Following Captain Ahab into deep, deep water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern life on ancient streets

A few weeks ago, an armored truck parked on one of Launceston’s ancient streets to collect modern money from a store.

To someone born in Britain, Launceston’s streets might not seem ancient, just old. There’s so much older stuff around, it’s easy to get spoiled. Sure, they’re narrow and twisty, and the gatehouse from the old town walls is still standing. I can’t find a date for it, or for when the town walls were either built or torn down, so we’ll  have to settle for knowing that it’s old. The castle was built in 1070 and now a fixer-upper. The church dates to the sixteenth-century but has a tower from the fourteenth century.

But modern life has crept in around all that. Or marched in with hobnailed boots. New buildings have been added to the old, and the stores in old buildings have adapted them to modern uses. It’s easy to walk through and forget everything but the errands that brought you here: a stop at the chain stationery store, the bakery, the antique store (what’s more modern than an antique store?), even the lingerie shop if you have a lingerie kind of disposition.

On the day the armored truck parked, I wasn’t thinking about ancient streets but about the loaf of bread and two scones I was buying, but I gradually became aware of an un-ancient, automated kind of ruckus outside. Wild Thing had stayed outside with the dogs and by the time I joined her a crowd had gathered, not around her but around the armored truck, from which a flat, automated voice was repeating, on a loop, “Help. Help. G4S driver needs assistance. Call the police.”

No one was calling the police. It’s hard to get excited about a looped announcement saying, “Help. Help.” Whoever taped the announcement hadn’t managed to sound like she needed help. She wasn’t real and we all knew it.

Still, she might have done better if she hadn’t mentioned G4S, which is one of those outsourcing companies that does stuff governments no longer want to do themselves. Its focus is on security—something that’s subtly hinted at by its slogan, “Securing your world.” It’s best known for winning the security contract for the London Olympics and then failing to recruit enough staff. It had to be bailed out at the last minute by the army.

I shouldn’t laugh. I know I shouldn’t.

G4S also runs prisons (and “lost control” of one recently: translation, there was a riot), and they a similar company, Serco, had a contract to do electronic monitoring of convicted offenders. As the Telegraph put it, “anomalies were found in the data G4S handed over” to the government and the company had to pay back £109 million. It was all an oversight, I’m sure, and what’s £109 million between friends, but the Serious Fraud Office launched a criminal investigation. I haven’t heard that charges were filed.

What did those bland anomalies consist of? Among other things, they charged the government for monitoring people who either were back in prison or dead.

The dead are so easy to monitor. You can understand the temptation.

So, no, it’s not one of those companies people love, although I probably feel a bit more strongly about it than most of the people clustered around the back of the armored truck.

I asked Wild Thing what was going on and she told me the driver had locked himself inside, but the back door was now open and he was on stage. Which didn’t stop the tape from playing: “Help. Help. G4S driver requires assistance. Call the police.”

What G4S driver really required right then was a bit of privacy to pull himself back together, not to mention a way to stop the damn tape, but he wasn’t getting either of those things. The crowd lingered. And stared. And didn’t call the police. And he couldn’t close the door for fear of locking himself in again.

We left before the tape stopped. For all I know it played for the rest of the day and the driver’s still recovering.

The streets, however, remain as ancient as they were before he locked himself in.

And now a brief aside: When I was looking up dates for the various bits of the town, I consulted Wikipedia. It’s easy, it’s online, and it’s, um, often reliable.

At the end of the entry for Launceston, I found a list of notable residents: a poet, a New Wave guitarist, a sailor, an “antiquary and…oriental traveller,” and at the end of the list, “Emily Lovell, the biological and spiritual successor to Mao Zedong.”

The what?

The link from her name led to a Wikipedia entry on Maoism, where (surprise, surprise) no mention of ol’ Emily jumped out at me. Just to be thorough, I typed her name into Google, which offered to connect me to assorted Emily Lovells via LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, etc. They struck me as unsuitable hangouts for the biological and spiritual heir to Mao Zedong, so I skipped them.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed her at the end of the Launceston entry.

British understatement

Every so often, I ask what people want to know about Britain or the U.S., and every so often they answer. Zipfslaw wrote, “I’d love to know how to understand British understatement. Like, I’ve heard that ‘at your earliest convenience’ means ‘RIGHT NOW’,’ but I don’t really know how it all works.”

Neither do I, so I went running to my strange friend Dr. Google and found a 2001 Guardian article, which gives a memorable example of what happens when the British and non-British try to communicate.

During the Korean War, a British brigadier informed General Soule, his American superior in the U.N. joint command, “Things are a bit sticky, sir,”

He meant they were in serious trouble. “His men were outnumbered eight to one, stranded on every side by human waves of…attackers…. But Gen. Soule understood this to mean ‘We’re having a bit of rough and tumble but we’re holding the line’. Oh good, the general decided, no need to reinforce or withdraw them, not yet anyway.”

More than 500 British soldiers were captured and 59 were killed or missing. Only 39 escaped.

So, yes, I can see why Zipfslaw’s question is worth asking.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

From the Guardian, I went to a site I never expected to visit, Debrett’s, which calls itself “the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement.”

Yes, and modesty as well. Haven’t they heard about understatement? Well, sure they have and here’s what (as the recognized–note the American Z I’m using, please–authority) they say about it:

“A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’. The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour.”

So that’s the answer aimed at aristocrats and those anyone who wants to behave like aristocrats. J., however, tells me that Northerners and the working class in general are generally more direct than the upper class(es) and people from the Southeast. (I’m not sure where that leaves the Southwest, never mind Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Midlands, since I didn’t think to ask, but let’s keep this simple.) Notherners and the working class may be the only reason anyone on this island ever gets out of a burning building: Everyone looks around for someone bold enough to shout, “Fire!” instead of murmuring, “It may soon become a bit warmer here.”

J. told me about a scenario in which an aristocrat offers a working class person a lift, expecting to be politely turned down. But the working class person thinks it’s a genuine offer and accepts it.

Inevitably, it would be raining. I’d have accepted too. The aristocrat would be put out but too polite to say so, and I’d have no idea I just broke the rules. Subtlety’s wasted on me.

At roughly the same time, a different friend whose name also starts with J. sent an email saying something I’d written wasn’t half bad, then added, “(British upper class understatement from 1930s). In fact its a  jolly decent letter.

“Not sure it is just a public school thing though. Consider the (working class ) phrases “fair to middling” and “mustn’t grumble,” which are responses to “How are you?” when the person is actually unwell. Then there is professional middle class mealy mouth. A girl at my school hit a student teacher over the head with a book. On her term report, the teachers wrote, ‘Amanda must not allow her keeness to learn to overcome her natural good manners.’ “
Now that’s understatement.
This is probably a good place to note that “not bad” (depending on the tone of voice) can mean very good, but “not terrible” means bad, although probably not disastrously so.
As people used to say in the U.S. when I was a kid, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
I only threw that in because I suspect it’ll be as baffling to anyone who doesn’t already understand it as the not bad/not terrible distinction is to the rest of us.
You can see that understatement quickly shades over into indirectness, or even opposite-of-what-you-mean-ness. On Quora, someone wrote that “incidentally” means “the primary purpose of our discussion is.”
I was beginning to think that you’d have to grow up with this to understand it, but then I found Anglophenia, which along with a few other sites ran a translation chart for a range of phrases. As an example, “I’ll bear it in mind” means I’ve already forgotten it.

Before you decide that expanding your head so it encompasses understatement is all it takes to understand people over here, I’ve also heard classic British overstatement. Friends periodically tell me they’re gasping for a cup of tea, although I have yet to hear an actual gasp. Or that they’re perishing for one, although so far none of they have died when no tea materialized. But then I don’t (thank whatever laws of the universe control these things) hang out in Debrett’s kind of circles.

I’d add more examples here but the only Briitish overstatements I’ve been able to think of involve tea. That’s worth pondering.

In the U.S., Minnesotans are known for their understatement. I’m working from memory, which is an invitation to disaster, but Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan had, I think, a segment about a guy using a welding torch near a car’s gas tank. What does the Minnesotan watching him say? “Y’know, a feller might not want to do that.”

So all I can say in answer to Zipfslaw’s question is, Consult your translation chart. It’s incomplete, but that may be a result of classic British understatement.

*

Apologies to anyone who read this a week and a half ago when I accidentally posted a draft. Since then, I’ve moved three commas, put two of them back where they started, removed a stray URL, and added a photo. You can see, it’s a massive improvement.

I’ve also added J. emailed comment, which is a genuine improvement.

Finally, this P.S. gives me an excuse to mention another crucial cultural difference between the U.S. and Britain that the Guardian quote reminded me of: We do the dash differently. American publishing uses what’s called an em dash–a dash the width of the letter M–with no space on either side. British publishing uses an en dash–the width of the letter N–with a space on either side.

People, this matters.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. They take me places I wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise.

How the U.K. and U.S. differ

Let’s address the important cultural differences between the U.S. and Britain. Because here at Notes we’re passionate about what divides and unites our countries. We’re high minded and think deeply, and if that isn’t enough we’re suckers for strange questions. And yes, I’m arrogant enough to speak for you, dear reader, because I’m alone at my computer and by the time I publish this it’ll be too late for you to stop me.

And that’s how democracy works.

Sorry. I’ve been involved in the latest farcical public consultations. They don’t bring out the best in me.

First, then,Barb Taub asked in a comment, “Why are British fridges tall and narrow? Why are washing machines in kitchens? Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?”

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick mine. The mine tunnels themselves went out under the sea.

Irrelevant photo: Cornish engine houses at Bottalick Mine (look down the cliff, where it meets the water). The mine shafts run under the sea.

Conveniently, reader John Evans answered all three questions, and he did it almost immediately, but in case you missed it I’ll quote him:

“>Why are British fridges tall and narrow?

“To fit in tiny kitchens in small British houses.

“>Why are washing machines in kitchens?

“Because few British houses have basements or outhouses (where Americans put their washing machines).

“>Why can’t you have normal power sockets or light switches in a bathroom?

“Because long ago it was recognised that 240 volt electricity supply and wet hands and bodies in bathrooms do not mix well. (240 volts can easily kill a person, especially a wet one.) Shaver sockets in bathrooms use a special isolating transformer, so they’re safe in wet conditions. Normal household mains sockets don’t have isolating transformers, so they’re not safe in wet conditions.”

All I can add to that is that no American would say “outhouse” when talking about the building where a washing machine lives. In Ameri-speak, an outhouse is an outdoor toilet—the kind with a hole in the ground, no running water, and a distinctive odor. An outbuilding, on the other hand, is a building. Outside the house. Which can be used for any purpose other than to house a no-flush, hole-in-the-ground toilet. Language is a funny thing. It all seems to make sense until you step half an inch outside it and realize how completely random the alignment of words and meanings is.

I’ll also add that if you don’t read the comments here at Notes, you’re missing half the fun. Possibly more.

In another comment, Gilly noted that the British use washing up liquid for the kind of job that makes Americans reach for dish soap. I’d add that the British say “I’ll wash up” when they’re going to make dirty dishes clean. Even after ten years in this country, I half expect them to dash to the bathroom and scrub their armpits. Or at least remove three layers of dirt from their hands. If someone asks, “Have you washed up yet?” my first instinct is to tell them it’s none of their damn business. That was what my mother asked before a meal if she suspected my hands hadn’t been in conversation with clean water since that morning. But even she stopped asking as I approached adulthood. And these people aren’t my mother.

An American would say, “Have you done the dishes?” Or possibly, “Have you washed the dishes?”

Gilly also wrote, “May I suggest you explore knockers next? As in door knocker.”

A brief interruption before we get to the salacious bit: No American (or none that I know, anyway) would introduce that suggestion by saying, “May I?” We can’t manage that level (or form–you notice how I’m hedging my bets here?) of politeness. Or indirectness. Our brains would explode. But I’ll shut up about that and let her continue.

“The diversity of UK English always amazes me. ‘Knockers’ can refer to either the door variety or breasts (if you are an ignorant male of a certain age and socioeconomic class).

“And Debenhams [that’s a department store: e.h.], wow, what a sense of humour they have! There was once a department in the Ipswich Debenhams called Knobs & Knockers (yes REALLY!) where they catered for all your door furniture requirements.”

If you’re not British you need (yes, need—how could you live without this?) to know that “knob” is slang for penis. Or a general term of abuse, roughly interchangeable with “dickhead.”

Again, I’m not sure what I can add to Gilly’s comment, except that I’m glad I wasn’t in the firing line when Debenhams noticed they had a problem on their hands.

Stop that giggling in the back row. That’s not what I meant and you know it.

In a comment on a different post, Penny Hunt wrote, “As the older generation would say in Australia: it’s a bottler! Don’t ask me the origin of the expression; maybe you can find out. Perhaps related to ‘a corker’? We take our drinking quite seriously here, so I suspect they both mean something that is worth drinking and therefore pretty special.”

Well, I know Australia’s not in Britain, and if my memory’s still working it’s not in the U.S. either, which sets it outside of my usual focus, but I was intrigued enough to do some digging. Wordnik defines “corker” as the last word on a topic—something that, like a cork, acts as a stopper. From there—and this is a guess—it’s not a big leap to the meaning I grew up with: something good. It’s listed as British usage, but I can testify that it’s also American, although probably antiquated usage by now.

I’ve gone a bit antiquated myself lately.

But that didn’t help with “bottler”, and here the search got strange. The Urban Dictionary says it’s London working class slang for a coward. Try “bottle,” though, and you find out it means nerve, as in, “Do you have the bottle?”

So a bottler doesn’t have the bottle.

In Cockney rhyming slang, “bottle” means arse.

It what? How does that rhyme?

Bottle and glass go together, and glass rhymes with arse, although you may need to say “glarse” to make it work. Or something along those lines. Don’t ask me. I’m American and live in Cornwall. Cockneys are born in London. I’m out of my depth here. but I can tell you, in case you’re American, that “arse” means ass. Which rhymes very nicely with glass.

If you specify Australian slang when you google “bottler,” it means something good, but we already know that. It’s also used in New Zealand, but then if a Kiwi want to insult you they’re likely to say you’re an egg, which brings me back to how strange language can get. That has nothing to do with our important topic, but I couldn’t let a mention of Kiwis and slang go past without mentioning it.

I never did find the origin of the Australian/New Zealand use of “bottler” and stopped looking after I’d overdosed on websites offering me bottled gas and bottled Coke.

*

Apologies

If you got a notice that I’d posted “British Understatement” and then found it didn’t exist, that’s because I meant to schedule it for January 20 but forgot to set the date, so it posted immediately. I’ve taken it down for now but it will be back. Really. In the meantime, welcome to a glimpse of my real life.

Ah, romance: the U.K. letterbox and the U.S. mailbox

Ever since I moved to Cornwall, I’ve been running into people who romanticize the U.S. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen it in movies or on TV. Maybe it’s because they like the music. Maybe it’s for reasons I haven’t even guessed at. I spent most of my life the U.S. That makes it hard for me to see the romance.

During Hollywood’s golden age (when that was that? you should know better than to trust me with numbers, so let’s acknowledge the question and skip right on over it), photographers smeared their lenses with vaseline in order to give actresses a golden glow. Or, if you prefer, a nice blurry look. Let that stand as an example of how to romanticize something. You need distance. You need blur. You need vaseline.

I don’t know how they cleaned their lenses, but that’s a different issue.

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. If you know where to look, there's a castle out there. What's more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Vaguely relevant photo: The view from St. Materiana Church. There’s a castle just out of sight on the right. What’s more romantic than that? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I don’t know how many people in Britain romanticize the U.S., only that some do. Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is as random as it is unscientific, has never tackled the subject because Hawley can’t figure out what question to ask. Every so often I hear something that files itself under Romanticizing America. That’s the best the survey and I can do.

I do know that people have odd impressions of the U.S. The most common one is that we all live in big houses—either McMansions or the kind of apartments you’d see in a Woody Allen film.

Stop laughing, you Americans, because our images of the U.K. are just as out of kilter. In a letter once, I told a well-read friend in northern Minnesota that a nearby town drew a lot of surfers.

“Surfers?”  she wrote back. Her images of England, she said, came out of Dickens. None of Dickens’ characters owned a surfboard. So what were we doing with surfers?

In fairness, she knew how absurd that was, but knowing a thought’s absurd doesn’t stop it from operating.

And for those of you who know enough not to confuse England and Cornwall, I remind you that when you’re an ocean away, it all gets a little–well, vaseline-y.

My latest (and somewhat questionable) example of romanticizing America came to me as follows: Earlier this week, A. and I were stuffing leaflets through the neighbors’ letterboxes. This isn’t a romanticizable activity. Letterboxes are cleverly designed to keep things out, not invite them in. This is good if you own one, because it keeps the wind from banging the flap around and blowing into your living room. It’s bad if you’re trying to stuff paper through, because as you push the paper in the flap resists with all its inanimate might.

The leaflets were about a massive reorganization of the National Health Service that the government’s forcing through. It will cut services, close some hospitals, and generally make a mess out of things. What sort of nutburger would oppose that? I doubt we’ll be able to stop it, but we can at least make it more difficult. And, if the political winds are kind, build a base to reverse the damage in the future. We’ve organized a meeting in the village where people can learn about it (it hasn’t been well publicized) and (since the farce of public consultation is required) voice their opinions.

A couple of houses from mine, a couple I know, J. and P., saw me coming and said hello.

“Can I just hand you this rather than fighting with your”—and here, if I remember right, I stumbled around a bit, my brain running through post slot and mailbox before I landed on what (I think) is the correct term, letterbox, which I find hard to remember because the object in question isn’t, on most houses, a box but a slot in the door.

If you’ve been around Notes for a while and have a better memory than I do—which isn’t hard—you may remember that we went through this once before. I should know the right word by now. I don’t. Or not with any certainty. I mean well, but the word just doesn’t stick.

P. accepted the leaflet while I explained that I’d almost lost a fingertip to a particularly vicious letterbox (and here I pointed in its vague direction in case they wanted to avoid it on their walks), and P. said there was one like it at the top of our street.

J. delivers the village newsletter, and P., who retired very recently, either helps out or is an equal participant. Either way, they know their letterboxes.

Then—and I’m coming to my point any minute here—he said, “You have those boxes in the U.S.” His hands shaped the dome of the archetypal American rural mailbox. Something about either his hands or his voice convinced me that they seemed romantic to him, although I admit I didn’t ask. But it made a kind of sense. If they haven’t been worn down daily contact, even the oddest things can seem romantic. I’ve known Americans who fall in love with the British pillar mailboxes because they’re red and they’re shiny and they’re–well, British. They’re also postboxes and not to be confused with letterboxes. They’re the things you post your mail into, not receive your mail in.

Clear?

You don’t—for reasons I’ll never understand—mail a letter in this country. You post it. Even though you’re handing it over to the Royal Mail, not the Royal Post. Because the word usage is foreign to me, I’m sure I could romanticize it. I don’t, as it happens, and pillar postboxes don’t do anything for me either. But I’m a fool for thatched roofs. And I do kind of like the squarish postboxes when they’re set into stone walls. I mean come on now, that’s romantic.

Either J. or P. suggested that I write about mailboxes. Or postboxes. Or letterboxes. Or, well, whatever they are’s. If I hadn’t just endangered my fingers in one, I’d have shrugged off the idea. But knowing what I do about how vicious the beasts can be on this side of the Atlantic, I’m ready to tell you everything I know.

So here’s what I know about American mailboxes, and it isn’t much: With rare exceptions, those domed things that look like miniature Nissan huts aren’t used in cities. They’re rural. Why? Because. In the cities we have—well, where I’ve lived houses have rectangularish boxes of one sort or another, usually on the outside wall. In Minnesota, it’s too cold to run around cutting holes in the doors, even for the privilege of getting mail. At all costs, you want to keep the cold outside and the heat inside.

If you live in an apartment building, you might have a mailbox on or set into a wall in the entryway or lobby, but then you also might pick your mail up off the floor where the letter carrier dumps it. Or half a dozen other things might happen to it. As far as I can figure out, it’s up to the landlord to set up a system. Or not, in the case of it getting dumped by the door.

Romantic, right?

There’s a joke I’ve seen played with the rural boxes: Someone mounts theirs on a pole with a sign on it saying Mail. Then they mount one 10 or so feet above it. The sign on that one says Air Mail. I’d guess that at least one person plays that joke in every county in the country, but it makes me laugh anyway.

I was told once that it’s illegal to stuff flyers in people’s mailboxes in the U.S. because they all belong to the post office. I have no idea whether that’s true—the post office doesn’t buy them, so I don’t see how they own them, and before we left the U.S. I lifted many a pizza delivery ad out of our mailbox without calling either the police or the post office, but political flyers tended—in an excess of legality—to get stuck in the door, so maybe it is true.

Everything I know about British mailboxes I already wrote above. Two things are worth repeating, though: 1, They can be vicious. 2, they’re very romantic.

Living with history

Living in Cornwall means living with an awareness of history. It’s one of the things I love about the place. I can leave my house and in less than half an hour drive to (and I’m naming just a few spots) a stone circle, the remains of a medieval field system, the vague hints of a medieval hamlet, the ruin of a 16th century castle, and behind the castle a much older set of foundations that may have been a monastery. At least I think the current theory says it was a monastery.  A more romantic theory holds that King Arthur was conceived in an older castle on the same site and that his final battle was fought a few miles away, at Slaughterbridge.

In November, the Royal Clarence Hotel in Exeter (just over an hour from here) caught fire, and the news reports said it was the oldest hotel in England. That led the Guardian to run an article on other hotels that are also the oldest in England. It turns out they all have a reasonable claim, because there’s more than one way to define oldest hotel: oldest building now used as a hotel; building used as a hotel for the longest time; oldest building originally used as an inn but now used as a hotel; oldest small piece of a building now used as a hotel but that’s been added on to and changed over the years. The list could go on, I’m sure. Everyplace wants to be the oldest. Because people here value the history. Which, to be crass, means it sells.

Relevant photo: A castle ruin near Edinburgh. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Relevant photo: A castle in the Firth of Forth (don’t you just love saying that?), near Edinburgh. No, it’s not Cornwall, but it’s about as relevant as the pictures here get. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Visiting heritage sites is a national pastime, and in 2015 over 40 million people did exactly that. That’s almost 75% of the adult population of Britain, although some whacking big chunk of the visitors must have been foreign tourists. But never mind, because an even larger chunk weren’t. That’s based on Hawley’s Small and Unscientific survey of the accents I hear when I visit those places myself.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey is never wrong.

Heritage sites include castles, stately homes, and archeological sites but doesn’t seem to include the old ships, churches, mills, factories, and small bits of steam railroad dotted around the country. The steam railroads are lovingly refurbished and run by volunteers. A lot of Wild Thing’s family worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and she grew up around steam trains, so I’m particularly conscious of them. We once drove halfway across Minneapolis to figure out why we were hearing one. It turned out to be a beautifully restored Canadian train that had been brought in for who knows what reason.

Add the people who go to those sites to the heritage site numbers and you can probably bump up the number of visitors by some impressive amount. By my calculations, 136% of the British population has visited one of the sites in the past year.

No, I can’t be trusted around numbers. The point, though, is that history isn’t just a high-end obsession here. The article where I found the number of visitors notes that the participation gap between rich and poor and between white and everybody else had narrowed in five or so years.

I used to wonder what it would be like to grow up surrounded so visibly by history, then I met a kid who told me in all seriousness that he was descended from King Arthur. I didn’t ask how that worked, being descended from a king who may well be mythical, I just took it as a tribute to the power of story and to the way history affects the imagination.

But history’s a tricky thing, and when it collides with imagination it gets even trickier. A lot of us like to imagine knights and lords and ladies and King Arthur and all those Druids, whoever the Druids were and whatever they actually did. We look at the stone circles that haunt the landscape, and because they’re silent we can imagine them to mean anything we want. Someone once told me that at one of them she felt a powerfully female energy. I don’t doubt that she felt it. I do doubt her feelings had anything to do with the stones, the place, or the history.

Popular imagination holds that the bowl-shaped rocks on the moor were used for blood sacrifices, but a geologist neighbor says they were formed by the wind spending eons blowing pebbles around in the hollows. Which is a lot less evocative but more convincing.

As easy as it is to edit in a romantic tale or three, it’s also easy to edit out the conflict and misery behind the archeological sites. The gorgeous hill forts that dot Cornwall stand witness to warfare and the expectation of attack. The field system I mentioned in the first paragraph was originally a common, which means it was owned collectively by a group of people who had the right to use it in certain traditional ways, which would have been spelled out. It continued as a common until at least the seventeenth century. In 1844, fourteen owners were recorded. By 2000, the field had one owner.

I’m inclined to mourn the loss of common land. The families who had a right to it depended on it for food at a time when food was scarce and hunger wasn’t. The loss of commons is commemorated by a folk poem that says, “The law locks up the man or woman / Who steals the goose off the common / But leaves the greater villain loose / Who steals the common from the goose.”

I don’t know how that one particular field changed from common land to owned land. If it had followed the usual pattern, the change would have come earlier and the marks of the medieval system would have disappeared by now. But in general, the change was marked by desperation and the destruction of a way of life. From what I’ve read, it wasn’t a good way of life (unless you lived somewhere the top of the class pyramid) or an easy one, but for anyone on the wrong end of the change, what came next was worse.

And the great houses so many visitors admire today? The money to build some of them came from stealing the common from the goose. For others, it came from slave plantations overseas. For the rest, it came from other charming arrangements. But the houses are beautiful. We pay our admission and drift through, admiring whatever we’re inclined to admire—the dishes, the architecture, the clothing, the lush life they housed.

In a great house outside Bodmin, the lady’s parlor is laid out with a permanent afternoon tea and, if I remember right, four chairs. I can’t help imagining myself into one of those chairs, drinking tea, eating scones and little lovely whatevers. Set out food and I’ll imagine myself eating it. Then I imagine doing that every day, and the perfect boredom of a life where that’s pretty much all you can count on to break up the day. Then I remember how many underpaid, overbossed servants it took to keep one lady eating little whatevers at 4 p.m. every day, and the poverty and lack of alternatives that drove them to take those jobs, and  how long the work day was, and how little of that beauty they could claim as their own.

Isn’t it just fun hanging around with me? Don’t you just feel uplifted? I’ll see if I can’t be more fun next week.

Christmas carols as folk music

Christmas carols, according to one source I found, weren’t originally Christian. They were solstice songs. Then the country was Christianized and it took the songs along with it, but they didn’t become church songs, they stayed outside, in people’s homes, as well as out of doors and in whatever the period’s equivalent of the pub was. They were seasonal folk songs.

Fast forward more than a few hundred years and Oliver Cromwell came to power, with his humorless version of Protestantism. He didn’t approve of fun, and he tried to stamp the songs out but they went underground and survived.

In the Victorian era they were rediscovered and became respectable (I think) and new carols were added.

End of history lesson. I won’t swear that it’s entirely accurate, but it seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of accuracy. Close enough (as they say of guitar tuning) for folk music.

Semi-relevant photos: They're not holly berries, but they're red. And whatever they are, they're around in the winter.

Semi-relevant photo: They’re not holly berries, but they’re red. And whatever they are, they’re around in the winter. Close enough for one of my posts.

One of the many shocks of moving to Cornwall was discovering that the carols sung here aren’t the songs Wild Thing and I grew up with. Sometimes the tunes are different, sometimes the words, sometimes the whole damn song’s new to us. And when we’d comment on it, as we did at first, repeatedly whoever we were talking to would look unimpressed and say, “Oh, that’s the Boscastle version.” Or “That’s the Marhamchurch version.” Or that’s some other version. As if difference were perfectly normal.

Or dainty little American souls were scandalized. Because Christmas carols? They were supposed to be unchangeable. But here was every town, every village, practically every house, with its own variation.

That does testify to the genuine folkiness of carols. That’s what folk’ll do if you turn your back on them. They’ll change stuff. They’ll create new stuff. They’ll take the stuff you think is fixed forever and make it their own.

I should admire that, and in the abstract I do. But it also pisses me off. I have a dainty little American soul. Those are Christmas carols. They’ve been through the American Commercial Christmas Network that fed my childhood and you’re not allowed to change them.

But change them people have, and they did it long before the American Commercial Christmas Network got its fake-snow-and-glittery little hands one them.

This year, like every year, Christmas carols are everywhere. Not I don’t mean just piped into stores, the way they are in the U.S., although that happens too, and it always starts too early in the year. I just got back from taking the dog to the vet (I’m writing this in early December) and they’re playing them there already. The woman at the reception desk had reached her limit the day before and turned them off, along (accidentally) with the internet. I thought it was worth sacrificing the internet to get some peace and quiet. Sadly, the whole thing was fixed by the time I showed up.

But real people will also be singing them. Every local choir and brass or silver band (and there are as many of each as there are petitions on the government petition site) will have been practicing them and looking for a time and place to inflict them on the public. Cafes and pubs will hold special events featuring carols. Someone’s head will pop out of the sink drain and start caroling.

And none of them will be the songs that I know, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, to be unchangeable. In spite of that, and in spite of how heavily I’ve slanted my language about them, a lot of people will be happy to hear them. Probably most people. After the first one of two, I don’t happen to be among them, that’s all.

A mid-December update on how inconsistent I am about all this: Friends asked me to join them on a version of “Silent Night” at the pub’s singers night. They need an extra alto; I have a low voice. I was pleased to be asked and I said yes. They’re nice people, and good singers.

It’s a beautiful version, even if it’s not the one I know to be, ahem, right. We ran through it a few times the other day and once we started singing, the pleasure of it took over and my quibbles fell away. Except for every so often, when I’d listen to myself and think, These are very strange words for me to be singing.

Which leads me to my yearly explanation of how this Jewish atheist ended up knowing (never mind singing) Christmas carols.

First, if you live in the U.S., you can’t help knowing them. Whatever your beliefs, if you need so much as a tube of toothpaste during December (or late November, or possibly July) and go to a store to buy it, Christmas carols will drip their way into your ears and seep into your brain. No matter how sheltered your life is, you will learn them.

My life hasn’t been sheltered. I come from a family of assimilated Jews. In other words, we were Jewish but not particularly so. We didn’t keep the Jewish holidays or traditions, we weren’t religious, and I grew up celebrating Christmas as what my parents called a national holiday. Our way of celebrating, they’d have sworn, had no religious elements.

Except, of course, for the ones that snuck in. Because, second (you remember that just above we were counting the reasons I know Christmas carols?), we sang carols. They were nice songs. They were part of the holiday. Which was, in spite of all my parents could do, at its core a religious holiday. I might have been about eight when I was with my mother and listening to, or possibly singing, “Silent Night,” with its line about “round yon virgin mother and child.”

I asked what a virgin was.

“It’s a young woman who hasn’t had a baby,” my mother said.

Well, that was resolutely uninformative, although I don’t think she meant it to be. She was as direct with us about sex as she could bring herself to be, but it was the fifties, so she was fighting the weight of the culture. What I had pictured was a mother and child sitting around a fire. So okay, I understood that I had to change my picture. They were sitting around a young woman who hadn’t had a baby.

Why would they do that and how would it keep them warm?

I don’t know how many years it took me to make sense of that line.

In a lot ways, I think, the innocence of children is overvalued.

At a later Christmas, an older cousin brought a girlfriend who was a singer, and the whole extended Jewish (with a few exceptions) atheist (with at that time, I think, no exceptions) family ended up around the piano singing Christmas carols. We had a great time, and it wasn’t until decades later that I realized how funny that scene is.

So I have warm feelings about Christmas carols, but the annual piped-music assault wore a lot of them away. And then I moved from New York, where a lot of people around me didn’t celebrate Christmas, to Minnesota, where for a while it seemed that everyone did, and I missed the sense that celebrating was optional. It began to feel like a requirement, and I developed mixed feelings about the holiday.

It’s also true that I was an adult by then, and the prospect of presents didn’t give me the warm, greedy glow it once had. That could have had something to do with it too.

And now, in Cornwall, where I seem to be one of only three Jews within a forty (okay, fifteen) mile radius? I get spiky at this time of year. And I feel the urge, now and then, to remind some random person that not everyone celebrates Christmas, even if I do, and not everyone sings Christmas carols.

Occasionally I actually do that, and for the most part, the random person says, more or less, yes but it’s just a holiday. They remind me of its pagan roots. They tell me you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate it.

And that’s true, but I’m not just not-a-Christian in terms of belief. I’m not a Christian. You see the difference?

Of course not. I don’t explain it well, at least partly, that’s because I don’t make a big thing out of being Jewish. It’s not a huge part of my life. But I am still Jewish. That’s not a simple thing to be, and I don’t want to let it disappear behind the tinsel and the music.

And with that out of the way, I’ll tell you that by the time you read this we’ll have decorated the tree–in part with ornaments my mother gave us. And we’ll light Hanukkah candles because Wild Thing, the recovering Southern Methodist, loves to.

Like I said, it’s complicated. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, or celebrated if I’m late, I wish you a good one. And if you don’t celebrate anything, I wish you a moment of quiet amid all the aggressive celebrating.

A breaking-my-own-rules reminder

In spite of all my principles, I’ve entered Notes in the UK Blog Awards contest (you’ll find an explanation here), and I’ve been reminded to remind you that the voting closes on December 19, at 10 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time. The company running the contest swears it’s excited about this. Or not just excited, super excited.

Do we believe them? Oh, yes we do. Every inflated word.

But I’m not above wanting to win, so you can vote for Notes in one or both of two categories, and those categories may or may not be appropriate for it. Let’s not lose too much sleep over that. I’ve never fit neatly into pre-existing categories and I’m not likely to start now.

Should you bother? I haven’t a clue. Self-promotion has never been one of my gifts. You may have figured that out by now. On the other hand, I’m not above promoting Notes, both for its own sake and for the illusion it gives me that I’m promoting my books, current and future.

Would winning help promote it or them? I have no idea.

Do I want to ask any more rhetorical questions that I can’t answer? No, I don’t think so. I’ll end here.

British bonding rituals: the weather

We had a string of sunny, frosty mornings in late November and early December—the kind of morning where we all greet each other by saying either how beautiful or how cold it is.

British law mandates that whichever statement you hear, you agree with it. Or if possible, amplify it.

When we first moved here, fools that we were, we’d sometimes play the Minnesota macho card. The front of the card is a scene of snow piled up past a car’s roof and the back is a list of wind-chill factors and absolute temperatures in International Falls, Minnesota, which (ignoring Alaska, where it gets colder) calls itself the icebox of the nation.

Relevant photo: These flower in the winter. That's how cold it gets. I'm pretty sure they're viburnam.

Relevant photo (it does happen sometimes): These flower in the winter. That’s how cold it gets. I’m pretty sure they’re viburnum.

International Falls is right across the Rainy River from Fort Frances, Ontario, and I’ve never been there. I lived in Minneapolis, which is 294.2 miles away. Pay attention to that .2, because it won’t come up again. Most of those miles run north/south, so weatherwise (and in many other ways) living in Minneapolis is not the same as living in International Falls. According to the great googlemaster, they’re a four hour and thirty-eight minute drive apart. If you don’t stop for coffee and pie. Or a hot beef sandwich.

Is anything more American than a hot beef sandwich?

But just because I’ve never been in International Falls, is that any reason not to claim its weather as my own? We shared a state. Mi temperature es su temperature, as people who know almost no Spanish occasionally say apropos of not very damn much, leaving me wondering what I’m supposed to say back, although they’re never talking about temperatures, they’re talking about casas.

When I explain where I used to live (because no one knows where Minnesota is, even when they think it’s rude to admit it), I usually say it’s in the middle of the U.S., right up on the Canadian border, and as I hear myself talk I think what a liar I am, although what I’m saying is both true and not true. Minnesota is on the Canadian border. Unfortunately, that’s not the same as me being on the Canadian border, although when that wind blew down off the Canadian prairies it felt like I was.

From this distance, though, 294 miles doesn’t seem like much. Minneapolis got cold enough to frost my eyelashes if I drove the warm air upwards by covering my nose and mouth with a scarf, which I usually did. (People who object to the niqab, take note, please.) The first time that happened, I had no idea why my lashes were clinging to each other when I blinked, and once I figured it out I was afraid they’d freeze together and I’d never see again.

That story’s an example of what Minnesota macho is not. Minnesota macho insists that in temperatures like those there’s no reason to wear a hat. Or gloves. Or to wear a jacket. Minnesota macho says it’s beautiful out, let’s go walk five miles because weather like this makes us who we are.

Weather like that did make me who I was: I was a failure as a Minnesotan. In January, I was just a small heap of clothes struggling to get back indoors as fast as I could. The only glimpse of human being you saw under all that cloth was my eyes with their frosted lashes.

When we first moved to Cornwall, though, it was hard not to turn ourselves into later-day Paul Bunyans.

“Cold?” we’d say. “In Minnesota, it’s like this in June.”

“Minnesota only has two seasons,” we’d say. “Winter followed by a week of bad sledding.”

“It got so cold,” we’d say, “that on a clear day the moisture would condense out and freeze so the air sparkled.”

That last statement is true. It was beautiful, in a horrifying sort of way.

J.’s still so traumatized by our bluster that she prefaces any complaint about the cold by saying, “I know you two are Minnesotans, but—.”

It’s a wonder she still talks to us.

Eventually we learned: Shut up about Minnesota. People are cold. Hearing that it’s colder in a state they never heard of before they met us won’t make them any warmer. And we were being invited to participate in the essential British bonding ritual, which is complaining about the weather. We should have been thrilled. What could be a more authentically British experience?

On Dec. 3, the Guardian wrote about weather alerts and “severe cold weather.” How bad was it expected to get? Why, below freezing.

So I’m going to play by the rules here and swear it’s been terrible. In fact, it got so cold the other day that I took my gloves out of my pockets. Then I put them on my hands.

All you Minnesotans, stop laughing.