How British and American electoral systems differ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s go back to the British campaign:

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

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

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

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

How to behave like a British aristocrat

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

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

Oh, lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is all guesswork, you understand.

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

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

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

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


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

Sorry—not sidewalks; pavements.

Mugwumps, haggis, and whether Americans understand geography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

It works.

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

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

And we don’t mix meat with oatmeal.

But I could be totally wrong about that.

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

Do the Scots know how to have fun or what?


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Oxford comma and political activism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The man ate the waiter watched”

Then he punctuated them two ways:

“The man ate. The waiter watched.”

“The man ate the waiter. Watched.”

We were third-graders, so we giggled hysterically.

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

We end up remembering unfinished, bothersome stuff like that.

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

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

Briefly, most communications politicians receive fall into three categories:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddling in the shallows of the news

Is it possible to dip a toe into the news these days and not drown in sorrow? It is. I’ve been exploring the shallows of the (mostly) British news. Come on in. The water’s silly.

One of our local papers, the Western Morning News, reports that a driver passed PC Mark Freshwater on Tavistock Road while eating pasta “off his lap with a fork.” PC Freshwater gave him “words of advice which he took on board.”

But what really matters here—and you can trust the Westie to focus right in on this—is that “the container appeared to be Tupperware.”

The Westie is a true model of local journalism. No article about a murder, explosion, or other form of violence is complete without a quote from a neighbor, who’s either shocked or horrified or both shocked and horrified. PC Freshwater doesn’t seem to have expressed either emotion, but then this wasn’t a violent crime, and he’s a professional, not a neighbor, so he was able to focus on what mattered, which was the Tupperware. And, I guess, the fork, although it was the Tupperware that sent me over the edge.

That’s the kind of training a cop gets here in Britain. By the time they’re turned loose on the street, they know what matters.

As an aside, I might as well say that I’m both shocked and horrified that the driver was using only a fork, not a knife and fork, as any proper British eater will. And no, anonymous driver, driving is no excuse for bad table manners. Neither is not being at a table. I may be American, and I may have bad table manners, but I do know that much.

I’d give you a link but I couldn’t find the article online. I read my newspapers in print. Screw it, I’m old. If I want to be old fashioned, I’ve earned the right. And if I read all my news online, I’d have missed this and we’d all have been the poorer. I did google “driver eating pasta” and was offered several articles about drivers eating cereal and one about a driver eating pasta, but that was in a different city and a different year. Plus the driver was a different sex. And wasn’t using Tupperware.

Irrelevant photo: This was in bloom in December.

Irrelevant photo: This was in bloom outside our bedroom window in December. December. Don’t let anyone kid you about the British having terrible weather. After 40 years in Minnesota, I’m prepared to swear that this is the tropics.

It is with regret that we now leave PC Freshwater and wade on over to see what’s happening in government security. In December, an article reported that least 1,000 government laptops, computers, and data sticks had been reported missing or stolen since the general election in May of 2015. From the Ministry of Defense alone, the average loss was one item a day. And that’s just from the departments that actually reported their losses. Many managed not to.

When Wild Thing and I first moved to Britain, we regularly saw news stories about secret government documents and computer disks being left on trains. Why did other countries waste their money on spies? we asked each other, when all they needed to do was have their people ride the trains and see what fell into their hands–free and legally.

Then at some point the articles stopped. We missed them but thought maybe the government had gotten better at this stuff. I’m heartened to know that the incompetence continues.

What’s the news from the war on drugs? Antwerp has overtaken London to become the cocaine capital of Europe. But only on weekends. On weekdays, London leads the list.

Go, London.

How does anyone know? You have to test the concentration of cocaine in the sewers. Then you account for how long cocaine takes to work its way through the system and you count backward.

Who’s using all that cocaine? A separate study identifies them as people with household incomes of £50,000 or more.

What’s happening in international relations? In December, in a live TV interview, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was asked to name France’s foreign minister and happily identified him as “mon ami” whatever his name is. Then he was asked to name South Korea’s foreign minister and stormed off in a huff. The game was more fun, apparently, when he knew the answers.

The huff was drawn by four milk-white steeds wearing bells.

Does it mean anything that this item follows the cocaine report? Absolutely not. But PC Pasta recommends Tupperware for all your storage needs.

But let’s move now to the U.S., where unnamed White House sources report that Trump believes female staffers should “dress like women.” Sounds simple, doesn’t i?

I am, or so I’ve been told all my life, a woman, and I’ve never had any reason to question that. As I type this, I’m wearing jeans, a turtleneck, a fuzzy pullover-type thing that probably has a name but I have fashion dyslexia and don’t know it. I’m also wearing slippers. And–forgive me if I shock you–a variety of undergarments and two socks, one on each foot.

Am I dressed like a woman? It’s not a trick question, but it’s not a simple one either.

Predictably, people of various sexes (but mostly women) have cut loose on Twitter, using the hashtag #DressLikeAWoman.

Enough confusion. Let’s check in on the religious front, because that’s where you find eternal truths, right? A theological college connected to the Church of England held a GLBT (that’s gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato, in case you’re not in the know) service where people had entirely too much fun and everybody involved has had to explain that they’re very, very sorry and that when they referred to god as “the Duchess” it was–they really are so very sorry–a typo. And when Psalm 19’s line “Oh Lord, my strength” appeared as “O Duchess, my butchness,” it was an extended typo.

Guys, it could happen to any of us. And in case I haven’t mentioned it, they really are very, very sorry.

And finally, former British chancellor George Osborne has explained that yes, he did earn something in the neighborhood of £600,000 from speaking fees and work as an advisor to a fund management company while he was a Member of Parliament, but it was only because he was sure it would improve the country. By, um, well, you know. When money moves from one bank account to another, the GDP goes up. And computers are employed to make the transfers, which helps keep their little silicon families in fed and clothed.

Thanks, George. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we appreciate what you’re doing for us.


Two links on what’s happening in the U.S.

Sue Ranscht sent a link to an article by Yonatan Zunger that argues, in convincing detail, that what we’ve seen happening in the U.S. this week is, as Zunger’s headline puts it, a trial balloon for a coup. It’s worth your time.

And Zipfslaw sent a link to an essay by Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa arguing that non-Muslim women should not wear the hijab in support of Muslim women. I see their point, but in terms of tactics and timing I’m not sure I agree.

I’ll try to pull together something cheerier for Friday.

Following Captain Ahab into deep, deep water

I admire absurdity, especially political absurdity, but I’m finding it hard to laugh right now. As I write this (late Sunday, January 29), people with visas, and possibly with green cards—it’s not clear what’s happening right now, as opposed to what’s being said—with every legal right to enter the U.S. are being barred because they’re Muslims and from the wrong countries.

No, make that presumed Muslims, because I’m sure no one’s asking what they believe. I mean, c’mon, they might be terrorists, so why should anyone listen to them?

It echoes one of America’s moments of national shame, the World War II detention of Japanese-Americans, not because of anything they’d done, or even believed, but because their Japanese heritage meant they must be the enemy.

Is the current detention illegal? You bet your ass it is. It’s discrimination on the basis of religion. It’s refusing people who have a legal right to enter to country permission to enter the country. It violates a 1965 law that forbids discrimination against immigrants on the basis of their national origin.

Although several courts issued temporary stays of execution, Al Jazeera reports that the Department of Homeland Security said it would ignore them. The New York Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security said it would comply with the rulings, but it would also enforce the executive order. Are both things possible? Hard to say. In a world of alternative facts, I’m not sure we’re supposed to care.

The Times also reports that it’s not clear how consistently airport officials are complying with the court order.

When I was a kid, we were taught that the U.S. Constitution’s checks and balances were a stroke of genius of the part of the nation’s founders and the reason for America’s stability. From where I’m sitting, on the far side of the Atlantic, it sounds like the Trump administration wants to throw all that out the window. The executive branch is ready to ride over a federal court because they don’t like what it said. Because they don’t have to. Because who’s going to stop them?

As we used to say when I was a kid, “You and whose army?”

There are bright spots in the picture. Lawyers flooded to airports, volunteering their help. They filed suits, they did all the things lawyers do, except they did them for free. In places they seem to have been allowed to see detainees. In others, they seem not to have been. Protesters also materialized at airports. And at New York’s JFK airport, cab drivers staged a one-hour strike in protest.

On a personal note, my goddaughter—Catholic by baptism, I’m no longer sure what by belief—is considering wearing a headscarf as a gesture of solidarity. I don’t know if she’ll do it—it’s not an easy step to take and she’s concerned that it might actually offend the people she wants to support—but her courage and her commitment are humbling.

If I lived in the U.S., I’d be advocating that all women do it, but I’m an ocean away and don’t feel I have a right to advocate an act I’m in the wrong place to take myself. I’m increasingly uneasy at not being where I ought to be right now.

The U.S. hasn’t slipped irrevocably into one-man rule yet, but the signs are chilling. We’re far out into uncharted waters, friends, and Captain Ahab is at the wheel. I don’t know how long we have to turn the ship around. Although I’m not sure how much impact online petitions have, I’m signing them like mad because it’s something I can do. Because we have to do whatever we can.

The truly important news

Forget the real news. It’s too depressing. Here’s everything you need to know about what’s happening in Britain and, briefly, in the U.S.

Petitions: Britain introduced its first plastic banknote recently, and it’s worth £5. For a while there, you couldn’t get or give one without being warned not to put it in the tumble dryer. Apparently they shrink. Cue a range of jokes about money laundering, although it is, apparently, safe to put it in the washing machine. The police will, I’m sure, be watching for clotheslines with £5 bills neatly clipped in a line and drying in the sun.

We don’t have a dryer, so we won’t be shrinking any. And I think they’re called notes in British, not bills. But don’t trust me on that. The other night, I sent a group of friends into a meltdown when I asked if someone trying to light her cigarette had found a match. Turns she was looking for a light, not a match, although she swore she’d have understood me if I’d asked about a matchstick.

The things we use to light our woodburner (which is called a stove, unlike the stove, which is called a hob) are sold as matches, so I’m baffled by the problem. She tried to explain it but it all got even more complicated and we gave up.

Irrelevant photo: Runoff from  a field, but it makes me understand how this landscape gave rise to tales of fairies and such.

Irrelevant photo: This is just runoff from a field, but it makes me understand how this landscape gave rise to tales of fairies and such.

But back to £5 bills or notes. Just this week, the nation learned that the new bill contains tallow—in other words, animal fats derived from beef or mutton, and someone’s started a petition on to remove the tallow. The headlines focus on vegans and vegetarians being upset about this, but Hindus are considering banning the bills from their temples.

Some of the articles claim the petition’s calling for fat-free bills. It’s not, but it might be a clever move, creating an alliance of vegans, vegetarians, Hindus, and dieters.

Searching for the fat-free petition brought my attention to a variety of other petitions about banknotes. One wants to ban all politicians from them.

Government secrets: A parliamentary aide was photographed walking out of a meeting with a set of notes that may detail the government’s Brexit strategy. Or may not. Maybe they’re the aide’s opinions on the strategy. No one’s saying. What is known is that she walked out a door that carries large-scale warnings about covering any notes you’re carrying and she ignored them. A press photograph first called out, “I can read the document,” and when she and the people she was with didn’t pay any attention he took his shot and suddenly the top page of her notepad was appearing everywhere. Among other things, the notes said, “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it.”

I’ve sat through meetings that drove me to write things like that. Mercifully, no one much cared. The aide, though? I doubt this is going to help her career.

What does it tell us about Brexit? Not much, but the government’s keeping its strategy so deeply hidden that some folks wonder if it has one. That makes anything coming out of a Brexit meeting hot gossip.

The photographer who took the shot is a regular outside the Downing Street offices and he sent it out on Twitter because, he said, “picture desks don’t always take much notice, but most political journalists follow me on Twitter so it gets picked up that way.” But most of his Twitter followers are more interested in pictures of 10 Downing Street’s cat and the chancellor’s dog.

The cat was brought in when Cameron was prime minister, and he didn’t take the cat with him, which is just one more thing I can hold against the man. What kind of prime minister brings a cat into his residence and then leaves it for the government to take care of?

Jobs and employment: Okay, this is about me rather than government policy, but since every government ever elected anywhere claims to be creating jobs, that should be a tight enough connection to let me to get away with this.

LinkedIn sent me an email saying it knew of over a thousand jobs in Exeter that would be a perfect match for me. Never mind that Exeter’s just over than an hour from where I live. I’ve known people who commute that far for work. It half kills them, but they do it. And never mind that I’m retired. I doubt I mentioned that to LinkedIn.

Why am I on LinkedIn if I’m retired? Someone invited me to join her network years ago and it seemed rude not to. Besides, I was working then. I’ve stayed on because anything that passes itself off as a network looks like a useful way to promote a book. Or a blog. Or—oh, hell, someone remind me what I’m supposed to be promoting this week, would you?

I’m not sure how useful it actually is, or even how useful it could be. I haven’t figured out how what to do with it, or why. I’ve never fit neatly into the established categories, so—well, yeah. I’m on LinkedIn for reasons I don’t entirely understand.

But I stay for the entertainment.

The jobs the email listed are for a novelist, an author, a writer, a freelance writer, and a chief executive officer. If you notice anything odd in that list, it’s okay, you’re not—as far as I can tell from here—on drugs.

I itch to simplify that list. Because in addition to being a novelist, an author, a writer, and a freelance writer, I was also a copy editor, and that’s what copy editors do. How much overlap is there, guys, between an author, a writer, and a freelance writer? Why are we mentioning all three? I’ll give them novelist: That’s specific enough to justify its own mention, although I want to tell you, it’s damn rare that anyone wants to hire one. When did you last hear someone yell, “Quick, we need a novelist to sort out this mess”?

We’ll get to the next problem with the list in an inch or two.

I clicked on novelist to see what jobs LinkedIn had found in Exeter.

None. But it did want to know what I thought of its new job search experience.

Oh, hell, I loved it so much that I went back and clicked on author, writer, and freelance writer.

No matches. So I clicked on chief executive officer—a job I’m stunningly unqualified for and the true oddity of the list.

No matches. No one in Exeter is hiring CEOs. Or maybe, wisely, no one’s hiring CEOs with my qualifications.

It all reminds me of the time I ran into an acquaintance and asked how she was.

“Terrible,” she said.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

“Then why bring it up?” I didn’t ask.

In a similar vein, I wasn’t the one who asked about jobs for novelists. Are they going to notify me every time one doesn’t come up? I’m going to have a lot of emails.

Technology: This isn’t about the U.K., it’s about the U.S., but I do want to be even handed.

The USS Zumwalt, the U.S. navy’s super high-tech destroyer and its most expensive ever, broke down in the Panama Canal. It’s worth $4.4 billion, can fire rocket-powered shells up to 63 miles—those are nautical miles, and let’s not get into how they’re different from other miles because it’ll be such a snarl we’ll never get loose—and it had to be towed to the nearest garage, where a mechanic scratched his head and said, “I don’t know, buddy. Looks expensive. We’ll have to send away for parts, so you could be here for a while.”

It had a similar problem the month before. And if that isn’t embarrassing enough, it can’t fire its guns because at $800,000 per round the ammunition’s too expensive.

Petitioning Parliament: What does Britain truly care about?

The British government runs a web site where people can start petitions, and if one gathers more than 100,000 signatures Parliament has to debate the issue. That sounds meaningful until you realize that the promise is to debate, not to do anything. And then you remember that most of the time those green benches in the House of Commons are as empty as our local beach during a January storm.

I have a hunch most of those debates are stunningly short.

But as a way of making people feel engaged, the site is inspired and people use it. So let’s check in and see what’s on the British public’s mind.

Some of the topics are predictable and some are even sensible. Whatever your beliefs, you’ll find something there to cheer you up, something to depress the hell out of you, and a fair bit to confirm whatever stereotypes you hold. (Yes, folks, Britain is a nation of animal lovers. Especially, from what I can tell, of cats.)

But where’s the fun in that? Let’s look at the unpredictable petitions.

Irrelevant and moody photo of an empty bench

Irrelevant and moody photo of an empty bench and a sky that’s disappeared. Don’t complain, please. I’m a writer, not a photographer. Or–oh, go ahead and complain. If enough of you do, I’ll debate the issue.

One petition demands that police dogs and horses be granted the status of police officers. It has over 123,000 signatures, so let’s stop and think this through a bit in case Parliament doesn’t. What happens if they are elevated to that august status? Do they get pensions? Are able arrest us? Do they get in trouble for ignoring their paperwork the way half the TV detectives do?

Do we have to address them as officer? “Would you like a nice bowl of water, officer?”

Do they have to wear uniforms? Are they eligible for promotions?

A second petition wants “to change the name the UK government uses for IS, ISIS and ISIL to Daesh.”

That’ll show ’em. It has over 19,000 signatures.

A third demands that someone or other enforce mandatory drug tests on all Members of Parliament, and I’m tempted to sign it just for the joy of annoying the folks who have the power to make other people take mandatory drug tests. I mean, c’mon, being an MP is a responsible job.

It has over 8,000 signatures.

A fourth wants to change all newly issued passport covers to blue. They were once blue, apparently, back when everything was as it should still be but isn’t. At a time when so many people are yelling about taking their country back, getting the passports right should fix it. It has over 4,000 signatures.

Which reminds me to note that the people who want their country back never say who took it or where they hid it, but if anyone sees a stray country, send it back, would you? To either Britain or the U.S., depending, I guess, on how big it is.

But back to petitions. It turns out that you can’t just put any old petition on the web site. You’ll find the real fun on the list of rejected petitions, including the following:

“Ask Kate Bush to release the footage of her before the Dawn Live shows.”

“Bring back the television programme ‘Spitting Image’ ”

“Rhys Powell for England manager”

“Expropriate the bourgeoisie”

“Bring Barak Obama to the U.K.”

“A cashpoint is needed in Cardiff Retail Park, Llanishen”

“Invite Barack Obama to become the UK prime minster”

If you click on any of the rejects, you’ll find that someone’s explained why it didn’t make the cut. Take “expropriate the bourgeoisie.” Some actual human being wrote, “It’s not clear what the petition is asking the UK Government or Parliament to do.”

Well, to expropriate the bourgeoisie, silly. Admittedly, as political manifestos go, this one’s a little thin, but Parliament wasn’t going to go for it anyway and I can understand the writer thinking, Why waste time providing a plan?

So I could quibble with the decision on this one, but the point is, friends, that someone goes through the splatter of Britain’s political awareness and its un- and semi-conscious and thinks about it all long enough to accept or reject and explain. I admit, they wouldn’t have to think deeply and the explanations are standardized, but still, it’s oddly soothing to think that a human being reads all this.

The Guardian, where I first heard about these lists, included out a few choice rejectees in its article. Its reporter either had more time than I did or a better system of going through them.

Someone wants to make Motorhead’s (I’m missing an umlaut over the second O, but it’s decorative anyway; English doesn’t use the umlaut, and 98% of the English-speaking world doesn’t even know what one is). Let’s start over: Someone wants to make Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” the official national anthem.

Who knew the country doesn’t already have a national anthem? I thought it was “God Save the Queen.” Or King, depending on time, place, and circumstance. For plan B, the petitioner proposes the theme song from the long-running and you-can’t-get-more-British (or possibly English; I’m not sure) radio Soap The Archers.

Someone else submitted—and I quote—“I believe that McDonald’s owes me a free milkshake.” And I’m sure it does. It owes me an apology for the alleged salad I bought there once.

And one more: “It is about time we changed the plural of sheep from sheep to sheeps.”

I tell you, if Parliament won’t take action on that, it’s hard to say who citizens can turn to with their troubles.

Mary had two little sheeps                                                                                                 Their fleeces white as snows                                                                                             And everywhere that Mary went                                                                                         Her sheeps were embarrassed to be seen with her.

Restoring a country’s greatness: bell ringers, royal yachts, and low self-esteem

Don’t stop me to ask what greatness means when it’s applied to a country. Don’t ask if restoring greatness is like restoring virginity, or if greatness has actually been lost, or who’d pay the price (monetary or otherwise) for restoring it assuming it could be restored. Do not under any circumstances approach this claim as if it made sense. The idea is for a politician to make it and run so fast that no one will stop to reason it all through.

Ready? We’re going to restore greatness today. To not one but two countries. Because anything a cynical politician can do, I can do better.

Let’s start in the U.K. with a move by a group inside the Conservative Party that will restore Britain’s greatness by bringing back the royal yacht. The New York Times describes the move as “strong.”

Completely relevant photo: Fast Eddie has never lost his greatness.

Completely relevant photo: Fast Eddie has never lost his greatness. He attributes that to his ability to sleep 27 hours a day and still hunt at night. He assures me he’s never killed anything that didn’t need killing. This doesn’t completely reassure me, but you know how hard it is to argue with greatness. Eddie reminds me to tell you that an interview with him appears at Adventures in Cheeseland. Sorry I didn’t do that earlier–it’s been a little crazed around here and I let myself get distracted from the important stuff.

The Times writes, “ ‘I think we have to ask ourselves what sort of Britain we want to live in and what we can do,’ Jake Berry, a lawmaker, said Tuesday in Parliament, ‘to make Britain great again.’ His answer? ‘If Brexit is going to mean successful Brexit, it should also mean the return of our royal yacht!’

“The Conservative benches loudly murmured their approval.”

For every difficult question—or so the saying goes—there’s always an answer that is simple, appealing, and wrong. I’m not sure how appealing this one actually is, but it is simple. And that was probably the Conservatives murmuring, not really the benches. I just thought we should be clear about that.

For those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while, I should mention that the royal yacht, before it was decommissioned, was not named Boaty McBoatface. The new one, if it ever gets commissioned, will probably not be called that either. But I did hear a news presenter on BBC’s Radio 4 promote an interview with Sir David Attenborough by saying that Boaty McBoatface was named after him.

I can only hope the man has a sense of humor. Or at least that he doesn’t want his greatness restored after being talked about that way. It’s expensive, all the greatness restoration.

Next we jump to the U.S. for the news that Donald Trump—who wants to restore American’s greatness by saying whatever comes into his head and, incidentally, by putting Hillary Clinton in prison—has accused Clinton of taking performance-enhancing drugs to prepare for the third debate.

If you work your way through the accusation, you may find yourself wishing Trump would take get-to-the-point-enhancing drugs. But surely you saw Clinton lift off the ground and fly around the stage during the third debate.

You didn’t? The networks probably cut that bit. You know how biased they can be. Anyway, you have to ask yourself, how’d she do that?

I can’t leave the topic without quoting an acquaintance of Wild Thing’s, who explained his support for Trump by saying that Clinton is corrupt and a liar and has low self-esteem. We should probably make that criminally low self-esteem.

No wonder he can’t vote for her.

But don’t worry. Performance-enhancing drugs can also restore your virginity–or anyone else’s, since we’re on the topic.

Having clarified that, we return to the U.K. and the volunteer bell ringers of York Minster, who have all been fired. They weren’t told why, but the letter firing was headed, “York Minster invites everyone to discover God’s love.”

That left them feeling deeply loved. So much so that they went public with the story. In an interview on Radio 4, the cathedral’s dean said the firing had to do with health and safety issues. She mentioned how heavy the bells are.

And they are. Heavy enough that the bell ringers are unlikely to haul them around. Historically speaking, bell ringers dropping bells hasn’t been a problem, and throwing them has been even less common.

A more recent article says York Minster regards one particular member as a safeguarding risk, but the others had “consistently challenged” the Minster’s governing body. Whether a safeguarding risk means the bell ringer is a risk or puts other people at risk is anyone’s guess.

The weight of the bells wasn’t mentioned.

What’s any of that got to do with restoring lost greatness? It’s at least as relevant as the royal yacht. The world, my friends, has officially gone insane and satire is dead. If you don’t find me particularly funny in this post, it’s only because reality has outstripped me.

But since no country can be truly great until an automated system recognizes its existence, let me tell you a tale about Wild Thing and the Netherlands, which desperately need their greatness restored.

Wild Thing’s traveling this week, and she’s making a stopover in Amsterdam. It’s only a couple of hours, but she wanted to make sure she could use her credit card. Just in case. So she called the phone number on the card and punched the buttons for Update Travel Plans.

An automated voice asked where she was going.

“The Netherlands.”

“Did you say Venezuela?”

“No. The Netherlands.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Did you say Senegal?”

Et cetera, through a couple of even more likely spots.

Wild Thing thought she’d try Holland.

“Is that Holland, Michigan?”

Cue the sound of breakables being thrown against the wall opposite Wild Thing’s computer.

“Amsterdam,” she said when she’d run out of breakables she was willing to sacrifice.

“Did you say Sri Lanka?”

I am increasingly worried about what’s going to happen with self-driving cars. Forget restoring a nation’s greatness. How are we going to restore the passengers who get whisked off to South Korea when they thought they were headed for Slough?