Sexism and tractor porn in British politics

You’ve gotta love British politics. Not for what it does or how it works but for its sheer insanity.

At the end of April, Neil Parish, a Conservative MP, was looking at porn sites in the House of Commons–so that’s during working hours and in public–when a couple of his fellow MPs couldn’t help noticing. 

A couple of female fellow MPs, wording that calls attention to the underlying fuckedupedness of the English language, since the word fellow tells us we’re talking about the male of the species, although we’re not. The language doesn’t offer us a parallel word for females or for humans of both or unspecified genders. But never mind that. It’s the language we have, so let’s work with it. We can argue about fixing it when we have the time. In, say, a few hundred years if the species (not to mention the language) is still functioning.

My spellcheck program (since we’ve taken a break to talk about wording) doesn’t stub its toe on fuckedupedness. It just smiles and continues across the kitchen to pick up the mouse parts the cat left in the night. So let’s assume it’s a word English relies on heavily.

At long last, I bring you a relevant photo: This lovely flower is called honesty. What could be more appropriate?

But back to our friend Neil: The aforesaid fellow MPs went public about him watching porn at work and all hell broke loose. And since the incident followed on the heels of another public incident of sexism in the House of Commons, it all turned into a particularly shit-filled shitstorm. (Spell check also accepts shitstorm. Don’t you love the way language evolves?) 

The earlier incident? One of our trashier national newspapers quoted an unnamed MP as saying that Angela Raynor, a leader of the Opposition (that’s the Labour Party), made a point of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the prime minister (who’s from the Conservative Party and male) when he was speaking. 

The nerve of her. Any decent woman would have wrapped said legs in burlap. (That’s hessian in British.) Honestly, none of this would be necessary if women would stop showing their ankles in public. How are men supposed to concentrate on running the country with women’s body parts on display everywhere they look?

Where were we before I indulged in that fit of decency? All hell had already broken loose about sexism in Parliament, and in rode Neil Parish and his (I assume) smart phone, although for all I know it could’ve been a laptop, with a bigger screen showing bigger pictures of improbably enlarged body parts.

After a bit of unconvincing waffle (he might have looked at porn, but it might have been by accident), he admitted that he’d watched porn in the Commons twice, but the first time it really did happen by accident. See, he’d been looking for pictures of tractors when up popped (so to speak) this porn site.  

It could happen to anyone. And to be fair, it’s no sillier than the excuse someone offered for one of Boris Johnson’s breaches of his own lockdown rules: He was ambushed by a birthday cake.

Which might or might not have been on a tractor.

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All of this opened the door to a public discussion of sexism in Parliament, and (refreshingly) it’s not just the opposition parties doing the talking. Women in the Conservative Party–again, that’s the party in power–have waded in, with one suggesting that male MPs should all keep their hands in their pockets, because there isn’t a woman in Parliament who hadn’t been subjected to “wandering hands.” 

What the suggestion lacks in effectiveness it makes up for in evocativeness.

I’ll spare you the specific examples. You’ve heard it all before, and if you’re of the female persuasion you’ve experienced it, but last I heard 56 MPs had been accused of sexual misconduct in one form or another.

To demonstrate how thoroughly the government doesn’t get it, the business minister announced that although there were some bad apples, “that doesn’t mean the entire culture is extremely misogynistic or full of male entitlement.”

If you’re ever following a recipe that calls for a half pound of entitlement and you don’t have one in the refrigerator, you’re welcome to dump that one into the frying pan: The person who doesn’t experience the problem tells the people who do that it’s not as extensive as their silly little minds let them think it is. Because he understands the situation better they possibly could.

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Not entirely unrelated to this is a 2020 survey reporting that MPs drink more heavily than the general population, with 29% of the ones who answered the survey falling into the risky drinking category. The survey doesn’t seem to have looked at whether they drink at work or after, but the building that houses Parliament is full of bars, and the booze is comparatively cheap. My money’s on a lot of it happening during working hours.

The business secretary (remember him?) said closing the bars would be an “excessively puritanical” response to the problem of sexism in Parliament.

At least he didn’t say “boys will be boys.” At least not in public.

 

The role of traffic cones in British politics

The combination of Tractorgate, Partygate (that’s Boris Johnson breaking his own lockdown rules), and epidemic government incompetence led me to learn a new political phrase: a cones hotline moment. It came into existence when John Major’s government had lost its way in the dark and decided it could generate light by launching a proposal so spectacularly lightless that it became Westminster shorthand for the moment when (warning: metaphor shift ahead) the rising water reaches the governmental nostrils and the only thing anyone can think to do is spend money on a phone line so people can complain about something they know won’t change. In Major’s case, the subject was roadworks. Which is disappointing. Based on the name, I was hoping it was about rogue traffic cones.

I owe thanks to Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, for that information.

Has the Johnson government reached its cones hotline moment? Possibly. As the cost of living soars and increasing numbers of people struggle to pay the rent, stay warm, and feed themselves (choose two, or in some cases one and a half), what does the government offer by way of help? Well, if you own a ride-on mower or a golf cart (called a golf buggy in British), it will save you some £50 a year by scrapping a European Union requirement that you insure it as if it was a car. 

Then it called on us to admire the glories Brexit has brought us.

Embarrassingly, the EU’s already scrapped the requirement. And it did so before Britain got around to it. But if the initiative appeals to you, I have a traffic cone hotline that I’d be happy to sell you. If you hurry, you can get it for 30% off.

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As people struggle to keep up with inflation and the government reorganizes the traffic cones on the Titanic, another Conservative MP delivered his informed opinion about food banks: The only reason people are using food banks is that they don’t know how to cook cheap, nutritious meals from scratch. And they can’t budget, the silly creatures.

The best answer came from Jack Monroe, a food poverty campaigner and a single mother who actually made a career out of recipes using cheap food:

“You can’t cook meals from scratch with nothing. You can’t buy cheap food with nothing. The issue is not ‘skills,’ it’s 12 years of Conservative cuts to social support. The square root of fuck all is ALWAYS going to be fuck all.”

 

In the US, Sarah Palin faces off with someone she’d have thought was an ally

From there, it’s only a small step to American politics:

Remember Sarah Palin? John McCain picked her as his running mate in a presidential election and a lot of silly people–I was one of them–thought US politics could sink no lower. 

Yeah, some jokes aren’t funny but I keep trying.

Sarah’s running for the House of Representatives, hoping to complete the term of someone who died in office, possibly of embarrassment. One of the people running against her is Santa Claus. He lives in North Pole, Alaska, possesses a luxuriant white beard, and changed his name from Tom O’Connor in 2005.

Yes, now that you ask, the new name has caused him problems with airport security once or twice. 

He used to work in law enforcement and although he’s politically unaffiliated his politics have more in common with Bernie Sanders’ than with Palin’s.

This is where I should insert something approximating a punchline but I haven’t come up with one. Sorry.

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In other US news, three former US officials–all unnamed, although presumably they had names soon after birth–told Rolling Stone that Donald Trump asked his aides, repeatedly, if China wasn’t maybe, please, using a “hurricane gun” to create hurricanes and send them to the US. And could the US retaliate militarily.

Maybe, he suggested, they could destroy the storms with nuclear weapons.

One of his press secretaris, Stephanie Grisham, said, “Stuff like that was not unusual for him. He would blurt out crazy things all the time, and tell aides to look into it or do something about it. His staff would say they’d look into, knowing that more often than not, he’d forget about it quickly – much like a toddler.”

 

Vigilantes face down the vigilantes

Remember Canada’s convoy of honking trucks protesting Covid restrictions? Well, a similar convoy gathered, complete  with bullhorns, outside a California lawmaker’s home to protest her work on a bill that would end coroner investigations of still births and require state businesses to mandate Covid vaccines for their employees.

That’s one bill? Apparently. Or maybe they’re two separate bills these guys objected to. Don’t ask me.

This convoy was run out of town by the legislator’s neighbors, who threw eggs and jumped onto the trucks to go nose to nose with the drivers. 

That’s the annoying thing about threatening, vigilante-type behavior: It’s only fun when you’re winning. 

 

And from the world of conspiracy theories

Have you heard of the claim that birds aren’t real? It occupies an uncomfortable space between conspiracy theory and satire. It started right after Trump was elected, when a guy named Peter McIndoe was watching the women’s march in Memphis and noticed some counterprotesters, who he described as “older, bigger white men, . . . aggravators .  . . encroaching on something that was not their event.”

He made a placard saying, “Birds aren’t real,” and joined them. The idea was to make an absurdist statement. When people asked what it meant, he ad libbed, saying he was part of a movement that had been around for fifty years and had tried and failed to save American birds, which were destroyed by the deep state and replaced with feathered surveillance drones.

Someone filmed him and put it on Facebook, where it went viral. Then it became a movement. People have chanted it at high school football games and shown up here and there with banners and signs. Admittedly, it didn’t spread all on its own. Once he saw what was happening, he gave it a fair bit of encouragement and some organizational structure. 

So how many people get the joke? 

Some. 

McIndoe gives interviews in character as a conspiracy believer, and some of his interviewers–the shock jocks of the world–treat him not quite as if he’s bringing the truth down from Mount Whatever but not as an obvious nutburger. They don’t say, “You do know that’s bonkers, right?” They’re noncommittal. They say things like, “Huh. That’s bad.”

“Real conspiracy theorists will approach me like I’m their brother,” McIndoe said, “like I’m part of their team. They will start spouting hateful rhetoric and racist ideas, because they feel as if I’m safe.” 

It sounds like that’s evolving, though. Now “they think Birds Aren’t Real is a CIA psy-op. They think that we are the CIA, we’re put out there as a weapon against conspiracy theorists.”

For the people who do get the joke, though, “It is a collective role-playing experiment. There is true community found through this, it breaks down political barriers. We have taken pictures of a car park at a Birds Aren’t Real rally. There are people who will show up with a US flag on their car, Republican, patriotic, and a car right next to them with Bernie Sanders stickers. I was a Bernie guy myself. You see these people marching together, unified.”

I wouldn’t count on it to heal the fractured country, but it might offer us a short vacation from focusing on the conflict.

 

And unrelated to any of that

I just discovered that Yahoo, in its wisdom, has been dumping several categories of WordPress notifications into my spam folder, which I haven’t checked since our older dog was a kitten. I thought it had gotten quiet out there, but I’ve been stretched thin enough that I didn’t give it much thought. On top of that, WordPress itself has indulged in a badly judged fit of self-improvement and most of its notifications no longer let me drop in on the blogs of the people who send them, which I enjoyed doing before WP tripped over its own feet and made that somewhere between difficult and impossible. So if you’ve noticed my absence (I wouldn’t have, so I’m not expecting you to be moping over it), we have two entities to blame–and neither of them are me.

Party news from Britain and–oh, you know, other places

The recent news from Britain demonstrates my theory that politicians aren’t brought down by corruption, by undermining democracy, or by heartlessness toward the vulnerable. It’s the human-size scandals that do them in. Not the kind that  wreck a country–we’ve developed a high tolerance for country-wrecking–but the ones that show the politicians as human-size jerks, people no larger than ourselves who we can afford to wipe off our plates.

Yes, it restores my faith in the basic lunacy of my species. (I’m assuming that’s your species as well.)

What’s happened, you ask? Or you ask if you’re not British, because over here we’ve been following this with either glee or despair or fury, depending on our pre-existing political convictions, our temperaments, and how warped our senses of humor are. Or in my case with a destabilizing mix of both glee and despair–a mix that leaves me wondering what kind of excuse for a human being I really am.

What I’m talking about is a drip feed of stories about Boris Johnson–Britain’s prime minister when he can spare the time and attention–along with the circle around him having broken every rule of the Covid lockdown that they imposed on everyone but themselves. At a time when people couldn’t be with family members as they died, Johnson and his cohort were holding parties. Or gatherings. Or work events. With wine and cheese. And, for one of them, a bring-your-own-booze invitation. 

Irrelevant photo: Cornwall’s trees may not tell you which way the wind’s blowing at any given moment, but they do let you know where the prevailing winds come from.

At a time when extended families couldn’t meet in parks, never mind at funerals, they were holding more work events involving alcohol. And in the spirit of screaming irony, dozens of people from the Cabinet Office’s Covid task force showed up at one of them. On the same day the government tweeted that workplaces couldn’t hold Christmas lunches or parties.

The prime minister has variously said that he wasn’t at one or another of them, that he was there but thought he was attending a work meeting, that no one told him they broke the rules, and that he was there but is really, really sorry, especially about the party the day before Prince Phillip’s funeral, which (this being Britain and all) may be the one that sinks him. 

On the other hand, the video of Johnson dancing around with a light saber isn’t from any of the lockdown gatherings. Fact checkers have established that it predates the pandemic.

You feel better now, right?

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Meanwhile, Michael Fabricant, a Member of Parliament from Johnson’s own Consevative Party, accused the BBC of attempting a coup.

How? By covering the Partygate story. 

“This is not news reporting an event,” he said. “This relentless news creation is a coup attempt against the prime minister.”

What the hell, a coup attempt made big news in the U.S. I expect he thought tossing the phrase into the conversation would trigger the same sort of attention here. 

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At more or less (mostly less) the same time and no doubt backing the BBC’s coup attempt, dozens of people in dark suits, Boris Johnson masks, and floppy blond wigs turned up in Trafalgar Square and outside Downing Street with beer, wine, music, and British flags to drink, dance, and chant, “My name is Boris,” and “This is a work event.”

I heard some pundit on the news saying that when the political response shifts from anger to mockery, a politician’s career is over. Stay tuned and we’ll see if it’s true.

 

And in party news from elsewhere

A December 30 charter flight from Montreal to Cancun, Mexico got so rowdy that the passengers were banned from their return flight

The trip had been organized by something that describes itself as an “exclusive private group,” the 111 (pronounced  Triple One) Private Club. 

If exclusivity depends on who you exclude, I’m happy to be among the people who get left out of this.

The passengers drank and danced in the aisles, maskless, and of course video’d themselves to provide evidence. Because nothing that happens happened if you don’t have a selfie to prove it. 

The airline they flew down on, Sunwing, canceled their return flight. It did negotiate with Triple One about taking them back, and it got as far as agreeing that the passengers would show up sober and not be served any alcohol on the flight, but negotiations broke down over food: Sunwing said it wouldn’t serve meals. Triple One said that on a five-hour flight they’d fade away without it. 

Okay, I haven’t a clue what Triple One actually said, but negotiations did break down at that point. Last I heard Triple One said it was working to get the passengers home and two other airlines also refused to have them on board. I

Who were these little charmers? Influencers. Reality TV stars. A small handful of the organizer’s business partners. They were facing  fines when they got home. And possibly jail time, which gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the word  reality

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And finally, an Australian four-year-old wanted to have a party of his own–he had a birthday coming up–and used his father’s phone to order $1,139 worth of cake and ice cream, including a personalized birthday cake, from Uber Eats. It was delivered to the fire station where the boy’s father works, and the firefighters accepted the order.

What sane person, after all, would ask questions before accepting a thousand dollars worth of cake and ice cream? 

Uber Eats agreed to refund the money and the parents are speaking to the kid again, although I don’t know if he got to eat any of the stuff he ordered. Which doesn’t make it much of a party for him. 

Boris Johnson will be drafted in to consult with him on his party planning as soon as he’s booted out as prime minister.

The north-south divide in English history

If you’re in the mood to break England into bite-size chunks, look no further than the handy north-south divide. It’s scored so deeply into the body of the country that you can treat the place like one of those candy bars you’re meant to share with a friend.

You want north or south? Choose carefully, because your fortune will rise or fall depending on which you take.

The north-south divide is not only recognized by Lord Google, it’s the organizing thesis of The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes, which I’ll be leaning on heavily here. Focusing a history so heavily on a single thesis damn near guarantees oversimplification, but it also gives the story coherence, which makes for a readable book. If you’re looking for a manageable, memorable history of England, this one works well.

And in favor of focusing on the north-south divide, it does tangle itself into England’s history, economics, culture, language, and geography, and it influences Britain’s politics to this date.

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, or rose-of-sharon.

 

What am I talking about? 

The difference between richer southern England and the poorer north, although when we’re talking about southern England, what we really mean is the southeast, which is in turn heavily weighted toward London and the area that surrounds it. 

Where does the country divide? Draw a line along the River Trent, if you can find it, then extend it to the west coast. Next draw a line along the River Tamar to keep Cornwall out of the discussion and another one down the Welsh border to do the same for Wales. The part of Britain on the lower right is southern England. The part at the top is northern England until you get to Scotland, then it’s not England at all. 

I’d have told you to draw a line along the Scottish border, but it moved around over the centuries and I don’t want you starting any wars. 

Let’s trace the divide through a series of colonizers:

The Romans: The Romans held the island’s richest agricultural land, a.k.a. the south. The division may have been a factor before the Roman invasion, but the thing about people without a written language is that they don’t write, so the pre-Roman Britons didn’t leave us much in the way of detailed history. We’ll skip them.

The Anglo-Saxons: In the 8th century, the chronicler Bede, who may be more recognizable if I call him the Venerable Bede, mentions a division between the north Saxons and the south Saxons. I can’t do much more than nod at that, unfortunately, and acknowledge that the division struck him as worth mentioning. The difference could trace back to the island’s geography or to the Romanization of the south or to both. Or it could just seep out of the rocks. 

The Vikings: When the Vikings shifted from raiding to colonizing, the part of England they colonized was the north, both reinforcing the differences and adding layers of cultural and political spice to the sauce. 

The Normans: When Hawes asks why the Normans, with a small fighting force, were able to not just conquer but hold England, one of the reasons he cites is that the English couldn’t mobilize the whole country against them. There was resistance, but it wasn’t the sort of coordinated uprising that might have succeeded. And so the Normans made themselves lords of both northern and southern England, and they kept their own language, Norman French, which not only separated them from the conquered English but at least for a while united the conquerors. 

 

Language

What about the common people–the English? Some small segment of the Anglo-Saxon upper class became Normanized, and the key to that was adopting the French language. Below that level, commoners spoke English, but by the fourteenth century, northern and southern English speakers could barely understand each other. Hawes quotes John of Trevisa on the subject, and we’ll get to the quote in a minute, but first, John of Who? 

John of Trevisa, a contemporary of Chaucer’s and not to be confused with John of Travolta, although Lord Google would be happy to take you down that rabbit hole if you’re interested. The J of T we’re interested in came from Cornwall and was a native speaker of Cornish, but his legacy is a body of scholarly work in English–not in Cornish but more to the point not in Latin and not in French. Choosing English over those last two was a radical act.

Are we ready to go on? Let’s do the quote: “It seemeth a great wonder how English, that is the birth-tongue of English men, and their own language and tongue, is so diverse of sound in this island. . . . All the longage of the Northumbres, and specially at York, ys so sharp, slytting, and frotyng, and vynschape, that we southern men may that longage scarcely understonde.”

Please appreciate that comment, because it hospitalized my spell check program.  

The things I sacrifice for this blog.

Lord Google and I are at a loss over what vynschape means, and we’re not doing any better with frotyng, although for no clear reason I have the illusion that I could understand it if I’d just give it another moment’s thought.

The linguistic divide was still holding in 1490, when a northern merchant was becalmed off the Kent coast, in the south. He went ashore to buy supplies, asking in northern English for meat and eggs, “And the good wife answered that she could speak no French.”

Was the aristocracy as divided as the commoners? By the end of the fourteenth century, court life was shifting from French to English, so the power of French to unite the Normans might–and I’m speculating here–have been on the wane. Either way, heraldry divided the aristocracy into Norroy (the northern realm) and Surroy (the southern one), and the aristocratic families built alliances and power blocs based at least in part on geography.

 

Power

Hawes presents the War of the Roses as a particularly bloody outbreak of the north-south divide and sees Elizabeth I as consolidating the south’s rule over the country. One result of this consolidation was that the southern version of English became the dominant one. The first handbook for English-language writers, from 1589, advised writers not to use “the termes of Northern-men . . . nor in effect any speech used beyond the river of Trent.” (George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie

England’s class structure did allow people to move up the ladder, but to do that they needed to speak southern English. Economic, cultural, and political power all wrapped around each other, and around language and geography. 

Let’s fast forward to James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland, since after Liz’s death England imported him from Scotland in a desperate effort to keep England Protestant. This meant that, awkwardly, he was ruling two kingdoms, one stacked (at least on a map) on top of the other. He proposed to unite them and make himself the “King of Great Britaine.”

The English elite–for which you can read England’s southern elite–blocked the move. Parliament was by now a force in English politics and inviting Scotland to the party would’ve diluted southern power. 

From there we hit Fast Forward again and stop at the English Civil War, where Hawes sees the geographical divide still at work: The north was resisting rule from the south, and it was ready to make an alliance with the Celts–Cornwall and Wales (I’m leaving Scotland out of the discussion since it pops up on both sides of the war). In this reading, the king and Parliament, along with religious beliefs and demands for equality, aren’t incidental but they were being driven by underlying forces that generally go unacknowledged.

 

Union

When England and Scotland did finally become one country and Daniel Defoe traveled “the whole island of Great Britain,” he treated northern England and Scotland as more or less the same place. England, for him, was effectively the south. 

For a time, the Industrial Revolution changed the calculations. The south still had the richest agricultural land, but the north had coal, and it now fueled industries of all sorts. The northern elite got rich and northern cities got big. The drive to expand the vote was fueled in part by the northern elite’s drive to gain political power that would match to its economic strength. 

The north’s power lasted until finance outweighed manufacturing. 

Hawes talks about the country having two middle classes during at least part of the Industrial Revolution, one in the north and one in the south–and it’s worth mentioning here that the British middle class, especially at the time we’re talking about, sits higher up the social ladder than the American one. The southern middle class made its money in finance and commerce and the northern one in manufacturing. The southern middle class belonged to the Church of England and the northern one tended toward dissenting religions–and since that meant their children wouldn’t be accepted by the elite universities they started their own. 

By the 1850s, though, boarding schools for the middle class were opening. They were modeled on the elite boarding schools and their explicit purpose was to educate the sons of the northern elite to become like the sons of the southern. And it worked. Northern boys picked up the southern accent, learned what clothes would mark them as part of the in crowd, and played all the right sports. Basically, money and the fairy dust of southern culture allowed northerners to move upward. Not to the top rungs of the elite, of course–you had to be born into the right families for that–but to the bottom rungs of the upper rungs.

What the hell, upward is upward, and a lot of people were scrambling for those rungs.

Starting in the 1870s, the southern elite’s accent started to be called Received Pronunciation, or RP, and if you had any sort of ambitions, you damn well needed to sound like it was your natural accent. 

 

RP

In the 1920s, the BBC began broadcasting, and if you couldn’t reproduce RP convincingly, you weren’t one of its broadcasters . At roughly the same time, a report on teaching English in England insisted that all children should learn RP–as a foreign language if necessary.

RP was considered standard English and everything else was a dialect. And in case it’s not clear, dialect was bad. If you wanted to move up the ranks in the armed forces, you needed the right accent. If you wanted to be taken seriously in finance, in business, in education, you needed the right accent. Although as Hawes says, the ordinary English didn’t give a damn, they just wanted to sound like Americans. BBC English was no match for Hollywood films. 

 

Disunion

When Ireland became independent, the arithmetic of north-south power shifted. The Conservative Party’s base was southern England, and although it had opposed Irish independence, once Ireland left the party discovered that it was now easier for it to dominate the House of Commons. Reducing the number of MPs had made its southern base more powerful.

And if Scotland leaves the union–which the Conservatives oppose, at least publicly–they’re likely to find that Parliament becomes even easier to dominate–at least if they can hold onto their southern base. 

How MI5 keeps Britain’s secrets safe-ish, and other news from Britain

MI5 has warned LinkedIn users that they’re at risk of spilling the nation’s secrets. 

Let’s take that apart, okay? What’s MI5? 

It’s the British domestic security service. MI6 does the overseas spookery. To quote its own website, “MI5’s mission is to keep the country safe. For more than a century we have worked to protect our people from danger whether it be from terrorism or damaging espionage by hostile states.” 

Some other agency gets to deal with non-damaging espionage. 

MI5 is also dedicated to keeping the nation safe from commas, both the necessary kind and, the, unnecessary, sort. 

Irrelevant photo: It’s red berry season. I have no idea what these are. They’re not edible, though, at least as far as I know.

Linguistic problems aside, though, they’re spies. Or counter-spies, but countering spies can involve doing a bit of spying, because otherwise how do you know what your presumed spies are up to? Every country has some, although it’s bad manners to say so. When Lord Google directed me to MI5’s website, I got a brief message saying the site wasn’t available and thought, Ooh, that really is secretive. Then, disappointingly, it loaded. 

Maybe they used the pause to snip out the commas.

Next question: What kind of secret is the great British public at risk of spilling? 

The sad truth is that not many of us hold secrets anyone cares about. The people MI5’s worried about work in government and key industries, and MI5 says some10,000 UK nationals have been approached by hostile states on LinkedIn (which they don’t mention by name–they’re good at keeping secrets) over the past five years.

How does that work? Your average hostile state sets up a non-hostile fake profile, connects with likely users, and offers them speaking gigs, travel, business deals, lollipops, whatever sounds enticing. It all looks legit, not to mention flattering and lucrative. Presumably, these lure the targets into flapping their gums about whatever they’re supposed to be keeping secret. 

People who’ve been working from home since the start of the pandemic are said to be more vulnerable to these approaches, possibly because they’re working on less secure home computers, but possibly because they’re bored out of their skulls and lonely. 

Or possibly not. Maybe MI5 just threw the pandemic into the explanation to make it newsworthy.

 

Meanwhile, in other countries

In the US–you may well know this–Texas passed a law making abortions illegal if you’ve been pregnant for more than six weeks. Even if the preganancy’s the result of rape or incest. Even if you didn’t know you were pregnant until you were 6.1 weeks along. It’s also now illegal to help anyone get an outlawed abortion, and the law creates an odd, and potentially threatening, situation where individuals, not the state, are supposed to enforce it. So an antiabortion group set up a whistleblower website, and TikTokers promptly flooded it with Shrek memes, pornography,, and fake reports. 

My favorite report is an accusation against the State of Texas for maintaining the highways people use to reach abortion centers, although the 742 accusations against Texas’s governor run a close second.All 742 were all sent by one woman. Anyone who was even vaguely interested could find information online about how to convince a computer to submit mass reports.

Shortly after that started, the site’s host, the ironically named GoDaddy, kicked the site off its platform. It’s not considered nice to collect private information about third parties. The site moved to another platform, Epik, which (I’ve read but not confirmed) hosts assorted ultra-right and outright fascist sites. Then Epik kicked them off for pretty much the same reason. 

It was kicked off a couple of other platforms and last I heard had dropped out of sight..

The law, however, has not.

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A Spanish bishop, Xavier Novell, resigned after falling in love not just with another human being but with a divorced one who writes erotic fiction with satanic themes, Silvia Caballol. The blurb on one of her books describes it as a journey into sadism, madness, and lust. The plot, it says, will shake the reader’s values and religious beliefs.

Well, either the plot or something else seems to have shaken the ex-bishop’s. He was known for for carrying out exorcisms, as well as for backing “conversion therapy” for gay people.

I can’t help hoping that he falls in love with a man next, although I probably should wish this gem on anyone.

 

An important report from a non-existent department 

The Department of Reasonable Caution isn’t concerned with LinkedIn. Instead it urges us to be more careful than the Mid-Kent Planning Support Team was when it tested an online system.

The team took five real planning applications from the town of Swale, inserted assorted wise-assery where bland responses normally land, and then–oops–put them online. After that, Swale discovered that not only was the incident embarrassing, it was legally binding. They can’t just say, “Sorry. Now we’ll publish the real response.” Instead the phony ones have to be overturned in the courts, which will take two or three months at an expected cost of £8,000.

And that’s only if the process isn’t challenged.

The blame’s landing on the head of some junior officer. I’m not sure what junior officer means in this context, but I can’t help feeling for him or her. This is some ill-advised soul who was trying to stay awake (not to mention amused) at work one day. And, briefly, succeeded.

In fairness, a bit of blame may land on the heads of the people who made the test documents public.

What did the docs that shouldn’t have gone live say? One application was turned down because “your proposal is whack.” Another was approved with the comment, “The incy, wincy spider.” A third was approved with the comment, “Why am I doing this, am I the chosen one?”

Yes, dear, you are: the one chosen to catch 96.3% of the flak.

Some of the place names sound like they were made up by the incy, wincy spider author, but they’re real: Bobbing, near Sittingbourne, home to the Happy Pants animal sanctuary. 

Pants, in British, are underwear. What kind of animal sanctuary does that make it? Sorry, you’re on your own there. *

 

And a yet another caution warning

This past week, Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, demonstrated that he couldn’t tell one Black public figure from another by confusing Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje. He told an interviewer he’d had a pleasant Zoom meeting with Rashford. He’d been talking to Itoje.

When it all blew up in his face, he explained that he’d made “a genuine mistake.”

And here we’d thought he was faking the mistake to fool us into thinking he’s the kind of clueless racist who can’t tell one Black person for another and doesn’t think that’s a problem. And I say that as someone who can’t tell most people apart–Black, White, or Anyone Else. But my problem is with faces. The difference between the names Rashford and Itoje might give me a clue that they’re different people. And if I had to invest enough time in one of them to hold a meeting, I might take the time to find out who he actually is. 

Williamson also got Itoje’s first name wrong. It’s Maro, not Mario.

 

 

How smart does a prime minister have to be?

One of the non-burning questions in British politics is whether the prime minister is, contrary to all appearances, intelligent or whether he’s the kind of dope whose overpriced education taught him to say dumb things in Latin. 

Why isn’t that a burning question? Because if he is smart, it’s his dumb act that’s leading the country, so the impact is pretty much the same.

Still, it’s something people talk about, and the only argument I’ve heard in favor of him being smarter than he acts is that he wrote a biography of Churchill. No one mentions his novels. Presumably any idiot can write one, although as a novelist I’d like to think that  depends on how low your standards are.

If the Churchill biography is our key evidence, then it matters, in a non-burning sort of way, that a few months ago an eminent (and unnamed) Shakespeare scholar was asked to help Johnson write a biography of Shakespeare

Why is a prime minister messing around with a project that’s even less burning than establishing whether he’s clever enough to be allowed out alone? Because in 2015 Johnson signed a £500,000 deal with the publisher Hodder & Staughton. How much of the advance has been paid is anyone’s guess. I’d assume not all, and the publisher will be glad of that because he hasn’t finished it. Possibly hasn’t started it–he’s been distracted by this silly country he’s supposed to be running–although for all I know all the ands and thes are in place and only the connecting words are missing. 

The scholar was contacted by an agent and asked if he or she would “supply Mr Johnson (and a dictaphone) with answers to questions about Shakespeare. . . . The originality and brilliance, his agent assured me, would lie in Mr Johnson’s choice of questions to ask and in the inimitable way in which he would write up the expert answers he received,” 

The expert was told Johnson wrote his Churchill biography using the same method. S/he told the agent to take a hike. And then, apparently, called the press.

That leaves the nation still debating the prime minister’s intelligence. I’m not sure anyone’s arguing about his character.

 

Talking ducks

A musk duck in Australia has been recorded saying, “You bloody fool.” It’s the first documented instance of a duck imitating human speech. You have to watch the video a few times before you catch the words, but once you do, yes, it really does sound like the duck’s saying, “You bloody fool.” Maybe it’s talking about the ways we waste our time on this planet.

I found it disconcerting to hear a creature talk when its lips aren’t moving. And disconcerting that something that talks doesn’t have lips.

The duck was–or so the article I read told me–hatched from an egg, which I would’ve thought was common enough not to need mentioning, but since we’re talking about a talking duck I don’t suppose we should take anything for granted. The duck was also hand reared. 

Whether any of that is relevant to its ability to insult the world at large is up for grabs, but I’m thinking the duck–he’s called Ripper–wouldn’t make a bad prime minister. I don’t know what Britain’s unwritten constitution has to say about non-citizens becoming prime ministers, but ducks aren’t specifically ruled out.

Even with an unwritten constitution, I’m sure of that.

*

  • My thanks to Bear Humphries for the tip about Swale. I’d have missed it without him. The link is to his photo blog, which is well worth a look.

A nice British scandal

Who doesn’t love a good scandal? And Britain’s rich in them right now. They’re buzzing like flies around the rumpled head of our prime minister. We have so many that–metaphor switch here–it’s like standing in front of a dessert buffet with a too-small appetite and a too-small plate. 

To translate that, I can’t cover them all, so let’s focus on the Covid-related one: Before the third lockdown, Boris Johnson allegedly said, “No more fucking lockdowns. Let bodies pile high in their thousands.” 

Allegedly? Well, yes. The source of the quote is, so far, unnamed, and Johnson denies having said it before changing the subject, but it’s being taken seriously and the subject doesn’t stay changed for long. 

You can probably guess, even without following British politics closely, that letting the bodies pile up isn’t a popular stance. 

I’m sure someone in government is looking for the source of the quote even as I type. Back in October, someone leaked government plans for a lockdown and an inquiry was ordered so that blame could land somewhere. To date, the culprit remains unnamed. More recently, families of people who died of Covid have been calling for an inquiry into the pandemic’s mishandling and the government’s said it doesn’t have time for that sort of hindsight. Haven’t these families noticed that we’re still in a crisis? 

Irrelevant photo: Wild primroses with violets.

However, there is time for an inquiry into top civil servants taking outside jobs that may be conflicts of interest. There’s also time for an inquiry into who leaked text messages between Johnson and a businessman in which Johnson promised to change some tax rules the businessman had complained about. There won’t–if Johnson & Co. can help it–be an inquiry into the exchange of messages itself. 

After all, there’s only so much time a government can devote to inquiries.

Sorry to have passed up the other scandals. They look delicious, but it’s not nice to be greedy.

 

Yeah, but what are we doing about Covid?

A taskforce–we’re still in Britain in case you folded your map away–has been told to find two new drugs that will stop mild Covid from progressing to severe Covid. If that makes it sound like someone’s misplaced the drugs and they’d show up if you’d just move the couch away from the wall for me, please–well, that’s probably not what they have in mind. 

You can shove the couch back in, thanks. It hides the dust.

The drugs they’re looking for have to be something people can take at home instead of in the hospital, and they have to come in either tablet or capsule form. 

What’s the difference between a tablet and a capsule? Does it matter? They’re both pills. If you’ll just shut up and swallow one, by tomorrow you won’t remember which it was.  

When he announced the task force, Johnson said experts expect another wave of Covid later in the year. In spite of which, and in spite of the possibility that the pills dropped into the heating ducts and won’t be found until years from now when the whole system’s torn out and replaced, no one’s adjusting the steps toward easing the country out of lockdown. The economy must be revived. Let the bodies–

No, he’s not going to repeat that particular quote. And I hope we’re not in that dire a position this time around. Almost 47 million people have had at least one dose of a vaccine. That’s out of a population of almost 67 million. In precise percentages, that’s a lot of people. But it’s not a suit of armor. If another pandemic wave comes, it does no good to tell the newly bereaved, “Well, nowhere near as many people died this time around.”  

How likely is the taskforce to succeed? I don’t know, but I do know that it isn’t the world’s only group working on the problem. With luck, someone will get there, and whoever shows up first–and second and forty-eighth–I’m prepared to applaud.

*

So how vulnerable is the country?

Professor Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, expects a third wave this summer. He considers the country vulnerable and says the dates for easing lockdown may need adjusting.

Britain’s vulnerabilities include new Covid variants, the still-large number of unvaccinated people, and the inevitable breakthrough cases among the vaccinated. The number of deaths expected in that wave vary from 30,000 to 100,000, depending on what software the statisticians rely on. The time when the wave’s most likely to hit also varies. What does seem to be solid is that another wave will come.

You remember that Greek myth about Orpheus going down to the underworld to bring his love Euridice back to the land of the living? He’s told not to look back at her until they’re above ground, and he doesn’t until he comes into the sunligh. Then he looks back, but she’s still in the shadow of the underworld and, damn, you blew it, Orph, so back she goes, yelling, “You damn fool, you never did think of anyone but yourself,” the whole way down.

We need to think about that tale as countries emerge from the underworld. Don’t let yourself believe you’ve solved the problem just because you feel the sunlight on your own silly skin. 

*

That noted non-scientist our prime minister, however, says there’s nothing in the data to show that everything can’t go ahead exactly as planned. 

 

And meanwhile–

A nurse in Manchester, Karen Reissman, was fined £10,000 for protesting the 1% raise that the government saw fit to give the nurses it spent months applauding. She’d handed in a risk assessment for the protest, but the Manchester police decided the rally was breaking Covid rules anyway.

“Somebody calculated that if I used my 1% rise, it would take me 56 years to pay the fine off,” Reissman said.

Believe me, the fine will be appealed.

All the news you don’t need to know

Patriotism has run away with us in ever-so-great Britain: Paul Scully, a minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, went on TV to promote offshore windfarms and bragged that a government program would create British jobs, using British manufacturing “and of course British wind.”

The plan at the moment is to surround windfarms with barbed wire and make sure foreign winds are kept out, but the plans could change if the political winds shift. The possibility of putting electric fans on the leeward side hasn’t been ruled out. 

Irrelevant photo: A Cornish stone wall. The plant is wall pennywort.

 

More political stuff

After Meghan Markle and Harry Whatsisname accused Britain’s tabloid press of being racist, Ian Murray, the executive director of Britain’s Society of Editors, responded by asking himself, “Are you a racist?” answering, “Don’t be silly,” and then issuing a statement saying that racism was never a factor in how the press treated Markle. M & H’s “attack,” he said, was “not acceptable.”

All hell broke loose, a great deal of huffing a puffing followed, and Murray has now resigned.

A particularly British way of thinking about racism is for a person (the person in question, in my experience, being white) to consult their intent and declare themselves free of it. Their impact on other people or the world in general doesn’t come into it and neither does anything that other people might contribute to the discussion. If they declare their intent to be pure, they are pure. 

 

The sciencey stuff they don’t want us to know

And now we come to the shocking revelation that on the equinox, which most of us were trusting enough to think is the moment when day and night are equal in length, day and not are not equal in length.

Yes, folks, deep forces are at work here and they do not have our best interests at heart. 

I’ll quote an explanation of what the equinox really is: “On a winter day, the Sun is low in the sky, whereas on a summer’s day the Sun lies considerably higher. But on a specific day in the spring or autumn, the Sun will be visible directly above the equator, somewhere in the middle of the two arcs traced by the Sun in the summer and winter.”

You mean all those people on the equator only get to see the sun twice a year? 

Um, probably not. It means–

Well, it means something else, okay? 

The unevenness of day and night has to do in part with sunrise being measured from the moment when the rim of the sun appears on the horizon and sundown being measured from the time that same rim disappears. That leaves a bit of time sloshing around when the rest of the sun is following the rim.

Did you follow that? Maybe it would be better if we skip over the sciencey stuff. All we need to know is that deep forces are at work and that we’ve been lied to. Don’t trust the forces of nature. Stay alert. Keep a clock by you at all times. Trust no one. And if you want an actual explanation, follow the link

 

The animal stuff

This is the year of cats and lawyers. 

Barrister Naz Hussain’s cat Colombo broke into a Zoom hearing in January. He had his eye on the headphone cable but then strolled across the keyboard until he was in range of the camera.

“The judge jokingly asked if he was my instructing solicitor,” Hussein said, “to which I said: ‘No, it’s my replacement junior.’ “

That is British legalspeak. Don’t worry about what it means. Just bask in how arcane and British it sounds and pretend you’re watching one of those law shows where half the actors have lambs curled up on their heads.

“Everyone laughed,” Hussain said, “and, sensing stardom, Columbo just kept coming back.”

I don’t know if the defendant was included in everyone, but he may have been because he was found innocent.  

Colombo now has his own Twitter account. And Hussain–having been repeatedly mistaken for a defendant and asked by other lawyers if he’s really a QC–has taken advantage of the moment when people are listening to him to say some serious things about diversity in the legal profession.

A QC? That’s a particularly high-powered breed of lawyer. They’re so important they’d wear two lambs on their heads if there was room.

*

Somewhat less impressively, a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia got out of her patrol car to serve papers on someone, leaving the door open, and a goat jumped in. She–that’s the deputy, not the goat–recorded the whole thing on her head cam, which also recorded her saying, as she knocked on the door, “I hope that goat don’t get in my car.”

Be careful what you say around a goat. They’re very bright and highly suggestible. 

Leaving the car door open is standard practice, at least for her. If she has to get away from a bad-tempered dog, she wants the escape to be seamless. 

While it was in the car, the goat munched on her papers and spilled her drink. And when the deputy got to be enough of an annoyance, it head-butted her to the ground. 

She’ll never hear the end of it.

To the best of my knowledge, the goat hasn’t set up a Twitter account.

Yet.

 

The high-tech stuff

Gucci’s selling sneakers for $17.99, but since the brand’s shoes can sell for as much as $500, there’s a catch: They’re virtual sneakers. You can buy them for your imaginary self to wear in online games, which if I was even remotely with it I’d call virtual reality but I can’t be bothered to pretend. You can’t put them on real feet because they don’t actually exist. So if you buy a pair you just spent $17.99 on something imaginary.

The Guardian describes one of them as “a chunky slime green, bubble-gum pink and sky blue shoe that wouldn’t look out of place in a robot’s orthotics clinic.” I’m going to assume that the other one matches.  

Who could resist?

Policing, politics, and women’s safety in Britain

Our tale starts in London on March 3, when Sarah Everard was abducted and killed–apparently (the official word here is allegedly) by a cop, who has since been arrested. He–the cop–served in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Command and had at some point in the past been reported for indecent exposure. Twice. In a fast-food joint. 

The reports don’t seem to have interfered with either his career or his freedom.

It’s worse that the events took place in a fast-food place, isn’t it? Hamburgers can be sensitive. The man clearly had no respect.

This history raises questions about whether the police force–as they say in the blandest of bureaceaucro-speak–responded appropriately. 

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil

Policing protests during a pandemic

Now we come to the part where I remind you that all this happened in the midst of a pandemic. Remember Covid? That pandemic. Because of it, a formal vigil was denied a permit, but people–especially women–poured out anyway, both to memorialize Everard and to highlight the everyday dangers women live with and the need for change. They left flowers. They brought candles. They came together spontaneously because to have organized the vigil would’ve meant organizers facing £10,000 fines, even though the pandemic rules allow (but don’t define) “reasonable excuses” to be outside. 

Screw the permit, though. People felt the need to be out there. No one had to organize it.

For a while, the cops didn’t interfere, but toward evening speeches began and the police moved in to break it up. The police said that people had packed in to hear the speakers, “posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.”

The crowd–I’m basing this on photos–was almost entirely masked, a crowd in Scotland that had turned out to celebrate a football win wasn’t bothered, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have not been linked to any Covid spikes, so if you’re going to taste the official explanation I’d suggest more than a grain of salt. Especially given various demonstrators’ descriptions of police getting right in their faces and yelling at them as well as forcing the crowd closer together than it had been. 

If you’re worried about a crowd spreading Covid, those aren’t the recommended crowd-control approaches.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said the vigil had been hijacked by protestors.

I’m shocked,” she said, “that what started as a peaceful and important vigil turned into a protest with photographs showing ‘ACAB’ signs, which stands for ‘all cops are bastards.’ ”

Yeah, I’m shocked too. The virus is spread by bad language, signs that insult the police, and protest in general. It’s not spread by apolitical mourning. So leave a flower, girls, then go home and behave.

A photo from the demonstration has gone viral. It shows a young woman thrown to the ground and handcuffed by two cops, who are kneeling on her back. She describes herself as five-foot two and weighing nothing. Not irrelevantly in a protest about women’s safety on the streets, both were male. She had been simply standing there, she said, and that seems to be borne out by video footage.

 

The background 

Britain has a dismal track record on prosecuting rape and sexual assault. I’ve seen two figures and I don’t know which one’s correct, but honestly it doesn’t matter. According to one, only 1.4% of the rapes that are reported end up being prosecuted. According to another it’s 1 in 70. Take your choice. Both present a good argument for mourning and protest getting to know each other on a speed date and deciding that they have a lot in common.

Patel mentioned that the event involved some assaults on police and a broken mirror on a police car. Or van. Vehicle, if that’s not too bloodless a word. All of those, according to someone who trawled through videos of the event, were carried out by men. As far as I’ve been able to sort out, the four people who were arrested are of the female persuasion. 

The government has responded to Everard’s death by publicizing every quick and pointless solution that anyone thought of at a ten-minute brainstorming session involving donuts. (No, I don’t actually know where the ideas came from. They only read like they were thought up that way.) They propose more street lighting, more CCTV, more cops on the streets, undercover cops in pubs, and more other things that no one involved has called for. They haven’t called for any consideration of what’s going wrong with the way rape complaints are handled. They haven’t called for a national discussion of the pervasive, everyday harassment that women and girls face.

They haven’t even acknowledged it. 

 

The policing bill

In the midst of all this, the government is pushing through–and with an 80-seat majority, will pass–a policing bill that changes the balance between police and protesters, tipping it further in favor of the police. Protesters will face a fine of up to £2,500 for violating police directions that they should have known about, regardless of whether the police informed them. Creating a public nuisance will be an offense. Being noisy will be a reason to break up a demonstration. 

They’re setting the bar very close to the ground here. An eighty-year-old with two bad hips and a cane could get over it. And I’m close enough to eighty that I get to say that. They’re not talking about demonstrations that attack or threaten people. They’re not talking about threats to public health or safety. They’re talking about being a pain in the ass.

The police right to stop and search will also be expanded, although that’s used far more against young Black men than against white. The maximum penalty for damaging a memorial will be increased from three months to then years–longer, as may people have pointed out, than for attacking a woman. Rapists could (it’s complicated) get longer sentences under the bill, but given how few cases are even prosecuted that’s kind of beside the point.  

The parts of the bill that relate to demonstrations are a response to Extinction Rebellion, which was quite deliberate about creating a public nuisance. But then, the US civil rights movement also created a public nuisance, and by now it’s entered into public mythology in a defanged and respectable–almost sanctified–form. Sometimes being a damned nuisance is the only thing that works. When people try to make change and they run into a brick wall, they’ll stop business from being carried on as usual. It’s a law of physics. 

Is the bill a total crackdown on dissent? Probably not, although you shouldn’t take my word on that. I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of British law is spotty at best. A lot of organizations are seriously worried about it, and it does give the police a lot of leeway to crack down on dissent. And when they’re given that leeway, sooner or later they’ll take it.

I don’t suppose I should be surprised when governments do what they can to keep people from opposing them. Not all of them do that, but the temptation’s got to lie just under the surface. And when they give in to it, the cost is high. Not just to protesters but to any semblance of democracy, to the possibility of peaceful progress, and sooner or later to the government itself. Because you can shut up some of the people all of the time and you can–

Hell, you know how that goes. Sooner or later, you’ll hear from them and it won’t be a pleasant discussion. 

Will the bill make women safer in the streets and their homes? 

Are you kidding me? That’s not the priority.

Edward Colston and the statue in Bristol’s harbor

In June of 2020, a Bristol crowd looped a rope around the statue of Edward Colston, pulled it down, and dumped it in the harbor, firing a British version of the usual debate around who owns history, although as far as I know no one put it that way. 

But let’s put history in general to one side and start with who Edward Colston was and why he ended up in the drink.

 

The bio

Colston was born in 1636. You’ll forget that within seconds, but it gives you a century and a set of clothes to imagine him into. He came from a prosperous merchant family whose links to Bristol went back to the thirteenth century. The family bet its chips on the Royalist side of the Civil War, which was first a bad move and then a good one. Somehow they ended up in London. When the king was restored, Eddie’s father went back into business trading in oil, wine, and raisins. 

That isn’t particularly relevant, but it is thorough. Are you impressed?

Irrelevant photo: A snowdrop. In bloom in January. Unbelievable. With a nice hardy weed growing at its feet.

Edward was apprenticed to and then became a member of the Mercers’ Company. In London. He never did move back to Bristol. Except as a statue.

Mercers? They dealt in fabrics, usually expensive ones–silks, velvets, that kind of thing. 

Colston established his own business, trading mostly in cloth and wine and acting as a money lender. He had interest in St. Kitts, in the West Indies, and that should send send up red flags: Britain controlled much of the West Indies, and the economy was based on plantations worked by slave labor. Britons made profits both from selling slaves and from selling the products of their work. Slavery was an important slice of Britain’s economy and the people who ran both the trade in slaves and the slave plantations wielded a hefty slice of political power. 

In 1680, Colston became a member of the Royal African Company. More red flags, waving wildly. The company held the British monopoly on the slave trade between African and the Americas. During his time with it, its ships embarked 84,500 people from west Africa, bound to the Caribbean. 

Notice the wording there–embarked. By one estimate, a quarter of the people who boarded the ships as slaves–or cargo–died en route from disease, from murder, from the occasional suicide, although in the conditions suicide wasn’t easy. They were branded and shackled so tightly together that they lay in their own filth. 

The crossing took six to eight weeks.

I’ve shifted focus from Colston to the company because no one seems to have sorted out how much of his fortune came from the slave trade and what came from ordinary mercerizing. By one account, he owned forty ships. By all accounts, he made what’s commonly known as a shitload of money. What is known is that he played a major role in the company, becoming a deputy governor. 

The profits from his slave trading financed his money lending. 

During the 1690s and 1700s, he sold off his ships, withdrew from the RAC, settled into retirement in Surrey, and got to work philanthropizing. He was High Church, and he knit that tightly into the fabric of his philanthropy. 

High Church translates to–oh, hell, someone else should really be the one to explain this, but it’s the Catholicky end of Anglicanism. It’s formal and heavy on ritual and priests and fancy clothes. That should hold us until someone better educated in churchly stuff comes along. 

One scholarly paper describes his brand of both Christianity and philanthropy as authoritarian, and that seems fair. A foundation he set up required students “‘to be staunch sons of the Church, provided such books are procured for them as have no tincture of Whiggism.” 

The Whigs? They were the politicians who weren’t the Tories. The differences between them were both political and religious.

His approach to religion was that the “holy doctrines, if we follow, will teach us obedience to our governors, as well civil as ecclesiastical, and to support the rights of both, to which that God will incline us all.”

If you have nothing better to do, you might want to see if you can untangle that sentence. I gave up. What the hell, it’s a quotation, I can claim not to be responsible. But we could fairly safely sum up the content as, Sit down, shut up, and do as you’re told. 

Philanthropy sounds selfless, but it gave (and still gives) a person a lot of political clout, and his made him a revered figure in Bristol. 

He never married. I found one intriguing quote saying, “he prefers good works to purity of life, by laying out some thousands of pounds in building hospitals here, while himself lived very much at his ease with a Tory, though of a different sex, at M[ortla]ke.” 

You figure it out. I got lost trying to figure out which sex is the opposite of Tory. Whatever his purity or sexual interests, he left his money to a niece–and of course her husband, because in those days a lady didn’t soil her hands with money, even if she wanted to.

 

Colston’s legacy

Bristol was a focus of Colston’s philanthropy and over the years it got to be thoroughly be-Colstoned. Buildings were named after him, along with streets, schools, pubs, a hill, an almshouse, and of course that statue. I could go on, but enough. Twenty things have carried his name according to a local paper

And for ages Colston was commemorated in a yearly service at St. Stephen’s Church, where he was buried. Three charity groups held a procession from his statue to the church, complete with top hats and tails and double lines of expensive-looking men. All of them white. They did that until 2017, when Colston’s reputation was getting too ripe and the church refused to host the service, although it offered to hold one thanking the groups themselves for their charitable work.

In what seems to have been a separate commemoration, schoolkids were rounded up to sit in the cathedral, contemplate a window in Colston’s memory, and listen to a sermon about his good works. 

My point here is that it wasn’t just Colston’s statue, standing there and minding its own business. This was in-your-face, behold-the-great-man Colstonizing. I’m not sure the statue wouldn’t have been torn down anyway, but with all that worshipfulness, you could argue extenuating circumstances.

 

Why people didn’t use legal channels

It’s not like people didn’t try to get rid of it legally. Over the years, petitions to have the statue removed had been created, circulated, signed, submitted, and ignored. Demonstrations had been held, not necessarily aimed at the statue but at other bits of the Colston cult.

Okay, that’s unfair. It’s not exactly a cult, but the alliteration was so tempting.

At some point, a home-made plaque appeared on the statue, noting that Colston was a slave trader and filling in as much of his history as you can fit on a plaque, and that sparked several years of effort to replace it with an official plaque. 

What should the official plaque say, though? A group of historians were asked for a draft, which was nitpicked to dust. Someone objected to the word trafficking being used to describe the slave trade. Couldn’t it just say Africans were transported? And that word enslaved. Doesn’t that sound kind of harsh?

No blood was shed in those meetings, although I don’t know why.

Okay, I don’t know if they actually held meetings. If they didn’t, that might explain it.

When a compromise was finally–somehow–reached, the mayor took a look at the wording and ordered a rewrite.

At his point, they were fifteen months into the project. They’d agreed on the words and and but, but not the.

Then some ten thousand Black Lives Matter protesters converged on Colston Square. It took them four minutes to topple the statue. 

And at various points along the way, some of the things named after Colston were quietly renamed, including one of the pubs. Some organizations are still working on it and some dug a hole and pulled it in over themselves. 

 

But what about History, with a capital H?

You can’t talk about people toppling statues without someone saying that they’re erasing history. 

No. Let me try that again: You can’t talk about Black Lives Matter protesters toppling statues without etc., because when statues of Sadam Hussein were torn down–with the help of the US Army, if memory serves, because the crowd wasn’t large enough and maybe he was glued down, because he didn’t leave his pedestal without a fight–I didn’t hear any complaints about rewriting history. It was all whoopee! The dictator was being torn down. The people were taking revenge.

Ditto the statues of Lenin. Or Stalin. No articles in the paper saying that it was an attempt to erase history. 

But statues aren’t history any more than my junior high history textbooks were history. They’re mythology. At best, they’re one version of history–the version convenient to whoever’s in power. At worst, they’re bullshit–an attempt to glorify the inglorious, simplify the complicated, cover up the inconvenient, and (although this never gets said) remind the governed who still rules them. 

When Black Lives Matter protesters pull down the statues of slave owners and slave traders, they’re making history. They’re demanding that the official history of their city, their country, their world include them, not just the people who made fortunes by driving and selling their ancestors. 

Colston’s statue will end up in a museum–when they open again–where it can be presented as part of genuine, difficult, complicated history. 

The problems with mass Covid testing

Britain started a £100 billion Covid testing program, Operation Moonshot, which is supposed to catch asymptomatic cases so people can quarantine themselves instead of transmitting the disease and life can return to normal. The plan is to screen millions of asymptomatic people every week, and it’s being tried out in Liverpool as I type. 

Which sounds great, but Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant to the UK national screening programmes, said, “It worries me that ministers . . . can wake up one morning saying let’s spend £100 billioin on this and not have it scrutinised–it would be like building a Channel tunnel without asking civil engineers to look at the plans. . . . This seemed to me to be the most unethical proposal for use of public funds or for screening that I’d ever seen.”

Other than that, though, it’s a good plan.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms–a photo I stole from last spring. 

The program relies on the Innova lateral flow test, which when it’s used by research nurses catches 76.8% of positive cases. When it’s used in the real world by what the article I read called “self-trained staff,” though, it picks up only 57% of positive cases. And Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics, said people aren’t being told that they still might be carrying the disease, so if they test negative they feel safe to do–well, whatever they haven’t felt safe to do. Visit granny in the nursing home or tear off their masks and run through twelve supermarkets breathing heavily on staff and fellow shoppers. 

Nursing homes in three counties, including mine, are trying out rapid tests to allow visitors in. The publicity I’ve seen doesn’t mention the possibility of false negatives. It’s all how great it is that granny got a visitor. And up to a point it is great. I’m sure granny was pleased. I also hope it doesn’t end up killing her.

The good news is that the test doesn’t generate a lot of false positives. 

Italy was the first country to use mass testing–they used antigen tests–to control the virus, and it seemed to be working, which encouraged other countries to try it, including Britain. Italy’s now in its second wave of Covid. It went from  500 cases a day in August to more than 35,000.

So what went wrong?

Andrea Crisanti of the University of Padua says the tests were used the wrong way and that using them to protect vulnerable people in care homes was “absolutely criminal,” because of the infected people they miss–the false negatives.

The tests they used are 80% to 90% accurate and give both false negatives and false positives, but they’re quick and they’re cheap. If they’re used, say, before people catch a train, they could reduce travelers’ exposure. But they wouldn’t eliminate it because, again, they don’t catch every case.

Crisanti said, “If your objective is to screen a community to know if transmission is there, fine.” But the quick tests, he said, need to be backed up with the more accurate but slower PCR tests, along with stay-at-home orders.

There doesn’t seem to have been–or to be–any strategy for what to do with the information beyond simply boosting the number of tests.

In an article about how antigen tests were used in the US, the website ProPublica writes that “When health care workers in Nevada and Vermont reported false positives [from the tests], HHS [that’s Health and Human Services, a federal agency] defended the tests and threatened Nevada with unspecified sanctions until state officials agreed to continue using them in nursing homes. It took several more weeks for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue an alert . . . that confirmed what Nevada had experienced: Antigen tests were prone to giving false positives.”

In nursing homes, false positives are as dangerous as false negatives. A person who tests positive will be moved in with other people who test positive. If the test gives out some false positives, healthy people will be exposed to Covid, making the test a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The tests HHS recommended are meant for people with Covid symptoms, and when they’re used that way they produce virtually no false positives and catch 84% to 97%  of positive samples in a lab test. But a study–like many Covid studies, it hasn’t been peer reviewed yet–found them catching only 32% of positives in people without symptoms.

Still, HHS is recommending them for use on nursing home residents without symptoms and suggesting repeated tests to reduce false negatives. An October survey found that a third of nursing homes hadn’t touched the antigen tests they’d been given. They didn’t trust them, they didn’t have the staff time, and the paperwork and reporting requirements were more than they wanted to deal with.

Dr. Rebecca Lee Smith, an epidemiology at the University of Illinois, said, “It’s how you use the tests, not just how many tests you have.” If you have a million tests, is it better to test a million people once, or test half a million people who are at high risk twice, or test essential workers five or 10 times? 

If anyone has an answer to that question, I haven’t seen it in print yet.

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Earlier this week I introduced the game Where’d the Money Go? and missed some of the more outrageous examples of where the money’s gone. I plead extenuating circumstances, because a National Audit Office report hadn’t hit the news yet. So let’s make up for my lapse. 

Sorry. I do try to sneak some good news into these posts. Some weeks, it’s like fighting gravity.

Early in the pandemic, in an effort to get protective gear for the health and social care systems, the government set up a high priority contracting channel for businesses that were recommended by ministers’ offices, lords, politicians, or officials. Oddly enough, those lords and politicians seem to all have ties to the ruling party, the Conservatives.

The rule of the playground is that we don’t share.

Their bids that went through that channel were ten times more likely to be successful than the bids that went through ordinary channels. One source said their pitches were automatically treated as credible. The documentation is–

Quick, someone, what’s a shoddier word than shoddy? Paperwork documenting why a particular supplier was chosen is sometimes missing. Contracts were sometimes drawn up after the work had been started. 

The person who recommended the company to the priority channel is documented less than half the time. No rules for how the priority channel should operate seem to have been written.

This was in the first six months of the pandemic, when £18 billion was spent on Covid-related contracts.

Liz David-Barrett, a professor of governance and integrity (that’s what she studies–I’m not commenting on her personal qualities), said that firms recommended in this way are usually treated as higher risk rather than lower.  

In a related story, although I can’t say what channel this contract went through, Gabriel Gonzales Andersson made £21 million for wandering through a deal between the UK government and an American jewellery designer, Michael Saiger, to procure protective gloves and gowns from China. 

According to the BBC, Gonzales Andersson was paid to find a manufacturer for deals that had already been arranged.

If you can figure out what happened between the two, you’re doing better than I am, but they’re both in court in Florida–suing each other, I think, although I can’t swear to that. Saiger had several follow-up contracts, and the gear he was supposed to supply was delayed, possibly because the relationship between the two men fell apart.

One more example before I stop: Lord Feldman, a former chair of the Conservative Party, and a managing director of the lobbying firm Tulchan Communications, acted as an unpaid advisor on Covid. 

Tulchan is also called a public relations firm; flip a coin if you care.

After the firm Oxford Nanopore signed a £28 million contract with the Department of Health, and also after Feldman stepped down as an unpaid advisor, Nanopore hired Tulchan. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, happens to have met with both Feldman and Oxford Nanopore before the contract was signed. I have no idea what they talked about. Movies, probably. Pornography. Gummi bears. Surely not whose money would end up in whose pockets. I wasn’t there. That’s how the gummi bears came into it. 

Tulchan says Oxford Nanopore was already in discussions with the Department of Health before the meetings, so everything’s fine.

Nanopore later picked up another £100 million in contracts.

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The British Medical Association has gone public with advice on how to lift the current lockdown. The approach last time was, “Wheeee, that’s over. Go out, have fun, spend money. Don’t work from home. The economy needs you.”

That was followed by a faint, “And, oh, do be careful, okay? Wash your hands or something.” 

Which is one of several reasons that we’re now in a second lockdown. 

What the BMA advises includes giving local public health teams more of the test and trace budget, along with more oversight of the program; limiting socializing to two households instead of six people; keeping the local tiered lockdown system that imposes varying restrictions depending on an area’s level of infection but banning travel between areas in different tiers; encouraging people to work from home if they can; and replacing guidance about how to keep workplaces and public areas safe with rules about how to keep workplaces etc. safe. The theory goes that rules are enforceable and might be taken more seriously.

Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA’s chair of council, said, “The big question in practical terms is can we reopen hospitality venues–pubs and restaurants–in the run-up to Christmas and still avoid infection levels increasing?

“I suspect we can’t, but the decision may be made to do so anyhow on the basis that any increase will be slow and may be able to be counteracted later.”

Because what the hell, it’s Christmas. What do a few extra deaths matter?

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If I haven’t managed to be funny this time–and I’m pretty sure I haven’t–I’ll try to do better next time. It’s not that this stuff isn’t funny, in a demented sort of way. But it takes time to find the humor and I want to get this posted before the next wave on insanity breaks over us. 

Stay well. It’s dangerous out there.