Beneath London’s streets

Deep beneath the streets of London lurks a monster that knows how Londoners live today–what they eat, how they clean themselves, what gets them through the day. What will it do with the information? Either write a cheesy screenplay and make a fortune or come up through the plumbing and eat everyone it finds. Probably the first, because it’s eating well. It doesn’t need human flesh, which not only fights back but screams. Or at least it does in cheesy movies.

The monster’s called a fatberg, and in the best tradition of promos for cheesy movies, I’ve misrepresented it. The biggest one (roughly 750 meters long) has already been killed and autopsied. The ones still lurking underground are smaller, and although they’re growing, not one of them is alive. 

Fatbergs are made of solidified fat, sewage, and all-purpose gunk. And they’re clogging up the sewers not just in London but in other big cities around the country. So British TV being what it is, the big one was autopsied for our viewing pleasure.

This isn’t just an irrelevant photo, it’s stolen from an earlier post. I’m putting this post together on a toy typewriter and, what the hell, it’s available. Given the topic, we could do with a few flowers.

What do I mean about British TV being like it is? Well, it does a lot of nonfiction, which ranges from glorious to turn-the-channel. This one was somewhere in between. Beyond that, I’m not the best person to sum it up. I figured I was being vague enough that I could get away without having to explain what I meant, thanks. It may not have been enlightening, but at least it’s accurate.

Fatbergs form when a bit of cooking fat–or several gallons of the stuff–is poured down the drain and combines with the calcium it finds in the water to form a solid, which then sticks to a rough bit of sewer wall. Then a wet wipe comes along (wet wipes were the villains of the piece) and sticks to it. Then more fat sticks to that, and anything else that gets flushed down the toilet piles in on top, on the bottom, and on the sides, and while you’re still watching British TV, deep below you is 750 feet of solid crap–in the literal sense of the word– and other stuff blocking the sewer. Whatever gets flushed down the sewer, except the purest of liquids, can be part of a fatberg.

Isn’t your Friday getting off to a great start? Isn’t it just uplifting to read Notes?

So what did the autopsy tell us about how folks live in London? Well, they use cocaine, ibuprofen, caffeine, syringes and needles, paracetamol, morphine, heroin, condoms, magic mushrooms, steroids and gym supplements, tampons, amphetamines, sweetcorn, and hair tonic.

It’s the hair tonic that does the damage.

You didn’t think anyone has used hair tonic since the 1950s? Or maybe that was the 1920s? I didn’t either. I suspect they mean–to use a technical phrase–is hair goop. Or what the British call products. Not even hair products, just products. As if nothing else gets produced in the country.

A word about paracetemol: When my partner, Wild Thing, and I first moved to Britain, we figured it was some strange oracle the British consulted about aches and pains. Every country has its superstitions. As an outsider, you learn to live with them and not make funny faces. It turns out, though, that it’s what Americans know by the brand name Tylenol.

It’s not that Americans are more heavily oriented to brand names than the British. The British call vacuum cleaners hoovers, and using one to clean the floor is hoovering. Presumably Hoover made the first vacuum cleaners to hit the market here. The thing is, the British and Americans choose different things to call by brand names, making us sound eccentric to each other. But that’s a different post. Let’s go back to the fatberg.

So, Londoners use paracetemol. They also eat out a lot, because restaurants are the source of a lot of that cooking oil. The pattern is use, cool (presumably), pour down drain. Of course, home cooks contribute their share. From each according to their deep fat fryer…

And our bodies contribute whatever we put into them. The residue from prescription medicines, including antibiotics and estrogen. All those lovely bugs that cause digestive disasters–e coli, campylobacter, listeria. And antibiotic-resistant bacteria, although those may not come directly from us but from the uncontrolled combination of antibiotics and biota. I don’t know that. I’m guessing.

The things we drink out of also makes a contribution. Plasticisers from cups and plastic bottles can  mimic estrogens, and they’re in there too. The ones that don’t get trapped in fatbergs make their way into the rivers and oceans, doing some very weird stuff to the fish.   

The folks whose job it is to free up the sewers do it the modern way: by hand. They suit up, drop down into the sewers with shovels, and chop pieces off, which their buddies up top winch to street level. They manage not to pass out from the smell, or even complain about it. The only high-tech part of the job (and we’re relying on my memory here, which is an iffy proposition) is the gizmo (I love high-tech words) that beeps when it finds a toxic gas buildup.

On screen, they were not only good humored but very funny. In short, they’re heroes.

What can we learn from this? That image tourists have of historic Britain? It’s not the whole picture.

The ducks of Britain

What’s life like for the ducks of Britain? I can’t speak for all of them, but–. Okay, I can’t speak for any of them, but I can guess that it’s not bad for this group.  Apologies for having to send you on a wild duck chase if you want to see the photo. I still haven’t figured out how to snatch photos from news stories. What the hell, they copyrighted anyway. It’s worth a click.

My thanks to Deb for sending me the link, which I’d have missed without her.

Celebrating April Fool’s Day in Britain

How do the British celebrate April Fool’s Day?
Dangerously. The newspapers–or at least some of them–sneak in a fake story and wait like giggling ten-year-olds to see if anyone spots it.
Late in the day on April 1–some good long time after I’d read the paper–I remembered the date and realized I hadn’t spotted any obvious April Fool’s joke. That made me nervous. What had I fallen for? That the school funding crisis could swing the election against the Conservatives? Nope. I’ve followed that story. It’s real. That the candy company Ferrero says Britain leaving the customs union and the single market when it leaves the E.U. “could affect an array of chocolate products, leading to shortages, delays, higher prices, limited ranges and merchandise going stale in warehouses.”
Good candidate. It’s not going to send anyone into a War-of-the-Worlds type panic. Or maybe a few people, but not many. Still, it’s not far enough out there for a prank story.

Irrelevant photo: Yet another whatsit plant, in bloom. We grow a lot of them and they have a surprising range of blossoms.

Full disclosure:I’m doing a small bit of lying for the sake of verisimilitude. And I’m using long words for the sake of impressing you. I didn’t actually go back over the headlines to see what I’d fallen for. When I started writing this post, I called up the headlines from the Observer, the Guardian‘s sister paper, to remind myself what they were that day. My memory, sadly, is more decorative than functional.

By then, the real fake story was making small headlines, because a pair of BBC presenters had broadcast it. It was a story claiming that an Italian tech firm had created emojis for the opposing sides of the Brexit debate, and it quoted members of parliament who were outraged by how divisive they were. One emoji was called the Brexit Bulldog and the other Starry Blue, which picked up on the European Union flag. I mention that because I can’t remember knowing what the E.U. flag looked like before I moved to Britain. Or possibly before the Brexit debate.
When the BBC presenters were told what they’d just stepped into, they did two things: One, admitted it to their listeners (“sheepishly,” according to the story I read; bravely, in my opinion), and two, said, “Oh my goodness.”
Or one of them said that. Surely no two people would actually say “oh my goodness.” It’s improbable enough that one of them did.
But the Observer wasn’t the only media outlet playing April Fool’s gags. A different BBC show ran a story on a kraken, a legenadary sea monster said to live off the coast of Norway and Greenland, being spotted on the Thames. The Mail said Prince Harry’s stag party would involve laverbread smoothies and chakra realignment.
A few companies piled in as well. Coca-Cola announced that it was releasing avocado-flavored Coke. Burger King swore it would be selling a flame-grilled chocolate patty with raspberry syrup and vanilla frosting. Plus candied oranges and a bun made of cake. And Heinz was coming out with chocolate mayonniase.
The West Yorkshire Police announced that they now have a police rabbit. It wears a little blue police harness and looks fearsome.
Historically, my favorite spoof is from 1977, when the Guardian ran not just a story but an entire seven-page supplement on the island of San Seriffe, commemorating the tenth anniversary of its independence from I’m not sure who. Wikipedia–that most reliable of sources (actually, it doesn’t do badly)–says it was one of the most successful recent hoaxes. If you consider 1977 recent, which, being 103, I do.
San Seriffe was revived in 1978, 1980 and 1999.
The name, in case you don’t live and breathe this stuff, refers to a kind of typeface. Typefaces come in two flavors, serif, which kind of melts outward at the bottom, as if the pavement’s too hot, and sans serif, which runs downward in a straight line and could be driven into the ground if you had a tiny little mallet.The S is silent. Or if you like it better, blends into the S of the next word.
April Fool’s Day had passed when I read the Wikipedia entry, but I do wonder about that seven-page supplement. I’ve never worked in newspaper publishing, but every kind of publication I had anything to do with was printed in multiples of four. You could, if you really had to, cut a four-page sheet in half and get two pages–one sheet of paper printed on both side–but since paper inherently has two sides–. You see the problem, right? I suppose you could run a page of ads and call that not-part-of-the-supplement but I feel this pull on one of my legs when I so much as think about it.
I could be out of date–I’ve been gone for eleven years now–but when I was still living in the U.S., all an adult had to watch out for on April Fool’s Day was silly phone messages. You know: Please call Mr Bear, followed by the phone number of the nearest zoo. Or kids switching those unpeeled hard-boiled eggs you’d left in the refrigerator for the uncooked ones.
What’s the history of April Fool’s Day? According to the Metro, there’s an ambiguous reference to April Fool’s Day in Chaucer (1390s), and then no written reference for the next 300 years, when in 1686 there’s a reference to “Foole’s holy day.”
Thirteen years after that, “On April 1, 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to ‘see the Lions washed’, which was perhaps the first large-scale April Fool in British history.”
The Metro also says Scotland celebrates April 1 with Hunt the Gowk Day. “The pranker asks the prankee to deliver an envelope requesting help, but instead the message inside reads: ‘Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.’ The recipient, upon reading it, will explain they can only help by contacting another person, and sends the victim to this next person with an identical message, producing the same result. And if that’s not enough, they also celebrate Taily Day on April 1, which involves “trying to put ‘kick me’ signs on people’s backs, plus plenty of posterior-based jokes.”
I was inclined to think this was all an elaborate joke, but I find enough references to both to think they’re probably real.
April Fool’s Day isn’t specifically British. Lord Google tells me that some version of it is celebrated–if that’s the right word, which I suspect it isn’t–throughout Europe and in Iran, India, Lebanon, the Phillipines, many Spanish-speaking countries, and the U.S. I can testify that it’s celebrated in the U.S. Beyond that, on this subject I’m not taking anybody’s word for anything.

Mugs: two links

A couple of people asked where they can find the smart-ass, English-spelling-is-bizarre mugs that I posted pictures of in recent weeks (photos below). The answer is, they’re for sale in any number of places, but here are two: the “English can be weird” mug and the “I before E” mug.

Both sites give the price in pounds, which isn’t helpful if you don’t live in Britain, but don’t give up. You can punch the phrases in quotation marks into your least favorite search engine (I’m assuming that whichever one you use, it’s your least favorite, but maybe that’s just me). You’ll find the mugs in a range of typefaces and for a range of prices. In a range of currencies.

Order. Make tea or coffee. Locate cake. If it’s any good, share with your favorite blogger.

Thanks. Also sorry and you’re welcome. See how British I’ve become?

Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

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

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

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

So that’s our plan.

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

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

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

More pressure.

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

I exaggerate only slightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public statements are clear and to the point

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

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

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

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

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone loves a feel-good story

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

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

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

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

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

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

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

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

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

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

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

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

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

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

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

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

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

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

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

My conscience lost.

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

People are very polite 

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

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

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

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

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