Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.

If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.

Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:

Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.

I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. I know I’m engaging in un-British activities when I say this, but I’m grateful to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.

Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.

Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.

Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?

Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches. 

Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.

Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.

The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?

Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.

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The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.

Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.

A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.  

Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.

The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”

MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”

If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.

All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.

All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.

So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country? 

The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.

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But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.

That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.

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But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves. 

Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.

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A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along. 

A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:

“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.

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Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.

The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.

How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.

I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.

Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.

But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.

For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.

I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.

Crime in London: a bonus post

In an effort to find material for an article, the New York Times asked  for people’s experiences of petty crime in London. Then the Times tweeted the article and nothing’s been the same since. To read the responses for yourself, you can follow the link or search Twitter using the hashtag #PettyCrime, which for no reason I understand calls up a whole different set of answers. I’ll quote entirely too many. I lost the better part of a rainy afternoon to the thread and I don’t see why you should be spared.

“An American talked loudly on his mobile in a restaurant then drank red wine with a fish course. Gave him an extra loud tut.”

“Increasingly people respond to the question ‘How are you?’ With ‘I’m good’ instead of the grammatically correct (and far more polite) ‘I’m very well, thank you.’ It’s only going to escalate.”

Only the excessively boastful and self-satisfied would respond with “I’m very well, thank you”! The acceptable answers are a) ‘not bad’ and b) ‘not too bad at all’ from which we can infer a) ‘my life is falling apart’ or b) ’I’m positively ecstatic’ “

“I fell down a flight of steps at Bank and immediately apologised for causing such a kerfuffle and holding up people’s journeys. So ashamed of myself”

“I once offered a class set of rubbers to a fellow American teacher, trying to offer some good old Limey hospitality. The response was criminally rude and the offer was declined.
I never knew pencil erasers were so contentious”

Ah, yes, friends. Rubbers are one of those things that shouldn’t be discussed with people from the opposite side of the Atlantic. On one side, they’re prophylactics (translation: birth control, as worn by the male of the species). On the other side, they’re erasers–things you use to rub out pencil marks.

“This morning, in Streatham South London, I said ‘good morning’ as I walked passed a fellow pedestrian, they didn’t say ‘good morning’ back. So rude. This will stay with me all day. Traumatised.”

“I left the house after lunch and a street-sweeper said ‘mornin’ to me.  I had to bite my lip not to correct him.”

“On the tube a young man got up and offered me his seat as the carriage was busy. I saw it as a ploy to mug me so I called the police.”

“I stood on someone’s foot on the train today, and they didn’t even say ‘excuse me’. I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“I recently took my 10 month old daughter on the underground. She stared at people, it frightened them. She doesn’t know the code. She now lives in the north. The tube is safe once more.”

“I asked a man directions to a Burmese restaurant on Edgware Road, he pointed me in the right direction and said it would take 3 minutes to walk there but it actually took 20. Admittedly I stopped for a pint but he should have factored that in.”

“Kitten stole my croissant. Despite obvious trail of crumbs, stolen item was not recovered”

“I fear I’m responsible for a #PettyCrime as on Monday I took a crowded tube, lost my balance and ended up grabbing the arm of a fellow passenger (who I didn’t know!) in a panicked attempt to stay upright. Totally unacceptable behaviour.”

“I was in a busy pub just yesterday, I knew the gentleman a few people to my right was there before me but he was looking at his phone. I placed my order without alerting him. I haven’t been sleeping since.”

“I was blatantly blocked on escalator by a left standing tourist… I didn’t just sigh loudly but also tutted AND HARRUMPHED. To no avail. Said sightseer turned and looked at me. Obviously I apologized, moved to the right and carried on sighing. These people should be locked up.”

“I stopped to let another car pass down a narrow road. They did not gesticulate a thank  you. I have the police report if you wish for more details.”

“I was waiting for a bus recently. When it came, someone who had arrived at the bus stop after me got on before me.”

“A man got on my tube train wearing brown brogues when everyone knows a gentleman only wears brown in the country and black in town.  It was shocking”

“A close friend and I, approaching from different ends of the street, accidentally acknowledged each other outside a polite speaking distance.  I pretended I was waving goodbye and hid in the nearest shop until they were gone. We have never spoken of this.”

“I witnessed an Italian tourist standing on the left side of the up escalators at Piccadilly Circus station preventing people from walking up. Naturally I said nothing but stood close behind them seething and encouraging fellow commuters to join me in silent rage.”

“I have had entire conversations without mentioning the weather. I’ll go quietly, officer.”

“Some guy didn’t apologise to me once after I bumped into him. I was very dissapointed in that exchange and think he should be banged up”

“When I was 21 years old, I worked in a London hotel and one morning I was asked, by an American couple, how to use the microwave in the room. It was the safe deposit box.”

“A publican of fine reputation went rather overboard with an extra splash or two of Tabasco in my Bloody Mary recently. I was so flustered I nearly told him”

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My thanks to Mardi for sending me a link to the BBC’s coverage of these outrages.

More news from Britain–and (as a bonus) New Zealand

This wasn’t supposed to post until next week, but what the hell, here it is: bonus.

It’s happening again: Ordinary people are weighing in on the great symbols of British culture in a struggle to reshape them to suit the modern world. The last time we followed one of these moments in any depth was when 124,000 people voted to name the UK’s newest, biggest, best, most advanced, and cleanest (since it hadn’t been used yet) polar research ship Boaty McBoatface.

They lost, as people who fight for good causes so often do, but at least something on the ship was named Boaty McBoatface. The name only gets italicized if it belongs to a boat or a ship and I can’t remember if the name was stuck on a small remotely operated sub or a mop and bucket (the mop being Boaty and the bucket McBoatface), so we’ll leave off the itals. I wouldn’t call it a win, but it was a gesture in the direction of justice.

We can blame the Natural Environment Research Council for asking what people wanted to name the ship and then ignoring the vote when they didn’t like the answer. They named the ship the Sir David Attenborough. As one headline put it, “Sir David Attenborough launches ‘Boaty’ polar ship.”

It’s got to be tough, being upstaged by something named Boaty McBoatface–and even worse when that isn’t the thing’s name.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: The white cliffs of–nope, not Dover. They’re in Dorset, near Swannage.

Having learned from that fiasco, the government isn’t asking whose face the Great British Public (GBP) wants to see on the forthcoming, horribly plasticated £50 bill. But that’s not stopping the GBP. Campaigns are underway. Give the GBP a silly cause and it will rise in its glorious thousands.

Small- and large-C conservatives are pushing for Maggie Thatcher’s image. Lefties are–typically, I suppose–pushing in several directions at once. I got a petition promoting Mary Seacole, a black Jamaican-born Briton who worked as a nurse during the Crimean War, even though Florence Nightingale wouldn’t have her. She came to be much loved, was known as Mother Seacole, and was awarded the Victoria Cross. Others are backing Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy in occupied France who died at Dachau and was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

So far, so sensible, but when I last checked the petition with the most signatures was for a picture of England defender Harry Maguire riding an inflatable unicorn and wearing not much at all. I tried to find out who Harry Maguire was and what about England he could defend on an inflatable unicorn, but the information came in a package marked, “May contain sports,” and I have a serious sports allergy so I didn’t open it. You’ll have to google him yourself. The unicorn, though? That’s a mythical beast that does not exist in the world we live in and never has. Making it all the more appropriate to grace something associated with finance.

Or at least its non-existence is true in the world where I live. The world’s weird enough that I don’t want to make assumptions about where you live or what you might be using by way of facts.

There’s also a suggestion that two stars from Only Fools and Horses should be on the bill (or note, if we’re talking British) dressed as Batman and Robin. 

That’s a sitcom reference and my allergy to sitcoms is milder than my allergy to sports, but I was too bored to open the box. You’re welcome to look inside if you want, but I’m voting for the unicorn.

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I really meant to stop writing news posts, either permanently or for long enough to convince myself I’d given everyone a much-needed break, but the news has been too good lately, although not all of it has been British.

Point of clarification: By good, I don’t mean containing good news. I don’t think there’s enough good news out there to fill out a thousand-to-two-thousand-word post. I mean that the news has contained moments of lunacy that damn near lift the depression that settles over me when I open the newspaper. To wit:

New Zealand asked the Great New Zealand Public (GNZP) to vote on its bird of the year and it chose the kereru, a Maori word that’s pronounced with a light tap on the Rs and the accent on the first syllable. I hope you’re impressed that I know that and I hope to hell I got the accent in the right place.

A tap, in case you want to try this at home (it’s quite safe), is when you tap (surprise!) your tongue on the top of your mouth, just behind the front teeth. Do that and give it some air. It should work.

The kereru (which should have a long line above the U but I have no idea where to find one or not much of an inclination to look) is basically a wood pigeon on steroids–the kind of pigeon you wouldn’t want to meet late at night in a dark alley. It’s got huge shoulders, a big chest, and a little bitty head. It’s native to both the north and south islands and to rural areas, urban areas, and dark alleys.

A wood pigeon, in case you don’t live in wood pigeon territory, already looks like a pigeon on steroids, but a lower dose than the kereru.

Why does the GNZP love the kereru? Maybe because it’s known for eating fruit that’s so old that it’s fermented, getting itself drunk on the stuff and falling out of trees. [You’ll have to fill in the blank here, because I’m not sure who actually does this] scoops them up and takes them to wildlife centers where they can sober up.

The centers won’t release them until they participate in a two-step program (they tried a twelve-step program but birds just don’t have the concentration), then they go back out and do it all over again. The recovery rate is zero, but that doesn’t stop the centers from trying.

In its sober moments, the kereru also swallows (whole) the fruit of several native trees and then plants the seeds wherever the mood takes it, along with a carefully measured bit of fertilizer. Not many birds are big enough to do that, so drunks that they are, they play an important role in the ecosystem.

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While we’re sort of on the subject of the Maori language, Coca Cola introduced a New Zealand ad campaign that–okay, I’m even more of an outsider than usual here but I think I can safely say they were looking to pick up a bit of cool by using the Maori language. So they wrote, “Kia ora, mate,” all over vending machines.

They were doing okay with kia ora, which means hello and is recognized by pretty much any New Zealander.

Mate, though? In Maori, it has two syllables and means death.

Hi, Death. Wanna Coke? 

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Back in England, the city of York has been discovered. Not by Vikings this time but by hen and stag parties.

Old as I am, I wasn’t around for the Viking raids, but if you put together an argument that the hen and stag parties do more damage than the Vikings ever did, you’d stand a fighting chance of convincing me. It’d be bullshit, of course, but it’d be funny bullshit.

Hen and stag parties are known for staggering off the trains and heading into the walled city center, where they drink themselves witless, wave inflatable penises (that’s the hen parties), and pee in the streets (that’s not just the stags).

In the interest of promoting hysteria, a local paper and unnamed city leaders said the city center had become a no-go area on Saturdays. Even though crime isn’t actually up. It’s not about danger, it’s about inflatable penises and peeing in the street.

Ah, but there’s worse to come. The thing is that when the British get drunk, they sing, and to bring order back to the city center, York is trying to keep buskers–a British word for street performers–from handing their mics over to the drunks. Because there’s nothing a British drunk wants more than to sing into a microphone. Sloppily, badly, and publicly. Patrols are handing out laminated cards that performers can show the drunks saying, more or less, “Sorry, but if I hand you my mic the Vikings will attack and so will the neighbors, and it’ll all be your fault. Go home and sleep it off.”

And since it’s on a laminated card, of course the drunks will respect it.

Has it occurred to anyone other than me that hens and stags probably shouldn’t marry each other? I don’t like to think I’m narrow minded, but cross-species marriages have some inherent problems. Especially when they’re as far apart as a mammal and a bird. Maybe if instead of getting married, they just, you know, dated or something–.

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In the interest of efficiency, Britain’s Royal Mail was partially privatized in 2013, and this year its incoming chief executive got a £5.8 million bonus for walking through the door efficiently. That would’ve been enough to hire 252 postpeople, whose starting pay is, according to one source, £23,000, although according to another the average (not the starting) pay is £22,500.

Or maybe the lower pay was for a different category of postal worker, but it’s close enough. We don’t need details to spot a small difference between the pay at the top and the pay at the bottom. 

The Communications Workers Union thought it might be worth knowing that postal workers’ pensions were cut just months before the bonus was agreed on because the Royal Mail absolutely, no fooling around, had to save money.

The outgoing CEO got a bonus of £774,000 plus twelve months’ salary, which was £547,500. For walking out the door efficiently.

Three quarters of its stockholders refused to back the incoming CEO’s bonus but it went through anyway because the vote’s only advisory. It can embarrass the company but that’s about it. Royal Mail promised to “reflect very carefully” on shareholder concerns and has admitted that it is indeed embarrassed over not having engaged with shareholders ahead of time.

You may have already guessed that “engage with shareholders” isn’t my choice of words. I stole them and I’d have loved to replace them with the kind of words that actual human beings on this planet use instead of the ones inflatable unicorns speak on some mythical planet, but I can’t think of anything a human being would say in that situation so I left them.

News from Britain. And elsewhere

When Boris Johnson became Britain’s foreign secretary, he had to give up his–well, I don’t know if I should call this his day job or his night job, so let’s say his newspaper job. He was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph while he was a member of pariliament.

It’s not unusual for MPs to have outside jobs–roughly a fifth of them do. After all, their basic salary is only £79,397 plus expenses. It’s tough, but in this age of austerity what more can they expect? They have to set an example for the nation.

And the expenses? Well, after the 2009 scandal, when it turned out that one MP had claimed for a duck island and another put in a receipt for having his moat cleaned (and both claims were accepted), expenses went down for a while. Then they started up again. and in 2014 -15 they ranged from a low of around £4,000 to something in the neighborhood of £200,000.

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower. A montbretia, to be more exact–an absolutely gorgeous wildflower that spreads like mad and gives gardeners the heeby-jeebies.

Expenses are supposed to cover travel, the cost of living in London while parliament’s meeting (or in their constituency–it’s complicated, but it depends on what they claim as their primary residence; did you really want to know?), and the cost of running an office. But every so often, you know, the moat really does need a good cleaning. Mine has gone way beyond the limits of decency, but I’m waiting till I get elected because the maintenance on the damned things is just ridiculous.

But back to Boris Johnson having an outside job. Now that he’s no longer in the cabinet, he’s free to make a little much-need money, because who can live on £79,000 plus up to £200,000 in expenses? The Telegraph took pity and rehired him. For £275,000 a year, in return for which he writes a weekly column that he’s said takes ten hours a month to write. That’s £2,291 per hour. Or I trust it is. I’m riding on someone else’s calculation there. Given my gift for math, it’s better to trust even the least reliable source than mess it up myself. That way if it’s wrong I get to blame someone else. In 2009, he described the income from his column as chickenfeed.

I’d love to see the size of his chickens.

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A Costa Coffee ad has been banned from the airwaves because it bad-mouthed avocados. According to British advertising guidelines, ads aren’t allowed to discourage people from eating fruit and vegetables.

The ad talked about avocados taking 18 days, 3 hours, and 20 minutes to ripen, then going bad after 10 minutes. Costa has argued that it was only joking. The Avocado Defense League has said it doesn’t care.

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Full disclosure: There is no Avocado Defense League. Two listeners and half a dozen highly distressed avocados complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but it wasn’t a coordinated effort.

In the process of making sure that the league didn’t exist (it’s a strange world out there and you never know until you check), I learned two things; 

One, that drug cartels have been extorting money from Mexican avocado growers, because avocado export is big business. The war on drugs has had some very weird results. That’s a more important story than an anti-avocado ad, but I’m a sucker for a silly story and I can’t find much to laugh about in the serious one. 

Two, that some economic sages think the reason the millennial generation is broke is because they eat avocados. On toast. The reason these kids can’t buy a home, they say, isn’t because housing prices are too high, wages are too low, and work too unstable. It’s because the silly little hedonists frivel their money away buying avocado toast.

The ever-helpful BBC has created an avocado toast index. It tells us that in New York, you’d have to forgo 12,135 avocado toasts to save up the downpayment on a home. That’s 33 years without avocado toast. In San Francisco, you’d have to give up 12, 975 avocado toasts, waiting 44 years. London? It’s 24,499, or 67 years.

That’s calculated on the basis on one serving of avocado toast a day.

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Four East London schools closed because they were infested with false widow spiders, which can bite but don’t seem to have gotten around to it. They were too busy keeping up with their homework.

False widows arrived in Britain in 1879, in a bunch of bananas from Madeira disguised as real widows, black veils and all. Having been in the country for this long, you’d think they’d have graduated by now, but homework’s difficult when pens and pencils aren’t made for your species and you don’t have internet access.

There are four species of false widow in Britain. The ones in the London school are the noble false widow, the biggest of the bunch at around 14 mm (the males are smaller, 10 mm, or roughly a third of an inch). Still, compared to a pencil, that’s not very big. I’d make a joke about noble false widows but I can’t think of one that works well enough to be worth our time. It’s a car crash of a name, though. 

And in case you’re as clueless as I am, Madeira’s an island off the coast of Portugal. Politically, if not quite geographically, it’s part of Portugal. It’s one of those places I didn’t know I couldn’t locate until I had to locate it.

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A new typeface, sans forgetica, is supposed to help readers remember what they’re read. The theory is that by making readers work to decipher what they’re looking at, the font will–okay, I’m making this up on the spot, but it sounds credible–engage more of the brain, making the content harder to forget, or possibly even easier to remember. The font’s back-slanted and the letters have gaps that make it hard to read. I read a small piece of an article in it and have no memory of what it said. You’re welcome to try it if you like.

If you’re thinking of using it, my advice would be to forget the font and the make the content more interesting.

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Britain had another royal wedding: Prince Andrew’s daughter Eugenie married–oh, somebody or other. He works as a brand ambassador for a tequila company.

This is a job?

Andrew apparently wanted the BBC to cover the event live and in full, excruciating detail but it declined, so ITV stepped in. Three cheers for keeping the public up to date on the things that affect our lives. The aforesaid public didn’t pick up the cost of the wedding but paid for the security, which an anti-monarchist group estimates at £2 million.

I wasn’t invited. It’s all very sad, because I have a very nearly respectable pair of black jeans that I’ve been meaning to wear someplace only somehow I never do because they’re too dressy for most of the occasions I’m welcome at.

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Our solar system has a newly found dwarf planet on its outskirts, somewhere beyond Pluto. It’s been named the Goblin. Astronomers found it while they were looking for a large planet they assume is out there but haven’t located, which they call Planet Nine. The Goblin seems to be under the gravitational influence of something large but so far unseen, so the find adds to the belief that Nine is out there.

The Goblin is about 300 km, or 190 miles, across and takes 40,000 years to complete one asymmetrical orbit of the sun.

The Goblin’s formal name is 2015 TG387, but a member of the team that discovered it explained that “human examination of the candidate slow-moving objects occurred in roughly the Halloween timeframe.”

You followed that, right? It was close to Halloween when they found it.

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A free speech row has broken out over the use of the word bollocks. The founder of a London plumbing company, Charlie Mullins, was told to take down a sign saying, “Bollocks to Brexit,” which is highly visible above the company’s office.

It replaced a sign that read, “Nobody voted to be poorer,” which hung there for six months without offending the council (which is British for the local government), so Mullins is assuming the problem is the word bollocks, although he points out that a 1977 case involving the Sex Pistols ruled that the word is not obscene.

The definition of bollocks–and if you’re not British you might need this–is either testicles or nonsense, rubbish. Its origin is Middle English, which is irrelevant but interesting. At least it’s interesting if you’re something of a language geek.

Mullins said he’s prepared to go to jail but he’s not taking the sign down. To which the council says, “Bollocks.”

*

A Banksy spray painting was sold at auction for more than a million pounds. Then it shredded itself.

It did what?

It shredded itself. Or the lower half of itself. Banksy–a graffiti artist who’s managed to stay anonymous while building a worldwide reputation–had somehow rigged a shredder into the frame and the canvas dropped itself neatly down into the blades, emerging in strips just after it was sold.

As I write this, a lot of things aren’t clear, including how it was done, who bought the painting, whether the auction house will hold the buyer to the contract, and whether the piece is now worth more or less or nothing at all. [A late note: The buyer decided to buy it anyway. What’s it worth? Probably a lot more. The world is insane.]

*

Now that Toronto’s rid of the mayor who was caught on video smoking crack, you’d think its problems would be over, but they’ve only just started. Raccoons are riding the subways. They’re breaking into banks, crashing baseball games, and stealing donuts.

One resident found three in her kitchen eating bread. Two ran off but one not only held its ground, it grabbed hold of the broom handle the woman poked at it and yanked it. Which for reasons I can’t entirely explain seems more threatening that just grabbing the thing.

A great deal of growling and hissing went on, all of it on the part of the human.

When the raccoon had eaten every bit of bread in the house, it yawned, scratched its belly, and left through the window. The woman locked the window and the raccoon spent the next two hours scratching to get back in. It must have seen the stale hamburger bun that fell behind the refrigerator the week before.

At one point, the city tried to deal with its raccoon problem by introducing a raccoon-proof trash can with a hand-turned lock. In no time at all, the little beasts had figured out that they could tip them over, triggering a gravity-operated opening mechanism that allows the cans to be dumped into trucks.

To date, no one’s caught the raccoons smoking crack on video. They’re too clever to do it around anyone with a phone.

*

Salisbury’s image has been tarnished this year by the Novichok poisoning first of a Russian resident and his visiting daughter and then, just when the city thought it might recover, of two homeless people who picked up the bottle used to transport the poison. Visitor numbers are down. Business is suffering.

What does a city do in a situation like that? Why, it hires consultants, and it asks them to rebrand the city.

Visit historic Salisbury: It’s more than just Novichok.

*

In September, Megan Markle–the newly minted Duchess of Wherever and wife to Prince Whoosit–was caught on camera closing her own car door.

Yes, folks, that’s print-worthy. The BBC interviewed an etiquette and protocol coach, William Hanson, to make sure the monarchy would survive. He was reassuring and said it wasn’t a protocol breach.

I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am. If you’re not, you should be. The Guardian was so relieved that it printed rumors about what Prince Charles, Meggy’s newly minted father-in-law, won’t do for himself. You’re welcome to chase the full list down if you’re interested, but my favorite is that he has a valet iron his shoelaces. 

Allegedly.

Cold off the press: News from Britain

Let’s start with news from Britain, since that’s what we allegedly talk about here. Then we’ll wander off topic, as we usually manage to.

In June, scientists took water samples from Loch Ness to see if they could find a “biological explanation” for reports of the Loch Ness monster.

The plan was to test fragments of scales, skin, feathers, fur, feces, and urine–all that fun stufff that gets left in the water and carries DNA. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin your swim, but really, what did you think happened in there?) They expected to find invasive species and unspecified surprises down there (I know, it’s in the nature of surprises to be stuff you can’t list, so I shouldn’t complain, but I will anyway). What they didn’t really expect to find was Nessie, but dropping her name isn’t a bad way to get attention. And even scientists like attention–or some of them do anyway.

I haven’t seen any reports on what the study found. Probably because Nessie doesn’t like attention. She eats researchers if they get too close to the truth.

You heard it here first.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Or a small bit of it anyway.

To keep ourselves from being eaten, let’s take a couple of giant steps back from the water and talk about politics instead. I’ve been convinced ever since–wait: let me take my mittens off so I can count. Hmm. Turns out it’s since the Conservatives took power that I’ve been convinced the country’s being run by a random collection of amateurs. But that’s come into focus in a new way recently.

In early November, then-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told a technology conference that he “hadn’t quite understood” how heavily the U.K. relies on the crossing between the ports of Dover and Calais. The full quote is, “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.” Which led to headlines about him having just discovered that Britain is a island. And to some of his allies feeling that they had to tell the press that of course he knows it’s an island.

On behalf of all voters in the country, I’d like to say that we were relieved to know that. Every last one of us.

Dom has now resigned and is once again a lowly member of parliament. Having negotiated the Brexit agreement, he resigned to protest it. If I’m missing a piece there, someone please let me know where it got to. I’m happy to blame the cat for shoving it under the couch.

But back to this passing whim Britain had to turn itself into an island: In case your geography’s as hazy as Dom’s is, Dover’s in Britain. Calais’s in France, Paris is the capital of Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia has been divided so that the blouse is now separate from the trousers (or pants if you’re American). It just didn’t work as a jumpsuit but it still looks very nice with a scarf.

Rhode Island is not an island.

I hope that helps.

Anyway, welcome to the world, Dominic. No man is an island, but any number of countries are.

Dom isn’t alone in bringing limited knowledge, limited talent, and an impressive amount of candor to his [now former] job. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said in September, “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.”

If you’re American, that’s sort of like someone in charge of civil rights legislation saying they hadn’t known the country has a history of slavery, or that it still matters. Only, of course, the U.S. isn’t doing civil rights legislation anymore. All that unnecessary regulation is being rolled up and stuffed in the back of the closet, right next to the jeans that haven’t fit since 1964. By people who haven’t noticed that our history of slavery still drips toxins into our civic bloodstream. Or who’ve noticed but think it’s fine.

Sorry. I tried to be funny about that. Honest I did.

On a brighter note, U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, who’s responsible for media as well as culture, announced that he doesn’t read newspapers. That led the prime minister’s office to announce that she does read newspapers. 

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Yes, we all think as one over here.

When Wright became culture secretary, to prove he was up to date with modern media, he quick set up a Twitter account. I took a quick scroll through it just now and found him pleased, delighted, feeling very positive, and feeling really positive. It was all I could do to tear myself away but I knew you’d want me to report back, so here I am, energized and enlightened by my trip. 

Four days after he announced that he didn’t read newspapers, he was in the news again to explain not what he doesn’t do but what he does: He plays with Legos.

“Putting Lego together and pulling it apart again is a very therapeutic process,” he said. He mentioned having built a Death Star from 4,500 Lego bits.

It explains a lot about how policy gets assembled.

Enough politics. If we do any more of it, we’ll all get depressed.

In the Netherlands, a 69-year-old went to court to change his birth date so he’ll be twenty years younger. He compared being the wrong age to being transgender. He was born in the right body but the wrong year, although he didn’t put it quite like that.

What he did say was this: “When I’m 69, I am limited. If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work. When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”

He will also be less prone to arthritis. Now that I’m 23 again, my joints are like a 23-year-old’s. I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

But enough about me. This is about him, because he sounds like the kind of guy who’d want it to stay that way.

“It is really a question of free will,” he said.

His website says he’s in a long-term relationship with–oh, I don’t know, it was some moderate description like the most wonderful woman in the world. He’s so much in love that he spends his time on Tinder.

Humans. They make me crazy.

For no good reason, that makes my atheistic mind turn toward religion–not as in converting to one or several but as in thinking about the fact that they exist. The Church of England has created a program that allows Alexa–that clever little eavesdropper in your home (or not; I have no idea how you live or what you drag into your living room)–. Can we start that over? I made a mess of it. It programs Alexa to tell you who god is. Pour it in her electronic ear and she’ll also be able to answer questions like “what is the Bible?” and “what is a Christian?” She can say prayers for you, find nearby churches, and answer questions about weddings and funerals.

I can also answer questions about weddings and funerals: At a funeral, you bury someone. Or cremate them. Ideally, they’re dead before this happens. At weddings, two people agree to spend some absurd amount of money feeding their friends and family and getting them drunk. At the end of it, the community agrees to recognize them as a couple. Without the food and alcohol, tradition holds that they would still be single.

In some traditions, neither event is complete unless there’s a fight.

But the Church of England isn’t the only religious group to have enlisted Alexa. She’s been converted to any number of religions, even though they all claim that theirs is the only real god or set of gods. In a way I can only think of as godlike, Alexa embraces them all.

Google, meantime, has introduced Smart Compose, which will complete your sentences as you type an email. You thought predictive text was getting you in trouble? This will bring you a whole new level of mayhem to your life, introducing bland insincerity, cliched phrases and emotions, and things you didn’t mean to say at all. You write, “I haven’t” and it supplies “seen you in a while.” Since the cat’s about to jump on your keyboard, you don’t notice that you haven’t actually typed “had a chance to tell you how sorry I am to hear about your father’s death.”

Then the cat lands on the keyboard and hits a few random keys, triggering an onslaught of pre-programed joy at your upcoming reunion.

“Let’s get together soon,” Smart Compose writes. “Glad to hear life’s treating you so well.”

I love technology.

The army’s been taking a non–technological approach to predictive text. It’s been accused of dictating what soldiers say when they talk to the press.

Child Soldiers International spotted a series of identical quotes from graduates of the Army Foundation College. They date back to 2015. And the graduates didn’t even have to type that initial word.

I can’t find a link between this and the last paragraph, but Scotland’s ahead of England in finally putting a woman’s face on the £20 note. Who’s the trailblazer? Kate Cranston. What did she do? Um, she gave Charles Rennie Mackintosh enough money to start his famous Mackintosh tearooms. At least the papers (I do read the papers) tell me they’re famous, which I’m grateful for because I’d never heard of them. But I’m a foreigner here, on top of which Scotland’s at the far end of the island and that’s a long way to go when all you want is a cup of tea and you’ve got a perfectly good kettle on the counter.

Cranston was “a leading figure in the development of the tearooms.”

Now there’s the stereotype-smashing spirit that would make any feminist proud.

Speaking of pride, the midterm elections in the U.S. saw a dead pimp elected to the Nevada state assembly on the Republican ticket. 

Can Britain, for all its amateurishness, match that?

Budget cuts, crime, and technology in modern Britain

In the spirit of making up the rules as we go along, we’ll start and end off topic. If you get bored along the way, just skip to the end.

In 1947, Jack Kerouac, of Beat Generation, to-hell-with society’s-expectations fame, wrote his mother asking for $25 so he wouldn’t have to hitch through the desert and mountains to get from Colorado to California. The letter went on sale recently. For $22,500.

So much for irony. Let’s talk about crime. Residents of Shoreditch–a London neighborhood–decided to simplify life for local drug dealers by posting signs warning drivers to “give way to oncoming drug dealers.” Other signs marked a crack pickup point and a parking spot reserved for drug dealers. 

The mayor (not of London but of Tower Hamlets–it’s complicated and for our purposes doesn’t matter) sympathized but said the council (that translates to local government) isn’t in charge of policing (which is true) and that budget cuts meant they had 200 fewer cops on the streets. I can’t verify the number but it’s a suspiciously round one, so for the sake of accuracy you might want to add or subtract a few cops. You’ll almost surely end up with the wrong number, but it’ll look more convincing.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I’m not sure if that’s 200 fewer in London or in Tower Hamlets. If I had to guess, I’d say London. But never mind, I can swear or affirm that budgets have been cut and fewer cops are on the streets and behind the desks. If we were talking about the U.S., I’d say there were also fewer in the doughnut shop, but the link between cops and doughnuts turns out, mysteriously, to be an American thing. 

According to Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, which put up the signs, it’s not just police cuts that are the problem. “Drug programmes have been cut, mental health programmes have been cut, and it’s a perfect storm.”

After (or possibly before) the mayor expressed sympathy with the group, the council took the signs down, saying something that translates roughly to, “Very funny, kids. We’ll just put these away where the neighbors won’t ask about them. Now, who wants ice cream?”

The drug dealers had no comment.

So how’s a council supposed to save money and fight crime when budgets are being cut? By using technology, of course. At least five local councils are pouring data (not to mention that scarce resource, money) into a predictive analytics system to flag up kids who are at risk of being abused or who are vulnerable to gang exploitation. I think that means the kids are likely to be recruited by gangs, not to be victimized by them. If you’re being victimized, go create your own algorithm.

The theory is that this will let councils target their interventions better and, in this age of politically induced austerity, be more effective with less money. Which was what the government swore everyone would do as a result of austerity. 

What sort of data are they pouring in? Information from schools on whether kids are attending or being thrown out. Police records on antisocial behavior and domestic violence. Housing information, but only on council tenants (if you’re American, that means public housing tenants). The housing information includes repair records and being late with the rent, because people who are late with the rent are likely to do anything from abusing their kids to spending their money on silly things like food.

That’s the trouble with poor people: They never have enough money.

This means, of course, that if you live in council housing and kick in a wall, you go into the database and get watched. If you own your own home or rent from a private landlord, you can rampage through it as much as you like as long as no one calls the cops.

It also means that if you complain about–oh, let’s say fire hazards once too often and make the wrong bureaucrat mad, it’s not impossible to think you’ll end up in the database. Because people who annoy bureaucrats are likely to abuse their kids. Or am I being too cynical?

Is it possible to be too cynical?

Some categories of information were later excluded from consideration, but I’m damned if I could find out which ones.

Critics are saying that algorithms aren’t neutral–they incorporate their writers’ biases–and that the poor will be monitored more closely than the non-poor. The articles I found didn’t mention this, but surely someone out there is raising the possibility that once a person gets trapped by an algorithm and labeled as a risk, they may not be able to prove the contrary. If the computer says they’re a risk, they’ll be treated as a risk.

Is this just a way for cash-strapped councils to spend silly money because someone’s cousin runs a predictive analytics business (she asked cynically)? Possibly, but it’s also being looked at as a way for the councils to make money.

The Guardian writes, “Under the Troubled Families scheme, councils are paid £1,000 for each family they sign up to the programme, with a further payment of £800 when the family meets certain criteria.”  

It’s called payment by results and it means that if you’re trapped in an algorithm, it’s not just because no one can turn the computer off, it might also be because no one will have an incentive to.

In another approach to saving money and being more efficient, the East of England ambulance service wants to improve its response time by allowing ambulances with stable patients to divert to life-threatening emergencies before taking the stable patient to the hospital, although–as a paramedic pointed out–stable patients don’t always stay stable and the ambulance crew might be put in a position of having to choose which patient to use life-saving equipment on.

What’s worse, no one would get to pass Go.

A benefit of doubling people up, however, is that ambulance patients would meet new people and watch exciting scenes of paramedics saving lives, something they’d otherwise have to turn on the TV to see. Loneliness is a serious problem in first-world countries and it diminishes both the length and quality of people’s lives. This is a great way to combat it.

East of England also proposed asking the Royal National Lifeboat Institution–better known as the RNLI–to respond to emergency calls, although loading the lifeboat onto a trailer and dragging it inland is going to be time consuming.

When it was asked to comment, the RNLI said it couldn’t locate the request.

Check the circular file, people. Someone thought it was a joke and tossed it there.  

The East of England service has one of the ten slowest emergency response times in England but a high rate of people hearing their proposals and giggling.

How else can local government save money? By closing public toilets, and many have. Some areas don’t have a single public toilet anymore. I’d have said “some cities,” but the article I read carefully avoided the word. In Britain, the definition of a city is specific–it has to have a cathedral. In the U.S., it’s just a big place where a lot of people live. How big? Oh, you know, pretty big. 

But back to toilets: The country now has a third fewer public toilets than it did twenty years ago, according to data from the British Toilet Association.

I never had a chance to quote the British Toilet Association before. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.

Not having public toilets won’t shock Americans, although calling them toilets will. We don’t like to be reminded of what we use them for so we call them almost anything but toilets.

Setting the language issue aside, though, American cities don’t do public toilets. If you need to pee, what are you doing out in public anyway? We don’t actually say that, just act as if we had. Which is why so many New York subway stations smell the way they do. Or they used to, anyway. I grew up in New York but haven’t been there in a long time. When I first moved to Britain, I was impressed that the country had worked out a way to handle something so basic.

The toilet association is urging businesses to display a sticker letting people know that their toilets are available to non-customers. There’s no word on how many businesses are actually doing it, but I’m going to guess the number isn’t much above zero.

Since we’re talking about being short of money, this might be a good time to mention Katie Hopkins, a commentator who once said that poor people who get into debt have no one to blame but themselves. In September, Hopkins applied for an insolvency agreement to avoid going bankrupt. In other words, she owes more money than she has. Which reckless people might just call being in debt.

It all started when she wrote a tweet claiming that food writer Jack Monroe (who is, just to complicate things, a woman, so watch your pronouns) supported defacing a war memorial. Monroe asked Hopkins to apologize and donate £5,000 to a migrants’ charity.

Hopkins refused, the whole mess ended up in court, and Monroe won. When this surfaced in the papers, in September, Hopkins owed Monroe £24,000 and was stuck with legal costs large enough that if she paid them in pennies the stack would stretch from the top of the Tower of London to the moon unless it toppled over first.

She won’t be allowed to stack them that high because it would constitute a safety hazard. Britain is very careful about health and safety. What’s more, I may be overestimating the height of the stack. I’ve never put more than ten pennies in a pile and I don’t actually know the size of the legal bill. So if I’m wrong about this, please don’t sue me.

Just to complicate things, Hopkins’ mainstream media career collapsed (should I write, “is said to have collapsed,” just to be safe?) when she called for a “final solution” after the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena. Was she aware that she was echoing the Nazi plan for the elimination of the Jews? I’m not inside the woman’s mind, so I can’t say. But it’s all okay, because she’s not poor so the current situation isn’t her fault.  

On a cheerier note, Britain has a new hobby: magnet fishing. To do this, you attach a powerful magnet to a line and drop it into a body of water.

What do people catch? “Mainly junk,” according to magnet angler Gareth Bryer. “A few pedal bikes, shopping trolleys, fences, road signs.” Also three guns, a crossbow, a samurai sword, machetes, knives, a grenade, and a cash box with £100. Other magnet anglers have recovered a cannonball from the English Civil War and an Enigma machine, which was used to decode German communications during World War II.

A bylaw (of what I don’t know) forbids taking things out of waterways owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust. Let’s assume, for safety’s sake, that the trust owns pretty much any public waterway. The fine is £25 but it doesn’t seem to be enforced much. Still, technically, taking junk out of public waters is illegal, which is why I’ve shoehorned it into this post.

By way of clarification, a pedal bike is what Americans call a plain ol’ bike. It’s also called a pushbike in British, to keep it from getting confused with a motorbike. And a supermarket trolley is what Americans call a supermarket cart. I’ve never had any reason to lift all four wheels of one off the ground at once (given the shape, I’m not sure I could), but I’m pretty sure they’re heavy enough to make them hard to haul out of a canal. And then there’s the question of what you do with it once you have it neatly deposited on the canalside path, where people walking past with their dogs will stop to ask, “What’re you going to do with that, mate?”

And you’ll still have to get it to your car on wheels that won’t be rolling smoothly anymore.

Then there’s that grenade…

I’ll give you a link somewhat at random, because the internet’s full of information about magnet fishing, most of it geared toward helping you take up the sport. If you want to part with some cash, you’ll find all sorts of equipment out there.

Without a single magnet in sight, Britain’s Conservative Party attracted the wrong kind of attention and more or less hacked itself. Just as its conference was getting ready to open, someone discovered that its app not only made its leaders’ private information available to anyone who logged on as attending, it allowed them to modify it. And to make it public, which someone or other gleefully did. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnsoon’s photo was briefly replaced with an unspecified pornographic image and  his title was changed to something that starts and ends with D and has a bunch of asterisks between them. I thought I swore fluently, but that one has me stumped.

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s photo was replaced with one of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The story appeared on the same day the Conservative government announced that it will introduce guidelines on how much time kids should be allowed to spend on social media. If the kids spend less time at it, that should free up time for the adults in the party to learn how it works.

This next item is crime related but from the wrong country: An American self-published romance writer, Nancy Crampton Murphy, has been taking her research seriously. Having written a blog post called “How to Murder Your Husband,” she went ahead and murdered him. Allegedly. That’s allegedly as in it was allegedly her. There’s nothing alleged about him being dead.

I’d give you a link to her post but it’s been made private. CBS News says it listed the pros and cons of murdering your husband and quotes it as saying,  “Divorce is expensive, and do you really want to split your possessions?”

Tough question, right?

This next one has nothing to do with technology, crime, or budget cuts, but a love song by English singer Lily Allen, “As Long As I Got You” includes the line, “Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose.”

And here you thought romance was dead.

And quick, while we’re dipping into a few bits of irrelevance, a tourist to Cornwall posted a complaint on a private beach’s Facebook page. It turns out a rock was covered by waves so that she couldn’t see it and so she hurt her leg on it. And here I said Britain was health and safety conscious. What were they thinking, letting the waves come up over the rock like that?

Other comments on the page have at times included, “What time do the waves start?” and “When will the dolphins appear?”

*

My apologies for leaning so heavily on a single news source this week. I try to spread it out a bit, but it just didn’t work out this time. I was going to quote the Huffington Post on one story, but it wouldn’t let me read the article unless I signed an agreement with its new owner, Oath, allowing it to collect all my data in a stack that reaches the moon and presents a clear hazard to the public. 

When I tried to modify the agreement, as it so kindly invited me to do, I couldn’t find any modifications that made the least bit of sense. I swore many an Oath and thought I’d better leave before I clicked a button  that put me into a database of people at risk of being recruited by a drug gang.

Although that  would at least guarantee me a parking spot in London.

None of the buttons I found allowed me to say no to anything and I couldn’t find a box that said, “Leave me the hell alone.” My choices amounted to saying, “Yes, I’m happy for you to do whatever you want with my data because you have my best interests at heart.”

All this clicking and modifying is, I think, supposed to bring them into alignment with a European Union directive on privacy and data, which was in turn supposed to give us choices about who has our data and what they do with it.

I do love having choices.

And if I haven’t (as I suspect) been particulary funny this week, here by way of apology are a couple of corrections from far more respectable publications than this one. The first few are relatively pedestrian. Stay with me.

The Brazilian magazine Veja initially said that a political candidate liked to spend his free time watching Toy Story. Their apology explained that it should’ve said “reading Tolstoy.”

The New York Times had to correct itself after giving a Muslim scholar’s Snapchat handle as Pimpin4Paradise786. Turns out it’s imamsuhaibwebb.

To be even handed, the Guardian, which quoted these and which is famous for its typos, also called attention to one of its own mistakes, which was a recipe calling for 13 kilos of lamb instead of 1.3 kilos. One of my favorite Guardian misprints is a photo labeled “caption caption caption caption caption caption caption.”

Ah, but Lord Google supplies better Guardian corrections than that, including a one that read, “Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peaches Probiotics . . .  [but] the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.”

Well, damn, that’s disappointing. What am I supposed to tell people if they point out that mine smells like a vagina? That it’s supposed to smell like that?

I think we’ll move on now.

Another correction read, “The ommision of a hyphen after the word ‘sheep’ meant readers were informed that the ancient Philistines of the Gaza coast were attacked by a curious combination of ‘savage sheep and goat-herding Hebrew tribes.’ ”

Ah, but there’s more: “An unwanted hyphen, introduced in the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, in Vincenza, Italy, was ‘named for the 17-stone nani, or dwarfs, that surround the home.’ To clarify: there are seventeen dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.”

A stone is a measure of weight in Britain. It equals 14 pounds or roughly one twelfth of a stone dwarf. (No, I don’t know how much they weigh either, but 97.5% of all statistics are made up.)

And then there’s the time when they quoted the chair of a football club as saying they had the worst team in the division. Turns out he said they had the worst tea.

The Guardian‘s very good at corrections and has enough practice at correcting itself that it’s developed a sense of humor about them. Its readers know the paper as the Grauniad.

To hell with Britain: news from all over

Department of Religious Freedom: A Dutch court ruled that a woman does not have the right to wear a colander on her head in her passport and driving license photos. And just to be clear, that’s not because she’s a woman. A man doesn’t have that right either.

That strikes me as fair enough, but the story’s more complicated than it appears. We’re talking about religious freedom here.

The woman in question, Mienke de Wilde, was (this was in August, when the story appeared in the press) considering an appeal the the European Court of Human Rights. She’s a law student and I’m sure she’ll learn a lot from it. And talk about having something to put on your resume . . .

Irrelevant photo: If I remember my wildflowers correctly, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Dutch law bans headgear in identity photos but people can claim an exemption on religious grounds, and de Wilde was claiming one. She’s a Pastafarian, a member of a religion whose members worship an invisible, undetectable god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who created the universe. They wear colanders on their heads as a tribute to the god, although they consider it disrespectful to explain their beliefs without wearing full pirate regalia.

Why? “Because He becomes angry if we don’t,” the U.K. Pastafarian website says. I should probably have read the Dutch site, but I don’t read Dutch and don’t trust Lord Google to translate anything this important.

Since I’m short on pirate regalia, I’ll leave a full explanation of Pastafarian beliefs to someone with a better wardrobe, but I can at least say that believers are expected to be nice to all sentient beings and to eat a lot of pasta.

Pastafarianism is recognized by both the New Zealand government and the spell check system on my toy typewriter. The Dutch court didn’t exactly say it isn’t a real religion. It said, with the sobriety of which only a court is capable, “It may be the case that the colander is considered a holy object for Pastafarians, worn in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there is no obligation to do so. In fact, Pastafariansm has no obligations or restrictions.”

That does seem to be true. Pastafarianism’s short on obligations and don’ts. The church originally had ten I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts, but two got lost, so now it has only eight. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t demand or forbid much of anything. Except that  business about the pirate costume.

Department of Shhhh, This Is a Library: A librarian called in a bomb hoax to delay his plane because he was running late. That held it up for 90 minutes, but he still didn’t make it and was arrested when he got abusive with airline staff.  

Kind of changes your image of librarians, doesn’t it?

Department of Corporate Overreach: Procter & Gamble is trying (or at last reading, in August, was trying) to trademark some bits of the alphabet soup spread by text messaging, including LOL, WTF, NBD, and FML. I’ll translate those for the acronymically impaired: laughing out loud, what the fuck?, no big deal, and fuck my life.

The applications went to USPTO–the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Is P&G going to release a product called Fuck My Life? If so, can I sit in on the meetings where they work out a marketing strategy? Please?? I really need to be there and I promise to take notes and report back.

Sadly, it looks like all they want to do is use the letters to advertise existing products so that the millennial generation will think they’re cool. Or whatever today’s equivalent of cool is. Hot. Lukewarm. Fried. Acronymed. I’m 103 and exempt from having to be cool, hot, or anything in between.

The truth is that I never was cool but I no longer give a fuck (which just might make me cool–who knows?). It’s one of the lovely things about getting older, and we can reduce that to an acronym if my language offends anyone: INLGAF.

The USPTO asked P&G for clarification (I’ll bet they did), but according to the Independent, the BBC, and the Guardian, P&G declined to comment to the press.

Of those three, only the Guardian was willing to spell out what all the acronyms stand for. The others hid behind asterisks and “too rude to spell out.”

I think I said this before, back when the Royal Mail trademarked the shade of red it uses on trucks and mailboxes, but I never got around to doing anything about it: I’m going to trademark the word and. That means every time anyone else uses it, they have to put a little ™ (meaning trademark) sign beside it. Otherwise I get to sue them.  

Department of Truth in Blogging: That last paragraph contains a bit of urban mythology. When I worked as an editor, I ran into one or two writers who were convinced that if they mentioned a brand name they had to add ™ to avoid lawsuits and other forms of apocalypse. They didn’t. We didn’t. You don’t. Companies use the symbol to show that they’re claiming the word as a trademark. An R in a circle means roughly the same thing only more so, but WTF, let’s skip the details–they’re boring. The claim only matters to you if you’re another company in more or less the same field and want to use the word / name / phrase / color /acronym.

Department of Friendly and Accessible Government: Britain’s minister for immigration Twitter-blocked two applicants who, in desperation, tweeted her to ask for help when the Home Office wouldn’t reply to their appeals or to letters from their MPs. One was a citizen trying to prevent his long-term partner from being deported to Australia. The other was a citizen trying to get British passports for his Filippino-born adopted (and already British) children. The snag is that they have Filippino passports with their pre-adoption names. To change their names on the Filippino passports, the family would have to take the kids out of school and move to the Philippines, then he’d have to re-adopt the kids. It could take up to 18 months.

What the hell, people and their needs are all so complicated. It’s simpler just to block them.

Department of Endless Updates: Britain’s Home Office has updated its immigration rules 5,700 times since 2010. Or that was the number as of late August. That means they’ve more than doubled in length. They’re now 375,000 words long.

By way of comparison, the minimum length of a novel these days is (give or take a few ands or a the’s) 40,000 words. Most are between 60,000 and 100,000.

At least seven times, new guidelines were issued a week after the last ones were issued.

Judges and lawyers are tearing at their wigs in frustration. One said, “The changes are often hurried out, which means they can be badly written. They can be very difficult to understand, even for judges and lawyers.”

Another called it (with typical British understatement) “something of a disgrace.”

Department of Urban Wildlife: In August, New York City subway crews found two goats on the tracks of a Brooklyn subway line that was closed for repairs. The goats grazed their way down the line–I’d like to say happily but I wasn’t there and even if I had been I don’t know goats well enough to read their mood. But graze they did, right alongside the electrified third rail, until they were tranquilized and moved to a rescue center in New Jersey, where, even though I’m not there and et cetera, I’m absolutely sure they’re happy.

The area where they were found is close to some slaughterhouses and the goats are thought to have escaped from one. So yeah, good food, a nice wide river between them and the slaughterhouse? They’re happy.

Department of Technological Wonders: An article about policing the Notting Hill Carnival mentioned that the police aren’t going to use facial recognition software again this year. They tried it out for two years running and among other successes it managed to confuse a young woman with a balding man.

I struggle to recognize people–it’s called face blindness and I was endlessly relieved when I found a name for it that wasn’t Ellen’s clueless. But mixing up a young woman and a balding man? Even I’m not that bad.  

Department of Archeology: A 90,000-year-old bone fragment found in a Siberian cave turns out to be from a teenager whose DNA contains fragments from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Denisovans? They’re a recently discovered member of the human family tree and not much is known about them yet. The National Geographic says they were “a sister group of the Neanderthals, splitting from a common ancestor some 390,000 years ago. They likely lived until around 40,000 years ago, around the time when Neanderthals were also starting to fade away.”

This is the first evidence that the two groups interbred and raises the possibility that the lost groups weren’t wiped out by conflict or competition with modern humans, who arrived in Eurasia some 60,000 years ago,  but absorbed into the population.

Department of Lucrative Language: Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of the Lloyds Banking Group, announced that “our differentiated, customer-focused business model continues to deliver with our multi brand, multi channel approach, cost leadership, low risk positioning, investment capacity and execution capabilities positioning us well for sustainable success in a digital world.”

He gets paid £6.4 million a year to say stuff like that.

Department of Modern Royalty: Once upon a time, a dispute over royal succession would’ve ended up on the battlefield or with a nice, quiet assassination. Today, someone who thinks he was cheated him out of Monaco’s throne is suing France for 351 million euros. The switch from one branch of the Grimaldi family to another took place in 1911, and France was, in fact, involved. 

Louis Jean Raymond Marie de Vincens de Causans said, “I want the truth to come out and this injustice perpetrated by France on my family to be put right.”

And, incidentally, he wants 351 million euros. And a few extra names, because six doesn’t seem like enough for someone of his caliber.

Department of Police Being Soft on Crime: The German police rescued a man who was being chased by a baby squirrel. When the police arrived, the man was being chased down the street, but the chase ended with the squirrel suddenly lying down and going to sleep.

Police officer Christina Krenz said that “squirrels that have lost their mothers look for a replacement and then focus on one person.”

The squirrel was taken into custody and instead of being charged is now a police mascot. It’s going to grow up thinking this sort of thing is acceptable behavior.

Department of Terrorist Threats: A man traveling from Belfast to London to see his father, who was starting treatment for cancer, missed his flight when airport security refused to let him take his wheelchair repair kit on the flight. The toolkit had some wrenches (called spanners in Britain), some spare wheel nuts, and medicine for diabetes.

When he challenged security over it, saying he needed the tools in case his wheels broke and so he could adjust his chair to fit into the car he’d rented on the other end,  they said the wrenches could be used to “dismantle the plane.”

I didn’t make that up.

Okay, how about if the cabin crew looked after the toolkit until he left the plane?

Nope.

Could it go with the luggage?

Sorry, there was no time for that.

His partner publicized the incident on social media, and that had no connection to the apology he later received from the airport. The airport has agreed to make a donation to a disability charity, which is nice but doesn’t strike me as being anywhere close to enough.

I admit, I’m not sure what would be.

Stale news from Britain

Racing News: The Great Knaresborough Bed Race took place in June. It follows the tradition of bizarre British festivals, although it’s different from a lot of them in that it asks contestants to stay sober. The rules say all runners have to stay sober until after the race.

Each team is expected to provide:

A bed decorated in the theme for the year

An audible air horn / hooter

A helmet for the passenger

A life jacket for the passenger

Irrelevant photo: A California poppy in Cornwall.

The beds have to be this height, that width, and some other length. They have to have wheels. The wheels have to meet so many specifications that I passed out reading them and had to be revived by two shih tzus and a cat, who wanted supper or they’d have let me solve my problem all by my unconscious self. The beds also have to float, because they’re going to cross the River Nidd. And they have to have ropes attached, although the ropes can’t be attached to any person. The ropes allow the runners can pull the bed when they start swimming.

All beds have to keep to the left except when they’re overtaking. Overtaking means passing. It is not the opposite of undertaking. English is a very strange language. Do not discuss this while swimming a bed across the river Nidd.

The whole thing sounds terrifyingly well organized.

Inevitably, the official video shows people in fancy dress, which means in costume, which, this being Britain, means a fair number of men dressed as women. 

No, I don’t know why they do that. It’s just something men do here. And just so we’re clear, these aren’t drag queens. Drag queens have flair. These are straight guys and they’re aiming for the Cinderella’s stepsister look. Maybe that’s what they think women look like.

The race (as I said above; pay attention, please) took place in June. If you join in next year, do send photos.

Social Media: While we’re talking about being late with a piece of news, last January the Conservative Party held a training session for its Members of Parliament. The idea was to help them use social media to present themselves to their constituents as real people so that younger people would love them and instantly run out and vote for them, even before an election was called. Several MPs responded by rushing out and posting frozen pictures of themselves standing in the kind of expensive buildings where politicians do business. They did not look like real people. They may not have been real people. I didn’t rush out and vote for them, but then I’m not in any of their constituencies and I wouldn’t have voted for them anyway. But I’m just saying, it didn’t work for me.

Then in March, Conservative MP Bob Blackman got so real that he posted an article claiming that the sexual abuse of white British children was part of Somali culture. It didn’t go over well and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was sorry if he’d hurt any feelings. That translates roughly to I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt when I stated the truth with less tact than I might have but gee isn’t everyone touchy these days?

Blackman uses social media so fluently that he joined a number of Islamophobic Facebook pages but when contacted about it by Vice said he didn’t know he’d been added and removed himself.

One of the groups, Britain for the British, is (or was–this happened in May) “administered by British National Party supporter Steven Devlin. It features numerous comments which praise Hitler, and many more which wish violence upon Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, accusing him of being an ‘Islamofascist’ and ‘traitor,’ and hoping that he dies.” 

Does it strike anyone other than me as a bit odd that a site where any number of people praise Hitler consider fascist an insult? Or is it only an insult when you add Islam to it?

If the party has held any more social media training sessions, it’s managed to keep them out of the news.

Snakes: This past summer has been unusually hot by British standards, and that’s led to an unusual number of snake sightings.

First, a quick review of the native reptiles. The BBC reports that “England is home to grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes, and to common lizards, sand lizards and slow-worms, slug-eating legless lizards.” The only one that’s poisonous is the adder, and they’re more of a worry for dogs than people.

Not that dogs worry much.

According to the Forestry Commission, “Adders have the most highly developed venom injecting mechanism of all snakes, but they are not aggressive animals. Adders will only use their venom as a last means of defence, usually if caught or trodden on. No one has died from adder bite in Britain for over 20 years. With proper treatment, the worst effects are nausea and drowsiness, followed by severe swelling and bruising in the area of the bite. Most people who are bitten were handling the snake.”

Some people don’t worry much either, and should.

I’m still trying to understand why the slow worm is a legless lizard instead of a snake. It looks like a snake and it quacks like a snake, but a lizard it is.

“It is illegal to kill or injure any of [the reptiles], with fines of up to £5,000 and six months’ imprisonment for offenders,” the BBC says.

But forget all that. A fair number of non-native snakes have been sighted this summer, according to the Guardian. A boa constrictor was spotted on a London street, wrapping itself around a pigeon. 

In Exeter, a man found an 8-foot (or 2.4-meter, if that works better for you) python in his bathroom, asking to borrow his razor and shaving cream. It seems to have escaped from a pet store in the building and found its way to his bathroom through the plumbing. It wanted to shave off its beard, give itself a new name, and start a new life.

About that “seems to have.” I’d have thought a store would know if it was missing an 8-foot python, but the article I read said “apparently.” Maybe shaving the beard worked–they didn’t recognize it as the 8-foot snake they were missing.

Meanwhile (or before, of afterwards) back in London, a woman woke up to find a 3-foot- (1-meter-) long royal python curled up next to her in bed. And a runner found a baby boa constrictor in the bushes just before a race. What was the runner doing in the bushes? Relieving himself, as the paper so delicately puts it.

He hasn’t peed since.

And finally, a royal python that’s probably pregnant is (as I write this, which means was as you read it) missing in Manchester, although she may be hiding somewhere in the apartment of the woman who thinks she owns her.

Manchester’s a long way from where I live, but Exeter’s not much more than an hour’s drive. I’m hoping the python hasn’t learned to drive.

An estimated 2 million snakes live as pets in Britain. Pythons and corn snakes are particularly popular.

Egg Throwing: And finally, to follow up on our theme of old news and bizarre contests, Deb (who’s popped up in the last three posts) sent me a link to a contest held in 2010, and since it’s news to me (and probably to you), it’ll do. A Lincolnshire egg-throwing contest wasn’t content with the traditional way of throwing eggs, where you take the egg in your hand, pull your hand back, and launch the thing as far as you can. This one introduced trebuchets.

A trebuchet? It’s a medieval weapon developed to launch stones during a siege. You put a heavy weight on one end of the arm, pull the unweighted end down, load a stone in its basket, and let fly. Do this often enough and you can break down a city wall and massacre the residents. 

Fun, fun, fun.

So yes, it’s a kind of catapult,but one with with a long range. I’d never heard the word till I moved to Britain.

Did I say it was medieval? It was, but it was used in China as early as the fourth century B.C.E. (That’s B.C. in [Britishism warning] old money.) Only it wasn’t called a trebuchet there. What a surprise.

You don’t have to call it a trebuchet if you don’t want to. Call it a catapult. What matters here is that it’s not meant to launch an egg.

In the competition, the target–every throwing or launching competition needs a target–was a person. I’m going to guess that each team had to supply its own, but understand that I’m making that bit up.

The BBC reported that “World Egg Throwing Federation president Andy Dunlop said 4,000 people were expected to attend the event, which has a total of 200 participants.”

The World Egg Throwing Federation? It does exist, you can find it on Facebook, and you can even watch a video of a launch that was banned from competition because it used a tube that appears to turn the egg into a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile.

The site comments, “Banned attempt at trebuchet competition. Disqualified because 1. Its not a trebuchet. 2. Its illegal to construct a shoulder launched egg launcher having a range of 1200 yds. (The Police complained)”

Can we stop for a minute, though, and talk about the World Egg Throwing Federation president? That is a position, kiddies, that a person can be proud of. Put it on your resume and you’ll be guaranteed interviews. I’m not saying anyone will hire you, but they will want to see what you look like.

You’ll do even better if you follow the advice offered by my partner, best known as Wild Thing: Change that title. Anyone can be a president. You want to be the Great Hen. Even if you’re male.

The link I gave you above leads to a 2010 contest, but the contest continues year after year. Why would something this important stop? I could give you a link to the more recent one but since we’re dealing in stale news this week, we’ll stay with 2010.

And now a bit of background on my research into this story. Understand first of all that no amount of research is too silly for me to undertake. When Deb first mentioned the contest, she misremembered it as a gravy throwing competition. Her brain apparently contained one egg throwing and one gravy wrestling competition and the combination led to a short circuit, producing a gravy throwing competition.

When I googled the phrase gravy throwing competition, I  found videos on how to throw a gravy boat–not as in now to launch it across a field but as in how to put a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel and make one. It was disappointing, but we can salvage something out of this: If your village is looking for a good fundraiser, you won’t find any others holding gravy throwing contests. There will be some problems to work out, but I can almost guarantee  press coverage. Great press coverage. And please, send me an invitation.

But back to egg throwing: I wrote about this festival before, but it was in the context of the presence of beer at summer festivals. (If you think I remember what I’ve written, you have no idea how my mind works and you can consider yourself lucky.) I can’t think how this happened, but in the earlier post I missed the trebuchets.

That earlier post led Fragglerocking to drop me a line about egg jarping–an Easter tradition from the northeast of England. I was going to wait for Easter to tell you about it, but since you brought it up I’ll drop it in here. 

“Well what do you expect from soft southerners?” she wrote in response to I can’t remember what–something soft and southern. Possibly chocolate eggs. “Up here where we hold the Annual Egg Jarping Championships every Easter, we’re still using hard boiled proper non-fake eggs!”

To jarp (is it a verb?), one contestant holds a hard-boiled egg with the pointed side up. The other one brings another hard-boiled egg down on it so the pointed sides crash. The winner has an undented egg. The loser cleans eggshell off the floor. If neither egg breaks, the players trade roles and try again. No beer is involved and you don’t have to organize an entire village or town to do it, although you can.

What do you do if they both break? For all I know, that’s physically impossible, but just in case, I recommend making sandwiches.

While I was googling egg throwing (I just love the research I do for this blog), I found an article on last May’s convention of the U.K. Flat Earth Society–a group of people dedicated to the idea that, evidence be damned, you can believe whatever you want. It should be getting wildly popular these days, what with folks making up their own facts, although they have more of a sense of humor than most of the people who don’t demand evidence before dedicating themselves to a set of beliefs.

The reason Lord Google led to to it was that the conference included a three-hour presentation about the earth being shaped like an egg. I’m not sure how you fill three hours with that, but I’ll admit to having known people who could fill three hours with less. And I won’t mention any names because they’d only call me.

The news roundup from Britain

Good Cop: During July’s heatwave, police in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, rescued local ducks by setting up two paddling pools beside their pond, which was disappearing, and then keeping the pools topped up with good fresh water.

You’d think that would be an unmixed good deed, but the ducks report high levels of anxiety over when the bad cop’s due to show up.

Crime and Politics: It may not be the bad cop they should worry about. It could be the bad politician. Stephen Searle, a former councillor (that’s a member of a council, which is the local government, making him a local politician), was recently convicted of killing his wife. Not sordid enough for you? Some months before, he had an affair with their son’s partner–the mother of one of their grandchildren.

If that’s still not sordid enough, you’re out of my league and need to look elsewhere for your recreation.

Searle stood for office on the UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) ticket. UKIP is the party that brought us Brexit and it attracts such top talent that it’s had five leaders in slightly less than two years. The first four melted down in quick succession, each one finding his or her own unique route to political oblivion but none quite in Searle’s category.

In a display of deep thinking, fellow UKIP politician Bill Mountford said about the Searle case, “These things happen.”

Irrelevant photo: Leaves. But you probably guessed that.

Politics: You may remember Chris Chope–that’s Sir Christopher Chope to you–the MP who made his name not long ago by blocking a bill that would have criminalized upskirting, or taking a picture up a woman’s skirt without her knowledge and permission.

Everyone who writes about upskirting sooner or later has to use that phrase, “without her knowledge or permission.” I’m just askin’, but when did you or anyone you know last give permission for someone to take a picture up your or her or, in fairness, his skirt?

Never mind. Ol’ Chris is back in the news for having blocked a motion that would allow a Women MPs of the World conference to use the House of Commons’ chamber when the house isn’t in session.

This is not a conference of wild-eyed radicals like, for example–and I’m pulling an example from the air totally at random–me. It’s hard to get much more respectable. It’s organized by the Foreign Office, the Equalities Office, the Department of International Development, and the British Council. It will be so respectable that everyone attending will be asleep in their seats by 10 a.m.

You heard it here first.

The government swore blind it would have the bill back before Commons and passed the next day. And in fairness, it may have actually done that, but if it made the news I haven’t found it. It’s not half as much fun.

I’d like to thank Chris personally for doing his bit to add to the reputation politicians already struggle with.

Let’s change the subject.

Food and Outer Space: In July, St. Anselm’s School in Derbyshire launched a bakewell pudding in the general direction of space. You don’t need a compass or any real sense of direction to do this. You just point upward and hit Launch.

The school lost touch with the pudding at 52,500feet, or 16,000 meters if that works better for you.

This raises a question: If St. Anselm’s loses a pudding on its way to outer space, how well does it keep track of its students?

It also raises another question: How close did the pudding actually get to space. 

Compliments of Lord Google, I can answer that one. Space starts, very roughly, 100 kilometers above the earth. So how many kilometers in 16,000 meters? Nowhere near enough. Only 16.

How many lost-touch-with students were smoking in the toilets during the bakewell pudding launch? Nobody’s saying. What we do know is that the pudding was found–uneaten–almost a month later by a farmer walking his dog in an asparagus field in Lincolnshire.

Apparently I’m not the only creature who thinks bakewell puddings are better launched into space than eaten.

A bakewell pudding, in case you need to know this, is not the same as a bakewell tart. The bakewell tart is a standard British dessert. The bakewell pudding is regional, and bakeries and cafes in the town of Bakewell, Derbyshire (prounounced Darbyshire), spill a good bit of ink in the cause of educating visitors about the difference. 

Lord Google (or the snippet of WikiWhatsia that Lord G displayed for me) says there’s no evidence that either of them originated in Bakewell. Think of that as just one more mystery of the British Isles.

If you’re about to leave a comment telling me how wonderful either the bakewell tart or the bakewell pudding is and how ignorant I am not make unkind jokes about them, please do. I welcome spirited discussion on important issues. You’re even welcome to write, as a recent comment put it, that what I said is complete codswallop.

Codswallop? “Perhaps named after Hiram Codd, who invented a bottle for fizzy drinks (1875); the derivation remains unconfirmed.” Or so says Lord G, although it doesn’t explain much.

But back to our alleged topic: In 2016, a meat and potato pie was launched into space–or an area well short of space but in the general direction of space, which is to say, up. The people who launched it were hoping to get it 30 kilometers above the earth to see if molecular changes would mean it could be eaten more quickly.

Eaten by who? The articles don’t say. Probably by the launchers, because this happened just before the World Pie Eating Championship, and winning a pie eating contest, as I’m sure you’ll understand, takes some serious effort.

I’m not sure how much that explains–I’ve never been inside the mind of anyone who’s entered a pie eating contest–but it does at least set a context.

The pie landed in a field 38 miles away from the launch site, but I haven’t found an article that mentions what was growing in the field or if the farmer had a dog. If only the news reported the important stuff, the world would be a better place.

“First indications are that it did not reheat on entry,” an article in the Guardian reported with a straight face. 

In case you want to try a similar experiment, both launches used weather balloons, which means neithern of them really launched, they just kind of rose. You can use any kind of food you like, but if it’s too gooey you’re going to end up wearing it.

Food and History: This has nothing to do with Britain, but archeologists have managed to date the origin of bread back to before humans developed agriculture. Charred crumbs that have been identified as bread were found in two ancient fireplaces in Jordan. The fireplaces date back 14,000 years–at least 3,000 years before humans first cultivated plants.

The bread was made from foraged wild grain–probably wheat, oats, and (or possibly or) barley–and was found with an assortment of other wild plants. Bread wouldn’t have been a staple food yet. Foraging for wild grain would’ve been too labor intensive. Think of it as their version of chocolate–you don’t get much of it but damn it’s good. 

Modern-Day Foraging: Charging 5p for the plastic bags that stores hand out has reduced the use of plastic bags in Britain by 86 percent. If you’re American, 5p is 6.6 cents–or at least it was on August 1. The exchange rate will have changed by now. If you’re neither British or American, it’s not much money in comparison to what people are spending on the groceries or clothes or whatevers that would’ve once been put in those bags.

I’m not complaining. I’m happy to see fewer wind-shredded bags hanging from the local trees and hedges or slopping around in the ocean. But it’s an odd thing about humans. Tell us something’s free and we accept it and throw it away. Tell us it costs nothing much and we say, “Thanks all to hell and back, but I brought my own.”

Shopping and Teddy Bears: In July, a chain of stores that sells expensive, custom-made teddy bears announced a sale: For one day, customers could buy a bear for only £1 for every year of their child’s age. Since the bears can cost as much of £52, that sounded like a great idea to 110% of the population of the British Isles. Lines formed–or queues, as the British call them. Huge lines.

The British are generally good about queues. They join them at the back end and wait patiently until they get to the front end. Queueing runs deep in the culture. It’s soothing. It makes people feel right about the world. It means the stars are all where they’re meant to be, the bakewell pudding’s headed into space, and they themselves are occupying their proper place in the great scheme of things.

This time, though–and the trouble may have begun when the stores ran out of bears–fights broke out. Not between kids, who seem to have behaved well enough, with maybe some whining here and there. You have to expect that from kids in lines that last, as at least one did, five hours. No, it was the parents who started the fights. They’d promised Dear Little Whatsit a teddy bear. And not just any teddy bear, but a very upscale bear–the kind a kid can show to a friend and say, with all the charming innocence of childhood, “Bet you don’t have one this expensive.” So no, the parents couldn’t just drop into the pound store and see what was available. It had to come from the Build-A-Bear store, so that Dear Little Whatsit could pick out its furry little hide and I have no idea what else, then watch while it was filled with stuffing, had a cloth heart inserted, and got sewn up.

Then Dear Little Whatsit would be tempted by all sorts of extras–clothes, accessories, and probably little bitty teddy boarding schools and horseback riding lessons and the horse to go with them. Which would come to much more than her (I’m assuming gender here, and apologies if I get it wrong; pronouns are such a pain in the neck) age and could possibly equal her parents’ monthly rent or mortgage.

So kids were in tears, wailing, “But you promised.” Which is the kind of thing that can drive bear-buying parent to drastic action. Any action. In one store, a pregnant employee was punched in the stomach, and not by a kid. In other stores, employees were pulling down the shutters and disguising themselves as store fixtures and wailing children.

In another store, employees called the police, saying customers were getting violent. Which brings us to our next news snippet.

Police Emergencies: The Essex police recently publicized some a few of the stranger emergency calls they received. They suffer from the delusion that publicizing them will cause us to think seriously before we pick up the phone.

I doubt it will, but it gives us all something to read while the world goes to hell around us.

What are the latest calls? A woman called the emergency line because a pizza place delivered a mushroom pizza instead of a meat feast. And to make it worse, the pizza place insisted that she’d ordered mushroom even though she’s allergic to mushrooms.

And a man called because a sign on a fence said there was a bull in the field. He wanted to know if there really was a bull in the field or if the farmer “was just messing around.”

Crime, Politics, and Irony: A socialist bookstore in London was attacked by about a dozen masked protesters who turned over displays, yelled, threatened, and ripped up publications. So that accounts for the politics and the crime parts of the headline, but where’s the irony? Well, they appear to have spun off from a far-right protest held earlier that day, which was against censorship.

The Index on Censorship has since sent six books that have been banned or challenged in various places to three UKIP members who were charged with the attack, saying, “We hope the books will introduce them to different ideas.” The other attackers, as far as I’ve been able to make out, haven’t been identified.

The books are: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Color Purple, The Qur’an, His Dark Materials, Fahrenheit 451, and The Jungle.

UKIP suspended the three members and then reiinstated one. A party member said there was no evidence that she had been involved. The remaining attackers don’t seem to have been identified.

Crime, Farming, and Medieval Warfare: Theft from farms is on the rise, and Britain’s farmers are going medieval, according to news stories, using banks, ditches, and stockades to protect their equipment and livestock. They’re also using electrified gates. Did you know that medieval England pioneered the use of electrified gates?

To quote from a different article than the one I linked to, they’re also using “geese, llamas and dogs as low-tech alarm systems, much as landowners did hundreds of years ago.”

Medieval Britain did not have llamas. Llamas first came to Britain when Victoria was on the throne and the government hadn’t yet pulled down the shutters on immigration. (Llamas never have passports. Give a passport to a llama and it’ll eat the thing.) That was a while back, but not hundreds of years. And like so many immigrants, llamas have made a contribution to their adopted land, but they are not medieval.

The theives are after things like quad bikes, Land Rovers, and farm machinery, some of which seems to be stolen to order. A lot of it is shipped abroad to be sold, but heavy equipment has been used a few times to smash into local shops and steal cash machines. Which were also not present in medieval Britain.

*

 My thanks yet again to Deb for alerting me to the story about the ducks. What would I do without her to guide me to the weirder corners of British life?

I welcome links to odd bits of British news. And most other forms of communication. 

British news you almost missed

In a form of protest that brings the Colyton laundryline rebellion to mind, someone recently decorated the office door of Christopher Chope, MP—that’s short for Member of Parliament—with a string of women’s underpants that the papers describe as lacy. I’d have described them thongs myself. Or thongs with tiny ruffles. There isn’t enough room on a thong for big ruffles.

Or much of anything. I know I’m a thousand years old and I never did think underwear could make a person sexy, but if that was all I was going to wear, I’d just as soon do without. I’d be more comfortable.

Anyway, lacy may have sounded more daring than thong. Or less uncomfortable, although no one’s wearing the things. But the photo’s below so you don’t have to believe either me or the papers, you can consult your own lyin’ eyes and see what you think. And with that, I’ll leave the decision to people who care enough about underpants to argue about them.

This all started when fellow MP Wera Hobhouse introduced what’s called a private member’s bill that would have criminalized upskirting—taking pictures up a woman’s skirt without her consent. (Has anyone actually given consent for someone to take a picture up her skirt? I’m just asking.) The rules governing private member’s bills are as bizarre as everything else in parliament and I’m not fool enough to try and explain them, but what we need know is that Chope shouted out an objection to the bill and that was enough to kill it.

At which point all hell broke loose. MPs—who consider shouting at each other an important part of the job description—shouted, “Shame.” Reporters rubbed their hands in glee. Even Chope’s own party, the Conservatives, turned against him.

Private member’s bills normally have as much chance of becoming law as I have of becoming queen, and Chope could have quietly let this one run full-speed into the same wall most of them run into, but instead he accidentally promoted it to the legislative equivalent of crown princess. The prime minister suddenly saw the wisdom of supporting the bill, and if she and her party can stop trying to murder each other over Brexit for long enough she’ll put it forward on the government’s behalf. Or so she says. The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings, and Theresa May is stylishly–you might even say bloodlessly–thin.

Meanwhile, Chope explained to anyone who’d listen (which was pretty much everyone at that point) that he didn’t object to the content of the law, he just didn’t like private member’s bills in general, and he might’ve gotten away with that if some reporter hadn’t checked the records and found that he’d introduced 31 of them in the past year.

A rare relevant photo: The underwear that decorated Christopher Chope’s office door. Photo from the Guardian.

What Chope had to say for himself was, “The suggestion that I am some kind of pervert is a complete travesty of the truth.”

Is that great quote or what?

Chope was knighted in 2015 and is now Sir Christopher Chope. We’re supposed to call him Sir Christopher.

Good luck with that, Chris.

His other accomplishments include blocking a bill that would “help families reclaim items looted by the Nazis.” He has voted against human rights legislation, same-sex marriage, equal pay, hunting bans (that probably means fox hunting), and smoking bans. But he’s not against everything. In 2009, he voted for abolishing the minimum wage and he favors banning the burqa in public places.

And please remember that he is not a pervert.

Many thanks to Deb for letting me know about the underwear protest. I’d have missed it otherwise, and my life would’ve been that much poorer. Thanks also to Elle at Elle Superstar for showing me a simple way to copy photos from the internet. And thanks to Leda, who showed me a different way but I’m technologically impaired and couldn’t make her system work.

And while I’m thanking people, I’m grateful to Jane at Making It Write, who wrote about drunken seagulls in Somerset, which let me follow her link to the original article. I won’t try to recreate her post–go read it–but I can tell you what I learned from the Bristol Post:

Early in July, the RSPCA–that’s the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals–noticed that seagulls in West Hatch, Somerset, were drunk on their feathery little asses. The first theory was that they were drinking leftover beer at the beaches, but the newer theory is that they’re eating brewing by-products that they’re finding somewhere.

The gulls get so drunk they can’t walk, never mind fly. They fall off the roof. They throw up on fire fighters. Since they’re British, I figured they’d start singing as soon as they got tipsy, but apparently not. They still just squawk like seagulls. Alcohol, it turns out, doesn’t improve your voice, it just makes you think it has.

The West Hatch RSPCA now has a drunk tank where the birds can sober up.

From the Manifesto Club, I learned that a couple in Bexhill-on-Sea, in East Sussex, has been banned from looking at their neighbors’ house. Or from walking past or appearing to look at their neighbors’ house.

The ban defines appearing as being “perceived by any person to be looking into any neighbour’s property.”

The ban grew  out of a disagreement with a couple (couple #2), who bought the house next door and started redoing it. The now-banned couple (couple #1) objected to I’m not sure what about the construction. That’s how a lot of neighborhood wars start in this country.

Couple #2 managed to get couple #1 served with a Community Protection Notice, called a CPN. Awkwardly, CPN also stands for community psychiatric nurse. If couple #1 ignore the notice form of CPN, they could get slapped with a fine or, theoretically, a prison sentence. The police have been involved and at one point asked Couple #1 why they were loitering on the local beach. 

Because that’s what people do on a beach.

The notice form of CPN was created to address “anti-social behaviour affecting a community’s quality of life,” and it was one of those well-intentioned ideas that’s turned out to have its own anti-social side. To get one issued, you don’t have to go to court. A constable (that’s a cop in Ameri-speak), “the relevant local authority,” or someone “designated by the relevant local authority” can do it. 

What’s a relevant authority? ” ‘The relevant local authority’ means the local authority (or, as the case may be, any of the local authorities) within whose area the conduct specified in the notice has, according to the notice, been taking place.”

In other words, the relevant authority is the authority relevant to that place. And the place is the place in which the conduct is conducted.

If it would help, I can ask a friend to translate that into Latin. She might get it wrong, but how many of us would know?

I went online and managed to find information on how to issue a CPN, what kind of behavior a CPN can address, who can be issued with a CPB, and how to appeal a CPN, but nothing about what evidence is needed before one is issued. I’m left with the impression that the relevant authorities aren’t necessarily rigorous about demanding any.

I don’t know what happens next in this case. The publicity it got may have helped couple #1, but I don’t get the impression that good sense is carrying a lot of weight here. Couple #1 is planning to ask for a judicial review.

As for the seagulls, they were thrown in the drunk tank without any form of due process and as soon as they sober up enough to take that in, they’ll object. In the meantime, they say that even when they’re sober they sound better than those goody-two-shoes robins.

Christopher Chope hasn’t commented further (as far as I know), but our neighbor Peta tells me that upskirting is now known as Chope-ing.

And finally, a quick apology for the deluge of news. I meant to follow last week’s news post with some history, but all this lovely insanity found its way to my inbox, and the thing about history is that it doesn’t go out of date the way news does.