The rotten borough and the history of British voting rights

The history of British democracy (or semi-democracy, as you’ll see) is long and convoluted, so let’s hack off a small piece to talk about here: the rotten borough. This was an electoral district that had lost most of its population but still sent an MP–that’s a Member of Parliament–to the House of Commons. Or sometimes more than one MP. 

Just before the picture changed with the Reform Act of 1832, 140 MPs represented (if that’s the right word) rotten boroughs. That’s 140 out of 658 Members of Parliament. Fifty of those boroughs had fewer than fifty voters. 

Meanwhile, major industrial cities like Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester had no MPs at all.  What was a rotten borough like? Gatton, in Surry, had twenty voters when the monarchy was restored (that was in 1660, and yes, I had to look it up) and a hundred years later it was down to two. Old Sarum had one farm house, some fields, and a lot of sheep. Both sent MPs to parliament. The former port of Dunwich had crumbled into the sea and only 32 people were left above the water line. It didn’t just send one MP to parliament but two.

Irrelevant photo: A murmuration of starlings (along with some sheep) on Bodmin Moor. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

So who got to vote?

You might want to notice that those examples don’t use parallel categories. For Dunwich, we have the number of residents. For Gatton, though, we have the number of voters. For Old Sarum, we have the number of houses and a vague gesture in the direction of the sheep. What’s worse, I haven’t necessarily given you dates. 

But to hell with it, it gives you enough to work with–as much (if your mind’s at all like mine) as you’ll remember anyway.  

The shifting categories point to a central issue, though: Not many people could vote, so residents form a very different category from voters. Women? Don’t be silly. Who’d trust ‘em with anything as serious as the vote. Men? Well, only the ones who mattered, which is another of saying men of property. How much property varied from place to place, but the requirements everywhere involved (a) being male and (b) owning property.

During the Civil War (that’s from 1642 to 1651), when the Levellers, serving as soldiers in the Parliamentary Army, argued for (nearly) universal male suffrage, their officers defended limiting the vote on the grounds that only people who had a stake in society could be trusted to take part in politics. And by having a stake, they meant owning some part of it.

The Levellers were naive enough to think that risking their lives for a new form of government might prove they had a stake in their country’s political future. They were wrong, and it was centuries before their demands were met. The conviction that owning property qualified a man to vote dominated political thought until the next paragraph, where suddenly it’s 1780.

 

It’s 1780 and we shift to the present tense

Look! It’s 1780. What a surprise. In England and Wales, about 214,000 people have the right to vote. That’s less than 3% of the total population. In Scotland the electorate’s even smaller. 

Now that we’ve pegged those numbers into the ground we can leave 1780 and toss a second element into the discussion of voting: It’s not done by secret ballot. That makes it easy for an ambitious politician–or a would-be politician–to buy votes. Because the electorate’s small, he doesn’t have to buy that many and because voting is public he can see whether the people whose votes he bought are honest enough to stay bought.

In some constituencies, however, this won’t work. Not because the electorate’s above that sort of thing but because whoever holds the power locally controls the process, selecting the MP and tells his people to vote for him. Get his approval and you’re as good as elected. Don’t get it and your chances are thin.

Did you notice how gracefully we slid into the present tense there? It’s going to get in the way eventually, though, so we’ll slip back into the past tense, where we belong. 

I know. When I write anything sane, I comb through and straighten out that sort of thing. Blogs make no commitment to sanity, however, and I enjoy the freedom to screw up so openly.

Buying off the electorate was done as openly as I just shifted tenses. You can even find a few statistics on who spent how much in what year buying which constituency. Approaching a powerful lord if you wanted a seat in parliament was done just as openly. That was democracy in action.

 

That pesky middle class

Pressure to change the system was growing, though. The middle class was getting larger and richer. 

And here I have to interrupt myself: I just hate it when I have to talk about the middle class. It means I have to define it, and it’s a baggy old piece of clothing. It’s easy enough to say that the middle class was made up of people who weren’t poor but weren’t aristocrats, but that’s a hell of a range and tells you less than it seems to. It includes everyone from the most marginal professional or shopkeeper to the richest industrialist. Not only did their incomes range all over the place, so did their interests.

We could probably pick that definition to pieces but I’m going to move on before we get a chance.

A middle class person who was rich enough could vote, but because of the way constituencies were drawn that didn’t mean they’d be in a position to influence an MP. The richest members of the middle class wanted political power that would match their economic power. 

At this point, a couple of little things happened, like the French and American revolutions, and they spoke to people lower down on the economic food chain. Things that had once looked unchangeable had been shaken to pieces. By the end of the eighteenth century, corresponding societies that pushed for universal manhood suffrage had come into existence.

 

Reform vs. revolution

In 1819, a public meeting calling for universal manhood suffrage was attacked and eleven people were killed. It’s known as the Peterloo Massacre. I keep promising to write about it and eventually I will. For the moment, take it as a visible sign that the demand for change was flowing outside the established political channels.

People in power gradually began to acknowledge the need for reform, and the rotten boroughs were high on the list of changes that needed to be made. But that was some people in power, not all of them.

By way of an example, take Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and in 1830 the Tory prime minister. In an 1831 letter, he defended the rotten borough system, writing, “I confess that I see in thirty members for rotten boroughs, thirty men, I don’t care of what party, who would preserve the state of property as it is; who would maintain by their votes the Church of England, its possessions, its churches and universities. I don’t think that we could spare thirty or forty of these representatives, or with advantage exchange them for thirty or forty members elected for the great towns by any new system.”

That does have the virtue of honesty.

But in 1830 the Tories lost power and a Whig government, headed by Earl Grey, supported reform, which it counted on “to prevent the necessity of revolution.” Toward that end, the House of Commons passed a reform bill in 1831 but it was defeated in Tory-dominated Hour of Lords. 

In response, all hell broke loose, taking the form of riots and “serious disturbances.” You know what serious disturbances are. They’re sub-riots. They’re earnest young riots-in-training. They broke out in London, Birmingham, Derby, Nottingham, Leicester, Bristol, and other places that we’ll skip over. In Bristol, people set fire to public buildings and houses, doing more than £300,000 worth of damage, which was a hell of a lot more money then than it is now. Twelve people died, 102 were arrested, and 31 sentenced to death.

France had just had another revolution–the 1830 one, which tossed out a Charles and installed a Louis-Philippe. It was enough to make a British king nervous, and William IV agreed to pack the House of Lords with some Whigs so that when another Reform Bill passed the Commons, it could go on to pass the Lords, becoming the Reform Act of 1832. 

As far as I understand British politics, packing the House of Commons is a no-no, or at least getting caught at it is. Packing the House of Lords, though? That’s business as usual.

 

The Reform Act

Fifty-six rotten boroughs disappeared in the Reform Act of 1832 and sixty-seven new constituencies were created, although constituencies still weren’t of remotely even sizes. 

In the countryside the franchise was extended to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers. In towns, men who paid a yearly rent of £10 or more could vote, along with some lodgers, even if they didn’t own the property. If they could afford to rent someplace expensive enough, they could be trusted to vote responsibly.

That left out working class men. In fact, it left out six men out of every seven. 

And for the first time, women were specifically excluded from the franchise. Before that, women’s exclusion was a matter of custom, not law, and in a few rare instances women had voted.

Yeah, progress. It’s a wonderful thing. 

The Oxford vaccine: a quick update

Thanksgiving brings less than great news on the Oxford vaccine: Its tests used control groups that weren’t comparable, and its initial report kind of glossed over that by averaging the two together. One group got two equal doses of the vaccine. The other got an initial half dose, then a second full dose, and it responded better than the first.

But that second group also had a top age of 55 and the other group included older people. So what was responsible for the difference, age or dosage? 

The control groups in the two different tests–those are the people who didn’t get the real vaccine–also got different placebos, which may or may not make a difference.

That initial half dose wasn’t a deliberate decision but a manufacturing mistake that seems to have paid off. Regulators were told about it at the time.

I’m not sure how much of a problem any of this is. An article in Wired makes it sound damn near skulldugerous. One in the Financial Times is more ho-hum about it. At this point, it’s worth knowing while we wait and see what the experts have to say.

 

What stolen science tells us about the pandemic

Remember when we used to hear that kids don’t spread Covid? Remember when we used to hear that the earth was flat? 

Yeah, I really am that old.

New research tells us that opening the schools has helped drive second waves of the virus, because yes, kids do spread the virus. Even those cute little younger ones who are unlikely to get sick themselves–they can spread the virus too. They’re high-minded little creatures, and they like to share.

It’s our own fault. We taught them sharing was good.

A study in Germany found that in the majority of cases, kids’ infections hadn’t been spotted because they’d been asymptomatic. Or to put that another way, you find a lot more cases if you test for them. 

A different study, this one in Australia, showed that the majority of kids don’t transmit the disease to anyone. But that doesn’t let kids off the hook. The same thing’s true of adults: Just 10% of infected people are responsible for 80% of infections.

At a minimum, the article I stole my statistics from recommends that staff and students (including primary school students) should wear masks, school buildings should be well ventilated, and class sizes should be reduced.

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Again contrary to the standard wisdom from the early days of the pandemic, a study of masks shows that they protect both the wearer and people near the wearer. 

The reason they were thought not to protect the wearer is that the virus is tiny–about 0.1 microns. (Why 0.1 gets a plural is beyond me–it’s less than singular–but try it with a singular and your ear will scream explain how wrong it is. The English language doesn’t come armed for less-than-singular.) 

Small the virus may be, but according to airborne disease transmission expert Linsey Marr, the virusdoesn’t come out of us naked.” It clothes itself in the beautiful respiratory droplets known as aerosols, which contain salts, proteins, and organic compounds. With all that wrapped around its shoulders, the virus ends up looking like that portrait of Henry VIII and can be up to 100,000 times larger than the virus is without clothes. 

Irrelevant photo: An azalea starting to blossom indoors. It should really be a picture of Henry VIII, but he died before cameras were invented.

If you want a breakdown of fabrics and what percentage of aerosols they filter out, you’ll have to click the link. You can’t trust me with that level of detail. In the meantime, though, walk outside feeling confident that your mask isn’t just protecting others, it’s also protecting your own good self.

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The bad news about masks is that they deteriorate over time. The elastic stretches, the loops fall out of love with your ears, and the fibers get thin. The Centers for Disease Control recommends replacing them periodically. 

Phooey.

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A study from the University of Colorado and Harvard says that frequent fast testing–even with less-than-ideally-accurate tests–could stomp the virus into the ground. People who tested positive could get personalized stay-at-home orders and, at least in theory, bars, restaurants, stores, and schools could stay open.

The important thing, according to the calculations, is to test a population often–as much as twice a week–and get the results back quickly. 

The quick tests can cost as little as $1 each. One of the researchers said, “Less than .1% of the current cost of this virus would enable frequent testing for the whole of the U.S. population for a year.”

*

Boris Johnson is promising England (or possibly Britain–it gets hazy, or I do) a mass testing program. I’m not sure what the details are, but until proven otherwise I’ll expect the usual competence we see from his government–in other words, a shambles. 

I’d love to be wrong on that, but the thing is, a testing program only works if you do something sensible with the information. 

In the meantime, the plans for Christmas are to declare a five-day truce so that families–up to three households–can get together, trade presents, overeat, and let long-buried family tensions surface festively. 

Cynic? Me?

Christmas truce negotiations with the virus are ongoing and look as hopeful as the Brexit negotiations. 

*

I’m still wiping down my groceries and feeling like a bit of a maniac, since there’s been no evidence that in the real world Covid is spread by touching contaminated surfaces. Now there’s–well, something vaguely related to evidence:

An outbreak in Shanghai has been traced back to a couple of cargo handlers and who were sent to clean a contaminated container from North America. The container was damp and closed while they cleaned it, and neither was wearing a mask. The virus likes sealed, damp environments. 

Neither of them was taking groceries out of a shopping bag and they may well have caught it from airborne particles, so it’s not at all the same thing, but what can wiping down the groceries hurt? It gives me the illusion that I have some control over how this mess affects me.

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France’s current lockdown rules demands that people who are out carry a note, an attestation, with their name and address, the time they left home, and the reason for their trip. 

It’s been interesting.

When the police stopped one man who was hiding behind a car and looking suspicious, he was carrying a meticulously filled-our attestation: name, address, time.

Why had he left home? 

“To smash a guy’s face in.”

“We told him his reason for going out was not valid,” the local police chief said.

In either this lockdown or the last one, a man told the police he was going to see his grandmother. 

What was her name?

He couldn’t remember.

 

How to turn a Covid cluster into an outbreak

Until recently, the part of Britain I live in had very few Covid cases. Now we have a cluster of them. Isn’t progress wonderful? It’s not a huge cluster, but then no outbreak starts out huge. It scares the antibodies out of me.

So how’s it being handled?

The nearby secondary school sent one whole year group home when I’m not sure how many kids tested positive. Following government guidelines, they treat each year group as a bubble, having them enter through different doors and eat at different times and keeping them as physically separate as possible. The theory is that if the outbreak’s in one year group, the others should be safe.

You can believe that if you like.

And after school, as my neighbor reminds me, they go home. Her kids are in different bubbles in school–a primary school, but the reality’s the same. The minute they get home, they jump on each other, wrestle their way across the living room floor, and hold a germ exchange.

Only she didn’t call it the living room. That’s American. She also didn’t say anything about a germ exchange.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom, but not at this time of year. 

The point, though, is that the bubbles leak–probably at school and definitely at home. And bubbles that leak aren’t bubbles. They’re something else. Cups, maybe. Things with sides and a bottom but no top because that’s how you pour the tea into yourself. 

Or not the tea, the germs.

When the school didn’t have enough teachers to keep going, it sent everybody home to keep up with their lessons online. At least, those who have internet access. 

Don’t get me started. You know what I’ll say.

Some of the kids were told to self-isolate–probably the ones who’d shared a leaky bubble with someone who was known to have the virus. Their families, though, were told they didn’t have to to self-isolate unless their kid became symptomatic. 

How are kids who share a bedroom supposed to self-isolate? Well, you take masking tape and make a line down the middle of the room, and you tell the germs, in the tone of voice you use when the kids have gotten into  your secret stash of chocolate, to stay on their own side.

One of the many problems with all this is that people are infectious before they become symptomatic. Some people never become symptomatic and they’re infectious anyway. And people are even more infectious if they live in a country led by an incompetent, corrupt government. I can’t explain that medically, but it does happen.

Back to the school, though: No one wants to tell all the students’ families, or even just the families with kids in that first infected age group, to go into quarantine. Because that’s be a lot of people. 

Which is why I worry we’ll be looking at a bigger local flareup soon. 

Meanwhile, the county government reminds us to wash our hands and maintain social distancing. Which is better than climbing into each other’s pockets and poking our heads out once a day to ask if the pandemic’s over but doesn’t take into account what it’s like to share a house or apartment or a life with actual human beings. We breathe the same air. It goes into our lungs and it goes out. If someone has the virus, the odds are good that everyone will trade it. It’s always looking for new lungs to explore and conquer, no matter how clean our hands are.

On the other hand, clean hands are very nice things to have.

No one knows for sure where our cluster of cases started, but someone told me today that it traces back to a kid who came home from university. His parents wandered all over town with no idea that they’d been infected and his mother’s sure she infected half of Bude and feels terrible about it. 

Whether she’s right or not doesn’t matter, really. It does remind us–or it should–that we don’t know if we’re infectious so we all need to act as if we are. Because we can feel great and still make people around us sick. 

And it’s yet another reminder that this lockdown has as many holes in it as the school bubbles. 

*

A third vaccine, the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine, has reported its accuracy level: It’s 62% but could go up to 90% if the first shot uses a lower dose. (No, I can’t explain it either.) It’s also cheaper than the first two and can be stored in an average refrigerator, and Astra-Zeneca has said it will forgo any profit on it.

Even before that was announced, though, the health secretary told us that if approval comes in time the National Health Service would start vaccinating people before Christmas. Initially, family doctors will immunize the most vulnerable, and NHS staff will be vaccinated at work. Mass vaccination centers will be set up. 

That sounds startlingly as if someone somewhere had an actual plan, but the grapevine tells me that the local doctors’ office hasn’t been contacted about this. They have only the vaguest idea how it will work and what they’re supposed to do or how.  

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Preliminary studies indicate that mouthwashes containing cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC to its friends) can, under laboratory conditions, kill the coronavirus in thirty seconds. But as Donald Trump so famously informed us, so can bleach. So can nuclear weapons, although that hasn’t been verified in a lab. You know what scientists are like about setting off nuclear weapons in their labs. The few who’ve done it have had problems reconstructing their notes. 

A darning needle could also, at least potentially, kill the virus, but viruses are small and stabbing them isn’t easy, as the human immune system has found to its cost.

Don’t think about that too hard. I do understand that the human immune system doesn’t come equipped with darning needles. Let’s call it a metaphor and move on quickly.

With all of this, the problem is what you do with the information. How do you get your chosen virus-o-cide and the virus to meet in the right situation? Take mouthwash: Do you pinch the virus between two fingers and dunk it in the mouthwash? Do you spend your day with a mouthful of the mouthwash and hope that anything you breathe in decides to go for a swim? This isn’t going to be simple.

As you may have figured out, I am–and the world is in my debt for this–not a scientist. Someone may yet find a use for mouthwash in humanity’s fightback against this invisible predator. It’s safe, it’s available, and as medical interventions go it’s cheap.

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Finally, a piece non-Covid news: Donald Trump’s lawyers filed a lawsuit in a Michigan court claiming that Democratic-leaning parts of Michigan had suspiciously high voter turnouts. This was all supposed to link back to voting machines and computer programs and Hugo Chavez. 

And to prove they’d done their research carefully, they listed a number of localities in Minnesota instead of Michigan.

Chavez probably moved them before the election for this very purpose. If he wasn’t already dead by then. 

Feelgood stories and fuckups: It’s the news from Britain

In 2018, Dean Nicholson was biking from Scotland to Thailand and  on his way through Bosnia picked up a stray kitten who ran after him, miaowing. He fed her what he had on hand, some red pesto sauce. Where I come from, pesto’s green and doesn’t appeal to protein-addicted cats, but the cat was hungry and not about to argue. It was food. She ate it and fell in love.

If you’re British, you should understand that when I say he was biking we’re talking about a push bike. If you’re American, you have no idea what a push bike is. It’s a bike. If you’re neither American or British, you’re on your own because I can’t predict what you’ll understand well enough to translate for you.

The (push)biker asked the vet in the nearest town if anyone had lost a cat, and when no one had he installed her in his handlebar basket and headed for Montenegro. The kitten climbed up his arm to ride on his shoulders instead. That was the point where he fell in love.

A rare relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie, the resident cat. He doesn’t ride bikes,  doesn’t eat red pesto, and isn’t going anywhere he can’t walk. What’s more, I’ve used the photo before.

They’ve been in more than twenty countries since then, he’s made a bed for her in the basket, and the cat, now named Nala, either sleeps there or rides with her paws hanging over the side so she can look out. 

She has her own passport.

If you’re a sucker for cats, the photos are worth clicking through for.

They’d planned to go to Iran but tense politics and a ban on cats in hotel rooms meant they had to turn back. What choice did they have?

In Greece, the human worked as a kayak guide and the cat as a kayak mascot. Lockdowns kept them in Hungary for twelve weeks and closed borders in Austria have kept them from biking through Russia to Thailand, but in the meantime the human has published a book, Nala’s World: One Man, His Rescue Cat, and a Bike Ride around the Globe. I have no idea if it’s any good, but anybody who rescues a stray cat and bikes across a continent with her–and hopes to bike through a second continent as well–deserves a plug.

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As long as we’re talking about animals and Thailand, the Mu Koh Lanta National Park there has appealed to the public to donate cone-shaped shells by either mail or courier service. The population of hermit crabs has expanded dramatically and the crabs aren’t finding enough empty shells to live in. (Hermit crabs don’t make their own shells.) Some are moving into bottle caps, glass bottles, and cans. 

So far, 200 kilos of shells have been pledged and volunteers will distribute them at a Thai Father’s Day event on December 5. 

It’s not clear why the hermit crab population has grown so. It could be the absence of tourists and the activities that go with them, but it could also be water currents, the weather, the availability of plankton, or other factors.

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A court in Stoke-on-Trent (and here we get back to Britain) listed upcoming hearings for defendants Tinker Bell, Buzz Lightyear, Sleeping Beauty, Daphne Duck, Bugs Bunny, and a few other miscreants, including some real people who appeared by videolink from prison. 

Guesswork explanations around the courthouse involved someone quitting their job and taking revenge before they headed out the door. Disappointingly, the names turned out to be a way to test the system after it was upgraded. 

The system worked. Entirely too well. 

I used to work with a typesetter (remember typesetters? Oh, you are getting old) who was hired to set some stickers for a meatpacking plant. You know: “turkey legs and thighs,” that kind of thing. She added one that read, “The Pope’s nose: the part of the turkey that went over the fence last.” She assumed the person who’d hired her would have a good laugh and pull it before it went to the printer. 

She became the proud owner of several rolls of Pope’s nose stickers.

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It could’ve been worse. A French radio station’s website (yes, we’ve left Britain again) ran the obituaries of a hundred people who hadn’t had the decency to die yet. They included Queen Elizabeth II, Brigitte Bardot, and Pele. Also Jimmy Carter, Yoko Ono, Clint Eastwood, Raul Castro, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

For one of them, Bernard Tapie–a French businessman and politician–this wasn’t the first time he’d been prematurely obituarized. It was the third. At 77 (which looks younger every year), he could live long enough to have it happen several more times.

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The spam award of the month goes to one that I dug out of my very own WordPress spam folder: “I made over 6.4 million dollars this year using an online platform! And now, this is my main source of income!” 

Which means he or she is sending out spam for a hobby.

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Book lovers and readers who love independent bookshops and want to see them survive can buy from a new online shop that supports independent bookshops. The site operates in both the UK and the US and is set up to let the shops feature books they like, reproducing what they’d do in a physical shop by putting them on a table for browsers to find. 

You can also use the site to look for a specific book or to see what’s available on, say, the history of Mediterranean countries in the fifteenth century (more than I thought, although after the first half dozen the algorithm got a little strange, picking up the fifteenth edition of a rail atlas of Britain and, making a connection I can’t follow, a book on crocheting).  

One of the many reasons to support independent bookstores is that they can put books they love–books you might not find otherwise–out where you can find them. Online outfits generally do this by algorithm (yes, that book on crocheting); chains put out books they’re paid to put out. (Yes, really.)  

The only thing that would make the site better would be if you could open the book and read a few paragraphs, the way you might in a store.

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The son of a composer with dementia recorded his father, Paul Harvey, improvising on the piano one day and posted it on Twitter. 

It started, the son said, because it “wasn’t a great day. I remembered this old party trick he used to do, where someone would give him four random notes and he’d compose something on the spot. . . . So I picked four notes out of the ether and Dad did exactly the same thing. And luckily, I filmed it.” 

The elder Harvey said his memory’s fine when he’s playing the piano.

Twitter went nuts, as Twitter does sometimes, and the tune ended up on Radio 4, the BBC’s high-end talk radio station. From there it went to the BBC Philharmonic, where someone arranged it, and musicians recorded their parts from home. blending them into Harvey’s piano recording. 

The BBC recording–and as part of it, a video of Harvey listening to it–is on YouTube and it’s well worth watching. At the end of the recording, Harvey tells his son, “I was just listening to a wonderful piece of music, and all of a sudden I said to meself, ‘I wrote that.’ 

“I won’t forget that.”

Go on. Watch it. Really.

Money from the recording is going to the Alzheimer’s Society and Music for Dementia.

How to bake brownies and improve intercultural understanding

Britain and the United States have a special relationship, and in the interest of strengthening it I’m offering you a brownie recipe. Recipes not only build intercultural understanding, they’re entirely noncaloric. Even if we never try them–and let’s face it, most of us don’t–reading them fills us with an unreasonable hum of calorie-free happiness. 

And since this is a calorie-free post, we’ll go for the richest one in my considerable stash of brownie recipes. 

But before I go on, a word about the special relationship: The thing that makes it so special is that Britain knows what it is and the U.S. doesn’t. In Britain, it’s known as the special relationship. In the U.S., it’s known as um, what?

It’s a bit like one person being in a marriage and the other one not. You don’t get more special than that.

But it does mean that the two countries really could understand each other better. So let’s not start with the hard stuff, like whether we’re talking about a relationship, a quick fling, or an open marriage. Let’s start with food, because everybody needs to eat.

Looking west from a British beach. The U.S. is out there somewhere.

By way of unnecessary background, brownies are (a) American and (b) much admired in Britain. The village I live in has an underground economy that runs on favors and I negotiate my way through it (mostly) in brownies. I know, I’m reinforcing a stereotype and I shouldn’t, but it’s so easy this way.

Brownies are also (c) much  misunderstood in Britain, where you can call anything edible, rectangular, and brown a brownie. Then you can hide it under ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce and no one will think it’s strange. Or–with all that stuff running interference–notice what the brownie itself tastes like.

Or be sure it’s there at all.

Having said that, the recipe that I promise I’ll get around to eventually is British and comes to you by way of a beachside cafe in Trebarwith Strand. The place has, tragically, changed hands, but before that happened it sold a fantastic brownie, which didn’t come buried under a bunch of irrelevant foodstuffs.

And what’s better, it sold a booklet with a handful of recipes, from which I’ve taken this. 

By way of further unnecessary background, the only part of a recipe that can be copyrighted (she said defensively) is the way it’s written. The proportions and methods? Can’t be done. So this is fair game.

Being British means the recipe’s metric. So if you’re in the U.S. of we-use-cup-measurements A., sorry, sorry, and sorry. Over here in the Olde Worlde, you weigh your ingredients. In milllithingies, which are more reliable than using cups and liquid ounces because they stay the same from country to country, which cups and so forth don’t. 

I’d translate the millithingies for you, but you don’t want a recipe where I’ve been turned loose with the numbers. Really, you don’t. Lord Google can manage it for you if you feed him the millithingies one by one.

The recipe doesn’t include whipped cream, chocolate sauce, or chopped broccoli to top the brownie. It doesn’t even have frosting. Good brownies don’t need frosting. So the brownies this makes won’t be beautiful, but they will be good.

Trebarwtih Brownies

200 grams butter (salted, unsalted, deep fried, whatever you’ve got)

350 grams dark chocolate (in Britain, 70%; in the U.S., never mind; settle for dark)

250 grams dark brown sugar (or light brown; I can’t be bothered keeping both on hand)

3 eggs 

1 tsp. baking powder

70 grams flour ( in Britain, that’s plain flour)

Melt the butter and chocolate together over a low heat. Beat the eggs and the sugar together and stir them into the melted chocolate mix. Sift the flour and baking powder together–or if you’re as lazy a cook as I am, just whisk them together. I can’t tell the difference. Stir them into everything else. 

Oil a square pan and line it with baking paper or greaseproof paper, which may or may not be the same thing but do the same job. If you cut the paper so it overlaps the pan on two sides, you’ll be able to lift the brownies out neatly. If you don’t line the pan, you’ll end up with some delicious brownie hash. Which is not to be confused with hash brownies. 

Scrape the batter into the pan. Lick the scraper. Do not, under any circumstances, share.

Bake at 160 C. if you have a fan oven or 180 C. if you have a regular one, or 350 F. if you’re in the U.S., which doesn’t speak Centigrade. Depending on the size of your pan, bake for somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour. My pan’s 8 ¼ inches (21 cm) square and the time leans toward a full hour. Stick a knife into the center to see if it’s done. If the middle’s set or just a bit gooey, that’s fine. If it’s disgusting, that’s not so fine: Stick it back in the oven. 

I know. I used to count on recipes being exact–or at least pretending to be exact. When they didn’t work out the way they were supposed to, it was reassuring to think that someone somewhere was certain and any changes were my fault. 

Any changes aren’t your fault. Either they’re mine or that’s just how life is. Or how baking is. But we’ve already agreed that you don’t have to actually bake these. Baking is what causes calories.

Does our relationship feel more special now?

The problems with mass Covid testing

Britain started a £100 billion Covid testing program, Operation Moonshot, which is supposed to catch asymptomatic cases so people can quarantine themselves instead of transmitting the disease and life can return to normal. The plan is to screen millions of asymptomatic people every week, and it’s being tried out in Liverpool as I type. 

Which sounds great, but Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant to the UK national screening programmes, said, “It worries me that ministers . . . can wake up one morning saying let’s spend £100 billioin on this and not have it scrutinised–it would be like building a Channel tunnel without asking civil engineers to look at the plans. . . . This seemed to me to be the most unethical proposal for use of public funds or for screening that I’d ever seen.”

Other than that, though, it’s a good plan.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms–a photo I stole from last spring. 

The program relies on the Innova lateral flow test, which when it’s used by research nurses catches 76.8% of positive cases. When it’s used in the real world by what the article I read called “self-trained staff,” though, it picks up only 57% of positive cases. And Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics, said people aren’t being told that they still might be carrying the disease, so if they test negative they feel safe to do–well, whatever they haven’t felt safe to do. Visit granny in the nursing home or tear off their masks and run through twelve supermarkets breathing heavily on staff and fellow shoppers. 

Nursing homes in three counties, including mine, are trying out rapid tests to allow visitors in. The publicity I’ve seen doesn’t mention the possibility of false negatives. It’s all how great it is that granny got a visitor. And up to a point it is great. I’m sure granny was pleased. I also hope it doesn’t end up killing her.

The good news is that the test doesn’t generate a lot of false positives. 

Italy was the first country to use mass testing–they used antigen tests–to control the virus, and it seemed to be working, which encouraged other countries to try it, including Britain. Italy’s now in its second wave of Covid. It went from  500 cases a day in August to more than 35,000.

So what went wrong?

Andrea Crisanti of the University of Padua says the tests were used the wrong way and that using them to protect vulnerable people in care homes was “absolutely criminal,” because of the infected people they miss–the false negatives.

The tests they used are 80% to 90% accurate and give both false negatives and false positives, but they’re quick and they’re cheap. If they’re used, say, before people catch a train, they could reduce travelers’ exposure. But they wouldn’t eliminate it because, again, they don’t catch every case.

Crisanti said, “If your objective is to screen a community to know if transmission is there, fine.” But the quick tests, he said, need to be backed up with the more accurate but slower PCR tests, along with stay-at-home orders.

There doesn’t seem to have been–or to be–any strategy for what to do with the information beyond simply boosting the number of tests.

In an article about how antigen tests were used in the US, the website ProPublica writes that “When health care workers in Nevada and Vermont reported false positives [from the tests], HHS [that’s Health and Human Services, a federal agency] defended the tests and threatened Nevada with unspecified sanctions until state officials agreed to continue using them in nursing homes. It took several more weeks for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue an alert . . . that confirmed what Nevada had experienced: Antigen tests were prone to giving false positives.”

In nursing homes, false positives are as dangerous as false negatives. A person who tests positive will be moved in with other people who test positive. If the test gives out some false positives, healthy people will be exposed to Covid, making the test a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The tests HHS recommended are meant for people with Covid symptoms, and when they’re used that way they produce virtually no false positives and catch 84% to 97%  of positive samples in a lab test. But a study–like many Covid studies, it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet–found them catching only 32% of positives in people without symptoms.

Still, HHS is recommending them for use on nursing home residents without symptoms and suggesting repeated tests to reduce false negatives. An October survey found that a third of nursing homes hadn’t touched the antigen tests they’d been given. They didn’t trust them, they didn’t have the staff time, and the paperwork and reporting requirements were more than they wanted to deal with.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Smith, an epidemiology at the University of Illinois, said, “It’s how you use the tests, not just how many tests you have.” If you have a million tests, is it better to test a million people once, or test half a million people who are at high risk twice, or test essential workers five or 10 times? 

If anyone has an answer to that question, I haven’t seen it in print yet.

*

Earlier this week I introduced the game Where’d the Money Go? and missed some of the more outrageous examples of where the money’s gone. I plead extenuating circumstances, because a National Audit Office report hadn’t hit the news yet. So let’s make up for my lapse. 

Sorry. I do try to sneak some good news into these posts. Some weeks, it’s like fighting gravity.

Early in the pandemic, in an effort to get protective gear for the health and social care systems, the government set up a high priority contracting channel for businesses that were recommended by ministers’ offices, lords, politicians, or officials. Oddly enough, those lords and politicians seem to all have ties to the ruling party, the Conservatives.

The rule of the playground is that we don’t share.

Their bids that went through that channel were ten times more likely to be successful than the bids that went through ordinary channels. One source said their pitches were automatically treated as credible. The documentation is–

Quick, someone, what’s a shoddier word than shoddy? Paperwork documenting why a particular supplier was chosen is sometimes missing. Contracts were sometimes drawn up after the work had been started. 

The person who recommended the company to the priority channel is documented less than half the time. No rules for how the priority channel should operate seem to have been written.

This was in the first six months of the pandemic, when £18 billion was spent on Covid-related contracts.

Liz David-Barrett, a professor of governance and integrity (that’s what she studies–I’m not commenting on her personal qualities), said that firms recommended in this way are usually treated as higher risk rather than lower.  

In a related story, although I can’t say what channel this contract went through, Gabriel Gonzales Andersson made £21 million for wandering through a deal between the UK government and an American jewellery designer, Michael Saiger, to procure protective gloves and gowns from China. 

According to the BBC, Gonzales Andersson was paid to find a manufacturer for deals that had already been arranged.

If you can figure out what happened between the two, you’re doing better than I am, but they’re both in court in Florida–suing each other, I think, although I can’t swear to that. Saiger had several follow-up contracts, and the gear he was supposed to supply was delayed, possibly because the relationship between the two men fell apart.

One more example before I stop: Lord Feldman, a former chair of the Conservative Party, and a managing director of the lobbying firm Tulchan Communications, acted as an unpaid advisor on Covid. 

Tulchan is also called a public relations firm; flip a coin if you care.

After the firm Oxford Nanopore signed a £28 million contract with the Department of Health, and also after Feldman stepped down as an unpaid advisor, Nanopore hired Tulchan. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, happens to have met with both Feldman and Oxford Nanopore before the contract was signed. I have no idea what they talked about. Movies, probably. Pornography. Gummi bears. Surely not whose money would end up in whose pockets. I wasn’t there. That’s how the gummi bears came into it. 

Tulchan says Oxford Nanopore was already in discussions with the Department of Health before the meetings, so everything’s fine.

Nanopore later picked up another £100 million in contracts.

*

The British Medical Association has gone public with advice on how to lift the current lockdown. The approach last time was, “Wheeee, that’s over. Go out, have fun, spend money. Don’t work from home. The economy needs you.”

That was followed by a faint, “And, oh, do be careful, okay? Wash your hands or something.” 

Which is one of several reasons that we’re now in a second lockdown. 

What the BMA advises includes giving local public health teams more of the test and trace budget, along with more oversight of the program; limiting socializing to two households instead of six people; keeping the local tiered lockdown system that imposes varying restrictions depending on an area’s level of infection but banning travel between areas in different tiers; encouraging people to work from home if they can; and replacing guidance about how to keep workplaces and public areas safe with rules about how to keep workplaces etc. safe. The theory goes that rules are enforceable and might be taken more seriously.

Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council, said, “The big question in practical terms is can we reopen hospitality venues–pubs and restaurants–in the run-up to Christmas and still avoid infection levels increasing?

“I suspect we can’t, but the decision may be made to do so anyhow on the basis that any increase will be slow and may be able to be counteracted later.”

Because what the hell, it’s Christmas. What do a few extra deaths matter?

*

If I haven’t managed to be funny this time–and I’m pretty sure I haven’t–I’ll try to do better next time. It’s not that this stuff isn’t funny, in a demented sort of way. But it takes time to find the humor and I want to get this posted before the next wave on insanity breaks over us. 

Stay well. It’s dangerous out there.

 

Where’d the Money Go? Play the thrilling new boardless game

Okay, kids, it’s time to play Where’d the Money Go? I’ve just pulled the special Pandemic Edition out of the box, so make yourself at home and let’s start.

Never played it before? One player–that’d be me–offers footnoted examples of ludicrous spending and wasted money. If I don’t document my claims, I’m out. 

The other players (that’d be you)–

Actually, the other players don’t have a lot to do. You shake their heads, moan, and generally make horrified noises. Or you don’t. Up to you. You leave comments. Then when the time comes, if you live in the relevant country, you vote. High points to the players who vote the rascals out and (more immediately) to the ones who leave funny comments on the blog, although wise, insightful comments are also worth points. 

In fact, any comment’s worth points.

If the current rascals do get voted out, will the replacement set be less rascally? I can’t promise, but this lot has set a high standard, so the odds are good.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Okay, I start, so I’ll offer up a few recent examples. The older ones have been buried under a blizzard of recent ones and I don’t want to dig them out.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government’s spent £1.5 billion on contracts with companies strongly linked to the Conservative Party, which just happens to be the party in power. I keep seeing the word chumocracy in articles about this.  

Many of these are urgent contracts. Under ordinary circumstances, the government has to advertise for bids instead of just awarding contracts to the closest person in the room. But there’s an exception for urgent contracts. Since the pandemic, lots of contracts have gone–urgently–to the closest person in the room.

How do you get into the room? See above for links with the Conservative Party, I’d guess. 

In exploring the law on this, the Local Government Lawyer website says, “The core question is really, then, is this contract really necessitated by this emergency or is the emergency being used as cover?”

Mmm, maybe not all of them are really necessitated by the emergency. Some have gone for political consulting. One was to research public opinion on the government’s Covid communications. To explain a few of the other contracts, I’d need more words than I have in the bank but, hey, I’m giving you a footnote–one of those things known as a link in this century. Sorry, I’m very much from the last century. If you want more examples, you can dig them out there.

Other contracts were for urgent supplies but are still questionable. 

Example: Anthony Page used to be the secretary of MGM Media, which manages the “brand” of Baroness Mone, a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He’s also a director of a finance firm, Knox Group, which was founded by Mone’s fiance, Doug Barrowman.

Page quit at MGM media and set up a company called PPE Medpro. The Good Law Project calls it a £100 company–I assume that’s how much capital it had. Miraculously, forty-four days later, PPE Medpro was awarded a £122 million contract to supply the government with gowns for health care workers. The contract wasn’t opened up for public bidding. Because, hey, we’re in a crisis here. There’s no time for niceties.

Nobody involved has anything relevant to say, although they’re quoted, except that it’s all fine and an article in the Herald Scotland ends by saying that “there is no suggestion of wrongdoing and the Department of Health said: ‘Due diligence is carried out for all government contracts.’ ”

That translates to, “Don’t sue us.”

On the other hand, the director of the Good Law Project, which dug up the information and is suing the health secretary for breaching UK laws requiring transparency, tweeted, “I am told time and again of profit margins of 10-20% on these contracts. Fortunes large enough to sustain generations are being made by those lucky enough or well connected enough to win them.”

Good Law Project’s website mentions another contract, this one with Ayanda Capital, “a politically connected firm” that got  a £252 million contract to supply face masks for the National Health Service. Most of them turned out to be unusable. 

“Ayanda was guided through the process by the Cabinet Office and enjoyed staggering margins compared to the prices paid to others.” 

Then there’s the Randox company, which got a £347 million six-month extension on a contract. Randox are the good folks whose Covid test kits were recalled last summer when some of the swabs–those things you’re supposed to stick up your pristine nose–were found to be contaminated. 

A Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, earns £100,000 a year as a consultant to Randox, and he was part of a call between the company and the health minister in charge of supplies for the testing program.

I’m sure nothing out of line was discussed. Don’t sue me either. It’s all footnoted. I hope.

Details on urgent, noncompetititive contracts are, by law, supposed to be published within thirty days but have been slow in coming, taking an average of seventy-eight days. As of November 16, information on £4.6 billion worth of contracts hasn’t been released.

In an editorial, the BMJ (which used to be the British Medical Journal but which following a logic they somehow never explained to me is now just the BMJ) said the pandemic “unleashed state corruption on a grand scale” that is “harmful to public health.” It called it “opportunistic embezzlement.” It also–more chillingly but less relevantly to our topic–said politicians are “suppressing science.” 

The BMJ doesn’t usually wade into politics, making it noticeable when it does.

No footnote there. The BMJ‘s behind a paywall. I’m relying on a quote from one of the links above.

You may have notice that I didn’t footnote every fact. The links repeat. I get bored. They all came from the sources I cited. You can throw me out of the game if you like. The person who opens doesn’t get points anyway. They either get thrown out or they don’t.

*

As a side issue, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has had to put himself into isolation after meeting with an MP who later tested positive for Covid. Pictures show the two men posing maskless and too close together, although I’ll admit that they’re not in each other’s pockets. 

The test and trace system did manage to locate the prime minister and tell him to stay home but it’s better known for the people it doesn’t reach than for the ones it does. Its head is another Conservative member of the House of Lords, Dido Harding. Last time I saw a number, the government had spent £12 billion on it. Consultants are being paid as much as £6,250 per day.

Johnson wants the world to know that he’s “bursting with antibodies” and feeling fine. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t any pictures in my mind of what he’s bursting with.

*

Irrelevantly, the London Economic says that a source close to Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, claims the real reason Boris Johnson fired his brain–that’s Dominic Cummings–is that he leaked an announcement of the current lockdown to the press before Johnson got the news to parliament. 

And in a further moment of irrelevance, and you  will probably have already heard about this, the Moderna vaccine has gone public with preliminary results: It may protect 95.4% of people against Covid and doesn’t need to be kept as cold as the Pfizer vaccine, which has a preliminary report of 90% effectiveness.

The Russian Sputnik V vaccine reported 92% effectiveness. Again, that’s preliminary. 

British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.

Cathedral cats, soy sauce, and highway signs: Its the news from Britain

Southwark Cathedral’s much-loved cat, Doorkins Magnificat, has died. 

Doorkins came to the cathedral as a stray and discovered that the vergers–the people who open the building in the morning and (I assume) close it at night–were good for a bowl of food and a pet or two if she was in the mood, so she stayed for twelve years, making herself at home on the warm pipe that runs under a stone seat, on a cushion, on a grating where warm air (I’m guessing here) does very little to take the chill off a cathedral’s huge open space but does a great deal to take the chill off a cat.

At Christmas, she liked to sleep in the manger display. Humans, I need you to move the kid over. The cat needs a nap.

That’s one way we can know Doorkins was a genuine cat. 

She wasn’t a fan of the bishop, she strolled through the most solemn of services, and she gave herself a good cleaning whenever the mood took her. When the queen visited–well, they say a cat can look at a queen, but a cat can also decide it’s not worth the trouble. Doorkins couldn’t be bothered. She opened one eye, didn’t see anything that impressed her, and shut it again. So we’ll amend the ancient wisdom: A cat can look at a queen, but only if she wants to.

What could be more relevant to a post that opens with a cat than a photo of birds? This is a murmuration of starlings. In the winter, they flock together to roost in the trees at the edge of the field–thousands upon thousands of them. They come in in separate flocks that merge, circle, form shifting patterns, and eventually condense onto the trees for the night.

She did lend her name and image to a range of tchotchkes that the cathedral sold to visitors–mouse pads, mugs, magnets, cards, eventually a kids’ book. She had her own Twitter account but left it to her humans to post stuff.

Tchotchkes? Sorry, that’s a bit of Yiddish. Or maybe it’s Yinglish.  Either way, it’s out of place in a conversation about a cathedral, which is probably why it wandered in, as disrespectful as a cat. Tchotchkes are little things that are basically useless but decorative and don’t we just love having them around?

After Doorkins died, the cathedral held a memorial service, although in keeping with Covid guidelines they limited it to thirty people. Her ashes are buried in the cathedral close.

A close? It’s, um, a closed space. In British, a dead-end street’s called a close. So is the enclosed area around a cathedral, even though the ones I’ve seen aren’t seriously enclosed, just marked with a low wall. I don’t usually let myself get publicly sentimental, but a cathedral close is a good spot for a cathedral cat with a following that won’t be ready to let her go. 

The dean of the cathedral said, “She did more to bring people to this place than I will ever do.”

*

A seventeen-year-old student working on a project to explore brand loyalty fooled mainstream online news outlets into thinking Woolworth’s was going to reopen in Britain. The store hasn’t been around for over ten years, but the MailOnline, the Star, the Metro, the Mirror, the Sun, and a fair number of others fell for a tweet saying the chain would be resurrected, even though Woolworth’s was spelled two different ways and the Twitter account linked to a nonexistent website. 

The student didn’t expect (or mean) the experiment to take off the way it did, but once news outlets picked it up it got away from them. Twitter took twelve hours to shut the account down.

*

With Brexit looming and the pandemic raging, the government needs whatever good news it can get, so it announced proudly that a new trade agreement with Japan will mean cheaper soy sauce for your average British soy sauce addict. Because you know how many pints of soy sauce a dedicated user can get through in an afternoon. 

The announcement from the Department of International Trade didn’t spell soy sauce more than one way, and the trade agreement with Japan is entirely real, but it turns out that the price of soy sauce won’t be going down. Under the EU trade agreement that we’re about to leave, the tariff on soy sauce is a whopping 0%. Unless someone pays us to take it, it’s hard to get cheaper than that. 

We would have gotten a bargain if as European Union members we’d been importing it on the basis of World Trade Organization rules, but we haven’t been. Those aren’t the rules the EU and Japan trade under. 

It also turns out that Britain doesn’t import much soy sauce from Japan. It comes from China.

Other than that, the announcement was entirely accurate. 

*

Two brothers are suing the London police for stopping, searching, and handcuffing them after they greeted each other with a fist bump. Both are–I’m sure this will surprise you–Black. At 29 and 30, they say that between them they’ve been stopped and searched more than 25 times, starting when they were as young as 12. The only explanation they were given for the search was that they fist-bumped each other and were in the Deptford high street.

It’s legal for the British police to stop and search someone if they have “reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property, or something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar.”

Or if you’re Black and bumping fists in Deptford. 

According to the government’s own figures, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every thousand White people, compared with thirty-eight for every thousand Black people.

*

Britain’s garbage dumps are under attack by zombie batteries, and if you live in some other country the odds are that your garbage dumps are in just as much danger. 

A zombie battery is one that’s tossed out with the household trash instead of being given the respectful end-of-life care it’s due. It then gets punctured or outright crushed and starts a fire.

Or–in the name of accuracy–it can start a fire, especially if it’s the lithium-ion type that run laptops, cell phones (aka mobile phones), e-cigarettes, and Bluetooth thingies. They can get worked up enough to explode. 

Zombie batteries are believed to have started 250 fires at waste processing sites in the year ending in March 2020, and Britain goes through 22,000 tons of batteries a year. Less than half of them are recycled properly. 

Beware. And my apologies for not posting that before Halloween. A zombie battery would make a great costume if you’re into obscure jokes.

*

In response to a directive from the Department for Transport, it looks like Highways England is rebranding itself as National Highways, although it still covers only England and the new name has managed to piss off the Welsh (or at least some of them). The Welsh political party Plaid Cymru called the new name “self-aggrandising and offensive.” Wales, like England, is a nation within the country that is the United Kingdom, and in Wales the roads are the responsibility of the Welsh government, not the English one.

It’ll also be expensive. It’ll cost something like £7 million to redesign and reprint brochures, signs explaining road works,  documents, departmental cars and trucks, and who knows what else. And if that isn’t absurd enough, the agency’s said to have just finished updating all of the above after a 2015 name change. 

However much they spend redesigning signs about road works, I predict that they’ll continue to be unreadable. Instead of saying something like, “Closed 8 pm to 8 am, 3 October to 5 October,” road closure signs say something along the lines of, “We’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but this road will be closed between 8 pm and 8 am from 3 October 2020 to 5 October 2020 while we conduct roadworks that will improve your driving experience. ”

And of course it’ll end with some sort of attribution to National Highways, or Highways England, or whoever they are. Not that most drivers read that far. We’re all panting to know who left us the sign, but by the time we’ve read as far as “driving experience” we’re in the ditch and not happy with how ours has gone. 

Either that or we zip past knowing only that the road will close at some point but sublimely ignorant of when.

Diversion signs, on the other hand, point us boldly through the first turn or two to take us around a road closure, then whoever set them out either ran out of signs or got bored. Either way, they abandon us on some back road. If we keep driving, though, and take a random number of rights and lefts, eventually we come out someplace else and can start over. 

*

In California, raccoons broke into a bank, prowled the halls, sat at a desk, and were shooed out before they could withdraw any cash, although they did get some almond cookies. 

They broke in sometime during the night and seem to have climbed a tree, crawled through the air ducts, and fallen through the ceiling tiles. In the morning, they were spotted through the windows by a guy heading to work on a construction site. He called the Humane Society.

No charges have been filed.