The truly important news

Forget the real news. It’s too depressing. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s happening in Britain and, briefly, in the U.S.

Petitions: Britain introduced its first plastic banknote recently, and it’s worth £5. For a while there, you couldn’t get or give one without being warned not to put it in the tumble dryer. Apparently they shrink. Cue a range of jokes about money laundering, although it is, apparently, safe to put it in the washing machine. The police will, I’m sure, be watching for clotheslines with £5 bills neatly clipped in a line and drying in the sun.

We don’t have a dryer, so we won’t be shrinking any. And I think they’re called notes in British, not bills. But don’t trust me on that. The other night, I sent a group of friends into a meltdown when I asked if someone trying to light her cigarette had found a match. Turns she was looking for a light, not a match, although she swore she’d have understood me if I’d asked about a matchstick.

The things we use to light our woodburner (which is called a stove, unlike the stove, which is called a hob) are sold as matches, so I’m baffled by the problem. She tried to explain it but it all got even more complicated and we gave up.

Irrelevant photo: Runoff from  a field, but it makes me understand how this landscape gave rise to tales of fairies and such.

Irrelevant photo: This is just runoff from a field, but it makes me understand how this landscape gave rise to tales of fairies and such.

But back to £5 bills or notes. Just this week, the nation learned that the new bill contains tallow—in other words, animal fats derived from beef or mutton, and someone’s started a petition on to remove the tallow. The headlines focus on vegans and vegetarians being upset about this, but Hindus are considering banning the bills from their temples.

Some of the articles claim the petition’s calling for fat-free bills. It’s not, but it might be a clever move, creating an alliance of vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, and dieters.

Searching for the fat-free petition brought my attention to a variety of other petitions about banknotes. One wants to ban all politicians from them.

Government secrets: A parliamentary aide was photographed walking out of a meeting with a set of notes that may detail the government’s Brexit strategy. Or may not. Maybe they’re the aide’s opinions on the strategy. No one’s saying. What is known is that she walked out a door that carries large-scale warnings about covering any notes you’re carrying and she ignored them. A press photograph first called out, “I can read the document,” and when she and the people she was with didn’t pay any attention he took his shot and suddenly the top page of her notepad was appearing everywhere. Among other things, the notes said, “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it.”

I’ve sat through meetings that drove me to write things like that. Mercifully, no one much cared. The aide, though? I doubt this is going to help her career.

What does it tell us about Brexit? Not much, but the government’s keeping its strategy so deeply hidden that some folks wonder if it has one. That makes anything coming out of a Brexit meeting hot gossip.

The photographer who took the shot is a regular outside the Downing Street offices and he sent it out on Twitter because, he said, “picture desks don’t always take much notice, but most political journalists follow me on Twitter so it gets picked up that way.” But most of his Twitter followers are more interested in pictures of 10 Downing Street’s cat and the chancellor’s dog.

The cat was brought in when Cameron was prime minister, and he didn’t take the cat with him, which is just one more thing I can hold against the man. What kind of prime minister brings a cat into his residence and then leaves it for the government to take care of?

Jobs and employment: Okay, this is about me rather than government policy, but since every government ever elected anywhere claims to be creating jobs, that should be a tight enough connection to let me to get away with this.

LinkedIn sent me an email saying it knew of over a thousand jobs in Exeter that would be a perfect match for me. Never mind that Exeter’s just over than an hour from where I live. I’ve known people who commute that far for work. It half kills them, but they do it. And never mind that I’m retired. I doubt I mentioned that to LinkedIn.

Why am I on LinkedIn if I’m retired? Someone invited me to join her network years ago and it seemed rude not to. Besides, I was working then. I’ve stayed on because anything that passes itself off as a network looks like a useful way to promote a book. Or a blog. Or—oh, hell, someone remind me what I’m supposed to be promoting this week, would you?

I’m not sure how useful it actually is, or even how useful it could be. I haven’t figured out how what to do with it, or why. I’ve never fit neatly into the established categories, so—well, yeah. I’m on LinkedIn for reasons I don’t entirely understand.

But I stay for the entertainment.

The jobs the email listed are for a novelist, an author, a writer, a freelance writer, and a chief executive officer. If you notice anything odd in that list, it’s okay, you’re not—as far as I can tell from here—on drugs.

I itch to simplify that list. Because in addition to being a novelist, an author, a writer, and a freelance writer, I was also a copy editor, and that’s what copy editors do. How much overlap is there, guys, between an author, a writer, and a freelance writer? Why are we mentioning all three? I’ll give them novelist: That’s specific enough to justify its own mention, although I want to tell you, it’s damn rare that anyone wants to hire one. When did you last hear someone yell, “Quick, we need a novelist to sort out this mess”?

We’ll get to the next problem with the list in an inch or two.

I clicked on novelist to see what jobs LinkedIn had found in Exeter.

None. But it did want to know what I thought of its new job search experience.

Oh, hell, I loved it so much that I went back and clicked on author, writer, and freelance writer.

No matches. So I clicked on chief executive officer—a job I’m stunningly unqualified for and the true oddity of the list.

No matches. No one in Exeter is hiring CEOs. Or maybe, wisely, no one’s hiring CEOs with my qualifications.

It all reminds me of the time I ran into an acquaintance and asked how she was.

“Terrible,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

“Then why bring it up?” I didn’t ask.

In a similar vein, I wasn’t the one who asked about jobs for novelists. Are they going to notify me every time one doesn’t come up? I’m going to have a lot of emails.

Technology: This isn’t about the U.K., it’s about the U.S., but I do want to be even handed.

The USS Zumwalt, the U.S. navy’s super high-tech destroyer and its most expensive ever, broke down in the Panama Canal. It’s worth $4.4 billion, can fire rocket-powered shells up to 63 miles—those are nautical miles, and let’s not get into how they’re different from other miles because it’ll be such a snarl we’ll never get loose—and it had to be towed to the nearest garage, where a mechanic scratched his head and said, “I don’t know, buddy. Looks expensive. We’ll have to send away for parts, so you could be here for a while.”

It had a similar problem the month before. And if that isn’t embarrassing enough, it can’t fire its guns because at $800,000 per round the ammunition’s too expensive.

Petitioning Parliament: What does Britain truly care about?

The British government runs a web site where people can start petitions, and if one gathers more than 100,000 signatures Parliament has to debate the issue. That sounds meaningful until you realize that the promise is to debate, not to do anything. And then you remember that most of the time those green benches in the House of Commons are as empty as our local beach during a January storm.

I have a hunch most of those debates are stunningly short.

But as a way of making people feel engaged, the site is inspired and people use it. So let’s check in and see what’s on the British public’s mind.

Some of the topics are predictable and some are even sensible. Whatever your beliefs, you’ll find something there to cheer you up, something to depress the hell out of you, and a fair bit to confirm whatever stereotypes you hold. (Yes, folks, Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Especially, from what I can tell, of cats.)

But where’s the fun in that? Let’s look at the unpredictable petitions.

Irrelevant and moody photo of an empty bench

Irrelevant and moody photo of an empty bench and a sky that’s disappeared. Don’t complain, please. I’m a writer, not a photographer. Or–oh, go ahead and complain. If enough of you do, I’ll debate the issue.

One petition demands that police dogs and horses be granted the status of police officers. It has over 123,000 signatures, so let’s stop and think this through a bit in case Parliament doesn’t. What happens if they are elevated to that august status? Do they get pensions? Are able arrest us? Do they get in trouble for ignoring their paperwork the way half the TV detectives do?

Do we have to address them as officer? “Would you like a nice bowl of water, officer?”

Do they have to wear uniforms? Are they eligible for promotions?

A second petition wants “to change the name the UK government uses for IS, ISIS and ISIL to Daesh.”

That’ll show ’em. It has over 19,000 signatures.

A third demands that someone or other enforce mandatory drug tests on all Members of Parliament, and I’m tempted to sign it just for the joy of annoying the folks who have the power to make other people take mandatory drug tests. I mean, c’mon, being an MP is a responsible job.

It has over 8,000 signatures.

A fourth wants to change all newly issued passport covers to blue. They were once blue, apparently, back when everything was as it should still be but isn’t. At a time when so many people are yelling about taking their country back, getting the passports right should fix it. It has over 4,000 signatures.

Which reminds me to note that the people who want their country back never say who took it or where they hid it, but if anyone sees a stray country, send it back, would you? To either Britain or the U.S., depending, I guess, on how big it is.

But back to petitions. It turns out that you can’t just put any old petition on the web site. You’ll find the real fun on the list of rejected petitions, including the following:

“Ask Kate Bush to release the footage of her before the Dawn Live shows.”

“Bring back the television programme ‘Spitting Image’ ”

“Rhys Powell for England manager”

“Expropriate the bourgeoisie”

“Bring Barak Obama to the U.K.”

“A cashpoint is needed in Cardiff Retail Park, Llanishen”

“Invite Barack Obama to become the UK prime minster”

If you click on any of the rejects, you’ll find that someone’s explained why it didn’t make the cut. Take “expropriate the bourgeoisie.” Some actual human being wrote, “It’s not clear what the petition is asking the UK Government or Parliament to do.”

Well, to expropriate the bourgeoisie, silly. Admittedly, as political manifestos go, this one’s a little thin, but Parliament wasn’t going to go for it anyway and I can understand the writer thinking, Why waste time providing a plan?

So I could quibble with the decision on this one, but the point is, friends, that someone goes through the splatter of Britain’s political awareness and its un- and semi-conscious and thinks about it all long enough to accept or reject and explain. I admit, they wouldn’t have to think deeply and the explanations are standardized, but still, it’s oddly soothing to think that a human being reads all this.

The Guardian, where I first heard about these lists, included out a few choice rejectees in its article. Its reporter either had more time than I did or a better system of going through them.

Someone wants to make Motorhead’s (I’m missing an umlaut over the second O, but it’s decorative anyway; English doesn’t use the umlaut, and 98% of the English-speaking world doesn’t even know what one is). Let’s start over: Someone wants to make Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” the official national anthem.

Who knew the country doesn’t already have a national anthem? I thought it was “God Save the Queen.” Or King, depending on time, place, and circumstance. For plan B, the petitioner proposes the theme song from the long-running and you-can’t-get-more-British (or possibly English; I’m not sure) radio Soap The Archers.

Someone else submitted—and I quote—“I believe that McDonald’s owes me a free milkshake.” And I’m sure it does. It owes me an apology for the alleged salad I bought there once.

And one more: “It is about time we changed the plural of sheep from sheep to sheeps.”

I tell you, if Parliament won’t take action on that, it’s hard to say who citizens can turn to with their troubles.

Mary had two little sheeps                                                                                                 Their fleeces white as snows                                                                                             And everywhere that Mary went                                                                                         Her sheeps were embarrassed to be seen with her.

Are Americans louder than the British?

You know that stereotype about noisy Americans? If you don’t, you’re American and you think the whole world talks at the same level as you.

It doesn’t.

Back when Wild Thing and I lived in Minneapolis, our friends D. and D. traveled from quietest Devon to visit us. When they reeled off the plane, jet lagged and culture shocked, they confessed that they’d thought Wild Thing was loud until they changed planes in Chicago, where they had a revelation: Wild Thing isn’t loud, she’s just American.

Okay, they might have waited a few days to say that. Or it could’ve been a few years. I don’t really remember. But they did say it. And since they worry (especially the one D.) endlessly and unnecessarily about offending people, I should add that we weren’t offended. We thought it was (a) true and (b) very funny.

The British, as a rule, are quiet–at least when sober. They don’t like to stand out in a crowd. They teach their children seventy-four forms of politeness, most of which I don’t understand but at least a dozen of them are variants on not calling attention to themselves. And Americans? The positive way to see it is that we’re less inhibited. If you want the negative spin, we’re thoughtless and rude. Take your pick. Or take both. It’s not an either/or choice.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink) surrounded by nettle leaves.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink, and polite) surrounded by nettle leaves, which are not polite.

But when D. and D. commented on Wild Thing being noisy, they didn’t mention me. So when I’ve worried about whether and how and when I offend British sensibilities (and I do occasionally worry about it, although I don’t lose sleep to it), I’ve spent the past ten years thinking I was doing pretty well on volume level.

It’s not that I can’t be loud. I learned what my voice could do when I was thirteen or so and spent my Saturdays on picket lines in front of Woolworth’s because the store’s lunch counters in the South refused to serve African-Americans. It was my first independent political activity. We handed out leaflets and chanted slogans, and I was young enough to think we could end segregation by being loud, so I was loud. Without anyone teaching it to me how to do it, I stumbled into the trick that lets your voice feel like it’s coming directly from the chest, bypassing the throat and emerging into the world resonant enough to shatter antiquated and oppressive social systems.

Changing the world has turned out to be more complicated than I thought, but that form of segregation did eventually end and what we did wasn’t the primary reason but it wasn’t irrelevant either. And I walked away with an interesting education as well as a powerful sense of what my voice could do.

Somewhere during that time, I heard Odetta sing. She had a huge voice—strong, resonant, and lower than most women were willing, or maybe able, to sing—and she gave me an expansive sense of what a woman’s voice is capable of. If you’ve never heard her, follow the link. She’s gorgeous.

But enough background. We’re talking about noise levels and culture clash.

Not long ago, I attended a conference about health care, social care, and politics, which are a potent combination and should not be mixed by any but the most expert of bartenders. An amateur is likely to screw it up so badly that they’ll blow the country’s infrastructure to bits. Unfortunately, Britain’s recent governments have been sticking nursery school kids behind the bar and encouraging them to pour any old thing into whatever else they find. Which is why we felt the need for a conference.

In the afternoon, J., who was chairing the conference, tried to gather everyone back together after a break. Now, J. has a small voice and at that moment had a mic that wasn’t working. So although she spoke politely and Britishly about ending the several dozen conversations that were going on and starting the meeting again, no one stopped talking.

I do like to solve problems, and I’d helped organize the conference so I felt some sense of responsibility, and without giving it three seconds’ thought I bellowed something along the lines of, “Okay, people, let’s get back together now.”

Silence fell with all the subtlety of a grand piano smashing down from a roof top. Two men sitting behind me levitated off their chairs, then crashed back into them and giggled nervously. Not being a mind reader, I can’t say for a fact that they were critical of me for bellowing, but they were—nervous is probably a fair observation. Not sure what to do in the situation. Maybe they thought I was dangerous. Without question they thought I wasn’t British, although the accent should have given that away much earlier in the day.

It did work, though. People sat down. They turned forward to listen to J. Maybe because it gave them a reason to not look at me.

It’s like that, living in a culture you didn’t grow up in. Or it is for me. I trot along happily, thinking I’m not offending anyone, then I do something that seems perfectly natural and blast two grown men off their chairs and push a piano off the roof.

How many people did I offend or shock? All? None? Most? Some? I have no idea. I asked N. later on, and he deflected the conversation so gracefully that I didn’t realize until later than he hadn’t answered my question.

And the worst of it? I can’t help thinking it was funny, although I suspect I should be feeling bad about it.


I can’t end without acknowledging that Americans aren’t the only loud people on the planet. Wild Thing and I were in Hong Kong once, and when she realized she wasn’t the noisiest person in the room she fell in love with the place.

British and American pronunciation: a link

All you pronunciation hounds out there, you might be interested in Lynne Murphy’s post “Filet, fillet and the pronunciation of other French borrowings.” It takes up some of the  issues I raised in “British and American pronunciation and other ways of getting in trouble,” only she’s a linguist and–oh, this is so sad–far more knowledgeable than I’m ever likely to be. Go visit. Enjoy yourself.

The uses of art

You get one warning here: I’m doing mildly heartwarming this week. With only the smallest dose of cynicism. Which is another way of saying that this isn’t about the recent American elections.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Wild Thing and I made a trip to Launceston—our not exactly nearest  town—a few weeks ago, and as long as we were going we thought we’d deliver a photo she’d taken at a local bakery. You need a couple of bits of background here, so let’s start with the bakery. It’s the shorter bit.

The Little Bakehouse makes sourdough bread, and even though I make my own I love theirs. When we’re in Launceston, we often buy a loaf. When we don’t, we look in the window and give ourselves reasons why we shouldn’t. It’s not an easy thing to talk ourselves out of.

The Bread Man

The Bread Man

You know an area’s gentrifying when a sourdough bakery opens, and I know how gentrification kills an area, but the bread’s good anyway. And gentrification isn’t the bakery’s fault. Boycotting them wouldn’t bring rents or house prices down. So sometimes we get a cup of tea and a scone as well.

Enough about the bakery. Except that their scones are better than mine. Not to mention bigger. On to the other bit of background, which is about Wild Thing and photography.

After we moved here, Wild Thing got interested in photography, and even after macular degeneration reduced her eyesight she kept working. Which is worth a post in itself but I’m not the one to write it, so I’ll recommend hers instead.

From the beginning, she was most strongly drawn to street shooting—a kind of guerrilla photography that relies on catching people as they are, unposed and unaware—but she can’t do that anymore because of her eyesight. She can’t be sure who’s seen her and who hasn’t. Instead, she often asks people if they’d mind her taking a picture, and that’s what she did one day at the bakery in Launceston.

The man behind the counter said sure, and he leaned on the counter.

“What I want people to notice,” he said, “is that it’s noon and the shelves are empty.”

When she printed the shot, the clock behind him, which neither of us had noticed, said 12:25. And the shelves were empty, although a few loaves were visible in the window and on the counter. More to the point, from Wild Thing’s point of view, the man was as vivid a presence in the picture as he is in person. Plus the light from the window had picked out one side of his face and the line of his arms and torso was beautiful. You know: It had some of that photographery stuff that makes it more than a snapshot.

If I sound, in spite of myself, like I might possibly know what I’m talking about, that’s because I almost do. Back before cameras went digital I was a semi-competent amateur. My pictures were better than standard vacation shots even if they weren’t anything a serious photographer would admit to. I learned enough to let me throw a bunch of words around if I’m careful to avoid the ones I don’t understand.

I took my photography seriously until the day I shot a picture of two women in the aisle of the old (by which I mean, no longer there) Great Northern Market in downtown Minneapolis. They were talking about green peppers, and when I printed it, it was good, but without the green pepper conversation it didn’t seem to matter as much.

I stopped trying to make art and took pictures only of the kids in our lives. They had a clear use: a gift I could give them when they were older.

Then cameras went digital and I bailed out completely. Now I only take pictures for the blog, and I shoot in what Wild Thing calls drunk mode. You know drunk mode: You set everything on automatic and even if you’re falling over as you press the shutter you’ll get a picture.

But we were talking about the bread man. Wild Thing framed the photo to use in a show at a place in Bude called the Castle, which isn’t a castle, just a building with pretensions.

After the show came down, the photo lived in the attic until for some reason Wild Thing decided it would be nice to bring it to the bakery, since we were going to Launceston anyway.

We delivered it, bought tea and scones, and sat at a table to enjoy them.

Did I mention that their scones are better than mine? And bigger?

The bread man and the two women who also work there—one is the baker, who’s in back and does the important work invisibly, and the other works out front with him—ran around looking for a place to hang it, debating whether to put it where one of the awards was hanging or someplace else.

Eventually, the bread man came over to thank Wild Thing and say that several people had told him they’d seen him at the Castle. Which amazed us, because it’s not a building, or a gallery, you wander into by accident. You have to want to get there. We’d sort of assumed the show was invisible to the larger world.

What I take from all of this is that if you make a piece of art visible, it matters, even if it’s in a small way. If it’s the right piece of art in the right place, someone will talk about it, or think about it, or feel it, and maybe even be changed by it.

“The Bread Man” isn’t a life-changing photo, but even so, people saw it and felt it was worth talking about. And the bread man saw himself and, I think, felt recognized. It’s a small thing art can do, but it matters.

British and American pronunciation, and other ways of getting in trouble

Susan Leighton, from Woman on the Ledge, traded a few comments with me that led us to discuss the different ways fete is pronounced in the U.S. and the U.K.

Do we talk about the important stuff here or what?

In the U.S., we follow the French pronunciation—or try to, although our accents get in the way of it sounding like French French. But the effort seems to make sense, since the word came to us from French. So we say fett. In Britain, they pronounce it fate. So when a church holds a fete—as they seem to once a year—it sounds like they’re fated to it. Doomed, even. If you’ve ever worked on an event planning committee, you may understand this.

The English and the French have a long and spiky history, and maybe that explains why the British de-Frenchified the word, although it’s more likely that either the U.S. or the U.K.—or possibly both—shifted their pronunciation accidentally and so gradually that they didn’t know they were doing it, which is how these things tend to happen.

Irrelevant photo: rosehips

Irrelevant photo: rosehips

The same pronunciation pattern governs fillet and ballet. Americans pronounce them, more or less, fill-LAY and bahl-LAY.

But before I give you the British pronunciations, I have to interrupt myself: Nitpickers and experts, please note that I did say “more or less.” Trying to write out English pronunciation in any form that’s accessible to the average reader—or to me, while we’re at it—is a nightmare. Nothing in English is pronounced in any predictable way. When I edited kids’ books, we had to insert a vocabulary list at the back, and include pronunciations, and they were a nightmare. Take ballet: Is that bahl-LAY, as I wrote it? Not really, because the L isn‘t part of the first syllable, but if I wrote the syllable as bah you’d hear a different A—the one we use in bah, humbug—and if you said it that way you’d sound so phony you’d have to end the sentence with dahling.

We should have labeled the lists “Good Luck, Kids.” But the alternative is to use a bunch of symbols that only experts can read.

But back to ballet and fillet: (Are you actually interested in this? Skip ahead if you’re not. I’ll never know.) How do the British pronounce them? FILL-it and something I can’t reproduce but that sounds a hell of a lot like belly, so I’m forever thinking someone’s taken up belly dancing instead of ballet dancing.

Okay. I don’t know many people who’ve taken up either. In fact, I don’t think I know any. Still, I do know people who’ve gone to see ballet—or possibly belly—dancing, so the word, with all its confusions, has blown past my ear canals. Given how different the reputations of ballet and belly dancing are, the confusion’s is a small source of surprise and delight in my life.

I’m sure American pronunciations are equally absurd if you’re not used to them, but I am so I miss the jokes. I’ll be happy to hear from anyone who doesn’t.

As long as I’m talking about the oddities of the English language, I should point you toward an article in the New Yorker,Love in Translation,” by Lauren Collins, which mentions linguists who’ve been trying to measure the difficulties of various languages in some objective way. What they came up with is called the Language Weirdness Index. You have to love researchers who could study 239 languages and come up with a weirdness index. English came in as the thirty-third weirdest. Some—although by no means all—of the weirdest are small and isolated languages. Apparently being spoken by a small, isolated group encourages that, since the societies are cohesive and everyone can count on everyone else to understand what they mean. Languages spoken by large groups get their rough edges rubbed off by contact with other groups.

See? I told you immigration was good for us all.

This seems to imply that however weird (to use the technical term) English is now, it was once a lot weirder.

From there it’s a largish leap to my next bit of language trivia, but it’s a good story, so let’s not quibble over the logic.

Early in her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton tried to negotiate what was being called a reset with Russia, so some genius got two red plastic Reset buttons made, one in English and one in Russian, and when she met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, she ceremoniously handed him the one in Russian. They were supposed to press them simultaneously, at which point absolutely nothing would happen because they were plastic toys.

Hush. Someone who’s presumed to be very smart spent a lot of time on this.

The problem (other than that they didn’t do anything) was that the Russian one didn’t say Reset, it said Overcharged—peregruzka, according to the article in the Guardian where I found this terribly important story. Do I trust the Guardian’s translation—or actually its transliteration of a translation? Not entirely, so I checked Google, which swore it should be peregruzhenny.

Do I trust Google? Well, no, but if the two had agreed I might have thought they were reliable. Once you get past the U, though, the two words don’t contain any of the same sounds. They do both follow it with a Z, but Z and ZH stand for different sounds.

I mention that because if you’re not used to a language the brain has a tendency to see a word and say “I don’t need to know this and won’t understand it anyway,” at which point it shuts down briefly. If yours did, you can come back now.

I don’t have a Russian-English dictionary, but I do have a Teach Yourself Russian book. Yeah, I do know how well those work, but I was trying to revive my Russian, which was never very good and has been dormant for over 50 years. That’s not exactly the same as learning it from scratch, so I thought the book might be worth a try. It was second hand, so I didn’t lose much.

Back when I bought it, we had a Russian neighbor whose English was even more limited than my Russian, and I was trying to add a few sentences to the handful we could exchange. These were, “How are you?” “I am well, thank you.” “I am very well.” “Today is beautiful. “ “Today is not beautiful.” Plus a few others that I could cobble together but was less sure of. I could have been saying I was squirting toothpaste in my ear and being overcharged. Except that I don’t know the word for toothpaste. Or ear. I do, sort of,  know the past tense.

I think.

Anyway, the book has a small vocabulary list in the back. It’s labeled “Good Luck, Kids.” I looked for overcharged, but the closest thing I could find was over there. I’m willing to bet that in no language are those the same.

I don’t know how to type Russian on my computer and I could transliterate that from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Roman one, but honestly, what’s the point? We might as well be pushing a red plastic toy button.

You have to wonder, once you leave the wonders of bad transliteration behind, exactly what form of overcharged the Russian word—whatever it actually was—meant. Overcharged as in you paid too much? Or overcharged as in I told you you should’ve unplugged that battery last night?

Any Russian speakers out there, what word were they really looking for? And what is the word for overcharged?

I don’t know what position Russian holds on the Language Weirdness Index.

I don’t know what position I hold on the Human Weirdness Index.

Given how bizarre the American election is getting, I should probably add that I don’t consider the Reset Scandal a reason to change my vote.

Bell ringers’ injuries

In last week’s post, I mentioned that York Minster had fired its volunteer bell ringers. It was a small part of the post, but the comments it provoked have been fascinating. So first—because, admit it, you don’t actually read every golden word I publish, although I can’t think what else you have to do with your lives—let me draw your attention to a few of the comments.

John Evans wrote a first-hand explanation of bell ringing, and that was followed by several other comments that are also worth reading, for both the mechanics and the politics of it all. I won’t give you a separate link since they’re all grouped together.

John also sent a link to a bell ringers’ publication. What could I do but follow it? I was rewarded with a statement from the York bell ringers, setting out their side of the story. John did say bell ringers are a tight-knit group, and this seemed like proof.

Who knew bell ringing was so interesting?

Irrelevant photo: Blackberries in October. Folklore holds that you shouldn't eat them after October 11 because the devil spits on them. Or in some versions of the tale, he pees on them. Yum.

Irrelevant photo: Blackberries in October. Folklore holds that you shouldn’t eat them after October 11 because the devil spits on them. Or in a different version of the tale, he pees on them. In yet another version, the date is October 10–Old Michaelmas Day (the date changed when the calendar was reformed, back in way-back-when, hence the word old). It’s also called Devil Spits Day. Yum yum yum.

Then on Google+, which I’ve never understood but manage to use very marginally, Anita wondered about the sort of injuries bell ringers might get. Since York Minster cited health and safety concerns as a reason for firing the bell ringers, the question made sense, although I had cheerily assumed that since the bells are on one end of the rope and the ringers are on the other, everything was pretty much foolproof. But Anita’s question sent me to the internet, the source of all things informative and bizarre.

It turns out that if you punch bell ringers and injuries into your friendly local search engine—well, actually I don’t know what’ll come up on yours, since search engines gear themselves not only to what country you live in but also to what they think you want to hear, thereby confirming every reckless and ridiculous belief you may hold, political or otherwise.

So instead of talking about what you’ll find, let me tell you what appeared on my search engine. And let me state for the record that as far as I know I haven’t demonstrated any beliefs, rational or otherwise, about bell ringing and injuries in any places where search engines would pick them up, so we can pretend that what I found is completely free of prejudice.

I mean, yes, I’ve voiced a reckless and ill-informed opinion or two, but not in a search engine.

But no one’s entirely out of sight anywhere these days, are they? And whatever you believe about that, a search engine can help you confirm it.

Anyway. PubMed reports that “Seventy nine injuries [among bell ringers] were identified both from review and by advertisement in Ringing World. The incidence of injury among 221 ringers identified by postal questionnaire was 1.8% a year.” It concluded that “Although sonerous, bell ringing can be dangerous and occasionally even fatal. Doctors should be aware of the dangers to which campanologists expose themselves.”

And medical researchers should be aware of the danger of not using a proofreader, because that should be sonorous. And seventy nine should be hyphenated. Take your questions about injuries to these people, but don’t ask them about spelling.

That incidence of injuries is probably why the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers takes the trouble to explain which bell ringers have liability coverage where and under whose insurance. I’d explain it to you, but I became comatose early in the first paragraph and only survived because one of my faithful dogs brought me back to consciousness by insisting on being fed.

After I fed the dogs (the other one got interested when he heard the sounds of chow being dished out), I found an article about a group of bell ringers in Somerset who had to run for it after a bell broke loose and crashed through two floors of the bell tower. They’d noticed that one bell—the big one, which John Evans tells me is called the tenor bell—was hard to ring, so they gave its rope a good hard yank.

Which turned out not to be a great idea. Remember that, everybody.

It’s not a great piece of journalism, but the picture of the bell stuck in the ceiling beams is impressive.

Next up was an article about a bell ringing captain who fell off a bell frame while trying to fix a frayed bell rope. She had to be winched to safety. After that came one about a bell ringer who caught her trousers—if you’re American, that’s pants; if you’re British it’s also pants, but not literally—in the rope and ended up dangling three feet off the floor with a broken collar bone. She had to be lowered through a trap door.

I know this stuff isn’t funny, but having typed up accident after injury after warning, I can’t help wanting to giggle. It’s like watching cartoons. Tee hee, look what happens next.

Sorry, everybody. I’ll get a few of my worst instincts back under control and go on.

That bit about the trousers needs an explanation if you’re American. Or possibly if you’re any other sort of not-British. In the U.S., pants are what you wear over your underpants. In other words, they’re outerpants. In Britain, pants are underpants and you wear them under trousers, which are what you call your outerpants if anyone actually used the word outerpants. But if you want to say something’s lousy, you can say it’s pants. So getting your trousers caught in the bell rope? Yeah, that’s pants.

It’s probably funnier without the explanation. .

D. and D. just informed me that women’s pants are called knickers. Usually. If I live in this country a hundred years, I’ll never get it all sorted out.

But enough fun. We have work to do. I also found a site about safer places of worship. It covers bell ringing, bouncy castles, cyber cafes, and face painting, along with a bunch of other stuff. Religion’s a dangerous business. No wonder people kill each other over it.

And that exhausted my limited patience. I did look up face painting injuries, but most of what I found explained how to paint injuries onto a face, not how to prevent them. Maybe it’s all more hazardous when a church gets involved.

Now, before we pick up our toys and go home, kids, let’s ask ourselves what we learned today.

No, that’s a good guess, but it’s not that pants are funny. It’s that bell ringing’s dangerous. Don’t try it at home.


And finally, an update on the York bell ringers’ firing. A recent article reports that the lead bell ringer was suspended from his job as a teacher after claims of indecent assault. The police initially said no charges would be filed but later applied for a sexual risk order. The application was dismissed last December. The minster banned him from its bell tower in July. The bell ringers weren’t happy about it, and from there on everything just escalated.

I have no idea what did or did not happen, but everybody involved seems to have lawyers.

Restoring a country’s greatness: bell ringers, royal yachts, and low self-esteem

Don’t stop me to ask what greatness means when it’s applied to a country. Don’t ask if restoring greatness is like restoring virginity, or if greatness has actually been lost, or who’d pay the price (monetary or otherwise) for restoring it assuming it could be restored. Do not under any circumstances approach this claim as if it made sense. The idea is for a politician to make it and run so fast that no one will stop to reason it all through.

Ready? We’re going to restore greatness today. To not one but two countries. Because anything a cynical politician can do, I can do better.

Let’s start in the U.K. with a move by a group inside the Conservative Party that will restore Britain’s greatness by bringing back the royal yacht. The New York Times describes the move as “strong.”

Completely relevant photo: Fast Eddie has never lost his greatness.

Completely relevant photo: Fast Eddie has never lost his greatness. He attributes that to his ability to sleep 27 hours a day and still hunt at night. He assures me he’s never killed anything that didn’t need killing. This doesn’t completely reassure me, but you know how hard it is to argue with greatness. Eddie reminds me to tell you that an interview with him appears at Adventures in Cheeseland. Sorry I didn’t do that earlier–it’s been a little crazed around here and I let myself get distracted from the important stuff.

The Times writes, “ ‘I think we have to ask ourselves what sort of Britain we want to live in and what we can do,’ Jake Berry, a lawmaker, said Tuesday in Parliament, ‘to make Britain great again.’ His answer? ‘If Brexit is going to mean successful Brexit, it should also mean the return of our royal yacht!’

“The Conservative benches loudly murmured their approval.”

For every difficult question—or so the saying goes—there’s always an answer that is simple, appealing, and wrong. I’m not sure how appealing this one actually is, but it is simple. And that was probably the Conservatives murmuring, not really the benches. I just thought we should be clear about that.

For those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while, I should mention that the royal yacht, before it was decommissioned, was not named Boaty McBoatface. The new one, if it ever gets commissioned, will probably not be called that either. But I did hear a news presenter on BBC’s Radio 4 promote an interview with Sir David Attenborough by saying that Boaty McBoatface was named after him.

I can only hope the man has a sense of humor. Or at least that he doesn’t want his greatness restored after being talked about that way. It’s expensive, all the greatness restoration.

Next we jump to the U.S. for the news that Donald Trump—who wants to restore American’s greatness by saying whatever comes into his head and, incidentally, by putting Hillary Clinton in prison—has accused Clinton of taking performance-enhancing drugs to prepare for the third debate.

If you work your way through the accusation, you may find yourself wishing Trump would take get-to-the-point-enhancing drugs. But surely you saw Clinton lift off the ground and fly around the stage during the third debate.

You didn’t? The networks probably cut that bit. You know how biased they can be. Anyway, you have to ask yourself, how’d she do that?

I can’t leave the topic without quoting an acquaintance of Wild Thing’s, who explained his support for Trump by saying that Clinton is corrupt and a liar and has low self-esteem. We should probably make that criminally low self-esteem.

No wonder he can’t vote for her.

But don’t worry. Performance-enhancing drugs can also restore your virginity–or anyone else’s, since we’re on the topic.

Having clarified that, we return to the U.K. and the volunteer bell ringers of York Minster, who have all been fired. They weren’t told why, but the letter firing was headed, “York Minster invites everyone to discover God’s love.”

That left them feeling deeply loved. So much so that they went public with the story. In an interview on Radio 4, the cathedral’s dean said the firing had to do with health and safety issues. She mentioned how heavy the bells are.

And they are. Heavy enough that the bell ringers are unlikely to haul them around. Historically speaking, bell ringers dropping bells hasn’t been a problem, and throwing them has been even less common.

A more recent article says York Minster regards one particular member as a safeguarding risk, but the others had “consistently challenged” the Minster’s governing body. Whether a safeguarding risk means the bell ringer is a risk or puts other people at risk is anyone’s guess.

The weight of the bells wasn’t mentioned.

What’s any of that got to do with restoring lost greatness? It’s at least as relevant as the royal yacht. The world, my friends, has officially gone insane and satire is dead. If you don’t find me particularly funny in this post, it’s only because reality has outstripped me.

But since no country can be truly great until an automated system recognizes its existence, let me tell you a tale about Wild Thing and the Netherlands, which desperately need their greatness restored.

Wild Thing’s traveling this week, and she’s making a stopover in Amsterdam. It’s only a couple of hours, but she wanted to make sure she could use her credit card. Just in case. So she called the phone number on the card and punched the buttons for Update Travel Plans.

An automated voice asked where she was going.

“The Netherlands.”

“Did you say Venezuela?”

“No. The Netherlands.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Did you say Senegal?”

Et cetera, through a couple of even more likely spots.

Wild Thing thought she’d try Holland.

“Is that Holland, Michigan?”

Cue the sound of breakables being thrown against the wall opposite Wild Thing’s computer.

“Amsterdam,” she said when she’d run out of breakables she was willing to sacrifice.

“Did you say Sri Lanka?”

I am increasingly worried about what’s going to happen with self-driving cars. Forget restoring a nation’s greatness. How are we going to restore the passengers who get whisked off to South Korea when they thought they were headed for Slough?

A Cornish mile and a Cornish saint

Chris White asked what a Cornish mile is, and since I’d never heard of it, I turned to Google and then asked around.

Let’s start with the asking around bit: According to J., it’s one of those flexible distances people use when a car stops and the driver rolls down the window and asks how far it is to Saint Whoosit.

Cornwall has lots of towns named Saint Whoosit, and Saint Whoosit is always a mile from wherever that car stops. At least that’s what J. tells me. Or else the turn to Saint Whoosit is a mile away, right by the bent tree (we have even more of those than we do of St. Whoosits), and St. Whoosit itself is a mile after that.

And ten minutes later, when the car still hasn’t gotten to St. Whoosit, the turn, the tree, or another person to ask? It’s traveled a Cornish mile.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: Flower from our back yard. The bee's blurred, but if you look closely you'll see where the snails hide--something I didn't know until I looked at this on the screen.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: A flower from our back yard. The bee’s blurred, but if you look closely you’ll see where the snails go to hide–something I didn’t know until I looked at this on the screen.

On the other hand, according to Wikipedia (never mind a link—the contents will have changed by now), the old Cornish mile measured 3.161etc. to nine decimal points miles. And in case you need to know this, a Cornish gallon was 10 pounds, but a Cornish apple gallon was 7 pounds.

How do you measure a gallon in pounds when you don’t know if it holds a gallon of water or a gallon of honey? It’s a unit of weight, not volume, that’s how. You have to admire the English language. It’s not only inventive, it’s downright hallucinatory. Maybe it was something in that honey they were weighing.

The entry also defines a Cornish lace, which is 18 square feet. Or 18 feet square. I can’t see why there’d be any difference between the two, but since I’m mathematically incompetent we shouldn’t trust me on the subject.

According to the Financial Dictionary, though, a Cornish mile is 1.5 miles. Why a financial dictionary’s defining an out-of-date measure of distance is beyond me, but it may tell us something about economists that its definition doesn’t match the other definitions. Not that everyone else’s agree, but they might want to report that other opinions exist. (I don’t seem to hold Wikipedia to that standard, which tells you something about my expectations.)

The two sources do agree on the Cornish gallon, in case that’s relevant.

The Cornish mile could also be (and sometimes is) taken to refer to any number of places in Cornwall where road signs tell you it’s, let’s say, 3.5 miles to Saint Whatsit and then a mile or so later you find another sign saying you have 3.5 miles left to go. Exactly what that tells us about the length of a Cornish mile isn’t clear, but it’s one of the things people talk about when the topic comes up. Some can even cite exact locations for the signs. I can’t, but I did find one when Wild Thing and I were on the way to Saint Whatsit last year.

On the VWT4 Forum (no, I have no idea), Lord of the T4s wrote, “At the junction at the top of Port Isaac, the village which is used for the Doc Martin TV series, there is a signpost on one side of the road which reads, “ ‘St. Teath 5 miles’ and ‘Wadebridge 9 miles.‘

“Don’t move from where you’re standing and look to the other side of the same junction, and another signpost indicates that it’s now 5 1/2 miles to St. Teath and 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge.”

Two comments down, Maude explains it all. “It’s basically 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge from there—but if you hurry you can do it in 9.”

Maude, whoever you are, I love you.

St. Teath, by the way, is pronounced teth, not teeth. She lived in the fifth century (and once again I’m drawing from Wikipedia) and was recognized as a saint in Cornwall and Wales. She was also known as Saint Tecla and Saint Tetha, as well as by a variety of other names (Tethe, Thecla, and so on to another nine decimal points). She was a virgin (why anybody had any business asking I don’t know, but folks back then did seem to be obsessed with a small and useless bit of the female anatomy) and one of the missionary companions of Saint Breaca, who jointly brought Christianity to Cornwall. She may have been the daughter of a Welsh king, which also says that she may not have been. Unlike some of her companions, she wasn’t martyred, and according to one theory her name was inserted into the list of companions by accident.


If you’re considered a saint but you got saintified by accident, are you still a saint?

Regardless, it’s still pronounced teth. And she got a town named after her. Take that, all you other companions of Saint Breaca.

What does this have to do with a Cornish mile? Not a thing, but I felt like I owed you a few more paragraphs. And now that you have them, I’m entertaining suggestions for topics you’d like me to write about. In a perfect world, they’d be related to life in the U.K. or U.S., but you never know what will get me going. If you expect anything sensible, don’t ask about physics, math, astronomy, or anything that looks like it might fall into that same category. I also wouldn’t suggesting asking about lace making, carpentry, fashion, hair, car repair, or raising children–especially that last one, because although people who don’t have kids offer lots advice it tends to be useless in real situations.

However, if you don’t expect anything sensible, it’s open season.

I don’t promise to write about your topic. Some things work and some don’t, and I don’t always know in advance which is which. I haven’t written about either stiles or tipping. I’ve tried, and they’re perfectly good topics, but so far they haven’t gone anywhere. I’ll give them a bit more thought and see what happens.

So ask me questions. Or make suggestions. I’ll address as many of them as I can. And I appreciate getting a push in whatever direction. As long as the train isn’t coming.


Exploring British profanity

Not long ago, someone in an online conversation said that as she gets older she has less “inclination to tolerate the presence of cockwombles.”

The presence of what?

The cockwomble in question was our local Member of Parliament, Scott Mann (the only people I name in this blog are public figures, but if you run for office, sorry, you’re fair game), so I went ahead hit Like. Then I headed for the internet to figure out what I’d agreed with.

According to the Register, “The origin of this very rude term is unclear, although it’s thought to have first surfaced on an online football forum. For those of you unfamiliar with the word, it has been summarised as someone ‘possessing properties of striking idiocy.’ “

The summary the Register’s quoting is on the b3ta dictionary. In case you need to know that.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

But with something this absurd, no single definition is enough. And I wanted to know more about the word’s origin, so I followed a link that promised me the origins of nine “Great British” insults.

Just for the sake of unclarity, I should say that the site could have been promising great insults but could also have meant that they were mediocre insults from Great Britain. Its headline style capitalized most words—never mind which ones; it’s never quite as simple as it seems and you don’t really care, do you?—which meant that Great would get capitalized whichever meaning it had.

As it turned out, the site was a disappointment. Three of the insults were American as well as British (clodhopper; nincompoop; lummox), and cockwomble wasn’t one of the nine.

I love Google. It adds such a layer of pointlessness, to my life.

Anyway, I moved on and found a cycling forum (no, I have no idea; the tides of the internet sweep my intellectual raft to some very strange places) that had hosted (and not taken down) a discussion about the meaning of cockwomble. I came away convinced that no one can define it but that everyone will use it anyway.

Which leads me to ask: If no one can define an insult, is it possible to use it inaccurately? It’s too deep a question to go into here, but I raise it in case you want to give it some thought yourself. As an editor, I saw such gloriously misused words that I started a collection, and soon friends were adding to it. My favorite came from a college philosophy paper: “When we contemplate the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

After reading that, I understood our cats better. They weren’t lying around doing nothing; they were contemplating the obesity of the universe. I could never tell whether ornot they believed in god.

But back to the cycling forum. Highlights of the discussion include—.

Sorry, but I have to interrupt myself again. The contributors were coyly reluctant to swear but were convinced that if they substituted an asterisk for a U no one would know they were swearing.

Is U a bad letter or is something else going on here?

At the exact same time, they believed that everyone would understand what they meant, and these two beliefs cancel each other out so thoroughly that holding them both at the same time should make the believer’s head explode, but that must be a delayed effect, because once that happens you can’t post anymore. And these people were posting.

Anyway, the most vivid definitions were: “a less sweary f*ckMuppet,” “somebody in charge of a department of a local authority” (translation for those who need it: authority here means government), and “anyone who disagrees with you on an internet forum.”

So much for the wisdom of bikers. Or cyclists, as I think people say here.

Collins English Dictionary defines a cockwomble it as a Scottish football administrator. (“Approval status: pending investigation.” Um, yeah, I’d say.)

My search (I only do this, folks, so you don’t have to) then led me to Buzzfeed. How did I get there? By following a come-on that said, “Know your bawbag from your wazzock.” Well, I didn’t know my bawbag from my wazzock, so I clicked through and learned that, being of the female persuasion, I don’t have a bawbag. I understand that many of the people who possess them can’t imagine life without them, but any number of us manage quite well without them.

Do I resent bawbag owners who can’t imagine that every random stranger they meet on the internet might not have one on hand? You bet your ass I do, but not enough to spend much time on it. Especially since bawbag might be used the way cunt is in Britain. In other words, it may be one of those miraculous and logic-defying insults that’s applies to any gender you can think of, even though it’s about as gender specific as you can get. In which case, I can use one as easily as the next guy, so maybe I do need to know it from my wazzock.

But this is all kind of academic since it’s Scottish and I’m not likely to hear it much down here in Cornwall. And if that makes me sound defensive, it’s because I don’t want to dent my reputation for the sparkling use of profanity. I’ve sworn ever since I understood the words. Or before I understood the words, if you want the truth. What I understood was their power. Now that I’m 603, though, I apparently look like someone who wouldn’t swear, which goes to show you how deceptive looks can be and adds an element of (a) hilarity or (b) shock to the exercise.Either one’s fine by me.

But I should stop bragging and tell you what a wazzock is. It’s a northern word for an idiot, so it’s not exactly swearing. We do have idiots in Cornwall, in roughly the same proportion as you’ll find them in the rest of the world, but we don’t seem to have wazzocks. Which is kind of a pity. It’s a great word.

So I learned something, but it wasn’t about cockwombles. They weren’t mentioned.

In a final burst of intellectual curiosity, I looked up womble, because I still wanted to understand the word’s origin. A womble, it turns out, is a furry, pointy-nosed creature that lives in a burrow and helps the environment by collecting rubbish and recycling it. In case it’s not already clear, wombles are fictional. They were created by Elisabeth Beresford and apparently escaped her books and took refuge on TV.

Maybe you need to have spent a few years watching the wombles to understand the insult.

Periodically, someone me asks why, after ten years in Britain, I still sound so American. My answer is usually that I don’t pick up accents in English, and that’s true as far as it goes. But it’s also true that if I did pick up accents, at my age the best I’d manage would be a kind of mid-Atlantic accent and vocabulary.

That means that if there’s a way to misuse cockwomble, I’d misuse it. And if there isn’t, I’d misuse some other word I’d just gotten hold of and wanted to show off. I’d contemplate the obesity of the universe. I’d mistake my nonexistent bawbag for my all-too-existent inner wazzock. Because swear words are rooted deeply in the culture. You can’t listen for ten minutes and get them right.

A belated note here for anyone who dislikes swearing. If you’ve gotten this far. I respect your feelings, but I don’t share them. For me, swearing’s an integral part of any language, and what’s considered to be swearing depends on each culture’s taboos. The whole subject is fascinating.

I can swear a bit in Spanish, and a bit less in French and Greek. (My Greek vocabulary consists of something like ten words, so you should be impressed that I know anything this useful, thanks.) But if I get the words wrong in a foreign language, or use them in an odd way, my accent will explain my absurdity and somebody will have a good laugh—and I’ll join in if I figure out what the joke is, which I probably won’t. But in English, my profanity has its roots in the U.S. of no-cockwombles A. I understand American swearing.

British swearing, though? Not really And you can’t use an insult unless you have a feel for its meaning, its context, its impact.

I’m not assimilated enough for that. So it is with great sadness that I report the following: I will not be calling our MP a cockwomble.