Cheddar Man and British prehistory

Back in 1903, some people digging a drainage trench in Gough’s Cave, in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, found a skeleton. In case Cheddar Gorge and Somerset don’t help you locate the cave on the map of your mind, it’s two or three hours’ drive from where I live. That’s fairly useless information but I’m hopiong it’ll create the illusion of a reference point.

The skeleton turned out to be 10,000 years old and is now known as Cheddar Man. Ched (as he won’t mind being called since (a) he’s dead; (b) whatever he spoke wasn’t English and (c) writing hadn’t been invented yet and neither had computers, so he wouldn’t have read this in any case) was around 5’5″ and would’ve weight 10 stone.

A stone? That’s a particularly insane measure of weight that the British abandoned when they (mostly) went metric, but–no, don’t ask me why–a recent newspaper article about the find gave his weight in stones, probably because they were still using it when Ched’s weight was first calculated.

A stone is 14 pounds. I’ll leave you to multiply 10 by 14. I don’t do higher mathematics.

Why didn’t the writer translate stones into kilowhatsits since Britain’s now (mostly) metric?Because. And if that isn’t a good enough reason, make up one of your own.

But before we go on, let’s be completely accurate: When it was found, the skeleton must have been 10,000 minus 105 years old, because in 2018 the headlines are still saying the skeleton’s 10,000 years old. I’m terrible with numbers, but I do understand that 10,000 minus 105 isn’t 10,000.

One article figures that works out to 300 generations ago.

The reason Ched’s back in the news is that up-to-date DNA sequencing has revealed—drumroll, please—that he had very dark skin, blue eyes, and curly brown (or in some articles, black) hair. And as an adult, he wouldn’t have been able to drink milk. I’m guessing that measn he was lactose intolerant, like much of the world’s non-European people and some smallish portion of people of European descent, including me, but the articles I’ve read don’t go into detail on that.

What’s more, they don’t say word one about me. It’s a mystery.

How dark was Ched’s skin? His DNA says it was either dark brown or black, but when I googled him, the featured photos from three different websites showed skin tones that ranged from toasted white bread with a sunburn to seriously dark. Which is interesting, since all three photos are of the same reconstruction.

Photoshop, pre-existing beliefs, and politics lead us to strange results. The darkest photo is the best match for the description, so I’m going to put my trust in that one.

I don’t know if all three photos will still be featured, but you’re welcome to roll the dice by clicking on this link.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. Primroses. If it ever stops raining, we may get these planted. In the meantime, they live on the kitchen counter, which I’ve cleverly hidden by moving the lens in on top of the blossoms. Don’t they look outdoorsy?

Ched wasn’t one of Britain’s first settlers. Early Britain was repeatedly settled and then repeatedly emptied out when glaciers expanded and sent people running for friendlier climates. Today’s residents understand the impulse, although we’re short on glacierless just now.

Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals settled in Britain at various points, the pre- people being forced south by an ice ago more than 200,000 years ago and the Neanderthals arriving (if I’m reading this correctly; it all gets a little hazy back there because no one was assigned to take notes, which was unforgivably careless) some 100,000 years ago. According to Francis Pryor (I’ll get around to explaining him in a bit), the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain has recently been redated to roughly a million years ago.

Modern humans, as opposed to Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals, also settled several times and got chased out by ice ages. Britain wasn’t an island during most of that period, so migration would have been relatively simple. When sea levels were low, it was joined to Europe by a land bridge, now called Doggerland and named after the Dogger Bank, which was in turn named after seventeenth century Dutch fishing boats called Doggers. I stopped following the thread at that point. From time to time, even I notice when I’ve gone too far off topic.

Cheddar Man (who was male, unlike some of the prehistoric “men” named in less discriminating days) is from the group of people who put down roots after the last ice age. In case it helps, we’re talking about the Mesolithic period–the middle stone age. His people came from the Middle East (which wasn’t called the Middle East then, but never mind) through Europe (which wasn’t yet Europe) before coming to Britain (which—never mind, you already know this). They would’ve been hunter-gatherers and weren’t genetically related to Britain’s earlier modern human settlers—the ones who cleared out when the glaciers moved in.

You can think of it as a very early exercise in gentrification and urban clearance if that clarifies anything, although some obvious differences do stand out. The absence of bulldozers, for one. And of urban planning.

Because Ched’s people—let’s call them the Cheddar people; no one else does, but it’s easier—timed their arrival well. No glaciers drove them out. As the climate warmed and sea levels rose, they found themselves on an island. Leaving became more difficult than staying, so they and became the ancestors of Britain’s indigenous white population. A history teacher from the area was tested and turns out to have a female ancestor in common with Ched. Think about that: Ten thousand years later, a descendant’s still in the old neighborhood. That’s a family that stays in one place long enough to have to clean the oven. I was well into my thirties before I did that.

The average Briton carries ten percent of the Cheddar people’s genes. Or possibly the average white Briton. Or the average person who’s at least partially white British. Don’t push your luck by asking me to get this one right. I read four or five articles before I understood that they weren’t saying ten percent of the population was related to them.

The articles I’ve read draw two conclusions from the discovery about Ched’s skin color–and it’s because of his skin color that Ched’s making the headlines:

  1. “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are…very modern constructions…that really are not applicable to the past at all.” Tom Booth, archeologist from the Natural History Museum.
  2. Pale skin developed in Europeans later than was previously thought, possibly because the introduction of farming meant that people’s diets were short of vitamin D, creating an evolutionary advantage for lighter skin, which absorbs vitamin D from sunlight more easily.

BBC article suggests that light skin was introduced by a later wave of immigration–the Middle Eastern people who brought farming with them. An earlier theory was that farming spread as an idea; the newer theory is that it spread with people migrating, bringing their knowledge with them.

And the blue eyes? If they had any evolutionary advantage, no one seems to have figured out what it was. It may simply be a glitch that entered the human population and survived.

So how did the Cheddar people live?

Britain’s climate wouldn’t have been very different from today’s. Siberia it wasn’t. Much of the land would’ve been wooded, mostly with birch and pine. And when the first settlers arrived, it would’ve been uninhabited.

I try to imagine that and can’t help thinking hearing scary music. I’ve seen too many movies.

In his book Home: A time traveller’s tales from Britain’s prehistory, Francis Pryor makes a convincing argument that the early hunter-gatherers led a more settled and more sophisticated life than earlier generations of archeologists thougth. Rather than being the kind of nomads who put down no roots, they would have returned to their settlements year after year. They may have been migratory, but they followed seasonal patterns.

They would’ve made and used stone tools. (The age of metal  takes up only 0.01% of human history.) But being stone age people doesn’t mean they lived in caves, clobbered each other on the head with wooden clubs, and grunted. These were modern humans: us minus the technology. Pryor writes, “We have good evidence that early post-Glacial families had warm, thatch- or hide-roofed houses, the earliest of which (8500 B.C.) was discovered very recently, at Star Carr, in North Yorkshire.”

They had domesticated dogs. They used bows and arrows.

The first known farmers lived in Ched’s time but not in Britain. They were in what’s now the Middle East. According to Pryor, farming didn’t reach Britain until around 4000 B.C. The BBC dates that to 5000 to 4500 B.C., and even I, with my phobia about numbers, notice that the dates don’t match. Can we just say farming took a long time to get this far north? Clocks hadn’t been invented. Calendars hadn’t been invented. Hell, writing hadn’t been invented. So let’s cut everyone some slack if their dates don’t match perfectly.

Besides, the change from hunter-gathering to farming didn’t happen quickly. Even Pryor, who argues for a relatively quick transition, says it would’ve taken a couple of centuries.

Once people began to depend on farming, life changed relatively quickly. Farming could support a larger population than hunter-gathering. It led to a division of labor, densely settled communities, impressive monuments, land ownership, relatively rappid technological change, writing, and all the wondrous stuff we were told about at school. It also led to new diseases (caused by those dense settlement patterns), a more restricted diet, wars over territory, and a shitload of hard work for the people on the bottom of the social structure. One of the things about the division of labor is that it’s not just about you making arrows and me making fish hooks because that’s what we’re good at. At some point it also means someone comes along and says, “You do the heavy lifting and I’ll sit around and think profound thoughts.” Or make art. Or protect us from the angry gods. Or tell you what work needs to be done today.

Farming also turned out to be harder work than hunter-gathering. Hunter gatherers put in a much shorter working day than early farmers—and probably than most of us do today. According to one theory (and if I ever knew whose it is, I don’t remember), we should envy them.

So that was Cheddar Man. He had good teeth, indicating a healthy diet. He probably died in his early twenties, but it doesn’t sound like he lived a bad life.

*

And from there, I just have to take you to modern-day New York City. A friend spotted this in a New York Times article about how a serious snow storm affected the city: “The shelves of some New York City grocery stores quickly emptied of milk, eggs and kale as New Yorkers stocked up for the storm…”

Kale.

I’d give you a link to prove I didn’t make that up, but as an old friend used to say, I can’t be arsed.

Mugs: two links

A couple of people asked where they can find the smart-ass, English-spelling-is-bizarre mugs that I posted pictures of in recent weeks (photos below). The answer is, they’re for sale in any number of places, but here are two: the “English can be weird” mug and the “I before E” mug.

Both sites give the price in pounds, which isn’t helpful if you don’t live in Britain, but don’t give up. You can punch the phrases in quotation marks into your least favorite search engine (I’m assuming that whichever one you use, it’s your least favorite, but maybe that’s just me). You’ll find the mugs in a range of typefaces and for a range of prices. In a range of currencies.

Order. Make tea or coffee. Locate cake. If it’s any good, share with your favorite blogger.

Thanks. Also sorry and you’re welcome. See how British I’ve become?

Ethnicity in Britain and the U.S.

I had an appointment at a clinic recently, and since it was my first time there, the receptionist asked my ethnicity. Maybe they always ask. Maybe they were taking a survey for a few sample days. I have no idea, but I do understand why an organization might want to gather that information, and it seems like a simple question, except it isn’t. Even in the U.S., where I fit the categories better, it’s not a simple question.

Before I go on, I should warn you: I haven’t managed to be funny about this, but I think the topic’s worth some thought. If you want to bail out, this is as good a time as any. I’ll stick an irrelevant photo in and you can slip away. No one will notice.

Irrelevant photo: It looks like last week’s semi-relevant photo, but the text is different. I only do this to see if you’re paying attention.

So why isn’t it a simple question? Let’s go back a few decades to when a friend who taught junior high school told me about his students having to fill out high school applications. They were asked—I don’t think it was their ethnicity back then, I think it was still called race, and it was a choose-one exercise. The kids couldn’t be a mix of white and black or Latino and Asian, or three of the four mixed together. Whichever you chose, you excluded the others. (The U.S. census now allows for mixed heritage, and I assume other forms in the country have followed their example.)

The kids were furious. The ones who were mixed didn’t want to deny any part of their heritage. The kids who weren’t were furious on their friends’ behalf.

It’s a system I grew up taking for granted. When I was a kid, as far as I knew forms had always worked that way. I didn’t stop to ask if it made sense. For one thing, I fit the categories well enough: If the choices were Black, White, Asian, Other, I picked White. If one of the categories was Jewish, I picked Jewish.

I never thought I should pick Other if Jewish wasn’t offered as a category. The world around me said I was white, so who was I to say different? When the form got more specific about my category of white, I was dutifully specific. I was like a cat: I poured myself into whatever shape was given. If the shape was a shoebox, I became rectangular and filled the shoebox. If it was a casserole dish, I became round.

You do know about the scientist who won an Ig Noble Prize for demonstrating that a cat is both a liquid and a solid, right? That’s the kind of cat I was.

Fast forward a few decades, well past the time when my friend was teaching junior high. I made a call to the wonderful information line the Hennepin County Library used to run, checking on something that had come up in a manuscript I was editing. You could ask anything and a librarian would do his or her damnedest to find an answer.

At the end of the call, the librarian explained that they were doing a survey to find out who their callers were and would I mind answering a few quick questions?

I’d have answered anything. I loved that service.

What was my ethnicity? (That wasn’t the first question, but eventually we go around to it.)

I’d lived in Minnesota for more than thirty years by then. I no longer thought that Jewish fit without question or notice into white. The Midwest had given me a strong sense of my otherness.

“Provisionally white,” I said.

I hadn’t expected to say that—I never had before—but my brain outruns its filters sometimes.

The librarian stammered a bit, then pulled himself together to ask what I meant.

“I’m Jewish,” I told him. “My membership’s liable to be revoked at any time.”

He laughed, fortunately. I don’t know what he wrote down and I didn’t ask.

I wasn’t just being difficult. Both history and recent events tell me not to take anything for granted.

Now let’s move the question to Britain, where the problem’s magnified. I found a list of British ethnicities online.  It’s close enough to what the Office of National Statistics uses that we can treat it as more or less typical. The choices are:

White British (choose English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British); Irish; Gypsy or Irish Traveler; Other

Mixed/Multiple Ethnic Groups (you get three choices, all with a white element, and if those don’t fit you get Other)

Asian/Asian British (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladheshi, Chinese, Other)

Black/African/Caribbean/Black British (the boxes that follow more or less repeat the choices in the heading, then add Other)

Other Ethnic Group (with a box for Arab after which you can be an Other Other)

Where do I fit in this? White British? Legally, I am British—I’m a citizen, and I’m still provisionally white—but what does white British mean when you talk about ethnicity, not citizenship? British isn’t my native culture, and ethnicity is about culture, although people in color-coded societies tend to think it’s about skin color. So no, British probably isn’t what I should check.

(As an aside, have you ever seen the phrase “ethnic hair” running around loose? Guess whose hair comes up when you google it. It’s hair whose cultural background leads it to be very, very curly. Hair typical of the dominant group, whether you count that numerically, politically, or economically, is just hair. Hair from the, or a, non-dominant group is ethnic.

(The point here is that even when you change the language so people say “ethnicity” instead of “race,” the underlying beliefs come through and capture the new word. I’m all for changing the language when it needs changing–it does make a difference–but let’s not kid ourselves about how deep that alonge can go.)

In case I need to prove how much I don’t understand British culture, I’m both fascinated and baffled to find that within the white British group, they list the four nations that make up the United Kingdom but also offer the option of writing just plain old British, as in still British but not Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English.

What are you saying when you pick that? That you’ve moved around a lot? That you’re of mixed heritage and don’t want to deny any part of yourself? That the country’s four component nations mean less to you than the country itself?

To be fair, I’ve written about this before and a few people wrote in to say they considered themselves British, not English, Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish. And I appreciate their comments, but I can’t claim to understand them fully. It’s much easier to understand a Cornish friend who says he’s not English.

But back to the form: If you’re black, you can choose Black British, but if you consider yourself Black Welsh, for example, you have to write that in yourself and you’ll end up in some tiny subgroup that doesn’t get counted because it’s not on the form and too few people joined it. The silent assumption seems to be that Welshness (or Englishness, or etc.) is white.

Is it? I don’t know. I suspect it’s not that simple, but hey, I’m a foreigner here. The gift I bring is that I can ask uncomfortable questions, not that I can answer them.

But back to me: What’s my ethnicity in Britain? American? Is American an ethnicity?

If you’re inside the United States, it’s the default setting. It probably is an ethnicity but it’s invisible–at least to its members.

If you’re outside, though, surely it becomes one. Lord Google’s quick definition of ethnicity is “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” (In Norwegian—and how the translation option got set to Norwegian I don’t know; I may have had something to do with it—ethnicity is etnisitet.)

Is Norwegian an ethnicity? If you’re outside Norway, yes.  If you’re inside? well, again, it’s invisible.

I grew up in an age that accepted many of the absurdities of racism without challenge. I accepted white as an unchanging category and had no idea I was doing that. Then somewhere along the line I read that it was an American creation, something that developed in response to slavery.

In Europe, I read, people who in the U.S. would be considered white didn’t think of themselves as whites. They thought of themselves as British, or German, or Polish. Nation, language, and culture trumped skin color as the defining factor.  And it did seem true that immigrant groups who in the U.S. were considered white initially felt little in common with other ethnic groups who were also considered white. They felt themselves to be part of their old categories—Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek, whatever.

This unsettled what I’d thought were the world’s fixed categories and left me thinking that you become a group in response to some other group—or in the case of the U.S., in order to exclude another group.

So is American an ethnicity in Britain? Instinct says no, mostly because there aren’t enough to us to form a group. And because I’m not in the habit of thinking of us that way.

Jewish, then? Well, yes, that does seem like an ethnicity and when it comes up it makes me very distinct but it stands out much less in my everyday life than my Americanness.

So what did I tell the nice person behind the desk?

“I haven’t known how to answer that since I moved here,” I said. “I’m American. I’m Jewish. I never know what to fill in.”

“We’ll make something out of that,” she said.

I have no idea what she decided I was.

*

A personal note, since said I opened by saying I was at a clinic and since a while back I mentioned, without explaining it, that I was going through a rough patch: This fall, I discovered that I had breast cancer. I was incredibly lucky. The tumor itself was tiny but it was associated with a cyst big enough for me to have found it. I’ve had surgery and can now dance off into the rest of my life without needing radiation or any other further treatment. The NHS—Britain’s National Health Service—has been incredible. And (Americans, take note) the treatment was free.

Apologies if I went all mysterious on you about it. It’s not something—obviously, since I’m mentioning it now—that I feel particularly private about. But this isn’t a support group (and how do you feel about that?), and this isn’t a me-and-my-life blog. While everything was still up for grabs, it didn’t feel right to get into it online.

And finally, a quick thought related to the post’s topic, not to breast cancer: A friend commented recently that I go on a lot about being a Jewish atheist, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

In part, it may be because being an immigrant has left me thinking quite a bit about identity (see above, because I don’t want to start that mess all over again). It may also be partly because the British don’t find atheism shocking. Americans–and yes, I’m generalizing–do, and until I moved to Britain I wasn’t in the habit of talking about it casually. It was too charged. Mentioning it meant I either risked shocking someone (I’m willing to do that when I have no choice, but I don’t generally enjoy it) or getting into more of a conversation about it than I wanted to.

I may come back to that at some point. I may even manage to be funny about it, as I haven’t managed to be here, but I can’t promise.

Stay tuned.

More news from Britain

Plato takes over the Home Office, or else it’s the other way around

Britain’s Home Office–those charming folks in charge of (among other things) finding reasons to throw people out of the country–has outstripped my ability to absurdify the world. In mid-January, it refused asylum to a Pakistani asylum seeker because he couldn’t answer questions about Plato and Aristotle.

Hamza bin Walayat’s application was based on his having renounced Islam, integrated into secular British society, and formed a relationship with a non-Muslim–all those things the government (if you listen to the noises it makes) wants Muslim immigrants to do. I’ll skip over the right and wrong of that, otherwise I’ll start ranting, and focus on what I understand best, which is absurdity.

Walayat’s claiim was based on his having become a humanist, which could get him killed in Pakistan. H’d already received death threats from (among others) his family.

So the Home Office asked him about Greek philosophers, then turned his application down because he couldn’t name “any famous Greek philosophers who were humanistic.”

He would’ve had to name Plato and Aristotle to be approved, although there’s no guarantee that would’ve been enough. There might always have been some other reason to turn him down.

No, I don’t make this stuff up. And how do you satirize it?
Applicant: Here’s my request for asylum. I come from a country where non-believers are  frequently killed for their non-beliefs.
Home Office: Fine. Please summarize Aristotle’s arguments in Prior Analytics.
Applicant: Prior what?
Home Office: Sorry, that’s not good enough.
It’s not only not funny, it’s not much of an exaggeration.
Ten days later, 120 philosophers wrote the home secretary, Amber Rudd, asking her to reconsider his case and pointing out that “there’s no scholarly basis to think that Plato or Aristotle were humanist thinkers.” In fact, both made argument supporting belief in gods.
Do we get to deport the Home Office now?

No. They make the rules and they make up the answers. They don’t have to be right.

But even if Plato and Aristotle did qualify as humanists (however you want to define that; it’s hardly a unified belief system), how many genuinely irreligious people could state three facts about either of them? I can get as far as they were both Greek and they’re both dead.

Semi-relevant photo: Please see the next item, then make yourself a nice cup of tea. Or stop by and I’ll make one. You can even use my new cup if you like. It was a Christmas present but I’m happy to share.

Tea of coffee?

Every so often I write about tea and someone British writes in to say he or she drinks coffee. Only.

Are they telling the truth? Surely not. They’re only saying it to mess with me. Or possibly to bust up a stereotype.

I’d like all those people (okay: it might only be one person, but my memory comes with a built-in multiplier effect) to reconsider. Because it turns out home coffee machines attract cockroaches.

Why? Roaches like three things in life: dampness, darkness, and food. They don’t much care for classical music or abstract art or anything else along those lines. Coffee machines offer them everything they care about, at least if you consider coffee grounds food, and I gather roaches do. Or if they don’t, two out of three isn’t bad, especially when coffee machines are conveniently located near things that beyond question are food.

Extrapolating from the way roach populations multiply, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they also like other roaches. In a carnal sort of way, and especially in a damp, dark sort of place. With easy access to food for the little roachlets that follow from that sort of liking.

If you absolutely do have to drink coffee, either because you’re British and like to bust up stereotypes or because you’re American and feel patriotically compelled to, at least don’t invest in an expensive coffee machine. Use a press pot. Make instant. Resurrect that old percolator some family member stashed in the attic forty years ago and hasn’t thought about since. Spend a small fortune at a coffee shop. Do whatever it takes, but don’t buy a coffee machine.

Or reconsider and switch to tea. If you’re British, the Home Office–which doesn’t approve of much–might crack a hint of a smile. If you’re American, tell yourself tea’s classy, even though it’s not in Britain. Unless you’re doing the gourmet, one-tea-leaf-from-a-plant thing, tea’s just what you slug down to wake yourself up. Coffee’s the classy drink.

If you won’t listen to me and insist on boycotting tea, please memorize a list of Greek philosophers who drank coffee. It wasn’t introduced to Greece until the ninth century, give or take a few weeks, but the Home Office might ask and you’ll need to know the correct wrong answer.

Which reminds me to point out an important life skill, because you, my lovely readers, matter to me: If you have to take a standardized test of any kind, don’t worry about being right. Worry about what whoever wrote the test thinks is right. Tell ’em what they want to hear, then go home, take a shower, and feel an odd mix of icky and superior.

 Plymouth wants to dress up its cab drivers

The city of Plymouth is pondering the wisdom of telling cab drivers they can’t go to work in jeans, hoodies, running shoes (which are called trainers over here), or shirts with logos or graphics that might offend (might offend who? no idea; the article I read only said “might offend”), or that have political messages (regardless, apparently, of whether they’d offend some unnamed person). Or jeans, which we all know are politically motivated, although to date I haven’t figured out what their politics are. I’ve asked mine. We’re well acquainted. I’ve had some of my pairs since Marie Antoinette was in charge of the Home Office. But we still don’t know each other well enough for them to come out in the open with their beliefs.

Drivers would also be banned from wearing flip-flops, swimming trunks, or high heels,

Or tutus. Or pajamas.

What can they wear? Shirts with collars. Knee-length tailored shorts. (Someone define “tailored” for me, please. Does it mean that to go to work you need someone with a tape measure around their neck to make the shirt just for you?) Knee-length skirts or dresses. “Smart” long-legged trousers, which in American are pants. In British, you just have to assume they’re wearing pants, because not many people want to check and those who do shouldn’t. They’re underwear.

I’m guessing they could also wear tuxedos. Ball gowns would be too long and might encourage the driver to wear high heels, so sorry, they’re out. What’s allowed makes a short and boring list, and it doesn’t make room for clothes from other cultures, because the city government doesn’t know about them, didn’t think of them, doesn’t approve of them, or can’t spell them. So no sarongs and no shalwar kameezes.

Why does anyone care what cab drivers wear? My best guess is that when everything’s falling apart, people want to make rules. Preferably for someone other than themselves. I don’t know what’s falling apart in Plymouth, but on the basis of this evidence I’m convinced something is.

I can’t give you a link for that story because it’s from the Western Morning News and I never can find their stories online. So instead, I’ll tell you (irrelevantly) that when I drove cab, I never wore a bathing suit or a ball gown. I did wear sneakers (or sometimes boots) and jeans, and I had a plaid woolen shirt that I wore as a jacket in the winter. It had breast pockets that I could stuff money into without taking off my seat belt. I’m not sure which side of the Plymouth rules it would’ve fallen on. On the one hand, it had a collar. On the other, it wasn’t smart, but then I don’t ask my clothes to pass Home Office tests so I wouldn’t have thought that mattered.

It seems like somebody’s always trying to clean up cab drivers. The problem is that even when they get their way, they’re still not happy, because whatever cab drivers wear, they have a way of still being cab drivers.

Long may it be so.

Tinky Winky dies

Simon Barnes, the actor who played Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies, died in January.

Tinky Winky had a moment of fame when the evangelist Jerry Falwell claimed he was a gay role model who would damage children’s something or other. Moral development, I think.

“He is purple–the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle–the gay pride symbol,” Falwell wrote, in all seriousness, about Tinky Winky. He might have added that Tinky Winky carried a handbag, but he didn’t, which is a shame because it might’ve led people to ask if Tinky Winky was, in fact, a he. I’m guessing that possibility never crossed Falwell’s mind.

I wasn’t a Teletubbies fan, but I must’ve seen at least half an unbroken minute of the show, and nothing I saw told me whether the creatures were male or female. They were a kind of rorschach test. Do you see a male or a female? A symbol of homosexuality or a show that rakes in a lot of money?

Maybe Falwell figured they had to be male because they didn’t wear skirts. He might have easily extrapolated from the symbols that mark women’s public toilets that women all wear skirts. All the time. I don’t know what it means that he didn’t consider other possibilities. Maybe he was one of those men who consider everything male unless it specifically announces itself as female. Maybe he thought  more about men than about women.

Whatever. I’m a card-carrying female and I’m prepared to testify that women have legs. They start at the hip and their placement is very much the same as men’s.

Except for the purse, the Teletubbies didn’t look to me like they were wearing clothes of any sort, but if anyone was a better student of the show than I was I’ll yield the floor to them.

After Falwell went public with his take on the Teletubbies, Barnes was often asked about Tinky Winky’s sexuality.

“The character is supposed to be a three-year-old,” he said.

Good point. Not many three-year-olds have defined their sexuality yet.

Barnes replaced an earlier actor, Dave Thompson, whose “interpretation of the role was not acceptable,” according to the letter that told him he was being canned after the first 70 episodes.

What can an actor could do in one of those costumes that would make his interpretation of the role unacceptable? After thirty seconds of watching, I really don’t qualify as an expert , but it didn’t strike me as a role that challenged an actor’s interpretive skills.

Thompson wasn’t sure what they were talking about but thought it might have been his voice.

“The other Teletubbies use their own voices, but mine was dubbed over. At first they asked me to do a high voice and then they changed their minds just before we started filming.”

After he left the show, he went on to play a lion and then an assortment of other roles, and he does stand-up. His web site asks readers to swear they’re over eighteen before they go past the otherwise blank opening page. Once you swear, you learn that he considers “my greatest achievement to be my novel ‘The sex life of a comedian,’ a free sample of which is available on this site. Please don’t read it if you’re under eighteen, or easily shocked.”

I’m not easily shocked. On the other hand, I’m not easily interested, so I didn’t read the sample. But if you insist on knowing about Tinky Winky’s sex life, this is probably as close as you’ll get.

I said I’m not easily shocked. That’s not entirely true. Assuming The sex life of a comedian is his only book, as it seems to be, there’s a misplaced comma in Thompson’s quote. If he’d kindly move the one before “or” so that it follows “novel,” my delicate sensibilities would be ever so grateful. He might also want to italicize the title of his book instead of putting it in quotes.

I feel much better now, thank you.

An apology

It’s been a long couple of weeks around here, We lost a week to the flu, or if it wasn’t the flu it was something fluish, and the house is still on its ear. What’s worse, my backlog of blog posts is gone and I suspect I’ve been posting too many of these news roundups lately, but this is my third effort to fill the Friday gap and the first two didn’t pull together, so it’s this or nothing. Let’s hope I’m in better form soon.

British values and chicken tikka masala

Britain has a long-standing identity crisis.

Or maybe that’s a recent one. I suppose it depends on how long you consider long. But never mind the numbers. Ever since I moved here, politicians have been fretting over British values—what they are, who doesn’t have them, and how to get immigrants to adopt them.

Speaking as an immigrant, it’s hard to adopt British values when the British are hazy about what they are. Or maybe that’s what they should be. But hey, we do what we can. Or I do, so while the important people are trying to figure it all out, let’s talk about the important stuff, like British food. Because nothing runs deeper into a culture than food. You don’t believe me? Move to another country and see what you miss.

Irrelevant (and less than sharp) photo: Winter trees. I have got to get out there and take some more photos.

Okay, “nothing runs deeper” could be overstating the case. I’m using a time-tested way of making a point here, which is to exaggerate and toss in a bit of bullshit. But who’d notice if I didn’t point it out?

Let’s move on. After reading my post about fish and chips, Derrick J. Knight commented,

“I believe fish and chips has been supplanted by chicken tikka masala. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, in 2001 claimed: ‘Chicken tikka masala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.’”

Cook wasn’t being original in claiming chicken tikka masala as the British national dish. The idea’s so prevalent in the national joke-o-sphere and all a person has to do is reach out and snag a version as it flits past, then claim it as their own.

The ponderous explanation of why it’s so gloriously British, however, I’m willing to credit to Cook alone.

So let’s talk about chicken tikka masala.

Before Britain voted to leave the European Union, a group of MPs tried to get the dish Protected Designation of Origin recognition from the EU. That would (or would have if the move’s been abandoned) put it on a level with champagne and parmesan–foods whose names are reserved to those products made in the region where they originated.

Their claim was based on a origin story that traces it back to Ahmed Aslam Ali, who is supposed to have invented chicken tikka masala in his Glasgow restaurant.

“We used to make chicken tikka,” he told the Telegraph—or possibly someone else, but it doesn’t matter because the Telegraph quoted him and that’s who I’ll attribute the quote to, “and one day a customer said ‘I’d take some sauce with that, this is a bit dry,’ so we cooked chicken tikka with the sauce which contains yoghurt, cream, spices.”

In other versions of the story, he tossed in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, some spices, and a bit of yogurt. I was reading happily enough until I got to the can of tomato soup, at which I went into such a deep state of shock that I lost the URL that would’ve proved I didn’t make that up.

Applying for Protected Designation of Origin recognition meant that all hell broke loose. We’re quoting from the Telegraph again.

“Zaeemuddin Ahmad, a chef at Delhi’s Karim Hotel, which was established by the last chef of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, said the recipe had been passed down through the generations in his family [presumably without the canned soup, but what do I know?].

“’Chicken tikka masala is an authentic Mughlai recipe prepared by our forefathers, who were royal chefs in the Mughal period. Mughals were avid trekkers and used to spend months altogether in jungles and far off places. They liked roasted form of chickens with spices,’ he said.

“Rahul Verma, Delhi’s most authoritative expert on street food, said he first tasted the dish in 1971 and that its origins were in Punjab. ‘It’s basically a Punjabi dish not more than 40-50 years old and must be an accidental discovery which has had periodical improvisations,’ he said.

“Hemanshu Kumar, the founder of Eating Out in Delhi, a food group which celebrates Delhi’s culinary heritage, ridiculed Glasgow’s claim. ‘Patenting the name chicken tikka masala is out of the question. It has been prepared in India for generations. You can’t patent the name, it’s preposterous,’ he said.”

In another version of the tale, “Chicken tikka masala originated in British India where its spicy precedent was toned down to suit British palates. They also claim that butter chicken was the first protoype of chicken tikka masala. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham takes an excellent look at the history of Indian food. She has an entire chapter dedicated to chicken tikka masala and writes, according to food critics, that it, ‘was not a shining example of British multiculturalism but a demonstration of the British facility for reducing all foreign foods to their most unappetizing and inedible forms.’”

Take that, Robin Cook. And for the record, I have no opinion of my own about how appetizing or unappetizing the stuff is. I’m been a vegetarian for decades now and have never tasted the stuff.

Now, can we talk about what British values are and what it would mean to the country if I do or don’t adopt them? I’ll make us a nice plate of chocolate chip cookies to eat while we talk.

British food: a reply and a link

In a December post, “Is British food dull?” I managed to offend a couple of readers, notably the blogger behind Emma Foods, who posted an interesting response, about how she sees British food. It’s worth a look.

I clearly got under her skin, and in return she got under mine in both her response and the comments she left–not because of her content, which I find interesting, but because of her tone. So I’ve given some thought to how to handle this. I don’t want the exchange to turn into a slanging match. I’m happy to host disagreements, even when the disagreement’s packaging doesn’t make me happy. But I do want to make four points:

First, Emma’s definition of British food is far more multicultural than mine. That’s interesting and worth some thought. How, it makes me ask, do we define British? As an immigrant and a resident of the relatively monocultural Cornwall, do I think of Britishness too narrowly?

It’s a valuable contribution to the conversation. My thanks.

Second, I didn’t say British food was dull. I said it had a reputation for being dull and that a lot of British chefs seem to react to that by valuing innovation above taste. I did, by way of examples, say some unflattering things about British lasagna and compared British burger recipes less than flatteringly to American burgers. But not all British food, I’m happy to say, is either lasagna or hamburgers.

I didn’t balance those examples by talking about British foods I like. That may or may not have been an oversight. It depends on how you define the post’s topic. I could argue it either way.

Third, to my surprise, Emma’s right about my having changed the title of my post, although based on what I can reconstruct from the original URL, I don’t seem to have changed it in the way she remembers. I do sometimes change a title if it strikes me, in hindsight, as out of focus or long-winded. The change wasn’t in response to her comment.

Does that matter? Not really.

Why mention it, then? Because I don’t like to leave anyone thinking I’d erase what I said in response to being challenged. I’d much prefer to take the challenge head on. If when someone rattles my cage I decide something needs to be taken down, I hope I’ll have the guts to acknowledge it.

And fourth, I’m not a he. It doesn’t particularly matter in this context, and Emma’s not the first person to look at my half-faced, short-haired photo and decide I’m male, but as long as I’m putting a few things on record, I thought I’d mention it. 

In my experience, very few people leave comments on topics I (or other bloggers) suggest, but I’m going to make a suggestion anyway: If anyone wants to leave a comment about how to handle online disagreements without getting into flaming wars, it could be an interesting discussion.

*

After I sent this out, I realized I hadn’t titled it. So in the interest of full disclosure, I’m announcing that the title’s a late addition.

Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

The Danish concept of hygge–roughly translated as coziness; the promotion of well-being–has made a big impression on Britain, at least if you believe the newspapers and  marketers. I can’t say it’s had an impact on my life, but I won’t promote myself as typical of anything much, except possibly stubbornness.

Still, the publicity around hygge‘s drawn tourists to Denmark, so VisitScotland thought they might be able to cash in by adapting the idea. To Scotland, of course. So, quick, what’s the Scottish version of hygge?

Well, it’s not hygge, they knew that much, and they knew they needed more atmosphere than they could pull out of an English word. So someone ran to the nearest Gaelic dictionary and found the word còsagach. Which is pronounced a lot like còsagach, Sorry, I don’t know Gaelic. If the Scottish version of Gaelic’s anything like the Irish one, the letters don’t communicate much to an English speaker.

VisitScotland, apparently (and sadly), knows about as much Gaelic as I do. because experts say the word’s more likely to be used about wet moss or a wet, mossy place than about anything cozy. Unless you consider wet moss cozy.

It can also be used about fibrous ground or a place full of holes or crevices.

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

So visit damp, cozy Scotland today. Spend money. Have a memorable experience. And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak. They’re as dangerous as thesauruses. Or maybe that’s thesauri. I’d look it up but I’ve developed an irrational terror of dictionaries.

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

Example 1. Starting in January, China banned the import of plastic waste, saying that a lot of it is too hazardous to process. (Anyone see a bit of irony there? I don’t. I’m just asking.) Since 2012, Britain’s shipped two-thirds of its total plastic waste exports to China—something along the lines of 2.7 million tons of the stuff.

So what’s Britain going to do with all the plastic its fleets of recycling trucks have been  collecting with such ecological fervor? Recycle it here? Ban plastic packaging? Use it to backfill Stonehenge?

Well, in December—which strikes me as kind of late to come up with a plan—someone asked the secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, about it and he said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is…something to which—I will be completely honest—I have not given it sufficient thought.”

So that’s our plan.

We’ll give him half a point for honesty. Then we’ll take it away for cluelessness.

Example 2. A slow-burning fuse of a story either exploded or fizzled out, but I can’t figure out which.

The government was under pressure from a parliamentary committee to publish its assessment of Brexit’s economic impact on Britain. (In case you need a translation, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. A lot of people are worried it’ll crash the British economy.) The government resisted. Sorry, it said, but the assessments were too sensitive to be seen by mere members of parliament.

More pressure.

Okay, MPs could read them, but first the government would have to bury them under six feet of plastic waste and the MPs could only read them after sundown, using a flashlight with a single, second-hand AA battery, and they mustn’t disturb the plastic waste because although the government still doesn’t know what to do with it, it might need to know which pieces were dumped first.

I exaggerate only slightly.

But David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, assured the committee that the government had 58 studies that went into the question “in excruciating detail.”

Then in early December, Davis told the committee he didn’t have any detailed information to publish. At all. He never had. They’d misunderstood him.

What about an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the customs union? someone asked. Was one of those hanging around somewhere?

Um, no. “Not a formal, quantitative one.” The assessments didn’t “have numbers attached.”

I’d like, since this is a public forum, to let Dave know that it’s okay. If he’ll just write a general statement and I’ll make up some numbers. We can paste them in anywhere. Because after you’ve seen a few numbers, they all start to look alike.

A quick P.S.: A BBC Radio 4 news story quoted Davis as saying that he doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a good negotiator. He doesn’t even have to know much, he just has to stay calm. When I wrote this (I generally write these posts well ahead of time; it keeps me marginally sane), he was still doing an admirable job of staying calm. And, I’m reasonably sure, of knowing very little.

For the record, both Davis and Gove are long-time politicians, but somehow or other they’ve managed to bring a broad spectrum of amateur qualities to their current jobs.

Public statements are clear and to the point

Train fares went up on January 2. It was the biggest jump in five years, and since the fares are already high and follow a formula that sets a world standard for incomprehensibility, and since train service in many areas is godawful, passengers are ready to chew up the seats in frustration.

So how did the train companies defend the fare hike? An industry flak-catcher said it showed the industry was trying to keep down the cost of travel.

A reporter asked if the companies were taking any risk at all, since (to simplify slightly) funding comes from the government and profit goes to the companies. The flak-catcher said, “Rail companies operate under contract and they honour the terms of their contracts and provide for things to happen in different circumstances. That operator will continue to make payments until 2020 and then the new operator will continue to make payments.”

I don’t  know about you, but as long as they provide for things to happen in different circumstances, I’m happy.

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

The police in Exeter had a quiet word with a man who was running around dressed as Jesus. That is, he was dressed as Jesus except for his hind end, which either wasn’t dressed at all or wasn’t dressed enough to make an unnamed member of the public happy.

This raises a number of questions. One is what you have to wear to be dressed as Jesus. This particular guy was wearing a sheet. How did anyone know he wasn’t dressed as a ghost? Or one of the apostles, who would’ve dressed roughly the same way as Jesus?

Another question is what a quiet word is. It’s a very English thing, that’s what it is. Or possibly a British one. I lose my way in some of this stuff. It’s the solution to any sort of public awkwardness, and it may or may not be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because the next public awkwardness will be handled the same way.

The final question is why I don’t give you a link. It’s because the story was in the Western Morning News and although they do publish online I can never find their stories.

One of the cops involved said the incident had scarred him “for about an hour.”

Everyone loves a feel-good story

A ten-year-old left his waterproof video camera on a beach in Yorkshire and the tide carried it 500 miles across the North Sea to the German island of Suderoog,

There’s an umlaut over the U–they like umlauts on islands in Germany–but we’re in the middle of an umlaut shortage here so we’ll have to do without one. Just make your pronunciation umlautish if you can.

No, an umlaut isn’t something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s two dots that go over a U in German for reasons I don’t understand since I never learned German. I’m sure that has something to do with the umlaut shortage. It’s hard to study German without them.

The island is a bird reserve with either one family or only two people living there (I read several stories and ended up knowing less than if I’d read one). Either way, I’m guessing they don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so they took a look at what was on the camera and found some people fooling around on the beach and then the first few minutes of the camera’s trip—water, basically.

They posted something about the camera on the bird reserve’s Facebook page and eventually located the kid’s father. The camera’s owners have been invited to come pick it up, but they can only get there by boat from the mainland and they can’t stay overnight. And they have to bring their own umlauts.

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

This happened in Belgium, not Britain, but it’s a good story. And both countries start with a B. It’ll do.

A—well, I guess we’ll have to call him a performance artist chained himself to block of marble to demonstrate the inescapable burden of history, including the history of art, which he was trying to free himself from by chiseling away at the stone.

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

Every fascinating moment was live-streamed. I’m happy to say, I didn’t watch it and I haven’t looked for a link. If you want to watch all nineteen days of it, I figure you’ve got the patience to find it yourself.

The story led me to realize that one nice thing about writing as opposed to performance art is that when you get trapped by your own metaphors it’s not quite as embarrassing.

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

Someone from Wolverhampton decided to put his head in the microwave and have his friends fill it with cement. It being the microwave, not the head, in case that needs clarification. When they realized he was having trouble breathing (no, apparently this didn’t occur to any of them ahead of time), they poked an air tube in.

How? No idea. Every way I try to imagine doing this ends up with the breathing tube clogged with cement. Lucky thing I’m not one of his friends.

The BBC story mentions that the microwave wasn’t plugged in. I mention that in case you decide to try this and it’s not in the instruction book.

Why’d they do this? It wasn’t performance art and no metaphors were harmed in the process. They wanted to post the video on YouTube.

It took five firefighters an hour to get him loose, and they needed help from their technical rescue team to get the microwave apart.

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

Okay, this one’s pretty grotesque and I wrestled with what passes for my conscience over whether to use it.

My conscience lost.

Someone from Dundee offered to sell a rug she’d had made from her dead dog because her new dog kept trying to hump it. I’m not sure this tells you anything about British culture, but it did happen.

People are very polite 

The British really are very polite. Until they’re not. Because that’s the thing about polite people: When they lose it, they don’t have a wide range of back-up  behaviors. You know, things like saying, “Hey, asshole, don’t push.” Which isn’t polite but is well short of bloodshed.

Some people are so polite they’d find it hard to say, “Excuse me, but would you stop pushing, please?”

So in October, either two or three people on a train near London got into an argument over a phone call. One man was talking one the phone loudly, one man was complaining about that, and the third man–well, I don’t know if he did anything other than just sit there, but he was a friend of Guy #1’s, so he had a kind of peripheral involvement, so when an argument broke out, Guy #2 leaned over and bit Guy #3’s ear.

Job done. Guy #2 went back to his seat. Quite possibly with a real sense of having done the right thing.

What did Guy #1, the guy on the phone, do? No idea.

Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

A steady trickle of what’s-Britain? questions have gradually formed a largish pool on my list of odd questions that lead people to this blog.

The Great British Public contributes heavily to one of them: the why’s-Britain-called-great? question. How do I know many questioners are British? They say things like. “Why are we called Great Britain?” It’s subtle, but if you pay attention, you can tell.

I’ve answered the question here so many times that I’ve worn the fun off it, so we’ll skip to the others, which come from baffled outsiders. One persistent question is why the British insist on having multiple names for their country. Is it Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have just one name?

Probably, but Britain isn’t a country that’s drawn to simplicity. You’re not convinced? Look at the spelling it invented.

So why is England different from Britain? For roughly the same reasons that New York’s different from the United States of Burgundy’s different from France. Heavy emphasis on roughly, but it’s good enough as a place to start.

The multiple names make sense if you drop into British history and set your assumptions aside. I’ll keep them safe and warm. You can pick them up when you leave.

Ready?

Once upon a time two countries, England and Scotland, were neighbors. Think of them as living upstairs and downstairs, since the maps are drawn that way. And like—well, not like all neighbors but like some, they had fights about how loud the bagpipe music had been on Saturday night and about whose party didn’t end until the last guest passed out at sunrise and about who throws trash out the window.

A damn near relevant photo: This is Minnie the Moocher. It takes more than loud bagpipes to keep her up at night. Or during the day. If you’re going to throw a loud party, she’s the neighbor you want.

They also fought about cattle and massacres and who was the king of the mountain.

This went on for centuries.

Every so often, the two countries went to war, but even when they weren’t fighting, families from both sides of the border raided families on the other side. And for the sake of fairness, sometimes they raided families on their own side, because this wasn’t about  borders or countries, it was about cattle and kinship and which families weren’t big and tough enough to protect themselves.

If one source is correct, it was also about poor land and too little of it. If another source is correct, it was about the breakdown of order. Think of the border area as a kind of failed state. Both explanations sound credible.

Keep in mind that there’s no natural border between Scotland and England, and for a good part of the time we’re talking about the border was fluid. People on one side lived the same way as people on the other side. Families spread across it. You could cross over without saying “Captain, may I?” One or both countries could move it, and at one point, or possibly more, they did.

Which country behaved worse at this stage? My impression is that both did.

For what it’s worth, this part of the history was news to me. I’d read about the Scots raiding the English, but not the other way around. Any guesses on which country’s historians I got that from?

And while we’re talking about me, I knew that England invaded Scotland repeatedly, but not that Scotland invaded England. Guess which country’s songs I listened to.

Scotland and England became distinct countries during the medieval period, Scotland in 843, according to Lord Google, and England in—oh, hell, that’s messier. Wiki-this’ll-all-change-in-a-minute-pedia gives me two years, 927 and 953.

Close enough.

In spite of cohering later, England became the major power on the island of Britain. (The island of Britain, in today’s terms, is the chunk of land made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and—if you count it separately, which some people do and some don’t—Cornwall.)

The BBC (which publishes good, short bits of history on its website) writes, “England had absorbed Wales and Cornwall by 1543, through parliamentary incorporation, political and cultural integration of the ruling elites, and administrative cohesion across church and state.”

Not to mention warfare and a fair bit of brutality here and there.

I can date the English invasions of Scotland back to 1072, when England’s new king, William of Normandy, having conquered England in 1066 thought he’d have Scotland for dessert. He forced Malcolm III, the King of Scotland, to hand over his son as a hostage, which counts as a victory in my book, but he didn’t get to annex Scotland. Maybe he hadn’t been trying.

The two countries continued to be separate. And the English continued to complain about the Scots playing the bagpipes late at night.

To put this in context, the English also have a tradition of bagpiping. The only ones I’ve heard are Northumbrian, They’re smaller than the Scottish ones and use their indoor voice, which since I’ve only heard them played indoors, in a pub, my eardrums and I appreciate immensely.

When I asked nicely, Lord Google led me to a list of eight English invasions of Scotland, For some reason, it didn’t include the one in 1072, so let’s make that nine. Compare that to seven Scottish invasions of England, one of which happened after the two countries were united so I’d call that a rebellion. That takes us down to six.

Another happened during the English Civil War at the request of the English Parliament. I’m not sure whether that’s an invasion, so what the hell, let’s call it five.

This isn’t just about numbers, though, it’s about power. According to History Today, England was “the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England’s claim to be sovereign of Britain.”

So basically, whether it invaded England or not, Scotland wasn’t about to conquer it, but an English conquest of Scotland was a very real possibility. And that’s another reason I knew of the English invasions, not the Scottish ones. They had a different impact. It’s also why I know the Scottish songs—that have that smaller-country-fighting-for-independence purity about them. Even if history’s never as pure as a good song.

A low point in relations between the two countries came in 1328, when Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, recognizing Scottish independence, then waited a year and invaded.

Yes, diplomacy’s a wonderful thing.

One form of diplomacy in this period was to marry someone from the royal family of Country A into the royal family of Country B. It guaranteed twenty minutes of good feeling and generations of warfare, because someone in the royal line of Country A was always being born into the royal family of Country B, and a fair portion of them grew up to claim the crown of the country they didn’t grow up in.

Which is how Scotland and England formed the United Kingdom. James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret. (Don’t worry about the names. They’re purely decorative.) They duly produced a line of offspring who had a claim on the English throne, which is why:

(A) Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Catholic, she had an arguable claim on the English throne, and she was someone English Catholics could rally around if they could only get the Protestant Elizabeth I out of the way.

(B) When Elizabeth, being a professional virgin, died childless, which tends to happen to virgins, England had find a successor, fast. And the successor had to be Protestant. And have some vaguely credible claim to be a descendant of England’s past kings. So they turned to the Scottish king, James VI, who became the English king as well, making him James the VI of Scotland and I of England.

James packed his bags and moved from Scotland to England, which tells you where the power lay, so even though the Scottish line took over the English throne, I don’t think anyone would argue that Scotland took over England. Officially, it was a merger of two separate kingdoms under one king. In reality, Scotland was the junior partner.

As he made his way south, he was so struck by England’s wealth that he said he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.”

Doesn’t it warm your heart when a leader puts the nation’s interests first?

So now it’s 1603 and we have one king ruling two separate countries. Each has its own parliament, courts, and laws. James wants to unite the two countries under one parliament. Both parliaments respectfully suggest that he take a hike off a short pier. What does he do? He sidesteps them and proclaims himself King of Great Britain. The English Parliament has already refused to vote him the title, but he does manage to wring it out the the Scottish one.

It wasn’t until 1707 that the United Kingdom was created by the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish parliaments. A united parliament met for the first time in 1707.

James was long since dead.

Let’s go back to History Today:

“The Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society–law, education and the church–and did not create a homogeneous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.”

And that, children, is how the crocodile got its tail. It’s also why England is not Britain, why Britain is not England, why Scotland almost voted to secede in 2014, and why the United Kingdom has so many names.

Your assumptions are on the table by the door, with your name written on the side. Be careful not to pick up someone else’s, because you may find it doesn’t fit comfortably.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part eightish

What does the world want to know about Britain lately? Let’s take a stroll through the questions that lead people to Notes from the U.K.

Is that a fair way to answer the question?

Probably not.

Do I care?

Oh, absolutely, but not enough to keep me from writing the post.

How’d-that-land-here? questions

“I won’t answer the question polly put the kettle on answer.”

Now that, friends, is a very strange thing to type into a search engine. It’s even stranger that it led someone here, although part of it has a vaguely familiar sound, as if some bot picked up a bit of something I wrote (or that someone else wrote in a comment), tossed it in a jar with a few spare words from someone else’s blog, shook the jar until they blended, then poured them onto the keyboard and hit Send.

It’s even stranger for using a capital letter. Think of capital letters as clothes. Most search questions run through the internet bare-ass nekked.

Anyway, if the writer won’t answer the question (remind me, someone: what was the question?), I won’t either, but I will say that I understand how a phone can be put on answer, although I don’t think that’s what anyone calls the process. Still, whatever you call it, you punch a bunch of buttons and record yourself trying to say you’re out while not admitting that you’re out because you don’t want someone to hear your message and think, Aha! They just said they’re out. I’ll go break in and steal ’em blind.

Once you’ve done all that, the phone answers itself, bypassing you entirely and raising the question of whether you add any value at all to the transaction.

The kettle, though? I keep hearing that machines are getting smarter, but so far all my kettle does is boil water. I talk to it sometimes. I even sing to it. It doesn’t answer.

A final note before we move along: “polly put the kettle on” is not a question.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: Thrift. I really need to get out and take some more photos.

“what figure of speech is a thousand miles.”

Um, gee. I’d have to say it depends how you use it.

A figure of speech is a word or a set of words that are used to mean something other than its literal meaning. So a thousand miles can mean a thousand miles. One, two, three, and so on until you get to a thousand. That’s literal. No problem unless you get into the whole question of how long a mile is, because an old-style Cornish mile measured 3.161 etc. to nine decimal points of our current miles.

But let’s stick with the standard mile. I can sow enough confusion with needing help, thanks. Stick to the literal meaning and it’s not a figure of speech.

If you were to write, “My love is like a thousand miles,” you’d have written a lousy line but it would be a figure of speech—a simile, pronounced SIM-ill-ee, which I mention because written English contains almost no clue about how to pronounce a word and also because I have nothing better to do with myself. So sure, you probably already knew all that, but I’m having fun here.

A simile is two things compared openly, using like or as. Or possibly some other words I’ve forgotten, although I don’t think so. I’m not paid to know this stuff anymore, so I threw it all out of my head to make space for more useful things. Like the Cornish mile.

I wasn’t using it anyway and until today I didn’t miss it.

If you write, “My love is a thousand miles,” your writing would still by lousy but you’d have moved on from a simile to a metaphor, where like or as drops away and the comparison goes underground.

If you delete “my love is” and instead dropped “a thousand miles” into a sentence so that it stood for your love, it still wouldn’t make any sense but it would be a symbol. Of something.

We’ll skip the fancier stuff, like synecdoche. But aren’t you glad someone asked?

For the record, my love is not a thousand miles. She’s on the phone in the living room at this very minute, talking in a very un-thousand-mile-like way.

“guy stickney the night light linked in”

We’re going to have to disassemble that and see if any piece of it makes sense. Stickney’s a real last name, and I happen know a guy who carries it. His first name is not Guy. I don’t know him well enough to know if he uses—or even owns—a nightlight. Or if he uses LinkedIn.

Somehow I don’t think any of that is what whoever wrote that was looking for.

How’d the question get to me? I’ve used the words the, and in a lot, but I’m pretty sure everyone else on the internet has too. I’m sure I’ve used guy, night, and light, and probably even linked. As far as I can remember, I haven’t connected them in any way that would draw a search question.

Lord Google moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

“deer plot seeds”

They do? And here I was, thinking they’re all little innocent creatures who gambol around the forest and eat grass. Or leaves. Or something vegetabilian.

No, that’s gambol, not gamble. Cab drivers gamble. Deer? No, even on the evidence of this question, they may plot, but they don’t gamble. They weigh their risks carefully and don’t make their move till their sure.

What are they plotting? I’m not sure. I don’t understand what it means to plot seeds. To seed a plot, yes. To plot in general? Sure, no problem. But plotting seeds is like plotting shoes: There just doesn’t seem to be much point to it.

Still, keep your eye on those innocent-looking creatures. They’re up to something, and we’ve been warned.

“how could smart glasses do more thing”

I don’t know. This is not a technology blog. You should talk to my kettle.

“w87g”

Yes. Or possibly no. It depends on time, place, and circumstance. Also on meaning.

“t6y6”

This is clearer, The answer is no, absolutely not.

If anyone has a theory (no matter how crackpot) about how these last two questions got to me, I’d love to hear it. The first I wrote off as a glitch. With the second, I’m starting to see a pattern. One more and it’ll be a conspiracy.

“pees women pants”

With this one, you have officially seen me speechless. Or at least you’ve read me smart-answerless. Is this a search for the kind of women’s underwear meant for people with incontinence problems? Is someone looking for highly specialized pornography?

Either way, I seriously doubt I was any help.

Let’s try a new category.

What’s Britain really like?

“british talk about weather outside.”

Weather in Britain happens outside. It’s one of the things that lets you know you’re in Britain, not Canada or Cambodia, where (as I’m sure you know) they bring their weather indoors.

For some years now, British politicians have turned themselves inside out trying to define British values—it’s one of those placate-the-anti-immigrant-lobby things—and they’ve failed spectacularly. It’s kind of endearing, the hash they’ve made of it. If they want to know what British values are, they should ask their nearest immigrant. We could tell them: British weather takes place outside, and British that people talk about that.

To get the right to stay in this country, since I am my nearest immigrant, I had to take an entire damn computerized test to prove I understood British culture. Why didn’t they just ask me about outdoor weather? Talk about wasting taxpayer money.

Next question, please.

“do british homes have mailboxes”

Yes.

What are they called? (I’m adding this. No one asked.)

(That’s not true. I asked some time ago, and finding the answer wasn’t easy. Probably because I looked in the wrong places.)

Letter boxes.

Are they boxes?

Not necessarily. Ours is a slot in the door.

Why are they called boxes?

Because. It’s English. Abandon logic all ye who hope to master this language.

“do british people eat notmal cookies”

Um, no. Some eat oatmeal cookies. Some eat normal cookies. None, as far as I’ve been able to find out, eat notmal cookies, although British English is (a) regional and (b) inventive as hell, so I’ll never be completely sure.

“chocolate chip cookies in Britain”

British people do eat chocolate chip cookies, although that should probably be some British people eat these. So many internet searches are fixated on what all British people do. Get born. Breathe. Die. Beyond that, you’ll find a lot of variation.

Chocolate chip cookies in Britain often seem—I don’t like to say this—a bit disoriented. They’re not used to the range of accents. The oven temperatures are measured in centigrade instead of Fahrenheit. They’re trying to locate their friends the Notmal family, who aren’t in the phone book. (You remember phone books, right? Am I the only one around here who’s getting old?)

Basically, chocolate chip cookies are immigrants. Adapting is never a smooth process. Be patient with them. Eventually they’ll understand that the British weather is outside and you’ll be able to have a very nice conversation with them about that.

“why doing british people know what brownies are”

Because brownies are sold here. If you buy one in a café, you may have to excavate it from under layers of ice cream, whipped cream, fudge sauce, chocolate sprinkles, and tiny American flags playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but if you keep your nerve you’ll find a brownie down there somewhere.

“what people guy night”

Why, those people over there.

This probably has to do with Guy Fawkes night, which I did write about, and which may be responsible for me receiving all guy-related internet searches from now until forever. I’m not sure about the “what people” part of the question, though. The British ones? Probably. You can identify them by their confusion over what their values are.

“what are american biscuits called in england”

If this is about baking powder biscuits, they’re not called anything unless you’re at my house. They only exist if I make a batch, and I call them baking powder biscuits so people don’t take one thinking they’re funny-looking cookies and then feel disappointed.

On the other hand, if this is about the kind of biscuits you eat with cheese, they’re called biscuits. That’s to distinguish them from the things Americans call cookies, which are called biscuits.

Clear? Want to read about the Cornish mile?

“do the english get confused between the names ‘england’ and ‘britain’”

No more than the Americans get confused between the names Minnesota and Upper Midwest, or California and West Coast, or Massachusetts and New England. They leave it to Americans to get confused about. It’s a handy division of labor and it’s worked well for the country, although I’m not sure it’s done the U.S. any favors.

I suspect the rest of the world has less trouble with this, but maybe that’s just my ignorance speaking.

“why are people called great Britain”

They’re not.

“why is great and why is Britain”

Yes. Both.

“are drinks stronger in britain”

No, but water’s wetter. And the air is airier.

“letter from an English friend talking about how they bake lemon bread”

Sorry, but I didn’t get the letter. And my feelings were hurt by that.

“siri welsh placenames”

I don’t know Welsh, I’m sorry to say, so I wouldn’t trust my pronunciation and you shouldn’t either. I also wouldn’t trust Siri’s, or any other automated voice’s.

Not long ago, I caught a ride down to Hayle (pronounced Hale by everyone I’ve heard mention it) with a friend whose sat-nav called it HAY-yell. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but you can’t know with place names in England (or Cornwall) unless you ask someone local. And even then, you have to hope they’re not messing with you, because it’s got to be tempting.

I suspect Welsh place names are less unpredictable than English ones, but I’m saying that not because I know anything about Welsh place names but because I’m convinced that nothing matches the English ones for sheer insanity.

“how many brussels sprouts do we eat in the u.k. at christmas”

240,641, 004. But that doesn’t take account of the ones that get sliced into quarters and shoved under the leftover mashed potatoes, And the brussels sprouts monitors are still arguing whether to count the ones that get fed to the dog.

Britain and the U.S.

“british admired americans directness”

Oh, they did, did they? All of them? When was that? In my experience some do and some would just as soon send us home to be direct—or rude, if you prefer—with our fellow Amurricans.

“british hate americans” // “do brits like americans” // “british attitude toward americans” // “do british people like chocolate chip cookies”

Let’s get this out of the way first: I do understand the difference between Americans and chocolate chip cookies. I herded those complaining questions into a single group because I want to explain this once and once only: The Great British Attitude Convention—you know: the one that votes on how the entire population feels about things—bogged down in procedural disagreements this year and hasn’t been able to decide a damn thing. They’re still arguing about the shape of the table.

So Americans? Chocolate chip cookies? Right now, no one knows how the British feel. People are hugging American tourists and then hauling off and slapping them. They’re buying chocolate chip cookies, then throwing them on the floor by the cash register and stamping on them. It’s a tricky business, being on all sides of everything.

“british people think of tornado alley”

I’m not so sure they do. A few, probably, but I don’t think tornado alley’s widely known.

The inevitable wig questions

“does the government still wear those stupid wigs in england”

The government is not a living being. From that it follows from it is that the government doesn’t have a physical head to put a wig on. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. Some things we’ve just got to face up to. And the phrase “the head of state”? It’s a figure of speech. The state, like the government, doesn’t have a literal head.

“do english judges feel silly”

Constantly.

Oh, you were asking about wigs. Probably not. They’re used to them.

Gotcha questions

“how to act like aristocracy”

Okay, I admit it: When I gave that title (or something like it; I don’t really remember) to a post, I was thinking, I bet someone googles this. And they do. Not in huge numbers, but in ones and threes. It’s embarrassing. For them, not me. Do you suppose they’re really trying to act like aristocracy, and if so, why?

“how to behave like an aristocratic lady”

Keep your eye on me, kid, then do the opposite.