News from Britain. And elsewhere

When Boris Johnson became Britain’s foreign secretary, he had to give up his–well, I don’t know if I should call this his day job or his night job, so let’s say his newspaper job. He was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph while he was a member of pariliament.

It’s not unusual for MPs to have outside jobs–roughly a fifth of them do. After all, their basic salary is only £79,397 plus expenses. It’s tough, but in this age of austerity what more can they expect? They have to set an example for the nation.

And the expenses? Well, after the 2009 scandal, when it turned out that one MP had claimed for a duck island and another put in a receipt for having his moat cleaned (and both claims were accepted), expenses went down for a while. Then they started up again. and in 2014 -15 they ranged from a low of around £4,000 to something in the neighborhood of £200,000.

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower. A montbretia, to be more exact–an absolutely gorgeous wildflower that spreads like mad and gives gardeners the heeby-jeebies.

Expenses are supposed to cover travel, the cost of living in London while parliament’s meeting (or in their constituency–it’s complicated, but it depends on what they claim as their primary residence; did you really want to know?), and the cost of running an office. But every so often, you know, the moat really does need a good cleaning. Mine has gone way beyond the limits of decency, but I’m waiting till I get elected because the maintenance on the damned things is just ridiculous.

But back to Boris Johnson having an outside job. Now that he’s no longer in the cabinet, he’s free to make a little much-need money, because who can live on £79,000 plus up to £200,000 in expenses? The Telegraph took pity and rehired him. For £275,000 a year, in return for which he writes a weekly column that he’s said takes ten hours a month to write. That’s £2,291 per hour. Or I trust it is. I’m riding on someone else’s calculation there. Given my gift for math, it’s better to trust even the least reliable source than mess it up myself. That way if it’s wrong I get to blame someone else. In 2009, he described the income from his column as chickenfeed.

I’d love to see the size of his chickens.


A Costa Coffee ad has been banned from the airwaves because it bad-mouthed avocados. According to British advertising guidelines, ads aren’t allowed to discourage people from eating fruit and vegetables.

The ad talked about avocados taking 18 days, 3 hours, and 20 minutes to ripen, then going bad after 10 minutes. Costa has argued that it was only joking. The Avocado Defense League has said it doesn’t care.


Full disclosure: There is no Avocado Defense League. Two listeners and half a dozen highly distressed avocados complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but it wasn’t a coordinated effort.

In the process of making sure that the league didn’t exist (it’s a strange world out there and you never know until you check), I learned two things; 

One, that drug cartels have been extorting money from Mexican avocado growers, because avocado export is big business. The war on drugs has had some very weird results. That’s a more important story than an anti-avocado ad, but I’m a sucker for a silly story and I can’t find much to laugh about in the serious one. 

Two, that some economic sages think the reason the millennial generation is broke is because they eat avocados. On toast. The reason these kids can’t buy a home, they say, isn’t because housing prices are too high, wages are too low, and work too unstable. It’s because the silly little hedonists frivel their money away buying avocado toast.

The ever-helpful BBC has created an avocado toast index. It tells us that in New York, you’d have to forgo 12,135 avocado toasts to save up the downpayment on a home. That’s 33 years without avocado toast. In San Francisco, you’d have to give up 12, 975 avocado toasts, waiting 44 years. London? It’s 24,499, or 67 years.

That’s calculated on the basis on one serving of avocado toast a day.


Four East London schools closed because they were infested with false widow spiders, which can bite but don’t seem to have gotten around to it. They were too busy keeping up with their homework.

False widows arrived in Britain in 1879, in a bunch of bananas from Madeira disguised as real widows, black veils and all. Having been in the country for this long, you’d think they’d have graduated by now, but homework’s difficult when pens and pencils aren’t made for your species and you don’t have internet access.

There are four species of false widow in Britain. The ones in the London school are the noble false widow, the biggest of the bunch at around 14 mm (the males are smaller, 10 mm, or roughly a third of an inch). Still, compared to a pencil, that’s not very big. I’d make a joke about noble false widows but I can’t think of one that works well enough to be worth our time. It’s a car crash of a name, though. 

And in case you’re as clueless as I am, Madeira’s an island off the coast of Portugal. Politically, if not quite geographically, it’s part of Portugal. It’s one of those places I didn’t know I couldn’t locate until I had to locate it.


A new typeface, sans forgetica, is supposed to help readers remember what they’re read. The theory is that by making readers work to decipher what they’re looking at, the font will–okay, I’m making this up on the spot, but it sounds credible–engage more of the brain, making the content harder to forget, or possibly even easier to remember. The font’s back-slanted and the letters have gaps that make it hard to read. I read a small piece of an article in it and have no memory of what it said. You’re welcome to try it if you like.

If you’re thinking of using it, my advice would be to forget the font and the make the content more interesting.


Britain had another royal wedding: Prince Andrew’s daughter Eugenie married–oh, somebody or other. He works as a brand ambassador for a tequila company.

This is a job?

Andrew apparently wanted the BBC to cover the event live and in full, excruciating detail but it declined, so ITV stepped in. Three cheers for keeping the public up to date on the things that affect our lives. The aforesaid public didn’t pick up the cost of the wedding but paid for the security, which an anti-monarchist group estimates at £2 million.

I wasn’t invited. It’s all very sad, because I have a very nearly respectable pair of black jeans that I’ve been meaning to wear someplace only somehow I never do because they’re too dressy for most of the occasions I’m welcome at.


Our solar system has a newly found dwarf planet on its outskirts, somewhere beyond Pluto. It’s been named the Goblin. Astronomers found it while they were looking for a large planet they assume is out there but haven’t located, which they call Planet Nine. The Goblin seems to be under the gravitational influence of something large but so far unseen, so the find adds to the belief that Nine is out there.

The Goblin is about 300 km, or 190 miles, across and takes 40,000 years to complete one asymmetrical orbit of the sun.

The Goblin’s formal name is 2015 TG387, but a member of the team that discovered it explained that “human examination of the candidate slow-moving objects occurred in roughly the Halloween timeframe.”

You followed that, right? It was close to Halloween when they found it.


A free speech row has broken out over the use of the word bollocks. The founder of a London plumbing company, Charlie Mullins, was told to take down a sign saying, “Bollocks to Brexit,” which is highly visible above the company’s office.

It replaced a sign that read, “Nobody voted to be poorer,” which hung there for six months without offending the council (which is British for the local government), so Mullins is assuming the problem is the word bollocks, although he points out that a 1977 case involving the Sex Pistols ruled that the word is not obscene.

The definition of bollocks–and if you’re not British you might need this–is either testicles or nonsense, rubbish. Its origin is Middle English, which is irrelevant but interesting. At least it’s interesting if you’re something of a language geek.

Mullins said he’s prepared to go to jail but he’s not taking the sign down. To which the council says, “Bollocks.”


A Banksy spray painting was sold at auction for more than a million pounds. Then it shredded itself.

It did what?

It shredded itself. Or the lower half of itself. Banksy–a graffiti artist who’s managed to stay anonymous while building a worldwide reputation–had somehow rigged a shredder into the frame and the canvas dropped itself neatly down into the blades, emerging in strips just after it was sold.

As I write this, a lot of things aren’t clear, including how it was done, who bought the painting, whether the auction house will hold the buyer to the contract, and whether the piece is now worth more or less or nothing at all. [A late note: The buyer decided to buy it anyway. What’s it worth? Probably a lot more. The world is insane.]


Now that Toronto’s rid of the mayor who was caught on video smoking crack, you’d think its problems would be over, but they’ve only just started. Raccoons are riding the subways. They’re breaking into banks, crashing baseball games, and stealing donuts.

One resident found three in her kitchen eating bread. Two ran off but one not only held its ground, it grabbed hold of the broom handle the woman poked at it and yanked it. Which for reasons I can’t entirely explain seems more threatening that just grabbing the thing.

A great deal of growling and hissing went on, all of it on the part of the human.

When the raccoon had eaten every bit of bread in the house, it yawned, scratched its belly, and left through the window. The woman locked the window and the raccoon spent the next two hours scratching to get back in. It must have seen the stale hamburger bun that fell behind the refrigerator the week before.

At one point, the city tried to deal with its raccoon problem by introducing a raccoon-proof trash can with a hand-turned lock. In no time at all, the little beasts had figured out that they could tip them over, triggering a gravity-operated opening mechanism that allows the cans to be dumped into trucks.

To date, no one’s caught the raccoons smoking crack on video. They’re too clever to do it around anyone with a phone.


Salisbury’s image has been tarnished this year by the Novichok poisoning first of a Russian resident and his visiting daughter and then, just when the city thought it might recover, of two homeless people who picked up the bottle used to transport the poison. Visitor numbers are down. Business is suffering.

What does a city do in a situation like that? Why, it hires consultants, and it asks them to rebrand the city.

Visit historic Salisbury: It’s more than just Novichok.


In September, Megan Markle–the newly minted Duchess of Wherever and wife to Prince Whoosit–was caught on camera closing her own car door.

Yes, folks, that’s print-worthy. The BBC interviewed an etiquette and protocol coach, William Hanson, to make sure the monarchy would survive. He was reassuring and said it wasn’t a protocol breach.

I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am. If you’re not, you should be. The Guardian was so relieved that it printed rumors about what Prince Charles, Meggy’s newly minted father-in-law, won’t do for himself. You’re welcome to chase the full list down if you’re interested, but my favorite is that he has a valet iron his shoelaces. 


93 thoughts on “News from Britain. And elsewhere

  1. Hi Ellen,
    I most enjoyed your column this morning. And being the day after Thanksgiving and our fridge is filled with so many leftovers I wish weren’t there I thought of you and Ida. I hope you’re both well and continue to enjoy your life in your beautiful village in Cornwall. I often think back to the evening you invited Clive and me over, and I was so relieved to hear some good American cussing. It helped me immensely at the time. Best best best wishes to both of you from Betsy… And Clive.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hey Betsy. Bit by bit, we’re dropping the Thanksgiving traditions–to turkey this year and next year no pumpkin pie since no one eats it. But we continue to celebrate. And to swear, although that’s a year-round thing that we wouldn’t think of saving for Thanksgiving. Love to you both.


  2. I just remarked to my butler when he finished reading your blog out loud for me, “I say Jeeves, that last one is diabolical. Now, please get on with removing the hazelnuts from my muesli and skin them properly this time.”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Okay, so let me get this straight: Boris has been studying for his avocado degree while helping raccoons get into a microwave in a roundabout way of finding funding for his moat, while false widow spiders mess around on a duck island eating too much toast while watching Megham opening her car door and trying to remember it all by reading what an east London school typed in sans forgetica? Did I miss anything out? I did? Oh bollocks! (Though as I am not a fan of councils and it involved a council, I might retract that.)

    In other news – are you going to write about the banned Iceland ad (or have you? I’m very out of date), and don’t you think that all MPs including our (not) revered PM, should do their job on a voluntary basis?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s been a while since I had time to come and savor your words, and oh, how I’m glad I did today!
    I have already closed my own car door twice this morning, and I wasn’t even wearing my best jeans. For the price of kibble and a tremendous amount of affection, my big boy cat will chew my shoelaces, although he seems to prefer The Mister’s.
    I had a gander at the new-good-for-memory font and I think if it helps memory, it may be because it takes so long to read it. No, thank you.
    I have a few ‘friends’ whose livelihoods are made up by things that don’t actually sound like jobs or work, unclear on the details, which I suppose is best, lest the plebs figure out how to obtain these positions and do a better job at being vague and pretentious.
    Madeira is a wine, further knowledge was never sought before this post, and I would have reckoned Madeira was in Spain. Maybe this new knowledge will help me during Trivial Pursuit, one never can tell.


  5. I’ll bad-mouth avocados any day – disgusting things that they are. I buy one for another family member every now and then (at their request – I wouldn’t voluntarily go near an avocado otherwise). And just as the ad says, the thing is as hard as a rock when you purchase it. You put it with the other fruit, and it stays rock hard for a week. Then when the avocado addict in the family decides it might at last be edible, they find that they’ve missed the five minute window of optimum ripeness and now the thing is just black gloopy mess inside. But for me, if I’m presented with a ripe avocado that’s just reached it’s peak of softness, I still think the best thing to do with it is throw it in the bin. Even the compost heap is too good a destination for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. >Madeira’s an island off the coast of Portugal.
    Also the place where the fortified wine – one of the world’s most delicious fortified wines – is produced!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s a hard life being a British Royal when you have to worry about protocol breaches all the time. I developed a few communications protocols in my software engineering career, but I never had to worry about breaching one. Maybe I should have done?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What I love about the raccoon incident is that when the woman called her local government, they suggested she find a 24 hour wildlife removal company. God forbid they might have such a list on hand to help the poor woman! Great story, made me laugh. – Marty

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I think the reason your false widows haven’t graduated yet is because they are too busy trying to get the avocado bread into the toaster – neither is made spider-size, so it takes a lot of them to get that slice into the toaster. Then there’s the whole “jumping up and down” on the handle to get the toast to go down and the toaster to start. Many lives are lost in the effort.

    As far as your MP’s spending is concerned, consider that here, in the states, politicians receive a stipend to cover their transportation costs to Washington. Many of them, including a notable representative from California, fly military jets for free (it’s allowed), but still put in for the transportation stipend. Flying for free is costly.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Ellen, happy to see your close examination of Toronto’s Trash Bandits. They are fearsome creatures, patrolling the streets at night and by day. They are no longer nocturnal much to our chagrin as our ‘racoon proof’ cans can be put to the curb at 6pm. The morning after horrors of trash strewn about the neighbourhood is a sight (site) to see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Minneapolis came up with a trash can that did seem to be pretty raccoonproof. They’d have had to stand on the lid to open it, at which point, of course, they couldn’t open it. I never did see one knocked over, so presumably they couldn’t do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Back in the fifties there was a popular song the went”Have some more Maderia, my dear”
    I was young but understood the meaning.

    I did not get invited to Eugenia’s wedding either. She is the adult royal I like. Maybe it is her choice in hats.

    A raccoon learned how to open the lid of my teash can. It’s four feet high. The trash can. When discovered it hopped to the top and stared at my wife then turned and ran away. I use bungee cords now to tie the lid down. That has worked so far.

    Things on this side are going well. In spite of everything we seemingly try to go to prevent it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I couldn’t help myself. I read the sans forgetica memo. It reminded me of what happens when my printer is running out of ink. It also made me feel irritable and possibly mentally ill. But that’s just a feeling. I’ll forget it soon and hope this is not seriously foisted on those of us who’ve reached a certain age as yet another way to forestall the symptoms of getting old. I’m sticking with Times New Roman til the day I die.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a fan of Times New Roman myself, although a typesetter I used to work with (the fact that I know what a typesetter is tells you how old I am) had a very funny list of fake typefaces, including, I think, Goudy Old Face. I suppose it’s appropriate that I’ve forgotten the others. Maybe if she’d printed them in Sans Forgettica…


  13. You sure did cover quite a range of topics! An Aussie author and broadcaster Richard Glover has just written a book of so-called nostalgia of living in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s “The Land Before Avocado Toast”. Denyse #seniorsalon

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a funny title, but it’s odd how people settle on some single symbol to sum up a whole bunch of changes, which are as happy to stay corralled as a flock of cats. And then, some of them at least, get worked up about whatever that symbol is.


  14. I loved this so much! It really made me laugh – especially the bit about avocados. I’m afraid I’m probably the stereotypical twenty something that can’t stop eating smashed avocado on toast, and therefore according to the economist (who probably went to Eton and used daddy’s money to get on the housing ladder at age 12) I am most definitely ‘frivolling away’ my money!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What a hugely enjoyable collection of newsy bits! I’ll be back! That avocado toast article has some legs! Goodness, most people eat it at the occasional brunch, I think, so it could take many more years to come up with a down payment. As for cleaning moats, well, it’s probably more than cleaning a septic tank, but thinking the public should pay for it. And Boris Johnson…well, there’s not much more to be said, is there?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not much more to be said that wouldn’t drive us to despair. But–well, I can add that the same expenses scandal that included the bill for moat cleaning had another MP billing the House of Commons for a floating duck island. The thing about British political scandals is that they can have an air of surreal insanity that Americans (and I am one) can only envy. But we can talk about that over our next avocado toast, right?

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Regarding Mr. Johnson: Sometimes I think the main way the rich are different from us is their total inability to live on any sort of budget. (I know there’s a blog post for me somewhere in that Toronto raccoon story. I just need to think about it.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • They don’t need to live on a budget, but they’re happy to blame to poor for being spendthrifts.

      That wasn’t even remotely funny, was it?

      On a lighter note, I’ll be happy to see what you do with the racoon story.

      Liked by 1 person

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