About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

The Crimean War: Europe sits down at a wobbly table

The problem with  history is that everything depends on everything else. The 1800s depend on the 1600s, which depend on–oh, hell, my math is terrible–whatever came before them, and so on until you fall off the edge of history and find you’ve been dumped in archeology and geology and anything else that might fill in a few blanks.

And it doesn’t just work backwards. It works sideways. British history depends on Irish history, on Kenyan history, on U.S. history, on Maori history, on French history, and on every other history you can think of. But I’ve been writing about British history here as if we could separate it from everyone else’s. We can’t, and at the same time if we don’t it’ll all get so convoluted that we–or at least I–will end up curled in the corner and gibbering to myself.

Still, let’s pick up a bit of European history, since somewhere along the line we lost track of it. Which bit? The Crimean War, where Britain and bits of Europe collided conveniently. It’s improbable enough to be a nice fit here.

Marginally relevant photo: Re-enactors, out for an evening’s practice. Whatever battle they were re-enacting took place well before the Crimean War. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the guy carrying two genuine Dark Age (I’m guessing at the era) plastic bags. but two bags of whatever for eight people means these folks were better supplied than the soldiers who fought in Crimea.

We’re looking at a moment when Victoria was on the throne. Britain had an empire and was feeling very pleased with itself, thanks. The only problem was that other European countries were out there maneuvering for–well, stuff. Power. Colonies. Raw materials. Markets. Empire, in fact, because running an empire’s a lucrative business. They wanted the same kind of stuff that Britain had, or even the exact same stuff that Britain wanted to keep to itself. Or if possible, get more of.

Europe had already fought a series of wars. One group of countries would fight some other group of countries and a bunch of people would die for, oh, you know, glory and marching tunes and shiny buttons on their uniforms, and then all the countries would get together and sign a treaty and got things settled down into a delicate balance of power for a while.

Until some heavy-elbowed country leaned on the table and all the drinks spilled because one leg was always shorter than the other three, so everyone started fighting again.

The trouble started this time when France and Russia decided they had to defend the rights of Christian minorities in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Which was Muslim.

Russia took the side of the Orthodox believers and France of the Catholic. Then France got bored but Russia didn’t and in 1853, it marched into a bit of Ottoman territory, the Danubian Principalities, and the Empire Struck Back, declaring war.

At this point we’d probably be safe to forget about the Christian minorities in Palestine, because they weren’t the point anymore–if they ever had been–and taking a different bit of Ottoman territory wasn’t going to do them any good. This wasn’t entirely–or even mostly, or possibly at all–about religion or the people who believed in the various religions. Russia looked at the Ottoman Empire, which had been around for a long time and was past its peak, and thought, Yum, I could have part of that. And Britain and France looked at the Ottoman Empire and thought, Oh, shit, if Russia gets part of that, it’ll control the Dardanelles, which is the passage from the Black Sea (and just incidentally the site of Russia’s only warm water port) to the Mediterranean.

Think of the Ottoman Empire as the cork for the bottle where Russia’s fleet was moored.

Russia did have northern ports, but the thing about the north is that it’s cold up there. Russia’s northern ports iced over all winter. That’s a problem for ships, which are designed for water.

So Britain wanted to keep the Ottoman cork on hand to bottle up Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Plus the Ottoman Empire was a good trading partner. It exported raw materials to Britain and imported manufactured goods from Britain, which was just the kind of relationship Britain had gotten rich on. Or one of the kinds, but let’s keep this simple.

In case that wasn’t enough by way of reasons, if Russia expanded in an Ottoman-ward direction, it could hippity hop through Afghanistan–which we all know is hospitable to invaders–and into British India. Which would not be good for Britain.

So when Russia seized Ottoman territory and the Ottomans declared war, Britain and France came in on the Ottoman side. Before long, Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia were all fighting Russia and everyone was cranking up a patriotic frenzy at home.

France and Sardinia had their own reasons. Never mind them. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The allied plan was to seize the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, on the (you knew this word would come up eventually) Crimean Peninsula, and be home in three months–long before the good folks there ran out of frenzy.

You know how that sort of prediction works out.

After a glorious first battle, the attack bogged down and the allies laid siege to Sevastopol. On two sides. Or possibly on one side. It depends where you want to draw the line between one and two, since they weren’t working with a square. The allies were to the south. That meant the Russians could come and go from the north and east.

Why couldn’t the Russians come and go from the west? It’s a good question. I’ve looked at maps of the siege and I’m prepared to testify that west was present throughout and located roughly where it is to this very day. Never mind. We don’t do military detail here. What matters is that this was a leaky siege, and even someone who knows nothing more about military strategy than how to spell it–and I offer myself as an excellent example of the species–could have told the allies they’d built a problem into the plan.

So everything bogged down and eventually the Battle of Balaclava took place, which included the Charge of the Light Brigade–a maneuver so disastrous that it’s celebrated in national memory and was awarded capital letters and a Tennyson poem full of thumping repetition and lead-footed rhymes glorifying if not exactly the charge’s stupidity, at least the soldiers’ suicidal obedience:  

Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.

What happened was that the Light Brigade was given an ambiguous order, did what they may or may not have been meant to do even though it was clearly nuts, and got shot at from both sides of a valley as they charged through it. In twenty minutes, forty percent were killed or wounded.

The Russians declared the battle a victory because they’d killed a lot of people and gained positions that seemed to matter. The British claimed a moral victory because they were so damn brave.

Tennyson also wrote a poem about the Heavy Brigade–the Light Brigade’s big brother. It was a flop and their more successful battle is mostly forgotten. I mention that in part because when I was a kid I thought the Light Brigade carried torches. So everybody could see their way, I guess. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but mine not to reason why. I couldn’t quite put a question together. 

So what, other than the fact that it happened and that I wanted to write about something in the nineteenth century, makes the Crimean War worth spending time on?

First, the telegraph was up and running, making it was the first war to receive on-the-spot coverage, notably from W.H. Russell, writing for the Times. At an early stage of the war, he wrote, “The French, though they had tents, had no cavalry; the Turks had neither cavalry nor food; the British had cavalry, but they had neither tents nor transport, nor ambulances nor litters.”

The Turks, by the way, were the Ottomans. You can call them either one and be reasonably right.  

The allies’ planning was stunningly bad. What they did have in plentiful supply was contaminated water. The causes of cholera weren’t yet known for certain, but the planners created perfect conditions for it. Disease–not just cholera, but a basketful of them plus badly treated or untreated wounds and malnutrition–killed four times as many soldiers as battle wounds did. Or ten times. It depends–as it often does–on who you ask, and probably which army or armies they’re counting. Four may be the more reliable number, since it comes up more often. Either way, though, many more soldiers died of illness than in battle.

Russell’s reports, along with the sketches of William Simpson, dragged the brutal reality–as opposed to the patriotic glory–of the war into the news, which pissed off Prince Albert, who didn’t think the general public should be in on this sort of thing. They also brought down a government. 

This is not unconnected to the second reason the war’s worth our time: The government got desperate enough about the public uproar to send women to the Crimea as nurses. The situation they found was beyond grim. In the hospitals, soldiers lay on bare floors and got no more than one meal a day–which is to say, there would have been times when they got less than one. Some were left to die with no medical attention and no painkillers. Others had their wounds bandaged once and were then put aside and forgotten. Sanitation was nonexistent. So were toilets.  

Into this mess waded the celebrated Florence Nightingale, the nurses under her leadership, and the until recently widely forgotten Mary Seacole, bringing order, compassion, medical treatment, and food–not to mention basic sanitation.

They were anything but welcome. The doctors wanted no part of Nightingale and her nurses. Sent by the government or not, they were women, for the love of Mike. What did women know? This was a place for men by men who were out there being men. And if there’s one thing men don’t need it’s sanitation and being fussed over. 

And Seacole? She wasn’t just a woman, she was a black woman. She’d had to pay her own way to the Crimea, because the British government refused to send her, and once she got there she had to elbow her way into a position where she could do essentially the same work as Nightingale but separately, since the sainted Flo didn’t welcome her help either.

Yeah, life’s an ironic s.o.b.

Their lasting legacy was the professionalization of nursing and the introduction of basic sanitation to hospitals.

And the legacy of the war? In 1855, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol. Eventually everyone negotiated yet another treaty and went home. But the table still had one short leg. The countries of Europe (which included Britain, even then) still had heavy elbows. 

World War I spilled even more drinks. And more blood. And prepared the ground for facism and World War II.

Don’t you just love history? It makes a person feel so optimistic.

Brexit, cats, and smart doorbells

The Brexit uproar has been hard on Britain. We have a prime minister whose idea of negotiation is to say, “I’m so glad we can talk. Let me explain why I’m right.” We have a parliament that doesn’t like her version of Brexit but can’t find a majority for any alternative. We have two main parties that not only don’t agree with each other but also don’t agree with themselves.

On a more positive note, the Green Party’s parliamentary delegation hasn’t split over the issue. It only has one member, but we take our positive notes where we can find them these days.

Irrelevant photo: Bluebells at Lanhydrock in mid-April.

In April, water flooded into the House of Commons, filling–among other things–the light fixtures. Business continued as more or less usual for some ten minutes, then was suspended for the day. All the possible jokes about the flood’s metaphorical meaning have been made, so we’ll skip my versions and move on to another incident that interrupted the endless Brexit debate.

To call attention to the danger of ecological collapse, a dozen protestors from Extinction Rebellion took off most of their clothes and stood with their backsides pressed to the glass that divides the visitors gallery from the floor of the Commons. The Independent reports that two of them were wearing elephant masks and most were wearing knickers or underpants.

Not being British, I was thrown by that. I thought knickers were underpants, so I turned (as I do so often) to Lord Google, who explained that knickers are women’s underpants.

The guidelines for naked and semi-naked protests are complicated and I’m too damn old to understand them in depth. I did all of my protesting fully dressed, thanks. Except for that time when–

Nah. We’ll skip lightly over that. It was unplanned anyway.

Moving briskly along. I gather that if you’re not wearing anything else to speak of, people will notice whatever’s left, so it’s important to wear the right kind of underpants if that’s what’s left after you take everything else off. Once we’ve agreed about that, we can have a long and spiky conversation about what right means and what its social, cultural, and political implications are. It will go on as long as the Brexit debate and come to about as decisive a conclusion. Just to let you know in advance, I’ll defend anyone’s right to wear whatever kind they want and my own right to wear only the kind that are comfortable.

Some of the protestors glued their hands to the glass. 

Ouch.

*

An anti-Brexit group beamed an EU flag with an SOS message to the EU from the white cliffs of Dover. The group is called Led by Donkeys.

*

A recent poll conducted by Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, Inc., reports that people are on the one hand worried about shortages if we have a no-deal Brexit but on the other hand are stockpiling in a completely whimsical way. A friend bought eight cans of tomatoes. Or maybe it was seven. Another friend has cans of tomato soup and baked beans stored in the shed. I’ve checked our cat food and dog food levels.

Let it rain, let it pour. Britain is prepared.

I am in no way claiming that this is representative. Or that it’s not.

*

Earlier this spring, before the EU granted the UK a Brexit reprieve, the British government was looking down the very short barrel of a no-deal Brexit and thought it might be a good idea if 6,000 civil servants did something Brexit-related instead of whatever it was that they normally do. Since the reprieve, they’ve been moved back to their original jobs, but another 4,500 people were hired to prepare for no-deal. I have no idea what’s happened to them.

The Guardian reports that it all cost £1.5 billion, which doesn’t include the cost of preparations various local governments had to make.

In total, some 16,000 civil servants are working on Brexit.

The government has also stocked warehouses with baked beans and pet food, not to mention medicines and toilet paper, which is to say everything we’d need for life to continue normally if the country crashed out of the EU and imports froze solid.

The Brexit reprieve expires on Halloween. All the possible jokes have already been made about that as well.

*

Switzerland’s supreme court did something that caught the attention of Britain’s Remain campaigners: It overturned a referendum on the grounds that when  it was held voters didn’t have enough information. The referendum was about whether married couples should pay the same taxes as unmarried couples who live together .

The court said the “incomplete detail and a lack of transparency . . . violated the freedom of the vote.”

*

But enough about Brexit. A far more scientific survey than the Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, Inc., ever manages to crank out reports that the British are more likely to take drugs before having sex than either Americans, Canadians, Australians, or Europeans.

We’re not going to get too deeply into the American / Canadian thing right now, but briefly: Canada is in the Americas–on the northern continent, if we’re going into detail–but those clever Canadians thought of a name for their country that distinguished it from the countries it shares a set of continents with. The, um, Americans didn’t, so those of us who are from the US are stuck with a name that strews confusion everywhere it goes and pisses off our neighbors every time we try to identify ourselves.  

Sorry for all that, everybody, but if there’s a genuinely workable alternative in English, the people who found it are keeping it secret.

Where were we? Ah. Sex. No wonder I forgot.

In the U.K., 13% of the people surveyed used cocaine in conjunction with sex and 20% used MDMA–a.k.a. ecstasy. The European numbers were 8% and 15%. The American, Canadian, and Australian numbers weren’t mentioned in the articles I found. The most commonly used drugs were alcohol, MDMA, and cannabis, with alcohol being by far the most common.

Among the British, the most likely people to use them were young and had high incomes. If that messes with your stereotypes, hey, I’m only the reporter. If you want to object, go glue your hands to the glass somewhere.

*

Another bit of research compared bullshit rates among teenagers. Who tops the charts? Boys, those from “privileged backgrounds,” and North Americans (translation: from the U.S. and Canada, although Mexico’s also North American).

And if that reinforces every stereotype you ever held, that’s not my fault either. We’re in blame-other-people mode here at Notes this week.

The article I’ve linked to has an April Fool’s Day date, so I thought I’d better dig deeper: The story appeared somewhere else the day before. It’s safe.

I wouldn’t bullshit you. 

The study was limited to English-speaking countries, so we can’t do any far-reaching comparisons.

How’d they catch the little scamsters? They asked how familiar they were with sixteen mathematical concepts “ranging from polygons and vectors to quadratic functions and congruent figures. Hidden among the bona fide terms are three fakes: proper numbers, subjective scaling and declarative functions.”

Those names constitute a truly impressive bit of bullshitting.

The study’s co-author, Nikki Shure, said that “bullshitters express much higher levels of self-confidence in their skills than non-bullshitters, even when they are of equal academic ability. They are also much less likely to say that they give up easily when faced with a difficult problem and claim to have particularly high levels of perseverance when faced with challenging tasks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are also more likely to believe they are popular at school.”

And I’m sure they go out into the world of work and make more money than their classmates. Some of them run for president. Others lead the campaign for a no-deal Brexit.

*

And now we come to the important stuff: A Japanese study claims that cats know their names but can’t necessarily be bothered to respond to them. This has nothing to do with Britain, but the British do love their cats. 

Okay, it’s irrelevant, but I like cats, so let’s talk about it anyway.

Scientists from the University of Tokyo used a habituation-dishabituation paradigm to explore this. I’m sure that rolls off the tongue just as easily in Japanese as it does in English. What it means is that they played five recorded words to the cat and the last one was its name. The first four lulled the cat into–well, boredom: The cat became used to the recording and became less likely to respond to it, but in spite of that it responded more to its name than to the words that came before it, whether the recorded voice was the owner’s or someone else’s. Ears might twitch. Eyes might open a fraction of a percentage of a millimeter.

Would the cat go looking to see if someone was calling it? It would not.

End of experiment. Now it’s time to correct some of their assumptions:

First, there’s no need to ask whether cats know their names. Of course they do. The creatures who don’t know their names are their humans, who call them things like Fluffy and Cutsie-Woo and King Captain Spaceman.

Then the humans–those same people who never thought to ask the cat its real name–wonder why their cats don’t answer.

Because it’s embarrassing, that’s why.

Not that the cats would necessarily answer to their true names. Why bother? Humans can be such pests. What a cat would do is come to the surface enough to ask itself, What’s in this for me? This is a recording, not my person. It won’t offer food. It won’t pet me. Then it would go back to sleep.

Second, what’s all this about owners? Cats have people. They offer food and catnip and adoration. They open doors. They serve as animated hot-water bottles. They pick up dead mice. Owners? What delusions of grandeur humans have.

I hope we’ve straightened that out.

*

Cambridge University just spent £1 million on a bust of Queen Victoria. Or as the BBC put it, Cambridge saved it for the nation, because it was about to leave for parts unknown, impoverishing the country’s cultural heritage.

I’ve written to the Prime Minister suggesting that we stockpile these in case of a no-deal Brexit. She just loves to hear from me.

*

You may have already read that Amazon staff listen in on a percentage of the interchanges humans have with Alexa, that automated spy in your home.

Or not in your home. I don’t listen in, so I don’t know if you’ve opened your door to her or not.

It turns out, though, that other digital magic is accomplished with the help of tiny humans embedded in the technology.

Or maybe I misunderstood that. Maybe they’re ordinary humans listening from a distance.

In 2017, Expensify admitted to using humans to copy some of the receipts its “smart scan technology” was supposed to have smartly scanned. Facebook’s personal assistant, M (I never heard of it either; it escaped from some James Bond movie and went back as soon as it found out what the real world was like), turned out to use a mix or human and programmed responses. And Amazon’s smart doorbells also involved humans.

What’s a smart doorbell? I have no idea. According to a site that evaluates them (and passes you on to sites that sell them, no doubt picking up a small fee somewhere along the way), they have “live video streaming, Wi-Fi-enabled apps, two-way communication, and home automation compatibility.”

So either that means you can stand outside your own house and watch movies on your doorbell or that you can see who just rang it. Or possibly both. Simultaneously. Which is simple because you’re already out there, watching the movie. All you have to do is turn your head.

When I was a kid, we called that a drive-in theater.

My point, though, is that Amazon’s Ring brand smart doorbells allowed its research and development team “virtually unfettered access . . . to every video created by every Ring camera around the world.”

Team members were found face-down at their desks, dead of boredom.

*

Another branch of the human evolutionary family has been found, this one on Luzon Island in the Philippines. They’ve been called Homo luzonensis, they lived 50,000 to 67,000 years ago, and they were about four feet tall (that’s 1.2 meters), with curved fingers and toes that would have allowed them to climb trees. If they’d survived, they might have made less of a mess of things than we have, but that’s highly unscientific speculation.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part fourteenish

What you’re about to confront (should you choose to stick around for a few paragraphs) are search engines questions that lead people, poor unwary souls that they are, to Notes. I have preserved them in all their oddity, complete with typos, a lack of question marks, and an absence of capital letters. And in case I sound snotty about the caps and question marks, I don’t use them when I type search questions either.

The questions are in italics. I’m to blame for everything in roman type, which is (you learned something today) what non-italic fonts are called. Okay, there’s also gothic, a.k.a. blackletter, but that’s a side issue.

News and culture

what is the unfornunate news from britain

That we’re governed by either amateurs or professional incompetents. I’m still trying to figure out which.

I should clarify that. Professional incompetents are different from incompetent professionals. They’re people who make a living–and a good one from the sound of things–out of their incompetence. If that isn’t enough unfortunate news, it’s hard to get a decent bagel. Even more shockingly, where you can get them, they’re spelled beigels, which could account for why good ones are so hard to find.

How unfortunate did you want to get? I could talk about Brexit.

Irrelevant photo: hellebore.

sticking two fingers up

I’ve had a cluster of questions about the two-fingered salute lately.

A two-fingered salute is the rough equivalent of the one-fingered salute, but with an extra finger thrown in for bad luck. And yes, Britain recognizes the single-fingered one as well. The British are nondenominational that way. Or ambidextrous. Or as an American football player once put it, amphibious. (“I’ve always been amphibious,” he told an interviewer who’d asked about his ability to throw with either hand. I don’t remember the player’s name. I used the quote to see if Lord Google would remind me and I found any number of people claiming to be amphibious. Unlike the football player, though, they seemed to understand that amphibioiusness involves water, not hands or footballs. I’m guessing they also understand that it’s physically impossible for humans, but who am I to say what’s in another person’s head?)

But we were talking about sticking two fingers up. To do this, you use the index and middle fingers–the same ones you’d use for a peace or victory sign, but facing the other way. If you’re looking at the back of your hand, you’re okay. If you’re looking at the palm, you more or less told someone to fuck off.

All you non-Brits who are reading this: If you visit, keep your hands in your pockets if you want to order two beers. It’s the only way to keep yourself from holding two fingers up wrong way round, because your muscles will override your brain. Unless you come from a country where you start counting on the thumb, not the index finger, in which case you can wave your hands around any way you want.

And as far as I’ve been able to figure out, no one says, “Sticking up two fingers.” That raises the question of what you’re sticking them up. It’s “sticking two fingers up.” If you don’t think about it too much, it makes sense.

Anyway, having addressed the question in some post of other, I seem to have become an international expert on the of sticking two fingers up. I couldn’t be prouder. Clearly, no other website welcomes intellectual curiosity the way I do. So with however many fingers you have free, pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable. We’re happy to entertain bad manners here at Notes.

Within limits, of course.

What limits?

It’s hard to predict. Push them and you’ll find out.

And who’s this we I’m talking about? Me and the dead mouse Fast Eddie brought in this morning.

This should be clear from the context, but let’s not take anything for granted: Fast Eddie is the cat. My partner’s Ida and she does not bring in dead mice, but she’s very kind about picking up the ones Eddie brings us.

dress code for female parliament in uk

No tutus. No fairy dresses. No shorts. MPs can wear tee shirts but the speaker will disapprove so intensely that he’ll pretend they’re invisible and they won’t get called on if they want to say anything. I haven’t read this anywhere, but I’m pretty sure jeans are frowned on. It’s the only reason I haven’t run for office.

I suspect it would be very bad karma to dress up as the queen.

No nightgowns. No pjs.

But it’s not entirely a list of no’s. MPs are supposed to wear businesslike attire. What does that mean, though? I’d love to see what happens if one of the women shows up in men’s businesslike attire. Or, since what used to be considered strictly men’s clothing has crossed the gender divide somewhat but women’s clothes haven’t, what happens in one of the men shows up in women’s businesslike attire.

By way of answering the question fully, I should point out that the parliament, being a thing instead a creature and is neither female nor male. And doesn’t wear clothes.

who wears stockings in the house of commons

Theresa May. If she’s still there by the time you read this.

why arent more mp’s in the house for debate?

Ooh, good question. Because the debates aren’t about convincing anyone of anything, they’re about a bunch of people who suffer from the illusion that the world’s listening and are therefore making a statement to that world. What they say goes into a print record, called Hansard’s. Does anyone read it there? I have no idea.

Do they sit around and listen to each other? Hell, no. They’re in the bars, in the pubs, getting haircuts, waiting for the bell to ring so they can hustle back and vote.

kett;e throwing contest

Okay, this got weird enough that even though I can’t tell you much about it I have to leave it in. Lord Google couldn’t find me any kettle-throwing contests. Given Britain’s gift for thinking up unlikely contests, this indicates a gap that some enterprising town or village could fill–profitably.

What I did find was a series of references to throwing a kettle over a pub.

Since there’s  no logical order to any of this, I’ll drag you down the trail I followed. First, I stumbled into a site for people learning English. Someone wanted to know what throwing a kettle over a pub means because the phrase popped up in something they’d read. Assorted people explained that it’s a colloquial expression and that it isn’t a colloquial expression; that it’s used in dialogue on various TV shows and that it isn’t; and that it should be taken literally, as in (I assume) you shouldn’t try to read any deep meaning into it.

No one said it shouldn’t be taken literally, so at least they established something

Then I found something called NewsThump, which claimed that MP Nadine Dorries had tweeted that David Davis was the perfect guy to negotiate Brexit because he could throw a kettle over a pub.

I thought that explained a lot about the Brexit negotiations and how the negotiating team was selected. Davis did negotiate the Brexit deal. He then resigned because he couldn’t support it.

He did not throw a kettle over a pub. Or if he did, the House of Commons was empty because the MPs were all off drinking and getting their hair cut, so it went into Hansard’s but no one saw it.

If I kettle flies over a pub in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a political difference?

I’m not sure Theresa May can throw a kettle over a pub. I suspect not. She looks a little thready to me.

Maybe that’s the problem.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably say the NewsThump is a satirical site and that Nadine Dorries probably didn’t really tweet that, although it’s getting harder and harder to tell satire from reality these days. David Davis really did resign because he didn’t like the deal he’d negotiated. Theresa May really does look thready. I doubt I can throw a kettle over a pub either, but I haven’t tried yet, so don’t count me out.

I don’t say that to in any way excuse Theresa May.

I still don’t know whether throwing a kettle over a pub is an off-the-shelf British comparison–sort of like saying something is the size of Wales. It could also be some random collision of words that I’m running into improbably often. If it’s a standard issue comparison, I hope someone will let me know because I need to get one. Or two, really, one for me and one for Ida–you know, the person in my life who so very kindly picks up dead mice. (Oh, but she’s so much more than that.) We’ve lived here fourteen years now and I’m not sure how much longer people will put up with us operating without a full set of off-the-shelf comparisons.

Why did the question land here at Notes? I have no idea but I’m grateful. I learn a lot from these experiences.

do british tourists feel wary about pick pockerters in other countries

No, they’re perfectly comfortable about it all. They just speak louder, in English, to be sure the relationship’s proceeding as it should..

do the british observe april fools day

Do they ever. Beware of newspapers on April 1. The island of San Seriffe? The spaghetti harvest? April Fool’s Day stories.

Luces and maces age 2019

No idea. I googled that myself and the closest I came to anything sensible was a bunch of YouTube stuff uploaded by Lucas and Marcus, whoever they may be and whatever age (or ages) they turned (or will turn) in 2019. The question wandered in here because I wrote about the maces in Parliament. I don’t remember mentioning luces, but in case the information’s useful it’s the plural of lux, which is a unit of illumination. 

I had to look that up, so there’s no chance I used it so casually that I forgot. It’s also the plural of luz, which is light in Spanish and which I also haven’t mentioned.

The internet is a very strange place.

British food

What do they call brownies in britain

Sidney.

do they eat brownies in the uk

Yes, but only in secret. It’s illegal. After you’ve learned to call them by their first name, eating them seems barbaric.

do brits not like soft cookies

Of course they don’t. They cringe at the very thought of them. More to the point, why do people who write these questions think entire nations like and dislike the same things? Have you ever look at Quora? People ask things like, “Do the British like the color blue?” Of course they do. Every blue-besotted one of them. It’s because their skies so seldom turn that color.

weet-bix like muffets

Where do I start? Weet-Bix is sold in Australia and New Zealand. Weetabix is the British equivalent. Neither one is a muffet. Nothing is a muffet. Muffet is not a word.

Miss Muffet is someone in a nursery rhyme. She sat on a tuffet. Please don’t recite the rest of it. I may have to throw myself over a pub. I have a kettle but I use it to make tea and don’t want to wreck it. I’m also pretty sure that the only way to get it over the local pub would be to use air mail.

A muffetee is a scarf. I never heard of it either.

Weetabix and Weet-Bix are also not muffins or muppets. They’re cereals that go limp if they get within three yards of milk. Please do not bring either of them into my kitchen. I will attack them with my kettle.

“british lasagna”

This is in quotation marks because–. Okay, it came with the quotation marks, but British lasagna isn’t really lasagna, so it deserves to be quarantined in quotation marks and never allowed out. It’s made with a paste-like white sauce and tastes like noodles overcooked with paste-like white sauce. The lasagna you find outside of quotation marks has red sauce–the stuff made with tomatoes. And taste. Lots of taste.

And no, I’m not in the least biased. I just happen to know what’s right.

It’s entirely possible that the stuff with the red sauce is American lasagna. If that’s not the way the Italians make it, they’re wrong too.

where does lemon drizzle cake originate from

The island nation of Limonaria, where it drizzles a lot.

when did brussel sprouts arrive in uk

7 pm. They were due in at 5 but the flight was delayed.

how many brussel sprouts are eaten in december world wide

73.

british iconic easter eggs

I don’t know about iconic, but if you want overpriced I write about them every Easter. I can’t seem to stop myself.

The United States

do americans have letterboxes

No. The letter carriers just chuck our mail under the nearest bush. This is hard in built-up areas and in deserts, where bushes are scarce. Sometimes we have to walk long distances looking for our mail. 

How to spend lots of money on Easter eggs

Doing a survey of bizarrely expensive Easter eggs has become a sort of tradition here at Notes.

Did you notice how I slid that statement by using “has become,” as if I had nothing to do with the process? But I write this mess. So why do I do a yearly survey of overpriced Easter eggs? Because there’s something magnetic and horrible about watching the world’s insanity.

And since I’m taking responsibility for what goes on here, I should stop and issue a serious-content warning: I can lose my sense of humor over this stuff all too easily, so if you read the next three paragraphs (one is short, so call it two and a half paragraphs) you do it at your own risk. And if you lose your own sense of humor, don’t say you weren’t warned.

Britain’s been living with austerity budgets since 2008. Or 2012. It depends on who you believe and, I guess, how you count. Schools–not all of them, but a canary-in-the-coal-mine few–are so short of money that they’re no longer teaching a full five-day week. Food shelves–which were somewhere between rare and unknown when my partner and I moved here fourteen years ago–are everywhere and overwhelmed. The waiting list for mental health services is long, as the news reminds us periodically when someone with a bit of public appeal gives up on waiting and walks off a cliff. That’s a small and random sampling of the effects of austerity, but you get the drift. Money’s tight. We can’t afford frills.

Did I say frills? We’re not affording basics.

What’s that got to do with overpriced Easter eggs? Everything. Do you know how many British bankers were paid over a million euros a year in 2017? The answer is 3,567. Of those, 30 were paid more than 10 million and one got 40.9 million. I’d give you data for a more recent year but 2017 is what I can find. And I’d translate that to pounds, which my keyboard offers me a sign for, but you don’t want me juggling numbers. I’m dangerous when I get around numbers.

If you think spending that much money is easy, think again, and here we rejoin our topic, Easter eggs, and I hope my sense of humor. Easter eggs are a great way for those beleaguered bankers spend their hard-earned cash.

At the, ahem, lower end–really, too low to include here but I don’t want to look like a snob–you can buy a hamper of organic chocolate for £55 from Green and Black’s. It’s “perfect for indulging all your family and friends at Easter.” They mention that in case you didn’t know what to do with an entire basket of chocolate and thought you had to eat it yourself. It’s “delivered in a beautiful black twisted paper woven onto black metal frame hamper with black faux leather with two silver metal clasps.”

It’s funny how much better fake sounds when you say it in French.

Still on the low end, Betty’s of Harrogate sells a chocolate egg for £57.50. For that, you get a “sumptuous hand crafted egg that’s equal parts craft skills, dedication and wonderful chocolate.”

Are craft skills and dedication edible? Are craft skills different than craft and skill? I wouldn’t have said so, but what do I know? They’re the chocolatiers and they’re not about to give away their recipe. 

The egg’s also stunning, traditional, stippled, smooth, delicate, and–no wait, it’s already been stunning. We don’t want to stun people twice. My apologies. It comes in an elegant box.

You might be able to get it for a mere £57 if you can make do without the adjectives. But go on, splurge. Spend the extra 50p.

For £80, Hotel Chocolat sells an ostrich Easter egg that’s “40% milk chocolate, 50% dark chocolate” and since that adds up to 90%, 10% verbiage.

More apologies: I didn’t need to add the extra 10%. Half of it (that’s 50% where I come from) is made from 40% milk chocolate and the other half (again, 50%) from 50% milk chocolate. You can see why I ran into trouble. The British system of selling chocolate lets you know the percent of actual chocolate, as opposed to sugar, milk, palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, vanilla, and (if we’re talking about, horrors, inexpensive chocolate) wax. They don’t all contain all of that.  I’m just giving you a general sense of the possibilities here.

The egg comes with a neatly boxed squadron of chocolates and the whole shebang weighs more than a kilo. That’s 2.2 pounds. Your family and friends aren’t mentioned, so we can assume every bit of it is for you. Try not to eat it in one sitting.

And now we have to switch briefly to dollars and inedible eggs. I know, this comes from the wrong country, but bear with me. I found these online and I hate to waste research. For $179.95, Williams Sonoma offers a box of alabaster eggs in an “array of cheery colors,” but they aren’t available in the European Union because of “technical challenges due to new regulations.” I have no idea what regulations those are or why they’re challenging, which is a shame because I was going to order three boxes. Or a full dozen. Nothing exceeds like excess.

If I got the quote about the cheery colors wrong, I apologize. I had to grab it quick before the page and its photo disappeared and got replaced by the you-can’t-have-it, blame-the-EU notice.

We’ll call them Brexit eggs. Even though the U.S. isn’t leaving the E.U. It might, but that’s hard to predict when no mechanism exists for a country to leave when it never joined and by virtue of geography isn’t eligible. So we don’t know who’d get to make the decision or which way they’d jump.

We’ve had the same problem–we don’t know who gets to make the decision or which way they’ll jump–in Britain lately and the mechanism for leaving’s quite clear. Apologies if that crack’s gone out of date. It only means I forgot to update this before it posted.

Further up the scale, Betty’s of Harrogate offers the Imperial Easter Egg for £250. You can’t find this one by going onto Betty’s website. That’s one way to filter out the riff-raff. Since I’m a dedicated bit of riff-raff myself, I had to find my way to it by way of a magazine article. If I was the sort of person who had an inborn right to buy one of these, I’d have just known. But now that I have found it, I’ll open the door and let my follow bits of riff-raff follow me in without needing to look at Cosmopolitan magazine online.

In case it’s not already clear, Cosmopolitan is no more a part of my natural habitat than this (or any other) section of Betty’s website is.

The egg is made to order (Betty’s, understandably, doesn’t want to get stuck with a few dozen when the season’s over) and weighs 5 kilos. If you translate that to pounds and melt it, you’ll find it’s enough chocolate to float a full-scale replica of the Titanic.

Ah, but it’s not only made to order, it’s personally delivered. The website doesn’t say personally by who. (For that much money, it should really be delivered by a whom, not a who, but let’s not let the money intimidate us into being pretendting we’re formal.) My experience with delivery is that it always involves a person. Usually two of them, me and someone driving a delivery truck and working under a contract whose conditions come right out of the  nineteenth century. But maybe Betty delivers this one herself. I just don’t know.

If the Imperial Egg strikes you as cheesy, try Betty’s Centenary Imperial Easter Egg for £495. It weighs over 5 kilos, although I can’t tell how much over. A gram? An ounce? A half pint? Never mind. What matters is that it’s heavier than the plain ol’ imperial version.

It’s also made to order. It doesn’t seem to be personally delivered, but it comes heavily gilded with adjectives, although not as heavily as Betty’s £57.50 egg. At this price, they can trust themselves to the elegance of minimalism. If it counts as minimal when you include shimmering, hand moulded (I’ve left the U in place because for this much money you should at least get a spare U), delicate, and nestled. Maybe we should call that relatively restrained instead on minimal and attribute it to the self-confidence of people dealing in bizarrely expensive Easter eggs. Or maybe they wrote up the cheaper eggs first and used up all the adjectives. 

If all that isn’t expensive enough for you, we’ll switch countries and currencies again. Tiffany sells a sterling silver bird’s nest for $10,000. It’s “whimsical design was inspired by a 1969 engagement ad from the Tiffany Archives. Woven from delicate strands of sterling silver and housing three custom Tiffany Blue® porcelain eggs, this design transforms an ordinary object into an extraordinary sterling silver piece.”

It’s not edible and it comes with a registered trademark symbol on the word blue, which justifies the price. What’s Tiffany blue? A robin’s egg color. The trademark it doesn’t mean that robins can’t lay blue eggs anymore. All they have to do is pay a small tax on each egg and they’re free to use the color as much as they like.

Tiffany doesn’t predict any technical difficultires sending it to the European Union. That will be relevant if Britain’s still in the European Union by the time you order it.

*

I haven’t written any of this to argue that we go back to a traditional religious Easter. I mention that because periodically someone leaves a comment saying that we should. I’m not religious, and in any case Easter isn’t part of the religion I don’t have. I did, for whatever relevance it has, grow up with the secular version of the holiday and I still have a weak spot for Easter baskets.

I’m not really advocating anything else either. I could, but I’d lose even more of my sense of humor. You could probably say that I’m just having a moan.

For anyone who’s not British, I need to explain moaning. It’s a fine old British tradition that I’ve lived here long enough to adopt. It involves complaining but never, ever to anyone who might be able to fix the problem. If you complain to the right person, you’re no longer moaning, you’re being–. Um. Something. Awkward maybe. Or bolshie. I haven’t been here long enough to know the right word, although I expect it gets used now and then when I leave the room, but I don’t get to hear it.

With that said, if you’re determined to complain to the right person, you’re welcome here anyway. There’s not reason to limit ourselves to moaning. I’m not actually sure that restricting the conversation to moaning is part of the British stereotype. I trust folks will set me straight on all of the above.

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, whether it’s something religious or the first spring flowers (or the start of fall if you’re on the bottom half of the globe–or more warm weather if you’re right in the middle), I wish you a good one.

A quick history of the Royal Mail

People in England have been able to send each other letters since 1635, but the Royal Mail traces its ancestry back further than that, to 1516, when Henry VIII made Brian Tuke Master of the Posts.

Actually, Tuke wasn’t just made Master of the Posts, he was knighted Master of the Posts, which makes it all sound much more important, as if he got to trot around on a white horse, wearing armor.

What Tuke really got to do was set up a network that carried mail for the king and the court and not for nobody else, thanks. What did anybody else matter? If Joe Commoner wanted to tell his granny that he wished she was wherever he was, he’d have to wait more than a hundred years, by which time the message would have been pretty much irrelevant. On top of which, postcards still wouldn’t have been invented. The first one was made in 1861, in Philadelphia, which also hadn’t been invented.

But back to the Royal Mail. In case the restless marrying habits of this particular Henry haven’t engraved him in your memory, he was the son of Henry VII, who became king by defeating not just Richard III (that’s the king Shakespeare didn’t like) but also Richard’s horse and Richard’s horse’s shoe at Bosworth Field, thereby condemning Richard to be buried in a parking lot and putting his–that’s Henry’s–son in a position to send letters around the country in an organized way.

To the victor’s son go the letters. And from the victor’s son come the letters.

Irrelevant and beautiful light painting, “Light Dance,” by Nassima. Used with the artist’s permission and my thanks. You’ll find more of her work by following the link.

That bit of background was as irrelevant as the light painting, but I thought I’d toss it in anyway. And if the references are too culture-bound for outsiders to follow, they’ll stop now, so you can read on safely.

When James VI, the king of Scotland, became James I of England as well, one of his concerns was to keep control of Scotland once he’d moved himself and his court to London. Scotland was a long way from London. There was no telling what his nobles would get up to while he was gone. So one of the first things he did was to set up a royal postal route between London and Edinburgh.

The postal service was opened to the public in 1635 by Charles I, who gets bad press on for a lot of reasons (high handedness, suspicions that he was, gasp, Catholic, conflicts with parliament, a political tin ear, a goatee) so we might as well drop this feather on the positive side of the scales. You’ll probably have figured this out, but he accomplished it well before he was executed.

The deal was that you could mail a letter for free but there was–as there always is–a catch: The person you sent it to had to pay for it. If they didn’t pay, they didn’t get the letter. The cost depended on how far the letter had traveled, so an account had to be kept for each letter.

But junk mail hadn’t been invented and getting a letter was an event, so if someone wrote to you, it meant something. If you had the cash, you’d think twice or thrice, or even fource (no, it’s not a word–after thrice the English language hurls itself on the floor and goes into spasms of regret) before you turned one away.

The letters were carried on horseback and on foot, and the service had six routes, with posts along the way where the person carrying the letters would leave anything for the area and pick up anything that was headed their way. Exactly what happened to the letters once they were left at the posts I haven’t been able to find out. It’s one thing to keep enough footpower to deliver the king and court’s letters anywhere in the kingdom. It’s a whole ‘nother gig to assemble the footpower to make the entire kingdom’s letters deliverable. Even at a time when most people couldn’t write and damn few could afford to pay for a letter that found its way to their door.

The information’s probably out there somewhere but I haven’t figured out the question that will lead me to it. If anyone wants to give me a shove in the right direction, I’d be grateful–for whatever use that is.

Thomas Witherings ran the service at this point and he was charged with making sure a letter could reach Edinburgh and come back to London in six days. He was to build six “Great Roads.”

During the Civil War, Parliament took the service away from him and gave it to Edmund Prideaux, whose politics were a better fit for the time. In other words, Ed wasn’t a royalist. What he was was the second son of a baronet.

What’s a baronet? The lowest rank of British hereditary nobility. They’re (oh, the shame of it) commoners but can use the title sir.

Remember that. I’m sure you’ll find it useful as you wander through life. 

You’d think overthrowing a king would involve dumping the entire tradition of hereditary nobility, but you’d be wrong.

Edmund expanded the service, increased its efficiency, and faced down an assortment of competing carriers that left him stamping his metaphorical feet and complaining to parliament.

In 1653, the contract went to someone else, but Ed had made a tidy piece of change by then and Cromwell made him a baronet, just like his daddy and big brother, for “his voluntary offer for the mainteyning of thirty foot-souldiers in his highnes army in Ireland.” 

You might want to notice that by then Cromwell called himself “his highnes” there. And that he didn’t use apostrophes. Or that whoever wrote that for him did and didn’t.

In 1655, the postal service was put under the direct control of the secretary of state, who was Cromwell’s spymaster, John Thurloe, and he was sweet and helpful enough to deliver letters between conspirators, having made sure to read them first. Before that, the tradition was to keep conspirators from communicating at all–or at least that was the aspiration.

Then in 1660, when Charles II was on the throne, the General Post Office was set up. It was publicly owned. A year later, the post mark was established, showing the place and date a letter was mailed and–okay, it all gets a bit boring after that. In 1771, the service covered England, Scotland, and Wales. It took another century before Ireland was added.

No comment needed.

We’ll skip the years here to keep from drowning in trivia. Coaches were used. The name Royal Mail was used. Uniforms were introduced, and railroads and steam ships. Mail reached throughout the empire and the commonwealth for the first time.

It was 1839 before the sender paid for the letter instead of the recipient. Standard rates were introduced, and in 1840 so was the first adhesive stamp, the penny black. Britain was the first country to introduce a stamp that would stick to paper and is still the only country that doesn’t bother to put its name on its stamps.

The guy who invented the adhesive stamp was knighted. He got to trot around on a white horse and wear armor but was far too understated to do either. As far as I know.

With the penny post, the number of people using the system grew massively.

More trivia: Pillar boxes were introduced (they’re round, freestanding, iconic mailboxes used throughout Britain), but the first ones were green, not red. Wall boxes came later. Those are post boxes but they’re set into walls. Both types have the initials of whoever was on the throne when they were set in place, and people collect them.

What does it mean to collect a box when you can’t pick up and walk away with it? It means you go see it. Maybe you take a picture of it. You know where it is. You feel a personal connection with it–maybe even friendship and communion. Where I come from (the U.S.), one mailbox is just like another mailbox, but people can be very possessive about the British ones. A post box was taken out of our village (long story) and people actually know where it went (to Wales, where it’s in storage). They’re not interchangeable Lego pieces. They’re individual. They have personalities. I don’t know whose initials are on it, but I’ll bet you someone in the village does.

After that, you have to be more and more of a postal geek to care about the milestones. Parcel deliveries were added. Postcodes were introduced. That was gradual and started in 1959. They allow for machine sorting. It’s not until 1968 that first and second class service was introduced. The theory is that second class mail can be thrown under the counter in a crisis while first class is waved through, but I’m told there isn’t much difference in how long it takes them to arrive.

Then in 2011, the whole mess was ninety percent privatized.

*

What was it like to send a message during the Middle Ages–and I’d assume for a while afterward, before the Royal Mail was opened to all users? According to the Short History website, “During the Middle Ages, towns, universities, monasteries and trading companies all had their own messengers, some of whom were protected by royal decree. The Papacy had its own courier system, in order to keep in touch with its clergy and churches across Europe. Bishops were required to send regular messages through to Rome, and in return, received papal messengers from Rome. Only the wealthiest individuals and organizations could afford private courier systems, because of the need for horses, accommodation and travel expenses. This meant that messengers often worked on a ‘freelance’ basis, taking messages from several different sources and competing with other messengers to be the first to deliver important news.

“During particularly sensitive times, such as war, messages were often sent in coded form, or hidden about the person of a messenger who would adopt an innocent disguise, such as that of a pilgrim. Information could be hidden in clothing, a walking staff or even a person’s shoes. Envoys were often required to carry valuable gifts to present to the recipient of their message, and such items again had to be hidden during the journey. Gifts had to be selected carefully, to make sure that they were suitable for the recipient’s rank and status and the messenger would also be presented with gifts to take home on his return journey.”

I don’t know how authoritative that is. It sounds convincing, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.

Medieval messages would often not be written down–most people were illiterate–but messages that were written would have been sealed, and many would have been sent with a passing merchant or pilgrim. The most important ones, from people with money (who are always more important than people without money, she said cynically), would have been sent with a messenger.

No one had addresses, and people didn’t necessarily stay where they were expected to. Monarchs especially traveled. They had multiple palaces. They went on progress, forcing their nobles to feed and water (or more accurately, alcohol) the entire damn court. They went off to fight battles. Messengers had to scurry around looking for them.

Pigeons were also used, but this only worked if the message was going to what the pigeons considered home. You couldn’t whisper a name in a pigeon’s ear and expect it to search the person out.

Saints, sex, and kings

Once upon a time there lived a king.

Ah, but there’ve lived a lot of kings, so we need to be specific about this.

Once upon a time, there lived a king named Henry.

Oh, hell, there’ve lived a good number of those as well. Eight in England alone. This particular king was Henry the Half Dozen, a.k.a. Henry VI. He was known for general incompetence and for presiding, in a vague sort of way, over the War of the Roses and that unpleasant business with Joan of Arc.

Also for becoming a saint. Or sort of a saint. A semi-saint. And possibly for not knowing what, other than sleep, he was supposed to do in bed.

Image result for henry vi dates

A rare relevant photo. Or picture, since the camera hadn’t been discovered, possibly because no one was looking for it yet. This is Henry VI, in all his glory.

But let’s start at the beginning. Henry became king of both England and France in 1422, before he was a year old, so he can be forgiven for not getting off to a strong start. As an adult, his main interests seem to have been religious observances and schools: He founded both Eton and King’s College, Cambridge. An essay in the Britannica sums him up as reclusive, generous, and pious. 

A different essay in the Britannia calls him simple minded and subject to spells of madness. Other sources add that he was kind. It all depends on who you ask, apparently. 

His vagueness as a leader allowed rivalries to flourish between his advisors and was matched by his vagueness as a subject for the artist who painted his portrait. The picture gives you–or me, anyway–a sense that in the time it took the artist to glance from subject to canvas he’d already forgotten what the man in front of him looked like.

I know he has a nose, you (or I, if we’re going to be accurate about this) imagine him thinking, but what shape is it anyway? Potato? No, those haven’t come over from the Americas yet. Carrot? No, that’s not it either.

And so on.

Even the shape of his head is odd. I mean, it’s definitely a shape, and what with the ears and the eyes and all it’s clearly a head, but there’s still something vague about it, as if the artist couldn’t figure out where the edges were.

Okay, I admit, in later portraits his nose looks more noselike and the edges of his head look more edgelike, as if he came to terms with himself as he got older. And his mouth doesn’t seem to be saying, “Oh, how did I get here?”

Never mind. The portrait was the least of his problems. During his reign, the English countryside was dominated by lawlessness and by powerful lords with private armies. The court was dominated by the Yorkists–followers of the Duke of York. That’s when it wasn’t dominated by the party of Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, a powerful woman stuck in a position where, as the mere wife of a king, she had no power of her own.

She led the Lancastrians–the king’s party.

Both sides, Yorkists and Lancastrians, had a reasonable claim on the throne if you consider any hereditary monarchy reasonable. Of course, by then, half of England had a claim on the throne, although you won’t find any historians willing to say so. You see how these conspiracies work?

Grain of salt there, please, people.

The problem was that only one throne was available and the idea of job sharing hadn’t been introduced.

The only person who didn’t have a claim on the throne was Henry’s son, because he didn’t exist yet. For eight years Henry and Margaret had no child, male (desirable) or female (better than nothing but not half as useful). And here’s where that clickbait from the top of the post re-enters: Historian Lauren Johnson has been burrowing around in the archives and she’s found evidence that the happy couple was joined in the bedroom by “trusted courtiers” trying–she believes–to help them understand where babies come from.

“Was it,” she asks rhetorically, “because the famously chaste Henry–who was a virgin until he married–didn’t know what he was doing? I think it’s entirely possible that it had reached a certain point where it perhaps became necessary to make clear to him what he should be doing.

“That couldn’t be done in a public way at all. The king’s chamber is the most private place [where] you could be having this conversation or, indeed, checking what was going on.”

Although once you add trusted courtiers lifting the blankets to see if tab A has been inserted into slot B, it wouldn’t have been all that private. But better them, I guess, than the entire court.

Johnson also speculates that everyone’s collective efforts wouldn’t have been helped by Margaret fasting four or five times a week–which she did in hopes of producing an heir.

When at long last the couple triumphantly produced the heir everyone had been pestering them for, they were then plagued by rumors that the child, Edward, was a bastard. Or a changeling. Or a hedgehog.

Salt, please. I made up that bit about the hedgehog. I’ve learned not to take anyone’s sense of the absurd for granted. Including mine. I’ve stubbed my toe on other bloggers’ sense of humor in the past.

Anyway, war broke out over who should be king. And war ended. And war broke out again. Henry was captured. Henry was released. Assorted people went into exile, then came back, picked up the fight again, lost, won, and died.

Lots of people died. There’s your summary of the War of the Roses. Have you memorized it? It’s on the test. 

Why roses? Because each side used a different color rose as its symbol: Lancaster red, York white.

I’ve checked that three times and I still don’t trust that I’ve kept the colors straight. I’m sure it meant a lot to them, but to me it seems arbitrary as hell.

The whole thing ended up with a Yorkist king, Edward IV, who wasn’t the same Edward who’d been born after so much effort on his parents’ part. This was a different Edward, and he surrounded himself with his wife’s unpopular family, the Woodvilles, although whether that meant they were unpopular with the tiny circle of his aristocratic supporters, who were pissed off because the Woodvilles were getting the goodies that should rightly have gone to other aristocratic hangers on or whether it meant unpopular with that vast and powerless swathe of people who were his subjects is beyond me. No one did opinion polls in those days. Telephones hadn’t been invented. Neither had the royal mail, and not many people could read to fill out a survey anyway. Besides, who cared what the riff-raff thought? As long as they didn’t revolt, all was well.

Edward died and was followed by his brother, Richard–the one Shakespeare didn’t like; the one who may or may not have killed his brother’s sons. Richard was eventually defeated by Henry Tudor, which put an end to the whole sorry episode.

But if you go back to the title, you’ll notice that we’re still short a saint. How did Henry the Vague become a saint? People began attributing miracles to him, that’s how. I doubt anyone will ever fully know why, but political martyrs (he was Edward’s prisoner when he died and we might as well assume he was killed on Ed’s orders) had a habit of undergoing a medieval transformation into innocent and sacred martyrs. Think of it as a metaphorical political statement by people who had no other outlet for their grievances.

Henry’s schtick as a saint was coming through for ordinary people in adversity. He was the guy to talk to if you were about to be hanged, or if you were already dead and being sewn into your shroud, both of which strike me as fair examples of adversity.

What’s more, if you put his hat on your head it would cure migraines.

Or give you cooties.

When Henry Tudor became king, Henry the Half Dozen’s cult was politically useful–it weighed against any lingering Yorkist sentiment–and Henry T. pushed Rome to formally be-saintify Henry the H.D. That was still in the works when the next Henry, Mr Eighth, broke with Rome, which ruined Henry the Half Dozen’s chances. No sainthood for you, boychick. Rome forgot all about him and so, after a time, did the people of England.

It’s an open question whether there are any saints the half-sanctified can pray to if they want to get their sainthood finalized. 

As far as I know, no one lived happily ever after.

News of things that don’t exist

Dusseldorf

I’m cheating a bit here. Dusseldorf does exist, but a British Airways plane left London bound for Dusseldorf and didn’t find it. Somehow or other the pilot had been given paperwork taking him to Edinburgh.

No one knew they had a problem until they landed. The pilot got on the intercom and welcomed the passengers to Edinburgh and the plane erupted.

Someone asked the passengers to raise their hands if they wanted to go to Dusseldorf. They all did. They weren’t asked to raise their hands if they wanted to go to the toilet, which was good because by the time they got the plane refeuled and turned around–and found the pilot a good therapist–the toilets were all blocked.

The passengers (and I’m assuming the crew, although I don’t really know that) did get to Dusseldorf, but they were five hours and twenty minutes behind schedule.

This all has something to do with British Airways using a German company to run the plane under something called a wet lease, which I gather involves someone drinking large amounts of alcohol before circulating the flight plans.

New Zealand

Ikea either was or still is selling a world map that doesn’t include New Zealand. This happens to New Zealand a lot, apparently. To pick another example at semi-random, a Smithsonian Museum world population map also forgot it. This happens often enough that the government website includes a New Zealandless map as a joke.

In an effort to be helpful, comedian John Oliver circulated a drawing of the country so that people could download it, print it, and stick it on maps wherever they believe it goes.

If you plan to do this, put in the Pacific Ocean–that’s the large expanse of blue that isn’t the Atlantic–somewhere to the right of Australia and down a bit. Don’t worry about getting it wrong. If it’s on the map at all, you’re ahead of the professionals.

Ikea has apologized and said it will phase out the map, after which it will phase New Zealand in by adding it one island at a time.

Irrelevant photo, since these do exist. Or did. Crocuses blooming in February.

Lord Google doesn’t translate corporate speak, but I’m reasonably sure phase out means We’ll get rid of this damn map as soon as we’ve sold the last copies. You don’t expect us to lose money voluntarily, do you?

Ikea plans to build its first New Zealand store soon. Which will really put the country on the map.

Sorry, I had to say that.

Ferries

The British government has been, in a distracted sort of way, preparing for a no-deal Brexit and looking for ways to add to the chaos it’s created so efficiently, so some time ago it awarded a £13.8 million ferry contract to a startup company that had no ships, no background in shipping, and no written guarantee of financial backing.

Who said the country wasn’t ready to face the unknown? “Face it?” a government spokesperson didn’t say. “We create it every day. We have no idea what we’re going to do next. In fact, we’re not sure what we did yesterday.”

In case you haven’t kept up with the British or Eurpoean news for the past two years, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. By the time you read this, something may well have happened. No one has any idea what, though. Every day the news just gets weirder. Cross your fingers that someone will save us from ourselves.

The government later withdrew the ferry contract, saying it was okay because it hadn’t spent any public money on the deal. However (it didn’t mention), it had paid £800,000 to consultants to, um, consult on the project. In fairness they also consulted on two other projects for that money. Maybe the government got a three-for-two deal, making the ferry project a freebie. Supermarkets do it all the time. Generally with stuff that spoils before you get around to eating it.

Then the government agreed to an out-of-court settlement that left it owing the Eurotunnel company £33 million because the bidding process on the ferry contract was opaque and the Eurotunnel company wasn’t invited to bid even though it has actually run a ferry service and can identify the English Channel on a map.

Hint: It’s well to the right of Australia and up a long way.

Literary Merit

A company called Renaissance has developed a statistical approach that tells teachers what books will “provide an appropriate challenge” for their students. Or as they explaiin it themselves, students are tested “to determine their ‘Zone of Proximal Development.’ “

If that phrase didn’t provide you with an appropriate challenge, I can murkify the language a bit more for you, but basically what they’re saying–and this will surely be news to most teachers–is that if a book’s too hard the kid will sink and if it’s too easy the kid won’tbe challenged.

Because that’s a difficult concept for teachers to get their heads around, and because you can’t make money without a highly polished veneer of science, the company has found a way to measure the difficulty of books statistically and has informed the world (probably by accident, but I don’t really know) that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is only a marginally more difficult read than the Roger Hargeaves’ Mr. Greedy, from the Mr. Men series.

They base that on sentence length, word length, and how difficult the words are.

Rather than search my oh-so-extensive but badly catalogued library for my well-thumbed copy of Mr. Greedy and my long-ignored copy of The Grapes of Wrath, I’m going to rely on the passages the Guardian chose to compare.

From Mr. Greedy: “Over on the other side of the table stood the source of that delicious smell. A huge enormous gigantic colossal plate, and on the plate huge enormous gigantic colossal sausages the size of pillows, and huge enormous gigantic colossal potatoes the size of beach balls, and huge enormous gigantic colossal peas the size of cabbages.”

From The Grapes of Wrath: “In the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

I read The Grapes of Wrath when I was in my mid-teens and I remember that passage. I was impressed with it and it flew about six inches over my head. The reason it stayed with me is that I knew it held some meaning I wasn’t getting.

I did  not read Mr. Greedy that year. It hadn’t been written yet, and my education was that much poorer because of it.  

A Renaissance spokesperson said that the company’s reading levels “are not the only measures of the suitability of a given book for a particular student.” And I’m sure that’s true, but damn it, Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for his writing and I’m nominating Hargeaves for one.

It’s only fair.

A garden footbridge

When Boris Johnson was London’s mayor, he was in love with the idea of building a garden footbridge across the Thames. That’s a bridge you can walk across that has stuff planted on it, turning it into a garden. Do I have to explain everything?

Then Sadiq Khan became mayor and he drove a stake through the project’s heart.

From the time the bridge project was introduced, a lot of people were skeptical about it. How much money was it going to cost? (More than you thought.) How public would it be? (It would be closed sometimes for private events, so sometimes it would be a public bridge and sometimes a roadblock.) Did the designer have enough bridge design experience? (He’d built one bridge before. Other designers who’d been under consideration had built multiple bridges.) Why was that designer picked? (Um, good question.)

A charitable trust was set up to see the project through and it managed to spend £53.5 million, £43 million of which was public money, without having connected a single rivet to a single beam. And without, as far as I can tell, having bought either the rivet or the beam.

Or whatever bridges are built out of these days. Spit and good wishes for all I know. Both of which are available for less than £43 million. I have a sizable store of them myself, and your’re welcome to bid on them.

Where’d the money go? The designer, the engineer, multiple lawyers, executive salaries, a survey of the riverbed, and a search for unexploded World War II bombs.

Unexploded bombs do still show up here and there, so don’t think I’m throwing that in to be funny. They’re awkward. And still dangerous.

The project’s website alone cost £161,000.

I also have a website. I haven’t added anything to it in a long time, but maybe I should go back and see what it would take to rack up that kind of a bill if I charge myself for my own labor.

The largest chunk of money went to the contractor, who was paid for gearing up for the project and then for winding down from not having done anything in the middle. Or at least, nothing that I can find out about.

Before the contract was signed, doubts were already being raised. Was the money in place? (No.) Who would be responsible for dismantling it if they couldn’t finish it? (Dunno.) Did anyone actually need a garden bridge across the Thames. (Yes. Boris Johnson.)

But you know how it is. Sometimes you try to read through a bunch of legalese for some project that’ll cost someone who doesn’t happen to be you £50 million or more and it’s all  boring and you can’t follow it anyway, so you say, “Oh, screw it, let’s just sign the damn thing and go out for lunch.”

An armed drone network

Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson wants the RAF–that’s the Royal Air Force–to have a networked squadrons of drones ready by the end of the year. They’re to be “capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defenses.”

The problem is, that doesn’t seem to be technically possible yet. Or so says  Chris Dole from Drone Wars UK, which tracks the use of armed drones. The technology needed for something like that, he said, is “very much at the concept stage” and he didn’t see a way the deadline could be met.

Gavin Williamson didn’t say that the drones had worked well in a comic book he read recently, but since we’re talking about things that don’t exist I don’t see any problem in quoting something the relevant person didn’t say.

Germs

Fox News host Pete Hegseth said he hadn’t washed his hands in ten years. “Germs are not a real thing,”he said. “I can’t see them; therefore, they’re not real.”

Later, he went on Twitter to say he’d been joking. Which may well be true, but you have to wonder if anyone’s shaken hands with him since.

The Stonehenge Bluestones

The bluestones at Stonehenge do exist, but archeologists have found the gaps they left behind when they were cut from a neolithic Welsh quarry.

Make that two neolithic Welsh quarries. And eighty stones that were cut from them.

The discovery points to two things: One, they were probably dragged to Wiltshire overland, not moved on waterways, and two, they might have been part of an earlier stone circle built closer to where they were quarried.

Why overland? Because the stones came from further north than archeologists originally thought, making that the simpler route.

And that bit about being used locally? There’s a gap of some 500 years between when the stones were quarried and when they were set up at Stonehenge. A local stone circle would explain what they were doing all that time. Unless, of course, eighty neolithic Welsh families used stones weighing roughly as much as a car (although that wouldn’t have been the point of comparison that came to their minds) as dining room tables, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

Why were they moved? We’re not likely to ever know. Maybe the people who set them up moved and wanted to take their stone circle with them. Maybe they were taken in a raid. Either one is possible. Either one is also, when you think about the weight of the things and the work involved, ridiculous. But then so’s everything else I can think of. 

Stonehenge is the only neolithic stone monument whose stones–okay, some of whose stones–traveled more than ten miles from where they were quarried.

Chimpanzees in Belfast. Briefly.

Admittedly, Belfast isn’t the first place you’d look for chimpanzees, but the zoo has some and when a storm brought some branches down into their enclosure the chimps broke them up, made a ladder, and skedaddled up it and out into the wider world.

Then they went back in. Because, with all due respect to Belfast, it’s not a chimpanzee-friendly city.

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And now something that does exist: a $16 million penthouse in Manhattan, recently bought by the British government to house the civil servant whose job is to negotiate trade deals if and when Brexit goes through. It has a 74-foot living area (it’s New York; they measure in feet there; I’ve had friends in New York whose entire apartment buildings, if they were flattened out, could fit into that space), five bedrooms (not one but two of which are master bedrooms), and two staff rooms. One of the staff rooms is only slightly larger than the minimum size for a British prison cell. Both staff rooms are smaller than one of the walk-in closet in one of the bedrooms.

You’ll notice that staff rooms aren’t called bedrooms, although I’m going to be rash and guess that people are expected to sleep in them. They’re the places where certain people go to be staff.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office, which was responsible for buying the thing, said, “We have secured the best possible deal and value for money on a property that will help promote the UK in the commercial capital of our largest export merket and trading partner.”

So it’s all good. We’re actually saving money on this. They did promise us that Brexit would save money.

More Strange British Traditions: The Honiton Hot Pennies

Unlike Whoopity Scoorie, whose origin is so uncertain that it might date back to the beginning of time but also might date back to the nineteenth century, whichever came first, the Honiton Hot Pennies celebration has a clear beginning: It started in the thirteenth century, when Honiton was given a royal charter.

What’s a royal charter? It’s the oldest form of incorporation in the U.K., according to the Chartered Insurance Institute, which is an institute with a charter, not an institute that deals with chartered insurance. Having a charter of its own, it’s in a position to explain what that means. And also to explain why you should be impressed with them.

Irrelevant photo: Watching the sea in mid-February.

Charters are given by the monarch on the advice of the privy council.

The privy council? That’s–actually it looks boring. Let’s say it’s a topic for another time, when I’ll see if I can’t find a bit of spice for it.

The point of a charter is to “create and define the privileges and purpose of a public or private corporation such as a town or city. Although still occasionally granted to cities, today new Charters are usually conferred on bodies such as professional institutions and charities that work in the public interest and which are able to demonstrate financial stability and permanence and pre-eminence in their field.

So there.

You’ll notice (or you will now that I’m making a fuss of it) that the Chartered Insurance Institute capitalizes the word charter. It’s a British thing. You capitalize words you think are important. Especially Nouns. Charters are important. Because the institute has one. And because it’s explaining them.

That non-system of capitalization drives me Nuts.

The earliest royal charter in Britain dates back to 1066, which makes it sound like charters came over with the Norman hordes, but they didn’t. The first chartered town was in Scotland, which was cheerily Normanless in 1066 and remained so for some time to come.

The Normans? They invaded Anglo-Saxon England and became its rulers.

England?

Oh, stop it. If you can’t find England on a map, go offer your soul to Lord Google and he’ll explain it.

The earliest charter in England was given to Cambridge University in the thirteenth century.

But I believe we were talking about hot pennies, which are not pennies that have been stolen but pennies that have been heated.

Why were they heated? Because it amused the hell out of the gentry to throw pennies to the peasants and watch them burn their hands trying to pick up as many as they could before someone else got them.

Desperation and poverty are so amusing.

By that way, that interpretation of the gentry’s motivation isn’t the product of my leftish mind twisting the available facts. It’s what the Honiton Town Council’s website says, although I’m responsible for “amused the hell out of.” The website says they “took great delight in seeing the peasants burn their fingers whilst collecting them.”

Whilst? It’s a British thing and completely apolitical. You’re not likely to find me using it.

These days, when we’ve all lost our sense of humor and become so fearful of being criticized, the pennies are warmed but not heated enough to burn anyone’s fingers.

Sad, isn’t it? That’s what political correctness brings us to.

The celebration is held on the first Tuesday after the 19th of July. Which is as convoluted a date as the one when the U.S. votes–the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The Hot Pennies celebration also involves a glove being hoisted on a garlanded pole. The town cryer announces, ““No man may be arrested so long as this glove is up.” The idea was to make sure no one would stay away for fear of being arrested for their (or as stated, his) debts.

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My thanks to Bear Humphreys for sending me a couple of links about the celebration, which I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. 

How Britain’s parliament casts a vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What bar? Why, the bar of the House.

Do they serve alcohol right inside the Lords’ chamber?

Not inside, no. It’s a railing.

An important railing.

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

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

Don’t you MPs wish you had a railing?

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

Wait a minute, though. What throne?

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

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

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

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

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

But we were talking about the throne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also because they get printed in Hansard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the news that fits

Driving Hazards

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

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

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

He gets time off for trying to save the octopus.

Apologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money

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

Gravity’s an inconsiderate beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressing for Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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