About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Everything You Need to Know about Brexit

Quick, before the Conservative Party announces our new Blusterer in Chief, here’s everything you need to know about Brexit and how we got tot his point:

Brexit starts in 2015, when David Cameron, as Britain’s prime minister and the leader of the Conservative Party, makes an election promise to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. This is smart politics. Isn’t Davey a clever boy? After the election, he’ll be back in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they’ll veto the referendum and that means he won’t have to throw himself, his party, and his country, out the fifth-story window labeled Brexit. But he’ll have shut up the Leave voices in his own party, the Leave voices in the U.K. Independence Party, and the Labour voices rumbling at him from the far side of the House of Commons and saying things he doesn’t pay attention to but that get on his nerves anyway.

Irrelevant photo to give you some relief from an otherwise grim picture: a field with corn marigolds.

Then the election’s held and his party wins a majority. Who knew so many people liked him?

Wave bye-bye to the nice coalition, Davey, because it’s going away.

Davey edges close enough to that fifth-story window and looks down. It’s a long way to the ground.

What’s a clever politician to do? He schedules the referendum and tells the country that it’s safer, stronger, and much better looking in Europe, so it should vote Remain. He promises to limit immigration by widening the Channel and to make the sky a tasteful and long-lasting shade of blue using paint from Farrow and Ball, which is what people with any kind of taste at all buy.

Remain loses. Britain will be leaving the E.U.

Why does Britain vote Leave? Because leaving will make Britain great again. Because it will let Parliament take back control. Because Rupert Murdoch said it was a good idea. Because Facebook is fun.

Davey resigns the leadership of his party and with it the prime ministership, and he retreats to a shed in his backyard, which being British he calls his garden.

What he calls a shed is nicer than some people’s apartments. Which he’d call flats.

He starts writing a book. He waits for someone to ask what it’s about but no one does. They’re focused on the window he left open. Several prominent Conservatives are writhing on the floor in front of it, trying to stab each other. The winner will get to lead the party and find a way from window to ground. One that doesn’t break bones. Or that does. The referendum didn’t say that no bones could be broken.

Theresa May emerges as leader of the party, largely because no one thought she was worth stabbing.

What, the press asks her while the other contenders lie bleeding at her feet, is Brexit going to mean.

“Brexit,” she says, “means Brexit.”

Yes, but what does it mean?

It means Brexit.

Oh.

Negotiations between Britain and the E.U. begin. The E.U. negotiators spread papers and studies and printouts on the table. The British negotiators set Etch-a-Sketch pads in front of them.

Time passes.

A lot of time passes. According to the rules of the game, only so much time can pass before Britain has to go out that window, whether the two sides have managed to build a ladder or not.

An agreement is announced.

Everyone hates the agreement. Even the people who support the agreement hate the agreement. Britain’s negotiator resigns because he hates the agreement he negotiated.

Britain’s Parliament also hates the agreement, so Theresa May goes back to Europe to change the part of the agreement that talks about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It’s the only part of the agreement she can let herself think about.

The E.U. says it’s tired of talking to Britain.

Britain is also tired of talking to Britain. The Conservative Party can’t agree on what it thinks Brexit should be. It can’t agree on whether Brexit should happen. A group of backbenchers ask, “Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just closed the window?”

No one listens to them.

The Labour Party also can’t agree on what Brexit should be or whether it should happen, although it does agree that Brexit shouldn’t be what Theresa May negotiated. If that sounds like it’s more united than the Conservatives, it’s not. It can’t agree on whether it’s a socialist party, whether its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, should be its leader, or whether it’s doing enough–or anything–to combat anti-Semitism in its ranks.

It also can’t agree on the definition of anti-Semitism.

It does agree that the Conservative Party is anti-Muslim, but no one wants to talk about that so it wanders around mumbling to itself that it’s not anti-Semitic, really it’s not, but no one’s listening.

The Liberal Democrats agree that Brexit’s bad. Unfortunately, after their coalition with Davey, only three of them are left in the Commons.

Or maybe that’s twelve. Or eight. Does it matter?

The Scottish National Party is united: Brexit is bad. The Green Party’s also united, but it only has one MP, which isn’t enough for a decent split.

MPs leave the Labour Party.

MPs leave the Conservative Party.

They form a group that isn’t a party and fend off arguments about what they’d stand for if they did become a party by discussing the weather. Then they do become a party, adopting the name of an online petition group that they’re not associated with. They pass a resolution about the weather.

The online petition group objects.

Theresa May promises Parliament a meaningful vote on Brexit.

She promises Parliament a later meaningful vote on Brexit. But before that can happen, she has to go to Europe to negotiate an even better deal than the existing deal even though the E.U. has said there’s nothing left to negotiate. Many people–which is to say, me and possibly one other person–suspect she goes in and out of offices asking if they have any coffee made. She’s too English to ask if they’ll make some just for her.

When they do have some on hand, she sips it slowly while reading a magazine, since no one will talk to her. She drinks it black, because no one asks if she’d like milk.

If she drinks enough coffee, time will run out. Hickory, dickory, dock, Terri May ran out the clock. Parliament will look out the window and vote for her ladder because it’s five floors down and no one else has made so much as a rope out of torn sheets.

She lets the House of Commons vote on the deal she’s negotiated and it loses. She moves all the commas three words to the right and lets it vote again. Why? Because three is an important number in fairy tales. Three wishes. Three chances. Three brothers.

Hell, it’s as good as anything else going on.

It still loses.

To see if it can’t find a rational way out of the crisis, the House of Commons asks itself a series of questions: Should we leave the EU without a deal? Should we hold a second referendum? Should we drag Britain 50 miles to the west and whenever we pass the E.U. in the Channel pretend we don’t see it?

No proposal wins a majority. TV newscasters are mandated to use the phrase no one knows how this will play out at least once in every program. They use the phrase constitutional crisis almost as often.

Why is it a constitutional crisis? Because Britain has an unwritten constitution. This means that no one really knows what’s in it. It may prevent Theresa May from making herself the country’s second Lord Protector (Oliver Cromwell was the first) but it will be years before anyone’s read through enough papers to know for sure.

Isn’t this fun? We’re watching history being made.

Terri May promises to resign and dance the rhumba the length of Downing Street if the Commons will only pass her deal. She promises to delete every comma in the agreement. By hand. In glittery green ink.

Water floods into the House of Commons during a Brexit debate. A group climate-change protesters take off most of their clothes show the MPs their backsides.

All the possible jokes about both incidents have already been made.

Theresa May goes back to Brussels and drinks the Kool-Aid.

No, sorry, that was Jonestown and an American reference, not a British one. She drinks more coffee and is granted another extension. It expires on Halloween of 2019. All the possible jokes about that have been made that too.

A person can drink so much coffee and eventually Theresa May resigns, leaving the Conservative Party to search for a new leader. Every Conservative MP announces his or her candidacy. Every third one confesses to having used drugs. The ones who haven’t used them express regret at having misread the spirit of their age.

In the interest of democracy, several of the candidates promise to suspend Parliament so they can fulfill the will of the people.

After a series of elimination votes, the two candidates are Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, but they seem to have agreed that Boris will win and Not Boris will have a nice job in his cabinet.

What happens next? Nothing good, I suspect, but that’s history for you: It’s one damn thing after another.

Britain goes metric. Except where it doesn’t

Britain adopted the metric system in 1965.

Mostly.

How well has it worked? In 2015, 60% of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds didn’t know their weight in kilos; 54% didn’t know their height in centiwhatsits or in a combination of centiwhatsits and full-grown whatsits. For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, the slightly older group, twenty-five- to thirty-nine-year-olds, did better in both categories. After that, it went downhill.

For measuring short distances and for cooking, the number of people who use the metric system goes up. For long distances, though, people measure in miles. Well, why wouldn’t they? British roads are measured in miles,so folks drive in miles, regardless of how they measure walls.

All this–or the data part of it anyway–is from a YouGov poll. No one can say YouGov dodges the important issues. The poll also reports that the middle class is more likely to use metric measurements for short distances and for cooking than the working class is.

From this I gather that the upper class is too good to take surveys.

Irrelevant photo: A rose. By any other name.

Most people you’ll find on hanging around on any random street corner on any random day won’t be frothing at the mouth about this, but you’ll find pro- and anti-metric advocacy groups and they do manage to keep themselves worked up enough to function. One anti- group argues for the inherent logic of feet and inches because the foot divides so neatly into quarters. So let’s take the argument seriously enough to look at how this eminently sensible system developed.

England emerged from the Dark Ages into the Middle Ages with a rich collection of measurements. Here’s a quick and highly incomplete survey. The data’s mostly from the Britannica and the link covers only a few bits of it. I could turn the whole post blue with Britannica links but one will get you into the general vicinity. You can to explore from there if you want it all.

The furlong started out as the length of a plowed furrow–a distance that would have varied from place to place and field to field. 

The rod varied from nine to twenty-eight feet and was sometimes called a perch or a pole.

An acre was the area that a yoke of oxen pulling a wooden plow could plow in one day. Predictably enough, that varied too.

The foot was initially based on the human foot–which you may have noticed isn’t a standard size. That’s why they don’t make one-size-fits-all shoes.

The mile was based on a Roman measurement, the mille passus, which was a thousand paces as measured by your average Roman legionary, who by the Middle Ages wasn’t around to measure it anymore so they had to settle for your average English peasant. Or possibly your average English aristocrat, who would have been better fed and probably taller, with a longer stride.

And here we’ll abandon boldface type so I can rearrange my sentences a bit.

In 1500 (or thereabouts, since we’re using imprescise measures), the old London mile measured eight furlongs, or 5,000 feet. How big was a foot just then? Funny you should ask. They were using the Germanic foot, which was bigger than the foot England adopted a little later, under Elizabeth, which meant the mile changed to 5,280 feet.

I don’t know what went into the decision to change it. Maybe Liz had small feet.

The Irish mile was 6,720 feet and the Scottish mile was 5,952 feet.

Meanwhile, Cornwall was working with a whole different set of measurements. The mile was 16,694.32194 feet, or a bit over three of I’m not sure who else’s miles–probably the ones we use today. The Cornish bushel was three Winchester bushels, or 18 gallons, and used for barley, wheat, and potatoes.

The what bushel? The Winchester bushel was a royal standard, named after the capital of tenth-century England, where Edgar the Peaceable kept a royal bushel to measure other bushels against. It sounds like something out of a fairy tale: If your bushel was too small, you’d have to find your way out of a subterranean labyrinth with only a potato to guide you –and the potato hadn’t made it to England from the Americas yet.

Edgar is also notable for having divorced an Elfleda to marry an Elfrida.

Winchester is not in Cornwall and Cornwall was an independent country in Edgar’s time. The Winchester bushel is just a point of reference–a rare standard measurement in an unstandardized time.

The Cornish apple gallon was seven pounds, although a plain old gallon was ten pounds. The Cornish pound was eighteen ounces but that seems to have applied only if you were measuring butter.

The warp was four fish. The burn was twenty-one fish. The mease was five hundred and five herrings. A knight’s fee was four Cornish acres.

Let’s cross the Tamar–that’s the river that forms Cornwall’s border–before we get too dizzy to find our way.

In 1215, the Magna Carta called for standard measurements with the desperate-sounding phrase “let there be one measure.” It wasn’t one of its more effective clauses. No one was around to enforce it, and over the years various gestures were made in the direction of standardization. Let’s review a random few of them:

In the sixteenth century, the rod was defined as the length of the left feet of sixteen men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church. That was easiest to measure on a Sunday unless you wanted to assemble and choreograph the crowd yourself.

No, I don’t know why it had to be the left feet. Or leaving a church. Do feet change size during church services? 

That was–I suppose we should have guessed this–meant as a way to memorize the length of the rod, not as a standard for it. I probably shouldn’t include it as a gesture toward standardization, but it’s too good to leave out.

In 1668, John Wilkins, a founder of the Royal Society, was still calling for standardized measurements and added that units should increase by a factor of ten and create some simple relationship between length and volume. He was accused of being a spy for the European Union and since it didn’t exist yet he was banished into the far future, where he went on to lead a pro-metric organization.

In 1707, England celebrated its union with Scotland by imposing the English measuring system on Scotland. If Scotland didn’t vote, then and there, to join the European Union, the Euro, and the metric system, it was only because none of them had been created yet. It’s one of those lost opportunities that history’s so full of.

But enough. Let’s talk about Imperial measures.

The British Imperial System was created by a law passed in 1824 and again in 1878, which may speak to the effectiveness of the first one. Anything before 1824 was an English unit, and anything after was an Imperial unit. The Imperial gallon now held the same amount whether it was full of wine, ale, wheat, or dog sick. The yard and the pound were standardized. The rod and the chaldron (you measured coal with that) were abolished. So was lining up heel to toe after church.

The system was eminently sensible: A pound weighed a pound. A stone weighed fourteen pounds. A hundredweight weighed a hundred and twelve pounds–and still does. Please don’t ask me to explain that.

The U.S., just to be difficult, adopted most of the same measurements but gave them different values, ensuring that no conversation would be understood the same way if the participants came from opposite sides of the Atlantic. This leaves us with not just a ton but a short ton and a long ton, a short hundredweight (which, unfathomably, weighs a hundred pound) and a long hundredweight.

But we’re not done with the Imperial System: It kept the troy pound (240 pennyweight) and the avoirdupois pound (16 ounces or 7,000 grains). And of course, apothecaries’ weights.

The troy pound is used for precious metals and jewels. Apothecaries’ weights are a version of troy weights but not quite the same. Because why should you have one pound when you can have three?

I could go on–grains, drams, scruples, gills, minims–but let’s stop.

The point is that any fool can memorize this between the morning’s first sip of tea and the second one, before the caffeine has even had time to kick in. It’s simple: You have 16 ounces to the pound, 16 drams to the ounce, and 27.344 grains to the dram.

Of course, that’s only for the avoirdupois pound. Troy pounds have 12 ounces to the pound, 20 pennyweight to the ounce, and 24 grains to the pennyweight.

We’ll leave apothecaries’ pounds alone. That’s where you get into scruples. I have a few of those left, but like all apothecaries’ measurements they’re very small.

Skip forward, then, to the twentieth century, when the metric system was sneaking into Britain by way of scientists and businesspeople. One group liked to have measurement-related conversations with colleagues from countries that already used the metric system and the other group exported to those countries. Both thought it’d be simpler if they could use a system any fool could understand. Assorted committees and politicians talked about introducing the metric system but then looked down the barrel of history, heritage, and the tabloid newspapers and lost their nerve.

Until 1965, when the government announced a ten-year program during which the country would shift over voluntarily. Goals were set. Measures were recalibrated. Change was encouraged. Eventually, Britain would shift to the metric system and everyone would be happy.

This wasn’t simple. You had hard metrication, where the size of standard objects changed. You had soft metrication, where the object stayed the same but was measured in a new language. And you had viagra metrication, where the user needed a bit of help to toggle between soft and hard metrication.

Service stations changed over more or less by accident. Petrol (or gas, if you speak American) pumps were built to switch between liters and gallons so they could continue working in gallons for the time being, but that only worked when the price was under £1.999 per gallon. Above that level, they spoke metric and only metric. So when the oil prices went up, the industry threw its hands in the air and asked to be switched over so they wouldn’t have to pay for new pumps.

Many things changed and some didn’t, and no one could have predicted which would fall on which side of the divide: Road distances and speeds are still measured in miles and yards. Land is measured in acres. In pubs, cider and beer on tap (or draught if you speak British) are still sold in imperial units, but wine, whiskey, rum, and all their friends and relations are sold in metric units. Which makes perfect sense to a country that invented the gill, the scruple, and the minim. 

And even though Britain still sells petrol (or gas) by the liter, it measures fuel efficiency in miles per gallon. 

British politics and trade became more deeply integrated into Europe and a deadline was set for Britain to go metric. But by 1979, metrication had stalled. Polls were taken and people didn’t seem happy. Britain asked for a later date for the shift to the metric system. Then it asked for a later date than that.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who was the not-happiest of all? Why, the retail industry was the not-happiest of all, and eventually the postponements came to an end. That’s when a group of market traders got themselves arrested for boycotting the metric system. They weighed their produce on scales that used only the Imperial System and posted their prices only in pounds and ounces. When they were arrested, they called themselves the Metric Martyrs, and they were convicted and lost their appeals all the way to the House of Lords (which didn’t want to hear about it) and the European Court of Human Rights, which didn’t think using the Imperial System was a human right.

The original court case considered precedent all the way back to the Magna Carta, so let’s dredge up the full quote from the M.C. instead of the shortened form I quoted earlier. In true micro-managing form, it said, “Let there be one measure for wine throughout our kingdom, and one measure for ale, and one measure for corn, namely ‘the London quarter’; and one width for cloths whether dyed, russet or halberget, namely two ells within the selvedges. Let it be the same with weights as with measures.”

An ell is a measure used only for cloth. Russet in this context isn’t a color, it’s a kind of cloth–one common people wore. No one knows quite what halberget is, which seems appropriate. Listing the various kinds of cloth gives me the impression that they not only didn’t measure distance the same way they measured cloth, they didn’t measure any two kinds of cloth the same way.

The defeat of the Metric Martyrs brought Britain fully into its current  ideal and semi-metric chaos.

Voting once is such fun, they’re voting twice: How Britain chooses a prime minister

It’s already strange that 160,000 (give or take we don’t know how many) members of a single party will choose Britain’s prime minister without the rest of the country getting a say, but the strangeness doesn’t end there. The election of the Conservative Party’s next leader is run by rules the party makes for itself, and the winner gets to lead the country because the Conservatives have–.

Okay, this is awkward. They don’t have a majority in the House of Commons. They have more MPs than anyone else and they borrowed several from a Northern Ireland unionist party to make a thin majority. But hey, everyone else is such a mess that it looks like a commanding position right now.

So what do they do? Having narrowed their leadership candidates down to Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, they sent out ballot papers so all their members could choose between them. And to some they sent two ballot papers.

The BBC reports that ” the Conservative Party and the independent body hired to scrutinise the running of the leadership election were both unable to say how many ballot papers had been sent in error.” But the Conservative Party says it’s all going to be fine because the ballots say you mustn’t vote twice, so of course no one will.

“I know that they won’t vote twice, however tempting it might be,” Not Boris Johnson, who’s behind in the polls, said. “I’m asking them not to because we want this to be an absolutely fair election”

He also said, “Of course I’m going to trust the result.”

The two candidates have been trying to out-Brexit each other, out fight-crime each other, and out-depress the rest of us.

The vote closes on July 22 and the results will be announced on the 23rd. And now excuse me while I go see if ice cream really does cure depression.

Hats and the House of Commons

When did Members of Parliament stopped wearing hats in the House of Commons? someone asked recently.

The question wasn’t something I was expected to answer but a search engine question, meaning the person who asked isn’t likely to see the answer. Still, it intrigued me. So let’s hack it apart and see what we can learn:

The short answer is 1998.

The answer is also more complicated than that, and more fun. We’ll work more or less backward in time.

Irrelevant photo: I’m reasonably sure these are osteospermum. It sounds like a disease, but it’s not.

The reason 1998 comes up is that it’s a dividing line. Before then, anyone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division (which in the normal world would be called a vote) had to wear a top hat while they were talking. According to some sources, that was because it made them easier for the Speaker to spot. According to others, it was just because. Traditions are like that sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of why they were once done but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing them.

Two collapsible top hats were kept on hand so that they could be passed to whoever wanted to raise a point of order.

Yes, collapsible. For all I know, the point of order might have been invalid if the hat hadn’t been collapsible, although I have read that a women MP was issued a get-out-of-hat-free card: She got got to raise her point of order without putting the hat on her head. Maybe it didn’t work with her hair style. Maybe she (or the speaker, or the god of top hats) felt a top hat was inappropriate for a woman. Or for a lady. But that’s guesswork. If it was considered inappropriate for a lady, I just know I’d have worn the thing, and I like to think I could’ve pulled it off with a certain grand absurdist style. Fortunately–or possibly sadly–we’ll never find out so I can go on believing.

Then in 1998, the Modernisation Select Committee came along and ruined everything. Let me quote:

“In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television.'”

So no more games with top hats and TV cameras and Order Papers. But take heart. They didn’t spoil all the hat-related fun. Before each sitting of Parliament, the Speaker leads a procession from his or her office to the Commons chamber. This involves someone walking behind him or her carrying the train of her or his cloak (which is long enough to look like it was cut for some much taller species) and yet another person walking behind the train-carrier carrying fuck-all but looking very serious about it.

Apologies if the swearing offends anyone. All this ceremonial seriousness will rot your teeth if you don’t counteract it with a carefully calibrated dose of profanity.

Besides, I do swear. I have ever since I was first introduced to the words, which was some time before I understood what they meant. 

The two walkers-behind are–at least in the picture you’ll find if you follow the link a couple of paragraphs back–wearing frothy lace where you might otherwise find a tie. And no hats.

As they process through the members’ lobby, the police (because what’s a procession without police?) shout, “Speaker,” in case anyone hasn’t figured out that this is the Speaker. This allows everyone who isn’t the Speaker or the followers-behind to scuttle out of the way. Then (or possibly first–I have no idea what the route is), in the central lobby, the police inspector (because what’s a procession without a police inspector?) shouts, “Hats off, strangers,” and all the police take off their helmets. Because helmets are hats, sort of.

In the House of Commons, strangers are people who aren’t MPs–a.k.a. Members of Parliament. If any non-police non-MPs are around, they’re expected to take their hats off too. If they don’t, they’ll be turned into June bugs for the remainder of the day. 

Have you ever wondered how J.K. Rowling came up with all the convoluted traditions of the Harry Potter books? I’m not saying it was from Parliament in particular, just that the British culture sets a person’s mind working in certain odd ways.

Now, in the interest of making some marginal sense of all this, let’s slip back a bit further in time, to the days when gentlemen wore top hats or put order papers on their heads. And keep track of the gentle– part of the word gentlemen, because the whole point of a top hat was to prove you were the sort of man who could wear something that was as expensive as it was useless.

MPs were traditionally the sort of men who wore top hats.

So Commons had rules governing the hats. You could wear them inside the chamber but you couldn’t wear them as you were coming in or going out. Or when you were addressing the house. So you had to take your hat off to come in, then you might or might not put it on your head to sit down, but if you did you had to take it off to again stand up and speak, put it back on (if you chose to) to sit down, then take it off again to leave.

Which should be clear enough for anyone to follow.

A parliamentary guide to the traditions and customs of the House says:

“In the late nineteenth century,  the tall hat was de rigeur. It also served as a place reservation in the Chamber for its owner, the  thinking being that the wearer could not leave the Palace without it, and would therefore soon return.

“This system was defeated by some Members bringing two silk hats into the Palace (one Irish Member, it is said, once arrived with a cab full of hats) and so the present device of “prayer cards” was adopted.”

Prayer cards?

The House of Commons–can we agree, for convenience, to call it the H of C? Thanks. I feel comfortable enough to take off my top hat now. The H of C currently has 646 members but only 427 seats. Most days that’s not a problem. Turn on the news and you can often catch slight of MPs orating to a nearly empty expanse of green benches. (Green is the color of the H of C. It reminds them not to get above their station, because red is for the H of Lords.) But when some hot-ticket item is on the agenda, everyone wants to squeeze in and there isn’t room. As the BBC’s Democracy Live explains, “Behind each seat on the green benches is a small, brass frame into which MPs can place a card with their name.

“This card must be put in place before prayers take place each day and the MP must be in that seat during prayers.

“The seat is then reserved for that MP for the rest of the day.”

Now let’s go back to hats, because we need to keep our eyes on the important stuff.

Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first parliamentary leader, from 1906 to 1908, scandalized many a gentle (in the class-bound sense of the word) soul by showing up in Parliament wearing a cloth cap, which was as much the symbol of the working man as the top hat was the sign of a gentleman. He also wore–oh the horror of it all–a tweed suit.

Hardie was the son of an unmarried servant who later married a carpenter, and he started work as a baker’s delivery boy at the age of eight. He was, for at least part of that time, the family’s only wage earner and he never went to school . By the time he was eleven, he was working as a coal miner. By seventeen, he had taught himself to read and write.

So, no. No top hat on Mr. Hardie’s head, thank you. He was very pointedly not a gentleman and he knew he’d get nothing done if he played by gentlemen’s rules. Not that they’d have accepted him as one anyway.

What he put on his head when he wanted to make a point of order during a division I have no idea. Maybe the question never came up.

Long before him, in the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell created a flap when he appeared in the H of C wearing a plain cloth suit that was none too clean and none too well made, along with a hat with no hatband.

The funny thing about all this is that to the people who took this stuff seriously, this was serious stuff. A hat with no hatband? Was the man born in a barn?

Mentioning Cromwell lands us conveniently in the period that explains the H of C’s obsession with hats, or at least gives us a some context for it: The whole question of who was superior to who(m, if you like) was–I was going to say more rigid in the seventeenth century but let’s change that to less hidden than it is today. Who–and this is among men, because they colonized all the positions of power, making women irrelevant to the discussion–took his hat off and who kept it on was the kind of issue you could discuss seriously. And take serious offense at. Not to mention cause offense by. Taking your hat off to someone was an acknowledgement that the someone was further up the social hierarchy than you. Or in the terms of the day, was your better. So hats were a handy symbol for all sides and everyone could agree on what they meant.

If you were on the bottom of the ladder–say, a peasant–and didn’t have a hat to take off, you were expected to tug a bit of hair above your forehead to prove you knew your place. What you were supposed to do if you were bald is beyond me.

The H of C devoted considerable brain space to when one of its members should be hatless or hatted in meetings with the Lords–who were considered their social superiors.

MPs were expected to take their hats off to hear a message signed by the king, and ditto during the king’s speech. Which made it all the more pointed–and probably more fun–when some refused, which on occasion they did.

Take that, Kingy. I keep my hat on in the presence of your writing materials.

All this obsession with who takes their hat off to who filters down to us in the H of C’s conviction that it has to regulate hats.

Even without the metal hat that goes with the outfit, though, no one, and I mean no one, is or was allowed to wear armor in the H of C.

You’re welcome.

Medieval sexuality and the Catholic Church

What’s known about sexuality in medieval England is limited enough that I’m not going to mess with the rest of Britain. The picture’s already murky without asking extra figures to wander through the fog. And to complicate the picture, a few bits of information that I found seem to apply generally to Europe, although presumably also to England. 

I’ll focus on Christian England, since religion is central to the discussion, but not everyone in medieval England was Christian. In 1290, when the Jews were banished from England, 16,000 left (they were counted out automatically as they went through the turnstile), so let’s use 16,000 as a rough estimate of the size of the medieval Jewish community. They lived by their own rules, not the Catholic Church’s.

Muslims can first be spotted in England in the sixteenth century, so in the era we’re talking about they were sitting in the sun somewhere and not part of the picture we’re trying to make out in the fog.

Most of what’s known about medieval attitudes toward sex comes from–where else?–written sources: church writers, court records, and literature, all of which had their biases.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms.

Source One, the Catholic Church, had bet its chips against sex. Or not quite against sex, since in its core document god tells his creations to go forth and multiply, and (spoiler alert) that involves sex. But they had bet, at least, against anyone having fun while doing what they’d been told to do.

Either all or many of the monks and priests who wrote about sex had taken vows of chastity, so at least in theory they had either no first-hand knowledge or only a distant memory to draw on. We can’t know how much their attitudes coincided with what people outside the church thought–or more to the point, did. We can know that they weren’t your average medieval person.

Did you notice how weaselly I was about monks and priests having taken vows of chastity? That’s because it’s hard to date set a date to when that was became an issue. You can find discussions of it in the eleventh century and also the fifth. And the ninth. And if I looked further, I’m sure I could find a few more centuries. Let’s just say that it took hold gradually and didn’t win without a fight.

Source Two, the courts–and there were both church and secular courts–only dealt with people who’d broken a restriction or had been accused of it, so there’s a bias built into the sample. But they leave a good record of–well, not necessarily of what people did, but at least of what someone thought they did. And what the authorities thought they shouldn’t be doing.

Source Three, literature, hadn’t caught the idea that it should reflect real life. A lot of it still hasn’t. I wouldn’t want to base a study of modern sexual practices on a quick troll through a bookstore and far less on a survey of movies.

But there’s a fourth source, medical books, and some were concerned only with the practicalities of medicine, not with the shoulds and shouldn’ts of people’s behavior, although others did a good bit of finger wagging and not all medical writers were good observers of the real world.

A major problem with all these sources is that peasants were illiterate. They not only didn’t read, they didn’t write, so they didn’t leave a record. Their lives went largely undocumented and what documentation we do have came from other people–literate people from the upper classes.

A fifth source is illustrations–tapestries and book illustrations–but they’re hard to interpret. The Bayeux tapestry shows a man with an erection running toward a woman. Is he threatening some random stranger? Is she glad to see him home? We don’t know how to interpret the image and we don’t know how someone of the time would have interpreted it.

We’ll work with what we’ve got. Don’t mistake any of it for the definitive truth.

The going assumption was that women were either either chaste or sexually ravenous–the old virgin / whore thing, but more so. Women were thought of as sexually disruptive. I’ve seen the word predatory used, and men’s fear of women’s sexuality fueled their fear of witchcraft. Hell, a woman could turn a man on by looking at him, because the eye didn’t just take in, it sent out seeing-rays that affected what they saw. 

That last link is the only source I could find for that, but I think it’s legit.

So sex was a danger and the church dealt with it by restricting it–less so at the beginning of the medieval period and more so by the end. Keep that in mind, because I haven’t been able to date any of this.

According to church rules, you weren’t supposed to have sex either before you were married or outside of marriage, but even inside of marriage, you had to be careful. The only approved way to have sex was in the missionary position. Anything else might lead to a deformed child and was a sin anyway. (These restrictions also come from the link above and I haven’t been able to back them up with a second source.)

You also couldn’t have sex on a Sunday. Or a Thursday or Friday. Or during Lent. Or before Christmas. (So what do you want for Christmas, dear?) Or on assorted saints’ days and feast days.

Or during your lifetime or anyone else’s.

Having sex when a woman had her period would produce a child with epilepsy or (or possibly and) leprosy, according to one medical treatise.

In case you weren’t inclined to take all this seriously, a child could be considered a bastard if a couple conceived it when they shouldn’t have had sex. 

How would anyone know what they did in the privacy of their bedroom? Two ways.

Way one, confession was part of the culture. People told their sins to a priest–either all of them or enough to keep up appearances. So everyone had an informer built into their lives.

Did I say their lives? Into their very selves.

Way two, people didn’t have bedrooms. If they had any privacy at all, they didn’t have much. Entire families slept in one room, making sex something people were necessarily open about. 

Partway through the medieval period, the rich began building solars–separate rooms where they slept and could withdraw from the public mayhem of the hall. But even in the houses of the rich, everyone else slept in public spaces. (If you google solars, make sure you ask about the medieval kind, otherwise you’ll be sent weeks’ worth of ads for solar panels.)

One source I found speculates that empty churches might have functioned as the medieval equivalent of the back seat of a car. Two people who weren’t married would want a bit of privacy, not because sex was private but because sin was. Breaking the rules was. A person wanting to masturbate might also want a bit of privacy. And I’m willing to bet that anyone seen to be enjoying a bit of privacy for anything other than prayer and penitence was suspect. 

In all of this, keep in mind that marriage among the upper classes wasn’t about love or attraction, it was about land and money and power. If married people were tempted to look outside their marriages for a bit of joy, it was hardly surprising.

Masturbation was a sin, but no more so than a thousand other things. It was also a sin for a man to have sex with an effeminate man or with another man. (In the source where I found this, these seem to be separate categories, although I’m not sure how much weight to give that.) But homosexuality as we think of it not only wasn’t a sin, it wasn’t a concept. Their categories were different than ours, and their thought patterns were different than ours. The best I can do by way of explaining it to myself is to say that it wasn’t about who you were but what you did.

Rape wasn’t much of a concern for the courts or the church. The assumption was that men took what they wanted. But it would’ve been a concern to the person who was raped and, if it was a woman, to her family, since a family’s honor depended on its women’s sexual–ahem–purity. And among the upper classes, a girl or young woman’s virginity was worth money: finding her a good marriage depended on it, and marriage, I repeat, was a financial arrangement, not just for her but for her family. So her virginity was her family’s concern at least as much as it was hers. That meant the sexual standards for women were stricter than for men. A man’s misbehavior dishonored only himself, and I’d at least consider the possibility that some misbehaviors didn’t dishonor him for long.

Prostitution was a sin but at the same time it was tolerated, and even considered necessary–so much so that brothels were often publicly owned. Yes indeedy, kids, it takes some work to bend our modern minds into the medieval mindset. In court cases where a man was claimed to be impotent–impotence being one of the few reasons a marriage could be dissolved–a prostitute might be brought in to a test the claim. If he wasn’t interested, it would’ve been hard for him to claim he was.

Presumably, if he wasn’t interested in one woman, he was assumed not to be interested in any.  

Although the clothes prostitutes wore marked them as prostitutes, they weren’t necessarily shunned by lower-class communities. Some women worked as part-time prostitutes, adding their earnings to whatever other income they had. The ways a single woman–whether she was unmarried, widowed, or abandoned–could make a living were limited and people did what they had to.

So on the one hand sex was highly restricted and on the other hand people were very open about it. Metal badges–the kind pilgrims brought back from holy sites–have been found with images of flying penises on them. What did they mean? It’s hard to know. Maybe people liked flying penises. Maybe the badges were supposed to restore a man’s ability to make his own penis feel like it was flying. It’s all guesswork after this many years. It seems like a safe bet, though, that a flying penis wasn’t considered offensive. 

Early in the middle ages, couples didn’t have to be married by a priest and marriages didn’t have to be recorded. In villages, I I doubt there’d have been much question about who was married to who–everyone knew everyone else’s story for generations back–but in less cohesive communities that could get messy and courts occasionally saw couples, or non-couples, or semi-couples, where A claimed to be married to B but B claimed not to be married to A.

Medicine, in the absence of anything approaching science, ranged from imaginative to hallucinatory. One writer claimed that if a woman ate sage that a cat had ejaculated on, she’d have kittens.

Don’t try this at home, kids. It might work and you’ll have a hell of a time explaining it to your family and friends and neighbors.

Some medical writers considered sex necessary to balance the humors, and everyone agreed that good health depended on balanced humors. They considered masturbation–or at least wet dreams–inevitable. Some even recommended it to celibate people. Galen (pre-medieval, but much admired in the period) suggested that physicians or midwives could “’place hot poultices on the . . . genitals’ of a celibate woman and ‘cause [her] to experience orgasm, which would release the retained seed.’“

What was in the poultices? Fairy dust, and if I can get a supply, I’m going into business.

So orgasm was okay but it was for medicinal purposes only. If you enjoyed it too much, that would be voluptuousness, and the church said voluptuousness was bad.

Since female virginity mattered so much, some medical writings listed ways to figure out if a woman was a virgin, including “observing a woman’s behavior, urine inspection, and sometimes actual intercourse. Other texts offer not only the tests, but also ways to restore a woman’s virginity.”  

And if that sounds bizarre–and it does–all you have to do is google secondary virginity to find that the idea of restoring virginity is still with us. Some fundamentalist Christians call it born-again virginity or second-generation virginity. You can even get re-hymenized. 

Assuming, of course, that you’re not male.

A quick history of British slang: how to keep the outsiders out

British cops and courts are–no surprise here–having a hard time keeping up with urban slang, which changes fast enough to baffle the people it’s meant to baffle. And cops and courts are, predictably, high on the list of baffle-targets.

So who do they turn to? A linguist who’s compiled a dictionary of what academics call MLE, or multi-ethnic London English, which has jumped the M-25 (that’s a highway that encircles London) and spread to the rest of the country.

The linguist, Tony Thorne, describes himself as an elderly white guy–by age and profession, an outsider–and despite saying that there are gaps in his knowledge he’s on a list of translators hired by the courts. The other people on the list translate from and to languages like, say, Polish or Hindi. He translates from MLE, and he’s done it for defense lawyers, prosecutors, and police.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: a camellia.

Thorne said, “I am trying to help by defending kids who are wrongly accused by their language and go after the people who have committed violent crimes.”

What he does is translate lyrics, messages, and that sort of thing. What he doesn’t do is sit between two people telling each one what the other one said.

MLE mixes (and here I’m quoting not Thorne but the article where I learned about him) “white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish.”

MLE, Thorne said, “has a social and cultural power and is evolving in a way most slangs aren’t. It points up the real diversity of Britain and it is not ghettoised ethnicity. The theorists call it super-diversity.”

To translate that (I can, if highly motivated, which I’m usually not, translate from academese), it’s alive and changing and it’s used by people from a mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Like many–maybe all–slangs, the purpose of MLE is to keep the authorities out while the insiders communicate with each other. Changing quickly keeps the boundaries between the two groups relatively solid.

That follows a rich tradition. Cockney rhyming slang developed an inspired system of keeping the boundaries solid. It rhymes a word–say, feet–with a phrase: platters of meat. Then (most of the time) it drops the rhyming half of the phrase, leaving just platters. If you don’t know what it means, you don’t have a hope in hell of figuring it out.  The Oxford English Dictionary  says it was developed by street traders, beggars, and petty criminals in the first half of the nineteenth century. The website Cockney Rhyming Slang sticks with the more respectable people on the list, mentioning the street traders and leaving everyone else out. Take your pick.

Bits of Cockney rhyming slang have been swept into the more general language and are still in use, so that a neighbor greeted me one winter morning by saying, “It’s parky,” which comes from parky in the mould–cold.

Predictably (and probably satisfyingly) enough, I said, “It’s what?”

Another slang, Polari, was used from the eighteenth century to the 1970s. It was made up of Italian, Occitan, French, Romany, Yiddish, rhyming slang, backslang (where you pronounce words as if they were spelled backwards), and possibly a few other bits and pieces.

It started in pubs near the London docks and was picked up by sailors in the merchant fleet. From the 1930s to the 1970s, it was used primarily in gay pubs, on merchant ships, and in the theater, and if you think that’s an odd mix of people and places, you don’t know your gay history. It was also used by lesbians, circus people, and prostitutes. And–well, different sources will add different groups to the list, but you get the drift.  Marginalized people. People who had reasons to want to talk to each other openly and secretly, both at the same time.

Polari began to die out after homosexuality was partially (and later fully) decriminalized, which is also when gay liberation began championing openness. It wasn’t needed anymore.

An older slang, thieves’ cant, may date back to the 1530s and was used by criminals. Or criminals, beggars, and Gypsies. Or–well, somebody. Outsiders forming an in-group that keeps respectable people out. It all gets a little hazy, though, because the only record we have comes from the kind of respectable people who wrote stuff down and whose writings got preserved. In other words, what we know about  it is second hand and comes from writers who looked down on cant speakers. And were fascinated by them. And may or may not have known what they were talking about.

Enough respectable people were fascinated that canting dictionaries were popular. The language made its way into literature and plays. But a WikiWhatsia entry raises the question of how well the written version of the language matched the language used on the street.

“A thief in 1839 claimed that the cant he had seen in print was nothing like the cant then used by Gypsies, thieves and beggars. He also said that each of these used distinct vocabularies, which overlapped; the Gypsies having a cant word for everything, and the beggars using a lower style than the thieves.”

It’s a lost bit of history that we can’t reconstruct, but we can know, at least, that it was there. It’s a bit like archeology. You find these bits and pieces. You can make educated guesses, but the world that made them is gone. You can’t be sure you’re right.

What really happens in Britain. And elsewhere

Two guys working at a bike shop in Bury St. Edmunds got bored back in September of 2017 and decided to cremate a mouse. (“As you do,” as people in Britain say when someone’s done something strikingly odd.)

They ended up doing £1.6 million worth of damage. It took twelve fire crews–sixty firefighters–seven hours to put out the fire.

As of late June, they were still out on bail. None of the articles I read said what happened to the mouse. We can only hope its ashes were handled with appropriate respect.

*

Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what we’re looking at here. Possibly honesty. That’s the name of a plant, not a comment about me admitting that I’m not sure.

Since Notes is about Britain, let’s talk about something that has nothing to do with it: a translation of Game of Thrones into Spanish.

Before the series ended, the upcoming plot twists in Game of Thrones were more tightly protected than the deliberations of Britain’s cabinet–which is setting the bar about as close to the floor as possible–so translators were given something like twenty seconds to translate an hour’s episode. The actors who spoke the translation got a further twenty seconds and then had to swear that they’d forgotten every line they spoke.

As a result, in a not-so-recent but crucial scene, when a character called out, “She can’t see us” (he was talking about a dragon, but you don’t really need to know that) the harried translator supplied the actor with a set of sounds that don’t form a word in Spanish: sicansíos, which is pronounced, very roughly, see-can-SEE-oss. The reason that’s a rough approximation is that any attempt at phonetic spelling in English is doomed.

The actor didn’t have time to say either “what??” or “this doesn’t make sense.” He just voiced the sounds and moved on. The hounds of hell and the twenty-second time limit were nipping at his heels. What else was he supposed to do?

Now, one of the nice things about Spanish is that you can look at a set of syllables that make no sense and at least know how to pronounce it. In English, the whole thing would come to a screaming halt while the actor said, “Look, I’m not arguing about whether this mess makes sense, but will somebody at least tell me how to say it?”

The papers (maybe that should be singular; I haven’t read them all) claim sicansíos might just replace no nos puede ver.

For about twenty seconds.

*

And since we’re on the topic of things that have nothing to do with Britain, a survey in the U.S. asked some three thousand people if Arabic numerals should be taught in the schools. Roughly two-thirds said no.

Why? The survey did’t ask, but I have to assume it’s because they’re Arabic. And, you know, Islamic. And likely to turn our children terroristical.

So what are Arabic numerals? They’re the standard mathematical symbols, starting with 0 and going up to 9, that infiltrated our schools centuries ago and are no doubt responsible for the sorry state of the world today. They combine in infinite patterns and they terrorized me during my school years, right up to the time I was old enough to drop math.

I still wake up screaming, although at least one of my math teachers was (as far as I could tell) a very nice person. But even I will admit that Arabic numerals are a lot easier to work with than Roman numerals. Ever try adding MCLII to XIIL? If Roman numerals are the alternative, yes, Arabic numerals should be taught.

Arabic numerals were actually developed by Indian mathematicians but they spread to Europe from the Arab world, picking up their name along the way.

Another survey, in 2015, asked people if they supported bombing Agrabah, the imaginary city where the Disney film Aladdin was set. I don’t have an overall number, but 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats thought it would be a good idea. I know that’s a minority, but my friends, I despair.

*

The shop in our village closed last year, as shops have in lots of British villages, in large part because people can order their groceries online and have them–or something vaguely like them–delivered to their door. So what’s it like to order groceries online?

Funny you should ask, because a recent newspaper article surveyed some of the more unlikely substitutions that stores had made when they didn’t have what the customer ordered. Top marks go to Tesco, which didn’t have a birthday candle shaped like a five and sent two twos and a one instead. They didn’t include any plus signs, so that would make the kid well over a hundred.

Asda was out of lemon juice and sent a lemon cake.

An unnamed supermarket sent Petit Filous yogurt instead of petit pois–small green peas–and spring onions instead of spring flowers.

Tesco sent printer paper instead of paper napkins.

An Australian Woolworths sent popcorn instead of potatoes.

All of which combines to make one reason I’ve never ordered groceries online. Of course, it helps that I can still drive and have to time to wander dazedly through the aisles myself, wondering where they moved the flour the last time they re-disorganized the place and how many candles it takes to add up to five if I’m working in Roman numerals instead of Arabic ones. And whether spring onions make an appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

The people who fill the orders apparently can override the substitutions the computer suggests, but if they’ve gone comatose with either boredom or overwork and don’t notice that anything odd has happened, they (very understandably) won’t.

*

When did rabbits first come to Britain? It’s been assumed that the Normans brought them, but one lone bone found in a Roman palace has destroyed that belief. They were here when the Romans were and they dressed in sandals and itty bitty little suits of leather armor.

They tried the feathery helmets but the style just didn’t work for them, what with their long ears and all, although I have it from a reliable source that they liked the look a lot and envied the humans who wore them.

*

Who owns England? Half of the land is owned by 1% of the population. Homeowners (nationally, that’s 62.5 % of the population) all rolled in together own 5%.

Now we come to the odd bit: how you find the proportion of homeowners–you know, that 62.5% that looks so convincing in the last paragraph. Based of Lord Google’s predictive text, you find it by asking for the proportion of homeowners who own their own home.

I’ll give that a minute to land in your brain and detonate.

I’d have thought 100% of homeowners owned their homes, but I’m a word person. I never have been good at math. It’s 62.5% and the other, um, is it 37.5% of homeowners? I can’t explain what they own, if it’s not their homes, that puts them in the homeowners category. But, um, yeah, I’m sure the number’s accurate, I just can’t be sure what it’s a number for. And, what the hell, if it isn’t accurate, just substitute some other number. If you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ‘em all.

What other rash assumptions did I make about land ownership? I assumed the aristocracy and landed gentry had long since doddered off into richly deserved irrelevance. Silly me. They own at least 30% of the land–possibly more, since 17% of the land is unregistered, meaning it’s probably (information on land ownership is fiendishly hard to find) inherited and has never been bought or sold. The owners are, many of them, the descendants of the Norman barons, still holding what their ancestors seized in 1066. It’s impressive, in a screwed up sort of way.

Another 18% is owned by corporations, 17% by “oligarchs and City bankers,” 8.5% by the public sector. Less than 2% each is owned by conservation charities, the royal family, and the Church of England.

If that adds up to more or less than 100%, recalculate it in Roman numerals and it’ll work out perfectly.

Farmers don’t seem to have been broken out into a separate category. I don’t know why or what that means. I do know that farming itself breaks down into many categories and may be harder to define that it sounds like it would be. If you keep pet llamas or rescue donkeys–or, I assume, horses–your land’s considered agricultural.

*

A British judge asked to be excused from jury duty on the grounds that he was scheduled to preside over the trial he was being called for as a juror. So he wrote the central summoning bureau, explaining his predicament.

They refused his appeal and told him to apply to the resident judge.

“But I told them,” he said, “ ‘I am the resident judge.’ ”

They didn’t see a problem with that.

He finally phoned them and they let him off with a slap on the wrist.

*

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was paid more than $160,000 for two speeches in March. For one of them, that came to £40,000 an hour. As the old song says, it’s nice work if you can get it.

He had to apologize to the Commons for breaching its rules by being late in declaring £52,000 of outside income in addition to not declaring an apparent 20% interest in a property in Somerset.

He’s maneuvering to be the next prime minister now that Theresa May has finished stabbing herself in the back. For the most part (I haven’t read the morning headlines yet) this involves keeping his mouth shut so he doesn’t say anything exceedingly silly while the other candidates admit to drug use and lack of drug use and make promises to cut taxes on the rich–or occasionally not to. One did his best to cozy up to Larry the Cat, 10 Downing Street’s resident cat, who’s outlasted more than one incumbant. 

Larry walked away. 

Boris hasn’t yet promised to bomb Agrabah, but I’m waiting.

*

Can you stand one more story about British politics? The person who was in charge of Grenfell Tower when it burned was invited to talk to a housing conference.

What’s Grenfell Tower? An apartment building that has become shorthand for, among other things, the arrogance of people whose bureaucratic decisions affect other people’s lives and deaths. The building went up in flames when a faulty refrigerator set the cladding–which is British for siding–on fire, spreading the fire unbelievably quickly to the entire high rise (or tower block if we’re speaking British).

Residents had been pointing out safety violations in the building for years and were ignored, because what did they know? Besides, it costs money to fix things. Seventy-two people died in the fire.

What was he asked to speak about? Safety.

When some of the survivors raised hell, he withdrew.

Some days it’s hard to be any more unlikely than reality.

Lions and bears and British politicians

Mark Harper is coming dead last in the race to lead Britain’s Conservative Party if the bookies are to be believed. They don’t conduct a poll, just take bets, but it’s what we’ve got by way of a measurement. So to lift his chances, he held a press conference, and somehow or other his campaign released his speech in advance. It began, “Now this isn’t going to be that scripted.”

So that went well.

Maybe what happened next was an attempt to recover and maybe it wasn’t, but either way he invited journalists to ask any question they wanted, promising he’d answer it. It may have really been an unscripted moment.

My best guess is that he hoped they’d ask about his drug use so he could say he’d never touched the stuff. Why? Because his fellow leadership candidate Michael Gove had recently been outed as having used cocaine before enforcing assorted anti-drug regimes on other people, including prison inmates and teachers. And once Gove was outed, all the other leadership candidates felt the need to out themselves. If you missed all that, you can catch up with it here and here.

Unfortunately, Harper had already outed himself as never having done any drugs, so the question was boring.

Never bore a group of journalists.

I can’t quite reassemble the order of what happened next from the articles I’ve read and it doesn’t really matter, although it would help me write a coherent sentence or two. Let’s just say it involved journalists, electronic messages, and an attempt to come up with the most absurd possible question. One nominee was, “How many gallons of sewage will the Thames Tideway tunnel be able to handle every nine days?” Others were who would win in a fight between an ostrich and and emu and what the value of pi is to the nearest seven decimal places. 

My favorite is, “Would he rather fight 1,000 duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?”

Eventually, someone asked out loud who would win if a lion fought a bear.

He did answer, as promised. I don’t remember which he picked. I doubt anyone much cares.

And that, my friends, is British politics in a nutshell. With the emphasis on nut.

*

I know I’ve broken my pattern of posting weekly, but (talk about drugs) I just can’t leave some of this stuff alone. And you need to know about it. You know you do.

Drugs & British politicians, part 2

I missed what you’d have to call the punchline to the story about Michael Gove’s drug use: It’s not that the candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party (and with it the prime ministership) used cocaine even while scolding London liberals for wanting to legalize drugs, it’s that as education secretary he enforced a policy that put lifetime teaching bans on teachers who were caught with drugs. And defended the policy even after admitting that he’d put the stuff up his own nose.

It’s also that as justice secretary he was in charge of the prison system where people convicted of the same crime he committed were serving their sentences.

What does he have to say about it? “All politicians have lives before politics. Certainly when I was working as a journalist I didn’t imagine I would go into politics or public service. I didn’t act with an eye to that.”

In keeping with that, we’re amending the laws: Drug use will only be illegal for people who plan on becoming politicians.

So far, the news–if it is news–that Boris Johnson also used drugs doesn’t seem to be damaging his campaign that way Gove’s admission is hurting his. Ditto the assorted other candidates.

I’ll now leave the Gove drug story alone. Unless, of course, it gets even more absurd and I just have to update you.

Drugs and British politicians: a bonus post

As I write this, half the Conservative Party is in the running to be the next party leader and, in a kind of two-for-one offer that’s built into British politics, since the Conservatives are the ruling party, the next prime minister. For at least a brief time, since the Conservatives have a fragile hold on power. They don’t have a majority, just more MPs than anyone else.

But that’s not why I’m tossing a bonus post onto the blog on a Monday morning. It’s because one of the candidates, Michael Gove, admitted this weekend  that he took cocaine when he was what the papers are describing as a young journalist.

Gove is the secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs, and he was, before this, generally considered to be polling just behind Boris Johnson, the party members’ goofball favorite. In the British system, the ruling party gets to pick its own leader, and if it’s in power the prime minister, according to its own rules, so the only people whose opinions count in this poll are the Conservative Party’s members.

The Conservatives aren’t a party that attract a mass membership, even when they can attract a big vote, so this is a small slice of the country picking the next prime minister.

If you’ve seen photos of the competitors, Gove is the one who looks like someone drew a face on a balloon, then added a tie. I keep wanting to say a bow tie, but in the photos I’ve found he’s not actually wearing a bow tie. He just happens to look like the kind of balloon who would.

But never mind his looks. I’m not above making fun of them–it’s unfair and I won’t defend it too much, even if I’ll do it anyway. But they’re not why I’m writing about him. It’s because of the cocaine. He made his announcement just ahead of the publication of a book that would have broken the story anyway. If he was trying to take control of the story, it hasn’t worked.

Back in 1999, he wrote an article for the Times criticizing what he called “London’s liberal consensus” on drug use–a consensus that he argued wanted to loosen drug laws.

In a TV interview since the story broke, he said that didn’t make him a hypocrite.

“The point that I made in the article is that if any of us lapse sometimes from standards that we uphold, that is human.

“The thing to do is not necessarily then to say that the standards should be lowered. It should be to reflect on the lapse and to seek to do better in the future.”

By the evening after the interview, the Times was reporting claims that just hours after he wrote the article Gove hosted a party at which cocaine was taken. Please note the vagueness of that “was taken.” I’m not sure who took it, so we’ll just let the stuff blow around a bit and not ask who inhaled and who didn’t.

Anyway, it’s all okay as long as the standards aren’t lowered.

Interviewers have been asking Gove if, as prime minister, he’d be allowed into the U.S., since the visa application asks about drug use. It’s all been just a tad embarrassing.

All this led to other leadership contestants confessing their drug use and non-use. I’ll skip the non-use and stick with the interesting stuff.

In 2005, Boris Johnson said he thought he was once given cocaine but he sneezed so none of it got up his nose. Then in 2007, he said he tried cocaine and cannabis at university (translation for Americans: that means college) but that it had no effect on him. Which presumably makes him still a virgin. It all depends on what your definition of is is. (Possibly unnecessary translation for non-Americans: That’s a Bill Clinton reference when he was trying to argue that sex with a White House intern wasn’t actually sex because of where the relevant body parts weren’t.) 

Jeremy Hunt said he thought he had a cannabis lassi when he was backpacking in India. After which he thought that everything was very beautiful and that the lassi was the most delicious thing he’d ever poured down his throat. And after that he thought it didn’t affect him even a tiny bit.

Dominic Raab used cannabis as a student but “not very often” and “it was a mistake.” Besides which, “It was a long time ago.” So that doesn’t count either.

Rory Stewart smoked opium at a wedding in Afghanistan. He added that the family that invited him was very poor, so there may have been very little opium in the pipe. Which means they were smoking air. It’s hard to keep air lit, but it puts itself in the pipe without human help, it’s free, and it’s legal everywhere.

Someone who isn’t Matt Hancock said Matt Hancock “tried cannabis a few times as a student.” We’re still waiting to hear why that wasn’t really drug use.

Esther McVey said she had “ never taken any class A drugs, but have I tried some pot? Yes I have. When I was much younger.” That has the virtue of not disowning the experience, but I don’t hear her–or any of the other candidates–pushing for changes to the drug laws or calling for anyone who’s been convicted of the same offense they weren’t charged with to be pardoned.

Possession of marijuana carries a sentence of up to five years and an unlimited fine, or both. Possession of Class A drugs, including cocaine, carries a sentence of up to seven years and an unlimited fine, or both.

Please note, those five to seven years are in prison, not in the House of Commons.

Have you noticed that if you have money and connections, you try drugs and that if you don’t, you use them?

Stay tuned. The race to be leader of the Conservative Party can only get better.