Coronavirus, British quarantine, and the Eyam plague village

As we watch the spread of coronavirus, it’s sobering to remember that when the bubonic plague swept through Europe–this was in the middle ages and later–people (understandably) fled, and some number of them (inevitably) carried it with them to new cities, towns, and villages, helping it meet new people and (in many cases) kill them.

Silly people, you’ll think, even as you wonder if you’d have the strength to take your chances in a plague-hit town. (You’ll notice how neatly I tell you what you think. So neatly that you barely notice I’m doing it.)

Isn’t it good that we’re wiser these days? Because what did countries that were free of the corona virus do when they understood the danger it carried? Why, they evacuated their citizens–or as many of them as they could–along with whatever germs they were carrying. 

And what did Britain do about the possibility that they’d brought the virus home with them? Its first move was to tell them to self-isolate–in other words, to stay home. 

Marginally relevant photo: Pets are wonderful germ vectors. You pet them, you leave your germs on their fur, then–faithless wretches that they are–they go to your nearest and dearest to get petted, because one person is never enough, and they bring your germs with them. This particular germ vector, in case you haven’t met him, is our much-loved Fast Eddie. You’re not seeing him at his fastest.

Could they go out to buy groceries? Well, people do need to eat. But after that, seriously, people, no contact. Except with the people they live with, of course. And with the person who delivers that pizza they ordered, who’ll only be at the door a minute. And of course anyone their families, roommates, and the pizza person come into contact with. 

In fairness, figuring out whether to impose a quarantine isn’t an easy call, and I’m grateful that it’s not mine to make, but if you wonder why the virus has spread you might start your wondering with that decision.

The country moved to more serious quarantine measures not long after, but a newspaper photo of a bus that took plane passengers to a quarantine center shows one person dressed like an astronaut to prevent contagion and right next to him or her (or whatever’s inside the suit) a bus driver dressed in a red sweater, a white shirt, and a tie, without even a face mask–the effectiveness of which isn’t a hundred percent anyway.

As for the tie, I’ve never worn one or figured out how they’re tied, but I do know that germs aren’t afraid of them. Contrary to common belief, they weren’t invented to prevent the spread of infection. Breathe in a germ and your tie won’t be tight enough to keep it from reaching your lungs. 

So what have we learned since the medieval period? A lot about how diseases work, but less about how to contain them than we like to think. The coronavirus isn’t the plague and doesn’t seem to be the flu epidemic of 1917 either, but it’s instructive to see ourselves flounder.

So let’s talk about a village that, when it was struck with the plague, did exactly what it should have done. Heroically.

In 1665, a tailor in the village of Eyam (pronounced eem; don’t ask), in Derbyshire (pronounced something like Dahbyshuh, at least in the Cambridge online dictionary’s audio clip, although I’m sure other accents take it off in different directions; ditto). Where were we before I got lost in pronunciation? A tailor received a bale of cloth from London. It was damp, and his assistant, who was only in Eyam to help make clothes for an upcoming festival, hung it in front of the fire to dry. That woke up the fleas who’d hitched a ride from London.

The plague had already taken root in London and the fleas were carrying it. The assistant, George Vickers, was the first person in Eyam to come down sick.

Between September and December, 42 people in Eyam died of plague. That’s out of a population of somewhere between 250 and 800. Whichever number’s closest to right, that’s a lot of people in a small place, and a lot of them were getting ready to do what people did in the face of the plague, which is flee. The local museum estimates the population as at least 700.

Enter William Mompesson, the village rector, who felt it was his duty to contain the plague. He’d been appointed only recently, and he wasn’t popular. To make the least bit of sense out of that, we have to take a quick dive into English history and religion. I’ll keep to the shallow waters, so stay close.

Charles II–the king who followed England’s brief experiment with non-monarchical government and anti-Church of England Protestantism–introduced the Book of Common Prayer to the English church, and the Act of Uniformity dictated that ministers had to use it. Most of Eyam, though, had supported Cromwell and his vein of Protestantism. In other words, they were anti-royalist, anti-Church of England, and anti-Act of Conformity. So Mompesson represented everything that pissed them off, politically and religiously. 

And Mompesson must have known that, because he approached the man he’d replaced, Thomas Stanley, who was living on the edge of the village, “in exile,” as Eyam historian Ken Thompson puts it. The two of them worked out a plan and in June they stood together to present it to the village: They would, all of them, go into voluntary quarantine. No one would leave. No one would come in. The earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby in the obscenely lush Chatsworth House (although it may not have been quite as overwhelmingly overdone at the time), had offered to send food. 

Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, wrote in her diary about the day they presented the idea to the village: “It might be difficult to predict the outcome because of the resentment as to William’s role in the parish, but considering that the Revd Stanley was now stood at his side, perhaps he would gain the support necessary to carry the day.”

People had misgivings, she wrote, but they agreed. 

August was unusually hot that year, meaning the fleas were more active, and five or six people died per day. The husband and six children of Elizabeth Hancock died within a space of eight days and she buried them near the family farm. And “buried” here doesn’t mean she stood by the grave demurely, wearing clean black clothes while someone else shoveled dirt in. It means that she dug the graves, dragged the bodies to them, and tipped them in single handed. People from a nearby village, Stoney Middleton, stood on a hill and watched but didn’t break the quarantine to help.

Most of the dead were buried by Marshall Howe, who’d been infected but recovered and figured he couldn’t be reinfected. He was known to pay himself for his work by taking the dead’s belongings. Or he was said to, anyway. Village gossip worked the same way then as it does now. There are no secrets, but there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

Mompesson wrote that the smell of sadness and death hung over the village. He assumed he would die of plague, describing himself in a letter as a dying man, but it was Catherine, his wife, who died of it. She had nursed many of the sick. Mompesson survived.

By the time the plague burned itself out, 260 villagers had died, giving Eyam a higher mortality rate than London’s. No one can know how many people the quarantine saved, but the guesswork is “probably many thousands.”

Mompesson was later transferred to another parish, where his association with the plague terrified people and initially he had to live in isolation outside the village.

Meanwhile, in our enlightened age, a couple of British-born brothers of Chinese heritage shared an elevator with someone who announced, “We’ll be in trouble if those guys sneeze on us.” Other people who are either of Chinese heritage or who assumed to be report having eggs thrown at them, having people move away from them, and being harassed on the street and online.

Happiness, depression, drunks, and codpieces. It’s the news from Britain.

Let’s start with Brexit, since January 31–the day this post goes live, in case you’re getting here late–is the last day that Britain is still a member of the European Union.

To mark the occasion, Boris Johnson announced a fundraising campaign to rush the repairs on Big Ben so it could ring out when Britain crosses that wild Brexit frontier. The cost was estimated at £500,000. He called it “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.”

Don’t expect me to give you a word-for-word translation of that into American. Basically, it means “give money” and “I’m cute.”

Then, without the alliteration, a government spokesperson said there might be, um, problems in accepting public donations. Cue assorted forms of confected outrage. The newspaper I deliver to a neighbor (nice neighbor, godawful paper) ran a headline about a Remainer stitchup over Big Ben’s bongs. Because that’s what remainers are about: keeping that clock from ringing.

The headline didn’t get the clock ringing but it saved a bit of Johnson’s alliteration.

The aforesaid hapless government spokesperson was asked if Johnson would apologize to the people who’d already contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. He declined to say either that he would or he wouldn’t. Several times over.

But maybe church bells could ring out all over Britain.

Well, as it turns out that ringing bells, or not ringing them, is governed by church law. Who knew? And  only parish priests get to decide when and whether to ring them. A quick survey by the Guardian didn’t indicate much enthusiasm for it, either on the part of the clergy or the bellringers.

An Exeter Cathedral spokesperson said, “The Church of England in Devon is the church for everyone, whether they voted leave or remain. Church bells are first and foremost a call to worship and, in line with the Central Council for Church Bellringers, we do not feel, in principle, they should be rung for political purposes.”

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Rumor has it that Boris Johnson has banned the word Brexit from 10 Downing Street as of January 31. It’s not clear why. Maybe it’s his way of addressing people’s Brexit exhaustion: Let’s just not talk about it anymore.They’ll also stop talking about negotiations with the EU and pretend everything’s taken care of. Maybe that’s what people really voted for: not to fix anything, just to stop hearing about it.

So what does the new 50p Brexit coin say? “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”

Seriously. An earlier edition of 1 million was melted down because it had an exit date that Johnson, in a fit of enthusiasm, promised but then changed–October 31. How much did that cost? Nobody’s saying, although a fair number are asking. In an trial run, a thousand were minted with an earlier date that Theresa May missed.

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One last bit of Brexit news: Bloomberg Econmics estimated that since the referendum the cost of Brexit has been £130 billion, and if expects another £70 billion to be added to that by the end of the transition period. But hey, it’s only money, right?

If you’re interested in how Brexit is likely to affect business or in the issues around regulation and what alignment with EU regulations means, check out the Brexit Blog.

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The Church of England’s House of Bishops has issued advice saying that sex should be for married heterosexuals only. Which makes sense. If god had wanted anyone else to have sex, he would have given them sexual desires and clearly he didn’t.

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Designers have introduced high heels to men’s fashion. One said they made her customers feel “more powerful and sexy.”

The last pair of heels I ever owned–or ever will, and this was back in 1804 or thereabouts –made me feel like I was going to fall down the stairs. That was a split second before I did fall down the stairs. It was sexy as hell. And very powerful. In spite of which I doubt the trend will transfer from the catwalk to the allegedly real world, but if it does, guys, you’re welcome to my share of the damn things, although you’ll probably need a larger size.

I also read that designers are reintroducing the codpiece. You know the codpiece? It’s “a pouch attached to a man’s breeches or close-fitting hose to cover the genitals, worn in the 15th and 16th centuries,” according to Lord Google. A highly exaggerated pouch. Henry VIII wore one. He would have had room to stuff his falconer’s gloves in there, and the falcon along with them. One paper said they’re intended to induce awe. I’m sure they will if you can only get people to stop laughing.  

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Irrelevant photo: A camellia blossom. In January.

A study of UK students reports that focusing on happiness could leave a person depressed. The students who valued happiness most registered as more depressed.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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Let’s shift countries for a few entries: An octopus escaped a New Zealand zoo by breaking out of its tank and slipping down a drain to the ocean. A zoo spokesperson said the octopus wasn’t unhappy at the zoo–they’re solitary creatures–just curious. 

I’d need to hear that from the octopus before I feel certain of it, but it didn’t designate a spokesperson before it left.

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In the US, a drop-down menu on the Department of Agriculture’s website listed Wakanda, the imaginary country in the movie Black Panther, as a free-trade partner. What do the US and Wakanda trade?  Ducks, donkeys, and dairy cows. Possibly more, since those all start with D and I’d hope they’d trade up and down the full alphabet. I’d check but once it hit the papers, someone erased the evidence.

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A chef in France lost one of his three Michelin stars because a Michelin inspector claimed he’d substituted that English horror, cheddar, for good French reblochon, beaufort, or tomme in a souffle. That threw the chef into a deep depression (he might want to focus less on being happy; I’m told it helps), which in turn threw everybody involved into court.

He lost. Not because anyone proved that he’d used the dread cheddar but because he couldn’t demonstrate that losing the star had hurt his business. A “degustation” menu at his restaurant costs 395 euros.

Me? I like cheddar. Think how much money I’m saving.

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Coming back in the UK, a five-foot corn snake named Allan broke out of his vivarium (no, I never heard of one either; it’s a bit like an aquarium but without the water) when his people were making one of those Christmas trips that no sane person would make without a five-foot snake in the back seat. 

I’m not sure why they noticed that Allan had gone slither-about, but when they did they pulled off to the side of the motorway (if you’re American, that’s a freeway) and started pulling the car apart. Not figuratively: literally. They pulled out the seats and assorted other parts until they found him curled around the gear shift, trapped. They buttered it but he still couldn’t get loose.

This is sounding more and more like I’m making it up, isn’t it? I’m not. 

They ended up with the Fire and Rescue Service and the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals on the scene, one group cutting through a bit of metal and the other using a damp towel to protect the snake from the heated metal the first group was cutting. 

Allan is fine. There’s no report on how the car is.

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After a contestant on a British quiz show, Celebrity Mastermind, misidentified Greta Thunberg simply as Sharon, Thunberg changed her Twitter handle to Sharon. 

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Gardeners in at the Cambridge University Botanical Garden spent years trying to get the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis orchid to blossom. It finally did in December, and it smells like rotting cabbage. Or a mix of dead rats and smelly socks. Or rotting fish. Choose one randomly, since it didn’t bloom for long and we’ve all missed the chance to describe it ourselves.

Isn’t that sad?

Try not to focus so much on being happy and you won’t feel as bad about it.

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Dominic Cummings, who as far as I can tell is Boris Johnson’s brain, placed an ad inviting weirdos and misfits (the two nouns are quotes, but I don’t like littering a paragraph with quotation marks around a bunch of bitsy words) to apply for jobs at Number 10 Downing Street, where both Boris and his brain work. Cummings has also (a) called for civil servants to be tested regularly to make sure they’re up to doing their jobs and (b) said he regularly makes decisions that are “well outside” his “circle of competence.”

He has not been tested to see whether he’s up to doing his job, and the weirdos and misfits ad may have been outside his circle of competence, because a few days later Number 10 announced that Cummings won’t be doing any recruiting outside of the usual procedures.

Security may also be outside his circle of competence, because he was using a gmail address in his ad instead of the secure government address he’s supposed to be using. Gmail’s known for reading users’ emails, and in some situations for making them available to third parties. 

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In January, a 26-year-old Plymouth man denied wounding with intent to cause bodily harm after allegedly throwing a seagull at someone’s head. He didn’t enter a plea to the charge of attempting to injure a wild bird. 

You’d think you could find out more about a story like that, but I haven’t  been able to. Except that it happened in a cafe, that he’s due in court in April, and that he was wearing a smart suit at his bail hearing. You know: the stuff that really matters.

My thanks to Phil Davis for this one. I can’t begin to tell you how much poorer my life would have been if he hadn’t let me know about it.

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My last news roundup included a story about mysterious packets of money appearing in the village of Blackhall Colliery. The people who left the  money have now outed themselves, but anonymously. Just enough to reassure everyone that the money was meant to be found and that the finders are welcome to keep it.

The two people who left the money aren’t related, aren’t married, aren’t local, and seem to have started out separately before joining forces. They made a point of leaving the cash where it would be found by people who most needed it.

Apostrophes, politics, and village pubs. It’s the news from Britain

The Apostrophe Protection Society has closed its doors

The group was founded in 2001 to preserve “the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark,” but the APS website says, “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

The website also warns us to beware of fake news: The site itself isn’t closing down. If you have a burning question about, say, whether an inanimate object can own something, look no further; It has an answer. You can also find advice about the difference between fewer and less

You’ll sleep better at night knowing it’s still there, right? Although I could argue that the exclamation point they used is excessive.

Not that I would or anything.

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Irrelevant photo: azalea blossoms. For some reason, this came into bloom in the fall.

When one door closes, some totally unrelated one opens, and they have nothing to do with each other. The International Bank Vault has opened its doors in London, but only to billionaires. 

Millionaires? Pfui. 

No, I don’t know how to pronounce that either, and it’s not a quote from their promotional literature. Oddly enough, they haven’t sent me their promotional literature.

Yeah, I know. It was an oversight.

What they offer, as far as I can figure out, is safety deposit boxes. The smallest one is a steal at £600 a year. Want me to order a couple for you? Each one is big enough for some jewellery and “a fair few gold bars; they’re only the size of your mobile phone” said someone or other who’s very important and knows the size of a gold bar.

I’d link you to their website but it’s boring. They do that to keep the riff-raff out.

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This might be a good time to mention that the six richest people in the UK control as much wealth as the poorest 13 million. (And that was before the recent election. I don’t know about you, but I expect a further tip richward.) That’s about £39.4 billion on each side. That’s a lot of money, but it’s less (please note: not fewer) if you have to split it with 13 million other people. 

Actually, that’s 13.2 million. And I’m having trouble finding anything funny about it.

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Scientists at the University of Bath have brewed up artificial neurons that–if they fulfill their promise, the human race survives long enough, and the crick don’t rise–could un-paralyze people, snap the hazy brain circuits of dementia back into sharp focus, correct a form of heart failure, and connect minds to machines. That last achievement may be more fun for the humans than for the machines.

The artificial neurons are built into tiny, low-power chips that can plug right into the nervous system. I mention this not because it’s funny but because it’s interesting. And because none of us are getting any younger.

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A study in the U.S. shows that smartphones are causing dumb injuries. People are walking into lamp posts while messing around with their phones–reading articles on nuclear physics or texting or doing whatever people do on their phones while walking into lamp posts. The problem’s serious enough that Salzburg has installed airbags on lamp posts “to raise awareness of the dangers.”

Not to prevent immediate injuries?

Apparently not. 

The article also mentions injuries from exploding batteries and “the phone hitting the face,” which makes it sound like that happens by itself or that the phone does deliberately. And maybe it does. A phone can get tired of being the conduit for all the trivialities of our weary little lives. You know what people are like. Bash one of them in the face, though, and wow, does that change the conversation. I’ve been tempted to try it myself from time to time, but it’s hard to mistake me for a smartphone, so I’ve resisted.

If those chips do connect our minds to our machinery, think how much more often this will happen.

About half the injuries were caused by people using the phone while they drove. Ninety (out of 76,000  injuries seen in 100 hospitals between 1998 and 2017) involved people playing Pokemon Go. One involved a man stepping on a snake while he crossed a parking lot looking at his phone. The good news? The incident was caught on camera. Possibly by him but more likely by someone who thought it made more sense to film it than to yell, “Look out for the snake.”

I couldn’t find any information on how the snake is. Sorry.

About 60 percent of the injuries were to people between 13 and 29, who make up considerably less than 60 percent of the population. That means either that people learn to be more careful as they get older or that a sizable number of people 30 and over don’t know how to work a smartphone. Me included.

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You probably already know this, but Donald Trump tweeted that Greta Thunberg should “work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” 

Thunberg responded by changing her bio on Twitter: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

Two points to Thunberg. A few spare capital letters to Trump. Not because he’s earned them but because he spends them profligately and will use up his supply any day now.

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As newly elected prime minister, Boris Johnson announced that he was going to lead a one-nation government. “Let the healing begin,” he said.

That was shortly after he celebrated his victory by announcing that Remainers should “put a sock in it.”

Yes, folks, we’ve entered a time of healing and goodwill over here.

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A bit of chewed birch tar found in southern Denmark has yielded the complete DNA of a woman who lived 6,000 years ago, at the start of the neolithic period. Like the early British settler Cheddar Man, whose DNA led to a reconstruction not long ago, she would have had dark hair and skin and blue eyes. 

She would have been a hunter-gatherer, one of a group of people who lived beside a brackish lagoon, and was more closely related to hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than to those from central Scandinavia.

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A survey of 5,000 British teachers asked what they’d prefer as Christmas gifts from their students. Most of them said a handmade card rather than alcohol or chocolate or whatever else parents think up. 

The exception? Primary school teachers. One explanation is that they’ve seen enough kids’ drawings and they’ve reached their limit. The other–and this one comes from me, so treat it with all the care and suspicion it deserves–is that they need the alcohol more than secondary teachers do.

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Feel-good story of the week: A small village in Northumberland (in case you’re not British, that’s somewhere way the hell up in the north, but in England, not all the way to Scotland) went online to raise money in the hope of buying its pub to run as a community business. The village had already lost its shop, its post office, and its village hall. The pub is the last public space it has left, and no one was interested in buying it–except the residents, who didn’t have the money. 

If you’re British you already know this, but for the rest of youse, pubs aren’t just places to drink. They’re social spaces. The fundraising website describes it as “the centre of our village. It is our meeting place, our venue for community events and celebrations, a boon for our older residents and, in short, is the lifeline of our village.

No community owned pub has ever gone bankrupt in England, they work really well – but we need to buy it first!”

The village consists of a couple of hundred people and needed a minimum of £200,000 to buy the pub, so it turned to the outside world. Just before Christmas, with four days to go, it had raised £186,000. Those were pledges not to make donations but to buy shares. When I checked on Christmas Eve, the site said they’d put in a bid and it had been accepted.

If you collect strange pronunciations of British place names, the nearby Bellingham is pronounced Belling-jum.

No, don’t ask me. I learned it from the website and understand nothing.

Human books, mystery money, and the Vagina Museum. It’s the news from Britain

I often connect my posts to blog link-ups that limit themselves to family friendly posts (or in one case, reasonably family friendly posts), so this post comes with a warning: Nothing here is pornographic, and I respect it if people don’t want to read anything that’ll yuckify their brains for weeks. I’m pretty sure that nothing here will, but no two people’s definition of yuckification will be 603% identical. So whether or not the post is family friendly will depend on whose family we’re talking about. I use the word vagina. Most families have at least one and some have several–presumably not all on the same family member. So I don’t think I’m pushing the limits too far. I wouldn’t recommend the post to a three-year-old, but your average three-year-old is illiterate, so I think we’re okay.

Later on, there’s a bit about the Bad Sex Awards. This isn’t awarded for anything anyone did–the competition would be too (no pun intended, honestly) stiff. It’s a literary award that no one wants to win. The write-up contains a quote that’s bizarre, and–maybe ill informed is the best way to describe it, not to mention physically impossible. Still, I wouldn’t say it’s pornographic, just very damn strange.

You be the judge. Or if you prefer, bail out now. 

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A vagina museum has opened in London. But this isn’t just your garden variety vagina museum that we’re talking about. This is the world’s first (and probably its only) vagina museum. 

Why does the world need such a thing? Well, Sarah Creed, who curated its first exhibition, says that “half of people surveyed did not know where the vagina was.” 

The vagina? Is there only one? Or are we talking about the Great Vagina–the one that created the template for all the vaginas that came after?

Clearly, there’s a lot about this that I don’t know, but I do know where my own personal vagina is: It’s in Cornwall. If any of you are having trouble locating yours, an old-fashioned map or one of the apps on your smart phone (it knows where you are) would be a good place to start.

If you don’t have one of your own (that’s a vagina, not a smart phone), you’ll have to settle for more abstract information. The museum might be a good place to start.

You’re welcome. 

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Mysterious bundles of cash have been appearing in the town of Blackhall Colliery, in Northern Ireland. The bundles almost always add up to £2,000 and they’re left in plain sight on the high street (translation: the main street; it won’t necessarily be any higher than any other street and you don’t have to be under the influence of mind-altering substances to go there). 

What’s going on? No one knows. Or no one who’s talking knows. A police spokesperson said, “This could be the work of a good Samaritan but . . . the circumstances remain a mystery.”

Twelve bundles have been handed in to the police since 2014. If any have been found but not turned it, no one’s saying. But anyone handing the cash in can make a claim to keep it if the owner doesn’t show up.

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This next item has nothing to do with Britain, but I just have to include it: When the Harriet Tubman biopic was first pitched in Hollywood, back in the dark ages of nineteen-ninety-something-or-other, the head of the Whatever Studio said the script was fantastic and he wanted Julia Roberts to play Tubman.

The writer pointed out, with I have no idea what degree of tact, that Tubman was black and Roberts was white and that the discrepancy might, um, present a problem. I don’t think he said that since the story was about slavery in the US race was a central issue, but he probably should have. In some situations, no point is too obvious to skip over.

“It was so long ago,” the Sage of the Whatever Studio said. “No one is going to know the difference.”

My friends, I despair. 

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And this next bit has nothing to do with Britain either (we’ll come back home in a minute), but when the $39,900 armored electric Cybertruck was unveiled, Tesla wanted to prove it was “bulletproof to a 9mm handgun,” so after having people attack it with sledgehammers (they barely made a dent), they threw a metal ball at a window. Which smashed. 

To see if that was a fluke, they threw one at another window. Which also smashed.

The exact quote from the Sage of Tesla, Elon Musk, was “Oh my fucking god.” 

The $39,900 price that I quoted is for the basic model. If you really want to–and I just know you do–you can pay $76,900.

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You’ve probably heard somewhere along the line that accents are important in Britain. They mark your class and your region (unless you learn a new accent, in which case they mark how well or badly you’ve slipped into someone else’s) and they mark everybody else’s attitude toward you. So it’s worth mentioning that a man was charged with being drunk because of his accent.

The story is this: A man named–yes–Shakespeare (Anthony, not Bill) was reported to the Brighton police because he was slurring his words and had a three-year-old with him. The cops appeared, questioned him, and arrested him.

I’m not sure what happened to the three-year-old at this point. She’s probably still traumatized.

Shakespeare’s lawyer (whose name is less interesting than his client’s, so we’ll skip it) said in court, “No offence to people with Scouse accent, but the nature of the accent itself is that it can make people appear drunk.”

Shakespeare was acquitted. And the scouse accent is from Merseyside. That’s Liverpool, give or take a bit of ground around it. 

The word scouse, if WikiWhatsia is right, comes from the name for a stew that was common thereabouts. 

My thanks to Separated by a Common Language, which had a link to the article.

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The judges of the Bad Sex Awards couldn’t pick a winner this year so they chose two. The idea is to find “the year’s most outstandingly awful scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel.” 

But never mind who won, because this is from a runner-up, Mary Costello’s The River Capture: “She begged him to go deeper and, no longer afraid of injuring her, he went deep in mind and body, among crowded organ cavities, past the contours of her lungs and liver, and, shimmying past her heart, he felt her perfection.”

And you wonder why I’m not straight?

Okay, that’s not the only reason. And even though it’s been a long time, my memory’s good enough for me to know that passage doesn’t describe a typical encounter. Still, it could put a suggestible person off.

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On a more uplifting note, the four artists who were finalists for this year’s Turner Prize appealed to the judges not to pick a single winner but to let them share the prize equally. All four works deal with immediate social and political issues, and in their letter the finalists said these issues “differ greatly, and for us it would feel problematic if they were pitted against each other, with the implication that one was more important . . . than the others.”

The judges agreed unanimously.

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In November, the Central Library Scotland hosted an event where people could borrow a human book for half an hour.

The Human Library is a group of “volunteers that are available to be published as open books on topics that can help us better understand our diversity. The Human Library is a safe space for conversations, where difficult questions are answered by people with personal experience that volunteered to share their knowledge.” 

Can I translate that? You go in and talk to someone knowledgeable who’s agreed to be an open book on some topic. The events started in the U.S. and are about prejudices and stigmas the people / books have faced.

The founder, librarian Allison McFadden-Keesling, talks about the volunteers as books, as in “the books are excited to see one another” and her events have grown from 8 or 10 books at the first event to 35.

My thanks to Deb C. for letting me know about this. 

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Oh, and happy holidays to you all. If this isn’t the strangest holiday post you’ve seen this year, at least tell me it’s close.

Mistaken identities in the (partially British) news

A video showing what seemed to be–if looked at the right way–a Chinese version of the Loch Ness monster paddling around near the Three Gorges Dam turned out to be a twenty-meter-long industrial airbag. Or in some articles, a long piece of tubing, which may or may not be another way of saying the same thing.

What was the right was way to look at it? Mind-altering substances (a category that includes alcohol) have been shown to be effective.

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Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: a begonia

In California, a robocop was mistaken for a robocop. It was rolling through a park, demonstrating that it could do everything the police force had said it would do: patrol large open spaces and use its microphone to deter crime. So when a fight broke out, a witness ran up to it and pushed the emergency alert button. 

What did it do? It said, “Step out of the way.”

Eventually she stepped out of the way and it rolled off, stopping now and then to tell people to keep the park clean.

Another witness just called the police on an old-fashioned phone.

The robot turned out not to be connected to any actual police. It called the company that made it. Which may or may not have called the police. I don’t really know.

Its video camera also wasn’t connected to the police department. Its ability to read license plates and track cell phones? Ditto. It will, eventually and presumably, get connected, but in the meantime it runs around playing cops and park attendants and costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year. 

It has not yet been mistaken for the Loch Ness monster.

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A cash machine in London mistook a fake £20 bill (or note if you’re British) for a real one. Which would be understandable enough except that the bill said, “Twenty poonds” on the back. Not to mention, “This is play money.”

The machine apologized for any problems it might have caused and explained that it can’t actually read.

You can by counterfeit twenties on the internet. They go for around £8 each, although if you’re okay with money that announces that it’s not real you can get ten for around £15.

No, I’m not recommending it. It just seemed like something you’d want to know.

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The person in charge of the US nuclear arsenal mistook an internet hoax for something real. Rick Perry, the secretary of Energy, reposted a warning having to do with Instagram being able to use people’s photos in accordance with a treaty that the US isn’t part of. 

The good news is that he didn’t run up to a robocop, push a button, and expect it to protect the nuclear arsenal. 

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“Jerusalem” was voted the U.K.’s favorite hymn. Or at least the favorite of the people who listened to the BBC’s Songs of Praise and took the trouble to vote. 

What’s that got to do with mistaken identity? The song’s almost universally mistaken for a hymn. The words are by William Blake, who was intensely religious but nothing like an orthodox Christian. Among other things, he didn’t attend church and didn’t believe he needed a god to redeem him. The Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being,” he wrote in “A Vision of the Last Judgment.” 

But let’s be fair and separate the writer from the words he wrote. Did he, in spite of himself, write a hymn? Here it is:

Jerusalem
   And did those feet in ancient time
   Walk upon England’s mountains green?
   And was the holy Lamb of God
   On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
   And did the Countenance Divine,
   Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
   And was Jerusalem builded here,
   Among these dark Satanic Mills?

   Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
   Bring me my arrows of desire:
   Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
   Bring me my Chariot of fire!
   I will not cease from Mental Fight,
   Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
   Till we have built Jerusalem,
   In England’s green & pleasant Land.

It’s stunning, but is it a hymn? He’s asking if the countenance divine shone forth upon our clouded hills, not saying it did. He only gets into statements when he calls for building a Jerusalem, and that’s in the England of this world, not in the next. I’ll admit that using Jerusalem as a metaphor means drawing from Christian imagery, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Blake had no use for organized religion, and especially for state-sponsored religion. So inevitably his poem has been adopted as the hymn of a state-sponsored religion.

The music that goes with it was written in 1916. (Blake died in 1827.) It’s also beautiful. This version comes from the movie The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

And I still say it’s no hymn. 

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Five out of ten flies will mistake a cow for not-a-cow if you paint it with zebra stripes–which of course you will sooner or later. They register their belief that this is not a cow by not landing on it and not biting it. The cows painted as zebras still identify as cows. They register this belief by mooing and eating grass and allowing themselves to be milked.

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A national police database in Britain mistook thousands of cybercrime and fraud reports for a security risk and quarantined them, creating a backlog of 9,000 cases and leaving some of them there for a year. The problem is that the reports include words and symbols that the database’s program recognized as risk markers, so yeah, it quarantined them.

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Rory Stewart–Member of Parliament; former candidate for leader of the Conservative Party; former member of the Conservative Party; and currently independent candidate for the mayor of London–mistook three Irish musicians for minor gangsters.

Stewart’s plan was to walk through every London borough while he was running for Conservative Party leader, and he asked the men if he could film them. They agreed, then found out he was a politician and said they “didn’t fuck with politics.” They left. 

So far, so good, and if he’d left it at that he’d have been fine, but at a later event he talked about meeting three “sort of minor gangsters” who told him he was an idiot. 

The people he was talking to turn out to be a band called Hare Squad, from Dublin. They’re black, which is presumably why Stewart decided they were gangsters. 

“We’re all about peace and love,” one of them, Lilo Blues, said. 

In addition to being denounced as a racist, Stewart was also asked, “What the hell is a minor gangster?”

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A four-year-old was mistaken for a neighborhood menace when the Birmingham Council (that’s the city government, and we’re talking about Birmingham in Britain, not in the U.S.) sent her a letter saying she’d been accused to antisocial acts –shouting, banging, and visitors. Presumably that’s disruptive visitors. Visitors aren’t inherently a problem. 

Her mother says the girl has eczema and sometimes cries at night. 

The kid was invited to contact the council if she had any questions. I don’t know if she did, but when I was four my questions would’ve been something along the lines of “what’s for dessert”–nothing the council could’ve answered. 

What’s worse, I couldn’t write yet. Or read. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she can’t either.

Well, no wonder she’s getting in trouble. What’s wrong with the schools today?

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An early Renaissance masterpiece was mistaken for some old thing hanging in a French kitchen. An auctioneer spotted it when he came to value the furniture after the woman decided to move. 

It was auctioned off for 24 million euros.

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A Viking warrior was mistaken for some other Viking warrior’s nice little wifely homemaker in Norway. For years. Apologies for the heavy use of stereotypes there, but I’m not the only person dragging them into the story.

The good news is that it didn’t bother the warrior, because she’d been dead for years. The thousand-year-old body was correctly identified as a woman, but even though she was buried with an armory big enough to take down several English or Irish villages, when she was first found they disregarded all that because she was a woman and–hey, we know this: Women aren’t warriors and never were. She was just buried with that stuff because, um, they were cleaning house and the weaponry was in the way.

Now a new team of scientists have reinterpreted the skeleton, looking at the partially healed battle wound to her skull, probably made with a sword. A reconstruction of her face–never a 100% reliable thing–shows one tough-looking woman.

Some of the people working on this were from the University of Dundee, so the story does actually have a British connection.

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This final item has nothing to do with mistaken identity but I had to put it in: Scientists in the US have discovered that driving tiny electric cars lowers stress levels in rats, in theory because of the pleasure of learning a new skill. They used a mix of lab-raised rats and rats from the real world. The real-world rats turned out to be significantly better drivers than the lab rats. 

The point of the experiment was to explore the possibility of drugless treatments for mental illness, but it might be more useful to know that if you’re hitching a ride with a rat you’ll want to look for one raised in the real world. The safe life isn’t necessarily the best preparation. And I tell you that as a former cab driver. 

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My thanks for Bill, who in response to last week’s post tells me that there is a culture out there that puts the year first when they write the date: the Japanese. Thank you, Bill. Also domo arigato gozai mas.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The butterfly net I use to trap strange search engine questions has been filling up quickly, so even though I did a what-the-world-wants-to-know post just a few weeks ago, I can’t let riches like these go to waste. The questions are in italics and appear in their original form, however odd it may be.

The search for important information about Britain

england is not another name for great britain!

A-plus for the answer (or in British, A*, pronounced A-star). But what’s your question? And more to the point, why are you bothering Lord Google about something you already know?

Irrelevant photo: roses.

do brits just talk about weather

Before we can answer this, we have to figure out what it means. This should depend on which word just is hanging off of, but English-language writers dump just into sentences according to what sounds good, then figure that what they’ve written means what they think it means. But any grammar obsessive could tell them that the location determines the meaning. I’m not going to rant about that. The language is used the way it’s used, regardless of what the grammar books say, and I’m on both sides of these issues anyway. Passionately.

Still, it leaves me not knowing what the writer meant. So what are the possible variations here? 

Do Brits just talk about the weather as opposed to doing anything about it? Well, pretty much, yeah. You know how it is. We’re all like that when you come down to it. Talk, talk, talk. And the damned rain keeps coming down.

Or, in defiance of the order the words come in, do they talk just about the weather as opposed to, say, talking about feel-good topics like Brexit and global warming? Well, no. The British talk about all sorts of things. Shoes and ships and sealing wax. Brexit and potatoes and school buses.

Okay, not so much about sealing wax these days. And that’s a Lewis Carroll poem that I’m mangling. His version rhymes.

Or–I’m stretching a point here, but what the hell–do just Brits, as opposed to other people, talk about the weather,? No, it’s  a pretty common topic, given that most of the world’s countries (and therefore people) have something that passes for weather.

I’d go on, but the question only gave me three words to dangle just off of.

I hope I’ve been able to help.

why are we called great britain

Am I the only person who hears something plaintive in this? It has a kind of Mom-why-are-they-callling-me-names? quality.

It’s okay, sweetheat. They don’t mean anything by it. It’s because you’re big. Why don’t we sit down and have  a nice cookie?

Or maybe we should call it a biscuit.

ceremonail position in british government black rod

I’m tired of Black Rod, probably because I’ve heard entirely too much about parliament lately, what with Brexit and all. But yes, Black Rod has a position in the British government. Whether you consider it ceremonial or essential is probably a matter of opinion. Me? I’d call it ceremonial to the point of silliness, but I would, wouldn’t i? 

P.S. You misspelled ceremonial. I nevr misspell anything.

ploughman’s lunch history

It starts as a full plate–cheese, a roll, a pickled onion, chutney, butter if you’re lucky. Three grapes and a twisted slice of orange you’ve gone someplace fancy. Then it gets eaten. Or most of it does and the odd bits get left and someone takes them back to the kitchen and scrapes them in the trash and that’s it. End of history. 

It’s wasteful. I ordered a ploughman’s once or twice because it sounded more appealing than a cheese sandwich, but it’s nothing but a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich. 

characteristics of an aristocrat person how do they act

All aristocrats have exactly the same characteristics, to the point where every morning they call each other to work out what they’re going to wear. 

Okay, I shouldn’t get put off when people ask about this, because I wrote a snarky post about some titled idiot behaving badly and I gave it a clickbait heading about behaving like a British aristocrat. So it’s my own doing if I get search engine questions about it.

But if we’ve established that, let’s go on: Behaving like an aristocrat isn’t about having perfect manners, it’s about (a) considering that your manners, however horrid, are perfect, and (b)looking down on people who don’t behave the way you do–or who try to but who have to learn the secret handshakes from Lord Google.

Lord Google  will never tell us all the secret handshakes, just enough to leave us exposed as wannabes. But even if we find the missing bits and behave exactly like the aristocrats, we were still foolish enough to choose the wrong ancestors so we can’t be part of the club.

Silly  us.

It’s depressing to know (or think I know) that someone out there is trying to play this game. Don’t do it, folks. Aristocracy is a closed and toxic club. They don’t want us in and if we have a brain in our heads, we don’t want in. 

when will we know more about brexit sept 2019

We all wish we had the answer to that. And September’s already well in the past.

does a map show you how narrow a road is

Yes, but measuring the width of the map’s lines to the nearest micro-whatsit won’t help. You have to look at the letters associated with the roads. They won’t exactly tell you the width, but they’ll let you figure out how slow your drive’s likely to be, which is a related question. 

M roads–they have an M before their number– are motorways, the best roads the system offers. A roads–A followed by a number–come next. Some of them are hard to tell from motorways. They’re divided highways with a 70 mph speed limit and make a nice straight line from wherever you started to wherever you’re going. And other A roads are nothing like that. They’re two lanes, and they run through the middle of every town along the route. But they’re better than what comes next: B roads, which may be two lanes but may have one-lane stretches.

Then there are roads that no one bothers to give numbers to. Or they give them numbers but don’t bother to tell anyone what they are. In the summer, in touristed areas, they’re lined with nervous visitors who’ve plastered their cars to the hedges, letting the oncoming cars figure out if there’s room to pass.

There almost always is.

how do british cars pass on such narrow roads?

On the narrowest ones, everyone gets out and disassembles the lighter-colored car, moves it past the darker one, and puts it back together.

Why the lighter one? It’s a simple, non-judgmental way to choose, and it saves time-consuming arguments. 

And if they’re both the same color? Well, that’s where your arguments start. We need a better system. Everyone agrees, but we have to settle the Brexit mess first.

what was uk called before great britain

England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. Unless you want to go back to Latin, the Celtic languages, and Anglo-Saxon. And Pictish. For part of that time, though, we’re dealing with micro-kingdoms and it gets messy.

why do british people eat brussle sprouts at christmas?

Because it gives them the strength to face Boxing Day, that extra holiday that comes on December 26.

 

The search for important information about everything else

what is the actual date of 2019/09/04

I can answer that: It was 2019/09/04. 

But let’s talk about dating systems, since someone’s brought them up.. The American system starts with the month, follows with the day, and ends with the year, making 04/09/2019  April 9, 2019. The British and European system flips the first two elements, so the same numbers give you 4 September 2019. 

Isn’t this fun?

The British and European system doesn’t use a comma before the year. Or after, in case the sentence straggles on. The American one does.

Moving back and forth between the two systems means that you can’t be sure what date anyone–including your own bewildered self–is talking about unless they name the month or bring in a day that’s larger than twelve.

I don’t know any dating systems that open with the year, so I have no way to tell what, if anything, the date in the question means. I asked Lord Google for help but he told me I wasn’t asking the right question, so I ended up as fodder for someone else’s post about strange search engine questions.

Lord G., as is his way, wouldn’t tell me what the right question was. Dealing with Lord Google is like being trapped in one of those fairy tales where bad things happen because bad things happen and the world doesn’t reward the just and kind.

So what’s the actual date? My best guess is that it doesn’t exist.

is a vigilante sticking up for someone

It never rains weirdness but it pours it down by the bucketful. Is a vigilante sticking up for someone? Not as often in real life as in the movies. Has someone seen too many movies? Probably. Is a movie watcher having trouble finding the line between fiction and reality? Most definitely. 

For what it’s worth, friends, if you’re facing injustice and overwhelming odds, don’t look for a vigilante. And for pete’s sake, don’t become a vigilante. Vigilantes can propel decent shoot-em-up plots–or if not decent, at least popular–but in real life they end up as lone nuts with guns who leave grieving families in their wake. Try organizing. It’s slower and it’s less dramatic, but it spills less blood and it just might do some good in the long run. 

I have no idea why that question came to me. 

how to respectfully decline an award nomination

Be nice. Explain your reasons. Say thanks. Shut up. 

whats cultural about brownies

They like literature and classical music. They’re not much on visual art.

medieval catholic teaching sex

All the medieval Catholics are dead. So are the medieval everybody elses. That means none of them are teaching sex anymore. But they weren’t much good at it, so don’t worry about having missed out.

The Brexit update, with elections

Britain’s went into election mode this past week, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute, but let’s do some background first.

Before we could schedule an election, first we had to argue about whether to have an election, and if so, when and how. And by “we,” of course, I mean “them”: Our politicians and their many, many advisers. Parliament had to agree before anyone could schedule an election.

At one point in the wrangling, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, threatened that if parliament wouldn’t agree to hold an election before Christmas the government would do only the bare minimum. Then, faced with headlines about the government going on strike, he backed away from the threat, but he did say he’d park his Brexit bill until an election was scheduled. 

I’m reasonably sure that was to keep parliament from tacking amendments onto it. The whole point of trying to shove the bill through in three days, as he tried and failed to do, was to get the beast through unexamined and unamended.

Yeah, we’ve been champions at cooperation and compromise lately. 

In the meantime, the European Union agreed to a three-month Brexit extension, although it can be shorter in the unlikely situation that we all agree on anything other than how terrible the weather is. With that announcement, we all drew a deep breath and started using up the three cans of tomatoes and six cans of baked beans that every household had stockpiled in case of a no-deal Brexit emergency. 

As far as I know, no one’s drawing down their private stockpiles of medication. And since my partner and I both hate baked beans, we don’t have any to use up. Some other household has our portion stashed away and is responsible for using it up. These things all average out.

While everyone was focused on the election that we might or might not have, a leaked document showed that, in spite of vague governmental noises about maintaining EU standards on workers’ rights and the environment, the Department for Exiting the European Union has drafted plans saying that “the government is open to significant divergence from EU regulation and workers’ rights.”

That should matter to us all, but it hasn’t gotten much attention. So little of the important stuff has. We act as if Brexit was a yes / no question when in fact it’s not even multiple choice, it’s an essay test.

Another thing we’re not paying much attention to is the report from a cross-party parliamentary committee about Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum. The committee expected Johnson to approve and release it. The government’s saying it always takes more time than that. The committee says, “Oh, no it doesn’t,” and the government says, “Oh, yes it does.”

And if that doesn’t sound like a joke, keep reading. It’s a British thing.

Cue accusations of a cover-up.

Cue denials of a cover-up.

Some of the wrangling over whether to hold an election was focused on whether to hold it on December 9th or December 12th. The theory is that this matters because on the 9th more students will still be at their universities, where they’ll be more likely to vote. Parties that appeal strongly to younger voters wanted the election on the 9th and parties that appeal to older voters wanted it on the 12th. 

No one’s motives are pure.

It’ll be on the 12th. 

Holding an election right now is a massive gamble for everyone. Polls show the Conservatives–Johnson’s party–with a lead but nothing like a majority. That should make them (relatively) confident, but they’re not. And there’s no reason they should be. They went into the last election with a lead in the polls and lost ground. And Johnson’s a wild card. A new scandal could emerge at any time. And he was tightly controlled during the campaign for party leadership, but he’s the kind of guy who could have a meltdown this time around. 

Another problem they face is that Johnson hasn’t delivered Brexit by October 31, which he swore he’d do and which will almost surely allow the Brexit Party to eat into the Conservative lead. 

As for the polls, they can be deceptive. Among other things, what matters is the number of votes each candidate gets in each seat, so a nationwide lead may not translate into a majority in parliament. If that’s not clear, I’m sure Hillary Clinton can explain it.

So the party was split over calling for an election. Johnson might’ve done better to push ahead with the Brexit deal he negotiated. In the British system, parliament packs up and goes home before an election and all the bills under consideration die. The bill would probably have gathered amendments he didn’t like, but according to Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog, he could have dropped those later on. I can’t explain how that would have worked and Gray doesn’t seem to think he needs to, but he’s a hell of a lot better informed than I am and I’m going to trust him on this.

Some Labour MPs are also hesitant about an election. The polls show them behind the Conservatives. On the other hand, in the last election they did better than they were expected to do and they’re hoping that rabbit’s still in the hat. They’re scuffling their hands around at the bottom, feeling for fur.

Meanwhile, the smaller opposition parties–the Liberal Democrats; the Scottish National Party; probably the Greens–want an early election. They look like they’d benefit from it. 

All the parties, however, are publicly predicting great and wonderful victories. 

Before the election date was set, we were sprlnkled with so many reasons that holding an election before Christmas would be a problem that they fell upon us like fairy dust.

First, polling places are getting harder to book, especially since they’ll be competing with Christmas shows, especially pantos. 

For anyone who isn’t British (or isn’t from a country that picked up the custom from Britain), I’d better explain that: A panto is a form of kids’ theater. They start around Christmas time, run for a while afterwards, then go dormant for the rest of the year so everyone can recover. They’re (very) loosely based on fairy tales. The leading woman is (wildly over)played by a man. At some point, the audience is expected to yell, “He’s behind you” while some clueless character wanders around doing everything but looking behind him- or herself, and at some other point two characters will fall into an exchange that runs something like, “Oh, yes I will,” / “Oh, no you won’t.” After the first half dozen repetitions, it starts to be funny. Or maybe I laughed so hard because it wasn’t funny. It’s hard to say why it works.

That long digression was to make the point that one problem with a pre-Christmas election is that the pantos may get a larger audience than the election itself. This election really does matter, and a lot of people feel that. On the other hand, we’re all sick to death of everything linked to Brexit. 

Will most people vote? Oh, yes they will. 

Oh, no they won’t. 

Oh, I haven’t a clue. 

Second (we were counting problems with a pre-Christmas election, you’ll of course remember), the postal workers just voted to go on strike sometime before Christmas. I don’t think a date’s been set yet, but if it comes at the wrong time absentee ballots will be held in purgatory until such time as the strike is settled. 

Third, the less time is left between an election being declared and an election being held, the more polling places cost to rent. That cost falls on local governments, which have been starved of funds for the past–um, sorry, this involves numbers. Austerity started in late 2008. I’ll leave you to figure out how long that’s been.

Weighing against all those negatives is the possibility that the election will end the parliamentary gridlock. 

Of course, if it does (and that’s a big if), no one knows which side the change will favor, and once the new parliament is in place it won’t have much time to figure out (a) what if anything it can agree to and (b) how to do it before the next Brexit deadline.

No one knows if Brexit will be the only issue deciding how people vote. Voters themselves may not know yet. If it is, the Liberal Democrats (anti-Brexit) and the Brexit Party (pro) can be expected to pick up votes from Labour and the Conservatives, even though no one (possibly including the two parties themselves) has a clue what they stand for on other issues.

I’ve mentioned before that both Labour and the Conservatives are deeply split over Brexit, but they’re not the only ones who are split. We’ve had a nationwide sale on divisiveness lately, so everybody’s splitting with somebody and every available party is bitterly divided on something. (With a few smallish exceptions, but less not mess up a good image.) The People’s Vote Campaign, which has been pushing for a second referendum, is badly divided, with firings, walk-outs, threatening letters, and calls for the chair to resign. On the other side, the Brexit Party split from the UK Independence Party (better known as UKIP) some time so. Since then, UKIP has burned through leaders faster than the Catholic Church burns through candles. And the Brexit Party was split over whether to contest every seat or stay out of some races to keep from siphoning votes from the Conservatives. It’s too early to say whether some residue of that division still hangs over them.

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Setting aside all the important implications of this election, it means that unless something startling happens I’ll stop doing Brexit updates for a while. I may even start sleeping late.

But before I set Brexit on a top shelf where it can gather dust, a quick note to readers who’ve taken the time and trouble to argue with me about Brexit posts: I appreciate your willingness to stay with me when you disagree and I appreciate it that you’ve bothered to argue. It’s not easy to read opinions you disagree with, and at least for some people it’s not easy to argue. Thanks for doing both.

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In case you’re staying up nights wondering about this, members of the House of Lords can’t vote in British elections. The queen can but in the interest of neutrality doesn’t.

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At least some people had trouble following the emailed link to Friday’s post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and I’ve asked WordPress to help me sort out the problem. I may end up re-posting that to make sure it reaches everyone. If you get it twice, my apologies.

The news from Britain: hedgehogs, space aliens, and golden toilets

A £1 million golden toilet was stolen from Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born. 

But this isn’t a story about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth–or a golden pot under your hind end. Churchill didn’t grow up with the thing. It’s a recently installed piece of art. Or at least everyone involved says it’s art, raising the question, What is art is?

It’s a great question and we’re not getting into it unless anyone wants to tackle it in a comment, in which case things might get interesting.

Oh, go on, say something about it, please.

Irrelevant photo: A begonia.

Before it was stolen, the golden toilet was available for public use, although only to people who’d booked a time slot.

The toilet, or the piece of art, if you prefer, is titled “America,” which does, at least, argue that it’s not just a golden pot, it–or its creator–has something to say. But what? Dominic Hare, the Somebody Important of Blenheim Palace, said the pot was a comment on the American dream. 

No, I didn’t make that up.

I say that a lot, don’t I?

“[It’s] the idea of something that’s incredibly precious and elite being made accessible, potentially to everybody, as we all need to go when we need to go.” (Or at least when the time slot you booked rolls around, and let’s hope it coincides at least vaguely with need.) 

So presumably the theft was in the spirit of the artwork. Someone marched it and made it not just available, potentially, to everybody, but (sorry, I’m shifting to the first person here) to me and I’m gonna take it before somebody else does. 

The American dream (at least in my opinion) is open to interpretation, and that may or may not be the spirit of the American dream that the artist or the Somebody Important had in mind, but it does raise interesting questions about what the dream is, and what America is, and what a golden toilet’s all about. And, of course, what art is, but we said we weren’t getting into that.

Or I said. I have no idea what you’re saying.

Blenheim Palace is the ancestral seat–and this really is what it’s called; I’m not making puns–of the Duke of Marlborough. The duke’s half brother, who founded the Blenheim Art Foundation, said when the toilet was installed that they weren’t going to guard it because it was plumbed in and wouldn’t be easy to steal. Besides, the toilet was open to the public, so a thief wouldn’t know who’d used it last or what they’d eaten.

That quote should open a collection of things it would be best to shut up about. The thief wasn’t squeamish and didn’t care who’d used it last, or first, or next to last. Not only did someone steal it, yanking all that plumbing loose created an expensive flood precisely because it was connected.

It’s been recovered. I don’t know if it’s been reinstalled. Or guarded.

I could probably construct an argument that the theft was situational art. If the alleged thief’s lawyer would like to contact me, I’m available for consultatioins for a smallish fee. 

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Speaking of smallish: A smallish poll asked Britons who should be in charge of responding if Earth is contacted by aliens. 

The poll was put together not because anyone from outside had contacted Earth but because a lawyer and an astrophysicist wondered who had the moral authority to make decisions for humanity as a whole. Most people polled (39%) thought scientists were the best bet. Holding a referendum came at the bottom of the list, with 11% of the vote. 

However, if a referendum is held, 56.3% would vote in favor of making contact. That compares with 20.5% who didn’t know, 14% who’d vote against, and 9.2% who wouldn’t vote, maybe because they don’t care and maybe because they figure they’ll have better things to do that day.

Remain voters were more heavily in favor (66%) than leave voters (54%), which is interesting although I don’t know what it means.

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A flight leaving the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, stopped during a takeoff so the pilot could let a baby hedgehog cross the runway. The passengers weren’t polled, but they were kept informed. 

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Want to know what Britain does at night? Some people sleep, some try to sleep, some work, some drink, and some have sex, although probably not all night, but the rest shop online. One out of every fifteen things bought on a credit card is bought between midnight and 6 a.m. About two-thirds of the buyers are women but male shoppers spend more. 

What does it all mean? I have no idea, I just thought you might want to know.

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A drug deal on an island off the coast of Australia went wrong when a seal got involved. 

The tale starts with the yacht that was supposed to pick up the drugs getting stuck on a reef (or at least appearing to–I’m not sure about that part of the tale), triggering a rescue effort because a dinghy was missing and hey, someone might be in trouble out there. Planes searched the area and the drug smugglers, sensibly enough, hid in the scrub, where a fisherman noticed them. One of them had on a hot pink shirt and it wasn’t good camouflage. 

If they hadn’t hidden, they probably wouldn’t have stood out.  

Cops showed up and found more than a ton of meth, cocaine, and ecstasy, worth £556 million (which is more than the golden toilet is worth), under some seaweed. 

Make that an awful lot of seaweed. 

The raid-ees made a run for the dinghy but between it and them was a big honkin’–or, more accurately, bellowing–seal, which didn’t look happy with them. The smugglers decided the cops were a better bet.

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Apps that women are using to track their periods have been caught sharing data with Facebook and other businesses, including information on what contraception the women use, what  physical symptoms they have, and when they have sex. Not all the apps do that, but some do.

What’s Facebook doing with that information? Good question. Possibly nothing, but possibly not nothing. 

Who else has access to the data? No idea. How much personal information should we be dumping into the opaque workings of the internet? Also a good question. Quite possibly less than we do.

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One of my favorite organizations, even though I haven’t had any first-hand contact, is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Its followers call themselves Pastafarians and two of them are asking the European Court of Human Rights to consider their religious rights.

Yes, seriously. If I could make this stuff up, believe me, I would, but I’m not that creative.

One of the plaintiffs is Dutch and the high court in her country ruled that she couldn’t wear a colander–a spaghetti strainer, in plain English–on her head for her identification photo. The other is an Austrian member of parliament who wears a colander in his official photos but is asking for Pastafarianism to be recognized as a religion. At least four countries have already recognized it.

Pastafarianism is–or so I’ve read–the world’s fastest growing religion and it asks its followers to wear colanders on their heads, although I wouldn’t say it demands that they do. It’s not a demand-making kind of religion.

The lawyer defending the Dutch Pastafarian said, “I started out thinking this was just a big joke, but the more you look at it, the more you see it is about fundamental principles…. [Pastafarianism advocates] non-violence, tolerance, loving each other–the same principles as many established religions.” Theologians have “never really been able to agree on what constitutes a religion, so should the state really get to decide?… We say, as long as there are special rights for believers, they should apply to all religions.” 

Pastafarians hold that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe by using His Noodly Appendages–probably after drinking heavily. 

Go on. Prove it ain’t so.

The (short) Brexit update, with pumpkins

It gets weirder over here by the minute. First, the House of Commons passed Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill. Only that wasn’t a decisive vote. It was the bill’s second reading, which is (the name’s a bit misleading) the first chance the Commons gets to debate a bill. If a bill passes the second reading, all that means is that the Commons approves the general principle of a bill, and then–at least in any normal situation–it goes to a committee, which considers all the clauses, the amendments, the commas, the footnotes, and the implications. Then the Commons can make a more informed decision.

But Johnson was demanding that the bill go through all its stages in three days, one of which had already been mostly used up, so it was second hand by the time the schedule was put to a vote. Commons would have to forget the commas, the clauses, the 110 pages of text, the fact that the chancellor had refused to issue any prediction about the agreement’s economic impact. To keep up with the schedule, the bill needed to leave the ball before the horses turned into mice and the coach turned into a pumpkin.

Why? Because Johnson said Britain would be out of the EU by Halloween and he had his sizeable ego caught up in this thing. Which is convenient, since it gives me a headline. 

We’ll cut to the chase here. After the bill passed its second reading, the commons voted down his timetable, at which point Johnson said he’d withdraw the bill and call for an election. Then he said he’d pause the bill but Britain would still leave by October 31.

He also said he’d talk to EU leaders about an extension–preferably a short one. Donald Tusk, the EU council president, has said he’ll recommend a three-month extension that can end earlier if a deal is finally completed.

Do we have an election coming up? Hard to say. Johnson would love to leave the ball right now, if only to return with a new dress, two slippers, and a mandate. Do you know how awkward it is to run around in one high-heeled slipper, especially a glass one with no flexibility? On the other hand, he may think he can get his deal through, in which case he’ll want to do that first. 

Will Labour support an election? Possibly. The experts are still reading the tea leaves on that.

Most predictions are that any election would return another deeply divided parliament, but I wouldn’t recommend putting money on any of this. 

The Brexit update, with some old lady’s bananas

Saturday–that’s yesterday as I write this–was the big day: A special session of parliament was set up to vote of the Brexit deal Boris Johnson had negotiated with the European Union. It was the moment when we were finally going know what was happening.

Or not, as it turned out, because a majority of the MPs didn’t trust Johnson enough give him a simple vote.

Let me explain, because nothing in the Brexit saga is simple. Ever. In fact, let’s (almost) open with a quote from an unnamed cabinet minister, who said, “I really have no idea what is going on.”

Yeah, I know just how you feel. So if halfway through the update, you feel a heavy fog taking over your brain, obscuring clear thought, you’re right up there with the experts. And no, I’m not claiming to be one of the experts,it’s just that I can get befuddled with the best of them.

So, what happened on Saturday? The government proposed its version of Brexit. I won’t go into the details because I did that in the last update and I don’t want to send you all screaming into the sunset. Let’s sum it up by saying that if Theresa May had proposed it, the people who now support it–or negotiated it for that matter–would have denounced it as one step short of treason.

Okay, maybe two steps short. But that kind of hysterical language has been flying around the halls of parliament and the pages of the press.

And you know what? I keep getting search engine questions about British understatement. But it’s not all understatement here. It’s “surrender bill” and “big girl’s blouse” and I’ve already cleared my mind of the rest of the abuse.

Sorry. Where were we? A version of Brexit was put before Parliament and everyone was counting noses. Each member of parliament comes equipped with one nose except for the MPs representing Sinn Fein, who refuse to take their seats because they refuse to recognize Britain’s right to govern any part of Ireland. They may have noses–that has yet to be established–but they weren’t being counted.

According to all counts, the vote was going to be very, very close. 

But before we could find out what the vote would’ve been, a cross-party amendment was tabled, called the Letwin amendment, by people who don’t trust Johnson to walk from one side of the street to the other without pulling some kind of fast one. You know, disappearing up the side of a building; stealing the bananas at the top of some old lady’s grocery bag; that kind of thing. These are, basically, the same MPs who’d passed a law–the Benn act–not long before that was meant to block the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

The problem was, they saw a possible loophole in the Benn act, and presumably Johnson did too, because he kept trumpeting to the press that he wasn’t going to ask for the extension the Benn act demanded. A smarter wheeler-dealer might’ve kept that to himself and pulled his stunt at the last minute, but Johnson loves a headline. “See those bananas?” he kept saying. “I’m gonna have those. Watch me.”

The loophole was this: If Johnson’s deal was accepted on Saturday, the requirements of the Benn act would be satisfied and Johnson wouldn’t have to ask for an extension. But if the enabling legislation didn’t get passed in time, Britain could still crash out of the EU. 

“Look, Ma, no hands! We’re gonna crash out!”

So the Letwin amendment withholds final approval until all the legislation implementing the deal is in place.

We’ll take a shortcut or two here, skipping a bit of the drama, and just say that the amendment passed. 

What happened next? Johnson said he wouldn’t negotiate a delay with the EU. What did he do instead? He sent an unsigned letter to the EU requesting a delay, along with a signed one saying why he thought they should ignore the first one. That may still land him in court, because the law requires him to ask for a delay. 

The government–or at least one of its ministers–is still insisting that Britain will leave the EU by October 31.

The government says it will hold a vote on the Brexit deal on Monday, but it’s not at all clear whether the speaker of the house will allow it. He has, in the past, ruled that the government can’t keep bringing defeated proposals back. 

The government could also try to tackle the enabling legislation.

What’s clear at this point is that an amendment for a second referendum will be proposed. If it passed, this would give the country the choice of staying in the EU or accepting the form of Brexit the government’s negotiated. It looks like Labour–which has been dancing around a commitment to the second referendum–will propose it. I don’t think anyone’s had time to count noses or to make sure no one’s coming in with a few prosthetic noses.

By now, everyone’s exhausted with the endless Brexit maneuvering, but Chris Grey, in The Brexit Blog, makes a good point about why it’s happening: “At the core of the entire row over Brexit, “ he says, is the problem that “as soon as [Brexit] gets defined in any particular way, some who support it in principle do not support it in that version.” The Democratic Unionist Party wants one version, the handful of Labour Brexiteers want something very different, and (he argues) the Brexit Party is so invested in the politics of protest that “nothing can ever live up to their fantasy.”

And that covers only a few of the grouplets that have to be corralled before the government can assemble a majority. 

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In deference to all the good people who are sensitive about old ladies and bananas: I’m 72. I’ve earned the right to make fun of old ladies. And if Boris Johnson thinks he can get his mitts on mine, I invite him to try.