Britain cancels all news out of respect for the queen

In case you managed not to notice, the queen died, but that’s not today’s topic. Let’s talk about Britain’s response, which–depending on your point of view–has been either moving and full of pageantry or expensive and over the top. 

Let’s go straight to the over-the-top stuff. 

News outlets more or less abandoned real news, giving us day after day after day of queen-is-dead coverage, and journalists were driven to such extremes in their efforts to find new angles that on the day of the funeral I found a headline that read, “Viewers left shocked after spider crawls across queen’s coffin during funeral.”

Yes, whatever else you can say, the country’s papers know breaking news when they see it.

Irrelevant photo: Nicotiana–and if it looks like I photoshopped a frowny face into the center, I didn’t. The flower grew that all by its glorious self.

The award for worst managed respectful gesture

Centre Parcs–a chain of holiday villages–first announced that they’d have to kick everyone out on the night of the queen’s funeral because they were closing down. When that got bad publicity, they changed their minds (“We recognise leaving the village for one night is an inconvenience”) but told guests they’d have to stay in their lodges, because the place was still closed. 

That led some denizens of social media to call it a hostage situation, which should also get an over-the-top award but we’ve run out. Sorry. Still, it was thoughtful of them to join Centre Parcs in that over-the-top space so they wouldn’t be lonesome.

The company later re-clarified the situation: Guests could walk around but the facilities would be closed. They offered a 17% discount. 

Your guess about how they came up with that figure is as good as mine. Given that people go there for the facilities, I’d have thought a 100% refund would be more fitting, but after that the story dropped out of the news. 

 

Gestures that didn’t win awards

From there, the stories get more mundane, but British Cycling–the national body for a sport that I never knew had a national body, or needed one–recommended that no one use their bikes on the day of the funeral.   

Cue bikers threatening to cancel their memberships. Then cue the organization backing down. And apologizing. And clarifying that  “no domestic events should take place on the day of the State Funeral,” whatever that means.

“Any clubs planning rides on the day of the State Funeral may want to consider adjusting their route or ride timings so they do not clash with those of the funeral service and associated processions.

“However, they are under no obligation to do so.”

In other words, please ignore this letter. 

Not to be outdone, the Norwich City Council closed two bike racks from September 9 to September 23, “during the Royal period of Mourning.” 

The British are big on capital Letters.

After a flap, the original sign was taken down and replaced with one explaining that the area would be used for “floral tributes.” But the bike racks are still closed.

In London, the overwhelmed Royal Parks Whatever asked people to please stop leaving Paddington Bears and marmalade sandwiches as tributes. Ditto balloons and candles. Flowers were okay, but without the wrappings, please.

The bears and sandwiches come out of a filmed sketch involving the queen, played by herself, having tea with Paddington Bear, who rumor has it was played by an actor.

The supermarket chain Morrisons showed its respect by turning the beeps on their self-service checkout scanners so low that customers couldn’t hear them and couldn’t tell if their purchases had been scanned or not.

On the day of the funeral, most of the big shops shut for at least part of the day. Most movie theaters also closed,  although a few screened the funeral for free but as a sign of respect weren’t selling popcorn. Or candy, although it’d be funnier to stop at popcorn. 

Cafes and restaurants were mostly closed, but pubs were mostly open. Draw your own conclusions. And Heathrow Airport adjusted its flight patterns and schedule to ensure quiet skies for the funeral. 

 

What happens next? 

Most significantly, Heinz ketchup will have to change its label, and so will hundreds of other food and drink brands. Why? Because they’ve carried the queen’s coat of arms on their packaging, which they can only do if they have a royal warrant, but royal warrants die when a monarch does.

A royal warrant? That doesn’t mean anyone’s getting arrested. Companies who supply “goods and services to the royals” can apply for them. So now they all have to apply to the new monarch and prove that the royal household uses their products regularly. 

Anytime you feel the need to remember the queen was human, just think of her pouring ketchup on her fries. 

Or maybe she had someone to do that for her.

Bank notes will also have to be changed, since they carry an image of the reigning whoever. That’ll take a couple of years. And coins will have to change, along with postage stamps and some flags–the ones outside police stations and in a few other places–since they have the queen’s initials on them. 

The royal arms, which are on many a government building as well as on government stationery, may change, but that’s up to the new king. And since MPs and members of the House of Lords swore an oath to the queen in order to take their seats, they’ll have to swear a new one, to the king this time.

How much will all this (plus the pageantry and its attendant security) cost? You know the old saying, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it?” I’m asking, as are a fair number of other people. The country’s in a cost-of-living crisis–11 million people are behind on their bills and 5 million have gone without food in an effort to keep up with them–and the government’s made it  plain that it would cost too much to offer any serious level of support. Besides, it doesn’t believe in that sort of thing.

It’s funny that the things governments don’t want to do are always too expensive but they find a way to manage the things they consider important.

 

But not everyone’s a monarchist

Mostly, small-R republicans seem to have kept their heads down and waited out the storm. But a handful of people were arrested for publicly protesting the monarchy, some by shouting and some  by holding up signs. One was threatened with arrest for holding up a blank piece of cardboard.

In fairness, one protester was later dearrested.

No, I never heard of it either. And at a protest where a number of people held up blank signs, no one was arrested.

But the arrests that were made, what law was that uncer? A recent one that allows the police to limit protests that they think are, or will be, noisy or disruptive, even if they’re peaceful. You could fit a lot of dissent under that leaky umbrella.

The good news is that, although calling for the abolition of the monarchy is technically still treason and carries a life sentence, the law hasn’t been used since 1879.

The Corby Pole Fair

If nations could be patron saints, England would be the patron saint of weird-ass traditional festivals. Since it doesn’t work that way, it’s had to settle for holding them and glorying in its own oddity. 

Allow me to welcome you to today’s strange traditional festival, the Corby Pole Fair. 

What’s strange about it? It’s held once every twenty years.

Why’s that? Nobody knows.

Marginally relevant photo: A traditional British phone box, now converted into a second-hand bookstore that’s raising money to maintain a village defibrillator.

Anytime you write about one of these festivals, you’re pretty much required to use the phrase “nobody knows.” More than once. If I use it more than 15 times here, I owe you a drink. Of course, you’ll have to catch me first.

But before we go on, let me try to unbraid what’s English from what’s British–something I do regularly and usually get wrong. I’m not sure whether the other nations that make up Britain–or the UK, which isn’t quite the same thing but never mind that for now–are as strange about their festivals as England is. The spotlight falls most often on English weird-assery, so let’s go with that. I’m happy to hear arguments and corrections from anyone even remotely knowledgeable about these things. Or if not knowledgeable, funny. That’ll do at least as well. 

 

The Fair

The Corby Pole Fair dates back (according to one article) “to the 13th century, when Queen Elizabeth I granted the town a charter in 1585.” Which is awkward, because Liz hadn’t been born in the 13th century, and neither had 1585.

Okay, it was a typo and we can all stop being so smug. It’s not like we haven’t written something at least as embarrassing.

Typo aside, though, an alternative explanation of the fair’s origins is easily available. One–or two, or three–almost always is. Or are. That same article tells us that some people say, “It’s after the monarch was rescued from a bog by villagers.”

Is the it in that quote the fair or the charter? 

Hard to say. 

Do we care? Yes, but only a little. Guesswork will do well enough, so let’s nod as if it all makes sense and move on. 

A more coherent attempt at explaining the fair’s origins comes from the BBC–working, I’m sure, from the same press release but reading it more carefully. It says, “Some say it [that’s the fair] goes back to the 13th Century, some to 1585 when Queen Elizabeth I was rescued from a bog by Corby villagers and others to the 17th Century when Charles II granted the town a charter.”

Yes, I checked. Liz was alive in 1585. I can’t verify that she was in a bog or, for that matter, anywhere near Corby but we have at least taken a step in the right direction. 

The fair could also date back to 1226, when Henry III granted Corby (or someone, anyway) the right to hold a fair.

Was Elizabeth I ever rescued from a bog, by Corby villagers or anyone else? Possibly, but I can’t verify it. I asked Lord Google and got referred to scholarly papers that opened with her wanting to build a stable, peaceful country, but nope, no bog.

Next I found something about Queen Elizabeth and a blog. 

Did Queen Elizabeth keep a blog? Well, she did try, but the technology of the time didn’t support it and she gave it up to devote her efforts to more era-appropriate occupations. 

Lord Google’s related questions included, “What is Elizabeth the First known for?” Related answers do not include being rescued from a bog. 

So no, I can’t find any evidence that she was rescued from a bog. Equally, I can’t find any evidence that she wasn’t.  

 

Fairs and Charters

Why did they need a charter to hold a fair? Because that’s how things worked. The National Archive says that  “Early markets and fairs were generally held in one of two ways. . . . If they were held: 

  • “by virtue of a specific royal grant, you are likely to find a charter recording it; 
  • “by prescriptive right, that is, based on immemorial custom, you may not find any charter evidence.”

Charters could be issued to an individual or to something like a town or church. One fair, in Stourbridge, ran for three weeks. In addition to giving everyone a chance to let off steam, they also made money for whoever held the charter. And for whoever came to trade. 

Does any of that still matter today? Oddly enough, yes. The Ilkeston Charter Fair has permission to run for four days, and for more or less 800 years that’s what it did. Then, in 2018, it decided to run for a fifth day and had to apply to the home secretary for permission. Which meant it had to figure out what the correct procedure was. It’s that unusual. And if it got the procedure wrong, it could lose the right to hold the fair at all. 

And that’s where I bailed out and scuttled back to our Corby Pole Fair.

Corby resident Paul Balmer has looked for Liz’s charter but found only a later one, which dates from “1670 or 1682 depending on who you listen to.”

I’d love to explain that phrase to you, but that’s all I know. 

You see why the phrase “nobody knows” comes up so often?

 

Historical accuracy

The fair includes what Balmer says is a Viking tradition of riding the stang. 

“If you didn’t pay your toll [that’s your admission to the fair] you were carried on the ‘stang’ to the stocks and had to pay a penny to get out, but the villagers, because of the charter, were exempt from the toll.”

Why Viking tradition? Corby started out as a Viking settlement.

“Then there’s the greasy pole, which is most probably associated with the ox roast. The lord of the manor often gives an ox to villagers when they are celebrating a fair or a big occasion, the grease from the ox is put on a pole with a ham on the top and if you climb the greasy pole you get to keep it.”

This year, there’ll be a pole but no one gets to climb it. They couldn’t get insurance. 

Then there’s that charter. Remember the charter? At 6 a.m. the bells ring a.m., calling everyone to come hear the charter read out loud at all the entrances to the village.

There’ll also be historical re-enactments, including some Viking-type stuff. You know, a little light looting and pillaging. Some jousting. Some road closures. What could be more historically accurate than road closures? 

In the interest of historical accuracy, the decision to hold this year’s fair was made after surveying the community, holding focus groups and workshops, and meeting with groups and individuals and businesses, not to mention filling out and filing grant applications and advertising the whole mess–and then putting a discussion of it up on the website, presumably to prove the fair has community support.

Decisions about the content of the fair were also influenced by what funding bodies would (and wouldn’t) be willing to pay for,” it says. I worked around nonprofits long enough to recognize a near-universal truth in that.

Town dignitaries get carried around in chairs. There’s a free breakfast for residents.

The fair also offers music. I haven’t seen any mention of morris dancers, so this may be the only safe festival in England for morris-haters.

 

The Details

When is it held? It was on June 3 this year, which means we’ve missed it and will have to wait until 2042. The date for that one hasn’t been set yet.

What? Do I look like a tourist site? You want to know about these things in advance, go someplace sensible.

There. I made it through without saying “nobody knows” more than twice. Or maybe that was three times. Either way, go buy your own drink.

Why Britain’s days off are called bank holidays

When Britain takes a day off work, it calls the day a bank holiday. England has eight of them, Scotland has nine, and Northern Ireland has ten. Or at least, that was the 2020 count. The queen can add one if the mood takes her, and she’s done exactly that for the 70th anniversary of her queenship. 

Why don’t we get a separate count of holidays for Wales and Cornwall? Because they’re still tucked under England’s wing, and every so often, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a bit of uncomfortable squawking and rustling under there.

Entirely relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie (in slow mode). He doesn’t have to wait for a bank holiday to take a break.

What do banks have to do with not working? 

I’m so glad you asked. Bank holidays were introduced by the first Baron of Avebury, whose real name was John Lubbock. In 1871 he drafted the Bank Holiday Bill, which true to its name had a limited scope: It was about holidays for banks and financial buildings. 

Buildings? Let’s assume they mean institutions. Buildings go on being buildings even when they’re empty and the doors are locked.

Listen, I only write this shit. I’m not what you’d call responsible for it.

If Lubbock sounds like Santa Claus, handing out days off work, he wasn’t. Bank holidays started before he came along, although I’m not sure they were called that. The Bank of England, the Exchequer, and other public offices took days off for royal events, Christian holidays, and assorted saint’s days (which I’d have lumped into the Christian Holidays category, but see above for me not being responsible). Add them all up and you got around 40 of them. 

In 1830, that was cut back to 18, then cut to 4 in 1834. But a precedent had been established.

 

What did Lubbocks’s act really do?

Read the small print and you discover that the act wasn’t so much about creating holidays as it was about making sure that banks didn’t get penalized for shutting down on a weekday. Any financial wheeling and dealing was postponed till the next day. Bills and promissory notes that were due on bank holidays wouldn’t be due until the next day. But in the process, it standardized the days that were protected that way.

Now can I confuse the picture for a minute? Please? 

Having told you about the many holidays banks used to take, let me quote another source that acknowledges them but also says that before the act banks couldn’t close on a weekday because they’d have been risking bankruptcy. You figure out how to fit those two together. I’m lost.

Over time, shops, schools, other businesses, and the government itself started closing down on bank holidays, but everyone still calls them bank holidays. 

 

A bit of background

The industrial revolution–and the act came along in the middle of it–lent some oomph to the standardization of holidays. It was cheaper for a factory to shut down on a given day, or even for a given week, than to have people wander off wherever they wanted to. 

Not that they could’ve wandered off without getting fired, mind you. But even the great industrialists–those fine folks who kept both adults and children working eighteen-hour days for the most minimal pay–couldn’t keep them working 365 days a year. Among other things, holidays had a religious origin, and theirs was still a religious culture. 

Some things, even the industrialists couldn’t face down. Religious tradition was one of them.

 

Enough about the holidays. Let’s talk about Lubbock

Lubbock’s other claims to fame are that he was a science writer, a banker, and a politician. We can assume it was the collision of those last two claims that led him to think of standardizing bank holidays.

His science writing was more than just a rich man’s hobby. He published books on archeology, entomology, and animal intelligence, and it was in relation to that last subject that, as you’d expect from someone so sober and well connected, he tried to teach his poodle to read flash cards. The Britannica says his book “established him as a pioneer in the field of animal behavior.” 

You can go tell that to my dogs. In spite of his experiments, they remain woefully illiterate.

In his writing on archeology, he introduced the words Paleolithic and Neolithic to the world, and in the spirit of high-minded racism, he titled his book Pre-historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. It was “probably the most influential archeological textbook of the nineteenth century.”

I don’t suppose I need to comment on that.

Having already become a baronet when his father died, he was later made a peer and took the title Lord Avebury, after the stone circle near Stonehenge that he bought in order to protect it from builders.

Okay, he bought the land it stood on. They tossed the stones in for free.

It’s a hell of a stone circle. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by.

A note about that newsletter I claimed I was going to send

To those of you who were kind enough to sign up for my alleged newsletter, I have to report that there won’t be one. It’s a complete flop. Or I am. I had an extended wrestling match with MailerLite and although I didn’t break any equipment or murder anyone, I did threaten all of the above. Basically, all I was going to send was an announcement that my next novel was out, and I’ll do that right here, in this very spot, about a week from now. So you didn’t miss anything anyway. 

And to those of you who didn’t sign up, weren’t you clever? 

I don’t know why I thought setting up a newsletter was a good idea anyway. It’s something that the folks who seem to know things advise writers to do. I think the idea is that if you pop up in people’s inboxes, they won’t be able to get away from you until they’ve bought your book, but we all know that’s not true. They–or you, or we–can leave any time they/you/we want. 

Besides, here I am, popping up in your inbox anyway.

What does freedom of the city mean?

Not long after Prince Andrew gave up on huffing and puffing until he blew down Virginia Giuffre’s house–in other words, after he settled her lawsuit out of court–the city of York rescinded an honor it had given him back when he looked a bit less sleazy than he does today: the freedom of the city.

This is significant because, um, why?

Well, it’s not, really. Or it is, but only if you take British traditions seriously, which I have some trouble doing but I’m sure Andy doesn’t. No one could run around dressed in those uniforms if they didn’t take it all seriously. 

Still, in the avalanche of bad publicity that’s fallen on him lately, York’s contribution is barely a pebble. But since it’s an intriguing pebble, let’s talk about what this freedom of the city business is.

Irrelevant photo: This was taken during either Storm Dudley or Eunice, although I’m damned if I remember which one. My partner swore they sounded like an aunt and uncle from Oklahoma–ones no one looked forward to seeing. All that white stuff? That’s foam. We had enough wind to whip the ocean into a meringue.

Starting at the beginning

Freedom of the city dates back to the middle ages, when lords were lords and serfs weren’t free and any sensible person would’ve told you this was the natural order of things. 

All that non-freedom is what made the freedom of the city matter.

According to a “purported law” of William the Conqueror’s–he’s the guy, remember, who won England as his very own plaything in 1066–“If serfs reside without challenge for a year and a day in our cities, or in our walled towns, or in our castles, from that day they will effectively be free men and forever free from their bonds of servitude.”

For a law that’s no more than purported, it seems to have had an impressive impact. It was repeated in various ways by various cities and rulers. Henry II gave Lincoln a charter saying, “Should anyone reside in my city of Lincoln for a year and a day without being claimed by any claimant, and he is contributing towards the customary dues of the city, and the citizens can prove (by the customary legal process of the city) that a claimant was present in England but made no claim upon him, thereafter he may remain in my city of Lincoln, undisturbed as before, as my citizen, without legal challenge.”

For claimant, you can substitute lord–someone with a feudal right to claim this person as, effectively, his property.

Elsewhere, you’ll find specific statements about a villein (that’s what you and I would call a serf) being freed of villeinage if he lives “undisturbed for a year and a day in any privileged town, to the point that he is accepted into its community (that is, gild) he is thereby freed from villeinage.”

Gild? That’s what we’d call a guild. Hold onto that word, because we’ll come back to it.

 

Consulting the grownups about this

Notice that bit about privileged towns. This year-and-a-day stuff didn’t work in just any town. You couldn’t hide out for the required time in your local market town and hope to be free. The magic only worked if the spell was written into the town’s charter. 

But not every town or city was welcoming to fugitive serfs.

Do I have details about that? I do not. The best I can tell you is that historians aren’t in universal agreement over how common it was for villeins to free themselves this way, or how welcoming or unwelcoming towns were. And since historians are the grownups in this discussion, we’ll leave this for them to work out while we go upstairs and do whatever they told us not to.

It’s worth knowing that free men didn’t live only in cities. They also lived in the countryside, working the land more or less as serfs did. The difference was that they rented their land, didn’t owe the lord any service in kind, and were free to leave, although they couldn’t necessarily afford to. You could be free and as poor as the neighboring serf–or poorer. 

Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

 

Two footnotes 

  1. Becoming a free man didn’t make you a freeman. That was a different category and we’ll get to it in a minute. What being a free man did do was make you not-a-serf, which was a major change in status,even if it wasn’t the solution to all your problems. 
  2. Almost everything I’ve found talks about free men. Only the Guild of Freemen of the City of London website acknowledges references to women having been guild members. Given the English language’s counterproductive tradition of sometimes insisting that men means both men and women and the rest of the time insisting that men means only men, figuring out what we’re talking about here isn’t easy, but the year-and-a-day thing does seem to have applied to women. As far as I can tell.

 

Guilds, freemen, and free men

It’s not just the men and women who are hard to tell apart. Several websites get woozy about the difference between free men and freemen. So when the city of Birmingham, by way of example, explains what freemen means, it’s hard to know if it applies to both free men and freemen.

Don’t you just love the English language?

What does the Brimingham website say? “The medieval term ‘freeman’ meant someone . . . who had the right to earn money and own their own land. People who were protected by the charter (rules) of their town or city were often ‘free’, hence the term ‘Freedom of the City.’ ”

Are you confused yet? 

Good. Then you’re following the discussion. You could live in a city and be free, but not be a freeman, and therefore (at least as time went by) not someone who had the freedom of the city. To become a freeman of a city or town, you had to be accepted by one of its guilds, and they limited their membership. If too many people have the right to practice as, say, goldsmiths, prices will drop.

The medieval guilds were powerful organizations, made up of merchants or craftspeople (who weren’t always men). They had a monopoly on their corner of the economy and regulated trade, standards,  apprenticeships, and prices. Each one protected its interests, and they often controlled city or town governments.  

If you couldn’t become a member–and unless you had connections, you probably couldn’t–you might well be free and a man, but you were stuck working as a laborer. You weren’t a freeman of the city.

 

More about freemen

The Portsmouth City Council website skips over free men and goes straight for freemen:The institution of freemen or burgesses dates from the early beginnings of municipal corporations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Freemen or burgesses enjoyed considerable political privileges, being entitled to elect the officers of the corporation and its representatives in Parliament, although they were not necessarily resident in the borough of which they were burgesses or freemen.”

In this context, the corporation was the city government.

“In choosing freemen or burgesses, boroughs found it convenient to admit men of national importance who might be able to secure greater economic or political privileges for the area. Prominent local landowners with interests in a borough would reward their supporters by securing their admission as freemen or burgesses–between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries a very high proportion of the known burgesses in Portsmouth were not resident in the borough.”

In other words, freemen were a select group of a city’s residents (or, just to confuse the picture, non-residents). They were people with power and money. That held until 1835, when the Municipal Corporations Act established city councils. After that, they might very well still have held power, but they had to exercise it differently.

 

Can we confuse the issue a bit more?

Of course we can. Let’s go to Texas, where a couple of Freedom of the City certificates are sitting in the Ransom Center, which led the center to write about them.

One certificate was issued in London in 1776 to Michael Dancer at the end of his apprenticeship. It was big–2 feet by 5 inches–and came with a tube so Mick could roll it up and carry it around with him. The Ransom Center swears that people would have carried these the way we might carry a passport or driver’s license today, to prove identity and citizenship. 

I offer you a grain of salt to go with that explanation. They might well have needed the document for one thing and another–only people who’d been granted freedom of the city could exercise a trade within London’t city limits, and that held true until 1835–but I’d guess it was too important to cart around the streets every day like a driver’s license. 

The Ransom Center tells us that along with a freedom of the city certificate, London also presented its new members with “a book titled Rules for the Conduct of Life, which was intended to guide them in their life as freemen. While providing many basic laws and recommended codes of conduct, the book also outlined several interesting freedoms available only to freemen.  For example, the book notes freemen have the right to herd sheep over the London Bridge, go about the city with a drawn sword, and—if convicted of a capital offense—to be hung with a silken rope. Other ascribed privileges are said to include the right to be married in St. Paul’s cathedral, to be buried in the city, and to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest.”

I’m not exercised about where I get buried–I hope to be past caring by then–but that silken rope might make freedom of the city worth pursuing. 

 

What does being a freeman of the city get you today?

Not much. Let’s limit ourselves to London: You can’t drive sheep across London Bridge anymore. Capital punishment’s been abolished, so if you want to be hung with a silken rope you’ll have to make your own arrangements. I’m not sure what the law is on drawn swords, but I‘d recommend doing some research before you try it. Folks get twitchy about swords these days, no matter what certificate you’re carrying.

That makes the freedom of the city something you can put on your resume, if you have one, but that’s about it. It’s just a bit of English tradition that you’re welcome to take seriously if you can.

A quick history of the English breakfast

Every country has its myths, and I suspect one of England’s is, as the English Breakfast Society puts it, that the English breakfast is “a centuries old . . . tradition, one that can trace its roots back to the early 1300’s.” 

Yes, there is an English Breakfast Society. That should tell us something about how central the myth is. Or, if you like, how central the reality is. Or how odd the country is. 

Or possibly how odd any country is.

Never mind. It tells us something or other. Can we move on?

I found the quote on the society’s website, right below the picture of a wealthy couple from the long-dress-and-maid-serving-breakfast era. They’re sitting at a table looking unhappy. The man’s taken refuge behind his paper and all we know about his face is that he has eyebrows–two, I believe–but that’s enough to let us know he has no time for the woman right now because he’s attending to serious business, which by definition excludes women. The woman’s turned away from him, looking bored. Not to mention sulky. She’s not reading a newspaper because, c’mon people, ladies didn’t back then. 

The maid’s leaving the room and if I had to be one of these three people I’d be her because at least she gets to walk out, even if she can’t stay gone for long. 

But never mind the picture. It’s a red herring. I only mention it because it’s such bad publicity for the English breakfast that I couldn’t resist. If you want to promote the beauty of a meal, bury this picture someplace deep.

Irrelevant photo: a slightly battered rose, blooming in February.

Several other websites make more or less the same claim about how far back into history the English breakfast reaches. But let’s stay with the English Breakfast Society. Not only do they say the English breakfast dates back to the 1300s, but in a different paragraph they say it reaches back to the 13th century, which through a quirk of mathematics or accounting or something numbers-related isn’t the same thing at all. And, they say, it was developed by the gentry, “who considered themselves to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.”

I suspect we’re looking at a bit of time slippage there. The Anglo-Saxons hadn’t come into fashion in the 1300s/13th century. If you wanted to get ahead in whichever of those two centuries we’re talking about, you needed to and downplay whatever Anglo-Saxon traditions your family had kept alive and speak Norman French. Chaucer, who first broke the English language into the publishing world, earning rave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, wasn’t even born until 1340 and didn’t start writing until several years after that. 

So forget the Anglo-Saxons. I’m pretty sure they’re another red herring. Let’s take the rest of the claims apart.

 

First, who were the gentry?

To belong to the gentry, you had to own enough land to live off it without getting your hands dirty or doing any actual work. It was a loosely defined group, though. The nobles–the people who held titles–were easy to count, and people did count them, totting up fifty in the early 16th century, some 200 in the 18th. Once you had a number, you could be sure you’d gotten them all back on the bus after they’d gotten off to see the attractions or use the restroom.

The gentry, though? Sorry, but if you left a few dozen behind at Tower Bridge, no one would know.  

But let’s not compare the gentry to the nobility. That’s another red herring, and one I dragged in. I got tempted by those numbers. Sorry. Let’s compare the gentry to the peasantry instead. The most striking difference is that where the peasants were hard working and often hungry, the gentry ate well and prided themselves on their hospitality.

Hospitality to people like themselves, that is, or people further up in the hierarchy. It wouldn’t do to get too hospitable to the lower orders. They’d start to think they should eat like that every day.

No, I’m not cynical, just fed up with how little has changed. 

But we were talking about the English breakfast. In this telling, the gentry used breakfast to show off their wealth and hospitality. They made it an important social occasion. 

Take weddings. A wedding mass had to happen before noon (don’t ask me; maybe god had afternoons off), so weddings took place in the morning and then the bride and groom ate a wedding breakfast. With who knows how many well-wishers and hangers-on and family members.

Cue a grand spread for breakfast.

Skip ahead a few centuries and along comes a wealthy middle class. Not all of the middle class was wealthy, mind you, but part of it was, and because it drew its wealth from (gasp, horror) trade instead of land, it couldn’t be part of the gentry. But it could sure as hell eat, and it copied the gentry’s breakfasts, along with many of their other habits.

 

The tale of the English breakfast, version two

In Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler tells the tale differently, and I have a hunch more reliably. The earliest courtly records, she says, don’t say anything about breakfast except that people who rose early would have bread and ale. 

Who rose early? Well, it wasn’t the nobles and it probably wasn’t the gentry. Breakfast for them seems to have been a blank. In the medieval monasteries, an early meal was for people who did physical work. Monks and nuns were supposed to have their minds on higher things than stuffing their bellies, at least first thing in the morning.

By Tudor times, though, Katherine Parr’s maids were eating beef for breakfast, and by the 17th century breakfast had become pretty much universal, although the harder you worked (and the poorer you were) the earlier you ate. Samuel Pepys (we’re still in the 17th century) was eating meat left over from last night’s supper, either cold or reheated. (No, the microwave hadn’t been invented and they didn’t have electricity anyway so it wouldn’t have done him any good it if had been. He ate it fried.) For one breakfast, he ate radishes. Make whatever sense of that you can. 

By the time we come to Jane Austen (1775 to 1817), we find her mother writing about visiting cousins and having a breakfast of cakes, rolls, bread, toast, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, although Austen has one of her characters eating pork and mustard for breakfast and another, boiled eggs.

If I can translate all of this, it means that the English breakfast wasn’t what’s now known as an English breakfast. It was breakfast and it was in England, but that’s where the similarity ended. 

By Victorian times, the owners of a grand country house might show off with French food at dinner, but breakfast would be about showing off what the owner’s land produced, so we find ham, sausages, eggs, and bacon, as well as things I think of as un-breakfasty: beef, meat pies, pheasant, kidneys, smoked fish, and kedgeree, which is an Indian-inflected mix of fish and rice–a sign of that the British were messing around in India and had brought home the idea that if you added a bit of spice to your food your taste buds would wake up and do a little dance. 

 

The current components of an English breakfast

What’s now known as an English breakfast is heavy enough to stop a train, but a lot of the dishes I mentioned slid off the plate long ago and were replaced with others. It now involves some or all of the following: eggs, sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and fried bread. Plus tea and antacid. 

Did I miss the marmalade and the fried potatoes? I did, along with the assorted regional variations.

So how deep into history do the components go? As far as I can tell, not very. The baked beans that are now an integral part of the English breakfast didn’t land on the plate, or in the country, until 1886, when Fortnum & Mason began selling them as an American luxury.

There’s no accounting for taste. 

As for the eggs, if you leave chickens to their own devices, they stop popping out eggs during the winter. Or so Lord Google tells me. I’ve never raised chickens, so I’ll have to take his word for it. It’s only when you keep the chickiebirds warm and add artificial light to their lives that they get in the mood to produce eggs all winter. So even among the rich, eggs wouldn’t have been available year round.

And even when they were in season, they were a luxury in a working person’s diet.

Eventually  the 20th century came, though, along with artificial lighting and ways to heat a hen house that didn’t risk setting it on fire, and eggs–or maybe that’s chickens–began to be farmed intensively. In the years before World War I a recognizable version of the modern English breakfast started to show up in hotels and in bed and breakfasts. 

Meanwhile, in the country houses of the rich, breakfast changed after World War I. They no longer had the massive number of servants it took to serve grand breakfasts anymore, and they began to simplify.

I know. It’s tough.

Bacon and eggs get a mention here, along with gastronomical boredom.

During World War II, with rationing in force, in many working-class homes the breakfast protein went to the men and boys and the toast went to the women and girls, with some of the trimmings added in on weekends and holidays. That was caused by a collision of sexism and the men and boys doing heavier work, either in reality or in theory. I know the men worked like dogs in many industries, but I’m not sure how heavily to bet on the women and girls carrying a light load.

But back to the components of the English breakfast: The tomatoes and mushrooms weren’t added until the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, they’re harder to make fun of.

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If you’re not tired of me by now, I have an article online about the difference between writing for a lesbian audience and writing for a crossover audience. It touches on the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s. Yes, I really am that old. In fact, I’m older. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the English breakfast.

You can find it at The Bookseller.

Wassailing and English traditions

If you dig a shallow trench into English traditions, you’ll find wassailing and Christmas snuggled up together. Dig the trench deeper, though, and wassailing’s lying by itself: It’s pre-Christian and like many things was taken over by England’s early Christians–possibly because it was easier to convert people if you let them carry over some of their beliefs and possibly because no one had a ability to stop them. What the hell, Christmas itself was folded into Christianity from earlier belief systems, so why not wassailing as well.

 

Wassailing

What do you do when you wassail? It depends where you are, and when, but basically on the twelfth night of Christmas you go to the orchard (of course you have an orchard, or someone does) and make noise. Maybe you sing songs. Maybe you bang pots and pans. Maybe you pour some cider on the trees as an offering. What you want to do is scare off the evil spirits (or wake the sleeping tree spirits, or possibly both; take your pick) to make sure the orchard’s owner has a good harvest next year. 

Almost surely, you’ll have a drink of some warm cider from a shared cup–cider being an alcoholic drink, in case that isn’t clear. The orchard’s owner would supply the drink. Because you scared the evil spirits away and made sure she or he will have a good crop next year. 

Thanks, folks. Really appreciate your help. But before you go, don’t forget to leave some booze-soaked toast on the branches. I expect that symbolizes something or offers something to someone. Your guess is as good as mine.

Irrelevant photo: Sunrise, January 22. 

But if you don’t live in an orchardy part of the country, you and your fellow wassailers will follow a different tradition and go house to house, wishing good health to the people in each one and being offered a drink before you move on–very likely ale. 

By the time you reach the final house, you might be grateful that the village isn’t any bigger.

A lot of England’s door-to-door singing traditions mixed entertainment and aggressive begging, and this strand of wassailing did as well. A wassailing song that’s become a Christmas carol starts out by saying, “Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,” and goes on to demand, “Give us some figgy pudding.” The singers threaten not to leave until they get some. From which we learn (a) that they might be given food as well as or instead of drink and (b) that when some singers threaten to give you another song, you’ll give them whatever they ask for.

The song also mentions that the singers aren’t “daily beggars that go from door to door.” They’re neighbors’ children. 

The “daily beggars” line tells us a lot about the period. Beggars are everywhere. People learn to dismiss them. But neighbors children? Bring out the pudding. That line, by the way, is the only place I’ve found wassailing mentioned as a children’s activity. Everything else is about adults. 

At this distance in time, it’s easy to think wassailing meant a community came together in perfect equality and serious inebriation. Everyone gave their neighbors drinks and was there for them again in the morning with era-appropriate hangover remedies. It’s doubtful, but what the hell, it’s a nice thought. It’s more likely that the poor sang for the wealthy and the better-off, who could afford to dish up figgy pudding and booze.

Whether they gave out ale or cider, it would’ve been warmed and spiced, possibly with honey and egg added. When you get to the egg, it sounds horrible, but I’m not going to try the recipe. My commitment to this blog only goes so far. 

 

Anglo-Saxon wassailing

The word wassail may come from the Anglo-Saxon waes hael–”good health,” or “be healthy.” We can hear the echo of that in the modern English word hale. That’s modern English as in the version of the language we speak these days. The word hale itself isn’t used much anymore, making it antiquated modern English.

Don’t think about it too much. Or at least make sure you’re sitting safely when you do.

Wassailing dates back to the Anglo-Saxons, to the time before they converted to Christianity. The lord of the manor would greet the–well, Historic UK calls them his followers, because Anglo-Saxon society involved a strong bond between the lord and his whatevers. Followers is as good a word as I can come up with. The bond would have been both military and economic. I’ve read that it was more of a two-way bond than the relationship between England’s feudal lords and their tenants after the Norman invasion. 

But before we decide that Anglo-Saxon England was a jolly place of glorious equality, remember that it had slavery. Whether the slaves were part of this greeting and drinking I don’t know.

But back to the lord and his followers: He’d say waes hal. And the followers would say drink hael–drink well. Because drinking and good health? What could be more tightly intertwined? 

Again, whatever they drank would’ve been warmed. It’s winter, remember. And they’d pass the bowl around instead of everyone having a cup of their own.

 

Twelfth night

When Christians absorbed wassailing into their own traditions, they pegged it to twelfth night, which falls on January 5. But nothing is ever simple, because when this happened they were using the Julian calendar. Later, they moved to the Gregorian calendar because over the course of centuries the Julian had gone out of whack with reality and the Gregorian–

Think of it as resetting a clock. They reset the calendar and fine-tuned the mechanism, and that happened under Pope Gregory, hence the word Gregorian. 

In the Julian calendar, though, twelfth night was January 17, so if you want to make a show of your purity–or your stash of not very useful knowledge–you can go wassailing on the 17th.

Later wassailing

After the Norman conquest, wassailing continued, and the lord of the manor would be expected to show some generosity in exchange for the peasants’ songs and good wishes. I like to imagine it as one of those rare moments when the peasants got to shake down the lord instead of the other way around.

While they’re drinking, let’s skip well ahead and land in the time when Oliver Cromwell and his band of super-Protestants ran the country. They banned wassailing, along with caroling and Christmas itself. It all smacked of paganism and fun, which weren’t a good fit in the Christian paradise they were trying to build. 

With the Restoration–that’s when the monarchy was cemented back into place and the super-Protestants put back in their box–Christmas and fun took on an intense level of thumb-your-nose-at-the-Puritans joy, and wassailing was in fashion again. I’m tipping into guesswork here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a certain amount of invented tradition didn’t creep in at this point. When there’s a break in a culture, reconstructing the old one can be an act of the imagination. 

Strange British Festivals: The World Custard Pie Championship

To prove that the pandemic is nothing to mess around with, the 2020 World Custard Pie Championship–like so many other non-essential events–was canceled.

But was the contest truly non-essential or was that just the decision of some self-serving, soulless sort with a scrub brush for a brain? Did they consider its obvious cultural, political, and academic importance? 

Ah, well, let’s not be too hard on self-serving, soulless scrub brushes. It’s been a rough year for everyone.

And it doesn’t matter anymore, because barring a major step backward in the U.K.–that’s pandemically speaking, of course–the competition will take place in 2021, so let’s learn what we can about the details, quick before it’s too late to enter. 

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, I think. In fact, I’m reasonably sure. Of course it’s a camellia. What else would it be? A snowmobile?

The World Custard Pie Championships fits nicely into the category of strange traditional festivals that England (or maybe that’s Britain) is so good at, even though this particular tradition is no older than fifty or so years. That makes it modern, at least by British history standards, but it’s a good enough imitation to fool my filing system. 

And if someone would help me sort out whether these festivals are a particularly British thing or a particularly English one, I’d be grateful. I’m sure it would help me understand the country better. Are people this strange in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

 

Origins, rules, & important stuff

The origins of most truly traditional traditions have been lost by now, but since this one’s a newcomer–a nontraditional tradition–we can document it: Coxheath, Kent, needed to raise money for a village hall and came up with the idea of inventing a tradition. Or at least that’s my interpretation. I’m reasonably sure no one put it that way when they were sitting around the pub figuring out what to do.

The pub’s also my interpretation. I’m convinced that these traditions all started in the pub. Even before pubs were invented.

How does the championship raise money? It costs £60 for a team to compete and £40 to set up a stall. Unless you’re selling food and drink, in which case that’ll be £80, thanks. If a town can keep its festival going for a few years and get itself some publicity, it’ll raise enough to buy a bucket of paint or three. 

By now the custard festival’s had enough publicity for teams to fly in from around the world. Or so the website says. They manage not to say how many teams have flown in. Two’s enough to justify a plural.

The rules are simple. Each team’s made up of four people and they line up and throw pies at someone–I assume it’s another team. Using their left hands. I’ll go out on a twig and guess that if you’re left handed you throw with your right. If you’re ambidextrous, you’re disqualified. If you’re amphibious, you can throw from under water, but it won’t be an advantage–at least not in terms of scoring. You’ll be a hit with the crowd, though.

Scoring? Your points depend on where your pie hits your opponent–six points for a pie in the face, three if it hits from the shoulder up, and one for any other body part. 

If you miss three times, you lose a point. 

The judges’ decisions are final. 

Throwing pies at the judges when you don’t like their decision is frowned upon, but they don’t say that for fear of putting the idea in some suggestible person’s empty little head. And yes, having to throw with your nondominant arm is a perfect excuse for not being good at it.

Unlike dwile flonking, you don’t have to be drunk to do this, but this being England (or should I say, “This being Britain”?), you’re more than welcome to show up dressed in something silly. Or as they put it in British, in fancy dress. Don’t wear anything you’re attached to, though, because by the end of the day everyone’s wearing custard.

And now the bad news: They don’t use real custard–it’s not the right consistency–and the formula for whatever they do use is a closely guarded secret. Presumably, neighboring towns are just dying to poach the festival and that’s all that stops them. The only ingredients they’ll admit to are flour and water. The Calendar Customs website recommends not eating whatever it is.

The contest’s usually held in May or June, but this year, with the number of vaccinated people going up and the number of Covid cases (“so far,” she said nervously) staying low, it’s been rescheduled for September 21. 

They’re expecting 2,000 pies to be thrown. The day begins around noon with a wet sponge competition for kids, who as any fool knows can’t be trusted with pies.

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Some time ago Autolycus suggested that I might want to write about another great British tradition, rhubarb thrashing, and I did try, but I couldn’t find enough information to go on. Besides, it’s a perfectly sensible game where two people stand inside trash cans and whack at each other with rhubarb  sticks, and where’s the laugh in that?

Why more isn’t written about it remains a mystery. It’s one of those rare subjects where Lord Google offered me no more than a single page of links, most of which were to a kids’ program, the BBC’s mysteriously named Blue Peter, which decided many and many a year ago that this was what the kiddies needed to know.

Those kiddies have now grown into adults. If you want to know what’s wrong with the world, look no further.

I am, as always, grateful for people’s topic suggestions, even when I don’t end up writing about them. Some–like rhubarb thrashing–just don’t lead anywhere, but you never know. Some are glorious.

A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

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Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

Dwile flonking: another strange English tradition

If you ask the BBC about dwile flonking (and who doesn’t at some point?), you’ll find them asking a question of their own: 

Does dwile flonking really date back to the Suffolk harvests of 400 years ago or is it just a good excuse for getting drunk and celebrating Christmas in August?

They don’t answer the question and neither can I, but in my relentlessly shallow exploration of the topic I did find some faint linguistic evidence either that the game has a long history or that whoever invented it did their homework. Dwile comes from the Dutch word dweil, meaning floor cloth. Or it seems to, anyway. The word was probably introduced to England by Flemish weavers during the Middle Ages. Or, as Wikiwhatsia says (at the moment–it could change at any time), dwile is Dutch for a mop and the word worked its way into the Norfolk dialect. 

Irrelevant photo: The fields after a frost.

I try to avoid using Wikiwhatsia as a reference, but for dwile flonking? Why not? It’s right in the spirit of the game. It also says that flonk is “probably a corruption of flong, an old past tense of fling.”

Who knows. It might even be true. And when no one’s looking, sheep could just possibly type. If they had typewriters. 

The BBC agrees that flonk could be an archaic past tense of fling. If you squint hard. Meanwhile, Etymology Online gives us as a Middle English past tense flang with the past participle flungen. Which is no help at all but likely to be more reliable than anything else in the past few paragraphs. 

What is reliable is that Flonk is also a brand of ale, but that’s got to be recent than the rest of that mess. 

If you feel the need to watch dwiles being flonked (and if the pandemic ever ends), period costume is encouraged. I expect that’s in the spirit of imitation authenticity, although I’m not sure there’s any agreement on what period we’re talking about, so either pull one out of a hat (then wear the hat) or check out one of the videos on YouTube and do whatever you think best. After a few beers, no one will care and neither will you. 

Preliminaries

To play (did I say that dwile flonking’s a  sport?), you need two teams. Then you toss a sugar beet (which the BBC misspelled, she said without in the least betraying how smug she felt about catching that) to decide which team flonks first.

Then you choose a dull-witted person to serve as referee. That’s the jobanowl. He or she starts the game by shouting, “Here y’go t’gither!”

But wait. Before the match can start (and quite possibly before the jobanowl calls out his or her line), the teams have to sing “Here we ‘em be together.” It was written by Amos Thirkle, who was adopted as the patron saint of dwile flonking.

And why shouldn’t he be? Without even progressing past the letter A, I found patron saints of abdominal pains (Erasmus), for protection against mice (three, in fact: Gertrude, Servatus, and Ulric, and they were listed as “Against mice, protection against,” which is a double negative, but saints may be above grammatical quibbling) and of pain in the arms (Amalburga). 

You can make me the patron saint of pain in the ass if you like. Informally. Thirkle isn’t listed with the Church-approved saints either. 

I also found Amand, the patron said of bartenders, bar keepers, and bar staff in general. He’ll be busy during the match, and after. 

Rules

Here’s where it gets complicated and where I damn near decided to write about toadstools, or anything else that might turn out be less peculiar. But you can’t grasp the basic insanity of the game without slogging through the rules, so let us slog:

The team that isn’t flonking holds hands and dances in a circle (that’s called girting) while one person from the other team (that’s the flonker) stands in the middle with a driveller–a 2- to 3-foot pole made of hazel or yew. On the end of the driveller is the beer-soaked dwile. 

Remember the dwile? The floor rag/mop?

The flonker turns in the opposite direction from the girders and flonks the dwile at the opposing team, trying to hit someone. If the dwile hits a girter’s head, that’s three points. If it hits the body, it’s two points. A leg shot’s worth one.

If it misses, it’s called a swadger and the flonker takes a pot of ale and  has to drink it all while the girters form a line and pass the dwile from hand to hand, chanting, “pot, pot, pot.”

The pot? It’s what’s known as a gazunder–a chamber pot, called that because it goes under (goezunder–blame English spelling if you can’t make sense of the joke there) the bed. 

Well, what do you drink your ale out of?

When everyone’s had a chance to flonk, the game’s over and the points get counted up.

Teams lose a point for every person who’s sober at the end of the game. 

Dwile flonking is not recommended for people who go to AA meetings.

Want photos? Of course you do. These are from Beccles

And from Coventry, where the opposing team didn’t show up,

And more generally, from the BBC Suffolk, which describes the game as an adult version of All Fall Down.

And of course, you’ll want a video. YouTube is happy to oblige.

So now that you have this information, what do you do with it?

Well, once we get past the pandemic (nothing to it) you could always organize a dwile flonking competition where you live. Failing that, you could go down to the bar or pub and throw a beer-soaked rag at someone, then tell them they just participated in the ancient ritual of dwile flonking. 

One of two things will happen:

  1. They’ll stop in their tracks, wondering why they seem to have a beer-soaked rag on their heads when just a moment before they didn’t have a beer-soaked rag on their heads. (You’re not dancing around, so let’s assume you get a three-point hit. And you’ll have thrown the rag in the normal way, which will improve your aim. No magic two- to three-foot magic dwile flonking wands in the bar. ) If you’re in England when you do this, the other person will think, Dwile flonking. Of course. Because even if they’ve never heard of it–which is likely–England understands mysterious celebrations. Cheese rolling. Flaming tar barrels. Why not dwile flonking? Or,
  2. They’ll hit you so hard you’ll fall off your bar stool. 

Life’s a gamble. 

*

Endless thanks to Autolycus for suggesting that I write about this. I do worry about him. He also mentioned something about rhubarb thrashing. I’m saving that. It’s good to have something–however bizarre–to look forward to in these dark times.

Turning the Devil’s Stone: One of Those Strange English Traditions

Every November 5, when the rest of England is lighting bonfires and pretending to burn a long-dead Catholic rebel, at 8 p.m. the bellringers of Shebbear, in Devon, go to the village green and turn the Devil’s Stone. 

Because that’s what you do in Shebbear on November 5 if you’re a bellringer.

But first they ring a discordant peal of bells and listen to the minister either tell the tale of the Devil’s Stone or say a short prayer, depending on who you want to believe (or possibly who the minister is that year). 

Then they turn the stone. 

Some time before all that, someone lets the morris dancers loose, although they’re not part of the ceremony. They’re–oh, think of them as the frosting instead of the cake. They’re decorative but not essential.

Irrelevant photo: We’ve forgotten what these are, but they have berries at this time of year. I’m running low of flowers.

Actually, only one website mentions morris dancers. That could be because they’ve gone invisible to everybody else. Hold a festival and the odds of morris dancers showing up are high. Hold an odd one and the odds rise to 106-odd %. After a while, people just stop seeing them.

But that’s fine. You can tell you’re deep into folklore when every source contradicts some other source. In fact, in The English Year Steve Roud says that local people also call the stone the Shebbear Stone. He could be right, but the village website calls it the Devil’s Stone and says it’s also called the Devil’s Boulder. It doesn’t mention the Shebbear Stone.

Be happy with this. Everything is as it should be in this best of all possible worlds. 

And I am the queen of Romania. **

Why do they do it?

Because if they don’t, bad things will happen. During World War I and again during World War II, when people had other things on their minds and the village’s hefty young guys were running around in other countries carrying guns, the village let the date pass without turning the stone and bad things happened.

What bad things? No one I’ve found is specific about World War I, but during World War II one source says the war news got so bad that after a few days of bad news some people flipped the stone anyway. They were late, but at least they got the job done, the Allies won the war, and the world has continued on its erratic and weary course. Thank you, Shebbear, for saving us all.

According to another explanation of the ritual, they do it to keep the devil away. Maybe that’s the same thing as keeping bad things from happening. A biblical scholar I’m not. On the Calendar Customs website, someone named Sam left a comment to say, “Your all blooming mad none of this is in the bible….. your all off your trolley.”

Sam is probably not the ritual’s target audience. 

Methodists, alcohol, and folk traditions

As far as I can tell–and remember, I’m an immigrant here, so I’m bound to (almost obliged to) get a lot of this stuff wrong–this is the only ancient festival in Britain that doesn’t involve heavy drinking, although I did find a comment involving rain diluting a spectator’s pint, so you can be assured that (a) it rains a fair percentage of the time, as it should, and (b) drinking is accepted as a peripheral activity. Still, even though the stone is between the church and the pub, and even though the pub is called the Devil’s Stone, nothing I’ve read about the event mentions it either starting or ending at the pub. The closest I’ve found is a mention of the pub selling refreshments, but it does that every day of the year, unless a pandemic gets in the way.

Carrying on like that could get a festival kicked out of the Folkloric Society.

It might be relevant that John Wesley–the founder of Methodism–came through Shebbear and that Methodists don’t drink. Or it might not be relevant. The church the bellringers belong to isn’t Methodist, it’s Church of England. 

For whatever it’s worth, though, the village had the second oldest Methodist school in the country, founded in 1829 to train boys as ministers. It’s possible that before John Wesley showed up, turning the stone involved getting pie-eyed, but that’s pure speculation. It doesn’t seem to now. 

Roud mentions a website that called this the “oldest folk custom in Europe” but he says there’s no evidence of it earlier than the twentieth century. That’s not proof that it doesn’t go back many centuries, it just says there’s no record of it. But he does speculate that it could have started as a prank by bellringers, “or even that it was the result of a drunken conversation in the pub.”

If he’s right, Shebbear can hold its head up at the next meeting of the nonexistent Folkloric Society. The pub will have elbowed its way into the tale.

If you ask Lord Google, he’ll tell you that a Folklore Society does exist, and that it’s a learned society. But since I made up the Folkloric Society, I can assure you that it’s not learned. It involves heavy drinking, some morris dancing, obscure traditions, and disagreements about almost everything.

 

Why this particular stone?

The stone is notable because it doesn’t match the local stone. Depending on who you want to believe:

  • The devil dropped it out of his pocket when he fell from Heaven to Hell.
  • The devil dropped it when he was fighting with god and it fell on him and flattened him. 
  • The devil’s imprisoned underneath it. If you actually believe in the devil, that might make you think twice about turning it, but what do I know? 
  • St. Michael dropped the stone on the devil.
  • The stone was an altar stone belonging to a pre-Christian religion.
  • The stone was quarried for the foundation stone of Hanscott Church, which is nearby, and the Devil moved it to Shebbear. Every time someone moved it back to the church, it turned up at Shebbear again.
  • The devil threw the stone and the church and missed.
  • The stone’s a glacial erratic–something the glaciers picked up in one place and dropped in another. Glaciers were known for their sense of humor. The one carrying the stone said to another glacier, “Watch this. I’m going to set this thing down right here, then we’ll check back in thousands of years. I bet those annoying little hairless creatures will be worshiping it.”

According to various edges of the internet run by people who I suspect know as much about stones  as I do, the stone is granite, the stone is quartz, and the stone is “of a composition unknown anywhere in Europe.” 

No one claims that it’s of a composition unknown anywhere on this planet and everyone agrees that it weighs about a ton. 

 

Important information

Shebbear is pronounced SHEBBeer. I mention that because with English place names you can’t take anything for granted. They’re all glacial erratics–they got picked up in one place and dropped someplace else, and there’s no explaining why they’re either pronounced or spelled the way they are.

My thanks to Bear Humphries for reminding me of the Devil’s Stone, which is more or less local to us both.

 

** Adapted–or stolen–from a poem by Dorothy Parker:

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Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.