Pandemic news from Britain: the good, the bad, and the bizarre

At the end of March, someone named Sarah Buck tweeted, “Just had a knock on the door and sat on the doorstep was 2 bottles of milk and a loaf of bread. The man who put them there was stood back on the footpath and told me that the items were gifts from Banbury Mosque! They went to every house on our street delivering these!!”

There are many stories like this, all over the country–people stepping in to help as best they can where they’re needed. We’ll let this one stand in for them all.

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Someone put together an impressive dalek costume and rolled through Robin Hood Bay, near Whitby, announcing, “By order of the Daleks, all humans must stay indoors, all humans must self-isolate.” 

And if you don’t know what a dalek is, you’re making better use of your time than I am. It’s a bad guy from Dr. Who. With a toilet plunger for a nose.  Or maybe it’s an antenna, not a nose. It’s definitely a toilet plunger, though.

You can find the video here.

(That was important enough that it got two links. I hope you’re impressed.) 

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Startlingly relevant photo, but you’ll need to read to the end to understand why

The prime minister is now in intensive care with Covid-19. Ever since he came down sick, his government has been reciting a soothing drone that consisted mostly of the phrase mild case

Then he went into the hospital. For–we were assured–routine tests. On a Sunday night. But he was still running the country.

How dumb do they think we are?

Very.

Now he’s in intensive care and not running the country. So who’s is? Dominic Raab. [Update: True, but it turns out he has no power. He can’t make decisions without the cabinet’s okay.] But Larry the Cat has been edged out. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. 

Government ministers, by the way, have taken to blaming top civil servants for the mess they–that’s the government, not the civil service–have made in responding to the crisis. 

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In the interest of fixing this mess, the government has bought 17.5 million home testing kits (or possibly an option on them–I’ve seen it explained both ways) that would allow people to find out whether they’ve had Covid-19. This would allow people who already had it and are immune to go back out into the world.

Unfortunately, they don’t work well enough to be much use. The milder a person’s symptoms were, the less likely the tests are to detect antibodies. On top of that, no one knows for sure if people who’ve had it actually are immune and if so how long their immunity lasts.

Other than that, they’re great and we’re well on our way to solving our little problem.

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Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, warned the public not to go anywhere unless it was essential. It put people’s lives at risk. So listen up, people, we can’t fool around with this.

Then she went to her second home. Twice. And got caught. 

And resigned.

It’s funny how much more essential a trip looks when it’s yours.

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In response to the local humans going into hiding, goats have wandered into Llandudno, in Wales, and are looking very picturesque, thank you. These are Kashmiri goats, originally from India, and they’ve been in the area since the nineteenth century–long enough to acquire the local accent. In normal times, they only come into town in bad weather. Or when they’ve saved up enough money for ice cream.

The photos are worth a click.

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I was going to report on what NHS staff are having to use to protect themselves from infection in the absence of genuine protective equipment, but it’ll either make you depressed or homicidal. Ditto the reports of them being warned not to speak out about the lack of equipment and how it’s putting their lives at risk. Both are happening. Read the real news, not just the stuff I post. I can’t make this stuff funny and if I could it’d be immoral. 

After a decade of underfunding the National Health Service, chopping it to pieces, disorganizing it, privatizing it, re-disorganizing it, understaffing it, and blaming the problems on the people who work for it and the previous government, suddenly the Conservatives love the NHS and everyone who works for it. Without proper protective equipment. 

And when this is all over, they’ll privatize more of it. In the name of making it more resilient. You heard it here first.

Me? I lean more heavily toward the homicidal. 

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Let’s cheer ourselves up. Something called Brewgooder has worked out a way for people to buy four-packs of beer for NHS staff. 

“It’s not much,” it said, “but with beer nationally recognised as a currency of gratitude, it’s a small gesture to show your appreciation to a tireless NHS worked that you don’t know and may never meet.”

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Postman Jon Matson, in South Tyneside, is doing his bit to lift people’s spirits. He’s delivered mail dressed as Cleopatra, Little Po Beep, a cheerleader, and a soldier. 

Did I mention that he’s got a full beard? You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Little Bo Peep with a beard.

The response was good enough that he’s promised to dress up as someone new every day. And yeah, that’s worth a click as well.

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In Stockport, someone goes out for an hour a day dressed as Spiderman to cheer up kids. Parents can request a visit to their street as long as the kids promise to stay in and wave from the window. 

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And finally–and irrelevantly–I put a note on my village Facebook page that I’d lost one of my favorite earrings and if anyone found it I’d love to have it back. I didn’t think I stood a chance of seeing it again, but I had to try. The earring’s small and kind of pavement colored, but in less than an hour a neighbor was at my door with it in his palm.

About thirty seconds before that happened, another neighbor offered a box of chocolates to anyone who found it. She’s now in debt to the tune of one box of chocolates.

Thank you, Paul.

Birds, bills, booze, and the virus: It’s the (old) news from Britain

In early March, with northern Italy beset by the corona virus, a winery in Castelvetro had a problem with one of its valves and ended up sending lambrusco into the kitchen sinks and showers (and, presumably, bathtubs) of twenty neighboring houses. The leak lasted three hours–long enough for the neighbors to bottle a fair bit of wine. 

No one’s demonstrated that it cured the virus, but it did keep twenty families occupied and happy for a while.

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The British papers reported a rush in the U.S. to buy guns and ammunition in the face of the corona virus. “Why?” people here asked, since American gun culture’s a foreign language to them. “You can’t shoot the bug.”

As the interpreter of all things American, I had to explain: “It’s to protect their toilet paper.”

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses. They’re not afraid of the corona virus.

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I knew the Covid-19 epidemic was serious when I heard that EastEnders–that essential BBC soap opera–had suspended filming. I’d have thought the world was ending, but they making box sets of dramas available to get people through their isolation. They’re also using local radio stations to coordinate volunteers offering to help the elderly–and I hope other vulnerable people, but that’s not what the new story I read said.

Two notes before I move on: 1) The definition of elderly is “older than me,” even though they seem to have mistakenly asked me to stay out of everyone’s way so I don’t get sick. 2) I am not now watching nor have I ever watched EastEnders.

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This next story starts with a man getting a bill from a utility company he doesn’t have an account with, Scottish Power. He figures it’s a scam and ignores it. 

He gets calls from the same company. He complains to them about it. He gets referred to the complaints line. 

The complaints line tells him they can’t help because he doesn’t have an account with the company.

He writes the chief exec and gets a letter back assuring him they’ll restore his account to a dual-fuel tariff and thanking him for accepting a phone call he’d never gotten.

He continues to get calls from the company. 

He makes a complaint to the Energy Ombudsman, who (or maybe that’s which) tells him they (or possibly he or she) can’t help because he hasn’t exhausted Scottish Power’s complaints process. 

He gets a newspaper’s consumer column involved, but they can’t manage to get through to the company’s press office. The phone numbers they call aren’t answered, the email addresses are dead ends, and the contact people aren’t contacts. Or, quite possibly, people. In the past, when the paper’s gotten other complaints about the company, the best it’s been able to do is roll the stories together and make them public, hoping to embarrass the company. 

The man blocks the company’s number while he’s at work so at least he can get some work done. 

Last I heard, nothing’s been resolved.

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Meanwhile, a driver paid an Irish toll electronically. Then she or he–let’s call him or her them for the sake of my sanity–got a letter from Euro Parking Collection saying the payment was overdue. 

The driver sent a screenshot of their bank statement to prove it was paid.

They got a letter asking for more details and sent them.

Silence.

They looked at the website to make sure it had been resolved and ended up resubmitting everything they’d already sent and got a letter back saying the payment couldn’t be traced.

They called and got an automated message that convinced them the company doesn’t respond to calls. They called some more and got someone who said the company would look into it.

Silence.

They called again. It would be looked into.

They got a letter from a debt collection agency. The toll had now gone from £5.52 to £88.43. 

They contacted the company that administers the toll system and got an email asking for the information they’d already sent twice. When they sent a reply, they were told the sender’s mailbox was full.

When the same newspaper column got in touch, the information still couldn’t be located but the company did at least cancel the payment. 

The columnist had almost as hard a time getting through as the civilian.

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While we’re on the subject of driving, new British cars are cranking out 7% more carbon dioxide than older ones, even though they meet the new emissions standards and have all the cleaner-air bells and whistles. 

How come? They’re bigger and they’re heavier. 

And yes, that includes hybrids. 

Excuse me for a minute while I go slit my wrists.

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Judith Niemi, from Minnesota, sent me this: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior reports that “house sparrows [still generally by non-birders called ‘English sparrows’] have even learned to open automatic doors to grocery stores, cafes, and other sources of food by hovering in front of the electric eye sensors.” 

Judith adds, “The book does not explicitly say that none of the new world sparrows have caught on to this trick; I’m pretty sure it’s just those scrappy, street-smart birds whose lineage has been perfecting various dodges in London streets for centuries. Distracting people with their lechery, perhaps, while their chums picked pockets? Incidentally, since being imported to these shores the species has evolved to be more variable, and often bigger. Just as aggressive. There’s a metaphor in there.”

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Somehow or other, this story follows from that, although I can’t explain why: In Yorkshire, a pig set fire to its pen. How? Well, first it swallowed a pedometer that another pig was wearing. Then it digested it and–with apologies to those of tender sensibilities–it shit it out, as both humans and pigs will do with the things they swallow. Copper from the battery “reacted with” dry hay and started a blaze. 

Why was the other pig wearing a pedometer? To prove that it was–or presumably they were–free range. 

How did the battery start a fire? It was a lithium-ion battery–the same kind that’s been known to spontaneously combust in cell phones and such.

Why did the pig eat the pedometer? That’s harder to answer. My best guess is jealousy. You know how it is. Why didn’t I get the pedometer?

Was anyone hurt? No. Four pig pens burned but the pigs were fine and headline writers had a wonderful time, writing about pigs pooping pedometer, firefighters saving the bacon, and calories being burned. 

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The fashion house Hugo Boss has a history of taking smaller businesses and charities to court for using the name Boss, so a comedian formerly known as Joe Lycett went to court to change his name to Hugo Boss. In a tweet, he explained the background and wrote, “All future statements from me are not from Joe Lycett but Hugo Boss. Enjoy.”

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A newly published British Medical Journal survey from 2016 reports the MPs–that’s Members of Parliament–are more likely to binge drink than the general public is. Binge drinking is defined at six or more units of alcohol at a session.

MP Dan Poulter commented, “It is extraordinary that there are so many bars in parliament where alcohol is available at almost every hour of the day.

“This is not the case in other parliaments elsewhere in the world and is certainly not the case in other workplaces, where drinking alcohol is not acceptable during working hours.”

To illustrate the impact, the Guardian told a tale from 1983, when a junior employment minister, Alan Clark, gave a speech while drunk enough to throw entire pages without reading them. Why not? As far as he could figure out, they made no sense anyway. An opposition MP “asked me what the last paragraph meant,” he wrote. “How the hell did I know?” 

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And bringing together the tales of the pig and the MP, a plane headed for Iceland made an emergency landing in Edinburgh when a man got drunk enough that he tried to eat his phone. Or at least, he chewed on it hard enough to damage the battery, which fell out and started smouldering on the seat. A flight attendant threw water on it and put it out. 

The passenger was also abusive to other passengers, flight attendants, and the police who came to arrest him when they landed. 

He may be free-ranging again by now. He may even have an ankle bracelet to prove it. But that’s speculation.

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In the late Victorian era, before mass car ownership, London traffic moved at about 12 miles an hour. In 2018, in Westminster and the City (two parts of London), it moved at 8 miles an hour.

I call that progress.

The pandemic news from Britain

So you think you’re bored? An astrophysicist in Australia dealt with coronavirus isolation by trying to build a gizmo that would warn people when they started to touch their faces. He used four powerful neodymium magnets–and no, I never heard of them either but you can buy them online for any price between £4 and £2,000. I’m not sure what range his fell into.

I know: Australia isn’t in Britain. It’s too good a story to pass up. And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke. 

He wasn’t working in his area of expertise, but he figured that if he wore magnets on his wrists and made a necklace out of something else, it would buzz when the two got too close.

Nice try. It buzzed until the two got close together, basically nagging until you were driven to touch your face. So he gave up on that, but he still had those magnets.

“After scrapping that idea, I was still a bit bored, playing with the magnets. It’s the same logic as clipping pegs to your ears – I clipped them to my earlobes and then clipped them to my nostril and things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped the magnets to my other nostril.”

What he’d done was clip one inside and one outside each nostril, and all was well until he took the outside ones off and the two inside clipped themselves together. When he went to get them off, they would fit past the ridge at the bottom of his nose. So he turned to Lord Google, who told him that an eleven-year-old had had the same problem and that the solution was to use more magnets, from the outside, to counteract the pull of the ones inside.

Do not believe everything Lord Google tells you. Even if you’re an astrophysicist. Lord G. does not have your best interests at heart. The magnets did indeed pull and he lost his grip on them and now had four magnets up his nose instead of two. So he tried to use a pliers, but “every time I brought the pliers close to my nose, my entire nose would shift towards the pliers and then the pliers would stick to the magnet. It was a little bit painful at this point.”

He ended up in the hospital where his partner works and they sprayed an anesthetic into his nose and pulled out three magnets, at which point the fourth one dropped down his throat. He was lucky enough to cough it out. If he’d swallowed it, apparently, he’d have been in real trouble.

He’s sworn never to play with magnets again.

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In the meantime, how’s the UK coping with the virus? Well, it turns out that in 2018 it published a biological security strategy addressing the threat of pandemics. And then ignored it. As a former science advisor to the government, Ian Boyd, put it, “Getting sufficient resource just to write a decent biosecurity strategy was tough. Getting resource to properly underpin implementation of what it said was impossible.” 

Which is one reason that when the government heard a pandemic was coming, it put magnets up its nose. 

To be entirely fair, it’s been putting metaphorical magnets up its nose for years now, cutting money from the National Health Service on every week that started with Monday (or Sunday, depending on your calendar) until the service was barely handling ordinary problems.

The government tested the NHS a while back to see if it was ready to handle an epidemic. It wasn’t. So what did they do? Buried the findings. 

And three years ago the Department of Health got medical advice saying it should stock up on protective equipment for NHS and social care staff to prepare for a flu epidemic. But an economic assessment showed that it would cost actual money, so they didn’t do it.

Doctors and nurses are being asked to come out of retirement during the current crisis, and younger doctors are being asked to increase their hours or work on the front lines, but a doctors organization says many are hesitant because they would not be eligible for death-in-service benefits, “leaving their families in financial difficulty” if they died as a result. 

As I write this, our prime minister, health secretary, and chief medical officer all have Covid-19. So does the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings. But Larry the Cat, who lives and works at Number 10 Downing Street, is immune and he’s prepared to step in as soon as everyone admits that he’s needed. 

He was originally brought into government to take charge of pest control, but you know what cats are like: They study everything everyone does. 

People, he’s ready for this. 

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A lot of ink has been spilled over why Britain didn’t go in with the European Union on a bulk buying deal for ventilators and other medical equipment to help deal with the epidemic. First we were told it was because Britain isn’t part of the EU. Then it turned out that Britain was eligible. So last week we were told it was because the government missed the deadline by accident–it didn’t get the email. But Britain had representatives at four or more meetings where the plan was discussed, and there were phone calls about it.

The cabinet hasn’t commented yet but watch this space. They’re going to blame Larry.

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Farm organizations and farm labor recruitment agencies say that between Brexit and the virus, Britain is short something like 80,000 agricultural workers. They’re calling for a land army to help with the harvest. It’s too early to say how well it’ll work.

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Who’s at the highest risk of exposure to the virus? Low-paid women. They cluster in social care, nursing, and pharmacy jobs–jobs with high exposure to lots of people. They make up 2.5 million of the 3.2 million highest risk workers. So we’re all in it together, but some of us are in it a lot deeper than others, and with a lot less protection.

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People whose health puts them most at risk from the virus have been contact by the government and advised to stay in for twelve weeks. And food parcels are being delivered to at least some of them–something I know not just from the papers but because friends received one and were also put in touch with a neighbor who’s able to shop for them. It’s impressive, but there are still huge gaps. People who have to depend on supermarket deliveries haven’t been able to set them up–there just aren’t enough slots. And sorting out who needs them and who wants them but doesn’t completely need badly? That’s not going well.

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Emergency legislation had given the police the power to

Um. Do something about slowing the spread of Covid-19, but no one’s sure what, and police forces across the country interpreted their new powers in new and interesting ways. 

One force dyed a lagoon black to keep visitors away. Another insisted people could only have an hour’s exercise a day, and a third issued a summons to a family for shopping for non-essential items. A fourth used a drone to film dog walkers and a fifth told a shop to stop selling Easter eggs.

Part of the problem is that there’s a gap between what the legislation says and comments from our notoriously loose-lipped prime minister, who said (before he got sick himself) that people should only exercise once a day. Another part of the problem is that the legislation was rushed through, without much time for thought. 

Senior police commanders are trying to bring some kind of sense to this mayhem. Expect the Easter egg ban to be lifted any day now. I glanced at a summary of the legislation. Easter eggs aren’t mentioned. 

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The government has announced a program to get the homeless–called rough sleepers here–off the streets and into hotel rooms, which aren’t being used anyway, or into empty apartment buildings. As long as they’re on the streets, they can’t self-isolate, and until you address that you can’t control the virus. 

It’s funny how an insoluble problem becomes soluble once the solvers have an interest in doing something about it.

I admit, I was impressed. But the problem is money. Homelessness groups say cities aren’t getting enough of it to implement the program. And they need to provide not just a place with a roof but also food, medical care, and support people if it’s going to work.

At one estimate, 4,200 homeless people were found shelter in a couple of weeks, but thousands are still on the streets and food is hard to come by. Among them are people whose immigration status doesn’t allow them any recourse to public funds because of a Home Office policy that also keeps them from working. No one wants to find them shelter because there’s no money for it.

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To do a decent job reporting on this, I should include the plans to keep people paid, at least partially, and not evicted from their homes, but they’re complicated enough that I sank. The self-employed are in one category. The employed-employed are in another. The self-employed who haven’t been self-employed long enough aren’t in either category. Renters are in a different category from homeowners. 

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And now a non-pandemic bonus to reward you for having gotten this far with precious little to laugh at: Researchers are working on a program that can read brain activity and turn it into speech. 

It works by learning what happens in the brain as people speak, and to build it they had a group of people read the same set of sentences over and over. It started by spitting out nonsense and compared that to what it should have read, and gradually it got so good that it turned “those musicians harmonize marvelously” into “the spinach was a famous singer.”

I love this program. It’s going to write my next post for me. 

The British census: What a country wants to know about itself

Until I found out why so many people claimed to be Jedis on the 2001 census (and I’ll tell you the tale eventually), I thought censuses were inherently boring. They’re not. So let’s find out how the British census came into being and how it’s changed.

And yes, the plural of census does seem to be censuses, although the limited range of dictionaries I’ve been able to discuss this with don’t see any reason that the word should need a plural, so I’ve had to take Lord Google’s word on it. Corrections, arguments, and general moaning about the degradation of the language are all welcome.

The first official British census was in 1801, but long before that census-like creatures already roamed the land. The Romans wanted to know how many people they could tax. William the Conqueror wanted to know what he owned, down to the last chicken feather. He didn’t demand a complete count of the humans. Why bother? None of them had feathers.

Irrelevant photo: a hellebore.

In 1279, Edward I wanted to know about landholding, and since his survey was arranged in hundreds it became known as the Hundred Rolls. It recorded not only the number of cottars, villeins, serfs, and freeholders on each manor, but also their names, the size of their holdings, and their obligations to the lord. (The words cottars and so forth all describe a person’s relationship to the land and to its feudal lord–basically, their degree of freedom or unfreedom.)

Having collected all that information, Edward didn’t do anything in particular with it, but historians are grateful for the bits of it that have survived. They can read through them and see in detail the structure of the individual manors.

After Edward, interest in who and what was out there disappeared from the national discussion for a handful of centuries, and with it those roaming census-like beasts. Bishops were responsible for counting the number of families in their dioceses, but that was to a census as a cat is to a tiger. 

Starting in the seventeenth century, other countries began introducing censuses (no, that really is the plural)–Quebec (then New France, which counted 3,215 people) in 1666, Iceland in 1703, Sweden in 1749–but Britain retained a well of belief that it was a sacrilege to count people (something biblical about King David, a census, and a plague) and people who didn’t object on those grounds thought a census would reveal the country’s strengths and weaknesses to its enemies. 

In the eighteenth century, the pressure to take a census grew and a Cornish Member of Parliament, Thomas Potter, proposed a combined head count and register of births, deaths, and marriages. The last part of the proposal stirred the Anglican clergy into opposition, since registering those events was an important source of revenue. On top of which, if tracking the landmarks in people’s lives became a civil responsibility, the church’s role would shrink. Who could predict where that might lead? 

The next proposal was more modest. Another Cornish MP, Charles Abbott, proposed a simple census, dropping the idea of registering births, deaths, and marriages. In England, the Overseers of the Poor would count people, since they didn’t have a church to protest for them from the extra work. They were to be helped by tithingmen, constables, headboroughs, and other people you’ve never heard of.  

But Scotland didn’t have any parallel official, and the initial idea was to have ministers make the count, which the Scottish church objected to, so the responsibility was shifted to schoolmasters. They got six months more than the English to complete the work because the population was so spread out.

According to the National Archives, the census was composed of six questions involving “the number of inhabited and uninhabited houses in the parish and how many families occupied them; the number of people in the parish and their employment; and numbers of baptisms, burials and marriage.” It didn’t record names or addresses. The act didn’t apply to Ireland, where the first modern census was taken twenty years later.

But it wasn’t just the more modest dimensions of the census that moved parliament to allow it. The summer’s grain harvest had been a disaster–a quarter less than expected–and prices had doubled. Manufacturing went into a recession and workers were laid off. People were hungry and rioters were calling for limits on the price of food. And to add to the general good cheer, Thomas Malthus had already published his argument that population growth would outstrip food supplies very soon. So MPs were willing to hear Abbott’s argument that knowing something about the population of the country they were trying desperately to run was necessary for “wise legislation and good government.” 

Having said all that, some people argue that the more compelling drive was wanting to know how many able-bodied men were available to fight the Napoleonic Wars. 

Either way, “In March 1801 every overseer of the poor, of which there were more than 14,000, was charged with walking to every house or dwelling in their parish and recording the numbers of families, the number of men and women, and the number of persons employed in agriculture; trade, manufactures, or handicraft; or any other occupation.”

The population turned out to be 9 million. Estimates had ranged from 8 million to 11 million.

In 1841, the census was modernized, meaning a registrar general was put in charge of organizing it in England and Wales (that came later in Scotland) and local officers were put in charge of the work. 

This was also the first time that the heads of households were given a form to fill out on a specified day

The head-of-household system is responsible for my household refusing to fill out a 1970-whatever U.S. census. We struck a small blow against the assumption that one adult was the head of the household–that one being the male of the species if one was available–leaving the non-head to be the hind end of the household.

We didn’t bring the system down, but I’d do it again, and whatever the 1970-whatever U.S. census says, keep in mind that it’s incomplete.

But I’ve gotten ahead of the tale. Britain took a census every ten years except in 1941. In 1939, the National Registration Act did a thorough nose count so that identity cards could be issued. That was a good enough substitute. World War II was raging. The country had other things on its mind.

The 1931 census records, in case you’re looking for them, were lost in a fire.

From there on, it’s all boredom until we come to the 2001 census, when an email made the rounds urging people to write their religion down as Jedi. According to the email, if 10,000 people did it, it would become a “fully recognised and legal religion.”

This was fully recognized bullshit, but a lot of people did it anyway, possibly because the second argument was more compelling: “Do it because you love Star Wars,” the email said, “or just to annoy people.” 

The campaign accomplished two things: It got 390,127 people to say they were Jedis and it got a lot of people in their late teens and twenties–a group that’s usually undercounted–to complete the form. 

In that same census, 72% of the population said they were Christian, which the British Humanist Association considers a vast overstatement of people’s beliefs, as opposed to their historical and cultural association with the religion. Hawley’s small and unscientific survey says they’re probably right.

Deciding what to ask isn’t simple. Even the apparently simple question of what sex a person is has become complicated, or always was but we’re only just noticing. What does a country really want to know about itself, and what does it need to know? And once it gets the answers, how does it understand the information? 

I can’t answer any of those questions. I just thought I’d throw them at you and see what happens. When I was young and clueless and an intern, of sorts, at a social service agency, I was asked to redesign the form people filled out when they walked through the door. That they gave the job to me shows you how important they thought it was. It did keep me, briefly, from playing in traffic. Since every form I’d ever been handed asked my marital status, I started with that. 

Why, the person in charge asked, do we want to know this? 

I couldn’t think of a single reason, although there might have been one. But I’d never thought about approaching a form that way: What do we want this information for? I won’t say the question changed my life, but it has stayed with me. 

I don’t know if they ever redesigned the form, but that’s as far as I got with the job.

My point, though, is that you could probably learn as much about a country by studying what they ask as you could by reading the answers. 

The most recent census, 2011’s, asked a string of questions about who lived at what address, what their relationships were, and who was there overnight on one particular date. Then it wanted to know about the place itself–its heating, its ownership, its rooms. It wanted to know about the people: their age, sex, car ownership, marital status, health, country of origin, ethnicity, nationality (that includes the British nationalities: English, Welsh, etc.), primary language, comfort level with the English language, passport, religion, past residence, employment, and education.

A summary says the census shows “an increasingly ageing population; a more mobile population with more complex living arrangements; increasing numbers of migrant communities; greater numbers of people generally, and more single-person households and dwellings with multiple household occupation.” 

The summary itself shows confusion about the difference between commas and semicolons. 

You’re welcome to read it for yourself. I got bored.

Britain will take a new census is 2021, but that may be its last. The Office of National Statistics is looking for less expensive (and, they say, less intrusive) ways to collect more useful data more often. That’s neatly set up so you’ll agree with it: Who could argue with less, less / more, more? 

Me, possibly, although I’m not sure and no one cares anyway. I’m waiting to hear what the implications are, and I haven’t yet.

The new system might mean tracking every contact people have with government agencies and anonymizing it to produce a statistical picture of the country. It’s intrusive, but invisibly so. And what the hell, the corporations are already tracking us.

I haven’t seen anything about whether they’ll collect roughly the same sort of information, whether they’re considering other questions, or whether the system would allow some unforeseen but suddenly important question to be plugged in and calculated later. I have, however, read that in other situations anonymized data is less anonymous than you’d think. I don’t know if that will hold true for this.

Protective gear and flaming vicars: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

What’s happening with the coronavirus in Britain? Funny you should ask, because I was just about to answer that.

Let’s start with the Church of England, which had a hiccup when it went over to virtual services: A vicar set his arm on fire when he leaned forward at the end of his service and brushed against a candle flame. He had enough of a sense of humor to post the evidence online. It includes him saying, “Oh, dear, I’ve just caught fire.”

Which isn’t what I’d say if I’d just caught fire, but that’s the least of many reasons I’m not a minister.

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Semi-relevant photo: What could be cheerier than a bare, windblown tree in the midst of a pandemic? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Cornwall, where I live, is trying to stop the flow of people from (presumably) London, coming down here on the theory that it’s safer. Or nicer. Or something-er. Or that pandemic is another word for holiday (or vacation, if you speak American). Some of them, inevitably, have brought the virus with them. One Londoner–or so a reasonably reliable rumor has it–was told to self-isolate and decided to do it in his lovely second home, in Cornwall. He proceeded to self-isolate in an assortment of local cafes, spreading the bug all over the town he loved so well.

Thanks, guy. Rest assured that we love you almost as toxically. 

But that’s not the only problem people bring when they come down here to ride this out. Cornwall’s infrastructure is already overstretched during a normal summer, when reasonably healthy visitors pour in. Hell, it’s overstretched during the winter, when they’re nowhere around. Years of tightening the national budget in order to shrink the government have starved local services, which are dependent on central government. That’s a long story and we’ll skip over it. The point is that a tide of people, some percentage of whom about to get seriously sick, is more than it can cope with. 

The county council, Public Health Cornwall, and the tourist board have urged people to stay away. That’s the tourist board telling people to say away.

I doubt anyone’s listening, but they can say they tried.

The manager of a shop in Penzance is worried about incomers buying out her stock. She’s put some toilet paper in the back to sell to local people. If the lack of health services doesn’t scare the tourists off, the lack of toilet paper might.

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A man who’d just arrived on the Isle of Man–yes, I do know how that sounds; I didn’t name the place–was arrested because the island had just imposed a two-week self-isolation period on new arrivals, whether or not they showed symptoms of the virus, and he hadn’t self-isolated. 

It turned out he was homeless and–well, yes, this is part of the definition–had no place to self-isolate. Or sleep. He faced a £10,000 fine and a three-month jail sentence. 

In a startling moment of sanity, the government decided not to prosecute. He’s been found some sort of accommodation, although I have no idea what sort.

Britain’s considering legislation that would let immigration officials put new arrivals in “appropriate isolation facilities.” 

Horse, guys. Barn door. 

But just to prove that the country’s taking this seriously, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace has been canceled. It doesn’t get any more serious than that.

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Undertakers are so short on protective gear that they’re being told to make masks out of plastic trash bags, towels, and incontinence pads when they deal with suspected coronavirus cases. 

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A couple of musicians spent some time playing outside people’s homes in London to cheer them up while they’re stuck there. You’ll find a video here.

You can also find a video of people using a basket and rope to shop from their balcony.

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Self-isolation, by the way, is a ridiculous phrase. I apologize for using it, but these things are as contagious as the damn virus that spawned it.

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The U.K. chancellor–he’s the guy with the budget–has promised employees who can’t work because of the pandemic 80% of their wages, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month, although I don’t think anyone’s seen any money from it yet. But the self-employed and the mythically self-employed–the gig workers and people on zero-hours contracts–were offered only a fast track to £94.25 a week in what’s called universal credit. Let’s not go into why it’s called that. What you need to know is that it’s a whole shitload less money.

You needed me to point that out, right?

The Independent Workers Union is mounting a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination. I’m rooting for them.

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In the U.S., two senators, Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, attended a briefing about how serious covid-19 was. This was in January–the same day that Trump tweeted, “It will all work out well,” with the it being the virus.

What did they do? Sound the alarm on how unprepared the country was? They’re Republicans. If they’d spoken up it would have had some power. Well, no, they didn’t. In fact, Burr wrote on FoxNews.com that the country was well prepared. 

What they did was sell a whole lot of stocks before their prices crashed. 

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As for me, the virus has driven to the extreme measure of acknowledging that I am an actual human being, with a life outside this blog. So here’s a personal note, which I wouldn’t usually include: Ida and I are fine. 

Our next-door-neighbor has what they’re pretty sure is just his usual winter flu, but they’re staying in for two weeks (with two small kids; I call that heroic) just to be on the safe side. We’ve done the same, since Ida has something involving a bad cough. No fever on either side of the fence, but we’re all being cautious. It feels a little crazy, but we’re gambling with other people’s lives and that has a way of focusing your attention. 

Or it should, anyway.

All the same, I’m finding it hard, since we’re trying to avoid things we can’t see, hear, or smell, not to either descend into paranoia (ack! I just touched a solid object! I’m gonna die!) or else decide they’re not real anyway and start licking doorknobs. 

As we all would in normal times.

I’m finding it easier to protect other people from whatever the hell Ida has (which for reasons I can’t explain, I don’t seem to have) than I did to protect us from what people around us might have. Maybe protecting other people is more finite. Maybe I’m just more used to it. 

A few days ago, Ida put in an online request for prescription cough syrup and that must’ve sent up a red flag at the doctors’ office, because someone called to ask why she needed it and how she was. The woman who called advised us to stay out of people’s way for two weeks, which we’d already begun to do. The government’s bungled this in more ways that I can count (mind you, it doesn’t take much to go outside of my mathematical range), but the people on the front lines are being amazing. 

Our village has been good about rallying around. It helps to be someplace where the scale is small and so many of us know each other. One of the essential services that threatened to fall apart was the group of volunteers who make sure people are able to pick up their prescriptions. That would normally be handled by a village store, but ours closed some time ago. All the volunteers except one were either over 70 or vulnerable in some other way or else had a partner who was. We put a notice up on the village Facebook site and younger volunteers have come forward, in spite of jobs and kids and all the commitments that go with not being retired. 

We’ve had several offers from friends and neighbors who are going grocery shopping to pick up whatever we need–assuming they can find it. Already, friends have brought groceries–fresh fruit, milk, onions, broccoli, stuff. Apples are hard to find, although a friend left us some yesterday. 

Why apples? 

Why not apples. Sometimes, I’m told, one store will have been emptied out and another will be fairly well stocked. It all leaves me with a sense of limits. Will the stores run out of cat food? Did I get enough peanut butter? Why didn’t I buy more frozen vegetables and potatoes before it all got serious, since we could see it coming? 

Because I didn’t want to hoard, that’s why. But I did want to stock up. Where’s the balancing point between hoarding and stocking up? (Answer: You hoard; I stock up.) 

How often can I cut the spinach I planted last spring, which is still growing, before it decides that I’ve asked too much of it? 

Am I using too much water?

Water isn’t one of the things we’re running short of, but for me, at least, an awareness of limits breeds an awareness of limits. We’re entering a new era here and I suspect I’m feeling its first vibrations. I hope life will go back to normal at some point, but I’m not convinced it will.

But enough about me. Wishing you and yours all the best. Be careful, be lucky, help others, and stay well.

Hope, despair, passwords, and racism: It’s the news from Britain

You know all those passwords that The People Who Know These Things tell you never to write down but that you write down anyway because those same people also tell you to use a different one for every damn thing and who can remember all that mess? Well, an Irish drug dealer lost £46 million in bitcoins in spite of writing down the code for his stash. But because it’s a dangerous world out there–something any upstanding drug dealer should be aware of–he hid the code in the cap of his fishing rod case. 

I mean, of course you shouldn’t write it down, but what could be safer than that?

Nothing until he got busted with some two thousand euros worth of pot in his car, got sentenced to five years in jail, and somehow in the middle of all this didn’t think to ask anyone to save his fishing rod case because it had great sentimental value. So his landlord cleared his house out and had everything hauled to the dump. Which sent it to either Germany or China, where it was incinerated. 

Not all that £46 million came from drugs. He bought the bitcoins when they were worth £5. Then they went up to £7,500. Each.

He had other accounts, and the Irish state confiscated them, but without the code they haven’t been able to claim this one. And there’s a lesson in there, although I’m not sure what it is or who’s supposed to learn it.

And yes, I do know that Ireland’s not Britain. We share a stretch of water, though, as the Irish know all too well. And anyway, I cheat.

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Entirely relevant photo, although it won’t be clear why yet. This is Moose, a snub-nosed dog who snores when he’s awake. Keep reading. It’ll all make sense eventually.

After that, we need a feel-good story: In February, a book-lover responded to the suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack by contacting the Big Green Bookshop–an independent with an online presence–and offering to buy two copies of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a memoir about coping with depression, for people who needed them.

The store’s owner already ran a buy-a-stranger-a-book club and tweeted the offer, saying he’d “try to cover any others that are requested.” He got thousands of requests, along with donations ranging from £1 to over £100. In mid-February, the donations had mounted up to £6,000 and he’d sent out 600 books. 

“This book has made such a difference,” he said. “Lots of people have said it saved their lives. And this is not just about people getting the book, it’s about how they’re getting it.”

Okay, I can’t help myself: If you want to donate to the buy-a-stranger-a-book club, here’s the link.

A branch of Blackwell’s Bookshop is doing something similar.

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And a feel-sexy story: A hormone in chocolate could (note the get-out-of-jail-free quality of that word) boost men’s sex drive. How? By making women smell or look more attractive to them. 

Smell or look? Either/or, not both/and? Sorry, I don’t make the rules. 

Would it make men look or smell more attractive to either men who are attracted to men or to women who are attracted to men? 

Sorry, that wasn’t part of the study.

Would it make women look or smell more attractive to women who are etc.? 

Not part of the study. The trial involved straight men. I’m going to take a wild and irresponsible guess and say that’s where the money is when you’re developing drugs for a low sex drive. Or else the folks running it lack imagination.

The hormone’s called kisspeptin. Results are not guaranteed, but if it doesn’t work at least you got to eat some chocolate.

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I’m not sure how this one will make you feel. I’m not even sure how it makes me feel. Depression is at war with amusement. Who’d’ve thought you could feel both at once? 

After Dominic Cummings–our prime minister’s brain–called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs in his office, someone who calls himself a super forecaster was hired. Andrew Sabisky became a contractor working on “specific projects,” although last time I checked no one would say what those projects were. So at least we know they didn’t just send him into an office and say, “Work on everything, why don’t you?”

So far so ho-hum. Then someone dug out what our little forecaster had to say about life, the universe, and everything. It turns out that before he started working on specific projects he published work arguing that people who look like him are smarter, thanks to their genes, than people who don’t, and that people from backgrounds like his are more conscientious and agreeable (those aren’t my adjectives) than people who–gasp, wheeze–depend on long-term government support. He favors enforced birth control, starting at puberty. I’m not clear who that’s supposed to be enforced on, but I expect he’d make exceptions for people like him since they produce children who turn out to be so very much like him. 

I’m loading the dice here, but only slightly. By way of unloading them: Nowhere did he mention his own looks (he looks like a bar of soap, and if I were a better person I wouldn’t hold that against him) or his background. And when he wrote about intelligence, he wasn’t talking about every variation of people who don’t look like him, only people of African origin. He based his argument on a study that’s been discredited for systematically excluding high-IQ people of African origin from its study group. Amazingly enough, its sample group had low IQs.

And that’s without going to get into what IQ actually measures and how much more complicated the genetics of intelligence are than, say, the short and tall pea plants that Mendel measured.

Sabisky also believes in the existence of race, although scientists have given up on the concept of human races. It just doesn’t work. 

So once all that became public, all hell broke loose and Sabisky resigned. I’m not the only person who’s noticed that our little super forecaster hadn’t seen any of this coming.

Last I checked, it wasn’t clear who’d hired Sabisky, how far anyone had looked into his background before hiring him, whether he had a security clearance, or whether either our prime minister or his brain agrees with his views.

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The Sabisky fiasco, however, did set journalists digging into Dominic Cummings’ writings and they found a blog post (watch what you write on your blogs, people) that argues in favor of selecting embryos for intelligence. 

Does he plan to give the embryos itty bitty prenatal intelligence tests? Well, no. He figures that first someone will figure out what genes control intelligence (so far, what they know is that at a minimum it’s complicated and that it’s probably more complicated than that) and second that embryos can be screened for those genes and third that the best ones can be selected. The rest, presumably, will get tossed into the garbage can of history and the human race will get smarter and smarter. Unless this works out the way breeding dogs for specific qualities has, in which case the human race will get stranger and stranger and have shorter and shorter noses and snore a lot. 

We have two shih tzus (see above for one of them). That’s where I did my research.

David Curtis, editor-in-chief of Annals of Human Genetics, said Cummings “fundamentally misunderstands key concepts in genetics. . . . He seems to have got his ideas from a physicist rather than . . . genetics researchers.” 

“Got”? That’s British for “gotten.”

Richard Ashcroft, a professor of bioethics, called it “cargo cult science.”

If you don’t recognize the phrase cargo cult, it’s not a compliment.

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For reasons I can’t explain, the only story that could possibly follow that is one about tattoos: The actor Orlando Bloom got his son’s name–Flynn–tattooed on his arm in morse code. Then he put it on Instagram, because if it’s not on Instagram it didn’t happen.

If your arm isn’t on Instagram, you don’t have an arm.

Someone pointed out that the tattoo spelled Frynn. 

The tattooist corrected the spelling and added Bloom’s former dog’s name as a bonus. 

Former dog? That’s what the article said. Presumably, it (or he, or she) got a promotion and is now a cat. Whatever it currently is, the creature’s name was and still is Sidi. 

And with that out of the way, what else can we do but review the tattoos of other people who’ve publicly screwed them up? Ariana Grande tried to get lyrics from one of her songs tattooed on her arm in Japanese. It ended up saying “small charcoal grill.” The BBC interviewed a tattooist who admitted to having tattooed “serenitiy” on someone’s face. If you’re not a skilled proofreader, there’s an extra i tucked away in there, probably riding the cheekbone. The person the face belongs to is unnamed, but since it’s on his face I’d still call that public. 

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A daredevil died trying to prove the earth is flat. “Mad” Mike Hughes aimed a home-made rocket straight up, hoping to get 5,000 feet above the earth. Exactly what he planned to do once he was up there I don’t know–presumably it wasn’t go into orbit–but something went wrong and the whole thing came back down. 

I’d love to know how he figured the sun rises and sets and all the rest of that stuff in the sky moves around. Maybe we have to go back to the earth being at the center of the universe. 

Anyway, I think we can all agree that he proved gravity works.

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The excavation of a cave in Kurdistan shows that Neanderthals buried their dead–possibly with flowers, although that last part is still controversial. The burial is some 70,000 years old and the flower pollen was found in the soil by the body, along with mineralized plant remains. 

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And finally, some good news from a place with precious little of it: The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was built for 3,000 people and now holds 20,000. The toilets are overflowing, bags of rubbish lie uncollected, and people are trapped there by the Greek government’s refusal to move refugees to the mainland and by other E.U. countries’ refusal to accept any serious number of refugees. The water supply is uncertain and cold. People live in tents and spend hours waiting for food. Nights are cold.

And yet: A refugee named Zekria started a library and a school there. 

Zekria used to teach law in Kabul, and when the schools that charities run had no room for his kids, he started his own school. Before long, he had more students than he could handle and built up a team. They turn no one away, even if it means that some classes are huge. 

They have three classrooms, thirty teachers, and a thousand students. Classes include English, Greek, German, French, guitar, and art. 

The library is next door. Most of the books have been donated by aid workers.

Moria is better known for fires, violence, rape, murder, and desperate overcrowding. The world’s turned its back on the people trapped there, and Zekria’s asylum application has been turned down more than once. Presumably because he’s not the sort of person you’d want in your country.

And yet.

Strange British Traditions: The Tichborne Dole

March 25 is Tichborne Dole day, although if you get too far from the village of Tichborne not many people will have heard of it.

The tradition started in the thirteenth century with what we can pretty safely assume was a miserable marriage between the unfortunate Mabella and the insufferable Roger Tichborne. 

Am I biased? Of course not. I’m just telling you how it was. But we should probably call the unhappy couple Lady Mabella and Sir Roger at least once, because that’s what other people would’ve called them. 

Good. Now that we’ve done that, we’ll go back to plain ol’ Mabella and Roger. But as long as we’re correcting my carelessness, let’s add that the tale may start in the twelfth century, not the thirteenth. From this distance, it doesn’t much matter, but it should remind us to take the story with something between a grain of salt and a cup of it. Good storytellers are seldom to be trusted with the truth, and this story was good enough that it stuck around. Let’s tell it as if we trusted every last detail:

Irrelevant photo stolen from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

Mabella was dying of a wasting disease, and she worried what would happen to the poor of Tichborne village without her charity, so she asked her husband to give them food every year. He pulled a piece of wood out of the fire and said he’d hand out the grain from as much land as she could crawl around before the chunk of wood stopped burning.

Why did she have to crawl? The disease had left her crippled. Although in another version of the tale, she walked. Like I said, storytellers.

Either way, she made the circuit of a twenty-three acre field, now known as the Crawls. But she knew her husband, so she laid on a curse on top of the request. If the dole was ever stopped–even after his death–first the family would have seven sons, then in the next generation it would have seven daughters and the Tichbourn name would die out. Plus the house would fall into ruins.

Take that, Roger. 

It’s worth noting that rogering is British slang for having penetratiive sex. No one claims this story as the origin of the word–it probably comes from the name’s link to spears and lances–but all the same we could say that Roger got rogered.

Anyway, Sir R. was intimidated into keeping his end of the bargain. He had bread handed out every Lady Day–March 25. And that went on until 1796, when local magistrates decided that vagabonds and vagrants were taking advantage of the situation. How? By not being local. This was a time when the deeply settled in place distrusted vagrants–people desperate enough to take to the road. Think of vagrants as the era’s equivalent of refugees: the folks no country wants to take in. No one knew them, no one trusted them, and if they’d had any decency they’d have stayed where they were born, even if it meant dying there.

So rather than waste good bread on them, the dole was ended. Because you know what its like when you give good food to the desperate: They’ll only go and eat it. And desperation’s such a disturbing sight.

Or that–without my editorial comments, of course–is the Historic UK version. The link’s above. In the Alresford Memories’ telling of the tale (that link’s also above), the dole had become rowdy, attracting the dissolute, the dishonest, the (horrors!) Gypsies.

How much distance lies between those two versions? It’s hard to say. A third version  involves vagabonds and paupers from neighboring villages instead of Tichborne. What stays the same in all versions is the distinction between the local poor who the great and good knew and felt (once every a year) good about feeding and the undeserving poor who they didn’t know and don’t like and were afraid they’d be overwhelmed by.

In fairness, the number of poor really could be overwhelming. From 1791 house accounts, it looks like 1,700 loaves of bread were handed out, and the tradition was that if it ran out people got two pence instead. One year, that came to £8–equal to £1,214 in 2020 by one estimate. By another, it was the price of one cow (probably with some left over), or 53 days’ wages for a skilled tradesman. Not, you’d think, an overwhelming amount for an aristocratic family, but the dole’s end followed two bad harvests. The family may have been–or felt, which isn’t necessarily the same thing–hard up. Travelers did record that the house looked like it wasn’t being kept up, and in 1803 part of it collapsed. 

It was rebuilt on a smaller scale. The definition of hard up is relative.

The bad harvests also meant more people and needing bread, so that just when the need was greatest, help stopped being available.

As usual, you can chase up alternative explanations of why the dole ended. It wasn’t that the family was hard it, it was because magistrates demanded that it end. (There’s no record of it, however.) It was because local landowners demanded etc. (There’s no record of that either, but there’s no reason why there would be.)  

Whatever the reason, the dole stopped and a generation of seven sons was followed by a generation of seven daughters, which is convenient enough to make this old cynic wonder if the story wasn’t edited after the fact. 

In the absence of a son (don’t be silly: of course a daughter couldn’t take on such a heavy responsibility), the estate went to a nephew, but he was from a branch of the family that had changed its last name to Doughty. They re-started dole in 1835, but it was restricted to residents of three parishes–Tichborne, Cheriton, and Lane End.

At some point they started handing out flour (a gallon to each person, and recipients had to bring something to carry it in) instead of bread. 

The house is now owned by a family name Loudon–yes, they’re related; the aristocracy keeps its possessions close–and they’re continuing the tradition, but since it is now, they say “a fairly affluent part of the country, we would do something more in keeping with the nature of Lady Mabella’s cause. We decided to ask for a voluntary donation from the villagers for charity, usually collecting about £100.”

I can’t find a date for that quote, but it’s from a 2016 post, so I’m guessing it’s recent. And Lord Google flags Tichborne’s county, Hampshire, as above average in education and income. That’s as close as I could come to data on Tichborne itself, but even so I doubt raising £100 is enough to keep Lady Mabella happy. Especially since the family buys the flour in bulk and says it’s not that expensive, and since the event now involves tourists, who could be persuaded out of a coin or three by a determined fundraiser.

The minute I figure out how, I’m letting Mabella know. 

Lord mayors, tan-washing, green-washing, and Australia-washing. It’s the news from Britain

After a portrait hung in Paris’s central bank for a century, glorifying French history, its subject turned out not to be Louis XIV’s son but a London mayor from the seventeenth century. 

Sorry, make that a London lord mayor.  

How did anyone spot the problem? The pearl sword the man’s carrying is still in use today. Because, hey, you never know when a lord mayor will have a pressing need for a pearl-handled sword. And famous London landmarks are painted into the background. Plus the horse’s trappings (because what’s a lord mayor without a lord horse?) include a coat of lord arms, although the newspaper article I saw doesn’t say whose coat of arms it is. I’m going to take a wild and irresponsible guess and say it was the lord mayor’s own and that’s how they they picked the right lord mayor out of all the other good-lord mayors. 

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Mary Beard’s latest BBC TV show, Shock of the Nude,  about the western tradition of painting the nude, came with a warning: “Contains some nudity.”

I can’t add anything to that. Believe me, I tried.

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Irrelevant photo: primroses.

Boris Johnson’s top communications adviser, Lee Cain (who I never heard of before either) refused to let selected journalists into a government briefing in early February, dividing the journalists who showed up so that the good kids stood on one side of a rug and the bad kids stood on the other. Then he told the bad kids to leave. 

They did. And the good kids left with them. The briefing was canceled. 

The communications team had already banned ministers from appearing on the news shows they’re mad at and told them not to have lunch with political journalists.

Could they have breakfast? A cup of tea? Enough beers that they said something nicely indiscreet but it wasn’t really their fault? I’m going to assume all that’s been banned too, but they weren’t mentioned. 

Johnson’s brain, also known as Dominic Cummings, is said to have a network of spies, watching to see if any of them cheat.

There’s speculation that the government is hoping to bypass the press as much as possible. Recent hires include people with media production backgrounds.

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It turns out that Beethoven didn’t go completely deaf. He lost a lot of his hearing and took to carrying blank books with him so that people could write anything they wanted him to know, but he did hear the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, at least partially.

That has nothing to do with Britain. It involves a German composer and an American academic who’s gone through Mr. B’s conversation books to establish it. But I did learn it from a British newspaper. 

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Who’s the new ambassador for the British Asian Trust? Katy Perry, who’s neither British nor Asian. 

Why her? No idea. Maybe they couldn’t find any British Asians. Or anyone who was at least either British or Asian. If that doesn’t explain it, then we’ll just have to accept that it’s a mystery.

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As long as we’re talking about diversity, let’s switch countries again. Barnes & Noble decided to celebrate Black History Month by tan-washing the covers of books by white writers about white people, so that (until you open the cover) they seem to be about dark-skinned people. The books included Romeo and Juliet, The Wizard of Oz, and Moby Dick, and that’s far from a complete list

I’ll admit that The Wizard of Oz does have a green witch, which would, technically speaking, make her nonwhite. Or maybe that’s only in the poster for a related play. But she could be green. Where is it written that she isn’t? And Moby Dick has a minor character who is, as I remember it (and it’s been a hundred or so years since I read the book, and that was under protest), described as a savage. We can’t spot any racism there, can we? Toward the end, he turns out to be noble, if I remember it right, but a deep and sensitive exploration of other-than-white-European cultures from the perspective of one of those cultures it ain’t. I read it too long ago to write a decent essay on it, and it bored me silly, so I won’t be going back to it, but I can tell you it didn’t pass the skin-crawl test. 

Hell, even the whale was white.

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We’ve done tan-washing, so let’s do green-washing: At the UK-Africa summit, Boris Johnson announced that Britain would stop the funding for coal-fired power plants in Africa. It wasn’t a hard decision to make. Britain hasn’t funded any since 2002. It is, however pouring £2 billion (give or take a few pence) into oil and gas in Africa.

Don’t look at the man behind the curtain. He may not be as green as he sounds.

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Back in the northern hemisphere, Johnson has proposed building a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Or, I guess, the other way around. If it’s built, bridge will almost inevitably go both ways. It would be more than 20 miles long and cross water that’s over 1,000 feet (that’s 300 meters) deep in places. And traffic on it would have to deal with frequent high winds–the kind that regularly close British bridges to high-sided traffic. But that’s the least of it. It’ll be crossing waters where some million tons of World War II munitions were dumped. It’s not uncommon for them to wash up on beaches in the area, and they can explode when they dry out.

I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t find that funny but I can’t help myself.

And did I mention that there may also nuclear waste down there? And nerve agents and assorted other chemical weapons? Most of the more dangerous stuff was dumped further from shore, but sometimes folks got lazy. No one really knows where stuff is, or what condition it’s in, or even what exactly it is. A lot of records were destroyed, and the British government doesn’t monitor the site.

Modern munitions are stable, because they have to be primed or fused, but earlier ones are liable to explode if they’re kicked around. The British Geographic Survey recorded 47 underwater explosions in the area between 1992 and 2004. Lifting them out of the water probably isn’t a good idea either. An attempt to salvage a wrecked munitions ship led to an explosion that registered 4.5 on the Richter scale.

Engineers are said to be, um, skeptical about the bridge. One called it “socially admirable but technically clueless.” 

When he was mayor of London (presumably with access to that pearl-handled sword), Johnson managed to spend £53.5 million (or in another report, £40 million, but what’s £13.5 million between friends?) on a garden bridge across the Thames without a single shovelful of dirt ever being moved. The project was canceled by the next mayor.

[Update: For an explanation of why he doesn’t have access to the pearl-handled sword, take a look at Autolycus’s comment below. Because, people, this stuff matters.]

He–and this is Johnson, not the next mayor–also proposed a new airport outside London. It got a fair bit of press coverage, mostly centered on whether it was technically feasible, before the idea was quietly shelved.

He did manage to get a cable car built across the Thames for £560 million. It was supposed to be a “a much needed new connection” across the river. In 2015, a Londonist article reported that it has next to no regular users. And by way of full disclosure, “next to no regular users” is my interpretation of a shitload of complications and variables, complete with charts and explanations. You’re welcome to wade through them and give me grief about my interpretation if you’re in the mood. 

Unionists in Northern Ireland are said to be supportive of the bridge, but Scotland’s less than thrilled. So maybe they can build one end up of but not the other.

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In the meantime, a Dutch government scientist has proposed building two dykes that would enclose the North Sea, protecting something along the lines of 25 million people from flooding as sea levels rise. The two segments of the project would be 300 and 100 miles long. If you’re interested in water depths and technical possibilities, follow the link. It’s not complicated, but it’s more detail than I want to get into. The cost is estimated at £210 billion to £410 billion.

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Far be it from me to go out of my way to make fun of a government, but when one gives me so much to work with I’d be rude to ignore it. 

Both Boris Johnson and one of his ministers have said that the UK will pursue an Australian-type trade deal in negotiations with the European Union. The problem is that the EU doesn’t have a trade deal with Australia. 

The EU trade commissioner called it a “code for no deal.” 

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A hoard of Bronze Age tools were found in a London quarry–some 100 pounds (or 45 kilograms, if you want to be like that) of them. It includes 453 swords, axes, knives, chisels, sickles, razors, ingots, bracelets, and assorted goodies, many of them broken. They date from somewhere between 900 and 800 B.C.E., which translates to Before the Common Era, or B.C. if you take your historical dates with sugar. Some of the finds are typical of work found in what’s now France and what were, even then, the Alps, although they’d have been called something different. The point is that Britain wasn’t isolated from Europe, but part of a larger culture. 

Archeologists are busy speculating on what it all means. Was all this stuff an offering to the gods? Did the shift from the bronze to iron mean they’d lost their value? Was someone trying to control the amount of Bronze in circulation? Was it a storage site, and if so why wasn’t the stuff un-stored?

The definitive answer is that no one knows. 

The hoard will be in the Museum of London Docklands from April 3 to November 1.

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When an Italian citizen living in London applied for permission to stay in Britain after the Brexit transition period ends, the Home Office app wanted his parents to confirm that he was who he claimed to be. The problem is that Giovanni Palmiero is 101. His parents weren’t available.

The app decided he’d been born in 2019, not 1919, because it doesn’t recognize ages with more than two digits. It took the volunteer who was helping him half an hour and two phone calls before anyone accepted that the app was the problem, not him.

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And finally, just when the European Union announces that it’s going to clamp down on its 82 free ports because they make it easy to finance terrorism, launder money, traffic in drugs and people, avoid taxes, and generally promote mayhem, Britain has announced that, since we’re leaving the EU, it will create 10 new ones. 

Not that Britain couldn’t have done that when it was in the EU. It had 7 free ports between “1984 and 2012, when the UK legislation that established their use was not renewed,” according to the Institute for Government.

A free port, it turns out, doesn’t have to be a port. It can be landlocked if it has an airport. What matters is that “normal tax and customs rules do not apply. . . . Imports can enter with simplified customs documentation and without paying tariffs.” If the goods are then moved out of the zone into the rest of the country, all the tariffs and paperwork apply, but if they’re sent out of the country again, they don’t.

The Great Fire of London and the search for culprits

The 1666 wasn’t a good year to spend in London. First an outbreak of plague killed some 100,000 people–15% of the city’s population. Then, when the plague  was starting to wind down, the Great Fire devastated the place. You begin to wonder if England shouldn’t take out insurance against years that end in ‘66: 1066, 1666. I should be gone well before 2066, so someone else can deal with whatever happens, but if you’re still here, remember, I did warn you.

Before the fire, the part of London that lay inside the old Roman walls was, physically speaking, a medieval city. The streets were narrow and got narrower as you looked up, because the buildings jutted out over them, floor by floor, until you could have passed your across-the-street neighbor a beer from your upstairs windows to his or hers. If you liked your neighbor, had enough beer, and were in possession of long arms, because that description might involve just the slightest bit of exaggeration. But the space was, in all tellings, very narrow. A young and athletic fire could jump from house to house without much effort. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: strawberry leaves after a frost.

But the fire had a lot more than narrow streets to help it along. London’s old buildings were made of wood, the walls of poorer houses were waterproofed with tar,  and what light people had at night came from candles and oil lamps. They cooked and warmed themselves with wood or coal fires. So they were rich in open flames.

And did I mention that they didn’t have fire brigades? Once a fire broke out, all people could do was form a line and pass buckets of water along so that whoever was closest could keep pouring. Unless–as happened once in Northampton when a pub caught fire–they passed barrels of beer from the cellar up to the roof.

Talk about your dedicated drinkers. They did save the pub, but they must’ve wept over the waste of good beer.

Some early water pumps did exist, but the streets where the fire started were too narrow for them to get through, they couldn’t squirt all that much water anyway, and their squirting range was so limited that they had to get dangerously close to the fire to hit it. 

And London’s water pipes were made of wood. According to a BBC article, they didn’t have enough access points, so people broke into them to put out the fire, making holes where the water drained out. In other words, the water supply disappeared just when it was most needed. By the time the fire was over, the city’s water supply system was one of the casualties.  

But if London was a fire trap–and it was–so were other towns and cities. In A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain (that’s a book–remember books? they’re wonderful), Ian Mortimer provides a handy list of devastating fires that didn’t get as famous as London’s but that fed on much the same combination of problems.

The Great Fire of 1666 wasn’t London’s first. As early as the 1170s, William Fitzstephen wrote that London had two “pests,” by which he meant recurring problems: “The immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires.” In 675, the first St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down, and it burned down again in 1087, taking a good chunk of the city with it. It burned a third time in the Great Fire, making me wonder if St. Paul isn’t the patron said of pyromaniacs.

As a fire safety measure, in the twelfth century the city ordered that thatched roofs be removed. But thatch wasn’t just traditional, it was also easily available and cheap, which made it hard to replace. We can pretty much assume that the order wasn’t effective, because thatch was banned again in the next century, after a fire in which 1,000 people died. Or 3,000. Take your pick. Either way, a lot of people. 

But neither ban was complete. A thatcher’s website cites instances of thatch being used, sometimes legally and sometimes illegally. Still, by 1666 there was less of it, and if you’re looking for something to blame the Great Fire on, thatch isn’t your culprit–or not your main one. 

You might try blaming a dry summer, although it will have lots of company as potential and partial culprits by the time we’re done. The fire broke out in September, when the city’s wood was tinder-dry. 

Or you can blame James I, because sixty years before the fire his order that l new London buildings be made of brick or stone was a partial measure. It only applied to new buildings, not existing ones. And the order was repeated several times, so we can figure it wasn’t a roaring success. And although he may have given some thought to fire, he also had his eye on the timbers that were used to build houses. He wanted them to build ships for the navy. 

But let’s put the search for culprits on hold and talk about the fire itself. It started in a building with a tiled roof–a bakery in Pudding Lane. Almost every tale about the fire mentions Pudding Lane. The baker was Thomas Farriner (or Farrinor, or Farynor–spelling was a liquid back then), who supplied biscuits for the navy. 

On the night of the fire, Farriner put himself to bed without tucking his fire in properly and singing it to sleep. Sparks ignited the firewood stacked beside the oven and the house caught fire. Or they ignited some flour sacks. Or–and this is the version I lean toward–no one knows exactly what they ignited or even whether it was his fault. What matters is that something caught fire. Farriner, his family, and (in some tellings) one servant escaped through an upstairs window and along a roof edge, but one servant (or in some tellings, a bakery assistant) died. In some versions, she was too afraid of heights to go out the window. I have no idea if that’s true, but since I’m useless with heights, I’ll try to remember the lesson tucked inside that story next time my city’s on fire.

Now back to Pudding Lane. According to History Extra and the Hearth Tax records that it quotes, the bakery wasn’t on Pudding Lane at all, it was on Fish Yard, which was just off Pudding Lane. But that’s not the kind of  name writers long to drop into a story, so we’re stuck with Pudding Lane. 

From the bakery, the fire spread to neighboring houses, including an inn, where it set the straw and fodder alight. You can get rid of all the thatched roofs you want, but horses still need food and bedding, and horses were the internal combustion engines of their day. No city could function without them. 

Or that’s the sequence one tale tells. Another talks about a 1979 excavation, which found that a house near the bakery had been storing twenty barrels of pitch (that’s tar–in other words, highly flammable stuff) in the basement, so even if you could have magicked all the horses, straw, and hay out of London, it would have still had plenty of stuff to burn.

It’s not that those two versions of the tale are at odds, just that you can follow a story in any number of directions. The one thing you can’t do is include everything. 

At this point, the people in either Pudding Lane, or in Fish Yard, were still dealing with a localized fire–something Londoners had plenty of experience with. They woke the neighbors, poured water, and did what Londoners always did, but this time it wasn’t enough. 

Standard procedure would have been to destroy houses around the fire to keep it from spreading, but the mayor wouldn’t act. Without either an order from the king or the permission of the owners, he’d have had to pay the cost of rebuilding them our of his own pocket.

I don’t know how many owners would’ve given permission when they could have withheld it and hoped that either the fire would miss them or the mayor would act without their permission and have to pay for the rebuilding, but it didn’t matter: Most people in the area were renters, whose permission didn’t matter, so the houses stayed in place, and they caught fire, and the mayor became a handy scapegoat–as did those first fire fighters who decided they’d lost the battle and abandoned it to save their families and whatever belongings they could gather.

From the Pudding Lane area, the fire spread to the warehouses along the river, with their stores of coal, lamp oil, tallow, rope, and everything else that could make a fire happy. 

Melted bits of pottery found in the basement that held the barrels of pitch led archeologists to say that the fire’s temperature reached 1,700 degrees Celsius. If you measure in Fahrenheit, that translates to insanely hot. More than hot enough to melt stone.

Eventually, the king issued an order and houses in the fire’s path were pulled down using the hooked poles that were standard for the job, but the winds were high and the firebreaks were too small to stop the fire.

Before long, people were fleeing in massive numbers. Some headed for the Thames to get away in boats, others filled carts with their belongings, and many left on foot. And as refugees poured out, sightseers poured in to watch and (some of them, anyway, ranging from the famous Samuel Pepys to an otherwise unknown fifteen-year-old schoolkid) leave written records of what they’d seen. 

St. Paul’s burned for the third time and lead melted off the roof and ran in the streets–or as Historic U.K. puts it, the acres of lead form the roof “poured down on to the street like a river.”  

Eventually, larger firebreaks were created by using gunpowder to destroy houses.

The fire burned for four days before it was contained. It left the ground hot enough to scorch people’s shoes, and some spots smoldered for months. Eight-nine parish churches had burned (or eighty-seven, but let’s not quibble), along with theGuildhall and assorted jails, public buildings, markets, and city gates, not to mention 13,000 houses. Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. Some 436 acres, containing 13,000 houses, was destroyed.

By some estimates, only six people died in the fire (or eight, or sixteen), but guesses run as high as several thousand.  Considering the number of homes destroyed, the higher number sounds convincing. Nobody sorted through the wreckage to count the dead. If you were poor or the middle-class, you died uncounted.

Not long after the fire was contained, a French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, was charged with starting it. He pleaded guilty and was convicted, even though the evidence he gave in court was contradictory, the jury considered him deranged, and the Lord Chief Justice told the king he didn’t believe a word of the man’s confession. What the hell, they hanged him anyway and the crowd tore his body to pieces.

It’s important, in these situations, to have someone to blame–preferably a foreigner.

Once bit of business was taken care of, evidence emerged that he hadn’t gotten to London until after the fire started. A parliamentary investigation declared the fire an accident. Hubert, however, remained dead.

When the city began to rebuild, a law ordered that  “no man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building, whether great or small, but of brick or stone.” If anyone ignored the rules, their house would be pulled down.

The U.K. star count 2020

If you live in the U.K., you can help the Countryside Charity take a survey of how dark the nighttime skies are. They’re asking people to go outside after 7 pm between February 21 and February 28, wait till their eyes adjust to the dark, and report how many stars they see inside the Orion constellation. You don’t need binoculars or telescopes or anything other than yourself and the skies and a clear night.

That last part–the clear night–is going to be hard. I can’t remember the last one we had.

It’s as useful to report from a city where you’d be lucky to see a single star as it is to report from the darks of Bodmin Moor. It’s all information. Follow the link above and you’ll find the instructions (there aren’t many) and a way to report your count.

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As long the weather’s come into the conversation, I might as well tell you that as soon as Britain’s hit by a storm big enough to earn itself a name, it will be Storm Ellen. Batten down the hatches.