The collapse of British civilization

The early part of spring was dry in Britain this year, and the winter was too. Overall, the U.K. got just 47% of its average April rainfall. Some places only got 10% of their average.

As I type this (which is sometime before I’m posting it), the weather’s turned and it’s been alternately raining, drizzling, and mizzling (that’s somewhere between mist and drizzle) for three days, but we’re still short of water. It doesn’t take long in this country for isn’t-this-wonderful weather to turn into drought, and just before the rain came the papers had begun fretting about the prospect of drought.

The earliest articles warned about the apple crop, and the plums and pears, but just before the rain came the news got serious; If this goes on, an article said, it’s going to affect whisky and beer production.

Well, holy shit, the country would be in trouble.

Vaguely related photo: The north Cornish coast, which has lots of water but it happens to be salty.

The British media has a way of cutting to the center of any issue. I was listening to a BBC report on the problems in prisons a while back. These have—no surprise here—been increasing with underfunding, understaffing, privatization, and (not to get political about it or anything) all the other joys the current (not to mention previous) government brought us.

What sort of problems were they having? I don’t remember the full list, but it included suicides and violence, so it was serious stuff. But the problem that stayed with me was that prisoners had stopped queuing.

If you’re British, I should explain that finding a list composed of suicide, violence, and not queuing will strike people from other countries as hysterically funny. And if you’re American (or any other speaker of not-British), I should probably explain: Queuing means standing in line. and queuing is Britain’s true national religion. When people stop forming queues, it’s a sign that the culture’s falling apart.

So, my friends, the situation is serious. Prisoners no longer instinctively form orderly queues. The world as we know it is crumbling, and unless the rain continues we may not even have whiskey and beer to console us.

Not that I drink anymore, but I don’t look forward to seeing in the end of the world with a bunch of very crabby people.

We’re all immigrants, or will be

When you live in a culture you didn’t grow up in—

No, forget you, because we both know I’m talking about me. So let’s try that again:

Because I live in a culture I didn’t grow up in, I’m forever stubbing my toe on cultural differences. Is that last meal of the day—to give you an unimportant example—dinner or supper? If I invite a friend over for dinner (I usually say “supper,” but who knows, I might try to go all British and accidentally use the more ambiguous “dinner”), will she show up at noon when I didn’t plan to start cooking until five?

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what's-it-called.

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what’s-it-called.

M. came over for whatever that meal’s called recently—showing up just when I thought she would—and as I set the table my mind wandered off into an extended meditation on the intercultural use of spoons. It’s another of those silly differences. Americans will set the table with a fork, a knife, and a small spoon, but the British will add a big honkin’ soup spoon if they plan to pull dessert out of a hat, a cupboard, or a refrigerator at the end of the meal. Because that’s what they’ll eat it with.

At our house, sorry, you don’t get two spoons.  I learned to set a table the American way, and the younger you learn a thing the more some irrational and very powerful part of you is convinced that it’s right.

And by you, as we all know by now, I mean me, because I’d feel roughly as comfortable setting out two spoons as I would wearing a tutu.

For the record, I don’t own and have never worn a tutu. I do have both size spoons, though, so I debated which ones to use. A small spoon’s good for stirring milk into tea, and M. takes her tea with milk. When I make a pot, I pour the milk in before the tea so it doesn’t need stirring, but it was evening and Wild Thing and I would want herb tea (ah, we get wilder every year), so I’d make M’s in the cup, meaning I couldn’t add the milk first. All that weighed on the side of small spoons.

On the other side of the balance, she could stir her tea with a big spoon and then use if for dessert and feel right at home if a little barbaric. For that matter, she could stir her tea with the handle of her knife. Or her thumb if the mood took her. She’s family. It wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.

I put out small spoons. Some of us stirred our tea with them and some of us left them on the table, American style, because I’m not going to pretend that the American way of setting the table makes more sense than the British way. We put out small spoons because we put out small spoons, not necessarily because anyone will use them. What matters is that the spoons are available.

On such moments are entire cultures balanced.

We used forks for dessert—those of us who didn’t use our fingers. It was American coffee cake, which isn’t one of those things that demand a fork. The fork’s so we can show each other that we’re housebroken.

It was all, I’m sure, a very unBritish meal.

End of example and a chance to move on to my real point, which is that British/American cultural differences aren’t the only kind I stumble over, so let’s move on to a new example:

I’ve been gathering a information on U.K. publishers recently. I published a political satire, Open Line, back in the U.S. in 2008. It’s about alternative facts and fake news, although it doesn’t use either phrase, and it’s become sadly relevant recently, so I’m looking around for a U.K. publisher that might want the British rights. My U.S. publisher’s all for it and that’s as much help as they plan to give me. Index cards struck me as the best way to organize what was quickly becoming a mess.

Now, you have to be over a certain age to know what index cards look like, never mind to understand what they’re for or why they seemed like a better idea than putting it all on the computer. I’m not sure what that age is, but you’ll know which side you’re on and we can all do some guesswork from there.

Our nearby town has a stationery store and right beside it an almost-stationery store, which sells newspapers and lots of toys as well as gum and some school supplies. The stationery store, I was pretty sure, would have index cards, but I got there on a Saturday afternoon and it was closed. That’s a British thing, the half day on Saturday. Not all stores observe it, but when one does I shouldn’t be surprised.

I both was and wasn’t. Cultural differences and all that. If you—and by you of course I mean I; or me, but let’s not get into that because it’s a grammatical rat’s nest—don’t plan for these cultural differences, you stub your toe and swear a bit, then you move on. My feet have thick callouses by now. I went next door.

The store had been reorganized since my last visit, so nothing was where I remembered it. I could have wandered around looking for the stationery section but it would have meant spending time with My Little Pony and Bob the Builder and I couldn’t face either of them just then. Instead, I found the cash register, which would be called the till (I think). Two young women looked up with that bright-eyed, can-I-help-you face people make, and I was struck by how immensely young they were. So young that I thought, No, you probably can’t, but I asked anyway: “I don’t suppose you have index cards, do you?”

And by you, I meant you. Which is grammatically less complicated than the I/me snarl.

One of them turned to the other, looking blank and quietly panicked.

“It’s a generational thing,” I said, meaning it’s a cultural difference and there was no reason she’d know what I was talking about.

The second clerk asked if they weren’t those dividers—.

“Not the dividers,” I said. “The things they divide.” Because it made a skewed kind of sense to me that they’d know about index card dividers but not the cards themselves. Why? Because I had a pack of alphabetical dividers at home, which proved to me that they still existed. The cards I wasn’t so sure about.

No, you didn’t miss anything. That set of connections is at least as irrational as the business about the spoons.

The second clerk showed me where the dividers lived. They were the size of a notebook and not at all what I wanted, but they were near something vaguely related to index cards and I figured they were the closest thing I’d find on a Saturday afternoon, so I bought them.

Which brings me to my point: Cultural differences exist between all kinds of groups, not just immigrants and the native born or majority populations and minority groups. Anyone who thinks immigrants or minority groups should just shut up and adapt to every twitch and wriggle of their new country or of the majority, think about your grandmother. Or your great-grandmother. Or yourself if you’re old enough. Because if we live long enough, we all become immigrants to a world we didn’t grow up in. We adapt to some parts of it and not to others. Humans are like that. Some deep part of our selves insists that this will all make more sense on index cards than on the computer, even though she/you/I know(s) perfectly well how to work the computer. Or looks at the soup spoons and thinks, That’s a ridiculous thing to eat dessert with and I’m not setting it on the table.

No, it’s not exactly the same, but maybe it’s enough to make us stop and think.

Welcome to diversity. It’s more diverse than you think.

*

And, although it has no connection with that, I’d like to report that Britain is suffering from a plague of automated phone calls. Some are annoying but confirm medical appointments, so we put up with them because we don’t want our appointments canceled. And by we I mean every ragged one of us.

Others, though—.

Today (and by today I mean the day I wrote this, which as I edit it has already slipped away) I’ve had five automated calls that start, “This is an urgent announcement…”

I hang up at that point, so I haven’t figured out what the scam is, I just know there is one.

Two came when I was cooking and my hands were oily and Wild Thing wasn’t able to answer the phone so I had to pick it up, slathering oil as I went, in case it was someone real. One came when I was ready to stuff the phone down the next caller’s throat, because the last two had been an urgent announcement.

The next call, which I almost answered by saying, “This is an urgent announcement,” was not only someone real, it was someone I don’t know well enough to pull that sort of stunt on. I was glad that good sense had gotten the better of me, however briefly.

We’ve been getting these calls for months, along with a series that start, “Boiler replace for free.” They also arrive in herds.

Wild Thing registered recently for something that promised to track unwanted calls. It did not promise to get rid of them and so far it’s kept that promise.

I’m not sure who thinks it’s a good investment to pay some company to make these calls. By my calculations, they’d cover Wales in urgency to a depth of six inches if we could only round them up. Calculating that slightly differently, I can also report that they’ve called every landline in Britain 74 times by now.

Does anyone who didn’t take the bait the first time take it on the 73rd?

British understatement

Every so often, I ask what people want to know about Britain or the U.S., and every so often they answer. Zipfslaw wrote, “I’d love to know how to understand British understatement. Like, I’ve heard that ‘at your earliest convenience’ means ‘RIGHT NOW’,’ but I don’t really know how it all works.”

Neither do I, so I went running to my strange friend Dr. Google and found a 2001 Guardian article, which gives a memorable example of what happens when the British and non-British try to communicate.

During the Korean War, a British brigadier informed General Soule, his American superior in the U.N. joint command, “Things are a bit sticky, sir,”

He meant they were in serious trouble. “His men were outnumbered eight to one, stranded on every side by human waves of…attackers…. But Gen. Soule understood this to mean ‘We’re having a bit of rough and tumble but we’re holding the line’. Oh good, the general decided, no need to reinforce or withdraw them, not yet anyway.”

More than 500 British soldiers were captured and 59 were killed or missing. Only 39 escaped.

So, yes, I can see why Zipfslaw’s question is worth asking.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

From the Guardian, I went to a site I never expected to visit, Debrett’s, which calls itself “the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement.”

Yes, and modesty as well. Haven’t they heard about understatement? Well, sure they have and here’s what (as the recognized–note the American Z I’m using, please–authority) they say about it:

“A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’. The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour.”

So that’s the answer aimed at aristocrats and those anyone who wants to behave like aristocrats. J., however, tells me that Northerners and the working class in general are generally more direct than the upper class(es) and people from the Southeast. (I’m not sure where that leaves the Southwest, never mind Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Midlands, since I didn’t think to ask, but let’s keep this simple.) Notherners and the working class may be the only reason anyone on this island ever gets out of a burning building: Everyone looks around for someone bold enough to shout, “Fire!” instead of murmuring, “It may soon become a bit warmer here.”

J. told me about a scenario in which an aristocrat offers a working class person a lift, expecting to be politely turned down. But the working class person thinks it’s a genuine offer and accepts it.

Inevitably, it would be raining. I’d have accepted too. The aristocrat would be put out but too polite to say so, and I’d have no idea I just broke the rules. Subtlety’s wasted on me.

At roughly the same time, a different friend whose name also starts with J. sent an email saying something I’d written wasn’t half bad, then added, “(British upper class understatement from 1930s). In fact its a  jolly decent letter.

“Not sure it is just a public school thing though. Consider the (working class ) phrases “fair to middling” and “mustn’t grumble,” which are responses to “How are you?” when the person is actually unwell. Then there is professional middle class mealy mouth. A girl at my school hit a student teacher over the head with a book. On her term report, the teachers wrote, ‘Amanda must not allow her keeness to learn to overcome her natural good manners.’ “
Now that’s understatement.
This is probably a good place to note that “not bad” (depending on the tone of voice) can mean very good, but “not terrible” means bad, although probably not disastrously so.
As people used to say in the U.S. when I was a kid, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
I only threw that in because I suspect it’ll be as baffling to anyone who doesn’t already understand it as the not bad/not terrible distinction is to the rest of us.
You can see that understatement quickly shades over into indirectness, or even opposite-of-what-you-mean-ness. On Quora, someone wrote that “incidentally” means “the primary purpose of our discussion is.”
I was beginning to think that you’d have to grow up with this to understand it, but then I found Anglophenia, which along with a few other sites ran a translation chart for a range of phrases. As an example, “I’ll bear it in mind” means I’ve already forgotten it.

Before you decide that expanding your head so it encompasses understatement is all it takes to understand people over here, I’ve also heard classic British overstatement. Friends periodically tell me they’re gasping for a cup of tea, although I have yet to hear an actual gasp. Or that they’re perishing for one, although so far none of they have died when no tea materialized. But then I don’t (thank whatever laws of the universe control these things) hang out in Debrett’s kind of circles.

I’d add more examples here but the only Briitish overstatements I’ve been able to think of involve tea. That’s worth pondering.

In the U.S., Minnesotans are known for their understatement. I’m working from memory, which is an invitation to disaster, but Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan had, I think, a segment about a guy using a welding torch near a car’s gas tank. What does the Minnesotan watching him say? “Y’know, a feller might not want to do that.”

So all I can say in answer to Zipfslaw’s question is, Consult your translation chart. It’s incomplete, but that may be a result of classic British understatement.

*

Apologies to anyone who read this a week and a half ago when I accidentally posted a draft. Since then, I’ve moved three commas, put two of them back where they started, removed a stray URL, and added a photo. You can see, it’s a massive improvement.

I’ve also added J. emailed comment, which is a genuine improvement.

Finally, this P.S. gives me an excuse to mention another crucial cultural difference between the U.S. and Britain that the Guardian quote reminded me of: We do the dash differently. American publishing uses what’s called an em dash–a dash the width of the letter M–with no space on either side. British publishing uses an en dash–the width of the letter N–with a space on either side.

People, this matters.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. They take me places I wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise.

How the U.K. and U.S. differ

Let’s address the important cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Because here at Notes we’re passionate about what divides and unites our countries. We’re high minded and think deeply, and if that isn’t enough we’re suckers for strange questions. And yes, I’m arrogant enough to speak for you, dear reader, because I’m alone at my computer and by the time I publish this it’ll be too late for you to stop me.

And that’s how democracy works.

Sorry. I’ve been involved in the latest farcical public consultations. They don’t bring out the best in me.

First, then,Barb Taub asked in a comment, “Why are British fridges tall and narrow? Why are washing machines in kitchens? Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?”

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick mine. The mine tunnels themselves went out under the sea.

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick Mine (look down the cliff, where it meets the water). The mine shafts run under the sea.

Conveniently, reader John Evans answered all three questions, and he did it almost immediately, but in case you missed it I’ll quote him:

“>Why are British fridges tall and narrow?

“To fit in tiny kitchens in small British houses.

“>Why are washing machines in kitchens?

“Because few British houses have basements or outhouses (where Americans put their washing machines).

“>Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?

“Because long ago it was recognised that 240 volt electricity supply and wet hands and bodies in bathrooms do not mix well. (240 volts can easily kill a person, especially a wet one.) Shaver sockets in bathrooms use a special isolating transformer, so they’re safe in wet conditions. Normal household mains sockets don’t have isolating transformers, so they’re not safe in wet conditions.”

All I can add to that is that no American would say “outhouse” when talking about the building where a washing machine lives. In Ameri-speak, an outhouse is an outdoor toilet—the kind with a hole in the ground, no running water, and a distinctive odor. An outbuilding, on the other hand, is a building. Outside the house. Which can be used for any purpose other than to house a no-flush, hole-in-the-ground toilet. Language is a funny thing. It all seems to make sense until you step half an inch outside it and realize how completely random the alignment of words and meanings is.

I’ll also add that if you don’t read the comments here at Notes, you’re missing half the fun. Possibly more.

In another comment, Gilly noted that the British use washing up liquid for the kind of job that makes Americans reach for dish soap. I’d add that the British say “I’ll wash up” when they’re going to make dirty dishes clean. Even after ten years in this country, I half expect them to dash to the bathroom and scrub their armpits. Or at least remove three layers of dirt from their hands. If someone asks, “Have you washed up yet?” my first instinct is to tell them it’s none of their damn business. That was what my mother asked before a meal if she suspected my hands hadn’t been in conversation with clean water since that morning. But even she stopped asking as I approached adulthood. And these people aren’t my mother.

An American would say, “Have you done the dishes?” Or possibly, “Have you washed the dishes?”

Gilly also wrote, “May I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker.”

A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?” We can’t manage that level (or form–you notice how I’m hedging my bets here?) of politeness. Or indirectness. Our brains would explode. But I’ll shut up about that and let her continue.

“The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

“And Debenhams [that’s a department store: e.h.], wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.”

If you’re not British you need (yes, need—how could you live without this?) to know that “knob” is slang for penis. Or a general term of abuse, roughly interchangeable with “dickhead.”

Again, I’m not sure what I can add to Gilly’s comment, except that I’m glad I wasn’t in the firing line when Debenhams noticed they had a problem on their hands.

Stop that giggling in the back row. That’s not what I meant and you know it.

In a comment on a different post, Penny Hunt wrote, “As the older generation would say in Australia: it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ‘a corker’? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.”

Well, I know Australia’s not in Britain, and if my memory’s still working it’s not in the U.S. either, which sets it outside of my usual focus, but I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Wordnik defines “corker” as the last word on a topic—something that, like a cork, acts as a stopper. From there—and this is a guess—it’s not a big leap to the meaning I grew up with: something good. It’s listed as British usage, but I can testify that it’s also American, although probably antiquated usage by now.

I’ve gone a bit antiquated myself lately.

But that didn’t help with “bottler”, and here the search got strange. The Urban Dictionary says it’s London working class slang for a coward. Try “bottle,” though, and you find out it means nerve, as in, “Do you have the bottle?”

So a bottler doesn’t have the bottle.

In Cockney rhyming slang, “bottle” means arse.

It what? How does that rhyme?

Bottle and glass go together, and glass rhymes with arse, although you may need to say “glarse” to make it work. Or something along those lines. Don’t ask me. I’m American and live in Cornwall. Cockneys are born in London. I’m out of my depth here. but I can tell you, in case you’re American, that “arse” means ass. Which rhymes very nicely with glass.

If you specify Australian slang when you google “bottler,” it means something good, but we already know that. It’s also used in New Zealand, but then if a Kiwi want to insult you they’re likely to say you’re an egg, which brings me back to how strange language can get. That has nothing to do with our important topic, but I couldn’t let a mention of Kiwis and slang go past without mentioning it.

I never did find the origin of the Australian/New Zealand use of “bottler” and stopped looking after I’d overdosed on websites offering me bottled gas and bottled Coke.

*

Ah, romance: the U.K. letterbox and the U.S. mailbox

Ever since I moved to Cornwall, I’ve been running into people who romanticize the U.S. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen it in movies or on TV. Maybe it’s because they like the music. Maybe it’s for reasons I haven’t even guessed at. I spent most of my life the U.S. That makes it hard for me to see the romance.

During Hollywood’s golden age (when that was that? you should know better than to trust me with numbers, so let’s acknowledge the question and skip right on over it), photographers smeared their lenses with vaseline in order to give actresses a golden glow. Or, if you prefer, a nice blurry look. Let that stand as an example of how to romanticize something. You need distance. You need blur. You need vaseline.

I don’t know how they cleaned their lenses, but that’s a different issue.

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. If you know where to look, there's a castle out there. What's more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. There’s a castle just out of sight on the right. What’s more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I don’t know how many people in Britain romanticize the U.S., only that some do. Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is as random as it is unscientific, has never tackled the subject because Hawley can’t figure out what question to ask. Every so often I hear something that files itself under Romanticizing America. That’s the best the survey and I can do.

I do know that people have odd impressions of the U.S. The most common one is that we all live in big houses—either McMansions or the kind of apartments you’d see in a Woody Allen film.

Stop laughing, you Americans, because our images of the U.K. are just as out of kilter. In a letter once, I told a well-read friend in northern Minnesota that a nearby town drew a lot of surfers.

“Surfers?”  she wrote back. Her images of England, she said, came out of Dickens. None of Dickens’ characters owned a surfboard. So what were we doing with surfers?

In fairness, she knew how absurd that was, but knowing a thought’s absurd doesn’t stop it from operating.

And for those of you who know enough not to confuse England and Cornwall, I remind you that when you’re an ocean away, it all gets a little–well, vaseline-y.

My latest (and somewhat questionable) example of romanticizing America came to me as follows: Earlier this week, A. and I were stuffing leaflets through the neighbors’ letterboxes. This isn’t a romanticizable activity. Letterboxes are cleverly designed to keep things out, not invite them in. This is good if you own one, because it keeps the wind from banging the flap around and blowing into your living room. It’s bad if you’re trying to stuff paper through, because as you push the paper in the flap resists with all its inanimate might.

The leaflets were about a massive reorganization of the National Health Service that the government’s forcing through. It will cut services, close some hospitals, and generally make a mess out of things. What sort of nutburger would oppose that? I doubt we’ll be able to stop it, but we can at least make it more difficult. And, if the political winds are kind, build a base to reverse the damage in the future. We’ve organized a meeting in the village where people can learn about it (it hasn’t been well publicized) and (since the farce of public consultation is required) voice their opinions.

A couple of houses from mine, a couple I know, J. and P., saw me coming and said hello.

“Can I just hand you this rather than fighting with your”—and here, if I remember right, I stumbled around a bit, my brain running through post slot and mailbox before I landed on what (I think) is the correct term, letterbox, which I find hard to remember because the object in question isn’t, on most houses, a box but a slot in the door.

If you’ve been around Notes for a while and have a better memory than I do—which isn’t hard—you may remember that we went through this once before. I should know the right word by now. I don’t. Or not with any certainty. I mean well, but the word just doesn’t stick.

P. accepted the leaflet while I explained that I’d almost lost a fingertip to a particularly vicious letterbox (and here I pointed in its vague direction in case they wanted to avoid it on their walks), and P. said there was one like it at the top of our street.

J. delivers the village newsletter, and P., who retired very recently, either helps out or is an equal participant. Either way, they know their letterboxes.

Then—and I’m coming to my point any minute here—he said, “You have those boxes in the U.S.” His hands shaped the dome of the archetypal American rural mailbox. Something about either his hands or his voice convinced me that they seemed romantic to him, although I admit I didn’t ask. But it made a kind of sense. If they haven’t been worn down daily contact, even the oddest things can seem romantic. I’ve known Americans who fall in love with the British pillar mailboxes because they’re red and they’re shiny and they’re–well, British. They’re also postboxes and not to be confused with letterboxes. They’re the things you post your mail into, not receive your mail in.

Clear?

You don’t—for reasons I’ll never understand—mail a letter in this country. You post it. Even though you’re handing it over to the Royal Mail, not the Royal Post. Because the word usage is foreign to me, I’m sure I could romanticize it. I don’t, as it happens, and pillar postboxes don’t do anything for me either. But I’m a fool for thatched roofs. And I do kind of like the squarish postboxes when they’re set into stone walls. I mean come on now, that’s romantic.

Either J. or P. suggested that I write about mailboxes. Or postboxes. Or letterboxes. Or, well, whatever they are’s. If I hadn’t just endangered my fingers in one, I’d have shrugged off the idea. But knowing what I do about how vicious the beasts can be on this side of the Atlantic, I’m ready to tell you everything I know.

So here’s what I know about American mailboxes, and it isn’t much: With rare exceptions, those domed things that look like miniature Nissan huts aren’t used in cities. They’re rural. Why? Because. In the cities we have—well, where I’ve lived houses have rectangularish boxes of one sort or another, usually on the outside wall. In Minnesota, it’s too cold to run around cutting holes in the doors, even for the privilege of getting mail. At all costs, you want to keep the cold outside and the heat inside.

If you live in an apartment building, you might have a mailbox on or set into a wall in the entryway or lobby, but then you also might pick your mail up off the floor where the letter carrier dumps it. Or half a dozen other things might happen to it. As far as I can figure out, it’s up to the landlord to set up a system. Or not, in the case of it getting dumped by the door.

Romantic, right?

There’s a joke I’ve seen played with the rural boxes: Someone mounts theirs on a pole with a sign on it saying Mail. Then they mount one 10 or so feet above it. The sign on that one says Air Mail. I’d guess that at least one person plays that joke in every county in the country, but it makes me laugh anyway.

I was told once that it’s illegal to stuff flyers in people’s mailboxes in the U.S. because they all belong to the post office. I have no idea whether that’s true—the post office doesn’t buy them, so I don’t see how they own them, and before we left the U.S. I lifted many a pizza delivery ad out of our mailbox without calling either the police or the post office, but political flyers tended—in an excess of legality—to get stuck in the door, so maybe it is true.

Everything I know about British mailboxes I already wrote above. Two things are worth repeating, though: 1, They can be vicious. 2, they’re very romantic.

Spanish slugs, Asian hornets, and the romance of Britain

Let’s talk about the romance of living in Britain, starting with slugs. Because nothing says romance like a creature that travels on a trail of its own slime, has no skeleton, and eats everything in your garden except the weeds and the lawnmower you left out.

I’m not much of a romantic myself, and that may be why British slugs shocked me when I moved here. Minnesota slugs are (in hindsight) shy little creatures that nibble but don’t gulp. They have no taste for garden furniture. Give them a saucer of beer and they’ll drown themselves, leaving your tomatoes in peace.

Irrelevant photo: hydrangeas

Irrelevant photo: hydrangeas

And if you don’t put out beer, they only eat the smallest bit. I could knock them off a tomato, cut around the hole they left, and tell myself that sharing is good and all nature’s creatures can live in harmony.

Unless of course I ignored the garden for a few days, in which case they’d eat half the tomato and the other half would rot, but whose fault was that? I should’ve taken my tomatoes in earlier.

British slugs, though? They don’t actually eat garden furniture. That was—by way of complete transparency—an exaggeration. But I’ve seen them eyeing it. They have plans. I know this.

That’s not what shocked me, though, because I didn’t know it when I was at that early, shockable stage. It was their size that threw me. They’re as big as buses. Or at least as my longest and rudest finger.

Even in that early stage, I got a sense of what we were dealing with: Wild Thing set out a tray of seedlings one night and by morning they’d mowed down the entire thing. All they left was the plastic, the soil, and a roughly crafted sign saying, “More.” If you set out beer for these beasts, when you come out in the morning you’ll find them sitting around the edge of the saucer, thumping their mugs on the bar, yelling for refills, and singing.

There’s something about the intersection of Britain and booze that makes drunks sing, even when the drunks in question are slugs, which (in case it’s not entirely clear, and again in the interest of complete transparency) can’t actually speak.

Singers, do not try to learn your lyrics from slugs. It doesn’t work.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I was reminded recently that starting in 2012 the country was invaded by Spanish slugs. Yes, my friends, foreign slugs have made their way into this green and pleasant land, and they threaten to outcompete our good native slugs. They’re bigger. (Good god. How big can a slug get?) They reproduce faster. They eat more. According to the website Slugwatch (no I didn’t make that up; yes, you can spend your life watching slugs if you really, really want to; and yes, I’m sure there are far worse things to do with a life although none come to mind just now), they tolerate hotter, dryer environments (neither of which they’ve found here lately, but never mind; I’m sure it’ll be an advantage eventually), and they have an “extensive omnivorous diet.”

I have to interrupt myself here to talk about that diet being both extensive and omnivorous, because if omnivorous means that they eat everything (and it does; I’ve stacked the garden furniture inside to protect it, along with my supply of parentheses, which is why I can use them so freely in this post), then how much more extensive can an appetite get? They eat more than everything? And if our native slugs’ diet is less extensively omnivorous, wouldn’t that make them not omnivorous?

Former editors are terrible nitpickers, although if it makes you feel any better, I was worse before I retired. And I got paid for it.

But let’s get down to the specifics of that extensively omnivorous eating. Spanish slugs eat excrement and dead animals, Slugwatch says. In contrast, my own small and unscientific survey suggests that our good British slugs do exactly the same thing. (I told you this was going to be romantic, didn’t I?) From the time I moved here—and it was before 2012—if I wanted to slaughter some slugs, all I had to do was locate the cat shit. Or the last batch of slugs and snails I’d killed. There they’d be, chowing down happily.

And that’s not just my experience. When M. cleaned up her yard after the dog, if she found any slugs she’d just pick them up and toss them all in the trash together. She liked to think of it as sending them off with a packed lunch.

But change makes good headlines. So do threat and horror. Cannibalistic slugs attack Great Britain! Keep the children indoors!

In fairness, Slugwatch didn’t say that, but one or another of tomorrow’s papers may.

To continue with our romantic theme, though, let’s talk cold, hard politics. Because romanticizing a culture is lovely until, without much warning, it turns toxic, contrasting My Romantic and Wonderful Culture with your (note that we’ve shifted to lower case letters here, since your culture’s less important) lousy one which threatens to dilute Mine in one way or another.

So when some papers and people talk about immigration, whether the incomers are human or nonhuman, something that scares the hell out of me happens. If they see the immigrants as smarter and stronger and more omnivorous than either ourselves or our annoying native species, they complain about the incomers because they’ll outcompete us or ours. And if they see them as dumber, weaker, and less omnivorous? Well hell, that means they’re not as good as us or ours, so they deserve to be swamped. Unlike us and ours, who deserve to be protected.

I admit, I don’t favor the random transplantation of all species. I draw the line at Japanese knotweed, which can come up (or so they say) through the floor of a house and can only be destroyed by eradicating the entire planet, which would have serious consequences for our species—and problematic as we are, I kind of like our species. I’m not in favor of moving plants and beasts from one ecosystem to another, because the target ecosystem may not be able to cope with it.

But you can’t carry an extreme example over and apply it to everything. If Japanese knotweed’s a problem, that doesn’t mean humans should be locked into their native soil.

Hysteria, however, sells papers. And selling paper (did I mention that I used to be an editor?) is good.

Consider the Asian hornet. I heard a mention of it on the radio recently, so I went to my old and odd friend Google and found an article in Metro, which is accompanied by a picture of someone holding a hornet roughly the size of a small lobster. Or at least of a monstrously large hornet. The headline says, “Run for cover because these terrifying Asian hornets are heading to the UK.”

From under my bed, where I cowered with my laptop, I read the slogan beside Metro’s masthead: “News…but not as you know it.” I figured that meant, “We’re having way more fun than any reputable newspaper should.”

It was a rough translation, but it helped me put things in perspective and I went on to read the small type, where I learned that the hornets aren’t in Britain yet. I almost crawled out from under the bed. Then I read that deaths have been attributed to them in France.

Should I stay? Should I wiggle out?

I read that the deaths came from allergic reactions and looked for a comparison figure that would tell me how many people died of bee stings. I didn’t find it, but I figured this might be business as usual, so I crawled back to my desktop, where I read that up to 6,000 Asian hornets can live in a single hive.

By then, I was suspicious. I googled number of bees in a hive and learned that it’s 20,000 to 60,000. So I went to the Independent and learned that Asian hornets could come over from France, and it wouldn’t be good news since they can destroy honeybee colonies, but that they’re not the same as giant Asian hornets—they’re less dangerous, and fairly harmless to humans. Unless, of course, you’re allergic.

But hey, they’re foreign. So it seems only fair that Metro would assume that they’re up to no good. And I say that as a foreigner myself. I’m up to no good. Just look at what I’ve done with the idea of romance. And there may well be 6,000 of me living in my house. Who’d know? I’m not letting Pest Control past the front door.

What I will not be doing here in the secrecy of my hive is joining a society to defend the British slug from foreign incursions. Even if the foreign slug is more extensively omnivorous.

And so to all of you who dream of visiting Romantic Britain, and to you Brits who want foreigners like me to respect the romance of your lovely (and it really is lovely) native land, I say that I am. The romance is as great as ever, and this morning it left slime tracks on my driveway.

The things we call ourselves: British titles

One of the joys of living in Britain is seeing what titles that pop up when I fill out a form online. I’m not talking about book titles or album titles, but personal titles. In my former life in the U.S., I got to choose between Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Dr., usually in that order.

In Britain, though? I was using a web site a while back and on the Personal Details page I pulled down the Titles menu. They offered me:

Mrs

Mr

Miss

Dr

M

Mlle

Mre

Sir

Lord

Ms

Lady, and

Reverend

None of the titles had periods after them. That may be a cost-saving measure. Those periods can get expensive, even when you buy in bulk.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Strangely relevant photo: This is a plant called lords and ladies.

Wild Thing and I argued about what Mre was. She favors Meals Ready to Eat, but I lean toward a misspelling of Madame: Mme. Exactly why a British web site needs to have French titles, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because someone imported it from another web site, which happened to be French.

These things happen. When I worked as a freelance writer, some real estate developer hired me to write a brochure, and I was told to basically copy it from some other company’s brochure. Why they needed a writer to do that I have no idea, but they were willing to pay me for it and it didn’t seem like a good time to argue.

The original brochure said the apartment complex had an indoor elevator. I copied that in, but at almost the last minute I asked the woman who’d hired me if that didn’t seem, um, strange. She looked at the original. She admitted that, yes, it did seem a bit odd since elevators had a habit of being indoors.

We changed it. We also changed the drawings and enough of the wording that we couldn’t get nailed for plagiarism. So I do understand how easy it is to import very odd stuff into unimaginative text.

That only makes me more curious about how those French titles ended up on the list.

But back to the actual list I pulled down: Prosaically, I checked my standard Ms. But it did remind me that we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Full disclosure: Wild Thing and I never were in Kansas. We were in Minnesota. Where they do get tornadoes but where Lord or Lady don’t show up in pull-down menus. Neither does Reverend, despite the U.S. being a more aggressively religious country than the U.K.

Further full disclosure: Although Wild Thing and I got married last summer—we both think it was in June but, romantics that we are, we’ve already managed to forget the date—neither of us goes by Mrs. We can’t see why women should be stamped with their marital status every time they fill out a form or open the mail. It’s a holdover from the days when a woman’s marital status determined her legal status and, hell, her entire life. Calling me Mrs. is a reliable way to make me bristle. I mention that in case making me bristle appeals to you.

For as many titles as Britain offers, Ms isn’t as commonly available as it is in the U.S. I’m sure it means something, although I don’t know what.

But let’s not get stuck on Ms. and Mrs. when we have so many other titles to play with.

I once took part in a letter-writing campaign to the House of Lords, which was considering a bill that has since made a complete hash of the National Health Service. As an American, I’m all too aware of what the alternative to the National Health Service looks like, so I was passionate about this. So passionate that I was willing to write to the members of an antiquated, expensive, and silly branch of government.

A government web page helpfully explains how to write to the lords who populate the House of Lords, because if you’re a lord you just might take the question of how you’re addressed very seriously. And if you’re not a lord but a letter writer trying to convince a lord of something, you don’t want to piss her or him off with your first line. So you read what the government writes and you don’t snark about it until later, when you get to write a blog post and can get as snarky as you want.

To the women lords, you say, “Dear Baroness Whoever,” but to the men you say, “Dear Lord Whoever.”

It’s interesting that you don’t say, “Dear Lady Whoever,” to the lady lords. I would have thought that lord and lady went together. You know: bacon and eggs, bread and butter, lord and lady. But lady must mean something different—probably the wife of a lord. Or—well, how would I know? I’m a barbarian and happy to remain so.

Somewhere deep in the convolutions of the British civil service is a department staffed with people who not only know all this stuff but care.

I was tempted to add a discreet touch of italics to my letters to the men, “Dear Lord,” hoping it would call up an image of my head drooping hopelessly onto a supporting hand, but diplomacy won out and I kept the whole line in respectful Roman type (which is what non-italics are called, so now 96% of you will have actually learned something from this post; an additional 3% already knew it; and the remaining whatever% stopped reading paragraphs ago).

All my discretion didn’t help a bit. The bill passed in spite of my Roman type, and the NHS has turned into organizational hash, which was the goal all along, because the American health companies are circling it like vultures around someone lost in the desert and barely able to crawl. But I won’t go on about that because I’m too angry to be funny.

One baroness did write me back, at length. That seemed like a hopeful sign. She didn’t even open her email, “Dear Plebian.”

So I wrote her back. And she wrote me back. And on we went for maybe half a dozen long emails on each side, and they got increasingly strange, because we seemed to be writing past each other rather than to each other. In other words, she wasn’t interested in what I was saying, so why was she taking her time? I was taking mine because she had some power, or at least the semblance thereof, and for quite a while I suffered from the delusion that I might convince her of something. Gradually, though, I began wanting to ask, “Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

I was grateful when at long last she stopped writing.

Her name later showed up on a list of lords who had financial interests in private health care companies, which should have disqualified them from voting on the bill but didn’t.

Dear lord.

I still want to know why she took the time to write me. Is she so at sea in the House of Lords that writing pointless letters to a random stranger gives her some feeling of purpose?

I notice that Baroness isn’t one of the choices on the pull-down Titles menu. If the baronesses use the site (and I have no idea at this point what the site actually was), They have to be either Lord or Lady. Or if they want to go slumming with the rest of us, Ms or Meals Ready to Eat.

Gay marriage, romance, and village life

Wild Thing and I got married a couple of weeks ago. It was a Wednesday morning and we wore jeans and running shoes (and, yes, other stuff), which is probably enough to tell you we didn’t make a big production out of it. We’ve lived together for thirty-nine years now. We’ve had a civil partnership for—um. I’m not sure how long. Eight years? Let’s pretend it’s eight years. I’m probably wrong. Something larger than five but still in the single digits. Neither of us knows when the anniversary is. Sometime in the fall.

I was the one who suggested converting our civil partnership to a marriage, even though I’m not a fan of marriage. As far as I’m concerned, if you want romance, go live together. Skip the confetti. Don’t ask for  blessings from either church or state. Skip the ceremony, save the money, don’t even want the presents. For me, marriage is tainted by its long history as a property arrangement and as a way to control people’s sexuality. I won’t argue that you should agree with me, I’m just reporting on how I see it.

A surprisingly relevant photo: This is a flower.

A surprisingly relevant photo: This is a flower.

But as we get older, the realities of state recognition have started to matter. If one of us is hospitalized, we want the other one to be automatically recognized as the person in charge. Sure, we can draw up legal documents and we have, but how many of us have them in our back pockets when we need them?

Civil partnership gave us all that within the borders of the U.K., but recognition is iffier when we travel.

What really decided it, though, is that we probably won’t die in tandem. Since we’re spread across two countries and the U.S. doesn’t recognize civil partnerships formed abroad, converting our civil partnership to a marriage seemed like a practical decision. It will leave the survivor less of a mess at a time when she’ll have more than enough to deal with.

Cheerful, aren’t I? But y’know, we’re getting older. We think about these things.

I was reluctant—I was married a hundred or so years ago and didn’t like the woman-as-appendage feeling it gave me—but practicality won out.

An old romantic, that’s me.

I might as well admit at this point that when gay marriage first became a viable political possibility my brother asked me what I thought of it.

I want it to pass, I said, so I can take a principled stance against it.

It was a good joke and it leaves me with the itchy feeling that I need to explain myself.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone—and I mean anyone—but blabbermouth told J. Then I told J. not to tell anyone. But telling people is one of the things J. loves in life, so this was unkind. Then we told someone else and I went back and lifted the ban on telling people and—well, it went from there.

J. wanted to have a party.

No party.

J. wanted to be a witness.

We didn’t need witnesses. All we had to do was sign some papers.

J. wanted to throw confetti and see me to wear a white dress.

I haven’t worn a dress since I went into court for my divorce—wait, let me count—forty-four years ago. Or a skirt, thanks. And I only wore whichever it was then because I was intimidated. And because it was a long time ago, when slacks weren’t as widely accepted.

J. back to wanting a party.

No party.

Two days later, I saw J. again and seized my chance.

“What makes you think it’d be me wearing the dress?” I asked.

I didn’t get an answer, but that was okay. It took me two days to come up with the question. I didn’t really need an answer.

That’s the thing about gay marriage, though. You don’t know what to count on. You just have to stand back and see how the couple’s going to play it.

Somewhere along the line, one of us told G., who I sing with sometimes, and I’d blame blabbermouth but it was probably me. So G. and some other people from singers night gave us a card and a dwarf magnolia to plant in the back yard, and for all that I wanted to keep the whole thing to ourselves, I was touched and, irrationally, began to feel less reluctant.

What can I tell you? We’re social animals and we’re not entirely rational. If we even get that close.

When Wild Thing made the appointment with the registrar, we were told that we’d have to prove that we are who we think we are (are you still with me here?), so we’d need to bring two forms of identification. A passport and a driver’s license would do, but because Wild Thing has macular degeneration and no longer drives, she’d need something official with our address—a recent utility bill or bank statement, for example.

Both of which have gone paperless. And no, she couldn’t just print them off. It had to be on letterhead.

No problem, she figured. She’d go to our local bank branch and ask them to print it. But the branch can’t do that anymore. The central office no longer trusts them with paper. Who knows what they’d do with it? The only way to get a printed statement is to call some central office somewhere and wait a week to ten working days while a scribe in the back office writes it out by hand with a quill. By this time, of course, we didn’t have a week, never mind ten days.

Wild Thing begged. She explained. She was her most charming and desperate.

The woman at the central office said she’d talk to someone. Then she called back. She’d put a rush on it.

How much of a rush? We couldn’t be sure. Wild Thing gathered alternative papers. A letter from the NHS. A—oh, never mind the list. Everything she could find. It made quite a stack. We had no reason to think any of them would be good enough.

I started thinking about my parents’ tales about their own wedding. They were already living together, which—well, this would have been early in the early 1940s, I think. You didn’t do stuff like that openly then. They were working for the same union, in the same building, and took different subway trains to work so they’d show up at different times.

They fooled no one. Their co-workers would look at their watches and nod knowingly.

They’d have gone ahead and gotten married but my mother’s divorce wasn’t final. When it was, they went to City Hall on their lunch hour and discovered that the office they needed was on its own lunch hour.

They went back the next day and got married, borrowing a ring from someone and giving it back as they left the office. Their honeymoon was on the subway on their way back to work. They stayed together more than 50 years and were very close. So I grew up thinking that ceremony isn’t everything. In fact, I sort of assumed it was an annoying nuisance.

If Wild Thing and I couldn’t get married on the date we’d planned, at least we’d be part of a tradition. And we’d have a good story.

J. stepped in.

Bring a council tax statement, she said.

Onto the stack the council tax statement went, and on Wednesday off we went with all of it, wearing our best denims. Or at least our clean ones.

We saw a deputy registrar who chatted as she worked her way through the form: identification, names, dates of birth, all that stuff. Any previous names. Would I spell that?

I would. I’d meant to keep my own name when I got married that first time but didn’t take whatever steps would have made that possible in those dark days when a woman had to fight to keep her own name, so it was changed for me, which didn’t help with that woman-as-appendage feeling I mentioned.

The deputy registrar, Wild Thing, and I chatted about people who don’t like their names and people whose names end up being popular names for dogs.

We do it with such good intentions, she said.

You couldn’t help liking the woman, although I’ll admit we didn’t try.

Would you confirm your gender? she asked.

You do have to ask these days, I said.

She said she did have to, and some people got angry about it. A few offered to prove their gender, which was more than she actually needed.

The world’s gotten complicated, if it ever was simple. Some people do get pissed off about it.

She asked if either of us was changing her name.

Not a chance.

Eventually we got around to my father’s middle name.

Kropotkin.

Would I spell that?

Well, yes, I would. Slowly.

We’d already discussed Wild Thing’s middle name and why she hates it. I don’t have a middle name, which could be a discussion all on its own but wasn’t. My father’s, though, seemed to call for some explanation. We were having such a nice visit. And she was such an easy person to talk to.

My father’s parents were Russian revolutionaries, I said. Which is an exaggeration but it’s what I found myself saying. What they really were was Russian Jewish radicals. They didn’t actively foment revolution. For one thing, they were busy raising four (at the time they emigrated) kids, and trying to feed and clothe and educate them, which is enough to keep most people, radical or otherwise, occupied. For another, I’m not sure revolution was on the agenda when they were still Russia, and I don’t think they’d have felt at home in the parties that wanted a revolution.

When they got to the U.S., I went on, they felt free to name their kids anything they damn well wanted to, and my father was their first American-born child so they named him after a Russian anarchist prince, Peter Kropotkin.

Talk about middle names that aren’t easy to carry through life. I learned to use his middle initial only when I filled out school forms. Using his full middle name gives me an odd, can-I-really-do-this? feeling.

She printed out the form, all of us signed it, and that was it. We were married.

By way of a honeymoon, we went to the supermarket and picked up some fruit. We were getting low. It’s summer. We like fruit.

When we got home, J. and A. had broken into our house, with M.’s help, and left a banner, a balloon, flowers, fruit, vegetables, cards. The kitchen table was practically overflowing. Our brave dogs—our watch-shih tzus—had done nothing to guard the house. And when J. and A. had trouble with the key, the neighbor gave them a hand.

So much for security.

We now had enough fruit to start a fruit stand. Every time I looked at the kitchen table, I started laughing all over again.

We put some of it away and took ourselves to lunch at the local café, which sent us home with a massive piece of carrot cake as a wedding present. They were afraid, I think, that the marriage wouldn’t be valid if we didn’t have cake.

So here we are, and I’m happy to report that nothing’s changed except that we’ve been eating more fruit than usual. Friends have snuck a bit more celebrating in on us, including F. showing up with a one-week anniversary present and friends throwing flower petals.

Not long ago, M. asked Wild Thing—teasing her, I think—which of us is the wife.

The answer is, neither of us. Or in a pinch, both of us. Or the same one who was before we got married, which goes back to the first answer: no one. It’s not about our legal status,  it’s not about who plays what role. It’s about the relationship.

Comparative idiot-proofing

Brits are smarter than Americans. Want proof? They’re surrounded by less idiot-proofing and they—or at least enough of them to keep the country staggering forward—survive.

Example number one: The cliffs here in north Cornwall are high and dangerous, and in places the footpaths run right along the edge. And no one builds a hand rail or fence (unless the fence is there to keep the cattle or sheep back; the humans are left to fend for themselves). For the most part, no one even puts up a sign. They’re cliffs. It’s assumed you’ll have sense enough not to walk off the edge. Besides, you’d have to fence off half the Cornish coastline if you wanted to protect everyone from themselves.

Our local beach does have a sign about falling rock on one side. People ignore it, but short of installing sheepdogs to herd them away, the council’s done as much as it’s willing to. No fences.

Penkenna, north cornwall

Irrelevant photo: The beach on a much nicer day than the day when I’m typing this. The gusts are high enough that I took the dogs on a stagger,  not a walk.

Example number two: Our car doesn’t have as many you-idiot buzzers as American cars, and I assume other people’s are the same. The makers count on you having the brains to take your key out of the ignition when you get out. In the U.S., they know better, because as it turns out I don’t have the brains–and let’s pretend for a moment that I’m typical of the human race. The other night, I not only left my key in the car, I left it turned so that it drained the battery. (On the positive side, the car was still where I left it.) So in the morning, when I went to drive Wild Thing to a doctor’s appointment (ah, yes, excitement; we were younger when she first got her name, but she still manages to live up to it) the car was dead, dead, dead.

You wouldn’t expect a person to complain about a car not insulting her intelligence, would you? But it does make me miss my insulting American car, which would’ve given me some sort of nasty you-idiot sound and I would have rolled my eyes and put the key in my pocket and sworn I didn’t need the reminder.

Here, the only thing I do (and I do it fairly regularly) to make my car give me the you-idiot noise is leave the lights on. You know, when it’s not dark enough for me to see that they’re on but overcast enough that they made me more visible. And then I forget I turned them on but the car—thank you, car—remembers.

When I drove cab—and we’re going back a few thousand years here—the company bought a bunch of new cars that, for the first time in Blue & White Cab Co. history, made a deeply aggressive you-idiot noise when the driver didn’t wear a seatbelt. A sizable percent of the drivers were of the Don’t You Tell Me What to Do persuasion, and they dealt with it by either fastening the belts permanently behind them or unplugging the wire between the belt and the screamy thing.

They even took a certain joy in it, as if they’d snatched back some control over their lives from an overwhelming and powerful system, and I do understand the impulse, just not the direction they take with it.

The going justification for not wearing a seatbelt was that we jumped in and out of the cab dozens of times a day—to open doors, to load and unload groceries and luggage, to ring doorbells and roust out passengers who said they’d be outside waiting for us but weren’t, so who could be bothered fastening and unfastening the damn thing each time?

Well, me, actually. Maybe it was just innate caution and maybe it was tales from friends and family who’d had their seatbelts fastened during accidents and had come through without a scratch. Maybe it was the accident I had, in a car with no seatbelt, where I ended up in the back seat with the lid of a coffee pot on my head and one boot still beside the gas pedal, ready to keep driving even without my foot to help it. I didn’t have a scratch on me, but I was dazed for the rest of the day.

We didn’t really jump out of the cab that many times a day. I mean, come on. Open the door for people? Only for the elderly and for people who needed to be, um, encouraged to leave. We weren’t fuckin’ limo drivers, trying to make our passengers think they were aristocrats.

Yes, cab driving did wonders for my attitude.

Anyway, I wear a seatbelt so regularly that it took me nine years to find out our current car screams when the driver doesn’t wear one. But I now officially miss all that other you-idiot buzzing. I not only had to ask our neighbor to drive Wild Thing to her appointment, I had to call the roadside assistance, which I’m grateful that we have because we don’t have a charger. While I waited for them, I was so pissed off that I tried out a hot cross bun recipe I’d found on the internet. I couldn’t think of anything else to do with myself. But the recipe turned out to have some uncertainties: How sticky a dough is a somewhat sticky dough? Is that bread flour or plain flour? Are those photographs really the buns you made or did you download it so we’d be impressed?

I used bread flour and left the dough too sticky, so the buns flattened out and even if they hadn’t they wouldn’t have been round anyway because I’m a practical baker, not a decorative one, plus they didn’t taste particularly like hot cross buns although they weren’t bad, and since I couldn’t be bothered putting a cross on top because the cross is decorative and I don’t have a lot of patience for that and would feel kind of weird about the religious symbolism anyway although I wouldn’t if I were buying them instead of baking them [quick pause for breath here], they ended up being cold secular buns. Not at all bad but not hot cross buns.

Then the guy came to jump the car and the world looked like a marginally better place. I don’t need a buzzer to keep me back from the cliff edges, but I will not complain about being insulted by my car.

If you want a cold secular bun, stop by soon. They’re going fast.

How people find a blog, part 2. Or 3.

What does the world really want to know about Britain? For the second (or possibly third; I’ve lost track) time, I’ll tell you. And how do I know? you ask (if you have any sense). I track the questions that lead people here, and this is an entirely scientific and reliable system because search engines are entirely reliable and the internet is a place of complete sobriety and good sense.

Semi-relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who gets a mention below.

Semi-relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who gets a mention below.

People have asked about:

Geography:

Why Britain is called Great Britain. This is the most commonly asked question and it comes in assorted forms and with an interesting misspelling or three thrown in to keep me amused. It’s also one of the questions I actually answered.

The Silly Isles in Britain. This search is so logical and so wrong. Give the writer credit for knowing how the islands are pronounced, then get out your red pen and write “Scilly Isles.”

Do Brits still like American tourists? I’m not sure. Did they ever? Maybe not, because people also want to know Why Brits hate American tourists, Not to mention Do Brits see Americans as naughty children? and (irrelevantly) Why do Americans love the British? None of this is exactly geography, but I’m assuming the writers are thinking of traveling. Close enough. And really, folks, the answer to all of this is that there is no single answer. The British haven’t achieved a unanimous opinion on this. I’m tempted to add “or on anything else,” but that’s just wise-assing around. They have a consensus and maybe even unanimity on the weather and on baked beans.

Culture:

Gloucester cheese rolling. I’m glad to see it getting some recognition. This is a deep and resonant part of British culture. It must be, because I can’t think of any other way to explain it. Someone was also looking for British culture celebrations, although it’s hard to know if they wanted deep-rooted folk traditions (in which case see not just Gloucester but also the flaming tar barrels) or high culture, in which case go elsewhere because I’m useless.

(A note about why I’m providing links on some topics and not on others: Some posts are easy enough for me to dig out. Others are buried somewhere in this morass, and as people here say with such style, I can’t be arsed.)

American and British manners. That’s easy: We (that’s Americans) have none; they (that’s the British) have lots. I’ll group this with American and British dinner manners TekeT. What does TekeT mean? For all I know, it’s some obscure element of British dinner-table manners that I haven’t picked up on and, oh, how I’ve been offending people. Or the cat walked across the keyboard. But what I really want to know is how the writer got two capital letters past Google’s No Caps filter, because those capital Ts are from the actual search question. And no, it’s not really a question, but let’s move on. For no particular reason, I’ve added caps into the questions in this post, except for those two Ts. But to answer briefly, British eating is knife right, fork left and how you hold the fork indicates your class. What should a foreigner do? Dive for cover, because whatever impression you want to leave people with—except the impression that you’re an outsider—you won’t get it right. Americans, on the other hand, juggle the tableware from one hand to the other. Not the plates, though. Or the glasses. Sorry. Just the fork and knife. What should be done to show good manners in Britain? I had a burst of these, possibly from some single person who didn’t find an answer but kept coming back, and possibly from the misdirected half of a class whose teacher assigned the question. It’s an interesting concept. I always thought of good manners as something you have—you know, the way you have a dime or a stomach ache or black hair. But this is about showing them, the way you show a bus pass. If I ever figure out the answer or why the difference is significant, I’ll write a post.

Poster showing difference between city life and village life (maxi…). I’m guessing that “maxi…” is a word limit that got cut off, although how a word limit applies to a poster I don’t know. But whatever the word limit is, kid, go do your own homework.

American swearing vs. British swearing. Ah, now this is important. Sadly, I don’t feel I can do justice to the British side of the topic. Maybe we could explore it as a community. If we put all our twisted little minds together we’ll learn something interesting. As for me, I swear in American and if you’ll forgive me for bragging, I’m not bad at it. Still, I don’t want to monopolize that side of the conversation, so I welcome all contributions, British, American, and other. I’ll open by saying that Americans don’t use bloody as a swearword and—if you’ll forgive a generalization—aren’t sure if it’s a mild one or a strong one. Who’s next?

The British and their pets. They have them. They love them. (Sorry—more generalizations. When you write about a culture as if it was all one thing, that happens.) If you want to start a conversation, look for someone with a dog and ask about it. Or talk to the dog. The person may answer.

New subsection, same topic:

Why are these stupid wigs worn in court? This came from a lawyer or judge. Notice that phrase “these stupid wigs.” The writer has one in hand. Or on head. And is not happy about it. I sympathize. I got several versions of the question. Most included the word stupid, one was about judges’ wigs, one was about lawyers’ wigs, and one was about ill-fitting wigs.

What has happened to Mrs. Baggit signs? Ah, nothing goes to the heart of British culture like a judge’s wig or a Mrs. Baggit sign. They read (and that read can be read as either present tense or past; take your pick), “Mrs. Baggit says, ‘Keep Britain tidy.’ ” But to answer the question, I have no idea. They are (or if they’ve all disappeared, were) so obnoxiously fussy that I just loved them. In a twisted sort of way. If they’d been in the American countryside, they’d have been used for target practice. Or they’d be decorating the walls of some teenage bedrooms.

Do bearskin hats grow? No. Once the bear’s dead, the hat can’t grow.

Neutral accent different from British accent if migrating to UK. There is no such thing as neutral accent, my friend. Every accent’s an accent. Even yours. Even the one you teach yourself in order not to sound like yourself.

British pub archive quizzes. Sorry, if an archive exists, you won’t find here. I hate quizzes. Go make up your own.

Who are the emmits? If you’re asking, sorry, dear, but you are. And so am I.

Tutting in U.K. This also goes to the heart of British culture. Probably even more than the Mrs. Baggit signs, the wigs, and the baked beans. Since I’m not only an emmit but a foreigner, I can’t give a tutorial on either tutting or being tutted. All I can tell you is that if you’ve been tutted, you broke one of the culture’s unwritten rules. And the laws of probability state that it was probably about standing in line—or queuing, as the British say. It’s the national religion and if you sin you will be tutted.

Brit TV. Yes, they have it here. Some of it is good. Some of it isn’t. And some of it is the Chelsea flower show. Or Springwatch—an hour a day for an entire week on wildlife in spring. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your taste in TV.

Crime in Britain. They have that too. Possibly even at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flying the flag, U.S. & U.K. They tend to do it less here. I’m guessing they already know what country they’re in. In the U.S., we have to reassure ourselves about that.

Food:

Scheme to compliment Dorset cream 68. Does it have to be a scheme? Can’t you just come out and tell it it’s wonderful? But before you compliment the Devon stuff, you should at least check out Cornish cream. They’re exactly the same (as far as this emmit can tell), but in bitter competition. But about that “68”: It worries me. If it’s a year, the cream will have gone bad by now.

Toffee sticky pudding recipe. (Also sticky toffee pudding recipe.) A few people knows what matters in life.

Must eat sprouts during Christmas in U.K. I had a burst of questions about brussels sprouts and then silence—maybe because the season was over. They’ll be back next year.

Why English beer tastes like American beer. Dunno. I always heard that it didn’t.

British garlic cheese. I haven’t seen any anywhere. On the other hand, I haven’t been looking. It doesn’t taste like American beer, though.

Scones with jam in the middle. You put the jam in the middle after you bake them. Scones are like toast that way—a do-it-yourself operation. The only time I can remember seeing them pre-jammed is at village events, probably to keep anyone from taking too much. Or (to put a kinder interpretation on it) because it’s faster and less messy .

Lemon drizzle cake using cup measurements. Every time I review the searches that lead people here, someone—and usually several someones—is (or are, take your pick since we’re working with both the singular and the plural) asking for a lemon drizzle recipe using cup measurements. Sadly, I completely bungled the one I posted. Will the shame never end?

A nice cup of tea analysis. Is that Freudian or chemical? Did someone spill tea on the couch? What does it all mean, doctor? Who wrote on making tea? Um, lots of people. Including me. Which goes to show you that it doesn’t take an expert. As far as I know (and that’s not far), Freud had nothing to say on the subject.

Random:

The difference between US and UK bureaucracies. What a strange world. Someone actually asked that and more or less found an answer, although I wouldn’t offer it as a definitive one.

UK headline style. That came from someone with the mind of a copy editor, only instead of going to an authoritative source (as any good copy editor would) he or she cast his or her (this gets silly very quickly, doesn’t it?) self at the mercy of Google and the internet and just look where he or she landed. In a blog written by someone who wants to use they as the generic pronoun but hesitates to do it in a sentence about copy editing even though she (that’s me—or I, if you like) does (or do) it elsewhere. Oh, stop. Even I lost my way in that mess, and I once knew what I was trying to say. Anyway, I don’t know what the official style guide is over here. I’m retired and even if I weren’t I doubt I could adjust well enough to edit in British. But having worked as an editor and copy editor in the U.S., I can insist on finding some authoritative source, which is to say NOT THIS BLOG.

Season’s greetings. I’m afraid it’s a bit late for the holidays. This seems to be an email that someone typed into the search box. I had no way to let the sender know it went astray. I feel bad about this one.

Weather:

I had a bunch of questions about naming storms in the UK and in Ireland, maybe because that was in the news for a while. The topic’s dropped out of the news and so have the questions, but storm Jacob was pounding us on Wednesday morning, when I started writing this. One of the dogs got blown over on the way to the store. Not that the winds were apocalyptic. He’s the pup—the silly one you’ll find in the photos here—and he was off balance anyway. But it was wild out there. I got them home just before it started hailing.

Not about Britain but too good to leave out:

Could a bat have flown into a high shelf for shoes in my closet? Yes, I’m pretty sure it could have. Did it? Well, it didn’t take the train, so if you found one there I’d say the answer’s yes. Are the shoes relevant to your question? Probably not, but they’re interesting. It never crossed my mind to put shoes on a high shelf. At my house, they go on the floor, where my feet spend their time. That’s either logical or unimaginative. Or maybe it’s just because I’m short.

American greeting rituals. Mostly we just say “hi,” but occasionally we tear off our clothes and run three circles around the nearest piece of furniture while waving feathers. Then put our clothes back on and act as if nothing happened. But that’s only with people we know well. As a casual visitor, you’re not likely to witness it or have to take part.

Sex scandal American. What, was there only one?

Americans commenting on your U.K. accent. Ah, yes, they will. But they’ll love it. Even if they make fun of it, somewhere in there they’ll believe it’s the most sophisticated accent on earth.

The cutest kitten in the universe. That would be mine. Just ask him. But he’s almost a cat now. He’s still cute, but he’s lost that kitten factor. Very sad.

All-time strangest search:

Veri veri sepr sex. I’m reasonably sure that’s not Latin for I had super sex last night and want to tell someone I don’t know all about it. But I never studied Latin, so don’t take my word for it.