The houses of Parliament are falling down, falling down, falling down

Members of Britain’s Parliament have been arguing about whether to run away from home.

Why? Well, they come from a broken home. The Palace of Westminster, where they meet, is without too much exaggeration falling apart. To give a fairly random example, on April 22, a stone angel dropped a chunk of stone some 230 feet (that’s 70 meters, or in technical terms, a long damn way) to the ground. If this was the angel’s opinion of the government’s immigration policy (rough summary: we only want immigrants who are just like us, and we don’t really want them either), or on what it’s doing to the National Health Service or public services in general, I couldn’t agree more. Either one is enough to make the angels weep. Also enough to make the angels throw blocks of stone.

I don’t know how much the stone weighed. Enough to flatten a government, but angels have lousy aim, more’s the pity.

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil after the rain.

Westminster Palace isn’t–as the British measure these things–old, but it’s old enough to need £3.9 billion in repairs. Give or take a few hundred million, because the costs always escalate. But why should friends quibble about money, especially small amounts?

Let’s do a bit of history before we talk about what’s broken:

The first palace on the site was built in 1016,

Whether 1016 is a start date or a completion date, I haven’t a clue–construction slow back then–but it happened so long time ago that we don’t really need to know.

Then the Normans conquered the country. They looked the palace over and said, “Nice place. We’ll take it.”

Only they said it in French.

That building burned down in 1512, under Henry VIII. Fire is not a slow process, so one year more than covers it. It was rebuilt, but Henry’s eye had wandered–he had a short attention span–and he’d moved to a different palace. It stopped being a royal residence and was used by Parliament and the royal law courts.

It doesn’t sound like the place was a good fit for Parliament even then. The Lords met in what had been the queen’s chamber, then moved into a larger hall when the George III expanded the peerage and they couldn’t all stuff themselves in any longer. The Commons didn’t have a chamber of its own at first because they were, you know, commoners. They were supposed to feel lucky that they were allowed in at all.

The new building burned in 1834. The replacement incorporated what survived of the old palace (I think that’s medieval replacement; as far as I can figure out, nothing was left of the older old palace) into a gothic-style monster that spreads along the Thames.

“Monster” isn’t a comment on the architecture. I know zilch about architecture. It’s just big.

William IV (no, I don’t know anything about him either; ask me about commas; I’m pretty good with commas) didn’t like the new building and when it was almost completed he offered it to Parliament, which said thanks, Bill, but it really doesn’t work for us either.

But it turns out that nothing else worked for them either, and tradition exerts a powerful pull, so against its better judgment, Parliament moved in.

In 1835, the king opened parliament by assuring them that the fire had been accidental. Who said it hadn’t been? No one that I can find reference to, but there’s nothing like denying a crime to make the world wonder.

And there we’ll leave Parliament for a century or so, with its members following arcane traditions and running around in fancy robes and silly costumes.

During World War II, the building was bombed fourteen separate times. That was not by accident.

Which brings us to the present day, when it’s not London Bridge that’s falling down but Westminster Palace.

What’s wrong with the place? The roof leaks. Sorry, make that roofs, because it has loads of them. The gutters and downpipes are corroding. The stonework’s decaying. Angels are throwing things. It’s full of asbestos. The plumbing’s a disaster. Very few of the 4,000 windows close well. “The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated and improvements to fire safety are needed.”

What’s more, the building was made of Anston limestone, which was cheap and easy to carve but it decays quickly, and time’s caught up with it.

One source says the House of Commons only has room for one wheelchair. Another says wheelchair users have to sit in the middle of the chamber in both the Lords and the Commons. Take your choice. Either way, it’s a problem.

Other than that, everything’s fine. Except for the “vast quantities of combustible materials. This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids [the architects] created to aid ventilation, had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.”

The wiring hasn’t been replaced since the 1870s. If the steam pipes blow (they’re older than all of us put together and the steam puts them under pressure), they’ll scatter asbestos in all directions. Grease from the kitchen is leaking onto pipes that carry the electrical wires.

Oh, and there aren’t enough seats for all the MPs. It’s infested with mice. And it caught fire forty times between 2008 and 2012. Four or five people are always on fire patrol. A former cabinet minister called it a death trap. And did I mention the plumbing? It smells bad. And backs up regularly.

It’s not that no one’s tried to maintain the palace, but maintenance can only be done when Parliament isn’t in session and the repairs have been slower than the decay. And, of course, not enough money was dedicated to it. To get the place in working order, they’ll need to pack the Members of Parliament and the Lords into separate boxes (the Lords’ box is lined with ermine; the Commons is just, you know, a very nice box) and move them out so some real work can go on.

In February, against the advice of government ministers, who wanted to form a committee to think about preparing to get ready to study the situation, MPs voted to move out so the work can start.

A decisive move, only they’re still there. Moving out will take a full Act of Parliament, which is “unlikely to happen before 2025.” I think that means the repairs starting, not the act, although you couldn’t prove it by me. An Act of Parliament has to be approved by both houses and then the queen has to wave her magic feather over it. It doesn’t take seven years unless the queen’s trapped in amber.

Some older MPs, primarily Conservatives, don’t want to move out during the work because–or so say the younger MPs who favor the move–they don’t want to serve out their final years in temporary quarters. But staying while the repair work goes on around them could boost the cost to £5.7 billion and stretch the work out so it takes forty years.

If the place doesn’t fall down first.

Some MPs and Lords worry (and others hope) that a move would kill off a few of the more arcane rituals associated with Westminster. Like what? Like the speaker of the Commons opening the day’s session by parading to their meeting room (sorry–it’s called a chamber but I can’t seem to call it that), together with the trainbearer, the chaplain, the secretary, and the serjeant (that’s how they spell it) at arms, with I’m not sure which of them calling out, “Hats off, strangers.” Like each newly appointed speaker being dragged up to the speaker’s chair. Like the doorkeeper calling, “Who goes home?” at the end of the day’s session. Like placing boxes of snuff outside the Commons’ and Lords’ meeting rooms, or MPs having to place a prayer card on a seat to reserve it because (and we’re back to that again) there aren’t enough seats for them all to cram in.

Ah, but there’s more: One  elevator can’t be used when the Lords are voting, and there’s a staircase that only MPs can set foot on. And a blue carpet that you can cross but not loiter on. Plus a room where you’re sometimes allowed to speak and sometimes not and little hooks for MPs to hang up their swords. The Lords have ribbons for theirs.

How do you hang a sword on a ribbon? You’re on your own there. I’ve never tried.

Politically, voting either to move out or to stay is enough to set a politician’s skin twitching. Inevitably, the people who elected them will ask, “You just voted to spend how many billion pounds to spruce up your workplace?” But every year they put off the work adds something like £100 million to the cost.

This is complicated by the government’s inaction on the many high-rise apartment buildings around the country (they’re called tower blocks here) whose siding (called cladding) turns out to be flammable. This came to light when one, Grenfell Tower, burned to a tall and horrifying cinder ini June 2017, killing many of the residents. Cue government handwringing, pious statements, and long-lasting inaction.

But yes, quick pious statement and we’ll go back to the important things: Should the palace be rebuilt exactly as it is, only updated and functional? Or should changes be made?

Like what changes? Well, women MPs complain that the seating’s built for male-size bodies, leaving short women with their legs dangling. (Speaking as a short woman, I can testify: Your back hates you when you sit way that for long.) Or the bars. Do they keep them all?

What bars? Parliament must be the country’s most alcohol-soaked workplace. Once Lords and MPs have hung up their swords (or possibly before, I wouldn’t know), they have a choice of almost thirty bas. Not everyone can drink at all of them. Some are only for lords. Some are for MPs. Journalists drink at a different one. The mice drink at another. The Lords at one point declined to merge their champagne order with the Commons’. It would’ve saved money but they were afraid the champagne wouldn’t be as good.

The public subsidy for all that is $8 million. Exactly why we’ve changed from pounds to dollars for this is beyond me, but it’s okay because we’re bilingual here.

Alcoholism and embarrassing incidents are–well, let’s not say they’re common, let’s say they’re not uncommon. I’m not sure how much of a difference there is between the two but the second one sounds better.

In addition to the bars and cafeteria(s?), there’s a hairdresser, a gym, a florist, another bar, a post office, a travel office, more bars. . . . You’d hardly have to set your well-shod foot in the real world except to convince your constituents that you think only of them.The palace was built at a time when a gentleman belonged to a gentleman’s club, and it seemed natural to recreate that atmosphere.

In spite of the building’s perks and symbolism, some MPs would rather start over someplace else and have proposed building something new instead of rescuing the palace. It could have enough office space, room in the House of Commons for all the MPs,  and functional plumbing. The current building could become a museum, they say.

There’s also been some suggestion that politics might be less adversarial if the Commons’ meeting room were shaped like, say, a horseshoe instead of having ranks of benches facing each other. On the evidence of American politics, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for that.

In the meantime, Big Ben–the big honkin’ clock at the top of the building’s tower–is in the process of being repaired to the tune of £61 million, which is twice the original estimate. The clock’s expected to stay silent until 2021

Why does that need to be done? Cracks in the masonry, leaks, rusting metal, not keeping good time, the possibility that clock itself could hurl itself to the sidewalk in despair.

Is it more pressing than fixing the rest of the building? I’m not sure, but it can be done without decanting–as they put it–the entire parliament and all its support workers into something resembling the real world.

Village raffles and the Cornish Methodists

Until recently, I believed that if you got more than three people together in Cornwall, and possibly anywhere in Britain, you had to hold a raffle. It wasn’t required by law, I’d have said, but by custom, which is much more powerful.

This wasn’t some random belief snatched from the dreamfluff in my mind. At every event we went to, from the village theater group’s performances to the Christmas craft sales, from fundraising lunches to anything else you can think of, there was a raffle. As soon as you went in the door, someone sold you a strip of tickets.

So we assumed raffles had been around from the time of the Druids.

Yes, the Druids. You know why they held the oak tree sacred? Because they used the bark to make raffle tickets.

 

Irrelevant photo: A rare bit of snow on the whatsit shrub in February.

I’m giving you a link here. Not because it proves the Druids made raffle tickets from oak bark but because it says they held the oak sacred, proving that I didn’t make that part up. I’ve gotten cautious since a web site picked up my riff about Druids worshiping the Great Brussels Sprout and repeated it as—may the universe forgive me, especially for still half-thinking it’s funny—verifiable truth.

So in the name of caution, please remember that there’s a difference between saying the oak was sacred and proving it. I can’t tell you, from my own knowledge, whether it’s true. But that Druid/oak stuff happened a long time ago, and how many of us really care? It’s a side issue.

Were there Druids in Cornwall? The best Lord Google could give me was a bunch of uproar about modern self-proclaimed Druids. So I’ll give you a definite maybe on that. Cornwall has its own history, and it’s not your standard-issue English history.

But we were talking about raffles.

I found out a few weeks back that raffles haven’t been in the village since the Druids (if they were ever in the village). They’re an import. Some Cornish villages don’t hold them at all.

Why not? Because of the Methodists.

The Methodists are not to be confused with the Druids. If you’ll forgive a generalization, Methodists 1) don’t paint (or possibly tattoo) themselves blue and 2) don’t consider the oak sacred. They also don’t drink or gamble. Or at least the early Methodists didn’t. More recently, the church has taken the position that “total abstinence [that’s from alcohol] is a matter for individual choice. It is not a condition of membership. Methodists are recommended to make a personal commitment either to total abstinence or to responsible drinking.”

Communion wine is nonalcoholic.

They’ve also eased up on minor-league gambling, although they do say that just because they’ve loosened of the rules that doesn’t mean chapels should think they can open up a new revenue stream.

Methodism is an important part of Cornish history, and we’ll get to that in a bit. In the meantime, what you need to know is that the great historical divide in the village is between church, which is to say the Church of England, and chapel, which is to say the Methodists.

“Historical,” in this context, means before the flood of incomers guaranteed that the larger divide would be between the old village and the new.

It was the incomers who introduced raffles.

Since I’m neither church nor chapel, I’m not the best person to sum up the differences, but I’ll tell you a story about them:

I was part of a village committee a few years ago and the topic of church and chapel came up. For some reason, it struck me as a good place to ask one of the really important questions that was bothering me: Why is it that chapels have toilets but churches don’t?

“Keeps the sermons short,” someone told me.

I haven’t heard of any village Methodists getting into a huff about the raffles that incomers imported, but I have heard of one who’ll donate a pound to whatever cause the raffle is raising money for but refuse his strip of tickets. I’ve also heard of a nearby village where you wouldn’t dare hold a raffle. There are various strands to the Methodist Church, and in that village they’re old school Methodists.

How did Cornwall become so heavily Methodist?

According to Bernard Deacon’s Cornish studies resources, “On [John Wesley’s] very first visits [to Cornwall] large numbers of people turned out to hear him preach in the open air. Even the opposition stirred up by some local gentry during the politically sensitive time of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 could not prevent a growing interest in what the Methodists were saying. It wasn’t long before chapels began to appear, especially after the 1760s. By 1785 over 30% of Cornish parishes contained an active Methodist society. Growth then really accelerated and by 1815 the vast majority of parishes (83%) possessed a Methodist presence. By the time of the Religious Census of 1851 a higher proportion of Cornwall’s church-going population attended a Methodist chapel than anywhere else in the British Isles.”

He goes on to say that “the Church of England was failing in Cornwall by the 1770s. Numbers of communicants in that decade were very low in some parishes…. Formerly, the finger of blame for this state of affairs was pointed at its non-resident and distinctly unsaintly clergy. They subcontracted out the business of caring for parishioners to underpaid and incompetent vicars, while preferring to spend their time eating, drinking, chasing after foxes and in general hobnobbing with the landed gentry (to whom many of them were closely related in any case). Yet, research indicates no connection between attendance at Anglican communion in the late eighteenth century and non-residence. Furthermore, energetic and evangelical churchmen were not unknown in Cornwall…. Although the Anglican church in eighteenth century Cornwall…does not appear much worse than anywhere else.”

He suggests several reasons for Methodism’s appeal here. Cornish parishes (meaning Church of England parishes) were larger than they were in England, loosening the church’s control. And industrialization increased this by creating new population centers that were far from the churchtowns established in the medieval period.

I can’t find a definition of churchtown, but our parish has one. It consists of the church and a small handful of houses. Our village doesn’t really have a center, but the churchtown is very much off on its own and most people would’ve had a hike to get there on a Sunday.

The Cornish gentry were also scarcer than the English, “to some extent squeezed out by the Duchy of Cornwall’s manors,” and by a tradition of people making a living as combined smallholder and tinners, which left a tradition of social independence. “The influence of squire and parson” could never be taken for granted, and with the rise of new money, neither could social deference.

At the same time, industrialization—which in Cornwall mostly meant mining and which Deacon points out was rural, not urban—meant that people’s livelihoods weren’t secure. Their jobs and incomes were tied to global fluctuations, and an increased population meant that a smaller percentage of people had smallholdings to fall back on in hard times.

“Traditional life may have looked familiar in the mid and late eighteenth century [but] it was steadily being hollowed out.”

All of this created fertile ground for Wesley’s message, which “assured people that redemption was open to all and anyone with sufficient faith could be saved. This was the news that was energetically propagated by charismatic preachers, many of them local men and some at first women, who spoke the Cornu-English dialect of the people and arose from the people. Moreover, a flexible, adaptable organisational framework of classes and bands, grouped into societies, soon created a vigorous Methodist community that paralleled that of the Church of England, but one that was both bottom-up and much more participatory.”

Historians argue about whether Methodism was a conservative force or a radical one. My best guess is that the argument goes on because it contained elements of both. On the one hand, “it imposed quietist values of self-discipline and patience in the face of suffering in the expectation of the joys to come in the next world, values that dissolved class antagonisms.” On the other hand, it gave a voice to women, to miners, to the disenfranchised. “It legitimated the morality and structures of ‘traditional’ Cornish society. It upheld and validated the cottage as a socio-economic unit in the face of the changes being wreaked by an external modernity.”

For a bit of period detail, let’s quote from The Cornwall guide, which adds that “On one of [Wesley’s] very early visits…the gruelling six day journey from London was made even more difficult by heavy snow on Bodmin Moor. With no road yet built and fearing to get lost as night fell, Wesley sent his two companions ahead to look for refreshment. They arrived at Trewint Cottage, near Altarnun, and asked for food. The owner of the cottage, Digory Isbell, a stonemason, was out, but his wife Elizabeth offered them ‘bread, butter and milk and good hay for the horse’ and refused payment. To her amazement, before they left they knelt on the floor and ‘prayed without a book.’ A few weeks later they returned, this time with John Wesley himself, who had already achieved a modicum of fame. Three hundred neighbours came to hear him preach and Digory was inspired by a passage from the Bible to build an extension onto his house, for the use of John Wesley and his preachers whenever they came to Cornwall.

“Cornwall took to Methodism like no other county in England

“Wesley’s practice of preaching outdoors and in barns and cottages suited Cornwall’s geography; the rural population was huge and many villages were isolated from the parish church. Huge crowds of up to twenty thousand people were drawn to open-air meetings in places such as Gwennap Pit, where Wesley preached eighteen times.

“For a community of miners, facing danger at work every day, farmers and fishermen, threatened by creeping industrialisation, Wesley’s simple doctrine of justification through faith and instant salvation offered comfort, security and hope. John Wesley also set up health and literacy facilities in order to help the impoverished improve their lot, thus making Methodism the religion of the people in contrast to Anglicanism, which had always been the preserve of the rich.… Originally a movement designed to invigorate the Church of England from within, Methodism, certainly in Cornwall, began to drift apart from it.”

So here we are, more than two hundred and fifty years on, and in any village enterprise, attention to the church has to be balance with attention to the chapel and vice versa, even though if you mixed the two congregations together and put them on one side of an old-fashioned set of scales and then compressed the rest of the village on the other, the rest-of-the side would thunk down heavily, lifting the congregation side high in the air. Which can either be a metaphor for being closer to heaven or for losing touch with the ground. Take your pick.

Cheddar Man and British prehistory

Back in 1903, some people digging a drainage trench in Gough’s Cave, in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, found a skeleton. In case Cheddar Gorge and Somerset don’t help you locate the cave on the map of your mind, it’s two or three hours’ drive from where I live. That’s fairly useless information but I’m hopiong it’ll create the illusion of a reference point.

The skeleton turned out to be 10,000 years old and is now known as Cheddar Man. Ched (as he won’t mind being called since (a) he’s dead; (b) whatever he spoke wasn’t English and (c) writing hadn’t been invented yet and neither had computers, so he wouldn’t have read this in any case) was around 5’5″ and would’ve weight 10 stone.

A stone? That’s a particularly insane measure of weight that the British abandoned when they (mostly) went metric, but–no, don’t ask me why–a recent newspaper article about the find gave his weight in stones, probably because they were still using it when Ched’s weight was first calculated.

A stone is 14 pounds. I’ll leave you to multiply 10 by 14. I don’t do higher mathematics.

Why didn’t the writer translate stones into kilowhatsits since Britain’s now (mostly) metric?Because. And if that isn’t a good enough reason, make up one of your own.

But before we go on, let’s be completely accurate: When it was found, the skeleton must have been 10,000 minus 105 years old, because in 2018 the headlines are still saying the skeleton’s 10,000 years old. I’m terrible with numbers, but I do understand that 10,000 minus 105 isn’t 10,000.

One article figures that works out to 300 generations ago.

The reason Ched’s back in the news is that up-to-date DNA sequencing has revealed—drumroll, please—that he had very dark skin, blue eyes, and curly brown (or in some articles, black) hair. And as an adult, he wouldn’t have been able to drink milk. I’m guessing that measn he was lactose intolerant, like much of the world’s non-European people and some smallish portion of people of European descent, including me, but the articles I’ve read don’t go into detail on that.

What’s more, they don’t say word one about me. It’s a mystery.

How dark was Ched’s skin? His DNA says it was either dark brown or black, but when I googled him, the featured photos from three different websites showed skin tones that ranged from toasted white bread with a sunburn to seriously dark. Which is interesting, since all three photos are of the same reconstruction.

Photoshop, pre-existing beliefs, and politics lead us to strange results. The darkest photo is the best match for the description, so I’m going to put my trust in that one.

I don’t know if all three photos will still be featured, but you’re welcome to roll the dice by clicking on this link.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. Primroses. If it ever stops raining, we may get these planted. In the meantime, they live on the kitchen counter, which I’ve cleverly hidden by moving the lens in on top of the blossoms. Don’t they look outdoorsy?

Ched wasn’t one of Britain’s first settlers. Early Britain was repeatedly settled and then repeatedly emptied out when glaciers expanded and sent people running for friendlier climates. Today’s residents understand the impulse, although we’re short on glacierless just now.

Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals settled in Britain at various points, the pre- people being forced south by an ice ago more than 200,000 years ago and the Neanderthals arriving (if I’m reading this correctly; it all gets a little hazy back there because no one was assigned to take notes, which was unforgivably careless) some 100,000 years ago. According to Francis Pryor (I’ll get around to explaining him in a bit), the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain has recently been redated to roughly a million years ago.

Modern humans, as opposed to Neanderthals and pre-Neanderthals, also settled several times and got chased out by ice ages. Britain wasn’t an island during most of that period, so migration would have been relatively simple. When sea levels were low, it was joined to Europe by a land bridge, now called Doggerland and named after the Dogger Bank, which was in turn named after seventeenth century Dutch fishing boats called Doggers. I stopped following the thread at that point. From time to time, even I notice when I’ve gone too far off topic.

Cheddar Man (who was male, unlike some of the prehistoric “men” named in less discriminating days) is from the group of people who put down roots after the last ice age. In case it helps, we’re talking about the Mesolithic period–the middle stone age. His people came from the Middle East (which wasn’t called the Middle East then, but never mind) through Europe (which wasn’t yet Europe) before coming to Britain (which—never mind, you already know this). They would’ve been hunter-gatherers and weren’t genetically related to Britain’s earlier modern human settlers—the ones who cleared out when the glaciers moved in.

You can think of it as a very early exercise in gentrification and urban clearance if that clarifies anything, although some obvious differences do stand out. The absence of bulldozers, for one. And of urban planning.

Because Ched’s people—let’s call them the Cheddar people; no one else does, but it’s easier—timed their arrival well. No glaciers drove them out. As the climate warmed and sea levels rose, they found themselves on an island. Leaving became more difficult than staying, so they and became the ancestors of Britain’s indigenous white population. A history teacher from the area was tested and turns out to have a female ancestor in common with Ched. Think about that: Ten thousand years later, a descendant’s still in the old neighborhood. That’s a family that stays in one place long enough to have to clean the oven. I was well into my thirties before I did that.

The average Briton carries ten percent of the Cheddar people’s genes. Or possibly the average white Briton. Or the average person who’s at least partially white British. Don’t push your luck by asking me to get this one right. I read four or five articles before I understood that they weren’t saying ten percent of the population was related to them.

The articles I’ve read draw two conclusions from the discovery about Ched’s skin color–and it’s because of his skin color that Ched’s making the headlines:

  1. “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are…very modern constructions…that really are not applicable to the past at all.” Tom Booth, archeologist from the Natural History Museum.
  2. Pale skin developed in Europeans later than was previously thought, possibly because the introduction of farming meant that people’s diets were short of vitamin D, creating an evolutionary advantage for lighter skin, which absorbs vitamin D from sunlight more easily.

BBC article suggests that light skin was introduced by a later wave of immigration–the Middle Eastern people who brought farming with them. An earlier theory was that farming spread as an idea; the newer theory is that it spread with people migrating, bringing their knowledge with them.

And the blue eyes? If they had any evolutionary advantage, no one seems to have figured out what it was. It may simply be a glitch that entered the human population and survived.

So how did the Cheddar people live?

Britain’s climate wouldn’t have been very different from today’s. Siberia it wasn’t. Much of the land would’ve been wooded, mostly with birch and pine. And when the first settlers arrived, it would’ve been uninhabited.

I try to imagine that and can’t help thinking hearing scary music. I’ve seen too many movies.

In his book Home: A time traveller’s tales from Britain’s prehistory, Francis Pryor makes a convincing argument that the early hunter-gatherers led a more settled and more sophisticated life than earlier generations of archeologists thougth. Rather than being the kind of nomads who put down no roots, they would have returned to their settlements year after year. They may have been migratory, but they followed seasonal patterns.

They would’ve made and used stone tools. (The age of metal  takes up only 0.01% of human history.) But being stone age people doesn’t mean they lived in caves, clobbered each other on the head with wooden clubs, and grunted. These were modern humans: us minus the technology. Pryor writes, “We have good evidence that early post-Glacial families had warm, thatch- or hide-roofed houses, the earliest of which (8500 B.C.) was discovered very recently, at Star Carr, in North Yorkshire.”

They had domesticated dogs. They used bows and arrows.

The first known farmers lived in Ched’s time but not in Britain. They were in what’s now the Middle East. According to Pryor, farming didn’t reach Britain until around 4000 B.C. The BBC dates that to 5000 to 4500 B.C., and even I, with my phobia about numbers, notice that the dates don’t match. Can we just say farming took a long time to get this far north? Clocks hadn’t been invented. Calendars hadn’t been invented. Hell, writing hadn’t been invented. So let’s cut everyone some slack if their dates don’t match perfectly.

Besides, the change from hunter-gathering to farming didn’t happen quickly. Even Pryor, who argues for a relatively quick transition, says it would’ve taken a couple of centuries.

Once people began to depend on farming, life changed relatively quickly. Farming could support a larger population than hunter-gathering. It led to a division of labor, densely settled communities, impressive monuments, land ownership, relatively rappid technological change, writing, and all the wondrous stuff we were told about at school. It also led to new diseases (caused by those dense settlement patterns), a more restricted diet, wars over territory, and a shitload of hard work for the people on the bottom of the social structure. One of the things about the division of labor is that it’s not just about you making arrows and me making fish hooks because that’s what we’re good at. At some point it also means someone comes along and says, “You do the heavy lifting and I’ll sit around and think profound thoughts.” Or make art. Or protect us from the angry gods. Or tell you what work needs to be done today.

Farming also turned out to be harder work than hunter-gathering. Hunter gatherers put in a much shorter working day than early farmers—and probably than most of us do today. According to one theory (and if I ever knew whose it is, I don’t remember), we should envy them.

So that was Cheddar Man. He had good teeth, indicating a healthy diet. He probably died in his early twenties, but it doesn’t sound like he lived a bad life.

*

And from there, I just have to take you to modern-day New York City. A friend spotted this in a New York Times article about how a serious snow storm affected the city: “The shelves of some New York City grocery stores quickly emptied of milk, eggs and kale as New Yorkers stocked up for the storm…”

Kale.

I’d give you a link to prove I didn’t make that up, but as an old friend used to say, I can’t be arsed.

Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

A steady trickle of what’s-Britain? questions have gradually formed a largish pool on my list of odd questions that lead people to this blog.

The Great British Public contributes heavily to one of them: the why’s-Britain-called-great? question. How do I know many questioners are British? They say things like. “Why are we called Great Britain?” It’s subtle, but if you pay attention, you can tell.

I’ve answered the question here so many times that I’ve worn the fun off it, so we’ll skip to the others, which come from baffled outsiders. One persistent question is why the British insist on having multiple names for their country. Is it Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have just one name?

Probably, but Britain isn’t a country that’s drawn to simplicity. You’re not convinced? Look at the spelling it invented.

So why is England different from Britain? For roughly the same reasons that New York’s different from the United States of Burgundy’s different from France. Heavy emphasis on roughly, but it’s good enough as a place to start.

The multiple names make sense if you drop into British history and set your assumptions aside. I’ll keep them safe and warm. You can pick them up when you leave.

Ready?

Once upon a time two countries, England and Scotland, were neighbors. Think of them as living upstairs and downstairs, since the maps are drawn that way. And like—well, not like all neighbors but like some, they had fights about how loud the bagpipe music had been on Saturday night and about whose party didn’t end until the last guest passed out at sunrise and about who throws trash out the window.

A damn near relevant photo: This is Minnie the Moocher. It takes more than loud bagpipes to keep her up at night. Or during the day. If you’re going to throw a loud party, she’s the neighbor you want.

They also fought about cattle and massacres and who was the king of the mountain.

This went on for centuries.

Every so often, the two countries went to war, but even when they weren’t fighting, families from both sides of the border raided families on the other side. And for the sake of fairness, sometimes they raided families on their own side, because this wasn’t about  borders or countries, it was about cattle and kinship and which families weren’t big and tough enough to protect themselves.

If one source is correct, it was also about poor land and too little of it. If another source is correct, it was about the breakdown of order. Think of the border area as a kind of failed state. Both explanations sound credible.

Keep in mind that there’s no natural border between Scotland and England, and for a good part of the time we’re talking about the border was fluid. People on one side lived the same way as people on the other side. Families spread across it. You could cross over without saying “Captain, may I?” One or both countries could move it, and at one point, or possibly more, they did.

Which country behaved worse at this stage? My impression is that both did.

For what it’s worth, this part of the history was news to me. I’d read about the Scots raiding the English, but not the other way around. Any guesses on which country’s historians I got that from?

And while we’re talking about me, I knew that England invaded Scotland repeatedly, but not that Scotland invaded England. Guess which country’s songs I listened to.

Scotland and England became distinct countries during the medieval period, Scotland in 843, according to Lord Google, and England in—oh, hell, that’s messier. Wiki-this’ll-all-change-in-a-minute-pedia gives me two years, 927 and 953.

Close enough.

In spite of cohering later, England became the major power on the island of Britain. (The island of Britain, in today’s terms, is the chunk of land made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and—if you count it separately, which some people do and some don’t—Cornwall.)

The BBC (which publishes good, short bits of history on its website) writes, “England had absorbed Wales and Cornwall by 1543, through parliamentary incorporation, political and cultural integration of the ruling elites, and administrative cohesion across church and state.”

Not to mention warfare and a fair bit of brutality here and there.

I can date the English invasions of Scotland back to 1072, when England’s new king, William of Normandy, having conquered England in 1066 thought he’d have Scotland for dessert. He forced Malcolm III, the King of Scotland, to hand over his son as a hostage, which counts as a victory in my book, but he didn’t get to annex Scotland. Maybe he hadn’t been trying.

The two countries continued to be separate. And the English continued to complain about the Scots playing the bagpipes late at night.

To put this in context, the English also have a tradition of bagpiping. The only ones I’ve heard are Northumbrian, They’re smaller than the Scottish ones and use their indoor voice, which since I’ve only heard them played indoors, in a pub, my eardrums and I appreciate immensely.

When I asked nicely, Lord Google led me to a list of eight English invasions of Scotland, For some reason, it didn’t include the one in 1072, so let’s make that nine. Compare that to seven Scottish invasions of England, one of which happened after the two countries were united so I’d call that a rebellion. That takes us down to six.

Another happened during the English Civil War at the request of the English Parliament. I’m not sure whether that’s an invasion, so what the hell, let’s call it five.

This isn’t just about numbers, though, it’s about power. According to History Today, England was “the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England’s claim to be sovereign of Britain.”

So basically, whether it invaded England or not, Scotland wasn’t about to conquer it, but an English conquest of Scotland was a very real possibility. And that’s another reason I knew of the English invasions, not the Scottish ones. They had a different impact. It’s also why I know the Scottish songs—that have that smaller-country-fighting-for-independence purity about them. Even if history’s never as pure as a good song.

A low point in relations between the two countries came in 1328, when Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, recognizing Scottish independence, then waited a year and invaded.

Yes, diplomacy’s a wonderful thing.

One form of diplomacy in this period was to marry someone from the royal family of Country A into the royal family of Country B. It guaranteed twenty minutes of good feeling and generations of warfare, because someone in the royal line of Country A was always being born into the royal family of Country B, and a fair portion of them grew up to claim the crown of the country they didn’t grow up in.

Which is how Scotland and England formed the United Kingdom. James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret. (Don’t worry about the names. They’re purely decorative.) They duly produced a line of offspring who had a claim on the English throne, which is why:

(A) Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Catholic, she had an arguable claim on the English throne, and she was someone English Catholics could rally around if they could only get the Protestant Elizabeth I out of the way.

(B) When Elizabeth, being a professional virgin, died childless, which tends to happen to virgins, England had find a successor, fast. And the successor had to be Protestant. And have some vaguely credible claim to be a descendant of England’s past kings. So they turned to the Scottish king, James VI, who became the English king as well, making him James the VI of Scotland and I of England.

James packed his bags and moved from Scotland to England, which tells you where the power lay, so even though the Scottish line took over the English throne, I don’t think anyone would argue that Scotland took over England. Officially, it was a merger of two separate kingdoms under one king. In reality, Scotland was the junior partner.

As he made his way south, he was so struck by England’s wealth that he said he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.”

Doesn’t it warm your heart when a leader puts the nation’s interests first?

So now it’s 1603 and we have one king ruling two separate countries. Each has its own parliament, courts, and laws. James wants to unite the two countries under one parliament. Both parliaments respectfully suggest that he take a hike off a short pier. What does he do? He sidesteps them and proclaims himself King of Great Britain. The English Parliament has already refused to vote him the title, but he does manage to wring it out the the Scottish one.

It wasn’t until 1707 that the United Kingdom was created by the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish parliaments. A united parliament met for the first time in 1707.

James was long since dead.

Let’s go back to History Today:

“The Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society–law, education and the church–and did not create a homogeneous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.”

And that, children, is how the crocodile got its tail. It’s also why England is not Britain, why Britain is not England, why Scotland almost voted to secede in 2014, and why the United Kingdom has so many names.

Your assumptions are on the table by the door, with your name written on the side. Be careful not to pick up someone else’s, because you may find it doesn’t fit comfortably.

Swearing, affirming, and the Magna Carta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impressive people, the Quakers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy Fawkes Night: Who, what, when, where, and why

November 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, when people across most of Britain (we’ll get into the most part eventually) light bonfires and burn a long-dead Catholic plotter in effigy.

The only time I went to a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, all we burned were some potatoes (and we did’t burn them well enough, if memory serves), but we did at least light a fair-size fire. In other places, they go all out, shooting off fireworks, tossing the effigy into the fire, and (according to what I read) chanting bloodthirsty rhymes. (I’m not really sure if anyone chants it on the spot, but I’ve heard people quote a line or two, so the rhymes do circulate.)

All this dates back to 1605, when a plot to overthrow James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland; same person; same name; it must’ve been confusing for him) failed.

James was the son and successor of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic) and the successor of Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant). Elizabeth—being the Virgin Queen and all—had no kids. That’s an occupational hazard of being a virgin queen: Kids are hard to explain. And if you take truth in advertising seriously, they’re even harder to produce. So a successor had to be brought in from another branch of the family, and he had to be a Protestant.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. And what’s worse, I’ve forgotten the name of the thing. It’s a wildflower, and I should know it.

Luckily for Liz, when Mary was de-queenified, James was just thirteen months old. He was crowned in a Protestant church and raised as a Protestant. How he felt about that I don’t know, but I doubt the people in charge cared much. What mattered was what he did, and he didn’t rock the boat.

The powerful weren’t an overly sentimental lot back then. Whether anyone else was, I don’t know.

Why did Liz need a Protestant heir? Because as far as the English Protestants were concerned, Catholics were the boogeyman. The Catholic Church had done what it could to suppress Protestantism, and Protestantism responded by doing the same to Catholicism. No one gets the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in any of this, Although after Henry Kissinger was awarded one, you have to wonder what the prize is worth. And we’re not even going to get into Aung San Suu Kyi’s.

Besides, Alfred Nobel hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not sure peace was even considered a possibility, never mind a goal.

So both sides did their damnedest to stamp out the other religion on whatever soil they controlled, and whichever side was out of power favored freedom of religion. The minute it got power, it used that freedom to stamp out the other religion.

Three cheers for freedom of religion.

Let’s take a break here for a brief (and largely irrelevant) summary of English attitudes toward a couple of non-Christian religions. Grab a cup of tea, okay? Just a small one, because it won’t take long.

Jews had been run out of England in 1290 and weren’t allowed back in until 1656. They were probably still the boogeyman of popular and churchly imagination, but in the absence of any actual Jews that was sort of a sideshow. I don’t expect they generated a lot of passion.

In contrast, after the Pope excommunicated her in 1570, Elizabeth was free to send diplomats and merchants to the Muslim world and to invite Muslims to England, and she took full advantage of that freedom. (The Catholic Church forbid any contact.) Chalk up a win for the law of unintended consequences. According to the BBC, “From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, servants and even prostitutes.” It’s an interesting story but this isn’t the place to get into it. Hold onto that for another post and I’ll see what more I can find out.

Finished with your tea? Good. Let’s go back to Christians fighting each other.

In suppressing whichever religion was out of power, torture was a powerful tool–at least as much to spread fear than to extract information. In fact, fear may have been the more important of the two. Burning people was another important tool. Holding to the wrong religion in the wrong place was a dangerous business. Most people switched allegiances as needed and kept their misgivings to themselves, but not everyone did or could or would. They genuinely believed they’d suffer an eternity in hell if they didn’t do what their religion demanded. So some people took the dangerous route of holding on to their beliefs publicly, while others kept them private—or tried to. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Catholics needed priests if they were to follow their religion, and some of the great houses in Britain still have priest holes—hiding places, usually very small, where a visiting priest could be concealed from the priest hunters who scoured the country. If a priest so much as entered England, it was high treason (see below for the explanation of how much fun it was to be drawn and quartered).

After Elizabeth died, English Catholics—or at least some of them—hoped James would introduce a more tolerant climate, allowing them to practice their religion openly, and when he didn’t thirteen of them plotted to blow him up when he opened the next session of Parliament.

What could possibly be more fun? Well, you could toss some potatoes on the fire.

They stashed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and waited for their moment. They were hoping the explosion would lead to a Catholic uprising. But somebody wrote to the fourth Baron Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the opening of Parliament on November 5. The somebody was probably Monteagle’s brother-in-law, who was one of the plotters. On top of that, the government’s spy network was already sniffing after the plotters. So word got out and when the basement was searched, there sat Guy Fawkes, bored silly and wondering why the i-phone hadn’t been invented yet. In its absence, he had nothing to do than worry about being discovered while he waited for the right moment to touch a match to the fuse.

Or whatever they used instead of a match back then. A Zippo lighter. Or a flint and a bit of steel. We’re not big on historical accuracy this week. One of the sources I read actually did say “a match,” but the great Googlemeister tells me “self-igniting matches” were invented in 1805. This was 1605, so our dates are off a bit, even if they do have a nice symetry.

And what’s a non-self-igniting match anyway?

Guy was caught and tortured but managed to throw himself off the ladder he had to climb in order to be hung, which allowed him to die before he could also be cut down, drawn, and quartered. The goal of hanging, drawing, and quartering is to keep the person alive while it all happens, inflicting the maximum amount of pain and horror.

But for the people who weren’t about to be hung, drawn, and quartered–at least those among ’em who did’t want the Catholics back in power–Guy getting caught was endless fun, so they lit bonfires and generally whooped it up.

In fairness, I can see where Protestants would’ve been relieved not to be back under Catholic rule. I can also see why Catholics wanted to be out from under Protestant rule. The brutality of both sides was a perfect justification for the brutality on both sides, and there’s a lesson for us today in there somewhere.

In response to the plot, the laws against Catholics were tightened. As was the law of unintended consequences.

According to one theory, the gunpowder that the plotters used wouldn’t have blown up Parliament anyway—it had passed its sell-by date. According to another theory, it was enough to blow up everything within 500 meters. Take your pick, because Guy never got to light that match and we can’t know for sure.

The cellars where Guy and his match and his gunpowder hid are still searched in advance of the Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament each year. Just in case. Even though the cellars no longer exist. Even though gunpowder wouldn’t be anyone’s weapon of choice anymore. Yes, kiddies, that’s the way things work here in Britain. We don’t care that the cellars were wiped out in a nineteenth-century reconstruction of the building. We’ll search those suckers anyway, because—. Well, as they used to say on 75th Street, where I grew up, just because.

Everyone but me considered that a good enough explanation. For anything. So it’s not just England that works that way.

In Northern Ireland, the various shades of Christianity are still highly charged, so anyone who celebrates Guy Fawkes Day there is (a) Protestant and (b) knowingly getting up the nose of Catholics.

Elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the night’s just an excuse to light fires and shoot off fireworks, but I know how easy it is for a majority group to say, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s all just a good time,” while cluelessly offending the hell out of a minority, so I asked a Catholic friend about her experience.

She’d never given it a moment’s thought before I asked, she said. She went to Catholic school, and neither her school or her church ever took a stand against Guy Fawkes Night. By way of contrast, her kids’ Catholic primary school wasn’t shy about telling the students that Halloween had satanic overtones. So if the church had an opinion of the event, we can assume they wouldn’t have been shy about saying so.

When she was young, she and her friends used to sit on the street (this was in London) with a guy–basically a scarecrow made of old clothes and whatever the kids could get their hands on–and ask passersby for “a penny for the guy.” They’d buy fireworks with whatever they collected. And the bloodthirsty rhyme? She remembers it as part of an ad for fireworks.

I don’t know how typical she is of British (or English) Catholics. If anyone else wants to weigh in here, I’m interested.

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Cornwall, and I’m not sure what it means to people there, since both places have a conflicted history with England (she said in a masterpiece of understatement). Again, if you’re from there, or from Northern Ireland, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Why Britain is called Britain

Every so often someone searches the internet asking why Britain’s called Britain and the question lands them in the surreal territory that makes up Notes from the U.K. It’s a sensible question, and it makes a nice change from the related (and way more common) questions about why Britain’s called great. (Answer: ‘cause it’s bigger than the single-patty, quarter-pounder Britain. And it comes with a slice of pickle. Would you like fries with that?)

I’ve been meaning to research the question but put it off because it promised to be complicated. And it fulfilled that promise. It is complicated. Allow me, please, to make it worse.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, Britain is the “proper name of the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales, c. 1300, Breteyne, from Old French Bretaigne, from Latin Britannia, earlier Brittania, from Brittani “the Britons” (see Briton). The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant “Wales.” If there was a Celtic name for the island, it has not been recorded.”

Are you confused yet? If not, go back and read that again, because you should be.

Good. If you’re now in the right state of mind, we’re take that mess apart, spread the pieces out on the living room floor, and look at them as carefully as if we expected to understand them. I doubt we’ll get all the parts back where they started, but what the hell, we didn’t write the definition so it’s not our problem. We might just figure out how it worked (if, in fact, it did work) before we pulled it all to pieces.

But before we dismantle the thing, I should let you know that I’ve made labels so we can sort the bits into categories. A lot of them could as easily go in one pile as another, but we need some sort of system if we’re going to keep this organized.

Wish me luck.

Marginally relevant photo: This is Britain, or a bit of it anyway. The picture doesn’t explain anything, but it is what we’re talking about.

The Romans and the Britons

What we’ve got so far, if you read between the lines of that not-very-well-organized definition, is that Britain was named by the Romans, who invaded the place in the first century C.E. and claimed naming rights.

Stop. What’s this C.E. business?

Like many of you (that’s a guess, but humor me), I learned to divide history into B.C. and A.D., using a system that take the birth (or is it death?) of Christ as the dividing point for all time everywhere. I was taught that the initials stood for Before Christ and After Death, which seems to leave the period when he was actually alive a blank, but never mind. It was a good way to remember which set of initials was what.

A.D. actually stands for Anno Domini, Latin for the year of our lord—or so I was told by a teacher who was probably as Jewish as I was and am, but the system was so rigidly in place at the time that neither of us commented on the strangeness of claiming a god who wasn’t ours and using him as our marker. Whatever B.C. really stands for, I’m sure it’s Latin as well, but a quick rattle through Dr. Google’s knowledge pills didn’t leave me any wiser and it’s a side point anyway. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, we’ll stagger forward.

Decades after I learned about B.C. and A.D., I was working as a copy editor for a major publishing house. (I’m retired, much to the publishing world’s relief, and any inconsistencies in style that you find here are because I don’t get paid to care anymore. Wheeeeeeeeeee.) Their encyclopedias were sold in many countries and to many cultures. They needed to be inclusive, so they used C.E. (the Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of A.D. and B.C.

C.E. / B.C.E. is an attempt to keep what as far as I know is the dominant dating system but without assuming that the entire world takes Christ as its reference point. But introducing a new system confuses the hell out of people over I’m not sure what age—and possibly under it. I’m sorry about the confusion. It took me a while to get used to it too, but there’s nothing like getting paid to help a person get on top of a new way of thinking. Now that I’ve made the transition, I like system, but I always feel like I need to explain.

At length, unfortunately.

And as another side point, the Muslim world starts its dating system from an entirely different point: the year Muhammad moved from Quba’ to Medina. So I could be wrong about what the dominant system is. Maybe it’s just been the dominant one in my life. Which is easy enough to mistake for the entire world.

The earliest dating systems tended to use rulers as their reference points—something along the lines of “In the third year of the rule of King Idogar the Insignificant…” That meant that different countries used different reference points and any single country used different reference points at different times. It made piecing the quilt of world history together a nightmare, since after a few centuries no one knew when old Idogar reined. So both the Christian and Muslim systems were massive improvements, giving everyone a stabilized way to track time, even if they both assumed their religions were and always would be the center of everything.

Onward. Or possibly backward to what we were talking about before I so rudely interrupted myself.

When the Romans landed in Britain, the place was inhabited by Celtic tribes—the Britons mentioned in the definition—who don’t seem (emphasis on seem; we can’t know) to have called it “Britain.” What did they call it? Dunno. They would’ve called it something more specific than “home.” They traveled to Europe (more about Europe in a minute), and Europeans traveled to Britain, so everyone involved would’ve needed a name for it. When you step outside of a place, you do need a way to talk about it. And Britain’s an island, which makes it distinct enough that it would’ve screamed out for a name of its own.

But what mattered more than the island at the time was what tribe a Briton belonged to or what tribe’s territory an outsider landed in. Britain wasn’t a united country. It wasn’t a country at all. Whatever it was called referred to the geography, not any political grouping.

As (yet another) a side point, no one had a name for Europe back then. They had names for its parts, but they didn’t think of the whole. It’s not a place with clear geographical borders, so naming it would have been like naming half your hand: It’s just not something most of us feel a need to do. Plus it’s big. No one at that time, as far as I know, would’ve traveled completely around it. So—to use a different comparison—naming it would’ve been like naming yourself and six inches of the air around you. This isn’t a territory most of us need a name for.

What people named were the parts—the places where they and people they knew about lived.

So the Romans invaded Britain and claimed naming rights, and in the process of naming the place named its inhabitants. We don’t know if the pre-Roman Britons had a group name for themselves. Until they were invaded, and probably for some time after, they’d have been more likely to see the differences between their tribe and the neighboring tribes than the samenesses.

The tribal names have come down to us from the Romans as the Iceni, the Cornovi, and so on and on and on. But those names use Latin forms. At best, they’d be Roman manglings of what the tribes called themselves and at worst complete impositions. One of the tribes is called the Setantii. I don’t know Latin, but that sounds suspiciously like the Italian word for 70—settanta

Why call a tribe 70? Once again, dunno. We’d have had to be there. Maybe that wasn’t what it meant at all.

But let’s go back to the word Britain, which comes from Brittania (however you want to spell it). It seems to come from an earlier word, Prettanoi or Prittanoi. And now it’s time to move over by the coffee table, because we’re going to put our pieces on a new pile.

The Celts, the Greeks, and the tattoos

One source says the name Prittanoi (however you choose to spell it) came from the Britons’ “Celtic neighbours in Gaul (modern France) and we know that they had a very similar language. Prettanoi was a native [that means Celtic] word meaning ‘painted people’, and the Prettanoi called the island where they lived Albion, ‘the white land’. [I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, grain of salt here. It’s on the shelf in the kitchen. Thanks.] Later Greek and Roman writers began to call the island Britannia, meaning ‘land of the Britons (Prettanoi).’”

Wikipedia (never mind the link—it will all have changed by now) says (or once said) that the word Prettanoi came to us from the Greek explorer Pytheas, who sailed around the British Isles (quick geography lesson: that includes Ireland) between 330 and 320 B.C.E. and that the word may have come to him from the Gauls.

Another source, and I’ve lost track of it by now—sorry; I’ve looked up too much closely related stuff and it’s all cross-fertilizing—says the word meant “the tattooed people.” The British tribes were known for painting themselves blue, at least when they went into battle, which they allegedly did naked. Spend a winter here and you’ll understand why I say “allegedly.” It’s not Minnesota, but speaking only for myself, I wear clothes and am damn glad to have them.

Some Roman sources claim the tribes didn’t just paint themselves but were tattooed, and a different Wikipedia entry translates Prettanoi as “the painted or tattooed people.” And, for whatever it’s worth, the BBC says that when the Normans invaded, they found the British (I’m not sure which British: the Anglo-Saxons or the Celts or both?) still tattooing themselves, and the Normans took up the habit from them. I’m not sure when they stopped, but I can tell you that they’ve started again, with (as far as I know) no sense that they’re carrying on a longstanding national tradition.

That second Wikipedia entry I mentioned also raises doubts about the word Prettanoi having anything to do with blue paint or tattoos. It links it to the Welsh word pritu (“ Proto-Celtic kwritu,” if that means anything to you), which meant “shape” or “form.” “This leaves us with Pritania,” it says.

Welsh is a descendant of the language spoken by some of the Celtic tribes (we’ll get to why I say “some of” eventually), so looking at Welsh makes sense , but I have no idea why “shape” or “form” would seem like a good name for an island or a people. I admit that both have a shape, but so do most solids.

Okay, when we took that apart, we kind of wrecked it. But what about Albion meaning “the white land”? One source (and again, I’ve lost track of which one; do you honestly care?) says the word’s probably Celtic but related to the Latin albus, meaning white, as in the white cliffs of Dover (presumably), because the land itself is green. That would mean the link to whiteness comes from Latin, not any Celtic language. Celtic and Latin are two very different, very unrelated languages.

I’m willing to believe that a Celtic word sounding roughly like Albion got mixed up with the Latin word meaning “white” and before anyone knew what had happened they were all as confused as I am. Or as you are if you’ve been following me closely.

But let’s not take ourselves too seriously. I have the sense that there’s a lot of guesswork going on here. And that from time to time serious explanation edges over into pure fantasy.

But we’ve wandered. You should know better than to leave me in charge.

If some of the Britons’ neighbors called them the Prittanoi or something vaguely like it, it’s no great surprise that it stuck. Many groups of people have been landed with names (often insulting ones) given to them by their neighbors. The Saami people used to be called Laplanders. The Inuits were called the Eskimo. The Ojibwe were called the Chippewa. They’ve only recently started to insist that the world call them by the names they call themselves.

For the Prittanoi, though, it’s too late. Whatever they called themselves is lost, and so are they.

More about the Celts, a bit about the Greeks, and nothing more about tattoos

While we’re talking about the Celts, let’s back up a bit and ask who they were.

The word describes a group of tribes who ran around Europe before anybody started taking notes. They can be traced back to the upper Danube around 1,400 B.C.E

According to one source, the Celts started arriving in in what’s now Scotland around 900 B.C.E. Which doesn’t mean all the Celts left Europe. One source (I no longer care which one; I’ve lost the will to link) says the Celts were in Austria France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Western Germany, Northern Spain, Turkey, and Hungary in 400 B.C.E. Not that any of those countries existed, but the Celts were in place and absolutely panting for them to be invented.

But another source says the Celts probably arrived in Britain in two waves: the Goidelic-speaking Celts (that means the tribes who spoke one version of a somewhat common language, and I can’t pronounce the word Goidelic either) between 2000 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E. and the Brythonic-speaking (that’s the other version) Celts sometime between 500 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E.

Flip a coin. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. They got here. That’s all we need to know for now.

The Cornish, Welsh, Gaelic, and Breton languages are descendants of what we now call Celtic.

So why do we call it Celtic? Some sources claim the word Celt (it’s pronounced kelt; have I mentioned lately that English is insane?) comes from the ancient Greek keltoi, meaning “barbarian.” I doubted that because I happen to know that the English word barbarian comes from the Greek barbaros, meaning–you guessed it– “barbarian.” To the Greek ear, anyone who didn’t speak Greek must’ve all sounded like they were saying “bar bar bar baar bar bar bar.”

Where does keltoi come into it, then? Possibly nowhere. When I tried to find a translation, I came up with several people writing on the assumption that it did mean barbarian but not actually translating the word. Which made me—cynic that I am—even more suspicious. One site that looked like it was actually going to translate it ended up telling me about yew trees instead. So for a while there, I didn’t think I could find any proof the word even existed.

Ah, but I knew you were waiting, so I pressed on and found some online dictionaries of ancient Greek.

Now, ancient Greek uses—surprise, surprise—the Greek alphabet, and one dictionary offered me an on-screen keyboard. I don’t know Greek (my vocabulary’s made up of a few food words and a few insults, plus the words for and and barbarian), but I can stumble through parts of the alphabet, so I picked out the word κελτοι and hit Search.

A new screen appeared and said my search for κελτοι had come up blank.

Well, yes, I could see why it might’ve. I don’t know what alphabet that is or whether it’s used on this planet, but it ain’t Greek.

Fine. I found a dictionary that would accept transliterated words and typed in “keltoi.”

New Screen. Great excitement, because we were about to have a revelation.

The word means “Celtic.” Or “Gallic,” since that’s what the Romans called the Celts in what the Romans called Gaul, which covered what’s now France and Germany and a bunch of other places that didn’t have any political existence or possibly even separate names yet.

So the word Celtic derives from a Greek word meaning “Celtic,” which for all I know was taken from a Celtic word meaning “Celtic.”

Do you feel like we’re going in circles here?

Fine. We’re lost. But it’s okay, because we’ll just accept that Celt either comes from a word meaning “Celt” or from thin air and we’ll go on to talk about the part of the definition we started with, which says, “The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant ‘Wales.”

Reinforcing that, another source says that around 1200, Briton meant “a Celtic native of the British Isles,” or “a member of the tribe of the Britons.”

The Angles, the Saxons, and the Normans, but still no more tattoos

To make sense of that, we need to talk about a few more invasions.

The Romans, when they were still running Britain, brought in mercenaries who belonged to a couple of Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, and ceded land to them, which they settled. I don’t know if they pushed the Celts out of those lands at this stage or not, but I’m willing to guess that the good land suddenly wasn’t in Celtic hands.

After the Romans withdrew, more Angles and Saxons invaded or migrated—take your pick—into Britain. Between them, the Angles and the Saxons pushed the Celts into the corners of Britain—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.

The Angles eventually gave their name to England, which gradually became a country instead of a gaggle of small kingdomlets. That much seems clear. Not to mention shockingly simple.

Then Anglo-Saxon England got invaded by the Normans, who came from France but were originally Norse, which is the origin of their name.

Almost nobody in this tale ever leaves well enough alone. Especially (and I do know this although I don’t do much about it) me.

That brings us to the part of the definition we opened with where it says the word Britain came back into use from the Old French, which had preserved the Roman name. If that’s true, what did the Angles and Saxons call the place?

One of the 607 Wikipedia entries I got lost in says that in Old English—that’s the language of the Anglo-Saxons before and for some time after the Norman conquest—it was called “Bryttania.” Then it goes on to talk about the word Britannia re-entering the language from Old French, which the Normans spoke and which eventually merged with Old English to give us the glorious mess of a language that we have today.

How is Bryttania different from Britannia? Ignore the spelling, because spelling was a liquid back then. Most people couldn’t read and those who could treated spelling as a creative activity. C’mon, they didn’t have TV. They had to do something.

So let’s shove the spelling difference over a cliff. The two words look the same to me. Maybe the talk about the word re-entering from Old French is because French is what the conquerors spoke, so even if they used was the same word, the Norman version was the one that mattered. But you remember how I said things shade over into fantasy pretty quickly? I’m helping the process along here, because although that explanation sounds sensible I have no idea if it’s true.

We’re almost at the end here. Do you feel certain of anything anymore? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. So let’s end with a reminder from the BBC, which at least will take us back to a reliable source:

“Before Roman times, ‘Britain’ was just a geographical entity, and had no political meaning, and no single cultural identity. Arguably this remained generally true until the 17th century, when James I of England and VI of Scotland sought to establish a pan-British monarchy.”

*

Okay, that’s everything I know, and a bit more. If you’d help me get this mess off the living room floor, I’d appreciate it. Just drop it in the trash can as you go out. And have a good Friday the thirteenth. If you want to make corrections, add facts, or subtract facts, I’d welcome it. On the other hand, if you just want to tear your hair and moan, I’ll understand it. And on the third hand, if you want to complain, I’ll understand that as well.

Exploring early Cornish history

Let’s talk about early Cornish history. Or let’s try to, anyway. It turns out not to be an easy topic.

I spent a year or so searching for a good book on the subject and was met with blank looks in both used bookstores and unused bookstores. (What do we call those? New bookstores, even if they’re old? Just plain old bookstores, even if that’s not clear enough in the context?)

I didn’t do much better when I asked friends.

The books I did find fall into two and a quarter categories: 1, archeology; these books tend to be technical enough that I don’t get much out of them; 2, later history, which wasn’t what I was looking for; 2 ¼, school history, and this consists of one lone book for kids that has all the depth and reliability of any school history, which is why I’m not going to grant it a full category.

So it’s pretty dismal out there in the bookstore aisles, and in mid-September, I finally found out why. We’ll get to that, but first let me drag you through the tale of how I found out. It’s damn near relevant.

Some miles down the coast from where I live is Tintagel Castle. That’s pronounced tin-TA-jell, and the A in the middle syllable—oh, hell, English is impossible—is pronounced like the A in cat, although I don’t promise that’ll work in all accents everywhere.

Just do your best, okay? It won’t be on the test. The main thing is to put the emphasis on the middle syllable.

A shockingly relevant photo: Tintagel Castle. This is on the bit that was left on the mainland when the land bridge to the island collapsed.

Tintagel Castle was built in the 13th century on a bit of cliff that juts out into the ocean and catches every bit of wind coming from the west, south, or north. And since it’s joined to the mainland by a thin spit of land, it’s called the island.

Sorry, I don’t make the rules. It’s just called that. Erosion being what it is, especially with sea levels rising, sooner or later it’ll catch up with what it’s called and become the island it aspires to be. In the meantime, there’s a footbridge so you don’t have to clamber over the rocks and an impressive (not to mention rough) set of steps.

The castle’s a ruin now, having been subject to by wind and rain, not to mention people running (or staggering) off with chunks of stone after the place was abandoned. Hard as it is to steal stone that’s already been worked, it’s easier than digging up the unworked stuff, shaping it, and then having to move it anyway. Theft–or re-purposing, if you like–is one of the important ways that ruins get ruined. But what contributed most to the castle’s ruin was that the land bridge joining the headland to the mainland collapsed, taking the landward side of the hall with it.

If you’re intrigued, check out English Heritage’s website for photos and history. It’s well done and worth your time, even if many a Cornish eye rolls at the name English Heritage, because Cornwall was once independent, and had its own language, and the Cornish haven’t forgotten it and don’t consider themselves English.

Or some of them don’t. I’m an outsider and can’t pretend to talk for all of them. Or any of them. I can report what I’ve heard, though.

But the castle’s a relic of relatively late history and not what I was haunting the bookstore aisles for. If you hang around this country long enough, you can get snobbish about your history. Seven or eight hundred years ago? Phooey. I’m holding out for fifteen hundred or better.

Well, further out on the island, behind the 13th-century ruin, are much earlier stone foundations. The walls stand roughly knee high and grass forms a floor and grows on top of the walls. When I first visited Tintagel, the going theory was that they were the remains of a monastery. The current theory is that they’re the remains of a village dating back as far and the 5th and 6th centuries.

A number of the foundations were excavated in the 1930s, but the notes from that dig were lost in the blitz.

For five weeks this past summer, archeologists assembled a team of volunteers to dig out an unexplored patch of the island where the humps of foundations were visible, and so many people wanted to help out that they had a waiting list. The crews dug out three buildings (and found older foundations beneath them) and a number of trash pits, which are where archeologists find the really interesting stuff, in this case oyster shells, pig bones, and bits of Spanish glass and Mediterranean pottery.

I wasn’t one of those volunteers. I joined the smaller, unglamorous crew that came to fill in what the glamor-pusses had dug up. It’s the latest in high-tech archeology: You dig a site up, you find out what you can, then you fill it all back in before erosion wrecks it. In another thousand or so years, someone will dig it all up again and wonder what the hell happened. In the absence of any better idea, they’ll decide it was a religious ritual: People in the early 2000s dug up old buildings and then filled them in again, probably to honor the ancestors.

Back-filling the excavation at Tintagel. Black plasticky fabric covers the foundations that the first crew dug up. We buried it under the dirt and stones just to confuse archeologists of the future.

On the first and third days of the back-filling (I skipped the second day, and on the days I went I only stayed for the mornings; I’m 609 years old and thought it would be smart to quit while I was still in condition to come back)–. Let’s start over: On the first and third days, the crew consisted of five people: two archeologists and three volunteers. The larger, stronger people dug soil and pushed wheelbarrows. The smaller, older ones filled pails with rocks and dumped them into the pits. That sounds heavier than filling wheelbarrows with dirt, but believe me, it’s not.

This is not me filling a wheelbarrow with dirt.

On the third morning, the winds were just short of gale force and whipped soil off the rock pile that Wild Thing–that’s my partner, in case you’re new here; I haven’t mentioned her in an age–and I were crawling around in. I spent most of the morning trying to figure out where upwind was, but upwind had been suspended that day so that no matter where I knelt dirt blew into my eyes. Then the mizzle started—that’s a combination of mist and drizzle. You’d think water would settle the dirt down, but all it did was make it sticky as well as airborne.

By the time we climbed down off the island at lunchtime, we looked like some goth makeup artist had gotten loose on our faces. Our eyes were rimmed in black and Wild Thing’s mouth was neatly outlined in it. My hair had turned from white to tan and our clothes were a good match for our faces. I’d have taken a picture but I was afraid of what my hands would do to the camera. You’ll have to take my word for it: We looked fabulous.

So there we were at the sinks in the public toilets, surrounded by frighteningly clean tourists, and getting the sinks dirty without—and I can’t really explain this—managing to get ourselves clean. One woman finally gathered up the courage to ask, “What have you been doing?”

We didn’t say, “Burying the bodies,” and that turned out to be a good thing, because she decided we were safe and found us a couple of tissues, which let us scrape off a layer or two of the dirt.

Archeology’s such an elegant profession.

But–and here’s where we rejoin that path marked Early Cornish History–in the process of accumulating all that dirt, I learned a few things, not from the dig itself but from the archeologists.

One is that when Cornwall was conquered, in the tenth century, the Saxons burned pretty much everything. Why did they do that? No idea. You’d think it would be more profitable to leave the farms and villages intact and the people alive so people could continue farming and streaming tin, but war has a logic of its own once it starts.

So whatever records people had kept up to that point were presumably torched, and that would explain why I had trouble finding the book I wanted, and also why Cornwall Heritage Trust’s history of the period before the Saxon conquest is brief and general and relies so heavily on phrases like “seems to have.” Early Cornish history is a sketch with rough outlines—a muddle of archeology and guesswork, hearsay and reports from outsiders.

As an example, look at the information that’s come out of the dig at Tintagel: The settlement was a center of trade. The evidence indicates that the people there lived well. They had wine and olive oil from the Mediterranean. They drank from Spanish glassware. In return, they would have traded Cornish tin and copper.

Or at least some of them lived well. I’m guessing that the social structure was unequal and that some lived better than others–that’s how things worked in that period–but nothing I’ve read mentions that and I doubt the evidence can tell us how far into the ranks of ordinary people all that good food reached. I doubt we can even tell if the best fed ate well year around.

One archeologist on the site has a theory that the place might have been settled by refugees from the Mediterranean, which in the post-Roman period was in turmoil. Why does he think so? Because the foundations on the island are rectangular, and at that time the houses in the rest of Britain were round.

It’s educated guesswork but it’s intriguing. And possible.

“Would they have traded with a place they fled?” I asked, thinking of Syria and assuming that a place you flee from would be too dangerous or too chaotic to trade with.

“Think of the Plymouth colony in America,” he said.

It was settled by religious refugees, but it was also a colony. It maintained links to the land the settlers fled. The lines between refugee and settler aren’t as clear and dark as the words led me to believe.

The absence of hard information is one of several factors that let us romanticize the past. Another is that we don’t live there. It’s kind of like falling in love with the one person who’s least likely to fall in love with you. You never find out that they fart in bed.

On the first day, as we were climbing one of the sets of stairs that lead to the top of the island, a volunteer told me he’d love to have lived in the past. He started out wanting to go back to the period we were about to back-fill, then switched to the 16th century.

“At least for a while,” he said, leaving himself (and I’m guessing here) a chance to duck home for a shower, a sausage roll, and a Red Bull.

“Wouldn’t you?” he asked.

“It wasn’t a great time to be a woman,” I said.

It also wasn’t a great time to be Jewish. Or a lesbian. Or, while we’re at it, an atheist. Oddly enough, I didn’t think to say any of those things. It’s an interesting oversight but that’s too much of a digression even for me. If anyone wants to discuss it, we can duck into the comments and dissect it there.

In the meantime, let’s go back to the idea of living in the sixteenth century. I have another reason for refusing to live there. The clothing was ridiculous. I’ve never cared much about fashion–in fact, I’m dyslexic in it–but please be serious. Even for me, there are limits.

But I told this tale for a reason, other than that it happened. When you romanticize the past, you’re taking the present, with all the beliefs it allowed you to form and you’re importing them onto the past. You’re shaping it to suit you, and amateurs aren’t the only people who are guilty of it, although when professionals do it they’re much more convincing. Consider the story of a recently discovered grave in Sweden containing the bones of a woman buried with a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, and not one but two shields and horses. Which must’ve made her grave the size of half a village.

Was she a warrior? I’d like to think so, but when I make that jump I’m importing my own hopes and beliefs backward in time to interpret the evidence. I do know that among the Maori, some women fought alongside the men, so I know women can’t be ruled out as warriors. But that’s as far as I can go without spinning fantasies: The woman in Sweden may well have been a warrior.

Before DNA testing was available, whenever slender bones were found buried with swords and so forth, archeologists wrote them off as “anomalous” and pulled back from exploring the possibility that a woman used those tools. Even with DNA testing that can now establish the sex of the person, some experts are still skeptical because everyone knows women weren’t warriors, right? And that’s the problem with archeology. What it finds can’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and its easy to let our assumptions contaminate the evidence.

So early Cornish history is not only a rough sketch, it needs to stay that way. What we don’t know, we can at least try not to invent.

But back to Tintagel: I mentioned that we had five people working on the days I was there. What they needed to finish the job was at least twenty. But sensible people want to dig stuff up, not rebury it. On our last day, with most of the dig still unfilled, the people in charge were talking about calling the probation service to ask if they could borrow some strong young people who’d been sentenced to community service.

Wild Thing and I talked about going on the fourth day, but the winds were even stronger than on the third and we stayed home. The first named storm of the season, Aileen, had blown in. I haven’t read about anyone being blown off the island, so I’m guessing everyone else did as well.

Of kings and car parks

Q: How many kings can you find under British car parks? (In case you speak American: Car parks aren’t places where cars go to play on the swings and feed the ducks. They’re parking lots and they’re boring, boring, boring. Unless they’re full, in which case they stop being boring and become annoying.)

A: Right this minute, the answer is either one or none, at least that we know of. Richard III rested in somewhat uneasy peace under one for a long, undignified time, but he’s been moved now. We’ll get to that in a minute. Henry I may be under another one, but that hasn’t been confirmed, which explains the wiggle room in my answer. Others may be slumbering away somewhere under your wheels, but no one knows. Yet.

Q: What happened? Couldn’t they remember where they parked?

Semi-relevant photo: A cat, it is said, may look at a king, and Fast Eddie’s looking. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t found any yet. It’s all voles and mice around here, but if he finds one I’m sure he’ll drag him into the house and dismember him. Once he’s done looking. If and only if he’s small enough.

A: No, no, no. Cars hadn’t been invented back when Richard and Henry were still kings, and that means parking lots hadn’t been invented either. Or car parks. That’s why they were called the dark ages.

(A quick note for the historical nit-pickers among us: I do understand that the official and capitalized Dark Ages ended long before either Richard or Henry came along, but just think of the lives they lived. The fastest thing around was a horse. The country had polluted its waterways so seriously that drinking water was considered dangerous—and it was. They didn’t have TV, or even radio, for god’s sake. Or street lights. Their castles didn’t have plumbing or anything we’d call heating. There were advantages, and I admit that. They didn’t have to worry about global warming, but on the other hand being overthrown by restive nobles was a serious (if less global) threat, And on the third hand, they didn’t have to contend with restive-noble deniers. And let’s not get into the fourth and fifth hand, on which we’d have to count the threats we face in our oh-so-enlightened age. Let’s just agree that these were the unofficial dark ages.

(And one more aside: I was in either grade school or junior high when I first heard about the Dark Ages. Our history book (our alleged history book—every school history book I had was stunningly and mind-numbingly awful) must’ve made a passing reference to the Dark Ages and they sounded interesting, so I asked my teacher what happened during them. “Nothing,” she said.

(I’m still giggling over that. And shaking my head. End, at last, parentheses and back to our alleged topic.)

Q: This could make parking your car exciting, couldn’t it? You look for a space and wonder if you’ll find parts of a king.

A: It hasn’t worked that way for me, but maybe the Cornish kings were more selective than the English ones about where they left their bones. Or maybe it’s just that, with the exception of Arthur–who may not have existed, which is awkward, bone-wise, and who other parts of Britain claim anyway–they didn’t become as famous

Q: Are we going to keep this Q and A thing going? It’s getting a bit ragged.

A: No. We’re going to find a nearby car park and bury it there in the usual quiet and dignified way. Then we’re going to talk about who Richard and Henry were and how they came to be found. And we’re going to do it just as seriously as if we had good sense.

Ready?

Richard III was killed in battle in 1485 and was found under a parking lot in Leicester (pronounced Lester) in 2012. His story, briefly, is this: A bunch of kings and attendant upsets came before him. His older brother was king before him but died, as people will if you give them enough time, after which his brother’s young son then became king and Richard became his protector, only there was some question about whether the new king’s parents had been properly married, so the new king was duly unkinged and Richard—who of course had nothing to do with the rumors—became king. Then everybody went to war with everybody else. In this period, “everybody” meant the nobility, but they dragged the commoners into it pretty quickly.

Richard was killed in battle. His body was slung over a horse and carried in the most undignified possible way (“with his privy parts exposed“) to Leicester, where he was found under a parking lot centuries later.

And the young former king? He disappeared, along with his even younger brother, before Richard’s death. If you hear about the princes in the tower, that’s them.

If you want a more reliable history, you’ll find it here.

Richard has long been portrayed as having a withered arm and a limp, but the bones tell us he had scoliosis—a curvature of the spine. No withered arm; nothing that would have made him limp. At the battle of Bosworth, he was offered a horse to flee the field. He was reported to have turned it down, saying he’d either die a king or win.

How’d he end up in a car park? He was “given a hasty burial”—no casket; no shroud; not even a full-size grave—in a church that was torn down when Henry VIII disbanded the monasteries, convents, priories, and so forth. (It was a nifty way to seize their income, which Henry VIII felt he could put to better use.) Eventually, since the church wasn’t around, its location was forgotten.

Having been found, Richard was reburied in Leicester Cathedral. Tourist numbers have soared and a permanent exhibition space is planned. York wanted him back (see “tourist numbers have soared,” then add local pride and regional rivalries), and Richard’s living relatives formed the Plantagenet Alliance, demanding to be consulted on the subject so they could haul him back to York, which they considered more appropriate.

One of the relatives is described as a direct descendant of Richard’s sister. That’s clear enough, but I’m still trying to figure out how anyone can be an indirect descendant. My understanding of birth is that you’re either someone’s kid or you’re not, so this descent business doesn’t jog sideways. It’s either direct or nonexistent. Admittedly, I never gave birth to anyone, but I’ve heard rumors about it, and I was–or so I’ve been told–given birth to. So I feel  almost qualified to comment on the strangeness of indirect descent.

If you understand how it works, do let me know.

But let’s move on to Henry I. He came before Richard but comes second here because we don’t yet know if he’s been found. He was the youngest “and most able” son of William the Conqueror, according to the BBC.

But let’s take a step back, because I write for a somewhat international audience and not everyone will know the ins, outs, ups, and downs of English history. William—Henry’s dad—conquered England in 1066. He was (and still is) also known as William the Bastard, not because he was a nasty man, although I expect he was, but because he was the bastard son of the Duke of Normandy, and being a bastard mattered back then. (See above for the princes in the tower. They still haven’t been found, by the way. If you’re parking your car, do look around.) In spite of not being legitimate–I should put that in quotes, shouldn’t I?–William became Duke of Normandy. Which was in France, where it’s stayed to this day, and not in England at all. It has car parks of its own, and I have no idea who’s buried under them. Possibly no one. The French may be more careful with their kings.

For reasons too complicated to go into (and irrelevant unless you take all this divine right stuff seriously) William considered himself the rightful heir to the English throne, and when the old king of England, Edward the Confessor, died, William seized the throne from King Harold, who also considered himself the rightful heir and who got there first.

Are you still with me? Good, because I’m not sure I am.

Conquering a country is one thing, though, and keeping it is another. (That’s true of seizing a crown and keeping it as well, as Harold could have told us if he hadn’t been dead by the time the full extent of his problems became clear.) Keeping England was a ruthless business, involving slaughter, famine, the overthrowing of one aristocracy and set of relationships between lords and commoners and the installation of a new one, not to mention a lot of castle-building to keep the conquerors in power. Plus the installation of another language, French, which the aristocracy spoke for generations and which eventually seeped into the English of the conquered people, creating something vaguely related to what we speak today, and let’s all be grateful for that because if we didn’t have it we couldn’t bury kings under either parking lots or car parks because we’d be calling them something entirely different.

You knew I’d get back to those car parks/parking lots eventually, didn’t you?

Henry I was buried in front of the high altar of the church at Reading (pronounced Redding: it’s English, so don’t ask) Abbey. And there he stayed until Henry VIII et cetera’d the abbeys and monasteries, see above. As part of that, in 1539 the church at Reading Abbey was mostly destroyed. Stories circulated about Henry I’s grave having been desecrated, but no one really knows if it was. Henry I dropped out of sight. As dead people will.

Personally, I can’t get worked up about graves. I don’t want to upset anyone who feels strongly about them, but what with the people inside them being dead and all, I’m more likely to get worked up about housing the living–an effort that effort hasn’t been going well lately.

Still, it’s a good story, so let’s finish it.

The Hidden Abbey Project used ground penetrating radar to map out where the church used to be and found what they’re calling three potential graves. But it’s not yet clear where the high altar was, and without that they can’t say for sure that they’ve found Henry’s grave, only that they might have. They’ll begin digging sometimes this fall—or autumn, as they say here.

The car park in question belongs to the Ministry of Justice, and two of the potential grave sites are under it. A third one is half under a wall that divides the parking lot from a nursery school’s playground. I have no idea what they’re going to tell the kiddies about the digging equipment sneaking under the fence.

Q: Why are these kings showing up in car parks instead of under, say, the kind of lovely parks where people go to walk and enjoy the fresh air?

A: I don’t know. It may tell us something about the percentage of Britain now covered by each.

Mugwumps, haggis, and whether Americans understand geography

If you don’t live in Britain, you may not have heard that Boris Johnson recently called Jeremy Corbyn a mugwump. So I have a couple of questions for you:

  1. Have you ever heard of Boris Johnson?
  2. Have you ever heard of Jeremy Corbyn ?
  3. Do you know what a mugwump is?

If you do live in Britain, I’m going to assume that by now you can answer yes to all three questions, since barrels of ink (real and virtual) have been spilled over this, but bear with me while I fill in a bit of background. Or skip ahead. I’ll never know.

Boris Johnson is the bad boy of the Conservative Party—one of those politicians about whom people say, “He’s not as dumb as he seems to be.” (Apologies for that “about whom.” I don’t usually write that way, but I couldn’t get the sentence to work any other way.) I kind of suspect he is that dumb, but he’s from the 1%– or the 0.1%–and went to all the right schools and knows all the right people. That can make a person look smarter than they are. Because they know the secret handshakes. Because they learned to say stupid things in Latin, which keeps the rest of us from thinking, What was the point of saying that?

So you know, they get hand fed all the stuff that really, really matters in life.

Irrelevant photo: It’s time for a cat picture, don’t you think? Here’s Fast Eddie, sleeping through the news.

Johnson started his career by losing a journalism job for making stuff up, then got another journalism job and continued to make stuff up but he was working for—well, let’s say it wasn’t one of the finer examples of the journalists’ trade, so they didn’t care. Then he went into politics and eventually became a leading light in the Brexit campaign, where he continued to make stuff up, including the promise that if Britain left the European Union there’d be scads of money to invest in the National Health Service, which desperately needs it because the party he belongs to is systematically starving it but has spent a lot of money reorganizing it. Twice.

I don’t sound bitter about this, do I?

And Corbyn? He’s the head of the Labour Party and he’s trying to move it sharply to the left, over the not-dead and loudly protesting bodies of his own party’s officials and Members of Parliament. Why is he the leader of the party if it hates him? Because a majority of the members love him. The party may yet end up exploding like an unpierced haggis in boiling water (see below–it’ll all make sense eventually)  but everything’s still up for grabs.

The newspapers also hate him, but somehow every time you see a picture of him he looks as serene as if he hasn’t noticed.

But back to our exercise in grown-up politics: Boris Johnson called Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump,” and since then every journalist in the country has googled mugwump at least once, but you can do it half a dozen times and still come up with new definitions.

In one version, a mugwump is someone who’s independent, especially of party politics. In another, it’s someone who bolted the (American) Republican Party after 1884. (Sorry–I haven’t bothered with links for all of these. I got bored.) Other sources note that it’s originally from the Algonquin language and means, according to one source, kingpin and according to another war leader. Whatever the original word was, if indeed it was Algonquin, I suspect it’s been mispronounced into unrecognizability by now and I’m not sure I trust the definitions I’m finding either. History’s written by the victors, and I’m pretty sure the dictionaries were too.

Just to confuse the picture, Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling used the word and assigned it their own, completely unrelated, definitions.

What did Johnson think he meant? Who knows? I suspect he was going for sound, not sense.

Corbyn—wisely, I’d say—hasn’t responded, but his deputy party leader, Tom Watson, after holding out for a few days, took the bait. He called Johnson a “caggie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about.” Translation? A left-handed (caggie-handed; Midlands slang) insignificant person (fopdoodle) with a talent for being a slob (slummocking about). And cheese headed? The first thing that comes up on Google is a cheese-head screw—a screw with a raised head. In the U.S., a cheesehead is a person from Wisconsin. You can even buy cheesehead hats to wear to football games.

Oh, hell, I think it’s football. Forgive me. I have a sports allergy.

Anyway, it’s not at all clear what it means but it sounds goods good enough that it might catch on. If only someone will assign it a meaning.

And in case you think any part of that insult was spontaneous, it was announced the day before Watson gave the speech where he was scheduled to use it.

*

While we’re on the subject of Boris Johnson, he used a major speech to tell the world that leaving the European Union would be good for Britain because it would allow the country to sell haggis to Americans.

What, you ask (if you’re not British), is haggis?

No, J.K. Rowling did not make it up. It’s real and it’s Scottish, but what it is depends a bit on who you ask. Wikipedia (at the moment) says it’s “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach, though now often in an artificial casing instead.”

A pudding, by the way, isn’t necessarily sweet. It can be pretty much any kind of shaky food. It can also be something sausagey. Or, irrelevantly, it can be used to mean any sort of dessert. Basically, it’s one of those words the British use to confuse outsiders.

It works.

MacSween says haggis is Scotland’s national dish: “Simply lamb, beef, oats, onions and spices, nothing more, nothing less.”

Let’s go with the first definition, since it’s the more vivid one. Convincing Americans to buy sheep’s lungs, liver and heart, sewn into a sheep’s stomach along with a bunch of oatmeal is going to be—how shall I put this? You won’t be able to fund the National Health Service on what you make selling that to Americans. We’re delicate little beasts who don’t like to be reminded that the meat we eat originally had internal organs.

And we don’t mix meat with oatmeal.

But I could be totally wrong about that.

Want a recipe? They this one. But be sure to pierce the stomach a few times. As the recipe says, if you don’t it’ll explode when you cook it.

Do the Scots know how to have fun or what?

*

I haven’t exploded any haggis this week, but it’s been a while since I had this much fun with politics. Donald Trump announced that Andrew Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War; he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

To his great regret (yes, I’m intuiting that), Jackson was already dead when the American Civil War started, but have you ever heard of American exceptionalism? It’s the belief that America is different (and although this isn’t usually said directly, better) than other nations. Jackson’s comment on the Civil War isn’t what I thought American exceptionalism meant, but I could’ve misunderstood the concept.

The flap about Jackson’s from-beyond-the-grave commentary led to new publicity for a plaque Trump put up on one of his golf courses commemorating a Civil War battle that never happened–the River of Blood.

Tell me, someone: How do we write satire anymore?

*

Derrick Knight asked in a comment, “Aren’t Americans renowned for having no idea of the geography of the rest of the world?”

Well, yes and no. It’s not exactly that we’re ignorant. What we’re doing is carrying on the tradition that brought European explorers to our shores to begin with.

But maybe I’m being defensive. Let’s look at a few statistics:

In 2006, National Geographic News reported that a majority of young Americans couldn’t find Iran, Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, the Sudan, or Indonesia on a map. Half of them couldn’t find New York State.

In a 2014 survey, six percent couldn’t find the U.S. on a map.

But the problem may be that they can’t read maps. Told they could escape a hurricane by going northwest, only two-thirds in the 2006 survey could find northwest on a map. But every last one of them could find both the refrigerator and the bathroom when they felt the need, so they’re capable of basic navigation.

When I lived in Minnesota, if someone had told me I could escape a hurricane by fleeing to the northwest, I’d have laughed my ass off. Minnesota’s too far inland for hurricanes. Tornadoes? Yeah, we got those, and the common wisdom at the time was that you should hide in a corner of your basement, but I never did remember which one. Not because I didn’t know northwest from southeast but because—well, you’d have had to see my basement to understand why a nice clean death by a tornado looked like a better idea than getting get trapped down there for a few days.

In addition to which my memory’s lousy and always has been.

The article also reports, “Fewer than three in ten [young people] think it’s absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Only 14 percent believe speaking another language fluently is a necessary skill.

“Fewer than one in five young Americans own a world map.”

And, basically, they don’t seem to care. Did Columbus own a map? If he did, did it help him?

So what do Americans do well? We have a great sense of humor about what we don’t know, at least if we can judge by what seems to have been a school assignment. Scroll through at least a few of these maps. I beg you. They’re wonderful. You might even ask yourself how many of the countries you could label correctly and if you’d have been as funny about the ones you don’t know.

*

I’m thinking about breaking up these longer, multi-topic posts and putting the individual parts up throughout the week. I’ll still post on Fridays–that’ll be my minimum–but the post is likely be shorter if I’ve posted during the week. Any opinions?