Parliament and the Queen’s Speech

Let’s talk about the queen and Parliament. Why? Because it’ll give us an excuse to visit all sorts of traditional English lunacy.

Sorry, pageantry.

The queen appears in Parliament once a year, to deliver the Queen’s Speech, which gets so many capital letters that even I’ll use them, and I’m an aggressively lower-case kind of person. In fact, I’m capitalizing Parliament under protest. I have no idea why I’ve given in on that, but I do draw a line on capping the queen herself. Forget it. She’s lower case like the rest of us.

But back to our topic. The Queen’s Speech is Important. (Sorry—I had a cap left over and needed to get rid of it.) Why’s it so important? It’s one of those if-you-have-to-ask-you-won’t-understand things. Traditions like this make their own reasons, and this one dates back to the sixteenth century, although the current version dates back to 1852, when Parliament reopened after a fire.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Trebarwith Strand

But let’s start with the older stuff: From there, we’ll gradually slide into the newer part–and we won’t any of us know when it happened.

To begin with, an MP (that’s a member of parliament) has to go to the Palace as a hostage to guarantee that Parliament will give the queen back when the hoopla’s over. (The BBC calls it ceremony. I was tempted to go with uproar. You can take your pick.) It’s not that relations between the Palace and the Parliament are that tense. They haven’t been for centuries, but why abandon a perfectly good bit of tradition just because it’s gotten old and silly? If we’re going to set standards like that, the whole country will collapse.

Then the cellars in Parliament have to be searched to make sure no one’s going to blow the place up, because someone did try roughly four centuries ago. His name was Guy Fawkes, and I assume the plot was real, although I should do some research and write about it one of these days. For now, though, if anyone knows enough to weigh in, please do.

While we’re waiting for that, though, we’ll turn to ITV to tell us a bit more.

“It was the State Opening of Parliament that Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters had in their sights in 1605. If they had succeeded they would have wiped out virtually every layer of British authority in one fell swoop. To avoid any repeat of the Plot, the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are still searched every year by the Yeomen of the Guard – the Queen’s traditional bodyguard – in advance of the State Opening. The search is only ceremonial – real life anti-terror measures take place separately and somewhat more rigorously.”

But they’re less picturesque, so forget about them.

During their search, the Yeomen of the Guard carry lanterns, which—I’m no explosives expert but I can take a guess here—aren’t the best thing to combine with the gunpowder they’re looking for. Maybe that has something to do with how sure they are that they won’t find any. Especially since (at least as I understand it) the floors they’re tapping no longer have hollow spaces underneath them because the cellars have been filled in.

You have to love this country.

Once Parliament is declared safe—or possibly before, since no one expects it not to be, except for the fact that the building’s falling apart and has become a fire trap—the queen “is escorted by the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment and street liners guard the whole route and present arms as the royal party passes.

“The Regalia – the Imperial State Crown, the Cap of Maintenance and Sword of State travel in their own carriage, ahead of the monarch, escorted by Members of the Royal Household.”

If you feel like you’ve dropped into a Harry Potter novel, you’re not the only one.

Okay, now we’ve gotten her to the front door. Or not the front door, the Sovereign’s Entrance, which for all I know is the back door. Remember, things got a little tense for a while between her predecessors and Parliament.

“The Queen is met at the Palace of Westminster’s Sovereign’s Entrance by the Earl Marshal and the Lord Great Chamberlain, who, as Keeper of the Royal Palace, wears scarlet court dress and has hanging at his hip, the golden key to the Palace.

“As the Queen moves up the Sovereign’s Staircase to the Robing Chamber she passes between two lines of dismounted Household Cavalry soldiers in full dress with drawn swords.”

So now we’ve seen her inside and she’s surrounded by people with a golden key and great costumes, although, sadly, no horses.

Is gold too soft to make a useful key? I’d have thought so, but none of this has any bearing on real life. It’s pageantry, so keys don’t have to open doors and cellars that no longer exist still have to be searched.

In the next bit, we run into a problem The queen can’t enter the House of Commons. No king or queen has since 1642, when Charles I barged in and tried to arrest five MPs and kind of, um, lost his head. The Commons may not still be pissed off about it, but no one’s forgotten it either.

It’s okay, though, because if the queen can’t enter the Commons, her messenger can, so Black Rod, runs over for her and the door is ceremonially slammed in his face to demonstrate the Commons’ independence from the crown.

Now I could be wrong, but participating in this tightly choreographed, queen-centered uproar doesn’t strike me as a demonstration of independence, but then—as people often remind me when something British makes as little sense to me as all this does—I’m not British.

Anyway, Black Rod’s full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, and he carries—yes—a black rod and wears fabulous, if outdated, clothes. He uses the rod to knock three times on the door that was just slammed in his face, and when he’s let in, he bows left and right while delivering a set invitation. (“The Queen commands this Honourable House…”)

Yup, commands. I guess that’s what passes for an invitation when you hang out with royalty. So much for independence from the crown. And yes, I’m sure someone will explain that the independence is political, or different, or specific, or all of the above, and I’m sure they’ll be right in a way. But I’m not British–or I am, but I’m also not. Either way, if you want to me to stop by for a cup of tea, keep an eye on how you word the invitation, would you? I don’t do well with commands.

The MPs are then led over to the House of Lords by the Sergeant-at-Arms, who’s spelled Serjeant and is carrying a mace.

Keep that mace in mind, because we’ll come back to it.

For the next stage of the ceremony, let’s turn back to the BBC. The link is above.

“MPs . . .follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords chamber, standing at the opposite end to the Throne, known as the Bar of the House, to listen to the speech.

“The speech itself is carried into the Chamber by the Lord Chancellor in a satchel. He hands the speech to the Sovereign and takes possession of it again once it has been delivered.

“Until a few years ago, the Speech was written on a rare form of calf’s skin known as vellum. It is now written on high-quality parchment paper.”

Do either of them feed through a computer printer? Or even a typewriter? Does the speech have to be written with a quill?

However it’s done, the queen doesn’t write her speech; all she does is read it out, and it’s basically a list of legislation the government hopes to pass in the next year—or occasionally two years—so it’s written for her by the government. Her government, as she (or the writer) puts it, as in, “My government will…”

And if she doesn’t like what the speech says? Tough. She reads it anyway. The queen’s supposed to be politically neutral. To my American sensibilities, the speech is a strange mix of the monarchical and the powerless, but it’s considered so important that when a government decides to skip a Queen’s Speech, say because they have a heavy agenda to implement and it will take two years instead of one, everyone takes notice.

This year–she gave the speech in June–she may have been signaling her opinion of the speech’s content. She traveled from the Palace in a car, not the traditional carriage (which looks like the one Cinderella’s godmother conjured up), and the procession to the Lords chamber was missing the usual heralds. Everybody in charge of anything was quick to point out that it all meant nothing—it was just a matter of logistics. And no one believes them.

But it’s harder to explain away what she wore: what ITV news called a day dress, along with a hat whose decorations looked a lot like the European Union flag. The hat ended up drawing more comment than the content of her speech. The going theory is that she’s not happy about Brexit.

‘What power? The power to deliver a speech she may not like although we can’t be sure because she’s not allowed to say.

What does she normally wear? Oh, lord. You really should go look at the photo, but I’ll do my best:

First off, a crown—the imperial state crown that’s already been mentioned. I’m probably supposed to cap that, but I just can’t face one more capital letter. I’d guess she has a crown to match every pair of shoes, but what do I know? She also wears the parliamentary robe, which is long and red and looks like it’s lined with ermine, although I wouldn’t know ermine if it bit me, which once it’s dead it’s not likely to do, so take that as a poetic way of saying it looks expensive. The lords in the House of Lords have ermine robes. At least those who aren’t vegetarians do. The vegetarians wear robes made from parsnips or something else that would easily pass for ermine if you were in the dark and very, very drunk. Which is probably what gave rise to the saying “Drunk as a lord.” It was originally “Drunk as a vegetarian lord who got into the parsnip wine,” but time scraped off the excess verbiage.

Where were we? I was trying to establish that I don’t know much about ermine but that I do have a reason for bringing it into the discussion.

Don’t you just learn a lot here?

This might be a good time to admit that I’m not entirely sure which piece of information comes from what source or exactly which piece of symbolism is displayed when. I’ve done so much cut and paste in trying to make a coherent narrative that I could easily mistake a parsnip for an ermine. But honestly, does it matter? We’ve seen so many symbols carted back and forth that we can be forgiven if we mix a few up. It’s not like we’re going to recreate the whole pageant at home, is it?

So let’s go back to that mace the House of Commons owns. Because, like every other symbol in this mess, it’s Important. It symbolizes the royal authority by which Parliament meets, as well as the authority of the House of Commons’ Speaker.

And, no doubt, its independence.

According to the BBC, “On each day that the House is sitting the mace is carried to the chamber at the head of the Speaker’s procession by the Serjeant at Arms.

“It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.

“Interfering with the mace constitutes gross disorderly conduct and is a contempt of the House,” and MPs can be suspended for it.

Several times since 1930, MPs have gotten mad enough to interfere with the mace. In fact, I chose 1930 because that’s when a Labour MP grabbed it and tried to storm out of the chamber. Was he going to take it home? Install it in his office? Toss it in the Thames? Sadly, we’ll never know because someone wrestled it away from him at the door.

In 1988, an MP was angry enough that he broke the thing—at which point you’d expect all business in the country to grind to a halt but it doesn’t seem to have.

You have to take a symbol seriously to focus your anger on it that way. It is, remember, an inanimate object. As such, it has even fewer political opinions than the queen. And in case you think such contempt of a governmental symbol would come entirely from the left, it doesn’t—it seems to be equally distributed between left and right, although I admit I haven’t made a spreadsheet.

You can read more about the incidents here. I’m particularly fond of the Conservative who lost it when a Labour MP sang the Labour Party anthem at him during a debate about the shipping and—as it’s spelled here—aerospace industries. If you’d like to stage that at home, the anthem follows the tune of “O Tannenbaum” (also known “O Christmas Tree”) and the first lines are “The workers’ flag is deepest red / It’s shrouded oft our martyred dead.”

It’s not the cheeriest set of lyrics I know, but labor history’s blood-drenched enough to justify it.

I don’t know the first lines of the debate about shipping. You’ll have to improvise.

What MPs wear in the House of Commons

Let’s talk about British politics. Specifically, let’s talk about the clothes involved in British politics. During June’s heat wave, the the House of Commons’ speaker announced that male MPs would not have to wear jackets and ties.

The building’s not air conditioned. I mention that because I come from America, as do a fair number of my readers, and the U.S. has reached to a point where people kind of assume air conditioning in public place. But not much in Britain is air conditioned. Summers are cool here, at least by American standards. You don’t need it, except when (briefly) you do. Besides, the hall was built in 1097. I’m not sure if the hall is actually where the Commons meets, but it’s the bit I could find information on. And it’s close enough to help us understand that air conditioning wasn’t part of the architects’ plans.

Irrelevant photo: Thrift, growing on a wall.

When the Financial Times wrote about the momentous changes that tieless, jacketless men would cause, it said the Commons had taken “haphazard steps” toward modernization—which it spelled –isation, but never mind that.

“MPs are allowed to use phones in the chamber, but are still required to employ archaic language rules, including not referring to each other by name. Independent recommendations to allow breast-feeding during debates have not been implemented. There is no electronic voting.”

It was only last February that the Commons clerks stopped wearing wigs.

Allowing phones has been a mixed blessing. When parliament opened (that was also in June), one MP tweeted a photo of the of the occasion, allowing everybody on Twitter to notice something she hadn’t: The MP in front of her was looking at his phone instead of listening to the speeches and his screen seemed to show a surprising amount of flesh.

Scandal, scandal, scandal!

The reason the speaker could rule on ties and jackets is that wearing them is a convention, not a rule. The ban on breast feeding is surely also a convention, since males rarely do that and rules date back to the days when women not only couldn’t become MPs, they couldn’t vote and were only supposed to breathe if their husbands felt it wouldn’t upset the household. So I’m guessing no one thought to write a rule against it–the it here being breast feeding, which I mention because, as always, we’ve wandered a bit.

Maybe we can hope for progress on that (again, that’s breast feeding) in the next decade or six. By which time the creepizoid with the phone may have moved into well-deserved obscurity.

And if he hasn’t? One or both of the following things will happen: 1) After initially being embarrassed/outraged/threatened/whatevered (I don’t claim to understand all the elements that drive him, but I do believe it’s more than the most obvious one) by seeing a woman breast feed in public, and after making obnoxious jokes about her, he’ll gradually become desensitized and maybe even come to understand that this was the original purpose of the equipment. 2) He’ll get older. The hormones he’s been enjoying so much will lose interest in him and move to someone younger and more promising, after which he’ll be left with nothing but a sad, vague memory of why all that used to seem so interesting.

Oh, and/or 3) He’ll become prime minister and swear that wasn’t him in the picture and besides, he was doing research on how easily children can access pornography on their phones and how damaging it can be to their careers. He’ll launch a commission to look into pornography. Et cetera.

Enough about him.

The tie-and-jacket business ended up all over the papers because this is Britain we’re talking about. It has its traditions. In fact, MP Peter Bone—a Conservative—said it was an example of dumbing down. I don’t know what he had to say about the wigs, but I’m sure he’ll be apoplectic when breast feeding’s allowed during debates.

The odd thing about his comment is that he may have been one of the people who rose to speak without a tie. I’m not even going to try to make sense of this.

Nothing I’ve found says what female MPs are allowed to do in a heat wave. They’re supposed to dress with comparable formality, whatever that means.

No MP is supposed to wear a tee shirt—especially one with a slogan—but occasionally one of them does and the fact that it’s frowned on means it gets all the more attention. When an MP wore one saying, “This is what a feminist looks like,” it made the papers. Ditto the one that said, “No more page 3” (a reference to the pictures naked women with improbable breasts–highly improbable breasts–that used to appear on page 3 of the Mail). [Sorry–it’s the Sun. I’m leaving the error so the comment correcting it makes sense.]

But MPs don’t get thrown out for wearing a tee shirt. What happens is that they become invisible to the speaker, who won’t call on them if they want to speak. On the other hand, if the tee shirt speaks loudly enough, that doesn’t matter.

MPs are also not allowed to wear armor in the chamber. I’m guessing that wasn’t a problem during the heat wave, but it is disappointing. If I were an MP, I would so love to do that. They’re also not allowed to speak Welsh (remember, the English conquered the Welsh way back when, and that kind of thing does linger; as far as I can tell, they’re allowed to speak in any other language), call each other by their names (that was mentioned above in a quote, but it’s so strange it’s worth repeating), or call each other pipsqueak, swine, rat, tart, or a few other out-of-date insults. The more modern ones don’t seem to be banned.

They also can’t accuse each other of lying or hypocrisy. Ignorance and malice, I think, are allowed but probably not done.

The BBC says,  “Breaking with convention has always been a way of making a political point. Oliver Cromwell wore plain, and not very clean, linen made by a country tailor, and a hat without a hat band.”

In 1900, it says, new rules were introduced to deal with the tall hats that were in fashion. It quotes Alfred Kinnear, an MP, to explain how it worked:

” ‘At all times remove your hat on entering the House, and put it on upon taking your seat and remove it again on rising for whatever purpose. If the MP asks a question he will stand, and with his hat off and he may receive the answer of the Minister seated and with his hat on.’ ”

Have you got that? Good, because it goes on, no longer quoting Kinnear.

“Until 1998, MPs were able to wear an ‘opera hat’ to draw attention to themselves to raise a point of order. Two of the black top hats were kept in the Commons, but they were scrapped by the Select Committee on Commons Modernisation because they made the House look ridiculous. [No? Really?]

” ‘There are still tags in the cloakroom for MPs to hang their swords on,’ says journalist Quentin Letts. ‘It’s a little red ribbon next to their coat hooks.’ ”

I seem to remember a female MP being told she couldn’t cross the lobby unless she was wearing heels, and there was an almighty flap over that, but I haven’t been able to find anything about it online. Who’d have thought there were so many unrelated issues involving MPs and shoes?

Traditionally, the speaker of the house wore what’s called court dress—knee breeches, silk stockings, and buckled shoes, and over that a silk gown with (or without, in the current speaker’s case) “a train and a mourning rosette (also known as a ‘wig bag’) over the flap collar at the back.”

I have no idea what that last bit means but that’s fine. I’ve found I can lead an entire life with no understanding of wig bags and mourning rosettes. Or silk gowns. Let’s think of it as an elaborate way of saying they look fabulous—in a bizarre and dated sort of way.

But that’s the everyday outfit. For state occasions, “The Speaker wears a robe of black satin damask trimmed with gold lace and frogs with full bottomed wig and, in the past, a tricorne hat.”

A full-bottomed wig is but the kind that flows over the shoulder, as opposed to the shortened wigs barristers wear. A frog is a bit of elaborate trim, not something you find in the local pond.

Recent speakers have been chipping away at this. Betty Boothroyd decided not to wear the wig. Michael Martin refused the knee breeches, the silk stockings, and the buckled shoes. The current speaker, John Bercow, has given up on court dress altogether, although once you eliminate the stockings, breeches, buckled shoes, wig, and three-cornered hat, I’m not sure what’s left. He wore morning dress under the state robe at state openings.

I’m not actually sure what morning dress is. In my house, it’s a bathrobe over a nightshirt, but then I’m not British and I think I’ve pretty well established that I don’t know how to behave. We can safely assume that’s not what he means.

“As seen at the 2015 State Opening of Parliament, Bercow further toned down the state robe by removing the gold frogging on the sleeves and train, so that it now resembles a pro-chancellor’s robe at certain universities. However, he returned to wearing the traditional robe in 2016.”

Which is a relief, because we all hate to see Britain dumbed down. And I, at least, need something to make fun of.

*

On a vaguely related topic, the Guardian ran a letter (forget the link—I’ve worn myself out) about how teachers were supposed to dress and behave in the 1950s. It quoted a handbook warning them not to get drunk on Saturdays or open the door in their braces. If you’re American, those aren’t on your teeth, they’re your suspenders, but if you’re British they’re not your suspenders because suspenders are those old-fashioned things women wore to hold up their stockings—the things Americans called garters.

Are you still with me?

A second letter writer—the Guardian’s letter writers are both insane and wondrous—responded with a tale about a teacher who not only got drunk on Saturdays but was found “wallowing in the horse trough outside his local declaiming: ‘Women and children first.’ ”

So no, Britain’s not all formality and good behavior.

*

I was going to end this by writing about what the queen wears to parliament on the rare occasions when she’s allowed in, but I’ve gone on too long. Another time.

I can’t end, though, without adding that the Church of England’s governing body, the Synod, just voted to allow the clergy to conduct services without wearing the whole formal regalia of–well, don’t ask me what-all it’s called. Let’s just say robes and leave it at that, okay?

Less formal churches have, apparently, already dispensed with the robes, so this only confirms and formalizes an existing trend, but since the Church of England is the Church of England, the change won’t become canon law until the queen approves. I don’t know if she can refuse her approval. Britain has an unwritten constitution (yes, it’s complicated; no, I’m still trying to understand it), which is another way of saying I wouldn’t know where to look if I wanted to find out the limits of her actual powers.

Anyway (she said cheerily), the world is ending. MPs can go tieless, priests are holding services dressed like ordinary mortals, and that teacher a few paragraphs up? He’s probably still in the horse trough, declaiming, “Women and children first.”

In his braces.

Ants, slugs, and bankers: snippets from the British news

Ants: Flying ants swarmed the Wimbledon tennis tournament on July 5. It’s called Flying Ant Day—the day the young queens, followed by swarms of over-amped males, leave the nest to mate, say wheeee, and start new colonies.

And pester tennis players at Wimbledon, which adds a certain spice to it all. If you’re (a) an ant and (b) into that.

The British press thinks this is a natural phenomenon, but it’s actually one of the ways Americans celebrate Independence Day, and it takes a lot of planning to nudge nature this delicately. For years we’ve been trying to get swarms of flying ants to disrupt British tennis, but it depends on Wimbledon getting warm at just the right time, so most years it doesn’t work. Warm weather’s hard to predict in Britain, and even harder to control.

This year we were only a day late–we were aiming, of course, for July 4. Still, that’s not bad, considering the variables involved.

You’d think that 241 years after we declared independence we’d be over it enough to stop playing pranks on Britain, but some things are hard to give up.

Semi-relevant photo: our pansies, which the slugs and snails just love

A week or two after they disrupted Wimbledon, ants went airborne in the Westcountry and our local paper reported that seagulls were getting drunk on them. The ants contain formic acid, which “disrupts the birds’ cognitive ability.” They’ve been reported flying into cars and buildings. (“Hello, emergency services? I just saw a seagull flying recklessly, and I think it was drunk. Could send someone to investigate?”)

(Sorry–I don’t write British dialogue well and normally I don’t try. I’m sure I should probably work a please in there somewhere.)

Anyway, one expert says they’re under the influence. Another says the problem was the heat. And the ants? “They are a good source of nourishment.”

I don’t normally go expert-shopping, but since almost everything I know about flying ants–actually, considerably more than I know about flying ants–is already contained in the few paragraphs you either just read or skipped over (thought no one would notice, didn’t you?), the best I can do is relay both opinions. So if you plan on eating many flying ants, you’re on your own, because I’m not sure which expert to trust.

Slugs: Naturalist and BBC presenter Chris Packham has asked gardeners to end their war on slugs. And although he doesn’t mention them, presumably on snails, which are nothing but slugs who live in fancy houses and—the world being what it is—get better press and less grief than their lower-rent relatives.

I understand Packham’s argument: Hedgehogs eat slugs. Slow worms eat slugs. So—apparently—do song thrushes.

So what? Well, Britain without hedgehogs would be like Britain without castles, except that castles don’t eat slugs so what use are they, really, in this age of nuclear weapons? Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are cute—and they eat slugs. Which is a circular argument. We need the slugs to preserve the hedgehogs and we like the hedgehogs because they eat the slugs. But we do get a bit of Olde English charm in the middle of the circle, so it’s all okay.

And slow worms? They’re not as central as castles and hedgehogs, but they are part of the British countryside. And even though they look like snakes, they’re not—they’re legless lizards.

What’s the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? No idea, but shouldn’t we keep them around anyway, what with them being part of the British countryside and all? Besides, Britain doesn’t have many snakes. We need slow worms to remind us how few snakes we have.

Okay, I’m bullshitting here, looking for something that sounds like an explanation. As far as I’ve been able to tell, the British are fond of slow worms. I’m sure they have a reason, but it’s not like this stuff is entirely rational.

As for the song thrush, I don’t think I’ve ever heard one but Wild Thing has and says their song is sublime. She was an avid birdwatcher before she lost part of her sight. She’s a somewhat less avid bird listener, not because she doesn’t love their songs but because she doesn’t have a gift for memorizing them.

So there we are. If you want humans to protect something in nature, you have to convince them it’s cute, cuddly, essential to the nation’s self-image, or a good singer. And if it isn’t? You find a way to link it to the cute, cuddly, etc. Which is how you go about protecting the slugs of this world, even though they’re slimy and slithery, eat our flowers and lettuces, and can burrow a full three feet into the earth. We need to protect them because our hedgehogs need them. Our castles need them.

So, if you kill slugs and you’re attacking Wind in the Willows and—oh, I don’t know, Winnie the Pooh (admittedly, those were stuffed animals, but that’s okay, they were very British and very cute) or whatever other stories formed our vision of the British countryside.

I agree with Packham about the need for slugs, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I’m a vegetarian, so you could be forgiven for imagining me as one of those gentle, do-no-harm people who go skipping through fields of wildflowers while taking care not to trample the bugs.

Bullshit. On most summer nights, I go out and slaughter slugs. And their upmarket cousins the snails. When I skipped a few nights recently, they ate so much of my lettuce bed that one head looked like umbrella ribs after the fabric had been ripped away.

So I’m not sure where to go with this. Buy supermarket lettuce? That only outsources the slaughter. Even our most innocent food comes at a cost. But as long as some other category of creature’s paying that cost, we do, as a species, have a tendency to ignore it.

My compromise, at the moment, is to pretend I don’t see the slugs and snails in most of the garden, focusing my slaughter on the veggies and a few flowers where they do the most damage. We have a hedgehog in the neighborhood, and every so often I wonder if it considers the slugs I’ve cut in half edible or if it needs them to be alive and slithering and in pain.

It’s a lovely world we live in. In spite of which, the hedgehog, when we saw it, really was cute. It made me want to go read Wind in the Willows, even though I never liked it and never finished it and it doesn’t (as far as I know) have a hedgehog in it.

Bankers: The tenth anniversary of the last financial crash is coming up and Mark Carney, the governor of the bank of England, wants us to know that the financial system is safer, fairer, and simpler.

Safer, fairer, and simpler than what? Presumably than it was before the crash, but the article I read didn’t actually name the point of comparison, so for all I know he’s comparing it to a WWF wrestling match. (No, I’m not sure what WWF stands for. It’s not the World Wildlife Fund. Let’s go with World Wrestling Foolishness. Or something else with an F. Foam, maybe. Filosophy. Farce. Fixative. Facial Tics. Let it go, people. We’re talking about banking. This is a digression.)

“We have fixed the issues that caused the last crisis,” Carney said. “They were fundamental and deep-seated, which is why it was such a major job.”

Before his reassurance, I was wondering when the next crash would come. And now? I figure it’s coming that much sooner. When they tell you it’s all okay, that’s when you need to worry.

In an earlier article, which presumably we’ve all forgotten by now, Carney said the U.K.’s borrowing binge was worrying him. And the day after he announced that everything was all fine, the morning paper said the Bank of England was worried that credit cards, personal loans, and car loans “could rebound on the banking system.”

I’ve been noticing articles about how shaky the economy is ever since.

So keep one hand on your wallet, folks. The banking system is stronger, softer, and safer than ever.

Or was that fairer, not softer? There’s a toilet paper ad I keep getting it mixed up with.

Of potholes and politics

People involved in British politics swear that politicians get elected (and unelected) mostly over potholes and garbage pickup, although it isn’t called garbage in Britain it’s called, um, something else. Not trash. And not dust, although the thing you put it in a dustbin, or a bin for short.

Okay, I googled it: It’s called rubbish, which is also what you’d call a team someone else supports.

Calling a team that is a great way to start a fight if you’re in a pub and it’s getting late and everyone’s well oiled. Just in case you need to know.

But I’m off topic again, aren’t I?

If, as someone famous once said, all politics are local, the residents of Steeple Aston in Oxfordshire are at the heart of political life. They’re worked up about their potholes. The council—that’s what you call local government, for those of you who need a translation—has been ducking the pothole issue, residents say, so in mid-May, after a rain had filled the potholes nicely, they floated a mass of rubber ducks on them. And called the BBC, which put some nifty photos online. I’m sure there’s a way to post them, but I have no idea what it is. You’ll just have to follow the link.

Relevant but fake photo: This is–as you may have figured out–a rubber duck. Or a plastic one but they’re called rubber ducks, so let’s not argue. We were getting on so well. The point is, it’s not in a pothole, it’s in a bowl in our back yard.

The Poke calls it the most British protest ever. I’m not sure what makes it so British, although duck races are a big thing at fundraisers and village fetes around here.

Fete, by the way, is pronounced fate. No, don’t ask me. I don’t understand it either. Besides, we’re talking about rubber ducks and it’s rude to interrupt.

For years, Wild Thing and I saw signs along the roads announcing duck races and for years we meant to go to one and didn’t. Then we found out they involved rubber ducks, not real ones, so now Wild Thing wants to raise a duck and show up with it tucked under her arm, saying, “I’ll thank you to enter my duck in the race.”

If it ever happens, I promise to post pictures, but I’m not sure a duckling and a cat are a good long-term combination.

Anyway, the only other reason I can think of for this being the most British protest ever is that the sense of humor has a particularly British tinge—dry, in spite of all that rain—but even so the claim seems a bit overdone in a country known for understatement. So maybe that should be “A moderately British protest.”

The BBC read through the county council’s website and quotes it as saying that any pothole the “depth of a coke can or the size of a dinner plate on a quiet carriageway” may need urgent attention.

If the ducks haven’t gotten them filled by now, I suggest that the residents follow up with a picnic—Coke cans, dinner plates, and whatever Oxfordshire offers as a substitute for the Cornish pasty.

You’ll find additional inspired ways to celebrate potholes in a second post on the Poke.

What really matters in British politics

You have to love British politics. We just had an election in which the prime minister, Theresa May—at least as I type this she’s still the prime minister, although I wouldn’t put any large amount of money on that lasting—was opposed in her bid to continue as a member of parliament by Lord Buckethead, Elmo, and Howling “Laud” Hope.

But before we go into detail, a bit of background for anyone who isn’t used to British elections: In spite of being the prime minister, May had to run for her seat in parliament, just like any other member of parliament. All prime ministers do. If she couldn’t keep her seat, she wouldn’t be prime minister anymore.

It must be humbling to go from wheeling a dealing and giving orders to begging for votes on equal terms with the rest of your party.

Especially when people don’t take it seriously.

Irrelevant and not particularly good photo: Buttercups. Sorry–I’ll try to do better next time.

Let’s start with the most dramatic of her opponents, Lord Buckethead, who wears a black cape and has a black bucket–or something black and vaguely bucketish–on his head. As far as I can figure out, he ran without the backing of any party. Political parties can be short sighted like that. Think of the publicity they could’ve gotten.

He describes himself as an “intergalactic space lord.” The article I learned this from says his real name is unknown, although for all we know he asked Google to translate his name from intergalactic space lordish into English and it comes out as Lord Buckethead.

Note to all reporters: Check your assumptions before you pass them off as facts. This stuff matters.

Anyway, Theresa May’s campaign, both in her own constituency and around the country on behalf of her party, consisted of droning the slogan “strong, stable leadership” at every possible opportunity. Buckethead promised strong but “not entirely stable leadership.”

That won him 249 votes.

He (or someone else with the same name and a bucket on his head) also ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 and John Major in 1992, when they were the prime ministers. In Britain, you don’t have to live in the constituency you’re running for office in—or even pretend to live in it—so running against a prime minister? It’s something you can do on a whim, as long as you have the filing fee, which is £500, and meet a list of fairly boring qualifications, such as not being a member of the police or armed forces, a civil servant, or a judge.

Buckethead apparently qualifies, and he even has policies. One is providing safe, effective opposition to Theresa May. Another is turning a safe seat (that means a parliamentary seat that a party’s almost guaranteed to win) into an ejector seat. A third is investing in schools, the National Health Service, social care, local infrastructure, and “other things humans vote for.”

He also promised to nationalize the singer Adele and abolish all lords except himself. And just to prove he’s serious about this, he has a campaign song.

Okay, I’ve heard better singers. Hell, I’m a better singer, because he doesn’t set the bar very high. But then the better singers I’m talking about weren’t singing from inside a bucket, so we should probably cut the guy a little slack.

Elmo also ran against Theresa May, but he only got 3 votes, probably because he appeared under the name Bobby Smith instead of Elmo. I mean, Bobby Smith? Who’s going to vote for him? On the other hand, he got to appear on the platform, dressed as Elmo, alongside May and Lord Buckethead when the votes were counted.

Lord Buckethead stole the show, though.

Still sticking with May’s constituency, the Monster Raving Loony Party (“vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party—The only sane thing to do in a world gone mad”) backed Howling “Laud” Hope, who won 119 votes and got to take the quotation marks home with him, since they appeared on the ballot. I don’t know if he had to change his name legally to appear on the ballot that way. It’s something Elmo should ask him about.

“Laud” Hope was also on stage, although looking at the BBC’s photo—which is wonderful—I’m not sure which one he is since he wasn’t in costume. The party could learn a thing or three from the independents.

But enough of Theresa May’s constituency. Let’s move on. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, had to run against Mr. Fish Finger (sometimes spelled Fishfinger), who according to the Guardian (see the first link) upstaged Farron’s victory speech.

Fish Finger took the name legally after a Twitter poll of 1,000 people showed that 90% of them would rather be led by a fish finger than by Farron.

What’s a Twitter poll? I don’t really know, but I suspect it’s one of those things where you ask 1,000 of your closest friends to agree with you.

Mr Finger (or maybe that’s Mr. Fishfinger) crowdfunded his campaign, raising £2,301. His page says he trusts “to Cod that you will keep giving.”

I was having a good time with all this until I read his twitter page, which (to the extent that I can figure out what he’s saying) is full of anti-immigrant crap and bad puns. Okay, full disclosure: the puns were on the crowdfunding page and I was willing to overlook them until I decided I hated the guy.

Strong opinions on the subject? Nah. I treasure my objectivity.

Still, he upstaged Tim Farron beautifully during the vote count. And got 309 votes. Plus he’s now the proud owner of a ratty-looking fish finger costume, and Halloween is coming.

And that, my friends, is what really goes on in British politics.

How British and American electoral systems differ

One of the strange things about the British parliamentary system—at least to this American, raised as I was on the fixed-term congressional system—is that the prime minister can call an election whenever the mood takes her, as Theresa May recently did. She and her husband were out walking in the wilds of I forget where and—never mind that she promised that she wouldn’t do this—she decided to call a snap election. Quick, while her party was well ahead in the polls.

This election was so snap that none of the parties—including hers—had a manifesto ready, which voters here think of as a necessity.

Now manifestos are new to me. Sort of. The only one I ever heard of before I moved here was the Communist Manifesto, so I just assumed the word had a heavily leftwing slant. But no, they’re mainstream as hell here. Every party—right, left, and center—puts one together to let voters know what they’ll do if they’re elected. This actually matters because the leader of the party that has a majority in Parliament gets to be prime minister and therefore, at least in theory, has the power to deliver on the party’s promises.

If, of course, any one party has a majority, which is by no means guaranteed.

Is this couple (not quite) holding hands and walking into the sea to avoid election news? Nah. They have a dog with them. They wouldn’t do that. It’s just a quiet day at the beach in Cornwall, with people wearing street clothes and jackets. The photo is, as usual, completely irrelevant.

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto promised free university tuition, which they argued would be fairer to students. Then after the elections, they went into coalition with the Conservatives and ended up not only dumping the promise but tripling tuition—which they now argue was fairer to students. They’re still trying to live that one down.

Neither the Lib Dem or the Conservative manifesto from that election said they’d reorganize the NHS—in fact, the Conservatives promised no more top-down reorganizations. Then they reorganized the NHS.

Twice.

Badly.

So you can see, these manifestos carry a lot of weight.

Still, people read them and consider them some sort of guide to what a party intends.

Under the American electoral system, no one knows what the parties stand for, and no one really expects to. The idea that either of the two major parties would be united behind a set of views or proposals is pretty much foreign to us. I think it was Will Rogers who said, “I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

We do know what the candidates say. And we know it’s likely to be forgotten as soon as they’re in office. (“I’ll build a wall. And it will be a beautiful wall. And Mexico will pay for it.”)

But getting elected in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee the power to do anything, so they have a perfect excuse.

All of this may be why American elections are so focused on personality. Or it may not. I’m guessing.

But let’s go back to the British campaign:

Once the election was announced, the pollsters scrambled and consulted the chicken entrails and reported that the Conservatives were on track to win a huge victory. The parties scrambled and eventually, after a leak or two, got their manifestos out. The Conservatives got a faceful of opposition to one of their proposals and announced that they didn’t really mean that one. The pollsters checked the entrails of a different chicken and reported that Labour, which went into the campaign so divided that it looked like a Civil War re-enactment club, was closing the gap.

More chickens were sacrificed. The results all contradicted each other and still do, but the Conservatives’ comfortable lead no longer looks comfortable.

Here in the Southwest, the chickens all moved north and east, and very wise they were, too. As a result, the June 1 Western Morning News, making a heroic effort to report on the local campaigns, was reduced to quoting the betting odds, which had the Lib Dems are favored  to retake two seats they lost to the Conservatives in the last election by 7 to 2 in one district and 4 to 1 in another.

It’s been an interesting campaign. We vote on June 8, after which the chickens can all come home to roost.

How to behave like a British aristocrat

British aristocrats have perfect manners, right? Of course they do. Here’s an example:

The—ahem—fourth Viscount St. Davids was hauled into court earlier in May for making threatening Facebook posts and, being an aristocrat and all, he refused to stand when he was addressed as Mr. St. Davids, insisting on Lord St. Davids.

Oh, lord.

But we haven’t gotten started yet. This is the preamble.

Irrelevant and somewhat weird photo: This is an alexander–a greenish flower that, to me, marks the beginning of the full-on (and by the way, gorgeous) Cornish spring. A friend tells me they’re edible, but I haven’t tried them. Yet.

Mr. Fourth Viscount has a name, it turns out, and it isn’t Lord, or even St. Davids, it’s Rhodri Phillipps—double L, double P, double I except the I’s don’t get to sit together because they made too much trouble in class at the beginning of the year.

I’m sure somebody with deeper roots in the country could tell me the overtones, undertones, and class meanings of the name Rhodri, not to mention of all those double letters, because nothing in this country comes without overtones, undertones and signals about class. With my shallow roots, all I’ve been able to figure out is that Rhodri’s a Welsh name and that Rhod’s (you don’t mind if I call you Rhod, do you Rhod? I don’t mind if you don’t stand. You can lie on the floor as far as I’m concerned. We’re informal around here.). I seem to have gotten sidetracked, so let’s start over. All I’ve figured out is that Rhod’s viscountery is in Wales. Which doesn’t make him Welsh, but somebody with deeper roots is going to have to tell me about that as well. To be Cornish, I’ve been told, you have to have four generations in Cornish soil, but I don’t think you get to be Welsh that easily.

In case you need to know this, you don’t pronounce the S in viscount. It’s VYE-count. Why do they use the S then? It was an alphabetical land grab back when the first dictionaries were being compiled. We’re lucky they didn’t snatch two or the rest of us would’ve had to do without in some of our words. Even as it is, Americans had to substitute Z for S is all the -ization/-isation words.

The VYE-counts had some serious power back. They got to spell things the way they wanted and got to write whatever they wanted on Facebook. Unless it was about the king, of course.

What do you mean they didn’t have Facebook back then? Of course they did. How else would they have managed?

Rhod’s family used to be mere baronets and only became viscounts in 1918. What’s more, their baronetcy only dates back to 1621. They had nothing to do with the way viscount’s spelled, which may account for all the extra letters they stuffed in the family name. It’s a kind of Napoleon thing.

So, what did this parvenu do to be hauled into court? He wrote on Facebook, “£5,000 to the first person to ‘accidentally’ run over this bloody troublesome first-generation immigrant…. If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.”

Yup, in addition to being hateful and racist, that sounds like a threat to me. And no, I’m not the person he was talking about. He meant Gina Miller, an anti-Brexit campaigner whose lawsuit forced a vote in parliament on whether to trigger Brexit. In practical terms, it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference, because Parliament dutifully pulled the trigger, but it may have established an important principle. Or may not have. I’m not at all sure.

It does seem to have upset Rhod, though. Because, after all, Miller’s (a) an immigrant, (b) a woman, and (c) of, I think, Indian heritage. Or something heritage. For the Rhods of this world, I’m guessing it doesn’t much matter what her ethnic background is as long as she has one. (The Rhods of the world, of course, don’t. They’re ethnicity-free. And right in all ways.) There are only two types of people: those like him and scum.

Or maybe that’s three: People like him; white scum who aren’t at all like him but do vaguely resemble him; and ethnically different scum, who are scummier scum than the scum who vaguely resemble him. Because he is the paragon of perfection. Because he has a title that’s not pronounced the way it’s spelled.

This is all guesswork, you understand.

But even allowing for some uncertainty, having the scum he disagrees with win a major case in court? Surely that lands us squarely in the territory of What’s the world coming to?

So, my fellow scum, how do we behave like aristocrats? We need perfect manners, of course, and we need to define perfect manners as whatever the hell we choose to do. Because if we do it, it’s perfect.

When the judge told Rhod the conditions of his bail, he laughed and mouthed “wanker.” In the most mannerly possible way.

Have you ever wondered why Britain maintains its system of aristocrats and titles and antiquated silliness? it’s because the rest of us need models of behavior that we can aspire to.

*

In researching this story, I naively punched “viscount in court” into Google. What did I find? A flat (that’s an apartment) for sale on Viscount Court; an old people’s home called Viscount Court; a lawyer’s office on Viscount Court; statistics about crime on Viscount Court; and an industrial estate (in the U.S., that would be an industrial park—I had to look it up because the phrase had fallen out of my vocabulary; that scares the hell out of me) called Viscount Court. So yeah, being a viscount is very classy. You leach into the geography and end up with old people’s homes and industrial parks sort of named after you. And when you’re not getting accused of crimes yourself, you can fill your time by looking up statistics for crimes committed on the sidewalks that share your title.

Sorry—not sidewalks; pavements.

Mugwumps, haggis, and whether Americans understand geography

If you don’t live in Britain, you may not have heard that Boris Johnson recently called Jeremy Corbyn a mugwump. So I have a couple of questions for you:

  1. Have you ever heard of Boris Johnson?
  2. Have you ever heard of Jeremy Corbyn ?
  3. Do you know what a mugwump is?

If you do live in Britain, I’m going to assume that by now you can answer yes to all three questions, since barrels of ink (real and virtual) have been spilled over this, but bear with me while I fill in a bit of background. Or skip ahead. I’ll never know.

Boris Johnson is the bad boy of the Conservative Party—one of those politicians about whom people say, “He’s not as dumb as he seems to be.” (Apologies for that “about whom.” I don’t usually write that way, but I couldn’t get the sentence to work any other way.) I kind of suspect he is that dumb, but he’s from the 1%– or the 0.1%–and went to all the right schools and knows all the right people. That can make a person look smarter than they are. Because they know the secret handshakes. Because they learned to say stupid things in Latin, which keeps the rest of us from thinking, What was the point of saying that?

So you know, they get hand fed all the stuff that really, really matters in life.

Irrelevant photo: It’s time for a cat picture, don’t you think? Here’s Fast Eddie, sleeping through the news.

Johnson started his career by losing a journalism job for making stuff up, then got another journalism job and continued to make stuff up but he was working for—well, let’s say it wasn’t one of the finer examples of the journalists’ trade, so they didn’t care. Then he went into politics and eventually became a leading light in the Brexit campaign, where he continued to make stuff up, including the promise that if Britain left the European Union there’d be scads of money to invest in the National Health Service, which desperately needs it because the party he belongs to is systematically starving it but has spent a lot of money reorganizing it. Twice.

I don’t sound bitter about this, do I?

And Corbyn? He’s the head of the Labour Party and he’s trying to move it sharply to the left, over the not-dead and loudly protesting bodies of his own party’s officials and Members of Parliament. Why is he the leader of the party if it hates him? Because a majority of the members love him. The party may yet end up exploding like an unpierced haggis in boiling water (see below–it’ll all make sense eventually)  but everything’s still up for grabs.

The newspapers also hate him, but somehow every time you see a picture of him he looks as serene as if he hasn’t noticed.

But back to our exercise in grown-up politics: Boris Johnson called Corbyn a “mutton-headed old mugwump,” and since then every journalist in the country has googled mugwump at least once, but you can do it half a dozen times and still come up with new definitions.

In one version, a mugwump is someone who’s independent, especially of party politics. In another, it’s someone who bolted the (American) Republican Party after 1884. (Sorry–I haven’t bothered with links for all of these. I got bored.) Other sources note that it’s originally from the Algonquin language and means, according to one source, kingpin and according to another war leader. Whatever the original word was, if indeed it was Algonquin, I suspect it’s been mispronounced into unrecognizability by now and I’m not sure I trust the definitions I’m finding either. History’s written by the victors, and I’m pretty sure the dictionaries were too.

Just to confuse the picture, Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling used the word and assigned it their own, completely unrelated, definitions.

What did Johnson think he meant? Who knows? I suspect he was going for sound, not sense.

Corbyn—wisely, I’d say—hasn’t responded, but his deputy party leader, Tom Watson, after holding out for a few days, took the bait. He called Johnson a “caggie-handed cheese-headed fopdoodle with a talent for slummocking about.” Translation? A left-handed (caggie-handed; Midlands slang) insignificant person (fopdoodle) with a talent for being a slob (slummocking about). And cheese headed? The first thing that comes up on Google is a cheese-head screw—a screw with a raised head. In the U.S., a cheesehead is a person from Wisconsin. You can even buy cheesehead hats to wear to football games.

Oh, hell, I think it’s football. Forgive me. I have a sports allergy.

Anyway, it’s not at all clear what it means but it sounds goods good enough that it might catch on. If only someone will assign it a meaning.

And in case you think any part of that insult was spontaneous, it was announced the day before Watson gave the speech where he was scheduled to use it.

*

While we’re on the subject of Boris Johnson, he used a major speech to tell the world that leaving the European Union would be good for Britain because it would allow the country to sell haggis to Americans.

What, you ask (if you’re not British), is haggis?

No, J.K. Rowling did not make it up. It’s real and it’s Scottish, but what it is depends a bit on who you ask. Wikipedia (at the moment) says it’s “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach, though now often in an artificial casing instead.”

A pudding, by the way, isn’t necessarily sweet. It can be pretty much any kind of shaky food. It can also be something sausagey. Or, irrelevantly, it can be used to mean any sort of dessert. Basically, it’s one of those words the British use to confuse outsiders.

It works.

MacSween says haggis is Scotland’s national dish: “Simply lamb, beef, oats, onions and spices, nothing more, nothing less.”

Let’s go with the first definition, since it’s the more vivid one. Convincing Americans to buy sheep’s lungs, liver and heart, sewn into a sheep’s stomach along with a bunch of oatmeal is going to be—how shall I put this? You won’t be able to fund the National Health Service on what you make selling that to Americans. We’re delicate little beasts who don’t like to be reminded that the meat we eat originally had internal organs.

And we don’t mix meat with oatmeal.

But I could be totally wrong about that.

Want a recipe? They this one. But be sure to pierce the stomach a few times. As the recipe says, if you don’t it’ll explode when you cook it.

Do the Scots know how to have fun or what?

*

I haven’t exploded any haggis this week, but it’s been a while since I had this much fun with politics. Donald Trump announced that Andrew Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War; he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

To his great regret (yes, I’m intuiting that), Jackson was already dead when the American Civil War started, but have you ever heard of American exceptionalism? It’s the belief that America is different (and although this isn’t usually said directly, better) than other nations. Jackson’s comment on the Civil War isn’t what I thought American exceptionalism meant, but I could’ve misunderstood the concept.

The flap about Jackson’s from-beyond-the-grave commentary led to new publicity for a plaque Trump put up on one of his golf courses commemorating a Civil War battle that never happened–the River of Blood.

Tell me, someone: How do we write satire anymore?

*

Derrick Knight asked in a comment, “Aren’t Americans renowned for having no idea of the geography of the rest of the world?”

Well, yes and no. It’s not exactly that we’re ignorant. What we’re doing is carrying on the tradition that brought European explorers to our shores to begin with.

But maybe I’m being defensive. Let’s look at a few statistics:

In 2006, National Geographic News reported that a majority of young Americans couldn’t find Iran, Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, the Sudan, or Indonesia on a map. Half of them couldn’t find New York State.

In a 2014 survey, six percent couldn’t find the U.S. on a map.

But the problem may be that they can’t read maps. Told they could escape a hurricane by going northwest, only two-thirds in the 2006 survey could find northwest on a map. But every last one of them could find both the refrigerator and the bathroom when they felt the need, so they’re capable of basic navigation.

When I lived in Minnesota, if someone had told me I could escape a hurricane by fleeing to the northwest, I’d have laughed my ass off. Minnesota’s too far inland for hurricanes. Tornadoes? Yeah, we got those, and the common wisdom at the time was that you should hide in a corner of your basement, but I never did remember which one. Not because I didn’t know northwest from southeast but because—well, you’d have had to see my basement to understand why a nice clean death by a tornado looked like a better idea than getting get trapped down there for a few days.

In addition to which my memory’s lousy and always has been.

The article also reports, “Fewer than three in ten [young people] think it’s absolutely necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Only 14 percent believe speaking another language fluently is a necessary skill.

“Fewer than one in five young Americans own a world map.”

And, basically, they don’t seem to care. Did Columbus own a map? If he did, did it help him?

So what do Americans do well? We have a great sense of humor about what we don’t know, at least if we can judge by what seems to have been a school assignment. Scroll through at least a few of these maps. I beg you. They’re wonderful. You might even ask yourself how many of the countries you could label correctly and if you’d have been as funny about the ones you don’t know.

*

I’m thinking about breaking up these longer, multi-topic posts and putting the individual parts up throughout the week. I’ll still post on Fridays–that’ll be my minimum–but the post is likely be shorter if I’ve posted during the week. Any opinions?

The Oxford comma and political activism

Back when I, very occasionally, taught fiction writing to grade-school kids (if you’re British, that would be—I think—primary school kids, and if it isn’t, little kids will get close enough to follow the story), some nine- or ten-year-old would always ask, “Do we have to use punctuation?”

“Only if you want me to understand what you write,” I’d say if I had my act together that day. If I didn’t, I’d just say yeah, they probably should, and move on.

But I loved the question. It’s so nine- or ten-year-oldish, and that age group was always the most fun to work with. The enthusiasm hadn’t been squashed out of them yet, and they had to skills to actually write something. Plus they asked questions like that.

Well, if somewhere deep inside you’re still wondering whether you have to use punctuation, and why, here’s a story for you:

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, on the grounds of Caerhays Castle–which given that most people around here don’t pronounce the R in any way I recognize as an R sounds like Ca’haze to me.

First, though, a bit of punctuation lore. There are two ways of using the comma when you’re listing things: 1) I ate eggs, toast, and bacon. 2) I ate eggs, toast and bacon. I’m a vegetarian but I’m not so pure that I won’t eat the imaginary stuff. But in the second sentence, I don’t get to eat the final comma, because it disappears.

In the U.S., we called that third comma the series comma, and it’s optional. In Britain, it’s the Oxford comma, presumably because the University of Oxford style guide recommends it although the dominant style says not to use it.

When I was in third grade, our teacher told us that we could either use it or not, and we should decide which style we liked. The series comma was more formal, she said. (My third-grade teacher was a man, but memory insists a woman taught us that. Maybe we had a student teacher, that day, or a substitute, although if it had been a sub there’d have been too much chaos for me to remember anything except, maybe, flying sandwiches. But let’s pretend memory knows what it’s talking about and call the teacher a she.)

I decided I’d use the informal style, because even then I knew informal suited me. I was very taken with the idea that I had a choice.

Years later, when I worked as an copy editor, I learned that most book publishers use the series comma. I didn’t ask why, I just went with house style, because that’s what you do when you’re a copy editor.

It turns out that lawyers like the series comma too.  According to the Guardian (I’d give you an American source–I found several–but they wouldn’t call it the Oxford comma, so we’ll go with a British one), a Maine law says that employers in three forms of work aren’t required to pay overtime:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…” three kinds of food—don’t worry about which kinds.

Drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy won overtime pay because the lack of a comma means it’s not clear that distribution is a separate kind of work—the law could well be talking about packing for shipment or distribution. And those drivers are distributing.

According to Maine law, an ambiguity in laws covering wages and hours has to be interpreted “liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose.” It’s not mentioned in the story, but the list of foods that I said not to worry about uses semicolons instead of commas, but it does use one to separate the final item–a series semicolon–so I’m guessing the intent was exactly what the court ruled.

Why those categories of work shouldn’t be covered by overtime is beyond me, but that’s a different issue.

One of the many odd things about Britain is that people—okay, a small group of people—can actually get worked up about the Oxford comma. I’m not sure what I think about that. It’s heartening that somebody cares. On the other hand, good lord, people, will you look what’s happening in the world? The comma’s the least of our problems.

But–maybe the comma really could save us–before I move on to a story about something else that’s happening in the U.S., here’s my third-grade teacher’s lesson on why we needed to use punctuation. He wrote some words on the board:

“The man ate the waiter watched”

Then he punctuated them two ways:

“The man ate. The waiter watched.”

“The man ate the waiter. Watched.”

We were third-graders, so we giggled hysterically.

I don’t remember anyone asking if we needed to use punctuation after that. And I only remember the words he wrote because in the second version watched was left hanging off the end—not a full sentence and not a satisfying sentence fragment, although I wouldn’t have had the words to explain why it bothered me at the time.

We end up remembering unfinished, bothersome stuff like that.

Okay, a story about the U.S., I don’t live there anymore, but I do follow what’s happening as best I can, and like anyone who’s politically active online, even marginally, I get emails urging me to write one politician or another, or to call about something, or to sign a petition. Lately, those emails seem to come by the thousands. And because I’m a citizen of two countries and a loudmouth in both, I get them from two countries.

So what happens to all those opinions that pour into politicians’ offices? A New Yorker article did a great job of tracing that recently. I won’t try to cover it all—go read it; it’s interesting, and if you wonder whether any of this matters it’ll give you some answers.

Briefly, most communications politicians receive fall into three categories:

Category one is communications about nonpartisan and often technical issues. These can often be effective, calling a politician’s attention to something neutral and fixable. Doing something about these things is safe and makes the politician look and possibly even feel good.

Category two is communications about partisan issues. These are unlikely to change the politician’s basic orientation, although they can call politicians’ attention to parts of their constituencies that they hadn’t been aware of—as in, Oh! I hadn’t realized I had a politically active Iranian-American community in my constituency. Maybe I’d better make some gesture in that direction as long as it doesn’t piss off some other, larger constituency or set of donors. (I do hope I don’t sound cynical here.)

Category three is related to category two in that it consists of opinions about partisan issues but a separate category forms when they arrive in a flood, which indicates that something important is going on out in the real world. That makes politicians worry about their reelection prospects. And that has a way of catching their attention.

Lately, the U.S. Congress has been flooded. Emails have been bouncing back from overstuffed inboxes. Phone lines have been busy and callers haven’t been able to get through. (This is a bit dated but may still be true–I’m not sure.) A Democratic senator reported that his correspondence from constituents went up by 900%. A Colorado Republican got 3,000 calls in a single night and a Washington Democrat got 31,000 in three weeks.

“The thwarted and outraged took to Facebook or Twitter or the streets,” the article says. “The thwarted and determined dug up direct contact information for specific congressional staffers. The thwarted and clever” sent faxes.” One Republican senator received 7,276 faxes in twenty-four hours. “The thwarted and creative phoned up a local pizza joint, ordered a pie, and had it delivered, with a side of political opinion, to the Senate.”

Much of the outpouring has been spontaneous, rather than in response to organizational requests to call or write so-and-so about such-and-such. No one knows if it will continue. But whatever the response turns out to be, it is being heard. Something’s going on out in the real world.

Lately, I’ve been getting a swarm of emails asking me to take a one-click poll about some burning political issue or some politician. Do I like/dislike? Agree/disagree. They need to hear from me. My opinion’s crucial.

I hit delete. Some of the polls reappear. Ellen, the emails say, we haven’t heard from you.

I wrote back to one, asking, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are?”

Oddly enough, no one got back to me on that, although I really did need to hear from them.