Last Friday’s post about lost battleships led–probably inevitably–to a discussion about clotted cream. Maybe you had to be there, but it made a certain kind of sense. The point is that those of you who don’t live in Britain and therefore don’t have easy access to a supply of clotted cream. need to know that Jean at Delightful Repast has a recipe on her blog. It looks simple enough. If you try it, let me know how it is.
This has nothing to do the joys and absurdities of British culture. But Kris asked, “Would ‘please?’ be enough to get you to relate your court experiences?” [I dropped a passing comment about them in this post. It may not be worth going back to, but the blogging rule book says you have to link back to your own stuff because otherwise the world will end ten minutes sooner than it would otherwise. And it’ll all be your fault. Enjoy your extra ten minutes, folks.)
So go on, then, Kris, twist my arm. The tone’s different than what I usually write, but I was looking for an excuse and this is as good as anything else I’ll find.
Our story, children, begins in the United States—that’s a largish country on the North American continent, sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, although Mexico doesn’t go from edge to edge so it acts more like half a slice of bread than a whole one—and it takes place at a time when the civil rights movement had swept from the American South into the North, where it was taking on the less obvious forms of segregation.
Or maybe we should make that less obvious to whites, since if you lived on the wrong side of those invisible lines they’d have been obvious enough.
I was both white and seventeen, and I was aware of the invisible lines but—well, let’s say I was aware of them in the way a white seventeen-year-old might be and leave it there, because it’s too complicated to get into where it’s not the point. The point is that, with a friend or two from high school and in a teenage sort of way, I’d been involved in the civil rights movement for some years.
It was 1964 and New York was about to host the World’s Fair, so various civil rights organizations had planned demonstrations. The U.S. called itself the leader of the free world, and racism, segregation and the unaddressed legacy of slavery were a source of national shame. Probably not for everyone, but other countries weren’t impressed. It made sense to say publicly, in front of an international audience, “Address this.”
One of the movement’s most powerful tactics had been passive resistance—sitting down, sitting it, refusing to get up when arrested, and generally being peacefully disruptive. So at a meeting before the opening day’s demonstrations, those of us who planned to go were asked if we planned to get arrested and we divided into three groups: yes, no, and maybe.
I joined the maybes, knowing that I meant yes but wasn’t ready to say it yet. I’m not sure why that was. Something about being seventeen at the time means that I’m now left with a lot of blank spots where my motivations lay. It could have been that as simple as not wanting to talk to my parents about it beforehand, but I’m genuinely not sure. I may not have known at the time.
Long story short, I got arrested when a few people who’d been more certain of their commitment blocked traffic into the fair and were carried into a police wagon—what was called a paddy wagon at the time. I’m not sure if they’re still called that. I watched the arrests, then I climbed onto the hood of the van to keep it from leaving. It was as unplanned an act as it was unsurprising.
A couple of cops hauled me down and I should have gone limp but forgot. I heard someone on the sidelines say, “Is she okay?” and took it to mean, Why isn’t she going limp? but mid-arrest seemed kind of late to collapse, so I climbed into the van instead of being carried.
Great moments in civil disobedience.
I appeared in court that afternoon and when my name was called my mother appeared. I have no idea who called her or how they found her number. Maybe we’d all given contact numbers before the demonstration. At the time, I was young enough that my mother appearing seemed natural. I was released on bail, feeling both relieved and reduced at being handed over to her.
My parents were activists—they were working as union organizers when they met—and they were proud of what I’d done, although I don’t remember either of them saying so. Maybe it didn’t need saying or maybe they said it and it seemed so obvious that I didn’t register the moment. I was seventeen. Seventeen-year-olds can be heartless that way.
Fast forward. I got a notice to appear in court and found that my case had been merged with the cases of fifteen or twenty other demonstrators. One by one we were called to the front of the court and the charges read out.
The case was adjourned.
I got another notice to appear. By now it was summer and I’d graduated high school.
Same routine. I thought a few more people had been added, but I wouldn’t swear to it. The bailiff stood below the judge’s throne, facing us, and read name after name, including one woman Sandy Something, who had a string of charges that were threaded through the list instead of being gathered in one place, so that he called her over and over. With each new name, the courtroom had to wait while the person worked their way past the everyone sitting between them and the aisle and then came forward to join our small mob. It seemed to go on for hours.
As he got further into the list, the bailiff began a quiet monologue that the judge couldn’t hear.
“And Sandy Something,” he said. “Don’t forget Sandy Something.”
We couldn’t laugh. We were facing the judge and had to stand there like nothing was going on.
New name. Someone else stood and came forward to join our group.
“And Sandy Something, Let’s not forget Sandy Something.”
Finally we were all assembled. The prosecutor talked. Our lawyers talked. The judge talked. It was all going to be postponed again. The lawyers and all the arresting officers were trying to find a date they could all manage.
“I’m so glad it’s Friday,” the bailiff said. “I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t Friday.”
We couldn’t laugh.
The lawyers and arresting officers tried a different date. Somebody different would be on vacation. Another date. Someone else would be gone.
No one asked us if we’d be on vacation. No one asked the bailiff either. He kept talking, although by now, in the interest of keeping a straight face, I’d tuned out the words. I couldn’t afford to know. The whole thing was bizarre. Here was this guy, chatting away to us, while this whole formal dance went on around us.
Another date, another conflicting vacation.
The judge stood up.
“You figure it out,” he said. “I’m leaving.”
And the law, in all its black robes and majesty, huffed out of the courtroom, leaving a moment of stunned silence behind.
As I remember it, they didn’t take much time finding a date after that and we all went home.
That was my last court appearance. The lawyers worked out a deal. The people who’d blocked the doors on subway trains leading to the World’s Fair pleaded guilty to an out-of-date law, interfering with a steam engine, and were fined $5, which even then wasn’t an oppressive amount of money. For the rest of us, charges were dropped.
Which is why, when I’m asked if I was ever convicted of a crime, I get to say no.
I’m not sure what that tells us about the legal system in the U.S. My best guess is that it’s only in New York that a bailiff would carry on that monologue and a judge would huff out of his own courtroom, It’s one of many ways that I miss New York. But in fairness, I haven’t made a full survey.
My recent post about British storms and railroads and leaves on the line set Dan Antion off on a stream-of-consciousness adventure that is–in places, at least–related. And where it isn’t? It’s moving too fast for you to notice or care. You can find it here.
If you got a notice that I’d posted “British Understatement” and then found it didn’t exist, that’s because I meant to schedule it for January 20 but forgot to set the date, so it posted immediately. I’ve taken it down for now but it will be back. Really. In the meantime, welcome to a glimpse of my real life.
In spite of all my principles, I’ve entered Notes in the UK Blog Awards contest (you’ll find an explanation here), and I’ve been reminded to remind you that the voting closes on December 19, at 10 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time. The company running the contest swears it’s excited about this. Or not just excited, super excited.
Do we believe them? Oh, yes we do. Every inflated word.
But I’m not above wanting to win, so you can vote for Notes in one or both of two categories, and those categories may or may not be appropriate for it. Let’s not lose too much sleep over that. I’ve never fit neatly into pre-existing categories and I’m not likely to start now.
Should you bother? I haven’t a clue. Self-promotion has never been one of my gifts. You may have figured that out by now. On the other hand, I’m not above promoting Notes, both for its own sake and for the illusion it gives me that I’m promoting my books, current and future.
Would winning help promote it or them? I have no idea.
Do I want to ask any more rhetorical questions that I can’t answer? No, I don’t think so. I’ll end here.
How do I know what the world wants to know about Britain? By taking a quick dip into the search questions that bring people to Notes.
Does that constitute a biased sample? Absolutely. I only see search questions related to topics I write about. So yes, this is completely unscientific. Will that stop me? Absolutely not.
Tutting: In my latest batch of questions, I found three about English tutting. Now, if you’ve never been tutted, you don’t live in England. Tutting is the way the unwritten rules are enforced. You butt in at the head of the line? Someone tuts you and your soul quietly withers. It’s not a subtle thing, but compared to what an American would do—“Hey, buddy, the rest of us have standing been on line here for, like, half an hour. How about you get to the back?”—it seems that way. It works best if you’ve been brought up to dread it, but even we barbarians know when we’ve been tutted and we don’t like it.
Lawyers’ wigs: I found the usual scattering of questions about lawyers’ wigs, most of them involving the word silly, including the one that wanted to know if barristers feel silly wearing them. After the first twenty or thirty years, I’m guessing they get used to it.
One writer managed to avoid the adjective and asked where lawyers in the U.K. get their wigs. Now that’s a new take on the subject. They get them at the Lawyers’ Wig Store, of course. Which has a separate entrance marked Courtroom Drama Wig Store. Customers meet in the middle and buy the same wigs but they can’t talk to anyone who came in the opposite door on pain of banishment.
No one ever asks if actors feel silly wearing those wigs.
Brussels sprouts: Now that Thanksgiving is past and the Christmas trees have been delivered to the stores, I’m getting questions about why we (we here being the British, so this is the British looking for information about the British) eat sprouts at Christmas.
Isn’t it strange that someone born and raised in this country is turning—or is directed—to me for an answer? It’s enough to make an anti-immigrant campaigner’s blood run cold. It’s enough, in fact, to make me want to answer, even though my first impulse was not to bother, since I’ve written about it in the past.
For the sake of variety, let’s do multiple choice this year: a) Brussels sprouts cast out intestinal demons that would otherwise trouble a person throughout the coming year. That’s why every British mother insists that her children eat at least one. b) They commemorate the fourteenth disciple, whose name has been lost to history but who was very short, even at a time when humans were closer to my height than to what we now think is standard. He was, in fact, so short they called him Sprout. Beansprouts weren’t known in the West until the 1960s, when the hippies discovered them and decided they’d solve all the world’s problems (you can see how well that’s worked). That was far too late and too fringy for a traditional Christmas dinner, so brussels sprouts it had to be. c) How many other vegetables are ready to pick in December? You eat what you can, then it becomes a tradition. And after that, you make up obscure reasons for it. d) All of the above.
The correct answer is d).
I should note that Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in the U.K., but Black Friday, the shopping day after Thanksgiving, has been imported, so a non-holiday ends up being a reference point anyway. Anti-immigrant campaigners should be having fits about this but don’t seem to be worried. There’s no understanding some people.
Why the British dislike Americans: I’ve come to think of this as the American Paranoia Corner. Some people at least ask whether the British dislike Americans, but others leap over that step and go directly to why.
So why do they? Because we think everyone hates us, that’s why. It’s not an attractive quality.
Related to this, in an opposites-attract sort of way, is “americans love living in britain.” (Google searches don’t use caps.) Someone else asked, “do americans like visiting britain.” (Google doesn’t use question marks either.) Yes. All Americans, without exception, love living in Britain and like visiting it. We’ll tear each other to pieces about everything else, but we agree on those two things.
Driving: Someone was looking for photos of narrow Cornish roads and someone else typed in a statement, “emmits can’t drive cornwall,” which is true and would still be true if it included the word in. My favorite, though, was cut short, because it was turning into an essay. It reads, “Official length and width of a passing place on single track lane in cor…”
I love this, because it so misunderstands the nature of Cornish single-track roads, which rarely have official passing places. What our narrowest (as well as some of our wider) roads have is wavery sides, as if the edges had been drawn by a drunk or a kid just getting used to crayons, and these make the width vary between narrow and narrower. In the narrow places, you can pass. In the narrower ones, you can’t. If there’s a field gate, you can pull over to let someone pass. If it’s not too muddy, you can get back on the road again.
I have seen passing places consciously carved out from the fields that border the road, but they’re rare and if anyone’s measured them it’s news to me. I’m guessing they were made by farmers for their own convenience.
New and interesting
Music: Somehow a question about Edith Piaf and Les Barker found its way to me, although their names appear here only once, buried deep inside a post about the differences in musical notation in Britain and in the U.S. I’d guess that the poor soul who typed that search was looking for the lyrics to a parody Les Barker wrote of the Piaf song “Je ne regretted rien.” Barker’s version was “Non, no courgettes,” and if you type that into Google you’ll find discussions of male and female courgette flowers and how to grow zucchini, which is American (and Italian) for courgette. Which is British and French for zucchini.
Don’t you learn a lot here? And isn’t it important stuff?
I didn’t go very deep into the list the great googlemaster offered me, but I couldn’t find either my post or the lyrics. Or a recording. Which is a shame, because the song deserves more visibility. Unfortunately, the lyrics aren’t mine to publish, so you won’t find them here, and as a public service I refrain from recording my singing.
Notes from the U.K.: Someone asked, “who writes notesfromtheuk.” I might as well confess: Fast Eddie, the cat, dictates it to me, mostly on Wednesdays so I can post it on Friday morning. I can pass it off as my own because he can’t read and wouldn’t bother to if he could.
Thanks, Eddie. You’re a great cat.
Two searches are looking for–well, it’s probably better if I get out of the way and quote them. The first reads, “driving throug narrow land writte on note back.” The second corrects that to “driving though narrow land written on note back.”
Narrow land written on note back. Is this the start of a fantasy novel? Is it bad typing? Whatever it means, it’s haunting, but I doubt the searcher found what she or he was looking for. I feel bad when that happens.
Notes doesn’t do blog awards. It says so somewhere in this sprawling mess, and for the most part I mean it.
R. Rieder nominated me for the UK Blog Awards 2017 in the Lifestyle category, saying, “Brilliant description(s) of living in and around civility. And to think we gave that all up to eat turkey one day a year…”
Well, who could duck a nomination like that? I went ahead and filled out a form to enter the contest, and it’s now open for votes.
Should you vote for me? Oh, what the hell, why not? You can do it by using this link between now and 8 a.m. (that’s probably Greenwich Mean Time) on December 19. I ended up entering in two categories because the form allowed me to. And because I’ve never understood what a lifestyle is. Whether Notes belongs in either is anyone’s guess, but you can vote for Notes in one or both. Or you can not bother. It’s fine with me.
Win, lose, or get tossed out for not taking it seriously, I promise not to think this means much. So I’m not twisting any arms here.
R. Rieder, thanks for one of the funniest nominations I’ve read.
I don’t usually send out links to other blogs, but this is from a blogger who lives in north Cornwall, it’s about the starlings that roost near us, and it’s got some very nice pictures. It’s well worth your time.
All you pronunciation hounds out there, you might be interested in Lynne Murphy’s post “Filet, fillet and the pronunciation of other French borrowings.” It takes up some of the issues I raised in “British and American pronunciation and other ways of getting in trouble,” only she’s a linguist and–oh, this is so sad–far more knowledgeable than I’m ever likely to be. Go visit. Enjoy yourself.
You get one warning here: I’m doing mildly heartwarming this week. With only the smallest dose of cynicism. Which is another way of saying that this isn’t about the recent American elections.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Wild Thing and I made a trip to Launceston—our not exactly nearest town—a few weeks ago, and as long as we were going we thought we’d deliver a photo she’d taken at a local bakery. You need a couple of bits of background here, so let’s start with the bakery. It’s the shorter bit.
The Little Bakehouse makes sourdough bread, and even though I make my own I love theirs. When we’re in Launceston, we often buy a loaf. When we don’t, we look in the window and give ourselves reasons why we shouldn’t. It’s not an easy thing to talk ourselves out of.
You know an area’s gentrifying when a sourdough bakery opens, and I know how gentrification kills an area, but the bread’s good anyway. And gentrification isn’t the bakery’s fault. Boycotting them wouldn’t bring rents or house prices down. So sometimes we get a cup of tea and a scone as well.
Enough about the bakery. Except that their scones are better than mine. Not to mention bigger. On to the other bit of background, which is about Wild Thing and photography.
After we moved here, Wild Thing got interested in photography, and even after macular degeneration reduced her eyesight she kept working. Which is worth a post in itself but I’m not the one to write it, so I’ll recommend hers instead.
From the beginning, she was most strongly drawn to street shooting—a kind of guerrilla photography that relies on catching people as they are, unposed and unaware—but she can’t do that anymore because of her eyesight. She can’t be sure who’s seen her and who hasn’t. Instead, she often asks people if they’d mind her taking a picture, and that’s what she did one day at the bakery in Launceston.
The man behind the counter said sure, and he leaned on the counter.
“What I want people to notice,” he said, “is that it’s noon and the shelves are empty.”
When she printed the shot, the clock behind him, which neither of us had noticed, said 12:25. And the shelves were empty, although a few loaves were visible in the window and on the counter. More to the point, from Wild Thing’s point of view, the man was as vivid a presence in the picture as he is in person. Plus the light from the window had picked out one side of his face and the line of his arms and torso was beautiful. You know: It had some of that photographery stuff that makes it more than a snapshot.
If I sound, in spite of myself, like I might possibly know what I’m talking about, that’s because I almost do. Back before cameras went digital I was a semi-competent amateur. My pictures were better than standard vacation shots even if they weren’t anything a serious photographer would admit to. I learned enough to let me throw a bunch of words around if I’m careful to avoid the ones I don’t understand.
I took my photography seriously until the day I shot a picture of two women in the aisle of the old (by which I mean, no longer there) Great Northern Market in downtown Minneapolis. They were talking about green peppers, and when I printed it, it was good, but without the green pepper conversation it didn’t seem to matter as much.
I stopped trying to make art and took pictures only of the kids in our lives. They had a clear use: a gift I could give them when they were older.
Then cameras went digital and I bailed out completely. Now I only take pictures for the blog, and I shoot in what Wild Thing calls drunk mode. You know drunk mode: You set everything on automatic and even if you’re falling over as you press the shutter you’ll get a picture.
But we were talking about the bread man. Wild Thing framed the photo to use in a show at a place in Bude called the Castle, which isn’t a castle, just a building with pretensions.
After the show came down, the photo lived in the attic until for some reason Wild Thing decided it would be nice to bring it to the bakery, since we were going to Launceston anyway.
We delivered it, bought tea and scones, and sat at a table to enjoy them.
Did I mention that their scones are better than mine? And bigger?
The bread man and the two women who also work there—one is the baker, who’s in back and does the important work invisibly, and the other works out front with him—ran around looking for a place to hang it, debating whether to put it where one of the awards was hanging or someplace else.
Eventually, the bread man came over to thank Wild Thing and say that several people had told him they’d seen him at the Castle. Which amazed us, because it’s not a building, or a gallery, you wander into by accident. You have to want to get there. We’d sort of assumed the show was invisible to the larger world.
What I take from all of this is that if you make a piece of art visible, it matters, even if it’s in a small way. If it’s the right piece of art in the right place, someone will talk about it, or think about it, or feel it, and maybe even be changed by it.
“The Bread Man” isn’t a life-changing photo, but even so, people saw it and felt it was worth talking about. And the bread man saw himself and, I think, felt recognized. It’s a small thing art can do, but it matters.