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.

More news from Britain

What’s happening in Britain? Let’s start in Colyton, Devon, where a woman hung out her wash. Because people do that here. Dryers aren’t as common as they are in the U.S. If people get any sunny weather, out go the clothes.

So how is this news? Well, after this earthshaking action, she got an anonymous letter asking her “with kindness not to put your washing out at the front of your house” because visitors would see it. “Help us all keep Colyton a town we can all be proud of,” the letter said, and it suggested she “consider using a tumble dryer or hanging the washing indoors.”

The writer claimed to represent both local businesses and the entire neighborhood. Not to mention all of England and probably Jersey (that’s old, not New Jersey) as well. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

This being modern (as opposed to Victorian or, say, Arthurian) Britain, the whole thing got splashed all over the town Facebook group and in no more time than it took to wash a load of laundry (I’m making that part up; I don’t know how long it took), neighbors had hung out their own washing. Underwear hung from artfully displayed laundry lines in shop windows. Laundry dangled out of windows. Someone hung pyjamas across the town square and ran a bra up the flagpole. I’m old enough to remember when boys thought it was harmless (or maybe didn’t care if it was harmless) to steal some girl’s bra and run it up a flagpole, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was put up by an individual of the female persuasion in the joyous spirit of take that, you old busybody.

There’s talk of it becoming an annual event.

So here’s to the anonymous letter writers of the world. Long may their efforts backfire.

Meanwhile, in sports news, 4,500 doughnuts were accidentally delivered to the Old Trafford cricket ground. Or maybe that’s the Old Trafford Cricket Ground. My sports allergy is bad enough that I don’t know if that’s the formal name and therefore capitalized or an informal name and therefore lower case. You probably–and wisely–don’t care. We’ll move on.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the incident except that the kitchen was left “reeling.”

A single doughnut has 425 calories. Give or take a few hundred, since we don’t know the size of the Old Trafford doughnuts or of the imaginary one whose estimated calories I googled, or whether either of them are frosted. But let’s go with 425. It’s a reliable looking number. That means the Old Trafford kitchen was (at least briefly) in possession of 1,912,500 calories’ worth of doughnuts.

I think. At my best, I’m a hazard around numbers, but I’m pretty sure I got that right. Even if I didn’t, though, we can agree that it’s over the recommended daily allowance for pretty much anybody. Even someone who’s simultaneously male, in training for a marathon, breastfeeding, and pregnant.

If anybody could figure out how much space 4,500 doughnuts take up, I’d love to know, because I assume the Old Trafford kitchen isn’t huge. You can arrange them in any pattern that suits you and measure them either metrically or in imperial measures. Or you can compare them to the size of a double-decker bus, a football field, a phone booth, or Wales. Or Delaware. Your choice, although I’m pretty sure Wales and Delaware are too big to be much use. 

Since we’re talking about food, it must be time to mention that Britain was grappling with a shortage of carbon dioxide in late June and its largest wholesalers had begun rationing beer and cider–cider being a popular alcoholic drink here. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, this happened just when the country was in the grip of a twin drinking emergency caused by the conjunction of the World Cup and a heatwave.

At the end of June (which is when I’m writing this), the word was that supplies were expected (maybe) in early July, which would be just in time to prevent a complete national disaster. If, in fact, they come in as predicted.

The shortage also affected soft drinks and the production of dry ice. Not to mention the meat industry and some medical procedures.

It wasn’t just a British problem but a European one, and it was caused by a combination of high demand and routine maintenance shutdowns. But the price has been low, so in spite of the looming meltdown, manufacturers haven’t had a big incentive to get production up and going again.

What kind of plants produce carbon dioxide? Ammonia and bioethanol plants. Which makes me realize how little I know about how those little bubbles get inside the water.

There’s a certain irony in having a carbon dioxide shortage when the world’s facing global warming caused by too much of the stuff, but it comes from having too much in the wrong places and not enough locked away inside those cans and bottles. The drink manufacturers have done their best to hire people who’ll pick it out of the air, but with Brexit looming there’s already a shortage of people to harvest strawberries, so where are they going to find anyone willing to pick carbon dioxide bubbles?

In case you think this is funny, the shortage also affected the nation’s crumpet supply.

The British Beer and Pub Association, which knows how to address a crisis, called on the government to increase its “storage capacity . . . to ensure this does not happen again.”

By the time you read this, enough carbon dioxide to keep the nation guzzling may well have fizzed its way through the supply chain, but if you’ve been reading about an increase in the suicide and homicide rate, you know the cause.

In other news, a mugger in Crawley robbed a man but left behind a plastic bag with 123 candy bars.

Was the candy worth more than the money he got? A quick and highly inaccurate survey of candy prices tells me that bars range from £.50 (note the decimal point–that’s half a pound, not fifty pounds) to £1. So should we say, fairly randomly, that he’d have to have taken in more than £85 to come out even?

The closest I can get to how much money he got is that it was “a small amount.” So he lost money on the deal.

The police checked with local stores but none of them reported that many candy bars missing. 

A hundred and twenty-three candy bars is not enough to cover an area the size of Wales. Or even a football field or a double-decker bus. It is enough to fill one plastic bag, although we don’t know the size of the bag, which is why it’s not one of the standard size comparisons that newspapers use.

Unlike the guy in Crawley, the writer Ian McEwan got mugged by a standardized test. He’s well enough established that one of his books is assigned as part of the national curriculum. You’d think that’d be great, wouldn’t you? Well, it has its problems–ones I wouldn’t mind having, but problems all the same. 

McEwan’s son (let’s call him McE 2.0) read McE 1.0’s book for his A-levels, which is the standardized test I just mentioned. So before the test, McE 1.0 spent some time going over the novel with McE 2.0, discussing points he could make in his essay.

McE 2.0 got a C plus. Because what does the author know about the book he wrote?

Meanwhile, whoever wrote the English literature questions for a lower-level standardized test, the GCSE, mugged him- or herself, along with some 14,000 students, by mixing up the Montagues and the Capulets in a question about Romeo and Juliet. The question assigned Tybalt to the wrong one of two feuding families and ended up asking an unanswerable–not to mention nonsensical–question.

You could, in theory, answer the question by tearing it apart, but that would be a good way to flunk the test since the standardized marking doesn’t create a lot of latitude for creative thinking.

This marks the introduction of the new, tougher GCSEs. So far, they’ve been a stunning success. Slip in an unanswerable question and you can really thin the herd.

The exam board has apologized but to date it hasn’t fallen on its sword.

From there, let’s move on–not to the recent wedding of Megan and Whatshisname but to the people who pontificated on it. Or one of them, anyway.

Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, Esq., appeared regularly in TV interviews during the uproar. He’s described as having “a posh British accent, traditional attire, and a sense of authority on all things royal.” He’s also “the founder of the British Monarchist Society and Foundation.” But it turns out that his name is actually Thomas “Tommy” Muscatello and he’s from Bolton Landing, New York.

He got the Britishness bug when he was cast in a school production of Oliver Twist and apparently learned an upper-class British accent for the role. You can believe that if you want to, but I’ve heard too many Americans who think they learned a British accent. They’re embarrassing. The best I can say for his accent is that none of the articles about him say that he got it wrong.

They also don’t say that he got it right.

As far as I can tell from the articles I’ve seen, no British media outlet interviewed him. I’m going to take a rash guess and say they picked up some whiff of phoniness. Possibly a strong one.

Since I mentioned at the beginning that we had a heat wave, let’s end by acknowledging that Britain doesn’t have any official definition of what a heatwave is, but the Met Office is working on one.

The Met Office? That’s Britain’s weather service and it’s not to be confused with the Met, which is London’s police department. And if you have trouble with that, it gets worse: Scroll down far enough through Lord Google’s offerings and you’ll find the Met Office offering the police weather forecast.

Do the police have different weather from the rest of us? Possibly, but to make the whole thing even more mysterious, the page I found offered me the police weather for Poland, although it was–I checked twice–from the British weather service. 

Polish police didn’t seem to be expecting a heatwave. Unless of course they define it differently there.

However you define a heatwave, though, Britain isn’t good at heat. Train tracks were buckling in 30 degree centigrade heat. What’s that on the other side of the Atlantic? It’s 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is hot but on the normal side of normal in a Minnsota summer.

I never heard of train tracks buckling in the heat in the U.S. The rails are laid with a small bit of expansion room between one section and the next. Britain’s rails don’t seem to be, presumably because 86 degrees is a heatwave. I can understand why no one wants to pull them all up and lay them down differently, but if this is the new normal we’re going to have problems.

Modern life in historic Britain

Britain wears its history with style. Why wouldn’t it? It has so much of the stuff that it can change clothes every hour on the hour and not repeat an outfit in years.

The dry cleaning costs are horrendous, but hey, it’s worth it.

History or no, however, Britain’s a modern country. So let’s spend a moment or six talking about technology in Britain. And elsewhere, since technology crosses borders more easily than beleaguered humans are allowed to.

You may have read that Alexa, that sorcerer’s apprentice in your home (or not–I don’t really know you, do I? she said inserting a question into a statement in a very British way), has been known to eavesdrop on conversations that aren’t addressed to her. Or, in one case, to eavesdrop on an ad on television in which someone asks Alexa-on-the-screen to order cat food, so the Alexa-in-someone’s-home woke up and ordered cat food. 

Friends, do not let Alexa watch TV.

Irrelevant and now out of season photo: rhododendron budding despite the snow.

The owner was able to cancel the order before the house filled up with cat food but was disturbed enough by what happened to lodge a complaint with Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency, which after due consideration cleared the ad, or the company behind the ad, of any wrongdoing. On what grounds? That Alexa’s programmed to need human confirmation before it completes an order. So creepy as it is, it’s all okay.

A similar thing happened in California when a six-year-old told Alexa to order a $170 doll’s house and four pounds of sugar cookies, only in that case when Alexa asked, “Do you really want me to order expensive stuff and make your parents really, really mad at you?” the six-year-old said, “Hell, yes.”

If she’d been English, she’d have said, “Yes, please,” not, “Hell, yes.” And of course I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly. Not what she would’ve said if she’d been British, only what she and Alexa really did say.

The story hit not just the newspapers but radio and TV newscasts, prompting Alexas all over the wherever–nation? state? I’m not sure how far the story spread–to ask whoever was around if they should order doll’s houses. As writer Hari Kunzru tweeted, before long we’ll all have to “prevent our fridges gambling our savings in Vegas.“

Ah, but all those cloned Alexas do more than ask if they should order doll’s houses. For a while there, the press was full of stories about Alexas laughing spontaneously, for no reason their creeped-out owners could identify. Amazon reset them all–it’s done centrally; the only way the owners can seize control is to turn them off–so that they stopped laughing. Which might be even creepier. The suspicion lingers, like a whiff of garlic, that they know something we don’t. Only now they’re keeping any hint of it to themselves.

But it’s not just Alexa who orders us stuff we didn’t want. Starting in January, Tiffany Crow was besieged with stuff she didn’t order. She doesn’t have an Alexa listening to her household’s every belch and whistle, so however this happened that wasn’t it.

What kind of stuff? Oh, wireless speakers, fitness wristbands, projectors, globes, and I’m not sure what else–over 100 items, she said. None of it stuff she wants, unfortunately. She tried getting the deliveries stopped but got nowhere, so she started giving it to the neighbors, but even they reached their limit. She lost her sense of humor about it pretty quickly, because each delivery came with endless packaging, which had to be sorted and recycled. Plus there was all that stuff to get rid of.

So does she have the right to keep it or give it away? According to U.K. law, yes. She informed the company, she didn’t order the stuff, she didn’t order anything like it, and she didn’t order one of them and type in 1,000 by mistake. So it’s hers. She and her neighbors get to keep the loot. Even if they don’t want it.

I know someone who got eight kilos of chocolate-covered Turkish delight by typing in the wrong amount. He had to pay for it, but I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about the mistake.

If you want that in pounds, multiply it by 2.2. That’s one of the few things involving numbers I trust my memory on.

Evenutally Tiffany Crow got the Guardian‘s Money section involved and Amazon miraculously found a way to turn off the loot faucet and apologized but “declined to offer an explanation.”

A glitch on this scale can only happen electronically, so it’s time to quote Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, who says automation not only didn’t speed up the company’s car production line, it slowed it down. I’m cheating here, because it’s not a British company, but then California’s not a British county/state/province/colony/dependency either. I do cheat when it suits me. Just look the other way if it bothers you.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he said. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”  

Our final high-tech success story is from a British bank, TSB, which used to stand for something but now only stands for TSB. It was recently bought by a Spanish bank, which directed it to update its computer programs, so it tried to transfer 1.3 billion customer records and–you see it coming, don’t you? Not only did they lock people out of their accounts, they gave some people access to other people’s records and created phantom credits and withdrawals. One customer found himself £13,000 to the good. Another found that he’d paid a direct debit to Sky Digital 81 years from now.

A member of the House of Lords discovered that he had a balance of £0.

TSB said it was having a few intermittent problems. Then it said it was having a few more serious problems than that. Then it said a bunch of other stuff but nobody believed anything it said anymore. Its chief executive, whose name really is Paul Pester, admitted that a week after the problems started the bank was on its knees. He refused to answer questions about his bonus, which was said to be £1.6 million and was supposed to be paid once the data migration was complete.

A little while later he was publicly giving up his bonus, which by then had grown to £2 million.

That sound you hear? It’s Alexa laughing.

*

A quick note: I meant to write about the Commonwealth this week, in the hope of learning something about it, but I got lost in the detail and lost my sense of humor over the current scandal involving the government, Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, and plain ol’ racism. The scandal recently brought down the home secretary. I may manage to write about some bits of it yet, but I can’t promise. If you want to know what I’m talking about (and if you live in Britain you almost surely know already), you can start by googling “windrush generation landing cards destroyed.”

Some topics work out, others don’t. This one hasn’t.

What’s new in Britain?

The news from Britain? Oh, you know, the usual. Somebody wants to nominate the queen for a Nobel peace prize. They wanted to nominate me, but I didn’t feel right about it so they moved on down the list. A replica of Francis Drake’s ship is up for sale. Friday’s the best night to hear gossip in the pub. A badger’s conquered a castle. (Okay, that’s clickbait, and about as accurate as most clickbait.)

Is any of this worth a post? Of course it is. And if you have to ask why, you’re probably right to but please don’t because I’ll only have to come up with an answer.

Let’s start with the queen. Not because she’s the queen. If I won’t give her a capital letter, you don’t think I’d let her jump the queue, do you?

Irrelevant–and out of season–photo. Cornwall in the snow. It snows every ten years, give or take a decade. First we all tell each other how beautiful it is and when it doesn’t go away within two hours we decide the world’s ending.

A brief interruption here for the sake of readers who aren’t British. Jumping the queue is the only real sin in Britain. It means pushing in at the front of the line, or as we called it when I was a kid, butting into line.

What line are we talking about? Any line. Britain’s full of lines. Not because things are in short supply, but because that’s how people here handle more-than-one-person-type situations. If people are waiting for a bus, a ticket, or the attention of the person behind the bar, they form a queue. It may be what Kate Fox, in her glorious and slightly mad Watching the English, calls a disorganized queue (you can’t see it but everyone involved knows about it, and knows where they are in it) or even a queue of one (I’m here first and if anyone else comes along, they’re after me), but it’s still a queue–a kind of implied queue.

I’m happy to make fun of queuing, but it does take the anxiety out of those situations. Not to mention the hostility. And I say that as a sharp-elbowed New Yorker who knows how to push with the best of them. It’s nice not to have to. And occasionally it’s annoying to know I can’t. But jumping the queue is an offense against public decency, the natural order of things, the secular religion, and everything your mother taught you, and you do it at your own risk, and possibly at risk of your mortal soul.

So, no, the queen doesn’t get to jump the queue here at Notes. The newspaper clipping mentioning her just happened to be at the top of the pile. And I’m as hesitant to mess with the order of my clippings as I am to jump the queue. No one but me would care about my clippings pile, but the prospect of picking that mess off the floor and putting it back in its original disorder makes me cautious.

But back to our story: “Senior political figures and ministers” want to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her more than 60 years of service to the Commonwealth. She takes the Commonwealth seriously, and that’s a large part of what’s held it together. Or so they say. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though, because I’m having to take someone else’s.

What does the Commonwealth do? Good question, and I should write a post about it, if for no better reason than that I might find an answer, but in the meantime let’s quote Philip Murphy, the director of Commonwealth studies at the University of London, who can be presumed to know something on the subject and who recently published a long article about it. It’s in a different, equally fragile, pile of clippings, I can’t pull it out and read it through just now. A closer read will have to wait.

It’s online, you say? Don’t bother me. I have my excuses in order and the dog really did eat my homework.

For now, let’s grab a couple of pull quotes (those are those things in biggish type that publications use to fill the page when an article is, awkwardly, a couple of hundred words too short to reach the bottom).

“Many members of India’s policymaking elite see the Commonwealth as little more than a quaint relic of imperialism,” one says.

“If the Commonwealth really is the future, then we’re in even more trouble than I thought,” says another.

Oh, go on, let’s have one more: “For Britain’s administrative elite, the Commonwealth is a bit like a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations. It hasn’t told the right time for decades, but no one has the heart to take such a treasured heirloom to the tip.”

The tip is the dump. The place where you throw things out. So if Phil’s right, the Commonwealth doesn’t do a hell of a lot.

The importance of this nomination is highlighted by how weird it got when I googled “queen nobel prize.” I found someone at Queen’s University who won a Nobel in physics and someone at Queen Mary University who won a Nobel in something else. I found Queen Latifah, who hosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2014. And I found a page from the official Nobel Prize website called “the Queen’s Gowns,” which is about a different queen, Silvia. As far as I can tell–and I didn’t stick around to be sure I had it right–it documents the gowns Queen Sil wore to the awards ceremony in every year since she was queenified in 1976. I’m sure the world’s a richer place now that the information is available to an eager public.

I mention all that in case you think “the queen” is a definitive description.

Will Liz get the award? As someone or other pointed out, the bar was set pretty low when Henry Kissinger won it, and it didn’t help that Barack Obama was awarded one before he’d had time to do anything. So it’s a definite maybe.

But enough of the queen. What about Drake’s ship? It was called the Golden Hind. Sort of. I’ll come back to that, but first, who was Drake?

Well, it depends who you ask. According to a website promoting visits to the ship, he was “the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, on an epic expedition of discovery and adventure.”

Sounds like a movie poster, probably from the fifties.

Drake’s purpose, it says, was “to intercept the gold and jewels, which the Spanish were removing from South America . . . and shipping back to Spain.” It adds that he made vital discoveries, etc., etc. Step right up, folks. Adult tickets are £7, kids and doddery old people get in for a fiver.

It’s okay, I’m old enough that I get to say “doddery.” If you’re under 65, you’ll just have to wait. Unless you want someone to say you’re making fun of the elderly..

On the other hand, if you read Wikipedia (and if no one’s changed the entry yet), Drake’s voyage was about privateering.

What’s that? An early form of privatization. The Mariners’ Museum defines a privateer as “any individual granted license by their government to attack shipping belonging to an enemy government, usually during a war. . . . They receive a Letter of Marque from their nation’s Admiralty, which grants them permission to raid enemy ships and keep a percentage of the spoils – so long as they pay a cut of that bounty back to the government.”

So basically Drake was operating as a licensed pirate, although according to WikiWhatsia Queen Elizabeth I’s support was unofficial, so he probably didn’t get his letter of marque. And it probably didn’t matter. If he’d been captured by the Spanish it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

In 1579, Drake captured a Spanish ship with so much treasure that it took six days to transfer it all to the Golden Hind. Liz’s share of the takings was enough to pay off the government’s entire annual debt and leave enough to invest in a new trading company operating in the Levant, which is roughly and not quite accurately the Middle East.

If you wonder how Britain got to be an imperial power, that’s as good a place as any to start unraveling the thread. If you want my opinion–and nobody asked but you’re too late to stop me–neither country was in the right. The Spanish were plundering their colonies in what’s now Latin America and the English were plundering the Spanish.

Step right up. Adult entry’s just £7.

The ship was originally called the Pelican but Drake renamed it in the middle of the voyage to flatter his patron, whose crest was a golden hind–a female red deer. How can you tell it’s a red deer if it’s gold? That’s too deep for me, but I’m sure there’s an answer out there somewhere. 

Why bother flattering his patron when he was in the middle of the ocean and his patron wouldn’t know a thing about it until he got back–if he got back? Because those long voyages got boring, and jigsaw puzzles weren’t invented until the 1760s.

Two replicas of the ship exist, one in London and one in Brixham, Devon, and it’s the second one that was up for sale, with a guide price at auction of £195,000. Presumably it’s been sold by now, but if not you can probably bargain them down a bit. It’s too big for the bathtub, but if you want a bit of British history in your front yard, it’d look great.

If you have a big enough front yard.

Moving back to modern days, researchers report that the best pub gossip can be heard on Friday nights.

How are they defining best? The newspapers don’t say, but the most common topics are, in order, old memories, something completely random, TV shows, funny stories, gossip, the news, film, music, jokes, and football.

Why’s football at the end of the list? I’m not sure but it may mean that the historic gender imbalance in pubs has been corrected.

What kind of category is “something completely random”? A garbage can category. Again, the papers don’t say what it means, or why, if it means anything else it’s not at the top of the list. I’m going to jump in with both feet and guess that this isn’t a well designed study, just something fun to report on.

One in five people in the study have been offered a chance to buy something odd while they were in the pub. How odd? A hundred dead pheasants. A broken snooker cue. Four packets of bacon.

Pubs are closing down all over the country. How the culture will survive without them, I don’t know.

In Scotland, a “very angry badger” was found in a tunnel in Craignethan Castle, in South Lanarkshire, and Historic Scotland has closed off the tunnel while it tries to lure it out using cat food and honey. I suspect that means tries to lure it into a trap, but it doesn’t sound as friendly when you put it that way. Let’s pretend it’s a little trail of cat food and honey, leading to the great outdoors.

The story’s undated, so I have no idea when this happened. It could have been centuries ago, during one of the many Scottish/English battles for all I know. When I was a kid, we told each other stories about Japanese soldiers hiding in caves on isolated islands who’d never heard that World War II was over. I suspect they were complete bullshit, but we believed each other. Maybe this is the Scottish/English equivalent: a Scottish nationalist badger still fighting to keep out the English, completely unaware that it’s actually fighting Scottish Heritage.

And now your bonus for getting this far in the post: The Mary River turtle, in Australia, can breathe through its–no, I don’t make this up–genitals. As a result, it can stay underwater for as much as three days, and I like to think it has a good time while it’s there. It also grows a punk haircut–a kind of green mohican. If you have nothing better to do with your life (and you’re reading this, aren’t you?), you should check out the photo.

Unfortunately, the turtle’s on the list of 100 most endangered reptiles.

American schools and their guns

Enough about Britain. Let’s have some news from the U.S., because there’s more than enough lunacy there to keep us bitterly amused. I know, I know, it’s a serious subject, but bear with me.

You’ve heard that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers? Well, let’s check in on what happens when teachers are armed:

In Utah, a teacher shot herself in the leg in an elementary school toilet–or rest room, as we say in the U.S., because we may allow guns in our schools but we don’t allow loose talk about toilets. That sort of language reminds us of what we do with them–which is, generally, not shoot ourselves but get ride of bodily waste products (she said delicately). Or, to prove that I really would say shit if I had a mouthful, we shit and we pee.

The teacher had completed a gun safety course (which I’m guessing wasn’t long enough) and, you’ll be relieved to learn, was carrying the gun legally.

In Idaho, a professor shot himself in the foot while walking across campus.

In Minnesota, a third-grader reached over to a police officer’s holster and pulled the trigger on his (unless it was her–the officer was in possession of a gun but not of a pronoun). Should we start over? The kid shot the cop’s handgun. While it was in its holster and the cop was talking to the kids. The bullet went into the floor without passing through any flesh on the way. Likewise it did not pass Go or collect two hundred dollars. And if you’re a complete outsider to American (and I believe general English-speaking) culture, that’s an irrelevant reference to a board game.

Has Monopoly been translated into other languages and foisted off on the rest of the world?

And in Pennsylvania, a teacher in a small Christian school with one toilet that’s used by both staff and teachers put her handgun on the toilet tank while she used the restroom and then left without it. Four kids between the ages of six and eight used the, um, facilities before one of them reported it to his parents, who told a teacher, who presumably got it out of there safely.

So yes, arm the teachers. That’ll keep the kids safe.

From math to fried chicken: the news from Britain

Here we go again, cold off the press, the important stuff that’s happening in Britain:

We hear from the Ministry of Multiplication Tables

Eight- and nine-year-olds in England (as opposed to Wales or Scotland) are going to be tested on the multiplication tables. The test will itself be tested in a sampling of schools this year and then be introduced—unless, of course, it isn’t—in the whole country in 2020. In between those two dates, schools can introduce the test voluntarily, although why they’d want to is anyone’s guess.

What’s the point? That’s also anyone’s guess. (Don’t you love how neutral my reporting is?) Some standardized testing is about grading the school, some is about grading the student, and this, according to the noises being made by Nick Gibb, the school standards minister, is to “help teachers identify those pupils who require extra support.”

Because teachers don’t notice otherwise. Most only remember they have students when they get test results back. The rest of the time they think they’re talking to holograms.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom. Spring is coming. Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case it isn’t. Or close to the equator, in which case (I assume) it’s as irrelevant as the photo.

Inevitably, when the good Mr. Gibb went on TV to talk about the new test, the interviewer asked him what eight times nine was. He refused to answer.

Okay, it wasn’t inevitable that the question would be eight times nine, only that someone would ask him one of the less obvious combinations.

“No eight-year-old or nine-year-old will be doing it on live television,” the Minister for Multiplication tables huffed.

Besides, the information’s classified. You want to government to give out the answers before the test is even introduced?

The government claims the tests will be designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers. I haven’t been able to figure out what that “additional” is in addition to, but never mind. We’re dealing with the Minister for Multiplication Tables, not the Minister for Marvelous Writing, but if anyone wants to get in touch with either of them, you might mention that one of the Rules of Marvelous Writing is that if you’re using a comparative (bigger, better, more absurd, far more Marvelous, that kind of thing), it has no meaning unless it’s clear what you’re comparing it to—or in this case, adding it to.

You mght also want to recommend using fewer capital letters. Or was that me who tossed  in the caps?

Is anyone other than me old enough to remember cigarette ads? I’m relying on memory here, but didn’t they tell us cigarettes were smoother? Smoother than what? A cheese grater.

But back to multiplication tables: I’m an expert on not knowing them, so I’d like to testify that not learning them was stressful enough. Taking a standardized test designed not to cause me additional stress? Good luck designing that.

I can also testify that although it’s sometimes a pain in the calculator finger not to have them memorized, it’s entirely possible to get through life that way. Especially now that a carton of calculators is cheaper than a carton of cigarettes.

 

Then we hear from the Ministry of Procrastination

Trafford’s twelve libraries have abandoned fines for late book returns. Or maybe that’s Trafford’s thirteen libraries. It depends which article you read, so just to confuse the situation I found an online map and counted seventeen little red it’s-here symbols marking (I think) Trafford libraries. And if that doesn’t make the whole thing uncertain enough, only sixteen of them had book symbols inside. One had a circle instead. So one library lends circles, and there’s no fee for returning them late. Britain’s a strange country. I’ve lived here for eleven years and that’s only long enough for me to understand how much I don’t understand.

But we were talking about library fines, or we were trying to. If you’d stop interrupting, we’d get to the point much faster.

Starting in April, you can return your book late and not owe a penny. Which—. Gee. I hardly know what to say. Libraries and fines are so linked in my mind that they might as well have announced that they’re going out of the book-lending business. Especially since there’s that little red symbol with the circle inside.

On the other hand, getting rid of fines doesn’t mean you can build up your book collection for free. At some point (and I’m not sure anyone knows what that point it yet) a person who doesn’t return books won’t be allowed to borrow any more.

The Bookseller writes, “In a further move to encourage more people to read, the council [that’s the city government] will also provide every child whose birth is registered in the area with a library card and book start pack, after noting that ‘most learning of literacy happens in the first 11 years of a child’s life, as does the development of a person’s love of reading.’ “

For a bookish publication, that’s really sloppy writing. What does the “after” in “after noting” follow? Providing every child with a library card?

 

Then we don’t hear from the Ministry of Defense

A fitness tracker called Strava was publishing maps of the exercise paths its users followed. They’re called heatmaps and it was all very cool, very compare-yourself-with-the-rest-of-the-world, until somebody noticed that if you knew how to read them you could trace the exercise routes used by military personnel, not to mention the outline U.S. military bases in Syria and Iraq.

I just returned from googling Strava. Predictive text offered Strava, Strava login, Strava app, and Strava heatmaps. I followed them all and was told that no results matched my search. It was all scorched earth in Stravaland.

If you try it and you’re desperate for a result of some kind, you can delete the VA and at least get a result for Stradivarius, but good luck tracking military personnel that way.

I also googled “Strava military personnel,” hoping to find an article I could link to, just to prove to you–not to mention myself–that I’m not hallucinating. Nothing matched my search, although predictive text offered me “Strava military discount,” which had also been deleted. But I swear to you, I have a newspaper clipping about this. It’s from the January 30 Guardian. Now that I’ve squeezed the juice out of it, I’m tossing it on the recycling pile (that’s the floor to the left of and partially behind my chair). The clipping may already be rare enough to qualify as a collector’s item. If anyone wants to dig it out, you’re welcome to it, but I warn you, squadrons of researchers have been lost down there.

The story appeared in several papers. I’d like to know, in all seriousness, why none of those stories are online anymore.

 

Enough ministries. A music festival bans potato peelers

The Parklife music festival in Manchester is banning potato peelers. Why? Because Liam Gallagher’s playing in 2018, of course.

I’m the wrong generation to understand that without an explanation (and I’m not doing all that well with one). If the name alone doesn’t explain the decision to you, you’re the wrong generation too, but it seems Liam’s brother, Noel, broke up a band they were both in and Liam didn’t take it well. Noel’s now in a different band and at one gig someone in his band played the scissors. How? No idea. I’m guessing badly, but that’s only because I’ve never heard anyone play the scissors well.

Or at all. I do know someone who plays the spoons, if that’a any help.

In a straight-faced effort to make sense of the background, the BBC explains that “Liam has referred to his brother as a ‘potato’ on a number of occasions.” In a tweet, he invited concert-goers to “peel some spuds live on stage” and later praised someone who more or less did that.

Yeah, I know, I thought it was supposed to be about the music. I’m old. Don’t listen to me. Listen to the potato peelers.

Parklife says it’s been inundated with requests to bring in potato peelers and in response has banned them. Because they could be used as offensive weapons.

Do I believe anyone actually asked if they could bring them in? Nope. The kind of scofflaw who’d bring a potato peeler to a concert doesn’t ask permission.

 

Windsor finds a new neighbor

Or an old one. Archeologists have found a 5,000-year-old ceremonial gathering place within sight of Windsor Castle. It’s called a causewayed enclosure and dates back to the earliest years of farming in Britain.

Fieldwork Director John Powell said, “This is an exciting find. These are the earliest peoples who are actually settling down in the landscape and leaving their mark.”

The site’s particularly important because archeologists expect to find the complete enclosure, not just bits of it.

The enclosure was found in a quarry whose planning permission depends on allowing archeologists to have access. The same condition applied to some sewage work outside a village near us—archeologists followed the route of a new sewage line as it was being dug and found flints (not native to Cornwall), burials, and if I remember right, a house that dissolved almost as quickly as it was uncovered.

Anywhere you put a shovel into the ground in this country, you’re likely to unearth a bit of history. We haven’t found anything in our yard yet, but a pair of Roman boxing gloves showed up at Hadrian’s Wall. They date from somewhere around 120 C.E. (that’s A.D. in case you still tell time that way). Hadrian’s Wall is nowhere near Windsor Castle but it’s the same country, so I thought I’d mention it.

 

. . . and abandons a plan to get rid of an existing one

The borough of Windsor had a plan to clean the place up in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. How? By banning rough sleepers, which is what Britain calls the homeless.

Part of its “homelessness support strategy” was to fine them £100 for sleeping on the street, but they could get 50% off if they paid early. On the other hand, if they didn’t pay at all, the fine would escalate to £1,000.

What was the council going to do when they found out the homeless don’t have that kind of money–that being homeless has some mysterious connection to being broke? I’m not sure. Maybe Stage 2 was to put them in debtors’ prison.

Stage 3 was to reinstate debtors’ prisons. As part of a strategy to support debtors.

Anyway, the plan created such an uproar and the council backed down, but it still wants to ban urination and defecation in the town center. I don’t know any specifics about Windsor, but budget cuts around the country have meant that a lot public toilets have closed.

You don’t suppose there’s a connection in there somewhere, do you?

As for the wedding, the royal family is paying for it but the taxpayer will pick up the cost of security. I’m guessing it’ll be enough to keep any number of public toilets open.

 

Finally and most dramatically, the world ended on February 19

Okay, it didn’t actually end—not unless I’m writing this after the end of the world—but Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out of chicken and had to close 646 of its 900 outlets (so we call them stores? restaurants?). That’s pretty close to the same thing.

I’m not sure how many are still closed on February 22, the evening before the post goes live, when I’m updating this. The official count, I think, is lots.

What happened? KFC changed delivery companies. The GMB union says warned KFC the “the decision would have consequences” since the old distributor has a network of warehouses around the country and the new company has only one. “Now,” the union said—unable to stop itself—“the chickens are coming home to roost.”

It turns out that single warehouse hadn’t been licensed of inspected, and KFC said some chicken would have to be destroyed.

As a side note, GMB no longer stands for anything. The union started out in 1889 as the Gas Workers and General Union, but in the last century British unions merged with other unions, and in the last thirty years even more of the merged, and the GMB now represents a range of workers, including delivery drivers, and has abandoned every trace of its original name except the letters, which I just notice don’t stand for Gas Workers and General. Where they came from and what they once stood for is a mystery their web site doesn’t explain.

It must be another of those mysterious British things. I just love this country.

But back to our main story: What did the public do about the chicken crisis? Why, it called the police, of course.

The BBC quotes two tweets from police forces. From Tower Hamlets: “Please do not contact us about the #KFCCrisis – it is not a police matter if your favourite eatery is not serving the menu that you desire.” And from some other force—probably Manchester but I wouldn’t swear to it: “For those who contacted the Police about KFC being out of chicken … please STOP. Their website says the Prestwich store is now open if you want to follow the four police cars through the drive thru.”

If you have nothing better to do (and I clearly don’t), it’s worth browsing #KFCCrisis on Twitter. When I loooked, someone posting as Jesus Christ (I hope that doesn’t offend anyone; I’m pretty sure this isn’t the real one) wrote, “I am fully aware there is a in the UK… stop sending prayers! I’m trying to fix America and then I will get to you.” Someone else wrote, “ is in its second day and average life expectancy in the UK has gone up by 2 weeks.”

Quorn, a vegetarian meat substitute, tweeted an offer to supply KFC with some crispy Quorn nuggets. And since DHL (and to be fair, any number of other delivery companies) has a reputation for mis-delivering packages, a third tweet reads,”Have they checked DHL haven’t left the chicken with a neighbour or thrown it over the fence???”

All across the country, chickens were celebrating.

More news from Britain

Plato takes over the Home Office, or else it’s the other way around

Britain’s Home Office–those charming folks in charge of (among other things) finding reasons to throw people out of the country–has outstripped my ability to absurdify the world. In mid-January, it refused asylum to a Pakistani asylum seeker because he couldn’t answer questions about Plato and Aristotle.

Hamza bin Walayat’s application was based on his having renounced Islam, integrated into secular British society, and formed a relationship with a non-Muslim–all those things the government (if you listen to the noises it makes) wants Muslim immigrants to do. I’ll skip over the right and wrong of that, otherwise I’ll start ranting, and focus on what I understand best, which is absurdity.

Walayat’s claiim was based on his having become a humanist, which could get him killed in Pakistan. H’d already received death threats from (among others) his family.

So the Home Office asked him about Greek philosophers, then turned his application down because he couldn’t name “any famous Greek philosophers who were humanistic.”

He would’ve had to name Plato and Aristotle to be approved, although there’s no guarantee that would’ve been enough. There might always have been some other reason to turn him down.

No, I don’t make this stuff up. And how do you satirize it?
Applicant: Here’s my request for asylum. I come from a country where non-believers are  frequently killed for their non-beliefs.
Home Office: Fine. Please summarize Aristotle’s arguments in Prior Analytics.
Applicant: Prior what?
Home Office: Sorry, that’s not good enough.
It’s not only not funny, it’s not much of an exaggeration.
Ten days later, 120 philosophers wrote the home secretary, Amber Rudd, asking her to reconsider his case and pointing out that “there’s no scholarly basis to think that Plato or Aristotle were humanist thinkers.” In fact, both made argument supporting belief in gods.
Do we get to deport the Home Office now?

No. They make the rules and they make up the answers. They don’t have to be right.

But even if Plato and Aristotle did qualify as humanists (however you want to define that; it’s hardly a unified belief system), how many genuinely irreligious people could state three facts about either of them? I can get as far as they were both Greek and they’re both dead.

Semi-relevant photo: Please see the next item, then make yourself a nice cup of tea. Or stop by and I’ll make one. You can even use my new cup if you like. It was a Christmas present but I’m happy to share.

Tea of coffee?

Every so often I write about tea and someone British writes in to say he or she drinks coffee. Only.

Are they telling the truth? Surely not. They’re only saying it to mess with me. Or possibly to bust up a stereotype.

I’d like all those people (okay: it might only be one person, but my memory comes with a built-in multiplier effect) to reconsider. Because it turns out home coffee machines attract cockroaches.

Why? Roaches like three things in life: dampness, darkness, and food. They don’t much care for classical music or abstract art or anything else along those lines. Coffee machines offer them everything they care about, at least if you consider coffee grounds food, and I gather roaches do. Or if they don’t, two out of three isn’t bad, especially when coffee machines are conveniently located near things that beyond question are food.

Extrapolating from the way roach populations multiply, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they also like other roaches. In a carnal sort of way, and especially in a damp, dark sort of place. With easy access to food for the little roachlets that follow from that sort of liking.

If you absolutely do have to drink coffee, either because you’re British and like to bust up stereotypes or because you’re American and feel patriotically compelled to, at least don’t invest in an expensive coffee machine. Use a press pot. Make instant. Resurrect that old percolator some family member stashed in the attic forty years ago and hasn’t thought about since. Spend a small fortune at a coffee shop. Do whatever it takes, but don’t buy a coffee machine.

Or reconsider and switch to tea. If you’re British, the Home Office–which doesn’t approve of much–might crack a hint of a smile. If you’re American, tell yourself tea’s classy, even though it’s not in Britain. Unless you’re doing the gourmet, one-tea-leaf-from-a-plant thing, tea’s just what you slug down to wake yourself up. Coffee’s the classy drink.

If you won’t listen to me and insist on boycotting tea, please memorize a list of Greek philosophers who drank coffee. It wasn’t introduced to Greece until the ninth century, give or take a few weeks, but the Home Office might ask and you’ll need to know the correct wrong answer.

Which reminds me to point out an important life skill, because you, my lovely readers, matter to me: If you have to take a standardized test of any kind, don’t worry about being right. Worry about what whoever wrote the test thinks is right. Tell ’em what they want to hear, then go home, take a shower, and feel an odd mix of icky and superior.

 Plymouth wants to dress up its cab drivers

The city of Plymouth is pondering the wisdom of telling cab drivers they can’t go to work in jeans, hoodies, running shoes (which are called trainers over here), or shirts with logos or graphics that might offend (might offend who? no idea; the article I read only said “might offend”), or that have political messages (regardless, apparently, of whether they’d offend some unnamed person). Or jeans, which we all know are politically motivated, although to date I haven’t figured out what their politics are. I’ve asked mine. We’re well acquainted. I’ve had some of my pairs since Marie Antoinette was in charge of the Home Office. But we still don’t know each other well enough for them to come out in the open with their beliefs.

Drivers would also be banned from wearing flip-flops, swimming trunks, or high heels,

Or tutus. Or pajamas.

What can they wear? Shirts with collars. Knee-length tailored shorts. (Someone define “tailored” for me, please. Does it mean that to go to work you need someone with a tape measure around their neck to make the shirt just for you?) Knee-length skirts or dresses. “Smart” long-legged trousers, which in American are pants. In British, you just have to assume they’re wearing pants, because not many people want to check and those who do shouldn’t. They’re underwear.

I’m guessing they could also wear tuxedos. Ball gowns would be too long and might encourage the driver to wear high heels, so sorry, they’re out. What’s allowed makes a short and boring list, and it doesn’t make room for clothes from other cultures, because the city government doesn’t know about them, didn’t think of them, doesn’t approve of them, or can’t spell them. So no sarongs and no shalwar kameezes.

Why does anyone care what cab drivers wear? My best guess is that when everything’s falling apart, people want to make rules. Preferably for someone other than themselves. I don’t know what’s falling apart in Plymouth, but on the basis of this evidence I’m convinced something is.

I can’t give you a link for that story because it’s from the Western Morning News and I never can find their stories online. So instead, I’ll tell you (irrelevantly) that when I drove cab, I never wore a bathing suit or a ball gown. I did wear sneakers (or sometimes boots) and jeans, and I had a plaid woolen shirt that I wore as a jacket in the winter. It had breast pockets that I could stuff money into without taking off my seat belt. I’m not sure which side of the Plymouth rules it would’ve fallen on. On the one hand, it had a collar. On the other, it wasn’t smart, but then I don’t ask my clothes to pass Home Office tests so I wouldn’t have thought that mattered.

It seems like somebody’s always trying to clean up cab drivers. The problem is that even when they get their way, they’re still not happy, because whatever cab drivers wear, they have a way of still being cab drivers.

Long may it be so.

Tinky Winky dies

Simon Barnes, the actor who played Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies, died in January.

Tinky Winky had a moment of fame when the evangelist Jerry Falwell claimed he was a gay role model who would damage children’s something or other. Moral development, I think.

“He is purple–the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle–the gay pride symbol,” Falwell wrote, in all seriousness, about Tinky Winky. He might have added that Tinky Winky carried a handbag, but he didn’t, which is a shame because it might’ve led people to ask if Tinky Winky was, in fact, a he. I’m guessing that possibility never crossed Falwell’s mind.

I wasn’t a Teletubbies fan, but I must’ve seen at least half an unbroken minute of the show, and nothing I saw told me whether the creatures were male or female. They were a kind of rorschach test. Do you see a male or a female? A symbol of homosexuality or a show that rakes in a lot of money?

Maybe Falwell figured they had to be male because they didn’t wear skirts. He might have easily extrapolated from the symbols that mark women’s public toilets that women all wear skirts. All the time. I don’t know what it means that he didn’t consider other possibilities. Maybe he was one of those men who consider everything male unless it specifically announces itself as female. Maybe he thought  more about men than about women.

Whatever. I’m a card-carrying female and I’m prepared to testify that women have legs. They start at the hip and their placement is very much the same as men’s.

Except for the purse, the Teletubbies didn’t look to me like they were wearing clothes of any sort, but if anyone was a better student of the show than I was I’ll yield the floor to them.

After Falwell went public with his take on the Teletubbies, Barnes was often asked about Tinky Winky’s sexuality.

“The character is supposed to be a three-year-old,” he said.

Good point. Not many three-year-olds have defined their sexuality yet.

Barnes replaced an earlier actor, Dave Thompson, whose “interpretation of the role was not acceptable,” according to the letter that told him he was being canned after the first 70 episodes.

What can an actor could do in one of those costumes that would make his interpretation of the role unacceptable? After thirty seconds of watching, I really don’t qualify as an expert , but it didn’t strike me as a role that challenged an actor’s interpretive skills.

Thompson wasn’t sure what they were talking about but thought it might have been his voice.

“The other Teletubbies use their own voices, but mine was dubbed over. At first they asked me to do a high voice and then they changed their minds just before we started filming.”

After he left the show, he went on to play a lion and then an assortment of other roles, and he does stand-up. His web site asks readers to swear they’re over eighteen before they go past the otherwise blank opening page. Once you swear, you learn that he considers “my greatest achievement to be my novel ‘The sex life of a comedian,’ a free sample of which is available on this site. Please don’t read it if you’re under eighteen, or easily shocked.”

I’m not easily shocked. On the other hand, I’m not easily interested, so I didn’t read the sample. But if you insist on knowing about Tinky Winky’s sex life, this is probably as close as you’ll get.

I said I’m not easily shocked. That’s not entirely true. Assuming The sex life of a comedian is his only book, as it seems to be, there’s a misplaced comma in Thompson’s quote. If he’d kindly move the one before “or” so that it follows “novel,” my delicate sensibilities would be ever so grateful. He might also want to italicize the title of his book instead of putting it in quotes.

I feel much better now, thank you.

An apology

It’s been a long couple of weeks around here, We lost a week to the flu, or if it wasn’t the flu it was something fluish, and the house is still on its ear. What’s worse, my backlog of blog posts is gone and I suspect I’ve been posting too many of these news roundups lately, but this is my third effort to fill the Friday gap and the first two didn’t pull together, so it’s this or nothing. Let’s hope I’m in better form soon.

Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

The Danish concept of hygge–roughly translated as coziness; the promotion of well-being–has made a big impression on Britain, at least if you believe the newspapers and  marketers. I can’t say it’s had an impact on my life, but I won’t promote myself as typical of anything much, except possibly stubbornness.

Still, the publicity around hygge‘s drawn tourists to Denmark, so VisitScotland thought they might be able to cash in by adapting the idea. To Scotland, of course. So, quick, what’s the Scottish version of hygge?

Well, it’s not hygge, they knew that much, and they knew they needed more atmosphere than they could pull out of an English word. So someone ran to the nearest Gaelic dictionary and found the word còsagach. Which is pronounced a lot like còsagach, Sorry, I don’t know Gaelic. If the Scottish version of Gaelic’s anything like the Irish one, the letters don’t communicate much to an English speaker.

VisitScotland, apparently (and sadly), knows about as much Gaelic as I do. because experts say the word’s more likely to be used about wet moss or a wet, mossy place than about anything cozy. Unless you consider wet moss cozy.

It can also be used about fibrous ground or a place full of holes or crevices.

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

So visit damp, cozy Scotland today. Spend money. Have a memorable experience. And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak. They’re as dangerous as thesauruses. Or maybe that’s thesauri. I’d look it up but I’ve developed an irrational terror of dictionaries.

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

Example 1. Starting in January, China banned the import of plastic waste, saying that a lot of it is too hazardous to process. (Anyone see a bit of irony there? I don’t. I’m just asking.) Since 2012, Britain’s shipped two-thirds of its total plastic waste exports to China—something along the lines of 2.7 million tons of the stuff.

So what’s Britain going to do with all the plastic its fleets of recycling trucks have been  collecting with such ecological fervor? Recycle it here? Ban plastic packaging? Use it to backfill Stonehenge?

Well, in December—which strikes me as kind of late to come up with a plan—someone asked the secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, about it and he said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is…something to which—I will be completely honest—I have not given it sufficient thought.”

So that’s our plan.

We’ll give him half a point for honesty. Then we’ll take it away for cluelessness.

Example 2. A slow-burning fuse of a story either exploded or fizzled out, but I can’t figure out which.

The government was under pressure from a parliamentary committee to publish its assessment of Brexit’s economic impact on Britain. (In case you need a translation, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. A lot of people are worried it’ll crash the British economy.) The government resisted. Sorry, it said, but the assessments were too sensitive to be seen by mere members of parliament.

More pressure.

Okay, MPs could read them, but first the government would have to bury them under six feet of plastic waste and the MPs could only read them after sundown, using a flashlight with a single, second-hand AA battery, and they mustn’t disturb the plastic waste because although the government still doesn’t know what to do with it, it might need to know which pieces were dumped first.

I exaggerate only slightly.

But David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, assured the committee that the government had 58 studies that went into the question “in excruciating detail.”

Then in early December, Davis told the committee he didn’t have any detailed information to publish. At all. He never had. They’d misunderstood him.

What about an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the customs union? someone asked. Was one of those hanging around somewhere?

Um, no. “Not a formal, quantitative one.” The assessments didn’t “have numbers attached.”

I’d like, since this is a public forum, to let Dave know that it’s okay. If he’ll just write a general statement and I’ll make up some numbers. We can paste them in anywhere. Because after you’ve seen a few numbers, they all start to look alike.

A quick P.S.: A BBC Radio 4 news story quoted Davis as saying that he doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a good negotiator. He doesn’t even have to know much, he just has to stay calm. When I wrote this (I generally write these posts well ahead of time; it keeps me marginally sane), he was still doing an admirable job of staying calm. And, I’m reasonably sure, of knowing very little.

For the record, both Davis and Gove are long-time politicians, but somehow or other they’ve managed to bring a broad spectrum of amateur qualities to their current jobs.

Public statements are clear and to the point

Train fares went up on January 2. It was the biggest jump in five years, and since the fares are already high and follow a formula that sets a world standard for incomprehensibility, and since train service in many areas is godawful, passengers are ready to chew up the seats in frustration.

So how did the train companies defend the fare hike? An industry flak-catcher said it showed the industry was trying to keep down the cost of travel.

A reporter asked if the companies were taking any risk at all, since (to simplify slightly) funding comes from the government and profit goes to the companies. The flak-catcher said, “Rail companies operate under contract and they honour the terms of their contracts and provide for things to happen in different circumstances. That operator will continue to make payments until 2020 and then the new operator will continue to make payments.”

I don’t  know about you, but as long as they provide for things to happen in different circumstances, I’m happy.

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

The police in Exeter had a quiet word with a man who was running around dressed as Jesus. That is, he was dressed as Jesus except for his hind end, which either wasn’t dressed at all or wasn’t dressed enough to make an unnamed member of the public happy.

This raises a number of questions. One is what you have to wear to be dressed as Jesus. This particular guy was wearing a sheet. How did anyone know he wasn’t dressed as a ghost? Or one of the apostles, who would’ve dressed roughly the same way as Jesus?

Another question is what a quiet word is. It’s a very English thing, that’s what it is. Or possibly a British one. I lose my way in some of this stuff. It’s the solution to any sort of public awkwardness, and it may or may not be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because the next public awkwardness will be handled the same way.

The final question is why I don’t give you a link. It’s because the story was in the Western Morning News and although they do publish online I can never find their stories.

One of the cops involved said the incident had scarred him “for about an hour.”

Everyone loves a feel-good story

A ten-year-old left his waterproof video camera on a beach in Yorkshire and the tide carried it 500 miles across the North Sea to the German island of Suderoog,

There’s an umlaut over the U–they like umlauts on islands in Germany–but we’re in the middle of an umlaut shortage here so we’ll have to do without one. Just make your pronunciation umlautish if you can.

No, an umlaut isn’t something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s two dots that go over a U in German for reasons I don’t understand since I never learned German. I’m sure that has something to do with the umlaut shortage. It’s hard to study German without them.

The island is a bird reserve with either one family or only two people living there (I read several stories and ended up knowing less than if I’d read one). Either way, I’m guessing they don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so they took a look at what was on the camera and found some people fooling around on the beach and then the first few minutes of the camera’s trip—water, basically.

They posted something about the camera on the bird reserve’s Facebook page and eventually located the kid’s father. The camera’s owners have been invited to come pick it up, but they can only get there by boat from the mainland and they can’t stay overnight. And they have to bring their own umlauts.

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

This happened in Belgium, not Britain, but it’s a good story. And both countries start with a B. It’ll do.

A—well, I guess we’ll have to call him a performance artist chained himself to block of marble to demonstrate the inescapable burden of history, including the history of art, which he was trying to free himself from by chiseling away at the stone.

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

Every fascinating moment was live-streamed. I’m happy to say, I didn’t watch it and I haven’t looked for a link. If you want to watch all nineteen days of it, I figure you’ve got the patience to find it yourself.

The story led me to realize that one nice thing about writing as opposed to performance art is that when you get trapped by your own metaphors it’s not quite as embarrassing.

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

Someone from Wolverhampton decided to put his head in the microwave and have his friends fill it with cement. It being the microwave, not the head, in case that needs clarification. When they realized he was having trouble breathing (no, apparently this didn’t occur to any of them ahead of time), they poked an air tube in.

How? No idea. Every way I try to imagine doing this ends up with the breathing tube clogged with cement. Lucky thing I’m not one of his friends.

The BBC story mentions that the microwave wasn’t plugged in. I mention that in case you decide to try this and it’s not in the instruction book.

Why’d they do this? It wasn’t performance art and no metaphors were harmed in the process. They wanted to post the video on YouTube.

It took five firefighters an hour to get him loose, and they needed help from their technical rescue team to get the microwave apart.

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

Okay, this one’s pretty grotesque and I wrestled with what passes for my conscience over whether to use it.

My conscience lost.

Someone from Dundee offered to sell a rug she’d had made from her dead dog because her new dog kept trying to hump it. I’m not sure this tells you anything about British culture, but it did happen.

People are very polite 

The British really are very polite. Until they’re not. Because that’s the thing about polite people: When they lose it, they don’t have a wide range of back-up  behaviors. You know, things like saying, “Hey, asshole, don’t push.” Which isn’t polite but is well short of bloodshed.

Some people are so polite they’d find it hard to say, “Excuse me, but would you stop pushing, please?”

So in October, either two or three people on a train near London got into an argument over a phone call. One man was talking one the phone loudly, one man was complaining about that, and the third man–well, I don’t know if he did anything other than just sit there, but he was a friend of Guy #1’s, so he had a kind of peripheral involvement, so when an argument broke out, Guy #2 leaned over and bit Guy #3’s ear.

Job done. Guy #2 went back to his seat. Quite possibly with a real sense of having done the right thing.

What did Guy #1, the guy on the phone, do? No idea.

Things that actually happen in Britain

Cold off the British press: Notes from the U.K. proudly presents the following mostly outdated news stories.

The museum of lost items adds to its collection

The British Museum misplaced a diamond ring worth £750,000. It’s not lost, it’s just—oh, you know how this works. Someone put it in a safe place. It hasn’t been seen since. That happens to me all the time, although not usually with £750,000 diamond rings.

In fact, that’s why I don’t buy £750,000 diamond rings. I know what’ll happen to them.

How do we know this happened? Somebody submitted a Freedom of Information request to—I guess—the major British museums, asking what they’ve misplaced, and then counted up the responses. Some 6,000 items became unaccounted for over the past I’m not sure how long, which makes the report of questionable value but hey, here at Notes we don’t really care. And we aren’t really a we. It’s just me here, typing away.

The 6,00 items include a rare piece of quartz, an old washing machine, a tin of talcum powder, and an important black tie.

How important can a black tie be? I wouldn’t know. I suspect you’d have to have owned one before you can make an estimate. That’s why I never have. I’d put it in a safe place with that damned diamond ring and that’d be the end of them both.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: This is a flower. In case you weren’t sure.

 

 

The arts are flourishing

The winner of the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize gets £25,000, but the winner of the Turnip Prize gets a turnip mounted on a nail. It’s awarded to the entrant who creates rubbish art “using the least amount of effort possible.” The contest is now in its eighteenth year and is still being run from a Somerset pub.

All the best contests are run from pubs. Or else they start or end in one.

The 2017 contest had over 100 entries but the organizers said proudly that the standard was “still crap.”

Last year’s winner said the contest showed that  “if you set your sights on the gutter and refuse to work hard your dreams really can come true.”

A past entry included a dark pole titled “Pole Dark.” I don’t think it won, which just goes to show you, although I’m not sure what it goes to show you.

I am forever indebted to my friend Deb for calling this contest to my attention.

Water companies use witchcraft

Britain’s a wet country, but every so often people have to search for water anyway. Historically, it was so they could dig wells, but these days it’s also so water companies can find leaks and all sorts of people can locate pipes before they run a digger into them.

Recently, water companies—not all of them, but most—were caught using dowsers, also called water witches, and there’s a predictable flap about it.

Dowsing’s an ancient way of looking for water (or anything else that’s invisible). Traditionally, dowsers used a forked stick. These days, they use a couple of bent wires or metal rods or clothes hangers or tent pegs or—well, you get the idea. When the dowser walks above the hidden water, the wires move toward each other.

Does it work? I’ve never tried. I’m fresh out of tent pegs or I’d go looking for our water pipes. What’s worse, most of our hangers are plastic. Wire hangers are hard to find around here. It’s probably a religious issue because it’s a mystery to me.

What I can tell you is that science blogger Sally Le Page went public about a water company sending a dowser to her parents’ house to locate pipes. Before you could say “superstitious nonsense,” it was in the news. Experts have weighed in to say that it’s not a technique, it’s witchcraft—not in the sense of it being evil but unscientific and silly.

Before this all disappeared from the news, which it did pretty quickly, I listened to a sober BBC journalist interviewing an expert. The journalist happened to have tried water witching and his experience was that it worked—the tent pegs moved strongly toward each other just as he passed over (if I remember correctly) an underground pipe.

The expert talked about false positives. The journalist talked about the feeling of the rods moving in his hands. The journalist was the more convincing speaker.

The regulator (which has no power in this) urged water companies to consider whether dowsing is cost effective, then stuck its fingers in its ears and turned the other way, humming “There’ll always be an England.” The company Le Page challenged said, “We’ve found some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.”

“Just as effective than the new ones”? If they’d like to hire a copy editor, I’m retired but can be called in for small emergencies. For a fee.

I don’t need dowsing rods to tell you that since the flap’s already died down everyone will have gone back to business as usual.

A woman becomes Black Rod

For the first time in British history, a woman’s been appointed as Black Rod.

As what?

Black Rod, who is not to be confused with a dowsing rod. Black Rod’s a person and plays a ceremonial role in the little playlet put on when the queen (or king, when there happens to be one) speaks at the opening of Parliament. Black Rod is sent from the House of Lords to summon the House of Commons. The Commons slams the door in his—or now her—face until he (now she) knocks three times with his (now her) staff, at which point someone opens the door and the MPs troupe out behind him—or now her—like overfed ducklings.

Enough of that. I’m tired of juggling pronouns.

Black Rod also does other stuff, some of which may be perfectly sensible, and dresses in, um, a distinctive get-up.

It’s heartening to know that in this glorious new age we live in women can have jobs that are just as silly as men’s. This isn’t what I hoped feminism would bring us when I was a young hell-raiser, but as Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “Predictions are hard. Especially about the future.”

Berra is also supposed to have said, “I didn’t say half the things I said,” which is demonstrated by the first quote appearing on the internet in several forms, so I’m leaving myself a little wiggle room. The first quote was originally said, in some form or other, by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who said at least half the things he said.

Apparently.

You probably already know that the next Doctor Who is also a woman.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if someone’s appointed as Black Rod or simply appointed Black Rod, with no as. Maybe you reword the sentence to avoid the issue. But I’m not getting paid to worry about that stuff anymore.

The Department for Environment uses disposable cups

Every day, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs goes through 1,400 disposable cups in its restaurants and cafes, which are run by private companies under contract to the department. So it’s good to know everyone’s taking the department’s mission seriously.

The House of Commons went through 657,000 disposable cups last year, but they did their bit by buying 500 reusable cups and selling four of them in the course of three years, so yeah, nothing’s going to waste there.

Based on a survey of one, incompetence may have a genetic component

Britain has a foreign secretary—Boris Johnson—who’s known for putting his foot in his mouth. Or in the case of a woman imprisoned in Iran, who has both British and Iranian citizenship, for putting his foot very dangerously in other people’s mouths. (I wrote this in mid-December and may not get a chance to update it; she was still in prison at that point; it would be nice to think that by she’ll have been released by the time this appears but I’m not putting any money on it.)

Johnson not only said the woman was in Iran teaching journalism, which helped Iran justify her arrest (both she and her family say she was visiting her parents, and she brought her toddler daughter with her, so that seems credible), Johnson refused to retract the statement for a long time, offering a kind of non-apology instead.

I can’t explain Johnson’s political survival, but a recent article about his father reported that Johnson-the-father ran for Parliament in 2005 with election literature that not only misspelled the area he was running in, it used a slogan I love: “More talk, less action.”

He lost.

Still, it’s refreshing, in a stupid kind of way. If we want truth in political advertising. there it is.

Unlike his son, he knows how to back down. He’s quoted as admitting that when he was a spy (sorry—I’m not sure what office he was spying for or who he was spying on) his “incompetence may have cost people their lives.” Which, again, is kind of refreshing in its openness, although it doesn’t bring anyone back from the grave.

People argue about how to pronounce foreign words

Guardian letter writers spilled a fair bit of ink arguing about how to pronounce latte, as in caffe latte, as in an expensive coffee drink.

There are two problems involved here: 1. how to pronounce the word to begin with, and 2. how to communicate the pronunciation in print to an English speaker.

And you thought it was just coffee. Silly you. These things are complicated.

I know that: 1. the pronunciation doesn’t really matter as long as people understand you, and 2. the problem could be solved by going online, de-muting the speakers you (or was that me, or possibly I?) turned off to shut up those annoying ads, and then hoping that whoever you’re listening to got it right, which is far from guaranteed. But isn’t it more fun to do it the hard way?

The first way to tell people how to pronounce something is to use specialists’ marks. Caffe latte comes out as kæfeɪ ˈlɑːteɪ. I’m sure the system’s foolproof, but this fool never did learn how to turn the marks into pronunciation. So let’s try method two, which is to rhyme the word or phrase with something else. That’s the method the letter writers used.

The first said latte rhymed with pate, not par-tay.

Par-tay? Is that when you invite a bunch of people over and offer them food and something to drink? Where I come from, that’s a party. There’s no A involved, and no hyphen.

So do I know how to pronounce par-tay? No. It could be par-TAY of PAR-tay. And given that large parts of Britain treat the R as a very shy sound that disappears in company–well, that adds another complication.

The next day someone wrote in to say that in the north they’ve always rhymed latte and pate, reminding us all that accents here change from region to region, making the whole rhyming thing a complete crapshoot.

The day after that, someone said the emphasis belongs on the first syllable anyway, so it should rhyme with satay, not pate. Great, but I thought satay was pronounced sat-AY, emphasis on the last syllable, making it rhyme with the French pronunciation of pate, which is where we came in.

Is this complicated enough for you yet? It not, let me confuse it further. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I think I’ve heard some British people put the accent on the first syllable of pate and others put it on the second, meaning that if you’re using that as your rhyming word, you’re in trouble.

You see the problem here. English is a slippery language.

Take the word skeletal. You’re not going to rhyme anything with unless you’re an expert, but the standard British pronunciation is skell-EE-tl. The American pronunciation is SKELL-uh-tl. If you find a word that rhymes with either version, the comment section is waiting eagerly.

The third way to communicate pronunciation in print is to do what I did with satay: break the word into syllables, capitalize the one that gets the emphasis, and figure out a phonetic spelling for each syllable. It works, but only up to a point. When I had to do it for a series of kids’ books I was working on, I ran into trouble with a few sounds. Some  of them, if I remember right, involved A’s and O’s, but the one that really sank me was the sound at the end of the word garage–unless, of course, you use one of the British pronunciations, which is GARE-idge. It’s a kind of soft G, but–.

Oh, let’s not get into it. We’ll sink. No spelling was foolproof and there’s a whole generation of kids who grew up mispronouncing the vocabulary words they learned from me.

Sorry, kidlets. I did my best.

Google Maps finds out why crowdsourcing isn’t necessarily a good idea

Okay, this story isn’t limited to Britain, but we all know I cheat: Everton football fans went onto Google Maps and labeled a rival team’s stadium “gobshites.”

What’s a gobshite? Gob’s a mouth. Shite is shit. Put them together and you get a stupid or incompetent person, or so the internet tells me. It also swears that shite in Norwegian is shite and that gobshite in Spanish is pendejo, which according to the Oxford Dictionaries literally means pubic hair.

Don’t you learn interesting things here? I’ve wondered about the literal meaning of pendejo for years. Seriously. I have. Why didn’t I look it up? I did, I just didn’t think of typing in “word origin pendejo” until now.

Are you impressed with my intellectual curiosity? I sure as hell am.

In 2015, Lord Google had to close his crowdsourced mapmaking tool when someone added a robot peeing on an Apple logo to a part of Pakistan. In that same year, British sports fans played other shit-related online jokes. It must be a British thing. Sports fans here are a distinctive breed.

In an unstated year, someone labeled the White House entrance hall Edward’s Snow Den.

Google is “understood to be…looking into” the most recent issue. In the meantime, if you want to sneak Boaty McBoatface onto a map, you might still be able to.

Stuff that really goes on in Britain

Last July, the queen’s official swan marker counted the queen’s swans. This is called swan upping.

Okay, the unvarnished truth is that they didn’t count all the queen’s swans, just the ones on the Thames. And not even on all of the Thames, just on one part of it. It takes five days to complete that chunk, and that probably explains why they stop there.

But the queen has other, uncounted swans. Lots and lots of swans, although since no one counts them she doesn’t know how many. She owns all the unmarked mute swans on open water in the country. Why? Because she’s the queen, that’s why, and if that’s not enough of a reason for you, go ask someone who takes this stuff seriously.

By way of a partial explanation, though, I found this is Wikipendia: “Rights over swans may, however, be granted to a subject by the Crown (accordingly they may also be claimed by prescription).”

“Accordingly”? No, I don’t understand what that’s doing there either. But “prescription”? That makes sense. If you can convince a doctor that owning a swan will cure whatever ails you, the queen can grant you one.

You don’t believe me, you cynic, you? It’s right there in black and white. Or it was last I checked. The word may have been re-prescribed to some other entry by now—it’s Wikipedia, after all—but I swear I can’t make up stuff like this. I can, however, mix up my links. I suspect the link about what part of the Thames gets swan-upped belongs to the quote, but I can’t be bothered to check.

You don’t really care, do you?

The usual irrelevant photo: A rose in our garden. Roses here get black spot–or ours do, anyway. You can see the spots on the out-of-focus leaves in the upper left-hand corner. Black spot makes the plants lose leaves like mad, but so far the plants have survived anyway. There’s a life lesson in there if you’re into that kind of thing. At my age, I’ve lost a few leaves myself, but my spots tend to be brownish, not black, so I probably have something different.

The swan uppers traditionally wear red and take skiffs out on the river.

A skiff is a light rowing boat, usually for one person. I had to look it up. It’s one of those words I think I know until I notice that I don’t really. I’ll skip the link. You can google it yourself if you want, but unless you have a strong stomach, skip the Urban Dictionary’s offering. They define it as a verb and the less said about it the better. And in a rare moment of good taste and discretion, I’ll say less. So let’s change the subject and quote the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on the subject of swan upping:

“During the Middle Ages, the mute swan was considered to be a valuable commodity and was regularly traded between noblemen. The owners of swans were duty bound to mark their property by way of a succession of unique nicks in the beaks of their birds. It was the duty of the Royal Swanmaster to organise the annual swan-upping, a tradition that survives to this day.

“The role of swan-upping was to round up unmarked cygnets and once the parentage of the cygnets had been established to the Swanmaster’s satisfaction [how do you do that? you ask, of course], the birds could be marked appropriately and returned to the wild. The ceremony exists these days in a largely symbolic form, although as an exercise it is useful in monitoring the condition and number of swans on the Thames.

“The only two companies that still observe the tradition of owning swans on the Thames are the Worshipful Companies of Vintners and Dyers. The Royal swans are no longer marked, but an unmarked mute swan on the Thames is regarded as belonging to the Queen by default. The Queen still maintains an officially-appointed Swan Keeper, and the ceremony still takes place on the Monday of the third week in July.

“The Queen has a prerogative over all swans in England and Wales. The Swan Keeper also despatches swans all over the world, sent as gifts in the Queen’s name.”

Just when you think things can’t get any more English, someone tells you about a Worshipful Company—in capital letters, yet. You have to love this place. Or I do, Even when I’m reduced to fits of giggles.

*

On a more prosaic note, a school in Houghton-le-Spring (yes really; it’s somewhere near Sunderland, which is somewhere not near me but that covers a lot of territory and I’m hazy about exactly where in the land of not-near-me it is)—. Let’s start that over: The school sent a bunch of kids home at the beginning of the school year because their trousers (that’s pants if you’re American and definitely not pants if you’re British, except in a sort of metaphorical, insulting way, because pants are underwear except when the word’s used to mean something not good)—. We’re lost again, aren’t we? I’ll get to the point this time. The school sent a bunch of kids home because their trousers were the wrong shade of gray.

If you’re not British, you need to understand that school kids here have to wear uniforms. And that schools take their uniforms as seriously as the queen takes her swan upping. They’re convinced the uniforms give the kids a sense of pride in their school. I have yet to hear a single kid say that it does, but maybe I’m talking to the wrong kids.

I would, wouldn’t I? Mostly I was talking to one kid, who hated them with a passion I really admired.

Great kid.

But back in Houghton-le-Spring (yea, verily, that is the name of the place–I have no idea how it’s pronounced), the school made the kids line up in the rain while someone checked their trousers against a swatch of fabric. Yes, a swatch. They couldn’t just eyeball the damned things and say, “We said gray and that looks more like pink.” Nope. They needed the exact shade of gray.

I’m sure it made the kids immensely proud. Especially the standing in the rain part.

The point of the exercise was to make sure the parents bought £15.99 trousers from Total Sport instead of (oh, the horror of it all) £7 trousers from Tesco, which is a (more horror) supermarket that sells relatively cheap school clothes. Because if you force the parents to spend more money on school uniforms, you squeeze out the lower-income parents and get a better class of dolt filling your school’s seats.

The kids who couldn’t be sent home (presumably because their parents were at work and not available to be shamed with satisfying immediacy) were put in an isolation room, where they wouldn’t contaminate the other kids, and they weren’t allowed to attend classes until they repented, forked out £15.99 times however many pairs they needed, and changed clothes. The three with the wrongest shade of gray were freeze dried and won’t be thawed out until the end of the school year.

The headteacher (that’s the principal, if you’re American) said, “We are very, very particular about the uniform because we need consistency right across the board.

“In doing so some learners were sent home. If you have different types of trousers it leads on to different types of shoes, different types of shirts, etc.”

And the next thing you know, they’ll have different types of—gasp, wheeze—thoughts.

I don’t know when students became learners, but I’m sure they learned a lot from the exercise, and I hope it wasn’t what the headteacher wanted them to learn. And if the headteacher would please contact me, I’d love to correct her writing sample. I won’t charge, but I will point out that “in doing so” doesn’t refer back to a single damned thing.

How do I know? I’m holding a syntax swatch up beside it. She bought her sentences at the supermarket and I caught her at it.

*

A letter in the Guardian claimed that in the 1970s, when books had to be moved from the old library in Worthing (that’s probably in Somerset, but don’t trust me on that) to the new one, the library encouraged people to borrow as many books as they wanted from the old library, then return them to the new one.

“The shelves in the old library were soon empty,” the letter says. Except for the one that held the complete works of Proust.

*

This doesn’t really fit with our topic, but most of you know me well enough not to expect any better. A second Guardian letter writer mentioned the title of a commentary on modern church songs (or maybe that’s only one category of modern church songs—I wouldn’t know). The point is that the commentary was titled, “O God, let me be the putty round thy window pane.”

I expect it’s even funnier if you’ve been subjected to whatever category of church songs that is. I haven’t, for which I count myself lucky because if I’d laughed any harder I’d have rearranged my internal organs.

As far as I understand the definition of organs, all of mine are internal, but never mind. It sounds better with “internal” left in, and if you have a syntax swatch yourself, allow me to remind you that rhythm does matter.

Some of the Guardian letter writers are frighteningly funny, and the paper, to its credit, encourages the worst in them.

*

The Conservative Party held its conference in early October, and since the party’s somewhere between disarray and meltdown it badly needed to come out of it with a burst of energy, a bit of unity, and some good press. Instead, it organized a satirist’s dream. The best part came when the prime minister, Theresa May, coughed and choked her way through her big speech while standing in front of a sign that at the beginning of the speech said, “Building a country that works for everyone.” As she spoke, letters started dropping off until eventually it read, “Bui ding a c  ntry tha   orks for    ryon .”

Truer words have never peeled off a sign.

*

And finally, a note about something that didn’t happen: the annual World Bolving Contest Championships. For the second year in a row, there weren’t any. How they get to be annual under those conditions I don’t know, but the paper called them annual and who am I to argue?

Mind you, I can’t find a link to the article. Ever since the Western Morning News started pouring its content into Cornish Stuff instead of its own website, I haven’t been able to find its print articles online, although I happen to know they’re there. Somewhere. So let’s settle for a link to a video from the World Bolving Contest Championships back when they did happen. Just to prove they’re real.

How could you have doubted me? Don’t you feel kind of silly about it now?

So what’s bolving? The bolve is the red deer’s mating call. So bolving? That’s when the stag’s calling. Or when a human’s imitating a hormonally overamped red stag calling his love—whoever she might turn out to be. I have a hunch they’re not particular about that.

If you want a completely irrelevant meaning of the word and its astro-numerological significance, you’ll find it here. I haven’t read it and can’t think of a reason why I’d want to, but far be it from me to stop you from improving your mind.

If the human’s bolve works at all and if a stag’s in the neighborhood, the stag will answer. Maybe because they’re not really calling their loves but challenging their rivals. I’m no expert on red deer, but I’ve known some humans who are wired like that.

This isn’t one of those traditional contests Britain specializes in—the kind that are so ancient that no one really understands what they’re about anymore but everyone continues them anyway. Like, say, the Atherstone Ball Game.. Or the Gloucester Cheese Rolling. No, this one dates back only as far as 2003, when a few people were sitting around an Exmoor pub, drank too much, and made a bet. I’m guessing that’s how a lot of traditional contests started. Not necessarily with a bet, but definitely with a pub.

The contest started out small and local, but before anyone knew what had happened it was big and popular, which meant it involved visitors on the roads after dark and, wouldn’t you know it, insurance.

The WMN story ends with the tale of a regional deer expert who “used to bolve so that he could hear which stags were about, but one evening a mighty stag came belting down through the woods to confront him face to face. The beast did a kind of cartoon skid with all four hooves when he saw his opponent was a man, stopping just feet away to issue one final, deafening, defiant, bellow.”

You can tell you’re in the land of tall tales when you find not just a stag but a mighty stag, and when it does a cartoon skid.

That extra comma in the last sentence belongs to WMN. Far be it from me to cheat them out of it. If you’re not sure which one it is, don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s one of those editty, nitpicky things. I wont freeze dry either you or the WMN for it. The headteacher, though? I’ve got my eye on her. She’d better watch it.