I was going to shut up till next Friday, but this post at News from the Past is timely and makes me think (as if I didn’t already) that the spirit of love and joy struggles to hold its own against the spirit of outrage and complaint. It’s about Christmas carols and the great offense they caused in Victorian times. Have fun.
October 22 was Raisin Monday at St. Andrews University.
It was what?
Why Raisin Monday, of course, the day when, in a centuries-old tradition, first-year students (known as bajans or bejants, and I haven’t been able to find out what the difference is) presents the older students who’ve acted as pseudo-parents with a pound of raisins to thank them. The parents have to give their children receipts to prove that they’ve gotten the raisins, because families are difficult and you never do know when sweet old Uncle Whatsit’s going to say, “Raisins? What raisins? You didn’t give me any raisins.”
The receipt has to be in Latin. And since modern students can’t be counted on to know any more Latin than veni, vedi, vici (and not necessarily that much), the student union website provides a text for them to cut and paste.
Traditionally the receipt had to be on parchment. These days–what with parchment being hard to get hold of–the more bizarre the thing it’s written on, the better, and as a result the student union advises that “your Raisin Receipt should be of reasonable size and safe: oversize, electrical, stolen or otherwise illegal raisin receipts will be confiscated and you and your kids will face disciplinary action. Please also remember that regardless of type, all raisin receipts will be thrown away before the academic kids enter the quad. If you or your academic child would like to keep their receipt make sure to hold on to it for them while they are in the foam fight!”
The foam fight? We’ll get to that.
Why is raisin receipt sometimes capitalized and Sometimes Not? Because these kids don’t know their Latin. What’s the world coming To?
These days, Raisin Monday takes up a whole weekend (when I last looked, most weekends didn’t include a Monday, but never mind) and first-year students have both an academic mother and an academic father. In the old days, they made do with just a father, because women–as as would have been screamingly obvious to everyone at the time–didn’t belong in universities. You know what women are like. On average, they get better grades than men, and if that’s not enough they eat all the raisins.
I won’t cite any studies for that business about the raisins. Everyone knows it’s true.
But times change and traditions evolve. Women have invaded universities. So the first-years are expected to bring first their mothers and then their fathers a “nice gift, “ which is more likely to be wine than raisins. The mother then dresses the child in a ridiculous costume. The father hands over the receipt.
The student union warns that dressing your kid as a condom “won’t impress anyone.” They’re wrong about that of course–the world always contains some dimwit who will be impressed–but the warning’s as well intentioned as it is inaccurate. News articles about the event mention students dressed as bananas, gnomes, robots, and police boxes.
Do I have to explain everything? A police box is an extinct British institution that’s the size and shape of a British phone booth (also rapidly becoming becoming extinct), but blue instead of red. They were introduced in the 1920s and were installed around the country so that people could pick up the phone and call the police when they needed to. If you watch Dr. Who, you’ll know that the tardis is disguised as a police box. If you don’t watch Dr. Who, you have no idea what I’m talking about.
I may be wrong to call police boxes an institution when they’re objects. I could also be wrong to say that an institution or an object can go extinct. And I could also be wrong to trouble you with copy editors’ quibbles, but I can’t be bothered coming up with a more accurate phrase. Can we move on?
Since the receipts have to be in Latin, we should all probably learn that the Latin for raisins, according to Lord Google, is contritae passo excipiuntur, but that didn’t look right to me and I asked him to translate that back to English. The English was crushed grapes. According to the sample receipt posted on the union’s website, it’s uvarum siccarum–dried grapes. Or possibly dry grapes. I don’t actually know Latin, I’m working from Spanish, a few broken fragments of Italian, and guesswork.
I speak guesswork fluently.
Not many of us will need to know the Latin for raisins, but if anyone knows the real word, it would make a wonderful gift. Just leave it in the comment box. I’ll owe you a pound of virtual raisins.
The website mentions that the Raisin Monday tradition is about “much more than drinking.”
This is verifiable. It’s also about squirting each other with foam and dressing up as police boxes. So let’s talk about the foam fight. ITV News describes it as the messy culmination of a weekend of festivities involving hundreds of students.
Paloma Paige, association president for the students’ union, explained the tradition this way: “I know some people ran in saying, ‘What is this, what are we doing?’ but nobody really knows and that’s the whole fun of it.
“The foam hasn’t gone back centuries, especially the shaving foam. It’s just evolved throughout the years and this has now become the quintessential part of the whole weekend.”
And there you have British tradition in a nutshell. We don’t know what we’re doing and we don’t know why, but we know it’s a tradition. Hand me the shaving cream.
An unnamed student was quoted as saying, ““I have foam in my eyes –it’s quite painful.”
Shaving cream (or foam, if you like) was invented in the early twentieth century but didn’t become a squirtable, fight-worthy aerosol until the 1950s. St. Andrews was founded in 1413. If anyone knows the year when Raisin Monday started, they’re keeping it to themselves.
Back when I lived in the New World, we imagined that Olde Worlde Britain was made up of lords and swords, decorated with a picturesque handful of peasants in thatched-roof hovels, not to mention some overstuffed upper-class accents and many unnecessary letters at the ends and in the middle of words. It’s not a coherent picture, but you’ll understand, of course, that all New World inhabitants think exactly the way I did and that I would never bullshit you about the inner workings of my mind.
What we didn’t imagine was the ancient art of shin kicking.
Welcome to the absolutely true and wonderful world of British traditions.
Shin kicking can be reliably traced back to the seventeenth century, although that’s not to say it didn’t start centuries earlier. For all we know, it dates back to King Arthur, who got so tired of his knights kicking each other at dinner that he ordered a round table from Ikea so they’d pay attention to the business at hand, which was getting drunk enough to convince each other they’d actually had the adventures we know them by today.
But that’s all legend. We don’t know that Arthur even existed, and Ikea itself may be mythical. We do know that shin kicking was documented in the early seventeenth century, when a contest took place as part of a larger event, the Olimpicks, on Dover’s Hill in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.
By the 1830s, 30,000 people are said to have attended the Olimpicks and the event continued into the 1850s, when it was outlawed becasue it was associated with rowdiness, thuggery, and all-around no-goodness. (See below for an alternative explanation of why it was stopped. When you write about a subject as improbable as this, accuracy is important. Not to mention impossible.)
Robert Wilson, an organizer of the more recent event by the same name, said about the original games, “It was vicious in those days, there was a lot of inter-village rivalry and lads used to harden their shins with hammers and were allowed to wear iron-capped boots.”
I’m not convinced about the hammers, but you’re welcome to believe what you like. As if you needed my permission.
An 1883 New York Times article documents a New World shin-kicking contest. They called it purring and the article says that “heroic Englishmen of a certain class” considered it a sport.
What class is that supposed to be? Off the top of my head, I’d say a class the reporter felt free to look down on even while he (and I use the pronoun advisedly) wasn’t too grand to show up and trade fleas with the onlookers.
Okay, the reference to fleas was uncalled for and can’t be substantiated by any reputable source. I apologize.
The article also claims that shin kicking originated among Cornish miners, who may or may not have considered themselves English. The Cornish language had died out by then, but I don’t know if Cornwall’s sense of itself as a nation had.
I bring that up because you might put it on one side of the scales when you weigh up the accuracy of the reporting. The New York Times of that era wasn’t the grand lady we know today.
That gives us two documented–or at least authoritatively alleged–origins for shin kicking, Gloucestershire and Cornwall. Since shin kicking isn’t on the list of things that most record-keepers kept track of, I’m inclined to think shin kicking may have been more widespread and older than can be documented. Recording what ordinary people do got respectable only recently–especially what people of, ahem, a certain class do, or women or other despised and out-of-power groups.
These days keeping track of it isn’t only respectable, it has a name, social history, and it makes great reading.
The shin-kicking fight that the Times reported on ran for 23 rounds and lasted from midnight to 2 a.m. By the time it ended, the loser couldn’t walk anymore. He would have quit earlier, but “was forced to continue under violent threats from the gang of ruffians who were betting on him,” the reporter wrote with glorious objectivity.
And a good time as had by all.
Shin kicking was revived in Gloucestershire in the 1950s, but it’s a milder sport these days. Contestants pad their shins with straw and wear soft shoes. The organizer reports bruises but no broken bones.
Oh for the old days, when you could tell a real man by the blood running down his legs.
The judge, by the way, is called a stickler, a word that dates to the sixteenth century and means umpire. It’s from an Old English word meaning “to set in order.”
The modern shin-kicking event is part of a larger revival of the original event, now called the Dover’s Hill Olimpicks, and for this I’m relying on The English Year, by Steve Roud. I recently bought the book, thinking it would come in handy for the sort of insanity I throw at you each Friday, and I’m happy to have found a use for it so quickly.
Robert Dover (1582-1652) started the first games in 1611 and he may have been riding the coattails of an older feast or event. Dover seems to have been a skilled bullshit artist (Roud calls him a self-promoter) and his Olimpicks took on a much higher profile than most local events of the time. Contests included sledgehammer throwing, fencing, dancing, chess, and horse racing. Roud doesn’t mention shin kicking. Silly man.
Dover’s Olimpicks started just as the country was debating what sort of sport was decent, especially on a Sunday, with Puritans increasingly wanting to ban all sports because the participants might accidentally have fun. By that standard, I’d have thought shin kicking was farily safe, but I admit I haven’t tried it. I know some people whose shins I wouldn’t mind kicking. It’s the prospect of them kicking back that slows me down.
The games stopped during the Civil War (1642-1651) but were started up again by Dover’s grandsons.
In Roud’s version of events, the Olympicks ended not because people were having too much thuggish fun but because the area was enclosed. (You can get a quick history of enclosure in an earlier post. Scroll about halfway down to the “History” section.)
In 1929, the National Trust became the owner of the land and in 1951 the Olimpicks started again, but near Weston-sub-Edge (is that an English place name or what?) instead of Chipping Campden. Chipping Campden had its own smaller celebration, called Scuttlebrook (god, I love English place names) Wake. A wake is an annual festival, not a watch over the dead. It sounds like an unremarkable event: a May queen, a procession, rides, and so forth. Then in 1966, the bigger event moved to the smaller place, bringing (how could it not?) shin kicking with it.
If you think spelling olimpicks with an I is easy, do try it. My fingers are convinced it’s wrong and I’ve had to go back through the entire post and change most of the mentions.
Just to prove shin kicking isn’t an isolated bit of insanity, in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, they weigh the incoming and outgoing mayors and members of the corporation (I think that translates to the local government) outside the Guildhall every May, in front of a crowd. The macebearer (well, of course they have a macebearer, silly; who else would carry the mace?) compares the outgoing officials’ weight and calls out the number, saying “and then some more” if they’ve gained weight or “and no more” if they haven’t.
If they’ve stayed the same or lost weight, they’re cheered. If they’ve gained weight, they’re booed.
This isn’t some modern-day bit of fat-shaming. The theory is that if they gained weight it came from good living at the taxpayers’ expense and if they haven’t it’s because they’ve been working hard while they were in office.
The custom dates back, according to one source, to medieval times, according to a second at least to the nineteenth century, and according to a third to the Victorian era. Take your pick. (The last two overlap but aren’t identical.)
The scales are an elaborate brass tripod with a seat, and the macebearer is dressed in traditional costume. Some mayors do traditional dress as well.
Traditional to what century? Not ours and not any of the medieval ones either. Beyond that, I’m out of my depth.
Want photos? Of course you do.
What else do people get up to? In Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, if the town council votes to mark a royal occasion or the occasional extra special non-royal occasion, the councillors all have to put on their ceremonial robes (of course they have ceremonial robes; what else would they wear to ceremonies?), climb to the top of County Hall, and throw currant buns at the crowd. If you follow the link, you’ll find a video.
The tradition can be reliably traced back to 1809, when it was done to celebrate George III recovering from an illness (probably one of his sporadic fits of craziness). Go back any further than that and all the records say is that buns were distributed, with no mention of how.
When Victoria took the throne, a thousand buns were launched. In contrast, four thousand were thrown to celebrate the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the borough being granted its charter. Take that, queenie.
Since the 1980s, the number of bun-worthy occasions has increased enough for bun-watchers to notice and comment on it. Maybe they bring in tourist dollars. If I was close by, I’d go. How often do I have a bun thrown at me from the top of a tower?
The Abingdon museum has a collection of buns that you can go and see. Admission is free, and no, I have no idea how (or whether) they preserve them or how old they are. Maybe they use the same system that keeps Lenin intact in his tomb and maybe they’re replicas of currant buns. You can probably go to a bakery and see the same thing. They won’t be free but at least they’ll be edible.
The world gurning championships are held at the Egremont Crab Fair, which dates back to 1267, although–carelessly–no one recorded whether or not it included a gurning contest. The first record of that is from 1852.
The fair has nothing to do with crabs. Egremont’s near but not right on the coast, at least if we trust the map instead of the town website, which says it’s coastal. But wherever the town is, the fair is about crabapples. Traditionally, crabapples were thrown at the crowd around noon, but these days they’ve been replaced with apple-type apples, which have got to hurt more than currant buns. And more than crabapples. There’s also a greased pole contest (the winner not only climbs it but brings down a sheep’s head or leg of mutton that’s tied on top) and a pipe smoking contest. The winner, um, smokes a pipe. I have no idea how you win or even how you lose, never mind how you judge it or whether the judge is called a stickler.
There’s also a ferret show where you can show your ferret.
That’s all well and good, Ellen, but will you shut up and tell us about gurning? Happily. It’s a country custom where you compete to make the most horrible a face you can. The winner is often someone who can take their teeth out. You can see photos of people gurning here. Someone snuck in a picture of Donald Trump.
Towns and villages across Britain also host events that we’ll have to call latecomers. Bonsall, Derbyshire (pronounced, for no apparent reason, Darbyshire), holds a hen race. The event’s only been going for a hundred years. Fighting between the hens is strictly forbidden and any hen violating the rules will be given a severe talking to. Bog snorkling in Llanwrtdyd, Wales, started in 1976. That’s so recent I won’t say anything about the event, but since I had to go and bring up the subject of pronunciation I’ll tell you that I can pronounce the first syllable of Llanwrtdyd (and only the first syllable) fairly credibly for a non-Welsh speaker (in my own, non-Welsh-speaking opinion), but I’m convinced that it can’t be spelled in English so I won’t offer a guide. The first syllable wouldn’t be much use to you anyway.
Wasn’t that helpful?
Moving on, worm charming dates back only to 1980. Barely worth a mention.
Something about living in this country draws people into a competition to create the looniest event and convinces them that it’s the most natural thing in the world to do that.
My thanks yet again to Deb C., this time for links that led me to this insanity.
In August, Rosie Henderson, a douzainer in Guernsey–that’s an elected official–invoked a medieval law, the Clameur de Haro, to stop a roadwork project that she felt would “endanger pedestrians and motorists alike.” Invoking the law involved going down on one knee on the roadworks site, clasping her hands, and in the presence of two witnesses saying, “ ‘Haro! Haro! Haro! A l’aide mon Prince, on me fait tort.”
Then the claim had to be registered in court, which (this being Guernsey) is called the Greffe.
The words of the clameur translate to “Haro! Haro! Haro! [That doesn’t seem to translate.] Come to my aid, my prince, I have been wronged.” The prince in question is thought to be Rollo, the first Viking ruler of Normandy (roughly 860 to 930 C.E., or A.D. if you prefer). He was also called Rolf and as an adult became too heavy for any horse to carry. So what with him being long since dead and all, even if he was likely to help anyone he couldn’t be expected to get there in a hurry.
I’m tempted to explain this business of calling on a long-dead, horseless prince (or duke–there’s no record of him using either title, or any at all) by saying that tradition’s a powerful force in Britain, but we’re talking about Guernsey, which isn’t Britain. We’ll dive down the rabbit hole of the island’s relationship with Britain about midway through the post, but for now knowing that Guernsey isn’t Britain is enough and we’ll skitter on before anyone has a chance to ask questions.
In one version of the way clameur works, the complainant, known as the criant, also has to invoke the Lord’s Prayer. Other explanations don’t mention that. If you plan on clameur-ing, you might want to do the Lord’s Prayer part just to be safe, although what invoke means in this context isn’t clear–or at least it isn’t clear to me. Do you recite it? Do you mention it? Do you remind the people around you of its existence? Whatever you do, I recommend doing it once in English and once in French, because I’m not sure which language you’re supposed to be working in. Or in Guernésiais, the regional language, which 2% of the population speaks fluently and 3% understands. (That could be 3% on top of 2% or it might include it. Does it really matter?)
Citizen’s Advice recommends getting legal advice before messing around with the clameur, so if you’re wise (not to mention well funded) you’ll have someone who can lead you through the details.
As soon as the amateur dramatics are out of the way, building work has to stop until the court decides whether you’ve been wronged. Assuming, of course, that the people on the building site understand what you’re doing and don’t just shrug you off as some random nutburger.
If the work doesn’t stop, the person being asked to stop it risks a fine. The person invoking the clameur also risks a fine if they’re found to have raised it incorrectly. The injunction lasts a year and a day, just like the curses and assorted other spells that we find in fairy tales.
The clameur dates back to the tenth century and works only in Guernsey and Jersey, a.k.a. the Channel Islands. It was meant to work as an injunction when someone’s possession of a piece of land was interfered with, which is why the Greff threw out Henderson’s plea the next day: The land is owned by the state and the clameur is only applicable to land (or as the court put it, an immovable object) in the criant’s posssession.
Henderson argued that the state holds the land for the people. She is, inarguably, a person, so it’s a fair argument even if it didn’t win.
New as the clameur is to me, it seems to be old news in Guernsey and Jersey. It even has its own website, which comes with its own warning, “Content researched from historic texts. May contain errors or opinions contrary to legal practice of judgment and case law. . . . For research only. Seek legal advice from advocates.”
It may also contain peanuts. People with allergies to either nuts or the law should consult a physician before opening.
While they’re doing that, why don’t the rest of us trace this bit of weirdness back in time? Because some things can’t be understood any other way. Or to rephrase that, it’s time to dive down the rabbit hole I mentioned earlier.
We’ll start in medieval times. The Channel Islands are a part of Normandy, which makes a kind of geographical sense. They’re 20 miles off the French coast, so if they’re going to belong to anyone other than themselves, they might as well be assigned there.
Then 1066 rolls around and the TV flashes a reminder to William the Conqueror (a.k.a. William the Bastard) that the show he’s been waiting for is about to begin: It’s time to invade England. He invades and becomes King of England, and since (as Duke of Normandy) he already owns Guernsey and Jersey, they’re now possessions of the English crown. And of the Norman duke, who’s the same person.
It takes some work for a modern brain to accommodate the idea that a person and a state aren’t separate things at this point, and that the English king and the Norman duke are the same guy. In case you’re having trouble with this, allow me to make it worse: The current queen reigns over the Channel Islands as the queen but is also their duke. Channel Islands royalists will toast her as “the queen our duke.”
Only they’ll capitalize both queen and duke.
They may or may not be sober when they do that. I don’t know much about toasts.
Between 1204 and 1214, King John (that’s of England) lost control of his lands in northern France but kept control of the Channel Islands. In 1259, this was formalized in the Treaty of Paris: England gave up its claim to any land in France and France gave up its claim to the Channel Islands. The Islands, however, continued to be feudal possessions of the English king and were never absorbed into England–or into its successor kingdoms, Great Britain and the United Kingdom.
The treaty didn’t keep England and France from continuing to fight over them, but let’s not get into that level of detail.
Because the islands weren’t absorbed into England, they kept some of their customary Norman law while both England and France moved on (although for all I know England has other thousand-year-old laws, unrepealed and unused, on its books).
The islands have their own parliaments and responsibility for their own finances, although they’re not constitutionally independent. What, you ask (or probably should ask), does that mean? It’s a good question, to which you’re not likely to find get a good answer because the government(s) admit(s) that it’s murky.
“According to the Ministry of Justice,” the Guardian writes in a desperate effort to make sense of the situation, “ ‘the constitutional relationship between the Islands and the UK is the outcome of historical processes, and accepted practice. . . . The most recent statement of the relationship between the UK and the islands is found in the Kilbrandon Report. It acknowledged that there were areas of uncertainty in the existing relationship and that the relationship was complex. It did not try to draw up a fully authoritative statement.’ “
In other words, after almost a thousand years, we’re still trying to figure it out.
The U.K. is responsible for the islands’ defense and for international relations. The islands have their own flags and print their own version of the pound. Scotland prints its own pound as well, and you meet various degrees of disapproval when you spend them in England, although they’re legal tender. All Scottish pounds spent south of the border are sent back to Scotland by way of a fleet of carts pulled by rottweilers, and all English notes spent in Scotland are sent south by return dog, so that the only notes given as change in either nation are the geographically correct ones. It’s anyone’s guess how much it costs, in both cash and dog food, to do this.
I shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Someone’s going to believe that bit about the dogs. Anyway, we weren’t talking about Scotland. Could we please stay on track here?
When Britain joined the European Union, the Channel Islands didn’t, but they did join the E.U. customs territory. Any citizen of the islands is a British citizen and, since Britain is (at the moment and for at least the next twenty minutes) part of the E.U., is also a European citizen. But only citizens with close family ties to the U.K. have the right of free movement within the European Union.
If you’re not confused yet, you’re not following this. And it gets worse:
“Under the UK Interpretation Act 1978, the Channel Islands are deemed to be part of the British Islands, not to be confused with the British Isles. For the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981, the ‘British Islands’ include the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland), the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, taken together, unless the context otherwise requires.”
In other words, the British Isles and the British Islands are two different things. Unless the context demands that they all get up and run around the chairs until the music stops, at which point the one who doesn’t find a chair is out. If, however, it speaks Norman French it can call on a long-dead prince, who may actually be a duke, to bring an extra chair and the game stops until he does. Which takes a while, because he can’t ride a horse.
What’s the economy of the Channel Islands based on? Tourism’s a major industry, but in the 1960s the islands reinvented themselves as an offshore financial center, which both are and aren’t regulated by Britain but aren’t regulated by the E.U. We’ll skip lightly over the claims that they’re money laundering centers–goodness gracious, who could believe such a thing anyway?–and say that after some maneuvering a 2018 anti-money laundering bill that required British overseas territories to publish a list of company owners registered there managed, at the last minute, to exclude the Channel Islands. Much (I have to assume) to the relief of the Channel Islands, or at least those with money planted there invisibly.
For the sake of simplicity (you have no idea how much more complicated this could get) and because they’re the political subdivisions, I’ve been talking about the Channel Islands as Guernsey (population 63,026) and Jersey (population 100,080), but a few other inhabited islands and some uninhabited ones are part of the package: Alderney (population 2,000), Sark (population 600), Herm (population 60), Jethou (population 3), and Brecqhou (population not given).
The absence of population numbers for Brecqhou may or may not have something to do with it being privately owned (you want to talk about feudal) by twin brothers, and our tour of the rabbit hole isn’t complete without a quick glimpse of the place.
“Since 1993 . . . Brecqhou has been owned by the Barclay brothers, the co-owners of The Daily Telegraph newspaper and former co-owners of The Scotsman. The brothers bought the island for £2.3 million in September 1993. . . . Since the purchase the Barclays have been in several legal disputes with the government of Sark, and have expressed a desire to make Brecqhou politically independent from Sark. They drive cars on the island, and have a helicopter, both of which are banned under Sark law.”
The argument about Brecqhou’s independence or otherwise from Sark has to be based on feudal law and precedent–things like seigneurial rights and fiefdoms and letters of patent.
In 2008, the island held its first election after 400 years of feudal rule, and the Independent describes the brothers’ relationship with the island’s elected representatives as one of simmering tensions.
The brothers complained that there was no true democracy on Sark. Their opponents claimed the brothers wanted to “turn the island into a personal tax haven through propaganda and coercion.” The whole thing ended up in (a U.K.) court and in 2014 the twins lost. A House of Commons committee reported, that same year, that the tension between the brothers and the elected government “threatened to blight” the island’s future.
Our tour ends here. It’s already gone on longer than I meant it to. You leave the rabbit hole by way of the gift shop–a joke that’s gone stale in Britain but that the National Trust reminds us regularly hasn’t yet gone out of date. Apologies for not coming up with something fresher.
Here in Britain, we’re recovering from the bank holiday (which is a strange phrase meaning a long weekend) by soaking in a bit of rain and looking back to one of the more bizarre events in a country full of bizarre events, the Gloucester Cheese Rolling, which took place over the holiday. The link you just skidded past will take you to an earlier post about it. Briefly, it’s a race in which contestants chase a cheese down a very steep hill.
I mention this because Ubi Dubium was kind enough to send me a link to an article about this year’s cheese race. Follow it and you’ll find lots photos of people who’ve fallen over and are rolling downhill, as well as a description of the race as “twenty young men chasing a cheese off a cliff and tumbling 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital.” Except that when I was there it involved a lot more than twenty and they weren’t all men. Other than that, I won’t quibble.
Okay, they weren’t paramedics. The local rugby team was at the bottom of the hill. Still, it does give you the flavor of the thing.
As long as we’re at it, here’s another article on the race, about a runner who’s won his twenty-first gloucester cheese, setting an all-time record. Among other things, it tells you that he doesn’t like gloucester cheese. He eats cheddar. The trick to winning, he says, is to stay on your feet. Which is like saying the that the trick to winning a marathon is to be faster than everybody else.
And since we’re talking about cheese, you can also read about the much tamer Stilton Cheese Rolling Championship by following this link or you can go vegan and read about the World Pea Shooting Championship here.
After all that, will anyone dare say that reading Notes isn’t educational? Or that Britain isn’t a very strange country?
May Day’s over for rhis year, but let’s talk about traditional British celebrations anyway.
First the really exciting part: Most people pay it about as much attention as they pay April 30. They rumble off to work if it’s a work day. They clean up the hairball the cat left on the end of the couch. They save a couple of rubber bands in little plastic dish that came with the plums they bought at the supermarket. Or maybe that business with the rubber bands is just me. I’m not British-British, just Americo-British. We can’t judge the British by what I do. An English-British friend saves them in a drawer. Maybe that’s more culturally appropriate.
But you see what I mean. So what if it’s May Day? Who notices?
Still, traditions are traditions, and even if people mostly ignore them we’re going to take them seriously. Because as an immigrant, I pay attention to this stuff.
The celebration of May Day goes back to the Roman celebration of Floralia, which honored (or something’d) Flora, the goddess of flowers. It also goes back to Celtic traditions and the celebration of Beltane. Or so an assortment of websites say. How much anyone really knows about ancient celebrations that left no direct line of believers or practitioners is anyone’s guess, but what the hell, modern mythology creates its own traditions. I’m in no position to complain about other people taking things seriously.
We could take a minute here to argue about whether Celtic’s a useful category, since it the Celts didn’t call themselves Celts, but let’s break with the tradition here at Notes by not getting too sidetracked.
May Day also–or so they say–goes back to the Anglo-Saxons.
When a tradition has this many origins it’s either something ancient people had a very powerful need to celebrate or else modern people are making it up. The choice is yours.
Were any of these celebrations actually on May Day? Beats me. Months aren’t what they used to be and I’m doing well to keep track of the 2018 calendar that hangs on my wall, never mind the ones they used way back when. What I can tell you is that some websites say May Day is celebrated because it’s the start of summer but others say Britain’s meteorological summer begins on June 1 and the astronomical summer starts on June 21. They don’t say a word about May 1.
Are you confused yet? Good. We’ll begin with me repeating that we might want to take some of the ancient traditions with a few grains of salt, and some modern ones might need–. Oh, dear. I just googled “hangover cures,” thinking Pepto Bismol might be either out of date or too specific to the U.S. The list of cures Lord Google offered included pickle juice, coconut water, miso soup, bananas, and leafy greens, but none of them have the universal tang I was looking for.
The list did remind me that the world’s moved on since my last (and only) hangover, when I thought mashed potatoes would help.
They didn’t. But that digression does prepare us to talk about Cornwall’s own May Day celebration in Padstow, Obby Oss Day. Without in any way calling its pedigree into question, I’d still recommend taking it with a grain of mashed potatoes.
No one knows what Obby Oss Day’s origins are, but it’s been going on uninterrupted for hundreds of years and may be connected to Beltane. It also may not be. Either way, it’s legitimately old. It involves drinking, singing, flowers, and a oss. Or maybe that an oss. I was allowing an absent but imaginarily present H, but–oh, never mind. I’ll just avoid letting the words bump up against each other from here on.
The Padstow Obby Oss website says, “Before the First World War there was only one hobby horse in Padstow, the old oss, but in 1919 the blue ribbon obby oss the was introduced. Also known as the temperance oss, its supporters tried to discourage the drunkenness associated with the custom. There are records of a few attempts to tackle the sometimes raucous behaviour associated with the festival, but none have ever worked. During 1837 some residents did not approve of people firing pistols in the air during the celebrations, and so rallied together to try and stop it by putting up posters which threatened people who did fire guns with a fine.”
I’m not sure when that business with the guns stopped, but it’s in the past now. The drinking continues. A friend who not only goes but takes time off work so he can dedicate himself seriously to the celebration says it rumbles on into May 2, but only local people know about that part.
The drinking and the singing are legendary.
More generally, according to WikiWhatsia May Day was originally a religious holiday but survived as a secular celebration when Europe became Christian. Much later, it was banned by the Puritans, who caught a whiff of its non-Christian origins and suspected that people were having fun. I’m not sure which they considered worse.
It was brought back in 1660, when the monarchy was restored.
In many places, morris dancing has a strong association with May Day. As far as I’ve been able to understand it, though, morris dancers have a strong association with everything. They’ll show up anywhere they can pull a crowd–or borrow someone else’s.
Dancing around a maypole and crowning a May queen are also traditional.
Inevitably, I googled “maypole dancing” and when predictive text offered me “maypole rentals” I was about to use it to show that dancing around a maypole is still popular, but then I followed the link and it turned out to be for rentals in a place called Maypole. So never mind that.
Still, there’s another way to make the argument: Cornwall LIve reports that maypole sales are growing and traditional May Day activities are drawing crowds the like of which they haven’t seen for years.
Why? Because collapsible maypoles are now available the they can be stored and used the next year.
Who knew they had to be bought? I thought they came from the woods. Or the air. And who knew that someone could make a living teaching maypole dancing, but the article quotes someone who does. I never even stopped to think that it had to be taught, but if the dancers can avoid tying each other to the mast, I guess that’s good.
And May queens? If a village crowns one, it will choose only one, and she may be balanced out by many men dressed as the green man. Any man, it seems, can decide to be the green man, but god help the woman who crowns herself the May queen instead of waiting sweetly for someone else to pick her.
Excuse me while I hide in the corner and puke without in any way calling your attention to myself.
In fairness, Historic UK gives us the lone May queen balanced by a single Jack-in-the-Green, who would lead the procession.
What procession? Why, the one associated with May Day, silly.
I’m not sure if the green man and Jack-in-the-green are the same character. We’re into more ancient legend and modern interpretation. One website dates the green man back to Rome, but another part of the same site says the label dates back no earlier than 1939. We’ll save all that for a different post.
Before we go, though, no roundup of ancient legend and modern interpretation is complete without a quick visit to Glastonbury, a city with a reputation for being–. How am I going to put this? Alternative. Alternative to what? You name it.
Glastonbury seems to go all out for May Day. No collapsible maypole for them. Men dressed as the green man carried a maypole made from a tree trunk and a fire was lit in (presumably) the Beltane tradition. A series of newspaper pictures shows green men as well a couple jumping the fire. The caption on the fire photo explains that jumping a Beltane bonfire blesses a couple’s union and encourages fertility. I know the world’s changing, but the man in the photo is as likely to get pregnant as the woman is. Or as I am, while we’re at it.
On the other hand, the world’s a wide and interesting place. If literal fertility’s unlikely beyond a certain age, may they find the metaphorical kind in this season of rebirth when the trees put forth leaves, the lambs are shiny and new, and the weeds thrive. And may you find the same yourself.
Stay out of the fire. It’s dangerous.
Members of Britain’s Parliament have been arguing about whether to run away from home.
Why? Well, they come from a broken home. The Palace of Westminster, where they meet, is without too much exaggeration falling apart. To give a fairly random example, on April 22, a stone angel dropped a chunk of stone some 230 feet (that’s 70 meters, or in technical terms, a long damn way) to the ground. If this was the angel’s opinion of the government’s immigration policy (rough summary: we only want immigrants who are just like us, and we don’t really want them either), or on what it’s doing to the National Health Service or public services in general, I couldn’t agree more. Either one is enough to make the angels weep. Also enough to make the angels throw blocks of stone.
I don’t know how much the stone weighed. Enough to flatten a government, but angels have lousy aim, more’s the pity.
Westminster Palace isn’t–as the British measure these things–old, but it’s old enough to need £3.9 billion in repairs. Give or take a few hundred million, because the costs always escalate. But why should friends quibble about money, especially small amounts?
Let’s do a bit of history before we talk about what’s broken:
The first palace on the site was built in 1016,
Whether 1016 is a start date or a completion date, I haven’t a clue–construction slow back then–but it happened so long time ago that we don’t really need to know.
Then the Normans conquered the country. They looked the palace over and said, “Nice place. We’ll take it.”
Only they said it in French.
That building burned down in 1512, under Henry VIII. Fire is not a slow process, so one year more than covers it. It was rebuilt, but Henry’s eye had wandered–he had a short attention span–and he’d moved to a different palace. It stopped being a royal residence and was used by Parliament and the royal law courts.
It doesn’t sound like the place was a good fit for Parliament even then. The Lords met in what had been the queen’s chamber, then moved into a larger hall when the George III expanded the peerage and they couldn’t all stuff themselves in any longer. The Commons didn’t have a chamber of its own at first because they were, you know, commoners. They were supposed to feel lucky that they were allowed in at all.
The new building burned in 1834. The replacement incorporated what survived of the old palace (I think that’s medieval replacement; as far as I can figure out, nothing was left of the older old palace) into a gothic-style monster that spreads along the Thames.
“Monster” isn’t a comment on the architecture. I know zilch about architecture. It’s just big.
William IV (no, I don’t know anything about him either; ask me about commas; I’m pretty good with commas) didn’t like the new building and when it was almost completed he offered it to Parliament, which said thanks, Bill, but it really doesn’t work for us either.
But it turns out that nothing else worked for them either, and tradition exerts a powerful pull, so against its better judgment, Parliament moved in.
In 1835, the king opened parliament by assuring them that the fire had been accidental. Who said it hadn’t been? No one that I can find reference to, but there’s nothing like denying a crime to make the world wonder.
And there we’ll leave Parliament for a century or so, with its members following arcane traditions and running around in fancy robes and silly costumes.
During World War II, the building was bombed fourteen separate times. That was not by accident.
Which brings us to the present day, when it’s not London Bridge that’s falling down but Westminster Palace.
What’s wrong with the place? The roof leaks. Sorry, make that roofs, because it has loads of them. The gutters and downpipes are corroding. The stonework’s decaying. Angels are throwing things. It’s full of asbestos. The plumbing’s a disaster. Very few of the 4,000 windows close well. “The heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems are now extremely antiquated and improvements to fire safety are needed.”
What’s more, the building was made of Anston limestone, which was cheap and easy to carve but it decays quickly, and time’s caught up with it.
One source says the House of Commons only has room for one wheelchair. Another says wheelchair users have to sit in the middle of the chamber in both the Lords and the Commons. Take your choice. Either way, it’s a problem.
Other than that, everything’s fine. Except for the “vast quantities of combustible materials. This and the huge network of ventilation shafts and floor voids [the architects] created to aid ventilation, had the unintended effect of creating ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread throughout the building.”
The wiring hasn’t been replaced since the 1870s. If the steam pipes blow (they’re older than all of us put together and the steam puts them under pressure), they’ll scatter asbestos in all directions. Grease from the kitchen is leaking onto pipes that carry the electrical wires.
Oh, and there aren’t enough seats for all the MPs. It’s infested with mice. And it caught fire forty times between 2008 and 2012. Four or five people are always on fire patrol. A former cabinet minister called it a death trap. And did I mention the plumbing? It smells bad. And backs up regularly.
It’s not that no one’s tried to maintain the palace, but maintenance can only be done when Parliament isn’t in session and the repairs have been slower than the decay. And, of course, not enough money was dedicated to it. To get the place in working order, they’ll need to pack the Members of Parliament and the Lords into separate boxes (the Lords’ box is lined with ermine; the Commons is just, you know, a very nice box) and move them out so some real work can go on.
In February, against the advice of government ministers, who wanted to form a committee to think about preparing to get ready to study the situation, MPs voted to move out so the work can start.
A decisive move, only they’re still there. Moving out will take a full Act of Parliament, which is “unlikely to happen before 2025.” I think that means the repairs starting, not the act, although you couldn’t prove it by me. An Act of Parliament has to be approved by both houses and then the queen has to wave her magic feather over it. It doesn’t take seven years unless the queen’s trapped in amber.
Some older MPs, primarily Conservatives, don’t want to move out during the work because–or so say the younger MPs who favor the move–they don’t want to serve out their final years in temporary quarters. But staying while the repair work goes on around them could boost the cost to £5.7 billion and stretch the work out so it takes forty years.
If the place doesn’t fall down first.
Some MPs and Lords worry (and others hope) that a move would kill off a few of the more arcane rituals associated with Westminster. Like what? Like the speaker of the Commons opening the day’s session by parading to their meeting room (sorry–it’s called a chamber but I can’t seem to call it that), together with the trainbearer, the chaplain, the secretary, and the serjeant (that’s how they spell it) at arms, with I’m not sure which of them calling out, “Hats off, strangers.” Like each newly appointed speaker being dragged up to the speaker’s chair. Like the doorkeeper calling, “Who goes home?” at the end of the day’s session. Like placing boxes of snuff outside the Commons’ and Lords’ meeting rooms, or MPs having to place a prayer card on a seat to reserve it because (and we’re back to that again) there aren’t enough seats for them all to cram in.
Ah, but there’s more: One elevator can’t be used when the Lords are voting, and there’s a staircase that only MPs can set foot on. And a blue carpet that you can cross but not loiter on. Plus a room where you’re sometimes allowed to speak and sometimes not and little hooks for MPs to hang up their swords. The Lords have ribbons for theirs.
How do you hang a sword on a ribbon? You’re on your own there. I’ve never tried.
Politically, voting either to move out or to stay is enough to set a politician’s skin twitching. Inevitably, the people who elected them will ask, “You just voted to spend how many billion pounds to spruce up your workplace?” But every year they put off the work adds something like £100 million to the cost.
This is complicated by the government’s inaction on the many high-rise apartment buildings around the country (they’re called tower blocks here) whose siding (called cladding) turns out to be flammable. This came to light when one, Grenfell Tower, burned to a tall and horrifying cinder ini June 2017, killing many of the residents. Cue government handwringing, pious statements, and long-lasting inaction.
But yes, quick pious statement and we’ll go back to the important things: Should the palace be rebuilt exactly as it is, only updated and functional? Or should changes be made?
Like what changes? Well, women MPs complain that the seating’s built for male-size bodies, leaving short women with their legs dangling. (Speaking as a short woman, I can testify: Your back hates you when you sit way that for long.) Or the bars. Do they keep them all?
What bars? Parliament must be the country’s most alcohol-soaked workplace. Once Lords and MPs have hung up their swords (or possibly before, I wouldn’t know), they have a choice of almost thirty bas. Not everyone can drink at all of them. Some are only for lords. Some are for MPs. Journalists drink at a different one. The mice drink at another. The Lords at one point declined to merge their champagne order with the Commons’. It would’ve saved money but they were afraid the champagne wouldn’t be as good.
The public subsidy for all that is $8 million. Exactly why we’ve changed from pounds to dollars for this is beyond me, but it’s okay because we’re bilingual here.
Alcoholism and embarrassing incidents are–well, let’s not say they’re common, let’s say they’re not uncommon. I’m not sure how much of a difference there is between the two but the second one sounds better.
In addition to the bars and cafeteria(s?), there’s a hairdresser, a gym, a florist, another bar, a post office, a travel office, more bars. . . . You’d hardly have to set your well-shod foot in the real world except to convince your constituents that you think only of them.The palace was built at a time when a gentleman belonged to a gentleman’s club, and it seemed natural to recreate that atmosphere.
In spite of the building’s perks and symbolism, some MPs would rather start over someplace else and have proposed building something new instead of rescuing the palace. It could have enough office space, room in the House of Commons for all the MPs, and functional plumbing. The current building could become a museum, they say.
There’s also been some suggestion that politics might be less adversarial if the Commons’ meeting room were shaped like, say, a horseshoe instead of having ranks of benches facing each other. On the evidence of American politics, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope for that.
In the meantime, Big Ben–the big honkin’ clock at the top of the building’s tower–is in the process of being repaired to the tune of £61 million, which is twice the original estimate. The clock’s expected to stay silent until 2021
Why does that need to be done? Cracks in the masonry, leaks, rusting metal, not keeping good time, the possibility that clock itself could hurl itself to the sidewalk in despair.
Is it more pressing than fixing the rest of the building? I’m not sure, but it can be done without decanting–as they put it–the entire parliament and all its support workers into something resembling the real world.
This year’s Dorset Knob Throwing Festival has been canceled.
This year’s what? Dorset Knob Throwing Festival. Let’s break that down into its parts.
Dorset: A British county
Dorset Knob: a biscuit made in Dorset
Biscuit: a British word for cookie (in the baking, as opposed to electronic, sense of the word) or, just to confuse things, for biscuit (in the American sense of the word)
Cookie: an American word for biscuit but always sweet, unlike the British biscuit, which you have to sneak up on carefully to find out if it’s dessertish or with-cheese-ish
So is the Dorset knob sweet or not-sweet?
As far as I can remember (I had one years ago), it’s somewhere in the middle: not dessertish but not unsweetened. The BBC, which knows these things, reports that “they can be eaten with Blue Vinny cheese, dipped in tea or cider, or taken with honey and cream—known locally as thunder and lightning.”
The Dorset knob was created some 150 years ago in—you got it: Dorset. Which is a county (see above). In England (see a map). It was created out of leftover bread dough plus butter and sugar, then left to dry (not to mention bake) in an oven that was cooling down, and it was popular enough to hang around for 150 years.
Or that’s one version of how they’re made.
Another is that it originated with “Maria Bligdon, ‘a formidable woman with striking looks and great strength. She could handle a sack of flour as well as any man and was known for getting her own way.’ [I’m not sure who we’re quoting here. Sorry.] Around 1852 she began the ‘White Cross Baker’ in Litton Cheney, near Dorchester [someone should’ve put a comma here but, in the interest of verisimilitude and other big words, I’ll leave it out since this is a quote] where one of her bakers, Mr Moores, either devised [wait, wait, here’s where the comma got to!], or introduced [and here’s a spare in case we need it later; I’m not distracting you, am I?], the Dorset Knob. The recipe consists of bread dough with sugar and butter, shaped into round balls by hand and baked three times, to produce a crumbly rusk-like texture. On Mary Blingdon’s death, Moores set up his own bakery at Morcombelake with his sons, which continues to this day.”
If you’re reading carefully, you’ll notice that on her death Mary also acquired a second N in her last name.
The Dorset knob had a real moment during World War II, when it was made “compulsory as a soup roll during the rationing of World War II, possibly because of its excellent keeping qualities.”
So much, so ho-hum (except for the idea of a food item being compulsory, which is sort of chilling). Then in 2008 some wiseacre got the idea of holding a festival where everybody threw the things. That’s one of the ways you can tell rationing’s over: grownups think throwing food’s a good idea.
Why do they do that? The winters here aren’t all that cold, but they can be dark and rainy. That does things to people. After eleven years in this country, I understand why sooner or later someone will turn to a neighbor—or to the person next to them at the bar—and say, “Why don’t we hold a knob-throwing festival?” And it’ll sound like a good idea.
Really, it will.
This particular festival includes—or in the past has included—not just knob throwing but a knob eating contest and an assortment of other games involving knobs: archery, weight guessing, darts, pyramid building.
Now put the knob eating contest out of your mind. You’ll be grateful to me, because the festival also, daringly, includes a pin-the-knob-on-the-Cerne-Giant contest. Or at least on a picture of the giant.
Why’s that daring? Because the Cerne Giant is a huge, anatomically correct male figure cut into a nearby chalky hillside. As drawn, he’s—shall we say he’s interested in someone? You’ll find a photo here.
In a nod to modern sensibilities, the picture used in the game has been edited into inoffensiveness. You can pin the knob wherever you like, because you won’t hurt him too badly.
I don’t know how they score the game (I also don’t know how people fix a Dorset knob onto a piece of paper, but never mind), but I did wonder what the winning spot would be.
It might be worth knowing, in this context, that the Oxford online dictionary lists a “vulgar slang” definition in which knob means exactly the part that’s missing from the picture. I can’t believe that bit of information didn’t rise to the surface of some brain other than mine. Especially since, more or less by definition, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the male anatomy. Unless, of course, I’m writing about giants chalked into a hillside. Away from hillsides, I prefer the female anatomy. It’s just one of those things.
According to the same dictionary, knob can also mean “a small flock of wigeon, pochard, or teal (ducks),” but it does note that it’s a rare meaning. The dictionary doesn’t mention Dorset knobs.
The organizers hope the festival will be back in 2019 and better than ever. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by. And keep your mind out of the gutter.
I have to thank—or possibly blame—Bear Humphries for sending me a link to this story and suggesting that it was just strange enough to suit me. Check out his blog. It’ll serve him right.
November 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, when people across most of Britain (we’ll get into the most part eventually) light bonfires and burn a long-dead Catholic plotter in effigy.
The only time I went to a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, all we burned were some potatoes (and we did’t burn them well enough, if memory serves), but we did at least light a fair-size fire. In other places, they go all out, shooting off fireworks, tossing the effigy into the fire, and (according to what I read) chanting bloodthirsty rhymes. (I’m not really sure if anyone chants it on the spot, but I’ve heard people quote a line or two, so the rhymes do circulate.)
All this dates back to 1605, when a plot to overthrow James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland; same person; same name; it must’ve been confusing for him) failed.
James was the son and successor of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic) and the successor of Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant). Elizabeth—being the Virgin Queen and all—had no kids. That’s an occupational hazard of being a virgin queen: Kids are hard to explain. And if you take truth in advertising seriously, they’re even harder to produce. So a successor had to be brought in from another branch of the family, and he had to be a Protestant.
Luckily for Liz, when Mary was de-queenified, James was just thirteen months old. He was crowned in a Protestant church and raised as a Protestant. How he felt about that I don’t know, but I doubt the people in charge cared much. What mattered was what he did, and he didn’t rock the boat.
The powerful weren’t an overly sentimental lot back then. Whether anyone else was, I don’t know.
Why did Liz need a Protestant heir? Because as far as the English Protestants were concerned, Catholics were the boogeyman. The Catholic Church had done what it could to suppress Protestantism, and Protestantism responded by doing the same to Catholicism. No one gets the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in any of this, Although after Henry Kissinger was awarded one, you have to wonder what the prize is worth. And we’re not even going to get into Aung San Suu Kyi’s.
Besides, Alfred Nobel hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not sure peace was even considered a possibility, never mind a goal.
So both sides did their damnedest to stamp out the other religion on whatever soil they controlled, and whichever side was out of power favored freedom of religion. The minute it got power, it used that freedom to stamp out the other religion.
Three cheers for freedom of religion.
Let’s take a break here for a brief (and largely irrelevant) summary of English attitudes toward a couple of non-Christian religions. Grab a cup of tea, okay? Just a small one, because it won’t take long.
Jews had been run out of England in 1290 and weren’t allowed back in until 1656. They were probably still the boogeyman of popular and churchly imagination, but in the absence of any actual Jews that was sort of a sideshow. I don’t expect they generated a lot of passion.
In contrast, after the Pope excommunicated her in 1570, Elizabeth was free to send diplomats and merchants to the Muslim world and to invite Muslims to England, and she took full advantage of that freedom. (The Catholic Church forbid any contact.) Chalk up a win for the law of unintended consequences. According to the BBC, “From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, servants and even prostitutes.” It’s an interesting story but this isn’t the place to get into it. Hold onto that for another post and I’ll see what more I can find out.
Finished with your tea? Good. Let’s go back to Christians fighting each other.
In suppressing whichever religion was out of power, torture was a powerful tool–at least as much to spread fear than to extract information. In fact, fear may have been the more important of the two. Burning people was another important tool. Holding to the wrong religion in the wrong place was a dangerous business. Most people switched allegiances as needed and kept their misgivings to themselves, but not everyone did or could or would. They genuinely believed they’d suffer an eternity in hell if they didn’t do what their religion demanded. So some people took the dangerous route of holding on to their beliefs publicly, while others kept them private—or tried to. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Catholics needed priests if they were to follow their religion, and some of the great houses in Britain still have priest holes—hiding places, usually very small, where a visiting priest could be concealed from the priest hunters who scoured the country. If a priest so much as entered England, it was high treason (see below for the explanation of how much fun it was to be drawn and quartered).
After Elizabeth died, English Catholics—or at least some of them—hoped James would introduce a more tolerant climate, allowing them to practice their religion openly, and when he didn’t thirteen of them plotted to blow him up when he opened the next session of Parliament.
What could possibly be more fun? Well, you could toss some potatoes on the fire.
They stashed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and waited for their moment. They were hoping the explosion would lead to a Catholic uprising. But somebody wrote to the fourth Baron Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the opening of Parliament on November 5. The somebody was probably Monteagle’s brother-in-law, who was one of the plotters. On top of that, the government’s spy network was already sniffing after the plotters. So word got out and when the basement was searched, there sat Guy Fawkes, bored silly and wondering why the i-phone hadn’t been invented yet. In its absence, he had nothing to do than worry about being discovered while he waited for the right moment to touch a match to the fuse.
Or whatever they used instead of a match back then. A Zippo lighter. Or a flint and a bit of steel. We’re not big on historical accuracy this week. One of the sources I read actually did say “a match,” but the great Googlemeister tells me “self-igniting matches” were invented in 1805. This was 1605, so our dates are off a bit, even if they do have a nice symetry.
And what’s a non-self-igniting match anyway?
Guy was caught and tortured but managed to throw himself off the ladder he had to climb in order to be hung, which allowed him to die before he could also be cut down, drawn, and quartered. The goal of hanging, drawing, and quartering is to keep the person alive while it all happens, inflicting the maximum amount of pain and horror.
But for the people who weren’t about to be hung, drawn, and quartered–at least those among ’em who did’t want the Catholics back in power–Guy getting caught was endless fun, so they lit bonfires and generally whooped it up.
In fairness, I can see where Protestants would’ve been relieved not to be back under Catholic rule. I can also see why Catholics wanted to be out from under Protestant rule. The brutality of both sides was a perfect justification for the brutality on both sides, and there’s a lesson for us today in there somewhere.
In response to the plot, the laws against Catholics were tightened. As was the law of unintended consequences.
According to one theory, the gunpowder that the plotters used wouldn’t have blown up Parliament anyway—it had passed its sell-by date. According to another theory, it was enough to blow up everything within 500 meters. Take your pick, because Guy never got to light that match and we can’t know for sure.
The cellars where Guy and his match and his gunpowder hid are still searched in advance of the Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament each year. Just in case. Even though the cellars no longer exist. Even though gunpowder wouldn’t be anyone’s weapon of choice anymore. Yes, kiddies, that’s the way things work here in Britain. We don’t care that the cellars were wiped out in a nineteenth-century reconstruction of the building. We’ll search those suckers anyway, because—. Well, as they used to say on 75th Street, where I grew up, just because.
Everyone but me considered that a good enough explanation. For anything. So it’s not just England that works that way.
In Northern Ireland, the various shades of Christianity are still highly charged, so anyone who celebrates Guy Fawkes Day there is (a) Protestant and (b) knowingly getting up the nose of Catholics.
Elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the night’s just an excuse to light fires and shoot off fireworks, but I know how easy it is for a majority group to say, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s all just a good time,” while cluelessly offending the hell out of a minority, so I asked a Catholic friend about her experience.
She’d never given it a moment’s thought before I asked, she said. She went to Catholic school, and neither her school or her church ever took a stand against Guy Fawkes Night. By way of contrast, her kids’ Catholic primary school wasn’t shy about telling the students that Halloween had satanic overtones. So if the church had an opinion of the event, we can assume they wouldn’t have been shy about saying so.
When she was young, she and her friends used to sit on the street (this was in London) with a guy–basically a scarecrow made of old clothes and whatever the kids could get their hands on–and ask passersby for “a penny for the guy.” They’d buy fireworks with whatever they collected. And the bloodthirsty rhyme? She remembers it as part of an ad for fireworks.
I don’t know how typical she is of British (or English) Catholics. If anyone else wants to weigh in here, I’m interested.
Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Cornwall, and I’m not sure what it means to people there, since both places have a conflicted history with England (she said in a masterpiece of understatement). Again, if you’re from there, or from Northern Ireland, I’d love to hear what you have to say.
Since I wrote relatively recently about dwile flonking—a British game that depends (with a small loophole involving ginger beer) on the participants being drunk enough to think it makes sense—it’s only fair to follow it up by writing about the great American sport of beer sliding.
But let’s back up a bit. I went into this thinking I knew at least vaguely what my topic was, but a quick check of the online world showed me the stunning breadth of my ignorance, because I discovered that gelande quaffing is also called beer sliding, and is also American.
Unlike true beer sliding, gelande quaffing is an organized competition in which one person slides a beer down a board and the other person catches it in midair and pours it down his (in this video, although I can’t say how representative it is) throat. Or one person slides the glass, the other person flips the end of the board, arching the beer upward, and the third person catches it and drinks it. Or one person sits on another person’s shoulders and both of them catch a beer. This all seems to happen outside in the snow and some of them are shirtless.
Don’t ask me. When it’s cold, I tend to put clothes on, but then what do I know?
Before we jump to the text below the video, I might as well tell you that it embedded itself, which will save you from seeing yet another of my irrelevant flowers or foggy landscapes. It’s as bizarre as it is relevant, so I’ll leave it.
What’s a gelande? A jump—persumably on skis—usually over an obstacle, or so St. Google informs me.
The game originated among skiers, which is one of any number of reasons I hadn’t heard of it.
Don’t you just feel acres better informed now?
None of that was what I was looking for, though. Gelande quaffing has rules and teams and someone sets dates when it’s going to happen. It’s organized. The beer stays in the glasses until it’s poured down the throats. It comes out of the tradition of bartenders sliding beer down the bar—if, in fact, that really is a tradition instead of just something they do on TV when they can film sixteen takes before it all works out right and where someone who isn’t the bartender has to clean up the first fifteen.
What I was searching for is what happens, at least in Minnesota, after too many beers have been poured down too many throats and some genius decides to pour a bunch of it on the floor so people can launch themselves gut-down and headfirst along it to see how far they can slide.
Yes, folks, that’s what I learned to call beer sliding. And no, I’m not recommending it, all I’m doing is reporting on a quaint American custom. Or a Minnesota custom. I don’t know which it is. Wild Thing and I were in Minnesota and had long since stopped drinking when we heard of it. That’s all I can say reliably.
It does make me wonder what happens when someone gets hurt. You know, when you slam your head at full speed into the wall or ram a splinter two inches into your belly and end up in the emergency room trying to explain how it happened. Do you sue the bar for negligence or yourself for stupidity? As usual, I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say both. In a single lawsuit so that you don’t tie the courts up any more than necessary.
Anyway, beer sliding lacks the—. Um. What are we going to call this? Charm? Quaint insanity? Let’s just call it the whatsit. Beer sliding lacks the whatsit of a British tradition like dwile flonking, which is ancient, or even the Birdman Competition, which isn’t.
As a friend said when I sent her a picture of swans paddling majestically through a flooded British town center, “Even your disasters are picturesque.”
Beer sliding is not picturesque. But it is—. Um. Here we go again. I’m having trouble with adjectives today.
It’s American, that’s what it is. Mind you, I’m not sure what “being American” means. I once led a classroomful of college students into a discussion about that without any of us coming to conclusion. It was surprising how little we understood the meaning of something we all took for granted. Any discussion of what it means gets onto touchy–and very interesting–ground very quickly, and I’d welcome comments from anyone who wants to tromp into the middle of it.
But whatever being American means, beer sliding is American.