The Brexit update, with queens and cash and prime ministerial groping

Okay, the title included a bit of clickbait. We’ve only got one queen involved. And the cash? It was a grant, not folding money. Sorry. I’ve gone sleazy and commercial.

Before Britain’s supreme court ruled that it was illegal for the prime minister to shut down of parliament, the lone queen in question asked for advice on whether and in what circumstances she could fire a prime minister. That may not sound like much, but this is Britain. The queen’s supposed to be above politics. She gets to to wave vaguely at the masses as she wafts from ceremonial occasion to ceremonial occasion. She allows prime ministers to fawn on her and then does what they tell her to.

Sorry–advise her to do.

But.

According to the i, “It is a quirk of the British constitution that the Queen retains a number of personal discretionary powers which include the right to appoint the prime minister and other ministers. A House of Commons select committee established in 2003 that these powers also include a right for the sovereign in a ‘grave constitutional crisis’ to act contrary to, or even without, ministerial advice.”

Tuck that possibility away at the back of your head and wait to see where it leads us.

And now a brief interruption while I offer a bit of unsolicited advice: If you’re starting a newspaper, don’t name it the i. You’ll end up with reporters writing phrases like “i understands” and “i has now been told.”

You has been warned.

What else is happening? Parliament’s back in session and members of parliament are being threatened with murder and rape. The MPs who get the most threats are women, especially if they’re black or from some other minority group, and especially if they speak out much, although black and other minority group men get them too. In 2016, an MP, Jo Cox, was both shot and stabbed by a man who considered her a traitor to white people, and her death hangs over parliament–or at least over the MPs who are being threatened. I can imagine that some who aren’t targets think the ones who’re complaining are just being emotional.

You know what women are like.

One MP said the threats she receives echo Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit rhetoric about surrender and betrayal. When challenged about ramping up tension, Johnson said the best way to honor Jo Cox was to get Brexit done. 

Cox was a remainer, making it a Trumpian moment. It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say it with confidence.

In the meantime, Johnson has been telling the world at large on the one hand that he’ll obey the law and on the other that the country will leave the EU by the end of the month. Since the law he’d been asked about says he has to ask for a Brexit extension by October 19 if he doesn’t have a deal with the European Union, and since getting a deal’s about as likely as him standing up to sing Faustus (and singing it well, mind you) in the House of Commons, you might wonder how he thinks he can manage both. 

The answer, according to some observers, is likely to be the Civil Contingencies Act, which New Labour passed in 2004. It gives the prime minister special powers in a national emergency. 

What’s a national emergency? Well, children, it’s a situation that threatens “serious damage to human welfare” or the environment in the UK. That includes war or terrorism that threatens “serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.” The threats could include disruption to transportation or to the supply of food, money, energy, or health services.

Are any of those threats on the horizon? There are suggestions that Brexit could cause some of them, but pre-Brexit I don’t see them happening. Still, a feller can always hope, and I expect Johnson is hoping.

What kind of powers are we talking about? Power to create emergency regulations that “may make any provision which the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate for the purpose of preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency in respect of which the regulations are made.” 

The act has more detail and some restrictions, but we’re civilians here. That’s close enough. Or if it isn’t, you can follow the link and read more.

The wording strikes me as broad and the limitations badly defined–especially that business about what the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate. If I happen to be prime minister (I’ll sing Faustus if I ever am, although I don’t promise to sing it well) and if I’m out of touch with everyday reality (which I’ll prove by singing etc.), what I’m satisfied is appropriate isn’t going to be much of a guide to responsible action. 

What I’m satisfied about also can’t be demonstrated. Haul me into court for dropping bombs on rival parties’ conferences and I can shrug my shoulders and say I was satisfied it was appropriate. No one else was inside my head, so who can prove otherwise?

MP Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative and a former attorney general, said it would be a “constitutional outrage” to use the act in the current situation.  But assorted cabinet ministers have warned, with a gleam of hope in their eyes, that Britain can expect civil disorder along the lines of the French gilets jaunes protests if the country doesn’t deliver Brexit by the end of October. 

Opposition figures have accused them of trying to whip up exactly what they’re warning against. 

While all that’s been going on, Parliament refused to take a break for the Conservative Party conference. That sounds spiteful, and it is, but as the Scottish National Party pointed out, parliament’s never taken a break for their convention, only for the ones held by the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. So okay, fair enough. If you piss off enough MPs, they’re going to take their revenge any way they can.

That didn’t stop the Conservatives from holding a conference, it just left the major players shuttling awkwardly between the conference and parliament.

Outside the crumbling halls of parliament (and that’s not a metaphor; the building’s falling apart), a scandal from Johnson’s days as mayor of London has crawled out of the archives. An American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, received thousands of pounds from a government agency that Johnson controlled, and he made sure she went on trade missions with him that other participants say she was clueless about. In giving Arcuri’s company a grant, the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport waived a rule that no grant could be for more than half of the company’s revenue. 

It’s also supposed to give grants only to companies based in the U.K., but although her company has a U.K. address it has a California telephone number, calling into question where it’s based. Reporters showing up at the address were told it had only just moved there.

Arcuri told friends (who apparently told the press, as friends will, but only if they’re true friends) that she and Johnson were having an affair. 

Johnson could have declared an interest when the grant was considered, taken himself out of the voting, and come out of this squeaky clean, but he didn’t. And so he isn’t and the whole thing’s been referred to the police.

Arcuri lent her company £700,000 just before it won a £100,000 government grant and it’s not clear where the money came from. The company had almost no income and her other companies are either in the red or have been dissolved. And she’s being sued in the U.S. for an unpaid student loan. 

Johnson’s financial backers are also hitting the headlines. His sister said, “He is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit–and there is only one option that works for them: a crash-out no-deal that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring.” 

So there’ve been calls to investigate that as a conflict of interest.

Not enough scandal for you? Have no fear, we have one more lurking at the bottom of the bag. A journalist, Charlotte Edwardes, has accused Johnson of groping her under the table at a lunch when he edited the Spectator. Afterwards, she told the woman (we don’t know who that was–yet) sitting on Johnson’s other side what had happened and the second woman said he’d done the same to her. 

Johnson denied doing any such thing. 

Tune in next week (or tomorrow; or the day after; I have no idea when enough insanity will pile up to justify another post) for the next exciting installment of Brexit Britain.

The Brexit update: a country on hold

Britain’s on hold at the moment (“History-in-the-making is experiencing a high volume of calls right now…”), waiting to talk to someone who can resolve our Brexit problems. Whatever music we least want to hear is drilling its way down our ear canals and into our brains. That’s because parliament was sent home to sit on many scattered naughty steps so that our prime minister, Boris Johnson, can pursue Brexit without being bothered by the country’s primary governing body.

One of the things we’re waiting for is expected in a few days at most: The supreme court (no capital letters, apparently) is considering whether Johnson had the right to send parliament home without dessert. (Yes, I know I’ve changed images and it was the naughty step in the last paragraph. Indulge me. I just sat with friends talking about Brexit and feeling miserable, so I’m going to haul out every half-assed joke I’ve been schlepping around in my backpack, all at once. I doubt they’ll make me feel better but my backpack will at least be lighter.) 

Experts in reading legal tea leaves expect the court to rule against Johnson, setting off a “constitutional eruption of volcanic proportions” according to an unnamed senior legal figure. 

Johnson said he’d abide by the ruling, which is nice of him, given that it’ll come from his country’s highest court, but government figures have been strewing suggestions that he might abide by it and then send parliament home all over again but for a different reason. And stick his tongue out at them as they’re leaving.

If the tea-leaf experts are right and the court does rule against Johnson, what will matter is what grounds they base their ruling on. If they say he misled the queen, at least one expert says he’s had it. 

Why? Because you can shut down your country’s legislative body, you can lie to the public, you can encourage bitter division among your people and bring your country to the brink of what many people think will be disaster, but you cannot get caught lying to the queen. Because she’s the queen.

Don’t expect me to explain this to you. I spent most of my life in the US. I’ll never really understand this queen business.

What’s Johnson doing while sit on hold and listen to music we hate?

He’s told us that, in the great game of Brexit, he holds a card that will allow the backstop* to be replaced with something better, newer, bigger, and, um, better. Now the  European Union has called its bluff and asked to see the card. 

In the meantime–or possibly in response; we can’t know because it’s secret–Britain has proposed something that we don’t know the contents of because the proposals are marked secret. Britain doesn’t even want them distributed to the Brexit representatives of the EU’s member states. They’re marked “Her Majesty’s government property.” 

So are the capital letters in that quote, so don’t mess with them. Her Majesty’s government doesn’t have a sense of humor about capital letters. I’m pushing my luck leaving the U out of humor.

How are the EU member states supposed to evaluate them if they can’t read them? 

That’s their problem.

This news came after the EU handed Johnson a two-week deadline to show its backstop card and the UK said it couldn’t meet an artificial deadline, it would need a year.

Britain’s supposed to leave the EU on October 31, though. What’s supposed to happen on the border between then and when the backstop card is turned face up? 

I have no idea. 

To show that he’s serious about the negotiations, Johnson compared himself to the Incredible Hulk, and demonstrators have been appearing in costume holding “incredible sulk” signs. Headline writers rubbed their hands in glee.   

In the midst of all this, Johnson ducked out of a scheduled press conference in Luxembourg, where he’d planned on telling everyone how well the negotiations were going. That left Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, standing at one lectern and gesturing at the empty one, saying the EU needed “more than just words.” 

The supreme court will hand down its ruling soon. Lawyers on both sides will be combing through every comma and semicolon. In the meantime, your call is important to us. We will be with you as soon as inhumanly possible.

 

* The backstop: Entirely too briefly, this is part of the treaty negotiated by our former prime minister, Theresa May, and rejected by her supporters and her opponents and even the extra-terrestrials circling the Earth invisibly and shaking their heads over the general incompetence of the human race. The idea of the backstop was to keep Brexit from creating a hard border, with border checks and so forth, between Ireland and Northern Ireland, for fear of restarting the Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. I’ll spare you the explanation of why it’s a hot button issue, but it is.

The Brexit update, with gorilla suits

We’ll get to the gorilla suits toward the end. In the meantime, with all the usual apologies (it’s important to know what’s going on; I didn’t start it; it has a lot of redeeming absurdity), here’s the Brexit update.

Parliament ordered Boris Johnson to send the European Union a letter asking to delay Brexit, and now he’s being warned that if he adds a covering note saying, “P.S., We don’t really want an extension, so please ignore the enclosed letter,” he will be breaking the law. The warning comes from an assortment of senior judges and lawyers.

That hasn’t gone to court yet. The warnings are in response to leaks saying the prime minister’s looking for a way around the law Parliament passed.

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, issued a warning of his own. He told Johnson there’s no such thing as a clean break from the EU. Even if Britain huffs out without an agreement, all the unresolved issues will still need to be negotiated. On his list were citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and a financial settlement with Europe. And fishing rights. And tariffs. And product standards. And and and and.

In other leaks, documents planning the prorogation of parliament–

Let me stop to explain this in the most objective terms for anyone who’s new here: Prorogation means locking Parliament in a broom closet while the prime minister pursues Brexit unencumbered by the democratic process.

Or two broom closets, since you couldn’t ask the Lords to share a broom closet with the Commons. They need a higher class of broom closet, with better champagne.

Actually, they all get sent home.

Where were we? Parliament ordered Johnson and his friends and advisers to hand over the documents they exchanged while they were planning the prorogation. They (that’s Parliament, not Johnson & Co.) managed that just before getting locked ceremoniously in their broom closets. The reason this matters is that the government claimed it the prorogation wasn’t political, it was just business as usual. Initial leaks indicate that it was anything but–and that the documents will prove that.

Since Johnson had to ask the queen’s permission to prorogue Parliament, the current flap is over whether he lied to the queen in order to get her to wave her magic feather over it.

The government is swearing it won’t release the documents, and that could put it in contempt of Parliament.

Does it matter if it is? An MP who’s held in contempt can be booted out of Parliament–and any prime minister is also an MP. If the prime minster isn’t an MP, is he or she still prime minister? Probably not. That’s awkward, and from a prime minister’s point of view, not desirable.

An MP who’s held in comtempt can also be confined to the Westminster clock tower, but the last time that was done was in 1880. Non-MPs can be imprisoned (not in the clock tower as far as I can figure out–that’s for a better class of contemptuees) for the duration of the Parliament, which these days can be for as long as five years.

Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings has been held in contempt and not only isn’t in jail, he was given a security clearance. I won’t try to explain that.

In 2018, Theresa May’s government was held to be in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release some Brexit legal advice it had been given. That was the first time in British history a government was held in contempt of parliament. May backed down and was not banished to the clock tower.

That business about the clock tower is real. I say that because it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. As a rough guideline, if I tell you that all government advisers have to dress in gorilla suits, that’s a joke. If I tell you that a politician can be imprisoned in (or under) the clock tower, that’s real.

Really.

I hope that helps.

In other leaked documents, the government has ordered a top priority centralization of user information from the government’s public information websites. This is supposed to help with Brexit preparations.

How will it help? No one seems sure, but although the government swears that no personal details will be collected, privacy campaigners, opposition politicians, and policy experts are uneasy about what’s being done and why, not to about mention the secrecy surrounding it. Especially because Cumming–that’s Johnson’s adviser, you may or may not remember, and he does not wear a gorilla suit–is the driving force behind this and was (not at all incidentally) the driving force behind the Vote Leave campaign’s complicated and partially illegal use of personal data.

Also not incidentally, £100,000 million has been budgeted for a campaign to direct people to the government’s Brexit preparation website–more money than some experts say can actually be spent. I don’t like conspiracy theories, but when I connect the dots I can’t help constructing one. And believing it.

In an earlier update I mentioned that three lawsuits had been filed against the prorogation of parliament. In England, the court said it wasn’t a subject a court could rule on. In Scotland (on appeal), it’s been ruled illegal. Both rulings were unanimous. Northern Ireland hasn’t ruled yet and the case was launched on different grounds.

Why the different rulings? Because the UK has three separate legal systems, which can allow courts to rule differently even when they consider the same facts, and even if you rule out the possibility of conscious or unconscious political bias. All three systems have equal weight. Britain’s highest court, the Supreme Court, has scheduled a three-day hearing starting on September 17. I have no idea which of the three systems they’re supposed to base their ruling on, or if they’re supposed to follow all of them simultaneously.

I wasn’t going to get into the maneuvering surrounding John Bercow, the speaker of the Commons, but I just have to. Following tradition, when he became the speaker he gave up his party affiliation, but before he did, he was a Conservative. Recently, he’s allowed the anti-no-deal coalition–now (really) known as the Rebel Alliance–to act effectively against the government. Whether that involved bending the rules or following them depends on what side of the divide you’re on, but the current government just hates the man.

Traditionally, when MPs are up for re-election no party runs a candidate against the speaker, but the Conservatives–they’re the current government, and I mention that in case you’ve been locked in the clock tower for a few months and have lost track of anything but those damn bells every fifteen minutes–have announced that they will run a candidate against him, which leaves him vulnerable since he won’t have party machinery to back him.

In response, Bercow’s announced that he’ll step down as speaker, but he’ll time it so that the current parliament, with its anti-government majority, will get to elect the next speaker.

If all that isn’t enough, a series of unleaked but reluctantly released documents detail what the government estimates are “reasonable worst-case assumptions” in case of a no-deal Brexit, although another version of the document apparently calls it a “base scenario.” (No-deal Brexit preparations, by the way, are called Operation Yellowhammer, because, hey, that sounds all military and cool.) Predictions include higher food prices, shortages of medicines, and riots on the streets.

The poorest people will be hit hardest. Some businesses will go broke (or “cease trading” to put it more blandly), including providers of adult social care. The black market will grow. Disruptions could go on for as long as six months.

Still, it’s nothing to worry about and revised estimates are due out any day now, as soon as the government can be strong-arm them out of the appropriate civil servants.

The paper also predicts smuggling across the Northern Ireland border and says the plans to impose checks there (it’s been an open border, but that depends on both Ireland and Northern Ireland being in the EU) would quickly become unworkable. We can also expect clashes at sea over fishing rights and the disruption of cross-border financial services.

For food sales to the EU to keep going, vets will have to sign 1.9 million food standard certificates, although it’s not clear from what I’ve read how quickly they’ll have to do that or how long they’ll last once they’re signed. Do they sign them every year? Every day? Every waking moment? For every shipment?

Meanwhile, Senior civil servants can expect to be caught between MPs’ demands and the government’s. Their union has written to the prime minister demanding an assurance that staff won’t be asked to break either the law or the civil service code.

We’re deep into uncharted waters, and you can’t make this stuff up. All you can do is add the occasional gorilla suit.

Another update from Brexit Britain

Okay, pay attention, because we’re talking about Brexit again, so it isn’t likely to make sense. In the interests of making this marginally easier to follow, I’ve left a few events out of sequence where the sequence isn’t what matters. 

Let’s start with the House of Commons passing a bill to block a no-deal Brexit. During the debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, was photographed lounging, odalisque-like, on the Commons’ benches and the picture went viral. He’s been photoshopped into everything from a couch surrounded by the Simpsons to a high jump to a graph of the shrinking number of MPs left in his party, the Conservatives. You can find a handful of them here, and they’re worth a look.

From there, let’s check in with the MPs the prime minister, Boris Johnson, threw out of the Conservative Party. They had to go looking for new seats in the House of Commons. The seats are–well, it’s sort of like the lunch room in whatever your worst year in school was. One bunch of kids sits over here and another bunch kids colonizes that table over there, and if you’re not part of either group you can’t sit with them, you have to search out a corner and try to look like you’re happy there and hope no one tells you it’s their spot and you have to get out. So a group of rebels stayed on the Conservative benches even though they’d been tossed out of the party and even though they’d been told that no one wanted to have lunch with them ever again. 

This is, apparently, a big deal. Just like it was in school.

Then Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo, announced that he was quitting the cabinet, saying he had to put the national interest above family loyalty. Not long after that, Boris Johnson said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask the European Union for an extension, raising the question of whether he’d defy the law parliament had passed.

Then a cop fainted in Yorkshire. What’s that got to do with anything? Johnson was supposed to be making a short, non-political speech about police and money and recruitment, and he had two rows of stoic-looking police trainees lined up behind him. They’d already been waiting in the sun for an hour before the speech started because it–or possibly he–was late. 

Once he got going, he made a long rambling (and in some accounts incoherent) speech about Brexit and being dead in a ditch and the election he hasn’t been able to call but wants to, and a cop collapsed. Which is usually a speaker’s cue to end the speech, and he acknowledged that but kept going for a while anyway.  

The chief constable of the area said he was disappointed that Johnson used his officers as a backdrop to a topic other than the one he’d agreed to. 

Johnson might be smart to watch the speed limit next time he drives through Yorkshire.

The bill the Commons passed went to the House of Lords, where the people who’d been expected to stall it didn’t bother. From there, it should go to the queen for her signature, at which point it will be law.

But it’s not exactly the law everyone expected because while it was still in the Commons an MP proposed an amendment that would bring back the deal Theresa May negotiated–a deal so unpopular that both pro- and anti-Brexit MPs voted against it–and it passed without being voted on because no one from the Conservatives volunteered to count the no votes. That may have been an accident or it may have been a deep and nefarious government plot. If it was, it was deep indeed, because the amendment was introduced by a Labour MP–that’s the opposition–not by anyone backing the government.

What’s more likely is that this is a bit of procedure so arcane that no one remembered it and it was able to ambush them.

The amendment could have been stripped out in the House of Lords but wasn’t, so a deal that no one liked has wandered back into public life like a three-year-old who woke up in the middle of a party and is wandering around sleepy-eyed and wondering why everyone’s acting funny.

Will Johnson defy the new law? At one point he said he would–he’d refuse to accept any delay and Britain would leave the EU by Halloween, dressed as a gorilla and over-hyped on sugar. Then his foreign minister said the government would follow the law but challenge it in the courts. And his chancellor said the government will “absolutely not” ask for an extension. 

Do the three of them know each other? You’d think so. They all sit in on cabinet meetings. Do they talk to each other? Probably. Do they listen? I’m guessing the answer’s no.

MPs who backed the bill are consulting lawyers about how to enforce it. Shops renting gorilla suits are consulting their calendars. I’m consulting my couch, because this stuff makes me dizzy and, excuse me, I have to sit down.

A prime minister going to prison for defying a law isn’t impossible. Whether he’d still be a prime minister at that point–. You guess is as good as mine.

Meanwhile, the High Court ruled that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament is constitutional. 

Proroguing? That’s when the prime minister sends Parliament home without any dessert. It’s usually done before an election and isn’t a political move. In this case, it was an attempt to keep the anti-no-deal bill from passing but it didn’t work. Parliament had just enough time and they didn’t like that mess they were serving for dessert anyway.

How anyone figures out what’s constitutional when you have an unwritten constitution is beyond me, but never mind. I’m not on the court so no one needs my opinion. And the High Court’s opinion doesn’t necessarily mean more than mine, because the High Court isn’t the highest court. The issue will go to the Supreme Court.

At several points in this sequence, we learned that Johnson has a problem with girls. I’m not talking about anything legally questionable, he just doesn’t seem to think much of them. He’s called former prime minister David Cameron (who’s from his own party) a “girly swot” and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “big girl’s blouse.” Apparently if you attach girl to anything, it becomes an insult. 

As one commentator said–sorry, I have no idea who; I’m quoting second hand–it’s like “being governed by a nine-year-old.” He might’ve mentioned that he had a nine-year-old boy in mind but he didn’t. In his mind, all nine-year-olds are probably are boys.

What can I tell you about those last two paragraphs that you don’t already know? Not much, I suspect. We’ll move on.

After the prime minister’s brother resigned, another cabinet member, Amber Rudd, stepped down, calling Johnson’s approach to Brexit “political vandalism.” The government, she said, wasn’t holding negotiations with the EU, although it claims to be, and 80% to 90% of its energy is going into preparing for a no-deal Brexit although it says it wants a new, better, shinier deal than Theresa May’s deal.

Meanwhile, back at the pub, the Wetherspoons chain has promised cut-price drinks if the UK leaves the EU. Brexit, they say, will be good for drinkers. To demonstrate, they cut all of 20 p off a drink. I’d love to tell you how much that would leave you paying, but short of marching in and ordering a pint (the closest Wetherspoons I know of is an hour away and anyway, I don’t drink) I don’t know a way find out. Their online menu is no help. Basically, though, this isn’t free booze we’re talking about and it’s not a life-changing discount. If you wonder how much 20 p is worth, you can buy four plastic bags with it, or a tin of mushy peas (you’ll get 1 p in change). 

There’s talk of the government trying to push the EU into expelling it by refusing to nominate a new British commissioner, but the EU says it’s happy to function without one. 

What next? Well, “A Downing Street source said: ‘We intend to sabotage any extension. The “surrender bill” only kicks in if an extension is offered. Once people realise our plans, there is a good chance we won’t be offered a delay. Even if we are, we intend to sabotage that too.’ ”

The “surrender bill” is what the government calls the bill blocking a no-deal Brexit, although, as Corbyn pointed out, Britain isn’t at war with the EU. 

A former Supreme Court judge said there’s no shortage of ways the law can be enforced. “An application will have to be made to the court for an injunction. The simplest way of enforcing the injunction would be for the court simply to direct an official to sign the letter on behalf of the PM and to declare that his signature was to be treated in every legal respect as equivalent to the prime minister’s.”

In the meantime, France is threatening to block a British request for an extension to the period before it has to leave the EU. They’ve threatened that before, though, and no one seems to be taking them seriously.

Think it’s crazy over here? It’s only going to get wilder.

In the meantime, if you’re tired of Brexit updates, I apologize. I think I speak for a large part of the country when I say that we are too. Unfortunately, they matter. Regular service will continue on Fridays. Just check in then and ignore everything else.

News from Britain: brawls, bugs, and Brexit

A brawl broke out on a cruise ship when–well, that’s where it gets murky and we haven’t even finished the first sentence. Let’s start with what we do know. Or think we know:

The fight happened so early in the morning that it was still late at night, in the ship’s restaurant (or buffet, as most of the articles put it), after a day of “patriotic partying,” whatever the hell that is, and an evening black-tie event. By this time, everyone involved was probably well lubricated. What the papers establish is that a lot of alcohol had been transferred from the bottles into the passengers but they don’t say which individual passengers it was transferred into. 

The people involved in the fight used plates and furniture as weapons. Passengers who weren’t involved described the fight as being between family groups. Is this what U.S. anti-gay campaigners have in mind when they talk about “family values”? I was never clear on whose family they were thinking of.

Six people were injured and reports say blood was everywhere. 

How much blood? How big an area is everywhere? What values did the families have? Dunno, duuno, and dunno.

Irrelevant photo: North Cornwall cliffs.

It all started, according to a witness, when a passenger became upset that another passenger was wearing a clown suit. He’d specifically booked a cruise with no fancy dress events. 

A fancy dress party is British for a costume party, and they’re endemic in Britain. The whole thing about dressing up says something profound about the British culture, or its psyche, or its something, although I’m damned if I know what. I’d welcome explanations, however far fetched.

If the story sounds strange, it gets stranger: The cruise line, P&O, swears that there was no clown on board and no one was wearing fancy dress. 

The people who were suspected of being behind the incident were confined to a cabin for the last day of the cruise.

With no dessert.

Two people have been arrested, a man and a woman. They’ve also been released but when they were last in the news they were still under investigation.

In the meantime, no one seems to be investigating this whole business about the clown, which borders on criminal irresponsibility.

*

Since we’re talking about transportation, a horse wandered onto an unstaffed train station at Tyne and Wear, which has something to do with Newcastle, but we don’t really need to know that. What mattered is that the horse wandered in and passenger helped it wander out, leading it to a nearby field that everyone agreed–possibly based on evidence and possibly based on convenience–was exactly the field it had come from.

The company that runs the trains issued a statement saying almost nothing, but it did mention that trains had been warned about the incident. I’d like to think the trains’ drivers were also warned. The real message was that there’s nothing dangerous about leaving a station without staff and everyone could sleep safe in their beds and not have nightmares about horses. 

What can we learn from this? That trains in Britain have drivers while trains in the U.S. have engineers. They do the same job.

Also that horses get bored. And lonely.

*

Reports in August said that Britons had spent £4 billion stockpiling things in case Brexit brings shortages. One in five people had gathered up £380 worth of food, medicine, and–yes, of course–drinks, because if you’re going to face shortages you want to at least be able to get shitfaced. Some 800,000 people are sitting on a hoard worth £1,000 or more. Luxury car imports are up 16% compared to a year ago, so presumably the super-rich are stockpiling luxury cars in case the import taxes go up. Because hey, you’ve got to watch every penny when you’re buying luxury cars.

People are also stockpiling toilet paper, but I don’t know how much they’ve spent on it or how many days’ worth they consider safe. It does all tell us what people consider important.

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A study published in the British Medical Journal reports that washing the dishes can help you live longer. Not because it’ll keep your partner from killing you (it may, but they don’t seem to have factored that in) but because light exercise–taking out the trash, crawling under the bed to locate that lost shoe–keeps you alive longer. Less conveniently for your partner, so will walk around the block. And tickling a nerve near your ear with a low-level electrical charge might as well.

Okay, full disclosure: That last study indicates it might improve your mood and help you sleep and age better. It didn’t actually say you’d live longer.

Optimism also helps you live longer–11% to 15% longer according to a recent study (sorry–I lost the link). On the other hand, a really good chocolate cake might do the same thing. I haven’t found any data to say it won’t.

I also haven’t looked for any.

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Salford City Council has dropped a ban on public swearing in Salford Quays. It was imposed three years ago and never enforced, but if it had been and if you’d been at the wrong end of it, you could have been out as much as £1,000.

With a mouth like mine, it could have been an expensive place to visit. 

In 2017, Rochdale City Council banned skateboarding, swearing, and begging in the town center. Violators could be fined, again, up to £1,000–which makes perfect sense when you’re dealing with someone begging on the street. 

The swearing ban was dropped as unenforceable later in the year. The rest, as far as I can tell, is still in force. 

In 2015, Chester banned sleeping on the street, feeding birds, and unlicensed busking, which is British for making music in public and leaving your guitar case open for people to drop money into. When all hell broke loose (and protesters marched in their pajamas), the council backed off those parts of the ban but kept the ones on urinating in public, drinking in public, and using legal highs. (That’s not a typo. They were talking about the legal ones.)  

I’m not a big fan of public peeing, but it might be more effective to just make some toilets available. Although that costs money. Welcome to austerity Britain. If you need to pee, that’s your problem.  

All the bans were introduced as Public Spaces Protection Orders. 

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Protesters in France spent some time recently going into town halls, politely taking down the president’s portrait, and leaving with it. They’re pointing up President Macron’s inaction on climate change, despite his stance as a world leader on the issue. They recently held a march where they carried the portraits they’d taken–upside down. 

I wish I could explain why I find that so funny. I suspect it has something to do with how perfectly beside the point taking down the portraits is. 

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A new study of seagulls reports that going eyeball to eyeball with them when they’re trying to steal your chips (a.k.a. french fries) will make them back down. Of course, no sooner did someone send out a press release on the study than every TV station in the country sent a reporter to the nearest beach to interview whatever humans were available. One that I watched asked them to recreate the experiment, and it was a disaster, especially when the humans were faced with more gulls than they had eyeballs, or when the gulls swooped in from behind, where (inconveniently) humans lack eyeballs.

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The City of London (which is not to be confused with the city, small C, of London, of which the City, large C, is one small and expensive part) is tightening regulations on new skyscrapers. Existing ones have created winds that a cyclists’ organization says are strong enough to knock over pedestrians and push bike riders sideways, possibly into the paths of cars.

One building, called the Walkie-Talkie because of its shape, concentrated the sun’s rays strongly enough to melt parts of a car parked nearby. A reporter managed to fry an egg using only its heat. It’s since been retro-fitted with anti-pyromaniacal glazing and hasn’t set anything on fire for a while. We’re all hoping it’s found a better outlet for its impulses.

The new regulations will make the architects think all that through ahead of time. 

Don’t you just hate government red tape? 

London has developed a wonderful tradition of giving its skyscrapers names their that developers and architects didn’t plan on, and probably hate. The Walkie-Talkie is one. Others are the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Gherkin, the Can of Ham, and the Scalpel.

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A New Zealand bug imported to the Isles of Scilly some hundred years ago has evolved to reproduce asexually. The population’s now entirely female and it’s doing just fine, thanks. 

The little beast is a stick insect called the Clitarchus hookeri, and it was an unplanned import, hitching a ride with some plants that were brought in for a subtropical garden. And no, in spite of it sounding like an academic April Fool’s Day joke, the little beast is real

Scientists brought some of the bugs back to New Zealand, where they were happy enough to mate with local males but went ahead and reproduced in the old fashioned way, which is to say, without male input. 

You can draw whatever morals you like from that.

The Isles of Scilly are off the coast of Cornwall and yes, they’re pronounced silly and are sometimes called the Scilly Isles. I’ve heard it often enough that I’ve lost the urge to giggle.

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And finally, a small ray of hope for the human race: Writer Olivia Laing, whose first novel, Crudo, won the £10,000 James Tait Black prize, announced that she was going to share the prize with her fellow finalists. 

“I said in Crudo that competition has no place in art and I meant it,” she said. 

She’s what in Yiddish is called a mensch–a person of real integrity. I’m off to a bookstore to take a browse through the book and if it grabs me, to buy a copy. The other finalists were Murmur (Will Eaves), Sight (Jessie Greengrass), and Heads of Colored People (Nafissa Thompson-Spires). I’ll have a browse through them too. I have a hunch that you wouldn’t end up regretting it if you doing the same.

The Brexit Update, 4 September 2019

By the time you read this, it’ll be out of date–British politics are moving at the speed of a slow-motion train wreck–but here’s what I can tell you as of 7 a.m., British summer time (which isn’t a season but the time Britain goes by in the summer):

Yesterday, one lone MP resigned from the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats, and that was enough to lose the Conservatives their majority and make Boris Johnson the leader of a minority government.

That happened not long after Johnson announced that he would boot out (okay, effectively boot out, but let’s not get into that) any Conservative MP who voted against him. Last night, twenty-one of them did. At that point he became the leader of a government with a significantly smaller minority.

What they voted against him on was–damn this is hard to explain sensibly. Normally, the government has the power to set the agenda for the House of Commons, but the Commons can occasionally seize control of the agenda, and that’s what it did. This will allow the Commons to debate a no-deal Brexit today. 

When he lost the vote, Johnson said he’d call for an early election, but he needs the backing of two-thirds of the MPs for that to happen. Since a majority of MPs would be happy to drown him in the Thames, why wouldn’t they support a new election? Because Parliament shuts down for twenty-five days before the election, and Johnson would get to choose the date of the new election. If he chose his timing well, he could lock Parliament in a broom closet, withdraw from the European Union, and hum “Rule Britannia” while they pound on the door and yell, “Let me out!”

So although Labour’s been screaming for an early election, they’re against this one unless a no-deal Brexit is ruled out–which it won’t be. 

There are two ways around the need for a two-thirds majority:

First, the government calls for an election using the words “notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.” Then they’d only need a simple majority.

Can they do that, announce that they’re going to call an election ignoring the law governing elections? Apparently so. Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

But, of course, they don’t have a simple majority either. And proposing an election that way would allow MPs to set the election date, so it would lose Johnson his maneuvering room. And the bill could be amended, so Commons could tack on anti-no-deal wording.

It would also have to pass the House of Lords, so it’s a slower process. 

Second, the government could call a vote of no confidence in itself. 

Yes, seriously. 

If it passed, Johnson would be expected to resign and the Commons would try to agree on a new prime minister, who could ask the EU to delay Brexit. If the Commons couldn’t choose a prime minister in fourteen days (there’s a lot of political arm wrestling, not to mention posturing and an ego or two, involved), that would trigger a new election.

The BBC article that I pulled all that from (it’s the link several paragraphs back) calls that a high-risk strategy for the government. It doesn’t say that the crucial word in all this is expected, as in Johnson would be expected to resign, but it’s not entirely clear that he would, or whether he’d have to. The law’s fairly new and contains a lot of unknowns.

But back to the Commons seizing control of its agenda. If an anti-no-deal bill passes the Commons, which it probably will, the next hurdle is shoving it through the House of Lords, where it will, inevitably, be filibustered and amended. There’s an attempt in the works to set a time limit on debate. We’ll see how that goes.

The Scottish National Party is saying that a fall election would be a great opportunity for Scotland to demand a second vote on independence.

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That’s the headline stuff. In smaller print:

  • Scotland’s chief prosecutor has said he wants to intervene in two legal challenges to Johnson’s suspension of Parliament, saying that proroguing Parliament is it’s an abuse of power.
  • Speaking of abuses of power, Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings–the power, and possibly the brains, behind the throne–fired another special adviser, Sonia Khan, calling armed police to have her marched out of 10 Downing Street. He accused her of being the source of a leak–something she denies. The interesting thing here is that she didn’t work for him. She also didn’t work for Cummings’ boss, she worked for the chancellor, Sajid Javid. And Johnson wasn’t consulted about the firing. Read a few articles and you’ll find phrases like “mafia-style” and “reign of terror.” There are calls for an investigation into the firing.  
  • The government’s set aside £100 million for an information campaign to prepare people for Brexit, even though there are, apparently, questions about whether the government can manage to spend that much in two months. What do they want people to learn for all that money? That we should consult the government’s Brexit website, where they offer some fairly mild advice about travel, business, citizenship, and so forth. With apologies, I relied on a summary for that, not the website itself. The website wants to walk you through only what you need to know, and I bailed out at the point where it asked whether I’m a citizen. I am, but y’know, I just might want to know what happens to people who aren’t. But it’s all okay because the government has placed an order for mugs and T-shirts, so I feel better about it all.

The Brexit update–again

Boris Johnson–that most improbable of prime ministers–has announced that he’ll be sending Parliament home for five weeks so it can sit on the naughty step.

Why? To keep it from getting in the way of his Brexit plans. That’s called or proroguing Parliament. The word’s from Latin (prorogare) by way of Old French and it meant to extend. These days it means the opposite of extending: It means ending a session. 

Progrogation isn’t unprecedented. It was last done in 2017 for a general election, and that’s the way it’s normally used–apolitically. One parliamentary session ends to make way for another. This prorogation is different because it’s being used for political ends. 

Any bills that are still in the works when Parliament packs up its toys and goes home will lapse, so what Johnson’s hoping is that any attempt to block a no-deal Brexit will either not have time to work its way through the Commons obstacle course or will get to the Lords and be filibustered there until it dies. That would leave him a free hand to do whatever he wants.

All of which is ironic, because one of the rallying cries for Brexit was taking back Parliament’s sovereignty. 

Irrelevant photo: This has nothing to do with anything, and it’s not even in season. I just thought we might all need something nice to look at by now.

In response, the pound dropped against the dollar. An online petition against suspending Parliament gathered over a million and a half signatures in just a few days, although I’m not sure if anyone in power cares. The head of the Scottish Consservative Party resigned (officially to spend more time with her family). Since she led a Conservative revival in Scotland, that’s particularly awkward. 

For some time now there’s been talk about Scotland leaving the UK if the UK leaves the EU. The talk seems to be getting louder.

Three separate lawsuits have been filed to block Johnson’s move. In one of them, they’ve called for Johnson to state, under oath, why he needs to prorogue parliament. John Major –he was a prime minister himself, and from the Johnsosn’s own party, the Conservatives–has asked the High Court’s permission to join one of lawsuits. 

Some fifty MPs have announced that they won’t be sitting meekly on the naughty step, they’ll continue to meet during any suspension. They include members of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Change U.K., Plaid Cymru, and the Greens.

The civil service is said to be demoralized. An unnamed former senior official told the Guardian that one thing “making people want to leave is the realisation that they’ll have to spend ten years cleaning up the mess” of Brexit. Another is that they feel their work is “no longer purposeful” because Brexit has strangled all other policymaking. 

The head of planning for a no-deal Brexit at the Department for Exiting the European Union has resigned, which strikes me as particularly disquieting. And Robert Kerslake, a former head of the civil service, warned officials that they need to consider putting their “stewardship of the country ahead of service to the government of the day.”

John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons, has denounced the suspension of Parliament as a constitutional outrage and Philip Hammond (another big name from the Conservative Party) has said it was profoundly undemocratic. 

Johnson’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, said, “Our system is a winner-takes-all system. If you win a parliamentary majority, you control everything.” 

The government promptly announced that he didn’t really mean that.

To sum up, Johnson has very nearly managed something his opponents haven’t been able to do, which is to unite them. What happens next is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, this morning’s paper (I’m writing this on August 31) announced that sometime in the next couple of weeks, compasses at Greenwich will point to true north for the first time in 360 years, give or take. True north and magnetic north are sort of like the opponents of a no-deal Brexit: They’re not always in alignment. So this is a big deal, if not necessarily an omen. 

In other parts of the U.K., the two may not line up for another twenty years. And that’s not necessarily an omen either. 

The Brexit Update

In case you haven’t been tracking Britain’s political cannon fire, let’s take a quick dash through the shrapnel. The shooting’s metaphorical, so we should be safe enough, but do stay together. We’ll be moving quickly.

We’ll start at the moment when the members of the Conservative Party (all 42 of them) chose our prime minister. 

Why did they get to do that? Because their party came out of the most recent election with a whopping a majority of two in the 650-member House of Commons. That gave them the right to form a government. Forming a government means they choose the prime minister. And when the first prime minister they chose resigned in despair, they got to choose her replacement, even though the replacement, Boris Johnson, told everyone who’d listen (and several who wouldn’t) that he was going to move the country in a new direction, meaning not the direction the electorate might have thought they voted for.

But hey, that’s democracy for you. You cast your vote and you take your chances.

Does the Conservative Party really have 42 members? No. It’s something in the neighborhood of 180,000. Labour has upwards of 485,000. The Scottish National Party has 125,000. The Liberal Democrats have 115,000. Sorry, I’d give you a link on all this but it has to be downloaded and the link won’t work. If you’re worried about it, ask Lord Google.

How many registered voters does the U.K. have? Upwards of 46 million. 

Did the Conservative Party really have a majority of two? Yes, but it’s down to one now. Long story and we’ll skip it. Remember where I said we’d be moving quickly?

Why do I ask so many questions? Because it’s an easy way to structure a piece of writing. It’s cheesy, but it does let you know where I’m taking you next. And we’re in a hurry. I need to get this online before it all changes.

The point here is that a very small proportion of the electorate got to set the country’s direction. Instead of a negotiated exit from the European Union, we were now barreling toward an exit at any cost: Johnson promised that the country would leave the EU by October 31, “do or die”–in other words, with or without a deal. So it was no surprise when EU leaders announced that he showed no interest in renegotiating the Brexit agreement his predecessor had negotiated and then failed to find support for.

Johnson prefers a no-deal Brexit, they said.  

Does not,” the British government said. 

“Does so too,” the EU said, 

Et cetera, with lots of links to make up for the one I couldn’t give you a few paragraphs back.

But a majority of MPs oppose a no-deal Brexit. What’s Johnson’s next move, then? Well, even before he became prime minister, he was playing publicly with the idea of proroguing Parliament.

Of pro-whatting Parliament?

Shutting it down. Sending the MPs home at exactly the time when they might be able to stop him from crashing the country out of the EU.

Here’s how that would work: Crashing out of the EU is the default setting in this process. If the time limit for a withdrawal isn’t extended and if an agreement isn’t reached, the country crashes out, no matter what Parliament says. So to crash out in the face of parliamentary opposition, all you have to do is kidnap 650 MPs at the right time, which will keep them from interfering. 

But that’s illegal and offends most voters’ sensibilities, and the logistics are a nightmare, so you can do something simpler: You can send them all home, where their magic powers dissolve. And you don’t have to feed them or even tie them up, which you would if you kidnapped them. 

As I write this, the MPs are at home–they left Westminster meekly for the usual summer break–and the ones who oppose a no-deal Brexit are plotting the moves left to them when their powers return in September.

The obvious one is to pass a vote of no confidence in the government. At that point, the prime minister’s magic powers are supposed to dissolve and parliament has fourteen days to find a prime minister with the backing, however reluctant, of a majority of MPs. 

To date, though, no one can agree on who that should be. All the major parties are waving their hands in the air, yelling, “Me! Me! Pick me!”

If Parliament can’t find a majority to back any candidate, Parliament is dissolved and the prime minister’s supposed to call an election and resign. 

In the meantime, Johnson’s advisor–and quite possibly his brains–Dominic Cummings has reportedly said that Johnson might refuse to resign, even if Parliament does form a government. 

If that happens, he could presumably sit in the prime minister’s residence reciting nursery rhymes in Latin and entertaining the prime ministerial cat while the ship of state drifts toward the Brexit iceberg. 

“Look!” he can say. “My hands aren’t even on the wheel.”

The cat’s name is Larry. He–or someone very like him only human, with thumbs and without fur–tweets at @Number10cat. Larry is known to snub fawning politicians without regard to their policies, powers, or parties, in full and satisfying sight of the cameras. As the nation’s chief mouser, he’s outlasted a small handful of recent prime ministers and done considerably less damage to the country. He may or may not be interested in any amusement the prime minister can offer.

During this time, Johnson would, presumably, call an election, but while it was being organized the country would crash out of the E.U.

When Johnson was asked if he might refuse to resign, he refused to answer. 

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and assorted important and formerly important people have warned, in a variety of ways, that refusing to resign would cause the worst constitutional crisis since Charles I was beheaded. Okay, since the Civil War, but that did lead to Charles being executed. As far as I can tell, no one’s advocating that, although they might be dropping a subtle hint about where this could all lead.

There’s been talk of getting the queen involved. She’s supposed to be above politics –or locked out of them, if you want to think of it that way–but she is the person who formally asks the leader of the parliamentary majority to form a government, so presumably she also has the right to ask the prime minister to resign if he no longer commands a majority. She apparently can “overrule ministerial advice” in a grave constitutional crisis. But focus on the words apparently and presumablyThis is all new territory, because elections are controlled by a law that’s too new to have had much road testing. That may be why the wheels are wobbling so wildly. 

A few voices have argued that refusing to resign would be plenty constitutional under the new law, thanks. 

Parliament also has another possible way of blocking a no-deal Brexit: It could pass a law–not a motion; motions don’t have the power of laws–outlawing a no-deal Brexit or forcing the government to ask Europe for an extension. But to do that, MPs will have to take control of the Commons’ calendar, which the government normally controls. It can be done, but not easily. An assortment of precedents will have to be parked out in the hall while it happens.

To force Parliament to break precedent, which is always hard in a country that takes its traditions seriously, the government will have to refrain from introducing any new legislation between the time the MPs come back to work on September 3 and Brexit day, October 31. That includes legislation preparing the country for a no-deal Brexit. Why? Because MPs can amend any bill that comes before them in any way they want.

A third way to block a no-deal Brexit involves the courts. One lawsuit has been filed and others are said to be in the works. The one that’s furthest along would prevent Johnson from shutting down Parliament. Others (or another–the wording’s ambiguous) would force Johnson to resign if a no-confidence vote passes.  

In the meantime, Britain first announced that it would leave the Interrail train scheme, which lets a ticket holder travel throughout both Britain and Europe, then a day later, when there was a lot of shouting about that, announced that it wasn’t leaving.

Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

Britain gets a new cabinet: an update

Britain has a new prime minister, who even though he’s never been prime minister of anyplace before has the look of a second-hand car about him–the kind whose odometer broke when someone tried to set it back. So far, he’s told us that everything’s going to be wonderful with him in office. We’ll leave the E.U. by Halloween, with or (possibly preferably) without a deal, and this will make the country prosperous and united.

We’ll all have 100,000 fewer miles on our individual and national odometers.

In anticipation, the pound dropped against both the dollar and the euro.

More concretely, he’s appointed a new cabinet. So let’s check in on what a few of them have done in their limited time in government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the new leader of the House of Commons and he’s banned metric measurements in his office. And if something comes into the office speaking metric and has to go back out in the same form? Presumably it will have to be translated into imperial units to be read and then translated back out of them before it rejoins the world. 

He’s also banned a series of words and phrases, including (but, oh, so not limited to) hopefully, very, due to, ongoing, equal, yourself, lot, got, pleased to learn, and unacceptable.

Equal? Yeah, it’s on the list. It will, hopefully, prevent staff members from saying, “Go fuck yourself,” when they’re told that asking for equal pay is unacceptable.

A couple of the entries (lot, got, and I am pleased to learn) have been reported but are unconfirmed. I mention that because this stuff is important and I want to be sure we get it right. I’m an immigrant here, so to a certain kind of person the way I use the language is always going to be suspect. Which makes me very much want to say, “Go fuck yourself.” Due to having an ongoing bad attitude.

Rees-Mogg’s staff has also been instructed to use a double space after a period–which in British is called a full stop, and I’m sure he’d insist on it being called that–and not to use a comma after an and

It is possible to use a comma after an and but it’s not easy. I’m not going to bother working up an example when I’ve got a lot of simpler ways to break the rules.

Staff members should also avoid using is too often. How often is too often? You’re on your own there. Do be careful, though, please. I care about you, and the world’s a dangerous place.

I is also on the list of banned words. Maybe, like the queen, he prefers one. One is–. Nope, can’t use is. One might be pleased to find a less awkward way to avoid its use.

Since he became an MP, R-M’s speeches have used words from the banned list 1,189 times. It may have gone up since that report, so let’s take that as a minimum, especially since uses of the word  I, mysteriously, weren’t included. And yes (ha! got the comma in after and), if you’re going to be such a public nit-picker, someone will sit down and count. Gleefully.

R-M also demands that any man who doesn’t have a title get the suffix Esq. added to his name. Women, presumably, are too unimportant to worry about. Or maybe the language doesn’t have an equivalent. I wouldn’t know.

Admittedly, the guidelines were established at his old office as a plain old MP and have been transferred wholesale to his new, elevated position as Micro-Manager-in-Chief, so presumably this hasn’t occupied all his time. That is, however, speculation.

He’s commonly known as the Honourable member for the 18th Century.

After that, anyone else is going to be a disappointment, but let’s go on.

Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, has announced a two-page limit for briefings and says he will “pay attention to the font size and margins.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has brought his favorite pink cup to his new office. As far as I know, it’s not a sippy cup. 

Oops. Did I just start a rumor?

Priti Patel, the new home secretary, has a £1,000-an-hour contract with a company that supplies products and services to the same government she works for. She also earns £45,000 a year for working 20 hours a month for an accounting software firm. If she cares about the spacing after a period, limits her intake of government documents to picture books, or drinks from a sippy cup, it’s not on record but it might be preferable. 

Now let’s go back to that business about a double space after a period. If WikiWhatsia is correct (and I’m not going any deeper into this than a WikiWhatsia article, earthshaking though the topic may be), a double space after a period is called English spacing. A single space is called French spacing. There are other differences between the two, but let’s stop there. We’re not setting type, just reporting on it. 

So far, it sounds clear, but the phrases are often used in exactly the opposite way, and WikiWhatsia gives a good solid list of examples without managing to help me understand why or how that happened.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the trend in typesetting has been toward a single space after a period. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper, since in a book that small change can save a fair bit of paper. And many people think it looks better.

The U.S. seems to have made the shift to single spacing before the U.K., although even there high-end publishing stuck with the double space for a while. With the introduction of computers, designers and typographers have increasingly leaned toward the single space. In my experience, it dominates the publishing world.

So is R-M dedicated to the double space because he thinks it’s high end? Or because he thinks it’s English as opposed to French (and the English, if you’ll forgive a generalization, have a thing about the French)? Or because it was done that way in the eighteenth century and that’s his century? I can only ask, not answer. If he knew that in the early 1960s, when all girls with fingers were taught to type, no excuses accepted, I was taught that it was necessary, right, and moral to double space after a period. I was (partly deliberately, partly by nature) a monumentally bad typist, but for years I double-spaced after periods.

If that doesn’t take the shine off the double space, I don’t know what will.

More news from Britain. And elsewhere

In case you think no one ever learns, allow me to prove you wrong: The U.K. Seti Research Network is conducting a public survey about contacting alien species and they’re not throwing it wide open by asking what we should say if we get a chance to talk with alien life forms. They’re channeling the responses by asking whether people think it’s a good idea that we broadcast signals into space, what source they’d believe if it told them that humans had made contact with another species, and that sort of thing. Controllable questions, in other words. Except for that box where it says, “Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?” Yes, it’s going to get strange inside that box, but they can throw out any answers that say, “I was kidnapped by supermarket oranges in space-going juice squeezers.” The public never has to know about them. 

Why does that mean humans are capable of learning? Polls consulting the British public on important questions have, at best, an uneven track record. Oddly enough, I’m not talking about Brexit, I’m talking about the Boaty McBoatface poll.

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Irrelevant photo: poppies growing with corn marigolds.

Archeologists working in Leicestershire found a 2,500-year-old  bark shield. Or maybe it was only 2,300 years old. The sell-by date was illegible, so accounts differ. Either way, it was made during the Iron Age and had been preserved in waterlogged soil. It’s the first of its kind found in Europe, although the Aboriginal people of Australia made bark shields up until the nineteenth century.

Is a bark shield any more useful than (to use a Britishism) a chocolate teapot? The team that found it fooled around until it re-created one, using alder and willow, and it turned out to be plenty tough but incredibly light. Highly recommended for your next sword battle.

Please note: I don’t get any money for recommending bark shields, but even so you only want to trust me just so far on this. I’m taking someone else’s word on their effectiveness instead of testing one in battle myself.

Sorry. The village has been quiet since we stopped trying to put together a Neighborhood Development Plan. If we’d kept on, I could’ve tested that shield.

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More archeology: Back in 2003, archeologists in Essex were surveying a site where a road was going to be widened and found a burial chamber from what historians no longer call the Dark Ages. 

We’ll come back to the burial chamber, but first, why don’t they call it the Dark Ages? Because the sun came up every damn morning, and even back then it was bright. Also because humans had known about fire for eons. They’d been lighting fires, cooking food with fires, keeping themselves warm with fires, and setting their roofs on fire with fires. So no, calling it the Dark Ages doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, I’m attached to the label because when I first read about the period in my junior high school textbook I asked my teacher what happened back then, since the textbook said something along the lines of, “And then the Dark Ages happened. Now we’ll move on.”

“Nothing,” she said.

It’s not that I didn’t believe her, but I spent a lot of time wondering how nothing could happen and what that would’ve been like. I’ve wanted to know about it ever since. I wonder if telling kids there’s nothing to know wouldn’t create a generation of self-motivated learners. 

If you’ve read my tale of junior high and the Dark Ages before, apologies. I do repeat myself. Not everyone’s been around as long as you have, the lucky souls. 

So this burial chamber was from the period formerly known as the Dark Ages, but before we get to that, let’s take another detour, because this is Britain, where roads and detours are inextricably linked. 

Archeology and construction are also closely linked, because anywhere you put a shovel in British ground, you stand a good chance of unearthing some bit of history, and that means assorted laws and regulations protect–or try to protect–Britain’s archeological heritage from destruction. It makes archeology and the construction industry uneasy partners, but it means that amazing stuff is found by accident. Before the bulldozers level everything, archeologists get a chance to look and, if necessary, sift. Let’s not go into how the decisions get made about where they turn up and where they don’t. The world should have some mysteries left. They turned up on this road-widening project and found wonders.

The Prittlewell burial chamber really was a chamber–a square room that was originally furnished with a folding stool, cups, a lyre, a sword, a candelabrum, a gaming board, a gigantic cauldron, a silver spoon, a gold-foil cross, and a painted box. Oh, and a coffin. Personally, I prefer a couch, but then I’m not dead yet. When I am, I promise not to object if I’m not buried with a couch.

The room also had hooks so that a good part of this lovely stuff could hang on the walls and no one would trip on it, even though the room’s only occupant was well past tripping on things.

The chamber was clearly built for someone both rich and important, and the mix of the cross and the grave goods indicates a person (or a community) with one foot in each of two religions–Christianity, judging by the cross, and pre-Christian, judging by the grave goods. Either he or they were hedging their bets.

You can read more about it here.

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A pair of storks have built a nest in an oak tree and become the first wild pair breeding in England in 600 years. The last breeding pair are believed to have nested on St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416. Unless, as it’s also claimed, storks were run out of England during the Reformation. The idea of running storks out of a country on, I assume, religious grounds is bizarre, since last I heard storks don’t have any religion–or at least no human religion–so I asked Lord Google for further information. He claimed to know nothing on the subject. If anyone can fill me in, I’ll not only be grateful, you’ll get bragging rights for being a step ahead of Lord G.

How wild is this wild pair? Quite. They were lured in by storks with clipped wings who’d been brought over from European sanctuaries. The hand-reared ones will be released over the next few years to create a colony large enough to sustain itself. 

One stork from the colony, however, released itself, despite its clipped wings, and went wherever it wanted. Not on foot, I assume.

As of late May, the wild pair were brooding three eggs. So far, there are no reports of the storks having delivered human babies but stay tuned.

*

It turns out that those gizmos that track your sleep so you can live a well-rested, perfectly balanced, digitally documented life are giving people insomnia. They’re not giving it to every user but to enough that it’s worth a mention. 

The news traces back to Guy Leschziner, a sleep disorders specialist at Guy’s Hospital in London. And no, despite the name overlap, it’s not his hospital. It’s just a guy thing.

It’s hard to talk patients into deleting their sleep apps, he said, probably because his approach to figuring out if you’re getting enough sleep is deeply stone age: “If you wake up feeling tired . . . then you know you’ve got a problem. If you wake up . . . and feel refreshed . . . then you’re probably getting enough sleep.”

Well, who in their right mind wants to listen to that? 

*

On a personal note, since we’re talking about insomnia, Fast Eddie came in at four the other night, carrying something that squeaked. 

I should probably say, in case it’s not clear, that Fast Eddie is the cat. 

The squeaking activated the dog, Moose. So now we have four (or three, since the moose is–well, I guess you’d say virtual) animals bumping around in the bedroom. Plus me, a squeamish vegetarian in a nightshirt, trying to pretend I’m Switzerland, a neutral country, while hiding in my mountainous bed and feeling guilty about choosing that role instead of trying to rescue the (presumed) mouse. My partner, who’s not a vegetarian and is only squeamish about the things I’m not squeamish about, can sleep through village sword battles and the excavation of massive damn burial chambers. She got a full and unfair night’s sleep. Switzerland didn’t wake her up, and neither did I. 

Eventually everyone settled down and the cat jumped on the bed. I turned on the light and searched him for mice but didn’t find any. I’ve been suspicious of him ever since the time he upchucked a second-hand mouse all over the quilt.  

He went to sleep. I strapped my sleep-tracking gizmo to his wrist and when I checked it the next morning it said that, with a brief interruption around 4, I got as good a night’s sleep as any creature with no conscience can. For some reason, though, I felt tired.

I’m not sure what happened to the mouse.

*

Last year, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump planted an oak to symbolize–oh, I don’t know. How much the two countries love each other. How well their leaders get along. How much hope there is for the world, in spite of everything we know. 

In June, the tree died.

If you follow the link just above, you can wince at a photo of the two presidents playing at tree planting while wearing expensive suits and wielding gold-colored shovels. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I wear when I’m working in the garden.

But before I go on any more about the photo, let’s talk about the tree planting ceremony. As soon as it was over and the photographers had packed up their cameras and left, the real tree people came along and uprooted the sucker. Why? Because it came from France and had to be quarantined. They promised to re-plant it as soon as it was declared disease free and had learned enough English to pass the citizenship exam.

It never made it out of quarantine. 

Can we have a moment of regret, please?

Thanks. Now let’s go back to the photo. You can, if you like, wince a bit more at the wives of the presidents looking even more absurd than their husbands as they waft around the lawn, keeping discreetly to the background while wearing high heels and stockings.

Have you ever tried walking on grass in high heels? If you haven’t, do try it once, especially if you’re male. You’ll understand sexual (or gender, or whatever the hell) politics better afterwards. I don’t have much experience with heels, but I did mix them with turf once. In my defense, I was young and those were very different times. We kind of had to wear them sometimes back then, or we thought we did. The heels punched into the earth and when I shifted my weight forward, which is what you do when you walk, they didn’t come with me. I caught my balance just before I brought  a friend’s wedding to a screaming, swearing halt. 

*

A–I guess you’d have to call it a biblical theme park in Kentucky is suing its insurer for not covering the full cost of damages caused by a heavy rainstorm that didn’t exactly wreck the ark but did wreck the access road leading tourists to it. 

The ark, theme park spokesfolks say, was built to the specifications in the bible. Which is important. The road (they didn’t say) wasn’t, since the bible’s silent on the subject of access roads, so their dimensions and materials are either guesswork or blasphemy. It’s also silent on admission charges, so those weren’t set at biblical levels either, and maybe that was the problem. 

Anyway, the road needed a lot of repair, apparently, and the insurers weren’t interested in most of them or impressed by biblical arguments. 

*

While researching a biography of Maria Branwell, the mother of the Brontë sisters, Sharon Wright discovered that Maria’s father, and therefore the Brontës’ grandfather, wasn’t the gentlemanly merchant we all thought he was–those of us, that is, who thought about him at all, that is. (I confess: I never did.) He did business with smugglers–as many a Cornish businessman did in those days–and in 1788 was indicted for “obstructing the Customs Officers in searching his dwelling.”

It was his tainted money that made it possible for the sisters to first publish their work. And there’s a moral in there, although I’m not sure what it is. Choose your grandparents wisely, maybe.