About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Smoke, chimneys, and beds in Tudor times

No part of the past makes sense in isolation. Or it only does when you’re kidding yourself. Take a wider view and it gets messier but more interesting.

I started out wondering where medieval people slept and ended up learning about chimneys, so let’s start with chimneys.

They were introduced to Britain in the twelfth century, but they were only for the super-rich–the kind of people who had a castle or two–or for monasteries. Think of them as the era’s equivalent of a private plane: They weren’t something even your economically well-above-average person would lust after. They were too far out of reach. What most houses had at the beginning of the Tudor era was a central hearth–a nice fireplace on the floor, in the middle of the room. 

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries, stolen from an earlier post but who’ll notice?

The smoke rose from the hearth and worked its way out through the thatch, if the roof was thatch, or through whatever other openings were available if it wasn’t. Don’t worry, because even if the house didn’t have a hole in the roof above the fire, it would’ve been rich in chinks and openings. If it had a window, it would at best have been a wooden shutter but was more to have been likely oiled cloth. Glass was a luxury item. And I’m going to make a reckless guess and say the door wouldn’t have been a tight fit. 

If all that sounds awful, it also had its advantages. A website that quotes re-enactors from a Welsh museum says that on its way out the smoke would have waterproofed the thatch, killed bugs, and smoked meat hanging from the ceiling.

But that’s only the beginning. I’ve been re-reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and–well, let’s back up, as I always seem to in these posts, and talk about who Goodman is before we come back to our alleged topic.

Goodman calls herself a historian of social and domestic life in Britain, and as far as I can figure out she more or less invented her field, coming into it before respectable historians showed much interest in how ordinary people lived. But she doesn’t just study social history, she inhabits it, working out how people lived and trying it herself. Want to know how they cleaned their teeth? She can compare the virtues of chalk, salt, and the soot a wax candle leaves on a polished surface, because she’s tried them all. 

She consults for museums and for the BBC and has presented some wonderful programs on daily life in various eras. She’s fascinated by how people did ordinary things. 

As she puts it, “Our day to day routines have a huge cumulative effect on the environment, our shopping habits can sway the world’s patterns of trade, how we organise and run our family life sets the political tone of nations. We matter. Us, the little people, women, children and even men. How our ancestors solved the problems of everyday life made the world what it is today.”

Never mind for a moment that today’s world isn’t great advertising for the wisdom of our ancestors’ choices. How many of us can know where our decisions will lead, and how many of our ancestors had much of a range to choose from? Can we not get snotty about this? Most of them were only trying to cook a meal and stay warm. 

Which takes us, handily, back to fireplaces. 

Central hearths were good at warming a room. No heat disappeared up the chimney–there was no chimney–and they kept the floor of the house level nice and warm. This brought the people down to floor level, not just because it was warm but because the clearest air was down below. Sitting on the floor starts to look appealing when the higher levels are smoky. So does sleeping on the floor. You don’t want furniture that lifts your head up into the smoke.

What was it like to sleep on the floor? Well, having read that medieval floors were strewn with rushes, Goodman tried to figure out what that meant. By trial and a couple of errors, she found that if you make them into bundles and lay them somewhere between two and six inches deep, you get a solid surface that’s comfortable to sleep on–both springy and warm. (If you just strew them around, they get caught in your skirts.)

When she watered them lightly every couple of days, they stayed fresh and didn’t catch fire when a spark fell on them (that’s a plus), and they smelled like cucumber (that’s another plus if you like cucumber). And in spite of people walking, cooking, sitting, eating, sleeping, and spilling on them during a re-creation she participated in (and in spite of a family of chickens that no one had the heart to evict), at the end of six months the surface was still clean and when she cleared the rushes all out there was no mess at the bottom. Also no evidence of mice or insects or mold.

So sleeping on the floor? Not a hardship. Which is lucky, because that’s where lots of people slept, not just in the cottages of the poor but in castles. Have you ever wondered where the many, many servants in big households slept? Beds were for the few (to reverse the Labour Party’s current slogan), not the many. So what did everyone else do? I couldn’t help imagining that they had some sort of mattresses, no matter how basic, and I sometimes wondered where they stashed them all during the day. How much storage space could they devote to them?

But no. The lower orders bedded down on the floor, more or less communally, although separated by sex. Come morning, all they needed to store away were some blankets.

As the Tudor era rolled onward, fireplaces became more common, and with them, beds–or at least platforms that raised people off the floor and some sort of mattress to soften them. Bring in a fireplace and you get rid of the smoke (and can add a second story) but the tradeoff is that you get drafty floors and colder rooms. A huge amount of heat is carried up the chimney. Furniture that lifts you off the floor starts to look pretty good. 

That still leaves us with the storage problem, and I’m not sure how they solved that or if the lowest orders still slept on the floor–which was now drafty.

Mattresses ranged from a heap of straw to bags stuffed with everything from straw to wool to down, and bedsteads from simple platforms to boxes to hugely expensive four-poster beds, which you can think of as yurts set up inside a room. Sleeping in a four-poster was the original glamping. Your bed would be covered on top and on the sides, and inside all that covering you got not only warmth but some kind of privacy.

Privacy was a hard thing to come by at this point. 

That doesn’t tell us how many people slept in some form of bed, whether the ones who were left on the floor got something mattressy to protect them from the drafts, or where the mattresses got stacked in they did. Nobody was tracking people’s welfare and no one was keeping statistics–or not that kind of statistics anyway. 

What we do know is that life moved upward, into the now-clear air. And they all slept happily ever after. 

Or some of them did.

The Brexit update, with gorilla suits

We’ll get to the gorilla suits toward the end. In the meantime, with all the usual apologies (it’s important to know what’s going on; I didn’t start it; it has a lot of redeeming absurdity), here’s the Brexit update.

Parliament ordered Boris Johnson to send the European Union a letter asking to delay Brexit, and now he’s being warned that if he adds a covering note saying, “P.S., We don’t really want an extension, so please ignore the enclosed letter,” he will be breaking the law. The warning comes from an assortment of senior judges and lawyers.

That hasn’t gone to court yet. The warnings are in response to leaks saying the prime minister’s looking for a way around the law Parliament passed.

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, issued a warning of his own. He told Johnson there’s no such thing as a clean break from the EU. Even if Britain huffs out without an agreement, all the unresolved issues will still need to be negotiated. On his list were citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and a financial settlement with Europe. And fishing rights. And tariffs. And product standards. And and and and.

In other leaks, documents planning the prorogation of parliament–

Let me stop to explain this in the most objective terms for anyone who’s new here: Prorogation means locking Parliament in a broom closet while the prime minister pursues Brexit unencumbered by the democratic process.

Or two broom closets, since you couldn’t ask the Lords to share a broom closet with the Commons. They need a higher class of broom closet, with better champagne.

Actually, they all get sent home.

Where were we? Parliament ordered Johnson and his friends and advisers to hand over the documents they exchanged while they were planning the prorogation. They (that’s Parliament, not Johnson & Co.) managed that just before getting locked ceremoniously in their broom closets. The reason this matters is that the government claimed it the prorogation wasn’t political, it was just business as usual. Initial leaks indicate that it was anything but–and that the documents will prove that.

Since Johnson had to ask the queen’s permission to prorogue Parliament, the current flap is over whether he lied to the queen in order to get her to wave her magic feather over it.

The government is swearing it won’t release the documents, and that could put it in contempt of Parliament.

Does it matter if it is? An MP who’s held in contempt can be booted out of Parliament–and any prime minister is also an MP. If the prime minster isn’t an MP, is he or she still prime minister? Probably not. That’s awkward, and from a prime minister’s point of view, not desirable.

An MP who’s held in comtempt can also be confined to the Westminster clock tower, but the last time that was done was in 1880. Non-MPs can be imprisoned (not in the clock tower as far as I can figure out–that’s for a better class of contemptuees) for the duration of the Parliament, which these days can be for as long as five years.

Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings has been held in contempt and not only isn’t in jail, he was given a security clearance. I won’t try to explain that.

In 2018, Theresa May’s government was held to be in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release some Brexit legal advice it had been given. That was the first time in British history a government was held in contempt of parliament. May backed down and was not banished to the clock tower.

That business about the clock tower is real. I say that because it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. As a rough guideline, if I tell you that all government advisers have to dress in gorilla suits, that’s a joke. If I tell you that a politician can be imprisoned in (or under) the clock tower, that’s real.

Really.

I hope that helps.

In other leaked documents, the government has ordered a top priority centralization of user information from the government’s public information websites. This is supposed to help with Brexit preparations.

How will it help? No one seems sure, but although the government swears that no personal details will be collected, privacy campaigners, opposition politicians, and policy experts are uneasy about what’s being done and why, not to about mention the secrecy surrounding it. Especially because Cumming–that’s Johnson’s adviser, you may or may not remember, and he does not wear a gorilla suit–is the driving force behind this and was (not at all incidentally) the driving force behind the Vote Leave campaign’s complicated and partially illegal use of personal data.

Also not incidentally, £100,000 million has been budgeted for a campaign to direct people to the government’s Brexit preparation website–more money than some experts say can actually be spent. I don’t like conspiracy theories, but when I connect the dots I can’t help constructing one. And believing it.

In an earlier update I mentioned that three lawsuits had been filed against the prorogation of parliament. In England, the court said it wasn’t a subject a court could rule on. In Scotland (on appeal), it’s been ruled illegal. Both rulings were unanimous. Northern Ireland hasn’t ruled yet and the case was launched on different grounds.

Why the different rulings? Because the UK has three separate legal systems, which can allow courts to rule differently even when they consider the same facts, and even if you rule out the possibility of conscious or unconscious political bias. All three systems have equal weight. Britain’s highest court, the Supreme Court, has scheduled a three-day hearing starting on September 17. I have no idea which of the three systems they’re supposed to base their ruling on, or if they’re supposed to follow all of them simultaneously.

I wasn’t going to get into the maneuvering surrounding John Bercow, the speaker of the Commons, but I just have to. Following tradition, when he became the speaker he gave up his party affiliation, but before he did, he was a Conservative. Recently, he’s allowed the anti-no-deal coalition–now (really) known as the Rebel Alliance–to act effectively against the government. Whether that involved bending the rules or following them depends on what side of the divide you’re on, but the current government just hates the man.

Traditionally, when MPs are up for re-election no party runs a candidate against the speaker, but the Conservatives–they’re the current government, and I mention that in case you’ve been locked in the clock tower for a few months and have lost track of anything but those damn bells every fifteen minutes–have announced that they will run a candidate against him, which leaves him vulnerable since he won’t have party machinery to back him.

In response, Bercow’s announced that he’ll step down as speaker, but he’ll time it so that the current parliament, with its anti-government majority, will get to elect the next speaker.

If all that isn’t enough, a series of unleaked but reluctantly released documents detail what the government estimates are “reasonable worst-case assumptions” in case of a no-deal Brexit, although another version of the document apparently calls it a “base scenario.” (No-deal Brexit preparations, by the way, are called Operation Yellowhammer, because, hey, that sounds all military and cool.) Predictions include higher food prices, shortages of medicines, and riots on the streets.

The poorest people will be hit hardest. Some businesses will go broke (or “cease trading” to put it more blandly), including providers of adult social care. The black market will grow. Disruptions could go on for as long as six months.

Still, it’s nothing to worry about and revised estimates are due out any day now, as soon as the government can be strong-arm them out of the appropriate civil servants.

The paper also predicts smuggling across the Northern Ireland border and says the plans to impose checks there (it’s been an open border, but that depends on both Ireland and Northern Ireland being in the EU) would quickly become unworkable. We can also expect clashes at sea over fishing rights and the disruption of cross-border financial services.

For food sales to the EU to keep going, vets will have to sign 1.9 million food standard certificates, although it’s not clear from what I’ve read how quickly they’ll have to do that or how long they’ll last once they’re signed. Do they sign them every year? Every day? Every waking moment? For every shipment?

Meanwhile, Senior civil servants can expect to be caught between MPs’ demands and the government’s. Their union has written to the prime minister demanding an assurance that staff won’t be asked to break either the law or the civil service code.

We’re deep into uncharted waters, and you can’t make this stuff up. All you can do is add the occasional gorilla suit.

Another update from Brexit Britain

Okay, pay attention, because we’re talking about Brexit again, so it isn’t likely to make sense. In the interests of making this marginally easier to follow, I’ve left a few events out of sequence where the sequence isn’t what matters. 

Let’s start with the House of Commons passing a bill to block a no-deal Brexit. During the debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, was photographed lounging, odalisque-like, on the Commons’ benches and the picture went viral. He’s been photoshopped into everything from a couch surrounded by the Simpsons to a high jump to a graph of the shrinking number of MPs left in his party, the Conservatives. You can find a handful of them here, and they’re worth a look.

From there, let’s check in with the MPs the prime minister, Boris Johnson, threw out of the Conservative Party. They had to go looking for new seats in the House of Commons. The seats are–well, it’s sort of like the lunch room in whatever your worst year in school was. One bunch of kids sits over here and another bunch kids colonizes that table over there, and if you’re not part of either group you can’t sit with them, you have to search out a corner and try to look like you’re happy there and hope no one tells you it’s their spot and you have to get out. So a group of rebels stayed on the Conservative benches even though they’d been tossed out of the party and even though they’d been told that no one wanted to have lunch with them ever again. 

This is, apparently, a big deal. Just like it was in school.

Then Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo, announced that he was quitting the cabinet, saying he had to put the national interest above family loyalty. Not long after that, Boris Johnson said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask the European Union for an extension, raising the question of whether he’d defy the law parliament had passed.

Then a cop fainted in Yorkshire. What’s that got to do with anything? Johnson was supposed to be making a short, non-political speech about police and money and recruitment, and he had two rows of stoic-looking police trainees lined up behind him. They’d already been waiting in the sun for an hour before the speech started because it–or possibly he–was late. 

Once he got going, he made a long rambling (and in some accounts incoherent) speech about Brexit and being dead in a ditch and the election he hasn’t been able to call but wants to, and a cop collapsed. Which is usually a speaker’s cue to end the speech, and he acknowledged that but kept going for a while anyway.  

The chief constable of the area said he was disappointed that Johnson used his officers as a backdrop to a topic other than the one he’d agreed to. 

Johnson might be smart to watch the speed limit next time he drives through Yorkshire.

The bill the Commons passed went to the House of Lords, where the people who’d been expected to stall it didn’t bother. From there, it should go to the queen for her signature, at which point it will be law.

But it’s not exactly the law everyone expected because while it was still in the Commons an MP proposed an amendment that would bring back the deal Theresa May negotiated–a deal so unpopular that both pro- and anti-Brexit MPs voted against it–and it passed without being voted on because no one from the Conservatives volunteered to count the no votes. That may have been an accident or it may have been a deep and nefarious government plot. If it was, it was deep indeed, because the amendment was introduced by a Labour MP–that’s the opposition–not by anyone backing the government.

What’s more likely is that this is a bit of procedure so arcane that no one remembered it and it was able to ambush them.

The amendment could have been stripped out in the House of Lords but wasn’t, so a deal that no one liked has wandered back into public life like a three-year-old who woke up in the middle of a party and is wandering around sleepy-eyed and wondering why everyone’s acting funny.

Will Johnson defy the new law? At one point he said he would–he’d refuse to accept any delay and Britain would leave the EU by Halloween, dressed as a gorilla and over-hyped on sugar. Then his foreign minister said the government would follow the law but challenge it in the courts. And his chancellor said the government will “absolutely not” ask for an extension. 

Do the three of them know each other? You’d think so. They all sit in on cabinet meetings. Do they talk to each other? Probably. Do they listen? I’m guessing the answer’s no.

MPs who backed the bill are consulting lawyers about how to enforce it. Shops renting gorilla suits are consulting their calendars. I’m consulting my couch, because this stuff makes me dizzy and, excuse me, I have to sit down.

A prime minister going to prison for defying a law isn’t impossible. Whether he’d still be a prime minister at that point–. You guess is as good as mine.

Meanwhile, the High Court ruled that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament is constitutional. 

Proroguing? That’s when the prime minister sends Parliament home without any dessert. It’s usually done before an election and isn’t a political move. In this case, it was an attempt to keep the anti-no-deal bill from passing but it didn’t work. Parliament had just enough time and they didn’t like that mess they were serving for dessert anyway.

How anyone figures out what’s constitutional when you have an unwritten constitution is beyond me, but never mind. I’m not on the court so no one needs my opinion. And the High Court’s opinion doesn’t necessarily mean more than mine, because the High Court isn’t the highest court. The issue will go to the Supreme Court.

At several points in this sequence, we learned that Johnson has a problem with girls. I’m not talking about anything legally questionable, he just doesn’t seem to think much of them. He’s called former prime minister David Cameron (who’s from his own party) a “girly swot” and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “big girl’s blouse.” Apparently if you attach girl to anything, it becomes an insult. 

As one commentator said–sorry, I have no idea who; I’m quoting second hand–it’s like “being governed by a nine-year-old.” He might’ve mentioned that he had a nine-year-old boy in mind but he didn’t. In his mind, all nine-year-olds are probably are boys.

What can I tell you about those last two paragraphs that you don’t already know? Not much, I suspect. We’ll move on.

After the prime minister’s brother resigned, another cabinet member, Amber Rudd, stepped down, calling Johnson’s approach to Brexit “political vandalism.” The government, she said, wasn’t holding negotiations with the EU, although it claims to be, and 80% to 90% of its energy is going into preparing for a no-deal Brexit although it says it wants a new, better, shinier deal than Theresa May’s deal.

Meanwhile, back at the pub, the Wetherspoons chain has promised cut-price drinks if the UK leaves the EU. Brexit, they say, will be good for drinkers. To demonstrate, they cut all of 20 p off a drink. I’d love to tell you how much that would leave you paying, but short of marching in and ordering a pint (the closest Wetherspoons I know of is an hour away and anyway, I don’t drink) I don’t know a way find out. Their online menu is no help. Basically, though, this isn’t free booze we’re talking about and it’s not a life-changing discount. If you wonder how much 20 p is worth, you can buy four plastic bags with it, or a tin of mushy peas (you’ll get 1 p in change). 

There’s talk of the government trying to push the EU into expelling it by refusing to nominate a new British commissioner, but the EU says it’s happy to function without one. 

What next? Well, “A Downing Street source said: ‘We intend to sabotage any extension. The “surrender bill” only kicks in if an extension is offered. Once people realise our plans, there is a good chance we won’t be offered a delay. Even if we are, we intend to sabotage that too.’ ”

The “surrender bill” is what the government calls the bill blocking a no-deal Brexit, although, as Corbyn pointed out, Britain isn’t at war with the EU. 

A former Supreme Court judge said there’s no shortage of ways the law can be enforced. “An application will have to be made to the court for an injunction. The simplest way of enforcing the injunction would be for the court simply to direct an official to sign the letter on behalf of the PM and to declare that his signature was to be treated in every legal respect as equivalent to the prime minister’s.”

In the meantime, France is threatening to block a British request for an extension to the period before it has to leave the EU. They’ve threatened that before, though, and no one seems to be taking them seriously.

Think it’s crazy over here? It’s only going to get wilder.

In the meantime, if you’re tired of Brexit updates, I apologize. I think I speak for a large part of the country when I say that we are too. Unfortunately, they matter. Regular service will continue on Fridays. Just check in then and ignore everything else.

News from Britain: brawls, bugs, and Brexit

A brawl broke out on a cruise ship when–well, that’s where it gets murky and we haven’t even finished the first sentence. Let’s start with what we do know. Or think we know:

The fight happened so early in the morning that it was still late at night, in the ship’s restaurant (or buffet, as most of the articles put it), after a day of “patriotic partying,” whatever the hell that is, and an evening black-tie event. By this time, everyone involved was probably well lubricated. What the papers establish is that a lot of alcohol had been transferred from the bottles into the passengers but they don’t say which individual passengers it was transferred into. 

The people involved in the fight used plates and furniture as weapons. Passengers who weren’t involved described the fight as being between family groups. Is this what U.S. anti-gay campaigners have in mind when they talk about “family values”? I was never clear on whose family they were thinking of.

Six people were injured and reports say blood was everywhere. 

How much blood? How big an area is everywhere? What values did the families have? Dunno, duuno, and dunno.

Irrelevant photo: North Cornwall cliffs.

It all started, according to a witness, when a passenger became upset that another passenger was wearing a clown suit. He’d specifically booked a cruise with no fancy dress events. 

A fancy dress party is British for a costume party, and they’re endemic in Britain. The whole thing about dressing up says something profound about the British culture, or its psyche, or its something, although I’m damned if I know what. I’d welcome explanations, however far fetched.

If the story sounds strange, it gets stranger: The cruise line, P&O, swears that there was no clown on board and no one was wearing fancy dress. 

The people who were suspected of being behind the incident were confined to a cabin for the last day of the cruise.

With no dessert.

Two people have been arrested, a man and a woman. They’ve also been released but when they were last in the news they were still under investigation.

In the meantime, no one seems to be investigating this whole business about the clown, which borders on criminal irresponsibility.

*

Since we’re talking about transportation, a horse wandered onto an unstaffed train station at Tyne and Wear, which has something to do with Newcastle, but we don’t really need to know that. What mattered is that the horse wandered in and passenger helped it wander out, leading it to a nearby field that everyone agreed–possibly based on evidence and possibly based on convenience–was exactly the field it had come from.

The company that runs the trains issued a statement saying almost nothing, but it did mention that trains had been warned about the incident. I’d like to think the trains’ drivers were also warned. The real message was that there’s nothing dangerous about leaving a station without staff and everyone could sleep safe in their beds and not have nightmares about horses. 

What can we learn from this? That trains in Britain have drivers while trains in the U.S. have engineers. They do the same job.

Also that horses get bored. And lonely.

*

Reports in August said that Britons had spent £4 billion stockpiling things in case Brexit brings shortages. One in five people had gathered up £380 worth of food, medicine, and–yes, of course–drinks, because if you’re going to face shortages you want to at least be able to get shitfaced. Some 800,000 people are sitting on a hoard worth £1,000 or more. Luxury car imports are up 16% compared to a year ago, so presumably the super-rich are stockpiling luxury cars in case the import taxes go up. Because hey, you’ve got to watch every penny when you’re buying luxury cars.

People are also stockpiling toilet paper, but I don’t know how much they’ve spent on it or how many days’ worth they consider safe. It does all tell us what people consider important.

*

A study published in the British Medical Journal reports that washing the dishes can help you live longer. Not because it’ll keep your partner from killing you (it may, but they don’t seem to have factored that in) but because light exercise–taking out the trash, crawling under the bed to locate that lost shoe–keeps you alive longer. Less conveniently for your partner, so will walk around the block. And tickling a nerve near your ear with a low-level electrical charge might as well.

Okay, full disclosure: That last study indicates it might improve your mood and help you sleep and age better. It didn’t actually say you’d live longer.

Optimism also helps you live longer–11% to 15% longer according to a recent study (sorry–I lost the link). On the other hand, a really good chocolate cake might do the same thing. I haven’t found any data to say it won’t.

I also haven’t looked for any.

*

Salford City Council has dropped a ban on public swearing in Salford Quays. It was imposed three years ago and never enforced, but if it had been and if you’d been at the wrong end of it, you could have been out as much as £1,000.

With a mouth like mine, it could have been an expensive place to visit. 

In 2017, Rochdale City Council banned skateboarding, swearing, and begging in the town center. Violators could be fined, again, up to £1,000–which makes perfect sense when you’re dealing with someone begging on the street. 

The swearing ban was dropped as unenforceable later in the year. The rest, as far as I can tell, is still in force. 

In 2015, Chester banned sleeping on the street, feeding birds, and unlicensed busking, which is British for making music in public and leaving your guitar case open for people to drop money into. When all hell broke loose (and protesters marched in their pajamas), the council backed off those parts of the ban but kept the ones on urinating in public, drinking in public, and using legal highs. (That’s not a typo. They were talking about the legal ones.)  

I’m not a big fan of public peeing, but it might be more effective to just make some toilets available. Although that costs money. Welcome to austerity Britain. If you need to pee, that’s your problem.  

All the bans were introduced as Public Spaces Protection Orders. 

*

Protesters in France spent some time recently going into town halls, politely taking down the president’s portrait, and leaving with it. They’re pointing up President Macron’s inaction on climate change, despite his stance as a world leader on the issue. They recently held a march where they carried the portraits they’d taken–upside down. 

I wish I could explain why I find that so funny. I suspect it has something to do with how perfectly beside the point taking down the portraits is. 

*

A new study of seagulls reports that going eyeball to eyeball with them when they’re trying to steal your chips (a.k.a. french fries) will make them back down. Of course, no sooner did someone send out a press release on the study than every TV station in the country sent a reporter to the nearest beach to interview whatever humans were available. One that I watched asked them to recreate the experiment, and it was a disaster, especially when the humans were faced with more gulls than they had eyeballs, or when the gulls swooped in from behind, where (inconveniently) humans lack eyeballs.

*

The City of London (which is not to be confused with the city, small C, of London, of which the City, large C, is one small and expensive part) is tightening regulations on new skyscrapers. Existing ones have created winds that a cyclists’ organization says are strong enough to knock over pedestrians and push bike riders sideways, possibly into the paths of cars.

One building, called the Walkie-Talkie because of its shape, concentrated the sun’s rays strongly enough to melt parts of a car parked nearby. A reporter managed to fry an egg using only its heat. It’s since been retro-fitted with anti-pyromaniacal glazing and hasn’t set anything on fire for a while. We’re all hoping it’s found a better outlet for its impulses.

The new regulations will make the architects think all that through ahead of time. 

Don’t you just hate government red tape? 

London has developed a wonderful tradition of giving its skyscrapers names their that developers and architects didn’t plan on, and probably hate. The Walkie-Talkie is one. Others are the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Gherkin, the Can of Ham, and the Scalpel.

*

A New Zealand bug imported to the Isles of Scilly some hundred years ago has evolved to reproduce asexually. The population’s now entirely female and it’s doing just fine, thanks. 

The little beast is a stick insect called the Clitarchus hookeri, and it was an unplanned import, hitching a ride with some plants that were brought in for a subtropical garden. And no, in spite of it sounding like an academic April Fool’s Day joke, the little beast is real

Scientists brought some of the bugs back to New Zealand, where they were happy enough to mate with local males but went ahead and reproduced in the old fashioned way, which is to say, without male input. 

You can draw whatever morals you like from that.

The Isles of Scilly are off the coast of Cornwall and yes, they’re pronounced silly and are sometimes called the Scilly Isles. I’ve heard it often enough that I’ve lost the urge to giggle.

*

And finally, a small ray of hope for the human race: Writer Olivia Laing, whose first novel, Crudo, won the £10,000 James Tait Black prize, announced that she was going to share the prize with her fellow finalists. 

“I said in Crudo that competition has no place in art and I meant it,” she said. 

She’s what in Yiddish is called a mensch–a person of real integrity. I’m off to a bookstore to take a browse through the book and if it grabs me, to buy a copy. The other finalists were Murmur (Will Eaves), Sight (Jessie Greengrass), and Heads of Colored People (Nafissa Thompson-Spires). I’ll have a browse through them too. I have a hunch that you wouldn’t end up regretting it if you doing the same.

The Brexit Update, 4 September 2019

By the time you read this, it’ll be out of date–British politics are moving at the speed of a slow-motion train wreck–but here’s what I can tell you as of 7 a.m., British summer time (which isn’t a season but the time Britain goes by in the summer):

Yesterday, one lone MP resigned from the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats, and that was enough to lose the Conservatives their majority and make Boris Johnson the leader of a minority government.

That happened not long after Johnson announced that he would boot out (okay, effectively boot out, but let’s not get into that) any Conservative MP who voted against him. Last night, twenty-one of them did. At that point he became the leader of a government with a significantly smaller minority.

What they voted against him on was–damn this is hard to explain sensibly. Normally, the government has the power to set the agenda for the House of Commons, but the Commons can occasionally seize control of the agenda, and that’s what it did. This will allow the Commons to debate a no-deal Brexit today. 

When he lost the vote, Johnson said he’d call for an early election, but he needs the backing of two-thirds of the MPs for that to happen. Since a majority of MPs would be happy to drown him in the Thames, why wouldn’t they support a new election? Because Parliament shuts down for twenty-five days before the election, and Johnson would get to choose the date of the new election. If he chose his timing well, he could lock Parliament in a broom closet, withdraw from the European Union, and hum “Rule Britannia” while they pound on the door and yell, “Let me out!”

So although Labour’s been screaming for an early election, they’re against this one unless a no-deal Brexit is ruled out–which it won’t be. 

There are two ways around the need for a two-thirds majority:

First, the government calls for an election using the words “notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.” Then they’d only need a simple majority.

Can they do that, announce that they’re going to call an election ignoring the law governing elections? Apparently so. Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

But, of course, they don’t have a simple majority either. And proposing an election that way would allow MPs to set the election date, so it would lose Johnson his maneuvering room. And the bill could be amended, so Commons could tack on anti-no-deal wording.

It would also have to pass the House of Lords, so it’s a slower process. 

Second, the government could call a vote of no confidence in itself. 

Yes, seriously. 

If it passed, Johnson would be expected to resign and the Commons would try to agree on a new prime minister, who could ask the EU to delay Brexit. If the Commons couldn’t choose a prime minister in fourteen days (there’s a lot of political arm wrestling, not to mention posturing and an ego or two, involved), that would trigger a new election.

The BBC article that I pulled all that from (it’s the link several paragraphs back) calls that a high-risk strategy for the government. It doesn’t say that the crucial word in all this is expected, as in Johnson would be expected to resign, but it’s not entirely clear that he would, or whether he’d have to. The law’s fairly new and contains a lot of unknowns.

But back to the Commons seizing control of its agenda. If an anti-no-deal bill passes the Commons, which it probably will, the next hurdle is shoving it through the House of Lords, where it will, inevitably, be filibustered and amended. There’s an attempt in the works to set a time limit on debate. We’ll see how that goes.

The Scottish National Party is saying that a fall election would be a great opportunity for Scotland to demand a second vote on independence.

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That’s the headline stuff. In smaller print:

  • Scotland’s chief prosecutor has said he wants to intervene in two legal challenges to Johnson’s suspension of Parliament, saying that proroguing Parliament is it’s an abuse of power.
  • Speaking of abuses of power, Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings–the power, and possibly the brains, behind the throne–fired another special adviser, Sonia Khan, calling armed police to have her marched out of 10 Downing Street. He accused her of being the source of a leak–something she denies. The interesting thing here is that she didn’t work for him. She also didn’t work for Cummings’ boss, she worked for the chancellor, Sajid Javid. And Johnson wasn’t consulted about the firing. Read a few articles and you’ll find phrases like “mafia-style” and “reign of terror.” There are calls for an investigation into the firing.  
  • The government’s set aside £100 million for an information campaign to prepare people for Brexit, even though there are, apparently, questions about whether the government can manage to spend that much in two months. What do they want people to learn for all that money? That we should consult the government’s Brexit website, where they offer some fairly mild advice about travel, business, citizenship, and so forth. With apologies, I relied on a summary for that, not the website itself. The website wants to walk you through only what you need to know, and I bailed out at the point where it asked whether I’m a citizen. I am, but y’know, I just might want to know what happens to people who aren’t. But it’s all okay because the government has placed an order for mugs and T-shirts, so I feel better about it all.

The Brexit update–again

Boris Johnson–that most improbable of prime ministers–has announced that he’ll be sending Parliament home for five weeks so it can sit on the naughty step.

Why? To keep it from getting in the way of his Brexit plans. That’s called or proroguing Parliament. The word’s from Latin (prorogare) by way of Old French and it meant to extend. These days it means the opposite of extending: It means ending a session. 

Progrogation isn’t unprecedented. It was last done in 2017 for a general election, and that’s the way it’s normally used–apolitically. One parliamentary session ends to make way for another. This prorogation is different because it’s being used for political ends. 

Any bills that are still in the works when Parliament packs up its toys and goes home will lapse, so what Johnson’s hoping is that any attempt to block a no-deal Brexit will either not have time to work its way through the Commons obstacle course or will get to the Lords and be filibustered there until it dies. That would leave him a free hand to do whatever he wants.

All of which is ironic, because one of the rallying cries for Brexit was taking back Parliament’s sovereignty. 

Irrelevant photo: This has nothing to do with anything, and it’s not even in season. I just thought we might all need something nice to look at by now.

In response, the pound dropped against the dollar. An online petition against suspending Parliament gathered over a million and a half signatures in just a few days, although I’m not sure if anyone in power cares. The head of the Scottish Consservative Party resigned (officially to spend more time with her family). Since she led a Conservative revival in Scotland, that’s particularly awkward. 

For some time now there’s been talk about Scotland leaving the UK if the UK leaves the EU. The talk seems to be getting louder.

Three separate lawsuits have been filed to block Johnson’s move. In one of them, they’ve called for Johnson to state, under oath, why he needs to prorogue parliament. John Major –he was a prime minister himself, and from the Johnsosn’s own party, the Conservatives–has asked the High Court’s permission to join one of lawsuits. 

Some fifty MPs have announced that they won’t be sitting meekly on the naughty step, they’ll continue to meet during any suspension. They include members of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Change U.K., Plaid Cymru, and the Greens.

The civil service is said to be demoralized. An unnamed former senior official told the Guardian that one thing “making people want to leave is the realisation that they’ll have to spend ten years cleaning up the mess” of Brexit. Another is that they feel their work is “no longer purposeful” because Brexit has strangled all other policymaking. 

The head of planning for a no-deal Brexit at the Department for Exiting the European Union has resigned, which strikes me as particularly disquieting. And Robert Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, warned officials that they need to consider putting their “stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day.”

John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons, has denounced the suspension of Parliament as a constitutional outrage and Philip Hammond (another big name from the Conservative Party) has said it was profoundly undemocratic. 

Johnson’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, said, “Our system is a winner-takes-all system. If you win a parliamentary majority, you control everything.” 

The government promptly announced that he didn’t really mean that.

To sum up, Johnson has very nearly managed something his opponents haven’t been able to do, which is to unite them. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, this morning’s paper (I’m writing this on August 31) announced that sometime in the next couple of weeks, compasses at Greenwich will point to true north for the first time in 360 years, give or take. True north and magnetic north are sort of like the opponents of a no-deal Brexit: They’re not always in alignment. So this is a big deal, if not necessarily an omen. 

In other parts of the U.K., the two may not line up for another twenty years. And that’s not necessarily an omen either. 

Odd British traditions: witches, white rabbits, and medieval calendars

Twelve times a year, some uncounted number of Britons give someone else a pinch and a punch and say, “Pinch, punch, first of the month, white rabbits.” 

How many people do that? Um, they’re uncounted, so we don’t know. Enough to create a slight wave on the Odd British Traditions Scale, even if it’s not a big enough wave to sink any ships.

What do the words mean? If Metro knows what it’s talking about, most of the people who do it haven’t a clue. They do it because they do it. That’s one way to spot a tradition: Its origins are so murky that no one really understands it. Explanations range from medieval beliefs about witches to George Washington. 

What’s George Washington got to do with white rabbits? Not much, even if you believe the story. The tale is that he met with Native American leaders on the first of every month, serving fruit punch with a pinch of salt in it. 

If you believe that, I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn and I’d be happy to sell you a share in it. 

Irrelevant photo: love-in-a-mist

The medieval origin story is marginally more coherent. Salt was believed to make witches weak, so the pinch symbolized a pinch of salt to weaken the witches and the punch was to keep them away forever. Or at least until the next month, when someone could do it to you again. Basically they were giving you good luck. 

And the white rabbits? They’re to keep the person from doing it back to you, because you wouldn’t want any good luck yourself, would you? 

The rabbit line also shows up as “white rabbits, no return.”

Did your average medieval peasant do this to your other average medieval peasant? It’s a good question but not an answerable one. What I can tell you is that the medieval world believed in witches and that the first day of the month mattered back then, so your average peasant might well have known when it rolled around, even if it didn’t affect the planting and the harvesting and the shearing. The month was–well, this will be easier to take in if we back up a bit and talk about medieval calendars. 

Not that your average peasant had a calendar. Or could read one. But they’re a way to explain the medieval month and possibly the medieval mind.

Calendars were luxury items, hand lettered and hand decorated. They were also religious, as everything in medieval Europe was, with the possible exceptions of rain and mud. And horses. Horses weren’t big on religion. Chickens, to the best of my knowledge, weren’t either, although eggs got roped in on some of the holidays so let’s leave the chickens out of it. They’re ambiguous.

Calendars were about tracking saints’ days and assorted church holidays. So if they were a luxury, in churchly circles they were also a necessity. And they weren’t anything like what we think of as a calendar: You didn’t turn the last page at the end of the year and throw it in the recycling, you just went back to the beginning and started over.

But the differences don’t stop there. The medieval months had the same names we use now, but after that everything familiar breaks down. The month was divided into kalends (the first day), nones (the fifth, unless it was the seventh–it depended on how many days the month had), and ides (eight days after nones, although that’s not where they would have counted from). Those were your fixed points, to the extent that something that movable is fixed. 

I was taught that ides–as in “beware the ides of March”–was the fifteenth. I was taught wrong. The ides of March might have fallen on the fifteenth, but any old ides for an unspecified month could also have fallen on the thirteenth.

I’m drawing on the British Library for this, and it has access to experts that my high school English teacher didn’t. 

Now here’s where it gets severely weird: Although medieval months had the same number of days as modern ones, people (and their calendars) didn’t count the days by starting at 1 and going to 30 or 31 or–well, you know where this ends, so I don’t need to list all the possibilities. Instead, they counted backwards from the nearest fixed point: three days backwards from the next kalends, or five days before the ides. That number shows up in a column to the left of the main (I assume) information, which is the name of the saint’s day or church holiday (want to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, anybody?), which is the wide column on the right of the calendar. The important holidays are in red, leaving us the phrase red letter day.

Okay, in particularly fancy calendars, they’re gold, but the phrase we inherited still involves red.

In case the numbers decreasing as you go up is too easy for you, the calendars use Roman numerals. 

Another column lists the days as single letters, from A to G. These are called Domenical letters. 

Why don’t they use the first letters of the days themselves? Because these were perpetual calendars, rolling over from year to year, so the actual days of the week were a liquid. It’s 2014? E corresponds to Sunday. 

How do you figure that out

“To find the Dominical or Sunday Letter, according to the Calendar, until the year 2099 inclusive, add to the year of our Lord its fourth part, omitting fractions; and also the number 6: Divide the sum by 7; and there is no remainder, then A is the Sunday Letter: But if any number remaineth, then the Letter standing against that number in the small annexed Table is the Sunday Letter.”

Did you get that?

Another column has numbers from 1 to 19. These are called the golden numbers and they help you find the date of Easter in any given year, because Easter wandered in from a lunar calendar and isn’t a fixed date on the calendar we stole from Rome. 

How can a list of numbers from 1 to 19 help you figure out when Easter falls? You really don’t want to know, but I’ll tell you anyway: 

“For the determining of Easter . . . look for the Golden Number of the year in the first Column of the Table, against which stands the day of the Paschal Full Moon; then look in the third column for the Sunday Letter, next after the day of the Full Moon, and the day of the Month standing against that Sunday Letter is Easter Day. If the Full Moon happens upon a Sunday, then (according to the first rule) the next Sunday after is Easter Day.”

If I’d lived back then and if I’d needed to know, I’d have done what I suspect most people did and relied on someone else to tell me when Easter was due.

Many calendars also listed days when some kind of activity would be unlucky–bad days to start a journey or days that were unlucky for the limbs. What you were supposed to do with your limbs on unlucky days isn’t clear–at least not to me–but may have been perfectly clear to anyone living at the time. Keep them safe within your sleeves, possibly. Or avoid chain saws.

These unlucky days were called Egyptian days, and I haven’t been able to trace down the origin of the phrase. Let’s assume it grew out of a mix of ignorance and raw prejudice. There was a lot of both going around at the time. What a contrast to the enlightened times we live in.

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My thanks to Cheryl, who ran around pinching and punching to greet the first day of August this year. She has an exceptionally gentle punch and a sharp sense of the absurd.

British traditions: Lammas, sheep racing, and nightgown parades

Lammas is a quiet British church festival that was traditionally celebrated on the first of August, although these days it suffers from moments of inattention and wanders off to whatever Sunday’s closest to the original date. We’re too late for either the right date or the closest Sunday, but we’re not fussy here at Notes and we’re not celebrating anyway, just marveling at the intricacies (that’s a nice word for oddities) of British tradition.

Those of us who aren’t British, if we’ve heard of Lammas at all, never bothered to learn what it is. We saw it mentioned in some novel or other and our eyes hopped over the word, sending our brains a signal that we don’t need to know about this.

Our mine did anyway. I don’t really know about you lot. I only pretend to when I’m writing. For what it’s worth, though, Word Press’s spell check thinks I made the word up. Or that I’m spelling it lamas wrong. 

No one has mentioned Lammas to me in the thirteen years that  I’ve lived in Britain. That’s how quiet a festival it is.

Irrelevant photo: Poppies. They used to grow wild in fields of grain. Here they’ve had considerable encouragement.

But however quiet it may be, it happens in August and this is August. so let’s find out about Lammas. Because that’s what we do here at notes: learn about things we never thought we wanted to know. 

Lammas is an inheritance from the Anglo-Saxons. The word comes from the Early English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you like; same thing, different name) for loaf mass–a church celebration of the first grain that’s been harvested. Or as the British insist on calling the stuff, corn. What I and my fellow Amurricans call corn, they call maize. I’m still need a crib sheet to keep it all straight.

But what Lammas isn’t is at least as important as what it is: It’s a harvest festival, but it’s not the harvest festival: That comes at the end of September. It’s also not a lamb mass, although it sounds enough like one that in the nineteenth century some churches misunderstood their own traditions and, in an effort to go back to their roots, introduced one. In York, farmers who rented their land from the cathedral had to bring a lamb in to be blessed. 

That’s how it was back then. If the landlord said you had to haul a sweet little lamby, all baa-ing and terrified, out of its fields, away from its mama and its flock, and into the cathedral, you brought the poor beast. Your tenancy depended on it.

Yeah, those were the good old days. If the landlord had told you to dress it in a pink tutu, you’d have stayed up all night, trying to get a signal on your phone so you could find a tutu pattern that just might remotely fit a lamb. 

Whoever cleaned the floors after the blessing would have done some blessing of their own–a literal shitload of it. You can be sure that the idea for a lamb mass didn’t come from them.

Then in 1945, a minister started a campaign to revive the loaf mass, along with several other Anglo-Saxon festivals that had dropped out of use. He became the patron saint of all church cleaners.

But Lammas wasn’t just a religious date. British religious and secular life twined around each other for such long time that it’s sometimes hard to separate them. So Lammas was also a day for doing all sorts of secular stuff: paying rent, settling debts, changing jobs and houses. The rents make an intuitive kind of sense: If you harvest your grain and owe part of it to the landlord, everybody involved will want to set a date that falls after the harvest. And if you owe the landlord money, you’re most likely to have some after you’ve sold your grain. Everything else that fell on Lammas, I expect, trotted meekly behind that. 

What do people do on Lammas if they don’t have debts to settle and don’t have to bring a little lamby into the cathedral? Observation says most of them don’t do anything they wouldn’t do on some other day. The tradition’s obscure enough that the link I gave you back at the start of the post is to a newspaper article explaining it to the clueless people whose ancestors (genetic or cultural) once took the date seriously. When a tradition’s in working order, news outlets don’t feel the need to do that.

What people used to do was take a loaf of bread into church to be blessed. It’s nowhere near as messy–or as complicated–as taking a lamb in.

In some parts of the country, people then broke the loaf into four pieces and left one piece in each corner of the barn to protect the harvest. 

From here on, we may be slithering from traditional traditions to modern (or, if you like, made up) traditions: If you feel the need to mark the occasion next year, you can make a bundle of twigs (what could be more fun?) called a besom, or make a doll out of, um, something grainish. If you were in the Americas, you’d use corn husks, but for this you’ll want to use what the British call corn, which has narrower leaves and strikes me as harder to work with, so I can’t give you any guidance. 

You can also bake bread dough into a kind of plaque that that looks like a bundle of grain, an owl, or the–hang on a minute: the corn god? When did Christianity acquire a corn god?

I don’t make this stuff up. The article I linked to mentions one, and if the corn god’s wandered in, it means one of two things: 1, Lammas derives from a much older, pre-Christian celebration, or 2, the modern-day pagans have been busy reclaiming a heritage that, since it was pretty thoroughly erased, they make up as they go along, connecting Lammas with Lugh, a Celtic god whose festival was celebrated around the same time of year. 

Or possibly both 1 and 2. I can’t tell. They may be onto some real connection and they may be mixing up a loaf-mass and a lamb-mass.

The article has a couple of photos of gorgeous bread, along with a couple of recipes in case you have a gift for fancy baking.

Eastborne, Sussex, has a Lammas festival, and you didn’t miss it because it took a break this year. It’ll be back in 2020, with music, drumming, morris dancers (everything comes back to morris dancing sooner or later), and booths selling stuff. Selling stuff is as an essential part of any festival as morris dancing. 

What other traditions does Britain have in August? 

Why the Staithes Nightgown Parade. This year, it’s on August 16, which means you missed it, but  it’s been going on for as long as anyone in the village can remember so you should be able to catch it next year. 

In spite of the name, participants can also wear pajamas, and even bathrobes, but the men will probably be wearing nightgowns. It’s a British thing, straight non-(otherwise)transvestite men wearing what they think are women’s clothes, although I’m prepared to testify that I’m a woman and wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the things they wear. Never mind. They’re happy thinking that they’re dressed like us and none of them have been tempted to raid my closet, so I’m happy too. 

If anyone can explain the whole British cross-dressing thing to me, please do. A reader here once linked it to the time when women weren’t allowed on stage and young men and boys played the women’s roles. It’s a good start at an explanation, but it doesn’t stretch as far as telling us why the tradition escaped the stage, went free range, and is still wandering loose in someone else’s nightgown.

Staithes is a fishing village and the event raises money for the lifeboats, and no one can object to raising money for the lifeboats.

The Moffat Sheep Races were canceled in 2017 after 80,000 people signed a petition saying it was cruel to the animals. 

Where were all those people when those lambs were being hauled into church? They hadn’t been born yet, that’s where they were, so they get a pass on this one.

The sheep raced with knitted jockeys fastened on their backs, and in the video I watched they were being chased by a boy with a checked shirt on his. I can’t be sure, but the boy seemed to be having more fun than the sheep.

Bad hair centuries: wigs and powdered hair

Let’s start our survey of inexplicable English hairdos in 1660, when Charles the Sequel came back from exile. The Puritans, with their sober hair and their sober clothes and their sober sobriety, had lost power and paid for their hubris by being buried under a froth of lace and frills and ribbons. 

And that was just what the men wore. 

Among the things Charles brought with him were wigs–human hair wigs, horsehair wigs, yak hair wigs. Looking like you had a yak on your head was the height of fashion. Or just below the height. At the absolute height were the most expensive wigs, made of human hair. But a yak? That cost less. It’s easier to persuade a yak to part with its hair than it is to persuade a human.

No, I did not make up the yak hair and no, I don’t know where they got their yaks. The yak is not native to Britain and if you google “yaks in england” (it’s important not to capitalize Google searches) you’ll find wildlife parks and sites that sell livestock, but they’re all in the wrong century. I only mention them to report on the pointlessness of it all. 

Irrelevant photo: These are called, um, something. I always forget. They’re wonderful to touch, though. I do remember that, always.

You can probably figure this out for yourself, but in the seventeenth-century it was only affluent men who wore wigs. Ordinary men had to wander through life with their own sorry mops on their heads. Can you think of anything more embarrassing?

But let’s go back to the excesses and absurdities at the top of the social heap. I won’t keep repeating who it is that we’re talking about, so it’s up to you to make a note and remember. 

The men wore their–or, more accurately, someone else’s–hair long and curling. It was shoulder length or (if you happened to be the king) longer.

Women’s hair styles? By the end of the seventeenth century they were extreme enough that they needed wires to support them. After the hair itself was assembled, it was topped with lace that stood to attention on the top and might or might not droop down the sides. The whole construction looked sort of like some unrelated species had landed on the lady’s head and made a home there.

Women also wore wigs, but much less often than men. More commonly, their own hair was styled around padding, but they might have hair pieces worked in. 

In France, women powdered their hair, but in England they left that to the men.

You wouldn’t want to climb trees in any of this. Some men–soldiers and travelers show up on the list–tied their (or whoever’s) hair back in a low ponytail to make the mess more manageable.  

How did it get to this point? The blame for the men’s wig–the peruke or periwig–seems to fall on Louis XIII. That’s Louis the French King to you. Everyone who wasn’t French was convinced that the French knew whatever there was to know about fashion, so if the man put a yak on his head, everyone else had better do it too.

Although, of course, he had human, not yak, hair to work with, just not his own. 

That brings us to the question of why someone else’s hair should be better than your own, and there’s an almost sensible explanation for that. Or several, really. 

One reason is that wearing a wig was a way for the rich and powerful to show that they were different from those lowly folks who trudged through life underneath their own sorry hair. If someone has enough clout to wear your hair instead of his own, that person must be powerful indeed.

Even if the you in question turned out to be a yak.

Of course, wearing someone else’s hair also had a cost that couldn’t be measured in money: The wearers worried about who’d been walking around in their hair before they bought it. Had it been grown by a criminal? A prostitute? A dead person? Not just a dead person but a dead person who was dead because they caught the plague? Think about that too much and it could make your scalp itch under that wig.

Another reason, according to one source, was that Louis XIII was going bald, so getting everyone to wear a wig made perfect sense. 

Yet another was that people didn’t wash their hair often and head lice were a constant menace. With a wig, you could shave your head, plop someone else’s hair on it, and take it (the wig, not the head) off to disinfect it, clean it, and style it. If you had to, you could boil the sucker.

Or, given the class of people who wore wigs, you could have someone else do all of that for you. 

With your own hair, a lot of that–especially the boiling–is awkward.

Wigs could also hide some of the symptoms of syphilis–hair loss, rashes, scabs. 

Don’t you just wish you’d lived back then?

None of that explains why women didn’t do the same thing, but we’ll just shrug and move on.

So much for reasons. Let’s talk about maintenance, and stay with me, please, because wigs are about to sound even more appealing.

Hair powder originally came into the picture as a degreaser, and it was added daily. White came into style because wigs made of white hair were rare and expensive, but powder could also be brown, violet, pink or–well, the punks didn’t invent anything new when they started dying their hair green and purple. The stark white wigs we see in movies, though, seem not to be historically accurate. Put white powder on a dark wig and you get one or another shade of gray. Put it on light hair and you get a lighter blond. 

Pomade was also slathered onto both wigs and people’s own hair. Recipes for this varied but could include apples, suet, and some fragrance or other. The fragrance would cover the smell if–or maybe I should say when–the suet announced its own fragrance. The degreaser starts to make sense now, right? The pomade allowed the wig to be shaped into the frozen curls that came into fashion around 1700.

A wig would be powdered daily, and some houses had a small separate room to do this in. Ever wonder where the phrase powder room came from? It wasn’t originally about powdering your nose.

Every day, a hairdresser would comb out the old pomade and powder and put on new ones. The hairstyle itself, though, could sit undisturbed for weeks. Or so they say. How anyone combed out the pomade without disturbing the hairstyle is a mystery that we’ll sneak away from quietly.

Putting all this mess on a wig made it heavy. For the large periwigs of the 1730s, it could add as much as two pounds to your weight.

It was during this time that various professions adopted specific styles of wig–an inheritance the British legal system has yet to shake off. 

But we’ve lost track of women’s hair. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it was worn close to the head in soft curls, but by the late eighteenth century it gained height and the tops of women’s heads had become exhibition venues, full of ribbons, jewels, flowers, and stuffed animals. The peak of the trend was a hairstyle that involved a warship riding waves of hair. 

Again, all this had to be held in place by something, and lard was commonly that thing–or at least part of the thing–which made rats a real hazard. More than one source says, casually, that they made homes in the hairstyles. Which, as far as I can find out, didn’t keep anyone from slathering lard on their hair the next time. 

Is some element of exaggeration creeping in here? I’ve begun to wonder, but I’ve done my best to avoid the total nutburger websites. The rat reference came from an archeologist writing for whoever it is that maintains and runs George Washington’s farm. She was writing about (among other things) his hair. 

For eighteenth-century men, wigs were for formal occasions. For an informal occasion, they’d powder their own hair and tie it low on the neck with a black ribbon in a kind of ponytail. Some men–George Washington is an example, even if he’s on the wrong continent–styled their own hair to look like a wig. 

By the end of the century, both wigs and powder were going out of fashion. Older, more conservative men would still wear them, but younger men showed off their own hair. Then in 1795 the government put a tax of one guinea per year on hair powder. Exactly how you enforce a yearly tax on something people wear is beyond me, but the goernment must’ve had it figured out because people stopped using powder.

If you’re inclined to think that all taxes are always bad, consider that this one brought something like sanity to the outside, if not necessarily the inside, of people’s heads. 

The Brexit Update

In case you haven’t been tracking Britain’s political cannon fire, let’s take a quick dash through the shrapnel. The shooting’s metaphorical, so we should be safe enough, but do stay together. We’ll be moving quickly.

We’ll start at the moment when the members of the Conservative Party (all 42 of them) chose our prime minister. 

Why did they get to do that? Because their party came out of the most recent election with a whopping a majority of two in the 650-member House of Commons. That gave them the right to form a government. Forming a government means they choose the prime minister. And when the first prime minister they chose resigned in despair, they got to choose her replacement, even though the replacement, Boris Johnson, told everyone who’d listen (and several who wouldn’t) that he was going to move the country in a new direction, meaning not the direction the electorate might have thought they voted for.

But hey, that’s democracy for you. You cast your vote and you take your chances.

Does the Conservative Party really have 42 members? No. It’s something in the neighborhood of 180,000. Labour has upwards of 485,000. The Scottish National Party has 125,000. The Liberal Democrats have 115,000. Sorry, I’d give you a link on all this but it has to be downloaded and the link won’t work. If you’re worried about it, ask Lord Google.

How many registered voters does the U.K. have? Upwards of 46 million. 

Did the Conservative Party really have a majority of two? Yes, but it’s down to one now. Long story and we’ll skip it. Remember where I said we’d be moving quickly?

Why do I ask so many questions? Because it’s an easy way to structure a piece of writing. It’s cheesy, but it does let you know where I’m taking you next. And we’re in a hurry. I need to get this online before it all changes.

The point here is that a very small proportion of the electorate got to set the country’s direction. Instead of a negotiated exit from the European Union, we were now barreling toward an exit at any cost: Johnson promised that the country would leave the EU by October 31, “do or die”–in other words, with or without a deal. So it was no surprise when EU leaders announced that he showed no interest in renegotiating the Brexit agreement his predecessor had negotiated and then failed to find support for.

Johnson prefers a no-deal Brexit, they said.  

Does not,” the British government said. 

“Does so too,” the EU said, 

Et cetera, with lots of links to make up for the one I couldn’t give you a few paragraphs back.

But a majority of MPs oppose a no-deal Brexit. What’s Johnson’s next move, then? Well, even before he became prime minister, he was playing publicly with the idea of proroguing Parliament.

Of pro-whatting Parliament?

Shutting it down. Sending the MPs home at exactly the time when they might be able to stop him from crashing the country out of the EU.

Here’s how that would work: Crashing out of the EU is the default setting in this process. If the time limit for a withdrawal isn’t extended and if an agreement isn’t reached, the country crashes out, no matter what Parliament says. So to crash out in the face of parliamentary opposition, all you have to do is kidnap 650 MPs at the right time, which will keep them from interfering. 

But that’s illegal and offends most voters’ sensibilities, and the logistics are a nightmare, so you can do something simpler: You can send them all home, where their magic powers dissolve. And you don’t have to feed them or even tie them up, which you would if you kidnapped them. 

As I write this, the MPs are at home–they left Westminster meekly for the usual summer break–and the ones who oppose a no-deal Brexit are plotting the moves left to them when their powers return in September.

The obvious one is to pass a vote of no confidence in the government. At that point, the prime minister’s magic powers are supposed to dissolve and parliament has fourteen days to find a prime minister with the backing, however reluctant, of a majority of MPs. 

To date, though, no one can agree on who that should be. All the major parties are waving their hands in the air, yelling, “Me! Me! Pick me!”

If Parliament can’t find a majority to back any candidate, Parliament is dissolved and the prime minister’s supposed to call an election and resign. 

In the meantime, Johnson’s advisor–and quite possibly his brains–Dominic Cummings has reportedly said that Johnson might refuse to resign, even if Parliament does form a government. 

If that happens, he could presumably sit in the prime minister’s residence reciting nursery rhymes in Latin and entertaining the prime ministerial cat while the ship of state drifts toward the Brexit iceberg. 

“Look!” he can say. “My hands aren’t even on the wheel.”

The cat’s name is Larry. He–or someone very like him only human, with thumbs and without fur–tweets at @Number10cat. Larry is known to snub fawning politicians without regard to their policies, powers, or parties, in full and satisfying sight of the cameras. As the nation’s chief mouser, he’s outlasted a small handful of recent prime ministers and done considerably less damage to the country. He may or may not be interested in any amusement the prime minister can offer.

During this time, Johnson would, presumably, call an election, but while it was being organized the country would crash out of the E.U.

When Johnson was asked if he might refuse to resign, he refused to answer. 

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and assorted important and formerly important people have warned, in a variety of ways, that refusing to resign would cause the worst constitutional crisis since Charles I was beheaded. Okay, since the Civil War, but that did lead to Charles being executed. As far as I can tell, no one’s advocating that, although they might be dropping a subtle hint about where this could all lead.

There’s been talk of getting the queen involved. She’s supposed to be above politics –or locked out of them, if you want to think of it that way–but she is the person who formally asks the leader of the parliamentary majority to form a government, so presumably she also has the right to ask the prime minister to resign if he no longer commands a majority. She apparently can “overrule ministerial advice” in a grave constitutional crisis. But focus on the words apparently and presumablyThis is all new territory, because elections are controlled by a law that’s too new to have had much road testing. That may be why the wheels are wobbling so wildly. 

A few voices have argued that refusing to resign would be plenty constitutional under the new law, thanks. 

Parliament also has another possible way of blocking a no-deal Brexit: It could pass a law–not a motion; motions don’t have the power of laws–outlawing a no-deal Brexit or forcing the government to ask Europe for an extension. But to do that, MPs will have to take control of the Commons’ calendar, which the government normally controls. It can be done, but not easily. An assortment of precedents will have to be parked out in the hall while it happens.

To force Parliament to break precedent, which is always hard in a country that takes its traditions seriously, the government will have to refrain from introducing any new legislation between the time the MPs come back to work on September 3 and Brexit day, October 31. That includes legislation preparing the country for a no-deal Brexit. Why? Because MPs can amend any bill that comes before them in any way they want.

A third way to block a no-deal Brexit involves the courts. One lawsuit has been filed and others are said to be in the works. The one that’s furthest along would prevent Johnson from shutting down Parliament. Others (or another–the wording’s ambiguous) would force Johnson to resign if a no-confidence vote passes.  

In the meantime, Britain first announced that it would leave the Interrail train scheme, which lets a ticket holder travel throughout both Britain and Europe, then a day later, when there was a lot of shouting about that, announced that it wasn’t leaving.

Do we know how to have fun over here or what?