About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.

If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.

Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:

Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.

I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. I know I’m engaging in un-British activities when I say this, but I’m grateful to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.

Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.

Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.

Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?

Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches. 

Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.

Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.

The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?

Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.

*

The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.

Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.

A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.  

Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.

The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”

MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”

If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.

All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.

All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.

So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country? 

The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.

*

But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.

That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.

*

But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves. 

Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.

*

A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along. 

A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:

“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.

*

Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.

The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.

How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.

I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.

Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.

But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.

For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.

I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.

The hazards of professional virginity

Like most people, Elizabeth I was born a virgin. Unlike most people, she made it into a career move.

Why wouldn’t she? She didn’t have a lot of conventional material to work with.  

Liz was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. When she was two and not yet thinking about career options, Henry had Anne beheaded and replaced her with an unsteady stream of wives. As wife replaced wife and minutely argued religious justification replaced tediously argued religious justification, Liz was alternately Henry’s legitimate child and his illegitimate child, a princess and not a princess, pushed off to the margins and brought into court to share in all the who-gets-it-next worries of Henry’s inner circle.

It all depended on which way the religious, political, and sexual winds were blowing. 

Irrelevant photo: A flower I don’t remember the name of.

Being born female wasn’t a great career move. Henry’s goal in life was to magic a male heir out of wife number whichever, and as he got older that seemed to depend more and more on magic, or at least on luck, than on the usual methods. And although Liz was said to be very bright, she never figured out how to grow the odd appendage that being a male heir depended on.

She was thirteen when her father died and her nine-year-old half-brother, Edward, became king. Or maybe he was ten. Maybe she was fourteen. It depends who you ask. I asked two different BBC posts, not some fly-by-night bloggers who make it up as they go along. (You know what bloggers are like.) The BBC’s generally reliable on these things, but Ed’s age a side issue, so let’s smirk and move on.

But let me insert a brief interruption here, since I’ve already interrupted myself. I’m about to stash Liz on the shelf for a while and talk about her relatives. And about religion. Because nothing in her life, including the whole virginity shtick, makes sense unless you know the background.

Edward was intensely Protestant (that’s a general link about the Tudors and the Reformation, not particularly about Edward), and more to the point, so were the men (or man–it’s complicated) who ran the country in his name. They set about consolidating the Protestant reformation that Henry, however inconsistently, had begun. If Henry can be said to have started the English reformation. Ask Lord Google something as simple as whether Henry was a Protestant and the answer seems to be yes. And also no. You can think of his Church of England as the Catholic Church but without a Pope. And with a bible in English instead of in Latin. And–

But we’re getting sidetracked. We weren’t talking about Henry, we were talking about Edward. He was Protestant, so everyone had to be Protestant, or at least live as if they were. Because that’s the way it was back then. The state and religion were as tangled together as that string of Christmas lights you drag out of the back of the closet every year. Or more so, because if you work at it you’ll get the lights untangled by Easter, but the religion and politics of the era were so completely welded together that you can just stop trying.

Liz was twenty (give or take a few months) when Edward died. After the collapse of a brief effort to put another Protestant on the throne, Liz’s sister, Mary, became queen. And Mary was as Catholic as Edward was Protestant, so now the country had to be Catholic. (The link is to a brief but interesting piece on Mary’s reign and the progression of her attempts to turn the country Catholic again.)

Mary brought back the old heresy laws. Protestants were burned at the stake. Everyone had a wonderful, time, thanks, and sent cards to say they wished we’d been there.

Then Mary died childless. It was a thing with the Tudors, not finding heirs where they expected them. So it’s time to take Liz off the shelf. 

Liz was now twenty-five, unmarried, female, and the new queen of an uneasy country. She was also Protestant, although more mildly so than Edward. She didn’t have a lot of choice about being Protestant. If she’d been a Catholic, her mother wouldn’t have been married, making Liz a bastard, which was an even worse career move than being a woman.

What kind of country was she now in charge of?

One that for years had been lurching from Catholicism to Protestantism to Catholicism, and now back to Protestantism. People holding church or public office had to swear that the queen, not the Pope, was the head of the English church. Everyone had to attend church or be fined for it. The service was in English, not Latin (score one for the Protestants), although it was full of fancy robes and incense and expensive toys (score one for the Catholis). The idea was to keep both sides happy and inside a single church. Liz famously said she didn’t want to open windows into men’s souls, meaing she didn’t care what they believed, but she did want them to play nice and do what she told them to, which included showing up at her church.

For a long time England had been a nervous place and it still was, with everyone looking over their shoulder, and over everyone else’s shoulder, wanting to know who hid Protestant books when the country was Catholic, who said an illegal Latin mass when the country was Protestant, who defended the Pope as the head of the English church when the monarch was its head or the other way around, not to meniton who claimed the queen was born not just a virgin but a bastard and who had a forbidden Jesuit priests hidden away.

And it wasn’t just individuals looking over their shoulders. Elizabeth’s government lived in fear of rebellion and invasion.

No one was being paranoid about any of this. Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth were real, as were rebellions. Spy networks searching for hidden Catholic priests were just as real. Catholic Spain tried to invade and was thwarted as much by the weather as by England’s navy. Everybody fought proxy wars in Ireland and the Netherlands. 

And just to complicate the picture, Protestant groups were pushing for a purer form of Protestantism, and predictably they weren’t all of one mind either. As soon as the bible became available in English for any literate person to read, it was also available for them to interpret, and their interpretations took them in a variety of directions.

Anabaptists believed in the separation of church and state and leaned toward social equality. Puritans wanted no bishops, no fripperies, no fun, and nothing that reminded them of Catholicism. We’ll skip over the other groupings and grouplets. It’s enough to know they existed. The one thing they all agreed on was that the Church of England was nothing more than a sugar-free version of the Catholic Church.

So this was a time of spies, plots, paranoia, torture, and bloodshed.

Who shed more blood, Elizabeth or Mary? I couldn’t find sources that would let me compare like with like, but I’m left with the impression that Mary wins–as in she killed more Protestants than Liz killed Catholics. But that hardly makes Liz’s reign a comfortable time.

Throughout this period, the country was split into three camps: 1. Catholics, who wanted freedom for their religion; 2. Protestants, who wanted freedom for their religion; and 3. people who were willing to be either Protestant or Catholic as long as whoever was in power would refrain from (a) throwing them in jail, (b) burning them at the stake, (c) fining them, or (d) noticing them at all in case they thought of something else to do to them.

This was before the introduction of public opinion, polls and if they’d been around you’d have had to be crazy to answer one honestly. Still, I think it’s a fair bet that the majority of the population fell into the third camp. They kept their heads down and if anyone had offered them a tin hat they’d have worn it as protection against the religious shrapnel that was flying in all directions.

What the country needed was stability–a nice long stretch of time when whatever the approved religion was didn’t change and people had time to get used to it. Enough time to remember what they were supposed to believe and, more importantly, what not to say in public.

And what did stability depend on? First off, the monarch had to not die.  Liz did a good job of that. Secondly, the monarch had to magic up an heir to the throne, preferably male, and here’s where Liz had a problem, because if there’s one thing everyone knows about virginity, it’s that it decreases the odds that you’ll produce a kid. And if your job title is virgin queen, you are now looking at an occupational hazard.

But virginity’s not a terminal condition, so why didn’t Liz marry?

There could’ve been a hundred emotional reasons, and if you’re writing historical fiction you have your choice of everything from early trauma to liking girls instead of boys. Sadly, we’re stuck with the facts, and we have none. Whatever Liz felt, she kept it to herself. This wasn’t a touchy-feely time. No one would’ve said, “Gee, Liz, that must’ve been hard. Want to sit down and have a good cry?”

So let’s look at the condition of women in Tudor England, because it explains a lot and it can be documented. Quick summary? It wasn’t a great time to be a woman. You can skip the next few paragraphs if that’s all you need to know.

Women were considered physically, intellectually, and emotionally weak. They not only weren’t fit to rule a country, they weren’t fit to rule a family. Hell, they weren’t fit to rule themselves. We’ll let the Scot John Knox stand in for an entire culture here. 

“God hath revealed to some in this our age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above man.”

Even a man who meant to praise Liz could only manage to say, “Her mind has no womanly weakness. Her perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up.” 

The era was still working with the medieval Great Chain of Being, with god at the top, followed by the various ranks of angels and after them the various ranks of humans. Among humans, kings were at the top, which gave them divine right to rule. Then came the varied ranks of nobles and the descending ranks of commoners. And in all these ranks, men were set above women. It was the natural order, as handed down by god himself. It was catalogued all the way down through dragonflies and snakes and plants and rocks.

Male rocks were set above female rocks.

Salt, please, someone.

So when Elizabeth took the throne, crown lawyers worked up a  theory called the king’s two bodies to legitimize her. She wasn’t a woman, exactly: 

“When she ascended the throne, according to this theory, the queen’s whole being was profoundly altered: her mortal ‘body natural’ was wedded to an immortal ‘body politic.’ ‘I am but one body, naturally considered,’ Elizabeth declared in her accession speech, ‘though by [God’s] permission a Body Politic to govern.’ ”

Got that?

Me neither. You pretty much had to be there for it to make sense. 

Now let’s back up a bit and talk about marriage in general. If women were weak, silly, emotional creatures, what happened when one of them married? Well, for everyone’s good, she stopped having to obey her father and started having to obey her husband, and any property she inherited became her husband’s. The best move a woman could make if she wanted her independence was to become a widow.

This, unfortunately, wasn’t always easy to arrange.

And if a queen married? She’d be expected to take second place to her husband, of course. When Liz’s brother was king, Thomas Seymour was executed for–allegedly–trying to marry Liz so he could rule the kingdom. The assumption was that as her husband he’d have that right.

Any queen who meant to rule her own kingdom would have been wise to stay single, because her husband would be expected to rule her and own the property she inherited–in other words, her kingdom.

So no marriage for Liz. She became a professional virgin, married to her country. She flirted diplomatically with the occasional suitor and shed them all when diplomacy either dictated or allowed.

Most of the available monarchs or near-monarchs were Catholic in any case. 

That left the problem of an heir. And I repeat, because it’s a complicated concept: Not producing children is an occupational hazard if you’re a professional virgin.

The best solution was to work up a cult around Liz’s virginity, turning it from a problem into a virtue. And so Liz has come down in history not just as an unmarried queen but as the Virgin Queen, ablaze with capital letters. England, its church, and its culture were only minutes away from Catholicism, and a cult around a virgin must’ve seemed natural. The culture already equated virginity–at least female virginity–with purity, which was useful. 

The cultural obsession with whether or not a woman’s ever had sex strikes me as completely bizarre, not to mention intrusive. But again, you had to be there. All cultures get trapped inside their ways of thinking, and when you’re inside one it’s hard to imagine any other way for a mind to work. If virginity equals purity, then who could step outside long enough to question it? 

The lack of an heir hung over her reign and she managed to avoid making a decision about who it would be until she was on her deathbed, when she made a sign that one of her advisors conveniently interpreted as meaning she’d chosen the successor he thought was the best of the available choices.

Funny how that works.

*

Now let’s take a minute to talk about sex in the Tudor era. It’s not exactly relevant, but I did stumble into some information and it’s not completely off the topic.

The Tudor Society website (“the Tudor Society is a well established Tudor history group,” whatever that means) says people “were forbidden to have sex during Lent, Advent, Feast Days, Fast Days, Easter Week, Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays…. Women were also forbidden to have sex when they were menstruating, pregnant, for the forty day period after giving birth or when they were breastfeeding.”

So few days were left that no business got done on non-feast, -fast, or -reproductively related Mondays, Tuesdays, or Thursdays. Or Fridays, when they were catching up on their sleep.

Salt.

“The act of sexual intercourse within marriage was to be done only in the missionary style and there was no room or allowance for experimentation. The Church also taught that the missionary position was the best way to conceive a male child and other positions could lead to creating a deformed child. The Church believed that both men and women needed to produce seed to create a child, therefore it was necessary that a woman obtained an orgasm. ” 

I’m not sure which church they mean here–Catholic or Church of England–but I doubt that particular set of beliefs changed with the shift from Latin to English and back again, so it doesn’t matter. 

What people want to know about Britain, part twelveish

What do people want to know about Britain? The results of a highly skewed and unreliable survey, based on the search engine questions that mislead people to Notes, show that they want to know about the following issues. 

Please note: The questions have been reproduced here in all their oddity.

A rare relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie, our resident cat expert.

CATS

can cats eat sticky toffee pudding

Yes. No law of physics or biology prevents that. Will it be good for them? No, but that’s not what you asked.

Is sticky toffee pudding good for humans? Absolutely. It makes us fat and happy. And sticky, which reminds us to wash, which is good for our health if not done to excess. 

Will cats stick to the bowl if they do eat sticky toffee pudding? No. It doesn’t acti like a glue trap. It’s sticky only when compared to your average dessert. You won’t end up rushing your cat and its bowl to the emergency vet, hoping to get dessert detached from cat while one is still edible and the other doesn’t yet have PTSD.

Are cats interested in eating sticky toffee pudding? Not as far as I know, but we don’t have any around the house so I can’t get an opinion from our resident cat expert (and, incidentally, cat), Fast Eddie. But he’s never asked for any any. That’s got to mean something, because if the neighborhood cats were all talking about how good it is, he’d have come home wanting some.

Cats are protein eaters. Meat for breakfast, meat for dinner, and meat for dessert.

Me? I’m a vegetarian. And in case I don’t sound pure enough, I’m (very) gradually losing my taste for desserts. I do swear fluently, mostly to make sure I’m still part of the human race. 

cats mine myself sweet

It’s hard to know how to answer that. It’s hard to know if it’s even a question. Still, I’ll do what I can.

Fast Eddie–I repeat, in case you skipped the last answer, that he’s our resident cat–can be sweet. He can also kill things, and does. Whether that’s sweet or not very much depends on your point of view.

Eddie’s still pissed off about that mouse my partner threw away. Yesterday he accused her of eating it herself. So even if we don’t talk about the rodents and the occasional bird, he’s not all sweetness.

In contrast (and to address the rest of the alleged question), I me mine myself do (or possibly does) not, for the most part, kill things. I make a reluctant exception for slugs and some bugs. I am not, however,  sweet.

I am also not a cat, although I wouldn’t mind having fur.

I’m glad we got all that straightened out. I feel we know each other much better now.

FOOD

Most questions about food, especially as we approach Christmas each year, are from people struggling to understand the religious symbolism of brussels sprouts in the Christmas tradition.

They have so come to the wrong place.  

why do we have sprouts at christmas

Because Santa doesn’t like you.

+what year did brussel sprouts became a thanksgiving tradition

As far as I know, that year hasn’t gotten here yet, but then I haven’t lived in the U.S. for something like thirteen years and things have gotten pretty weird over there since I left. So someone tell me: Has everyone suddenly decided that brussels sprouts are a Thanksgiving tradition? Because traditions sometimes get pasted in retroactively. All of a sudden a nation decides that some small ball of green leaves always was part of a traditional meal and even though people remember that they didn’t eat them when they were kids, they can still believe that it’s a tradition because, you know, their families were a bit odd and everyone else probably ate them. So no one says anything and the next thing you know we all believe it.

But more to the point, when did the plus sign at the beginning of a question become a thing? This isn’t the only search engine question that’s wandered in sporting one.

when was did we start to eat brussels sprouts at christmas

Six pm, and everyone’s finished but you. Eat up or Santa will ask about that “when was did” and won’t let you have any Christmas pudding. 

QUESTIONABLE TASTE

We’re isolating these questions in their own category so they don’t contaminate the rest of the batch. And when I say we, of course, I mean me mine myself cats. Ready? Got a strong stomach and an ability to get disturbing images out of your mind? If not, just skip these.

You’re reading on, aren’t you? You don’t have to, you know.

breastaurant

How did this question find me? Lord Google has decided that anything too odd to go someplace else shall henceforth come to me. Some of that I appreciate but, Lord G., you’ve pushed your luck with this one and I will not leave the usual tribute of data at your portal. In the meantime, whoever sent this, either learn to type or go somewhere else. People can’t necessarily choose not to be over-interested in one or another body part, but they can learn not to pester the rest of us about it. 

sainsburys sex tots

I can only hope we’re talking about Tater Tots here. Speaking only for myself, I’ve never found frozen, shredded, prefabricated potatoes even remotely sexy, but I do understand that everyone’s tastes are different and as long as no one gets hurt, hell, go ahead. But, honest, most of us don’t want the details and there’s a thin line between enjoying your sexuality and inflicting it on other people, at which point it becomes harrassment. So keep the details for those specialty chat sites, okay? And if Sainsburys–that’s a supermarket, in case you’re not British–has a Facebook page, it’s not one of the sites I was suggesting.

CLOTHES

the origins of wig in britain

There is only one wig in Britain, and this creates real problems in the court system. You think it’s budget cuts that are throwing it into chaos? It’s not. It’s all the lawyers and judges waiting for that one damn wig to circulate. They can’t say a word in court till it’s planted on their head.

And its origins? It was made by that Stradivarius of wig makers, Anonymous, in February of 1751. All the other wigs in the country have been torched.  

And if you’re new here, please watch for statements that are too absurd to believe. You’re not supposed to believe them. And more than that, you’re not meant to quote them as fact. Ideally, you’re supposed to take them with a grain of salt and laugh, but inevitably they won’t all work.

what does an mp wear

A cluster of these questions came over a couple of days, so either that’s one person returning several times to a site that wasn’t much help to start with or it’s a class assignment and some poor kids landed here, copied out everything I said, handed the assignment in, and got an F. The world is unkind.

So why did the question landed here? I googled “MP clothes” and found an assortment of sites for clothing sold or made by companies with an M and a P in their names, including MissPap, which sells clothes that are about as sleazy as you’d expect from a fashion house named after a vaginal smear test. Since I spent ten or so seconds on the site, I’ll probably start seeing their ads on the side of the screen when I check my email.

As long as it’s not Tater Tots, I’ll be okay.

Then I changed tactics and googled the original question and I found some quite sensible information, which everyone whose question landed them here must have passed by in order to find their way to me.

So what do MPs (that’s members of parliament) wear? Clothes. They are known for not appearing in parliament naked.

What follows, by the way, is true. You can quote it safely.

MPs are expected to wear businesslike clothes. If they don’t, either the speaker pretends they’re invisible and won’t call on them to speak or someone complains and the speaker’s supposed to do something more active about it. Two women have gotten away with wearing tee shirts bearing feminist slogans, possibly because “businesslike” is less well defined for women than for men. Or possibly because they didn’t care if they got called on to speak since their shirts had already made their point.

A few men have been seen wearing the jackets and ties that are required but in eye-popping colors. Everyone pretends not to notice.

MPs are not allowed to wear hats or armor in the House of Commons. I assume exceptions can be made if anyone’s religion demands headgear but I don’t know that. It may not have come up yet. Or if their religion demands armor, although I’ve never heard of a religion that does. Armor’s awkward stuff, not to mention expensive. Even the Pastafarian Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t ask believers to wear armor, only colanders. 

You need a link for that. You know you do.

The only person who can carry a weapon into the chamber is the sergeant at arms, whose title is spelled serjeant. MPs are expected to hang their swords on the purple ribbons provided in the cloakroom.

No, really. I did not make any of that up. 

MPs are not allowed to bring in briefcases. Female MPs, however, are allowed to bring in a small handbag and at some point male MPs demanded the right to do the same. That news came under a headline about man bags, which I almost skipped thinking they involved a bit of the male anatomy that has never really interested me. But I’m here to enlighten, so I followed the link and learned that it has nothing to do with frozen potatoes. Men may now bring in small, butch-looking (or femmy ones if they’re brave enough) handbags but they still can’t bring in briefcases.

One of the wonderful things about Britain is that it not only has these insane traditions, it takes such pleasure in making fun of them. So let’s move on to a related subject.

TRADITIONS & HISTORY

why do we not call november 5 guy faulkes night anymore

Because no one cares about Guy Fawkes anymore. November 5 is when all the wigs got burned–except of course that one fabulous one.

Salt.

history of two fingers insult in british language

No one really knows where this came from. According to one story–

But wait. Not everyone knows what we’re talking about and that’s rude. In Britain, if you hold up your index and center finger with the knuckles facing out, you’ve just insulted someone. Even if what you meant to do was let the bartender know you wanted two beers. It’s a close relative of holding up the middle finger but involves a few extra muscles because, hey, the British are tough.

According to one story, the gesture came from the Battle of Agincourt, which was fought during the Hundred Years War. English and Welsh archers did so much damage to the French that if an archer was captured the French cut off the two fingers he needed to pull the string of his longbow. The theory goes that the remaining archers held up their two fingers to show the French that they still had them.

Great story. According to Oxford Reference, unfortunately, there’s no evidence of the gesture being around any earlier than the twentieth century and the Battle of Agincourt was in 1415.

Nice try, though.

If there’s any evidence of the French cutting off fingers, I haven’t found it.

LANGUAGE

+definition of tickety tonk

I googled this and landed someplace considerably more sensible than Notes. Tickety tonk is outdated, upper class slang, meaning goodbye. The queen mother ended a World War II-era letter by saying, “Tickety tonk old fruit and down with the Nazis.”

She also thought the Jeeves and Wooster novels were “so realistic.”

What can I tell you? This whole monarchy / aristocracy thing is surreal. Not to mention expensive.

what does it mean to tell someone your spiffing me off

It means you’ve gotten your outdated, upper-class slang wrong. And you’ve misspelled you’re

LANGUAGE & GEOGRAPHY

what the Country’s Called

That depends which country you’re asking about. The world’s full of countries. Ukraine used to be called The Ukraine. Now it’s just called Ukraine. You get used to it after a while. The United Kingdom is usually called Britain because it has fewer syllables. It’s also  less accurate, but what the hell. Its full name is the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. It also answers to Hey, You.

why is britain called britain

Because.

great britain also called as

Great Britain’s called many things, but never As.

why is great britain called uk

It isn’t. Great Britain’s that biggest chunk of land you see on a map of the British Isles. The U.K. is that plus Northern Ireland.

why was britain known as superior

Ooh, you fell for it, didn’t you? Great doesn’t mean better, superior, smarter, or better dressed. It means bigger. Although, like many (possibly all) countries, it’s capable of getting a swelled head and acting superior. Just remind it that its MPs aren’t free to wear armor to work. That’ll let it know who’s who and what’s what. 

All told, having multiple names wasn’t the U.K.’s best marketing decision. I could fill a very dull book with the questions that come in on the topic.

RANDOM OTHER STUFF

news from elsewhere

This makes an odd sort of sense. We all get tired of the same old news and gossip from wherever it is we live. The rest of the world looks more interesting. And larger. So without saying where here is, someone asked for news from places that weren’t their here. So far, so sensible. And as it happens, I posted something titled “News from Britain. And elsewhere.” So Lord G. sent the question to me.

Unless some silly person was actually looking for me. You never do know.

sample lettet to decline the award that is not deserved

“Dear Person Who Offered Me an Award,

“I am not worthy. I am so not worthy that I dare not accept this most flattering, important, and selective of awards. Thank you for thinking of me but something has got to be wrong with you that you even considered me.”

You’re welcome. See below for a note on self-respect.

bellringer for self respect

I’m not a fan of the theory that most of the world’s considerable stock of problems stem from people not having enough self-respect. Or the idea that they (that’s the problems, but it could just as easily be the people) can be fixed by surgically implanting self-respect in people who lack it. In fact,

Not that I’m discounting the idea of surgical implantation. I know some people who could do with a bit less self-respect. They could be donors. We could do transplants.

But set that aside, because no one asked for my opinion. This is about facts. Can bell ringing increase anyone’s self-respect? If you think you’re so insignificant that no one notices you, it might. Ring that damn bell, make some noise, wake the friggin’ village up at 2 a.m. There, they heard you that time.

In general, though? There’s probably some better way.

crotchetwor, minim workksheet

Oddly enough, I almost understand this. Where American music counts time in whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on until the fractions get so small they swallow themselves, British music uses crotchets, minims, quavers, semiquavers, hemidemisemiquavers, and other odd fragments of sound that humans call speech, although I’ve never heard of a crotchetwor and I’m pretty sure no one else has either.

After almost thirteen years of living here and messing around with various sorts of music, I should have learned to understand what they’re talking about by now. But no, my mind pretty much shuts down when someone says anything along the lines of, “That’s actually a crotchet.” I smile radiantly. I may even look like I understand what they’re saying. I don’t. I can get as far as knowing that it has to do with timing. If they’re telling me about it, it means I’ve gotten it wrong again, but I’m much more inclined to giggle than to feel bad about it.

Do I have a worksheet to offer? Absolutely not. And if I ever create one, I advise you not to use it. 

Tea, opium, and the East India Company

Is any drink more innocent than a nice cup of tea?

Almost any of them, and I say that having done no comparative research whatsoever. But forget the comparisons. Innocent tea is not. Its history is deeply interwoven with opium. Here’s how it worked:

In the seventeenth century, England began drinking serious amounts of tea, which it bought from China. China looked at what England offered to sell it in return and said, “Ho, hum,” and didn’t drink it / wear it / eat it / or more importantly, buy it. Which meant, since England wanted to keep drinking tea, that silver poured out of England and into China. And what with silver being heavy and all, the world was turning more slowly on its axis.

The world only turned properly when more silver flowed into England than out.

I shouldn’t say stuff like that or we’ll have another one of those incidents with the Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout. (An explanation is hidden behind this link. You’ll find it a few paragraphs below the photograph. It wasn’t one of my finer moments, which is probably why I can’t help thinking it’s funny.) I could shorten my explanations by making a grain-of-salt logo and adding it when I say something ridiculous. We’ll all have hypertension by the time I’m done.

Irrelevant photo: begonia blossom

Anyway, with all that silver sitting in China instead of England, where nature had decreed that it belonged, the earth’s rotation was going out of sync with the standard twenty-four hour day and something had to be done.

Enter the East India Company, also called the English East India Company, or a bit later the British East India Company once Britain acquired a political existence, to distinguish it from assorted other countries’ East India companies, which it competed with.

The English East India Company got its charter in 1600 from Queen Elizabeth. A trade imbalance wasn’t the problem yet. What Liz wanted was to have it break the Portuguese and Spanish hold on trade from the Indian Ocean. Which the company did, in part by piracy.

Yeah, those were times to make the heart swell with pride. When we talk about making Britain great again…

No, that’s too far off topic.

A combination of a weakening government in India and competition with the company’s French counterpart (the French East India Company–no one involved had the least bit of imagination) ended up with the English company taking direct control of territory in India. And deciding that holding territory was such fun that it took more. And for a hundred years, starting in 1757, it was both a military and a political power, regulated by no government and answerable only to itself. And it ruled of India.

Yeah, that’s the point where I can’t help thinking I’ve misread something. This is a private business openly governing a country–and not even its own country. In 1803, it had a private army twice the size of Britain’s.

India didn’t grow tea yet. Its exports included silk, cotton, sugar, indigo dye, and (here we get to the point at last) opium. The East India company established a monopoly on opium in Bengal.

I couldn’t find much information about the impact this had on India, but its production relied on forced labor and the trade would, inevitably, have led to some addiction. The shift away from small farming also meant a shift away from food production, which kept people fed but wasn’t where the money could be made. Before the East India company took over, India’s ability to feed its people had been equal to or a bit better than Europe’s. (Europe’s wasn’t great at the time, but I’m not sure whose was.) What British did rule was to commercialize agriculture, after which the country experienced repeated famines. You can find a grim timeline of them here.

Now let’s go back to China for a minute. Opium reached China in the sixth or seventh century, and it was used (as it had been for centuries in India and the ancient Mediterranean) medicinally–to relieve pain, the help people sleep, and maybe for a bit of fun here and there. With the introduction of tobacco, though, came the idea of smoking the stuff, and in this form it became much more powerful and much more addictive.

China’s emperor banned recreational use. The edict was roughly as effective as the US war on drugs has been.

China banned imports in 1729. Which was a problem for the East India Company, because it had a lot of it and was £28 million in debt from its wars in India and from all the Chinese tea it had to pay for in that heavy, annoying metal.

So what’s a law-abiding company / government / army to do when a foreign government blocks its access to a market? The East India Company started smuggling the stuff, and by 1739 it had gotten Britain and China involved in the Opium Wars, which eventually, in the name of free trade, opened the Chinese market to opium imports. The balance of payments problem was–from Britain’s point of view–taken care of.

And from China’s point of view? When it banned imports, 200 chests were coming in a year. By 1858, 70,000 were coming in and addiction had become a massive problem. I’m not sure about its balance of payments but I’d bet a damn good chocolate cake that it Britain’s improved China’s got worse.

But Britain got more than tea in this exchange. It got opium as well.

In western Europe, medical opium had been recommended as early as 1527. Paracelsus called the opium mixture he used laudanum–Latin for “worthy of praise.” Or so one source says. The last time I tried to translate something into and out of Latin (it happened to be raisin), we ran into no end of odd translations, so this time I’m not even looking it up, I’m just pretending I know what I’m talking about. Who’ll notice if I’m wrong?

Laudanum was about 10% opium.

The more Europeans traded in opium, the more it made its way to their home countries. In the eighteenth century, doctors were both prescribing it and using it themselves.

As the nineteenth century creaked onward, opium escaped the tinctures it initially came in and was available to be smoked. The Victorian public could read and be horrified by tales of opium dens (which were dedicated to smoking opium), although not many dens seem to have existed outside of London. In a nice little irony, though, they were associated in the popular imagination with–shudder–foreigners, especially the Chinese. Who else would bring such a dangerous drug to someone else’s country?

Having read about the horrors of opium smoking, the Victorian public could then put down its newspapers and buy laudanum from the chemist (which if you’re American is a druggist) or at the market. No big deal. It was the aspirin of its day, available everywhere and taken for just about everything: coughs, rheumatism, colicky babies, hiccups, and women’s troubles (no, that didn’t mean the social and economic condition of woman, although that was enough to drive anyone to opium; it also didn’t mean men; it meant anything associated with–I’m blushing just to think of it–the reproductive system).

It also mended broken chair legs, straightned curly hair, and curled straight.

Yes, yes: grain of salt.

People who used opium in its respectable forms included Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. And even though it was less addictive in this form than it was if you smoked it, it was still addictive enough to get you into trouble. The Brontes’ brother, Branwell, is said to have been an opium addict, not to mention an alcoholic and an all-around mess. I’m not sure what form he used. Probably anything he could get his hands on, which is most likely to have meant laudanum.  

So predictably that they sound like a caricature of themselves, the guardians of public morality saw the use of opiates among the poor and working class as a problem and among their own class nothing worse than as a habit.

Now let’s go back to the medical uses of opium, because it was a useful painkiller. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a German scientist developed the even more effective morphine from an opium base. It was so effective that some 400,000 soldiers came out of the American Civil War addicted to it.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, scientists were looking for a less addictive painkiller. Working from a morphine base, they came up with heroin. 

And they all lived happily ever after.

Anybody want a cup of tea and a dash of irony? I’ve got the kettle on. A nice cup of tea never hurt anyone.

Victorian Christmas carols: a link

I was going to shut up till next Friday, but this post at News from the Past is timely and makes me think (as if I didn’t already) that the spirit of love and joy struggles to hold its own against the spirit of outrage and complaint. It’s about Christmas carols and the great offense they caused in Victorian times. Have fun.

Christmas in Britain

brussels sprout-flavored crisps

Relevant photo: These are brussels sprouts flavored crisps. Or potato chips, if you’re American, which I mostly am. Notice that lovely seasonal package they come in?

Brussels sprouts are part of the traditional British Christmas dinner, but they’re not usually eaten in the form of potato chips–or crisps, as they’re called in Britain to distinguish them from what Americans call french fries, which are called chips.

Have I lost you yet? Oh, good.

This is the first year I’ve seen brussels sprout-flavored potato chips, and I don’t predict a great future for them, even as a seasonal oddity. I ate three out of I didn’t count how many in the package I bought: one to see what they tasted like, a second to make sure I hadn’t hallucinated the first, and the third to see if they might just possibly grow on me.

Boy, did they ever not.

I threw the rest away.

By way of background: I do like brussels sprouts, but only in their natural, vegetabilian form. And I don’t, as a habit, waste food, but for some things you have to make exceptions.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry one. Please be careful what you buy if you’re tempted to grab something in nice-looking seasonal packaging.

And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I wish you a happy whatever you may or may not celebrate at this time of year. It should make you very happy that your tradition isn’t responsible for inventing brussels sprout-flavored crisps.

Only in Britain: What did I get for Christmas this year? Why, a lovely, hand-crocheted brussels sprout. With eyes. In real life (if that’s what I lead, given that I’m taking pictures of a crocheted brussels sprout with eyes), it’s green, not blue.

Recipe links: scones, clotted cream, and other good stuff

I’ve run a series of posts about food, in response to which Jean at Delightful Repast sent me links to recipes, all for several things that have either I or someone leaving a comment mentioned. I thought I’d pass them on for the benefit of anyone out there who cooks. Or who knows someone who can be bribed or strongarmed into cooking.

Clotted cream. A number of people asked what it is, so here you go–make your own.

Scones. Because what’s clotted cream without a scone and jam?

English muffins, which Jean swears are just called muffins in England, although I’d swear I saw them sold as English muffins once at the Co-op.

Crumpets, which I can’t think of anything to say about. Except that I’m ending that sentence with a preposition and, yeah, it’s okay: The English language likes to end sentences with prepositions. (I tried to maneuver “with” to the end of that sentence, but I can’t do it.)

Teacakes, a.k.a. toasted teacakes, but you have to toast them before you can calll them that.

And finally, a brandy-soaked British fruitcake. This works for Christmas and for weddings, although not if you’re in the U.S., where wedding cakes are cut from sponge rubber and then iced elaborately.

Crime in London: a bonus post

In an effort to find material for an article, the New York Times asked  for people’s experiences of petty crime in London. Then the Times tweeted the article and nothing’s been the same since. To read the responses for yourself, you can follow the link or search Twitter using the hashtag #PettyCrime, which for no reason I understand calls up a whole different set of answers. I’ll quote entirely too many. I lost the better part of a rainy afternoon to the thread and I don’t see why you should be spared.

“An American talked loudly on his mobile in a restaurant then drank red wine with a fish course. Gave him an extra loud tut.”

“Increasingly people respond to the question ‘How are you?’ With ‘I’m good’ instead of the grammatically correct (and far more polite) ‘I’m very well, thank you.’ It’s only going to escalate.”

Only the excessively boastful and self-satisfied would respond with “I’m very well, thank you”! The acceptable answers are a) ‘not bad’ and b) ‘not too bad at all’ from which we can infer a) ‘my life is falling apart’ or b) ’I’m positively ecstatic’ “

“I fell down a flight of steps at Bank and immediately apologised for causing such a kerfuffle and holding up people’s journeys. So ashamed of myself”

“I once offered a class set of rubbers to a fellow American teacher, trying to offer some good old Limey hospitality. The response was criminally rude and the offer was declined.
I never knew pencil erasers were so contentious”

Ah, yes, friends. Rubbers are one of those things that shouldn’t be discussed with people from the opposite side of the Atlantic. On one side, they’re prophylactics (translation: birth control, as worn by the male of the species). On the other side, they’re erasers–things you use to rub out pencil marks.

“This morning, in Streatham South London, I said ‘good morning’ as I walked passed a fellow pedestrian, they didn’t say ‘good morning’ back. So rude. This will stay with me all day. Traumatised.”

“I left the house after lunch and a street-sweeper said ‘mornin’ to me.  I had to bite my lip not to correct him.”

“On the tube a young man got up and offered me his seat as the carriage was busy. I saw it as a ploy to mug me so I called the police.”

“I stood on someone’s foot on the train today, and they didn’t even say ‘excuse me’. I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“I recently took my 10 month old daughter on the underground. She stared at people, it frightened them. She doesn’t know the code. She now lives in the north. The tube is safe once more.”

“I asked a man directions to a Burmese restaurant on Edgware Road, he pointed me in the right direction and said it would take 3 minutes to walk there but it actually took 20. Admittedly I stopped for a pint but he should have factored that in.”

“Kitten stole my croissant. Despite obvious trail of crumbs, stolen item was not recovered”

“I fear I’m responsible for a #PettyCrime as on Monday I took a crowded tube, lost my balance and ended up grabbing the arm of a fellow passenger (who I didn’t know!) in a panicked attempt to stay upright. Totally unacceptable behaviour.”

“I was in a busy pub just yesterday, I knew the gentleman a few people to my right was there before me but he was looking at his phone. I placed my order without alerting him. I haven’t been sleeping since.”

“I was blatantly blocked on escalator by a left standing tourist… I didn’t just sigh loudly but also tutted AND HARRUMPHED. To no avail. Said sightseer turned and looked at me. Obviously I apologized, moved to the right and carried on sighing. These people should be locked up.”

“I stopped to let another car pass down a narrow road. They did not gesticulate a thank  you. I have the police report if you wish for more details.”

“I was waiting for a bus recently. When it came, someone who had arrived at the bus stop after me got on before me.”

“A man got on my tube train wearing brown brogues when everyone knows a gentleman only wears brown in the country and black in town.  It was shocking”

“A close friend and I, approaching from different ends of the street, accidentally acknowledged each other outside a polite speaking distance.  I pretended I was waving goodbye and hid in the nearest shop until they were gone. We have never spoken of this.”

“I witnessed an Italian tourist standing on the left side of the up escalators at Piccadilly Circus station preventing people from walking up. Naturally I said nothing but stood close behind them seething and encouraging fellow commuters to join me in silent rage.”

“I have had entire conversations without mentioning the weather. I’ll go quietly, officer.”

“Some guy didn’t apologise to me once after I bumped into him. I was very dissapointed in that exchange and think he should be banged up”

“When I was 21 years old, I worked in a London hotel and one morning I was asked, by an American couple, how to use the microwave in the room. It was the safe deposit box.”

“A publican of fine reputation went rather overboard with an extra splash or two of Tabasco in my Bloody Mary recently. I was so flustered I nearly told him”

*

My thanks to Mardi for sending me a link to the BBC’s coverage of these outrages.

How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, and brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.

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After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

How the scone discovered Britain

Like so many of the things I write about here, the history of the scone is murky.

But first a definition. And if you already know what a scone is, stay with me for the pleasure of watching me fall on my face as I struggle to do something simple.

Definition

Lord Google will tell you that the scone is a small, unsweetened or lightly sweetened cake. Lord Google couldn’t find his ass with his many floury hands. A scone is not a cake, it’s a baked thing made without yeast.

And that, my friends, is why I’m not in the dictionary business.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Oh, hell, I think I used this one not long ago.

Wikiwhatsia does a more accurate if less specific and less linguistically convincing job by defining it as a baked good.

Can a baked good survive without enough friends to become baked goods, plural? And if it can, is a baked evil lurking out there somewhere? Don’t we have enough to worry about in the world today?

The first stumbling block in defining the scone is that what things taste like runs off the edge of the English language. And probably of other languages.

The next stumbling block is that different recipes find different ways to make the dough rise, so you can’t define it by that. It can be made with assorted combinations of baking powder; cream of tartar; bicarbonate of soda, which Americans know as baking soda; self-raising (or self-rising) flour, which is cheating but go on, it’s your kitchen and no one’s watching. So you end up defining it by what it doesn’t use: yeast.

Defining things by what they don’t include is inherently dangerous. Scones also don’t include chopped liver. Or gravel. They don’t include fire extinguishers or (at least in my experience) pickled onions. The world is rich in things they don’t include.

But in spite of that, let’s charge in where angels fear to bake and talk about what a scone isn’t: It’s not highly sweetened. It’s not a cake. It’s not a baking powder biscuit. It’s not an American scone because the American scone takes the British scone and adds steroids. It’s also not an anvil or a soup or an armchair.

You’re welcome. I do try to be helpful.

And there endeth in failure my attempts to define the thing. Aren’t you glad you stuck around?

Variations

Whatever the scone is, the British eat it happily, generally with butter and jam or (in the southwest, if they’re going to hell in a handbasket) with clotted cream and jam. Or if they’re me (which of course they’re not; I’m more American than British, no matter how long I’ve been here), just with butter.

All that changes if the scones are savory, which means not sweet and spelled with an extra U but it went wandering somewhere and I can’t be bothered looking for it just now. Savory scones can involve cheese or herbs or anything along those lines, in which case skip the jam and stuff and just slather on some butter and be happy.

History

The scone’s origins (and we’re back, at last, to where I should have started) are murky.

A food reference site tells me they were either originally Dutch (from the Dutch for beautiful bread, schoonbrot, or Scottish, a descendant of the Scottish oat cake. Let’s take those possibilities one at a time.

I humbliy petitioned Lord Google to translate schoonbrot for me. First he corrected my spelling: It’s schoonbrood. Then he told me it means clean bread.

I told him to dust the flour off his hands because he was getting my screen dirty, but if he’s not listening I’ll admit to you that I can actually see a connection there.

I slipped a few more words into his all-devouring maw and learned that schoonbrot is Middle Dutch, so I can keep my snarky remarks about the site where I found the word to myself.

A WikiWhatsia article translates the Middle Dutch as fine bread and says the language was first brought to England by about a third of William the Conqueror’s soldiers, who came from Dutch-speaking Flanders, and more bits of it were brought by Flemish refugees between the eleventh until the seventeenth centuries, who were fleeing floods, overpopulation, and warfare.

“When England’s population numbered 5 million, London alone had tens of thousands of Flemings, while an estimated third of the Scottish population has a Flemish background,” it said.

That’s not the same as saying that a third of the population of Scotland was Flemish, but never mind. The point is that the English language picked up a pretty fair dusting of Middle Dutch and (irrelevantly) that Britain has assimilated large numbers of refugees in the past without losing its essential Britishness, whatever the hell that may be.

So there, and also harumph.

All of that is actually more interesting than scones–at least to me–but, sigh, we’re talking about scones so let’s go back to our topic.

I made a quick effort to find out what schoonbrood was (and may still be) and found that it’s a company that sells “art by a number of painters” (a “perfect gift for someone starting his/her life in Maastricht. or leaving the city after graduation”) and also a not-uncommon last name. If it’s yours, I can point you at ways to trace your ancestry or to a possible relative who’s raising money for pancreatic cancer. Not, I assume, for the disease itself, which needs no help from us and isn’t interested in money anyway, but either for research or to support people who have it.

None of which was what I was looking for.

I tried “schoonbrood recipe” and came up with a recipe for harissa coleslaw with pomegranate and an article on emulsion polymerization (no idea what that is–I know my limits). It’s that last name business. So never mind. We’ve spent a lot of time on this and learned almost nothing. We’ll just have to assume the one baked good and the other baked good are in some way related to each other and are willing to form the happily pluralized phrase baked goods.

We’ll also assume that both are very clean because around here we wash our hands before cooking.

But where are my manners? Thank you, Lord G. I have left the usual offering of data. I’m not sure how much is in there. More than I expected, I expect.

And with that, we can move to the next possible origin for scones: Scotland in the early 1500s. These proto-scones would have been rolled out to the size of a smallish dinner plate, baked on a griddle, and cut into wedges, and they’d have been made without baking powder (or soda) because baking soda only became commercially available in 1846 and baking powder hit the store shelves a bit later. Although the ancient Egyptians did use baking soda as part of the mummification process.

If that doesn’t put you off the next baked good you see, I’m not sure what will.

Baking powder, to be technical about it, is just baking soda plus some other stuff that makes it easier to use, but it revolutionized baking. You can find an explanation here.

The scottish proto-scone would have been made of oats and barley. Or of just one of them. Whatever was grown locally, I expect.

And now we get a bit where scones go upmarket.

According to the food reference site I linked to above (and you’ll need several grains of salt to do with this, so have some at hand, please), “Scones became popular and an essential part of the fashionable ritual of taking tea in England when Anna, the Duchess of Bedford (1788 – 1861), one late afternoon, ordered the servants to bring tea and some sweet breads, which included scones. She was so delighted by this, that she ordered it every afternoon and what now has become an English tradition is the ‘Afternoon Tea Time’ (precisely at 4:00 p.m.). They are still served daily with the traditional clotted cream topping in Britain.”

The site’s American, which you can spot by its recipes (cups, not grams and millithingies) and by its conviction that England stops dead at 4 p.m. and has afternoon tea. Also by its claim that all of Britain has scones with clotted cream.

Geez. Who knew Americans were so easy to spot?

So that’s two grains of salt.

The third one? A food historian, Joyce White, says the Duchess of Bedford’s early teas would have been dainty bread-and-butter sandwiches, not scones.

It is true, however, that the D of B introduced the idea of food with her afternoon cup of tea, because until she got loose on the tradition, having a cup of tea involved nothing more than having a cup of tea. After a longish evolution and the democratization of tea (because in her day it was both expensive and aristocratic), it’s indirectly thanks to her that we now have people talking about eating their tea. No one except outsiders like me thinks that’s an odd thing to say.

The D of B also started that business of high tea and low tea. Low tea was set on a low table. High tea involved a meal and was eaten off a table high enough to slide chairs under.

I tried to find out when the scone escaped the D of B’s elegant clutches and lowered itself to be eaten by the likes of you and me, but Lord Google and his minions (of whom, in spite of myself, I am one) aren’t interested. But escape her they did, and they now cost less than half a pound for ten at a discount supermarket. Or more. It all depends where you shop.

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Now that the scone’s baked, bagged, and priced, we can move on to tea. Because what’s a scone without a cup of tea? In the next couple of weeks, I hope to inflict on you first a post about tea and then one about opium, which most people don’t ask for with their scone and tea but is related anyway.