Nine reasons I ignore SEO

Let’s start with basics. SEO is short for search engine optimization. Bloggers (along with other people, but never mind them) obsess about it. Our goal is to lure in innocents who are searching the internet. Won’t you step into my parlor, said the blogger to the fly. Won’t you read 107 of my posts and hit Follow and stay here forever, thus bumping up my stats.

Stats? They’re the things that tell you how many people read what bits of your blog, and what country they’re from, and assorted other stuff, and they’re never high enough. We all want more, more, more.

So to get more people to stop by, you try to make yourself as visible to search engines as possible. You optimize yourself. You dig a niche out of the crumbling riverbank of the internet. Or maybe that’s the crumbling riverbank of what was once your creativity. The metaphor’s a little crumbly itself, but I’ll come back to that issue about creativity. You do all sorts of stuff, some of which borders on the corporate (all that stuff about becoming a brand) and some of which works at least some of the time.

Yet another irrelevant photo

Yet another irrelevant photo: flowers.

If you’re good at it, you provide what searchers looking for and they’re happy and either stay or come back, and you’re almost happy, although your stats are still never high enough. Addiction’s like that. You check your stats and see that your views have shot up. Or that they haven’t, in which case you tweak your S. You maximize your O. You tone down that pesky E.

You check your stats again. You remind yourself that yesterday’s stats won’t have changed but you check them again anyway. Because addiction’s like that.

I do check my stats, partly because I’m addicted and partly because the questions that lead people to my blog can be bizarre and finding a particularly good one adds a dash of insanity to my day. The insanity I generate on my own isn’t half as much fun. But the serious SEOing? I’ve read about it. In spire of what I’m saying here, I’ve appreciated the advice and learned from some of it. I’ve even made good use of some of it. But it has a way of taking over your brain. So although I’m not arguing that anyone else should follow my example, for the most part I ignore it.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that as I wrote this I couldn’t help imagining people arguing with me. So if you want to, argue with me. Or agree. It’ll make an interesting discussion. And to the people who write about SEO and do it well, I do appreciate what I’ve learned from you. It’s just that taking it too seriously was threatening my writing.

Why am I offering you nine reasons? Because the internet loves numbered lists. Offer people three reasons they shouldn’t use nail files, eleven ways to charm wild rabbits, or five reasons to paint their walls midnight blue, and they’ll click on that link. Or a certain number of them will. Even though they’ve been terrified of rabbits since childhood, their landlord does the painting and only buys white, and because their English isn’t great they only understand file in the context of papers and file drawers, so nail file makes no sense to them. But it’s a list. It involves numbers. The just have to click.

So. I ignore SEO because:

  1. I hate numbered lists. They’re about simplicity, and life isn’t simple. The interesting stuff—and most of the good jokes—involve complexity. It’s true that numbered lists are a nifty organizing tool, but honestly, people, they’re not the only one. They’re overdone.
  2. What people are looking for from numbered lists, whether they know it or not, is advice. I don’t give advice.
  3. If I do give advice, it will be in a moment of weakness and highly suspect. I advise you to ignore it. I have your best interests at heart here.
  4. SEO is about niches and I don’t exactly have a niche. Travel? Not really, although travelers may be interested. Expat? Expats are nothing but immigrants with a coating of education, money, culture, invisible ethnicity, or some combination of the above. If other people want to call themselves expats, fine by me, but I’m an immigrant. Google immigrant blog, though, and you’ll find one or two, but mostly you’ll find sites campaigning against immigration or offering information and advice about how to immigrate. Immigrant blog is not a niche. Besides, people trying to immigrate are so desperate for a toehold in this hostile world that making jokes about it from my own safe position borders on the obscene. Or forget borders. It’s planted dead center in the middle of it. Is this a humor blog, then? There’s something dismal about hanging a sign above your work saying, “This is funny.” When I worked as an editor and a cover letter told me the enclosed was a humorous article, I counted myself forewarned. It wasn’t. Ever.
  5. Even if we were to decide that in spite of everything Notes is to some extent an expat blog (I read several, and a couple of them are funny; others are worth reading for other reasons), that doesn’t mean expats are the only people I want to talk to. Or even the main group. I write for anyone who’ll laugh at my jokes, anyone who wants to know about living in Britain, anyone who wants to read about the oddities of living in a culture that isn’t your own. There aren’t enough people in those categories as it is, so why narrow things down? I know, I know: When you define your target audience you’re not limiting it. If you know where to find your audience, you can address it. Book publishing works on the same principle. You write a cover letter or book proposal and say, “This book will appeal to 36-year-olds who have never had a manicure and who didn’t wash their dishes yesterday.” Niche marketing holds that men don’t want to read about a woman protagonist, whites don’t want to read about blacks, adults don’t want to read about children, straight people don’t want to read about gays, etc. etc., ad fucking nauseum. To sum that up, dominant groups don’t want to read about non-dominant ones. It you’re in the non-dominant group, you’re niche. If you’re in the dominant group, you’re mainstream. Unless of course a niche book breaks out, at which point we all worship it. What am amazing writer to have done that. What wisdom. What a gift it is to be so deeply rooted in a vibrant culture. Do you spot just a touch of irony in that? [If this weren’t a numbered list I’d start a new paragraph here, so take a small breath.] I have yet to find the niche that makes me think I’ve found mine. Niche-ing makes sense in some situations: if you write about blogging; about food; about parenting, which is usually code for mothering; about travel; about books; about writing; about transgender issues; about hunting wild mushrooms in Maine; about politics or a given political outlook—about any established or sharply defined category. But some of us sprawl between categories. Some of us write in small categories and want to break out of them. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not focused—we may keep a tight focus on our awkward topic. But we don’t fit neatly into an established category, and I, at least, don’t want to narrow what I’m doing in order to fit.
  6. (And this is, really, the main issue) I don’t want my writing controlled by my efforts to game the search engines. Again, I have no quarrel with people who do. It works, and it’s a legitimate choice. To maximize my page views, I could, in theory, find out what people want to read and then write about it, repeating the key words in all the key places. I get a steady flow of people, for example, wanting to know why Great Britain is called Great Britain. They push my page views up and I like this because (a) it makes me feel good and (b) I’m hoping that when my next book starts making the rounds, the blog will convince a publisher to consider it with just a bit more respect, so my stats may have an impact on something of more use in the world than my silly damn ego. People also want photos of cats. And dogs. The appetite for them is endless. Should I be sitting at my computer, then, and wondering what else people want and how I could produce it? Possibly, but if I do, will I be able to keep my writing sharp enough to make it worth reading? To the extent that Notes works, it depends on me making myself laugh. That’s not an easy river to channel, and it dries up altogether when I give too much thought to what people think and whether I’m making them happy. Which leads to:
  7. The only reason I can keep this blog fed is because early on in the process of creating it I stopped giving a rip. I ignore much of what I learned about writing, and a good part of what, in turn, I taught. And if you were a student of mine, whatever I taught you I taught in good faith. We all change, and maybe I needed to learn it before I could set it aside. But I apologize anyway. What exactly am I ignoring? I haven’t checked in with the rules in my head long enough to be sure. These days, I pretty much let myself sit at the keyboard and riff. I can’t do that and worry about SEO. I won’t complain about people who do as long as they can do it with some subtlety, but it’s not going to work for me.
  8. If you read about SEO long enough, someone will tell you to think of yourself as a brand. I am not a brand. I’m a writer. I’m a cantankerous human being. I’m any number of other things, but I’m not a brand.
  9. I did say nine, didn’t I? I lied. It has a better resonance than eight. And I’m sure the search engines like it better.

A quick visit to political absurdity

In these dark times, it’s comforting to know that the waters of political absurdity are forming such a gorgeous ocean.

In the U.S., the Republican convention’s in full swing. Ohio—the state that hosts the city (Cleveland) that’s hosting the convention—allows people to carry guns openly and to carry concealed weapons if they have a permit. Mind you, the police can’t stop someone and ask if they have a permit for a concealed weapon. They can only ask if they have some other reason to stop them—say a tail light that’s burned out.

What would the police do without burned-out tail lights?

I’ve read that the Black Lives Matter movement is boycotting the protests outside the convention, feeling that their movement was being hijacked by the protest organizers, but I’m guessing that both the city government and the police were already edgy about the Black Lives Matter movement anyway, and became more so after cops were shot in several cities. The shootings don’t seem to have been by movement activists but they were surely related to the anger that fuels the movement.

So let’s guess that Cleveland’s cops, and possibly the city government, are less than happy knowing that firearms are washing around legally.

So what does a nervous city do? It establishes a zone around the convention center and bans a variety of other things there, including toy guns, umbrellas with sharp tips, knives, ropes, and tennis balls. It sounds like the weapons from a game of Clue (or Cluedo, in British). Inside the convention center, the Republican Party itself has banned fresh fruit. And canned fruit. And—what will the National Rifle Association say?—real guns.

So, to sum up, you can carry a real gun near the convention center but not a toy gun. Or a tennis ball. And you cannot attack the candidate with a sharpened banana.

Update: I just read that when a number of armed blacks (as opposed to armed whites) began showing up on Cleveland’s streets, the head of the police union asked the governor to suspend the right to carry arms openly. “I don’t care if it’s constitutional or not,” he’s quoted as saying.

I have some sympathy for cops operating in a world that’s awash in guns, but this serves as a reminder that very little in the U.S. is racially neutral.

In a deep bow to the state of the world’s economy, the convention’s being held in the Quicken Loans Arena. Quicken Loans is a mortgage lender. I don’t know that there’s anything dodgy about it, but I can’t get the phrase subprime loans out of my head. I’d weep if I weren’t laughing so hard.

Meanwhile in the U.K., Boris Johnson—one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign, whose career briefly looked like it was over when his fellow Brexiteer Michael Gove destroyed his chance of being Prime Minister—held his first press conference since being appointed foreign minister. It was a bumpy ride. He was asked if he planned to apologize for the less than diplomatic thing he’s written and said about world leaders. What did he say? In the one comment that’s (more or less) quoted, he called Obama half Kenyan and a hypocrite. We’ll let that stand in for the rest. Having followed Johnson a bit in the papers, I have no doubt there’s plenty more.

In addition to his diplomatic skills, Johnson’s known for playing fast and loose with the facts—he lost his first journalism job for faking a quote and went on to make a career out of exaggeration, distortion, and various other forms of inaccuracy—and reporters took him on for some of the “outright lies” he’d written. I’m not sure who I’m quoting there. Presumably one reporter, not all of them.

Fun. But not half as much fun as his references to the crisis in Egypt, by which he apparently meant the crisis in Turkey. And in case you think it was a slip of the tongue, he said it twice.

So that’s Britain’s new foreign minister. Turkey, Egypt, you know, what’s the difference? They’re all a bunch of foreigners.

Sleep well tonight, my fellow citizens of planet earth. The world’s in good hands. And I’ll be back on Friday with something less political.

Driving in Britain: courtesy and narrow roads

British drivers are—at least to an American eye—amazingly considerate. Where two lanes narrow down to one, they merge in turn like the two sides of a zipper instead of edging each other out. When you’re stuck on some side street and losing hope that you’ll ever be able to cross the closer lane of traffic and turn into the far lane, someone will hold back and wave you across. And when the road’s too narrow for two cars to pass, most drivers will pull over if they’re close to a wide spot and see a car coming toward them, or they’ll back up if they know a wide spot is behind them.

You’ll notice, though, that I left myself some wiggle room in that first sentence: I said, “at least to an American eye.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, British drivers believe that [other] British drivers are rude, thoughtless, and hovering every second on the brink of lethal road rage.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

They also—again, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly—believe that the sky’s not as high as it used to be. But it’s hard to truly know what other people believe. That’s why I turn to tea leaves. I started buying loose tea not long ago, so I’m ready to check the tea leaves for an answer any question.

I do not, however, guarantee accuracy.

But even given my low standards for courteous driving, there’s always someone who’ll break the pattern, and I met him on a very back road some years ago.

It was the kind of road that hasn’t been graded (that, I think, is an Americanism; it means scraped until the humps fill in the potholes and you can drive it without jarring your fillings loose) since Henry VIII was in power. It also had stone walls on both sides and they were are set very close to the road. And for a long stretch, it had exactly one lane to accommodate traffic that ran in two directions. A lot of roads in Cornwall are like that, but this was a particularly narrow one.

I was halfway down it when another car showed up and instead of waiting for me to reach the end of the narrow stretch the driver drove straight at me. Since we were on the only straight road in Cornwall, he either saw me or was driving with his eyes closed. I assume he thought he could make me back up.

When roosters lay fried eggs he could. I kept going and when we were within pitching-a-fit distance of each other, I pulled as far toward the hedge as I could and turned the engine off. And there we sat. If I’d had a deck of cards, I’d have laid out a game of solitaire on the dashboard, but the best I could do was turn on the radio and stare serenely out into space. Eventually, he pulled as far to the left as he could and started nosing past me. Anything so he didn’t have to back up. There’s a bumper sticker around here that says, “Welcome to Cornwall. Your car’s not as wide as you think it is.” Well, mine is as wide as I think it is, and so was his, and I folded my wing mirror in but even so I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t both end up wearing each other’s paint jobs. And that was before his car tipped gently toward mine as his wheels rode up on a (really, very narrow) grassy stretch beside the road.

At this point I rolled my window down and said, “Are you okay?”

It was a serious question.

He stopped inching and said, “What did you say?” and if I’d wanted a fight I could have had one at a discount, although I can’t see how either of us would have gotten out of our cars unless we’d poured ourselves out the windows.

I repeated what I’d asked, and I don’t remember that he answered me, but he turned away and started inching again, and eventually he got past me and I started my engine and left.

I don’t’ know what, if anything, that tells you about driving in Britain. But it does tell you not to take cultural generalizations too seriously. Even when they’re true, you can always find an exception.

Gay marriage, romance, and village life

Wild Thing and I got married a couple of weeks ago. It was a Wednesday morning and we wore jeans and running shoes (and, yes, other stuff), which is probably enough to tell you we didn’t make a big production out of it. We’ve lived together for thirty-nine years now. We’ve had a civil partnership for—um. I’m not sure how long. Eight years? Let’s pretend it’s eight years. I’m probably wrong. Something larger than five but still in the single digits. Neither of us knows when the anniversary is. Sometime in the fall.

I was the one who suggested converting our civil partnership to a marriage, even though I’m not a fan of marriage. As far as I’m concerned, if you want romance, go live together. Skip the confetti. Don’t ask for  blessings from either church or state. Skip the ceremony, save the money, don’t even want the presents. For me, marriage is tainted by its long history as a property arrangement and as a way to control people’s sexuality. I won’t argue that you should agree with me, I’m just reporting on how I see it.

A surprisingly relevant photo: This is a flower.

A surprisingly relevant photo: This is a flower.

But as we get older, the realities of state recognition have started to matter. If one of us is hospitalized, we want the other one to be automatically recognized as the person in charge. Sure, we can draw up legal documents and we have, but how many of us have them in our back pockets when we need them?

Civil partnership gave us all that within the borders of the U.K., but recognition is iffier when we travel.

What really decided it, though, is that we probably won’t die in tandem. Since we’re spread across two countries and the U.S. doesn’t recognize civil partnerships formed abroad, converting our civil partnership to a marriage seemed like a practical decision. It will leave the survivor less of a mess at a time when she’ll have more than enough to deal with.

Cheerful, aren’t I? But y’know, we’re getting older. We think about these things.

I was reluctant—I was married a hundred or so years ago and didn’t like the woman-as-appendage feeling it gave me—but practicality won out.

An old romantic, that’s me.

I might as well admit at this point that when gay marriage first became a viable political possibility my brother asked me what I thought of it.

I want it to pass, I said, so I can take a principled stance against it.

It was a good joke and it leaves me with the itchy feeling that I need to explain myself.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone—and I mean anyone—but blabbermouth told J. Then I told J. not to tell anyone. But telling people is one of the things J. loves in life, so this was unkind. Then we told someone else and I went back and lifted the ban on telling people and—well, it went from there.

J. wanted to have a party.

No party.

J. wanted to be a witness.

We didn’t need witnesses. All we had to do was sign some papers.

J. wanted to throw confetti and see me to wear a white dress.

I haven’t worn a dress since I went into court for my divorce—wait, let me count—forty-four years ago. Or a skirt, thanks. And I only wore whichever it was then because I was intimidated. And because it was a long time ago, when slacks weren’t as widely accepted.

J. back to wanting a party.

No party.

Two days later, I saw J. again and seized my chance.

“What makes you think it’d be me wearing the dress?” I asked.

I didn’t get an answer, but that was okay. It took me two days to come up with the question. I didn’t really need an answer.

That’s the thing about gay marriage, though. You don’t know what to count on. You just have to stand back and see how the couple’s going to play it.

Somewhere along the line, one of us told G., who I sing with sometimes, and I’d blame blabbermouth but it was probably me. So G. and some other people from singers night gave us a card and a dwarf magnolia to plant in the back yard, and for all that I wanted to keep the whole thing to ourselves, I was touched and, irrationally, began to feel less reluctant.

What can I tell you? We’re social animals and we’re not entirely rational. If we even get that close.

When Wild Thing made the appointment with the registrar, we were told that we’d have to prove that we are who we think we are (are you still with me here?), so we’d need to bring two forms of identification. A passport and a driver’s license would do, but because Wild Thing has macular degeneration and no longer drives, she’d need something official with our address—a recent utility bill or bank statement, for example.

Both of which have gone paperless. And no, she couldn’t just print them off. It had to be on letterhead.

No problem, she figured. She’d go to our local bank branch and ask them to print it. But the branch can’t do that anymore. The central office no longer trusts them with paper. Who knows what they’d do with it? The only way to get a printed statement is to call some central office somewhere and wait a week to ten working days while a scribe in the back office writes it out by hand with a quill. By this time, of course, we didn’t have a week, never mind ten days.

Wild Thing begged. She explained. She was her most charming and desperate.

The woman at the central office said she’d talk to someone. Then she called back. She’d put a rush on it.

How much of a rush? We couldn’t be sure. Wild Thing gathered alternative papers. A letter from the NHS. A—oh, never mind the list. Everything she could find. It made quite a stack. We had no reason to think any of them would be good enough.

I started thinking about my parents’ tales about their own wedding. They were already living together, which—well, this would have been early in the early 1940s, I think. You didn’t do stuff like that openly then. They were working for the same union, in the same building, and took different subway trains to work so they’d show up at different times.

They fooled no one. Their co-workers would look at their watches and nod knowingly.

They’d have gone ahead and gotten married but my mother’s divorce wasn’t final. When it was, they went to City Hall on their lunch hour and discovered that the office they needed was on its own lunch hour.

They went back the next day and got married, borrowing a ring from someone and giving it back as they left the office. Their honeymoon was on the subway on their way back to work. They stayed together more than 50 years and were very close. So I grew up thinking that ceremony isn’t everything. In fact, I sort of assumed it was an annoying nuisance.

If Wild Thing and I couldn’t get married on the date we’d planned, at least we’d be part of a tradition. And we’d have a good story.

J. stepped in.

Bring a council tax statement, she said.

Onto the stack the council tax statement went, and on Wednesday off we went with all of it, wearing our best denims. Or at least our clean ones.

We saw a deputy registrar who chatted as she worked her way through the form: identification, names, dates of birth, all that stuff. Any previous names. Would I spell that?

I would. I’d meant to keep my own name when I got married that first time but didn’t take whatever steps would have made that possible in those dark days when a woman had to fight to keep her own name, so it was changed for me, which didn’t help with that woman-as-appendage feeling I mentioned.

The deputy registrar, Wild Thing, and I chatted about people who don’t like their names and people whose names end up being popular names for dogs.

We do it with such good intentions, she said.

You couldn’t help liking the woman, although I’ll admit we didn’t try.

Would you confirm your gender? she asked.

You do have to ask these days, I said.

She said she did have to, and some people got angry about it. A few offered to prove their gender, which was more than she actually needed.

The world’s gotten complicated, if it ever was simple. Some people do get pissed off about it.

She asked if either of us was changing her name.

Not a chance.

Eventually we got around to my father’s middle name.

Kropotkin.

Would I spell that?

Well, yes, I would. Slowly.

We’d already discussed Wild Thing’s middle name and why she hates it. I don’t have a middle name, which could be a discussion all on its own but wasn’t. My father’s, though, seemed to call for some explanation. We were having such a nice visit. And she was such an easy person to talk to.

My father’s parents were Russian revolutionaries, I said. Which is an exaggeration but it’s what I found myself saying. What they really were was Russian Jewish radicals. They didn’t actively foment revolution. For one thing, they were busy raising four (at the time they emigrated) kids, and trying to feed and clothe and educate them, which is enough to keep most people, radical or otherwise, occupied. For another, I’m not sure revolution was on the agenda when they were still Russia, and I don’t think they’d have felt at home in the parties that wanted a revolution.

When they got to the U.S., I went on, they felt free to name their kids anything they damn well wanted to, and my father was their first American-born child so they named him after a Russian anarchist prince, Peter Kropotkin.

Talk about middle names that aren’t easy to carry through life. I learned to use his middle initial only when I filled out school forms. Using his full middle name gives me an odd, can-I-really-do-this? feeling.

She printed out the form, all of us signed it, and that was it. We were married.

By way of a honeymoon, we went to the supermarket and picked up some fruit. We were getting low. It’s summer. We like fruit.

When we got home, J. and A. had broken into our house, with M.’s help, and left a banner, a balloon, flowers, fruit, vegetables, cards. The kitchen table was practically overflowing. Our brave dogs—our watch-shih tzus—had done nothing to guard the house. And when J. and A. had trouble with the key, the neighbor gave them a hand.

So much for security.

We now had enough fruit to start a fruit stand. Every time I looked at the kitchen table, I started laughing all over again.

We put some of it away and took ourselves to lunch at the local café, which sent us home with a massive piece of carrot cake as a wedding present. They were afraid, I think, that the marriage wouldn’t be valid if we didn’t have cake.

So here we are, and I’m happy to report that nothing’s changed except that we’ve been eating more fruit than usual. Friends have snuck a bit more celebrating in on us, including F. showing up with a one-week anniversary present and friends throwing flower petals.

Not long ago, M. asked Wild Thing—teasing her, I think—which of us is the wife.

The answer is, neither of us. Or in a pinch, both of us. Or the same one who was before we got married, which goes back to the first answer: no one. It’s not about our legal status,  it’s not about who plays what role. It’s about the relationship.

As Britain leaves the European Union, part 2

The bizarre news just keeps on coming.

On Wednesday, I learned that although one of the big complaints about the EU was the fishing quota, the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations has announced (now that the vote’s been taken) that fishing quotas aren’t likely to be any larger after a Brexit. “The reality is that most of our stocks are shared with other countries to some degree or another,” the organisation said.

I wonder if it would have made a difference if they’d said that before the vote. Quite possibly not. It’s not like a huge number of people make their living fishing anymore, but the fishing quota was a highly emotional issue that seemed to stand in for a lot of more amorphous resentments.

Also on Wednesday, Nigel Farage, the rubber-faced head of the U.K. Independence Party, which has been pushing for a way out of the EU for years, made a triumphant speech to the EU Parliament, telling them, among other things, that none of them had ever held a real job. Behind him sat Lithuania’s European Commissioner—a heart surgeon—holding his head in his hands.

And on Thursday? The Labour Party continued its self-inflicted meltdown, with MPs doing their best to publicly humiliate their elected leader. Meanwhile Boris Johnson, the leading Brexit campaigner and frontrunner for leadership of the Conservative Party, announced that he wasn’t in the race. Why? No idea. Speculation around here is that either (a) he’s trying to preserve his reputation by letting someone else figure out what to do next or (b) someone knows something juicy about him.

I’m not sure it’s relevant, but he and Michael Gove have been so close through this campaign that the shoulder seams on their suits were stitched together, and Gove’s wife accidentally sent an email that she meant for Gove to a member of the public instead.

Who forwarded it to the press. Who did what the press does and published it.

I’d like to break in here and remind everyone—and I speak as a fiction writer—that you really can’t make this stuff up. If you do, no one will read it. It’s too damned improbable.

What did she tell him? Among other things, not to sign on as a supporter of Boris’s campaign until he got a specific job offer.

Senior civil servants are worried that a new body to coordinate the Brexit strategy won’t have the expertise or the resources it needs. You’d think someone would’ve been exploring the possibilities long before the referndum, but apparently not. Instead they seem to have said, “Hey, if it happens we’ll just, you know, wing it.” Only they probably didn’t sound quite so American.

As Gary Younge points out in a long article on how this all happens, the country effectively lacks both a government and an opposition.

And finally, in a completely different country, the president of Belarus has urged citizens to “get undressed and work till you sweat.” Or maybe he told them to develop themselves and work till they sweat. According to the Guardian, in Russian develop yourselves sounds a lot like get undressed. My Russian, unfortunately, doesn’t include either get undressed or develop yourself, although I can say “hello,” “how are your grandparents?” (which might actually be great-grandparents; it’s all a little hazy), and “this is a beautiful day today” or something equally awkward involving day and beauty. None of which is even remotely helpful. It sounds massively improbable that the two phrases would sound so much alike, but take a look at what’s happening in Britain and you’ll see why I’m prepared to believe pretty much anything.

Anyway, citizens have started posting pictures of themselves naked at work with strategically placed work-related equipment. As one Instagram user said, “The president said this was necessary.”

Patriotism, my friends, takes many forms. As does protest. And satire? That’s only limited by the human imagination.

As Britain leaves the European Union

What’s going on with Brexit, you ask? It’s been strange over here, and it’s getting stranger.

First the prime minister set up a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Why? Because he wanted to shut up the anti-EU wing of his party, the Conservatives. Clever move, Dave.

Then the whole thing went wrong, the Conservative Party dissolved into an internal arm wrestling match, and the country voted to leave the EU. Clever Dave announced that he’ll resign as soon as someone in his party wins the arm-wrestling match, which is now about who gets to replace him.

Bye, Dave.

Moody and irrelevant photo: a man watching the fog roll in.

Moody and irrelevant photo: a man watching the fog roll in.

Then the MPs who belong to the Labour Party, who you’d think would be out celebrating the Conservative-on-Conservative war, called for a vote of no confidence in their own leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who they’ve hated from the time he was elected because he’s from the left wing of their party and they’re not. They blame him for not making a stronger case for staying in the EU.

Corbyn, who was elected by a large majority of the party membership, refused to resign. The Labour Party dissolved into an internal arm wrestling match. Actually, it started when Corbyn was first elected, but it’s gotten worse now.

In the meantime, the Scottish National Party announced that it will demand a second referendum on Scottish independence. Most of Scotland voted to stay in the EU and now they want to leave the UK so they can.

Then they read the small print on something or other and announced that the Scottish Parliament has the power to stop the UK’s exit.

Who knew that? Apparently no one.

A petition calling for a second referendum got so many signatures that the government web site that was hosting it broke down. In almost no time, it had several million signatures. Then a bunch of them turned out to be bogus. Still, that leaves a hell of a lot that aren’t.

It turns out that the petition was started by someone who supported the Leave campaign but didn’t expect it to win. It was hijacked, he said, by Remain supporters.

Well, yes, dear. both sides of that sword were sharpened.

Dave—who, you remember, is resigning—says he won’t make the formal moves that will trigger the British exit. He’ll leave it to his successor. But the EU is calling on the UK to get on with it and end the uncertainty. They’re not in a good mood about all this, and they’d like the UK out of the room, please. The sight of us is bringing back ugly memories. But no one can trigger the Leave process except the country that wants to leave and that country–us–is stalling.

One of the promises of the Leave campaign was that if Britain left, it would save so much money that it could spend £350 million a week on the NHS, which is seriously underfunded at the moment. A few days after the vote, however, all references to that disappeared from the campaign’s website. The top Leave campaigners have all developed amnesia and don’t seem to remember saying that.

Meanwhile, the pound’s fallen to either a 30-year low or a 31-year low, depending on when you turned on your radio. The stock markets have gotten hives.

Polish immigrants reported being handed leaflets telling them to leave now. Assorted other incidents of harassment against Muslims, Poles, and in one incident foreigners in general have been reported, although in that particular incident there may not have actually been any foreigners present. A man in the supermarket started yelling about foreigners and questioning people about where they were from.

Keep in mind that when I say harassment of Muslims and Poles and foreigners, what I really mean is people who might be Muslims or Poles or foreigners, because it’s not always easy to tell. The same thing happens when people start pushing gays around: A few extra people who aren’t gay always get swept in because someone thinks they might be.

It’s hard to tell who to hate these days, you know? This may actually be good, because it reminds people who aren’t in any of those categories what it’s like to be the target of that kind of venom. Some very ugly forces have been unleashed in this campaign.

A lot of the Leave campaign was about “taking our country back.” Who from? It was a kind of fill-in-the-blank slogan. From whoever you think took it from you. For some people, that was an urban elite, because this was a heavily anti-elitist campaign—run by an urban elite who hope to take power from a different urban elite. For other people, it was foreigners, or Muslims, or Poles, or Eastern Europeans in general, or Asians or Africans, or people whose ancestors were Asian or African. It took some of the ugliest threads of the culture and brought them out into the open. Suddenly they felt respectable. Want to yell at foreigners in the supermarket? Want to yell at a young Muslim woman on the bus? The country just told you you could.

It didn’t, but never mind. A certain number of people feel like it did.

The part of the Leave camp that I’m sympathetic to is made up of people whose lives have been bulldozed by globalization. Steady jobs disappeared, industries have moved abroad, and people are left broke and lost and angry. They want to take their country back too. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’ll get it. Not this way.

According to a Guardian article, the Bank of America and Pimco, which I never heard of before, are “warning their clients that the gulf between rich and poor could add to the anti-establishment backlash,” and they consider the Brexit vote part of that.

The queen, by the way, is due for an automatic £2.8 million raise in pay unless the formula that calculates what taxpayers owe her is changed. That’s not related to leaving the EU, but I thought I’d toss it in anyway.

Here in Cornwall, where money’s tight and the EU has invested a lot and where the vote leaned heavily toward Leave, the Cornwall Council turned to the national government asking if they’d match that investment. Part of the Leave campaign’s promise was that once the UK didn’t have to pour money into the EU, it could be spent here.

To which I can only say, don’t count on it. The NHS won’t be getting any £350 million a week. If Cornwall gets any equivalent of the EU investment, I’ll be surprised, she said in a massive display of understatement.

One of the main Leave campaigners, Boris Johnson, wrote in the Telegraph that, basically, nothing good will change and only the bad things—the British involvement with the EU’s bureaucracy—will drop away.

And no one will get colds or flu again, ever.

I’m paraphrasing heavily, but I think I’ve caught the spirit of the column.

Commentators are starting to comment that the Leave campaigners don’t have a plan. We might have been wise to ask them about that a bit earlier, although I doubt it would have changed the vote.

I haven’t written about the referendum until now because it was hard to find anything funny about it. Now, though? It’s still not funny, but the situation’s weird enough to give me something to work with.

I apologize for not giving you links. There are too many. I’m overwhelmed. And in no time they’ll be outdated. In fact, I’m publishing this before my usual Friday deadline because it’ll be out of date otherwise.

Fasten your seatbelts, kids. I don’t know if it’s going to be bumpy, but it’s going to get very, very strange. E.A. posted a photo on Facebook of a man holding a sign that says, “Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to hold a referendum with the same people who came up with ‘Boaty McBoatface.’ “

Do people really say “spiffing”?

A. tells me she wants to be a character in my blog. I didn’t think I had characters in my blog, just people I hide behind initials, but I like to make people happy when I can. So here’s a scene, complete with characters.

I was at the pub recently on singers night, and during the break A. and C. and I were standing around talking. As nearly as I can reconstruct the conversation, C. asked A. (apropos of I have no idea what; possibly nothing), “Are you spiffing?”

A. looked, I think, surprised but said yes, she was spiffing.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter.

Irrelevant photo: Find the walker. Find the beach, for that matter. I love fog, which is lucky since we get a lot of it.

An interruption here: Since I’m turning people into characters, I can abandon my limited point of view and say that A. didn’t just look surprised, she was surprised. She was also amused and ready to go along with a joke.

C. turned to me and asked if I was also spiffing.

And here we get another interruption (what would this blog be without interruptions?), because we’ve got to consider the word spiffing. It made me think I’d fallen into a 1920s English novel. I can’t remember hearing anyone say the word before, ever, so when I started to write this scene I pulled out the small collection of dictionaries that made it across the Atlantic with me or that I’ve bought since I moved here. (Before I retired, I worked as an editor, so it made sense to have more than one dictionary. I miss the ones I left behind.)

My American dictionary doesn’t include any variation on spiffing, and I was ready to declare the word a Britishism, but then I tried my two British dictionaries and they didn’t have it either. None of them are particularly good dictionaries, mind you, but still, that says something about the word, doesn’t it? The only places I found it were: 1, In NTC’s Dictionary of British Slang, which gave me spiffed out (dressed up; polished up nicely), spiffing (excellent), and spiffy (clean and tidy; excellent), but it didn’t say anything about their origin. And 2, in British English A to Zed (what could be more British than a zed?), which gave me spif(f)licate (to knock the hell out of; to destroy). I took that for a word origin, although I still don’t see how you get from there to excellent etc.

Then I went online. The Online Etymology Dictionary says: “1853, of uncertain origin, probably related to spiff ‘well-dressed man.’ Uncertain relationship to spiff (n.) ‘percentage allowed by drapers to their young men when they effect sale of old fashioned or undesirable stock’ (1859), or to spiflicate ‘confound, overcome completely,’ a cant word from 1749 that was ‘common in the 19th century’ [OED], preserved in American English and yielded slang spiflicated ‘drunk,’ first recorded in that sense 1902.”

Preserved in American English? Excuse me, but the only time we’d use the word in the U.S. (and again, remember, I’m omniscient for the duration of this post) is when we want to sound faintly ridiculous. And even then, we’d only use it in one sentence, which we could only say in one of three contexts. It goes as follows: “We’ve got to spiff this place up before

  1. your parents
  2. the landlord, or
  3. the police

get here.”

Or, okay, I’ll contradict myself: We might say something was pretty spiffy. But again, only if we wanted that slight tang of absurdity.

Spiffing, though? Never.

As a point of information, when an online search engine offered to translate spiffy into any of the world’s many languages, I couldn’t resist taking it up on the offer. I chose Spanish first and then French, because I actually speak those.

Almost. To be completely honest, I only speak French if you have some imagination and a flexible definition of the word speak, and even if my Spanish is workable it’s a long way from perfect, but for the purposes of one word that should be close enough. I’d stand a fighting chance of comparing the translation to reality. Or at least to a dictionary.

The search engine translated spiffy as spiffy. In both languages.

Thank you, oh great googlemaster. That was tremendously helpful, but it slowed our scene down, so let’s go back to our conversation. You remember our conversation? A. and C. and me in the pub on singers night?

C. turned to me and asked if I was spiffing. My mind went into that overdrive thing minds sometimes do when they’re asked a question they can’t process. The word spiffing, it said to itself, and to me since I was eavesdropping helplessly, cannot exist outside of 1920s fiction set among aristocratic twits who lounge around holding tennis rackets and drinking martinis. It can therefore only be used by or about people who are English, aristocratic twits, and born around 1900. You are none of these things, therefore you cannot be spiffing.

My mind didn’t stop to notice that C. isn’t any of those things and that A. is only one of them, English, but minds are like that under pressure. Or mine is. It focuses very narrowly and is very, very strange.

Without consulting me (and since we’ve wandered again, I’ll remind you that the question was “Are you spiffing?”), my mouth said, “No, I’m American.”

Which was as true as it was irrelevant.

That pretty well took care of the break. We’d eaten our sandwiches and had our conversation and those of us who’d taken cheese sandwiches had spread the grated cheese that hadn’t made it to our mouths in a nice even pattern on the carpet. That happens every week. We spif(f)licate [knock hell out of] the sandwiches and the next week (or presumably, day) the carpet’s clean again. I have no idea how they get it up. Or why they think carpet’s a good idea.

They could, in theory, slice the cheese instead of grating it, but it would be un-British.

How to pronounce British place names

A handful of British place names are spelled the way they’re pronounced. Britain, for example. Also England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Northern Ireland. Even Wales, although it could just easily be Wails or Wayles. But then Britain could be (and as a last name actually is) spelled Britten. And Cornwall could be Kornwall. It derives from the Cornish word Kernow, so you could make a pretty fair case for it.

I won’t go on. Are there any words in English that can’t be spelled at least one other way?

Never mind. The situation’s complicated enough without me making it worse, because once you brush those few clear place names out of the way, you’re reduced to guesswork.

Irrelevant photo: I'm not sure what these are, but they're in bloom right now.

Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what these are, but they’re in bloom right now.

It was in response to a post about the British sense of humor that Dan Antion suggested I write about the war between the pronunciation of British place names and their spelling. Who wouldn’t get the connection? The whole island’s having a good laugh at the rest of the world. When no one’s listening, they say things like, “Har har, all those foreigners think Derby is pronounced Derby.”

How do they pronounce Derby? Why Darby, of course.

Why don’t they spell it Darby? Because, as the kids used to say where I grew up, and don’t look for anything as boring as an explanation to follow that because. There is none, and that’s the point. The adult world didn’t make sense and because was as good an explanation as the kids gave. Or got, I suspect. Things were the way they were. If you pushed the kids (and I did once or twice; I was the kind of kid who just had to), they’d escalate to a frustrated “just because,” which was followed by a silent but strongly implied you idiot.

And so it is with English spelling. It’s spelled that way because it’s spelled that way.

As an aside (and I’ll get to our topic eventually), my first Google search on the subject took me to a web site whose headline was, “English spelling is easy.” Sez whoo? (Or hoo. Or even whou.) English spelling not only isn’t easy, it isn’t even marginally sensible. All those kids being taught phonics? When they find out that nothing in English works phonetically, they’ll never trust a human being again.

All that creates enough of a problem when we’re wrestling with words we recognize—you know: tough, though, thought—but with place names the problem’s magnified. Because the country’s always throwing new ones at you, and an outsider doesn’t stand a chance.

Outsider, by the way, means citizens and foreigners alike. As far as pronouncing place names go, you can wave your birth certificate or your naturalization papers all you want, but they won’t help. Once you leave your familiar ground behind, you’re an outsider.

Time for a few examples.

Dan wrote, “In an earlier post of mine, about the doors at Barkhamsted Reservoir, my friend in England commented: ‘Here in the U.K. it would be spelled Berkhampstead (there is such a place!) and still pronounced Barkemstead!’ I’ll never understand. I’m blaming England for the way the people near Boston pronounce Woburn, Massachusetts (woo-burn).“

And in case you think spellings change when names cross the Atlantic while the pronunciation stays the same, you’re wrong: You can’t find consistency even there. The British Birmingham is pronounced Birming-am: the American one is Birming-ham. The spelling stays the same.

In response to Dan’s comment, John Evans wrote, “I used to live in the West Midlands, which includes the county town of Warwick (famous for its castle). This is pronounced Worrick. However, even British people don’t know how to pronounce the names of places that aren’t in their own locality. Thus, one day a truck driver from Lancashire (NW England) on his way to Warwick stopped and asked me ‘Is this the road to War-wick?’ He would have done any American proud—apart from his broad Lancashire accent, that is.

“And Barnoldswick in Lancashire is of course pronounced Barlick!”

Val, from Quiet Season, wrote, “In Shropshire they’re still arguing about whether Shrewsbury is pronounced shroosbury or shrowsbury, and some people still argue over whether a scone is pronounced skone or skon.”

Think she’s exaggerating? In 2015 the BBC staged a debate on how to pronounce Shrewsbury and invited people to vote. I’m sure they had a huge audience and even more sure that everyone went on pronouncing it exactly the way they had before.

Around here, Widemouth Bay is pronounced Widmuth. You hear that and think you see a pattern, don’t you? Silly you. Sandymouth is pronounced Sandymouth. A bit further away, in Devon, you’ll find the town of Teignmouth, pronounced tin-muth. The River Teign and its valley, though, from which the town took its name, are pronounced teen. The local authority (that’s the government) is teenbridge. I’d have sworn there was a third pronunciation, tane, but D., who told me about this to begin with, swears there are only two. Sad, isn’t it? I so wanted three, but what can you do?

Instead of going on to give you a list of absurd spellings, I’ll give you a few links, because the work’s been done for me. Several times over. For starters, you can look at BBC America and Anglotopia. If that’s not enough, google “pronunciation British place names.” Have fun.

In the meantime, let’s go in a different direction and talk about the spelling system that led to this mayhem. A few thousand years ago, when I was younger, someone explained it to me by saying that English pronunciation was still a liquid when its spelling was turned into a solid, and it’s the mismatch that did all the damage: The spellings stayed fixed while the pronunciations flowed away from them. As liquids will.

Or at least, abandoning my metaphor, the spellings changed more slowly than the pronunciations.

In the interest of minimal honesty, the explanation I actually got didn’t include the metaphor and may have been clearer that way, but it was less fun. According to what I now read, however, the process wasn’t that simple. The English Spelling Society has a fascinating web site on the history of English spelling and traces our current spelling back to Geoffrey Chaucer (who died in 1400, in case you don’t have that date fixed in your brain). Before then, everything that mattered in the country was written in French. Chaucer wasn’t responsible for the shift to English but he was around to give it a good hard shove. Thanks, Jeff.

Or Geoff. This is English. Who’s to say?

Chaucer’s English isn’t an easy read for—well, me for one, and let’s pretend briefly that I’m typical of something: the modern English-speaking reader in this case. But the Spelling Society seems to think his version was better than what followed. The scribes and clerks of the day were used to writing French, so they imported French spellings—double, table, and centre, for example. And if that didn’t make things murky enough, when the first English printing press was imported, printers came over from Belgium to run it, and since English wasn’t their first language they added some spelling errors, including, the article says, spelling a word pronounced eny as any. Plus they were paid by the line (and sometimes, more altruistically, wanted to lengthen a line to make the margins look better), so they might spell hed head, or fondnes fondnesse, and so forth.

(An interruption here: The article said they made spelling errors, but since no particular spelling was either right or wrong at the time, just more or less readable, I suspect they’re importing a modern concept to the discussion.)

The article goes on from there—read it on the web site; it’s not long and it is fascinating—until by the time the first Elizabeth was on the throne people were spelling words pretty much any way they wanted to. Which eliminates the need for spelling tests but slows down a person’s reading speed until they feel like a driver in a very thick traffic jam.

(They as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, by the way, isn’t something new. It was in common use until sometime in the nineteenth century. You needed to hear that today, didn’t you?)

We’ll skip a few important steps and jump ahead to Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking dictionary of 1755, in which he struggled heroically to standardize the mess he’d been handed and—well, folks, here we are. I doubt most of us would have done any better, given what he had to work with, but Derby is still pronounced Darby.

Why? Just because.

Driving in Britain: road signs and narrow roads

When I first started driving in Britain, it was white-knuckle work. Not because I’m a timid driver. I drove cab for five years back in Minneapolis, which  wasn’t a war zone, I admit, but it was and is a city, and the winter driving in particular could be hair-raising. Still, nothing prepared me for British driving.

The part I thought would be hard, keeping the car on the left, turned out to be the easy part, since that’s where all the other cars were and it’s easy enough to stay with the herd. When there’s no herd it was sometimes harder, but if there’s no one around you’ll do the least damage if you turn into the wrong lane. What was hard? Among other things, finding the steering wheel. More than once, I opened the passenger door, prepared to slip behind the wheel and drive, and instead stood there blankly thinking, Somebody stole my steering wheel. Who’d steal my steering wheel?

Look, I’m not responsible for what goes on in my head. As long as I refrain from acting on it, everything’s okay.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: A couple of people asked what the china cottages I wrote about looked like, and what I did with the ones I didn't send to my friend. Here are the ones I have left.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: A couple of people asked what the china cottages I wrote about in my boot sale post looked like, and what I did with the ones I didn’t send to my friend. Here are the ones I have left. The two with the brown roofs are replicas of the one labeled “Shakespeare’s cottage.” Apparently, he lived in three houses and they all looked alike.

I had similar moments with the seat belt, when I’d be groping in mid-air wondering where it had gotten to. (FYI: In British, that would be got to. I have no idea why.) L.’s husband, she told me, spent a lot of his driving time slamming his hand into the door when he wanted to change gears.

But those are moments. They pass. The roads though? They go on for as long as you’re driving, and if you want to get philosophical about it you could argue that they go on regardless of whether you’re driving or not. So let’s talk about the roads.

Before my first trip here, I had no idea how narrow British country roads could be. At every blind turn (and oh, does this country have a lot of them), I was convinced some big damn truck was going to come barreling toward me with half its wheels—and half its everything else—on my side of the road. Because where the roads are seriously narrow, people can’t help driving down in the middle. And in other places, they could but they don’t. Or they don’t always. Its standard practice around here to shave a bit of the curve off two particular stretches of road. They don’t happen to be blind, but still, it’s not a great habit.

It took a long time, but I’m finally used to narrow roads. I’ve stopped expecting trucks to appear in my lane. I can drive the hour and a quarter to Plymouth, where Wild Thing goes for eye treatments (which are working, thanks for asking; there’s a limit to what they can do, but they’re doing what’s possible; six cheers for the NHS, and cheer fast before the government succeeds in wrecking it) without feeling like it’s a big deal. I suspect I could do it without getting out of bed.

But I’ll admit to being thrown by a sign I noticed on a recent trip: Oncoming traffic in middle of road.

The first question I have about this is why it’s worth noting. Even by British standards, the roads in Cornwall can get narrow—something I know because I see panicky British tourists plastering their cars to the hedges while oncoming drivers breeze past, barely bothering to slow down because what the hell, there’s at least an inch to spare. But in most of the places where that happens, you won’t find an Oncoming traffic in middle of road sign. So why put one in this particular spot?

Which was, just for the record, in Devon, not Cornwall, but still, it wasn’t in what I’ve learned to think of as a particularly narrow spot, although once upon a time it would have scared me brainless.

The second question is what they expect me to do what about it. Screaming comes to mind. Some people might want to pray. But neither of those reliably avoids, or even minimizes, an accident.

I can’t answer either question—don’t you love how much you learn from this blog?—but I can happily waste a bit more of your time considering it.

An age or two ago, when I asked what people would like me to write about, Terri suggested British road signs and I tried to be at least mildly amusing on the subject but bored myself silly. I’m not sure I’m being wildly amusing this time around, but I’m still awake, and that’s a good sign, so let’s keep going.

British road signs fall into three categories.

Comprehensible signs

You see a sign that says 30 and you pretty much know you’re looking at the speed limit. Or you see a graphic that shows an intersection, a curve, two lanes turning into one. You can follow those. Or you see words: Ford; Reduce speed now; Slow. Useful but boring, so let’s move on.

Comprehensible (but only if you sent away for the secret decoder ring) signs

A lot of these are standardized European Union signs, which are wordless so that they’re equally incomprehensible in all of the many languages spoken throughout the union. Once you get used to them—well, I won’t say they make any intuitive sense but you can begin to think they do. A circle with a slash through it? Of course that means you can resume the national speed limit. The fascinating thing here is that you just know a whole committee of people spent hours—did I say hours? I meant months, and they felt like lifetimes—talking about what graphics people would intuitively understand. And then finally they looked at each other, said, “Screw it,” and settled on these, after which they went out for a drink.

Make that several drinks. They needed them.

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming them. They were handed an impossible and necessary task. Standardizing the signs makes sense. Making the signs wordless makes sense. Unfortunately, whatever solution you come up with will be absurd.

One of my favorites in this category made me think at first that I was being told to push my car off a pier when, in fact, I was being warned not to drive off one. But after a while, as long as you’re not in the car when it goes over, you begin to figure these things out.

If Britain leaves the EU this summer, a whole ‘nother committee will convene to discuss what to replace them with, because the old ones will be politically tainted. I can hardly wait to see what they unleash on us.

Eccentric signs

Some of my favorites in this category are the signs that warn you about road closures, because the people who write them are paid by the word (it’s the only explanation) and I’ve been a freelancer myself so I understand what they’re going through. They say things like, “We’re really very sorry about this, but we’re going to have to close this road between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Sunday 3 March in the year of our Lord 2016, and we hope it isn’t too inconvenient, especially since it may actually take a little longer than the time we have scheduled. We’ll finish up as soon as ever we can.”

I don’t care how much you slow down, you can’t read that. Neither can your passenger, even though he or she has the luxury of not watching the road. And you just know the sign writers would have squeezed in a few more words if they’d had a smaller font available.

One of the early signs of Wild Thing’s eye problems was that she had trouble reading road signs. Not just the road closure signs, but you know how it is: If you’re struggling with sane signs and then look at a road closure sign, you forget that you never could read them. Instead, you think, Crap, my eyes are worse than I thought.

So thanks for those, guys. We appreciate your efforts.

Then there are the signs that say “flood.” These are entirely legible to anyone with normal vision and they get put out where a heavy rain will flood the road. Then they get left there through drought and fire and plagues of locusts and they’re still there when the next flood comes around, although they may have faded into illegibility by then. Or been there so long that they’ve gone invisible. When I first saw them, I used to look around for a bunch of badly behaved water. Now, though, unless they’re actually sitting in water I ignore them. Which sort of defeats their purpose.

Directional signs range from the clear to the useless. I’ve driven through cities where the only way to leave a roundabout in the direction you had in mind is to read the markings on the road. (That’s assuming, of course, that you weren’t sharp enough to memorize the graphic of the roundabout that precedes it, which on our first trips here we often weren’t.) Lanes will be marked with things like “City Centre,” “Tavistock,” “Moon Landing Site,” and so forth. So far, so good. You find your lane and follow it. But the lettering on the road is only legible when traffic is thin. The moment other cars are rude enough to think they can share the roundabout with you, what do they do? They drive on the damn pavement. Which means they block the lettering. Which means you go through the roundabout three times, hoping for a gap in the traffic so you can read what they hid last time around.

In the U.S., we hang the directional signs above the traffic. They’re ugly as mud, but you can find them.

Other signs are homemade things. Some are little sparkly things asking you not to litter, which are so upbeat and good humored that you want to (first) sink your teeth into someone’s arm and (second) throw candy wrappers out the window. Followed by vodka bottles. Others are assertive black and yellow signs that say “Overhanging Roof” in the hope that if you’re driving a big honkin’ truck you’ll refrain from tearing the corner off their roof. Again. (Did I mention that the roads are narrow?) Or panicky signs that beg you to ignore your sat-nav because it will tell you to drive into someone’s living room, or into a lake, or down a street that’s too narrow for anything wider than Molly Malone’s fish barrow and we all know what became of her. Ever since we moved here, I’ve been seeing newspaper photos of truck drivers stuck in narrow streets, sometimes for days, while the world tries to figure out how to unstick him (to date and to my limited knowledge, they have all been hims)—or more accurately, his truck—without tearing down the houses. Here’s a photo from January of this year and another from March.  And what did they do in the second incident? Arrested the driver. I guess if you’re driving and you see a house in your way you should probably hit the brakes and all, and maybe a traffic ticket really isn’t enough of a response to someone who doesn’t. Still, I can’t help sympathizing with a driver who’s watching the road get narrower and narrower, feeling an escalating sense of panic, and thinking, If I can only get out of here before anyone sees me, this will never have happened.

If there’s a single sign visitors want to learn before they come to Britain, it’s the one that says, “Ignore your sat-nav.”

I’m not sure any of that is what Terri had in mind when she asked me to write about road signs, but if not, ask the question again in a different way. I just might get it right. Or at least be funnier.