The Swing Rebellion

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: Sweet William

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told you it wouldn’t make you happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t a simple picture.

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

That 1/ is, I think, a shilling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quick history of English hedges

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

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

A rare relevant photo: Cornish fields divided by hedges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making hedges

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

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

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

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

History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As an anonymous 17th-century poem put it:

          The law locks up the man or woman

          Who steals the goose from off the common

          But lets the greater felon loose

          Who steals the common from the goose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The modern role of hedges

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

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

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

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

England, St. George, and the flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did that clarify things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or laughing their immaterial asses off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It explains a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The queen may well decide to skip the payment.

English public schools and the old boys’ network

English public schools–now known as bastions of privilege–started out as philanthropic schools to educate the poor. Some of them date back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

By “the poor,” of course, the schools and their founders meant poor boys, and the sons of the rich were specifically excluded from some. Excluding girls was such a given that I doubt anyone thought to mention it.

The term public school first appears in England in 1580 (or in the eighteenth century, depending on who you want to believe). The public part meant that they benefited the public, unlike the private school, whose profit went to the owner.

These were grammar schools. As far as I’ve been able to untangle this mess, that means they taught Latin and Greek, with a heavy emphasis on the classics. When Ben Jonson wrote about Shakespeare that he had “small Latin and less Greek,” he was using those as the measure of a well-educated man. And although the man part isn’t a quote, it’s very much what he was talking about.

Irrelevant photo: A boat on the beach on Iona. With a person who’s wandering off the other way because my every moment is so fascinating.

According the the Encyclopedia Britannica (you’ll find the link in the next paragraph), the emphasis on the Greek and Roman classics continued well into the 20th century. “Organized games, in contrast, were a late development, and, before their introduction, disorderly conduct was intermittently considerable, particularly in the early 19th century. When the demand for men to administer the British Empire led to scores of new foundations during the 19th century, however, the schools tended to adopt the more disciplined, duty-bound, and athletic model.”

But we’ve gotten ahead of our timeline. The schools were good–or at least people thought they were good–and as a result, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, “From about the 17th century the upper classes took increasing advantage of the tuition [meaning teaching, not the money parents paid for their darlings to be taught] afforded by these foundations. As pupils paying the market rate became more numerous, the schools were increasingly transformed into boarding establishments.”  

In other words, the rich muscled their way in and even before anyone had time to introduce standardized tests to prove that this was all wondrous, the sons of the rich outnumbered the sons of the poor.

Since the Britannica is impressive and high-end and its editors and contributors probably knows both Latin and Greek (ancient, of course, not modern), it manages to convince a tilted A to cozy up to the second E in the word encyclopedia, which makes it look (a) like a single letter and (b) much classier than a bare nekked E would, although it adds fuck all in the way of content. That’s very much in keeping with our topic today and we’re going to do without the A, thanks, partly because I don’t have the patience to go searching for a useless character in the depths of my word processing program and partly because I enjoy small and pointless exercises in the art of spite.

In case you’ve ever wondered (and I did), how you pronounce that combination of A and E, it’s pronounced the same way it would be if the A had not only broken up with the E but moved all its stuff out in the middle of the night and left no note and not even a forwarding address. All if does is make the person who uses it look like he or she knows something other people don’t.

Which may or may not be the reason for all that Latin and Greek.

Where were we? Charitable schools to educate people of “humble backgrounds” being taken over by the upper class because they were too good to waste on the humble: As time went on, the schools’ role became to prepare boys for Cambridge and Oxford universities–and also for public service, giving another meaning to the word public.

Ages ago, I read that they were also called public schools because that contrasted with the tradition of upper-class boys being educated at home, by a tutor, but I can’t find any confirmation of that online.

In the nineteenth century, a number of girls’ public schools were established. I haven’t found a date for the earliest ones.

Where did all this lead? As the Britannica so clunkily puts it, “The impact of the public schools in Britain was historically immense. Perhaps in no other post-Renaissance country did an ethos directly and concentratedly inculcated in so few citizens exercise such influence nationally—and internationally, given the crucial role of the public school ethos in helping Britain build its empire. The ethos in question was less an academic one than a class-conscious code of behaviour, speech, and appearance. It set the standard for conduct in the life of officialdom in Britain from the early 19th century to the mid-20th.”

I’ll try a very (very) loose translation of that since, many an eye will have bounced right over it without taking much in: The schools created a set of standards by which members of the upper class could recognize each other and judge each other–and then judge people from other classes and cultures to be less worthy of their spot on the earth, given that those others had so clearly failed to be like those glorious, conforming, upper-class English public-school graduates.

Charming.

Public schools fed their graduates into government and into the varied mechanisms that ran the British Empire. They were a small group and hugely influential, and who you knew mattered. So did who you were, meaning who your family was. 

The old boys’ network? This is where the phrase originated. The old boys were the graduates of these elite schools, and there’s something creepy–at least to my ear–about it when you really hear the word boys in the phrase. These are grown men who don’t seem to have ever quite gotten away from that stage of their lives.   

According to the BBC, by 2017, only 1% of the public schools’ students paid no tuition, which in 2015 averaged £13,194 a year. If a kid boards there, that goes up to £30,369.

The country’s average income in 2015 was in the neighborhood of £27,456. So yeah, she said with a vague gesture in the direction of British understatement, these schools are on the expensive side.  I’ll admit that averages are misleading, since they’re heavily influenced by extreme numbers, but never mind. An average is enough to give us a general idea of the contrast.

So public schools have ended up as places to educate the sons (and now also the daughters) of the rich, and they don’t need to exclude the poor because the poor, the average, and the considerably above average can’t afford them anyway. A token few are stirred through in roughly the proportion of salt to broth, but unlike salt they don’t seem to change the flavor much.

The schools are still treated as charitable institutions, which earns them millions of pounds a year in tax breaks. Or possibly billions. It depends whose statistics you like. I suspect the difference depends on what tax breaks you include in your calculations. Can we just say it’s a lot of money and consider that close enough?

For a while, the government made small, squeaky noises about taking away their tax breaks unless public schools made some gestures in the direction of helping state schools (which, just to confuse the issue, are what Americans would call public schools, since they’re paid for and used by the public, unlike English public schools, which are private; are you still with me here?). Then, oddly enough, they dropped the whole thing.

The continuing influence of public school graduates wouldn’t have had anything to do with that.

A recent review of a book on the public schools mentions research showing that the standard of teaching is “not significantly higher than in the state sector: parents ‘are really paying for smaller classes . . . and a place in the privilege network.’ ”

The book comes with the perfectly neutral title of Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain and sounds like a well-researched call for their abolition, covering everything from child abuse to money laundering (no, I don’t know any details, but I wish I did) to their role in educating the children of oligarchs.

According to the Times, the students of nine public schools are 94 times more likely to reach “the top” than anyone else. Analysis of the past 125 years of Who’s Who, which lists the most prominent politicians, lawyers, business leaders and civil servants in the UK, found that one in eight entrants in recent editions comes from one of the nine [elite public] schools. This compares with one in five in the 1892 edition.

Yes, friends, it’s another example of human progress, which as a child of the 50s I was taught to believe in. Not specifically. It was so much part of my teachers’ assumptions that no one thought to separate it out as something that needed teaching. Every day in every way, the world was becoming a better place.

Haven’t you noticed?

British news you almost missed

In a form of protest that brings the Colyton laundryline rebellion to mind, someone recently decorated the office door of Christopher Chope, MP—that’s short for Member of Parliament—with a string of women’s underpants that the papers describe as lacy. I’d have described them thongs myself. Or thongs with tiny ruffles. There isn’t enough room on a thong for big ruffles.

Or much of anything. I know I’m a thousand years old and I never did think underwear could make a person sexy, but if that was all I was going to wear, I’d just as soon do without. I’d be more comfortable.

Anyway, lacy may have sounded more daring than thong. Or less uncomfortable, although no one’s wearing the things. But the photo’s below so you don’t have to believe either me or the papers, you can consult your own lyin’ eyes and see what you think. And with that, I’ll leave the decision to people who care enough about underpants to argue about them.

This all started when fellow MP Wera Hobhouse introduced what’s called a private member’s bill that would have criminalized upskirting—taking pictures up a woman’s skirt without her consent. (Has anyone actually given consent for someone to take a picture up her skirt? I’m just asking.) The rules governing private member’s bills are as bizarre as everything else in parliament and I’m not fool enough to try and explain them, but what we need know is that Chope shouted out an objection to the bill and that was enough to kill it.

At which point all hell broke loose. MPs—who consider shouting at each other an important part of the job description—shouted, “Shame.” Reporters rubbed their hands in glee. Even Chope’s own party, the Conservatives, turned against him.

Private member’s bills normally have as much chance of becoming law as I have of becoming queen, and Chope could have quietly let this one run full-speed into the same wall most of them run into, but instead he accidentally promoted it to the legislative equivalent of crown princess. The prime minister suddenly saw the wisdom of supporting the bill, and if she and her party can stop trying to murder each other over Brexit for long enough she’ll put it forward on the government’s behalf. Or so she says. The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings, and Theresa May is stylishly–you might even say bloodlessly–thin.

Meanwhile, Chope explained to anyone who’d listen (which was pretty much everyone at that point) that he didn’t object to the content of the law, he just didn’t like private member’s bills in general, and he might’ve gotten away with that if some reporter hadn’t checked the records and found that he’d introduced 31 of them in the past year.

A rare relevant photo: The underwear that decorated Christopher Chope’s office door. Photo from the Guardian.

What Chope had to say for himself was, “The suggestion that I am some kind of pervert is a complete travesty of the truth.”

Is that great quote or what?

Chope was knighted in 2015 and is now Sir Christopher Chope. We’re supposed to call him Sir Christopher.

Good luck with that, Chris.

His other accomplishments include blocking a bill that would “help families reclaim items looted by the Nazis.” He has voted against human rights legislation, same-sex marriage, equal pay, hunting bans (that probably means fox hunting), and smoking bans. But he’s not against everything. In 2009, he voted for abolishing the minimum wage and he favors banning the burqa in public places.

And please remember that he is not a pervert.

Many thanks to Deb for letting me know about the underwear protest. I’d have missed it otherwise, and my life would’ve been that much poorer. Thanks also to Elle at Elle Superstar for showing me a simple way to copy photos from the internet. And thanks to Leda, who showed me a different way but I’m technologically impaired and couldn’t make her system work.

And while I’m thanking people, I’m grateful to Jane at Making It Write, who wrote about drunken seagulls in Somerset, which let me follow her link to the original article. I won’t try to recreate her post–go read it–but I can tell you what I learned from the Bristol Post:

Early in July, the RSPCA–that’s the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals–noticed that seagulls in West Hatch, Somerset, were drunk on their feathery little asses. The first theory was that they were drinking leftover beer at the beaches, but the newer theory is that they’re eating brewing by-products that they’re finding somewhere.

The gulls get so drunk they can’t walk, never mind fly. They fall off the roof. They throw up on fire fighters. Since they’re British, I figured they’d start singing as soon as they got tipsy, but apparently not. They still just squawk like seagulls. Alcohol, it turns out, doesn’t improve your voice, it just makes you think it has.

The West Hatch RSPCA now has a drunk tank where the birds can sober up.

From the Manifesto Club, I learned that a couple in Bexhill-on-Sea, in East Sussex, has been banned from looking at their neighbors’ house. Or from walking past or appearing to look at their neighbors’ house.

The ban defines appearing as being “perceived by any person to be looking into any neighbour’s property.”

The ban grew  out of a disagreement with a couple (couple #2), who bought the house next door and started redoing it. The now-banned couple (couple #1) objected to I’m not sure what about the construction. That’s how a lot of neighborhood wars start in this country.

Couple #2 managed to get couple #1 served with a Community Protection Notice, called a CPN. Awkwardly, CPN also stands for community psychiatric nurse. If couple #1 ignore the notice form of CPN, they could get slapped with a fine or, theoretically, a prison sentence. The police have been involved and at one point asked Couple #1 why they were loitering on the local beach. 

Because that’s what people do on a beach.

The notice form of CPN was created to address “anti-social behaviour affecting a community’s quality of life,” and it was one of those well-intentioned ideas that’s turned out to have its own anti-social side. To get one issued, you don’t have to go to court. A constable (that’s a cop in Ameri-speak), “the relevant local authority,” or someone “designated by the relevant local authority” can do it. 

What’s a relevant authority? ” ‘The relevant local authority’ means the local authority (or, as the case may be, any of the local authorities) within whose area the conduct specified in the notice has, according to the notice, been taking place.”

In other words, the relevant authority is the authority relevant to that place. And the place is the place in which the conduct is conducted.

If it would help, I can ask a friend to translate that into Latin. She might get it wrong, but how many of us would know?

I went online and managed to find information on how to issue a CPN, what kind of behavior a CPN can address, who can be issued with a CPB, and how to appeal a CPN, but nothing about what evidence is needed before one is issued. I’m left with the impression that the relevant authorities aren’t necessarily rigorous about demanding any.

I don’t know what happens next in this case. The publicity it got may have helped couple #1, but I don’t get the impression that good sense is carrying a lot of weight here. Couple #1 is planning to ask for a judicial review.

As for the seagulls, they were thrown in the drunk tank without any form of due process and as soon as they sober up enough to take that in, they’ll object. In the meantime, they say that even when they’re sober they sound better than those goody-two-shoes robins.

Christopher Chope hasn’t commented further (as far as I know), but our neighbor Peta tells me that upskirting is now known as Chope-ing.

And finally, a quick apology for the deluge of news. I meant to follow last week’s news post with some history, but all this lovely insanity found its way to my inbox, and the thing about history is that it doesn’t go out of date the way news does.

More news from Britain

What’s happening in Britain? Let’s start in Colyton, Devon, where a woman hung out her wash. Because people do that here. Dryers aren’t as common as they are in the U.S. If people get any sunny weather, out go the clothes.

So how is this news? Well, after this earthshaking action, she got an anonymous letter asking her “with kindness not to put your washing out at the front of your house” because visitors would see it. “Help us all keep Colyton a town we can all be proud of,” the letter said, and it suggested she “consider using a tumble dryer or hanging the washing indoors.”

The writer claimed to represent both local businesses and the entire neighborhood. Not to mention all of England and probably Jersey (that’s old, not New Jersey) as well. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

This being modern (as opposed to Victorian or, say, Arthurian) Britain, the whole thing got splashed all over the town Facebook group and in no more time than it took to wash a load of laundry (I’m making that part up; I don’t know how long it took), neighbors had hung out their own washing. Underwear hung from artfully displayed laundry lines in shop windows. Laundry dangled out of windows. Someone hung pyjamas across the town square and ran a bra up the flagpole. I’m old enough to remember when boys thought it was harmless (or maybe didn’t care if it was harmless) to steal some girl’s bra and run it up a flagpole, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was put up by an individual of the female persuasion in the joyous spirit of take that, you old busybody.

There’s talk of it becoming an annual event.

So here’s to the anonymous letter writers of the world. Long may their efforts backfire.

Meanwhile, in sports news, 4,500 doughnuts were accidentally delivered to the Old Trafford cricket ground. Or maybe that’s the Old Trafford Cricket Ground. My sports allergy is bad enough that I don’t know if that’s the formal name and therefore capitalized or an informal name and therefore lower case. You probably–and wisely–don’t care. We’ll move on.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the incident except that the kitchen was left “reeling.”

A single doughnut has 425 calories. Give or take a few hundred, since we don’t know the size of the Old Trafford doughnuts or of the imaginary one whose estimated calories I googled, or whether either of them are frosted. But let’s go with 425. It’s a reliable looking number. That means the Old Trafford kitchen was (at least briefly) in possession of 1,912,500 calories’ worth of doughnuts.

I think. At my best, I’m a hazard around numbers, but I’m pretty sure I got that right. Even if I didn’t, though, we can agree that it’s over the recommended daily allowance for pretty much anybody. Even someone who’s simultaneously male, in training for a marathon, breastfeeding, and pregnant.

If anybody could figure out how much space 4,500 doughnuts take up, I’d love to know, because I assume the Old Trafford kitchen isn’t huge. You can arrange them in any pattern that suits you and measure them either metrically or in imperial measures. Or you can compare them to the size of a double-decker bus, a football field, a phone booth, or Wales. Or Delaware. Your choice, although I’m pretty sure Wales and Delaware are too big to be much use. 

Since we’re talking about food, it must be time to mention that Britain was grappling with a shortage of carbon dioxide in late June and its largest wholesalers had begun rationing beer and cider–cider being a popular alcoholic drink here. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, this happened just when the country was in the grip of a twin drinking emergency caused by the conjunction of the World Cup and a heatwave.

At the end of June (which is when I’m writing this), the word was that supplies were expected (maybe) in early July, which would be just in time to prevent a complete national disaster. If, in fact, they come in as predicted.

The shortage also affected soft drinks and the production of dry ice. Not to mention the meat industry and some medical procedures.

It wasn’t just a British problem but a European one, and it was caused by a combination of high demand and routine maintenance shutdowns. But the price has been low, so in spite of the looming meltdown, manufacturers haven’t had a big incentive to get production up and going again.

What kind of plants produce carbon dioxide? Ammonia and bioethanol plants. Which makes me realize how little I know about how those little bubbles get inside the water.

There’s a certain irony in having a carbon dioxide shortage when the world’s facing global warming caused by too much of the stuff, but it comes from having too much in the wrong places and not enough locked away inside those cans and bottles. The drink manufacturers have done their best to hire people who’ll pick it out of the air, but with Brexit looming there’s already a shortage of people to harvest strawberries, so where are they going to find anyone willing to pick carbon dioxide bubbles?

In case you think this is funny, the shortage also affected the nation’s crumpet supply.

The British Beer and Pub Association, which knows how to address a crisis, called on the government to increase its “storage capacity . . . to ensure this does not happen again.”

By the time you read this, enough carbon dioxide to keep the nation guzzling may well have fizzed its way through the supply chain, but if you’ve been reading about an increase in the suicide and homicide rate, you know the cause.

In other news, a mugger in Crawley robbed a man but left behind a plastic bag with 123 candy bars.

Was the candy worth more than the money he got? A quick and highly inaccurate survey of candy prices tells me that bars range from £.50 (note the decimal point–that’s half a pound, not fifty pounds) to £1. So should we say, fairly randomly, that he’d have to have taken in more than £85 to come out even?

The closest I can get to how much money he got is that it was “a small amount.” So he lost money on the deal.

The police checked with local stores but none of them reported that many candy bars missing. 

A hundred and twenty-three candy bars is not enough to cover an area the size of Wales. Or even a football field or a double-decker bus. It is enough to fill one plastic bag, although we don’t know the size of the bag, which is why it’s not one of the standard size comparisons that newspapers use.

Unlike the guy in Crawley, the writer Ian McEwan got mugged by a standardized test. He’s well enough established that one of his books is assigned as part of the national curriculum. You’d think that’d be great, wouldn’t you? Well, it has its problems–ones I wouldn’t mind having, but problems all the same. 

McEwan’s son (let’s call him McE 2.0) read McE 1.0’s book for his A-levels, which is the standardized test I just mentioned. So before the test, McE 1.0 spent some time going over the novel with McE 2.0, discussing points he could make in his essay.

McE 2.0 got a C plus. Because what does the author know about the book he wrote?

Meanwhile, whoever wrote the English literature questions for a lower-level standardized test, the GCSE, mugged him- or herself, along with some 14,000 students, by mixing up the Montagues and the Capulets in a question about Romeo and Juliet. The question assigned Tybalt to the wrong one of two feuding families and ended up asking an unanswerable–not to mention nonsensical–question.

You could, in theory, answer the question by tearing it apart, but that would be a good way to flunk the test since the standardized marking doesn’t create a lot of latitude for creative thinking.

This marks the introduction of the new, tougher GCSEs. So far, they’ve been a stunning success. Slip in an unanswerable question and you can really thin the herd.

The exam board has apologized but to date it hasn’t fallen on its sword.

From there, let’s move on–not to the recent wedding of Megan and Whatshisname but to the people who pontificated on it. Or one of them, anyway.

Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, Esq., appeared regularly in TV interviews during the uproar. He’s described as having “a posh British accent, traditional attire, and a sense of authority on all things royal.” He’s also “the founder of the British Monarchist Society and Foundation.” But it turns out that his name is actually Thomas “Tommy” Muscatello and he’s from Bolton Landing, New York.

He got the Britishness bug when he was cast in a school production of Oliver Twist and apparently learned an upper-class British accent for the role. You can believe that if you want to, but I’ve heard too many Americans who think they learned a British accent. They’re embarrassing. The best I can say for his accent is that none of the articles about him say that he got it wrong.

They also don’t say that he got it right.

As far as I can tell from the articles I’ve seen, no British media outlet interviewed him. I’m going to take a rash guess and say they picked up some whiff of phoniness. Possibly a strong one.

Since I mentioned at the beginning that we had a heat wave, let’s end by acknowledging that Britain doesn’t have any official definition of what a heatwave is, but the Met Office is working on one.

The Met Office? That’s Britain’s weather service and it’s not to be confused with the Met, which is London’s police department. And if you have trouble with that, it gets worse: Scroll down far enough through Lord Google’s offerings and you’ll find the Met Office offering the police weather forecast.

Do the police have different weather from the rest of us? Possibly, but to make the whole thing even more mysterious, the page I found offered me the police weather for Poland, although it was–I checked twice–from the British weather service. 

Polish police didn’t seem to be expecting a heatwave. Unless of course they define it differently there.

However you define a heatwave, though, Britain isn’t good at heat. Train tracks were buckling in 30 degree centigrade heat. What’s that on the other side of the Atlantic? It’s 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is hot but on the normal side of normal in a Minnsota summer.

I never heard of train tracks buckling in the heat in the U.S. The rails are laid with a small bit of expansion room between one section and the next. Britain’s rails don’t seem to be, presumably because 86 degrees is a heatwave. I can understand why no one wants to pull them all up and lay them down differently, but if this is the new normal we’re going to have problems.

What the world really wants to know about Britain, part 10ish

What do the wide-eyed innocents of the internet want to know about Britain? Or, to change that to a more accurate form of the same question, what do they ask that leads them here?

All sorts of strange stuff. Sometimes even sensible stuff, but we’ll skip that. It’s boring. As usual, the questions appear wearing the clothes they wandered in with, which usually means they don’t have question marks or capital letters and they sometimes use creative spelling. I’ve added italics so we can tell the questions from the answers.

what do mps wear

Clothes, and as a rule not particularly interesting ones. You want exotic, go see what Black Rod wears.

Irrelevant (and, um, soft focused) photo: a bee (yes, it is there) in a strange flower whose name, as usual, I don’t know.

why are there hedges on the side of the roads in england

This came in twice–same wording, different days–so someone, not having found the answer they wanted, came back to see if they couldn’t find the answer they wanted in the same place where they didn’t find it the day before. So it must be important. Let’s answer it:

It was hard to drive when the hedges were in the middle, so many and many a year ago the Department of Middle-of-the-Road Hedges became the Department of Roadside Hedgeways and all hedges were moved from the center to the side. The accident rate went down dramatically and everyone has been much happier. They didn’t live ever after–the would be asking too much–but they did live longer.

Wiseassery aside, however, England’s hedges are monuments to a lot of history and shelter to a lot of wildlife. I’ve been meaning to write about them for a long time but somehow never get around to it. I’ll write myself yet another note and see if I actually do it this time.

who has right of way on one lane country roads

This is complicated. Unless a sign gives priority to traffic from one direction, no one in particular. This leads to the occasional standoff, but they’re rare. Basically, the person who’s closer to a wide spot where two cars can pass should back up. Sometimes, though, one driver (generally a visitor) freezes, in which case the more competent driver should take charge of the situation and back up. Or the nicer one.

For the most part, drivers are impressively polite about it, working it out seamlessly and finishing with the driver who did’t back up giving a small wave to the driver who did, which the second driver returns. Occasionally, though, someone is clearly being a pig–entering a one-lane stretch when another car’s already there, say, or refusing to back down when the other car would have to back into traffic or would have to back a long distance or back around a miserable bend–and that’s where you get standoffs. I did once turn my car off while the other driver fumed. I know someone who claims to have poured himself a cup of tea and opened the paper.

For more extensive tales about the right of way on narrow roads, allow me to refer you that widely unknown expert, myself.

are all country roads in england one way

Yes. And they all lead north, ending eventually at Dunnet Head, the northernmost point in Scotland. When enough people–and of course their cars–collect there, a ferry takes them south, distributing them at various points along the way to Land’s End, on the southern tip of Cornwall. By which time the ice cream’s melted. It’s inconvenient as hell and makes grocery shopping a nightmare, but unless you’re going to walk, what can you do?

I just love being an expert.

is devon road very narrow?

Devon has–maybe you should be sitting down when you read this–more than one road. Some of them are narrow. Some of them are not, although your idea of what’s narrow depends on what you’re used to. If you’re American, they’re all narrow. If you’re from Cornwall, they range from normal to wide.

And they all go north.

what are chocolate chip cookies called in England

They’re called chocolate chip cookies.

Yes, it is confusing.

the secret of lawyers wear white wigs

It’s hard enough to keep a wig secret when you’re sporting one that tries to look like your own hair, but it’s impossible when it’s as unlikely looking as the rugs British lawyers slam on their heads. If any of you happen to run a spy network, please, save your time and money That is not their real hair. Everyone knows it and you can’t blackmail them about it. Go ferret out some more useful secret.

The world–or at least the online world–is full of people who are obsessed by British lawyers’ wigs. They could, I’m sure, be doing worse things with their time, but it does strike me as strange. A quick sampling of recent wig questions brings us history of ill fitting wigs, what are english trial wig, and british lawyers build case against wigs. 

From the world of wigs, let’s drop briefly into the inscrutable:

circle the sound that you here .wants to meaning

I have no idea what that means or how it led here. I only reproduce it here because I didn’t want to be left alone with it.

manners in uk yes sir

Yes, sir, the British do have manners. Of course, everyone has manners, it’s just that they differ from place to place and culture to culture, and my manners may look to you like no manners at all.

People from cultures that are (or once were) dominant have a habit of thinking their manners are manners and everyone else’s are an absence of manners. And often enough, other people believe them. So any number of people think the British know how to do manners and could teach us barbarians a thing or six.

What the question probably means by “the British” is the British upper class, although I can’t swear to that. What I can swear to is that Britain isn’t one uniform culture. The manners that work in one class look either ignorant or silly if you transplant them. Not that people are judgmental about these things…

If the question is whether people in Britain say, “Yes, sir,” then (in my experience) no. Except on cop shows, and even there the “sir” tends to drag in a beat or two after the “yes” to prove its reluctance.

My answer may be colored by the fact that not many people call me “sir,” except over the phone from time to time, since my voice is low. I’ve been called “madam” once in a while when I’m buying something, although to my ear it often takes on a hostile tone. I’ve worked with the public. I understand how it can make people hostile, although my temper never took that particular channel. But “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am”? I can’t remember hearing either.

I’m grateful for that.

tell me about village life

People are born. They die. In between, they live. And that in-between period can be interesting. Not to mention messy.

I don’t know about all villages, but where I live most of the young people move away. Some want to live in a city, with all its opportunities. Others would love to stay but can’t. There aren’t many jobs around here and what jobs there are don’t pay well. If that isn’t enough of a problem, housing’s insanely expensive. Some do manage, but the village is aging.

How is village life different than city life? There are fewer people (to state the obvious), so we tend to know each other, or at least know of each other. In cities, you hear short stories about other people’s lives. Here, you get the entire novel, sometimes in multi-generational form. There are no secrets, although there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

why do americans have mailboxes

To get their mail. Also to mail their mail. Same word. Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone get mixed up about which one does what.

A few related questions also came in:

a row of letterboxes in the hamptons; a row of letterboxes in uk

If “the Hamptons” refers to the overpriced cluster of towns on Long Island, then you won’t find a row of letterboxes, although you might find a row of mailboxes. The two countries are still trying to negotiate a treaty that would allow them to call the things by the same name. This has been going on since the U.S. declared independence.

If you think Brexit’s difficult…

do amerians not have post boxes

No, Amerians do not have post boxes. Or maybe that’s yes, Amerians do not have post boxes. Either way, see above. They have to make do with mailboxes. It’s shocking, I  know. Amerians do, however have a C in the middle of the word that describes their nationality.

But this gets us into another difference between the U.S. and the U.K.: In British, “Do Americans not have” is a perfectly normal way to phrase that question. In American, it wouldn’t be. We’d be more likely to say, “Don’t Americans have.”

how do american mailboxes work

Well, you drop a letter in and it sits there, out of human sight. It communes with all the other letters people have dropped in. This is good, because otherwise it might worry about the wicked witch who lives in a gingerbread house in the forest. The someone comes and picks it up, along with all its new friends, and takes them to a sorting center, where they get (yes, this will surprise you) sorted. Then–but we’ve gone past the limits of the question, which was about the box itself.

Unless of course the question’s about the mailboxes people put outside their house (or that landlords put in apartment buildings) for incoming mail. The letter carrier drops the letter in and it sits there till someone takes it out.

It truly is an amazing system.

swearing in public uk magna carta

The Magna Carta was an agreement that King John and his barons signed in 1215. Neither side honored its commitments and in case that wasn’t enough it ended up being nullified by the Pope. Great moments in diplomacy. At least they didn’t have to agree about what to call that thing that holds letters. The mail (or post) hadn’t been invented yet.

As far as I can tell, the Magna Carta wasn’t sworn, just signed. It re-entered British political life after King J’s death and is now part of Britain’s unwritten constitution.

What’s an unwritten constitution? Good question, and I keep asking it myself. You gather up every element of precedent, every major political agreement, every major court decision, and the sweepings from every last one of London’s hair salons, and you interpret them for the present day.

Good luck.

Is there much public swearing in Britain? That depends very much on what you count as swear words. And who you hang out with. By anyone’s reckoning, I do enough swearing that I don’t always much notice how much other people are contributing. Good manners might tell me to leave more room for them instead of monopolizing it. I’ll give it some thought.

I have never yet heard anyone swear about the Magna Carta. It’s way in the background of everyday life.

In a brief, sensible aside, let me add that any public oath a person has to take in Britain allows them to either swear, which is a religious form of saying you’ll tell the truth, or affirm, which is a non-religious form. I appreciate the space made for a non-religious person not to have to be a hypocrite in order to say they’re telling the truth.

swear words uk vs us

Oh, surely you don’t want two entire lists, do you? Sex organs tend to go by different slang names in the two countries, which is why the American movie title Free Willy cracked up the British. Bloody isn’t a swear word in the U.S., it’s a description

This is very much off the top of my head and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, but the important thing is that you can insult someone from one country using the other country’s swear words and pretty much count on being understood. And if the detail gets lost, the tone of voice will carry it.

*

In an effort to add this post in my stack of upcoming posts, I hit Publish weeks ago, before I’d changed the date and ended up sending it out too early, at which point I did my best to disappear it. Apologies to anyone who wasted internet time chasing it after it disappeared. I’d apologize for looking like a lunatic but I’m not sure that’s apology material. And I’d reassure you that I’m not, but since I haven’t sworn or affirmed it, I might not be telling the truth.

Chasing the gray lady

Blogging has its hazards. In a comment on one of my posts, Cat 9984 wrote, “Britain is a very mysterious place sometimes. I asked a woman what the difference was between a grey lady and a ghost. She said there isn’t any.”

I don’t know what Cat 9984 expected me to say something in response–I didn’t think to ask. Maybe nothing. Maybe she just wanted me to join appreciate of the mystery that is Britain with her. But since I pass myself off as a close and baffled observer of the country, I expected myself to sound informed, in my usual uninformed way. 

The problem was that I had no idea what we were talking about, so I turned to the internet, hoping it would save my hash, and punched “grey lady, define” into Google.

Irrelevant photo: rhododendron

What did I learn?

The first definition told me that the gray (as opposed to grey) lady is the New York Times. Which I knew, I’m American and I grew up in New York. It’s the paper Donald Trump calls “the failing New York Times.” Every time he says it, the paper’s circulation goes up.

Keep talking, Don.

You might want to note (since it will be on the test) that when the color gray crosses the Atlantic, the E changes to an A. Or the A changes to an E. It depends on whether the color’s headed east or west.

What does this have to do with ghosts or with Britain? Nothing, so I moved on.

Merriam-Webster defined a gray lady as “a volunteer worker of the American Red Cross who provides nonprofessional care and services for the sick and convalescent usually in hospitals.” Which is also an American definition and so no help to us, since we’re supposed to be talking about Britain.

It’s also short a comma. When I’m done typing, I’ll send M-W a handful with a request to sprinkle them around randomly. One of them should land in the right place.

GoogleDocs, by the way, disagrees with M-W’s spelling of nonprofessional. It takes some nerve to disagree with a dictionary on spelling. GD probably does it to distract M-W While it sells M-W‘s data to Cambridge Analytica, or whatever its successor company’s called.

Before I left, M-W offered me a chance to sign up for the word of the day. My days already have lots of words, so I passed.

Next I learned that there was a grey lady in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Who was she? Helena Ravenclaw. And who was she? Oh, hell, I forget. It’s not on the test, so we can move on.

The link after that took me to the Urban Dictionary, which is where it got truly weird. One definition was, “A grey ghost of a lady that every primary (at least in my area) had. Usually found in the lads or girls toilets (depending on if you’re a lad or a girl). Appears at night or when someone says ‘grey lady’ three times and switches the light off. No primary school kid dared try it and if they did they left before she could appear (apparently).”

This is the only definition that was even remotely relevant to Cat’s question, but by this time the search had overtaken the reason I was searching, so I kept on.

The next definition was, “1. A nickname for a submarine. 2. Also, a person who drops a depth charge and farts in an area to be occupied by an unsuspecting victim.”

Aren’t you glad you asked, Cat?

Just under that was an ad suggesting that I buy a Grey Lady mug for my father-in-law, Jerry. This seemed oddly personalized, except that I don’t have a father-in-law. My partner and I couldn’t get married back when her father was alive, and his name was Wendell anyway. He would’ve just hated being my father-in-law. He did his best with the situation, but it was hard enough being my father-out-law.

Even if all that hadn’t gotten in the way, however, a mug that said “Grey Lady” doesn’t strike me as something he would have wanted, even if he was still alive and even if he’d have wanted a present from me.

Who do you suppose sold the data that said I had a father-in-law named Jerry?

Wikipedia mentioned an American catamaran ferry and a couple of movies, and then moved on to folklore, listing a series of ghosts said to haunt houses in England, Scotland, New Zealand, Malta, and the U.S. (specifically, North Dakota). Then it mentioned “The Grey Lady, the given name of the retired British Shorthair champion cat residing in New York City. However, the cat prefers the name Chicken.”

Since this was in the folklore section of the definition, maybe we have to accept being told what the cat liked to be called, although I’m not convinced of it. Personally, I wouldn’t dare call my cat Chicken, although he will accept being called Kitty if the word’s accompanied by food.

What have we learned about British culture from this excursion? Not bloody much. Some weeks are like that. If you’ve got a more sensible topic to suggest, jump in. I may not be able to do anything with it, but if I can I will.

Funding the Church of England

England has an official state church, called, imaginatively enough, the Church of England. Once upon a time, having an official church was serious business, and not belonging to it was even more serious. England has a history of trying to stamp out religious dissent, and that weighed heavily with the folks who wrote the U.S. constitution, which forbids the establishment of any state religion.

These days, it’s easy to float through English life and forget that there’s an established religion. Most people consider religion (or the lack of it) a private matter—not something to get passionate about in public and not something that should set public policy. Dissent isn’t so much tolerated as assumed. Or it looks that way to me, although you have to remember that I’m an outsider here.

But who funds the church? A while back, someone asked me if it’s funded by the taxpayer, but I’ve lost track of who that was. Apologies. My organizational skills are just a shade less than perfect. Let me know who you are, will you?

Semi-relevant photo (see below): What happens to a religious building the isn’t kept up. This was once a convent on Iona, in Scotland.

The C. of E., as it’s known, does have a few bucks to its name. Or a few quid, really, quid being British for buck, although the quid involves pounds, not dollars. According to the Daily Mail (sorry, I tried for a more reputable-sounding source but couldn’t find one), in 2013 its income was £1.37 billion, which sounds like enough to keep it in communion wafers for a week or three, although I’ve never bought communion wafers and for all I know they’re outrageously expensive.

The Mail doesn’t say a word about communion wafers. What it says instead is that £1.37 billion would pay for every Big Mac, McChicken Sandwich, and McFlurry sold in Britain that year. Which strikes me as a pretty strange point of comparison, but it does tell us that we’re spending a shocking amount of money on fast food. The paper didn’t say if anything would be left over for a cup of tea, although in England you’d have the right to expect tea with your McProcessed Chickfood.

But what about spending? According to Wikipedia, “In 2005 the Church of England had estimated total outgoings of around £900 million.”

Now, I’m terrible with numbers, but even I can see that the gap between those two leaves enough money for tea. I tried to find a comparable number for 2013—the year the Mail’s using—and I failed. However, I failed in an interesting way, so let’s spend a minute following my trail: Since WikiP calls that money outgoings, I thought, clever beast that I thought I was, I’d just google “Church of England outgoings 2013.”

What did I learn? That bishops were exhorting their members to be outgoing, gracious, and cooperative. And to drink tea. I’m sure it was all very effective and that the church is now full of better, more outgoing, and more cooperative tea-sodden worshipers.

Me, though? I had a cup of tea and gave up. If you want figures for matching years, go find them yourself. I never really expected the numbers to match up. They never do for me. 

But let’s go back to income. We were doing fairly well with that. Almost half of it was donated by churchgoers.

How many people are we talking about? It’s hard to say. The C. of E. does keep a church electoral roll, and adding your name to it allows you to vote on church matters, but not everyone who goes to C. of E. churches bothers, so the statistics I found also track things like how many people show up at least once a year, or at Easter, or on most Sundays.

By any of those measures, attendance is down and still sinking.  The Wikipedia entry puts C. of E. attendance at 1.4% of the population of England and Wales in 2014. It’s inconvenient that Wales is in there when we were talking about England, but we’ll add that our list of mis-matched figures and wobble onward.

Another source–and I’ve lost track of which one–says that U.K. (as opposed to English) church membership has declined from 10.6 million in 1930 to 5.5 million in 2010, “or as a percentage of the population; from about 30% to 11.2%. By 2013, this had declined further to 5.4 million (10.3%).”

That’s a major difference. It could be accounted for by the difference between church membership and attendance or by one of both organizations allowing someone like me to do the counting. I checked a few more sources without clarifying the picture at all. What’s clear is that membership and church attendance are shrinking.

On average, each church member contributed £700 per year in—oh, I think that was 2014. Close enough. In other words, per person donations are high. But an average is a deceptive measure. One gazillionaire making a huge donation will, when you average things out, make everyone look rich and generous. Still, the average donation is all we’re going to get.

Where did the other half of the church’s income wander if from? Historic endowments are a major source of income. These are gifts that were given to the church at some point in the past. (You don’t make a lot of money on gifts given in the future.) Way back when, if someone rich gave the church a gift, it was likely to be land, and the church once owned a lot of it, but it’s converted most of it, unromantically and unsentimentally, into stocks and bonds. These are managed by church commissioners and pay for “a range of non-parish expenses, including clergy pensions and the expenses of cathedrals and bishops’ houses. These funds amount to around £8 billion . . . around a fifth of the church’s overall income.” (We’re quoting WikiP here.)

The C. of E. has its own investment fund and in 2016 it generated an income of £230.7 million.

Does all this add up to 100%? It doesn’t look like it. Donations? Half. Stocks and bonds? A fifth. The investment fund? Sorry–that’s not a percentage and we’d be smart if we don’t trust me to turn it into one. Whatever the rest may be? I’m not sure. Parishes raise money in various ways. I have no idea how much that adds up to. Plus the church gets grants from English Heritage, and possibly other groups, to maintain buildings, and it also gets government money for the upkeep of the buildings.That’s where the taxpayer comes into it.

Those old buildings can absorb any amount of money you care to throw at them and still need more.

The National Secular Society argues that the church is sitting on a £4 billion surplus and should fix its own leaky roofs.

“In this week’s budget [sorry—I can’t tell you which week that was] the Government allocated a further £40 million funding to support “vital” roof repairs in Listed Places of Worship over the next two years.

“The lion’s share of this money will go to the Church of England as it is  responsible for maintaining 45% of the grade I listed buildings in the country and the majority of all parish churches are grade II or higher. [The grades refer to historic buildings that should be preserved.]

“Few would feel that our finest architectural heritage should fall into terminal disrepair. An inevitable consequence of the continuing decline in church attendance is that there are far fewer in the congregations to shoulder the repair burden. When they are unable to do so, who else should pay and under what circumstances?”  

So yes, taxpayer money goes to the church–not exactly to fund church activities but to maintain its historic buildings. Still, it is taxpayer money, it still flows to the church, and that does allow the church to use its own money for other purposes. Or to sit on it and let it accumulate.