About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Bring Your Dog to Work Day

June 26 is Bring Your Dog to Work Day. This seems to be a British event, although the website I found doesn’t say so. The clues are: 1) A picture of a dog named Winston, 2) a reference to rescuing dogs in London (although there’s also a reference to rescuing some in Asia, which discerning readers will notice covers a larger area than London), and 3) a .co.uk URL. Once you get past all that, your guess is confirmed by a British phone number in 3.25-point type at the bottom.

This is Moose, who doesn’t need to go to work with anyone else.He has his own job, keeping the vandal hordes from breaking in, even when they’re disguised as neighborhood cats. They don’t fool him.

You’re welcome to mark the day wherever you are. Especially if you’re working from home. As Jane Bernal pointed out on Facebook in response to my Bring your Cat to Work Day post, with social distancing and all, shouldn’t we have been celebrating Bring Your Work to Cat Day?

We should have. So even if your dog likes to travel, even if you’ve gone back to work, call in tomorrow. Explain that it’s Bring Your Work to Dog Day. You’re staying in.

Britain’s back in business and to hell with the virus

Britain’s coming out of lockdown. Not because we’ve got Covid-19 under control but because it’s time. Because the hospitality industry is campaigning for it. Because too much money is turning to dust. 

Not literal dust. Pixel dust. Fairy dust. Money dust. 

Money, it turns out, isn’t a physical object. It’s not that stuff you keep in your wallet that you call money. Or it is, but that’s the smallest part of it. The biggest part–the serious part –is made up of pixels and numbers on a screen and stuff that disappears when conditions aren’t right. When the weather turns, when the wind blows the wrong way, when half the country has to stop working and stop spending. Poof: It’s fairy pixel money dust. 

Irrelevant photo:California poppies. Because we all need something to cheer us up.

And that’s why the country’s reopening. People who still have jobs will go back to work. People who have money will start spending (presumably). And to make all that happen, the two-meter distance we were told to keep from each other is now one meter. Because it turns out that the further we stay from each other, the more money leaks out into the open space and goes poof.

See, that’s what the economists don’t tell you. Don’t trust them. Listen only to me. I may not actually know anything, but I’m a lot more fun.

Anyway, we’ll all be fine. The virus has signed an agreement not to jump more than one meter from host to host. At least it has in England, In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, it hasn’t. They’re still negotiating and have to stay further away from each other. Poor them.

Besides, even in England we’ll all stay two meters apart except when it’s inconvenient and money’s likely to disappear. 

*

And since we’re in a celebratory mood, people who are especially vulnerable and who for the last three months have been told to stay home are being told that they can safely come out on July 6. They can go grocery shopping. They can see up to five friends as long as they’re outside. 

Why July 6? Because the virus can only count to 5. Why five friends? It’s complicated. But hey, these guys are running a government. They have access to the best expert advice. They must know something, right?

The free food deliveries that extremely vulnerable people were getting will stop now that they can emerge blinking from their homes. And if they were working before the lockdown, their sick pay will stop. In the most compassionate possible way.

Britain’s back in business. Get with it, people.

*

Cornwall, where I live, has had relatively few cases of Covid-19 (with the emphasis on relatively; we’ve had cases and we’ve had deaths). But the visitors are on their way, wagging their big-city germs behind them. 

I don’t want to be a snot about this. I’m a city girl myself. I have nothing against cities or the people who live in them. And I understand why people who make a living off tourism are desperate to do business. But holy shit, how many people are going to die for it? And how many who recover will have their lives irrevocably changed?

Follow-up scans of people who’ve been hospitalized for the virus show that 20% to 30% have lung scarring six weeks later.

The scarring isn’t reversible. 

*

Speaking of experts the government’s daily coronavirus briefings are over. In the last couple of weeks, scientific advisors had been pushed off stage and political figures quietly filled the gaps. Because the problem with sciency-type people is that they’re likely to say embarrassing things. So we’ve canceled the science. 

And then we canceled the briefings. They were only focusing people on the disease and from here on we’re going to be happy.

Happy, happy, happy. 

*

As of June 23, 42,927 people in Britain had died of the virus. Worldwide, it took three months for the first million cases to show up. It took just eight days to clock up the most recent million, and by the 23rd that had taken us almost up to 9 of them. 

It’s hard to take in. And I can’t help noticing the contrast between our response to the recent stabbing of three people in Reading (pronounced Redding; don’t ask) and those forty thousand dead. Not that the three in Reading don’t matter, but we can take that in and there’s a tendency to shrug off the forty thousand as inevitable, along with however many will follow them.  

*

Speaking on inevitability, an open letter in the British Medical Journal says a second wave of infections is inevitable and urgent action is needed.

Just before that was published, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that he didn’t believe there was “a risk of a second peak of infections that might overwhelm the NHS.”

Notice the wording. Forget avoiding a second peak. What we need to avoid is overwhelming the NHS. He didn’t mention urgent action. 

Take Your Cat to Work Day

June 22 was National Take Your Cat to Work Day. I’m not entirely clear what nation that applies to, but it’s probably the U.S., since no one involved seems to remember that other nations exist and might be running on a different schedule. I’m American, so I get to say this: We do tend to forget those things.

Whoever’s nation we’re talking about, though, we’re (as cab drivers liked to say back when I was one of them) a day late and a dollar short, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate anyway, wherever and whenever we may be. Take your cat to work, friends. Don’t tell him or her that it’s the wrong day. Cats don’t care what the calendar says.

This is Fast Eddie on top of the drying rack, not caring what the calendar says. 

Do it especially if you’re working from home. And if you’re not–well, we all know that cats don’t like to go anywhere they didn’t decide on themselves, so just bring your work home and offer up a few treats in honor of the holiday.

And have a wonderful Take Your Cat to Work Day. From all of us here at Notes from the U.K., which has a wide-ranging, multi-delusional staff of one.

And a cat.

The news from Britain, with neolithic sites and new coronavirus tests

News about the government’s failed Coronavirus tracing app keeps trickling out. This weekend, we learned that several groups responded when the prime minister called for a national effort to create a smartphone app. Dunkirk spirit! Save the nation! 

What happened next? NHSX, the outfit that made the failed app the government committed to, treated them as rivals. 

NHSX, ever so incidentally, was set up by the health secretary before he became the health secretary, so he was able to be totally neutral about it.

Don't worry about it. The photo's just to break up the text. It's completely irrelevant.

Irrelevant photo: pansies

“We naively thought they would incorporate them into one,” Tim Spector, one of the rival developers said. “The whole point was to help the NHS, to find the hotspots so they could get the resources to the right hospitals.”

Silly him. NHSX, he said, treated his team like the enemy and people within the NHS were told not to work with them. 

“They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public,” he said, but if the NHSX app had worked they’d have happily handed over what they’d done. 

Of the rival apps, Covid Symptom Study has 3.5 million users and helped spot symptoms like loss of taste and smell, and Evergreen Life has 800,000 and spotted a local outbreak around Manchester before testing was available. 

The Covid Symptom Study reports that although the number of people reporting symptoms are decreasing around the country, they’re staying steady in London. As far as I can tell, it’s getting zilch in terms of backing from the government, which is now betting its chips on an adaptation of the Apple-Google app, which won’t be ready till fall. 

The delay is because the government says the distance calculator on the app isn’t accurate enough. That means it’ll send people who haven’t been exposed notices that they have been, and they’ll have to self-isolate when they shouldn’t have to. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the government’s working closely with  Apple-Google and will come up with a hybrid version. Which will be better, bigger, more accurate, and have polkadots.

“Oh yeah?” said  Apple-Google. “We never heard of you and where exactly is Britain anyway?”

Okay, what they–the they in question here being Apple–actually said was, “It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us.”

They said they’re not aware of a distance problem and have no idea what the hybrid model’s about.

The NHS, however, said, “NHSX has been working with Google and Apple extensively since their API [application programming interface ] was made available.”

Google said, diplomatically, that it welcomed the government’s announcement.

Yeah, we’re doing fine over here, and thanks for asking. Hope you are as well.

*

While we’re doing tech news: K-pop fans have co-opted the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag by tweeting images of Smurfs and other blue characters. They also flooded #WhiteLivesMatter with K-pop videos to the point where it became known as a K-pop hashtag.

*

Let’s check in on what’s happened with all those possible tests that we heard about and that were going to save our viralized asses from an enemy that’s not only too small to see but too small for most of us to imagine. 

A four-week trial of a saliva test is about the start. All people have to do is spit in a plastic jar instead of letting someone stick a swab down their throats and up the  noses (or worse yet, having to do it themselves, which involves finding either your tonsils or the address where they once lived).

People can do the test at home. They can even do it out in public if they don’t mind being disgusting. Cross your fingers. 

The current test has multiple problems. In addition to having to figure out where your tonsils used to live, it gives a lot of false negatives–20%. It also makes people cough and sputter, putting people administering the test at risk. And the virus doesn’t last long on the swabs, so too much delay and the test’s invalidated. 

Another new test gives results in 50 minutes and should be tested on NHS staff starting this week. Unlike the saliva test, which reports back in 48 hours, though, it relies on a throat swab. 

*

When the government instituted a program to deliver food parcels to people who are in deep hiding from the virus because they or a family member are particularly vulnerable, I had a moment of thinking the government might get its act together and I before long I wouldn’t have anything to make fun of. 

That’ll show me what I know.

Where the program works, it’s great. But. It’s delivering pork products to Muslim families. It’s delivering free food to families whose pride is hurt by the assumption that they need help and who would happily take themselves off the list if someone had asked.

I’d be willing to bet they’re sending beef to HIndus, but I haven’t seen that reported. 

The program’s being run by a private firm and the government says anyone with special dietary needs should contact their local government and leave the national government the hell alone. Want to place any bets on how long it takes to get through three levels of local government to the company that’s actually running things?

*

In the department of slight over-reactions, North Korea lost its temper over a defector’s plan to send propaganda across the border from South Korea and blew up an office that was set up to improve north-south communications. 

Am I making assumptions when I say they lost their temper? Probably not. The official news agency said the move reflected “the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.”

So yeah. Lost temper. Plus a few commas gone a-wandering.

*

Near Stonehenge, archeologists have found a 4,500-year-old circle of shafts that’s 1.25 miles across. Or 2 kilometers, if you take your distances metric. That may be a rough approximation. I’d be surprised if they match that neatly but I’m too lazy to check. Whatever it translates to, it’s the biggest prehistoric structure found to date in Europe. A paper on it has been published in Internet Archaeology and is available to any idiot–and I offer myself as an example of the species–who clicks on it.

The British news update, complete with a make-your-own Stonehenge

Missed the solstice? No problem. You can still take part in a virtual festival, making your own Stonehenge out of the cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls or cookies or some things that look a lot like sugar cubes but could be a lot stranger. I’m not trying to sound like I know something you don’t but would if you were one of the elect, I just can’t tell what I’m looking at a photo of.

If you’re in your teens, you can click on the one-finger salute to find the Quaran-teen section of the site. If you’re not, or want to see what the grownups get up to when they think you’re not around (answer: nothing all that interesting), then head over to the Twitter hashtag and see if it’s worth your time. 

I decided it wasn’t, but then I’m not much on festivals, even when they’re real. 

*

A rare relevant (if out of season) photo. Primroses. The next story features plants. Don’t count on this happening often.

Barcelona’s opera house, the Liceu, will open for the first time since lockdown by live-streaming a string quartet playing Puccini’s “Chrysanthemums” to 2,292 potted plants. The plants must already be in place, because photos of them filling the seats accompany the articles I’ve seen. 

None of them are wearing masks.

You can catch the concert on June 22, at 5 pm local time. 

*

The world’s largest liquid air battery is being built near Manchester, so unlike a lot of what I sneak in here this really is British news. 

What’s liquid air? I’ve lived in Britain long enough that I thought it was just, you know, air in Britain. It’s a wet country. After Brexit, wet air may be all we’re able to export. But no, liquid air is what you get when you compress air down so much that it turns into–yes! You got it! A liquid.

Doesn’t Britain already have enough liquid? Most of the time, yes, although some people claim, during a fair part of the day, to be perishing for a cup of tea. But in general, yes, lots of liquid. The point of this liquid, though, is to store energy. When wind and solar power are producing excess energy, it uses it to squish that air down, and when the sun goes down and the wind stops blowing and everyone comes home from work (in that mythical world where everyone’s going to work and then coming home) and puts the kettle on for a nice cup of tea, it lets up on the air, turning it back to a gas and in the process powering a turbine that powers something else that powers that kettle.

And that, my children, is how we store green energy. Or how we will as soon as they get this beast built, which should be sometimes in 2022.

It’s being built by Highview Power, whose chief executive is a high-tech guy who says things like, “Air is everywhere.”

He really did say that. 

I hate it when tech people can’t explain things simply. 

*

Britain’s lost a lot of money during the coronavirus lockdown, and it’s spent a lot of money trying to get the country through these unprecedented times–some of it well and the rest of it on subsidizing satirists. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if we ever get a sensible government. 

But to our point: Air really is everywhere, and so is incompetence, along with its good friend ProfitingFromACrisis, which (or possibly who) spells its name solid like that because you can never tell what will leak to the press if you leave space between the words. Not that leaks can’t be faced down if you have the right friends, but still, who wants the bother?

Never mind all that, though. It’s what we’ve learned to expect. I want to talk about money well spent.

How do I know it was well spent? I know because the prime minister said so–or at least his news flacks did. It’s “value for money,” they told us, and it’ll promote the U.K. around the world, and besides all the work’s being done in the U.K., so it’s twice the value for–

Half the money? Or is that twice the money? 

We’ll skip the math. For £900,000, which will cover the work of repainting the prime ministerial plane so that it looks like the British flag. 

Before he became prime minister he complained that it was dull looking–and also that he didn’t get to use it often enough. And you don’t want the prime minister getting bored, do you? 

You can never keep everybody happy, though. The plane has to do double duty as an air force plane, and a defense analyst and former military pilot, Andy Netherwood, complained that it will make it useless outside of the safest of safe airspace.

“No one wants to go to war in a jet painted like a brightly colored lollipop.”

Except, being British, he said “coloured.”

*

At England’s first Premier League football games (which if you’re American are soccer games), the players on four teams, along with staff and match officials, took a knee before starting. The players’ names on their shirts had been replaced with “Black Lives Matter.”

I hope I got the details of that–the number of teams, the plural in games–right. I have a sports allergy, so I’m a little vague on the sports part of this. I’d been going on the assumption that a football game involves two teams, not four, so I’m guessing this was two separate games. Or else it was one, played in some parallel universe where four teams play one game and it takes three parents to make a child.

*

Did I mention how moving it is to see our government’s competence in action? First it was going to develop its own app to notify people who’ve been to Covid-19 that they need to get tested. This was going to fit seamlessly with a testing and tracing system and all together it was going to be the envy of the world, because what’s the point of having something like that if the world doesn’t envy you? 

Then the app’s grand unveiling was postponed because it had a small problem, which was that it didn’t work. Which is pretty much what experts had been saying would happen. 

But what do experts know? The unveiling was postponed again while some tinkering was done.

I won’t drag this out. They abandoned it the other day. Britain’s now going to use a Google-Apple app. But it won’t be ready until the autumn because it doesn’t measure distance accurately enough and so it sends out you’ve-been-exposed notices to people who were a safe distance from an infected person.

What they’re going to do is stick the two apps in the oven and bake on a low heat until they meld, at which point Britain’s will transfer its innate sense of distance to the Google-Apple app. 

Of course, they may just end up with melted gigabytes, in which case all the combined app will do is let people who think they’re coming down sick report their symptoms. It won’t notify anyone of anything.

Why bother to have it, then? Well, it’ll make everyone feel better, although we could probably buy everyone in the country a nice stuffed bear instead. A good cuddle makes everyone feel better.

The app was initially sold to us as an essential part of the test-and-trace system which was going to get us safely out of lockdown. We’re now coming out of lockdown with no app and a questionable system of testing and tracing. But we’ll be fine. Don’t worry about a thing.

*

What went wrong with the world-beating British app? Well, it only recognized 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Androids. No one’s saying how much money was spent on it, but some clever devil of a reporter got into a database: The company that developed it had three contracts worth £4.8 million. 

They repainting four or five planes for that amount of money. 

*

In the meantime, scammers are busy telling people they’re tracing the virus. If you don’t want to get sick, they tell you, you should give them your bank details, call a premium rate number, and spend money on a free test kit. For extra safety, there’s some software you can download. Because this is a very sneaky virus and can infect your computer as well as your lungs.

*

Oriel College–the Oxford University college with the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes outside it–has voted to remove the statue. That doesn’t mean it comes down tomorrow. It’s set up an independent inquiry into the issue involved in taking it down. One of them is that some donors will stop supporting the college–something they’re aware of because some have been in touch to say they’d do just that. Now a tech entrepreneur, Husayn Kassai, has pledged to “make up for every penny any racist does pull.”

*

The internet is full of claims that wearing masks can kill you–they trap all your nasty exhaled carbon dioxide inside the mask, leaving you to re-breathe it. 

Predictably enough, this is total bullshit. The carbon dioxide molecule is smaller than the droplets that masks keep it. They pass quite happily through the kind of masks people wear. And surgeons wear much heavier masks for longer periods and don’t have a track record of dropping down dead during surgery.

Another claim is that wearing a mask “literally activates your own virus.” The video that said that has been taken down.

Someone named Aubrey Huff tweeted that “it’s not healthy to breathe in your own CO2 all the time.”

I’m going to break the quote here so I can start it again: “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a damn mask,” Huff huffed.

Cheesy joke, but I had to do it.  

The problem, of course, is that the mask isn’t to protect him. It’s to protect other people. So they’re the ones who he’s rolling the dice for.

The South Sea bubble and the national debt

It all started with the War of the Spanish Succession, which Britain got involved in, and lucky us, all we need to know about it is that it cost Britain money. Lots of money. £5 million a year, according to Roy Strong’s The Story of Britain. That was more then than it is now, but even today it’s more than you could raise by running a raffle.

Okay, I lied. We need to know one more thing about the war, and that’s when it happened: from 1701 to 1714. If your mind’s anything like mine, you’ll have forgotten that by the end of the next paragraph, but even so it’ll give you a picture of what sort of silly clothing people were running around in.

Irrelevant photo: mallow

Of course, war isn’t the only expense a country has, because governments cost money, so even though we started with the war, we can’t stop there. This was a time when bureaucracy was growing, and along with it the professionalization of government. As much as we like to complain about bureaucracy, the people who write about this time–at least the ones I’ve read–say its growth was a good thing. Governmental departments were now run by people who lived off their pay instead of off the fees they took in and what Strong calls perks, which I suspect we’d call bribes.

Maybe you had to live through the alternative to understand how good the growth of bureaucracy was.

The government also had other expenses. The king’s wigs, for example. They needed maintenance, and so did his palaces and his family and household and hangers-on. 

In 1698, parliament had created the Civil List, which paid for both the king or queen’s household’s expenses (think wigs, palaces, banquets, relatives, endless staff) and his or her government’s expenses. For life. This was a huge change. In the past, Parliament had voted the king money by the teaspoonful in order to keep some sort of power in the relationship. Now it had enough power that it didn’t have to do that.

The Civil List didn’t cover out-of-the-ordinary governmental expenses, such as war, but it did give the government a predictable base to work from.

At more or less the same time, what had once been the king’s debts became the national debt.  

The problem with all this is that once you have power, you’re responsible for running things and fixing whatever breaks, and a lot less fun than getting into power–something Boris Johnson may have noticed by now. So once parliament was in charge of the national debt, it had to figure out how to pay the damned thing. 

I know, we still haven’t gotten to the South Sea bubble. We will.

I said £5 million was more than you could raise in a raffle, but parliament did try paying off the debt by running a lottery. They also borrowed money from trading companies and sold annuities. They’d have sold Girl Scout cookies, but the Girl Scouts weren’t around yet. Cookies, however, were, although it’s hard to say whether they’d reached Britain. They’re first recorded in Persia in the seventh century. Or so Lord Google tells me.

While you were thinking about cookies, I changed books. A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins, puts the national debt in this period at £50 million, although it doesn’t put a date on that. But what do we care? We wouldn’t remember it anyway. Somewhere along in here is close enough. 

So somewhere along in here, parliament was looking at a big debt and some genius came up with the idea of the South Sea Company taking on part of it. 

Why would a company do that? Because they planned to profit from it, of course. We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about what the South Sea Company was. It was set up to sell slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, and Britain had granted it a monopoly on the trade. So yeah, nice guys. And not all that unusual. Plenty of British traders and aristocrats made money off of slavery in one way or another. You could argue that it was money from the slave trade that fueled the industrial revolution.

We won’t, though, because that’s not our topic. 

Would somebody shut me up, please?

I said earlier, if you were paying attention, that the government had tried financing the national debt by selling annuities. The problem with annuities was they weren’t transferable, meaning you couldn’t sell them, and that limited their appeal. But now that the South Sea Company had entered the picture, if people wanted to convert their annuities into stock in the company, hey, that would be wonderful, because they could sell the stock any old time. And if they didn’t sell, they’d get dividends from the slave trade. They’d make money, money, money, and money causes people’s vision to go so fuzzy that they don’t notice where it’s coming from. 

The South Sea Company promised to pay the treasury £7.5 million just for the joy of taking over part of the national debt. It didn’t have the money, but never mind. Keep your eye on the shell with the pea under it. It’s right here in the center. 

It also promised to give the first lord of the treasury and the chancellor of the exchequer stock in the company, which they’d be able to sell back to the company once the price went up. That gave them an interest in seeing the price go up. According to one source, the stock didn’t exist, but I haven’t found a second source to confirm that and it doesn’t matter. Whether the stock was real or not, it was still a bribe. 

The pea’s on the left. 

If you want names, the chancellor was John Aislabie and the first lord of the treasury was the Earl of Sunderland. Which isn’t a name, but it’s close enough. We don’t really need to know them, but doesn’t the story feel authoritative now that they’re in place?

Company directors circulated rumors about the wondrous profits the company was making. The stock price went up. Then it went up more. The company took on a larger portion of the government’s debt. And everyone was happy. Except of course the slaves, who’ve been shoved to one side of the story anyway because unless all hell breaks loose–as it does periodically and has recently if you follow the news–history’s about the rich and powerful. 

Buying South Sea Company stock became a mania. Everyone with two guineas to rub together wanted it. The price rose to something like ten times its original price.

And then the price crashed. In part because the trade that the company was going to get rich on turned out to be more restricted than they’d hoped. Blame wars. Blame treaties. Blame all kinds of complications. 

But I said “in part,” so we need at least one more part to keep things in balance. The other part is that people lost confidence.  You can’t read much about the South Sea Company without someone telling you about the loss of confidence. What does it mean, though?

It means the whole thing had been a Ponzi scheme: You only made money if you convinced other people that they could make money. That pushed up the price of your shares. Look at how much that paper in your hand is worth! You’re rich!

Then some spoilsport started yelling that none of it was real–the pea wasn’t under any of the shells. Or–new metaphor–the poker chips were just bits of colored plastic (which hadn’t been invented yet). You couldn’t buy so much as a sandwich (which also hadn’t been invented) with them. 

Or forget both metaphors. There was no money to be made by owning the stock and its price collapsed. People who had fortunes lost them. People who’d taken out loans using their stock as security or sold land or property to buy shares went bust. Bankruptcy listings hit an all-time high.

To give you a quick picture of the moment, I’ll get out of the way and quote Jenkins: “The Riot Act had to be read in the lobby of parliament. Stanhope had a stroke in the House of Lords and died. The Postmaster General took poison and the chancellor of the exchequer . . . was thrown into prison.”

Everyone wanted someone to blame the disaster on, so the Commons set up an investigation, and this was when a lot of people who had reputations lost them. The king, however, wasn’t among them, even though he and his two mistresses had gotten involved in some questionable transactions. As had everyone with money for miles around. Sir Robert Walpole managed the investigation by sacrificing a few visible politicians and leaving the rest to skip merrily on.

One of those he didn’t save was Sunderland. Remember the Earl of Sunderland? One of the people whose name I said we wouldn’t remember? He resigned and Sir Robert Walpole replaced him as the first lord of the treasury, making himself pivotal enough that he effectively became the prime minister–Britain’s first, although the title didn’t come into use until later. The king gave him a house in Downing Street, which Walpole insisted should go with the job, not stay with him. And there you have 10 Downing Street.

Larry the Cat has done well out of it.

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

You’ve probably heard this by now, but good news is hard to come by so let’s not waste it: A cheap, easily available steroid, dexamethasone, can cut the risk of death in seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The bad news? It doesn’t help in milder cases. Still, this is a bit of genuine good news. Gift horse; mouth.

*

Faced with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping through Britain, our rumpled and (lately) not entirely present prime minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to study inequality.

That’ll slow down those pesky protesters, right? By the time it reports back, everyone will have forgotten how to even spell inequality.

So what was his first move? He appointed Munira Mirza to set it up. And she’s on record as having said that institutional racism is “a perception more than a reality,” not to mention as having complained that earlier inquiries (there’ve been six in four years) fostered a culture of grievance.

If all goes according to plan, the commission’s report will be referred to the Department of Cynicism and Bitter Irony. They do a lot of filing there.

*

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangea–our neighbors’. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Astronomers report that our galaxy may be home to as many as thirty advanced civilizations.

Sorry, but the link won’t lead you to any information about them. All it does is confirm that I don’t make this shit up.

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

Well, they’ve been smart enough to stay away from us.

Okay, that isn’t necessarily by choice. They’d be, on an average, 17,000 light years away. Too far for them to drop by casually for a cup of tea. Too far, most likely, to even know about tea. Quite possibly too far for us to pick up any signs of their existence. And vice versa, although if they get close enough to pick up a hint of what’s going on here, they’ll decide no cup of tea is worth it. 

*

And since we’re talking about the whole galaxy, let’s forget Britain for another minute and talk about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

The autonomous zone was set up after clashes in which the police used pepper spray, teargas, and flash bangs while Black Lives Matter protesters threw rocks, bottles, and fireworks.

Then someone drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot one of them. I’m not sure what impact this had on events, but I’d bet a bowl of popcorn that it didn’t lower the tension level.

Eventually, the police withdrew from the neighborhood, boarding up the police station and leaving protesters to set up the CHAZ, which covers a few blocks. CNN describes it as more like a festival than a protest. It’s stocked with all the essentials: granola bars, water, toilet paper, and toothpaste.

The mayor, Jenny Durkan said, ”It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time. . . . There is no threat right now to the public.”

Reporting on the situation, Fox News mistook a joke on Reddit for a split in the organization running the CHAZ.

Okay, I have no idea if any organization really is running things or if it’s all evolving on the fly–or if an organization thinks it’s running it and things are also (or instead) evolving on the fly. I also don’t know if I’m supposed to call it just CHAZ or the CHAZ , but never mind the many things I don’t know. (Why do you listen to me anyway?) What matters is that Fox News thought a group was in charge and reported on the split, reading the Reddit post on the air: “I thought we had an autonomous collective, an anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least, we should take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.”

What the post’s doing there isn’t commenting on a split but playing off Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur introduces himself to a peasant, saying he’s the king, and the peasant announces that they already have their own government.

“We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of purely external affairs.”

I’d have missed the Python reference myself. Unlike a few people I’ve known and worked with, I don’t have the dialogue memorized. But I like to think that a line Fox News left out would have made me think that something other than a mail-order organizational squabble might be going on: that the king couldn’t “simply expect to wield supreme executive power just because someone threw a sword at him,”

I’ve been in more than one strange political conflict, but none of them have involved swords. Everyone has their limits, and I’m pretty firm about that one, although I did, for a long time, have a friend’s (American) Civil War-era sword hanging on my wall. It was blunt and wouldn’t have been any use in political disputes, but no, I would not have been tempted.

I did once sit in a meeting and consider whether a crochet hook would be any use as a murder weapon, but that’s a different story.

*

Back to Britain: There’s lots of flap here about when, how, and where the kids are going back to school.

In the first plan, two age groups were going back, then the rest of at least the primary school kids would follow before the school year ended. The British school year runs later into the summer than the American one does, but even so it wasn’t clear that they’d be in school long enough to do more than exchange germs.

This was all handled by the Ministry of Impulsive Decisions, which didn’t do any serious consulting with the schools or the teachers’ unions, so a lot of the schools said they couldn’t open safely even for the first group, and some parents, in the interest of safety, kept their kids home from the schools that did open.

But some kids from two age groups went back, and the rest of the plan was sent to the Ministry of Lost Ideals.

Cue calls–including some from within the Conservative Party, which is all that matters since it has a huge majority and doesn’t really have to listen to anyone else–for emergency measures: a summer tutoring program, possibly, or what are being called Nightingale schools, mirroring the Nightingale hospitals, which were basically field hospitals set up at the beginning of the pandemic and barely used, partly because they turned out not to be needed and partly because no one had figured out how to magic up the staff a hospital relies on.

Who knew that hospitals aren’t just buildings–that if you don’t have staff you don’t have a hospital?

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

So long ago that I’ve lost track of the date, the Department of Good Intentions promised both internet access and computers to any kids in year 10 who didn’t have them.

Why year 10? Why not year 10? It’s random enough to sound like it has some research behind it.

Many headteachers report not having seen so much as a computer cable.

And none of that solves the problem of what the kids in other age groups are supposed to do.

A recent study reports that a third of students have done no lessons at all while the schools are closed and that less than half have sent work to their teachers. Students in what they call the most disadvantaged schools are the least likely to be doing any schoolwork.

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

Let’s move on before I get started on the mind that classifies schools as disadvantaged, as if somehow their problems came from a combination of bad luck and birth trauma.

*

After having said that the free school meals for the most vulnerable kids would stop at the end of the school year, the Department of We Never Said That and if We Did We Didn’t Mean It That Way has announced that free school meals will continue.

How come? A footballer, Marcus Rashford, campaigned for them.

*

Dozens of hospitals are still reporting a shortage of scrubs. This much, you’d think, the Department of We’ve Been Here Before could get right by now. They’re not high-tech equipment. Volunteers have been supplying some. Any place with a sewing machine could turn them out.

Some doctors report that they’re taking their home to wash, which is what they’ve been advised to do even though it risks spreading infection.

The NHS says there’s no shortage of scrubs and asks everyone to go have a cup of tea and think about all those intelligent civilizations somewhere in the galaxy, who see us on Instagram and wish they had such a nice cup of tea.

*

Speaking of Instagram, it’s time for everyone who’s feeling bad because they’re not in a relationship to stop fretting. In Britain, married people and people in civil partnerships reported the highest rise in anxiety levels during lockdown.

That’s not the same as saying they have the highest level of anxiety, only the highest increase. But still.

*

In the Caribbean and South and Central America, the pandemic is kicking off an epidemic of hunger, the U.N. warns.

And in France, a demonstration by healthcare workers demanding more funding for the health system ended with some people in black setting fire to a car (actually, a vehicle–it could be a tank for all the word gives away) and throwing things at the police, at which point the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, although as far as I can tell from a short mention they didn’t start the violence.

*

Britain’s health secretary was on Sky News talking about how quarantine would protect us from countries where the coronavirus rate of infection is higher than ours.

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

Um, well [insert vague blither here, along with the word science].

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

It’s all about the science, folks. That’s why we’ve imposed a quarantine at a time when we’re the folks other countries want to quarantine.

*

A professor of cardio-vascular science, Mauro Giacca, says, “What you find in the lungs of people who have [died of Covid-19 after 30 to 40 days in intensive care] . . . is something completely different from normal pneumonia, influenza or the Sars virus. You see . . . a complete disruption of the lung architecture.”

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

And a professor of medicine, John Bell, says that a second wave of the virus, which he considers likely now that Britain’s lockdown is being released, should at least allow scientists to measure whether people who survived one bout of the virus become immune to it.

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

*

I can’t let you go until you’ve read this: In Vienna, a man has been fined 500 euros for farting loudly at the police–or, to be formal about this, for offending public decency. He got up from a park bench, looked at the cops, and “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent.”

He also behaved “provocatively and uncooperatively” beforehand, but that doesn’t seem to be why they arrested him.

Surfers, Black Lives Matter, and the Star Count: It’s the news roundup from Britain

Let’s start with the star count: Back in the winter sometime, I posted information about an effort to study light pollution by asking people to count the stars they could see inside the constellation Orion. If you’d like to see the map that compiled from that study, here’s the link.

*

I know I said the news was from Britain, but what the hell, I’m sitting in Britain and I’m typing this, so this comes from Britain, even if the news is from the U.S. It’s too good to miss: Someone from Nebraska is suing every gay person on the planet. In federal court.

She’s not claiming gay people have broken any laws. In fact, her hand-written, seven-page statement doesn’t talk about law. She quotes the Bible and she quotes a dictionary.

Now, I’ll admit to having misspelled a word or two in my time–possibly more than two. And ignorance of the law is no defense, so I might be worth suing, although first we should establish that a lawsuit is the appropriate remedy.

But the Bible–. Folks, it’s time we all sat down and had a serious discussion about whether people have to follow the rules of religions they don’t belong to. And if the answer turns out to be yes, we need to talk about which religion’s rules to follow. Because the world’s full of religions, and they have different rules. We’ll find a few areas of overlap, but that’s not going to be enough.

I predict a messy, uncomfortable discussion.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the woman bringing the lawsuit is representing herself in court.

*

Relevant photo (it happens sometimes): A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Camelford, Cornwall.

Enough of that. Let’s go back to Britain:

After a slave trader’s statue was toppled into the Bristol harbor, British conversations about black lives matter have focused heavily on the symbolic. In other words, on statues. So a group of white, far-right activists felt called upon to gather in London so they could protect its historic statues.

To avoid violence, Black Lives Matter called off the protest it had scheduled for that day, although other groups didn’t.

The far-right activists drank; threw bottles, smoke grenades, and flares at the cops,; gave the Nazi salute: took off their shirts; and pissed on statues, possibly on the theory that they need liquid to grow.

To be fair, not all of them did all those things. That’s a collective portrait.

A hundred people were arrested.

They made a point of claiming Winston Churchill as one of their own, possibly because someone had painted, “Was a racist” below his statue. I’ll let a tweet from @dannywallace sum the situation up:

“-  Police are protecting a statue from people who want to protect it from people who don’t seem to be there.

“- Meanwhile the man who stopped us all from having to salute like a Nazi is celebrated by men doing Nazi salutes.”

A group called the Football Lads Alliance took part. It’s a British thing, going to a football game in order to get in a fight. Not everyone who likes the game does that, but for some people it’s the whole point. And it does seem to be linked to racism.

I’m not even going to try to explain it. I don’t think it’s anything an outsider is likely to understand..

*

At a point where a group of far right demonstrators (let’s call them FRs) clashed with a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators (let’s call them BLMs), one FR was left by his friends and was curled on the ground, surrounded by the group of BLMs they’d been fighting with. Patrick Hutchinson, a personal trainer who’d come with some friends in order to de-escalate clashes, waded in, heaved the FR over his shoulder, and with his friends in formation around him, carried him out.

The photo–a black guy carrying a white FR demonstrator to safety–went viral.

“If the other three police officers who were standing around when George Floyd was murdered had thought about intervening like what we did, George Floyd would be alive today,” he said.

*

Near where I live, in mostly white, very rural Cornwall, thirty people held a one-hour Black Lives Matter demonstration in the small market town of Camelford. We were masked and distanced and it took some of us most of the hour to work out that we already knew half of the people we were standing with.

I’d posted the event on our village Facebook page (having a village Facebook page is a tradition that dates back to the middle ages), and the response was a long argument about statues and whether responding to black lives matter by saying “all lives matter” is like saying responding to someone saying, “Save the Amazon,” by saying “all trees matter.”

The argument went on for over 200 comments.

*

Further down west (as people say around here), in Porthleven, surfers paddled into the harbor in support of black lives matter.

*

On a totally different note, in Italy, a group of drug dealers knew they were being watched by the police and wanted someplace safe to stash their stash until the cops got bored, so they did what any sensible, adult drug dealer would do: They hid $22,000 worth of cocaine in the forest. Where a pack of wild boars found it, tore open the packaging, and spread it all over the forest floor.

It’s not at all clear whether the boars inhaled.

The article I got this from called the boars a horde, which made me realize that I don’t know what you call a group of wild boars. I’ve (arbitrarily–it’s the privilege of the chair to be arbitrary) called them a pack, ruling horde out of order, along with mob, herd, and flock. I haven’t ruled out committee.

A committee of cocaine-fueled wild boars . . .

If you’re a fan of short story prompts, you’re welcome to use that as an opening line. In the story I won’t bother to write, they end up running the country.

It may or may not be fiction.

Britain’s chimneys and chimney sweeps

Britain’s earliest chimneys were strictly for the rich, and in the Tudor era, they were the must-have accessory. The aristocracy’s news feeds were clogged with targeted ads saying, Heat Your Castle the Modern Way

Heat Your Hovel ads didn’t show up for many a year. 

Hovel-dwellers didn’t have news feeds anyway.

Hovel-dwellers lived in single-story houses with a central fire whose smoke worked its way out through the roof (thatch is good that way, and I’ve heard that slates aren’t bad) or through a hole in the roof. If you were clever about covering the hole, you could let the smoke out and keep the rain from pouring in, all in one go, but no matter how clever you were, above a certain height these houses were smoky.  

Irrelevant photo: osteospermum, with a bit of valerian getting ready to bloom.

With the introduction of the chimney, though, at least some of the the smoke went politely up and out, changing the residents’ lives and lungs. On the other hand, a good bit of the fire’s warmth was polite enough to follow the smoke, so the change wasn’t all about gain.

If you have a third hand, balance this on it: Chimneys also meant you could heat a second story. You could even add heat to rooms that didn’t have fireplaces. All they had to do was cuddle up against the back of the chimney and suck up a bit of warmth. 

By the seventeenth century, enough chimneys had been built around the country that they were worth taxing. Enter the hearth tax, which was based on the size of the house and, most importantly, the number of chimneys it had. 

So what did the rich do? To minimize taxes, they started running the flues of multiple fireplaces up a single chimney.  Many fireplaces, many flues, fewer chimneys. In a big house, they’d still end up with more than one chimney, but nowhere near as many as they had fireplaces.

What innocents they were back then. Today, they’d just build the chimney in a tax haven and have as many as they wanted. So what if it cost more to build them there and import the heat? They’d still be saving on taxes, and the point of the game, once you have that kind of money, is to pay as little in taxes as possible and then yell, “I win!”

Nothing I’ve read tells me how people first discovered that chimneys had to be cleaned, but I’m reasonably sure the realization took the form of chimney fires, complete with the neighbors standing around saying, “I could’ve told them this would happen.” Or whatever the era-appropriate version of withering scorn was.

That’s how the occupation of the chimney sweep  was born, and when the country’s primary fuel shifted from wood to coal, which lines chimneys with creosote, it became even more important.

I’d love to pinpoint the moment when children were first used as sweeps, but I can’t find any information on it. My best guess is that children working in dirty and dangerous occupations was so much a part of life that for a long time it was barely worth mentioning. Kids worked in mines and quarries and everywhere else. In slate quarrying country, where I live, they’d send boys over the cliffs in baskets to set the explosives. It only made sense: They were lighter than the adults. 

A website maintained by a chimney sweeping outfit in Hartford, Connecticut, doesn’t give a start date but does say that kids were used most heavily as sweeps during the two hundred years between with the Great Fire of London (that’s 1666) and the mid-nineteenth century, when Britain outlawed them. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but any number of chimney sweepers’ sites include some history of the trade, and they’re reasonably consistent.

So let’s talk about those kids. The apprentices to master sweeps were usually boys but sometimes girls, and they were generally paupers or orphans. Anyone who had choices in life would look somewhere else for their kid’s apprenticeship. 

How old were they? Well, they had to be strong enough to be useful but small enough to climb up the inside of a chimney. And since narrow flues created a better draft, you’d be talking about a very small kid–usually around six, but they could (rarely) be as young as four.

And here we circle back to all those flues running up a single chimney. Remember them? The flues made sharp turns and had awkward angles, making them that much harder to get through and putting even more of a premium on smallness.

The kids worked their way up the chimneys using their backs, elbows, and knees, knocking the soot loose with a brush as they went, so it fell on and past them.

According to some sources, the apprenticeships were for seven years and according to others until the apprentice was an adult, although reaching adulthood wasn’t guaranteed. The dangers of sweeping chimneys included getting stuck, suffocating, and breathing the carcinogenic soot (one form of cancer was common enough to be called chimney sweep cancer). The kids also lived in the soot, because we’re talking about people who had minimal chances to wash and who generally slept on the sacks of soot that they collected and the master sweep sold. They grew up stunted and deformed and were prone not just to cancer but to lung problems. 

So yes,it was just like in Mary Poppins, all singing and dancing along the rooftops.

They also had to contend with hot chimneys and rough brick on their knees, elbows, and backs.

Their conditions horrified a fair number of respectable people, and many attempts were made to improve their conditions, mostly without changing anything substantial, although over time the pressure did grow. The turning point came when a twelve-year-old, George Brewster, got stuck in a chimney. A wall was pulled down and he was gotten out, but he died not long after. After that, child sweeps were finally banned.

The sweeps were replaced with brushes on long, long handles, which an adult could work up a chimney.

The bright spot in sweeps’ lives was their one yearly holiday, May Day, which coincided with local celebrations that predated chimneys and sweeps–and Christianity, for that matter. In a few places, May Day is officially a sweeps’ festival. 

Why that day? No idea. We just have to accept that it is and go with it.

I’ll leave you with a link to William Blake’s poem about a child chimney sweep. He wrote two versions. This strikes me as the stronger of them.

The pandemic update, in which Britain tries to beat the world

Let’s start in France instead of Britain:

Because of the coronavirus and the lockdown, wine sales have been down. Bar and restaurant closures hit the industry hard, and if that wasn’t enough, Donald Trump got mad at the whole damn country and slapped a 25% tariff on French wine. 

What’s a wine-producing country to do?

Make hand sanitizer. Some 200 million liters of unsold wine will be–or possibly already has been; it’s hard to know how to read this–made into hand sanitizing gel. That will free up space in the wine caves for this year’s vintage. 

The gel will not sport its vintage on the label, although up-market wines were hit particularly hard, so you could be rubbing your hands with some really great wines. Or at least some really expensive ones. 

You can’t turn it back into wine, though, no matter how hard you try. 

Sorry.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

*

In Britain, shutting down the pubs–and also opening them back up, which will happen eventually–is all about beer, and beer (I’ve just learned) doesn’t last forever

So how do you get rid of it? You can’t just dump it down the drain. You have to talk to the water board. You have to record everything and verify everything, because you’re going to want to get your beer duty back from the brewers. 

Beer duty? You don’t want to know. It’s a tax. And you have to  submit a Beer Duty (in caps) form by the fifteenth day of the month after your accounting period. 

After you do all that, presumably, you can dump it down the drain.

*

New Zealand is now free of Covid-19. You probably already heard that, but good news is hard to come by and I can’t let it go to waste: New Zealand. Covid free.

If you’re not New Zealandish, though, you can’t go there. They’re keeping tight control of the borders, and even incoming New Zealanders will be quarantined–by which I don’t mean the mythical quarantine Britain’s imposed (ride public transportation, go shopping, lick a few door handles, then stay kind of vaguely inside, mostly, unless you need something), but the real kind, where you don’t breathe on people or touch them or lick their door handles.

*

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the world-beating track and trace system that Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised us. 

Why do we want to beat the world on this? Because we’re coming second in our official count of coronavirus deaths (the US is ahead, the wretches, and Brazil’s rushing up the charts just behind us). Well, by gum, that’s not good enough. We need to beat someone at something. 

How are we doing at beating the world with our track and trace system, then? 

Um. 

Our custom-built track and trace app should be ready next month, the government says. It was supposed to be ready last month, but never mind. One month is a lot like another when you’re in lockdown. And the calling system that’s supposed to back it up, or possibly substitute for it until it’s working, is a privatized shambles. 

An independent science advisory group, formed by the government’s former chief non-independent science advisor, Sir David King, says the system isn’t–in that very British phrase–fit for purpose. To prevent the infection rate rising, he says, it needs to detect 80% of an infected person’s contacts, and it won’t. He’s called for it to be scrapped.

“This is the critical moment for the government to act now or risk further spikes. We believe that a new approach is required, one that moves away from a centralised system that utilises a local-first approach. We are calling on the government to urgently rethink their course to ensure that we have a system in place that will help and not hinder the country’s recovery.”

Why’s the government stuck on the idea of a centralized system? My best guess is because there’s money to be made that way, and contracts to be handed out, and the god of privatization to be placated with large offerings.

One contactor in the tracing program is Serco, which has an impressive record of disaster. A few months back, it was fined £1 million for failures on a contract.

And £3 million for messing up another contract

And £122.9 million (plus repaying £68.5 million) for another. That’s for the contract that saw them billing the government for all the work involved in monitoring the movements of the dead.

No, that’s not a joke. They really did that.

Anyway, they’re working on the contact tracing program. We’re in good hands here.

The junior health minister, Edward Argar, is a former Serco lobbyist. Which has nothing to do with anything. Don’t give it a minute’s thought. I only mentioned it because I’m biased.

*

A small pest-control company–small as in 16 staff members and £18,000 in assets–was awarded a £108 million Department of Health contract, making it the government’s largest supplier of protective equipment. 

A coffee, tea, and spice wholesaler got a £2.15 million contract to supply medical and surgical face masks. 

All told, £340 million in contracts were signed in April, most of them without a competitive process. Some of the companies may be doing exactly what they’re being paid to do. Others–. Well, you do get the sense that a lot of money was spent without adult supervision.

I was going to give you a link to Pest Magazine for this story, because how many times in a life does a person get a chance to link to Pest Magazine. Unfortunately, it’s not much of an article. I only added the paragraph to justify the link.

*

But we don’t need to go to a pest control company to buy a mask. A full-page newspaper ad tells me that we can all order our own, and since they’re not the kind the NHS uses, we’re not taking anything they need. The masks come in packs of three, they’re reusable, and the ad doesn’t say how much they cost.

But no mask is complete without face mask sanitizing spray, which is designed to “eliminate and reduce the spread of harmful germs and viruses.” So first we eliminate the little bastards and then, in case that isn’t enough, we reduce them. And it all comes with a 100% money back guarantee. The fine print is too small for human eyes, but I think it says that if you die from the virus, you get your money back.

*

But we were talking about Britain beating the world, and it still could. Or at least it could lead the world’s major economies in being hardest hit by the pandemic, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Go, us!

The current guess is that we’ll be looking at an 11.5% fall. 

And even better, the Covid Crash should hide whatever disasters a no-deal or last-minute-deal Brexit brings us.