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.

 

Where’d the Money Go? Play the thrilling new boardless game

Okay, kids, it’s time to play Where’d the Money Go? I’ve just pulled the special Pandemic Edition out of the box, so make yourself at home and let’s start.

Never played it before? One player–that’d be me–offers footnoted examples of ludicrous spending and wasted money. If I don’t document my claims, I’m out. 

The other players (that’d be you)–

Actually, the other players don’t have a lot to do. You shake their heads, moan, and generally make horrified noises. Or you don’t. Up to you. You leave comments. Then when the time comes, if you live in the relevant country, you vote. High points to the players who vote the rascals out and (more immediately) to the ones who leave funny comments on the blog, although wise, insightful comments are also worth points. 

In fact, any comment’s worth points.

If the current rascals do get voted out, will the replacement set be less rascally? I can’t promise, but this lot has set a high standard, so the odds are good.

Irrelevant photo: a rose

Okay, I start, so I’ll offer up a few recent examples. The older ones have been buried under a blizzard of recent ones and I don’t want to dig them out.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government’s spent £1.5 billion on contracts with companies strongly linked to the Conservative Party, which just happens to be the party in power. I keep seeing the word chumocracy in articles about this.  

Many of these are urgent contracts. Under ordinary circumstances, the government has to advertise for bids instead of just awarding contracts to the closest person in the room. But there’s an exception for urgent contracts. Since the pandemic, lots of contracts have gone–urgently–to the closest person in the room.

How do you get into the room? See above for links with the Conservative Party, I’d guess. 

In exploring the law on this, the Local Government Lawyer website says, “The core question is really, then, is this contract really necessitated by this emergency or is the emergency being used as cover?”

Mmm, maybe not all of them are really necessitated by the emergency. Some have gone for political consulting. One was to research public opinion on the government’s Covid communications. To explain a few of the other contracts, I’d need more words than I have in the bank but, hey, I’m giving you a footnote–one of those things known as a link in this century. Sorry, I’m very much from the last century. If you want more examples, you can dig them out there.

Other contracts were for urgent supplies but are still questionable. 

Example: Anthony Page used to be the secretary of MGM Media, which manages the “brand” of Baroness Mone, a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He’s also a director of a finance firm, Knox Group, which was founded by Mone’s fiance, Doug Barrowman.

Page quit at MGM media and set up a company called PPE Medpro. The Good Law Project calls it a £100 company–I assume that’s how much capital it had. Miraculously, forty-four days later, PPE Medpro was awarded a £122 million contract to supply the government with gowns for health care workers. The contract wasn’t opened up for public bidding. Because, hey, we’re in a crisis here. There’s no time for niceties.

Nobody involved has anything relevant to say, although they’re quoted, except that it’s all fine and an article in the Herald Scotland ends by saying that “there is no suggestion of wrongdoing and the Department of Health said: ‘Due diligence is carried out for all government contracts.’ ”

That translates to, “Don’t sue us.”

On the other hand, the director of the Good Law Project, which dug up the information and is suing the health secretary for breaching UK laws requiring transparency, tweeted, “I am told time and again of profit margins of 10-20% on these contracts. Fortunes large enough to sustain generations are being made by those lucky enough or well connected enough to win them.”

Good Law Project’s website mentions another contract, this one with Ayanda Capital, “a politically connected firm” that got  a £252 million contract to supply face masks for the National Health Service. Most of them turned out to be unusable. 

“Ayanda was guided through the process by the Cabinet Office and enjoyed staggering margins compared to the prices paid to others.” 

Then there’s the Randox company, which got a £347 million six-month extension on a contract. Randox are the good folks whose Covid test kits were recalled last summer when some of the swabs–those things you’re supposed to stick up your pristine nose–were found to be contaminated. 

A Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, earns £100,000 a year as a consultant to Randox, and he was part of a call between the company and the health minister in charge of supplies for the testing program.

I’m sure nothing out of line was discussed. Don’t sue me either. It’s all footnoted. I hope.

Details on urgent, noncompetititive contracts are, by law, supposed to be published within thirty days but have been slow in coming, taking an average of seventy-eight days. As of November 16, information on £4.6 billion worth of contracts hasn’t been released.

In an editorial, the BMJ (which used to be the British Medical Journal but which following a logic they somehow never explained to me is now just the BMJ) said the pandemic “unleashed state corruption on a grand scale” that is “harmful to public health.” It called it “opportunistic embezzlement.” It also–more chillingly but less relevantly to our topic–said politicians are “suppressing science.” 

The BMJ doesn’t usually wade into politics, making it noticeable when it does.

No footnote there. The BMJ‘s behind a paywall. I’m relying on a quote from one of the links above.

You may have notice that I didn’t footnote every fact. The links repeat. I get bored. They all came from the sources I cited. You can throw me out of the game if you like. The person who opens doesn’t get points anyway. They either get thrown out or they don’t.

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As a side issue, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has had to put himself into isolation after meeting with an MP who later tested positive for Covid. Pictures show the two men posing maskless and too close together, although I’ll admit that they’re not in each other’s pockets. 

The test and trace system did manage to locate the prime minister and tell him to stay home but it’s better known for the people it doesn’t reach than for the ones it does. Its head is another Conservative member of the House of Lords, Dido Harding. Last time I saw a number, the government had spent £12 billion on it. Consultants are being paid as much as £6,250 per day.

Johnson wants the world to know that he’s “bursting with antibodies” and feeling fine. 

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t any pictures in my mind of what he’s bursting with.

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Irrelevantly, the London Economic says that a source close to Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, claims the real reason Boris Johnson fired his brain–that’s Dominic Cummings–is that he leaked an announcement of the current lockdown to the press before Johnson got the news to parliament. 

And in a further moment of irrelevance, and you  will probably have already heard about this, the Moderna vaccine has gone public with preliminary results: It may protect 95.4% of people against Covid and doesn’t need to be kept as cold as the Pfizer vaccine, which has a preliminary report of 90% effectiveness.

The Russian Sputnik V vaccine reported 92% effectiveness. Again, that’s preliminary. 

Feeding hungry kids: the English public strikes back

After the government voted to deny £15 vouchers to low income families in England so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry during the school holidays, a local pub banned the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, from its premises.

For life.

It did the same to three other local MPs who voted against the vouchers with him.  Pubs can do that here, but they usually reserve it for the kind of customer who sets off fireworks on the bar or pulls the plumbing out of the men’s room. But I guess it’s a question of who does more damage in the long run.

The ban was posted on the pub’s Facebook page, which also reproduced a menu from one of the House of Commons’ many restaurants, where steak and chips are going for £11.77–a price subsidized by the taxpayer.

Don’t usually do politics but here goes,” the Facebook page said. “I have never known a Government which is consistently the wrong end of every argument.”

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Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

In tweeting about against the vouchers, Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote, “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.

“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”

FSM being free school meals. This is shorthand for the voucher program. Which is also shorthand.

Don’t worry about it.

When he started catching flak for that and a few other tweets, he complained that they’d been taken out of context. I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze any context at all into 280 characters. Short of writing in Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, where a single character can be a whole word. 

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In the meantime, players from Leeds United donated £25,000 for kids’ meals over the school break, and the club they play for has announced that it will match that.  

Businesses, restaurants, and local governments (including at least a few led by the Conservative Party–the party that voted against the £15 vouchers) have also stepped up with offers to help, and Conservatives are beginning to say that the government misjudged the feelings of the country. Not that kids need to eat and they want to do the right thing, but that people are mad at them.

They don’t even know how to say, “Ooops,” right.

All of it goes a good distance toward restoring my battered faith in humanity, but it’s worth remembering that whether kids get fed will depend on where they live. In some places there’ll be multiple offers and in others there’ll be none.

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This morning, I listened to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, interviewed on the radio. I was driving and it was him or nothing. We eventually realized that nothing was much better, but before we did I was interested to hear that he’s not singing Ben Bradley’s tune. I doubt even Ben Bradley’s singing Ben Bradley’s tune anymore. It didn’t go over well. What he said was that of course the government’s making sure every child gets fed, but local governments are better at that than central government and we’ve given them money for it.

But, the interviewer said, that was way back when and it was spent long ago.

We’ve given them money, he said in seventeen different ways.

It’s an approach I’ve heard a lot in the last few years. Ask a government minister why the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank is so short of money and they’ll tell you how much money they already spent on the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank. It doesn’t answer the question, and sometimes they’re talking about money that was allocated before William the Conqueror’s boat first touched England’s southern shores, but it sounds like an answer and can usually be counted on to derail the conversation.

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Since as a nation we’re not handing low-income parents £15 to waste on feeding their kids, let’s review another spending program. No one tweeted that the £12.7 billion program to help the self-employed through the pandemic was pouring spaghetti sauce into crack dens, but a study from the Resolution Foundation says it gave £1.3 billion to workers who hadn’t lost any income while successfully missing 500,000 who did. The study blames a combination of strict eligibility rules and weak assessment. Basically, they excluded lots of categories of the self-employed and then didn’t ask people in the categories they accepted to document their losses. 

The  study also said that the self-employed were hit even harder in the first six months of the pandemic than employees were. Three out of ten stopped working during the worst of the crisis, and one in six is still out of work. 

About 5 million people count as self-employed in Britain, although some of them, inevitably, will be the mythically self-employed. It pays for corporations to offload the expenses of employing people by calling them freelancers, and people are desperate enough to accept that.

Do you remember when life was going to get endlessly better? 

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The lockdown in Wales is tighter than England’s, and it’s closed shops that sell nonessential goods, which has had the odd consequence of restricting supermarket sales of the same items. They’ve had to have had to cover shelves to hide the socks, the decorative hair thingies, the–

Actually, it’s hard to decide where to draw the line. The cake decorations? They’re edible, so maybe they can stay. The birthday candles? Non-edible but on the same shelves as the cake decorations. The mugs that say, “You’re the best”? The ones that say, “I changed my mind. You’re a cockwomble”?

Let’s turn to the experts: Nonessentials include electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, garden products, and homewares, and the decision on individual items depends on what part of the supermarket they’re in rather than their inherent essentialness. So forget the cups, but you can probably buy birthday candles.

Supplies for the “essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household,” such as batteries, light bulbs, and rubber gloves, are okay. Because who could function without rubber gloves?

It’s easy to make fun of, and I’m having a hard time holding myself back, but there is a logic to it. To slow the virus, you need to shut down everything you can, but they don’t want to hand supermarkets the business they’ve denied to small shops. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it makes sense anyway.

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While we’re talking about the odd places that rules lead us into, England’s rule of six limits gatherings–indoor, outdoor, underground, and hallucinated–to six people unless they’re all from a single household (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but close enough for our purposes). But some of London’s fancier restaurants have discovered that if people are talking business they can gather in groups of thirty.

Wheee. Take your foot off the brake and don’t be such a scaredy cat. 

One of the restaurants emailed its client list to let them know that “when the topic is business you can still meet over a fabulous working lunch or dinner without the restriction of the ‘single household rule.’ ” 

You will, however, need to employ at least one overcooked adjective and a full set of quotation marks, however unnecessary and aesthetically offensive they may be. 

At one expensive restaurant, the Sexy Fish, caviar sushi sells for £42 a piece, and you can buy a £16,000 Armand de Brignac champagne if you really need to. The reporter who scouted the place and asked diners if they were discussing business got himself thrown out. Which was lucky, because I doubt the Guardian’s budget stretches as far as the sushi, never mind the champagne. 

How to choose a new career, courtesy of the British government

With 300,000 job cuts planned back in June and July (sorry–statistics lag behind reality) and more cuts hitting the headlines every day or three, with the possibility that unemployment among young people will hit 17% later this year, never let it be said that the government isn’t trying to help the least among us. 

And believe me, they think we’re all the least. 

What are they doing for us? Why, they’ve created a quiz to help us figure out what jobs we’d be good at if our old careers have crashed and burned, or if we never had a career but our jobs are now cinders, or if we graduated to find the job market in flames and the fire department at half mast due to a decade of austerity budgets, or–

Well, you get the picture.

Ever anxious to help people (that was one of the questions on the test), I’ve taken the quiz so that you don’t have to trouble yourself. And by way of full disclosure, I should tell you that this is a test version of the test, so I’m sure–

I’m sure of nothing. Never mind. It’s a test version. We’ll leave it there.

Irrelevant photo: A flower I’ve forgotten the name of–and a butterfly. If someone would remind me, I’d be grateful (for whatever use that is). A friend once called it “that tall, ethereal thing” and it knocked the real name right out of my head.

What the test asks you to do is agree or disagree with a series of statements, and with each question you go deeper into the essence of who you are and what you’re capable of. Then an algorithm compares that with every available shred of information about the job market and spits out your own personal economic self-improvement plan.

How scientific a portrait of you does it build up? Oh, very. Especially when you pick the “it depends” box. 

The questions include: 

I am comfortable telling people what to do. (I am, but I sometimes need to wait until they’ve pissed me off. Then I’m very good at it.)

I make decisions quickly. (I had to switch to a different tab and type that question up for your benefit, so even though I claimed to make decisions quickly, I took my own sweet time with the question. I don’t think I was penalized for it, but they don’t really tell you.)

I take control of situations. (It depends. On what? Oh, lots of things.) 

I like taking responsibility for other people. (It depends. On what? Time, place, and circumstance, mostly.)

I set myself targets and usually meet them. (I accidentally left that one blank and tried to go on. The test sent me back and I said that yes, of course I meet my own targets. But filling out the test correctly was never one of them.) 

I think I am a competitive person. (I think I am? If they don’t trust me to know this about myself, why would they think I’m non-delusional about the others?)

I set myself goals in life. (You asked me this once already. Standardized tests often do that to see if you come up with the same answer when the questions come in different forms, but most of them are subtle enough not to hit you on the head with it.)

Doing well in a career motivates me. (Geez, no. What could be less interesting?)

I try to think differently to others. (I don’t try, sweetie. This is the brain I was issued. This is how it works. Yes, it can be interesting in here at times.)

And so on. 

At about the halfway mark, I started hitting “It depends” on most of the questions. Because I was bored. Because I wanted to see what they’d do with someone in the absence of any discernible personality. And, of course, because it does depend. Everything depends. It depends on how we’re going to interpret the question. It depends on whether I want to make a good impression on myself. It depends on whether I want to play the game fairly. 

Basically, yes, I cheated by not representing my real self, so I don’t claim that the careers scientifically chosen for me are entirely tailored for my oddities, but it turns out that I’d make a good soldier or a good cake decorator.

Also a nursery worker (to translate that, it means working in a preschool; you can see why someone who’d be a good soldier is a natural fit there), a judge (my lack of a law degree doesn’t seem to be a problem), or a dance teacher (the startling number of left feet that were included in the package when I was born present no problem).

And since the travel industry’s thriving right now, I could also retrain as a travel agency manager, a tourist guide, or hotel room attendant. That last one is career-guidance speak for a cleaner. 

An assortment of other people who took the test report that they’d be good boxers, lock keepers, or movie projectionists. Lord Google left me with the impression that lock keeping’s a volunteer job. With time and dedication, you can progress up the ladder to be a volunteer coordinator, but probably still as a volunteer. And one of the big movie chains just closed its doors. 

Reality has also closed its doors. Movie projectionists are looking to retrain as lock keepers.

That leaves boxing. I’d make a good boxer, competing in the overage runt category. But when they asked if I was competitive I said, “It depends,” so they didn’t suggest it for me.

If you’ll excuse me now, I have a couple of cakes to shoot.  I don’t like doing this, but orders are orders.

 

The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

The black lives matter update from Britain

The black lives matter movement is sweeping through Britain, with demonstrations in London and many smaller cities. The biggest flap is over the demonstration in Bristol, which toppled the statue of a slave trader, Edward Colston, and dumped it in the harbor. 

Cue outrage, first over people wanting to erase history, then over illegal acts and general thuggery. To explain why the statue was toppled, I’m going to quote that political sage Larry the Cat (@Number10cat), who tweeted (yes, of course he does his own tweets), “Simple questions: What mechanism is there for people anywhere in the UK to request a statue be removed? When was any statue in the UK last removed using such a mechanism?

“Unless you have simple answers, don’t be surprised by today‘s events.”

Since Larry the Cat gets a mention here, it seems only right for Fast Eddie to get a walk-on part. He has no lines and can sleep through the rehearsals.

Larry lives in 10 Downing Street but is not responsible for the political decisions made there, only for keeping the mouse population in check. He’s independent of all political parties.

I can’t help wondering how many people who worry about erasing history mentioned it when statues of Lenin and Sadam Hussein were pulled down. I do remember it being mentioned when Confederate generals fell in the U.S.

News from the fringes of Britain’s election: a midweek bonus post

Elections are serious business, and this one is especially serious, so let’s take you on a tour of its crazier fringes. 

The most important fringe is unraveling in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a London suburb where Boris Johnson, also known as Britain’s prime minister, is trying to keep his seat in parliament. At the last election, his majority was small–in the neighborhood of 5,000 votes. If he loses his seat but his party wins a majority in the Commons, it will have to find itself a new leader, he’ll have to find himself a new hobby, and the new leader will be the new prime minister. 

Johnson’s most serious challenge is from Labour, so we’ll skip that. We’ll also skip the Liberal Democrat, the Green Party candidate, and anyone else we’d have to take seriously.

The most interesting challenges come from Count Binface and Lord Buckethead. We’re looking at a particularly bitter fight there, because Count Binface used to be Lord Buckethead but had an unpleasant set-to on, as he put it, planet Copyright and had to reincarnate as Count Binface.  

Are you keeping up with this?

Neither am I. Lord Buckethead was–or, I guess, still is–a character in a 1984 movie, Hyperspace, that no one ever saw.  Or so says one newspaper. Another says he was a character in a 1980s Gremloids, another movie that no one ever saw.

Do we care which movie it was? No. Here at Notes, we’re completely nondenominational about bad movies. All we care about is that a comedian, Jon Harvey, appropriated the character.

Buckethead likes to run against prime ministers. He’s run against Theresa May, David Cameron, John Major, and Margaret Thatcher. I believe someone else was being Buckethead part that time, but do we really care about that? Probably not. 

This business of popping around the country to run against prime ministers is made possible by an election law that doesn’t demand that candidates live in the areas they hope to represent.   

The law also doesn’t make candidates use their real names in elections, and that’s a gift to those of us whose spirits need lifting in these dismal times. It doesn’t even make them define real. All they have to do is file papers and pay money. 

So the man who used to be Lord Buckethead is now running as Count Binface, but someone else is running–also in Uxbridge and et cetera–as Lord Buckethead. Count B. has said he looks forward to a “receptacle to receptacle debate” with him.

As Count B. (writing on Twitter as @CountBinface) explained, “At a time when political precedent is being broken all over the place, I find myself effectively standing against not just (current) Prime Minister @BorisJohnson but also myself. I think that’s a first.”

In a separate tweet, he explained that he’d renounced his peerage because in an earlier campaign he’d promised to abolish the House of Lords. 

The current Lord Buckethead is running on the Monster Raving Loony Party ticket.

Guys, I don’t make this stuff up. I only wish I had the sort of mind that could.

Another candidate running against Boris Johnson in Uxbridge and Wherever is William Tobin, who announced that he doesn’t want anyone’s vote, he’s only running because as a long-term British resident in the European Union he’s no longer eligible to vote, although he is eligible to run for office. He wants to raise the profile of 7 million disenfranchised voters who will be affected by Brexit but get no say in British politics. 

I haven’t confirmed that number. Can we agree that there are a lot of them, though?

Enough for Uxbridge and So Forth. In other constituencies, the most interesting fringes I’ve found belong to the Monster Raving Loony Party, whose candidates include: the Incredible Flying Brick, Earl Elvis of Outwell, Howling Laud Hope, Citizen Skwith, and the Baron and the Dame, who must have found a way to run jointly, because they’re quite clearly two people. I struggle to recognize people, but even I can manage to tell them apart: One’s shorter and the other has a long, scraggly beard. They’re both male. One of them being called the Dame is a British thing and has to do with pantos, which are–oh, never mind. It’s too complicated to explain in a short space but but it’s not about trannies or queens. It’s a recognized theatrical form, and a strange one. 

The Monster Raving Loony manifesto includes a proposal to “reduce the national debt by selling the castles back to the French. (Buyer dismantles.)” 

Wish us luck, world. We need it right now.

Britain gets a new cabinet: an update

Britain has a new prime minister, who even though he’s never been prime minister of anyplace before has the look of a second-hand car about him–the kind whose odometer broke when someone tried to set it back. So far, he’s told us that everything’s going to be wonderful with him in office. We’ll leave the E.U. by Halloween, with or (possibly preferably) without a deal, and this will make the country prosperous and united.

We’ll all have 100,000 fewer miles on our individual and national odometers.

In anticipation, the pound dropped against both the dollar and the euro.

More concretely, he’s appointed a new cabinet. So let’s check in on what a few of them have done in their limited time in government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the new leader of the House of Commons and he’s banned metric measurements in his office. And if something comes into the office speaking metric and has to go back out in the same form? Presumably it will have to be translated into imperial units to be read and then translated back out of them before it rejoins the world. 

He’s also banned a series of words and phrases, including (but, oh, so not limited to) hopefully, very, due to, ongoing, equal, yourself, lot, got, pleased to learn, and unacceptable.

Equal? Yeah, it’s on the list. It will, hopefully, prevent staff members from saying, “Go fuck yourself,” when they’re told that asking for equal pay is unacceptable.

A couple of the entries (lot, got, and I am pleased to learn) have been reported but are unconfirmed. I mention that because this stuff is important and I want to be sure we get it right. I’m an immigrant here, so to a certain kind of person the way I use the language is always going to be suspect. Which makes me very much want to say, “Go fuck yourself.” Due to having an ongoing bad attitude.

Rees-Mogg’s staff has also been instructed to use a double space after a period–which in British is called a full stop, and I’m sure he’d insist on it being called that–and not to use a comma after an and

It is possible to use a comma after an and but it’s not easy. I’m not going to bother working up an example when I’ve got a lot of simpler ways to break the rules.

Staff members should also avoid using is too often. How often is too often? You’re on your own there. Do be careful, though, please. I care about you, and the world’s a dangerous place.

I is also on the list of banned words. Maybe, like the queen, he prefers one. One is–. Nope, can’t use is. One might be pleased to find a less awkward way to avoid its use.

Since he became an MP, R-M’s speeches have used words from the banned list 1,189 times. It may have gone up since that report, so let’s take that as a minimum, especially since uses of the word  I, mysteriously, weren’t included. And yes (ha! got the comma in after and), if you’re going to be such a public nit-picker, someone will sit down and count. Gleefully.

R-M also demands that any man who doesn’t have a title get the suffix Esq. added to his name. Women, presumably, are too unimportant to worry about. Or maybe the language doesn’t have an equivalent. I wouldn’t know.

Admittedly, the guidelines were established at his old office as a plain old MP and have been transferred wholesale to his new, elevated position as Micro-Manager-in-Chief, so presumably this hasn’t occupied all his time. That is, however, speculation.

He’s commonly known as the Honourable member for the 18th Century.

After that, anyone else is going to be a disappointment, but let’s go on.

Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, has announced a two-page limit for briefings and says he will “pay attention to the font size and margins.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has brought his favorite pink cup to his new office. As far as I know, it’s not a sippy cup. 

Oops. Did I just start a rumor?

Priti Patel, the new home secretary, has a £1,000-an-hour contract with a company that supplies products and services to the same government she works for. She also earns £45,000 a year for working 20 hours a month for an accounting software firm. If she cares about the spacing after a period, limits her intake of government documents to picture books, or drinks from a sippy cup, it’s not on record but it might be preferable. 

Now let’s go back to that business about a double space after a period. If WikiWhatsia is correct (and I’m not going any deeper into this than a WikiWhatsia article, earthshaking though the topic may be), a double space after a period is called English spacing. A single space is called French spacing. There are other differences between the two, but let’s stop there. We’re not setting type, just reporting on it. 

So far, it sounds clear, but the phrases are often used in exactly the opposite way, and WikiWhatsia gives a good solid list of examples without managing to help me understand why or how that happened.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the trend in typesetting has been toward a single space after a period. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper, since in a book that small change can save a fair bit of paper. And many people think it looks better.

The U.S. seems to have made the shift to single spacing before the U.K., although even there high-end publishing stuck with the double space for a while. With the introduction of computers, designers and typographers have increasingly leaned toward the single space. In my experience, it dominates the publishing world.

So is R-M dedicated to the double space because he thinks it’s high end? Or because he thinks it’s English as opposed to French (and the English, if you’ll forgive a generalization, have a thing about the French)? Or because it was done that way in the eighteenth century and that’s his century? I can only ask, not answer. If he knew that in the early 1960s, when all girls with fingers were taught to type, no excuses accepted, I was taught that it was necessary, right, and moral to double space after a period. I was (partly deliberately, partly by nature) a monumentally bad typist, but for years I double-spaced after periods.

If that doesn’t take the shine off the double space, I don’t know what will.

Voting once is such fun, they’re voting twice: How Britain chooses a prime minister

It’s already strange that 160,000 (give or take we don’t know how many) members of a single party will choose Britain’s prime minister without the rest of the country getting a say, but the strangeness doesn’t end there. The election of the Conservative Party’s next leader is run by rules the party makes for itself, and the winner gets to lead the country because the Conservatives have–.

Okay, this is awkward. They don’t have a majority in the House of Commons. They have more MPs than anyone else and they borrowed several from a Northern Ireland unionist party to make a thin majority. But hey, everyone else is such a mess that it looks like a commanding position right now.

So what do they do? Having narrowed their leadership candidates down to Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, they sent out ballot papers so all their members could choose between them. And to some they sent two ballot papers.

The BBC reports that ” the Conservative Party and the independent body hired to scrutinise the running of the leadership election were both unable to say how many ballot papers had been sent in error.” But the Conservative Party says it’s all going to be fine because the ballots say you mustn’t vote twice, so of course no one will.

“I know that they won’t vote twice, however tempting it might be,” Not Boris Johnson, who’s behind in the polls, said. “I’m asking them not to because we want this to be an absolutely fair election”

He also said, “Of course I’m going to trust the result.”

The two candidates have been trying to out-Brexit each other, out fight-crime each other, and out-depress the rest of us.

The vote closes on July 22 and the results will be announced on the 23rd. And now excuse me while I go see if ice cream really does cure depression.

Hats and the House of Commons

When did Members of Parliament stopped wearing hats in the House of Commons? someone asked recently.

The question wasn’t something I was expected to answer but a search engine question, meaning the person who asked isn’t likely to see the answer. Still, it intrigued me. So let’s hack it apart and see what we can learn:

The short answer is 1998.

The answer is also more complicated than that, and more fun. We’ll work more or less backward in time.

Irrelevant photo: I’m reasonably sure these are osteospermum. It sounds like a disease, but it’s not.

The reason 1998 comes up is that it’s a dividing line. Before then, anyone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division (which in the normal world would be called a vote) had to wear a top hat while they were talking. According to some sources, that was because it made them easier for the Speaker to spot. According to others, it was just because. Traditions are like that sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of why they were once done but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing them.

Two collapsible top hats were kept on hand so that they could be passed to whoever wanted to raise a point of order.

Yes, collapsible. For all I know, the point of order might have been invalid if the hat hadn’t been collapsible, although I have read that a women MP was issued a get-out-of-hat-free card: She got got to raise her point of order without putting the hat on her head. Maybe it didn’t work with her hair style. Maybe she (or the speaker, or the god of top hats) felt a top hat was inappropriate for a woman. Or for a lady. But that’s guesswork. If it was considered inappropriate for a lady, I just know I’d have worn the thing, and I like to think I could’ve pulled it off with a certain grand absurdist style. Fortunately–or possibly sadly–we’ll never find out so I can go on believing.

Then in 1998, the Modernisation Select Committee came along and ruined everything. Let me quote:

“In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television.'”

So no more games with top hats and TV cameras and Order Papers. But take heart. They didn’t spoil all the hat-related fun. Before each sitting of Parliament, the Speaker leads a procession from his or her office to the Commons chamber. This involves someone walking behind him or her carrying the train of her or his cloak (which is long enough to look like it was cut for some much taller species) and yet another person walking behind the train-carrier carrying fuck-all but looking very serious about it.

Apologies if the swearing offends anyone. All this ceremonial seriousness will rot your teeth if you don’t counteract it with a carefully calibrated dose of profanity.

Besides, I do swear. I have ever since I was first introduced to the words, which was some time before I understood what they meant. 

The two walkers-behind are–at least in the picture you’ll find if you follow the link a couple of paragraphs back–wearing frothy lace where you might otherwise find a tie. And no hats.

As they process through the members’ lobby, the police (because what’s a procession without police?) shout, “Speaker,” in case anyone hasn’t figured out that this is the Speaker. This allows everyone who isn’t the Speaker or the followers-behind to scuttle out of the way. Then (or possibly first–I have no idea what the route is), in the central lobby, the police inspector (because what’s a procession without a police inspector?) shouts, “Hats off, strangers,” and all the police take off their helmets. Because helmets are hats, sort of.

In the House of Commons, strangers are people who aren’t MPs–a.k.a. Members of Parliament. If any non-police non-MPs are around, they’re expected to take their hats off too. If they don’t, they’ll be turned into June bugs for the remainder of the day. 

Have you ever wondered how J.K. Rowling came up with all the convoluted traditions of the Harry Potter books? I’m not saying it was from Parliament in particular, just that the British culture sets a person’s mind working in certain odd ways.

Now, in the interest of making some marginal sense of all this, let’s slip back a bit further in time, to the days when gentlemen wore top hats or put order papers on their heads. And keep track of the gentle– part of the word gentlemen, because the whole point of a top hat was to prove you were the sort of man who could wear something that was as expensive as it was useless.

MPs were traditionally the sort of men who wore top hats.

So Commons had rules governing the hats. You could wear them inside the chamber but you couldn’t wear them as you were coming in or going out. Or when you were addressing the house. So you had to take your hat off to come in, then you might or might not put it on your head to sit down, but if you did you had to take it off to again stand up and speak, put it back on (if you chose to) to sit down, then take it off again to leave.

Which should be clear enough for anyone to follow.

A parliamentary guide to the traditions and customs of the House says:

“In the late nineteenth century,  the tall hat was de rigeur. It also served as a place reservation in the Chamber for its owner, the  thinking being that the wearer could not leave the Palace without it, and would therefore soon return.

“This system was defeated by some Members bringing two silk hats into the Palace (one Irish Member, it is said, once arrived with a cab full of hats) and so the present device of “prayer cards” was adopted.”

Prayer cards?

The House of Commons–can we agree, for convenience, to call it the H of C? Thanks. I feel comfortable enough to take off my top hat now. The H of C currently has 646 members but only 427 seats. Most days that’s not a problem. Turn on the news and you can often catch slight of MPs orating to a nearly empty expanse of green benches. (Green is the color of the H of C. It reminds them not to get above their station, because red is for the H of Lords.) But when some hot-ticket item is on the agenda, everyone wants to squeeze in and there isn’t room. As the BBC’s Democracy Live explains, “Behind each seat on the green benches is a small, brass frame into which MPs can place a card with their name.

“This card must be put in place before prayers take place each day and the MP must be in that seat during prayers.

“The seat is then reserved for that MP for the rest of the day.”

Now let’s go back to hats, because we need to keep our eyes on the important stuff.

Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first parliamentary leader, from 1906 to 1908, scandalized many a gentle (in the class-bound sense of the word) soul by showing up in Parliament wearing a cloth cap, which was as much the symbol of the working man as the top hat was the sign of a gentleman. He also wore–oh the horror of it all–a tweed suit.

Hardie was the son of an unmarried servant who later married a carpenter, and he started work as a baker’s delivery boy at the age of eight. He was, for at least part of that time, the family’s only wage earner and he never went to school . By the time he was eleven, he was working as a coal miner. By seventeen, he had taught himself to read and write.

So, no. No top hat on Mr. Hardie’s head, thank you. He was very pointedly not a gentleman and he knew he’d get nothing done if he played by gentlemen’s rules. Not that they’d have accepted him as one anyway.

What he put on his head when he wanted to make a point of order during a division I have no idea. Maybe the question never came up.

Long before him, in the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell created a flap when he appeared in the H of C wearing a plain cloth suit that was none too clean and none too well made, along with a hat with no hatband.

The funny thing about all this is that to the people who took this stuff seriously, this was serious stuff. A hat with no hatband? Was the man born in a barn?

Mentioning Cromwell lands us conveniently in the period that explains the H of C’s obsession with hats, or at least gives us a some context for it: The whole question of who was superior to who(m, if you like) was–I was going to say more rigid in the seventeenth century but let’s change that to less hidden than it is today. Who–and this is among men, because they colonized all the positions of power, making women irrelevant to the discussion–took his hat off and who kept it on was the kind of issue you could discuss seriously. And take serious offense at. Not to mention cause offense by. Taking your hat off to someone was an acknowledgement that the someone was further up the social hierarchy than you. Or in the terms of the day, was your better. So hats were a handy symbol for all sides and everyone could agree on what they meant.

If you were on the bottom of the ladder–say, a peasant–and didn’t have a hat to take off, you were expected to tug a bit of hair above your forehead to prove you knew your place. What you were supposed to do if you were bald is beyond me.

The H of C devoted considerable brain space to when one of its members should be hatless or hatted in meetings with the Lords–who were considered their social superiors.

MPs were expected to take their hats off to hear a message signed by the king, and ditto during the king’s speech. Which made it all the more pointed–and probably more fun–when some refused, which on occasion they did.

Take that, Kingy. I keep my hat on in the presence of your writing materials.

All this obsession with who takes their hat off to who filters down to us in the H of C’s conviction that it has to regulate hats.

Even without the metal hat that goes with the outfit, though, no one, and I mean no one, is or was allowed to wear armor in the H of C.

You’re welcome.