beliefs changed with the shift from Latin to English and back again, so it doesn’t matter. 

What people want to know about Britain, part twelveish

What do people want to know about Britain? The results of a highly skewed and unreliable survey, based on the search engine questions that mislead people to Notes, show that they want to know about the following issues. 

Please note: The questions have been reproduced here in all their oddity.

A rare relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie, our resident cat expert.

CATS

can cats eat sticky toffee pudding

Yes. No law of physics or biology prevents that. Will it be good for them? No, but that’s not what you asked.

Is sticky toffee pudding good for humans? Absolutely. It makes us fat and happy. And sticky, which reminds us to wash, which is good for our health if not done to excess. 

Will cats stick to the bowl if they do eat sticky toffee pudding? No. It doesn’t acti like a glue trap. It’s sticky only when compared to your average dessert. You won’t end up rushing your cat and its bowl to the emergency vet, hoping to get dessert detached from cat while one is still edible and the other doesn’t yet have PTSD.

Are cats interested in eating sticky toffee pudding? Not as far as I know, but we don’t have any around the house so I can’t get an opinion from our resident cat expert (and, incidentally, cat), Fast Eddie. But he’s never asked for any any. That’s got to mean something, because if the neighborhood cats were all talking about how good it is, he’d have come home wanting some.

Cats are protein eaters. Meat for breakfast, meat for dinner, and meat for dessert.

Me? I’m a vegetarian. And in case I don’t sound pure enough, I’m (very) gradually losing my taste for desserts. I do swear fluently, mostly to make sure I’m still part of the human race. 

cats mine myself sweet

It’s hard to know how to answer that. It’s hard to know if it’s even a question. Still, I’ll do what I can.

Fast Eddie–I repeat, in case you skipped the last answer, that he’s our resident cat–can be sweet. He can also kill things, and does. Whether that’s sweet or not very much depends on your point of view.

Eddie’s still pissed off about that mouse my partner threw away. Yesterday he accused her of eating it herself. So even if we don’t talk about the rodents and the occasional bird, he’s not all sweetness.

In contrast (and to address the rest of the alleged question), I me mine myself do (or possibly does) not, for the most part, kill things. I make a reluctant exception for slugs and some bugs. I am not, however,  sweet.

I am also not a cat, although I wouldn’t mind having fur.

I’m glad we got all that straightened out. I feel we know each other much better now.

FOOD

Most questions about food, especially as we approach Christmas each year, are from people struggling to understand the religious symbolism of brussels sprouts in the Christmas tradition.

They have so come to the wrong place.  

why do we have sprouts at christmas

Because Santa doesn’t like you.

+what year did brussel sprouts became a thanksgiving tradition

As far as I know, that year hasn’t gotten here yet, but then I haven’t lived in the U.S. for something like thirteen years and things have gotten pretty weird over there since I left. So someone tell me: Has everyone suddenly decided that brussels sprouts are a Thanksgiving tradition? Because traditions sometimes get pasted in retroactively. All of a sudden a nation decides that some small ball of green leaves always was part of a traditional meal and even though people remember that they didn’t eat them when they were kids, they can still believe that it’s a tradition because, you know, their families were a bit odd and everyone else probably ate them. So no one says anything and the next thing you know we all believe it.

But more to the point, when did the plus sign at the beginning of a question become a thing? This isn’t the only search engine question that’s wandered in sporting one.

when was did we start to eat brussels sprouts at christmas

Six pm, and everyone’s finished but you. Eat up or Santa will ask about that “when was did” and won’t let you have any Christmas pudding. 

QUESTIONABLE TASTE

We’re isolating these questions in their own category so they don’t contaminate the rest of the batch. And when I say we, of course, I mean me mine myself cats. Ready? Got a strong stomach and an ability to get disturbing images out of your mind? If not, just skip these.

You’re reading on, aren’t you? You don’t have to, you know.

breastaurant

How did this question find me? Lord Google has decided that anything too odd to go someplace else shall henceforth come to me. Some of that I appreciate but, Lord G., you’ve pushed your luck with this one and I will not leave the usual tribute of data at your portal. In the meantime, whoever sent this, either learn to type or go somewhere else. People can’t necessarily choose not to be over-interested in one or another body part, but they can learn not to pester the rest of us about it. 

sainsburys sex tots

I can only hope we’re talking about Tater Tots here. Speaking only for myself, I’ve never found frozen, shredded, prefabricated potatoes even remotely sexy, but I do understand that everyone’s tastes are different and as long as no one gets hurt, hell, go ahead. But, honest, most of us don’t want the details and there’s a thin line between enjoying your sexuality and inflicting it on other people, at which point it becomes harrassment. So keep the details for those specialty chat sites, okay? And if Sainsburys–that’s a supermarket, in case you’re not British–has a Facebook page, it’s not one of the sites I was suggesting.

CLOTHES

the origins of wig in britain

There is only one wig in Britain, and this creates real problems in the court system. You think it’s budget cuts that are throwing it into chaos? It’s not. It’s all the lawyers and judges waiting for that one damn wig to circulate. They can’t say a word in court till it’s planted on their head.

And its origins? It was made by that Stradivarius of wig makers, Anonymous, in February of 1751. All the other wigs in the country have been torched.  

And if you’re new here, please watch for statements that are too absurd to believe. You’re not supposed to believe them. And more than that, you’re not meant to quote them as fact. Ideally, you’re supposed to take them with a grain of salt and laugh, but inevitably they won’t all work.

what does an mp wear

A cluster of these questions came over a couple of days, so either that’s one person returning several times to a site that wasn’t much help to start with or it’s a class assignment and some poor kids landed here, copied out everything I said, handed the assignment in, and got an F. The world is unkind.

So why did the question landed here? I googled “MP clothes” and found an assortment of sites for clothing sold or made by companies with an M and a P in their names, including MissPap, which sells clothes that are about as sleazy as you’d expect from a fashion house named after a vaginal smear test. Since I spent ten or so seconds on the site, I’ll probably start seeing their ads on the side of the screen when I check my email.

As long as it’s not Tater Tots, I’ll be okay.

Then I changed tactics and googled the original question and I found some quite sensible information, which everyone whose question landed them here must have passed by in order to find their way to me.

So what do MPs (that’s members of parliament) wear? Clothes. They are known for not appearing in parliament naked.

What follows, by the way, is true. You can quote it safely.

MPs are expected to wear businesslike clothes. If they don’t, either the speaker pretends they’re invisible and won’t call on them to speak or someone complains and the speaker’s supposed to do something more active about it. Two women have gotten away with wearing tee shirts bearing feminist slogans, possibly because “businesslike” is less well defined for women than for men. Or possibly because they didn’t care if they got called on to speak since their shirts had already made their point.

A few men have been seen wearing the jackets and ties that are required but in eye-popping colors. Everyone pretends not to notice.

MPs are not allowed to wear hats or armor in the House of Commons. I assume exceptions can be made if anyone’s religion demands headgear but I don’t know that. It may not have come up yet. Or if their religion demands armor, although I’ve never heard of a religion that does. Armor’s awkward stuff, not to mention expensive. Even the Pastafarian Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t ask believers to wear armor, only colanders. 

You need a link for that. You know you do.

The only person who can carry a weapon into the chamber is the sergeant at arms, whose title is spelled serjeant. MPs are expected to hang their swords on the purple ribbons provided in the cloakroom.

No, really. I did not make any of that up. 

MPs are not allowed to bring in briefcases. Female MPs, however, are allowed to bring in a small handbag and at some point male MPs demanded the right to do the same. That news came under a headline about man bags, which I almost skipped thinking they involved a bit of the male anatomy that has never really interested me. But I’m here to enlighten, so I followed the link and learned that it has nothing to do with frozen potatoes. Men may now bring in small, butch-looking (or femmy ones if they’re brave enough) handbags but they still can’t bring in briefcases.

One of the wonderful things about Britain is that it not only has these insane traditions, it takes such pleasure in making fun of them. So let’s move on to a related subject.

TRADITIONS & HISTORY

why do we not call november 5 guy faulkes night anymore

Because no one cares about Guy Fawkes anymore. November 5 is when all the wigs got burned–except of course that one fabulous one.

Salt.

history of two fingers insult in british language

No one really knows where this came from. According to one story–

But wait. Not everyone knows what we’re talking about and that’s rude. In Britain, if you hold up your index and center finger with the knuckles facing out, you’ve just insulted someone. Even if what you meant to do was let the bartender know you wanted two beers. It’s a close relative of holding up the middle finger but involves a few extra muscles because, hey, the British are tough.

According to one story, the gesture came from the Battle of Agincourt, which was fought during the Hundred Years War. English and Welsh archers did so much damage to the French that if an archer was captured the French cut off the two fingers he needed to pull the string of his longbow. The theory goes that the remaining archers held up their two fingers to show the French that they still had them.

Great story. According to Oxford Reference, unfortunately, there’s no evidence of the gesture being around any earlier than the twentieth century and the Battle of Agincourt was in 1415.

Nice try, though.

If there’s any evidence of the French cutting off fingers, I haven’t found it.

LANGUAGE

+definition of tickety tonk

I googled this and landed someplace considerably more sensible than Notes. Tickety tonk is outdated, upper class slang, meaning goodbye. The queen mother ended a World War II-era letter by saying, “Tickety tonk old fruit and down with the Nazis.”

She also thought the Jeeves and Wooster novels were “so realistic.”

What can I tell you? This whole monarchy / aristocracy thing is surreal. Not to mention expensive.

what does it mean to tell someone your spiffing me off

It means you’ve gotten your outdated, upper-class slang wrong. And you’ve misspelled you’re

LANGUAGE & GEOGRAPHY

what the Country’s Called

That depends which country you’re asking about. The world’s full of countries. Ukraine used to be called The Ukraine. Now it’s just called Ukraine. You get used to it after a while. The United Kingdom is usually called Britain because it has fewer syllables. It’s also  less accurate, but what the hell. Its full name is the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. It also answers to Hey, You.

why is britain called britain

Because.

great britain also called as

Great Britain’s called many things, but never As.

why is great britain called uk

It isn’t. Great Britain’s that biggest chunk of land you see on a map of the British Isles. The U.K. is that plus Northern Ireland.

why was britain known as superior

Ooh, you fell for it, didn’t you? Great doesn’t mean better, superior, smarter, or better dressed. It means bigger. Although, like many (possibly all) countries, it’s capable of getting a swelled head and acting superior. Just remind it that its MPs aren’t free to wear armor to work. That’ll let it know who’s who and what’s what. 

All told, having multiple names wasn’t the U.K.’s best marketing decision. I could fill a very dull book with the questions that come in on the topic.

RANDOM OTHER STUFF

news from elsewhere

This makes an odd sort of sense. We all get tired of the same old news and gossip from wherever it is we live. The rest of the world looks more interesting. And larger. So without saying where here is, someone asked for news from places that weren’t their here. So far, so sensible. And as it happens, I posted something titled “News from Britain. And elsewhere.” So Lord G. sent the question to me.

Unless some silly person was actually looking for me. You never do know.

sample lettet to decline the award that is not deserved

“Dear Person Who Offered Me an Award,

“I am not worthy. I am so not worthy that I dare not accept this most flattering, important, and selective of awards. Thank you for thinking of me but something has got to be wrong with you that you even considered me.”

You’re welcome. See below for a note on self-respect.

bellringer for self respect

I’m not a fan of the theory that most of the world’s considerable stock of problems stem from people not having enough self-respect. Or the idea that they (that’s the problems, but it could just as easily be the people) can be fixed by surgically implanting self-respect in people who lack it. In fact,

Not that I’m discounting the idea of surgical implantation. I know some people who could do with a bit less self-respect. They could be donors. We could do transplants.

But set that aside, because no one asked for my opinion. This is about facts. Can bell ringing increase anyone’s self-respect? If you think you’re so insignificant that no one notices you, it might. Ring that damn bell, make some noise, wake the friggin’ village up at 2 a.m. There, they heard you that time.

In general, though? There’s probably some better way.

crotchetwor, minim workksheet

Oddly enough, I almost understand this. Where American music counts time in whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on until the fractions get so small they swallow themselves, British music uses crotchets, minims, quavers, semiquavers, hemidemisemiquavers, and other odd fragments of sound that humans call speech, although I’ve never heard of a crotchetwor and I’m pretty sure no one else has either.

After almost thirteen years of living here and messing around with various sorts of music, I should have learned to understand what they’re talking about by now. But no, my mind pretty much shuts down when someone says anything along the lines of, “That’s actually a crotchet.” I smile radiantly. I may even look like I understand what they’re saying. I don’t. I can get as far as knowing that it has to do with timing. If they’re telling me about it, it means I’ve gotten it wrong again, but I’m much more inclined to giggle than to feel bad about it.

Do I have a worksheet to offer? Absolutely not. And if I ever create one, I advise you not to use it. 

Tea, opium, and the East India Company

Is any drink more innocent than a nice cup of tea?

Almost any of them, and I say that having done no comparative research whatsoever. But forget the comparisons. Innocent tea is not. Its history is deeply interwoven with opium. Here’s how it worked:

In the seventeenth century, England began drinking serious amounts of tea, which it bought from China. China looked at what England offered to sell it in return and said, “Ho, hum,” and didn’t drink it / wear it / eat it / or more importantly, buy it. Which meant, since England wanted to keep drinking tea, that silver poured out of England and into China. And what with silver being heavy and all, the world was turning more slowly on its axis.

The world only turned properly when more silver flowed into England than out.

I shouldn’t say stuff like that or we’ll have another one of those incidents with the Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout. (An explanation is hidden behind this link. You’ll find it a few paragraphs below the photograph. It wasn’t one of my finer moments, which is probably why I can’t help thinking it’s funny.) I could shorten my explanations by making a grain-of-salt logo and adding it when I say something ridiculous. We’ll all have hypertension by the time I’m done.

Irrelevant photo: begonia blossom

Anyway, with all that silver sitting in China instead of England, where nature had decreed that it belonged, the earth’s rotation was going out of sync with the standard twenty-four hour day and something had to be done.

Enter the East India Company, also called the English East India Company, or a bit later the British East India Company once Britain acquired a political existence, to distinguish it from assorted other countries’ East India companies, which it competed with.

The English East India Company got its charter in 1600 from Queen Elizabeth. A trade imbalance wasn’t the problem yet. What Liz wanted was to have it break the Portuguese and Spanish hold on trade from the Indian Ocean. Which the company did, in part by piracy.

Yeah, those were times to make the heart swell with pride. When we talk about making Britain great again…

No, that’s too far off topic.

A combination of a weakening government in India and competition with the company’s French counterpart (the French East India Company–no one involved had the least bit of imagination) ended up with the English company taking direct control of territory in India. And deciding that holding territory was such fun that it took more. And for a hundred years, starting in 1757, it was both a military and a political power, regulated by no government and answerable only to itself. And it ruled of India.

Yeah, that’s the point where I can’t help thinking I’ve misread something. This is a private business openly governing a country–and not even its own country. In 1803, it had a private army twice the size of Britain’s.

India didn’t grow tea yet. Its exports included silk, cotton, sugar, indigo dye, and (here we get to the point at last) opium. The East India company established a monopoly on opium in Bengal.

I couldn’t find much information about the impact this had on India, but its production relied on forced labor and the trade would, inevitably, have led to some addiction. The shift away from small farming also meant a shift away from food production, which kept people fed but wasn’t where the money could be made. Before the East India company took over, India’s ability to feed its people had been equal to or a bit better than Europe’s. (Europe’s wasn’t great at the time, but I’m not sure whose was.) What British did rule was to commercialize agriculture, after which the country experienced repeated famines. You can find a grim timeline of them here.

Now let’s go back to China for a minute. Opium reached China in the sixth or seventh century, and it was used (as it had been for centuries in India and the ancient Mediterranean) medicinally–to relieve pain, the help people sleep, and maybe for a bit of fun here and there. With the introduction of tobacco, though, came the idea of smoking the stuff, and in this form it became much more powerful and much more addictive.

China’s emperor banned recreational use. The edict was roughly as effective as the US war on drugs has been.

China banned imports in 1729. Which was a problem for the East India Company, because it had a lot of it and was £28 million in debt from its wars in India and from all the Chinese tea it had to pay for in that heavy, annoying metal.

So what’s a law-abiding company / government / army to do when a foreign government blocks its access to a market? The East India Company started smuggling the stuff, and by 1739 it had gotten Britain and China involved in the Opium Wars, which eventually, in the name of free trade, opened the Chinese market to opium imports. The balance of payments problem was–from Britain’s point of view–taken care of.

And from China’s point of view? When it banned imports, 200 chests were coming in a year. By 1858, 70,000 were coming in and addiction had become a massive problem. I’m not sure about its balance of payments but I’d bet a damn good chocolate cake that it Britain’s improved China’s got worse.

But Britain got more than tea in this exchange. It got opium as well.

In western Europe, medical opium had been recommended as early as 1527. Paracelsus called the opium mixture he used laudanum–Latin for “worthy of praise.” Or so one source says. The last time I tried to translate something into and out of Latin (it happened to be raisin), we ran into no end of odd translations, so this time I’m not even looking it up, I’m just pretending I know what I’m talking about. Who’ll notice if I’m wrong?

Laudanum was about 10% opium.

The more Europeans traded in opium, the more it made its way to their home countries. In the eighteenth century, doctors were both prescribing it and using it themselves.

As the nineteenth century creaked onward, opium escaped the tinctures it initially came in and was available to be smoked. The Victorian public could read and be horrified by tales of opium dens (which were dedicated to smoking opium), although not many dens seem to have existed outside of London. In a nice little irony, though, they were associated in the popular imagination with–shudder–foreigners, especially the Chinese. Who else would bring such a dangerous drug to someone else’s country?

Having read about the horrors of opium smoking, the Victorian public could then put down its newspapers and buy laudanum from the chemist (which if you’re American is a druggist) or at the market. No big deal. It was the aspirin of its day, available everywhere and taken for just about everything: coughs, rheumatism, colicky babies, hiccups, and women’s troubles (no, that didn’t mean the social and economic condition of woman, although that was enough to drive anyone to opium; it also didn’t mean men; it meant anything associated with–I’m blushing just to think of it–the reproductive system).

It also mended broken chair legs, straightned curly hair, and curled straight.

Yes, yes: grain of salt.

People who used opium in its respectable forms included Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. And even though it was less addictive in this form than it was if you smoked it, it was still addictive enough to get you into trouble. The Brontes’ brother, Branwell, is said to have been an opium addict, not to mention an alcoholic and an all-around mess. I’m not sure what form he used. Probably anything he could get his hands on, which is most likely to have meant laudanum.  

So predictably that they sound like a caricature of themselves, the guardians of public morality saw the use of opiates among the poor and working class as a problem and among their own class nothing worse than as a habit.

Now let’s go back to the medical uses of opium, because it was a useful painkiller. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a German scientist developed the even more effective morphine from an opium base. It was so effective that some 400,000 soldiers came out of the American Civil War addicted to it.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, scientists were looking for a less addictive painkiller. Working from a morphine base, they came up with heroin. 

And they all lived happily ever after.

Anybody want a cup of tea and a dash of irony? I’ve got the kettle on. A nice cup of tea never hurt anyone.

Victorian Christmas carols: a link

I was going to shut up till next Friday, but this post at News from the Past is timely and makes me think (as if I didn’t already) that the spirit of love and joy struggles to hold its own against the spirit of outrage and complaint. It’s about Christmas carols and the great offense they caused in Victorian times. Have fun.