An incomplete guide to Boris Johnson’s downfall, or How to have fun with British politics

Let’s do a quick review of recent British political mayhem for the benefit both of folks who don’t live in Britain and of the ones who do but want a few extra moments to gloat: 

Boris Johnson has stepped down as prime minister and head of the Conservative Party. But Boris Johnson is also  still the prime minister and head of the Conservative Party.

Confused? I can’t think why. Stick around. It’ll all make something vaguely approaching sense before we’re done. 

Or else it won’t. I make no promises.

 

Irrelevant photo: Purple toadflax

What went wrong for Johnson?

You might as well ask what didn’t, but as so often happens he wasn’t brought down by the real scandals–the corruption, the lies, a Brexit cobbled together from high-end wine corks and journalistic fairy dust, not to mention heartless policies, destruction of the infrastructure, drunken parties during lockdown, lost elections, and the resignations of two ethics advisors–but by a sex scandal. And not even one he participated in. 

What happened was that he appointed someone named Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip, ignoring accusations that he was not a pincher but a groper.

Deputy chief whip? No, that’s not the sex scandal. It’s one of those weird British things that we can blame on history and that I won’t bother to explain.. 

When the accusations became public, Johnson said he hadn’t known about them.

Then it became public that he had been told. Formally. 

Then more allegations surfaced.

For the record, the people Pincher groped were male. I’m not sure if that had an impact in how the scandal’s played out. It would an interesting study. Or in the absence of evidence, an interesting essay. You could assert all kinds of things you couldn’t actually demonstrate.

Anyway, once all that happened, resignation letters from cabinet ministers and assorted less impressive governmental appointees began to flutter to the pavement outside 10 Downing Street like autumn leaves–first two, then more, than dozens, including, eventually, resignations from people who’d been appointed to replace people who’d resigned earlier.

At this point, any normal politician would have put their hands in the air and surrendered peacefully, but this is Boris Johnson we’re talking about, and it wasn’t until the resignation letters formed a layer dep enough to resemble Larry the Cat’s litter box that he finally, grudgingly, made a resignation speech that blamed herd mentality for running him out. 

Why did this particular scandal bring him down when other equally lurid ones haven’t? It’s a mystery. If enough autumn leaves fall onto a balance scale, eventually they’ll outweigh the political convenience on the other side. That’s the best I can do. 

But (see above; you’re supposed to be paying attention here), he’s not actually gone yet.

You know about Rasputin? He was a mystic, a faith healer, a self-proclaimed holy man, and a key hanger-on in the court of Russia’s last tsar–assuming, of course, that we don’t count Putin. He was assassinated by other court hangers-on who were desperate to get rid of him, and the story goes that he was poisoned, stabbed, beaten, shot three times, and finally wrapped in a rug and tossed into the River Neva. When he was fished out he was decisively dead, but he had water in his lungs, indicating that he was still alive when they threw him in.

The rug was ruined.

To be fair, it may not have happened exactly that way, but that’s okay, we’re not doing Russian history here, we’re just giving it a passing glance because I suspect it’s going to take something along the same lines to get Johnson out of Number 10, even now that he’s resigned.

And just for the record, I’m not advocating that particular set of actions, just contemplating overblown similarities. 

Johnson, they say, likes the perks of office. I can’t imagine he’ll give them up willingly. Already he’s had to move a postponed wedding reception from the grand mansion where prime ministers get to play to I don’t know where but wherever it is it’s less impressive.

Hasn’t the poor man suffered enough already?

 

What has Johnson learned from all those resignations?

The names of people he wants to take revenge on, although whether he’ll have the power to do them any damage is still up for grabs. Other than that, nothing that I can see. He new appointments aren’t much better than his old ones. One of the new crop (because he’s still the prime minister and is expected to have some semblance of a functioning government around him) has been accused by someone Pincher groped of asking if he’s gay, because if he is then surely what happened isn’t straightforward sexual harassment. 

In other words, she wanted to know if he asking for it.

Another appointee demonstrated the political judgment and sensitivity that she’ll bring to her new position by giving the finger to demonstrators outside Number 10. That may breach the ministerial code, which expects “high standards of behavior” and “propriety.” But that’s okay because  who’s going to enforce it? 

A third appointee doesn’t believe people are really having trouble affording food–presumably they’re using food banks because, hey, it’s free food–and compared taking the knee to giving a Nazi salute.

The big appointment, though, is to the chancellor’s job, since the last one resigned and is a front runner in the race to replace Johnson. The chancellor’s the guy who counts the money and makes financial policy. Or tries to, anyway. The new one is Nadhim Zahawi, and reports leaked out that civil servants sent out warnings about his finances. That’s not the same as saying he’s guilty of anything, only that disturbing allegations are buzzing around his head like flies around cowpies.

Wise politicians might want to be careful where they set their foot, although a wise politician is not what we’re dealing with.

An unnamed Conservative grandee accused Johnson of making unsuitable appointments so that he could leave a mess behind for his successor, but it’s also possible that no one suitable will take his phone calls. Or that he doesn’t know a bad appointment from a convenient one.

 

What didn’t happen

Under the current law, the prime minister can call an election at any time, and at one point Johnson hinted that he might just do that. Since his party has a huge whackin’ majority and polls indicate that right now it’s scraping caked-on crud off the linoleum, his party will be against this. As one article says, it would be “constitutionally very unusual.” And the queen could, if her advisers advised, refuse the request on the grounds that the existing parliament is viable.

From what I’ve read, that would be done via back channels, not in public. A message would go to Number 10 saying, basically, “Do not embarrass the queen by requesting this.” Only they’d capitalize queen.

 

So why’s he still the prime minister?

The best I can do by way of an answer is to say, Because that’s the way it works. Prime ministers aren’t elected directly. They’re (usually) the leader of the majority party, if there is one, or of the biggest, baddest party in the case of a coalition government. So if they step down, guess who gets to choose a new one.

You got it: the biggest, baddest party in the House of Commons. Which does it by following its own party rules instead of rules drawn up by anything as finicky as the government. So the process can take time, depending on the rules. 

Of course, since the rules are the party’s, the party can also change them at will–at least if its rules allow it to. If it wants to choose the next prime minister by seeing who can throw a rock farthest, I can’t see what would stop it.

Prime ministers can always resign effective immediately, in which case their party texts a temp agency and says, “Send us someone of prime ministerial quality, please. Must make public appearances and know how to wear a suit convincingly.” And then that person will run a caretaker government.  

But that’s not what’s happened. When Johnson finally bowed to something approaching reality and agreed to resign, he proposed hanging on until October, when the Conservatives hold their convention. 

To which the party said, “Not a chance,” but it didn’t roll him in that rug, so the date when he’s fully replaced depends on how quickly it can organize its replacement procedures: First the people who wanted to replace Johnson had to get support from at least 20 of their fellow Conservative MPs (that knocked a few out of the race), then those same MPs have (or had–I’m writing this a bit in advance of the fact, so I’m not sure if it’s happened yet) to vote until they’ve narrowed the list to two.  Then the party’s members vote. 

They’re rushing it as fast as they can and he should be gone by September 5. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. They might roll him in the wallpaper * and head for the river.

 

  • Yeah, that was another scandal. It’s breathtakingly ugly, it was very expensive (but then so was the rest of the furniture), and Johnson got caught arranging for a Conservative donor to pay for it. The next prime minister will either be haunted by it or bringing in a team of people with acetylene torches to get rid of it.

How no-confidence votes work in Britain

Boris Johnson, Britain’s alleged prime minister, survived a vote of no confidence this week, and we could get all mopey about that if we wanted to, but instead let’s take the opportunity to have a good old crawl around the dusty corners of the British political system and see what we can find. Old coins? Abandoned rulebooks? Spiders? 

Nope, sorry. We find the no-confidence vote, in all its convoluted glory.

 

What is the no-confidence vote? 

The one Johnson just survived was an internal party affair, run by the Conservatives, the party with a majority in the House of Commons. That’s because what they’re voting on isn’t just the leader of the country but the leader of their party, and what takes precedence is the party, since–as should be clear to everyone–that’s more important. So it was only Conservative members of parliament who got to vote.

The same was true last time they held a no-confidence vote, back when Theresa May was prime minister. We could go back further, but I’m getting full of cobwebs so let’s head off in another direction. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: a peony

While Conservative MPs cast their votes, the rest of the country got to sit back and wonder how many would vote which way. It’s like catching the clowns crawl out of that tiny car at the circus and wondering how many more there’ll be. Except the clowns are running the country.   

If it strikes you as odd that a single party gets to choose the head of the country, we’re nowhere near the center of the issue yet. The party also gets to set the rules on when and whether there’ll be a vote and how it’ll be run.

Yes, this business of having an unwritten constitution’s a barrel of laughs. I recommend it to any country that feels like the fun’s gone out of politics. 

 

The rules

Under the party’s current rules, if 15% of the Conservative MPs send a letter of no confidence in the prime minister to something called the 1922 Committee, then the committee has to call a vote.

At least I think it has to. What I’ve read goes a little hazy there. Maybe they have to and maybe they don’t but always have. So far, they’ve always called a vote.

The 1922 Committee, by the way, is called that because it was set up in 1923.

We’ll move on before we get upset, okay?

The committee’s an arm of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons and seems to insert its nearly-hundred-year-old hand into every Conservative leadership battle. It meets weekly, gathering up the backbench Conservatives–and by backbench I mean the MPs who don’t hold government positions, the ones down the food chain who aren’t personally in power even when their party is.

So the committee gathers the backbench Tories (Tory means Conservative but takes less time to type) and gives them a forum, allowing them to “air their concerns” and be a pain in the keyhole of Number 10 Downing Street, where the people who really have the power both govern and (since we’re talking about the current bunch), drink, fight, party, and vomit. 

To repeat myself, since I’ve wandered: Once the committee collects the letters from 15% of the Conservative MPs, it calls for a vote. Given the current breakdown of the House, it took 54 letters to trigger a vote. Once that happens, a prime minister then has to win a majority of the Conservative MPs plus one–in the current situation, 180–to stay in office.

The letters can be anonymous or the writers can make them public. They can also withdraw them if a) they decide the timing’s wrong, b) they were threatened thoroughly enough, or c) they were offered a juicy government post. 

Government posts? Johnson had already handed out 173 government jobs, making his MPs everything from members of the Cabinet to junior ministers to dog wranglers to extras who don’t have any lines but do hang around the edges of the scene in costume and then hope they don’t get edited out of the final cut. 

If you happen to hold one of those jobs, you’d think two or three times before voting yourself out of it.

Johnson carried 60% of his MPs–211 votes–which was a smaller-than-expected number according to at least according to one newspaper.

The party’s rules say that, having survived the vote, a prime minister is safe from another challenge for a year.

So is he in the clear? Well, no. The last time the Conservatives held a no-confidence vote, Theresa May was the prime minister and she scraped together a larger proportion of her party than Johnson has, but within eight months she was out on her ass.

How’d that work? Well, the committee threatened to change the rules and allow another vote before the year was up unless she set a date for her resignation. 

Better to jump than be pushed, she figured. Johnson, however, will need to not only be pushed, he’ll need to be wrapped in canvas, tied, and thrown overboard.

But there’s talk that the MPs who voted against Johnson may not wait for that. If they refuse to vote with the government–not necessarily voting against it but abstaining–they’ll deny Johnson hte powerful majority he’s had in Parliament, paralyzing him. Since they represent all the available wings, feet, and claws of the party and refer to themselves as a coalition of chaos, it’s hard to know if they’ll do anything that coordinated.

 

What happens when a prime minister loses a no-confidence vote?

They limp on as prime minister until they’re replaced, because the country has to have a prime minister, however vague and ineffective. Meanwhile, the party that tossed them out selects a new one–according to its own rules.

But that’s if it has a majority. If it doesn’t–say if two parties governed as a coalition–or if the party’s so badly split that it can’t come up with a candidate, it gets messy.

You thought it was already messy? Ha. Shows what you know.

I’ll simplify this, but basically if someone–anyone–can gather enough support for a new candidate, there’s a confidence vote held in 14 days. If they survive that, they’re the prime minister. If not, there’s a general election and all the MPs have to run for their seats again–something they very much don’t want to do unless, of course, they think their party can come back with a big majority, but that’s always a gamble. It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra is said to have said.

If no candidate emerges, then somewhere along the way the prime minister has to advise the queen that there’ll be an election, because the queen needs to know stuff like that.

The queen says, “Oh.”

Then everyone involved tears off their clothes and runs around Westminster Palace playing either banjos or tubas and throwing confetti.

Okay, I made some of that up. If you want a full (and sane) explanation of how it works, go look at the BBC’s graphic.

 

How other parties run a no-confidence vote

So far, I’ve only talked about how the Conservative Party holds a no-confidence vote, but since each party sets its own rules, they have no bearing on what other parties do in a similar situation. So let’s take a wider look.

Labour: Okay, this is awkward. I haven’t found a clear explanation of how the Labour Party holds a no-confidence vote. Possibly because it doesn’t really hold them. When Jeremy Corbyn led the party (which was the opposition then, not the government), his fellow MPs held a no-confidence vote but he didn’t resign since the party doesn’t have any rules governing what that meant or what to do about it if it should happen. He argued that his support among the members outweighed his lack of support among MPs. And you know what? Why shouldn’t it? When your party doesn’t have any relevant rules, it doesn’t have any relevant rules.

Liberal Democrats: I couldn’t even find that much for the Lib Dems. 

Other Parties: I gave up, leaving a few parties floating free.

What does it all mean? I haven’t a clue. A party being able to dump its leader, as the Tories can, sounds democratic but in practice it seems to give a lot of power to small groups within the party, such as the extreme Brexiteers. If that’s true, you could argue that the forms of democracy are giving a great deal of power to a minority at the expense of the majority, but I’m raising that as a question rather than offering it as an analysis. 

 

Parliamentary votes of no confidence

It’s also possible for parliament as a whole, not just the majority party, to hold a no-confidence vote, and if the government loses, that would, once upon a time, have triggered a general election. But the rules changed when David Cameron was the prime minister. He introduced a new system called-fixed term parliaments. Since then, nobody has a clue what happens. 

As the House of Commons Library explains it, “The consequences of a government losing what would have been considered a question of confidence before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act have not been tested since the Act was passed.”

In other words, it hasn’t happened since the rules changed. Maybe everyone moves one seat down the table and cries, “No room, no room.” Maybe we go back to the scenario with the confetti and the musical instruments. We’ll all just have to wait and see. 

Remember what I said about how much fun an unwritten constitution is?

 

The important stuff

Can we get to the stuff that really matters now? Sooner or later, Boris Johnson will be carried out of Number 10 kicking and screaming and wrapped in canvas, and the question on everyone’s mind is, What will happen to the wallpaper? 

What wallpaper? The horrible and very expensive wallpaper that Johnson and his wife paid for, but only after they were caught trying to have a major party donor pay for it.

I’m not prone to imagining myself in public office, for oh so many reasons, but I can’t help putting myself into  his successor’s comfortable slippers–you know, the ones she or he puts on after work when he or she tries to turn back into her or his real self if (could we use the plural here, please?) if they still remember who that is.

Where were we? I was putting myself in that person’s slippers and  looking at the wallpaper that Johnson will leave behind (but only because you can’t take it with you). On the one hand, it was ruinously expensive–£840 a roll. You can’t just tear that down, can you? On the other hand, it’s awful. Who could live with it? And what sort of impression does it give other heads of state? You couldn’t have a serious conversation in front of it. I’m not sure you could eat a frozen pizza in front of it either.

I’m not sure what you can do in front of it other than run.

Is the next prime minister going to have to break with tradition and live somewhere else? I wouldn’t rule it out.

By now, of course, you want to see it. You’ll find a couple of photos here, along with a discussion of the money and who’s related to who in what way. It’s all deliciously scandalous and, except for the occasional wallpaper joke, has been pretty much forgotten by now.

Celebrating the queen’s WTF jubilee

Let’s start with basics: The queen in question is Elizabeth, and she’s been on the throne since 1066 or thereabouts. Surely that calls for a party, so here in Britain we’ve been handed a spare holiday, a dessert recipe so simple that can be prepared in two days by half a dozen trained snipers, and lots of encouragement to hold our own street parties, band concerts, and whatever else sets our suggestible little hearts a-racing. 

It’s not easy, if you live in Britain right now, to ignore all that, but I had planned to until I realized how gloriously parts of it could go wrong. 

Let’s start with Wincanton, in Somerset, which is holding the Wincanton Town Festival. That comes with a logo showing a be-jeweled crown on a purple background with, as Dorset Live puts it, “a diamond-encrusted WTF welded to the top.”

You know the acronym WTF: Wincanton Town Festival. 

If you want to attend a WTF Jubilee (even I will give that a capital letter) garden party, it’s on June 3 so you’ll have to either hurry or time travel, but I’m sure you’ll be welcome.

Nothing could be more British. Just try to keep a straight face.

*

English Heritage, which manages the Stonehenge site, is celebrating by projecting color images of the queen onto the stones. The effect is–

The word bizarre doesn’t begin to capture it. There stand these rough, prehistoric stones, in all their timeless majesty, and they’re being used as a screen to show photos of an old woman dressed in the colors of toy Easter chicks.

I’m not disparaging her for being an old woman, mind you. I’m not what you’d call young myself. But you won’t find me on an ancient monument dressed like an Easter chick.

But English Heritage is proud of their decision, and since nothing that happens really happens unless it’s on social media, they tweeted a photo, with the predictable results. And just to prove I don’t make this stuff up (who could?), here’s the tweet.

A few of my favorite comments are:

“Pointless, outdated, ancient monument to a bygone era. Projected onto Stonehenge.”

“Things Stonehenge and the Monarchy have in common? How the fuck did this get here?”

“Something ancient and now pointless that we keep under the guise of tourism, projected onto stone henge”

*

But we’re not done yet. Boris Johnson–he’s our prime minister when he finds time between parties–wants to celebrate by bringing back imperial measures. Or at least letting shops use them if they’re in the mood.

Oh, c’mon, you know what imperial measures are. Generations of schoolkids sacrificed (cumulatively speaking) months of their lives memorizing that a foot is 12 inches long, a yard is 3 feet, and a mile is 1760 yards. Also that a cup holds 10 ounces if you’re in Britain but 8 if you’re in the US, and that a quart holds 4 cups while a gallon hold 4 quarts. In either country, although the cups won’t be the same size, so why should anything that follows from them?

Mind you, those ounces that make up the cup aren’t the same ounces that go into a pound. They’re liquid ounces and a pound is a measure of weight, so it uses different ounces. Unless that pound is measuring money, which it does as a second job. It doesn’t use ounces for that at all–it drops them off at home when it stops in for a quick bite to eat.

In case all that business with 4 cups and 4 quarts made you think the number 4 is magical when you work with liquid measures, a pint holds two cups. You can’t rely on anything.

We won’t get into hogsheads and firkins and bushels and furlongs, but oh, we could, my friends, and we’d have such fun. Still, it would be irresponsible to move on without telling you that a hundredweight is made up of 112 pounds and a pennyweight is 12 grains.

So you can see why imperial measures are simpler, more logical, easier to understand, and all-around better than the metric system: They keep out the riff-raff and the numerically challenged.

But silly as it may seem, Johnson’s proposal’s done wonders for my stats. An old post on Britain’s halfhearted adoption of the metric system and on the old system(s) of measuring has attracted some ridiculous number of hits lately.

That’s ridiculous given the scale I work on. We’re talking about hundreds, not thousands. If you want to read about rods and furlongs and apple gallons and Cornish miles, it’s all there. And if you think the past was a simpler place, I recommend it.

*

What else happens dring the jubilee? Why, the queen’s jubilee-themed tree-planting program. This encourages people to plant a tree for the jubilee, which not only rhymes (if it hadn’t, what would they have come up with?) but is promoted as a way to reforest the country.

It’s been busted for having sponsors with links to deforestation. But in other countries. Ones with more forest. And less power. So that’s okay. 

According to a campaign group, the program’s platinum sponsors include McDonald’s, with beef linked to the deforestation of the Amazon, and the bank NatWest, with links to deforestation in Uruguay. And so forth.

Everyone involved says they have no links to deforestation or are committed to doing better or have planted a tree at midnight in a neighbor’s yard and we should all go mind our own business, thank you very much, so we’ll move on.

*

Because that’s not all the queen’s doing. She’s giving Britain eight new cities

No, not like that. She doesn’t build them herself. What she does is wave her magic feather over someplace that already exists and declare that what used to be a town is now a city. This doesn’t make it any larger, although some research suggests that it may make it richer, since (and I’m quoting the BBC here, which doesn’t explain the mix of singular and plural but does give me someone to blame it on) “it put them on the international map as a place to do business.” Presumably, businesses ask Lord Google about a place, find out it’s a city, and get so excited they’d push little old ladies out of the way in their rush to do business there. Even little old ladies dressed like Easter chicks.

Listen, don’t ask me. I’m not the one making the argument. The survey seems to be based on a sample of one, the former town/now a city of Perth (it’s in Scotland), which for all we know grew richer for other reasons. But never mind, we can’t rule out the queen’s magic feather.

I should mention, in case you don’t already know this, that in Britain a town doesn’t become a city by democratic consensus–you know, by people noticing how big it is and calling it a city. It happens by decree and has precious little to do with size. The smallest British city has 1,600 residents. For all I know, the queen could make herself a city. Or make you one. You wouldn’t be any larger, and neither would she.

 

But speaking of democracy…

…jackdaws decide when to leave the roost in the most democratic possible way. Each bird literally has a voice. 

In the winter, jackdaws roost together overnight, and in the morning they take to the air in a mass. When a bird thinks it’s time to leave, it calls out, and each call is a vote. The noise level and the speed at which it increases both influence the flock’s decision to take off. 

As many as 40,000 of them can roost–and lift off–together. They don’t care if you call it a city or not.

 

Will everyone who isn’t Banksy please stand up?

We’re still talking politics here. William Gannon, a town councillor in Pembroke Dock, Wales, resigned in an attempt to squish a rumor that he’s the anonymous street artist Banksy. The rumor, he believes, was started by someone who wants his seat on the town council and, he said, it was “undermining my ability to do the work. . . . [People were] asking me to prove who I am not and that’s almost impossible to do.”

Gannon is an artist and does make street art, which his website describes as “Banksy-esque, not intentionally,” but that’s not the same thing as him being Banksy, and to prove that he’s handing out buttons saying “I am NOT Banksy.” He wears one himself, but then, as many people have pointed out, that’s exactly the sort of thing Banksy would do.

You can’t win this game.

 

And in unrelated clashes with the law…

…a pair of herring gulls have nested on a police car in Dorset and can’t be moved off because they’re members of a protected species. The car’s out of use until the chicks fledge. In the meantime, the adult birds are helping the police with their inquiries.

 

This one stayed out of court, but…

…the Star Inn at Vogue, which is in Vogue, Cornwall and known locally as the Vogue, was threatened with a lawsuit by the owners of Vogue magazine for using its name. The pub owners found that hilarious and wrote back to say the pub had been in place, under that name, for hundreds of years.

“I presume,” Mark Graham wrote, “that at the time when you chose the name Vogue in the capitalised version you didn’t seek permission from the villagers of the real Vogue. I also presume that Madonna did not seek your permission to use the word Vogue (again the capitalised version) for her 1990s song of the same name.”

The magazine wrote back with an apology, which is now framed and on display.

 

And finally, leaving the UK behind

A year ago, a two-day promotion by a restaurant chain in Taiwan offered free sushi–on an all-you-can-eat basis–to anyone with the Chinese characters for salmon in their name, and also to the people they brought with them. That led 331 people to change their names. It doesn’t cost much, at least when compared to the price of a tableful of sushi. So the country suddenly acquired a bunch of people named things like Salmon Dream and Dancing Salmon. Some of them built a social media following on that basis. (There’s no explaining social media.) Others started small (and short-lived) businesses, charging people to go out for sushi with them. 

It was called Salmon chaos, and the government was not amused by the administrative cost of it all. 

Most people changed their names back as soon as the promotion ended, but a few got trapped, because the government only allows a person to change their name three times. Last I heard, the government was debating a change in the law, but in the meantime a few salmon were still trapped as salmon. 

Monkeypox and inflation: the news from Britain

The monkeypox puzzle

When I first started writing this, Britain had 20 confirmed cases of monkeypox, and more than 100 had shown up in other non-African countries. Both numbers have grown since then, but let’s stop counting. 

That they’re showing up outside of Africa is significant, because Africa’s the only place the disease is endemic. So let’s ask the question: Is it time to panic?

Well, those aren’t huge numbers, but the last few years have primed us to overreact when diseases we never heard of knock on the door. We hide behind the couch. We yell through the door and throw things. We eat too much of whatever’s on hand. It’s as natural as it is pointless. 

Still, what’s happening is odd. Monkeypox doesn’t spread easily. It’s shown up outside of Africa in the past, but as isolated cases, not as chains of infection, which is what at least some of these are. 

Monkeypox is a milder relative of smallpox and comes in your choice of two designs: the West African and the Congo. The Congo strain is fatal in 1 out of 10 reported cases and the West African in 1 out of 100. In both instances, you should put the emphasis on reported, because a lot of milder cases never do get reported. In other words, the virus is less lethal than the statistics make it sound. 

So far, only the West African strain has been found in Britain. Reports aren’t in from the rest of the world. 

Most people recover from monkeypox in a few weeks and don’t need treatment, although it can cause complications in  pregnancy, including stillbirths, and is generally more severe in children than in adults.

Both an antiviral treatment and a vaccine exist. What’s more, anyone who was vaccinated against smallpox as a baby probably has some protection against monkeypox. But smallpox vaccination wound down in most countries before 1980. 

How does monkeypox spread? Not easily. It likes to travel on large dro

Irrelevant photo: Osterspermum (I think) surrounded by may.

plets–those things we breathe out no matter how delicate we pretend our manners are. But large droplets don’t travel far, so you have to be in relatively close contact to be exposed. The World Health Organization doesn’t talk about it as an airborne virus.

You can also get it from contact with skin lesions (it causes a rash) and from contact with materials. What kind of materials? A New Scientist article talks about the “clothing, towels or bedding used by an infected person.” 

The World Health Organization also doesn’t talk about it as a sexually transmitted disease, but (don’t you love how a but slides in and contradicts everything that comes before it) it can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact–not to mention by heavy breathing in close proximity. It can also be transmitted by contact with the rash it causes, and if the rash is in a sexually relevant place, contact becomes almost inevitable. So yes, sex with an infected person would be a great way to catch the disease. In Britain, the current crop of cases are clustered in gay and bisexual men, not because they’re any more prone to it but presumably because some of them were prone with an infected person.

The most recent report I’ve seen traces a lot of cases to two raves, one in Spain and one in Belgium.

Charlotte Hammer, an expert on emerging diseases, said, “I am certain we are going to see more cases,” but that doesn’t mean we’re looking at a replay of Covid. The experts will be looking for more cases, and GPs can now be expected to recognize any that show up. So infections that would have gone unnoticed will now be noticed. And since the disease has an incubation period of one to three weeks, it’s about time for people who were exposed early on to come down sick.

Why, thn, do we have such an unusual number and range of cases showing up outside of Africa? Hammer said we’re looking at two possibilities, although it sounds to me like two and a half. We’ll count it out my way, since she’s not watching.

1, The virus is inherently different now,

1a, our susceptibility has changed,

or 2, a perfect storm of conditions has allowed the virus to spread the way it has. 

She thinks number 2 is the most likely. Let’s back that up with a quote from Keith Neal of Nottingham University. “Has the virus changed? Well, it does not actually appear to be any more lethal, though something may have affected transmissibility. And don’t forget, this is a DNA virus and is unlikely to mutate at the rates that RNA viruses do. . . . I am not too worried.”

Researcher Romulus Breban thinks that, given the number of people who have not been vaccinated against smallpox, this was waiting to happen.”

“Our immunity level is almost zero,” he said. “People over 50 are likely to be immune, but the rest of us . . . [are] very, very susceptible.”

In short, this doesn’t sound like the next thing that’s going to kill us all. So settle down, everyone. Just be careful who breathes into your face, whose skin you rub, and whose bedding you handle. Not to mention who you go to bed with. 

That last part is probably good advice anyway.

*

I skimmed through Twitter the other day and spotted an early-stage, monkeypox-related  rabbit hole, which told me that the bad guys are working the good but credulous folks into a state of hysteria over nothing. Again. Not that they need to bother if hysteria’s their goal. The Twitteratti are doing it for them.

Who are the aforesaid bad guys? Depends who you ask. Dr. Fauci, George Soros, the Pfizer corporation, and the government (choose your least favorite or simply the one where you live) all got a mention, and all that was before I’d read for more than a minute. I’m sure the list is longer–and if you believe the theories, they’re all in it together. If I’d dug deeper, I expect I’d have found an international conspiracy of woke neo-Marxist professors of post-structural critical race theory and a cabal of international communist Jewish bankers. 

Has anyone noticed how few bankers turn out to be Communists, and vice versa? How you can find enough to mount a decent conspiracy is beyond me, but never mind. Why ruin a good theory? Whoever they are, they’re out to get us.

I’m not actually sure the denizens of this incipient rabbit hole have to agree on who the they here is. Or are.The whole business puts as much of a strain on grammar as it does on logic. 

 

The inflation news 

With inflation rising at a level Britain hasn’t seen in 40 years, a handful of Conservative MPs (that’s members of parliament) have demonstrated a breathtaking understanding of what it means to live on a low income. 

Lee Anderson opened the discussion by saying the country doesn’t need all those pesky food banks. The problem is that poor people don’t know how to budget or cook from scratch. If they did, they could make themselves a meal for 30 p. (To translate that to dollars, about 40 cents.)

So Welsh chef Gareth Mason took up the challenge.

 “I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a load of rubbish,” he said. “These meals I’ve done, as soon as you put any protein or dairy into them, it’s not feasible to do it for 30p.

“If you eat beans on toast for every meal, it might work, but even if you did cheese on toast, the cost of cheese would be more than 30p on its own. And you have the cooking cost on top of the cost of the food.”

Yes, money’s tight enough and energy bills are high enough that people are asking themselves whether they can afford to turn on the oven. Or the stove, although they’d call it a cooker.

“Even if this MP is talking about batch cooking army food, even the smallest amount of spaghetti bolognese is going to go above 30p.”

An adult, he said, would struggle to get the recommended number of calories.

I’m grateful to Mason for doing the research, because it gives those of us who already knew it was rubbish someone authoritative to quote.

*

Meanwhile, Rachel Maclean said people struggling with the cost of living should get better jobs. You know, the kind of jobs that pay more. Or they should work more hours. 

See, that’s the trouble with poor people. They don’t think of things like that. 

If poor people became MPs, for example, they could claim–as the average MP does–£203,000 just for expenses, although Maclean claimed £10,000 more than that.  

She, by the way, is the government’s minister for safeguarding, meaning she’s in charge of protecting an assortment of vulnerable people from the kind of stuff they’re vulnerable to. I haven’t noticed any of that going particularly well, but never mind. The pay’s good and–see?–she’s not poor, so maybe the two are connected

*

So how bad is inflation? At the beginning of April, it hit 9%, and the less money you make the higher your personal inflation rate is, because you spend more of your income on food and energy, which have risen more than (and I write this next bit with without checking either my figures or my stereotypes) yachts and champagne, pushing your personal inflation rate in the double digits. Silly you; if you had your priorities straight, you’d forget about food, rent, and heat and spend your money on something with a lower inflation rate.

To put numbers to that, the inflation for the poorest 10% of the  population is 3 percentage points higher than it is for the richest 10%.

The situation is bad enough that Andy Cooke, the chief inspector of constabulary, said police should use their discretion in deciding whether to prosecute people who steal because they need to eat. 

Which led Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, to say the idea that inflation would cause more crime was “old-fashioned.” He’s told officers not to let people off just because they’re desperate and stealing food. 

Okay, he didn’t mention desperation. I’m not sure he understands its connection to money. Or hunger.

What he did say was, “I have to challenge this connection between poverty and crime. What we’ve found in the past, and where there is now growing evidence, is that actually crime is a contributor to poverty. That if you remove the violence and the crime from people’s lives they generally prosper more than they otherwise would.”

So first we take away the violence. As a result, people’s paychecks get larger. Their rent gets lower. Why hasn’t anyone mentioned this before? All we have to do now is figure out how they feed themselves and their kids while they wait for the magic to kick in. 

What do all these people I’m quoting actually do? The chief inspector of constabulary heads the independent body that assesses police forces in England and Wales.  The policing minister is part of the government–in other words, a member of the party in power (the Conservatives, known for their compassion, their competence, and the parties they threw when they’d locked down the rest of the country). He does something or other in that connection, although I have no idea what and I’m not convinced that he does either.

*

We’ll give the final word to the prime minister, who tells us that work is the best way to get out of poverty. This from a man who can’t tell work from a party, which is why he ever so accidentally broke his own lockdown rules. 

*

Nah, let’s not give him the last word, let’s give it to Oxfam, which reports that, worldwide, the pandemic has created a new billionaire every 30 hours–and it expects a million people to be pushed into extreme poverty every 33 hours this year. 

Billionaires’ wealth has risen more in the first 24 months of COVID-19 than in 23 years combined. The total wealth of the world’s billionaires is now equivalent to 13.9 percent of global GDP. This is a three-fold increase (up from 4.4 percent) in 2000. . . .

“The fortunes of food and energy billionaires have risen by $453 billion in the last two years, equivalent to $1 billion every two days. Five of the largest energy companies (BP, Shell, TotalEnergies, Exxon and Chevron) are together making $2,600 profit every second, and there are now 62 new food billionaires. . . .

”The pandemic has created 40 new pharma billionaires. Pharmaceutical corporations like Moderna and Pfizer are making $1,000 profit every second just from their monopoly control of the COVID-19 vaccine, despite its development having been supported by billions of dollars in public investments. They are charging governments up to 24 times more than the potential cost of generic production. 87 percent of people in low-income countries have still not been fully vaccinated.”

Just sayin’, as one of our godkids used to say.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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?

*

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. 

*

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

*

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.