About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

British Easter eggs: it’s the price that counts

It’s almost Easter, so let’s drop in on those good folks who find themselves with an excess of money at this and every other time of year. Yes friends, with inequality on the increase and income being redistributed upward, it can be hard to figure out what to do with all that annoying cash (and its virtual equivalent), so when a few of the holidays come around I like to make a few useful suggestions. Because I do so want to be helpful.

What do I do with my cash? As a rule, I drop it on the floor of the village store while I’m wrestling change out of my pocket. I tell you, I can’t get rid of the stuff fast enough.

Anyway, welcome to the world of luxury Easter eggs. Let’s see how much money we can spend. And before someone else mentions it, let me be clear that what follows in no way represents the way 99.99% of British people live, or even what interests them; 99% of British Easter eggs sell for supermarket-type prices, at a rough guess £10 at the top end, three for £10 in the middle, and small eggs and chocolate rabbits for £1. I mention that because I want to be clear that I won’t be talking about the world most of us live in here.

Irrelevant and ever so slightly odd photo: This is Fast Eddie in motion. He doesn’t eat chocolate.


For a mere £85, you can get a single-origin milk chocolate egg, boringly decorated with cherry blossoms, or the same thing in dark chocolate, only the dark chocolate’s from Madagascar, which may mean it’s more singular than single origin or may mean it’s less singular. We’re not told the origin of the milk chocolate, only that it’s singular. Maybe wherever it came from doesn’t sound as exotic as Madagascar. Maybe it’s from New Jersey.

Do they grow cacao in New Jersey? Not last I heard but it calls itself the garden state, so we can’t rule it out.

Which is better, single origin or Madagascan? Who cares. They cost the same.

The eggs weigh in at 800 grams of chocolate, which (in case your brain is wired non-metrically) is way the hell more than a pound of the stuff.

On the other hand, for £5 less (that’s £80, and aren’t you just proud of me that I figured that out?), you can get an ostrich Easter egg that’s half milk and half dark, filled with smaller chocolates and accompanied by a tray of chocolates that didn’t fit inside because those damned ostriches never did learn to plan ahead. They don’t really stick their heads in the sand to hide from danger, but you still can’t count on them to plan.

Is there a difference between planning and planning ahead? What else could you plan for if not something that’s ahead?

The egg is more than a kilo of chocolate, which translates to more than 2.2 pounds in non-metricality. How much more? They’re not saying. And you get zero decoration on the egg.

A bit further down the scale, for £57.50 you can get a milk chocolate egg “stippled” with dark chocolate and decorated with multicolored flowers. It’s not as expensive as the one with the cherry blossoms, but it is more colorful and more care went into arranging the verbiage. It’s not just stippled, it’s sumptuous. It “started life as the finest Swiss Grand Cru milk chocolate,” which makes me think that as a vegetarian I probably probably shouldn’t eat it. I don’t want to bite into something whose life was cut short because I wanted a snack.

Whether or not it was once alive, it now weights 600 grams.

Since I brought up the verbiage, I might as well say that I wouldn’t pay extra for it, no matter how carefully it’s arranged. You can’t eat the stuff.

And by way of full disclosure, I should say that I don’t want an Easter egg myself—especially an expensive one. I used to work in a candy factory and it cured me. I lost interest in almost all candy, although I do sometimes want good, plain dark chocolate—the kind most people think it meant for cooking.

But enough of that. As I was researching this post (I googled “easter eggs, luxury”—and yes, I included the comma; I can’t help myself), predictive text offered me “easter eggs the devil’s testicles.” And although—sorry, gents—testicles don’t interest me and I feel roughly the same way about the devil, the combination was too much to pass up. I’m here to tell you about parts of the world you might not stumble into yourself, right? So I clicked a few links and found that someone’s written a book that asks the burning question, “Are your children playing with Lucifer’s testicles?”

You thought they’d gone kind of quiet in the back bedroom, didn’t you?

Now, I’m not so dedicated to this blog that I’m going to read the book for you, and no way in hell would I encourage the author by parting with money for it—I’d rather set the money on fire, thanks. So I’m limited to what the website told me, but it sound like the author recommends telling your children that their little heathen friends celebrate Easter the way they do because “in the old days, deluded pagans would gather round and hump like bunnies on Easter Sunday because they thought it would make their tomatoes grow faster.”

By way of extreme generosity, let’s assume (although it doesn’t say this) that you’re supposed to tell them about humping like bunnies in the most tolerant and age-appropriate way. You might also want to tell your kids why the pagans celebrated Easter on a Sunday, being as how they were pagans and all.

A quotation from the book says, “Pagan kids didn’t have anything to do on Easter Sunday because their mommies and daddies were stuck in a false temple all day, naked and writhing around with their neighbors in Satanic orgies of the flesh. You see, parents had to come up with a way to occupy their children while they were away from home, praying and fornicating under the altar of Satan. And since they didn’t have babysitters back then, they gave their kids eggs to play with and sometimes paint.”

And if that doesn’t teach me not to click random links on the internet, nothing will. It should also teach us all not to obsess about other people’s sex lives. It never leads anywhere good.

In spite of my better instincts, I’ve got to give you a link. How else will you know this isn’t the product of my diseased mind instead of someone else’s?

I need to get that out of our minds, don’t I? So let’s talk about chocolate again. When I’ve posted about overpriced Easter eggs in the past, I’ve waited until a newspaper or two runs an article about the most outrageous ones, then I ride on their research. But this year I thought I’d run the post a bit early, so we’ll have to make do with what I can find online.

Why don’t I call a few fancy store and do my research the way genuine journalists do? Because that works better when you write for some real publication instead of having to say, “Hi, I’m a blogger no one ever heard of. What’s the most ridiculous thing you’re selling this season?” So the internet it was.

Harrod’s is a reliable source of overpriced goodies, so I checked their website and found that they’re “partnered” with “artist Camille Walala,” who turned out a limited edition of twelve eggs. They say the “eggs are highly-prized; a fitting marriage of an exciting London designer with our [ahem; due modesty here] world-famous store.”

In the department of expensive verbiage, they could have saved some money by deleting the first hyphen, since it’s wrong anyway. And while I’m at it, the semi-colon began life as a comma and should probably return to that happy state of being before it gets mistaken for something edible, although it’s still going to be a clunky sentence for reasons I’m not going to get into.

The website doesn’t mention how much the eggs cost. I think it’s one of those “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” things, but if you insist on knowing how much money it’s humanly possible to spend on chocolate, you can look elsewhere on the site and order an assortment of truffles for £350, even though the assortment’s not specific to Easter. There’s no mention of how much it weighs, but the verbiage is weighty if not creative. It includes perfect, special, abundance, luxurious, mouth-watering, bespoke, and exquisite. Which—I’m sorry to be critical—strikes me as a bit ho-hum for that sort of money.

It also says the selection will leave you wanting more. At £350 a box, that might not be a good thing, but I suppose it depends on how much cash you’ve dropped on the floor of the village shop. If they ever move the freezer, they should have enough to buy a couple of boxes. Given what I contributed, I’m owed a taste.


The Beast from the East

Button up, kiddies, because we’re going to talk about Britain’s recent storm. I’m limping in well behind the event, but I usually do. It’s part of my charm, and you’re just going to have to take my word for that.

At the end of February, Britain got whacked with a snowstorm, called, since it came in on an east wind, the Beast from the East. It shut the country down.

How much snow does it take to do that? Drumalbin, in Scotland, got 50 centiwhatsits. That’s in the neighborhood of 20 inches, which—Minnesotan that I am (or was; I could argue it either way)—even I will admit is enough to count as a legitimate snowstorm. Further south, Cambridgeshire got 26 centithings. Let’s call that a foot of the stuff. It blows around, so I don’t feel the need to be exact.

Relevant photo: Crocuses that survived the freeze.

Here in Cornwall, we got less. I’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s talk about the country shutting down: Cars got stuck, turning highways into parking lots, and drivers and passengers got stuck with them, waiting in their cars for I have no idea what. Rescue? Instructions? Warmer weather? Enlightenment? I understand why you wouldn’t want to walk away from your car in a snowstorm, but on the other hand, how long do you sit with it?

In one highway-slash-parking lot, the driver of a bakery truck gave up on the idea of delivering his goodies and passed them out to the folks he was stuck in the snow with. He was a hero, at least for a while, and got in all the papers. I’m not sure what happened when he got back to work—the papers haven’t covered that. If the bakery has any sense, they’ll give him a bonus, because they got great publicity, but I wouldn’t want to bet on that happening.

Someone I know of took in drivers who got stranded near her house. They were with her for a few days.

A woman was in the news because she left her car on the side of the road and walked to safety. She came back to find it had been towed and it was going to cost a shitload of money to get it back. And to make it worse, before she left it there she asked a cop if it was would be okay and he said sure, it would be fine.

Schools closed. Roads closed. Trains were canceled. Houses lost power. The supermarkets ran short of milk, bread, fruit, vegetables, and whatever else you happened to want. The Daily Mail wrote scary stories about sixteen-inch snowdrifts.

You Minnesotans, stop that. If you hardly ever see a snowdrift, sixteen inches is impressive.

British friends say two things to us in these conditions.

One: Isn’t it beautiful (or some variation on that)? It is and you can have my share. I’ve seen enough snow to last me several lifetimes. I don’t expect to get any extra lifetimes in which to spend my stockpile, but in case I do, I’m ready.

Two: How is it that we can’t handle this when Canada/Poland/Finland/wherever it is you told me you’re from don’t shut down every time they have a snowstorm.

It’s mostly true that they don’t, but any of those places can counts on having a fistful of snowstorms per year, so they invest in more than a fistful of snowplows, not to mention mountains of sand mixed with some strange chemical that melts ice and rusts cars. Their citizens are born clutching tiny snow shovels. It makes childbirth incredibly hard but once you get that out of the way, snowstorms are nothing.

On top of that, people in those places know how to drive in snow. And the ones who just can’t learn? They get Darwined out of the herd not long after they get their driving licenses.

Okay, now we can get to Cornwall: I can’t find a reliable source to tell you how much snow we got here, so let’s consult me. I’m anything but reliable, especially with numbers, but I am available. Where I live, in North Cornwall—which you can also call it East Cornwall if you’re in the mood; it’s not exactly the same, but it’ll do—we got an inch or two. South and west of us (that’s called down west), they got more. How much more? I wasn’t there, but it hit them earlier and seems to have caused them more trouble.

The last Cornish snow I saw was wet. It packed into ice almost immediately, so it was lethal. That was eight years ago, give or take a year or three, and I didn’t drive in it. Anything around here that isn’t a hill is a curve, so driving on ice? I’ll just do some baking, make a cup of tea, and stay home, thanks. That’s one of the best things about being retired. But this recent snow was powdery and dry and easy to drive in, and the temperature–unusually–was far enough below freezing to keep it from half-melting and then turning to ice.

Even I will admit that it was pretty. And as soon as a decent layer had fallen, the streets around us blossomed with parents pulling small kids on plastic sleds, which was also pretty.

Where did the sleds come from in this land of almost no snow? No idea. Fax, maybe. You order them online and the machine spits them out almost immediately.

I’ve heard that up on the moors the snow was heavier. Whatever weather the rest of Cornwall gets—wind, rain, heat, snow (you notice I haven’t mentioned sun)—the moors get more of it.

The county did some plowing and salting, but they start with the main roads and we’re on the way to nowhere, so they wouldn’t get to us before July, by which time its sort of beside the point. Around us, it was farmers who did the plowing with their tractors. Of course—and I say this for the benefit of people who’ve never lived with snow—when roads get plowed, snow gets pushed to the side, and if you have a driveway guess what happens to it? A lovely, dense layer of snow compacts across it and if you hope to get out you have to shovel your way through it. It’s heavy, heavy work. I did it a lot when I lived in Minnesota, sometimes breaking a (much too narrow) slot through the snowbank in front of the house so we could reach the street and sometimes to dig our cars out after the alley had been plowed.

Okay, I admit it: Some years we didn’t get that slot to the street cut after the first storm, and with each storm that followed it became harder to shovel through the snowbank. Getting from sidewalk to street involved mountaineering.

Our excuse was that it’s damn hard work. And in Cornwall almost nobody owns a snow shovel. We don’t even own a snow shovel, never mind a–oh, what are they called? Not icebreakers–those are ships. And not ice scrapers–those are for windshields. I have been gone a long time. One of those blades on a shovel-type handle that’s meant to deal with ice.

Anyway, for lack of the right tools, people end up trying to dig themselves out with soup spoons.

So that was the Beast from the East. Not at all bad where we were but tough further north and on the moors.

The next day, the Beast from the East met a wind from the west, a storm named Emma. (I’m not sure the Beast from the East didn’t get a formal name while Emma did. Weather people move in mysterious ways.) The combination brought freezing rain to Cornwall. Everything had a nice, slick layer of ice on it, and that stuff can kill you.

What did my partner and I do? Stayed the hell indoors. I may call her Wild Thing, but she’s not that wild.

With the ice, the village was cut off. Again,we’re on the way to exactly nowhere. It would take the county as long to get around to salting our road as it would take our current national government to locate both its brain and its heart. So when the driver who was supposed to deliver milk to the village store called to say he wasn’t coming because if he once got into the village he wouldn’t get back out, the store put out a call on Facebook, asking if anyone with a four-by-four could meet the truck.

The store got its milk. That’s life in a village.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never owned a four-by-four, but I’m pretty sure they’re no better on ice that a two-by-two. Never mind, though. They got through.

It wasn’t just the snow and ice that affected us, though. The houses around here are built—oddly enough—for Cornish weather, which rarely dips below zero and never stays there long. Except when it does. What I’m trying to say is that water pipes seem to be put in any which way.

Okay, I’m not a plumber. I’m sure a good bit of thought goes into them, but a friend’s water pipes turned out to be above ground. Insulated, but above ground. That looked like a sensible thing to do when the house was built.

Guess whose water pipes froze solid for a few days?

In northern Minnesota, the frost reaches five feet into the earth. In southern Minnesota—we’re soft down there—it only goes down 3 feet, six inches. Wild Thing and I were told once that footings had to go down either six or seven feet (I can’t remember which) to keep the frost from messing with them. Water pipes? They go through the center of the earth. Just to be safe.

Our friend wasn’t the only one whose pipes froze. So did an assortment of other people’s. So did water mains all around the country. Parts of London went without water for days—long after the temperatures rose.

The day after the freeze, as the temperatures rose and the ice started to melt, the delivery trucks reappeared and the store ran out of milk. The dairy’s pipes had frozen and it took them a day or so to recover. The supermarket’s shelves were still pretty bare days days after the thaw.

The thaw? It came the next day. The temperature got up into the forties–above zero for the metrically inclined–and the whole mess disappeared and we got back to normal. Even the daffodils, snowdrops, crocuses, and primroses that had frozen (see the rare relevant picture, above) recovered. When I lived in Minnesota, I longed for weather that behaved that way.

A week or so later, another storm system brought snow and ice warnings (and I think some actual snow and ice) to the north of us. It was called the Pest from the West.

This is what happens when a country starts naming its storms. People have way too much fun with it.

What’s happening to asylum seekers in Britain

Sorry,  no jokes today. I just read a post by a Ugandan seeking asylum in Britain. She’s being held the Yarl’s Wood detention center and is on a hunger strike. Let it serve as a quick introduction to the craziness and cruelty of the current British approach to immigration. Her post isn’t an easy fit here, but the world isn’t all jokes, and as a fellow immigrant, although a far luckier one, I can’t just walk past without calling attention to it.

I found the post in Phil Davis’s A Darkened Room. He works with asylum seekers and writes well and knowledgeably about their struggles.

The Dorset knob throwing contest

This year’s Dorset Knob Throwing Festival has been canceled.

This year’s what? Dorset Knob Throwing Festival. Let’s break that down into its parts.

Dorset: A British county

Dorset Knob: a biscuit made in Dorset

Biscuit: a British word for cookie (in the baking, as opposed to electronic, sense of the word) or, just to confuse things, for biscuit (in the American sense of the word)

Cookie: an American word for biscuit but always sweet, unlike the British biscuit, which you have to sneak up on carefully to find out if it’s dessertish or with-cheese-ish

So is the Dorset knob sweet or not-sweet?


Irrelevant photo: strange plant a friend gave us

As far as I can remember (I had one years ago), it’s somewhere in the middle: not dessertish but not unsweetened. The BBC, which knows these things, reports that “they can be eaten with Blue Vinny cheese, dipped in tea or cider, or taken with honey and cream—known locally as thunder and lightning.”

The Dorset knob was created some 150 years ago in—you got it: Dorset. Which is a county (see above). In England (see a map). It was created out of leftover bread dough plus butter and sugar, then left to dry (not to mention bake) in an oven that was cooling down, and it was popular enough to hang around for 150 years.

Or that’s one version of how they’re made.

Another is that it originated with “Maria Bligdon, ‘a formidable woman with striking looks and great strength. She could handle a sack of flour as well as any man and was known for getting her own way.’ [I’m not sure who we’re quoting here. Sorry.] Around 1852 she began the ‘White Cross Baker’ in Litton Cheney, near Dorchester [someone should’ve put a comma here but, in the interest of verisimilitude and other big words, I’ll leave it out since this is a quote] where one of her bakers, Mr Moores, either devised [wait, wait, here’s where the comma got to!], or introduced [and here’s a spare in case we need it later; I’m not distracting you, am I?], the Dorset Knob. The recipe consists of bread dough with sugar and butter, shaped into round balls by hand and baked three times, to produce a crumbly rusk-like texture. On Mary Blingdon’s death, Moores set up his own bakery at Morcombelake with his sons, which continues to this day.”

If you’re reading carefully, you’ll notice that on her death Mary also acquired a second N in her last name.

The Dorset knob had a real moment during World War II, when it was made “compulsory as a soup roll during the rationing of World War II, possibly because of its excellent keeping qualities.”

So much, so ho-hum (except for the idea of a food item being compulsory, which is sort of chilling). Then in 2008 some wiseacre got the idea of holding a festival where everybody threw the things. That’s one of the ways you can tell rationing’s over: grownups think throwing food’s a good idea.

Why do they do that? The winters here aren’t all that cold, but they can be dark and rainy. That does things to people. After eleven years in this country, I understand why sooner or later someone will turn to a neighbor—or to the person next to them at the bar—and say, “Why don’t we hold a knob-throwing festival?” And it’ll sound like a good idea.

Really, it will.

This particular festival includes—or in the past has included—not just knob throwing but a knob eating contest and an assortment of other games involving knobs: archery, weight guessing, darts, pyramid building.

Now put the knob eating contest out of your mind. You’ll be grateful to me, because the festival also, daringly, includes a pin-the-knob-on-the-Cerne-Giant contest. Or at least on a picture of the giant.

Why’s that daring? Because the Cerne Giant is a huge, anatomically correct male figure cut into a nearby chalky hillside. As drawn, he’s—shall we say he’s interested in someone? You’ll find a photo here.

In a nod to modern sensibilities, the picture used in the game has been edited into inoffensiveness. You can pin the knob wherever you like, because you won’t hurt him too badly.

I don’t know how they score the game (I also don’t know how people fix a Dorset knob onto a piece of paper, but never mind), but I did wonder what the winning spot would be.

It might be worth knowing, in this context, that the Oxford online dictionary lists a “vulgar slang” definition in which knob means exactly the part that’s missing from the picture. I can’t believe that bit of information didn’t rise to the surface of some brain other than mine. Especially since, more or less by definition, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the male anatomy. Unless, of course, I’m writing about giants chalked into a hillside. Away from hillsides, I prefer the female anatomy. It’s just one of those things.

According to the same dictionary, knob can also mean “a small flock of wigeon, pochard, or teal (ducks),” but it does note that it’s a rare meaning. The dictionary doesn’t mention Dorset knobs.

The organizers hope the festival will be back in 2019 and better than ever. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by. And keep your mind out of the gutter.


I have to thank—or possibly blame—Bear Humphries for sending me a link to this story and suggesting that it was just strange enough to suit me. Check out his blog. It’ll serve him right.

Off-the-shelf comparisons in the U.S. and the U.K.

What a country compares things to tells us a lot about its culture.

What does it tell us? Damned if I know, but I do know that communication’s going on and I’ll claim a point or two, if you don’t mind, for getting that much right.

So let’s talk about what people reach for when they need an off-the-shelf point of comparison. If we’re talking about size–and we are, otherwise the conversation will be too baggy to manage–the British start with a double decker bus, then move up to a football pitch, which is, if I’ve got this straight, a football field except that the football in question is what Americans call a soccer ball, not what Americans call a football, and the field may be a slightly different size. Still, it’s close enough for all of us to think, delusional creatures that we are. that we’re talking about the same thing.

After the football pitch, the British upgrade directly to Wales, and after that, they stop. Nothing on the shelf is bigger than Wales. If they want something larger, they have to improvise.

What are the standard comparisons in the U.S.? A barn door. The broad side of a barn. (I may be cheating a bit here. This usually shows up as “couldn’t hit the broad side of a…” which isn’t a comparison. Half a point to me for honesty, then take it away for cheating.)

Completely relevant photo: This dog is smaller than a bus. He is also smaller than Rhode Island. He doesn’t actually have green eyes; that’s a spooky flash effect.

If Americans need a point of comparison bigger than that, we have “the size of Rhode Island,” which I should explain for the sake of non-Americans is our smallest state.

Texas used to be our biggest state, but that was before Alaska joined the union. Now it can only claim to be the biggest in the contiguous 48 states and the most blustiferous in all 50. But the things I remember hearing compared to Texas aren’t things that can be measured in miles. You might say, “She has a student loan the size of Texas,” but I can’t remember bodies of water, other countries, or deserts being compared to it

There’s no reason they shouldn’t be, but something about Texas tempts us into off-the-wall (as opposed to off-the-shelf) comparison. And here I really am saying something about the culture behind the comparisons.

My partner’s from Texas, so I don’t say any of this from ignorance. Or by way of complaint. I admire the florid insanity that Texans (forgive the generalization; I’m going to move on now before anyone gets a chance to complain) tap into so gloriously.

I’m from New York originally. We have our own forms of insanity, but they’re not as much fun, and we lean toward the small, being more likely to say, “My first apartment was the size of your average phone booth.”

For anyone young enough to ask, “What’s a phone booth?” I might as well explain that they were booths. Around phones. One phone to a booth. And back when they existed, all phone booths were the size of your average phone booth. They varied about as much as the old black rotary-dial phone. One size fit all. I could add that some New York apartments were smaller than your average phone booth, so whoever’s apartment was the size of one was was living in luxury.

And again, that does say something about the culture. New York’s a big city in a small space. Unless a person’s insanely rich, the amount of space she or he can lay claim to is limited.

The British are fond of reminding people that they’re a small island, although the people–the they in that sentence–aren’t actually a small island. The place they live is. Still, I seem to have always heard it as “we’re a small island.” 

Does it say something about the culture that the people have themselves confused with a chunk of land?

The small island excludes Northern Ireland, which is the smaller part of a different, smaller island. And that means something too, although I might do well to leave it to someone else to explain what, because I’m not at all sure. Any takers?

Soon after my partner and I first moved to Britain, the Guardian newspaper’s letter writers got into an extended discussion about using Wales as a point of comparison. The conversation started in a column that invites readers to ask and answer questions when someone asked, since it was a standard point of comparison, what size a Wales actually was. The discussion went on for so long that the editors moved it out of the column and onto to the letters page.

It’s hard to summarize an exchange of such intricate and admirable lunacy, but one highlight was the suggestion that we should learn from the metric system and standardize the Wales so that it becomes as reliable as a kilometer.

That led someone else to ask if it would be standardized at high tide or low.

As far as I can remember, no one asked, Why Wales? Northern Ireland’s smaller. Scotland’s bigger. England’s bigger still. What part of the British psyche does Wales occupy that people feel this compulsion to compare things to it?


If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer and editor, it’s that as soon as you state that something has three causes, someone will come along and tell you it has four. If you say it has four, someone will pop up with a fifth. So warm up your keypads, kidlets. I’ve missed a point of comparison. Or I’ve missed thirteen of ’em, and that’s not even starting on their implications. This is your invitation to tear up the floorboards. To shred, fold, and staple. (That’s a reference that only makes sense if you’re over a thousand years old. I am. If you’re nice, I might explain it.) Tell me what I’ve missed and what, if anything, it all means.


American schools and their guns

Enough about Britain. Let’s have some news from the U.S., because there’s more than enough lunacy there to keep us bitterly amused. I know, I know, it’s a serious subject, but bear with me.

You’ve heard that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers? Well, let’s check in on what happens when teachers are armed:

In Utah, a teacher shot herself in the leg in an elementary school toilet–or rest room, as we say in the U.S., because we may allow guns in our schools but we don’t allow loose talk about toilets. That sort of language reminds us of what we do with them–which is, generally, not shoot ourselves but get ride of bodily waste products (she said delicately). Or, to prove that I really would say shit if I had a mouthful, we shit and we pee.

The teacher had completed a gun safety course (which I’m guessing wasn’t long enough) and, you’ll be relieved to learn, was carrying the gun legally.

In Idaho, a professor shot himself in the foot while walking across campus.

In Minnesota, a third-grader reached over to a police officer’s holster and pulled the trigger on his (unless it was her–the officer was in possession of a gun but not of a pronoun). Should we start over? The kid shot the cop’s handgun. While it was in its holster and the cop was talking to the kids. The bullet went into the floor without passing through any flesh on the way. Likewise it did not pass Go or collect two hundred dollars. And if you’re a complete outsider to American (and I believe general English-speaking) culture, that’s an irrelevant reference to a board game.

Has Monopoly been translated into other languages and foisted off on the rest of the world?

And in Pennsylvania, a teacher in a small Christian school with one toilet that’s used by both staff and teachers put her handgun on the toilet tank while she used the restroom and then left without it. Four kids between the ages of six and eight used the, um, facilities before one of them reported it to his parents, who told a teacher, who presumably got it out of there safely.

So yes, arm the teachers. That’ll keep the kids safe.

From math to fried chicken: the news from Britain

Here we go again, cold off the press, the important stuff that’s happening in Britain:

We hear from the Ministry of Multiplication Tables

Eight- and nine-year-olds in England (as opposed to Wales or Scotland) are going to be tested on the multiplication tables. The test will itself be tested in a sampling of schools this year and then be introduced—unless, of course, it isn’t—in the whole country in 2020. In between those two dates, schools can introduce the test voluntarily, although why they’d want to is anyone’s guess.

What’s the point? That’s also anyone’s guess. (Don’t you love how neutral my reporting is?) Some standardized testing is about grading the school, some is about grading the student, and this, according to the noises being made by Nick Gibb, the school standards minister, is to “help teachers identify those pupils who require extra support.”

Because teachers don’t notice otherwise. Most only remember they have students when they get test results back. The rest of the time they think they’re talking to holograms.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom. Spring is coming. Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case it isn’t. Or close to the equator, in which case (I assume) it’s as irrelevant as the photo.

Inevitably, when the good Mr. Gibb went on TV to talk about the new test, the interviewer asked him what eight times nine was. He refused to answer.

Okay, it wasn’t inevitable that the question would be eight times nine, only that someone would ask him one of the less obvious combinations.

“No eight-year-old or nine-year-old will be doing it on live television,” the Minister for Multiplication tables huffed.

Besides, the information’s classified. You want to government to give out the answers before the test is even introduced?

The government claims the tests will be designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers. I haven’t been able to figure out what that “additional” is in addition to, but never mind. We’re dealing with the Minister for Multiplication Tables, not the Minister for Marvelous Writing, but if anyone wants to get in touch with either of them, you might mention that one of the Rules of Marvelous Writing is that if you’re using a comparative (bigger, better, more absurd, far more Marvelous, that kind of thing), it has no meaning unless it’s clear what you’re comparing it to—or in this case, adding it to.

You mght also want to recommend using fewer capital letters. Or was that me who tossed  in the caps?

Is anyone other than me old enough to remember cigarette ads? I’m relying on memory here, but didn’t they tell us cigarettes were smoother? Smoother than what? A cheese grater.

But back to multiplication tables: I’m an expert on not knowing them, so I’d like to testify that not learning them was stressful enough. Taking a standardized test designed not to cause me additional stress? Good luck designing that.

I can also testify that although it’s sometimes a pain in the calculator finger not to have them memorized, it’s entirely possible to get through life that way. Especially now that a carton of calculators is cheaper than a carton of cigarettes.


Then we hear from the Ministry of Procrastination

Trafford’s twelve libraries have abandoned fines for late book returns. Or maybe that’s Trafford’s thirteen libraries. It depends which article you read, so just to confuse the situation I found an online map and counted seventeen little red it’s-here symbols marking (I think) Trafford libraries. And if that doesn’t make the whole thing uncertain enough, only sixteen of them had book symbols inside. One had a circle instead. So one library lends circles, and there’s no fee for returning them late. Britain’s a strange country. I’ve lived here for eleven years and that’s only long enough for me to understand how much I don’t understand.

But we were talking about library fines, or we were trying to. If you’d stop interrupting, we’d get to the point much faster.

Starting in April, you can return your book late and not owe a penny. Which—. Gee. I hardly know what to say. Libraries and fines are so linked in my mind that they might as well have announced that they’re going out of the book-lending business. Especially since there’s that little red symbol with the circle inside.

On the other hand, getting rid of fines doesn’t mean you can build up your book collection for free. At some point (and I’m not sure anyone knows what that point it yet) a person who doesn’t return books won’t be allowed to borrow any more.

The Bookseller writes, “In a further move to encourage more people to read, the council [that’s the city government] will also provide every child whose birth is registered in the area with a library card and book start pack, after noting that ‘most learning of literacy happens in the first 11 years of a child’s life, as does the development of a person’s love of reading.’ “

For a bookish publication, that’s really sloppy writing. What does the “after” in “after noting” follow? Providing every child with a library card?


Then we don’t hear from the Ministry of Defense

A fitness tracker called Strava was publishing maps of the exercise paths its users followed. They’re called heatmaps and it was all very cool, very compare-yourself-with-the-rest-of-the-world, until somebody noticed that if you knew how to read them you could trace the exercise routes used by military personnel, not to mention the outline U.S. military bases in Syria and Iraq.

I just returned from googling Strava. Predictive text offered Strava, Strava login, Strava app, and Strava heatmaps. I followed them all and was told that no results matched my search. It was all scorched earth in Stravaland.

If you try it and you’re desperate for a result of some kind, you can delete the VA and at least get a result for Stradivarius, but good luck tracking military personnel that way.

I also googled “Strava military personnel,” hoping to find an article I could link to, just to prove to you–not to mention myself–that I’m not hallucinating. Nothing matched my search, although predictive text offered me “Strava military discount,” which had also been deleted. But I swear to you, I have a newspaper clipping about this. It’s from the January 30 Guardian. Now that I’ve squeezed the juice out of it, I’m tossing it on the recycling pile (that’s the floor to the left of and partially behind my chair). The clipping may already be rare enough to qualify as a collector’s item. If anyone wants to dig it out, you’re welcome to it, but I warn you, squadrons of researchers have been lost down there.

The story appeared in several papers. I’d like to know, in all seriousness, why none of those stories are online anymore.


Enough ministries. A music festival bans potato peelers

The Parklife music festival in Manchester is banning potato peelers. Why? Because Liam Gallagher’s playing in 2018, of course.

I’m the wrong generation to understand that without an explanation (and I’m not doing all that well with one). If the name alone doesn’t explain the decision to you, you’re the wrong generation too, but it seems Liam’s brother, Noel, broke up a band they were both in and Liam didn’t take it well. Noel’s now in a different band and at one gig someone in his band played the scissors. How? No idea. I’m guessing badly, but that’s only because I’ve never heard anyone play the scissors well.

Or at all. I do know someone who plays the spoons, if that’a any help.

In a straight-faced effort to make sense of the background, the BBC explains that “Liam has referred to his brother as a ‘potato’ on a number of occasions.” In a tweet, he invited concert-goers to “peel some spuds live on stage” and later praised someone who more or less did that.

Yeah, I know, I thought it was supposed to be about the music. I’m old. Don’t listen to me. Listen to the potato peelers.

Parklife says it’s been inundated with requests to bring in potato peelers and in response has banned them. Because they could be used as offensive weapons.

Do I believe anyone actually asked if they could bring them in? Nope. The kind of scofflaw who’d bring a potato peeler to a concert doesn’t ask permission.


Windsor finds a new neighbor

Or an old one. Archeologists have found a 5,000-year-old ceremonial gathering place within sight of Windsor Castle. It’s called a causewayed enclosure and dates back to the earliest years of farming in Britain.

Fieldwork Director John Powell said, “This is an exciting find. These are the earliest peoples who are actually settling down in the landscape and leaving their mark.”

The site’s particularly important because archeologists expect to find the complete enclosure, not just bits of it.

The enclosure was found in a quarry whose planning permission depends on allowing archeologists to have access. The same condition applied to some sewage work outside a village near us—archeologists followed the route of a new sewage line as it was being dug and found flints (not native to Cornwall), burials, and if I remember right, a house that dissolved almost as quickly as it was uncovered.

Anywhere you put a shovel into the ground in this country, you’re likely to unearth a bit of history. We haven’t found anything in our yard yet, but a pair of Roman boxing gloves showed up at Hadrian’s Wall. They date from somewhere around 120 C.E. (that’s A.D. in case you still tell time that way). Hadrian’s Wall is nowhere near Windsor Castle but it’s the same country, so I thought I’d mention it.


. . . and abandons a plan to get rid of an existing one

The borough of Windsor had a plan to clean the place up in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. How? By banning rough sleepers, which is what Britain calls the homeless.

Part of its “homelessness support strategy” was to fine them £100 for sleeping on the street, but they could get 50% off if they paid early. On the other hand, if they didn’t pay at all, the fine would escalate to £1,000.

What was the council going to do when they found out the homeless don’t have that kind of money–that being homeless has some mysterious connection to being broke? I’m not sure. Maybe Stage 2 was to put them in debtors’ prison.

Stage 3 was to reinstate debtors’ prisons. As part of a strategy to support debtors.

Anyway, the plan created such an uproar and the council backed down, but it still wants to ban urination and defecation in the town center. I don’t know any specifics about Windsor, but budget cuts around the country have meant that a lot public toilets have closed.

You don’t suppose there’s a connection in there somewhere, do you?

As for the wedding, the royal family is paying for it but the taxpayer will pick up the cost of security. I’m guessing it’ll be enough to keep any number of public toilets open.


Finally and most dramatically, the world ended on February 19

Okay, it didn’t actually end—not unless I’m writing this after the end of the world—but Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out of chicken and had to close 646 of its 900 outlets (so we call them stores? restaurants?). That’s pretty close to the same thing.

I’m not sure how many are still closed on February 22, the evening before the post goes live, when I’m updating this. The official count, I think, is lots.

What happened? KFC changed delivery companies. The GMB union says warned KFC the “the decision would have consequences” since the old distributor has a network of warehouses around the country and the new company has only one. “Now,” the union said—unable to stop itself—“the chickens are coming home to roost.”

It turns out that single warehouse hadn’t been licensed of inspected, and KFC said some chicken would have to be destroyed.

As a side note, GMB no longer stands for anything. The union started out in 1889 as the Gas Workers and General Union, but in the last century British unions merged with other unions, and in the last thirty years even more of the merged, and the GMB now represents a range of workers, including delivery drivers, and has abandoned every trace of its original name except the letters, which I just notice don’t stand for Gas Workers and General. Where they came from and what they once stood for is a mystery their web site doesn’t explain.

It must be another of those mysterious British things. I just love this country.

But back to our main story: What did the public do about the chicken crisis? Why, it called the police, of course.

The BBC quotes two tweets from police forces. From Tower Hamlets: “Please do not contact us about the #KFCCrisis – it is not a police matter if your favourite eatery is not serving the menu that you desire.” And from some other force—probably Manchester but I wouldn’t swear to it: “For those who contacted the Police about KFC being out of chicken … please STOP. Their website says the Prestwich store is now open if you want to follow the four police cars through the drive thru.”

If you have nothing better to do (and I clearly don’t), it’s worth browsing #KFCCrisis on Twitter. When I loooked, someone posting as Jesus Christ (I hope that doesn’t offend anyone; I’m pretty sure this isn’t the real one) wrote, “I am fully aware there is a in the UK… stop sending prayers! I’m trying to fix America and then I will get to you.” Someone else wrote, “ is in its second day and average life expectancy in the UK has gone up by 2 weeks.”

Quorn, a vegetarian meat substitute, tweeted an offer to supply KFC with some crispy Quorn nuggets. And since DHL (and to be fair, any number of other delivery companies) has a reputation for mis-delivering packages, a third tweet reads,”Have they checked DHL haven’t left the chicken with a neighbour or thrown it over the fence???”

All across the country, chickens were celebrating.

Cheddar Man and British prehistory

Back in 1903, some people digging a drainage trench in Gough’s Cave, in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, found a skeleton. In case Cheddar Gorge and Somerset don’t help you locate the cave on the map of your mind, it’s two or three hours’ drive from where I live. That’s fairly useless information but I’m hopiong it’ll create the illusion of a reference point.

The skeleton turned out to be 10,000 years old and is now known as Cheddar Man. Ched (as he won’t mind being called since (a) he’s dead; (b) whatever he spoke wasn’t English and (c) writing hadn’t been invented yet and neither had computers, so he wouldn’t have read this in any case) was around 5’5″ and would’ve weight 10 stone.

A stone? That’s a particularly insane measure of weight that the British abandoned when they (mostly) went metric, but–no, don’t ask me why–a recent newspaper article about the find gave his weight in stones, probably because they were still using it when Ched’s weight was first calculated.

A stone is 14 pounds. I’ll leave you to multiply 10 by 14. I don’t do higher mathematics.

Why didn’t the writer translate stones into kilowhatsits since Britain’s now (mostly) metric?Because. And if that isn’t a good enough reason, make up one of your own.

But before we go on, let’s be completely accurate: When it was found, the skeleton must have been 10,000 minus 105 years old, because in 2018 the headlines are still saying the skeleton’s 10,000 years old. I’m terrible with numbers, but I do understand that 10,000 minus 105 isn’t 10,000.

One article figures that works out to 300 generations ago.

The reason Ched’s back in the news is that up-to-date DNA sequencing has revealed—drumroll, please—that he had very dark skin, blue eyes, and curly brown (or in some articles, black) hair. And as an adult, he wouldn’t have been able to drink milk. I’m guessing that measn he was lactose intolerant, like much of the world’s non-European people and some smallish portion of people of European descent, including me, but the articles I’ve read don’t go into detail on that.

What’s more, they don’t say word one about me. It’s a mystery.

How dark was Ched’s skin? His DNA says it was either dark brown or black, but when I googled him, the featured photos from three different websites showed skin tones that ranged from toasted white bread with a sunburn to seriously dark. Which is interesting, since all three photos are of the same reconstruction.

Photoshop, pre-existing beliefs, and politics lead us to strange results. The darkest photo is the best match for the description, so I’m going to put my trust in that one.

I don’t know if all three photos will still be featured, but you’re welcome to roll the dice by clicking on this link.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. Primroses. If it ever stops raining, we may get these planted. In the meantime, they live on the kitchen counter, which I’ve cleverly hidden by moving the lens in on top of the blossoms. Don’t they look outdoorsy?

Ched wasn’t one of Britain’s first settlers. Early Britain was repeatedly settled and then repeatedly emptied out when glaciers expanded and sent people running for friendlier climates. Today’s residents understand the impulse, although we’re short on glacierless just now.

Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals settled in Britain at various points, the pre- people being forced south by an ice ago more than 200,000 years ago and the Neanderthals arriving (if I’m reading this correctly; it all gets a little hazy back there because no one was assigned to take notes, which was unforgivably careless) some 100,000 years ago. According to Francis Pryor (I’ll get around to explaining him in a bit), the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain has recently been redated to roughly a million years ago.

Modern humans, as opposed to Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals, also settled several times and got chased out by ice ages. Britain wasn’t an island during most of that period, so migration would have been relatively simple. When sea levels were low, it was joined to Europe by a land bridge, now called Doggerland and named after the Dogger Bank, which was in turn named after seventeenth century Dutch fishing boats called Doggers. I stopped following the thread at that point. From time to time, even I notice when I’ve gone too far off topic.

Cheddar Man (who was male, unlike some of the prehistoric “men” named in less discriminating days) is from the group of people who put down roots after the last ice age. In case it helps, we’re talking about the Mesolithic period–the middle stone age. His people came from the Middle East (which wasn’t called the Middle East then, but never mind) through Europe (which wasn’t yet Europe) before coming to Britain (which—never mind, you already know this). They would’ve been hunter-gatherers and weren’t genetically related to Britain’s earlier modern human settlers—the ones who cleared out when the glaciers moved in.

You can think of it as a very early exercise in gentrification and urban clearance if that clarifies anything, although some obvious differences do stand out. The absence of bulldozers, for one. And of urban planning.

Because Ched’s people—let’s call them the Cheddar people; no one else does, but it’s easier—timed their arrival well. No glaciers drove them out. As the climate warmed and sea levels rose, they found themselves on an island. Leaving became more difficult than staying, so they and became the ancestors of Britain’s indigenous white population. A history teacher from the area was tested and turns out to have a female ancestor in common with Ched. Think about that: Ten thousand years later, a descendant’s still in the old neighborhood. That’s a family that stays in one place long enough to have to clean the oven. I was well into my thirties before I did that.

The average Briton carries ten percent of the Cheddar people’s genes. Or possibly the average white Briton. Or the average person who’s at least partially white British. Don’t push your luck by asking me to get this one right. I read four or five articles before I understood that they weren’t saying ten percent of the population was related to them.

The articles I’ve read draw two conclusions from the discovery about Ched’s skin color–and it’s because of his skin color that Ched’s making the headlines:

  1. “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are…very modern constructions…that really are not applicable to the past at all.” Tom Booth, archeologist from the Natural History Museum.
  2. Pale skin developed in Europeans later than was previously thought, possibly because the introduction of farming meant that people’s diets were short of vitamin D, creating an evolutionary advantage for lighter skin, which absorbs vitamin D from sunlight more easily.

BBC article suggests that light skin was introduced by a later wave of immigration–the Middle Eastern people who brought farming with them. An earlier theory was that farming spread as an idea; the newer theory is that it spread with people migrating, bringing their knowledge with them.

And the blue eyes? If they had any evolutionary advantage, no one seems to have figured out what it was. It may simply be a glitch that entered the human population and survived.

So how did the Cheddar people live?

Britain’s climate wouldn’t have been very different from today’s. Siberia it wasn’t. Much of the land would’ve been wooded, mostly with birch and pine. And when the first settlers arrived, it would’ve been uninhabited.

I try to imagine that and can’t help thinking hearing scary music. I’ve seen too many movies.

In his book Home: A time traveller’s tales from Britain’s prehistory, Francis Pryor makes a convincing argument that the early hunter-gatherers led a more settled and more sophisticated life than earlier generations of archeologists thougth. Rather than being the kind of nomads who put down no roots, they would have returned to their settlements year after year. They may have been migratory, but they followed seasonal patterns.

They would’ve made and used stone tools. (The age of metal  takes up only 0.01% of human history.) But being stone age people doesn’t mean they lived in caves, clobbered each other on the head with wooden clubs, and grunted. These were modern humans: us minus the technology. Pryor writes, “We have good evidence that early post-Glacial families had warm, thatch- or hide-roofed houses, the earliest of which (8500 B.C.) was discovered very recently, at Star Carr, in North Yorkshire.”

They had domesticated dogs. They used bows and arrows.

The first known farmers lived in Ched’s time but not in Britain. They were in what’s now the Middle East. According to Pryor, farming didn’t reach Britain until around 4000 B.C. The BBC dates that to 5000 to 4500 B.C., and even I, with my phobia about numbers, notice that the dates don’t match. Can we just say farming took a long time to get this far north? Clocks hadn’t been invented. Calendars hadn’t been invented. Hell, writing hadn’t been invented. So let’s cut everyone some slack if their dates don’t match perfectly.

Besides, the change from hunter-gathering to farming didn’t happen quickly. Even Pryor, who argues for a relatively quick transition, says it would’ve taken a couple of centuries.

Once people began to depend on farming, life changed relatively quickly. Farming could support a larger population than hunter-gathering. It led to a division of labor, densely settled communities, impressive monuments, land ownership, relatively rappid technological change, writing, and all the wondrous stuff we were told about at school. It also led to new diseases (caused by those dense settlement patterns), a more restricted diet, wars over territory, and a shitload of hard work for the people on the bottom of the social structure. One of the things about the division of labor is that it’s not just about you making arrows and me making fish hooks because that’s what we’re good at. At some point it also means someone comes along and says, “You do the heavy lifting and I’ll sit around and think profound thoughts.” Or make art. Or protect us from the angry gods. Or tell you what work needs to be done today.

Farming also turned out to be harder work than hunter-gathering. Hunter gatherers put in a much shorter working day than early farmers—and probably than most of us do today. According to one theory (and if I ever knew whose it is, I don’t remember), we should envy them.

So that was Cheddar Man. He had good teeth, indicating a healthy diet. He probably died in his early twenties, but it doesn’t sound like he lived a bad life.


And from there, I just have to take you to modern-day New York City. A friend spotted this in a New York Times article about how a serious snow storm affected the city: “The shelves of some New York City grocery stores quickly emptied of milk, eggs and kale as New Yorkers stocked up for the storm…”


I’d give you a link to prove I didn’t make that up, but as an old friend used to say, I can’t be arsed.

Mugs: two links

A couple of people asked where they can find the smart-ass, English-spelling-is-bizarre mugs that I posted pictures of in recent weeks (photos below). The answer is, they’re for sale in any number of places, but here are two: the “English can be weird” mug and the “I before E” mug.

Both sites give the price in pounds, which isn’t helpful if you don’t live in Britain, but don’t give up. You can punch the phrases in quotation marks into your least favorite search engine (I’m assuming that whichever one you use, it’s your least favorite, but maybe that’s just me). You’ll find the mugs in a range of typefaces and for a range of prices. In a range of currencies.

Order. Make tea or coffee. Locate cake. If it’s any good, share with your favorite blogger.

Thanks. Also sorry and you’re welcome. See how British I’ve become?

Ethnicity in Britain and the U.S.

I had an appointment at a clinic recently, and since it was my first time there, the receptionist asked my ethnicity. Maybe they always ask. Maybe they were taking a survey for a few sample days. I have no idea, but I do understand why an organization might want to gather that information, and it seems like a simple question, except it isn’t. Even in the U.S., where I fit the categories better, it’s not a simple question.

Before I go on, I should warn you: I haven’t managed to be funny about this, but I think the topic’s worth some thought. If you want to bail out, this is as good a time as any. I’ll stick an irrelevant photo in and you can slip away. No one will notice.

Irrelevant photo: It looks like last week’s semi-relevant photo, but the text is different. I only do this to see if you’re paying attention.

So why isn’t it a simple question? Let’s go back a few decades to when a friend who taught junior high school told me about his students having to fill out high school applications. They were asked—I don’t think it was their ethnicity back then, I think it was still called race, and it was a choose-one exercise. The kids couldn’t be a mix of white and black or Latino and Asian, or three of the four mixed together. Whichever you chose, you excluded the others. (The U.S. census now allows for mixed heritage, and I assume other forms in the country have followed their example.)

The kids were furious. The ones who were mixed didn’t want to deny any part of their heritage. The kids who weren’t were furious on their friends’ behalf.

It’s a system I grew up taking for granted. When I was a kid, as far as I knew forms had always worked that way. I didn’t stop to ask if it made sense. For one thing, I fit the categories well enough: If the choices were Black, White, Asian, Other, I picked White. If one of the categories was Jewish, I picked Jewish.

I never thought I should pick Other if Jewish wasn’t offered as a category. The world around me said I was white, so who was I to say different? When the form got more specific about my category of white, I was dutifully specific. I was like a cat: I poured myself into whatever shape was given. If the shape was a shoebox, I became rectangular and filled the shoebox. If it was a casserole dish, I became round.

You do know about the scientist who won an Ig Noble Prize for demonstrating that a cat is both a liquid and a solid, right? That’s the kind of cat I was.

Fast forward a few decades, well past the time when my friend was teaching junior high. I made a call to the wonderful information line the Hennepin County Library used to run, checking on something that had come up in a manuscript I was editing. You could ask anything and a librarian would do his or her damnedest to find an answer.

At the end of the call, the librarian explained that they were doing a survey to find out who their callers were and would I mind answering a few quick questions?

I’d have answered anything. I loved that service.

What was my ethnicity? (That wasn’t the first question, but eventually we go around to it.)

I’d lived in Minnesota for more than thirty years by then. I no longer thought that Jewish fit without question or notice into white. The Midwest had given me a strong sense of my otherness.

“Provisionally white,” I said.

I hadn’t expected to say that—I never had before—but my brain outruns its filters sometimes.

The librarian stammered a bit, then pulled himself together to ask what I meant.

“I’m Jewish,” I told him. “My membership’s liable to be revoked at any time.”

He laughed, fortunately. I don’t know what he wrote down and I didn’t ask.

I wasn’t just being difficult. Both history and recent events tell me not to take anything for granted.

Now let’s move the question to Britain, where the problem’s magnified. I found a list of British ethnicities online.  It’s close enough to what the Office of National Statistics uses that we can treat it as more or less typical. The choices are:

White British (choose English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British); Irish; Gypsy or Irish Traveler; Other

Mixed/Multiple Ethnic Groups (you get three choices, all with a white element, and if those don’t fit you get Other)

Asian/Asian British (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladheshi, Chinese, Other)

Black/African/Caribbean/Black British (the boxes that follow more or less repeat the choices in the heading, then add Other)

Other Ethnic Group (with a box for Arab after which you can be an Other Other)

Where do I fit in this? White British? Legally, I am British—I’m a citizen, and I’m still provisionally white—but what does white British mean when you talk about ethnicity, not citizenship? British isn’t my native culture, and ethnicity is about culture, although people in color-coded societies tend to think it’s about skin color. So no, British probably isn’t what I should check.

(As an aside, have you ever seen the phrase “ethnic hair” running around loose? Guess whose hair comes up when you google it. It’s hair whose cultural background leads it to be very, very curly. Hair typical of the dominant group, whether you count that numerically, politically, or economically, is just hair. Hair from the, or a, non-dominant group is ethnic.

(The point here is that even when you change the language so people say “ethnicity” instead of “race,” the underlying beliefs come through and capture the new word. I’m all for changing the language when it needs changing–it does make a difference–but let’s not kid ourselves about how deep that alonge can go.)

In case I need to prove how much I don’t understand British culture, I’m both fascinated and baffled to find that within the white British group, they list the four nations that make up the United Kingdom but also offer the option of writing just plain old British, as in still British but not Scottish, Welsh, Irish or English.

What are you saying when you pick that? That you’ve moved around a lot? That you’re of mixed heritage and don’t want to deny any part of yourself? That the country’s four component nations mean less to you than the country itself?

To be fair, I’ve written about this before and a few people wrote in to say they considered themselves British, not English, Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish. And I appreciate their comments, but I can’t claim to understand them fully. It’s much easier to understand a Cornish friend who says he’s not English.

But back to the form: If you’re black, you can choose Black British, but if you consider yourself Black Welsh, for example, you have to write that in yourself and you’ll end up in some tiny subgroup that doesn’t get counted because it’s not on the form and too few people joined it. The silent assumption seems to be that Welshness (or Englishness, or etc.) is white.

Is it? I don’t know. I suspect it’s not that simple, but hey, I’m a foreigner here. The gift I bring is that I can ask uncomfortable questions, not that I can answer them.

But back to me: What’s my ethnicity in Britain? American? Is American an ethnicity?

If you’re inside the United States, it’s the default setting. It probably is an ethnicity but it’s invisible–at least to its members.

If you’re outside, though, surely it becomes one. Lord Google’s quick definition of ethnicity is “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” (In Norwegian—and how the translation option got set to Norwegian I don’t know; I may have had something to do with it—ethnicity is etnisitet.)

Is Norwegian an ethnicity? If you’re outside Norway, yes.  If you’re inside? well, again, it’s invisible.

I grew up in an age that accepted many of the absurdities of racism without challenge. I accepted white as an unchanging category and had no idea I was doing that. Then somewhere along the line I read that it was an American creation, something that developed in response to slavery.

In Europe, I read, people who in the U.S. would be considered white didn’t think of themselves as whites. They thought of themselves as British, or German, or Polish. Nation, language, and culture trumped skin color as the defining factor.  And it did seem true that immigrant groups who in the U.S. were considered white initially felt little in common with other ethnic groups who were also considered white. They felt themselves to be part of their old categories—Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek, whatever.

This unsettled what I’d thought were the world’s fixed categories and left me thinking that you become a group in response to some other group—or in the case of the U.S., in order to exclude another group.

So is American an ethnicity in Britain? Instinct says no, mostly because there aren’t enough to us to form a group. And because I’m not in the habit of thinking of us that way.

Jewish, then? Well, yes, that does seem like an ethnicity and when it comes up it makes me very distinct but it stands out much less in my everyday life than my Americanness.

So what did I tell the nice person behind the desk?

“I haven’t known how to answer that since I moved here,” I said. “I’m American. I’m Jewish. I never know what to fill in.”

“We’ll make something out of that,” she said.

I have no idea what she decided I was.


A personal note, since said I opened by saying I was at a clinic and since a while back I mentioned, without explaining it, that I was going through a rough patch: This fall, I discovered that I had breast cancer. I was incredibly lucky. The tumor itself was tiny but it was associated with a cyst big enough for me to have found it. I’ve had surgery and can now dance off into the rest of my life without needing radiation or any other further treatment. The NHS—Britain’s National Health Service—has been incredible. And (Americans, take note) the treatment was free.

Apologies if I went all mysterious on you about it. It’s not something—obviously, since I’m mentioning it now—that I feel particularly private about. But this isn’t a support group (and how do you feel about that?), and this isn’t a me-and-my-life blog. While everything was still up for grabs, it didn’t feel right to get into it online.

And finally, a quick thought related to the post’s topic, not to breast cancer: A friend commented recently that I go on a lot about being a Jewish atheist, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

In part, it may be because being an immigrant has left me thinking quite a bit about identity (see above, because I don’t want to start that mess all over again). It may also be partly because the British don’t find atheism shocking. Americans–and yes, I’m generalizing–do, and until I moved to Britain I wasn’t in the habit of talking about it casually. It was too charged. Mentioning it meant I either risked shocking someone (I’m willing to do that when I have no choice, but I don’t generally enjoy it) or getting into more of a conversation about it than I wanted to.

I may come back to that at some point. I may even manage to be funny about it, as I haven’t managed to be here, but I can’t promise.

Stay tuned.