About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

How Britain’s parliament casts a vote

Let’s talk about how the British Parliament, in all its majesty, passes a bill into law.

We’ll skip all the sensible stuff that comes first–or that should, although you have to wonder sometimes. That’s stuff like researching the need for the law,  the impact it would have (expected and unexpected), and the result of using this set of words as opposed to some other set. That sort of thing.

Or failing all that, how it’ll play on the 6 o’clock news and what it’ll do for your career.

We’ll also skip over the politicking. Let’s get straight to the vote.

Irrelevant photo: A tree. Pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds.

When a bill comes to a vote, the first attempt to pass it is a voice vote. That doesn’t mean each person being called on and responding individually. It’s a sort of mass bellow. The Commons (I don’t know about the Lords–they don’t appear as often on the news) bellows like a herd of mistreated cows. A British politician needs a good set of lungs.

In the Commons, they vote either aye or no. Why don’t they use a matching pair of words, either aye and nay or yes and no? Because that’s not how they do it. How things are done is very important around here.

If there’s any question about which side has a majority, the Speaker (if it’s the Commons) says, “Division. Clear the lobbies.”

There’s a history to that clearing. This is Britain. There’s a history to everything.

In 1771, Thomas Hunt, who wasn’t a Member of Parliament, strategically placed himself among the MPs voting no on I have no idea what, and his vote was counted, the clever devil.

What’s more, he turned out to have done this before. Or so says Wikiwhatsia, although I couldn’t confirm it or find the missing pieces of the story. Treat it as urban legend if you like.

So they sweep anyone who doesn’t belong in the lobbies out of the lobbies, no doubt turning up all sorts of riffraff in the process, from mice (the place is infested) to bloggers. Then the MPs file into their separate lobbies: right (from where the speaker sits) for aye and left for no.

Now let’s check in with the House of Lords, where they do things differently because they’re Lords and it’s important to distinguish themselves from the House of Riffraff.

The Lords don’t vote aye and no, they are content and not content–or as Parliament’s website puts it, Content and Not Content, with glorious capital letters. These at least have the virtue of at being a matching set, even if it sounds like their users are making overarching statements about their emotional wellbeing.

If the voice vote isn’t clear, the Lords don’t clear the lobbies, they clear the bar.

What bar? Why, the bar of the House.

Do they serve alcohol right inside the Lords’ chamber?

Not inside, no. It’s a railing.

An important railing.

A railing that visitors aren’t allowed to cross when the Lords are in session.

And to prove that the Lords are classier than the Commons, the bar in the Commons is nothing but a plain old white line.

Don’t you MPs wish you had a railing?

According to Wikiwhatsia, the Lord Speaker announces a division by saying, “The Contents to the right by the Throne, the Not-Contents to the left by the Bar.” At that point the Contents and the Malcontents file into separate lobbies, just like the riffraff in the House of Commons.

Wait a minute, though. What throne?

Why, the throne in the House of Lords, of course. The House of Lords keeps a throne on hand for the queen or king’s yearly visit at the opening of Parliament. The rest of the year, it’s used by the mice.

Okay, I’m guessing about the mice using it, but I do know that in 2017 Parliament spent £130,000 to get rid of mice and moths and assorted other creatures who weren’t (as humans calculate these things) supposed to be there, and I’d be surprised if it got them all. There’d been building work. It had sent the mice scurrying and the number of sightings had gone up from the previous year–411 as opposed to 313.

Yes, someone counts mouse sightings. The unreported ones are counted telpathically.

A few MPs took matters into their own hands and declared an informal Take Your Cat to Work Day (or week, or year), although no one thought to call it that. And they got their hands slapped for it–the ”it” being bringing the cats, not missing the chance for a joke.

As the Serjeant at Arms explained, “This rule is in place because of the duty of care that would arise in relation to animal welfare and the health, safety and wellbeing of members, staff and visitors on the parliamentary estate.”  Translation? Cats are only there because humans bring them, so we’re responsible for any trouble they cause to humans or mice, or that humans or mice cause to them. We can’t be blamed for what the mice do, however, because we’re trying to get rid of them, and we’re doing everything short of bringing in cats.

But we were talking about the throne.

Parliament’s website says, “The Sovereign’s Throne is one of the most important items of furniture in the Palace of Westminster. The elaborately carved woodwork is gilded, inset with rock crystals and upholstered in sumptuous red velvet and intricate embroidery.” And, I’d add, garlanded with sumptuous prose. If you want to see it, follow the link. I’d call it a little over the top, myself, and if someone inflicted it on me I’d hide it in the garage. It’s just not a good match for my living room furniture but you, of course, might feel differently. 

In 1901, “a second throne, known as the consort’s throne, was created. Almost identical to the sovereign’s throne, but an inch shorter, the consort’s throne is brought back to the Palace of Westminster once a year for State Opening of Parliament from its permanent home in Houghton Hall, Norfolk.”

It is not as heavily garlanded in sumptuous prose as the monarch’s throne.

And that inch it’s missing? It’s a highly symbolic one in case the consort’s tempted to forget who’s who.  

Now we need to backtrack a bit, because not everyone who votes on a bill has been sitting in the chamber, listening to the debates. Debates are dull. Some are full of rhetoric. Some are even full of facts, and what’s duller than facts? Many a deadly speech has been delivered to a nearly empty chamber. So has many a rousing one. The folks who don’t need to be there aren’t there, and from the look of the chamber not many people do need to be.

Why debate issues when almost no one’s listening? Because that’s how it’s done. Because it gives everyone the nice warm feeling that they’re doing their job and that the country’s being run well. Or if they’re in the opposition, that it’s not being run well and they’re protesting like hell.    

Also because they get printed in Hansard.

So both the Commons and the Lords ring a bell to summon all the straying politicians from their offices. And those bells ring not only in Westminster but in the surrounding pubs and restaurants where politicians are regulars. That’s a total of 380 bells, one for every day of the week with 15 left over to go play in traffic.

Once the bell has rung, the MPs or Lords have exactly eight minutes to lock their office doors or slam down their drinks and fill their pockets with the mashed potatoes they were saving for last and rush to the right (or left) lobby before the doors are locked. Because they will be locked.

And if they’re late? Tough. No excuses are accepted.

Electronic voting has been proposed at times, but no single proposal’s managed to gather enough support to change the system. I’m taking that from Parliament’s own website, which doesn’t bother to explain why or how more than one way of setting up electronic voting has been proposed at any given time. It does say that “many Members view the procedure of voting in person through the lobbies as an essential opportunity to speak to or lobby senior colleagues.”

In other words, they get to corner all the people who’ve been ducking them in corridors and not returning their emails and phone calls. Such is the life of a politician.

So, like many other arcane traditions, the division of the house continues.

MPs can abstain by staying in their seats during a division, but it’s frowned on. They can, more respectably, pass through both lobbies.

If an MP is too ill to go through either lobby but their party’s desperate for their vote, they can be brought to Westminster–at least once an MP was brought in an ambulance after a heart attack–and be “nodded through” if the tellers agree to it. The only two conditions are that the MP has to be within the precincts of Westminster and alive.

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My thanks to Bear Humphreys for suggesting this topic. Sort of. His interest was snagged by the bells and the eight-minute dash back from the pub and I got caught up in the preliminaries and the mashed potatoes. Still, I wouldn’t have found them without him.

All the news that fits

Driving Hazards

A driver in Devon was found upside down in a ditch in February. To be clear, that’s both the driver and the car. The driver explained that he’d swerved to avoid an octopus.

The road’s five kilometers from the coast. Call that two and a half miles. You’ll be wrong if you do, but you’ll be within driving distance of the right answer.

The driver was arrested “on suspicion of driving while unfit through drugs or drink” and will have to attend a class on thinking up credible excuses and another one on enjoying your hallucinations.

He gets time off for trying to save the octopus.

Apologies

The British Council has apologized to George Orwell for refusing the publish an essay on British food that it had commissioned from him. Several things make this odd. First, the council had paid him for the article, so whatever hard feelings they caused could have been much harder. Second, the rejection happened in 1946, which is by any standard a long time to delay an apology. Third and most important, Orwell died in 1950 and has nothing to gain from publication anymore.

But what the hell, let’s talk about it anyway.

Irrelevant photo: A violet–one of the first spring flowers. Or winter flowers if you believe my neighbors. If flowers bloom, I think it’s spring.

The article involved was supposed to convince Europeans that British food wasn’t as bad as they thought. Based on the quotes I’ve seen, the council had a good argument for not publishing it. The British, Orwell said, eat “a simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous diet.” He also said the coffee was nasty and that vegetables seldom get the treatment they deserved.

In fairness, Britain was still rationing food in the wake of World War II, and his description was probably accurate but not what he was being paid to say.

And then there was his marmalade recipe. The council says, in hindsight, that it was wrong to reject the essay but that the marmalade recipe’s still wrong–too much sugar and too much water. “It would have turned out far too watery,” they said.

Did Orwell actually know anything about cooking or did he just beg or steal recipes from people who did and hope they weren’t messing with him? I don’t know. What I can tell you is that in addition to getting his marmalade wrong (and I’m going to have to take other people’s word that he did; I’ve never made the stuff), he also says crumpets are made “by a process that is known to very few people.”

If that’s true, I belong to an elite secret society. And if you’ll follow the link, so will you.

Language

Translation Issues: Ariana Grande went to the tattoo store, as so many people do, meaning to pick up a simple tattoo–in this case, one with the title of her song “Seven Rings.” In Japanese.

Why Japanese? One of the unpredicted results of globalization is that people want tattoos in languages they don’t know but think are cool. It’s less harmful than a lot of the other, more predictable, results have been.

It (that’s the tattoo, not globalization) went wrong when she found out that the damned thing hurt and she asked the artist leave out some characters.

So what does it say? “Shichirin,” which is a small charcoal grill. An earthen one, in case that helps us understand the situation better.

Which wasn’t what she wanted, and since she’s a public figure folks started making fun of her, so she got it fixed. At last sighting (by me, and I make no effort to stay up to date with this stuff) it read, “Japanese barbecue finger.” Or maybe that’s “small earthen charcoal grill finger.” It’s up to you, because translation’s not an exact science. It leaves a good bit of room for interpretation.

I’m now going to give you some advice, because I think every last one of you needs to hear (or read) it: Do not get tattoos in languages you can’t read.

Language and Work: The Oxford English Dictionary is asking the public to tell them about professional jargon and work slang. You can submit your entries here.

The articles about this that I’ve seen give several examples of the kind of words or phrases they’re looking for but the one getting the most play is DTSO. When a vet uses it, it means dog smarter than owner.

Archeology

Oops. A Scottish stone circle that was thought to be thousands of years old turns out to have been built in the 1990s.

Yeah, archeologists had noticed that it was unusual. The stones were small. The diameter was small. But stone circles are sneaky bastards, and they’re hard to date.

That’s not date as in going to a movie and get all romantic with but as in figure out how old they are.

Those aren’t unrelated, though. Before you get into that romantic stuff, you should know how old they are. Personally, I’ve gone to movies with people who made going out with stones look enticing.

But we’re not here to talk about me. The stone circle was a good replica, and the guy who built it came forward when the stones were being tested, saving everyone involved any further embarrassment.

Roadworks: Archeologists exploring an area that’s being dug up for roadworks near Cambridge found what they think is the earliest evidence of beer brewing in Britain. What I love about this story isn’t that it involves beer (trust beer to steal the headline, though) but that it involves archeologists playing in the mud of construction zones.  

Large-scale British construction has to take the country’s historic environment into account, which often means that archeologists follow along and find all sorts of neat stuff. Here in Cornwall, they followed the digging for a new sewage line and found, among other things, some burials that combined early Christian burial style (laid out so the person could be resurrected with a view of the sunrise) with pre-Christian burial (with put the body in the ground with stuff they might want in the afterlife). Presumably, they were hedging their bets. The people who buried them hadn’t made up their minds about how things worked after death and wanted the person to prepared for anything.

How’d I find that out? The archeologists held a public meeting to talk about what they’d found and had a great turnout.  

The construction industry considers important archeological finds a risk–they hold up the work. Archeologists, I’m sure, have their own opinions of the construction industry, which is always pressing on them to hurry up so they can go ahead with what they consider the important stuff.

The 21-mile construction project that found the brewing site found remains dating from the neolithic period to the medieval–a stretch of 4,000 years.

Money

Money and Coffee: A new company plans to roast coffee beans by shooting them into space in a spacecraft called the Coffee Roasting Capsule. It could be launched as early as next year. Or it could not, depending on multiple factors that you can make up as well as I can. The idea is that, outside of gravity, the beans will (a) float and (b) get heated by the capsule’s re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. Here on earth, inconveniently, beans tumble as they roast. They break apart. They scorch.

Gravity’s an inconsiderate beast.

I haven’t found any estimates on how much a cup of space-roasted coffee’s likely to cost. And the whole thing may never happen anyway. The article notes at the end that the company didn’t return the paper’s calls and emails. 

No, I won’t sink low enough to make the obvious pun about them being too spaced out to bother. 

Money and Money: The world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50%. There is nothing I can add to that.

Money and Cake: A British judge had to decide whether a health-food brownie is a cake or not a cake. If it is a cake, it can be sold without without VAT–a hefty sales tax. If it’s not a cake, then it would be considered confectionery (a fancy word for candy) and taxed.

Why the difference? Foods that are part of a healthy diet–foods like cake–don’t get taxed. Or if not exactly a healthy diet, a basic diet. Non-basic frivolities get taxed. 

So someone somewhere had to decide that cakes and biscuits (which if you’re American are cookies) are basics but candy (a.k.a. confectionery) isn’t. Unless the biscuits have chocolate on top, in which case they’re a luxury item and get taxed.

You didn’t really follow that, did you? Let’s give an example. It won’t help but it’ll make me feel like I’ve done my job.

A chocolate cake covered with chocolate is not taxed. Chocolate cake with frosting is an essential part of the basic diet that’s good enough for people whose spending we (let’s duck the issue of who “we” are for now) scrutinize, which is to say people who earn less than us and who we suspect are frivoling away their money on chocolate-covered biscuits when plain biscuits are good enough for the likes of them. 

They’re probably also wasting it on rent and laundry soap.

It cheers me up to know that someone somewhere is bringing rational thought to important questions like what low-income people are allowed to eat without (a) paying tax on it and (b) intruding tax-free on the baked goods of their betters.

No, no. I’m completely objective about this stuff. You should hear me when I have an opinion. 

When I got out my magnifying glass and looked between the lines of the newspaper articles about this, it sounded a lot like the judge had to taste not just the health-food brownie (made of dates, brown rice bran, and finely chopped Birkenstock sandals) but also a French Fancy (don’t ask for it at Victoria’s Secret; you’ll embarrass everyone involved, including yourself)), a vanilla slice, a chocolate eclair, and a slice of Victoria sponge.

It’s a tough job but someone had to do it.

This isn’t the first time judges have had to make this kind of distinction. Courts have based previous judgements on important issues like whether the item’s eaten with a fork and whether it would be out of place on a plate of cakes “at a cricket or sporting tea.” Because looking at home on a plate of cake at a cricket or sporting tea is the measure of a basic diet. Or else a sporting tea is located at the outermost limit of the way judges imagine the world to work. 

Dressing for Winter

Last January 14 was the tenth annual No Trousers on the Tube Day.

I need to stop here and do the usual translations: The tube is London’s underground rail system–what I’d call a subway (you never quite stop being from New York, or I don’t anyway) but in Britain a subway’s a tunnel for pedestrians, not for trains. And trousers are what Americans call pants. Pants are what the British call underwear. So the participants did wear underwear but didn’t wear anything over it.

If you, dear reader, are neither American or British, I’d love to offer a helpful translation but I’m at the limit of my knowledge here and don’t want to lead you astray. You’ll have to do that on your own.

Why have a No Trousers on the Tube Day? Basically, why not? Organizer Farhan Rasheed said, “There is no point to it, we are not campaigning or raising awareness of anything…. It’s a bit of a nonsense day out. It’s London and London is used to this stuff, they take it in their stride and get back to their book.”

The group caught an assortment of trains. On the Picadilly Line, the crowds were thick enough that the participants had trouble finding space to take off their trousers.

It was organized by the Stiff Upper Lip Society, which recommended avoiding “thongs/budgie-smugglers/anything see-through . . . as we aim to amuse, not offend, fellow Underground users.”

How the hegehog promotes Britishness

The hedgehog is one of Britain’s best-loved creatures.

How do I know that? I googled “beloved hedgehogs” until I found enough material to prove what I was already sure of. Lord Google’s happy to confirm any belief we hold if only we ask the right way and leave an offering of data at his shrine. 

Thank you, Lord G., for what you contribute to the world’s wisdom.

But I also, in the real world, listen to people, including a neighbor who told me some years back,  “We have a hedgehog,” making it sound as if her backyard was being visited by angels instead of a small, spiny, snuffly creature.

Irrelevant photo: Snow on a camellia bud in February. We had two or three inches. Half of Cornwall ran off the road. The other half stayed home.

Ah, but I’m serious about my responsibility to inform the world about  Britain, so I asked my friend Helen about the place hedgehogs hold in British culture and she went into a remebering-childhod reverie, telling me about hedgehogs in the books she read: Fuzzypeg, who’s part of Alice Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. If you grow up with these books, apparently, some part of you will forever believe that the hedgehog is a wonderful little creature and an essential part of Britain’s charm.

Or if you want to be snarky about it, which is always more fun than being reverential, part of Britain’s Britishness.

Britain’s Britishness?

Absolutely. Not because it’s clear what Britishness is–it’s not–but because Britain has lots of it and if you eavesdrop on the national conversation you’ll learn that it’s important.

For a while there, defining Britishness was a kind of indoor sport at Westminster. Politicians needed to know what it was so they could impose it on those of us who didn’t fit whatever the definition turned out to be. “Us,” of course, being immigrants. Because that’s the problem with immigrants: They come from places that aren’t Britain, bringing all kinds of -ishnesses that aren’t Britishness.

It turned out, though, that no two politicians agreed about what the ingredients of Britishness were and eventually they stopped talking about them. It was getting embarrassing. 

Or maybe that was because Brexit wasn’t–and isn’t–leaving room in the national conversation for anything else. 

Anyway, I have more than one post about Britishness and I’d love to link you to them, but I never thought to create a category labeled Britishness and I can’t find the damned things. They’re somewhere in this mess. 

None of the politicians mentioned hedgehogs, although you’d think they would have. They should also mention having read the right kids’ books at the right age. Maybe it was all too obvious to think of.

But let’s shut up about that and talk about the hedgehog. It’s native to Europe (which in this case includes Britain; please can we not argue about that right now?), Asia, and Africa. It’s not native to New Zealand but was introduced there to eat slugs and snails. New Zealand conservationists hate them because they compete with native species, but they don’t hate them as much as they hate some of the other beasties that enthusiastic idiots released into the wild, so let’s move on.

The hedgehog’s gone extinct in the Americas but people keep imported types as pets, which is why that cute little British wild animal is making American pet-owners sick. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has warned people not to kiss and cuddle their hedgehogs because they can spread salmonella. Eight people in the U.S. have gotten salmonella that way since October, and one’s been hospitalized.

That was as of January. It could well be up to nine by the time you read this. As you can see, we’re dealing with an epidemic. Declare an international incident, someone. Send warships.  

The hedgehogs Americans are likely to keep as pets are actually African pygmy hedgehogs, but fact shouldn’t get in the way of a good international incident. American culture is at stake here. Americans only keep African pygmy hedgehogs because the British brainwashed them into thinking they were cute. And (ever so incidentally) because someone on Instagram has one. 

Not to be left out, the RSPCA–the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–issued roughly the same warning to British hedgehog cuddlers. Take that, America. We didn’t make you take them into your homes and we’re suffering just as much as you are, in our understated way.

We now have the horrifying statistics, the warnings, and the international posturing out of the way. 

According to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (of course there’s a British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and it sells books and magnets and all sorts of other things that hedgehogs need), hedgehog spines are actually modified hairs and the average adult hedgehog has 5,000 to 7,000 of them. 

Yes, someone counted them. No, it wasn’t me. 

The spines are a great defense, even though they’re not barbed like porcupine quills. When our dogs found one in the backyard, it rolled into a ball, spines out. The dogs barked insanely and poked their noses at it, then trotted inside, defeated. The hedgehog unrolled itself and waddled off in search of bugs and slugs and a visa to New Zealand.

Somewhere in among all those spines, the hedgehog has a tail. And sex organs. But how do the spiny little things get close enough to each other to create more hedgehogs? Carefully. The female curls her tail upward. The male keeps his relevant body part close to the middle of his belly, so he doesn’t have to climb on top, Humans, who don’t have the same level of interest in the aforesaid body part as hedgehogs do, sometimes mistake it for a belly button. 

Hedgehogs think this is very funny.

Baby hedgehoglets aren’t born prickly, for which their mothers are endlessly grateful. Motherhood’s hard enough without spines. The babies have soft spine stubs that grow and harden within a few weeks.

Hedgehogs eat insects, bugs, slugs, worms, snakes, frogs, toads, eggs, berries, melons, mushrooms, grass, and nice little meaty treats that humans set out for them as long as other creatures don’t get to them first. My best guess is that if they eat melons (which don’t pass the Britishness test, by the way; they’re from Africa and southwest Asia), they also eat berries (some of which do pass the test), but berries aren’t on the list I found, so treat that as guesswork.

That bit about eating slugs? It’s more powerful than children’s books in making gardeners love hedgehogs.

Hegehogs are noctural and they hibernate–or they do if it gets cold enough. With the way climate change has been messing with the seasons lately, some are not going into hibernation and struggle to find enough food over the winter. Even when they’re hibernating, though, they will come out during warm spells and have a snack or two.

They’ve adapted fairly well to city life, but they’re struggling in the countryside, where they’ve been hit hard by the loss of hedgerows and a decline in bug (okay, not just bug: invertebrate) numbers. They also get poisoned by slug pellets and hit by cars.

This is not a fun time to be a hedgehog.

There’s no shortage of campaigns to save them. The Wildlife Trust recommends cutting a small hole in the bottom of your fence (that’s only if you have a fence) so hedgehogs can waddle through. They travel a kilometer or two a night searching for food and mates. That’s mates as in hedgehogs they can breed with, not as in friends. In miles that’s–oh, let’s pretend it’s somewhere betwwen half a mile and a mile. If you were sending a rocket to the moon with calculations like that, you’d miss the whole damn thing, but it’s close enough for a hedgehog. They don’t read, they don’t do math, and they won’t cover any less distance just because I get my numbers wrong.

You can also build it a nice little box for it to hide in and set out some dog or cat food. You can play it patriotic British tunes on your smart phone. If you find a sick or injured hedgehog, you can rehabilitate it. The trust doesn’t tell you not to kiss it–I don’t think it occurred to anyone that you might–but it does tell you to use gardening gloves to pick it up. 

It doesn’t recommend adopting it as a pet.

A group of hedgehogs is called an array. Will you need to know this? Probably not. They’re solitary creatures. Once a female mates, she won’t want the male around. He’d only eat the young. In fact, if the nest is disturbed, the mother might do that herself.

These are the things they don’t put that in the children’s books. 

Hedgehogs used to be called urchins, which came to English from Latin by way of Norman French. By the fifteenth century, an urchin was anyone who looked like a hedgehog, including a hunchback, a goblin, a bad girl (no, don’t ask me–I’ve known and admired plenty of bad girls and none of them struck me as looking like hedgehogs), and a ragged child. By the late eighteenth century, an urchin was in general use to mean a ragged child. 

In the U.S., keeping hedgehogs is illegal in Georgia, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Washington, and New York City–or it was as of January 2018. Calling a kid you’re unhappy with a hedgehog isn’t illegal anywhere but it will earn you some odd looks, as will calling a hedgehog an urchin.

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My thanks to Flo, who first let me know about the threat hedgehogs pose to America’s health, and to Helen and (while we’re on the subject) assorted other friends who treat my odd questions (“So what is it about the British and hedgehogs?”) as if they were almost normal.

Strange British traditions: Whuppity Scoorie

March 1 is Whuppity Scoorie in Lanark.

That sentence was entirely in English. Let’s take it apart.

Is is a verb. March 1 is a date. In is a preposition. A preposition is anything you can do in relation to a cloud: You can be in it, on it, under it, near it. Lanark is a town in Scotland–a royal burgh, to use its formal description. You can be in it or near it. It’s awkward to be on it or under it, but it’s not impossible. It has a population of 8,253 (or did at last count) and is 29 1/2 miles from Edinburgh and 325 miles from London.

In between all those words is a festival, Whuppity Scoorie, and if you hurry you still have time to go, which is why I’ve added an extra post this week. Welcome to another oddity of British culture.

A royal burgh? That’s a Scottish burgh with a royal charter under a law abolished in 1975. Which is sort of like giving directions by telling you to turn left where the cafe used to be, but history’s a powerful beast and the phrase lingers even if the law and the cafe are gone

A burgh? That’s an incorporated town. In Scotland.

Scotland? It’s that stretch of land covering the north of Britain.  

We could keep this up all day but let’s move on. What’s Whuppity Scoorie?

To help explain that, a 2011 article in the Scotsman quotes the chair of the community council, who describes it as an “ancient ritual . . . despite the fact that nobody really knows when it started or what it means. But hey, it’s fun and it’s aye been.”

It’s aye been? That’s one of those things the Scots say to mess with the English. I’m American and easy to mess with, linguistically speaking, especially since Google translate won’t divulge the secret of what that means. But I dug deeper, with Lord Google’s permission, and found that it means it always has been.

And if it doesn’t, I’m sure someone will correct me.

Okay, you’ve stuck around long enough to prove that you’re serious, so let’s find out what happens at Whuppity Scoorie: The town’s kids run around the kirk (that’s the church) three times, going anti-clockwise and swinging paper balls around their heads on strings. At the end, the kids scramble for small coins scattered on the ground. Since it’s evening, the coins are hard to spot.

A man scattering scattering coins told the Scotsman, “I just keep walking. If you stop, you’re surrounded. Nothing against the kids, but I’ve seen vultures no as bad as this.”

What do people think it means? One local woman thought the ritual was pre-Christian and was meant to chase evil spirits to the neighboring village.

Good neighbors, those Lanarkians.

Did either town exist in pre-Christian times? Possibly. I can’t find a date for either place. The evil spirits have been chased onto the internet and they’ve taken the dates down.

Other people believe the ritual welcomes spring and still others that it mimics the seventeenth-century “practice of taking prisoners from the nearby Tolbooth and whipping them round the kirk before scouring them of their sins in the River Clyde.”

Another belief dates it to the nineteenth century, when Lanark kids would march over to New Lanark to throw stones at the kids there.

Like I said, good neighbors.

Lanark has two other yearly festivals. Het Pint started in 1662. It takes place on New Year’s Day and involves pensioners getting a free glass of mulled wine at the Tolbooth. Lanimer Day sounds like a carnival but it lasts five days.  

It’s a very strange place, Britain. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

Parliament, Cromwell, Charles I, and Tourette

In 1653, with Charles I beheaded, Charles II in exile, and the rebellions in Ireland suppressed (brutally, since you asked), Oliver Cromwell had no one left to fight with but his allies. So off he toddled to the House of Commons and closed it down.

How’d we get to this point?  

Before Charles I was executed and when the odds of him losing his throne looked about the same as the odds that he’d invent the rechargeable battery, he knocked heads with his parliament over money and power. It’s hard, when you’re not just the king but the head of your country’s church, not to think that god meant you to be the head of everything else too, so Charlie believed he had a divine right to be king.

Semi-relevant photo: Minnie the Moocher believes she has a divine right to be in bed.

He wasn’t the only one. It was a long-standing European belief, but that didn’t make it any less of an issue, because  Parliament, for the most part, didn’t believe it. It believed in the Magna Carta, which said (with just the slightest bit of paraphrasing), Sure, this guy can be king but there are limits. So Parliament voted him money by the teaspoonful and did everything it could to limit his power.

Charlie sent them home, because that was one of the powers that they both agreed he had.

Bad Parliament. You can’t play at Our house anymore.

Did I say “house”? I meant “palace.”

But dissolving Parliament turned off his largest money tap. He cobbled together assorted of ways to raise money, but after eleven years he needed those pesky parliamentarians again. He’d gotten himself in a war with Scotland over prayer books and bishops. No, seriously: That stuff mattered. Either that or it stood in for what mattered more but didn’t play as well to the crowd.

Whatever they’re about, though, wars are expensive.

So Parliament met and and the new one didn’t get along with the king any better than the last one had. The most Protestant Protestants among its members suspected Charles of edging the country toward Catholicism, what with his Catholic wife and his stained glass church windows and his priests in fancy dress.

No, I’m telling you. All of that mattered.  

In 1641, the new Parliament arm-wrestled Charles for various sorts of power and passed–barely–a list of complaints about the king, called the Grand Remonstrance. When Charles didn’t email back immediately and say, Hey, guys, great talking points, let’s discuss them, my door is always open, its supporters circulated the Remonstrance to the public.

And with that, the Parliamentary debate had broken powerfully into the world, where ordinary people were already debating these issues.

Before long, Charles broke into the House of Commons and tried to arrest the five members who annoyed him most, which must’ve been a hard choice. They were all getting on his refined and kingly nerves.

Within weeks, armed bands had invaded Westminster. The king and queen fled. Parliament held London.

Both sides armed themselves, the Scots came in on the side of Parliament, and everyone fought back and forth for a few years, with neither side knocking the other one off the board. That was the First Civil War.

Where did the army stand in all this? Funny you should ask. The country didn’t have a standing army. It raised one when it needed to, then sent it home when it didn’t. That’s how it had always been done, and it saved having to feed and pay soldiers to sit around during peacetime.

In 1645, Charles escaped a siege at Oxford and handed himself to the Scottish army for safety. After nine months of negotiations, Scotland sold him to Parliament for £100,000 and a promise that England would never enter the haggis market.

No, no, no. That bit about the haggis? Please don’t link to it.  

Charlie escaped again and made a deal with the Scots: You get rid of these pesky rebels and I’ll make England Presbyterian for three years.

What would have happened after three years if he’d had a chance to make good on the deal? Someone would have taken one chair away and the music would’ve started all over again. And they all pretty much knew that, but no one could tell who’d be chairless when the music stopped, so they all jumped in and started the Second Civil War, which ended with Charles captured again.

This left Parliament with an awkward problem: What were they supposed to do with this guy? No matter how many times he lost his tail feathers, he was still the king.

In the meantime, Parliament wasn’t getting along with its army much better than it had with Charles. Like everything else, this had a religious element to it. Everything had a religious element. It was the language of politics. It was the language of everything. If they’d had cooking shows, they’d have had a religious element to them as well.

What mattered more immediately was that Parliament wanted to negotiate with the king and that Oliver Cromwell, on behalf of the army, didn’t.

How do you settle a problem like that? Ollie tossed out the MPs who didn’t take his side and made his deal with the ones who were left.

And since everything had a religious element, God said it was okay.

The MPs who were left were called the Rump Parliament, not after anyone’s hind end but because the word also means a small part of something that used to be bigger, and they put the king on trial. The House of Lords and the highest available judges said it wasn’t a good idea, so they established a new court, tried the king, found him guilty, and executed him. No one called it revolutionary justice, but that’s pretty much what it was. When you tear down the old order, you make new laws because the old ones don’t work anymore. Is that right? Is that wrong? It depends on your point of view.

England was now a republic, or a commonwealth. The House of Lords was abolished.

Did they all live happily ever after? No, they fought the Third Civil War. The remaining royalists and Scotland rallied about Charles part Two, but by 1651 it was all over. When the last Irish resistance ended in 1653, there was no one left to oppose Cromwell.

And that’s when he lost it with the Rump Parliament. Cromwell and the army wanted it to dissolve itself so they could elect a new, godly assembly. Parliament thought it was plenty godly, thanks, and wanted to stay where it was.

It sounds familiar? It is. We’re still watching the same play, but Cromwell’s playing Charles and Parliament’s playing Parliament. The difference is that Cromwell was a better Charles than Charles was: He stomped into the House of Commons with some musketeers, had them seize the mace, that symbol of Parliament’s royal authority, and sent the MPs home.

The symbol of royal authority? Wasn’t the king dead? Well, yes, but old habits die hard and history–not to mention humans–is nothing if not contradictory. They were still using the thing.

The members of the new Parliament were chosen by the army’s officers for their religious fervor. But it turned out to be too radical and in 1653, when its more problematic members were in a prayer meeting, the remainder of the group dissolved itself.

That left Oliver Cromwell to become the Lord Protector: a king in all but name.

History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but with the way it barks our repeated phrases you have to wonder sometimes if it doesn’t have tourette’s.

Is Berwick-upon-Tweed at war with Russia?

Legend has it that the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has been at war with Russia for decades. Or if you hear another version of the story, was at war for decades but made peace a while back. 

Berwick-upon-Tweed is England’s northernmost town, although if you tune in at another point in the long timeline of English-Scottish conflict, it was Scotland’s southernmost. It changed hands thirteen times in its history.

Its name comes from either the Old English word for barley or from the Celtic word for an estuary confluence. How that’s different from a plain old estuary I don’t know, but you can take your pick on its origins. Both languages are relevant,  and we weren’t there so we’ll never know for sure anyway.

When B-upon-T was founded, it was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which became part of England in the tenth century, taking little B-upon-T. with it. (That argues for the barley hypothesis.) Then in 1018, Scotland took the town over. By the middle ages, it was Scotland’s richest port, known as South Berwick to distinguish it from North Berwick, near Edinburgh. (That argues for the estuary.)

If you’re not confused yet, stay with me.

Irrelevant photo: After last week’s orange berries, we’re moving on to red berries. I really do need to get out and take some new pictures. There’s an entire world out there–or so they tell me.

In 1296, the town became English again, and so on back and forth. Some of those changes involved raids, sieges, massacres, and other stuff that wasn’t fun to live through. Or die from. Others involved the town being sold or ceded, which is high-handed but by comparison looks pretty good. Finally in 1482–.

Well, here’s where it gets complicated: The town became English, and legal documents called it a kingdom of England but not within England, and if you understand what that means you’re miles ahead of me. What I can tell you is that it was under English control but–.

But what? I’m not sure, but the but’s important.

The clearest explanation I’ve found comes from the Daily Beast, which says the wording made Berwick, like Wales, semi-sovereign. Any royal decree that didn’t specifically mention it excluded it. That continued until 1746, when the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act was passed, but the tradition of mentioning it stumbled on anyway.

Mostly.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that most of my information comes from Wikiwhatsia, a source I avoid anytime I can find one that sounds more respectable, but except for a BBC article and the Daily Beast, everything about Berwick is about how to visit the castle, the bridge, the town walls, and all the many, many places to spend your money. Or else they were even less authoritative. So Wikiwhatsia it is.

Back when I worked as a copy editor, I did some work for the branch of Macmillan that published speciality encyclopedias and I vividly remember reading (I’ve forgotten where but probably in the local newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune) that on average Wikiwhatsia was at least as accurate as the more respectable encyclopedias. The editor I worked for at the time was less than happy to hear that, especially since the article mentioned the bio of a fictitious person that some pissed-off writer or editor slipped into a thoroughly respectable encyclopedia and that was repeated in subsequent editions. 

My sense of humor isn’t universally welcome.

Anyway, the trick with Wikiwhatsia is to catch your entry on an average day, since its wikiness leaves it open to brief moments of complete insanity.

But we were talking about Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Once it settled into English hands, it became a well-defended border town, and in 1551 it was made a self-governing county corporate.

A what?

A city or town important enough to be independent of its county. The category dates back to the medieval period,

So Berwick was governed by English law and was its own county, Berwickshire, until 1885, when it was folded into Northumberland. And there things sat until the 1970s, when four separate laws managed to simplify and complicate things. One of them, the Interpretation Act of 1978, says, without cracking a smile, that any reference to England in legislation passed between 1967 and 1974 “includes Berwick on Tweed.” And (for our purposes irrelevantly) Monmouthshire.

The legend that Berwick was (or is) at war with Russia grows out of all this murkiness. In 1853, the legend says, at the start of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria declared war on Russia by signing herself “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions.” Which is a bit like saying that I’m a citizen of Britain and my bathtub, but never mind.

The snag, according to this legend, is that the peace treaty that ended the war left out little Berwick, meaning it was still officially at war. According to the Daily Beast, the story was reported as fact in a New Zealand newspaper in 1914, then in a local (that means, I think, Berwickian) paper in 1926.

The Foreign Office investigated in the 1930s and again in 1965 (sometimes they run short of things to do and people who work there need to be kept  busy) and both times found no truth in the tale, but that wasn’t enough to put an end to it. In 1966, according to legend, a Pravda correspondent visited Berwick, met a town councillor, and the two of them declared peace. The councillor, Robert Knox, said, “Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Guardian’s supposed to have run a story on it. By the time the tale appeared in other papers, the Pravda reporter had become a Soviet official and the two sides had signed a peace treaty.

Did the papers really carry that story? I can’t confirm it and in a story where so many elements are questionable that would be worth doing. But they ran well before the internet sent its tendrils creeping into our brains and I don’t live where newspaper archives are easily (or even difficultly) available. If anyone wants to search, the original article is said to be in the Guardian of 28 December 1966. The follow-up articles are supposed to be in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. Your guess is as good as mine on the dates.

A 1970s BBC program went back to the original documents and found no mention of Berwick in the declaration of war, meaning that it’s not at war and making a disappointing end to the tale.

Allegedly. I haven’t seen the documents myself and I don’t know that anyone really did land on the moon. Or that any of you actually exist. You could all be elaborate fever dreams.

*

So what’s Berwick-upon-Tweed like when it’s not at war against overwhelming odds? The BBC reports that Berwickers feel themselves to be Berwickers first and English or Scottish second. Not English second, you’ll notice, although they’re still oficially part of England. They still feel the choice is open to them, whether or not any particular government agrees.

*

My thanks to John Russell for giving me a shove in the direction of this story. He also tells me that the Isle of Man is said to still be at war with the Kaiser. It’s roughly the same tale: They were–apparently–part of the declaration of war at the start of World War I but not of the peace. However, the only mention I’ve been able to find is on a discussion forum where someone wants to know whether, since the island’s still at war, he can shoot some random German.

I’d like to think he’s joking, or at least trying to.

I haven’t been able to find anything more authoritative–or more sensitble–than that. If someone can send me a link, I’d be grateful.

What people want to know about Britain, part thirteen-ish

It’s time to dip into the search engine questions that lead unsuspecting souls to Notes from the U.K. and see what it is they want to know about this green and pleasant land. The questions are in boldface type and I’ve reproduced them in all their oddity. And because my goal in life is to enlighten the ignorant world, I’ve done my best to provide the information they wanted. Even though the people who asked the questions will never wander back to find the answers. It keeps me occupied and mostly out of trouble.

CULTURE & LANGUAGE

good manners of britain

Yes, Britain has good manners. So do other countries, but no one notices because we’ve all been trained since early childhood to think British manners are good manners and other countries’ manners are rude flaming ignorance. We’ve also been trained to think a British accent is classy and other accents need a bath. This is all rampant bullshit, of course, and a hand-me-down from the British empire, but good luck convincing anyone of it.

When I say “a British accent,” what I really mean is an accent the listener can identify as British, which won’t come anywhere close to the full range of British accents. And when I say “no one” and “we’ve all,” what I really mean is the group of people I happen to be thinking about. I’m not quite silly enough to think I’m talking about everyone

Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

why do americans say derby instead of ‘darby’

Because that’s how it’s spelled. D e r b y: derby. Americans are naive like that. In spite of all the evidence that points the other way–and, boy, does the English language point the other way–they still think that if a word’s spelled with an E it gets pronounced as if it had an E.

Silly people.

brits think americans are too loud

THEY DO? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

swear words england vs american

If you have to look up swear words, they won’t work for  you. Swear words are very particular about who they’ll work for. Stick with the vocabulary you understand. It’ll have more impact. 

should word anglophile be capitaluzed?

Capitaluzed? No. Some people capitalize it, though. Others don’t. Because I’m retired (I used to be an editor; now I’m just an everyday fussbudget), I’m not going to chase down definitive sources. You’re probably safest capitalizing it, but you could defend either choice. 

Which isn’t much of an argument. People defend all kinds of stupidity. That doesn’t make it right.

POLITICS

should all male mps wear a jacket in the commons

Oh, absolutely. Otherwise British politics would degenerate into the kind of farce where people who support staying in the EU throw all their weight behind leaving because it keeps them in power for another twenty minutes; where people argue against a second referendum in the name of democracy; and where amateurs run the government. Heavens to Betsy, we wouldn’t want that.

stockings in the house of commons

It’s not smart to make guesses about anything as improbable as the British parliament, but I’m about to: I’m fairly sure Christmas stockings don’t play much of a role there. The MPs are too old to believe in Santa Claus, although a few still claim to. On top of which, they go home over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so if Santy exists, he has to look for them there.   

mps are not allowed to wear armor

This is as shocking as it is true: They are not allowed to wear armor in the House of Commons, and it’s a stain on British democracy.

On the other hand, they (like everyone else in the land) are allowed to wear armor outside the House of Commons. On the train going home, say. At the corner store. It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and they’ll get some odd looks, but I’ve never heard of a law that  prevents it.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS

If search engine questions are a fair representation of what the world’s interested in, the world is obsessed with brussels sprouts. I could turn Notes into the leading (and only) brussels sprouts blog and make a real success of it. Depending, of course, on how we define success.

Here’s a sampling of the brussels sprouts questions.

why do we eat sprouts at christmas

To make sure we’re on Santa’s good list.

why do we have sprouts at christmas bbc

Good question, BBC. The world’s waiting to hear from you on this important topic. Why are you leaving it to amateurs like me to fabricate answers? This is the height of irresponsibility.

the tradition of why we eat spr54otes

The truly traditional Christmas dinner doesn’t involve spr54otes, it involves plain sprouts, of the brussels variety. The 54 was added in recent years as people became aware of how important fiber is to a healthy diet. And the U? It still feels bad about Americans having dropped it from so many words and it’s sitting out this round to make a point about how much it has to contribute.

why do cross a sprout

To get to the other side?

plumpudding brussel

No, people. There is a limit. Never put brussels sprouts in your plum pudding.

OTHER FOOD & DRINK

what percentage is american beer

That depends on what percentage of what. The world’s beer output?

what do they call brownies in england

Brownies.

SIZE

why are english roads so narrow / why are english streets so narrow

Because of the houses on either side, some of which were there before cars came along. Also because of the fields. And the hedges, and the stone walls. And because, you know, they’ve been that size for a long time and it works, so why mess with it? And incidentally because they take less space.

Isn’t it odd how people go to another country, full of excitement to see something different, and then judge if by the standards of the place they left. And find it failed to meet them.

why is britain called great britain when it is small

Because it has an inferiority complex and needs to puff itself up as much as possible. We try not to talk about it, okay?

TRADITIONS

yale door company knob throwing contest

You can find Yale locks in many American doors. And, according to a quick internet search, also in Australian, Indian, New Zealand (New Zealandish?), and British doors. If the company makes doors, as opposed to locks, they’re keeping the information off the internet. But doors have door knobs, and some door knobs have locks in them, and Yale does make those. So we have a connection here.

But the whole thing breaks down after that. The Dorset knob throwing contest isn’t about throwing door knobs, much less whole doors, it’s about throwing a biscuity thing called a knob, which is a bit sweet and, at least as I remember it, too light to throw well, but you shouldn’t take my word on that, you should go and find out for yourself. The next contest is on May 5, 2019.

Leave your door at home. Also your door knob. They’ll provide all the Dorset knobs you need.  

 

Dark skies in England

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is asking people to help measure how dark England’s skies are. To participate, you look for the constellation Orion and see how many stars you can count inside it without using binoculars or a telescope. Only you have to do it sometime between this exact minute and February 23.

And if this exact minute happens to be noon? You wait till after 7 pm because night is when it gets dark.

Do I have to explain everything?

The best time to do this is the first week of February, when there’ll be less light from the moon. You also want to wait for a good clear night, otherwise the exercise is pointless. If you see ten or fewer stars (not counting the corner stars), you’re in a light-polluted area. Thirty or more is dark, dark, dark.

To find Orion, you read the article I linked to above, because there’s no point in me repeating it, then you take a look at the photo in this one, which gives you a better idea of what Orion looks like and where the corner stars are. Then you go back to the first site and report your findings.

The point of the exercise is to raise awareness of light pollution, which according the campaign interferes with sleep patterns in humans and messes with wildlife, and to get localities to modify their lighting as much as possible.

The point of me writing about this is that it’s good to know that someone cares, and that people can pitch in. Even though, I admit, it’s a long way from being the biggest problem we face.

British traditions: the ceremonial mace

Let’s talk about ceremonial maces. Because, um–.

Never mind the because. Let’s talk about them anyway.

In December 2018, an MP (that’s a member of parliament, and let’s not bother with the capital letters; they bore me) seized the ceremonial mace and started out the door with it.

What ceremonail mace? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why he grabbed it. It was to protest the way the government was handling Brexit. (A quick translation: Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union, and pretty much everybody, from every party and every point of view, was protesting the way it was being handled. Even the people who supported it opposed it, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s a sign that you understand the situation. It’s still a mess, but I write these posts well in advance and by now it’s a slightly different mess.There’s always room at the bottom.)

Irrelevant photo, to cheer us up after a mention of Brexit: This is not a ceremonial mace but an azalea. In a pot whose color doesn’t do much for the flowers. Sorry.

Now let’s go back to where we were before those pesky parentheses and the irrelevant photo got in the way. The MP grabbed the mace and headed for the door, walking as if he was leading some sober ceremony in full silly dress, complete with lace frills and an ermine robe. Not that he was wearing anything silly or that MPs get to wear ermine robes. That’s reserved for members of the House of Lords and only on special occasions. But carrying the thing made him surprisingly stately, either because of the weight of the mace or the weight of tradition. Even when you’re disrespecting it, the mace makes you move respectfully.

Before he got to the door, he let someone take it away from him and she carried it back to its place, equally ceremoniously.

And that was enough to create a huge flap. Because people take this stuff seriously. So seriously that he was probably relieved to let someone take it away before he got out the door and had to decide what to do next. Lean it in a corner in his office? Take it home on the bus and store it in the bathtub? Head for the pawn shop and see what it’s worth?

The MP told reporters, “The symbolic gesture of lifting the mace and removing it is that the will of Parliament to govern is no longer there, has been removed. I felt Parliament had effectively given up its sovereign right to govern properly.

“They stopped me before I got out of the chamber and I wasn’t going to struggle with someone wearing a huge sword on their hip.”

I’ve watched a video of the incident and I couldn’t see who had a sword, huge or otherwise, but given the symbolic silliness that goes on in parliament I’m sure he didn’t make it up. Of course someone would be running around with a sword. I doubt the sword’s sharp enough to cut anything tougher than cheese, but I don’t really know that. Maybe tradition insists that it has to be sharpened daily. I have a nice block of local cheddar in the refrigerator in case anyone wants to experiment.  

Now let’s go back to the question of what the mace is. The Radio Times–which isn’t the place you’d normally go for political reporting–says, “The ceremonial mace is a five-foot-long, silver gilt ornamental staff that represents the royal authority of Parliament. Without the mace, Parliament cannot meet or pass laws.”  

Seriously?

Well, they all think so, so they make sure it’s true.

Oliver Cromwell made an impressive demonstration of its power and at the same time won the prize for most effective mace-grab: In 1653, he got frustrated with the MPs and told the Commons, “I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting.” Then he told his soldiers to walk off with that “fool’s bauble,” a.k.a. the mace, which they did and since the swords were on their hips no one stopped them.

After that, he threw the MPs out of the House and locked the door. A month later, he formed another parliament–one he figured he could get along with. 

So there.

Whether he brought back the mace so they could pass laws or they went ahead without it I don’t know. If anyone does, I’d love to hear from you. 

According to WikiWhatsia, maces originated in the ancient Middle East during the late stone age and were symbols of authority. It says, “A ceremonial mace is a highly ornamented staff of metal or wood, carried before a sovereign or other high official in civic ceremonies by a mace-bearer, intended to represent the official’s authority. The mace, as used today, derives from the original mace used as a weapon.” 

The mace that the Commons depends on is a symbol of royal authority. It’s carried in every day by the “Serjeant at Arms. It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.”

In contrast, the House of Lords has two maces, probably to prove they’re better than the Commons. One is placed (ceremoniously, I’m sure) on the woolsack before the House meets but isn’t placed there if the monarch comes to the chamber. Presumably because the monarch represents royal authority more impressively than a five-foot silver gilt symbol of monarchy.

I have no idea where the other mace is. Probably gathering dust ceremoniously under the Lord Speaker’s bed.

The woolsack? That’s what the Lord Speaker sits on, of course.

Stop that giggling in the back. We’re trying to learn something here.

The woolsack tradition started when Edward III (1327–1377) ordered his Lord Chancellor to sit on a bale of wool while in council. At the time, the lord chancellor presided in the Lords, so that’s where the woolsack went to live and that’s where it stayed.

This wasn’t just wooly thinking. Wool was central to the economy. The lord chancellor was to remember that. 

You want scandal, though? In 1938, someone discovered that the woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. It was duly taken apart and restuffed with wool. By rights, they should’ve gone back and un-passed every law that had made its way through the Lords while the speaker was sitting on the imposter wool sack, but World War II wasn’t far away and people were distracted.

Sprinkle a little salt on that, would you? On the first part of the sentence, please, not the second.

Anyway, the Lords can’t meet or pass laws without their mace either. And if the woolsack’s stuffed with horsehair, they can’t know about it or they’ll all have to burn their wigs.

Salt, please.

By now the Americans among us (and possibly a few other nationalities; I can’t predict that) are laughing helplessly, not because I’m funny but because of all these sober traditions. I can predict the American reaction because I’m close to that state myself and I’m still mostly American. If anyone wants to discuss what it means to be mostly American, let me know. I’m happy to wander off down that dark alley. But for now, allow me to sober everyone up: The U.S. House of Representatives has its own ceremonial mace, and if it’s not in place, then the House isn’t meeting. That’s not quite the same as saying the House can’t meet without it, but the two symbols are within spitting distance of each other.

Any number of state legislatures have them as well.

If you’re still giggling, think about how many Americans get worked up over someone burning the flag. Not because the thing has any intrinsic value–it’s just a piece of cloth–but because of its symbolism. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in other countries, but  let’s agree that we can all get silly about this stuff and mistake a symbol for a law of physics.

Because the British mace is so freighted with symbolism, periodically some MP or other loses it and grabs the mace. Or doesn’t lose it but makes a calculated decision to grab the mace, because if you want to make a point–not to mention the front pages and the 6 o’clock news–grabbing the mace is a reliable way to do it. It probably won’t be good publicity, but they will at least spell your name right. Or try to.