About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Beneath London’s streets

Deep beneath the streets of London lurks a monster that knows how Londoners live today–what they eat, how they clean themselves, what gets them through the day. What will it do with the information? Either write a cheesy screenplay and make a fortune or come up through the plumbing and eat everyone it finds. Probably the first, because it’s eating well. It doesn’t need human flesh, which not only fights back but screams. Or at least it does in cheesy movies.

The monster’s called a fatberg, and in the best tradition of promos for cheesy movies, I’ve misrepresented it. The biggest one (roughly 750 meters long) has already been killed and autopsied. The ones still lurking underground are smaller, and although they’re growing, not one of them is alive. 

Fatbergs are made of solidified fat, sewage, and all-purpose gunk. And they’re clogging up the sewers not just in London but in other big cities around the country. So British TV being what it is, the big one was autopsied for our viewing pleasure.

This isn’t just an irrelevant photo, it’s stolen from an earlier post. I’m putting this post together on a toy typewriter and, what the hell, it’s available. Given the topic, we could do with a few flowers.

What do I mean about British TV being like it is? Well, it does a lot of nonfiction, which ranges from glorious to turn-the-channel. This one was somewhere in between. Beyond that, I’m not the best person to sum it up. I figured I was being vague enough that I could get away without having to explain what I meant, thanks. It may not have been enlightening, but at least it’s accurate.

Fatbergs form when a bit of cooking fat–or several gallons of the stuff–is poured down the drain and combines with the calcium it finds in the water to form a solid, which then sticks to a rough bit of sewer wall. Then a wet wipe comes along (wet wipes were the villains of the piece) and sticks to it. Then more fat sticks to that, and anything else that gets flushed down the toilet piles in on top, on the bottom, and on the sides, and while you’re still watching British TV, deep below you is 750 feet of solid crap–in the literal sense of the word– and other stuff blocking the sewer. Whatever gets flushed down the sewer, except the purest of liquids, can be part of a fatberg.

Isn’t your Friday getting off to a great start? Isn’t it just uplifting to read Notes?

So what did the autopsy tell us about how folks live in London? Well, they use cocaine, ibuprofen, caffeine, syringes and needles, paracetamol, morphine, heroin, condoms, magic mushrooms, steroids and gym supplements, tampons, amphetamines, sweetcorn, and hair tonic.

It’s the hair tonic that does the damage.

You didn’t think anyone has used hair tonic since the 1950s? Or maybe that was the 1920s? I didn’t either. I suspect they mean–to use a technical phrase–is hair goop. Or what the British call products. Not even hair products, just products. As if nothing else gets produced in the country.

A word about paracetemol: When my partner, Wild Thing, and I first moved to Britain, we figured it was some strange oracle the British consulted about aches and pains. Every country has its superstitions. As an outsider, you learn to live with them and not make funny faces. It turns out, though, that it’s what Americans know by the brand name Tylenol.

It’s not that Americans are more heavily oriented to brand names than the British. The British call vacuum cleaners hoovers, and using one to clean the floor is hoovering. Presumably Hoover made the first vacuum cleaners to hit the market here. The thing is, the British and Americans choose different things to call by brand names, making us sound eccentric to each other. But that’s a different post. Let’s go back to the fatberg.

So, Londoners use paracetemol. They also eat out a lot, because restaurants are the source of a lot of that cooking oil. The pattern is use, cool (presumably), pour down drain. Of course, home cooks contribute their share. From each according to their deep fat fryer…

And our bodies contribute whatever we put into them. The residue from prescription medicines, including antibiotics and estrogen. All those lovely bugs that cause digestive disasters–e coli, campylobacter, listeria. And antibiotic-resistant bacteria, although those may not come directly from us but from the uncontrolled combination of antibiotics and biota. I don’t know that. I’m guessing.

The things we drink out of also makes a contribution. Plasticisers from cups and plastic bottles can  mimic estrogens, and they’re in there too. The ones that don’t get trapped in fatbergs make their way into the rivers and oceans, doing some very weird stuff to the fish.   

The folks whose job it is to free up the sewers do it the modern way: by hand. They suit up, drop down into the sewers with shovels, and chop pieces off, which their buddies up top winch to street level. They manage not to pass out from the smell, or even complain about it. The only high-tech part of the job (and we’re relying on my memory here, which is an iffy proposition) is the gizmo (I love high-tech words) that beeps when it finds a toxic gas buildup.

On screen, they were not only good humored but very funny. In short, they’re heroes.

What can we learn from this? That image tourists have of historic Britain? It’s not the whole picture.

Modern life in historic Britain

Britain wears its history with style. Why wouldn’t it? It has so much of the stuff that it can change clothes every hour on the hour and not repeat an outfit in years.

The dry cleaning costs are horrendous, but hey, it’s worth it.

History or no, however, Britain’s a modern country. So let’s spend a moment or six talking about technology in Britain. And elsewhere, since technology crosses borders more easily than beleaguered humans are allowed to.

You may have read that Alexa, that sorcerer’s apprentice in your home (or not–I don’t really know you, do I? she said inserting a question into a statement in a very British way), has been known to eavesdrop on conversations that aren’t addressed to her. Or, in one case, to eavesdrop on an ad on television in which someone asks Alexa-on-the-screen to order cat food, so the Alexa-in-someone’s-home woke up and ordered cat food. 

Friends, do not let Alexa watch TV.

Irrelevant and now out of season photo: rhododendron budding despite the snow.

The owner was able to cancel the order before the house filled up with cat food but was disturbed enough by what happened to lodge a complaint with Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency, which after due consideration cleared the ad, or the company behind the ad, of any wrongdoing. On what grounds? That Alexa’s programmed to need human confirmation before it completes an order. So creepy as it is, it’s all okay.

A similar thing happened in California when a six-year-old told Alexa to order a $170 doll’s house and four pounds of sugar cookies, only in that case when Alexa asked, “Do you really want me to order expensive stuff and make your parents really, really mad at you?” the six-year-old said, “Hell, yes.”

If she’d been English, she’d have said, “Yes, please,” not, “Hell, yes.” And of course I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly. Not what she would’ve said if she’d been British, only what she and Alexa really did say.

The story hit not just the newspapers but radio and TV newscasts, prompting Alexas all over the wherever–nation? state? I’m not sure how far the story spread–to ask whoever was around if they should order doll’s houses. As writer Hari Kunzru tweeted, before long we’ll all have to “prevent our fridges gambling our savings in Vegas.“

Ah, but all those cloned Alexas do more than ask if they should order doll’s houses. For a while there, the press was full of stories about Alexas laughing spontaneously, for no reason their creeped-out owners could identify. Amazon reset them all–it’s done centrally; the only way the owners can seize control is to turn them off–so that they stopped laughing. Which might be even creepier. The suspicion lingers, like a whiff of garlic, that they know something we don’t. Only now they’re keeping any hint of it to themselves.

But it’s not just Alexa who orders us stuff we didn’t want. Starting in January, Tiffany Crow was besieged with stuff she didn’t order. She doesn’t have an Alexa listening to her household’s every belch and whistle, so however this happened that wasn’t it.

What kind of stuff? Oh, wireless speakers, fitness wristbands, projectors, globes, and I’m not sure what else–over 100 items, she said. None of it stuff she wants, unfortunately. She tried getting the deliveries stopped but got nowhere, so she started giving it to the neighbors, but even they reached their limit. She lost her sense of humor about it pretty quickly, because each delivery came with endless packaging, which had to be sorted and recycled. Plus there was all that stuff to get rid of.

So does she have the right to keep it or give it away? According to U.K. law, yes. She informed the company, she didn’t order the stuff, she didn’t order anything like it, and she didn’t order one of them and type in 1,000 by mistake. So it’s hers. She and her neighbors get to keep the loot. Even if they don’t want it.

I know someone who got eight kilos of chocolate-covered Turkish delight by typing in the wrong amount. He had to pay for it, but I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about the mistake.

If you want that in pounds, multiply it by 2.2. That’s one of the few things involving numbers I trust my memory on.

Evenutally Tiffany Crow got the Guardian‘s Money section involved and Amazon miraculously found a way to turn off the loot faucet and apologized but “declined to offer an explanation.”

A glitch on this scale can only happen electronically, so it’s time to quote Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, who says automation not only didn’t speed up the company’s car production line, it slowed it down. I’m cheating here, because it’s not a British company, but then California’s not a British county/state/province/colony/dependency either. I do cheat when it suits me. Just look the other way if it bothers you.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he said. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”  

Our final high-tech success story is from a British bank, TSB, which used to stand for something but now only stands for TSB. It was recently bought by a Spanish bank, which directed it to update its computer programs, so it tried to transfer 1.3 billion customer records and–you see it coming, don’t you? Not only did they lock people out of their accounts, they gave some people access to other people’s records and created phantom credits and withdrawals. One customer found himself £13,000 to the good. Another found that he’d paid a direct debit to Sky Digital 81 years from now.

A member of the House of Lords discovered that he had a balance of £0.

TSB said it was having a few intermittent problems. Then it said it was having a few more serious problems than that. Then it said a bunch of other stuff but nobody believed anything it said anymore. Its chief executive, whose name really is Paul Pester, admitted that a week after the problems started the bank was on its knees. He refused to answer questions about his bonus, which was said to be £1.6 million and was supposed to be paid once the data migration was complete.

A little while later he was publicly giving up his bonus, which by then had grown to £2 million.

That sound you hear? It’s Alexa laughing.

*

A quick note: I meant to write about the Commonwealth this week, in the hope of learning something about it, but I got lost in the detail and lost my sense of humor over the current scandal involving the government, Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, and plain ol’ racism. The scandal recently brought down the home secretary. I may manage to write about some bits of it yet, but I can’t promise. If you want to know what I’m talking about (and if you live in Britain you almost surely know already), you can start by googling “windrush generation landing cards destroyed.”

Some topics work out, others don’t. This one hasn’t.

The ducks of Britain

What’s life like for the ducks of Britain? I can’t speak for all of them, but–. Okay, I can’t speak for any of them, but I can guess that it’s not bad for this group.  Apologies for having to send you on a wild duck chase if you want to see the photo. I still haven’t figured out how to snatch photos from news stories. What the hell, they copyrighted anyway. It’s worth a click.

My thanks to Deb for sending me the link, which I’d have missed without her.

Celebrating May Day in Britain

May Day’s over for rhis year, but let’s talk about traditional British celebrations anyway.

First the really exciting part: Most people pay it about as much attention as they pay April 30. They rumble off to work if it’s a work day. They clean up the hairball the cat left on the end of the couch. They save a couple of rubber bands in little plastic dish that came with the plums they bought at the supermarket. Or maybe that business with the rubber bands is just me. I’m not British-British, just Americo-British. We can’t judge the British by what I do. An English-British friend saves them in a drawer. Maybe that’s more culturally appropriate.

But you see what I mean. So what if it’s May Day? Who notices?

Still, traditions are traditions, and even if people mostly ignore them we’re going to take them seriously. Because as an immigrant, I pay attention to this stuff.

The celebration of May Day goes back to the Roman celebration of Floralia, which honored (or something’d) Flora, the goddess of flowers. It also goes back to Celtic traditions and the celebration of Beltane. Or so an assortment of websites say. How much anyone really knows about ancient celebrations that left no direct line of believers or practitioners is anyone’s guess, but what the hell, modern mythology creates its own traditions. I’m in no position to complain about other people taking things seriously.

We could take a minute here to argue about whether Celtic’s a useful category, since it the Celts didn’t call themselves Celts, but let’s break with the tradition here at Notes by not getting too sidetracked.

May Day also–or so they say–goes back to the Anglo-Saxons.

When a tradition has this many origins it’s either something ancient people had a very powerful need to celebrate or else modern people are making it up. The choice is  yours.

Were any of these celebrations actually on May Day? Beats me. Months aren’t what they used to be and I’m doing well to keep track of the 2018 calendar that hangs on my wall, never mind the ones they used way back when. What I can tell you is that some websites say May Day is celebrated because it’s the start of summer but others say Britain’s meteorological summer begins on June 1 and the astronomical summer starts on June 21. They don’t say a word about May 1.

Are you confused yet? Good. We’ll begin with me repeating that we might want to take some of the ancient traditions with a few grains of salt, and some modern ones might need–. Oh, dear. I just googled “hangover cures,” thinking Pepto Bismol might be either out of date or too specific to the U.S. The list of cures Lord Google offered included pickle juice, coconut water, miso soup, bananas, and leafy greens, but none of them have the universal tang I was looking for.

The list did remind me that the world’s moved on since my last (and only) hangover, when I thought mashed potatoes would help.

They didn’t. But that digression does prepare us to talk about Cornwall’s own May Day celebration in Padstow, Obby Oss Day. Without in any way calling its pedigree into question, I’d still recommend taking it with a grain of mashed potatoes.

No one knows what Obby Oss Day’s origins are, but it’s been going on uninterrupted for hundreds of years and may be connected to Beltane. It also may not be. Either way, it’s legitimately old. It involves drinking, singing, flowers, and a oss. Or maybe that an oss. I was allowing an absent but imaginarily present H, but–oh, never mind. I’ll just avoid letting the words bump up against each other from here on.

Padstow, Cornwall, May Day, 'Obby 'Oss

A relevant photo–something so rare it’s an endangered species: This is the red Obby Oss.

The Padstow Obby Oss website says, “Before the First World War there was only one hobby horse in Padstow, the old oss, but in 1919 the blue ribbon obby oss the was introduced. Also known as the temperance oss, its supporters tried to discourage the drunkenness associated with the custom. There are records of a few attempts to tackle the sometimes raucous behaviour associated with the festival, but none have ever worked. During 1837 some residents did not approve of people firing pistols in the air during the celebrations, and so rallied together to try and stop it by putting up posters which threatened people who did fire guns with a fine.”

I’m not sure when that business with the guns stopped, but it’s in the past now. The drinking continues. A friend who not only goes but takes time off work so he can dedicate himself seriously to the celebration says it rumbles on into May 2, but only local people know about that part.

The drinking and the singing are legendary.

More generally, according to WikiWhatsia May Day was originally a religious holiday but survived as a secular celebration when Europe became Christian. Much later, it was banned by the Puritans, who caught a whiff of its non-Christian origins and suspected that people were having fun. I’m not sure which they considered worse.

It was brought back in 1660, when the monarchy was restored.

In many places, morris dancing has a strong association with May Day. As far as I’ve been able to understand it, though, morris dancers have a strong association with everything. They’ll show up anywhere they can pull a crowd–or borrow someone else’s.

Dancing around a maypole and crowning a May queen are also traditional.

Inevitably, I googled “maypole dancing” and when predictive text offered me “maypole rentals” I was about to use it to show that dancing around a maypole is still popular, but then I followed the link and it turned out to be for rentals in a place called Maypole. So never mind that.

Still, there’s another way to make the argument: Cornwall LIve reports that maypole sales are growing and traditional May Day activities are drawing crowds the like of which they haven’t seen for years. 

Why? Because collapsible maypoles are now available the they can be stored and used the next year.

Who knew they had to be bought? I thought they came from the woods. Or the air. And who knew that someone could make a living teaching maypole dancing, but the article quotes someone who does. I never even stopped to think that it had to be taught, but if the dancers can avoid tying each other to the mast, I guess that’s good. 

And May queens? If a village crowns one, it will choose only one, and she may be balanced out by many men dressed as the green man. Any man, it seems, can decide to be the green man, but god help the woman who crowns herself the May queen instead of waiting sweetly for someone else to pick her.

Excuse me while I hide in the corner and puke without in any way calling your attention to myself.

In fairness, Historic UK gives us the lone May queen balanced by a single Jack-in-the-Green, who would lead the procession.

What procession? Why, the one associated with May Day, silly.

I’m not sure if the green man and Jack-in-the-green are the same character. We’re into more ancient legend and modern interpretation. One website dates the green man back to Rome, but another part of the same site says the label dates back no earlier than 1939. We’ll save all that for a different post.

Before we go, though, no roundup of ancient legend and modern interpretation is complete without a quick visit to Glastonbury, a city with a reputation for being–. How am I going to put this? Alternative. Alternative to what? You name it.

Glastonbury seems to go all out for May Day. No collapsible maypole for them. Men dressed as the green man carried a maypole made from a tree trunk and a fire was lit in (presumably) the Beltane tradition. A series of newspaper pictures shows green men as well a couple jumping the fire. The caption on the fire photo explains that jumping a Beltane bonfire blesses a couple’s union and encourages fertility. I know the world’s changing, but the man in the photo is as likely to get pregnant as the woman is. Or as I am, while we’re at it.

On the other hand, the world’s a wide and interesting place. If literal fertility’s unlikely beyond a certain age, may they find the metaphorical kind in this season of rebirth when the trees put forth leaves, the lambs are shiny and new, and the weeds thrive. And may you find the same yourself.

Stay out of the fire. It’s dangerous.

The houses of Parliament are falling down, falling down, falling down

Members of Britain’s Parliament have been arguing about whether to run away from home.

Why? Well, they come from a broken home. The Palace of Westminster, where they meet, is without too much exaggeration falling apart. To give a fairly random example, on April 22, a stone angel dropped a chunk of stone some 230 feet (that’s 70 meters, or in technical terms, a long damn way) to the ground. If this was the angel’s opinion of the government’s immigration policy (rough summary: we only want immigrants who are just like us, and we don’t really want them either), or on what it’s doing to the National Health Service or public services in general, I couldn’t agree more. Either one is enough to make the angels weep. Also enough to make the angels throw blocks of stone.

I don’t know how much the stone weighed. Enough to flatten a government, but angels have lousy aim, more’s the pity.

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil after the rain.

Westminster Palace isn’t–as the British measure these things–old, but it’s old enough to need £3.9 billion in repairs. Give or take a few hundred million, because the costs always escalate. But why should friends quibble about money, especially small amounts?

Let’s do a bit of history before we talk about what’s broken:

The first palace on the site was built in 1016,

Whether 1016 is a start date or a completion date, I haven’t a clue–construction slow back then–but it happened so long time ago that we don’t really need to know.

Then the Normans conquered the country. They looked the palace over and said, “Nice place. We’ll take it.”

Only they said it in French.

That building burned down in 1512, under Henry VIII. Fire is not a slow process, so one year more than covers it. It was rebuilt, but Henry’s eye had wandered–he had a short attention span–and he’d moved to a different palace. It stopped being a royal residence and was used by Parliament and the royal law courts.

It doesn’t sound like the place was a good fit for Parliament even then. The Lords met in what had been the queen’s chamber, then moved into a larger hall when the George III expanded the peerage and they couldn’t all stuff themselves in any longer. The Commons didn’t have a chamber of its own at first because they were, you know, commoners. They were supposed to feel lucky that they were allowed in at all.

The new building burned in 1834. The replacement incorporated what survived of the old palace (I think that’s medieval replacement; as far as I can figure out, nothing was left of the older old palace) into a gothic-style monster that spreads along the Thames.

“Monster” isn’t a comment on the architecture. I know zilch about architecture. It’s just big.

William IV (no, I don’t know anything about him either; ask me about commas; I’m pretty good with commas) didn’t like the new building and when it was almost completed he offered it to Parliament, which said thanks, Bill, but it really doesn’t work for us either.

But it turns out that nothing else worked for them either, and tradition exerts a powerful pull, so against its better judgment, Parliament moved in.

In 1835, the king opened parliament by assuring them that the fire had been accidental. Who said it hadn’t been? No one that I can find reference to, but there’s nothing like denying a crime to make the world wonder.

And there we’ll leave Parliament for a century or so, with its members following arcane traditions and running around in fancy robes and silly costumes.

During World War II, the building was bombed fourteen separate times. That was not by accident.

Which brings us to the present day, when it’s not London Bridge that’s falling down but Westminster Palace.

What’s wrong with the place? The roof leaks. Sorry, make that roofs, because it has loads of them. The gutters and downpipes are corroding. The stonework’s decaying. Angels are throwing things. It’s full of asbestos. The plumbing’s a disaster. Very few of the 4,000 windows close well. “The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated and improvements to fire safety are needed.”

What’s more, the building was made of Anston limestone, which was cheap and easy to carve but it decays quickly, and time’s caught up with it.

One source says the House of Commons only has room for one wheelchair. Another says wheelchair users have to sit in the middle of the chamber in both the Lords and the Commons. Take your choice. Either way, it’s a problem.

Other than that, everything’s fine. Except for the “vast quantities of combustible materials. This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids [the architects] created to aid ventilation, had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.”

The wiring hasn’t been replaced since the 1870s. If the steam pipes blow (they’re older than all of us put together and the steam puts them under pressure), they’ll scatter asbestos in all directions. Grease from the kitchen is leaking onto pipes that carry the electrical wires.

Oh, and there aren’t enough seats for all the MPs. It’s infested with mice. And it caught fire forty times between 2008 and 2012. Four or five people are always on fire patrol. A former cabinet minister called it a death trap. And did I mention the plumbing? It smells bad. And backs up regularly.

It’s not that no one’s tried to maintain the palace, but maintenance can only be done when Parliament isn’t in session and the repairs have been slower than the decay. And, of course, not enough money was dedicated to it. To get the place in working order, they’ll need to pack the Members of Parliament and the Lords into separate boxes (the Lords’ box is lined with ermine; the Commons is just, you know, a very nice box) and move them out so some real work can go on.

In February, against the advice of government ministers, who wanted to form a committee to think about preparing to get ready to study the situation, MPs voted to move out so the work can start.

A decisive move, only they’re still there. Moving out will take a full Act of Parliament, which is “unlikely to happen before 2025.” I think that means the repairs starting, not the act, although you couldn’t prove it by me. An Act of Parliament has to be approved by both houses and then the queen has to wave her magic feather over it. It doesn’t take seven years unless the queen’s trapped in amber.

Some older MPs, primarily Conservatives, don’t want to move out during the work because–or so say the younger MPs who favor the move–they don’t want to serve out their final years in temporary quarters. But staying while the repair work goes on around them could boost the cost to £5.7 billion and stretch the work out so it takes forty years.

If the place doesn’t fall down first.

Some MPs and Lords worry (and others hope) that a move would kill off a few of the more arcane rituals associated with Westminster. Like what? Like the speaker of the Commons opening the day’s session by parading to their meeting room (sorry–it’s called a chamber but I can’t seem to call it that), together with the trainbearer, the chaplain, the secretary, and the serjeant (that’s how they spell it) at arms, with I’m not sure which of them calling out, “Hats off, strangers.” Like each newly appointed speaker being dragged up to the speaker’s chair. Like the doorkeeper calling, “Who goes home?” at the end of the day’s session. Like placing boxes of snuff outside the Commons’ and Lords’ meeting rooms, or MPs having to place a prayer card on a seat to reserve it because (and we’re back to that again) there aren’t enough seats for them all to cram in.

Ah, but there’s more: One  elevator can’t be used when the Lords are voting, and there’s a staircase that only MPs can set foot on. And a blue carpet that you can cross but not loiter on. Plus a room where you’re sometimes allowed to speak and sometimes not and little hooks for MPs to hang up their swords. The Lords have ribbons for theirs.

How do you hang a sword on a ribbon? You’re on your own there. I’ve never tried.

Politically, voting either to move out or to stay is enough to set a politician’s skin twitching. Inevitably, the people who elected them will ask, “You just voted to spend how many billion pounds to spruce up your workplace?” But every year they put off the work adds something like £100 million to the cost.

This is complicated by the government’s inaction on the many high-rise apartment buildings around the country (they’re called tower blocks here) whose siding (called cladding) turns out to be flammable. This came to light when one, Grenfell Tower, burned to a tall and horrifying cinder ini June 2017, killing many of the residents. Cue government handwringing, pious statements, and long-lasting inaction.

But yes, quick pious statement and we’ll go back to the important things: Should the palace be rebuilt exactly as it is, only updated and functional? Or should changes be made?

Like what changes? Well, women MPs complain that the seating’s built for male-size bodies, leaving short women with their legs dangling. (Speaking as a short woman, I can testify: Your back hates you when you sit way that for long.) Or the bars. Do they keep them all?

What bars? Parliament must be the country’s most alcohol-soaked workplace. Once Lords and MPs have hung up their swords (or possibly before, I wouldn’t know), they have a choice of almost thirty bas. Not everyone can drink at all of them. Some are only for lords. Some are for MPs. Journalists drink at a different one. The mice drink at another. The Lords at one point declined to merge their champagne order with the Commons’. It would’ve saved money but they were afraid the champagne wouldn’t be as good.

The public subsidy for all that is $8 million. Exactly why we’ve changed from pounds to dollars for this is beyond me, but it’s okay because we’re bilingual here.

Alcoholism and embarrassing incidents are–well, let’s not say they’re common, let’s say they’re not uncommon. I’m not sure how much of a difference there is between the two but the second one sounds better.

In addition to the bars and cafeteria(s?), there’s a hairdresser, a gym, a florist, another bar, a post office, a travel office, more bars. . . . You’d hardly have to set your well-shod foot in the real world except to convince your constituents that you think only of them.The palace was built at a time when a gentleman belonged to a gentleman’s club, and it seemed natural to recreate that atmosphere.

In spite of the building’s perks and symbolism, some MPs would rather start over someplace else and have proposed building something new instead of rescuing the palace. It could have enough office space, room in the House of Commons for all the MPs,  and functional plumbing. The current building could become a museum, they say.

There’s also been some suggestion that politics might be less adversarial if the Commons’ meeting room were shaped like, say, a horseshoe instead of having ranks of benches facing each other. On the evidence of American politics, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for that.

In the meantime, Big Ben–the big honkin’ clock at the top of the building’s tower–is in the process of being repaired to the tune of £61 million, which is twice the original estimate. The clock’s expected to stay silent until 2021

Why does that need to be done? Cracks in the masonry, leaks, rusting metal, not keeping good time, the possibility that clock itself could hurl itself to the sidewalk in despair.

Is it more pressing than fixing the rest of the building? I’m not sure, but it can be done without decanting–as they put it–the entire parliament and all its support workers into something resembling the real world.

What’s new in Britain?

The news from Britain? Oh, you know, the usual. Somebody wants to nominate the queen for a Nobel peace prize. They wanted to nominate me, but I didn’t feel right about it so they moved on down the list. A replica of Francis Drake’s ship is up for sale. Friday’s the best night to hear gossip in the pub. A badger’s conquered a castle. (Okay, that’s clickbait, and about as accurate as most clickbait.)

Is any of this worth a post? Of course it is. And if you have to ask why, you’re probably right to but please don’t because I’ll only have to come up with an answer.

Let’s start with the queen. Not because she’s the queen. If I won’t give her a capital letter, you don’t think I’d let her jump the queue, do you?

Irrelevant–and out of season–photo. Cornwall in the snow. It snows every ten years, give or take a decade. First we all tell each other how beautiful it is and when it doesn’t go away within two hours we decide the world’s ending.

A brief interruption here for the sake of readers who aren’t British. Jumping the queue is the only real sin in Britain. It means pushing in at the front of the line, or as we called it when I was a kid, butting into line.

What line are we talking about? Any line. Britain’s full of lines. Not because things are in short supply, but because that’s how people here handle more-than-one-person-type situations. If people are waiting for a bus, a ticket, or the attention of the person behind the bar, they form a queue. It may be what Kate Fox, in her glorious and slightly mad Watching the English, calls a disorganized queue (you can’t see it but everyone involved knows about it, and knows where they are in it) or even a queue of one (I’m here first and if anyone else comes along, they’re after me), but it’s still a queue–a kind of implied queue.

I’m happy to make fun of queuing, but it does take the anxiety out of those situations. Not to mention the hostility. And I say that as a sharp-elbowed New Yorker who knows how to push with the best of them. It’s nice not to have to. And occasionally it’s annoying to know I can’t. But jumping the queue is an offense against public decency, the natural order of things, the secular religion, and everything your mother taught you, and you do it at your own risk, and possibly at risk of your mortal soul.

So, no, the queen doesn’t get to jump the queue here at Notes. The newspaper clipping mentioning her just happened to be at the top of the pile. And I’m as hesitant to mess with the order of my clippings as I am to jump the queue. No one but me would care about my clippings pile, but the prospect of picking that mess off the floor and putting it back in its original disorder makes me cautious.

But back to our story: “Senior political figures and ministers” want to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her more than 60 years of service to the Commonwealth. She takes the Commonwealth seriously, and that’s a large part of what’s held it together. Or so they say. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though, because I’m having to take someone else’s.

What does the Commonwealth do? Good question, and I should write a post about it, if for no better reason than that I might find an answer, but in the meantime let’s quote Philip Murphy, the director of Commonwealth studies at the University of London, who can be presumed to know something on the subject and who recently published a long article about it. It’s in a different, equally fragile, pile of clippings, I can’t pull it out and read it through just now. A closer read will have to wait.

It’s online, you say? Don’t bother me. I have my excuses in order and the dog really did eat my homework.

For now, let’s grab a couple of pull quotes (those are those things in biggish type that publications use to fill the page when an article is, awkwardly, a couple of hundred words too short to reach the bottom).

“Many members of India’s policymaking elite see the Commonwealth as little more than a quaint relic of imperialism,” one says.

“If the Commonwealth really is the future, then we’re in even more trouble than I thought,” says another.

Oh, go on, let’s have one more: “For Britain’s administrative elite, the Commonwealth is a bit like a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations. It hasn’t told the right time for decades, but no one has the heart to take such a treasured heirloom to the tip.”

The tip is the dump. The place where you throw things out. So if Phil’s right, the Commonwealth doesn’t do a hell of a lot.

The importance of this nomination is highlighted by how weird it got when I googled “queen nobel prize.” I found someone at Queen’s University who won a Nobel in physics and someone at Queen Mary University who won a Nobel in something else. I found Queen Latifah, who hosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2014. And I found a page from the official Nobel Prize website called “the Queen’s Gowns,” which is about a different queen, Silvia. As far as I can tell–and I didn’t stick around to be sure I had it right–it documents the gowns Queen Sil wore to the awards ceremony in every year since she was queenified in 1976. I’m sure the world’s a richer place now that the information is available to an eager public.

I mention all that in case you think “the queen” is a definitive description.

Will Liz get the award? As someone or other pointed out, the bar was set pretty low when Henry Kissinger won it, and it didn’t help that Barack Obama was awarded one before he’d had time to do anything. So it’s a definite maybe.

But enough of the queen. What about Drake’s ship? It was called the Golden Hind. Sort of. I’ll come back to that, but first, who was Drake?

Well, it depends who you ask. According to a website promoting visits to the ship, he was “the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, on an epic expedition of discovery and adventure.”

Sounds like a movie poster, probably from the fifties.

Drake’s purpose, it says, was “to intercept the gold and jewels, which the Spanish were removing from South America . . . and shipping back to Spain.” It adds that he made vital discoveries, etc., etc. Step right up, folks. Adult tickets are £7, kids and doddery old people get in for a fiver.

It’s okay, I’m old enough that I get to say “doddery.” If you’re under 65, you’ll just have to wait. Unless you want someone to say you’re making fun of the elderly..

On the other hand, if you read Wikipedia (and if no one’s changed the entry yet), Drake’s voyage was about privateering.

What’s that? An early form of privatization. The Mariners’ Museum defines a privateer as “any individual granted license by their government to attack shipping belonging to an enemy government, usually during a war. . . . They receive a Letter of Marque from their nation’s Admiralty, which grants them permission to raid enemy ships and keep a percentage of the spoils – so long as they pay a cut of that bounty back to the government.”

So basically Drake was operating as a licensed pirate, although according to WikiWhatsia Queen Elizabeth I’s support was unofficial, so he probably didn’t get his letter of marque. And it probably didn’t matter. If he’d been captured by the Spanish it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

In 1579, Drake captured a Spanish ship with so much treasure that it took six days to transfer it all to the Golden Hind. Liz’s share of the takings was enough to pay off the government’s entire annual debt and leave enough to invest in a new trading company operating in the Levant, which is roughly and not quite accurately the Middle East.

If you wonder how Britain got to be an imperial power, that’s as good a place as any to start unraveling the thread. If you want my opinion–and nobody asked but you’re too late to stop me–neither country was in the right. The Spanish were plundering their colonies in what’s now Latin America and the English were plundering the Spanish.

Step right up. Adult entry’s just £7.

The ship was originally called the Pelican but Drake renamed it in the middle of the voyage to flatter his patron, whose crest was a golden hind–a female red deer. How can you tell it’s a red deer if it’s gold? That’s too deep for me, but I’m sure there’s an answer out there somewhere. 

Why bother flattering his patron when he was in the middle of the ocean and his patron wouldn’t know a thing about it until he got back–if he got back? Because those long voyages got boring, and jigsaw puzzles weren’t invented until the 1760s.

Two replicas of the ship exist, one in London and one in Brixham, Devon, and it’s the second one that was up for sale, with a guide price at auction of £195,000. Presumably it’s been sold by now, but if not you can probably bargain them down a bit. It’s too big for the bathtub, but if you want a bit of British history in your front yard, it’d look great.

If you have a big enough front yard.

Moving back to modern days, researchers report that the best pub gossip can be heard on Friday nights.

How are they defining best? The newspapers don’t say, but the most common topics are, in order, old memories, something completely random, TV shows, funny stories, gossip, the news, film, music, jokes, and football.

Why’s football at the end of the list? I’m not sure but it may mean that the historic gender imbalance in pubs has been corrected.

What kind of category is “something completely random”? A garbage can category. Again, the papers don’t say what it means, or why, if it means anything else it’s not at the top of the list. I’m going to jump in with both feet and guess that this isn’t a well designed study, just something fun to report on.

One in five people in the study have been offered a chance to buy something odd while they were in the pub. How odd? A hundred dead pheasants. A broken snooker cue. Four packets of bacon.

Pubs are closing down all over the country. How the culture will survive without them, I don’t know.

In Scotland, a “very angry badger” was found in a tunnel in Craignethan Castle, in South Lanarkshire, and Historic Scotland has closed off the tunnel while it tries to lure it out using cat food and honey. I suspect that means tries to lure it into a trap, but it doesn’t sound as friendly when you put it that way. Let’s pretend it’s a little trail of cat food and honey, leading to the great outdoors.

The story’s undated, so I have no idea when this happened. It could have been centuries ago, during one of the many Scottish/English battles for all I know. When I was a kid, we told each other stories about Japanese soldiers hiding in caves on isolated islands who’d never heard that World War II was over. I suspect they were complete bullshit, but we believed each other. Maybe this is the Scottish/English equivalent: a Scottish nationalist badger still fighting to keep out the English, completely unaware that it’s actually fighting Scottish Heritage.

And now your bonus for getting this far in the post: The Mary River turtle, in Australia, can breathe through its–no, I don’t make this up–genitals. As a result, it can stay underwater for as much as three days, and I like to think it has a good time while it’s there. It also grows a punk haircut–a kind of green mohican. If you have nothing better to do with your life (and you’re reading this, aren’t you?), you should check out the photo.

Unfortunately, the turtle’s on the list of 100 most endangered reptiles.

How is spam changing?

Spam’s changing, and here at Notes we like to stay on the cutting edge.

That’s a horrible image. Forget I ever wrote it. Here at Notes we have enough sense not to play with knives. Still, things are changing and we should all keep up. I’m not sure why, but it’s a near-universal belief and we’re too intimidated to go against it, so let’s act as if it made sense.

What’s new in the world of spam? Well, I’ve just come back from playing in the spam folder, so I’m completely up to date.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie, in not-so-fast mode.

I’ll give each spam comment its own line except where I got more than one version of it. And I’ve put it in italics to make it feel welcome. Also so you know I didn’t write that mess.

aBhh

aBhh’OupwUmIKSsZt

aBhh’) AND 6021=6292 AND (‘iLRH’=’iLRH

aBhh’) AND 4141=4141 AND (‘lAGH’=’lAGH

aBhh

Taken as a group, these have an interesting symmetry. Each line’s a variation on the one before, and the group resolves by repeating the first line. Is it a poem? Is it encoded instructions on how to hack an election? Is it an attempt to lure me into clicking on the address of the sender? I’d be tempted to, but I’m afraid my computer–or possibly the entire world–would blow up and it would all be my fault.

You can’t be too careful these days.

Besides, whoever sent those messages closed a couple of parentheses before bothering to open them. If there was ever a reason to not click on someone’s email address, that’s it.

But even the strangest approach gets old. After a page of so of the code / poem / effort to blow up the world, I was glad to find a newer new approach: misspellings. Not your garden variety misspellings, mind you, but garblings you can only create on purpose, probably with a program that juggles the letters for you. So what’s the plan here? That I’ll be so intrigued or annoyed that I write back, saying, hey, you spelled difficult wrong? And as soon as I do that, the world blows up?

Well, I’m not that dumb, thank you. If you woke up this morning noticing that the world was intact if a little battered, that was me, not clicking those links.

But enough. Let’s talk about content: Most of the comments tell me I’m wonderful in one way or anther. I am, of course, and I like hearing about my wonderfulosity, but please, I’d like the compliments to be a little more convincing.

Samples?

I’m impressed by your writing. Are you a professional or just very knlebedgealow? / I’m impressed by your writing. Are you a professional or just very kndeeeogwabll?

Tough choice. I probably lean more toward kndeeeogwabll than knlebedgealow. If you look at the root of the word, you’ll see that kndeeeogwabll comes from the Latin for knee-deep in bullshit, and by the time I’ve finished some of these posts I’m at least knee-deep and sometimes in almost to my eyeballs–which, short as I am, are still well above knee level. 

Begun, the great internet edocatiun has.

That came from Yoda. He didn’t say so–modest, Yoda is–but I can tell.

To think I could educate Yoda. 

Another group of comments rests on the assumption that I’m here to help people figure out why their lives have gone to shit. Or maybe even tell them how to de-shittify them. A lot of the blogosphere is about telling people how to deshitify their lives by following the writer’s example and (a) letting go, (b) clinging on, (c) eating more fiber, (d) eating less fiber, (e)drinking more, or (f) buying something the blogger’s getting paid by.

That’d be beer, not water.

Me? The only advice I give is to tell people to approach Notes with caution, and that’s not advice, it’s a health and safety warning. 

Now I’m like, well duh! Truly thfnuakl for your help.

This was in response to a post about brussels sprouts.

How much help do people need with their brussels sprouts? Scads. Brussels sprouts are a subtle vegetables and at certain times of the year can be downright devious. If your life’s gone to shit lately, get your brussels sprouts straightened out and you’ll see the results within days. Hours, even. That’ll be £20, thanks.

TYVM you’ve solved all my prbmelos

This came from someone called Destry, whose prbmelos are beyond any help I could give, even if I was in the help-giving business. For starters, what does it do to a person to be named after a cheesy movie? And while we’re at it, how much time in a spammer’s day (or moments in a program’s whatever programs divide their time into) goes into thinking up new names? Did all these comments come from one person, using the same program and many names or are thousands of spammers writing to me using the same program and their own legally recognized names? If it’s the second, Destry, I apologize for my crack about the movie. I’m sure it looked just fine in 1954.

Okay, I don’t believe they’re using their own names. I get multiple copies of some comments from multiple (and equally unlikely) names.

How does anyone come up with all these names? After you’ve exhausted all the name-your-baby books, where do you look? Facebook? Old movies? Abandoned nightmares? 

And while I’m asking questions, does anyone happen to know what TYVM stands for? I could google it but the world might blow up. Which leaves me to my imagination, so we’re not going to be G-rated today. It stands for Trusting Your Vaginal Mastery.

And Destry thinks she has problems.

I was so confused about what to buy, but this makes it unandstaerdble.

This comment scares me. It was in response to a post on guns and American schools. So now the writer know what to buy. Wonderful.

Could you write about Phicyss so I can pass Science class?

No, sweetie, I don’t think I could and you should be grateful because you’d be so guaranteed to flunk if I helped you out. And it’d serve you right. I could write about not using capital letters unnecessarily, though. Or word-garbling programs.

Another group of comments works on the assumption that I’m here to give emotional support. Or to get it. Which again says a lot about the blogosphere.

At last! Someone who undedstanrs! Thanks for posting!

That was in response to a post about Cheddar Man, a prehistoric Briton (or pre-Briton, since the country didn’t exist yet, but let’s not complicate the thing) whose skeleton was found in a cave in the Cheddar Gorge. Given that his skeleton was lying around unused, I went and assumed he was dead, but apparently Ched’s still with us and I’m the only person who understands him. Ched, my apologies. I’m glad you’re still here and, yes, like you I feel that we have a lot in common, although, frankly, I tend to keep my skeleton where other people can’t get at it. Still, if I find one or two more people like us I’ll put together a support group. In the meantime, hang in there. I understand. I really do.

Then we come to the comments on my writing.

If you want to get read, this is how you shluod write.

Yuor rgthi. I’ll tyr ti.

Phmenenoal breakdown of the topic, you should write for me too! / Phamenenol breakdown of the topic, you should write for me too!

These came–isn’t it amazing?–from two different people, and I’m going to take both of them up on the offer. I’ve always dreamed of writing for an editor (or possibly publisher; who can tell?) who has two separate identities and can spell phenomenal more than one way. And who offers my fuckin’ nothing in return for my writing.

Knewgodle wants to be free, just like these articles!

Oh, hell. I thought we got Knewgodle out last week. A friend had the bail money and swore she’d get it downtown asap. I’ll sort this out today. Thanks for letting me know.

Finding this post has anerewsd my prayers

That came from someone called Pebbles, who was just a stone’s throw from getting what she or he needed, or possibly wanted, before finding my post, so I can’t claim too much credit.

Pebbles’ comment came in response to a post about what people in the U.S. and U.K. use for size comparisons. What, you ask, was Pebbles praying for? Sorry, I’m sworn to secrecy.

But it’s not all deliberate misspellings and pseudo-poems out there in Spamland. First the compliments:

Hahhaaah. I’m not too bright today. Great post!

I got that same comment from several people, which is an amazing coincidence. Let’s call the senders Queenie et al, since Queenie sent the first of them. There’s no feeling like being told your post was great by someone who also tells you she’s not too bright.

Noithng I could say would give you undue credit for this story.

I’ve spent days trying to unravel the meaning here but I end up so woozy that I have to abandon the keyboard and lie flat on the floor until the syntax stops spinning. Still, I need all the undue credit I can get, so yeah, whatever it means, I’ll take it.

Then the advice–this time not people looking for it but the ones who offer it. One comment contained a link for Cialis. It urged me to “start off your personal rich compost heap. It really works much better and is less than business fertilizers.” The connection between Cialis and compost heaps goes over my head, but it’s not like anyone ever gets to know everything about sex. There’s always something we haven’t imagined. And erectile dysfunction isn’t a topic I know much about. That’s one of the things about being with another woman: It’s not an issue.
[Sorry about the spacing. My computer’s in rebellion and frankly I sympathize with it.]
But that didn’t discourage someone else (or the same person using another name) from sending me a Viagra link. After a bit of preliminary bullshit, the comment offered me advice about snoring. So what’s the connection? Does Viagra keep men awake or put them (or possibly their partners) to sleep? The world needs to know.
Another comment offered me advice on brushing my teeth. I shouldn’t use a brush with difficult bristles and should make sure I clean my teeth “for around 2 moments.”
Spammers, beware of the thesaurus. It is a powerful but dangerous tool and that leads the unwary into deep woods where they are surrounded by people they can’t see who are laughing at them. For reasons they–the thesaurus users–don’t understand.
I know, I know, you’re going to tell me the spammer wasn’t using a thesaurus, they were using a Something-to-English dictionary, and you’re probably right, but the bilingual dictionary and the thesaurus have this in common: They give you a lot of overlapping words that have very different meanings and they don’t explain what the differences are. You go, for example, to your Something-to-English dictionary and look up the Something for hard, and the dictionary gives you English words that range from difficult to tumescent. And if you don’t cross-check those meanings with an English-to-English dictionary (or at least with the English-to-Something side of the dictionary you’re already using), you end up telling people not to use a toothbrush with tumescent bristles.
Which is probably good advice. So forget what I just said. Use the dictionary. Or the thesaurus. Send the spam. The world’ll be a better, safer place because of it.
I also got comments offered me advice on playing golf, buying stocks, coping with sleep apnea, and getting rid of zits. Because someone out there wants to know this stuff and is happy to have an imaginary stranger tell them what to do.
And finally, limping in at the end comes the flattering request comment, a theoretically surefire way to hook the target’s flagging attention.
! I realize this is somewhat off-topic but I had to ask.Does building a well-established website such as yours require a large amount of work?I am completely new to writing a blog but I do write in my journal everyday.I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and views online.Please let me know if you have any kind of recommendationsor tips for new aspiring bloggers. Thankyou!

 

That came from Alberta (an alleged person, not the Canadian province), and no, Alberta, it’s not hard at all. All you do is get yourself a clever computer program, input the letters of the alphabet (make sure you don’t leave any out–that’s the hard part), and let ‘er rip. Your blog will write itself and all you can sit back and gather up the compliments.

Village raffles and the Cornish Methodists

Until recently, I believed that if you got more than three people together in Cornwall, and possibly anywhere in Britain, you had to hold a raffle. It wasn’t required by law, I’d have said, but by custom, which is much more powerful.

This wasn’t some random belief snatched from the dreamfluff in my mind. At every event we went to, from the village theater group’s performances to the Christmas craft sales, from fundraising lunches to anything else you can think of, there was a raffle. As soon as you went in the door, someone sold you a strip of tickets.

So we assumed raffles had been around from the time of the Druids.

Yes, the Druids. You know why they held the oak tree sacred? Because they used the bark to make raffle tickets.

 

Irrelevant photo: A rare bit of snow on the whatsit shrub in February.

I’m giving you a link here. Not because it proves the Druids made raffle tickets from oak bark but because it says they held the oak sacred, proving that I didn’t make that part up. I’ve gotten cautious since a web site picked up my riff about Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout and repeated it as—may the universe forgive me, especially for still half-thinking it’s funny—verifiable truth.

So in the name of caution, please remember that there’s a difference between saying the oak was sacred and proving it. I can’t tell you, from my own knowledge, whether it’s true. But that Druid/oak stuff happened a long time ago, and how many of us really care? It’s a side issue.

Were there Druids in Cornwall? The best Lord Google could give me was a bunch of uproar about modern self-proclaimed Druids. So I’ll give you a definite maybe on that. Cornwall has its own history, and it’s not your standard-issue English history.

But we were talking about raffles.

I found out a few weeks back that raffles haven’t been in the village since the Druids (if they were ever in the village). They’re an import. Some Cornish villages don’t hold them at all.

Why not? Because of the Methodists.

The Methodists are not to be confused with the Druids. If you’ll forgive a generalization, Methodists 1) don’t paint (or possibly tattoo) themselves blue and 2) don’t consider the oak sacred. They also don’t drink or gamble. Or at least the early Methodists didn’t. More recently, the church has taken the position that “total abstinence [that’s from alcohol] is a matter for individual choice. It is not a condition of membership. Methodists are recommended to make a personal commitment either to total abstinence or to responsible drinking.”

Communion wine is nonalcoholic.

They’ve also eased up on minor-league gambling, although they do say that just because they’ve loosened of the rules that doesn’t mean chapels should think they can open up a new revenue stream.

Methodism is an important part of Cornish history, and we’ll get to that in a bit. In the meantime, what you need to know is that the great historical divide in the village is between church, which is to say the Church of England, and chapel, which is to say the Methodists.

“Historical,” in this context, means before the flood of incomers guaranteed that the larger divide would be between the old village and the new.

It was the incomers who introduced raffles.

Since I’m neither church nor chapel, I’m not the best person to sum up the differences, but I’ll tell you a story about them:

I was part of a village committee a few years ago and the topic of church and chapel came up. For some reason, it struck me as a good place to ask one of the really important questions that was bothering me: Why is it that chapels have toilets but churches don’t?

“Keeps the sermons short,” someone told me.

I haven’t heard of any village Methodists getting into a huff about the raffles that incomers imported, but I have heard of one who’ll donate a pound to whatever cause the raffle is raising money for but refuse his strip of tickets. I’ve also heard of a nearby village where you wouldn’t dare hold a raffle. There are various strands to the Methodist Church, and in that village they’re old school Methodists.

How did Cornwall become so heavily Methodist?

According to Bernard Deacon’s Cornish studies resources, “On [John Wesley’s] very first visits [to Cornwall] large numbers of people turned out to hear him preach in the open air. Even the opposition stirred up by some local gentry during the politically sensitive time of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 could not prevent a growing interest in what the Methodists were saying. It wasn’t long before chapels began to appear, especially after the 1760s. By 1785 over 30% of Cornish parishes contained an active Methodist society. Growth then really accelerated and by 1815 the vast majority of parishes (83%) possessed a Methodist presence. By the time of the Religious Census of 1851 a higher proportion of Cornwall’s church-going population attended a Methodist chapel than anywhere else in the British Isles.”

He goes on to say that “the Church of England was failing in Cornwall by the 1770s. Numbers of communicants in that decade were very low in some parishes…. Formerly, the finger of blame for this state of affairs was pointed at its non-resident and distinctly unsaintly clergy. They subcontracted out the business of caring for parishioners to underpaid and incompetent vicars, while preferring to spend their time eating, drinking, chasing after foxes and in general hobnobbing with the landed gentry (to whom many of them were closely related in any case). Yet, research indicates no connection between attendance at Anglican communion in the late eighteenth century and non-residence. Furthermore, energetic and evangelical churchmen were not unknown in Cornwall…. Although the Anglican church in eighteenth century Cornwall…does not appear much worse than anywhere else.”

He suggests several reasons for Methodism’s appeal here. Cornish parishes (meaning Church of England parishes) were larger than they were in England, loosening the church’s control. And industrialization increased this by creating new population centers that were far from the churchtowns established in the medieval period.

I can’t find a definition of churchtown, but our parish has one. It consists of the church and a small handful of houses. Our village doesn’t really have a center, but the churchtown is very much off on its own and most people would’ve had a hike to get there on a Sunday.

The Cornish gentry were also scarcer than the English, “to some extent squeezed out by the Duchy of Cornwall’s manors,” and by a tradition of people making a living as combined smallholder and tinners, which left a tradition of social independence. “The influence of squire and parson” could never be taken for granted, and with the rise of new money, neither could social deference.

At the same time, industrialization—which in Cornwall mostly meant mining and which Deacon points out was rural, not urban—meant that people’s livelihoods weren’t secure. Their jobs and incomes were tied to global fluctuations, and an increased population meant that a smaller percentage of people had smallholdings to fall back on in hard times.

“Traditional life may have looked familiar in the mid and late eighteenth century [but] it was steadily being hollowed out.”

All of this created fertile ground for Wesley’s message, which “assured people that redemption was open to all and anyone with sufficient faith could be saved. This was the news that was energetically propagated by charismatic preachers, many of them local men and some at first women, who spoke the Cornu-English dialect of the people and arose from the people. Moreover, a flexible, adaptable organisational framework of classes and bands, grouped into societies, soon created a vigorous Methodist community that paralleled that of the Church of England, but one that was both bottom-up and much more participatory.”

Historians argue about whether Methodism was a conservative force or a radical one. My best guess is that the argument goes on because it contained elements of both. On the one hand, “it imposed quietist values of self-discipline and patience in the face of suffering in the expectation of the joys to come in the next world, values that dissolved class antagonisms.” On the other hand, it gave a voice to women, to miners, to the disenfranchised. “It legitimated the morality and structures of ‘traditional’ Cornish society. It upheld and validated the cottage as a socio-economic unit in the face of the changes being wreaked by an external modernity.”

For a bit of period detail, let’s quote from The Cornwall guide, which adds that “On one of [Wesley’s] very early visits…the gruelling six day journey from London was made even more difficult by heavy snow on Bodmin Moor. With no road yet built and fearing to get lost as night fell, Wesley sent his two companions ahead to look for refreshment. They arrived at Trewint Cottage, near Altarnun, and asked for food. The owner of the cottage, Digory Isbell, a stonemason, was out, but his wife Elizabeth offered them ‘bread, butter and milk and good hay for the horse’ and refused payment. To her amazement, before they left they knelt on the floor and ‘prayed without a book.’ A few weeks later they returned, this time with John Wesley himself, who had already achieved a modicum of fame. Three hundred neighbours came to hear him preach and Digory was inspired by a passage from the Bible to build an extension onto his house, for the use of John Wesley and his preachers whenever they came to Cornwall.

“Cornwall took to Methodism like no other county in England

“Wesley’s practice of preaching outdoors and in barns and cottages suited Cornwall’s geography; the rural population was huge and many villages were isolated from the parish church. Huge crowds of up to twenty thousand people were drawn to open-air meetings in places such as Gwennap Pit, where Wesley preached eighteen times.

“For a community of miners, facing danger at work every day, farmers and fishermen, threatened by creeping industrialisation, Wesley’s simple doctrine of justification through faith and instant salvation offered comfort, security and hope. John Wesley also set up health and literacy facilities in order to help the impoverished improve their lot, thus making Methodism the religion of the people in contrast to Anglicanism, which had always been the preserve of the rich.… Originally a movement designed to invigorate the Church of England from within, Methodism, certainly in Cornwall, began to drift apart from it.”

So here we are, more than two hundred and fifty years on, and in any village enterprise, attention to the church has to be balance with attention to the chapel and vice versa, even though if you mixed the two congregations together and put them on one side of an old-fashioned set of scales and then compressed the rest of the village on the other, the rest-of-the side would thunk down heavily, lifting the congregation side high in the air. Which can either be a metaphor for being closer to heaven or for losing touch with the ground. Take your pick.