About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

British Advent calendars: nothing exceeds like excess

Hey, folks, want to spend a shitload of money celebrating something that was once supposed to be somber and full of self-denial? Well, be of good cheer, then, because we’re still in the middle of Advent—a holiday I barely knew about until I moved to Britain.

I’m not sure how big a thing Advent is for American Christians. I have the impression that it’s more important to Catholics than to Protestants, but when I lived in the U.S. it was never a noisy enough holiday to have made a dent in this Jewish atheist’s awareness—and that’s in spite of growing up in a Catholic neighborhood and having Catholic godkids. I knew it existed and I knew it involved calendars, and there my knowledge ended. I remember seeing an Advent calendar at a friend’s house. It had a little window to open, and behind that a picture. What kid could resist? But the pictures turned out to be religious and I lost interest.

600% relevant if slightly out of focus, photo: These are the Advent shih-tzus. They bring calendars to all the good adults. Unfortunately, neither of them can read, so people are likely end up with outdated calendars. No system’s perfect and we’ll just have to live with it.

Assuming I’m right about Advent being more important for Catholics than for (most) Protestants, the British focus on Advent is a reminder that the Anglican Church may be Protestant but it’s very much descended from Catholicism.

The British Advent season seems to be mostly–maybe entirely–about calendars. I can’t seem to stop reading about them, because they’re not just sitting around on a store shelf, waiting for someone to buy them for their kids. They’re popping steroids and growing muscles where no one ever grew muscles before. On their hair. On their teeth. They’re—change the metaphor for me, someone, please—the mega-zombie apocalypse of all Advent calendars.

The newspapers review them almost like movies. And you could go to a lot of movies for the cost of these beasties. The ones for kids might have a reasonable price tag and a piece of chocolate behind each window, but they’re making them for adults now. And not just for adults, for the over-indulged adults of the 1%.

And also for the—I’m making up the numbers here, so don’t quibble—adults for the 5.6% just below them. And for a few for the rest of us who want a few minutes of thinking we can have the lives we see on TV.

Should we start near the top end? I found one for £300. And what do you get for that? Some (I hate to admit it) very nice packaging and a bunch of beauty products.

I just love that phrase, beauty product. You put this stuff on your face and become so beautiful no one will know who you are anymore. That nose you always thought was too long, or too wide, or too whatever? It disappears. Your wrinkles? They have such a nice skim of plaster that you look like a freshly painted wall.

Beauty products are a big thing with these calendars, and one reviewer blames that on the blogosphere, and specifically on beauty bloggers. The internet’s full of them, and of beauty-blog readers, so there’s a built-in way to promote them. In case anyone needs a reminder of how commercial blogging can be—.

In case it isn’t already clear, I’m not getting paid to promote beauty product calendars. That may be linked to the fact that I’m not promoting them. Also that I don’t wear makeup. I already have a face, although you can’t tell that from the photo I use. The face was installed well before I was born and it’ll have to do.

It’s easy to forget how crazy our lust for stuff is (see how neatly I just included you in this) until we’re yanked outside our familiar territory and that unfamiliarity lets us look around and notice how strange things are. So the insanity of Christmas spending? It’s been going on so long it’s hard to see. But a £300 Advent calendar? The world’s gone insane.

You can also spend £90 with an outfit called Cowshed and get a “luxurious Advent calendar packed with a wide range of natural products. Each door opens up to reveal another beauty treat to ensure that you’re well pampered in that hectic Christmas build-up.”

All this from a cowshed? Think Marie Antoinette. She’s out there playing at being a shepherd. Or cowherd. Or, well, she didn’t have to know her cows from her sheep anyway, did she? At a mere £90, this calendar is for commoners—admittedly, only for commoners with £90 to spare, but still, when we start with £300 it begins to look cheap. Still, it lets us play at being Marie Antoinette as we pamper ourselves during that hectic Christmas build-up. We can pretend the servants will put up the decorations.

Or maybe I have Marie Antoinette mixed up with Queen Victoria, but don’t’ worry about it, because we’re moving on.

If you’re beautiful enough already, or set on letting the people you know continue to recognize you, you can get calendars with chocolate (£65 for 24 mini-houses holding a chocolate each), or tools (£44, and the tools are small or they wouldn’t fit in a calendar), or socks (£79) or alcohol (£149.95 for scotch; £124.95 for gin; or, stop the press, I just found one with whiskey for a round £10,000, because once you pass the thousand-pound mark there’s no point in tacking on the change), or stationery (£90 for paperclips, sticky notes, tape, pens, and a—gack—gratitude journal). Or selfie accessories (a steal at £19.99 and who knows when you’ll need a fake mustache for your next selfie).

I did my best to find out if Advent’s gone this wild in the U.S., but Google insists on telling me about Britain and only Britain. Even when I shifted to Google U.S.A., the prices came up in pounds. Lord Google knows what I want to know, or at least what I need to know, or at least where I am and therefore where he can help sell me, and he’s not about to tell me anything else.

But it may also be because luxury Advent calendars aren’t a thing in the U.S. I look forward to finding out once you commenters get loose on this.

The top marks for complete obscenity goes to the 2010 Porsche million U.S. dollar calendar, which included a speedboat, a kitchen, a watch, cufflinks, “fine writing tools” (presumably pens and pencils, but maybe quills, because hey, what do I know about this stuff?), and a pair of running shoes. I don’t know how they packaged it all, but it stood 1.75 meters tall (that’s 5.74 feet, just in case you’re clearing space in your living room). They only made five and even though the price was in dollars they were sold through Harrods in London.

The bakery chain Greggs made a much more down-to-earth calendar with coupons for sausage rolls, lattes, mince pies, and other fairly ordinary stuff. I only mention it because they substituted the sausage roll (with a bite out of it) for the baby Jesus in a nativity scene and it hit the press.

The sausage roll looks, in the context of the Wise Men figures, very big. Maybe that’s why someone took a bite.

All hell broke loose, with expressions of outrage from conservative Christian organizations and accusations that other religions never get insulted this way. Which, in a sense, is true: They get insulted in other, and as far as I can see more damaging, ways. I’m guessing the people hitting the roof haven’t tried flying while in possession of a Muslim name lately.

Anyway, have a somber season of fasting and self-denial, folks. And don’t buy any Porsches until you check with me.

Translating British English into American

Americans regularly rampage through the British Isles without translators and end up with the most minimal idea what of they’re hearing. Or saying. They may or may not be aware of the problem.

I’m going to take a reckless guess and claim that the people they meet have almost as much trouble.

Why “almost”? Because American movies are everywhere, leaking Amerispeech into even the most protected ear. Still, they haven’t leaked every possible word, so let’s run through a few differences. Not because they’ll necessarily be helpful to anyone but—as the kids said where I grew up—just because.

The words in boldface are British. The blithering that follows is for the most part American.

Irrelevant and wildly out of season photo: hydrangea

Chocolate box. This has nothing to do with candy, although it used to. It describes something that’s attractive, idealized, and boring, boring, boring. It dates back to the nineteenth century, when the chocolate company Cadbury’s added romanticized pictures to its boxes of chocolates—flowers, children, landscapes. Especially, I suspect, landscapes. It can be used about art but also about villages that are so perfectly English that you wonder if someone put them together just to mess with the tourists.

Fanny. This isn’t a euphemism for your hind end, it’s a euphemism for your vagina. Unless you don’t have one, in which case it’s a euphemism for someone else’s vagina. It’s also, inconveniently, a woman’s name, although for some reasons it’s gone out of style. There was a TV cook named Fanny Cradock, whose husband had a back-up role on the show and—allegedly—ended an episode where she’d made doughnuts by saying, “May all your doughnuts be like Fanny’s.” I won’t claim that he’s responsible for killing any interest the country ever had in donuts, but I can tell you that you don’t see them nearly as often in the U.K. as you do in the U.S. If you travel to Britain with a fanny pack and you have to call it anything at all, call it a bum bag or you’ll upset everyone within hearing distance.

Jam. This is jam, but to keep things from being too simple it’s also jelly, which is what Americans call the stuff they spread on their toast if it has no seeds and is a little more solidified than jam.

Jelly. This is the stuff Americans call Jello—a brand name that’s gone free-range and now describes a dessert made with gelatin.

Spotted dick. This isn’t a medical condition, it’s a dessert. One I’ve never tasted. Sorry. I haven’t been able to get past my preconceptions.

Soldiers. Toast cut into strips so you can dunk them in a soft-boiled egg. I have the impression this is done for kids, to get them to eat, but never having been a kid in this country, or responsible for jollying any into eating things they didn’t really want, I wouldn’t swear to that.

Biscuit. A cookie, but also a cracker. To keep from causing international mayhem, when I make what in the U.S. I called biscuits, I tell people they’re baking powder biscuits. No one knows what I’m talking about, but it keeps them from expecting something else entirely.

Cracker. A cracker, but also a roll of shiny paper and cardboard filled with a small toy no one really wants to play with, a set of bad jokes, and a paper crown that you have to wear if you want your Christmas dinner. No paper crown, no dinner.

Boots. These are things you wear on your feet, but your car also has one. It’s where your trunk would be in the U.S. The first time Wild Thing—who, since I haven’t mentioned her here in a long time I should explain is my partner—and I visited the U.K., we passed sign after sign that said “Boot Sale.” Why only one boot? we wondered. It was all very mysterious. We’d driven a lot of miles and seen a lot of signs before it came together: These were flea markets—people selling stuff out of the boots of their cars. Or more often, we later learned, off tables and blankets set up near the boots of their cars.

Wellies. These are also boots, but they slip on and they’re waterproof, high, and made of something that would once have been rubber and is now (I assume) synthetic. Britain’s a wet country. It loves its wellies. I didn’t understand why until a friend and I shoveled manure (which she called muck) for our gardens. I was wearing slip-on plastic clogs and she had wellies. We weren’t quite ankle deep in manure but a good part of the time we were close. She left with clean socks. I had to take mine off in the front yard and hose myself down.

Garden. That’s a yard, front or back, even if nothing’s growing in it. You could pour cement on it and it’d still be a garden.

Bonnet. This is on the opposite end of your car from the boot. If you’re American, you know it as the hood. In Scotland, a bonnet is also a hat—not of the Sunbonnet Sue variety, but any old hat. On the Isle of Skye, during that first trip, Wild Thing and I stopped at a B&B and the owner offered to show us a cottage we could rent instead of a room, since we were staying several nights. It was mizzling out, so he said something along the lines of, “Just let me get my wee bonnet.” Or maybe it was “ma wee bonnet.” It definitely involved a bonnet, though.

Vest. This is an undershirt, with no sleeves.

Waistcoat. This is a vest—the sort of thing you wear over a shirt.

Gilet. This gets the French pronunciation–something along the lines of zhee-LAY–and is one of those sleeveless vest things you wear for warmth when it’s not cold enough for a jacket. I’m sure we have a word for it in the U.S. but I’ve been away too long and can’t think what it is. A vest? Yeah. I’m almost sure it’s a vest.

Pants. These are underpants. It’s also an all-purpose term of disparagement: “The whole thing was pants.” (Quick, somebody, tell me if I’m using that wrong.)

Trousers. These are pants, but not in the this-is-no-good sense of the word. I still can’t make myself call my jeans trousers, because for me the word calls up those 1940s- and ‘50s-style suit pants, the baggy kind with the turned-up cuffs.

Suspenders. These don’t hold up your pants, or even your trousers, but your stockings. You know stockings: those things nobody wears anymore unless they think they’re sexy. I’m tempted to say that no one who thinks they’re sexy has ever worn them, but I’d be wrong so I’ll keep that thought to myself. One person’s I’m-glad-that-style-died is another person’s sexy. Humans are very odd.

Braces.  These are suspenders—they hold up your pants. Or your trousers, if you prefer. Or they pretend to, since as far as I can tell no one wears them because they need them anymore. They’re a (gak) fashion statement. Or doesn’t anyone say “fashion statement” these days? If they’ve stopped, it will be one small bit of progress in a world that’s falling apart.

Jumper: That’s a sweater. Also someone who jumps up and down. Or sideways—no one gets exercised about the direction.

Knickers: Women’s underpants–not the old-fashioned three-quarter-length pants (or trousers) that men wore and that mercifully went out of style early in the twentieth century.

Rubbers. These are not the things you giggled over when you heard those first misleading explanations about birth control. They’re school supplies: erasers. They rub out the mistakes you made in pencil. Isn’t the world a strange place?

Football. That’s soccer. The other game? It’s American football.

Holiday. A vacation, not a day off, so you go on holiday, not on vacation. A bank holiday has nothing much to do with banks, although they’ll be closed. It’s a public holiday. If that sounds too simple, don’t worry: The bank holidays in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland don’t necessarily match.

And finally, in case you’re not intimidated enough, a friend sent me a translation of upper middle class British phrases. I can’t paste the whole thing in because, hey, copyright matters, but you can find it here. It’s worth a look.

My friend adds, “I think it is even more complicated than this because many of these phrases may be used by the same speaker with different nuances. ‘Interesting’ can indicate the speaker is fascinated, bored or entirely disagrees.”

Which is, um, interesting.

Enjoy your visit. And good luck.

The joys of pre-metric measurements

Anyone who thinks I’m kidding around when I talk about the insanity of pre-metric weights and measures needs to read April Munday’s post on the medieval versions of the slippery little beasts.

I offer eternal gratitude to anyone who can explain why there aren’t a hundred of something–I don’t much care what–in a hundredweight. (I should warn you that eternity doesn’t last as long as it used to. It’s one of those inconsistent measurement things.)

Is British food dull?

British food has a reputation for being—sorry, folks, I’m just reporting—somewhere between dull and inedible. Google “British food reputation” and the entries fall into two categories: 1) why British food deserves a bad reputation and 2) why it doesn’t. There’s no 3) why it has a great reputation.

Or none that I found, anyway. Dig deep enough and you can almost always find a contrarian, probably funded by Vladimir Putin or a pair of aging billionaire brothers intent on destroying the world’s sense of taste.

Why do they want to do that? It’s just one of those things you do when you become an aging billionaire, your every whim has already been satisfied, and you’re bored silly. People need challenges. That’s what life’s about.

The people who argue that British food deserves its reputation love making lists of the foods they hate most: baked beans on toast, overboiled vegetables, bangers and mash (that’s sausages plonked on a plate of mashed potatoes). On some lists, fish and chips are part of the problem. On other lists (because the people who defend British food make lists too), they’re the solution. Ditto yorkshire puddings. Ditto a whole bunch of other things. So we’ll skip the details, because if we don’t, we’ll end up arguing over them when we could so easily argue about something more worthwhile.

Although if you want to argue, don’t let me stop you. I’m happy to host (almost) any argument as long as we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.

Irrelevant and not-quite-in-season photo: Primroses. They should be in bloom soon. Photo by Ida Swearingen

One word that comes up a lot in this discussion is stodgy. In British English, that means food that’s “heavy, filling, and high in carbohydrates.” (I’ll skip the link; it’s one of those unattributed definitions Lord Voldemort—sorry, Lord Google—likes to supply.) The synonyms are “indigestible, starchy, filling, heavy, solid, substantial, lumpy, and leaden.”

Yum.

As usual, Lord Google offered to translate that into French. It’s lourde or indigeste.

Why French? Why not French? Hell, why offer to translate it at all? I reset the offer to Spanish and got pesado (heavy) and indigesto (indigestible). I had to check my Spanish-English dictionary to be sure of indigesto, because it’s not a word I’ve had any reason to use and although it sounds convincing you can get into all sorts of weird situations relying on words that sound like words you know in your home language.

Do I distrust Google translations? You bet your mistranslated ass I do. Sadly, my dictionary doesn’t include the Spanish for stodgy, so I ended my research there. The dictionary’s a paperback. It’s missing lots of stuff. On the other hand, it doesn’t weigh much.

I’m off the topic, aren’t I? How does that happen?

The word stodgy comes up a lot in connection with British puddings. Before we go on, it you’re American, write your definition of pudding on a slip of paper, crumple it up, and throw it out the window. It’s not helpful here.

Done? Good. Now: In this context, pudding means (I think, but don’t trust me on this) more or less any dessert, although a pudding can also be an unsweetened non-dessert. Dessert also means dessert. So, if you’re still with me, dessert means dessert and pudding means dessert as well as non-dessert, and dessert includes what Americans know as pudding, which (and we’re talking about pudding here) can include non-dessert.

And with that level of confusion, you wonder why British food has a reputation problem, right?

What does stodgy mean in the U.S.? Dull and uninspired. I can’t remember ever hearing it used about food, but if it was it wouldn’t stretch far enough to mean an entire category of food, it’d just be a description of some one thing.

Anyway, all I want to do here is establish that British food has a reputation problem. Whether it’s deserved or not doesn’t matter. At least for the purposes of this post, because we’re not actually going to eat anything. We’re online. The technology that would make eating together possible doesn’t exist yet. What matters here is how British chefs respond to their reputation problem.

Now, by way of (even more) background, I read recipes in the newspaper. They extend the range of my cooking, they amuse the hell out of me, and they’re entirely nonfattening. Plus the recipe section of Saturday’s paper is one place where, reliably, nobody’s being run out of their country or left to freeze in a refugee camp while the world says it’s all someone else’s problem, and no one’s being sent back to the country that ran them out in the first place because they didn’t say, “Mother, may I?”.

It’s not that I don’t read the news, it’s just that I need a place to hide from it now and then.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of British chefs work hard at being interesting. It may keep them from being stodgy and predictable, but their recipes tip over into the strange very easily.

A while back the paper had a series of lasagna recipes, and before I go on, I have to tell you that when I looked for them online Lord Google, for no apparent reason,  offered to define lasagna for me in Hindi. Well, who could resist? It’s spelled लॉसॉन्य (unless I accidentally copied a word from an ad—I’m illiterate in Hindi) and it seems to mean “lasagna.” I say “seems” because neither of the two sites that offered to translate it for me were particularly clear about the whole business, and after two tries I kind of lost interest.

But—this won’t surprise you, will it?—we’re off topic.

Now I do understand that Italian lasagna (or maybe that should be plural: lasagne; British food writers like the E spelling, even if they’re talking about a single lasagna) varies from region to region. Having grown up with American lasagna, which has a limited range, I think this is wrong, wrong, wrong, but the Italians invented the stuff, so I guess they get to do what they want with it and I get to not argue.

The standard British lasagna is also wrong, but since they didn’t invent it, I feel free to complain.

The American version uses tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan, plus either hamburger (that’s mince, if you’re British) or no hamburger (and possibly some veggies) to make it vegetarian. And, of course, lasagna noodles. The British version substitutes lots of thick, tasteless white sauce for the tomato sauce. It’s the perfect example of stodge, now that I think of it. I’m not sure what kind of cheeses they put in there, if any, because the white sauce overpowers everything. It’s basically noodles and glue.

Lasagna’s one of the things British pubs have figured out they can feed vegetarians, so periodically I get stuck eating it. It probably comes to them frozen, from a lasagna factory in Liverpool or some other Italian city. They all taste the same, which is to say, they don’t really taste at all.

But the lasagna recipes I mentioned went beyond the standard British version. That was the point: To be inventive and edgy and out-there and earn five gold stars. To not be stodgy. So what did they add? One had hazelnuts and dill and caraway seeds. Another had fish and coriander and feta cheese.

Is coriander Italian? Slices of Blue Sky quotes the New York Times as saying that it was used in the Roman Empire and foreign-born chefs are bringing it back into use in Italy. So it’s traditional in roughly the same way tattoos are (or may be) traditionally British, which is to say you can make a case for it but you’ll need to do a lot of warm-up exercises first, because it ain’t easy.

I’m working on a piece that makes the case for tattoos. It’s fun and may even be correct, but it’s not a simple argument–or possibly even a convincing one.

Feta cheese is Greek.

Italy is not Greece, something you’ll learn quickly if you go there and try to get by entirely in Greek.

Fish come from the water, and although all countries on this planet have at least some water, that doesn’t mean fish belong in lasagna. Most countries also have at least some grass, but that’s not a good argument for tossing it into lasagna.

The recipes were online and had a comment box, so I thought about offering my own let’s-not-be-stodgy take on lasagna. It involves dark chocolate, mayonnaise, half a cup of Coke, and one finely chopped bicycle tire, but someone with an Italian name had already written, “None of these recipes have anything to do with Italian cuisine,” so I kept it to myself. I didn’t want to make an international incident any worse, but the world is a poorer place because of my silence.

Enough about lasagna. The same thing happens with hamburgers. British chefs approach them as nothing more than a blank slate on which they can write their names.

In the U.S., a good hamburger’s made with ground beef and nothing more. You make it interesting by the way you cook it and what you put on it. And, of course, by using good beef.

In Britain, it’s the rare cook who’s brave enough to do that. One relatively simple recipe I found calls for egg, cracker crumbs, parmesan, and fried onions. You  mix all that together and set it in the refrigerator for two hours while it recovers from the insult. Another one asks you to mix in mustard, ketchup, egg, garlic, onion, and chili. I’m not sure what they mean by chili. Probably a chile pepper, but it could as easily be the sweet, gluey (c’mon, I’m being as neutral as I can manage) chili sauce sauce they sell here, or else that stuff you make with beans and meat (or buy in a can). Who can tell?

A third wants egg, bread crumbs, evaporated milk, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, and garlic.

Evaporated milk? Inspired addition. Would it be okay if I substitute whipped cream?

Someone else adds sun dried tomatoes—along, of course, with a whole bunch of other stuff.

You see what’s happening here? Every one of those recipe writers is screaming, “I’m not boring!”

And they’re right. They’re not. But they’re also doing nothing to redeem the reputation of British cooking.

What I learned from spam lately

Let’s go for a quick dip in the spam bath, everyone, because our lives aren’t absurd enough already.

But first, a health and safety warning. Britain’s big on health and safety warnings. One I heard recently consisted of, “Don’t do anything stupid out there,” and I appreciated how quickly it got to the point.  I’d been thinking of doing several stupid things at once and it saved me from all of them. The warning I’m about to issue is this:

A lot of spam is written by people whose first language isn’t English. (Some of it doesn’t seem to be written by humans at all, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.) I don’t make fun of people for not writing or speaking perfect English–at least not unless they’re trying to correct mine, as one spammer did. I’ve wrestled with enough languages to have great respect for people who can communicate even marginally in languages they didn’t learn as kids.  But if you’re sending out spam–messages that are meant (I assume, although I’ve never really understood the strategy behind them) to appear professional, or at least coherent–then sorry, but everything’s fair game.

For the record: I speak Spanish just well enough to hear how badly I speak it. I panic in several other languages so effectively that all I can hear is the sound of my brain moving the furniture to look for lost words. I do not send out spam in any of those languages.

Enough of that. Here’s what I found in the blog’s spam folder recently:

“We spent most of my puerility and all of my teenaged holidays near Land’s End, and we visited a few of the ancient monuments.”

Now, I do know puerile‘s a real word, but I’ve never really been able to believe it means childish. I keep thinking it should have something to do with pork. (That’s probably because I learned the Spanish word for pork, puerco, long before I saw the English word puerile, and if the connection isn’t obvious to you, don’t worry about it; it doesn’t have to make sense.) Puerility‘s also a real word, although I’ve never seen it used or heard anyone breathe life into it, so I’m going to guess it’s not on anyone’s top ten most used words list.

In spite of that, I’m prepared to testify that it’s not supposed to be used this way.

Still, I might’ve thought this was a real (if awkward) comment if it hadn’t opened with “Because, permit’s font it, back then the suspect ones would give been those anti-social weirdos who (then as now) opt to sopor alone – always assuming that they could yield their own(a) beds, of class.”

To which I can only say, “Listen, buddy, some people like to sopor alone, in their beds or in the damned kitchen if the mood takes them, and who the hell are you to get all judgemental about it?”

Irrelevant photo: field patterns near the Cornish coast

Whew. I feel better having said that.

Next up: “naturally like your web site but you need to test the spelling on quite a few of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I in finding it very bothersome to inform the truth on the other hand I will definitely come back again.”

I in finding it very bothersome myself. Will somebody hire this person as a proofreader, please? The English language will never be the same.

After that came: “It is essential that women that are pregnant make a labour program ahead of the wedding event arrives. It is because when a girl is at labor, she may possibly struggle to make selections like she generally does. Make sure you possess a handbag stuffed, opt for that you want in the room whenever you give birth.”

Whenever? Excuse me, but giving birth isn’t a whenever kind of event. I know some people have lots of kids–my grandmother had eight–but even then, it’s not something you do on a whim. It’s a big deal, people.

But there’s more here than just that. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think the writer’s recommending that the woman give birth into the handbag. Or possibly in it. I admit I’ve never given birth, but neither of those seems like a good idea. I haven’t carried a handbag in decades, but I do remember what mine was like when I did. The backseat of my cab would’ve been more sanitary. So would the pavement at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Seventh Street.

I don’t actually know anyone who’s scheduled a wedding for a time when she was likely to go into labor. But if you’ve got a wedding coming up, it’s something you might want to consider when you get to the part of the brochures that say, “Are you looking for a way to make your big day truly memorable?”

The next comment may be related to the previous one, in a backward sort of way: “Will not spend your money on bedbug bombs. Alternatively, get some good Alpine Dust or some Phantom Aerosol and apply these products to your mattress. These no-repelling merchandise is toxic to sleep pests along with other pest however are extremely hard to identify, which means the insect is not going to conceal from it.”

I’m past the age where it’s is an issue anymore, but there was a time when I’d have paid good money for a phantom aerosol that repelled pests from my bed. Where the hell was this advice when I needed it?

That survey cleaned the best stuff out of my spam folder, but (since we all know you hang on my every word) I thought I owed you more, so I dipped back in over the next couple of weeks and eventually I found this:

“A dog’s label must basically be employed when positively getting together with the animal. Contact the dog’s brand to have him to come to your part or call his brand while you are serving his supper. Don’t, even so, contact your dog’s name if you are unhappy with his or her measures. The canine would in a negative way relate by using penalty.”

Now I do understand that a lot of people on the internet think of themselves (or their pets) as brands and have vague hopes of money flying through their windows if they sell themselves (or their pets) hard enough. And we have two dogs. So far, though, they’re completely innocent of all commercial activity and don’t think of themselves as brands. And for good goddamn reason. No one’s going to look at them and think, If only I had a dog like that my life would be complete. They’re dogs, and most of the time, they smell like dogs. Give them a chance and they’ll roll in dead fish and steal dirty underwear. If they can do both at once, they’ll be in ecstasy.

The point is, I don’t want to contact my dogs’ brand. I’d rather deal with the dogs directly: Bad dog. Put the underwear back where you found it, and no, we’re not going to negotiate this through your agent. Until you learn to dial the phone yourself, you don’t have an agent.

A survey of British surveys

Let’s take a quick survey of the stuff people survey in Britain. It won’t tell us much about the country, but it might keep a few of you from hanging out on the street corners and getting into trouble.

Recycling

Anytime stuff gets collected, someone has to come along and report on everything that shouldn’t be part of that particular collection. What this means is that, no, you’re not invisible. The entire world knows about the purple lipstick the dog chewed that you tossed in with the recycled paper because it seemed to makes sense at the time.

But other than your purple lipstick, what else do people in Britain try to recycle?

Vaguely relevant photo: A bunch of junk I collected on a local beach. We have a village beach clean every week, and once you start noticing plastic junk on the beach, you find yourself collecting it everywhere. This is from a different beach–one that’s hard to get to and rarely cleaned. Nobody tossed this stuff into the recycling bins–they just tossed it into the sea instead.

The Guardian reports that recyclers found a car door, a full Christmas dinner (plates, tablecloth, dessert, and everything else; if I’d been invited I might’ve been dumped in with it), and (yes indeed) 1,000 Greenpeace buttons, which are called badges here. Somebody sat down and counted them. Or made up the number as a poetic way to convey the idea that there were a lot of them.

Business Waste’s website (do I read the exciting parts of the web or what?) lists a human skull (the cops said it was from a play and called off the hunt); a voodoo doll covered in blood (allegedly; convince me that the people who found it really recognize a voodoo doll; or blood); money, in both large and small amounts; dead animals (pretty common, they say); a box of Free Nelson Mandela tee shirts that were thrown out long after he was not only free but dead, making the call to free him, um, problematic; a wedding dress, together with an engagement ring and a wedding cake (who says romance is dead?); a box of breast implants (unused, mercifully); a box of equally unused condoms (not, presumably, in the same place); and winning lottery tickets.

Most of us, I’m going to assert, since none of you are here to argue as I type this, would agree that recycling’s a good thing. So what this proves is that no idea is so good that someone can’t come along and screw it up.

 

Laws

The rule of law is also generally considered a good idea, and it’s easy to screw that one up too. Someone’s collected a bunch of obscure laws that are still on the books  in various parts of Britain. People all around the world love to do that. The ones here ban:

  • MPs from wearing armor in parliament. 1313.
  • Carrying a cask, tub, hoop, wheels, ladders, planks or poles on a footway (that’s what I’d call a sidewalk) unless it’s to load or unload a cart or carriage. 1839.
  • Being drunk in a pub. 1872.
  • Being drunk while in charge of cattle. 1872.
  • Handling salmon in suspicious circumstances. 1986. I’ll leave you to interpret that. The salmon consider all human handling suspicious.
  • Beating carpets on the streets after 8 a.m.
  • Getting into a “public conveyance” with the plague and not warning the driver. I don’t have a date for this one. I suspect that being on the wrong side of the law won’t be your most immediate problem if you find yourself wandering around with the plague.
  • Causing a nuclear explosion. 1998. Being on the wrong side of the law isn’t going to be your biggest problem here either. Or anyone else’s.
  • Honking to let someone know your opinion of their driving. You’re only supposed to honk only in dangerous situations. If this were enforced everywhere, I know of entire cities that would be in jail.
  • Jumping the queue (that’s called butting into line in the U.S.) on the London underground (and possibly overground) trains. Seriously. But getting arrested isn’t half as bad as being tutted—and if you butt into line anywhere in Britain, you will be tutted.

All beached whales and sturgeons found in Britain belong to the crown. 1322. What the queen does with them I can’t imagine, or where she keeps them, since they’ve got to be smelly by the time they reach her. Maybe someone will report on odd stuff she sneaks into that collection–all those feathered hats and busted washing machines that someone dumped on the beach.

 

Parenting books

An academic study from Swansea reports that reading a lot of parenting books correlates with depression and anxiety. It doesn’t prove that the books cause the problems, but it doesn’t prove that they don’t, either. I edited a couple of self-help books during my career, and they depressed the hell out of me. I was also part of a group of freelance editors who planned to write a self-help book for recovering self-help book addicts. We had one hysterically funny meeting about it, after which we couldn’t figure out why the joke had been funny.

No, we were sober.

 

Kids’ birthday parties

The average kid’s birthday party in Britain cost around £218 in 2016. One sixth of British kids, though, never have a birthday party, and only a third have one every year. Figure them into the average and the spending’s got to be pretty wild at the top end.

I had a link to that but who really cares?

The kids’ parties I’ve seen around here are on the reasonable end of the spectrum, involving a cake, a bit of real food, and a free and active germ exchange.

 

Awkward street names

Oxford has an Isis Close. That doesn’t mean the organization called Isis is close. A close is a cul-de-sac—a dead-end street. And the stretch of the River Thames (pronounced “Tems”: don’t ask because it won’t help) that runs through the city is called the Isis. Figuring out why is as much fun as figuring out why Britain’s called Britain.

Wikipedia said, when I checked, that “’The Isis’ is an alternative name for the River Thames, used from its source in the Cotswolds until it is joined by the Thame at Dorchester in Oxfordshire. It derives from the ancient name for the Thames, Tamesis, which in the Middle Ages was falsely assumed to be a combination of ‘Thame’ and ‘Isis’”

Another site warns us not to “blindly accept the authority of something that you find on the internet” (very wise; you might want to give that some thought before you take me too seriously) and offers two apparently authoritative and conflicting derivations: Isis is Celtic for “Tranquil River” or “Smooth River” and it’s Celtic for “Dark River.” It goes on to mention rivers with similar names: the Tamar (dividing Cornwall from Devon) and the Tame (in the Midlands). Tame, it says (repetitiously repeating itself), is Celtic for “‘Dark One’ or ‘Dark One.’” Or quite possibly for “Dark One.” You can never be sure with these ancient languages.

It all gets weirder from there, with side trips into Sanskrit and Magyar (that’s the language of the Magyar people, who settled in what’s now Hungary) and words whose pronunciation is nowhere close to Isis, so we’ll stop.

Oh, hell, I can’t let us stop there. It’s all too weird to walk away from. The Magyar word Nedű, means “liquid,” it tells us. Why does it tell us that? I have no idea. Then it mentions the Szamos, which seems to be a river in Transylvania. It has problems with cyanide pollution and doesn’t, as far as I can figure out, sound a whole lot like “Isis.” Or “Thames.”

Then we get to unexplained mentions of the rivers Don and Danube, which clearly do sound a lot like “Isis” in spite of not having a single letter in common. Or maybe they sound like “Thames,” which they share a silent E with. It’s hard to tell.

At this point, folks, it really is time to leave and go back to cozy old Isis Close, where PayPal’s algorithm says you can’t buy anything online because you’re a security risk.

Somebody else’s algorithm has now added me to a new watch list because I’m writing about Isis. Oh, Great Algorithm, please know that I’m a Jewish atheist lesbian. I can be a lot of trouble, but I’m really not a natural fit for Isis the organization.

But we were doing surveys, weren’t we?

An assortment of names and words get blocked on the internet because they contain hot-button letter groups, and all sorts of people like to make lists of them, so let’s play Find the Naughty Word. Blocked words include: shitake mushrooms; the family names Cockburn and Callahan (I’ll give you some help with the second one; it contains the letters allah; really; that’s enough to get it blocked; what happens if you’re actually writing about religion I can’t imagine); Superbowl 30 where it appears as Superbowl XXX, making it sound like it’s triple X-rated; the Horniman Museum; and the town of Penistone. A blogger friend who worked at the University of Essex used to run into trouble as well. As have specialists whose resumes—because, you know, they’re specialists—(I’ll give you some help here too) include the letters “cialis.”

Devon has a town called Crapstone. I don’t know if that gets blocked or not. I just thought it belonged on the list.

In Britain, this is called the Scunthorpe problem, after a city whose name contains an awkward assemblage of letters. Lord Google defines the Scunthorpe problem as “the blocking of emails, forum posts or search results by a spam filter or search engine because their text contains a string of letters that are shared with another (usually obscene) word.”

Oxford’s Isis Academy gave up the fight and changed its name to Iffley Academy.

Other problematic addresses include Crotch Crescent in Oxford, The Butts (you’ll find them everywhere in Britain, presumably because butts were where people practiced archery), Hooker’s Road in Walthamstow; and Gropecunte Lane (now called Love Lane) in London. A Gropecunte (I’m not sure about the spelling there) Lane in York was changed first to Grope Lane and then to Grape Lane. Sherbourne Lane was once Shitteborn Lane, and since we’re going historical here, Shoreditch once had a Sound Arse Alley.

The list goes on, but having grown up with a different set of insults, euphemisms, and forbidden words, I didn’t get half the jokes so I won’t repeat them.

The Christmas cards Facebook banned

A British artist’s Christmas cards were recently banned from Facebook for having “adult content.”

Adult content? That’s prude-speak for sex.

The banned cards showed a robin, a stag, and a squirrel, none of them doing anything unconventional for Christmas cards, although in fairness these are creatures who, in the normal course of their lives will either have sex or at least try to.

So why the ban? The artist says she didn’t even describe the robin as being a red[gasp]breast, just a robin. She’s tried to get Facebook to reconsider but you can pretty well guess how well that’s worked.

It could be that the decision-making algorithm looked at some of her other cards. One reads, “No / Fucking / Ho.” But that’s not the one she was promoting, Still, thought the algorithm, There’s got to be something wrong with that robin.

The artist has a disabled husband and selling her work is a major source of income, so however funny the ban is, it’s also serious. If you’d like to see her work–or even buy some in the interest of supporting her and annoying Facebook, you can find it here.

And if that link doesn’t work, try this one. It’s her Facebook page, with no robin except where it’s part of an article on this whole flap. The link in the last paragraph worked when I first put it up, then when I checked took me to something completely irrelevant. I’ve corrected it but don’t know how long it will work this time; it’s not just Facebook; Google’s also got it in for this woman.

Swearing, affirming, and the Magna Carta

When Wild Thing and I became British citizens, we had a choice of swearing our allegiance or affirming it. Swearing is religious, of the so-help-me-god variety. Affirming isn’t, and I appreciated having a choice. I grew up in the U.S. with assumption that if I ever had to testify in court I’d have to swear on a book and by a god I don’t believe in if I wanted to be taken seriously. It was the American way.

What made me think that? I watched TV. If that didn’t make me an expert, I don’t know what it’s going to take.

A quick troll through the Great Google informs me, though, that in the U.S. you can actually choose to affirm instead of going with the default setting of a bible-based oath. You can also request a different religious book. But any of those choices call attention to your choice, and I can’t help wondering if whatever you say will be taken less seriously.

Irrelevant photo: If I’d mentioned the War of the Roses, I might’ve tried to slip this in as relevant, but this is the only place in the post that it gets a mention. (It’s also out of season.)

I’m prepared to be as much of a hypocrite as anyone else if it’s in a good cause, such as having my testimony taken seriously, but I’d prefer to be taken seriously without the need to lie. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of being willing to lie in order to convince someone I’m telling the truth.

The Quakers, I’ve read, refuse to take religious oaths on the grounds that they’ll tell the truth in court as they do in the rest of their lives.

Impressive people, the Quakers.

I’ve never had to testify in court except when I got divorced, and I as far as I can remember I didn’t have to swear anything then. What I had to do was say there were no repairs to be made to our marriage, which was more than true.

Oh, and I testified twice in small claims court, which doesn’t quite count.

Anyway, I appreciated being given the choice. I affirmed, and that involved enough hypocrisy, since the allegiance I was being asked for was to the queen and her heirs and successors—they’re covering all bases there—and however crazy the world’s going at the moment, I still can’t see that going back to or maintaining existing monarchies improves the situation. But no one told us what definition of allegiance they were working with, so I managed to find enough room to wiggle my misaligned and complaining belief system into the idea.

No one asked what any of us believed. No one much cared.

Members of Parliament can also either swear (they have a choice of holy books) or affirm (on thin air) their allegiance to the crown, and they can do it in English, Welsh, Gaelic, or Cornish. Since not all MPs even remotely support the crown, they’ve done some interesting things with the oath. Tony Benn added, “As a committed republican, under protest, I take the oath required of me by law.”

A republican—small R—is someone who believes in a republic as opposed to a monarchy. It’s not someone who belongs to the party of Donald Trump.

Dennis Skinner’s oath was even better: “I solemnly swear that I will bear true and faithful allegiance to the Queen when she pays her income tax.”

Tony Banks took the fully adult path of crossing his fingers when he took the oath.

Several attempts have been made to change the oath to something more neutral—to discharge the responsibilities of the office to the best of one’s ability, or to bear “true allegiance” to the people of the United Kingdom—but so far they’ve failed.

In 2017, any number of MPs said they were taking the oath only in order to serve their constituents, and by implication protested having to take it. But MPs can’t debate or vote (or, ahem, get paid) until they go through the ritual, so they have to swear or affirm something. Sadly, no one in the 2017 intake said anything sparklingly funny, although some did protest in various ways. I won’t quote them.

Whoever’s in charge of overseeing oaths doesn’t seem to be in a mood to toss MPs out for messing around with the wording. The feeling seems to be, Hey, let’s not push our luck here. As long as an MP goes through the motions—any motions—that’ll do.

All this swearing and affirming has its origins in the Magna Carta, which was signed in 1215, following an aristocratic rebellion against King John. Neither side took the Magna Carta seriously. The king was using it as a stalling tactic, and although the tradeoff the rebel barons agreed to was surrendering London, they didn’t. Its important impact was long-term: The crown became subject to the law of the land for the first time in English history and the rebels swore allegiance to the crown. It all, quite incidentally, paved the way for a series of oaths that became standard for servants of the crown and members of the judiciary.

As time passed, the hot-button issues of the moment have been added to the oaths people had to swear in order to take their posts. They’ve had to renounce the Pope, or repudiate the claim to the throne of the heirs of James II, or promise to support the Hanoverian succession.

The early oaths were elaborate. Saying “heirs and successors” wasn’t enough to cover all bases, they also had to meander through a bunch of synonyms for swearing Under James I, the first sentence begins, “I, [whoever you are], do truly and sincerely acknowledge, profess, testify, and declare in my conscience before God and the world….” It goes on to say that James is the “lawful and rightful” king and that the Pope is just some old guy sitting on a fancy chair in Rome and wearing funny clothes.

And so on, for the rest of a long paragraph.

Do you get the sense they were still feeling a touch insecure about something?

I start to understand why the thesaurus was invented. Truly and sincerely. Acknowledge, profess, testify, and declare in my conscience. Lawful and rightful. They wanted to close every possible loophole.

Under George IV, the focus shifted to defending him against “all Conspiracies and Attempts whatever, which shall be made against his Person, Crown or Dignity,” and to protecting the Protestant religion. It ended with, “And I do solemnly, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare That I do make this Declaration, and every Part thereof, in the plain and ordinary Sense of the Words of this Oath, without any Evasion, Equivocation, or mental Reservation whatsoever. So help me God.”

Oh, and I don’t have my fingers crossed.