How King John (and others) signed a document

In 2015, the Royal Mint released a two-pound coin commemorating the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. It showed King John on a throne, holding a scroll, presumably the Magna Carta but possibly his wife’s birthday card, in one hand and a quill in the other, making a see-what-I’ve-got gesture. It looks like he’s just used the quill to sign the scroll or is just about to.

On either side of him are men, one looking warlike, the other (for lack of a better suggestion) scribelike. Or at least armorless. They have nothing to do with the discussion, but I thought I’d mention them since the artist thought they were worth including.

Irrelevant photo: Sunset from the cliffs near Tintagel.

The coin kicked off a small storm among the limited group of people who care about these things. King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta with a quill, they said. He didn’t sign it at all. What he did was put his seal to it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Royal Mint said (in not so many words), but the picture wasn’t meant to give a “literal account of what actually occurred.”

So, count that as a success, then, because it’s not a literal account. No geese were harmed in the signing of the Magna Carta. It was signed with John’s Great Seal.

Why add the quill then? Because no modern person slotting the coin into a machine to pay for overpriced hospital parking would recognize a seal, but we all know that a quill’s an era-appropriate version of the pen. Plus the seal would be too small to show in the picture anyway. John’s Great Seal wasn’t all that great, no matter what he said when he chatted up women (or men–I wouldn’t know) in the era-appropriate equivalent of the bar.

Not that the modern person slotting the coin into etc. looks at the picture. She or he is too busy looking at the amount of money that privatized hospital parking costs these days. Still, artists like to think their work gets noticed. Why else do people post things on the internet? We suffer from the delusion that someone will notice. And care.

But back to our point: quill, not seal.

As it turns out, the Great Seal wasn’t even affixed by John’s own dainty hands. He had officials who did that for him and they wouldn’t have done it at the time the Magna Carta was agreed. When John and his barons met, they’d have made a verbal agreement, and and it would have been written down later and authenticated by pressing John’s seal into wax. The sealing wouldn’t have been any sort of occasion. 

The pressing of a seal into wax, in case it isn’t obvious, is the origin of the phrase sealing wax. And just for the record, there’s no such thing as ceiling wax, even though floor wax is real.  

How did anyone get an accurate record of the agreement John and the barons came to? Good question. Probably from a scribe or two making notes, but that’s a guess. In the case of the Magna C., it didn’t matter if they got the details right because neither side meant to abide by it. In other cases, though, I can imagine all sorts of disasters getting written into key documents.

That probably says more about my notes than it does about medieval scribes.

But let’s talk about seals and signing. We have nothing better to do with ourselves and it will keep us from hanging out on the street corner.

The first Great Seal in England comes from the reign of Edward the Confessor, the (sort of) last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, who died in 1066. He’s the guy whose death set off a scramble for the throne that ended in William the Conqueror seizing and holding it. The seal carried Edward’s picture and was intended to show that he stood behind whatever document it was pressed into.

When Billy the Conqueror became king, he had his own seal made, with his own picture on it. And so on, with a few exceptions, down through the line of kings.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word signing was first used–or first recorded, anyway–by John’s son Henry III: “sened wiþ vre seel,” which translates to “signed with our seal.”

Not that you needed a translation–you can’t get much clearer than sened wiþ vre seel–but someone out there might be a bit dense.

By the twelfth century, documents were being not just stamped with wax and a seal but closed with them. If you wanted to read them, you had to either break the seal or be sly enough to lift it and put if back down without damaging it.

As the role of government grew, monarchs adopted a Private Seal (which they capitalized because it was Important) for their own use, leaving the Great Seal in the hands of the government, so it could stamp monarchical authority onto papers without monarchical hands (or quite possibly thoughts) ever being involved. 

If a document’s important enough, it still gets a seal. In the U.K., it get the Great Seal of the Realm, which is not to be confused with a very large creature the British throw fish to. It’s a stamp to press into wax.

That may sound hopelessly quaint and British, but other countries have their own seals, including the U.S. That doesn’t make the process any less quaint, but it’s multiculturally quaint. In the U.S., at least, certain papers have to be notarized–certified by a person who will go through the motions of ensuring that the person signing them is actually that person–and the notary will use a seal, either a rubber stamp or a gizmo that leaves a much more impressive imprint on the paper. Britain also has notaries, but they have a different role and you don’t need to know about it.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to that quote about signing with a seal. It tells us that signing didn’t yet mean scrawling ink across an era-appropriate version of paper. The verb to sign comes from Latin by way of Old French by way of Oh Never Mind, and it meant to mark. Or any one of several related acts, including to mark with a sign. The idea that a signature is a person’s name written by her or his own self came later, in the sixteenth century. Before that, what we’d call a signature was called a sign-manual. In other words, the seal was what you’d expect. A signature would do, but it was a different act–related, but not the expected one.

Signatures were common in the Jewish community as early as the second century C.E. and among Muslims in 622. In Europe, they began to be used in the sixth century but became common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when increased literacy meant that written agreements became more common and developing an intricate, illegible signature became a sign of–well, something. A good education. Style. Couth.

The tradition of an illiterate person signing a document with an X may have come from the ninth and tenth century scribes who validated documents with the sign of the cross.

In the seventeenth century, the Statute of Frauds required contracts to be written, dated, and signed–with signatures. And that pretty well sealed it: Signatures were on their way to becoming primary.

Lord Buckethead and British Politics

Lord Buckethead has been in the news lately.

Who, you might rationally ask, is Lord Buckethead? Let’s do a quick news quiz. He is:

  1. A candidate in U.K. elections.
  2. A character in a science fiction movie.
  3. Both of the above.

Answer # 3 is correct.

The only marginally useful thing I can tell you about the movie that created the Lord B. character is that it’s called Gremloids and that Lord B. is an intergalactic space lord. I’ve seen him described as a cut-price Darth Vader. I trust someone will jump in and save me from my ignorance. In the meantime, let me tell you about the candidate.

Lord Buckethead flashed onto the political scene in 2017, when he ran against Prime Minister Theresa May. In the British system, no one runs or votes directly the prime ministership, so he was running against her for a seat in Parliament. May claimed to be offering strong, stable leadership. He offered “strong, not entirely stable, leadership.”

Irrelevant photo: A rhododendron. The season’s over. Really, I need to get out there and take some new pictures.

He made his appearances in costume. (I could probably argue that she did as well.) You owe it to yourself to go back to the first mention of his name and follow the link so you can see him standing demurely alongside the other candidates, waiting for the vote totals to be announced.

I’ll make this easy: Here’s the link again.

He won 249 votes and the photo of him and his fellow candidates went viral.

At some point, the person under the Lord B. costume, Jon Harvey, got into a wrangle over control of the Lord B. character with Todd Durham, the filmmaker behind Gremloids. It ended up with Harvey surrendering the key to Lord B.’s Twitter account to  Durham.

Then Lord B. went quiet for a while.

Recently, though, he started tweeting again, and appearing at rallies backing a second Brexit referendum. He did some fundraising so he could run in the E.U. elections but dropped his bid when he realized he might take votes from anti-Brexit candidates he actually supported.

This is a new Lord Buckethead, though, not the old one. Since we’re talking about someone with a black buckety thing on his head, the difference isn’t easy to spot. The new Lord B. seems be linked to Durham, because it was Durham who said the money Lord B. crowdfunded for his E.U. election campaign had been returned when he abandoned his run.

Or maybe it is Durham, except that, according to the bios I’ve found, he’s American. Even in costume and under the name Lord Buckethead, he’s not–at least at first glance–eligible to run in European elections. And I’m going to assume that anyone registering to run as Lord Buckethead will be asked a few questions beyond the standard have you filled out this form and where’s your money?

Durham said he welcomed applications from people who want to stand as Lord B. in future British elections. He didn’t say how many, so in our next elections, whenever they turn out to happen, we may find multiple Lord B.’s running for multiple seats. Maybe we’ll end up with a parliament made up entirely of people in Buckethead costumes who all hold their seats under the same name. 

And you thought we had chaos now.

Anyway, it could have been an E.U. citizen inside the costume in this most recent almost-run. It also might not have been. We can’t tell. 

What do British electoral regulations say about people running under names that aren’t their own?

“If you commonly use a different name from your actual name, you can ask for your commonly used name(s) to be used instead of your actual name. “

The name does–at least in theory–have to be a commonly used name that you commonly use.  And it can’t be obscene or offensive. So if you commonly call yourself Lord Buckethead, you’re okay. If you don’t, you’re on shaky ground, although you can fix it all by convincing your mother to call you Lord Buckethead for a week or two.

Can I listen into that conversation? Please?

As far as I know, you don’t have to wear the costume all day or sew yourself Lord Buckethead pajamas.

No one has thought to make a rule governing multiple people running under the same commonly used name that just happens to belong to a fictional being.

Yet.

The earliest Lord Buckethead campaigns were personed by Mike Lee, who ran him (or maybe that should be plain old “who ran”; grammar doesn’t know what to do with this) against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 (131 votes) and against John Major in 1992 (107 votes).

Lord B.’s manifesto (that seems to be the second Lord B., not, I think, the first or the third, although really, your guess is as good as mine) includes the following position on nuclear weapons: “A firm public commitment to build the £100bn renewal of the Trident weapons system, followed by an equally firm private commitment not to build it. They’re secret submarines, no one will ever know. It’s a win win.”

The current Lord B. tweets as @LordBuckethead.

And Jon Harvey–the second Lord B.? He’s pointing out that crowdfunding can allow candidates to be funded and controlled from abroad. The most recent Lord B. campaign, he said, was being run by an American from Beverly Hills.

When the second (I think) Lord B. was interviewed on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the interviewer asked,  “Are you like Dr. Who, do you regenerate for each election?”

“I am Buckethead,” he said. ” We are Buckethead. We are Legion. Does that answer your question?”

Which is an impressively accurate prediction, since he made it before he had any idea how legion he was about to become.

Welcome to the insanity of British politics. Sadly, most of it this much fun. Or this sensible.

*

I owe thanks to someone for suggesting that I write about Lord Buckethead, but I’ve lost track of who it is. When I looked him up at the time, I couldn’t make the story come together. It took the latest uproar for it to cohere into what you just read. By now, though, I’ve lost the note I left myself. Whoever you are, thanks and please let me know who you are. I’ll post a link if you blog.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part fifteenish

How can I tell what the world wants to know about Britain? It sends me questions on search engines. The method is roughly as reliable as reading tea leaves, but it’s what we’ve got. They’re reproduced below in all their oddity.

how do brits interpert tourist

Is “badly” a good enough answer? The British are famous (at least among themselves) for not learning other people’s languages. So interpreting for tourists? Don’t visit the country on the assumption that someone’s going to step in and do this for you–at least not unless you know how to find a community of people who share your language.

Of course, if you don’t read English, you’re not likely to be reading this.

Or is the question about how the British understand tourists? If so, the answer is simple: How is anyone supposed to tell you what an entire country thinks?

This raises the question I keep circling back to when I dredge the search engine pond, which is why so many people assume that a whole–excuse me–fuckin’ culture feels or thinks the same way about anything. And for what it’s worth, the questions are usually about some bit of triviality, like whether the British like soft cookies or how the British feel about tourists.

Excuse me a minute while I go into the corner and yell at the paint. 

Irrelevant photo: A camellia. The entire British nation loves camellias. Everyone who doesn’t left in disgust.

what do londoners think of american tourists

All Londoners? Okay, first we have to define London. It’s made up of 32 boroughs plus the City of London. The City of London is not London. So just to be clear, or possibly to confuse the issue a little more, there’s a difference between the City of London and the city of London. The City (capitalized) is a tiny little place with lots of financiers and a bunch of arcane traditions. If we’re talking about London itself, which an outsider might be silly enough to call call the city of London, we’re not talking about the City of London.

Is that clear?

The question is, do you, O prospective tourist who typed the question into a search engine, plan to visit all 32-plus boroughs? If not, maybe it’s only the single opinion held by all the residents of central London that matters to you. And, of course, they all hold that one opinion.

Or maybe it’s the opinion of the people who live in, work in, or commute to central London.

You see how complicated this gets.

Next we have to make sure they can tell American tourists from other brash English-speaking tourists. My Texas-born (although not usually Texas-accented) partner has been mistaken for Australian. She sounds roughly as Australian as I do, and I have a New York accent, although it’s not the accent some people think is the only New York accent. (Sorry. Life’s complicated.) We’re both regularly asked if we’re Canadian. I’m convinced this is an attempt at politeness. But you see my point. Are we talking about what all Londoners think of people they think are American tourists or of people who genuinely are American tourists.

And then there’s that whole business of what American means. I seem to be stumbling into this issue a lot lately. America involves two continents and that central bit that connects them, part of which isn’t Central but North America. American isn’t just the U.S. of What-do-we-call-this place?

If all that is murky enough, I think you’ll understand why I’m not going to answer the question. No answer is possible.

Conveniently, though, the question was followed by yet another one about the two-finger insult, and I’m grateful for that because I’d like to use it just now.

Nobody has yet asked what Americans think of the two-finger insult, but I’ll tell you anyway: They have no idea what it is.

You’re welcome.

what beer uk has that american doesn’t

Among many others, Doom Bar. Ask for that in a bar in Fridley, Minnesota, and see what happens.

Some of my most popular posts are about beer. Which I haven’t tasted in years. That qualifies me as an international expert on the subject.

why is britain called great britain

Because Big Honkin’ Britain lacks dignity and would lead to me being investigated by the Parliamentary Committee on Un-British Language.

why is called grand britain

Because you have cotton in your ears.

history of the plougman’s lunch

I came, I ordered, I ate, leaving the pickled onion, the chutney, and most of the salad untouched and making myself wonder why I’d ordered it, since what I actually ate was a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich on a very big plate.

If you want a more general history of the ploughman’s lunch, as opposed to a report on the one I got, you’ll find it here.

difference between british and american bueaurocacy

One of them has a second R in it. The other one also has a second R in it. We won’t get into the vowels. They’re best left to the experts.

The people who work for one will say please and thank you and will expect you to do the same. The people who work for the other won’t say thank you and will think you’re up to something if you work in a please. If you’re not sure which is which, leave me a comment and I’ll clarify it.

british manners

This is related to that thing about bureaucrats–or bueaucrats if you prefer.

The people who type this question into search engines have read a nineteenth century novel, or many nineteenth century novels, and think British manners involve knowing which of seventeen forks to use for the fish and not calling anyone by their first name until you’ve known them for as many years as you have forks on the table.

They haven’t noticed that different centuries have different manners, and so do different groups within a society. So, basically, British manners depend on who you’re talking to. What’s universal is that you don’t jump the queue (translation: butt into line) and you do say please and thank you.

A lot.

An absurd lot. In our local store, before it closed, I was thanked when I handed over whatever it was I wanted to buy. I was thanked again when I handed over my money, then thanked again at least once more–possibly when I was given my change or when I walked out the door. By that time I’d generally lost track of what I’d done to trigger it. Every so often, I was told, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you.”

Yes, that’s a direct, undoctored quote.

Why did the store close? It ran out of thank-you’s. You can blame Brexit if you like. They got held up at the border in anticipation of a no-deal crash-out.

At first I worried that I wasn’t managing to say enough you’re-welcome’s in response, but it turns out that no one expects them. I still haven’t figured out what is expected. You’d think after thirteen years I’d have worked that out, but you’d be wrong. I just thank people back. Not quite as many times, but as many as I can manage.

It’s okay. I’m American. People expect me to be rude, or at least strange. I like to think they make allowances and notice that I am trying.

You also say please a lot. The American form of politeness is saying can I? or could I? as in “Could I have  a can of Coke?” Here that sounds rude if a please doesn’t hitch a ride on the request, and it sounds absurd either way, because the question isn’t whether you could or couldn’t have it, it’s about whether you’d like one.

Final bit of politeness? You never, ever butt into a line. Not even if you’re bleeding.

stéréotypes of u.k

That the British don’t do emotions, or possibly even have them.

That they have seventeen forks to a place setting and know what to do with them.

That they have Manners–capital M because they’re so important and so British that no one else will ever get them right.

That everything stops at 4 p.m. for afternoon tea.

That no one uses teabags.

That they all have a single, posh accent. Except for the ones who sound like Dick Van Dyke in the first Mary Poppins.

Please note: I’m not claiming any of those are true. They’re just what I happened to dredge out of the lazy stereotype pool at short notice.

morris dancers

Morris dancers are what prove that whatever you think British manners are, you’re wrong. Why’s that? Because everyone who isn’t a morris dancer makes fun of morris dancing. Even if we don’t want to. The social pressure’s immense.

For further information on morris dancing, I refer you to that well-known non-expert, me.

how to be an aristocrat

You arrange to be born into a family with a title, silly.

You didn’t do that, you say, and you’re trying to correct your mistake? Too late. You blew your chance. Because that’s the thing about aristocracy: It’s a closed group. Sure, people have historically been given titles who didn’t start with them, but don’t think the people who inherited theirs are impressed. They’ve all known each other since before their great grandparents many times over were born and they’re not anxious to expand the gene pool.

Why does anybody think they can (or want to) worm their way into this foolishness? I have no idea, but I get regular variations on the question, all because I wrote a post about an aristocrat behaving badly and put a snarky title on it. I don’t recommend using him as a model.

I don’t recommend using any other aristocrat as a model either. 

is sticky date pudding bad for cats

The last version of this question I got was about whether sticky toffee pudding was bad for cats. I thought it was a glitch–just one strange cat owner who’d gotten loose on the internet–but apparently there’s a new idea loose in the world: feeding sticky puddings to cats and worrying about whether it’s bad for them.

When did the world get so strange, people?

why are mps wearing roses

On May 8, MPs wore white roses during Prime Minister’s Question Time–a slot dedicated to making the prime minister of the moment squirm and suffer. The roses marked World Ovarian Cancer Day. The only thing Parliament can agree on at the moment is that ovarian cancer is bad, but at least no one spoke in its defense.

Several perfectly sensible news articles covered the story, and they’re where I found my information. How did someone asking about it land here?

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.

The Crimean War: Europe sits down at a wobbly table

The problem with  history is that everything depends on everything else. The 1800s depend on the 1600s, which depend on–oh, hell, my math is terrible–whatever came before them, and so on until you fall off the edge of history and find you’ve been dumped in archeology and geology and anything else that might fill in a few blanks.

And it doesn’t just work backwards. It works sideways. British history depends on Irish history, on Kenyan history, on U.S. history, on Maori history, on French history, and on every other history you can think of. But I’ve been writing about British history here as if we could separate it from everyone else’s. We can’t, and at the same time if we don’t it’ll all get so convoluted that we–or at least I–will end up curled in the corner and gibbering to myself.

Still, let’s pick up a bit of European history, since somewhere along the line we lost track of it. Which bit? The Crimean War, where Britain and bits of Europe collided conveniently. It’s improbable enough to be a nice fit here.

Marginally relevant photo: Re-enactors, out for an evening’s practice. Whatever battle they were re-enacting took place well before the Crimean War. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch the guy carrying two genuine Dark Age (I’m guessing at the era) plastic bags. but two bags of whatever for eight people means these folks were better supplied than the soldiers who fought in Crimea.

We’re looking at a moment when Victoria was on the throne. Britain had an empire and was feeling very pleased with itself, thanks. The only problem was that other European countries were out there maneuvering for–well, stuff. Power. Colonies. Raw materials. Markets. Empire, in fact, because running an empire’s a lucrative business. They wanted the same kind of stuff that Britain had, or even the exact same stuff that Britain wanted to keep to itself. Or if possible, get more of.

Europe had already fought a series of wars. One group of countries would fight some other group of countries and a bunch of people would die for, oh, you know, glory and marching tunes and shiny buttons on their uniforms, and then all the countries would get together and sign a treaty and got things settled down into a delicate balance of power for a while.

Until some heavy-elbowed country leaned on the table and all the drinks spilled because one leg was always shorter than the other three, so everyone started fighting again.

The trouble started this time when France and Russia decided they had to defend the rights of Christian minorities in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Which was Muslim.

Russia took the side of the Orthodox believers and France of the Catholic. Then France got bored but Russia didn’t and in 1853, it marched into a bit of Ottoman territory, the Danubian Principalities, and the Empire Struck Back, declaring war.

At this point we’d probably be safe to forget about the Christian minorities in Palestine, because they weren’t the point anymore–if they ever had been–and taking a different bit of Ottoman territory wasn’t going to do them any good. This wasn’t entirely–or even mostly, or possibly at all–about religion or the people who believed in the various religions. Russia looked at the Ottoman Empire, which had been around for a long time and was past its peak, and thought, Yum, I could have part of that. And Britain and France looked at the Ottoman Empire and thought, Oh, shit, if Russia gets part of that, it’ll control the Dardanelles, which is the passage from the Black Sea (and just incidentally the site of Russia’s only warm water port) to the Mediterranean.

Think of the Ottoman Empire as the cork for the bottle where Russia’s fleet was moored.

Russia did have northern ports, but the thing about the north is that it’s cold up there. Russia’s northern ports iced over all winter. That’s a problem for ships, which are designed for water.

So Britain wanted to keep the Ottoman cork on hand to bottle up Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Plus the Ottoman Empire was a good trading partner. It exported raw materials to Britain and imported manufactured goods from Britain, which was just the kind of relationship Britain had gotten rich on. Or one of the kinds, but let’s keep this simple.

In case that wasn’t enough by way of reasons, if Russia expanded in an Ottoman-ward direction, it could hippity hop through Afghanistan–which we all know is hospitable to invaders–and into British India. Which would not be good for Britain.

So when Russia seized Ottoman territory and the Ottomans declared war, Britain and France came in on the Ottoman side. Before long, Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia were all fighting Russia and everyone was cranking up a patriotic frenzy at home.

France and Sardinia had their own reasons. Never mind them. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The allied plan was to seize the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, on the (you knew this word would come up eventually) Crimean Peninsula, and be home in three months–long before the good folks there ran out of frenzy.

You know how that sort of prediction works out.

After a glorious first battle, the attack bogged down and the allies laid siege to Sevastopol. On two sides. Or possibly on one side. It depends where you want to draw the line between one and two, since they weren’t working with a square. The allies were to the south. That meant the Russians could come and go from the north and east.

Why couldn’t the Russians come and go from the west? It’s a good question. I’ve looked at maps of the siege and I’m prepared to testify that west was present throughout and located roughly where it is to this very day. Never mind. We don’t do military detail here. What matters is that this was a leaky siege, and even someone who knows nothing more about military strategy than how to spell it–and I offer myself as an excellent example of the species–could have told the allies they’d built a problem into the plan.

So everything bogged down and eventually the Battle of Balaclava took place, which included the Charge of the Light Brigade–a maneuver so disastrous that it’s celebrated in national memory and was awarded capital letters and a Tennyson poem full of thumping repetition and lead-footed rhymes glorifying if not exactly the charge’s stupidity, at least the soldiers’ suicidal obedience:  

Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.

What happened was that the Light Brigade was given an ambiguous order, did what they may or may not have been meant to do even though it was clearly nuts, and got shot at from both sides of a valley as they charged through it. In twenty minutes, forty percent were killed or wounded.

The Russians declared the battle a victory because they’d killed a lot of people and gained positions that seemed to matter. The British claimed a moral victory because they were so damn brave.

Tennyson also wrote a poem about the Heavy Brigade–the Light Brigade’s big brother. It was a flop and their more successful battle is mostly forgotten. I mention that in part because when I was a kid I thought the Light Brigade carried torches. So everybody could see their way, I guess. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but mine not to reason why. I couldn’t quite put a question together. 

So what, other than the fact that it happened and that I wanted to write about something in the nineteenth century, makes the Crimean War worth spending time on?

First, the telegraph was up and running, making it was the first war to receive on-the-spot coverage, notably from W.H. Russell, writing for the Times. At an early stage of the war, he wrote, “The French, though they had tents, had no cavalry; the Turks had neither cavalry nor food; the British had cavalry, but they had neither tents nor transport, nor ambulances nor litters.”

The Turks, by the way, were the Ottomans. You can call them either one and be reasonably right.  

The allies’ planning was stunningly bad. What they did have in plentiful supply was contaminated water. The causes of cholera weren’t yet known for certain, but the planners created perfect conditions for it. Disease–not just cholera, but a basketful of them plus badly treated or untreated wounds and malnutrition–killed four times as many soldiers as battle wounds did. Or ten times. It depends–as it often does–on who you ask, and probably which army or armies they’re counting. Four may be the more reliable number, since it comes up more often. Either way, though, many more soldiers died of illness than in battle.

Russell’s reports, along with the sketches of William Simpson, dragged the brutal reality–as opposed to the patriotic glory–of the war into the news, which pissed off Prince Albert, who didn’t think the general public should be in on this sort of thing. They also brought down a government. 

This is not unconnected to the second reason the war’s worth our time: The government got desperate enough about the public uproar to send women to the Crimea as nurses. The situation they found was beyond grim. In the hospitals, soldiers lay on bare floors and got no more than one meal a day–which is to say, there would have been times when they got less than one. Some were left to die with no medical attention and no painkillers. Others had their wounds bandaged once and were then put aside and forgotten. Sanitation was nonexistent. So were toilets.  

Into this mess waded the celebrated Florence Nightingale, the nurses under her leadership, and the until recently widely forgotten Mary Seacole, bringing order, compassion, medical treatment, and food–not to mention basic sanitation.

They were anything but welcome. The doctors wanted no part of Nightingale and her nurses. Sent by the government or not, they were women, for the love of Mike. What did women know? This was a place for men by men who were out there being men. And if there’s one thing men don’t need it’s sanitation and being fussed over. 

And Seacole? She wasn’t just a woman, she was a black woman. She’d had to pay her own way to the Crimea, because the British government refused to send her, and once she got there she had to elbow her way into a position where she could do essentially the same work as Nightingale but separately, since the sainted Flo didn’t welcome her help either.

Yeah, life’s an ironic s.o.b.

Their lasting legacy was the professionalization of nursing and the introduction of basic sanitation to hospitals.

And the legacy of the war? In 1855, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol. Eventually everyone negotiated yet another treaty and went home. But the table still had one short leg. The countries of Europe (which included Britain, even then) still had heavy elbows. 

World War I spilled even more drinks. And more blood. And prepared the ground for facism and World War II.

Don’t you just love history? It makes a person feel so optimistic.

Brexit, cats, and smart doorbells

The Brexit uproar has been hard on Britain. We have a prime minister whose idea of negotiation is to say, “I’m so glad we can talk. Let me explain why I’m right.” We have a parliament that doesn’t like her version of Brexit but can’t find a majority for any alternative. We have two main parties that not only don’t agree with each other but also don’t agree with themselves.

On a more positive note, the Green Party’s parliamentary delegation hasn’t split over the issue. It only has one member, but we take our positive notes where we can find them these days.

Irrelevant photo: Bluebells at Lanhydrock in mid-April.

In April, water flooded into the House of Commons, filling–among other things–the light fixtures. Business continued as more or less usual for some ten minutes, then was suspended for the day. All the possible jokes about the flood’s metaphorical meaning have been made, so we’ll skip my versions and move on to another incident that interrupted the endless Brexit debate.

To call attention to the danger of ecological collapse, a dozen protestors from Extinction Rebellion took off most of their clothes and stood with their backsides pressed to the glass that divides the visitors gallery from the floor of the Commons. The Independent reports that two of them were wearing elephant masks and most were wearing knickers or underpants.

Not being British, I was thrown by that. I thought knickers were underpants, so I turned (as I do so often) to Lord Google, who explained that knickers are women’s underpants.

The guidelines for naked and semi-naked protests are complicated and I’m too damn old to understand them in depth. I did all of my protesting fully dressed, thanks. Except for that time when–

Nah. We’ll skip lightly over that. It was unplanned anyway.

Moving briskly along. I gather that if you’re not wearing anything else to speak of, people will notice whatever’s left, so it’s important to wear the right kind of underpants if that’s what’s left after you take everything else off. Once we’ve agreed about that, we can have a long and spiky conversation about what right means and what its social, cultural, and political implications are. It will go on as long as the Brexit debate and come to about as decisive a conclusion. Just to let you know in advance, I’ll defend anyone’s right to wear whatever kind they want and my own right to wear only the kind that are comfortable.

Some of the protestors glued their hands to the glass. 

Ouch.

*

An anti-Brexit group beamed an EU flag with an SOS message to the EU from the white cliffs of Dover. The group is called Led by Donkeys.

*

A recent poll conducted by Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, Inc., reports that people are on the one hand worried about shortages if we have a no-deal Brexit but on the other hand are stockpiling in a completely whimsical way. A friend bought eight cans of tomatoes. Or maybe it was seven. Another friend has cans of tomato soup and baked beans stored in the shed. I’ve checked our cat food and dog food levels.

Let it rain, let it pour. Britain is prepared.

I am in no way claiming that this is representative. Or that it’s not.

*

Earlier this spring, before the EU granted the UK a Brexit reprieve, the British government was looking down the very short barrel of a no-deal Brexit and thought it might be a good idea if 6,000 civil servants did something Brexit-related instead of whatever it was that they normally do. Since the reprieve, they’ve been moved back to their original jobs, but another 4,500 people were hired to prepare for no-deal. I have no idea what’s happened to them.

The Guardian reports that it all cost £1.5 billion, which doesn’t include the cost of preparations various local governments had to make.

In total, some 16,000 civil servants are working on Brexit.

The government has also stocked warehouses with baked beans and pet food, not to mention medicines and toilet paper, which is to say everything we’d need for life to continue normally if the country crashed out of the EU and imports froze solid.

The Brexit reprieve expires on Halloween. All the possible jokes have already been made about that as well.

*

Switzerland’s supreme court did something that caught the attention of Britain’s Remain campaigners: It overturned a referendum on the grounds that when  it was held voters didn’t have enough information. The referendum was about whether married couples should pay the same taxes as unmarried couples who live together .

The court said the “incomplete detail and a lack of transparency . . . violated the freedom of the vote.”

*

But enough about Brexit. A far more scientific survey than the Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, Inc., ever manages to crank out reports that the British are more likely to take drugs before having sex than either Americans, Canadians, Australians, or Europeans.

We’re not going to get too deeply into the American / Canadian thing right now, but briefly: Canada is in the Americas–on the northern continent, if we’re going into detail–but those clever Canadians thought of a name for their country that distinguished it from the countries it shares a set of continents with. The, um, Americans didn’t, so those of us who are from the US are stuck with a name that strews confusion everywhere it goes and pisses off our neighbors every time we try to identify ourselves.  

Sorry for all that, everybody, but if there’s a genuinely workable alternative in English, the people who found it are keeping it secret.

Where were we? Ah. Sex. No wonder I forgot.

In the U.K., 13% of the people surveyed used cocaine in conjunction with sex and 20% used MDMA–a.k.a. ecstasy. The European numbers were 8% and 15%. The American, Canadian, and Australian numbers weren’t mentioned in the articles I found. The most commonly used drugs were alcohol, MDMA, and cannabis, with alcohol being by far the most common.

Among the British, the most likely people to use them were young and had high incomes. If that messes with your stereotypes, hey, I’m only the reporter. If you want to object, go glue your hands to the glass somewhere.

*

Another bit of research compared bullshit rates among teenagers. Who tops the charts? Boys, those from “privileged backgrounds,” and North Americans (translation: from the U.S. and Canada, although Mexico’s also North American).

And if that reinforces every stereotype you ever held, that’s not my fault either. We’re in blame-other-people mode here at Notes this week.

The article I’ve linked to has an April Fool’s Day date, so I thought I’d better dig deeper: The story appeared somewhere else the day before. It’s safe.

I wouldn’t bullshit you. 

The study was limited to English-speaking countries, so we can’t do any far-reaching comparisons.

How’d they catch the little scamsters? They asked how familiar they were with sixteen mathematical concepts “ranging from polygons and vectors to quadratic functions and congruent figures. Hidden among the bona fide terms are three fakes: proper numbers, subjective scaling and declarative functions.”

Those names constitute a truly impressive bit of bullshitting.

The study’s co-author, Nikki Shure, said that “bullshitters express much higher levels of self-confidence in their skills than non-bullshitters, even when they are of equal academic ability. They are also much less likely to say that they give up easily when faced with a difficult problem and claim to have particularly high levels of perseverance when faced with challenging tasks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are also more likely to believe they are popular at school.”

And I’m sure they go out into the world of work and make more money than their classmates. Some of them run for president. Others lead the campaign for a no-deal Brexit.

*

And now we come to the important stuff: A Japanese study claims that cats know their names but can’t necessarily be bothered to respond to them. This has nothing to do with Britain, but the British do love their cats. 

Okay, it’s irrelevant, but I like cats, so let’s talk about it anyway.

Scientists from the University of Tokyo used a habituation-dishabituation paradigm to explore this. I’m sure that rolls off the tongue just as easily in Japanese as it does in English. What it means is that they played five recorded words to the cat and the last one was its name. The first four lulled the cat into–well, boredom: The cat became used to the recording and became less likely to respond to it, but in spite of that it responded more to its name than to the words that came before it, whether the recorded voice was the owner’s or someone else’s. Ears might twitch. Eyes might open a fraction of a percentage of a millimeter.

Would the cat go looking to see if someone was calling it? It would not.

End of experiment. Now it’s time to correct some of their assumptions:

First, there’s no need to ask whether cats know their names. Of course they do. The creatures who don’t know their names are their humans, who call them things like Fluffy and Cutsie-Woo and King Captain Spaceman.

Then the humans–those same people who never thought to ask the cat its real name–wonder why their cats don’t answer.

Because it’s embarrassing, that’s why.

Not that the cats would necessarily answer to their true names. Why bother? Humans can be such pests. What a cat would do is come to the surface enough to ask itself, What’s in this for me? This is a recording, not my person. It won’t offer food. It won’t pet me. Then it would go back to sleep.

Second, what’s all this about owners? Cats have people. They offer food and catnip and adoration. They open doors. They serve as animated hot-water bottles. They pick up dead mice. Owners? What delusions of grandeur humans have.

I hope we’ve straightened that out.

*

Cambridge University just spent £1 million on a bust of Queen Victoria. Or as the BBC put it, Cambridge saved it for the nation, because it was about to leave for parts unknown, impoverishing the country’s cultural heritage.

I’ve written to the Prime Minister suggesting that we stockpile these in case of a no-deal Brexit. She just loves to hear from me.

*

You may have already read that Amazon staff listen in on a percentage of the interchanges humans have with Alexa, that automated spy in your home.

Or not in your home. I don’t listen in, so I don’t know if you’ve opened your door to her or not.

It turns out, though, that other digital magic is accomplished with the help of tiny humans embedded in the technology.

Or maybe I misunderstood that. Maybe they’re ordinary humans listening from a distance.

In 2017, Expensify admitted to using humans to copy some of the receipts its “smart scan technology” was supposed to have smartly scanned. Facebook’s personal assistant, M (I never heard of it either; it escaped from some James Bond movie and went back as soon as it found out what the real world was like), turned out to use a mix or human and programmed responses. And Amazon’s smart doorbells also involved humans.

What’s a smart doorbell? I have no idea. According to a site that evaluates them (and passes you on to sites that sell them, no doubt picking up a small fee somewhere along the way), they have “live video streaming, Wi-Fi-enabled apps, two-way communication, and home automation compatibility.”

So either that means you can stand outside your own house and watch movies on your doorbell or that you can see who just rang it. Or possibly both. Simultaneously. Which is simple because you’re already out there, watching the movie. All you have to do is turn your head.

When I was a kid, we called that a drive-in theater.

My point, though, is that Amazon’s Ring brand smart doorbells allowed its research and development team “virtually unfettered access . . . to every video created by every Ring camera around the world.”

Team members were found face-down at their desks, dead of boredom.

*

Another branch of the human evolutionary family has been found, this one on Luzon Island in the Philippines. They’ve been called Homo luzonensis, they lived 50,000 to 67,000 years ago, and they were about four feet tall (that’s 1.2 meters), with curved fingers and toes that would have allowed them to climb trees. If they’d survived, they might have made less of a mess of things than we have, but that’s highly unscientific speculation.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part fourteenish

What you’re about to confront (should you choose to stick around for a few paragraphs) are search engines questions that lead people, poor unwary souls that they are, to Notes. I have preserved them in all their oddity, complete with typos, a lack of question marks, and an absence of capital letters. And in case I sound snotty about the caps and question marks, I don’t use them when I type search questions either.

The questions are in italics. I’m to blame for everything in roman type, which is (you learned something today) what non-italic fonts are called. Okay, there’s also gothic, a.k.a. blackletter, but that’s a side issue.

News and culture

what is the unfornunate news from britain

That we’re governed by either amateurs or professional incompetents. I’m still trying to figure out which.

I should clarify that. Professional incompetents are different from incompetent professionals. They’re people who make a living–and a good one from the sound of things–out of their incompetence. If that isn’t enough unfortunate news, it’s hard to get a decent bagel. Even more shockingly, where you can get them, they’re spelled beigels, which could account for why good ones are so hard to find.

How unfortunate did you want to get? I could talk about Brexit.

Irrelevant photo: hellebore.

sticking two fingers up

I’ve had a cluster of questions about the two-fingered salute lately.

A two-fingered salute is the rough equivalent of the one-fingered salute, but with an extra finger thrown in for bad luck. And yes, Britain recognizes the single-fingered one as well. The British are nondenominational that way. Or ambidextrous. Or as an American football player once put it, amphibious. (“I’ve always been amphibious,” he told an interviewer who’d asked about his ability to throw with either hand. I don’t remember the player’s name. I used the quote to see if Lord Google would remind me and I found any number of people claiming to be amphibious. Unlike the football player, though, they seemed to understand that amphibioiusness involves water, not hands or footballs. I’m guessing they also understand that it’s physically impossible for humans, but who am I to say what’s in another person’s head?)

But we were talking about sticking two fingers up. To do this, you use the index and middle fingers–the same ones you’d use for a peace or victory sign, but facing the other way. If you’re looking at the back of your hand, you’re okay. If you’re looking at the palm, you more or less told someone to fuck off.

All you non-Brits who are reading this: If you visit, keep your hands in your pockets if you want to order two beers. It’s the only way to keep yourself from holding two fingers up wrong way round, because your muscles will override your brain. Unless you come from a country where you start counting on the thumb, not the index finger, in which case you can wave your hands around any way you want.

And as far as I’ve been able to figure out, no one says, “Sticking up two fingers.” That raises the question of what you’re sticking them up. It’s “sticking two fingers up.” If you don’t think about it too much, it makes sense.

Anyway, having addressed the question in some post of other, I seem to have become an international expert on the of sticking two fingers up. I couldn’t be prouder. Clearly, no other website welcomes intellectual curiosity the way I do. So with however many fingers you have free, pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable. We’re happy to entertain bad manners here at Notes.

Within limits, of course.

What limits?

It’s hard to predict. Push them and you’ll find out.

And who’s this we I’m talking about? Me and the dead mouse Fast Eddie brought in this morning.

This should be clear from the context, but let’s not take anything for granted: Fast Eddie is the cat. My partner’s Ida and she does not bring in dead mice, but she’s very kind about picking up the ones Eddie brings us.

dress code for female parliament in uk

No tutus. No fairy dresses. No shorts. MPs can wear tee shirts but the speaker will disapprove so intensely that he’ll pretend they’re invisible and they won’t get called on if they want to say anything. I haven’t read this anywhere, but I’m pretty sure jeans are frowned on. It’s the only reason I haven’t run for office.

I suspect it would be very bad karma to dress up as the queen.

No nightgowns. No pjs.

But it’s not entirely a list of no’s. MPs are supposed to wear businesslike attire. What does that mean, though? I’d love to see what happens if one of the women shows up in men’s businesslike attire. Or, since what used to be considered strictly men’s clothing has crossed the gender divide somewhat but women’s clothes haven’t, what happens in one of the men shows up in women’s businesslike attire.

By way of answering the question fully, I should point out that the parliament, being a thing instead a creature and is neither female nor male. And doesn’t wear clothes.

who wears stockings in the house of commons

Theresa May. If she’s still there by the time you read this.

why arent more mp’s in the house for debate?

Ooh, good question. Because the debates aren’t about convincing anyone of anything, they’re about a bunch of people who suffer from the illusion that the world’s listening and are therefore making a statement to that world. What they say goes into a print record, called Hansard’s. Does anyone read it there? I have no idea.

Do they sit around and listen to each other? Hell, no. They’re in the bars, in the pubs, getting haircuts, waiting for the bell to ring so they can hustle back and vote.

kett;e throwing contest

Okay, this got weird enough that even though I can’t tell you much about it I have to leave it in. Lord Google couldn’t find me any kettle-throwing contests. Given Britain’s gift for thinking up unlikely contests, this indicates a gap that some enterprising town or village could fill–profitably.

What I did find was a series of references to throwing a kettle over a pub.

Since there’s  no logical order to any of this, I’ll drag you down the trail I followed. First, I stumbled into a site for people learning English. Someone wanted to know what throwing a kettle over a pub means because the phrase popped up in something they’d read. Assorted people explained that it’s a colloquial expression and that it isn’t a colloquial expression; that it’s used in dialogue on various TV shows and that it isn’t; and that it should be taken literally, as in (I assume) you shouldn’t try to read any deep meaning into it.

No one said it shouldn’t be taken literally, so at least they established something

Then I found something called NewsThump, which claimed that MP Nadine Dorries had tweeted that David Davis was the perfect guy to negotiate Brexit because he could throw a kettle over a pub.

I thought that explained a lot about the Brexit negotiations and how the negotiating team was selected. Davis did negotiate the Brexit deal. He then resigned because he couldn’t support it.

He did not throw a kettle over a pub. Or if he did, the House of Commons was empty because the MPs were all off drinking and getting their hair cut, so it went into Hansard’s but no one saw it.

If I kettle flies over a pub in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a political difference?

I’m not sure Theresa May can throw a kettle over a pub. I suspect not. She looks a little thready to me.

Maybe that’s the problem.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably say the NewsThump is a satirical site and that Nadine Dorries probably didn’t really tweet that, although it’s getting harder and harder to tell satire from reality these days. David Davis really did resign because he didn’t like the deal he’d negotiated. Theresa May really does look thready. I doubt I can throw a kettle over a pub either, but I haven’t tried yet, so don’t count me out.

I don’t say that to in any way excuse Theresa May.

I still don’t know whether throwing a kettle over a pub is an off-the-shelf British comparison–sort of like saying something is the size of Wales. It could also be some random collision of words that I’m running into improbably often. If it’s a standard issue comparison, I hope someone will let me know because I need to get one. Or two, really, one for me and one for Ida–you know, the person in my life who so very kindly picks up dead mice. (Oh, but she’s so much more than that.) We’ve lived here fourteen years now and I’m not sure how much longer people will put up with us operating without a full set of off-the-shelf comparisons.

Why did the question land here at Notes? I have no idea but I’m grateful. I learn a lot from these experiences.

do british tourists feel wary about pick pockerters in other countries

No, they’re perfectly comfortable about it all. They just speak louder, in English, to be sure the relationship’s proceeding as it should..

do the british observe april fools day

Do they ever. Beware of newspapers on April 1. The island of San Seriffe? The spaghetti harvest? April Fool’s Day stories.

Luces and maces age 2019

No idea. I googled that myself and the closest I came to anything sensible was a bunch of YouTube stuff uploaded by Lucas and Marcus, whoever they may be and whatever age (or ages) they turned (or will turn) in 2019. The question wandered in here because I wrote about the maces in Parliament. I don’t remember mentioning luces, but in case the information’s useful it’s the plural of lux, which is a unit of illumination. 

I had to look that up, so there’s no chance I used it so casually that I forgot. It’s also the plural of luz, which is light in Spanish and which I also haven’t mentioned.

The internet is a very strange place.

British food

What do they call brownies in britain

Sidney.

do they eat brownies in the uk

Yes, but only in secret. It’s illegal. After you’ve learned to call them by their first name, eating them seems barbaric.

do brits not like soft cookies

Of course they don’t. They cringe at the very thought of them. More to the point, why do people who write these questions think entire nations like and dislike the same things? Have you ever look at Quora? People ask things like, “Do the British like the color blue?” Of course they do. Every blue-besotted one of them. It’s because their skies so seldom turn that color.

weet-bix like muffets

Where do I start? Weet-Bix is sold in Australia and New Zealand. Weetabix is the British equivalent. Neither one is a muffet. Nothing is a muffet. Muffet is not a word.

Miss Muffet is someone in a nursery rhyme. She sat on a tuffet. Please don’t recite the rest of it. I may have to throw myself over a pub. I have a kettle but I use it to make tea and don’t want to wreck it. I’m also pretty sure that the only way to get it over the local pub would be to use air mail.

A muffetee is a scarf. I never heard of it either.

Weetabix and Weet-Bix are also not muffins or muppets. They’re cereals that go limp if they get within three yards of milk. Please do not bring either of them into my kitchen. I will attack them with my kettle.

“british lasagna”

This is in quotation marks because–. Okay, it came with the quotation marks, but British lasagna isn’t really lasagna, so it deserves to be quarantined in quotation marks and never allowed out. It’s made with a paste-like white sauce and tastes like noodles overcooked with paste-like white sauce. The lasagna you find outside of quotation marks has red sauce–the stuff made with tomatoes. And taste. Lots of taste.

And no, I’m not in the least biased. I just happen to know what’s right.

It’s entirely possible that the stuff with the red sauce is American lasagna. If that’s not the way the Italians make it, they’re wrong too.

where does lemon drizzle cake originate from

The island nation of Limonaria, where it drizzles a lot.

when did brussel sprouts arrive in uk

7 pm. They were due in at 5 but the flight was delayed.

how many brussel sprouts are eaten in december world wide

73.

british iconic easter eggs

I don’t know about iconic, but if you want overpriced I write about them every Easter. I can’t seem to stop myself.

The United States

do americans have letterboxes

No. The letter carriers just chuck our mail under the nearest bush. This is hard in built-up areas and in deserts, where bushes are scarce. Sometimes we have to walk long distances looking for our mail. 

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.

A quick history of the Royal Mail

People in England have been able to send each other letters since 1635, but the Royal Mail traces its ancestry back further than that, to 1516, when Henry VIII made Brian Tuke Master of the Posts.

Actually, Tuke wasn’t just made Master of the Posts, he was knighted Master of the Posts, which makes it all sound much more important, as if he got to trot around on a white horse, wearing armor.

What Tuke really got to do was set up a network that carried mail for the king and the court and not for nobody else, thanks. What did anybody else matter? If Joe Commoner wanted to tell his granny that he wished she was wherever he was, he’d have to wait more than a hundred years, by which time the message would have been pretty much irrelevant. On top of which, postcards still wouldn’t have been invented. The first one was made in 1861, in Philadelphia, which also hadn’t been invented.

But back to the Royal Mail. In case the restless marrying habits of this particular Henry haven’t engraved him in your memory, he was the son of Henry VII, who became king by defeating not just Richard III (that’s the king Shakespeare didn’t like) but also Richard’s horse and Richard’s horse’s shoe at Bosworth Field, thereby condemning Richard to be buried in a parking lot and putting his–that’s Henry’s–son in a position to send letters around the country in an organized way.

To the victor’s son go the letters. And from the victor’s son come the letters.

Irrelevant and beautiful light painting, “Light Dance,” by Nassima. Used with the artist’s permission and my thanks. You’ll find more of her work by following the link.

That bit of background was as irrelevant as the light painting, but I thought I’d toss it in anyway. And if the references are too culture-bound for outsiders to follow, they’ll stop now, so you can read on safely.

When James VI, the king of Scotland, became James I of England as well, one of his concerns was to keep control of Scotland once he’d moved himself and his court to London. Scotland was a long way from London. There was no telling what his nobles would get up to while he was gone. So one of the first things he did was to set up a royal postal route between London and Edinburgh.

The postal service was opened to the public in 1635 by Charles I, who gets bad press on for a lot of reasons (high handedness, suspicions that he was, gasp, Catholic, conflicts with parliament, a political tin ear, a goatee) so we might as well drop this feather on the positive side of the scales. You’ll probably have figured this out, but he accomplished it well before he was executed.

The deal was that you could mail a letter for free but there was–as there always is–a catch: The person you sent it to had to pay for it. If they didn’t pay, they didn’t get the letter. The cost depended on how far the letter had traveled, so an account had to be kept for each letter.

But junk mail hadn’t been invented and getting a letter was an event, so if someone wrote to you, it meant something. If you had the cash, you’d think twice or thrice, or even fource (no, it’s not a word–after thrice the English language hurls itself on the floor and goes into spasms of regret) before you turned one away.

The letters were carried on horseback and on foot, and the service had six routes, with posts along the way where the person carrying the letters would leave anything for the area and pick up anything that was headed their way. Exactly what happened to the letters once they were left at the posts I haven’t been able to find out. It’s one thing to keep enough footpower to deliver the king and court’s letters anywhere in the kingdom. It’s a whole ‘nother gig to assemble the footpower to make the entire kingdom’s letters deliverable. Even at a time when most people couldn’t write and damn few could afford to pay for a letter that found its way to their door.

The information’s probably out there somewhere but I haven’t figured out the question that will lead me to it. If anyone wants to give me a shove in the right direction, I’d be grateful–for whatever use that is.

Thomas Witherings ran the service at this point and he was charged with making sure a letter could reach Edinburgh and come back to London in six days. He was to build six “Great Roads.”

During the Civil War, Parliament took the service away from him and gave it to Edmund Prideaux, whose politics were a better fit for the time. In other words, Ed wasn’t a royalist. What he was was the second son of a baronet.

What’s a baronet? The lowest rank of British hereditary nobility. They’re (oh, the shame of it) commoners but can use the title sir.

Remember that. I’m sure you’ll find it useful as you wander through life. 

You’d think overthrowing a king would involve dumping the entire tradition of hereditary nobility, but you’d be wrong.

Edmund expanded the service, increased its efficiency, and faced down an assortment of competing carriers that left him stamping his metaphorical feet and complaining to parliament.

In 1653, the contract went to someone else, but Ed had made a tidy piece of change by then and Cromwell made him a baronet, just like his daddy and big brother, for “his voluntary offer for the mainteyning of thirty foot-souldiers in his highnes army in Ireland.” 

You might want to notice that by then Cromwell called himself “his highnes” there. And that he didn’t use apostrophes. Or that whoever wrote that for him did and didn’t.

In 1655, the postal service was put under the direct control of the secretary of state, who was Cromwell’s spymaster, John Thurloe, and he was sweet and helpful enough to deliver letters between conspirators, having made sure to read them first. Before that, the tradition was to keep conspirators from communicating at all–or at least that was the aspiration.

Then in 1660, when Charles II was on the throne, the General Post Office was set up. It was publicly owned. A year later, the post mark was established, showing the place and date a letter was mailed and–okay, it all gets a bit boring after that. In 1771, the service covered England, Scotland, and Wales. It took another century before Ireland was added.

No comment needed.

We’ll skip the years here to keep from drowning in trivia. Coaches were used. The name Royal Mail was used. Uniforms were introduced, and railroads and steam ships. Mail reached throughout the empire and the commonwealth for the first time.

It was 1839 before the sender paid for the letter instead of the recipient. Standard rates were introduced, and in 1840 so was the first adhesive stamp, the penny black. Britain was the first country to introduce a stamp that would stick to paper and is still the only country that doesn’t bother to put its name on its stamps.

The guy who invented the adhesive stamp was knighted. He got to trot around on a white horse and wear armor but was far too understated to do either. As far as I know.

With the penny post, the number of people using the system grew massively.

More trivia: Pillar boxes were introduced (they’re round, freestanding, iconic mailboxes used throughout Britain), but the first ones were green, not red. Wall boxes came later. Those are post boxes but they’re set into walls. Both types have the initials of whoever was on the throne when they were set in place, and people collect them.

What does it mean to collect a box when you can’t pick up and walk away with it? It means you go see it. Maybe you take a picture of it. You know where it is. You feel a personal connection with it–maybe even friendship and communion. Where I come from (the U.S.), one mailbox is just like another mailbox, but people can be very possessive about the British ones. A post box was taken out of our village (long story) and people actually know where it went (to Wales, where it’s in storage). They’re not interchangeable Lego pieces. They’re individual. They have personalities. I don’t know whose initials are on it, but I’ll bet you someone in the village does.

After that, you have to be more and more of a postal geek to care about the milestones. Parcel deliveries were added. Postcodes were introduced. That was gradual and started in 1959. They allow for machine sorting. It’s not until 1968 that first and second class service was introduced. The theory is that second class mail can be thrown under the counter in a crisis while first class is waved through, but I’m told there isn’t much difference in how long it takes them to arrive.

Then in 2011, the whole mess was ninety percent privatized.

*

What was it like to send a message during the Middle Ages–and I’d assume for a while afterward, before the Royal Mail was opened to all users? According to the Short History website, “During the Middle Ages, towns, universities, monasteries and trading companies all had their own messengers, some of whom were protected by royal decree. The Papacy had its own courier system, in order to keep in touch with its clergy and churches across Europe. Bishops were required to send regular messages through to Rome, and in return, received papal messengers from Rome. Only the wealthiest individuals and organizations could afford private courier systems, because of the need for horses, accommodation and travel expenses. This meant that messengers often worked on a ‘freelance’ basis, taking messages from several different sources and competing with other messengers to be the first to deliver important news.

“During particularly sensitive times, such as war, messages were often sent in coded form, or hidden about the person of a messenger who would adopt an innocent disguise, such as that of a pilgrim. Information could be hidden in clothing, a walking staff or even a person’s shoes. Envoys were often required to carry valuable gifts to present to the recipient of their message, and such items again had to be hidden during the journey. Gifts had to be selected carefully, to make sure that they were suitable for the recipient’s rank and status and the messenger would also be presented with gifts to take home on his return journey.”

I don’t know how authoritative that is. It sounds convincing, but I’ll leave it to you to judge.

Medieval messages would often not be written down–most people were illiterate–but messages that were written would have been sealed, and many would have been sent with a passing merchant or pilgrim. The most important ones, from people with money (who are always more important than people without money, she said cynically), would have been sent with a messenger.

No one had addresses, and people didn’t necessarily stay where they were expected to. Monarchs especially traveled. They had multiple palaces. They went on progress, forcing their nobles to feed and water (or more accurately, alcohol) the entire damn court. They went off to fight battles. Messengers had to scurry around looking for them.

Pigeons were also used, but this only worked if the message was going to what the pigeons considered home. You couldn’t whisper a name in a pigeon’s ear and expect it to search the person out.