About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Boris Johnson’s minders, & other pandemic and Black Lives Matter news from Britain

Somebody in government let the prime minister out on his own and before anyone could shut him down he’d blamed care homes for the nearly 20,000 Covid-19 deaths on their premises.

“Too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way they could have,” Boris Johnson said. 

All the predictable hell broke loose, along with reminders that: Care homes hadn’t been able to get protective gear. What guidelines they were given were unclear. They couldn’t get either staff or patients tested for the virus. Agency staff–that’s British for temporary workers–spread infections between homes because (guess what) they couldn’t get tested. The government rejected a proposal to lock down care homes before the infection entered. 

And did I mention that 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested?

Sorry, I meant to mention it. It’s a detail. It slipped my mind.

As soon as Johnson was bundled back out of sight, a government spokesperson said, “The PM was pointing out that nobody knew what the correct procedures were because the extent of asymptomatic transmission was not known at that time.”

Which sounds almost exactly like what Johnson said if you took away his words and replaced them with other, more coherent words on a slightly different subject.

FYI: Asymptomatic transmission was known at that time, and at several other times, but let’s not pretend we’re talking about reality here.

Johnson’s minders are under strict instructions not to let him wander loose that way, but you know what it’s like. They can’t keep an eye on him every minute of every day. And he is the prime minister, so he gets to give the orders, at least when Dominic Cummings is out of the office.

They don’t have an easy job.

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Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower by that name.

The health minister has said that in all but  “certain circumstances” the government will be scrapping free parking for National Health Service staff members once the pandemic eases. No one’s told us yet what he really meant to say, but the shit is flying thick and fast. By tomorrow, someone should step in to explain that he really meant there’s been some concern about people parking on the white lines that divide their spaces and would they please exercise a bit more care.

Clapping for NHS workers, which the top government ministers did dutifully on many a Thursday, doesn’t cost anything, but it did have an unfortunately way of focusing the nation’s attention on NHS staff. And the next thing you know, people are looking asking why it’s been so long since they got a pay raise. And why they were charged for parking in the first place? 

It’s not easy, placating an entire country.

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The committee of the Morris Federation–an organization of morris dancing groups–has written to its members calling for a halt to the use of blackface.

One strand of morris dancing has a tradition of appearing in blackface. No one’s sure when or how that started, and some dancers argue that it isn’t racist, it came out of the dancers’ need to disguise themselves. Other dancers have stopped arguing about origins and dropped it.

The committee writes:

Our traditions do not operate in a vacuum. . . . We must recognise that full-face black or other skin tone makeup is a practice that has the potential to cause deep hurt.

“Morris is a living tradition and it is right that it has always adapted and evolved to reflect society. . . .  We welcome the fact that many long-standing teams who used to wear full-face black makeup have chosen to use masks, alternative colours, or other forms of disguise.  We now believe we must take further steps to ensure the continued relevance and inclusivity of the tradition.”

They’ll be asking the group’s annual general meeting not to renew the membership of teams that continue to use blackface.

An annual general meeting? It’s a British thing. All you have to do is say AGM and everyone will know what you mean. It’s an–um, well, it’s complicated. It’s a general meeting. Held annually. And you have to have one or your right to call yourself an organization will be revoked. That’s enforced, with no mercy and no appeal, by the laws of physics, a handful of which apply only in Britain.

My thanks to @amuddleofmorris for keeping me up to date on this. 

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I keep promising myself that I won’t report on coronavirus studies, possibilities, and assorted carrots dangling in front of us as we look for a way out of the hall of Covid mirrors. Most of them will come to nothing. That too is enforced, with no appeal, by the laws of physics. 

They’re ruthless bastards, those laws of physics.

Then I see a mention of another promising study or three and I break my promise. Because promises aren’t governed by law. And because we all need shreds of hope as we stumble through, bumping our noses into exits that turn out to be more damn mirrors.

So, here’s what I’ve found. I don’t promise that any of them will ultimately work, but they might. They just might.

1. A proposal to try the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine against the coronavirus in the hope that it will reduce lung inflammation and sepsis, two of the body’s most dangerous responses to the disease.

2. A synthetic antibody that may be able to neutralize Covid-19, both preventing any initial infection and helping people who’ve become infected to recover. Basically, it works as a decoy, drawing virus particles away from cells that could become infected. It was developed in mouse models. 

Mouse models? They’re improbably good-looking mice. The scientists give them the drug and photographers take pictures.

The less than great news is that if it works it would have to be injected into the bloodstream every two to four weeks.

They’re working toward human trials.

3. A test of canakinumab, a drug no one can pronounce that’s used to treat juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It damps down the body’s immune response and could prevent the cytokine storm–the immune overreaction–that occurs in some severe cases.

I was going to say it works by being so hard to pronounce that the disease goes into a state of paralysis, but I was afraid someone would believe me.

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Madrid’s Teatro Real became the first European theater to stage a live production (as far as I know, which isn’t all that far; it’s a big continent) since the continent locked down. That doesn’t include the concert that was staged in Barcelona for an audience of live plants. That one’s in a category of its own. 

The Madrid production was Verdi’s La Traviata.

How’d they do it? They doubled the size of the orchestra pit so the musicians could keep a safe (we hope) distance from each other. The intermission lasted forty minutes so everything could be disinfected. The conductor was behind a plastic screen. The production was semi-staged, presumably to keep the singers at a distance from each other. And the audience wore masks and was half the usual size.

The production opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the virus and a statement from journalist Iñaki Gabilondo: “Nothing is simple now, including being here tonight. “ 

My thanks to Max Burrows for sending me a link to this article.

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If you’re still holding out for herd immunity to protect us from Covid-19, prepare to accept a lot of dead bodies and damaged survivors along the way, because we’re nowhere close. A large study in Spain, which was hit hard by the virus, found that only 5.2% of the population has antibodies. The standard estimate is that 60% would need antibodies before you could talk about herd immunity.

If–and it’s a big if–anyone develops immunity to the virus. That hasn’t been established. We may, we may not. 

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A group of 239 scientists from 32 countries urged the World Health Organization to give more emphasis to the use of masks and to acknowledge that the virus is spread not just by the big droplets we breathe out but by the aerosols we breathe out along with them–those tiny, near-weightless bits of breath that surf the air currents more gracefully (and more to the point, for longer) than their clunky droplet cousins.

WHO seems to be taking it on board. Its latest statement says there’s emerging evidence of aerosol transmission but it’s not definitive.

If the 239 scientists are right, it means that we may need to do more than keep two (or one, or however many) meters (or yards) apart. It means that especially in crowded, badly ventilated space, we need masks. 

Yeah, you too, cowboy. 

And there’s some evidence that wearing a mask does give the wearer a bit of protection. Which is a bit better than no protection.

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York Minster’s been the center of a debate over whether a statue of a Roman emperor, Constantine, should be removed because of his support of slavery. Two newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, have run articles. Comedians and politicians have tweeted in the statue’s defense. It’s Black Lives Matter gone insane, they say.

The only problem is that no one proposed getting rid of it.

“We have not received a single complaint about Emperor Constantine’s statue,” a minster spokesperson said. “Nothing is happening: there is no discussion, action, intention or even thoughts about it.”

It’s disappointing. Just when you get a good lungful of outrage going–

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That’s it for the moment. Stay well. I don’t have so many readers that any of you are expendable. 

Drinking while drunk, driving while black, advertising while fake: It’s the news from Britain

England’s pubs reopened, and either there was chaos or the predictions of mass disorder turned out to be exaggerated. It depends on what papers you read. But where’s the fun in people behaving sensibly? Let’s talk about what disorder there was.

The predictions were that drunks not only wouldn’t social distance but couldn’t if they wanted to, and to at least some extent that was true. A policeman from Southampton, said he’d dealt with “naked men,  happy drunks, angry drunks, fights, and more angry drunks.”   

In London, Soho was packed. “Barely anyone was wearing masks and nobody respected social distancing,” a store manager said. “To be honest, with that many people on one street it was physically impossible.”

A few days later, three pubs announced that someone who’d been there had come down with the virus and they  were closing temporarily. Three out of however many pubs there are in England isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make me want to go out. 

People had to leave contact information, so they’re able, at least, to get in touch with everyone who’d been in.

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Screamingly irrelevant photo: The white cliffs of–nope, not Dover. They’re in Dorset, near Swannage.

Here in Cornwall, we’re meeting the onslaught of visitors with mixed feelings. The economy depends on them. So jobs, businesses, all that stuff: We need them. Our health, though? It does better without them. Compared to many parts of the country, we haven’t had that many cases.

Our neighbor, who cuts lawns for second homes and holiday cottages, was calling the first day outsiders could legally stay overnight in the county (we won’t discuss the illegal ones) Spiky Saturday. Someone else tweeted a photo of three people holding up a sign on a Cornish highway bridge. It said, “Turn around and fuck off.”

The country government estimated the influx at 70,000 to 80,000 people. Who all ignored the sign. 

*

In case you’re wondering what Britain’s Black Lives Matter is fussing about, two black former Olympic athletes were stopped by the police in their own neighborhood, and handcuffed, while their three-month-old son was in the car. The police claim they were stopped because the car had blacked-out windows and they were driving on the wrong side of the street. 

The couple, Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos, say they were stopped because they’re black and were driving a Mercedes. Dos Santos said the police have stopped him  as many as 15 times since 2017, when they bought the car. They weren’t charged with driving on the wrong side of the road, which makes me (cynic that I am) think they probably weren’t, and tinted car windows aren’t illegal, although there’s a limit on how dark they can be. 

After a forty-five minute search, they were let go. 

The police Directorate of Professional Standards said they’ve reviewed footage of the incident and don’t see any problem with the officers’ conduct. So that solves that.

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From the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions comes this story:

The government launched an ad campaign urging people to “enjoy summer safely,” which disappoints those of us who’d planned to spend it bungee jumping off London Bridge at the end of rubber bands and ending up in a plague-infested hospital–

Sorry, where was I? A government campaign urging us toward unobjectionable behavior used a photo of a baker from Haxby, near York. It ran in newspapers with the headline “Welcome back to freshly baked bread.”

Why freshly baked bread? Bread–stale, fresh, and every state in between–was available throughout Britain’s lockdown. Probably more of it than before the virus hit, since with cafes and restaurants closed bakeries had more bread than usual and the number of newly converted home bakers exceeded the number of men, women, children, and dogs living in Britain. On top of which, the government didn’t invent the fresh baked bread and not many people will be convinced that they did, so why are they acting as if they did? But never mind. That wasn’t the fault of the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions. The ad’s text came from the Undersecretary of World-Beating Pandemic Screwups. All the Ministry of Embarrassing Decisions contributed was the photo, which was of a baker, Phil Clayton, who not only has no use for the way the government’s handled the pandemic, he’s a long-time Labour and Corbyn supporter, a Brexit opponent, and known for stenciling political slogans onto his bread. He’s demanding that they pull the ads and pay him a modeling fee.

I don’t know if they pulled the ad or not, but I know I couldn’t find it. On the other hand, I had no trouble finding multiple articles about it. 

The bread looks delicious. Especially the loaf that says “F*ck Boris.”

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The British government has announced a large support package for arts organizations, but film and theater director Sam Mendes, together with Netflix, has set up an emergency fund for theater freelancers who haven’t received any government support and are at the “breaking point.” The idea is to get £1,000 grants to them as quickly as possible. 

There’s been some government support for people whose jobs disappeared, but it hasn’t covered everybody and there doesn’t seem to be any governmental interest in identifying the gaps and filling them. 

The fund was set up after Mendes called on Netflix to use some of its pandemic windfall to support the performing arts. It donated £500,000. The money’s expected to run out quickly but the fund’s hoping for additional donations. 

Sorry, I haven’t found anything funny about that, but good news stories are hard to find, so I figured it was worth including.

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Which?, a group that offers consumer advice and advocacy and claims the question mark as part of its name, decided to test how hard they’d have to work to pay Lord Google and Facebook to run fake ads. The answer is, not hard at all. They set up a website claiming that a nonexistent brand of water could help you “lose weight, improve your mood and feel better.” 

Yes, it both improved your mood and made you feel better. The ordinary stuff–you inow, the stuff that comes out of your tap–might do one or the other, but never both.

A second site offered health and hydration “pseudo-advice.” I’d love to quote the pseudo-advice, but I can’t find any of it. Still, the internet’s awash with pseudo-advice. Ask Lord Google about weight loss and you’ll find more advice than one human being could follow in a lifetime. If you want to, you can lose so much weight that when you step on the scales you’ll register in the negative numbers. 

We didn’t need to provide any proof that our business actually existed,” Which? said. “In fact, it took barely an hour for our fake advert applications to be approved by Google, with no further input required from our fake company. . . .

“Our first Facebook ad targeted accounts that Facebook had deemed to be UK females aged 18-65 with interests including ‘health and wellbeing’ and ‘water’. That may seem fairly reasonable. However, we were also able to target those with the associated terms ‘extreme weight loss’ and ‘defeat depression’. Our second ad targeted US women, with interests including ‘insomnia’, ‘suicide prevention’ and ‘panic’. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see how having these sorts of ‘interests’ attached to individual accounts could lead to people whose search history shows them to be in a vulnerable position being hand-picked by scammers wishing to prey on those vulnerabilities.”

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A Colombian tree frog turned up in Wales, having ridden there in a bunch of bananas. A staff member took it home and got it to an animal center. 

It’s doing just fine, thanks. Amphibians can slow down their metabolism, and that let it survive the trip without food or water. The animal center has put in a special order for crickets.

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This is a followup to the story about the Starbucks barista, Lenin Gutierrez, who asked a customer to wear a mask only to be cursed at and blasted on social media for it. A stranger set up a GoFundMe page for the barista.

According to ComicSands, “It’s gotten over $100k for Lenin, who used to teach dance to children before the pandemic. Lenin has said he will use the money to further his education, continue dancing and give back to the community by launching a community dance program to teach children who could not afford lessons.”

The woman who started this mess is now demanding at least half of the money and threatening to sue him if she doesn’t get it. And while she’s at it, she wants to sue GoFundMe. But before any of that, someone set up a GoFundMe page for her–to redress the defamation and slander against her. I found a link to it , but the page seemed to have been taken down. 

Since ComicSands isn’t what you’d call a news site, so I thought I’d better look around for confirmation. Most newspapers have lost interest in the story by now, but I did find something in the Mail, a trashy newspaper that I also don’t trust, but it is at least a newspaper. Same story. It seems to be true.

*

The president of the Royal Society, Venki Ramakrishnan, has said that wearing masks protects both other people and the wearer. He says everyone should be wearing them in crowded public spaces. 

According to Paul Edelstein of the University of Pennsylvania (which, just to be clear, is not in the U.K.) the evidence that they protect other people is clearer all the time but there’s also some evidence that they protect the wearer.

Traffic cones, pubs, and coronavirus testing: It’s the news from Britain

According to a small and deeply meaningful study, fans of apocalyptic movies may be handling the pandemic better than the rest of us. 

I wasn’t part of the study, but I’ve watched one or possibly two movie apocalumps (that’s the not-quite-official plural of apocalypse), and I don’t know about other people, but I come out thinking, Live? Die? Does it really matter? I can see where take some of the angst out of the pandemic.

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There’s a bit more news about remdesivir, the drug that shortens people’s Covid-19 recovery time: The studies showing that shortening turn out to be small, preliminary, and ambiguous. In one small study that was cut short, it didn’t outperform a placebo. In another, patients on remdesivir recovered an average of four days ahead of the control group, but there was no difference in their death rates. 

But, according to the Medical Express, “That study was also stopped early, which can lead to exaggerated estimates of treatment benefits. A British Medical Journal editorial highlighted the study’s financial links to Gilead [the drug’s manufacturer] as another source of bias.”

The U.S. has bought out almost three months’ worth of Gilead’s production of remdesivir, for a sizable sum of money.

Now we have to wait and see how useful it’ll be.

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This isn’t, as you’ll probably have noticed, the Duke of Wellington on his horse. (Wellington appears just below, with his horse). It’s a wild horse on the Cornish cliffs, but it’s as close as I could come. No traffic cones were injured in the making of this photo.

Let’s take a break from the coronavirus. We owe ourselves that.

In Glasgow, a statue of the Duke of Wellington generally wears a traffic cone on his head, and he looks quite fetching in it. Go on, click both links here. This is important.

The city authorities generally take it down.

And someone generally puts it back on. 

This has been going on since the 1980s. That’s a lot of traffic cones. I like to think the city puts them back into its working stash of traffic cones instead of throwing them away, and if today weren’t Saturday I’d play intrepid reporter and make a phone call or two, but as things stand I just don’t know. And, you know, we have to go to press. We have deadlines to meet. The world is counting on us.

And by us, of course, I mean me.

The city estimates that it spends £10,000 a year taking traffic cones off the duke’s head. That’s £100 per cone. 

The city may or may not be padding its expenses. That’s another thing I don’t know. Let’s pretend we believe them. It’ll keep the story flowing.

In 2011, the Lonely Planet included the Coneheid (as Duke W. is known locally) on a list of the world’s ten most bizarre monuments, and if you don’t think that’s a big deal, just try getting something on the list by your own self.

In 2013, the council decided to stop all this fooling around once and for all by doubling the height of the statue’s base–called a plinth in case you ever need to know that–to the tune of £65,000. By the next day, 72,000 people had signed onto a Facebook page supporting the cone. Before much more time had passed, a petition had 100,000 signatures. A demonstration was held.

How many people showed up? Somewhere between 3 and several million.

The cone was local culture, they said, and the council had better keep its hands off it.

It all settled down for a while, with the cone staying in place, but a July 3 tweet showed that in retaliation for the cone being taken down again someone had put a whole stack of cones on the duke’s head. And one on the horse’s. 

And the pubs in Scotland hadn’t even re-opened yet. 

My thanks to Pete Cooper, who was entirely sober when he sent me these links. As–I would never imply anything else–he generally is. 

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A new coronavirus testing program worth £5 billion looks like it will go to private companies, although the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science said, “We are campaigning for NHS labs to be allowed to bid for these contracts. This should not be exclusive to commercial partners.”

Translation? Britain’s own National Health Service is blocked from the bidding. Why? Because.

NHS sources say the money will go to expand the Lighthouse laboratory program, which has successfully kept communities from getting early notice of local spikes, making it impossible for them to respond to them. For two months, IT and data protection problems meant they didn’t let local governments, hospitals, or doctors know about growing clusters of cases in their areas. They’ve also (anecdotally: I wasn’t there and I can’t prove it) lost samples, left them sitting until they were too old to be tested, and generally made themselves beloved of the medical community.

Some of those problems have been sorted out, but if a patient’s test was processed by a Lighthouse lab, hospitals still can’t find out the result. 

The number of Covid cases and deaths have both gone down in Britain–and in England, where I think this program is running. The more I read about it, though, the more I wonder how.

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Locally, a friend who drives people to medical and hospital appointments was exposed to the virus by a symptomatic passenger and spent ”a silly part of the day trying to find out how this works, with no joy at all.” 

She called 111, the number for medical advice. They told her to phone 119, “even though 119 is supposed to be to book a test only.” 

She called anyway and the “operator only knew how to book a test but couldn’t as I didn’t have any symptoms.” 

Government advice is that you shouldn’t get tested unless you have symptoms. The test, they say, is most accurate in a relatively short window of time after the symptoms appear.

That left my friend with no idea of what to do next. She went into isolation, which she’d have to do anyway, since the test comes up with a fair percentage of false negatives. But she would like to know if she has a life-threatening disease. You know how these whims can be.

She tried to find out how long it would be before the woman who’d exposed her would get a test and how long would it be before she herself would be contacted if the woman tested positive.

No answers.

She gave up and phoned the doctor’s office–called, in British, a surgery. They were in the dark, they said. The test and trace program doesn’t talk to them. Or write. Or email. You could say it was a bad breakup, but they’d never been married.

She phoned the woman who’d exposed her. She hadn’t been contacted about having a test.

If I weren’t a better person, I’d remind you that all that only costs us £5 billion. But I won’t because that wouldn’t be accurate. The £5 billion’s to expand this wondrous program, not fund its current work of saving our sorry asses.

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So how can a country find asymptomatic cases if the tests are most accurate after symptoms appear? 

By massive testing. With the same type of test the government’s using–a PCR test. As far as I can follow this, the tests may be more accurate once symptoms appear, but they’re very much worth doing beforehand.

According to Healthline“ ‘People exposed to the virus who have had close contact with a confirmed case should get tested whether or not they have symptoms,’ Amira Roess, PhD, a professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University, told Healthline.

“ ‘By identifying individuals who are positive early in disease progression before they develop symptoms and implementing public health interventions, we can prevent a large percentage of infections. This is key, because we have learned that asymptomatic infection is a key driver of this epidemic,’ she said. ‘Finding asymptomatic individuals will allow us to prevent them from spreading the virus.’ ”

As far as I can sort this mess out, it seems to be true that early testing comes up with some false negatives (the test has a fair number of those anyway), but Antibiotics Research UK talks about the importance of mass testing to identify asymptomatic carriers, meaning both people with symptoms and people without, and notes that the World Health Organization has called for it.

“Doing so has seen South Korea handle the outbreak with exceptional efficacy. A similar project in Iceland has shown that around half of the people who tested positive are showing no symptoms, too. Mass testing is the example we should be following here in the UK. This should be followed by tracking and quarantining the people who have been in contact with those found to have the virus. We need to be able to identify asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to further limit the spread.”

And we’re not doing that.

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On the other hand, the virus must be under control, because England’s pubs are opening today. The prime minister’s urging us all not to be silly about it, and of course we won’t be. But I would recommend putting the traffic cones someplace safe for a few days.

*

Finally, Florida State University sent out an email saying that starting on August 7 it would “no longer allow employees to care for children while working remotely.”

Predictably enough, the shit started flying in all directions. So they sent out new announcement, saying, “We want to be clear—our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children.”

And that upset the people who’d already cleared out space in their freezers to stash their kids in. All that ice cream gone to waste.

English history: how heavy was the Norman yoke?

In the years before 1066, English history was chugging along very nicely, thanks, with the Anglo-Saxon and Norse royal houses at each other’s throats, as they had been for long enough that everyone thought, Well, families, you know. They’re like that. Because by then they were family, and that was part of the problem. They’d intermarried enough that it wasn’t always clear who was supposed to inherit the chairs, the dishes, the crown. 

It wasn’t what you’d call peace, but at least everyone knew more or less what to expect. 

Then the Normans invaded. In no time at all (as history measures these things) the family broke apart. The Norse became distant relatives who the Anglo-Saxon didn’t see anymore–except, of course, for the ones who’d settled in England. A lot of them had done that in the north, and the Anglo-Saxons saw them all the time but they didn’t seem quite as Norse as they once had, what with the Normans stomping through. By comparison, they seemed positively–English.

Or so I like to think. You won’t find that in any of the history books. 

Just something to break up the text. It has nothing to do with anything.

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

The new outsiders, the Normans, replaced England’s governing class (with themselves, you’ll be surprised to learn), along with its language (sort of; it’s complicated and we’ll leave it alone for now) and its social structure (mostly; everything’s complicated when you give it enough thought). People who’d once been free became serfs–tied to the land and subject to the lord of the manor and his whims. 

See the end of the post for the grain of salt that goes with that last sentence.

Some 600 years later, during England’s Civil War, people who wanted to level out the country’s massive inequalities (called, surprisingly enough, the Levellers) talked nostalgically about the time before the Norman yoke was imposed on free Anglo-Saxon England. That was what they wanted–the freedom the land and its people had once known.

So just how free was Anglo-Saxon society?

Well, it depended on who you were. Free men were free. Free women were freer than they’d be again for many a century, or at least free women upper-class women were. Less is known about free women further down the social ladder. Slaves, though, were anything but free, and although the poorest peasants weren’t slaves, their situation sounds a lot like serfdom, which is somewhere between slavery and freedom.

Let’s work our way through it–or at least as much as I’ve been able to wring out of the internet and the books I have at hand. It won’t be a full picture. So much about Anglo-Saxon England has been lost.

Slavery

In Anglo-Saxon England, people could be born into slavery or they could be enslaved as a penalty for some crime. They could be captured in war, and capturing slaves was as important a reason to go to war as capturing land was. Finally, children could be sold into slavery by their parents and adults could make themselves into slaves. Both of those were probably desperate steps that people took in the face of famine.

There was a well-established slave trade, both within England and to other countries. So slavery’s roots reached deep into the economy. Bristol was a slave port, trading with the Viking merchants based in Ireland.

Slavery wasn’t necessarily a permanent condition, although it could be. Slaves could buy their way out; they could marry out of slavery; or they could be freed by their owners. It wasn’t uncommon for people to free a few slaves in their wills. Sally Crawford, in Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, speculates that people freeing slaves in their wills could, at times, have been done it with an eye toward not imposing the liability an older, unproductive slave on their heirs. She doesn’t offer any hard evidence for that, just raises the possibility. Either way, freeing a slave seems to have been considered a pious act. 

Not that Christianity pitted itself against slavery. Toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, ecclesiastical landowners had more slaves than lay people did. 

What did slaves do? They were plowmen, stockmen, beekeepers, dairymaids, swineherds, seamstresses, weavers, domestic servants, concubines, cooks, millers, and priests. 

I’m not sure what to make of priests being on that list, but it’s very much a part of the picture.  

Crawford writes about Anglo-Saxon slave owners having reciprocal obligations to their slaves–primarily to keep them fed and clothed, but also, possibly, to train some of them for skilled jobs. They also had the power to beat their slaves–not, she says, because slaves were considered a lower form of human but because Anglo-Saxon law punished transgressions with fines, and they couldn’t fine someone who couldn’t pay, so they fell back on physical punishment. 

Is she right about the reciprocal nature of Anglo-Saxon slavery? I’d have to hear it from the slaves before I’d be convinced, but they left no record. 

HIstory Today paints a less forgiving picture. “As Old English law codes make clear, slaves could be treated like animals: branded or castrated as a matter of routine and punished by mutilation or death; stoned to death by other slaves if they were male, burned to death if they were female.” 

According to Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, no line clearly divided slaves from the “other members of the labouring classes.” They wouldn’t have lived separately, and “almost everyone was beholden to someone more powerful than themselves.”

As the years ticked away and we come closer to the Norman invasion, Crawford says, slavery became less widespread. Free labor was available to do the same work and slaves had become an economic liability. The Domesday Book, which counted every chicken feather in England so that the new Norman king would know just how many chicken feathers he’d amassed in his conquest, counted slaves as 12% of the population. 

History Today isn’t convinced that slavery was on the wane and estimates that slaves made up 20% to 30% of the population. 

I’m staying out of this. Can we say that slaves made up a significant portion of the population and stop squabbling, please? 

Non-slavery

Just above the slaves on the social ladder were people who owed service to their lords. Most of them were serfs. 

Cottars were one step up from slaves and many of them might have been freed slaves. (You notice how hazy that got? “Many”; “might have been.” We can’t know, so let’s not pretend we do.) They worked on the lords’ estates in exchange for some land they could work for themselves. It was often marginal land. 

Above them came bordars, or geburs, who are in italics because the word’s Old English (it means tenant farmer) and Old English is foreign enough to a modern English speaker’s ear that we treat it like a foreign language and use funny-looking letters. Bordars don’t come in italics because the word crept into Norman usage, although most of us won’t recognize it. 

Look, don’t ask me to explain it. I’m following Crawford’s system of italics and inventing explanations as I go. You shouldn’t trust me too far on this. 

Have we gone off topic? Of course we’ve gone off topic. It’s what we do here.

The  bordars/geburs weren’t as poor as cottars but still owed work to the lord. Some were brewers or bakers. 

Above them came the coerls–small freeholders. They paid taxes, sat on juries, and owed public service, all of which marked them as free, but they also owed service to a lord. They may or may not have been armed and may or may not have fought with their lord when called on. It’s not clear. 

The word coerl comes into modern English as churl–a peasant; someone who’s rude or mean spirited, probably because from the Norman point of view, all Anglo-Saxons working the land looked alike and sounded alike. And were inherently rude and mean spirited, not to mention muddy, and so they could all be treated like dirt.

Coerl didn’t bring any italics with it. I’m only using them here to talk about it as a word, the same way I italicized churl.

And that, my friends, has nothing to do with our topic. Don’t you just love the way I keep us focused?

Under Alfred the Great’s version of Anglo-Saxon law, you couldn’t treat a free person like a slave–couldn’t whip him or her, say, or put him or her in the stocks. If you did, you’d be fined. You also couldn’t cut his hair–and here we’re only talking only about his hair, not hers–“in such a way as to spoil his looks” or to leave him looking like a priest. You also couldn’t cut off his beard, which is one of the things that convinces me that his really does mean his here. 

Anglo-Saxon pronouns were gender neutral. Without the beard, you can’t tell a his from a hers.

The point of the law, apparently, was to keep a lord from forcing a free person into the ranks of slaves, because the hair and beard were marks of a free man. 

Free boys, when they turned twelve, had to swear an oath to the king–at least from the time of Athelstan onward–and the king’s shire reeve visited every community once a year to hear them swear.

What they swore wasn’t just loyalty, but to favor what the lord favored, to discountenance what he discountenanced–and to turn in anyone who didn’t. “No one shall conceal the breach of it on the part of a brother or family relation, any more than a stranger.”

So that’s what freedom looked like.

The Norman conquest

Crawford’s reading of the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman society was that the lives of serfs and slaves might not have changed much. Rural life still focused on the manor and the lord, even though the manor would have been owned by a new lord, who’d have spoken Norman French. I can’t help imagining that those new lords, given a huge amount of power and surrounded by a language and a culture that frustrated them and made no sense to them, would have been ruder than the old ones–more churlish, if you like irony. They were conquerors, and conquerors do tend to act that way.

I said earlier that people who’d once been free became serfs after the conquest, and that seems to be the general belief, but I can’t document it. Lots of things from that time can’t be documented. Be cautious about how much belief you pour into that particular juice glass. If I had to guess–and I don’t but I will anyway–I’d guess that it was the coerls who dropped down the scale into serfdom. If that’s true, it would have been a loss of both freedom and status.

As for the Anglo-Saxon elite, they lost their lands and their status, and many fled abroad. Some lost their lives in various rebellions. I haven’t seen anything that says they became either serfs or slaves. Aristocrats recognized other aristocrats, even those who were their enemies.

The lives of both the poor and the rich were massively disrupted–or ended–by the harrying of the north, the Norman response to a rebellion. The Domesday Book lists land in northern village after northern village as waste–valueless and unoccupied. But we’re not talking about whether the transition to Norman rule was brutal–it was–only about whether life, once things settled down, became less free than it had been before they came. 

To weigh against any losses of freedom, it was under the Normans that slavery gradually died out. 

If people ceased to be slaves and became serfs, did their lives improve? Possibly. Probably. But again, they left us no documents. We can’t know.

So although my heart’s with the Levellers, I’d have to say that the picture of Anglo-Saxon freedom and Norman oppression was photo-shopped.

Moles, pizza, and remdesivir: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A local spike in coronavirus cases in Leicester has been handled with all the grace and efficiency we expect of our government. It announced a local lockdown. The health secretary said the police would enforce it as needed. The message was, we’re tough. We’re efficient. We’re gonna win this thing.

The local police and crime commissioner still didn’t know where he was supposed to enforce the lockdown, though, because he hadn’t been sent a map. Then he got a map but still didn’t know the details of what they were supposed to enforce. 

But it’s okay, because we have a prime minister who can do at least one pushup while keeping two yards away from a photographer.

*

Irrelevant photo: St. Nectan’s Kieve

Chaand Nagpaul, from the British Medical Association, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy of dealing with local outbreaks will be no use if the local people who are expected to contain them aren’t given the data they need. 

I could have said that, but it sounds better coming from someone with a medical degree. Leicester could’ve responded earlier if they’d been told they had a problem, and where and how and why.

When Johnson introduced his strategy of containing local outbreaks, he described it as whack-a-mole–a game where you whack a plastic mole with a plastic hammer and even if you’re fast enough to hit it, it pops up out of another hole. 

It was a rare moment of honesty in political discourse.

While we wait to see where the mole’s going to pop up next, Johnson tells us that local authorities have been sent the data they need. 

And the check is in the mail.

*

You’ve probably heard by now that the U.S. bought up almost the entire stock of remdesivir–500,000 doses: 100% of the manufacturer’s July production, 90% of August’s and 90% of September’s.

Remdesivir cuts Covid-19 recovery times, although it’s not clear whether it improves survival rates. Other counties have pointed out that buying up almost the entire stock might, um, undercut international cooperation in the face of the pandemic. 

“International what?” Donald Trump replied. 

Okay, he didn’t actually say that. I can’t remember ever seeing a quote in which he asks a question. 

The sale makes it sound like other countries are thoroughly screwed, but in fact they should be able to get the drug via compulsory license, which allows countries to override patents and buy generic versions from countries where the patent isn’t registered. This one is widely registered, but there will, it seems, be gaps.

The drug is made by Gilead, which sounds like it escaped from The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d love to tell you that it didn’t, but I don’t really know that. Lots of things have escaped from fiction lately, and nothing is more bizarre than reality. 

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care tells us it’ll be fine and it has enough remdesivir “to treat every patient who needs the drug.” 

For how long?

They didn’t say.

*

The New Scientist says, “There is no longer any serious doubt that our bodies can form an immune memory to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” 

The bad news is that we still don’t know how effective that memory will be. In other words, we don’t know if an immune memory’s the same thing as immunity.

Don’t you just love to hear from me? Don’t I just lift your spirits?

And from the Department of Confusing Information comes this snippet: For every person testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies, two more turn out to have specific T-cells that identify and destroy Covid-infected cells. That’s true even in people who had asymptomatic cases or mild ones.

What does that mean in everyday English? It means that for every person who registers positive on an antibody test, two more have some sort of immune response that doesn’t register. 

Those T-cells the two people have might give them some immunity to the disease. They might keep them from passing the disease on to other people.

They also might not.

The reason T-cells don’t register on an antibody test is antibodies are a whole ‘nother part of the immune system. Expecting to notice T-cells on an antibody test is like making yourself a pizza and wondering why it doesn’t come out of the oven with a side salad.

Basically, antibodies–that’s the pizza–attack the virus before it enters the body’s cells. T-cells–they’re  the salad, and it’s important to remember which is which–go into action once cells have been infected, attacking  them so they won’t infect  new ones. A balanced immune system meal needs both pizza and that salad.

You’re welcome. I’m here to clarify every baffling bit of our world, just for you.

What does all that mean for herd immunity? Not much, because for all anyone knows at this point, those T-cells could protect the bearer without keeping him or her from passing the virus on. 

If you worked this many twists into a pandemic movie, I’d throw my popcorn at the screen and stomp out, muttering, “Enough already.” 

Then I’d go out for pizza and a salad.

I’m just about old enough to remember a world where it was safe to go to movies and pizza joints. 

Fairy dust and pushups: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s say you’re a prime minister who got this pesky pandemic thing wrong, hesitating to lock the country down, shaking hands with hospital patients, refraining from kissing babies only because parents clutched their kids and turned away when they saw you coming. A prime minister who told the country that washing hands and singing Happy Birthday would keep everyone safe, and who then, embarrassingly, got sick yourself, either because you didn’t wash your hands or went off key on one of those tricky passages in “Happy Birthday.” A prime minister who locked the country down late but made an exception for your special advisor so he could run around the country scattering virii because he’d mistaken them for fairy dust.

So you’re that prime minister, and after you’d been sick you came back to work to hear lots of speculation whether you were really up to running the country.

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

Pushups, that’s what you’d do. Publicly.

Or maybe you wouldn’t, but that’s what Boris Johnson did, except the British seem to call them press-ups. Never mind. Same thing. Floor, hands, arms, body weight. Straight back if you’re doing them right.

There were two problems with the strategy: Your ability to do pushups has no bearing on your ability to run a country, and Johnson isn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. The photos show a kind of lumpy, overage guy in a dress shirt and slacks looking baffled by a floor. Has this thing always been here? he seems to be asking himself. Can I outsource it?

*

He can’t, but let’s go back to that special advisor, the one with the fairy dust. A law graduate is trying to crowdfund £300,000 for to pay for a private prosecution of Dominic Cummings’ two breaches of lockdown.

“I am trying to encourage the re-establishment of the concept of the rule of law – one law for all,” Mahsa Taliefar said. “What Cummings did demonstrated that at the moment in the UK if you are rich and have powerful friends the law doesn’t apply to you.”

I just checked the website and she’s raised £31,000 so far.

*

You know the theory that we all have to choose between the economy and our health? The theory that says lockdown destroys the economy and we have to open back up to get things going? Well Sweden–the one Scandinavian country that never did lock down, relying on some vague instructions, hand washing, and good sense–not only has a five times Denmark’s death rate but roughly the same economic performance.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, it turns out that in a pandemic most people avoid public transportation, stay out of shops, and keep their kids home from school. In other words, they exercise the good sense they were advised to. The problem is that a minority will do none of that. Ten percent of the people create ninety percent of the infections.

*

A while back I posted the news that Britain’s free school lunch program for the most economically vulnerable kids will be continued into the summer. It’s good news, but it’s looking a little tarnished lately. It turns out that the £234 million program was outsourced to a private company whose helpline charges £21 an hour.

It used to charge £60 an hour, but–you know what people are like–they had complaints and switched over to the cheaper one in April.

Hey, people, you’re saving–um, hang on–£39 an hour. Focus on that.

Parents and schools also complain about the vouchers being hard to use. Not all stores will take them, and at stores that do, they often don’t scan correctly so they’re unusable.

Oh, and the website leaves people waiting long stretches of time to get their coupons.

And that, my friends, is how to fuck up a free lunch.

*

Scotland has had no coronavirus deaths for four days and has only ten cases in intensive care. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is talking about the possibility of eliminating the disease, and at a press conference she dropped hints that they might have to test or quarantine visitors from England. She has no plans at the moment, she said, but she’s not ruling it out.

On the other hand, she didn’t do a single pushup, so what’s she worth?

Meanwhile, a spike in virus cases in Leicester has sent the city going back into lockdown, with non-essential shops shutting their doors, schools closing to most students, and people advised to stay home except for essential trips.

It’s the first of local lockdown since Britain opened back up.

*

A jazz club in Paris has opened up for private concerts. They let people in either singly or in pairs if they live together. Three musicians take turns giving five-minute concerts to each individual or couple.

The concerts are free but guests are welcome to pay what they can or want.

The club’s director said the concerts “generate a kind of magic. People become very emotional. Some come out in tears.”

 

 

Social not-much-distancing: it’s the pandemic update from (mostly) Britain

Since this is the news from Britain, we’ll start in Florida: The commissioners of Palm Beach County voted that people (with a few reasonable exceptions, such as babies) have to wear masks in public spaces where social distancing isn’t possible. But before they could vote on that, they had to listen to people telling them that they’d be throwing out god’s wonderful breathing system, that they were obeying the devil, and that they were imposing a communist dictatorship and dishonoring the American flag.

I tell you, it makes me proud to be an American.

*

Here in Britain, we’re also at our best. We had a heatwave, and–

I have to interrupt myself here. In Britain, you know it’s hot weather when you wear short sleeves. If you do that for two days in a row, you’re looking at a heatwave.

So we’ve had a heatwave and it hit just after lockdown eased up. 

“Our hibernation is beginning to end,” the prime minister told us jubilantly.  

Whoopy doo.

Irrelevant photo: Fields in Cornwall.

What did he mean, though? It wasn’t all that clear, but that’s okay because ever since his external brain, Dominic Cummings, broke his own rules on lockdown by driving 30 miles to make sure he could still see well enough to drive (no, I didn’t make that up; he did), people have been a little skeptical about the rules anyway. And the more lockdown has eased, the hazier we’ve gotten on what the limits are and how seriously we take them.

So what happened? In the first couple of days, people flocked to parks, beaches, and rivers, jamming in together because what the hell they’d be outside and the virus was on the wane and the lockdown was over, sort of, and we’d all be fine. 

Or maybe they flocked to all of the above because they figured no one else would and they could enjoy the beauty of the British countryside in safety, but once they found a few thousand other people had done the same thing they didn’t want to turn around and go home. Or maybe it was because they’d been cooped up since forever and were understandably losing their minds. 

Or all of the above. It’s easy for people who have elbow room to criticize. But there were problems. One was that public toilets aren’t open yet–or at least a lot of them aren’t–so some people acted like a litter of eight-week-old puppies. Minus the paper on the floor. 

Last Wednesday and Thursday, beaches were packed. Forget keeping two meters from each other, and forget one meter. People were everywhere. Drinking was involved. Fights were involved. Broken glass was involved. A few stabbings were involved. If singing was involved, no one’s mentioned it, but it’s hard to separate singing and drinking in Britain.

When people went home, their trash–which, being responsible citizens, they’d instructed to follow–stayed behind, because who wants to leave the cooling sea breeze? So the beach was a mess when they left. And even at a beach where the toilets were open, people still had that litter of puppies problem. I’m not sure why. It might have had something to do with the drinking, but there’s me, speculating again.

Cleaning crews complained that they were being abused and intimidated for trying to empty overflowing trash cans. 

As I type this, the weather’s turned, so the problem at the beaches might just be a two-day glitch. If it had stayed hot, though? I wouldn’t bet on it.

In Brixton–a mostly black area of London–a street party ended in violence when police moved in to break it up. On the evening news, a resident noted that the police hadn’t moved in that aggressively on overcrowded beaches with mostly white crowds. 

As far as I can tell, he was right.  

Yeah, it all makes me proud to be British as well.

*

Enough about people. They’re a difficult species. Let’s talk about science.

A small and still tentative survey of Covid-19 antibody tests in use around the world shows that their accuracy seems to depend on when they’re done. In the first week after people develop symptoms, they spot only 30% of infected people. Between eight and fourteen weeks, they spot 70%. After that, they catch 90%. 

I’m not sure why I think you need to know that, but you just might.

Long term, the tests will give some indication of whether having had the disease means a person is immune.

*

Last month, the British government bought 10 million antibody tests. They were going to play an “increasingly important role,” someone or other said. I’ve lost track of what they were going to play an important role in has been lost, but that’s okay because most of us don’t take the bloviating seriously.

Oh, wait. They’d play an important role in understanding the spread of the disease. 

I’m not questioning that whatever data they gather will help scientists understand the beast we’re facing. What I doubt is that science had any impact on the government’s actions. Forgive me, but pretty much everything’s politics, perception, and possibly a cousin in the business.

So the government sent the tests out and asked–or told; I’m not sure how much weight their words carry–medical organizations and care centers to have staff use them. But in a letter to the BMJ (which I think used to be the British Medical Journal but is now just the BMJ–it could stand for Beautiful Mango Jam for all I know)–

Sorry. Should we start that over? Fourteen senior academics published a letter in the Beautiful Mango Jam to say that the tests are burdening the National Health Service while proving fuck-all.

They didn’t say “fuck-all.” These are senior academics. They only talk that way in private, when they think their mics are off.

They did say that since we don’t know whether having antibodies isn’t the same as having immunity, you can’t change your behavior based on the test results. So the test offers no benefits to either the staff or the organizations they work for. It does, however, give the government a chance to brag about how many tests they’ve sent out. 

*

Sweden’s handled the virus differently than most European countries. It didn’t go into lockdown. It took a few steps–discouraging gatherings of more than 50 people, for example–but basically it advised people to keep some distance from each other and trusted them to have good sense.

I don’t know about you, but I’m losing whatever faith I once had in humanity’s good sense.

Any chance that had of working was undercut by the government’s early advice, which implied that people who didn’t show any symptoms weren’t contagious. If someone in the family’s sick, they said, a kid showing no symptoms can still go to school. No problem.

The country also had the usual lack of protective equipment, and government  guidelines for what to use and how to use it kept changing, depending on what protective equipment was available.

The rate of testing has been low and contact tracing has been pretty nearly abandoned. 

According to Anders Bjorkman, a professor of infectious diseases at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, “They did not want to put it bluntly, but seeking herd immunity was always inherent in the Swedish strategy.” In other words, let the disease spread, let some people die, and wait for herd immunity to build in the population that’s left. 

By most estimates, it takes 50% to 60% of the population becoming immune for the herd to be protected. It also takes a disease that people become immune to, and it hasn’t been solidly established that Covid-19 is cooperative enough to fall into that category.

Sweden now has the highest number of Covid cases in Scandinavia (the other Scandinavian countries went into lockdown), and the highest number of deaths. For one week at the end of May and the beginning of June, its mortality rate was 5.29 deaths per million inhabitants per day–the highest in Europe. The UK limped in a sorry second with 4.48. 

Our prime minister just hates it when someone comes in ahead of us. He likes world-beating systems. 

So how’s Sweden doing with herd immunity? In Stockholm, 7.3% of the residents had developed covid-19 antibodies by late April. In the rest of the country, the numbers were lower.

*

A day or two after the street party in Brixton was broken up, Liverpool won the Premier League game. I think that’s football, but my sports allergy kept me from watching the actual game. Or knowing anything about it. What matters is that it made people in Liverpool happy. 

So happy that they gathered in a huge honkin’ crowd to celebrate, to throw bottles at the police, and to throw fireworks at the Liver Building, setting a balcony on fire. 

They know how to have a party in Liverpool. 

[Late addition: The next paragraphs were based on the assumptions that (a) because the Liver Building is in Liverpool, it would be pronounced like the city and (b) because the Liver Building is spelled like liver it would be pronounced like liver. Silly me. It’s pronounced Lye-ver.

[Well of course it is. It’s a place name. This is England. Take nothing for granted. My thanks to April Munday for catching that. I’ve left it all in because why should I pretend I know what I’m doing here?]

Why does Liverpool have a building named after the organ that cleans the blood? I can only answer that by asking why Liverpool’s named Liverpool.

According to WikiWhatsia (I can’t be bothered going any deeper), Liverpool’s “name comes from the Old English liver, meaning thick or muddy, and pol, meaning a pool or creek, and is first recorded around 1190 as Liuerpul.”

I don’t want to piss off anyone from Liverpool. I’m sure your city’s got a lot going for it. All I’m saying is that if you’d run the name past a focus group before making any impulsive decisions, you might’ve come up with something entirely forgettable.

But we were talking about the building, which isn’t called the just Liver Building, thanks, it’s the Royal Liver Building, so it was named after a monarch’s liver, not yours or mine. I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse about it. I don’t like to think much about my liver, but then I don’t like to think much about anyone else’s either. 

It was built between 1907 and 1911 as offices for the Royal Liver Group and still houses the head office of the Royal Liver Assurance. 

And it gets worse. Each tower is topped by mythical Liver Birds.

I might just jog up north and throw some fireworks myself.

Strange British Customs: The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival

Can any country without a straw bear festival claim to have a culture? 

Well, possibly. I hesitate to throw whole cultures into history’s extensive trash can. Especially since, no matter how much I try, they never do stay thrown. 

But either way, let’s talk about the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival. Because it exists. Because it takes place (when the country isn’t in lockdown) in January and this is June, and that makes it an obvious topic right now. And because I thought a quick break from the serious stuff might do us all good.

The festival started before Whittlesea’s collective memory kicked in, so no one knows how far back it goes. Britain’s full of events like that. This one involves what an 1882 newspaper called the confraternity of the plough. That sounds like an organized group but the writer was probably just trying for a cute and condescending way of talking about farm workers.

Irrelevant photo: No flower this time, just sunlight and leaves.

What does seem to be known–and remember to take everything with a teaspoon or two of salt because of that problem with collective memory–is that each year they’d pick a man or boy to be the bear. Then on Plough Monday (British spelling because what the hell it’s their holiday) they’d drag a plow (American spelling because I can only be well behaved for just so long) through town and lead the bear around, with lots of singing and dancing. 

And drinking.

We’ll get around to the Plough Monday part later. 

The newspaper article describes the straw bear dancing in front of  “the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.” So basically, the well-to-do got entertainment and the badly-off got roaring drunk and went away with their bellies (and lungs) filled, and a good time was had by most.

Until the next morning. But there’s me spoiling the fun again.

As a counterbalance to that above-it-all description, let’s quote a book by Sybil Marshall about life in the fens in the 1890s. This isn’t specifically about the straw bear, but it’s close enough to be useful.

“Living where we did and how we did, we used to make the most of anything a bit out o’ the ordinary, and we looked for’ard from one special day to the next. Looking back on it now, I’m surprised to see how many high days and holidays there were during the year that we kept, and we certainly made the most of any that children could take part in at all. . . . The Molly Dancers ‘ould come round the fen from Ramsey and Walton all dressed up. One would have a fiddle and another a dulcimer or perhaps a concertina and play while the rest danced. This were really special for Christmas Eve, but o’ course the dancers cou’n’t be everywhere at once on one day, so they used to go about on any other special day to make up for it. They’d go from pub to pub, and when they’d finished there, they’d go to any houses or cottages where they stood a chance o’ getting anything. If we ha’n’t got any money to give ’em, at least they never went away without getting a hot drink.”

Whittlesea’s straw bear tradition lapsed in the early twentieth century, when a police inspector (speaking of spoiling the fun) decided the whole festival was a form of begging. Then it was revived in 1980, by (I’m taking a wild guess at this) either a group of guys who’d had too many beers or a group of promoters who decided it would bring the tourists in. 

Or a group of promoters who’d had too many beers. Why have two groups when one will do?

These days the festival involves a procession with the bear and a team pulling a plow (or a plough, which with all those extra vowels has got to be heavier) through the streets, and of course music, dancing, and (I’m guessing, since I haven’t been to the festival) a lot of drinking. The festival website’s FAQs includes the question, “Can I drink on the streets?” 

Answer: No. The cops are watching. Drink in the pub. Drink outside the pub but use a plastic glass. Play more or less nice.

The bear’s led around the town to dance in front of pubs, which is no mean trick because the costume weighs 5 stone.

A stone? It’s one of those insane, traditional British measures and it equals 14 pounds. Because who doesn’t like to multiply by 14? So 5 stone is–

Will you give me a minute here? I’m working on it.

It’s 70 pounds. Or 31.7515 kilos, give or take a gram. In other words, heavy enough that we should all be impressed by someone wearing it for long, never mind dancing in it. 

At the end of the festival, the bear costume is burned.

And of course, the festival includes morris dancers. Love ‘em or hate ‘me, you can’t hold a traditional festival in England without morris dancers. 

It also involves molly dancers, and I thought we’d get to take a break from anything serious, but I never do know where a topic will lead me, so buckle up, kids, ‘cause it’s about to get serious.

According to the Morris Ring website, molly dancing traditionally involved white men blacking their faces and dressing in women’s clothes. The blackface may have been to disguise themselves or it may be good old-fashioned racism. It could easily have been one twisted around the other. At this point, I doubt anyone can unpick the threads. 

The winds are blowing hard against blackface these days, and some molly dancing groups have dropped it. Others defend it on the grounds–and this is an argument I’ve never heard outside of Britain–that it isn’t (or wasn’t) meant to be racist, and so it isn’t racist. I’ve argued that through with more than one person and have yet to change a single mind.

The website of a molly dancing group called Pig Dyke explains its decision to drop blackface: They don’t want to be linked to the minstrel show tradition, where whites blacked their faces and played out a grotesque image of black people. It says, “Molly dancers in the past blacked their faces for disguise, weirdness, and loss of personal identity: we achieve that” without blackface. 

I looked through the Whittlesea website photos hoping to find that all the groups had dropped blackface. They hadn’t. If I was around to ask the dancers why they still do it, I’m sure they’d tell me it’s not racist because it was never meant to be racist. And because they’re not racists. And I’d try to convince them that their intent (or the originators’ intent–take your pick) isn’t the center around which the universe pivots–that our intent doesn’t control our impact. 

I’d leave wondering why I bothered. 

I won’t take a guess at what they’d be thinking. I don’t expect it’d be flattering. So let’s leave them to be unflattering and talk about the dressing in women’s clothes part. 

Pig Dyke connects the word molly to London’s molly houses, which were eighteenth-century gay and transvestite brothels. Whether they’re right to make that connection is anyone’s guess. There’s a strong British tradition of straight, non-transvestite men cross-dressing, and it’s widespread enough to make me think it was independent of the molly houses, although they may share a common root. But that’s guesswork. Let’s just chalk it up to another one of those collective memory blank spots.

I promised we’d get back to Plough Monday. The Molly Dancing website says it fell on ”the first Monday after Epiphany (or twelfth night) and was the first day after Christmas that farm-workers were meant to return to work, so they didn’t! Instead they decorated a plough and pushed it round the village, calling at the houses of the well-off villagers to beg for money. If the householders weren’t forthcoming with donations then they threatened to plough up the garden, or if there wasn’t a garden, the doorstep.”

That accounts for why the Morris Ring website says molly dancers ”could be destructive, drunk and disreputable.” 

These days, no one plows up gardens or doorsteps, drinking on the streets is only allowed outside the pubs, and storytelling groups gather the kids around so that they can take home something wholesome–something full of mental fiber and emotional green vegetables.

Bring Your Dog to Work Day

June 26 is Bring Your Dog to Work Day. This seems to be a British event, although the website I found doesn’t say so. The clues are: 1) A picture of a dog named Winston, 2) a reference to rescuing dogs in London (although there’s also a reference to rescuing some in Asia, which discerning readers will notice covers a larger area than London), and 3) a .co.uk URL. Once you get past all that, your guess is confirmed by a British phone number in 3.25-point type at the bottom.

This is Moose, who doesn’t need to go to work with anyone else.He has his own job, keeping the vandal hordes from breaking in, even when they’re disguised as neighborhood cats. They don’t fool him.

You’re welcome to mark the day wherever you are. Especially if you’re working from home. As Jane Bernal pointed out on Facebook in response to my Bring your Cat to Work Day post, with social distancing and all, shouldn’t we have been celebrating Bring Your Work to Cat Day?

We should have. So even if your dog likes to travel, even if you’ve gone back to work, call in tomorrow. Explain that it’s Bring Your Work to Dog Day. You’re staying in.

Britain’s back in business and to hell with the virus

Britain’s coming out of lockdown. Not because we’ve got Covid-19 under control but because it’s time. Because the hospitality industry is campaigning for it. Because too much money is turning to dust. 

Not literal dust. Pixel dust. Fairy dust. Money dust. 

Money, it turns out, isn’t a physical object. It’s not that stuff you keep in your wallet that you call money. Or it is, but that’s the smallest part of it. The biggest part–the serious part –is made up of pixels and numbers on a screen and stuff that disappears when conditions aren’t right. When the weather turns, when the wind blows the wrong way, when half the country has to stop working and stop spending. Poof: It’s fairy pixel money dust. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies. Because we all need something to cheer us up.

And that’s why the country’s reopening. People who still have jobs will go back to work. People who have money will start spending (presumably). And to make all that happen, the two-meter distance we were told to keep from each other is now one meter. Because it turns out that the further we stay from each other, the more money leaks out into the open space and goes poof.

See, that’s what the economists don’t tell you. Don’t trust them. Listen only to me. I may not actually know anything, but I’m a lot more fun.

Anyway, we’ll all be fine. The virus has signed an agreement not to jump more than one meter from host to host. At least it has in England, In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, it hasn’t. They’re still negotiating and have to stay further away from each other. Poor them.

Besides, even in England we’ll all stay two meters apart except when it’s inconvenient and money’s likely to disappear. 

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And since we’re in a celebratory mood, people who are especially vulnerable and who for the last three months have been told to stay home are being told that they can safely come out on July 6. They can go grocery shopping. They can see up to five friends as long as they’re outside. 

Why July 6? Because the virus can only count to 5. Why five friends? It’s complicated. But hey, these guys are running a government. They have access to the best expert advice. They must know something, right?

The free food deliveries that extremely vulnerable people were getting will stop now that they can emerge blinking from their homes. And if they were working before the lockdown, their sick pay will stop. In the most compassionate possible way.

Britain’s back in business. Get with it, people.

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Cornwall, where I live, has had relatively few cases of Covid-19 (with the emphasis on relatively; we’ve had cases and we’ve had deaths). But the visitors are on their way, wagging their big-city germs behind them. 

I don’t want to be a snot about this. I’m a city girl myself. I have nothing against cities or the people who live in them. And I understand why people who make a living off tourism are desperate to do business. But holy shit, how many people are going to die for it? And how many who recover will have their lives irrevocably changed?

Follow-up scans of people who’ve been hospitalized for the virus show that 20% to 30% have lung scarring six weeks later.

The scarring isn’t reversible. 

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Speaking of experts the government’s daily coronavirus briefings are over. In the last couple of weeks, scientific advisors had been pushed off stage and political figures quietly filled the gaps. Because the problem with sciency-type people is that they’re likely to say embarrassing things. So we’ve canceled the science. 

And then we canceled the briefings. They were only focusing people on the disease and from here on we’re going to be happy.

Happy, happy, happy. 

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As of June 23, 42,927 people in Britain had died of the virus. Worldwide, it took three months for the first million cases to show up. It took just eight days to clock up the most recent million, and by the 23rd that had taken us almost up to 9 of them. 

It’s hard to take in. And I can’t help noticing the contrast between our response to the recent stabbing of three people in Reading (pronounced Redding; don’t ask) and those forty thousand dead. Not that the three in Reading don’t matter, but we can take that in and there’s a tendency to shrug off the forty thousand as inevitable, along with however many will follow them.  

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Speaking on inevitability, an open letter in the British Medical Journal says a second wave of infections is inevitable and urgent action is needed.

Just before that was published, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that he didn’t believe there was “a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS.”

Notice the wording. Forget avoiding a second peak. What we need to avoid is overwhelming the NHS. He didn’t mention urgent action.