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.

Raisin Monday: Another great British tradition

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.

Irrelevant photo: Cotoneaster, which is pronounced ka-TONE-ee-aster. not cotton-EAST-er. The birds plant it everywhere, and very lovely it is, even when it’s just a smidge out of focus.

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.

Of course you want a source for that. Or try this one if you prefer. 

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.

Ancient British traditions, from bun throwing to shin kicking

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.

Irrelevant photo: These are cyclamen. I stole the photo from an earlier post because, hey, who’ll notice?

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.

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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.

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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.

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My thanks yet again to Deb C., this time for links that led me to this insanity.

The Clameur de Haro and the legacy of feudalism

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.

Semi-relevant photo: A wild pony on the cliffs in Cornwall. This is one of the many horses Rolf (or Rollo, if you like) couldn’t ride. Not just because he was too heavy but because by the time this horse was born he was too dead.

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. 

The Gloucester Cheese Rolling: a handful of links

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?