Brexit, with warring headlines

Wednesday brings us clashing online stories. In one, the European Union had made a concession to Boris Johnson, agreeing to give the Northern Irish parliament veto power every four years on the Irish border backstop arrangement–but only if both the Catholic and Protestant communities agree to it. 

In another, talks between the EU and the UK had come to a halt. 

Other stories quote government sources as saying a deal is now impossible. 

All of that may be true, contradictory as it sounds. The problem with the Irish border arrangement is that Protestant politicians would predictably vote to end an arrangement that keeps Northern Irish customs aligned with the EU. It wants to align itself with Britain. And Catholic politicians would equally predictably vote to keep it, aligning etc. with Ireland and the EU. You can’t please both sides in this. So the EU may have made an offer and it may not work. If there’s a way to please both sides in this, no one’s found it yet.

Parliament will have a special sitting on Saturday October 19 to decide what happens next, and the prime minister and the Rebel Alliance (yes, they’re really called that, although they only align on opposing a no-deal Brexit–after that it begins to crumble) will wrestle for control of the agenda.  

In another story, Johnson and his advisors are “reportedly” ready to tell the queen that she can’t fire him, even if he loses a no-confidence vote in parliament, “a plan,” the paper says “ridiculed by lawyers and historians.” 

There are new rumors of cabinet resignations in the face of a no-deal Brexit, and also over the power of Johnson’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, but as of twenty seconds ago no actual resignations. 

On Monday the political editor of the Spectator went public with a 700-word text message from a “contact in Number 10,” a.k.a. the prime minister’s office. That’s presumably Dominic Cummings, who–the papers point out–doesn’t seem to understand how the EU works. He–let’s assume it’s Cummings; it lets us choose a pronoun, and pronouns may be in short supply if we crash out of the EU, so I don’t want to waste them–. 

Where were we? He–we got that far–threatens that any EU country that votes for an extension will go to the “back of the queue” both “within and outside EU competences.” Whatever that means. 

As threats go, this is riddled with problems. An extension has to be approved unanimously by the EU member states, otherwise there’s no extension. That means there will be no isolated member states to pick off. The UK would have to take on the entire EU. That’s is sort of like me wrestling the Incredible Hulk. Which I’d do, mind you. I’m a younger sister. I learned how to lose a fight with style. 

Next problem: that business of queues. Not all countries go meekly to the back of the queue when you tell them to. A queue is a line, for those of you who aren’t British. They’re deep at the heart of British culture. In fact, I lean toward thinking they’re the national religion. But not all countries believe in them. Some sharpen their elbows and push themselves up where they want to be. And since in addition to being a younger sister, I’m a native-born New Yorker, I say that without any disapproval. That’s just how it is, boychick–or whoever wrote the memo. Some of us know how to push and you don’t get to make the rules.

The memo also had a blanked-out threat having to do with security and defence. But those go through NATO, not the EU. And if a threat’s real, Britain might want the aid of larger neighbors. There may still be such a thing as the national interest.

The memo suggests that, contrary to half of what the government’s been saying, it will have to ask the EU for an extension beyond the end of the month. 

Why only half of what it says? In court, where it was hauled by a Scottish lawsuit (on hold until the political process plays out) and will now be hauled by a parallel English one (not yet heard), the government says it has every intention of complying with the law that says it has to ask for an extension. But outside of court, it still says Britain will be leaving on the 31st. 

Who should be believe? I’m reminded of a story about a man whose wife found him in bed with another woman. 

“Who’re you gonna believe,” he bellowed accusingly at her, “me or your own lyin’ eyes?”

I don’t know who to believe. My own lyin’ eyes are starting to spin in my head.

EU officials are increasingly convinced the Johnson’s proposal was written so that the EU would reject it and he could point the finger at them and say it’s all their fault that we couldn’t get a deal. 

Finally, the memo says Britain will be a disruptive EU member, but the first chance it will have to stick a spoke into the EU wheels will be in June, when it can veto the budget if it wants. Between now and then lies, almost inevitably, an election in Britain. I’m not making any predictions of how that’ll go in. But it doesn’t strike me as wise for anyone to be sure they’ll be in power then.

Anyone. 

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And just so Americans don’t feel left out of something to laugh and cry over, Trump, in announcing that he’s pulling troops out of northern Syria, leaving the Kurds to the gentle touch of the Turkish army, tweeted, “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”

If I’d made that up, I’d delete it as being too ridiculous to go into print. Don’t reduce people to cartoon characters, I’d tell myself. Leave them some depth. Have a bit of subtlety.

That’s where reality will outdo me every time.

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I’ve had to post this in a hurry. Hope it hangs together. If not, my apologies.

The Brexit update, with shampoo

We’ll get to the shampoo, but first let’s wade through enough bullshit to get our hair nicely dirty. To wit:

The British government told a Scottish court that it would ask the European Union for a Brexit delay if it can’t reach deal by October 19. 

Why is that bullshit and why do they feel the need to talk to a court it? Because a group of Remain activists filed a lawsuit to require the government to follow the Benn Act, which says the government has to ask for the extension. The Remainers didn’t go to court because the winter nights are long in Scotland. It’s still fall–or Autumn, as they like to say in Britain–and even that far north they have enough daylight left to keep them from going to court for the sake of entertainment. No, they went because Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than stay in the EU after October 31. And he’s still saying more or less the same thing. (#deadinaditch is trending on Twitter in case you really are bored.)

How can he ask for an extension and still leave on October 31? 

Well, a government statement says, “The government will comply with the Benn Act, which only imposes a very specific narrow duty concerning Parliament’s letter requesting a delay–drafted by an unknown subset of MPs and pro-EU campaigners–and which can be interpreted in different ways.

“But the government is not prevented by the Act from doing other things that cause no delay, including other communications, private and public.

“People will have to wait to see how this is reconciled. The government is making its true position on delay known privately in Europe and this will become public soon.”

What does that means? The government seems to think it has a get-out-of-jail-free card up its sleeve. Or a get-out-of-extension card–one that will let them follow the letter of the Benn Act but avoid the substance of it.

To underline that interpretation, a Brexiteer MP, Steve Baker, said “All this means is that government will obey the law. It does not mean we will extend. It does not mean we will stay in the EU beyond 31 October. We will leave.”

On Twitter, someone who may or may not know anything is speculating that they’re counting on Hungary to veto an extension. Does that make any sense. Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t usually look to Twitter for political punditry, but I was looking at the general wise-acreness at #deadinaditch.

In the meantime, the court’s being asked if Johnson can be jailed if he doesn’t comply with the law. 

Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

Just before all that kicked off, Johnson sent a proposed withdrawal deal to the European Union. We’re going to skip the details of how it was supposed to work, because the EU said it was unworkable, making the details pretty much irrelevant. In diplomatic language, they were “unconvinced” by it. In less diplomatic language, it wasn’t “even remotely workable.”

Every Brexit plan that’s drawn breath seems to have been cursed, which might tell us something about the practicality of leaving the EU. Theresa May–Johnson’s ill-fated predecessor–negotiated an agreement that the EU accepted but that couldn’t find a majority in the House of Commons. The odds of Johnson getting EU agreement to this one are roughly equal to my chances of winning the London marathon, but if he did, it just might get a majority in parliament. 

Emphasis on might

But without EU agreement, there’s no deal to bring to the Commons, so it doesn’t matter which way MPs would vote.

The main focus of any proposal these days is how to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not because that’s the only issue that matters but because it might make the difference between a majority in the Commons and no majority. Everything else, important as it is, is being ignored.

Having said that, the border does matter. Opening it was a key part of ending the Troubles–the violence in Northern Ireland that ended with the Good Friday Agreement. The last watchpost on the Irish border was dismantled in 2006. The border’s been invisible since then, and the two economies have grown into each other and separating them–if it happens–will be painful. 

But an open border depends on the countries on both sides trading under the same regulations, otherwise you get stuff that meets lower standards slipping into the area where higher standards are in force. In other words, you get smuggling. Or your higher standards become meaningless. Or both. To date, no one’s figured out a politically viable way to get around that.

The director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the Johnson plan was unworkable and unpalatable and that Johnson hadn’t listened to businesses. And Northern Ireland’s chief constable has said his force wouldn’t staff any form of border security. 

Where the plan has gained support is from the Democartic Unionist Party–the DUP, a small party that first May and now Johnson have courted because they’ve needed their votes.

The plan would have the Northern Ireland Assembly (generally called Stormont, since that’s where it meets) voting on whether to renew the border arrangement every four years. The first problem here is that Stormont hasn’t met since 2017. Like everything else involved in Brexit, that’s a complicated and interesting story, and we’re not going into it. Follow the link if you want to know more.

The next problem is that the Irish government and Sinn Fein have said the proposal would give the DUP veto power over whether to renew the agreement. To make sense of that, you need to know the structure of the Stormont assembly. In a country deeply split between Protestants and Catholics, it seemed to make sense to set up a mechanism that allowed a relatively small number of delegates to say that a bill is sensitive enough to need a two-thirds majority if it’s to pass. In a perfect world, this would keep either side from bulldozing the other.

You probably haven’t noticed this, but this is not a perfect world. For Johnson’s plan, it means that either of the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, could block a renewal or the border arrangement. Since Sinn Fein wouldn’t (it would mean aligning Northern Ireland more heavily with Britain and breaking its integration with Ireland), that leaves the DUP alone with veto power. 

The DUP has used the two-thirds rule to block same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. I don’t know what Sinn Fein has used it for. 

The DUP and Sinn Fein have the same number of delegates in the assembly. They’re ringed by eight smaller parties that float around them like the dust of broken moons. Nobody has a two-thirds majority.

Or–well, move that into the past tense, since the assembly’s stopped meeting.

The EU has called on the British government to publish the complete text of its plan, because the Irish prime minister says Johnson has misled parliament over the impact it would have. So far, the government has published a no more than a summary. 

The EU gave Britain a week to come up with new solutions to the problems it says are inherent in the current plan. 

And now, at last, the shampoo: Johnson had planned a quick tour of Europe to hold meetings with assorted Important People, but everyone who matters told him they’ll be washing their hair and won’t have time to meet with him. So there are scheduling problems. 

Is anything else happening? Well, yes. It’s gotten lost in the mayhem, but it looks like Johnson will try–again–to suspend parliament on Tuesday. To prepare for the queen’s speech. Which is what he said last time. It’ll be interesting to see if Madge (as our neighbor likes to call her majesty) is as agreeable as she was last time he asked. If he doesn’t get her agreement, he can’t suspend parliament. Since she asked for advice about sacking a prime minister the last time he asked her for a suspension, a person could reasonably get the impression that she’s not happy with the current one.

Madge, here’s how it works: You take him to the returns desk and explain that he doesn’t fit. Or he shrank in the wash. Or the color turns out not to match the rug. They’ll ask if you’d like to exchange him or if you want your money back. They’ll be nice about it. You’re the queen. They don’t usually see queens at the returns desk. Of course they’ll be nice.

If, on the other hand, you ordered him online, you’ll need the box he came in. If he doesn’t fit, just bundle it around him as best you can.

Anything else happening? Of course. It never ends. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru–not a small fringe group but the party that came second the most recent election–just held its conference and is calling for a referendum on independence, holding out the prospect of joining the EU. Its leader, Adam Price, said, “The UK as we know it could cease to exist in a short few years.” 

He has also called on the UK to pay reparations for–I’m paraphrasing or I’ll be up all night typing–looting Welsh resources.

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt, the coordinator of the EU parliament’s Brexit steering group, somehow got his mitts on a leaked script given to a Conservative MP by his or her party. The Guardian wrote that it “instructed them to attack the EU as ‘crazy’ if it rejected [Johnson’s] proposals.” 

He went public with it. 

Who could resist?

And finally, Johnson’s announced that he’s scrapping Theresa May’s commitment to keep EU rules on the environment, working rights, and safety standards. It’ll make it easier to negotiate a deal with the US.

That’s all we’ve got as of Friday night. I’m going to bed before anything else can happen. If I’m asleep, it didn’t happen.

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Update: Saturday morning’s paper (that’s Oct. 5) reports that Johnson says there’ll be no delay to Brexit. Government lawyers say he’ll follow the law and ask for an extension. Online stories say the law “only imposes narrow [duties]…which can be interpreted in different ways.” He may be negotiating with Hungary to get it to veto an extension.

What happens next? Good question.

The Cerne Abbas Giant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Cromwell purged Parliament and Holles fled back to France. 

Like I said, an interesting time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks.

The Brexit update, with queens and cash and prime ministerial groping

Okay, the title included a bit of clickbait. We’ve only got one queen involved. And the cash? It was a grant, not folding money. Sorry. I’ve gone sleazy and commercial.

Before Britain’s supreme court ruled that it was illegal for the prime minister to shut down of parliament, the lone queen in question asked for advice on whether and in what circumstances she could fire a prime minister. That may not sound like much, but this is Britain. The queen’s supposed to be above politics. She gets to to wave vaguely at the masses as she wafts from ceremonial occasion to ceremonial occasion. She allows prime ministers to fawn on her and then does what they tell her to.

Sorry–advise her to do.

But.

According to the i, “It is a quirk of the British constitution that the Queen retains a number of personal discretionary powers which include the right to appoint the prime minister and other ministers. A House of Commons select committee established in 2003 that these powers also include a right for the sovereign in a ‘grave constitutional crisis’ to act contrary to, or even without, ministerial advice.”

Tuck that possibility away at the back of your head and wait to see where it leads us.

And now a brief interruption while I offer a bit of unsolicited advice: If you’re starting a newspaper, don’t name it the i. You’ll end up with reporters writing phrases like “i understands” and “i has now been told.”

You has been warned.

What else is happening? Parliament’s back in session and members of parliament are being threatened with murder and rape. The MPs who get the most threats are women, especially if they’re black or from some other minority group, and especially if they speak out much, although black and other minority group men get them too. In 2016, an MP, Jo Cox, was both shot and stabbed by a man who considered her a traitor to white people, and her death hangs over parliament–or at least over the MPs who are being threatened. I can imagine that some who aren’t targets think the ones who’re complaining are just being emotional.

You know what women are like.

One MP said the threats she receives echo Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit rhetoric about surrender and betrayal. When challenged about ramping up tension, Johnson said the best way to honor Jo Cox was to get Brexit done. 

Cox was a remainer, making it a Trumpian moment. It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say it with confidence.

In the meantime, Johnson has been telling the world at large on the one hand that he’ll obey the law and on the other that the country will leave the EU by the end of the month. Since the law he’d been asked about says he has to ask for a Brexit extension by October 19 if he doesn’t have a deal with the European Union, and since getting a deal’s about as likely as him standing up to sing Faustus (and singing it well, mind you) in the House of Commons, you might wonder how he thinks he can manage both. 

The answer, according to some observers, is likely to be the Civil Contingencies Act, which New Labour passed in 2004. It gives the prime minister special powers in a national emergency. 

What’s a national emergency? Well, children, it’s a situation that threatens “serious damage to human welfare” or the environment in the UK. That includes war or terrorism that threatens “serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.” The threats could include disruption to transportation or to the supply of food, money, energy, or health services.

Are any of those threats on the horizon? There are suggestions that Brexit could cause some of them, but pre-Brexit I don’t see them happening. Still, a feller can always hope, and I expect Johnson is hoping.

What kind of powers are we talking about? Power to create emergency regulations that “may make any provision which the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate for the purpose of preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency in respect of which the regulations are made.” 

The act has more detail and some restrictions, but we’re civilians here. That’s close enough. Or if it isn’t, you can follow the link and read more.

The wording strikes me as broad and the limitations badly defined–especially that business about what the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate. If I happen to be prime minister (I’ll sing Faustus if I ever am, although I don’t promise to sing it well) and if I’m out of touch with everyday reality (which I’ll prove by singing etc.), what I’m satisfied is appropriate isn’t going to be much of a guide to responsible action. 

What I’m satisfied about also can’t be demonstrated. Haul me into court for dropping bombs on rival parties’ conferences and I can shrug my shoulders and say I was satisfied it was appropriate. No one else was inside my head, so who can prove otherwise?

MP Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative and a former attorney general, said it would be a “constitutional outrage” to use the act in the current situation.  But assorted cabinet ministers have warned, with a gleam of hope in their eyes, that Britain can expect civil disorder along the lines of the French gilets jaunes protests if the country doesn’t deliver Brexit by the end of October. 

Opposition figures have accused them of trying to whip up exactly what they’re warning against. 

While all that’s been going on, Parliament refused to take a break for the Conservative Party conference. That sounds spiteful, and it is, but as the Scottish National Party pointed out, parliament’s never taken a break for their convention, only for the ones held by the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. So okay, fair enough. If you piss off enough MPs, they’re going to take their revenge any way they can.

That didn’t stop the Conservatives from holding a conference, it just left the major players shuttling awkwardly between the conference and parliament.

Outside the crumbling halls of parliament (and that’s not a metaphor; the building’s falling apart), a scandal from Johnson’s days as mayor of London has crawled out of the archives. An American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, received thousands of pounds from a government agency that Johnson controlled, and he made sure she went on trade missions with him that other participants say she was clueless about. In giving Arcuri’s company a grant, the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport waived a rule that no grant could be for more than half of the company’s revenue. 

It’s also supposed to give grants only to companies based in the U.K., but although her company has a U.K. address it has a California telephone number, calling into question where it’s based. Reporters showing up at the address were told it had only just moved there.

Arcuri told friends (who apparently told the press, as friends will, but only if they’re true friends) that she and Johnson were having an affair. 

Johnson could have declared an interest when the grant was considered, taken himself out of the voting, and come out of this squeaky clean, but he didn’t. And so he isn’t and the whole thing’s been referred to the police.

Arcuri lent her company £700,000 just before it won a £100,000 government grant and it’s not clear where the money came from. The company had almost no income and her other companies are either in the red or have been dissolved. And she’s being sued in the U.S. for an unpaid student loan. 

Johnson’s financial backers are also hitting the headlines. His sister said, “He is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit–and there is only one option that works for them: a crash-out no-deal that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring.” 

So there’ve been calls to investigate that as a conflict of interest.

Not enough scandal for you? Have no fear, we have one more lurking at the bottom of the bag. A journalist, Charlotte Edwardes, has accused Johnson of groping her under the table at a lunch when he edited the Spectator. Afterwards, she told the woman (we don’t know who that was–yet) sitting on Johnson’s other side what had happened and the second woman said he’d done the same to her. 

Johnson denied doing any such thing. 

Tune in next week (or tomorrow; or the day after; I have no idea when enough insanity will pile up to justify another post) for the next exciting installment of Brexit Britain.

New British Traditions: The Chap Olympiad

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

The Brexit update, this time with spider brooches

Britain’s supreme court ruled unanimously on Tuesday (the day I’m posting this) that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament (called, in case it shows up in a crossword puzzle, a prorogation) was illegal, and before the pixels of the online news stories were dry the speaker of parliament had announced that parliament would be back in session on Wednesday.

But even before that happened, some members of parliament were already sitting on the House of Commons green seats, just to make a point. 

As the BBC put it, the court ruling said the serving prime minister broke the law and gave unlawful advice to the queen.

Short of the inscrutable Lady Hale [president of the court], with the giant diamond spider on her lapel, declaring Boris Johnson to be Pinocchio, this judgement is just about as bad for the government as it gets.”

Okay, we’d better take a minute to talk about the spider. It’s a brooch–or in Ameri-speak, a pin–and within hours had been printed on a tee shirt that was being sold online, with some of the profits promised to an organization for the homeless. 

#SpiderBrooch was trending on Twitter when I checked and a sampling of tweets (a whopping two out of two) shows that it’s driving people to poetry: “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when Cummings tries to make us Leave” and “Spider-Brooch, Spider-Brooch, / Deals with how the law’s approached. / Heard a case, huge in size, / Caught the PM telling lies. / Look out! / Here comes the Spider-Brooch.”

Brooch (I had to check) is pronounced to rhyme with approach, even though it looks like it rhymes with mooch, although it can also rhyme with hootch, pooch, and other elevated nouns that don’t rhyme with approach. English. I love it, but it’s a mess.

So much for the fun stuff. What happens next? A majority of parliament agrees on exactly two things: 1, They don’t want to no-deal Brexit, and 2, they don’t want to be locked in the broom closet during this crucial period when the Brexit deadline is looming and Johnson is trying to avoid asking for an extension. 

After that, the cracks in the Rebel Alliance begin to show. Some of its MPs want to remain in the EU. Some want to leave with a deal (ask what kind of deal and more cracks show up). Some want a second referendum as a way out of this mess. Some, I’m sure, want to go back to the broom closet and hide while the crucial votes are taken so they can say, “It wasn’t my fault.” 

Parliament could hold a vote of no confidence and, if it passes, replace Johnson with someone else, but that involves agreeing on who that should be. That’s another thing they don’t agree on, or at least haven’t so far.

The general belief is that Johnson will try to hold an election and run as a champion of the people against the government. Which has a certain irony, since right now he is the government, but never mind. Whether he’ll be able to hold his party together is anybody’s guess. He’s lost six out of six votes in the House of Commons, lost a major challenge in the courts, and been judged to have misled the queen. Folks here take that last offense seriously even if I can’t manage to.

On the other hand, he’s already thrown his most visible opponents out of the party, so it’s hard to know if anyone’s left to oppose him. As I’m fairly sure I keep saying, stay tuned.

The Brexit update: a country on hold

Britain’s on hold at the moment (“History-in-the-making is experiencing a high volume of calls right now…”), waiting to talk to someone who can resolve our Brexit problems. Whatever music we least want to hear is drilling its way down our ear canals and into our brains. That’s because parliament was sent home to sit on many scattered naughty steps so that our prime minister, Boris Johnson, can pursue Brexit without being bothered by the country’s primary governing body.

One of the things we’re waiting for is expected in a few days at most: The supreme court (no capital letters, apparently) is considering whether Johnson had the right to send parliament home without dessert. (Yes, I know I’ve changed images and it was the naughty step in the last paragraph. Indulge me. I just sat with friends talking about Brexit and feeling miserable, so I’m going to haul out every half-assed joke I’ve been schlepping around in my backpack, all at once. I doubt they’ll make me feel better but my backpack will at least be lighter.) 

Experts in reading legal tea leaves expect the court to rule against Johnson, setting off a “constitutional eruption of volcanic proportions” according to an unnamed senior legal figure. 

Johnson said he’d abide by the ruling, which is nice of him, given that it’ll come from his country’s highest court, but government figures have been strewing suggestions that he might abide by it and then send parliament home all over again but for a different reason. And stick his tongue out at them as they’re leaving.

If the tea-leaf experts are right and the court does rule against Johnson, what will matter is what grounds they base their ruling on. If they say he misled the queen, at least one expert says he’s had it. 

Why? Because you can shut down your country’s legislative body, you can lie to the public, you can encourage bitter division among your people and bring your country to the brink of what many people think will be disaster, but you cannot get caught lying to the queen. Because she’s the queen.

Don’t expect me to explain this to you. I spent most of my life in the US. I’ll never really understand this queen business.

What’s Johnson doing while sit on hold and listen to music we hate?

He’s told us that, in the great game of Brexit, he holds a card that will allow the backstop* to be replaced with something better, newer, bigger, and, um, better. Now the  European Union has called its bluff and asked to see the card. 

In the meantime–or possibly in response; we can’t know because it’s secret–Britain has proposed something that we don’t know the contents of because the proposals are marked secret. Britain doesn’t even want them distributed to the Brexit representatives of the EU’s member states. They’re marked “Her Majesty’s government property.” 

So are the capital letters in that quote, so don’t mess with them. Her Majesty’s government doesn’t have a sense of humor about capital letters. I’m pushing my luck leaving the U out of humor.

How are the EU member states supposed to evaluate them if they can’t read them? 

That’s their problem.

This news came after the EU handed Johnson a two-week deadline to show its backstop card and the UK said it couldn’t meet an artificial deadline, it would need a year.

Britain’s supposed to leave the EU on October 31, though. What’s supposed to happen on the border between then and when the backstop card is turned face up? 

I have no idea. 

To show that he’s serious about the negotiations, Johnson compared himself to the Incredible Hulk, and demonstrators have been appearing in costume holding “incredible sulk” signs. Headline writers rubbed their hands in glee.   

In the midst of all this, Johnson ducked out of a scheduled press conference in Luxembourg, where he’d planned on telling everyone how well the negotiations were going. That left Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, standing at one lectern and gesturing at the empty one, saying the EU needed “more than just words.” 

The supreme court will hand down its ruling soon. Lawyers on both sides will be combing through every comma and semicolon. In the meantime, your call is important to us. We will be with you as soon as inhumanly possible.

 

* The backstop: Entirely too briefly, this is part of the treaty negotiated by our former prime minister, Theresa May, and rejected by her supporters and her opponents and even the extra-terrestrials circling the Earth invisibly and shaking their heads over the general incompetence of the human race. The idea of the backstop was to keep Brexit from creating a hard border, with border checks and so forth, between Ireland and Northern Ireland, for fear of restarting the Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. I’ll spare you the explanation of why it’s a hot button issue, but it is.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part seventeenish

I’m posting this a day early and joining 350.org and WordPress’s digital climate strike. But before that happens, it’s time to find out, yet again. what people want to know about Britain. The search engines have been kind to me lately, pouring a rich mix of oddity onto my stats page. Put on your absurdity goggles and let’s go.

Trends

entymolpgy cockwomble

I get a lot of questions about cockwombles. I’m thinking of seeing if I can’t get paid gigs talking to conferences on the subject. I don’t know much about them, but that doesn’t stop other conference speakers so why lose sleep over it?

As for this particular question, I shouldn’t make fun of it, although I will. I regularly have to look up the difference between etymology (the study of words) and entomology (the study of bugs). I look it up, I remember it for a while, then the magic wears off and I have to do a stealthy recheck on the difference between bugs and words. However, fairness isn’t  going to get in my way: The womble is not a bug. It’s an imaginary creature from a long-gone TV show, and the cockwomble is an insult based on it. If you’re interested, Lord Google will lead you to websites where you can buy cockwomble mugs and tee shirts or listen (I assume; I didn’t bother) to songs about them. 

Isn’t the internet wonderful? And no, I’m not giving you a link. If you want cockwomble mugs, go find your own.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

similar to cockwomble

I don’t know of anything similar to a cockwomble. Why is the internet awash in cockwombles lately? Is this political commentary?

urban slang like cockwomble

You could argue that this is urban (as opposed to what? rural?) slang, but I wouldn’t advise strutting down the toughest street you can find and thinking you’ll intimidate someone by calling them a cockwomble. It doesn’t have the punch you’re looking for. 

Political questions

does the house of commons have air conditioning

Nope. It has crumbling pipes, so many fire hazards that it has a constant firewatch, stonework hurling itself to the ground at unpredictable intervals, and little ribbons where you can hang your sword (although, let’s face it, they’re not there for you or me, they’re for someone more important, who also doesn’t have a sword). But it does not have air conditioning. 

The shape the building’s in, it’s doing well to have air.

mps who wear stockings

I’ve had a run of questions lately about MPs wearing stockings. Does some group of people have a thing about MPs in stockings and are they hoping to find a community here? Do they spend hours on the internet, panting over photos of them? We humans are a strange species, and the older I get the more fully I understand that. 

Still, it sounds harmless as long as they don’t inflict their obsession on any actual MPs.

I’m not sure what kind of stockings the people who type this into Google are looking for. Those white stockings that men wore with knee breeches a few centuries back and which, given the British gift for resurrecting outdated clothing on ceremonial occasions, can still show up here and there? Or the kind women wore before the invention of what Americans call pantyhose and the British call tights? 

If it’s the second, I’d bet a sum of money in the low single digits that no one wears them, in Parliament or anywhere else. They’re ridiculous, uncomfortable, and several other adjectives. They’re also (I’m reasonably sure) not made anymore. Or if they are, they’re hard to find.

So I can’t answer the question, since I don’t know quite what it’s about, but I can inform you, irrelevantly, that what Americans call a run in a stocking/pair of pantyhose, the British call a ladder in a stocking/pair of tights.

Yes, friends, I’m here to educate, even if it’s not necessarily on subjects you want to learn about. Think of it as a grab bag. You click your mouse and–look, we’re learning about medieval fireplaces this week! 

berwick as part of ussr

No, no, no. Even if the rumor about Berwick-upon-Tweed being at war with Russia had been true (unfortunately for lovers of absurdity, it isn’t), it never included anything about Russia or the Soviet Union having annexed Berwick. So just to be clear: At no time was Berwick-upon-Tweed part of either Russia or the Soviet Union. It was once part of Scotland–it’s one of those places that moved back and forth between England and Scotland without budging an inch. The border did all the traveling. Berwick’s now English, and Scotland, in spite of anything you may have heard and in spite of being way the hell up north, is not Russia. There’s talk that in case of a hard Brexit (or any Brexit, or–well, who knows these days?) Scotland might well leave the U.K., but no one’s suggesting that it will annex itself to Russia , much less the U.S.S.R., which is hard to join since it no longer exists. 

There’s even less reason to believe that Berwick is planning to annex Russia to itself.

How’s that for starting a rumor by denying it?

Conversational English

worcester pronunciation of wasp

Of wasp? The one word in the English language that you can look at and have a running chance at pronouncing correctly? 

And why Worcester? Do we have any reason to think they pronounce it differently there?

Sorry, I haven’t been more helpful here. I do try, but this one mystifies me.

how to talk trash in the uk

If you need instructions for this, don’t do it. Just say something you can handle. You’ll be fine.

do british people really talk about weather most

Most what? Most days? Most as in more than any other group of people? Most as in more than other topics? 

Finding what you want on the internet–not to mention in life–starts with figuring out the right question. 

derby pronunciation darby

It’s reckless to guess about the pronunciations of British place names, but I wouldn’t write this trash if I weren’t at least a little reckless, so here we go: I’m reasonably sure that the Derby pronunciation of Derby is Darby. That’s the way the rest of the country pronounces it and why change something that’s traditional and makes so little sense?

Requests for Cross-cultural Information

do the british think of the americans as brothers

Let’s turn that around: Do the Americans think of the British as brothers? 

Are the Americans aware that not every British person is male? 

To the best of my knowledge, no and yes. 

Do they understand why the second question is relevant? 

A lot of them, no, and some subset of them would find it offensive.

I despair. 

do british people like tourists

Oh, yes, every last British person loves tourists. Especially when the aforesaid tourists arrive in swarms, butt into line, and expect to be the purpose of everyone else’s day. 

americans arw blunt brits

Possibly, but they don’t spell as well.

why are the roads in france so small and no strips

Wrong country, but isn’t it interesting how people take whatever they were raised with (a road should be the width I’m used to; a grownup should eat the way I was taught to; people should talk the way I do) and then compare the rest of the world with that standard.  And silly thing that the world is, it doesn’t manage to meet it. It eats with chopsticks, or the delicate fingers of the right hand. It drives on roads that meet a whole different set of needs. And it doesn’t check with us before doing it. 

What is it thinking?

does bell rining strain yiur back

I’m going to have to admit ignorance on this. I’m not a bell ringer. For many reasons. One is that dedicating a fair chunk of time to pulling on a rope doesn’t ring my bell. Another is that bell ringing’s a church thing, and I’m not only Jewish, I’m an atheist. That makes me a bad fit. In my lack-of-tradition, we may ring the occasional doorbell but that’s about the limit of it.

I have never strained my back ringing a doorbell. Have I been living too cautiously?

I know: The question wasn’t about me personally, but I thought it might be good to explain my ignorance. My best guess is that it doesn’t strain yiur back, but that comes a footnote saying, “If you do it right.” 

Bell rining can, however, strain yiur spelling. 

I shouldn’t make fun of people’s spelling, but when people shoot anonymous questions through the blogosphere, all normal rules of good behavior are suspended.

can bellringing damage your shoulder

See above.

are englands roads all narrow

No. Has the price of apostrophes gone up?

Questions Too Deep to Answer Fully

british understatement make others silly

It doesn’t have do. Becoming silly is a choice we make, independent of other people’s under- or overstatements. 

Damn, that was profound. I may start one of those blogs where I advise people on how to live their best lives, regardless of what a hash I’m making of mine. 

Cat ate sticky toffee pudding

I’ve had a run of questions about cats and sticky toffee pudding lately. On the odd obsession list that I’ve started keeping, it’s right up there with MPs and stockings. Here’s what I know about it: 

  • Our resident cat, Fast Eddie, does not eat sticky toffee pudding. He doesn’t request sticky toffee pudding. He doesn’t recommend sticky toffee pudding to other cats.
  • The store where we buy Fast Eddie’s food doesn’t carry sticky toffee pudding. I’ve never asked if they recommend it for cats and as a result they still–silly people–consider me sane.

When I put those two observations together, I’m inclined to think that most cats don’t eat, or want to eat, sticky toffee pudding. I hope that helps.

The more I write about cats and sticky toffee pudding, the more Lord Google will funnel these questions to me, since no one else out there is brave enough to discuss it. Given the opportunity, most people will dodge controversial topics. And the more Lord G. funnels them to me, the more I’ll be convinced that it all means something. 

And the more I’m convinced that it means something, the more I’ll write about it. 

Did I mention somewhere that the internet’s wonderful?

Still, if no one was out there asking the question, Lord G. wouldn’t have anything to send me. So it’s not entirely a self-contained loop.

cotchets vegetable

I started out assuming this was a typo and that the word was supposed to be crotchets. We’ll come back to that. But just to be sure (I don’t know everything, much to my surprise), I tossed it, as spelled, to Lord G., who sent me to WikiWhatsia, which told me it was a noun, masculine, meaning a young cockerel. In parentheses, it said, “Jersey,” so I’m going to guess it’s a word used on the island of Jersey rather than a young chicken in a sweater. It’s from the French coq (English equivalent, cock–as in bird, wiseass) and –et, a French masculine diminutive. So a young rooster.

A different site says it’s Norman, so French-ish, but old. Or to put that another way, an old young rooster. 

Then Lord G. sent me to a site about last names, which told me that the origin of the name Cotchets is unknown and left the meaning blank. I asked Lord G. to tell me about a few random first name/last name combinations involving Cotchet and couldn’t find anyone to match. Which could explain why the origin’s unknown: There are no Cotchets. I think the site will accept anything as a last name–hell, it could be possible–but if it’s never seen it before it gives out no information. 

So we’re talking about young vegetarian roosters on Jersey or young roosters on Jersey made of vegetables. 

And a crotchet? It’s a bit of British musical notation. Americans (and I think Canadians) call it a quarter note.  

the guardian brits and their dogs

This is a good demonstration of why commas matter, although search engine questions almost never use them. If this is “the guardian, brits, and their dogs,” we’re talking about three things: a guardian, brits, and a group of dogs hanging around mysteriously and belonging to one or both of them. But if it’s “the guardian brits and their dogs,” then we’re talking about some equally mysterious brits who guard something–with their dogs. 

None of it makes any sense, mind you, with or without commas, but at least we know what it is that we don’t understand.

Smoke, chimneys, and beds in Tudor times

No part of the past makes sense in isolation. Or it only does when you’re kidding yourself. Take a wider view and it gets messier but more interesting.

I started out wondering where medieval people slept and ended up learning about chimneys, so let’s start with chimneys.

They were introduced to Britain in the twelfth century, but they were only for the super-rich–the kind of people who had a castle or two–or for monasteries. Think of them as the era’s equivalent of a private plane: They weren’t something even your economically well-above-average person would lust after. They were too far out of reach. What most houses had at the beginning of the Tudor era was a central hearth–a nice fireplace on the floor, in the middle of the room. 

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries, stolen from an earlier post but who’ll notice?

The smoke rose from the hearth and worked its way out through the thatch, if the roof was thatch, or through whatever other openings were available if it wasn’t. Don’t worry, because even if the house didn’t have a hole in the roof above the fire, it would’ve been rich in chinks and openings. If it had a window, it would at best have been a wooden shutter but was more to have been likely oiled cloth. Glass was a luxury item. And I’m going to make a reckless guess and say the door wouldn’t have been a tight fit. 

If all that sounds awful, it also had its advantages. A website that quotes re-enactors from a Welsh museum says that on its way out the smoke would have waterproofed the thatch, killed bugs, and smoked meat hanging from the ceiling.

But that’s only the beginning. I’ve been re-reading Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and–well, let’s back up, as I always seem to in these posts, and talk about who Goodman is before we come back to our alleged topic.

Goodman calls herself a historian of social and domestic life in Britain, and as far as I can figure out she more or less invented her field, coming into it before respectable historians showed much interest in how ordinary people lived. But she doesn’t just study social history, she inhabits it, working out how people lived and trying it herself. Want to know how they cleaned their teeth? She can compare the virtues of chalk, salt, and the soot a wax candle leaves on a polished surface, because she’s tried them all. 

She consults for museums and for the BBC and has presented some wonderful programs on daily life in various eras. She’s fascinated by how people did ordinary things. 

As she puts it, “Our day to day routines have a huge cumulative effect on the environment, our shopping habits can sway the world’s patterns of trade, how we organise and run our family life sets the political tone of nations. We matter. Us, the little people, women, children and even men. How our ancestors solved the problems of everyday life made the world what it is today.”

Never mind for a moment that today’s world isn’t great advertising for the wisdom of our ancestors’ choices. How many of us can know where our decisions will lead, and how many of our ancestors had much of a range to choose from? Can we not get snotty about this? Most of them were only trying to cook a meal and stay warm. 

Which takes us, handily, back to fireplaces. 

Central hearths were good at warming a room. No heat disappeared up the chimney–there was no chimney–and they kept the floor of the house level nice and warm. This brought the people down to floor level, not just because it was warm but because the clearest air was down below. Sitting on the floor starts to look appealing when the higher levels are smoky. So does sleeping on the floor. You don’t want furniture that lifts your head up into the smoke.

What was it like to sleep on the floor? Well, having read that medieval floors were strewn with rushes, Goodman tried to figure out what that meant. By trial and a couple of errors, she found that if you make them into bundles and lay them somewhere between two and six inches deep, you get a solid surface that’s comfortable to sleep on–both springy and warm. (If you just strew them around, they get caught in your skirts.)

When she watered them lightly every couple of days, they stayed fresh and didn’t catch fire when a spark fell on them (that’s a plus), and they smelled like cucumber (that’s another plus if you like cucumber). And in spite of people walking, cooking, sitting, eating, sleeping, and spilling on them during a re-creation she participated in (and in spite of a family of chickens that no one had the heart to evict), at the end of six months the surface was still clean and when she cleared the rushes all out there was no mess at the bottom. Also no evidence of mice or insects or mold.

So sleeping on the floor? Not a hardship. Which is lucky, because that’s where lots of people slept, not just in the cottages of the poor but in castles. Have you ever wondered where the many, many servants in big households slept? Beds were for the few (to reverse the Labour Party’s current slogan), not the many. So what did everyone else do? I couldn’t help imagining that they had some sort of mattresses, no matter how basic, and I sometimes wondered where they stashed them all during the day. How much storage space could they devote to them?

But no. The lower orders bedded down on the floor, more or less communally, although separated by sex. Come morning, all they needed to store away were some blankets.

As the Tudor era rolled onward, fireplaces became more common, and with them, beds–or at least platforms that raised people off the floor and some sort of mattress to soften them. Bring in a fireplace and you get rid of the smoke (and can add a second story) but the tradeoff is that you get drafty floors and colder rooms. A huge amount of heat is carried up the chimney. Furniture that lifts you off the floor starts to look pretty good. 

That still leaves us with the storage problem, and I’m not sure how they solved that or if the lowest orders still slept on the floor–which was now drafty.

Mattresses ranged from a heap of straw to bags stuffed with everything from straw to wool to down, and bedsteads from simple platforms to boxes to hugely expensive four-poster beds, which you can think of as yurts set up inside a room. Sleeping in a four-poster was the original glamping. Your bed would be covered on top and on the sides, and inside all that covering you got not only warmth but some kind of privacy.

Privacy was a hard thing to come by at this point. 

That doesn’t tell us how many people slept in some form of bed, whether the ones who were left on the floor got something mattressy to protect them from the drafts, or where the mattresses got stacked in they did. Nobody was tracking people’s welfare and no one was keeping statistics–or not that kind of statistics anyway. 

What we do know is that life moved upward, into the now-clear air. And they all slept happily ever after. 

Or some of them did.

The Brexit update, with gorilla suits

We’ll get to the gorilla suits toward the end. In the meantime, with all the usual apologies (it’s important to know what’s going on; I didn’t start it; it has a lot of redeeming absurdity), here’s the Brexit update.

Parliament ordered Boris Johnson to send the European Union a letter asking to delay Brexit, and now he’s being warned that if he adds a covering note saying, “P.S., We don’t really want an extension, so please ignore the enclosed letter,” he will be breaking the law. The warning comes from an assortment of senior judges and lawyers.

That hasn’t gone to court yet. The warnings are in response to leaks saying the prime minister’s looking for a way around the law Parliament passed.

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, issued a warning of his own. He told Johnson there’s no such thing as a clean break from the EU. Even if Britain huffs out without an agreement, all the unresolved issues will still need to be negotiated. On his list were citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and a financial settlement with Europe. And fishing rights. And tariffs. And product standards. And and and and.

In other leaks, documents planning the prorogation of parliament–

Let me stop to explain this in the most objective terms for anyone who’s new here: Prorogation means locking Parliament in a broom closet while the prime minister pursues Brexit unencumbered by the democratic process.

Or two broom closets, since you couldn’t ask the Lords to share a broom closet with the Commons. They need a higher class of broom closet, with better champagne.

Actually, they all get sent home.

Where were we? Parliament ordered Johnson and his friends and advisers to hand over the documents they exchanged while they were planning the prorogation. They (that’s Parliament, not Johnson & Co.) managed that just before getting locked ceremoniously in their broom closets. The reason this matters is that the government claimed it the prorogation wasn’t political, it was just business as usual. Initial leaks indicate that it was anything but–and that the documents will prove that.

Since Johnson had to ask the queen’s permission to prorogue Parliament, the current flap is over whether he lied to the queen in order to get her to wave her magic feather over it.

The government is swearing it won’t release the documents, and that could put it in contempt of Parliament.

Does it matter if it is? An MP who’s held in contempt can be booted out of Parliament–and any prime minister is also an MP. If the prime minster isn’t an MP, is he or she still prime minister? Probably not. That’s awkward, and from a prime minister’s point of view, not desirable.

An MP who’s held in comtempt can also be confined to the Westminster clock tower, but the last time that was done was in 1880. Non-MPs can be imprisoned (not in the clock tower as far as I can figure out–that’s for a better class of contemptuees) for the duration of the Parliament, which these days can be for as long as five years.

Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings has been held in contempt and not only isn’t in jail, he was given a security clearance. I won’t try to explain that.

In 2018, Theresa May’s government was held to be in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release some Brexit legal advice it had been given. That was the first time in British history a government was held in contempt of parliament. May backed down and was not banished to the clock tower.

That business about the clock tower is real. I say that because it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. As a rough guideline, if I tell you that all government advisers have to dress in gorilla suits, that’s a joke. If I tell you that a politician can be imprisoned in (or under) the clock tower, that’s real.

Really.

I hope that helps.

In other leaked documents, the government has ordered a top priority centralization of user information from the government’s public information websites. This is supposed to help with Brexit preparations.

How will it help? No one seems sure, but although the government swears that no personal details will be collected, privacy campaigners, opposition politicians, and policy experts are uneasy about what’s being done and why, not to about mention the secrecy surrounding it. Especially because Cumming–that’s Johnson’s adviser, you may or may not remember, and he does not wear a gorilla suit–is the driving force behind this and was (not at all incidentally) the driving force behind the Vote Leave campaign’s complicated and partially illegal use of personal data.

Also not incidentally, £100,000 million has been budgeted for a campaign to direct people to the government’s Brexit preparation website–more money than some experts say can actually be spent. I don’t like conspiracy theories, but when I connect the dots I can’t help constructing one. And believing it.

In an earlier update I mentioned that three lawsuits had been filed against the prorogation of parliament. In England, the court said it wasn’t a subject a court could rule on. In Scotland (on appeal), it’s been ruled illegal. Both rulings were unanimous. Northern Ireland hasn’t ruled yet and the case was launched on different grounds.

Why the different rulings? Because the UK has three separate legal systems, which can allow courts to rule differently even when they consider the same facts, and even if you rule out the possibility of conscious or unconscious political bias. All three systems have equal weight. Britain’s highest court, the Supreme Court, has scheduled a three-day hearing starting on September 17. I have no idea which of the three systems they’re supposed to base their ruling on, or if they’re supposed to follow all of them simultaneously.

I wasn’t going to get into the maneuvering surrounding John Bercow, the speaker of the Commons, but I just have to. Following tradition, when he became the speaker he gave up his party affiliation, but before he did, he was a Conservative. Recently, he’s allowed the anti-no-deal coalition–now (really) known as the Rebel Alliance–to act effectively against the government. Whether that involved bending the rules or following them depends on what side of the divide you’re on, but the current government just hates the man.

Traditionally, when MPs are up for re-election no party runs a candidate against the speaker, but the Conservatives–they’re the current government, and I mention that in case you’ve been locked in the clock tower for a few months and have lost track of anything but those damn bells every fifteen minutes–have announced that they will run a candidate against him, which leaves him vulnerable since he won’t have party machinery to back him.

In response, Bercow’s announced that he’ll step down as speaker, but he’ll time it so that the current parliament, with its anti-government majority, will get to elect the next speaker.

If all that isn’t enough, a series of unleaked but reluctantly released documents detail what the government estimates are “reasonable worst-case assumptions” in case of a no-deal Brexit, although another version of the document apparently calls it a “base scenario.” (No-deal Brexit preparations, by the way, are called Operation Yellowhammer, because, hey, that sounds all military and cool.) Predictions include higher food prices, shortages of medicines, and riots on the streets.

The poorest people will be hit hardest. Some businesses will go broke (or “cease trading” to put it more blandly), including providers of adult social care. The black market will grow. Disruptions could go on for as long as six months.

Still, it’s nothing to worry about and revised estimates are due out any day now, as soon as the government can be strong-arm them out of the appropriate civil servants.

The paper also predicts smuggling across the Northern Ireland border and says the plans to impose checks there (it’s been an open border, but that depends on both Ireland and Northern Ireland being in the EU) would quickly become unworkable. We can also expect clashes at sea over fishing rights and the disruption of cross-border financial services.

For food sales to the EU to keep going, vets will have to sign 1.9 million food standard certificates, although it’s not clear from what I’ve read how quickly they’ll have to do that or how long they’ll last once they’re signed. Do they sign them every year? Every day? Every waking moment? For every shipment?

Meanwhile, Senior civil servants can expect to be caught between MPs’ demands and the government’s. Their union has written to the prime minister demanding an assurance that staff won’t be asked to break either the law or the civil service code.

We’re deep into uncharted waters, and you can’t make this stuff up. All you can do is add the occasional gorilla suit.