The Cerne Abbas Giant

How do you look after a 180-foot-tall giant? Every ten or so years, you gather up a herd of humans and you feed him. Not the humans but chalk. You feed him lots of chalk.                       

The Cerne Abbas giant is cut into a chalky hillside in Dorset. It’s a bit of a thing in the British chalk country, carving figures into the hillsides: horses (16, plus one in paint), giants,  one lone kiwi. The Uffington white horse dates back to the bronze age.  

The giant and the (steep) hill on which he lies now belong to the National Trust, which gathered 60 volunteers to dig out the old chalk, re-edge the lines, fill them with 20 tons of fresh chalk, and hammer it into place. It took nine days. 

So much for upkeep. Let’s talk about who the giant is: He dates back at least to the seventeenth century. The earliest mention anyone’s found is from 1694, in a churchwarden’s accounts, when three shillings were paid out for “repaireing the giant.”  

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangeas. But if you follow any of the links concerning the giant you’ll find photos of him instead. No news outlet can resist.

According one theory, he (and he’s most definitely a he; I don’t use the male pronoun generically) was created to make fun of Oliver Cromwell. The dates do make that possible. A detailed 1617 survey of the manor where the giant now lives doesn’t mention him, which makes it likely that he was created sometime between pre-Cromwell and post-Cromwell. 

The manor was owned by Denzil Holles, one of the MPs Charles I tried to arrest–an act that kicked off the Civil War. Holles raised a regiment (that was how it worked then) that fought for Parliament against the king. It was wiped out–a third were killed and most of the rest taken prisoner–and he withdrew from military life.

He later tried to negotiate a peace with the king and came into conflict with Cromwell, who (or whom, if you like) he hated. When the First Civil War ended, he hoped to pay off the Scottish army and send them home (that worked), then disband Parliament’s New Model Army and make peace with the king. That didn’t work. The New Model Army wasn’t going anywhere until it got its back pay, and by then common soldiers had started to look at what they were actually fighting for and to make demands of their own. 

The army petitioned Parliament and Holles called them enemies of the state. The army gave that some thought and decided that being enemies of the state might be a good idea, so it became far more political, aligning itself with the Levellers. (I’ve messed around with the cause and effect there. I don’t know that Holles’s accusation had any impact on the army becoming politicized. An awful lot of things were going on at once. Apologies.)

The Levellers–well, we could argue about whether they were enemies of the state or not. They wanted a more equal, society, one in which all men, at least, could vote. They would have changed the state of the state dramatically if they’d won that.  

So Parliament and its army were no longer good friends. It was an interesting time. You can read a bit about it hereand more about the Levellers here

Holles called up the London militia to oppose the New Model Army. That didn’t  work and he ended up fleeing to France. 

The next year, when it was safe (Cromwell was in control; the army had been purged of its most radical elements), Holles returned to England and again tried to negotiate a peace between Parliament and the king. Among other things, this involved throwing himself at the king’s feet, which isn’t the recommended negotiating position.

Then Cromwell purged Parliament and Holles fled back to France. 

Like I said, an interesting time.

Holles was later reconciled with Cromwell and returned to England, where he stayed out of politics until Cromwell died and Charles II was be-monarched. Holles joined Charles’s privy council. He became known as the most vindictive of the commissioners appointed to try some of the parliamentarians who’d killed the king. And, just incidentally, he became a baron.

Then he backed the wrong party and was kicked off the privy council. But never mind most of that. The theory goes that he had the giant carved either when he was still in exile or after he returned. 

But all the detail in that story doesn’t stop other theories from circulating. The giant is Hercules. He’s the last abbot of Cerne Abbey, cut into the hillside by pissed-off monks after the abbey was dissolved. He’s a thousand-year-old fertility symbol and childless women who sleep on the penis will get pregnant.

Depending in part, I’m sure, on who sleeps with them, either there or elsewhere. But there is fine. At thirty-six feet long, it offers more than enough room. And, yeah, even in the context of a 180-foot figure, it’s out of proportion. And there’s a story there too: When Victoria was queen, in the interests of general prudishness, the local people who tended to the giant let grass grow over anything they thought might offend anyone. In other words, he became as sexy as a plastic doll. 

After she died, they reinstated it but, hey, they were just coming out of an era of massive prudishness and nobody’d seen a penis for all the many years Victoria was on the throne. They mistook his bellybutton for the tip and ended up adding 2.5 meters–something more than 8 feet. When the Trust used new equipment to survey the ground, they sorted out what had happened and debated whether to tone him down but left him as he was and fixed his nose instead.

I’m relying on an article for that. In the photos, as far as I can see he has no nose. Maybe that’s what they fixed. I doubt anyone noticed the change.

Many people, both visitors and locals, are convinced he’s been there for thousands of years in one form or another. And as the volunteers pounded the chalk into place, they made sure he’d stay there, clean and glowing and wildly out of proportion, for another ten or so years.

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A reader contacted me outside of the blog to let me know she can’t leave comments without going through a massive rigamarole involving passwords and secret handshakes and bad temper. The comments are set–to the extent that I have any control over them–not to ask people to sign in (what is this? an exclusive club?), but the WordPress help crew tells me the problem has something to do with the reader’s settings, the cookies she’s been collecting (give up those cookies, Mardi), and assorted other things I can’t control and have no reason to think she can.

The reason I’m telling you this tale is to ask if anyone else is having trouble leaving comments. If you are–right, you won’t necessarily be able to leave me a comment. Email me, would you? ellenhawley@yahoo.com. Ditto if you’re being asked to sign in. I can’t promise to fix the problem, but if I get enough data to WordPress, it’s just vaguely possible that they’ll be able to. Their help crew actually does help. And more to the point, it exists.

Thanks.

New British Traditions: The Chap Olympiad

The event I’m about to introduce you to has already passed us by, but you might want to look for it next year, so let’s talk about it anyway. It’s a sports event. Sort of. It celebrates British eccentricity. Emphatically. 

The Chap Olympiad’s website says it’s “designed to reward panache rather than sporting prowess and the games require the minimum amount of physical exertion. Not since the days of Bee versus Pigeon Racing during the Victorian times have so many befuddled anarcho-dandies and gin-addled punks been gathered together under one parasol to make mockery of the whole idea of sport.”

Yes, bee versus pigeon racing seems to have been a real thing. It also seems to have happened only once. It wasn’t a major thing.

 

Irrelevant photo: I’m not completely sure what we’re looking at here. Except, yeah, it’s a flower. 

The chap contests this year were (or included–who knows?):

Tea Pursuit. Contestants cycled around the course, transferring a cup of tea from one rider to the next. The amount of tea remaining in each team’s cup decided the winner.

French Connection. Three lumps of French cheese were mounted on poles and contestants tried to knock them off using a baguette as a javelin.

Top Trump Toupee. Contestants tried to knock Donald Trump’s wig off his head with a softball.

Umbrella Jousting. Contestants charged at each other on bikes, brandishing umbrellas and (by way of armor) wearing bowler hats and carrying briefcases.

Riding Crop Rumpus. Participants knelt in a row and a contestant tried to whip them with a riding crop. Why is the word tried in there? Because the participants were defended by a lady in a leather catsuit. Don’t ask me. I’m going to assume this has something to do with British public schools, which are private schools, generally for the elite. And very strange places.

Butler Baiting. A fleet of butlers mixed gin and tonics and pairs of contestants made a three-legged dash for them. If they didn’t make it in one minute, the butler got the drink. 

The olympiad tried to set world records for the most hats worn while riding a bicycle (I’m going to guess that’s hats on one head, since they seem to be talking about one bike, but it’s hard to tell), the most ties knotted in one minute, the fastest 100-yard sprint with a cup of tea, the most hats tossed onto a hat stand, and the most people smoking one pipe. 

Photos? Yes indeed. I have no idea if they’re from this year or some other, but I don’t suppose it matters. I’d tell you how many years the olympiad’s been running but I haven’t been able to find out. What I can tell you is that the sponsor, The Chap Magazine, was founded in 1999, so this isn’t a traditional tradition. 

The magazine, like the event, espouses anarcho-dandyism. 

Anarcho-what? Listen, I didn’t make it up, so don’t ask me to make sense of it. It seems to favor tweed, smoking, facial hair (it’s all about men), a highly ambiguous relationship to upper-class male traditions, and a strong sense of the absurd. I read one magazine article, on boater hats, which describes them as sitting on your head like inedible crackers. It was a good piece of writing, and even if it was about fashion, and upper-class male fashion at that, it was entirely readable. If the article’s typical, the magazine’s well written.

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My thanks to Bear Humphries, who dropped the olympiad on my head. I’ll have to find an inedible cracker to drop on his in return. In the meantime, you might want to check out his photography. He’s doing some work with abstracts that I really enjoy. 

Odd British traditions: witches, white rabbits, and medieval calendars

Twelve times a year, some uncounted number of Britons give someone else a pinch and a punch and say, “Pinch, punch, first of the month, white rabbits.” 

How many people do that? Um, they’re uncounted, so we don’t know. Enough to create a slight wave on the Odd British Traditions Scale, even if it’s not a big enough wave to sink any ships.

What do the words mean? If Metro knows what it’s talking about, most of the people who do it haven’t a clue. They do it because they do it. That’s one way to spot a tradition: Its origins are so murky that no one really understands it. Explanations range from medieval beliefs about witches to George Washington. 

What’s George Washington got to do with white rabbits? Not much, even if you believe the story. The tale is that he met with Native American leaders on the first of every month, serving fruit punch with a pinch of salt in it. 

If you believe that, I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn and I’d be happy to sell you a share in it. 

Irrelevant photo: love-in-a-mist

The medieval origin story is marginally more coherent. Salt was believed to make witches weak, so the pinch symbolized a pinch of salt to weaken the witches and the punch was to keep them away forever. Or at least until the next month, when someone could do it to you again. Basically they were giving you good luck. 

And the white rabbits? They’re to keep the person from doing it back to you, because you wouldn’t want any good luck yourself, would you? 

The rabbit line also shows up as “white rabbits, no return.”

Did your average medieval peasant do this to your other average medieval peasant? It’s a good question but not an answerable one. What I can tell you is that the medieval world believed in witches and that the first day of the month mattered back then, so your average peasant might well have known when it rolled around, even if it didn’t affect the planting and the harvesting and the shearing. The month was–well, this will be easier to take in if we back up a bit and talk about medieval calendars. 

Not that your average peasant had a calendar. Or could read one. But they’re a way to explain the medieval month and possibly the medieval mind.

Calendars were luxury items, hand lettered and hand decorated. They were also religious, as everything in medieval Europe was, with the possible exceptions of rain and mud. And horses. Horses weren’t big on religion. Chickens, to the best of my knowledge, weren’t either, although eggs got roped in on some of the holidays so let’s leave the chickens out of it. They’re ambiguous.

Calendars were about tracking saints’ days and assorted church holidays. So if they were a luxury, in churchly circles they were also a necessity. And they weren’t anything like what we think of as a calendar: You didn’t turn the last page at the end of the year and throw it in the recycling, you just went back to the beginning and started over.

But the differences don’t stop there. The medieval months had the same names we use now, but after that everything familiar breaks down. The month was divided into kalends (the first day), nones (the fifth, unless it was the seventh–it depended on how many days the month had), and ides (eight days after nones, although that’s not where they would have counted from). Those were your fixed points, to the extent that something that movable is fixed. 

I was taught that ides–as in “beware the ides of March”–was the fifteenth. I was taught wrong. The ides of March might have fallen on the fifteenth, but any old ides for an unspecified month could also have fallen on the thirteenth.

I’m drawing on the British Library for this, and it has access to experts that my high school English teacher didn’t. 

Now here’s where it gets severely weird: Although medieval months had the same number of days as modern ones, people (and their calendars) didn’t count the days by starting at 1 and going to 30 or 31 or–well, you know where this ends, so I don’t need to list all the possibilities. Instead, they counted backwards from the nearest fixed point: three days backwards from the next kalends, or five days before the ides. That number shows up in a column to the left of the main (I assume) information, which is the name of the saint’s day or church holiday (want to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, anybody?), which is the wide column on the right of the calendar. The important holidays are in red, leaving us the phrase red letter day.

Okay, in particularly fancy calendars, they’re gold, but the phrase we inherited still involves red.

In case the numbers decreasing as you go up is too easy for you, the calendars use Roman numerals. 

Another column lists the days as single letters, from A to G. These are called Domenical letters. 

Why don’t they use the first letters of the days themselves? Because these were perpetual calendars, rolling over from year to year, so the actual days of the week were a liquid. It’s 2014? E corresponds to Sunday. 

How do you figure that out

“To find the Dominical or Sunday Letter, according to the Calendar, until the year 2099 inclusive, add to the year of our Lord its fourth part, omitting fractions; and also the number 6: Divide the sum by 7; and there is no remainder, then A is the Sunday Letter: But if any number remaineth, then the Letter standing against that number in the small annexed Table is the Sunday Letter.”

Did you get that?

Another column has numbers from 1 to 19. These are called the golden numbers and they help you find the date of Easter in any given year, because Easter wandered in from a lunar calendar and isn’t a fixed date on the calendar we stole from Rome. 

How can a list of numbers from 1 to 19 help you figure out when Easter falls? You really don’t want to know, but I’ll tell you anyway: 

“For the determining of Easter . . . look for the Golden Number of the year in the first Column of the Table, against which stands the day of the Paschal Full Moon; then look in the third column for the Sunday Letter, next after the day of the Full Moon, and the day of the Month standing against that Sunday Letter is Easter Day. If the Full Moon happens upon a Sunday, then (according to the first rule) the next Sunday after is Easter Day.”

If I’d lived back then and if I’d needed to know, I’d have done what I suspect most people did and relied on someone else to tell me when Easter was due.

Many calendars also listed days when some kind of activity would be unlucky–bad days to start a journey or days that were unlucky for the limbs. What you were supposed to do with your limbs on unlucky days isn’t clear–at least not to me–but may have been perfectly clear to anyone living at the time. Keep them safe within your sleeves, possibly. Or avoid chain saws.

These unlucky days were called Egyptian days, and I haven’t been able to trace down the origin of the phrase. Let’s assume it grew out of a mix of ignorance and raw prejudice. There was a lot of both going around at the time. What a contrast to the enlightened times we live in.

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My thanks to Cheryl, who ran around pinching and punching to greet the first day of August this year. She has an exceptionally gentle punch and a sharp sense of the absurd.

British traditions: Lammas, sheep racing, and nightgown parades

Lammas is a quiet British church festival that was traditionally celebrated on the first of August, although these days it suffers from moments of inattention and wanders off to whatever Sunday’s closest to the original date. We’re too late for either the right date or the closest Sunday, but we’re not fussy here at Notes and we’re not celebrating anyway, just marveling at the intricacies (that’s a nice word for oddities) of British tradition.

Those of us who aren’t British, if we’ve heard of Lammas at all, never bothered to learn what it is. We saw it mentioned in some novel or other and our eyes hopped over the word, sending our brains a signal that we don’t need to know about this.

Our mine did anyway. I don’t really know about you lot. I only pretend to when I’m writing. For what it’s worth, though, Word Press’s spell check thinks I made the word up. Or that I’m spelling it lamas wrong. 

No one has mentioned Lammas to me in the thirteen years that  I’ve lived in Britain. That’s how quiet a festival it is.

Irrelevant photo: Poppies. They used to grow wild in fields of grain. Here they’ve had considerable encouragement.

But however quiet it may be, it happens in August and this is August. so let’s find out about Lammas. Because that’s what we do here at notes: learn about things we never thought we wanted to know. 

Lammas is an inheritance from the Anglo-Saxons. The word comes from the Early English (or Anglo-Saxon, if you like; same thing, different name) for loaf mass–a church celebration of the first grain that’s been harvested. Or as the British insist on calling the stuff, corn. What I and my fellow Amurricans call corn, they call maize. I’m still need a crib sheet to keep it all straight.

But what Lammas isn’t is at least as important as what it is: It’s a harvest festival, but it’s not the harvest festival: That comes at the end of September. It’s also not a lamb mass, although it sounds enough like one that in the nineteenth century some churches misunderstood their own traditions and, in an effort to go back to their roots, introduced one. In York, farmers who rented their land from the cathedral had to bring a lamb in to be blessed. 

That’s how it was back then. If the landlord said you had to haul a sweet little lamby, all baa-ing and terrified, out of its fields, away from its mama and its flock, and into the cathedral, you brought the poor beast. Your tenancy depended on it.

Yeah, those were the good old days. If the landlord had told you to dress it in a pink tutu, you’d have stayed up all night, trying to get a signal on your phone so you could find a tutu pattern that just might remotely fit a lamb. 

Whoever cleaned the floors after the blessing would have done some blessing of their own–a literal shitload of it. You can be sure that the idea for a lamb mass didn’t come from them.

Then in 1945, a minister started a campaign to revive the loaf mass, along with several other Anglo-Saxon festivals that had dropped out of use. He became the patron saint of all church cleaners.

But Lammas wasn’t just a religious date. British religious and secular life twined around each other for such long time that it’s sometimes hard to separate them. So Lammas was also a day for doing all sorts of secular stuff: paying rent, settling debts, changing jobs and houses. The rents make an intuitive kind of sense: If you harvest your grain and owe part of it to the landlord, everybody involved will want to set a date that falls after the harvest. And if you owe the landlord money, you’re most likely to have some after you’ve sold your grain. Everything else that fell on Lammas, I expect, trotted meekly behind that. 

What do people do on Lammas if they don’t have debts to settle and don’t have to bring a little lamby into the cathedral? Observation says most of them don’t do anything they wouldn’t do on some other day. The tradition’s obscure enough that the link I gave you back at the start of the post is to a newspaper article explaining it to the clueless people whose ancestors (genetic or cultural) once took the date seriously. When a tradition’s in working order, news outlets don’t feel the need to do that.

What people used to do was take a loaf of bread into church to be blessed. It’s nowhere near as messy–or as complicated–as taking a lamb in.

In some parts of the country, people then broke the loaf into four pieces and left one piece in each corner of the barn to protect the harvest. 

From here on, we may be slithering from traditional traditions to modern (or, if you like, made up) traditions: If you feel the need to mark the occasion next year, you can make a bundle of twigs (what could be more fun?) called a besom, or make a doll out of, um, something grainish. If you were in the Americas, you’d use corn husks, but for this you’ll want to use what the British call corn, which has narrower leaves and strikes me as harder to work with, so I can’t give you any guidance. 

You can also bake bread dough into a kind of plaque that that looks like a bundle of grain, an owl, or the–hang on a minute: the corn god? When did Christianity acquire a corn god?

I don’t make this stuff up. The article I linked to mentions one, and if the corn god’s wandered in, it means one of two things: 1, Lammas derives from a much older, pre-Christian celebration, or 2, the modern-day pagans have been busy reclaiming a heritage that, since it was pretty thoroughly erased, they make up as they go along, connecting Lammas with Lugh, a Celtic god whose festival was celebrated around the same time of year. 

Or possibly both 1 and 2. I can’t tell. They may be onto some real connection and they may be mixing up a loaf-mass and a lamb-mass.

The article has a couple of photos of gorgeous bread, along with a couple of recipes in case you have a gift for fancy baking.

Eastborne, Sussex, has a Lammas festival, and you didn’t miss it because it took a break this year. It’ll be back in 2020, with music, drumming, morris dancers (everything comes back to morris dancing sooner or later), and booths selling stuff. Selling stuff is as an essential part of any festival as morris dancing. 

What other traditions does Britain have in August? 

Why the Staithes Nightgown Parade. This year, it’s on August 16, which means you missed it, but  it’s been going on for as long as anyone in the village can remember so you should be able to catch it next year. 

In spite of the name, participants can also wear pajamas, and even bathrobes, but the men will probably be wearing nightgowns. It’s a British thing, straight non-(otherwise)transvestite men wearing what they think are women’s clothes, although I’m prepared to testify that I’m a woman and wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the things they wear. Never mind. They’re happy thinking that they’re dressed like us and none of them have been tempted to raid my closet, so I’m happy too. 

If anyone can explain the whole British cross-dressing thing to me, please do. A reader here once linked it to the time when women weren’t allowed on stage and young men and boys played the women’s roles. It’s a good start at an explanation, but it doesn’t stretch as far as telling us why the tradition escaped the stage, went free range, and is still wandering loose in someone else’s nightgown.

Staithes is a fishing village and the event raises money for the lifeboats, and no one can object to raising money for the lifeboats.

The Moffat Sheep Races were canceled in 2017 after 80,000 people signed a petition saying it was cruel to the animals. 

Where were all those people when those lambs were being hauled into church? They hadn’t been born yet, that’s where they were, so they get a pass on this one.

The sheep raced with knitted jockeys fastened on their backs, and in the video I watched they were being chased by a boy with a checked shirt on his. I can’t be sure, but the boy seemed to be having more fun than the sheep.

The House of Lords: debate and carpeting

A recent search engine question about the carpet in the House of Lords brought some poor soul to Notes recently, and since it raised an important question that I’d never written –or thought–about, I did some digging.

Yes, my friends, I’m here to research the things you have too much sense to bother with.

And just so you don’t think the question was a one-time thing, a couple of weeks later another one came along: “carpet colours in house of lords and rules on where you can talk.” I’ll do rules and traditions another time. This is long enough already, and surely the carpet’s more important.

Let’s start with what the carpet looks like. I won’t steal a copyrighted photo, so you’ll have to click a link. Is it worth bothering? Probably not. But in case you need help finding the topic of the conversation, it’s the stuff on the floor.

Irrelevant photo: This is not the carpet in the House of Lords, it’s a windflower.

What else is there to know about the carpet? Oh, lots. Let’s look at a couple of freedom of information requests on the subject that Lord Google led me to.

Yes, folks. Someone somewhere thought the carpet mattered enough that they used the Freedom of Information law to pry this sensitive information out of a reluctant government. In response to a 2018 request, here’s what someone or other wrote:

The House of Lords and House of Commons are separate organisations and also separate public authorities for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The carpet in the House of Lords chamber is a Wilton Brussels weave carpet (supplied by Wilton Carpets Manufacturing Ltd). We do not hold information relating to the House of Commons.” 

Well, when someone in politics evades a question that obviously, you have to figure it’s important. So I kept going. A separate (I think) request, also from 2018, unearthed the following:

“Information about the carpet used in the House of Commons Chamber is held, and is as follows: the carpet is in a Wilton weave style and is supplied by Wilton Carpets Manufacturing Ltd. It has two colours of Scott Mottle, green and brown. The pattern has been copied ever since its first installation, in October 1950.”

Oh, they make it sound so innocuous, but let’s turn to a 1966 debate. I was going to cut it back, because they go on and on. Also round and about and in all directions that aren’t necessarily forward. But the puffery and nonsense tells you a lot about the House of Lords, not to mention how important they consider the carpet.

I copied it from Hansards, which records Parliamentary debates on all the important topics of the day. It came with its own links embedded. If you’re relentlessly interested, you’re welcome to follow them. Me? I can’t even be bothered taking them out. 

A bit of background, since this is about two red stripes in the carpet. I did my humble best to find an authoritative source to explain what the hell these are about. The best I can do is tell you that the Commons has two red stripes that are two swords’ widths apart and MPs aren’t allowed to cross them. If someone wanted to spill blood, surely they’d step over them, but they don’t. Because they’re not allowed.

And, of course, they have pink ribbons in the cloakroom to hang their swords on so they don’t bring them into the chamber.

So let’s assume the red stripes in the House of Lords has something to do with all that.

LORD AMULREE My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper. [The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have put a red stripe down the carpet on each side of the House.]

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I recognise that the noble Lord has raised a matter of great importance to the business of the House. I hope the House will accept the view that a question of this type might perhaps in future be more suitably addressed to the Chairman of Committees, who is Chairman of the Administration Committee which is responsible for the area in which the House of Lords conducts its business.

I understand that there are two very clear precedents for this stripe. If we refer to the portraits which can be found in your Lordships’ House, there is, for instance, in the West Front Corridor a picture by Mr. F. Sargent bearing the date 1880. From that it can be seen that there is a stripe running the full length of your Lordships’ Chamber. Furthermore, I believe that in the Bishops’ Corridor there is a portrait of your Lordships’ House sitting during the Home Rule debate, and although the stripe is not as distinct as the one in the picture hanging in the West Front Corridor, it is quite clearly there.

The noble Lord may remember that before the recent renovations in this House there was sisal matting throughout, which contained strips of carpet with an edging of colour. The view then taken was that this represented the old stripe which was evident in those portraits. It was decided by the Administration Committee on February 8—and the noble Lord himself is a very distinguished member of that Committee—that when the new carpet was laid the stripe should be included. The House may be interested to know that there is no reference in our Standing Orders to this particular stripe. Therefore, the noble Lords who sit on the Cross-Benches will not be inhibited in addresing [nope, the misspelling isn’t mine, it’s theirs] us from their place. If I may give a personal view, I think it is a very considerable improvement.

LORD AMULREE My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that very long and detailed reply. I will certainly bear in mind what he said about where such questions should in future be addressed. But may I draw his attention to the painting in the Cholmondeley Room, which bears no date but which shows no stripe; and at the same time to the painting in the Bishops’ Corridor which again I think does not show the stripe. Is it not possible that some mistake occurred in the painting in the Ministers’ Corridor? Furthermore, is it not a fact that such a stripe is not needed in this House, where the presence of the Lords Spiritual [those are the bishops who sit in the Lords] is probably enough to curb the exuberance of the Lords Temporal [those are the non-bishops]?

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I should not wish to reduce the precedents which I have quoted, but the noble Lord will be aware that there is such a thing as artist’s licence, which may have applied in the recent portrait of your Lordships’ House. In regard to the Bishops, well, we know that our present Bishops are well behaved, but history records that that has not always been the case.

LORD CHORLEY My Lords, is the noble Lord satisfied that the increasing use of green in the carpets and elsewhere in this House does not mark an insidious infiltration from another place? [That’s a reference to the House of Commons, which is color coded green.]

LORD SHEPHERD My Lords, I gather that in the past the carpets were green. I am not sure whether I am colour blind, but I have been informed that this colour is blue. However, I think that the pink breaks up the blueness—there may be no political significance in this—and makes it a little more palatable—shall I say?—to noble Lords on this side of the House.

End of excerpt. We’re talking among our own ignoble selves now.

A 2017 discussion, also in Hansards, was about why the carpet in the Cholmondeley Room had been removed and whether it would be replaced–and when (although no one was so gauche as to use a dash). The answer was about the Cholmondeley Terrace. It said the carpet in the Cholmondeley Room hadn’t been altered.

Sounds like a coverup to me.

So what can we learn from all this? That precedent matters. Why? Because the U.K. has an unwritten constitution. That means no one knows what the hell is in it. It includes the Magna Carta, law, precendent, and the entire library of scripts from The Archers.

The Archers? The world’s longest-running radio soap opera. 

Or maybe it only feels like the longest-running soap opera. *

Where were we? Ah. Precedent. Precedent is part of the unwritten constitution, so if precendent says there’s a red stripe, then that’s part of the constitution. You don’t want to get this wrong. Consult the portrait gallery. Go through the trash. This matters.

And you thought Brexit was difficult.

We can also learn that you could spend a lifetime writing about Parliament and never run out of material. And that the Lords sound every bit as pompous as you’d expect.

And that you couldn’t possibly make it up.

 

  • The Archers really is the longest running radio soap opera. And it feels like it is.

How to spend lots of money on Easter eggs

Doing a survey of bizarrely expensive Easter eggs has become a sort of tradition here at Notes.

Did you notice how I slid that statement by using “has become,” as if I had nothing to do with the process? But I write this mess. So why do I do a yearly survey of overpriced Easter eggs? Because there’s something magnetic and horrible about watching the world’s insanity.

And since I’m taking responsibility for what goes on here, I should stop and issue a serious-content warning: I can lose my sense of humor over this stuff all too easily, so if you read the next three paragraphs (one is short, so call it two and a half paragraphs) you do it at your own risk. And if you lose your own sense of humor, don’t say you weren’t warned.

Britain’s been living with austerity budgets since 2008. Or 2012. It depends on who you believe and, I guess, how you count. Schools–not all of them, but a canary-in-the-coal-mine few–are so short of money that they’re no longer teaching a full five-day week. Food shelves–which were somewhere between rare and unknown when my partner and I moved here fourteen years ago–are everywhere and overwhelmed. The waiting list for mental health services is long, as the news reminds us periodically when someone with a bit of public appeal gives up on waiting and walks off a cliff. That’s a small and random sampling of the effects of austerity, but you get the drift. Money’s tight. We can’t afford frills.

Did I say frills? We’re not affording basics.

What’s that got to do with overpriced Easter eggs? Everything. Do you know how many British bankers were paid over a million euros a year in 2017? The answer is 3,567. Of those, 30 were paid more than 10 million and one got 40.9 million. I’d give you data for a more recent year but 2017 is what I can find. And I’d translate that to pounds, which my keyboard offers me a sign for, but you don’t want me juggling numbers. I’m dangerous when I get around numbers.

If you think spending that much money is easy, think again, and here we rejoin our topic, Easter eggs, and I hope my sense of humor. Easter eggs are a great way for those beleaguered bankers spend their hard-earned cash.

At the, ahem, lower end–really, too low to include here but I don’t want to look like a snob–you can buy a hamper of organic chocolate for £55 from Green and Black’s. It’s “perfect for indulging all your family and friends at Easter.” They mention that in case you didn’t know what to do with an entire basket of chocolate and thought you had to eat it yourself. It’s “delivered in a beautiful black twisted paper woven onto black metal frame hamper with black faux leather with two silver metal clasps.”

It’s funny how much better fake sounds when you say it in French.

Still on the low end, Betty’s of Harrogate sells a chocolate egg for £57.50. For that, you get a “sumptuous hand crafted egg that’s equal parts craft skills, dedication and wonderful chocolate.”

Are craft skills and dedication edible? Are craft skills different than craft and skill? I wouldn’t have said so, but what do I know? They’re the chocolatiers and they’re not about to give away their recipe. 

The egg’s also stunning, traditional, stippled, smooth, delicate, and–no wait, it’s already been stunning. We don’t want to stun people twice. My apologies. It comes in an elegant box.

You might be able to get it for a mere £57 if you can make do without the adjectives. But go on, splurge. Spend the extra 50p.

For £80, Hotel Chocolat sells an ostrich Easter egg that’s “40% milk chocolate, 50% dark chocolate” and since that adds up to 90%, 10% verbiage.

More apologies: I didn’t need to add the extra 10%. Half of it (that’s 50% where I come from) is made from 40% milk chocolate and the other half (again, 50%) from 50% milk chocolate. You can see why I ran into trouble. The British system of selling chocolate lets you know the percent of actual chocolate, as opposed to sugar, milk, palmitic acid, stearic acid, oleic acid, vanilla, and (if we’re talking about, horrors, inexpensive chocolate) wax. They don’t all contain all of that.  I’m just giving you a general sense of the possibilities here.

The egg comes with a neatly boxed squadron of chocolates and the whole shebang weighs more than a kilo. That’s 2.2 pounds. Your family and friends aren’t mentioned, so we can assume every bit of it is for you. Try not to eat it in one sitting.

And now we have to switch briefly to dollars and inedible eggs. I know, this comes from the wrong country, but bear with me. I found these online and I hate to waste research. For $179.95, Williams Sonoma offers a box of alabaster eggs in an “array of cheery colors,” but they aren’t available in the European Union because of “technical challenges due to new regulations.” I have no idea what regulations those are or why they’re challenging, which is a shame because I was going to order three boxes. Or a full dozen. Nothing exceeds like excess.

If I got the quote about the cheery colors wrong, I apologize. I had to grab it quick before the page and its photo disappeared and got replaced by the you-can’t-have-it, blame-the-EU notice.

We’ll call them Brexit eggs. Even though the U.S. isn’t leaving the E.U. It might, but that’s hard to predict when no mechanism exists for a country to leave when it never joined and by virtue of geography isn’t eligible. So we don’t know who’d get to make the decision or which way they’d jump.

We’ve had the same problem–we don’t know who gets to make the decision or which way they’ll jump–in Britain lately and the mechanism for leaving’s quite clear. Apologies if that crack’s gone out of date. It only means I forgot to update this before it posted.

Further up the scale, Betty’s of Harrogate offers the Imperial Easter Egg for £250. You can’t find this one by going onto Betty’s website. That’s one way to filter out the riff-raff. Since I’m a dedicated bit of riff-raff myself, I had to find my way to it by way of a magazine article. If I was the sort of person who had an inborn right to buy one of these, I’d have just known. But now that I have found it, I’ll open the door and let my follow bits of riff-raff follow me in without needing to look at Cosmopolitan magazine online.

In case it’s not already clear, Cosmopolitan is no more a part of my natural habitat than this (or any other) section of Betty’s website is.

The egg is made to order (Betty’s, understandably, doesn’t want to get stuck with a few dozen when the season’s over) and weighs 5 kilos. If you translate that to pounds and melt it, you’ll find it’s enough chocolate to float a full-scale replica of the Titanic.

Ah, but it’s not only made to order, it’s personally delivered. The website doesn’t say personally by who. (For that much money, it should really be delivered by a whom, not a who, but let’s not let the money intimidate us into being pretendting we’re formal.) My experience with delivery is that it always involves a person. Usually two of them, me and someone driving a delivery truck and working under a contract whose conditions come right out of the  nineteenth century. But maybe Betty delivers this one herself. I just don’t know.

If the Imperial Egg strikes you as cheesy, try Betty’s Centenary Imperial Easter Egg for £495. It weighs over 5 kilos, although I can’t tell how much over. A gram? An ounce? A half pint? Never mind. What matters is that it’s heavier than the plain ol’ imperial version.

It’s also made to order. It doesn’t seem to be personally delivered, but it comes heavily gilded with adjectives, although not as heavily as Betty’s £57.50 egg. At this price, they can trust themselves to the elegance of minimalism. If it counts as minimal when you include shimmering, hand moulded (I’ve left the U in place because for this much money you should at least get a spare U), delicate, and nestled. Maybe we should call that relatively restrained instead on minimal and attribute it to the self-confidence of people dealing in bizarrely expensive Easter eggs. Or maybe they wrote up the cheaper eggs first and used up all the adjectives. 

If all that isn’t expensive enough for you, we’ll switch countries and currencies again. Tiffany sells a sterling silver bird’s nest for $10,000. It’s “whimsical design was inspired by a 1969 engagement ad from the Tiffany Archives. Woven from delicate strands of sterling silver and housing three custom Tiffany Blue® porcelain eggs, this design transforms an ordinary object into an extraordinary sterling silver piece.”

It’s not edible and it comes with a registered trademark symbol on the word blue, which justifies the price. What’s Tiffany blue? A robin’s egg color. The trademark it doesn’t mean that robins can’t lay blue eggs anymore. All they have to do is pay a small tax on each egg and they’re free to use the color as much as they like.

Tiffany doesn’t predict any technical difficultires sending it to the European Union. That will be relevant if Britain’s still in the European Union by the time you order it.

*

I haven’t written any of this to argue that we go back to a traditional religious Easter. I mention that because periodically someone leaves a comment saying that we should. I’m not religious, and in any case Easter isn’t part of the religion I don’t have. I did, for whatever relevance it has, grow up with the secular version of the holiday and I still have a weak spot for Easter baskets.

I’m not really advocating anything else either. I could, but I’d lose even more of my sense of humor. You could probably say that I’m just having a moan.

For anyone who’s not British, I need to explain moaning. It’s a fine old British tradition that I’ve lived here long enough to adopt. It involves complaining but never, ever to anyone who might be able to fix the problem. If you complain to the right person, you’re no longer moaning, you’re being–. Um. Something. Awkward maybe. Or bolshie. I haven’t been here long enough to know the right word, although I expect it gets used now and then when I leave the room, but I don’t get to hear it.

With that said, if you’re determined to complain to the right person, you’re welcome here anyway. There’s not reason to limit ourselves to moaning. I’m not actually sure that restricting the conversation to moaning is part of the British stereotype. I trust folks will set me straight on all of the above.

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, whether it’s something religious or the first spring flowers (or the start of fall if you’re on the bottom half of the globe–or more warm weather if you’re right in the middle), I wish you a good one.

More Strange British Traditions: The Honiton Hot Pennies

Unlike Whoopity Scoorie, whose origin is so uncertain that it might date back to the beginning of time but also might date back to the nineteenth century, whichever came first, the Honiton Hot Pennies celebration has a clear beginning: It started in the thirteenth century, when Honiton was given a royal charter.

What’s a royal charter? It’s the oldest form of incorporation in the U.K., according to the Chartered Insurance Institute, which is an institute with a charter, not an institute that deals with chartered insurance. Having a charter of its own, it’s in a position to explain what that means. And also to explain why you should be impressed with them.

Irrelevant photo: Watching the sea in mid-February.

Charters are given by the monarch on the advice of the privy council.

The privy council? That’s–actually it looks boring. Let’s say it’s a topic for another time, when I’ll see if I can’t find a bit of spice for it.

The point of a charter is to “create and define the privileges and purpose of a public or private corporation such as a town or city. Although still occasionally granted to cities, today new Charters are usually conferred on bodies such as professional institutions and charities that work in the public interest and which are able to demonstrate financial stability and permanence and pre-eminence in their field.

So there.

You’ll notice (or you will now that I’m making a fuss of it) that the Chartered Insurance Institute capitalizes the word charter. It’s a British thing. You capitalize words you think are important. Especially Nouns. Charters are important. Because the institute has one. And because it’s explaining them.

That non-system of capitalization drives me Nuts.

The earliest royal charter in Britain dates back to 1066, which makes it sound like charters came over with the Norman hordes, but they didn’t. The first chartered town was in Scotland, which was cheerily Normanless in 1066 and remained so for some time to come.

The Normans? They invaded Anglo-Saxon England and became its rulers.

England?

Oh, stop it. If you can’t find England on a map, go offer your soul to Lord Google and he’ll explain it.

The earliest charter in England was given to Cambridge University in the thirteenth century.

But I believe we were talking about hot pennies, which are not pennies that have been stolen but pennies that have been heated.

Why were they heated? Because it amused the hell out of the gentry to throw pennies to the peasants and watch them burn their hands trying to pick up as many as they could before someone else got them.

Desperation and poverty are so amusing.

By that way, that interpretation of the gentry’s motivation isn’t the product of my leftish mind twisting the available facts. It’s what the Honiton Town Council’s website says, although I’m responsible for “amused the hell out of.” The website says they “took great delight in seeing the peasants burn their fingers whilst collecting them.”

Whilst? It’s a British thing and completely apolitical. You’re not likely to find me using it.

These days, when we’ve all lost our sense of humor and become so fearful of being criticized, the pennies are warmed but not heated enough to burn anyone’s fingers.

Sad, isn’t it? That’s what political correctness brings us to.

The celebration is held on the first Tuesday after the 19th of July. Which is as convoluted a date as the one when the U.S. votes–the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The Hot Pennies celebration also involves a glove being hoisted on a garlanded pole. The town cryer announces, ““No man may be arrested so long as this glove is up.” The idea was to make sure no one would stay away for fear of being arrested for their (or as stated, his) debts.

*

My thanks to Bear Humphreys for sending me a couple of links about the celebration, which I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. 

Strange British traditions: Whuppity Scoorie

March 1 is Whuppity Scoorie in Lanark.

That sentence was entirely in English. Let’s take it apart.

Is is a verb. March 1 is a date. In is a preposition. A preposition is anything you can do in relation to a cloud: You can be in it, on it, under it, near it. Lanark is a town in Scotland–a royal burgh, to use its formal description. You can be in it or near it. It’s awkward to be on it or under it, but it’s not impossible. It has a population of 8,253 (or did at last count) and is 29 1/2 miles from Edinburgh and 325 miles from London.

In between all those words is a festival, Whuppity Scoorie, and if you hurry you still have time to go, which is why I’ve added an extra post this week. Welcome to another oddity of British culture.

A royal burgh? That’s a Scottish burgh with a royal charter under a law abolished in 1975. Which is sort of like giving directions by telling you to turn left where the cafe used to be, but history’s a powerful beast and the phrase lingers even if the law and the cafe are gone

A burgh? That’s an incorporated town. In Scotland.

Scotland? It’s that stretch of land covering the north of Britain.  

We could keep this up all day but let’s move on. What’s Whuppity Scoorie?

To help explain that, a 2011 article in the Scotsman quotes the chair of the community council, who describes it as an “ancient ritual . . . despite the fact that nobody really knows when it started or what it means. But hey, it’s fun and it’s aye been.”

It’s aye been? That’s one of those things the Scots say to mess with the English. I’m American and easy to mess with, linguistically speaking, especially since Google translate won’t divulge the secret of what that means. But I dug deeper, with Lord Google’s permission, and found that it means it always has been.

And if it doesn’t, I’m sure someone will correct me.

Okay, you’ve stuck around long enough to prove that you’re serious, so let’s find out what happens at Whuppity Scoorie: The town’s kids run around the kirk (that’s the church) three times, going anti-clockwise and swinging paper balls around their heads on strings. At the end, the kids scramble for small coins scattered on the ground. Since it’s evening, the coins are hard to spot.

A man scattering scattering coins told the Scotsman, “I just keep walking. If you stop, you’re surrounded. Nothing against the kids, but I’ve seen vultures no as bad as this.”

What do people think it means? One local woman thought the ritual was pre-Christian and was meant to chase evil spirits to the neighboring village.

Good neighbors, those Lanarkians.

Did either town exist in pre-Christian times? Possibly. I can’t find a date for either place. The evil spirits have been chased onto the internet and they’ve taken the dates down.

Other people believe the ritual welcomes spring and still others that it mimics the seventeenth-century “practice of taking prisoners from the nearby Tolbooth and whipping them round the kirk before scouring them of their sins in the River Clyde.”

Another belief dates it to the nineteenth century, when Lanark kids would march over to New Lanark to throw stones at the kids there.

Like I said, good neighbors.

Lanark has two other yearly festivals. Het Pint started in 1662. It takes place on New Year’s Day and involves pensioners getting a free glass of mulled wine at the Tolbooth. Lanimer Day sounds like a carnival but it lasts five days.  

It’s a very strange place, Britain. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

British traditions: the ceremonial mace

Let’s talk about ceremonial maces. Because, um–.

Never mind the because. Let’s talk about them anyway.

In December 2018, an MP (that’s a member of parliament, and let’s not bother with the capital letters; they bore me) seized the ceremonial mace and started out the door with it.

What ceremonail mace? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why he grabbed it. It was to protest the way the government was handling Brexit. (A quick translation: Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union, and pretty much everybody, from every party and every point of view, was protesting the way it was being handled. Even the people who supported it opposed it, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s a sign that you understand the situation. It’s still a mess, but I write these posts well in advance and by now it’s a slightly different mess.There’s always room at the bottom.)

Irrelevant photo, to cheer us up after a mention of Brexit: This is not a ceremonial mace but an azalea. In a pot whose color doesn’t do much for the flowers. Sorry.

Now let’s go back to where we were before those pesky parentheses and the irrelevant photo got in the way. The MP grabbed the mace and headed for the door, walking as if he was leading some sober ceremony in full silly dress, complete with lace frills and an ermine robe. Not that he was wearing anything silly or that MPs get to wear ermine robes. That’s reserved for members of the House of Lords and only on special occasions. But carrying the thing made him surprisingly stately, either because of the weight of the mace or the weight of tradition. Even when you’re disrespecting it, the mace makes you move respectfully.

Before he got to the door, he let someone take it away from him and she carried it back to its place, equally ceremoniously.

And that was enough to create a huge flap. Because people take this stuff seriously. So seriously that he was probably relieved to let someone take it away before he got out the door and had to decide what to do next. Lean it in a corner in his office? Take it home on the bus and store it in the bathtub? Head for the pawn shop and see what it’s worth?

The MP told reporters, “The symbolic gesture of lifting the mace and removing it is that the will of Parliament to govern is no longer there, has been removed. I felt Parliament had effectively given up its sovereign right to govern properly.

“They stopped me before I got out of the chamber and I wasn’t going to struggle with someone wearing a huge sword on their hip.”

I’ve watched a video of the incident and I couldn’t see who had a sword, huge or otherwise, but given the symbolic silliness that goes on in parliament I’m sure he didn’t make it up. Of course someone would be running around with a sword. I doubt the sword’s sharp enough to cut anything tougher than cheese, but I don’t really know that. Maybe tradition insists that it has to be sharpened daily. I have a nice block of local cheddar in the refrigerator in case anyone wants to experiment.  

Now let’s go back to the question of what the mace is. The Radio Times–which isn’t the place you’d normally go for political reporting–says, “The ceremonial mace is a five-foot-long, silver gilt ornamental staff that represents the royal authority of Parliament. Without the mace, Parliament cannot meet or pass laws.”  

Seriously?

Well, they all think so, so they make sure it’s true.

Oliver Cromwell made an impressive demonstration of its power and at the same time won the prize for most effective mace-grab: In 1653, he got frustrated with the MPs and told the Commons, “I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting.” Then he told his soldiers to walk off with that “fool’s bauble,” a.k.a. the mace, which they did and since the swords were on their hips no one stopped them.

After that, he threw the MPs out of the House and locked the door. A month later, he formed another parliament–one he figured he could get along with. 

So there.

Whether he brought back the mace so they could pass laws or they went ahead without it I don’t know. If anyone does, I’d love to hear from you. 

According to WikiWhatsia, maces originated in the ancient Middle East during the late stone age and were symbols of authority. It says, “A ceremonial mace is a highly ornamented staff of metal or wood, carried before a sovereign or other high official in civic ceremonies by a mace-bearer, intended to represent the official’s authority. The mace, as used today, derives from the original mace used as a weapon.” 

The mace that the Commons depends on is a symbol of royal authority. It’s carried in every day by the “Serjeant at Arms. It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.”

In contrast, the House of Lords has two maces, probably to prove they’re better than the Commons. One is placed (ceremoniously, I’m sure) on the woolsack before the House meets but isn’t placed there if the monarch comes to the chamber. Presumably because the monarch represents royal authority more impressively than a five-foot silver gilt symbol of monarchy.

I have no idea where the other mace is. Probably gathering dust ceremoniously under the Lord Speaker’s bed.

The woolsack? That’s what the Lord Speaker sits on, of course.

Stop that giggling in the back. We’re trying to learn something here.

The woolsack tradition started when Edward III (1327–1377) ordered his Lord Chancellor to sit on a bale of wool while in council. At the time, the lord chancellor presided in the Lords, so that’s where the woolsack went to live and that’s where it stayed.

This wasn’t just wooly thinking. Wool was central to the economy. The lord chancellor was to remember that. 

You want scandal, though? In 1938, someone discovered that the woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. It was duly taken apart and restuffed with wool. By rights, they should’ve gone back and un-passed every law that had made its way through the Lords while the speaker was sitting on the imposter wool sack, but World War II wasn’t far away and people were distracted.

Sprinkle a little salt on that, would you? On the first part of the sentence, please, not the second.

Anyway, the Lords can’t meet or pass laws without their mace either. And if the woolsack’s stuffed with horsehair, they can’t know about it or they’ll all have to burn their wigs.

Salt, please.

By now the Americans among us (and possibly a few other nationalities; I can’t predict that) are laughing helplessly, not because I’m funny but because of all these sober traditions. I can predict the American reaction because I’m close to that state myself and I’m still mostly American. If anyone wants to discuss what it means to be mostly American, let me know. I’m happy to wander off down that dark alley. But for now, allow me to sober everyone up: The U.S. House of Representatives has its own ceremonial mace, and if it’s not in place, then the House isn’t meeting. That’s not quite the same as saying the House can’t meet without it, but the two symbols are within spitting distance of each other.

Any number of state legislatures have them as well.

If you’re still giggling, think about how many Americans get worked up over someone burning the flag. Not because the thing has any intrinsic value–it’s just a piece of cloth–but because of its symbolism. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in other countries, but  let’s agree that we can all get silly about this stuff and mistake a symbol for a law of physics.

Because the British mace is so freighted with symbolism, periodically some MP or other loses it and grabs the mace. Or doesn’t lose it but makes a calculated decision to grab the mace, because if you want to make a point–not to mention the front pages and the 6 o’clock news–grabbing the mace is a reliable way to do it. It probably won’t be good publicity, but they will at least spell your name right. Or try to.

Victorian Christmas carols: a link

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.