Celebrating April Fool’s Day in Britain

How do the British celebrate April Fool’s Day?
Dangerously. The newspapers–or at least some of them–sneak in a fake story and wait like giggling ten-year-olds to see if anyone spots it.
Late in the day on April 1–some good long time after I’d read the paper–I remembered the date and realized I hadn’t spotted any obvious April Fool’s joke. That made me nervous. What had I fallen for? That the school funding crisis could swing the election against the Conservatives? Nope. I’ve followed that story. It’s real. That the candy company Ferrero says Britain leaving the customs union and the single market when it leaves the E.U. “could affect an array of chocolate products, leading to shortages, delays, higher prices, limited ranges and merchandise going stale in warehouses.”
Good candidate. It’s not going to send anyone into a War-of-the-Worlds type panic. Or maybe a few people, but not many. Still, it’s not far enough out there for a prank story.

Irrelevant photo: Yet another whatsit plant, in bloom. We grow a lot of them and they have a surprising range of blossoms.

Full disclosure:I’m doing a small bit of lying for the sake of verisimilitude. And I’m using long words for the sake of impressing you. I didn’t actually go back over the headlines to see what I’d fallen for. When I started writing this post, I called up the headlines from the Observer, the Guardian‘s sister paper, to remind myself what they were that day. My memory, sadly, is more decorative than functional.

By then, the real fake story was making small headlines, because a pair of BBC presenters had broadcast it. It was a story claiming that an Italian tech firm had created emojis for the opposing sides of the Brexit debate, and it quoted members of parliament who were outraged by how divisive they were. One emoji was called the Brexit Bulldog and the other Starry Blue, which picked up on the European Union flag. I mention that because I can’t remember knowing what the E.U. flag looked like before I moved to Britain. Or possibly before the Brexit debate.
When the BBC presenters were told what they’d just stepped into, they did two things: One, admitted it to their listeners (“sheepishly,” according to the story I read; bravely, in my opinion), and two, said, “Oh my goodness.”
Or one of them said that. Surely no two people would actually say “oh my goodness.” It’s improbable enough that one of them did.
But the Observer wasn’t the only media outlet playing April Fool’s gags. A different BBC show ran a story on a kraken, a legenadary sea monster said to live off the coast of Norway and Greenland, being spotted on the Thames. The Mail said Prince Harry’s stag party would involve laverbread smoothies and chakra realignment.
A few companies piled in as well. Coca-Cola announced that it was releasing avocado-flavored Coke. Burger King swore it would be selling a flame-grilled chocolate patty with raspberry syrup and vanilla frosting. Plus candied oranges and a bun made of cake. And Heinz was coming out with chocolate mayonniase.
The West Yorkshire Police announced that they now have a police rabbit. It wears a little blue police harness and looks fearsome.
Historically, my favorite spoof is from 1977, when the Guardian ran not just a story but an entire seven-page supplement on the island of San Seriffe, commemorating the tenth anniversary of its independence from I’m not sure who. Wikipedia–that most reliable of sources (actually, it doesn’t do badly)–says it was one of the most successful recent hoaxes. If you consider 1977 recent, which, being 103, I do.
San Seriffe was revived in 1978, 1980 and 1999.
The name, in case you don’t live and breathe this stuff, refers to a kind of typeface. Typefaces come in two flavors, serif, which kind of melts outward at the bottom, as if the pavement’s too hot, and sans serif, which runs downward in a straight line and could be driven into the ground if you had a tiny little mallet.The S is silent. Or if you like it better, blends into the S of the next word.
April Fool’s Day had passed when I read the Wikipedia entry, but I do wonder about that seven-page supplement. I’ve never worked in newspaper publishing, but every kind of publication I had anything to do with was printed in multiples of four. You could, if you really had to, cut a four-page sheet in half and get two pages–one sheet of paper printed on both side–but since paper inherently has two sides–. You see the problem, right? I suppose you could run a page of ads and call that not-part-of-the-supplement but I feel this pull on one of my legs when I so much as think about it.
I could be out of date–I’ve been gone for eleven years now–but when I was still living in the U.S., all an adult had to watch out for on April Fool’s Day was silly phone messages. You know: Please call Mr Bear, followed by the phone number of the nearest zoo. Or kids switching those unpeeled hard-boiled eggs you’d left in the refrigerator for the uncooked ones.
What’s the history of April Fool’s Day? According to the Metro, there’s an ambiguous reference to April Fool’s Day in Chaucer (1390s), and then no written reference for the next 300 years, when in 1686 there’s a reference to “Foole’s holy day.”
Thirteen years after that, “On April 1, 1698, several people were tricked into going to the Tower of London to ‘see the Lions washed’, which was perhaps the first large-scale April Fool in British history.”
The Metro also says Scotland celebrates April 1 with Hunt the Gowk Day. “The pranker asks the prankee to deliver an envelope requesting help, but instead the message inside reads: ‘Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile.’ The recipient, upon reading it, will explain they can only help by contacting another person, and sends the victim to this next person with an identical message, producing the same result. And if that’s not enough, they also celebrate Taily Day on April 1, which involves “trying to put ‘kick me’ signs on people’s backs, plus plenty of posterior-based jokes.”
I was inclined to think this was all an elaborate joke, but I find enough references to both to think they’re probably real.
April Fool’s Day isn’t specifically British. Lord Google tells me that some version of it is celebrated–if that’s the right word, which I suspect it isn’t–throughout Europe and in Iran, India, Lebanon, the Phillipines, many Spanish-speaking countries, and the U.S. I can testify that it’s celebrated in the U.S. Beyond that, on this subject I’m not taking anybody’s word for anything.

Using search engine questions to accomplish nothing

It’s time to read the tea leaves that search engines leave in the bottom of the cup after they drop in at Notes from the U.K.

You didn’t know search engines drink tea? This is Britain. Of course they drink tea.

Why do we want to read the tea leaves? So we can predict the future of humanity, of course.

Too depressing? Don’t worry about a thing, we’ll just change the question and ask what people want to know about Britain. Or at a minimum, what strange questions lead people to Notes from the U.K.

Why is it time to do that? A) Because I’m bored, B) because I have a shitload of small tasks I don’t want to tackle, and 3) just because.

Why am I asking so many questions and then answering them? Because it’s a quick, lazy way to organize a piece of writing. I don’t recommend it, I just use it now and then.

As always, the search questions appear in their original form, without question marks or (except in rare cases) capital letters. I’ve added the italics, but only so I can pretend to have done something useful with myself.

Variations on the usual questions

do brits realize hoew stupid the wigs look in court

Probably not. Silly people, the whole nationful of them.

Does the person who asked this realize that misspelling a simple word has a bounceback effect when he, she, or it is calling other people stupid?

Also probably not. Some people shouldn’t be turned loose with a keyboard.

british manners

Yes, they have them. So do other nations. Don’t let it keep you up at night.

Irrelevant photo: Starlings in the neighbors’ tree. They were gathering in larger and larger flocks in late February and early March, probably getting ready to migrate. The Scandinavian starlings spend their winters here and consider it the sunny south. The starlings that spend the summer here consider it the frozen north and head south for the winter. If they were bureaucrats (see below) we’d say this is inefficient. Being as how they’re birds and all, we say it’s impressive.

great britain why is it called

This is so simple that it’s profound. The place has to be called something. Back when we let countries wander around nameless, they couldn’t tell who was being called home to eat supper or go to bed. It was confusing. Plus when they went to war, it was hard to crank their people up about who they were supposed to hate. “The people over there.” “Where?” “There. You know, the tall, ugly ones we were friends with last time.”

So, yeah, the place needed a name and Britain was as good as anything else. So was Great Britain. So was the United Kingdom. So, if you don’t understand the situation, was England, although calling it that does tell everyone else that you’re clueless.

So there you go. The country was so impressed with the need for a name that it assigned itself damn near half a dozen.

A semi-serious answer’s available here. Just so you know I could answer the question if a bear was chasing me.

Comprehensible but less predictable questions

potatoes in the mould and its taters outside

These are Cockney rhyming slang—the meaning of the phrase rhymes with its last word, which usually drops away (as it has in the second question) so an outsider doesn’t stand a chance in hell of guessing the meaning. Which is the point.

Both phrases mean it’s cold, as does the version I heard one morning, “It’s parky.” (“In the mould” was implied but not mentioned, and no taters were involved.) Being American, I heard “mold,” without the U, but in deference to the guy who said it was parky, I’ve added the U. I’m sure that’s how he would’ve said it if he’d added the moldy bit. He’s not responsible for what I would’ve heard if etc.

I had no idea what he was talking about and he had to translate for me.

For an effort to make sense of parky, go here. I’d send you to my own post about the incident, but it wouldn’t add anything to what I just told you.

why in the uk do they wear hair wigs in court

Those would be hair wigs as opposed to spaghetti wigs? Or seaweed wigs? They use hair because it’s less messy. And you can wear them longer before they start to smell.

As it turns out, the wigs they wear in court are made of horsehair. (That’s not one of my posts–it’s from a wig maker.) That is a kind of hair, although probably not what the questioner had in mind.

For an actual answer—or as close to an answer as you’re likely to get here—I’ll refer you to that expert on nothing much, myself. The post brings in a steady trickle of readers from search engines, but then so do my posts on beer. This is what people really want to know about Britain: Why do they wear those silly wigs in court (I’m quoting, not giving my opinion, which would take much more space) and how’s the beer? It’s enough to make a person despair of humanity.

cock womble origin and british slang cockwomble definition not to mention curse word that ends in womblebritish insults phrases and define sock womble             

In spite of what I said in the last paragraph, these prove that intellectual curiosity isn’t quite dead. Let’s start with by tackling the depressing question: How do we define sock womble? Well, I don’t know about your sock drawer, but when mine’s closed, my socks wiggle out of the matches I’ve made for them and form love matches and when I open the drawer in the morning, there they all are, wombled up next to what they swear are their true and lasting loves.

I used to match them back up the way I wanted them, but it saves time to leave them where they put themselves. And from that I’ve learned that among socks love never lasts. Next time I open the drawer, the pairs have all changed.

It’s womblin’ tragic.

On a less depressing note, the rest of the questions show us that a few people want to learn about either another culture or their own, even if all they want to learn is how to curse more efficiently.

Is cockwomble an efficient curse? Well, it’s obscure. That’s in its favor if you want a laugh. As the one search question put it (without the question  mark), “a curse word that ends in womble”? That rates pretty high on the improbability scale.

On the other hand, if you’re nose to nose with a very angry other person and hoping to convince them that you’re some kind of threat, cockwomble isn’t the first word that should jump into your head. I mention this because I like Notes to be of some use in the world and this seems like the sort of thing you should all know. And you won’t learn it anywhere else.

So like most things, whether it’s an efficient curse depends on time, place, and circumstance.

But speaking of efficiency:

why is uk beaurocracy so efficient

This raises two questions: 1, is it? 2, compared to what? and, C, why is bureaucracy spelled wrong?

Let’s start and end with question 1, since I can’t answer the others.

Or no, wait, I can answer C. It’s spelled wrong because it’s in English, a language that positively begs for its words to be spelled wrong. See Murphy’s Law.

But back to question 1: How efficient is British bureaucracy? Reasonably, I think. It’s not inherently corrupt, which nudges it up the efficiency scale. If we look hard enough we’ll find examples of corruption, but it’s not endemic.

But things that go wrong are always more memorable than things that work—and they’re more fun. At least they are in this context; they’re not in real life. So let’s talk about things that don’t work.

Corruption? A Westminster city councillor whose committee had the power to approve or turn down planning applications was in the headlines lately for accepting 900 gifts and entertainment from developers. He recently became an ex-city councillor, but the story demonstrates that corruption exists. And that getting caught is awkward.

Unless of course it’s all perfectly innocent and he’s receiving gifts because he’s a nice guy.

Efficiency? When Wild Thing—that’s my partner—and I first moved here, the papers regularly ran articles about flash drives and disks holding state secrets being left on the train. Some tired bureaucrat was headed home, planning to put in a few extra hours, first on the train and then after supper. It made us wonder why anyone bothered to assemble a spy network in the U.K. All they needed was a minimally trained crew riding the trains.

We haven’t seen an article like that for a long time. Either the system’s become more efficient or that they’ve squelched the stories.

I miss them.

But bureaucratic systems have a tendency to get trapped by their own rules and become ridiculous. Not to mention ponderous. It’s one of the rules. So when Wild Thing volunteered (briefly—long story, and not one I’m going to tell) to work with a women’s center she had to fill out a form allowing a background check. It’s a legal requirement. I’m not sure how effective the system is, but it seems reasonable enough to at least try and make sure your new volunteer never kidnapped or murdered anyone.

The form required her to choose a title: Miss, Mrs., Ms., Mr. She chose Ms., because we’re Ms. kind of people, both of us.

Soon after, the organization got a call from the bureaucrat whose job it was to process the form. She—the bureaucrat, henceforth known as the twit—had a few questions. Wild Thing happened to be there, so they put her on the phone.

Ms. meant a person was married, the twit announced, so why hadn’t she filled in the information on her husband?

Because she didn’t have one. She had me, the lucky soul, and I’m many things but, being of the female persuasion, I’m just not husband material.

Besides, we weren’t married.

No, Wild Thing said, Ms. didn’t mean anything of the kind. The whole purpose of introducing it, back in the seventies–and yes, she was around back then–was that it didn’t identify a woman by her marital status any more than Mr. identifies a man by his.

But it means you’re married, the twit sententioused (that’s the verb form of said sententiously).

No, Wild Thing florided (that’s the verb form of overstated floridly). It doesn’t.

Et cetera, with Wild Thing getting increasingly florid in her explanations of why the twit was (a) wrong (b)—oh, never mind, you get the picture. W.T.’s from Texas. She understands the beauty of vivid overstatement. It’s one of the things I admire about her.

Unfortunately the twit had the power to approve W.T.’s background, so she got the final say. After exercising her inalienable right to be difficult, W.T. caved and was entered into bureaucratic eternity as Miss Wild Thing. I can’t help wondering where the conversation would’ve gone if she’d said, “Fine, then, I’ll use Mr.”

But back to our point, because we did once have one: What did that conversation cost the county in administrative time? Fifteen minutes, maybe.  Half an hour if you count the time it took the twit to crank herself up for the call and then to change the form.

I said earlier that bureaucracies had a tendency to become ponderous and get trapped by their own rules, and I’ll stand by that, but I don’t want to sound like one of those people who preach that business is more efficient. The recent history of British outsourcing has been a mashup of tragic and laughable. The outsourced security for the London Olympics was handled so badly that the government ended up calling in  the army.

I could go on endlessly about government efforts to rationalize what’s called the benefits system here–what in the U.S. we called welfare. It’s been a disaster, leaving people without money for food or rent. Unfortunately, I can’t find a shred of humor in it.

does the word immigrants need an apostrophe

Not if you don’t add one. Unfortunately, it means something different if you do. Or don’t. That’s why the apostrophe was invented–to mean something.

It’s all about asking the right question, isn’t it?

rude cornish drivers

Oh, dear, we’ve offended someone. On behalf of all of us, I’m so sorry. Genuinely, terribly, grovelingly sorry.

With that out of the way, let me say that if Cornish drivers are rude, polite drivers must be so nice they’re unable to enter an intersection for fear of cutting off someone who might show up tomorrow at rush hour. Admittedly, I’m originally from New York, so my standards are a little rough around the edges, but I’m in awe of how polite drivers are here. But like efficiency, it all depends on what you’re comparing it to.

how to appriopriately drive down through narrow roads

First, don’t worry about the spelling. Or the grammar. Keep your mind on the road. Second, don’t hit anything. Third, if you meet someone coming the other way, don’t get into a standoff, because if you need to ask how to drive on these roads, the other driver will be better at it and standoffs are a time when even polite drivers can turn nasty. Back up if you’re closer to a wide spot and if you’re a competent driver. If you’re frozen in fear (see “competent driver”), look helpless (and for the sake of clarity, both male and female drivers can accomplish this) and hope the other person takes charge of the situation by being the one to back up.

And finally, the kind of question I look forward to

if the mail gets put into the letterbox and not the mailbox and the dog gets it is the postman responsible

Now there’s a question for you. Never mind how it ended up here, let’s stop and admire the embedded insanity—or glory; take your pick—of the English language. It used three separate words that all describe a piece of paper that’s sent from one place to another: The letterbox is the thing in the door (or someplace else) that letters come in through; the mailbox is the thing on the corner (or someplace else) where you throw letters to send them away; and the postman is the man (or woman, English being English and language reflecting a culture’s insanities) who either picks up or delivers those letters—or possibly does both.

In British English, the stuff that comes through the letterbox is, collectively, the post. In American English, it’s the mail. And in American English the woman who delivers it would be the mailman. Or the letter carrier, since mailwoman or mailperson sounds too silly. I’m not sure how British English has dealt with that. Postperson doesn’t have a great ring to it either, but I seem to be the only person around who says “letter carrier.”

If we’ve spent enough time on that, let’s move on to the content. I’m not sure the British post office will pick up a letter if you leave it in your own letterbox—I think not—but the American one will. Either way, though, it’s your letterbox and your dog, not to mention your decision to put the letter where the dog can get it. And you want to blame the letter carrier? This is a serious question? Your hono(u)r—you with the horsehair wig on your head—I suggest this person be sentenced to drive down narrow roads full of rude Cornish drivers and apostrophes until she, he, or it learns to use search engines better.

what does the flag on a mailbox mean

It means the queen is in residence.

+tickety tonk               

I can’t tell you what tickety tonk means or how the question found me. I did write a post about the British phrase tickety boo, and maybe that’s as close as the internet comes to tickety tonk.

Whatever tickety tonk means, it came through with the plus sign intact, meaning we’ve added one. So applying everything I remember from my algebra classes, what we have to do is figure out what would happen if we were minus a tickety tonk.

British Easter eggs: it’s the price that counts

It’s almost Easter, so let’s drop in on those good folks who find themselves with an excess of money at this and every other time of year. Yes friends, with inequality on the increase and income being redistributed upward, it can be hard to figure out what to do with all that annoying cash (and its virtual equivalent), so when a few of the holidays come around I like to make a few useful suggestions. Because I do so want to be helpful.

What do I do with my cash? As a rule, I drop it on the floor of the village store while I’m wrestling change out of my pocket. I tell you, I can’t get rid of the stuff fast enough.

Anyway, welcome to the world of luxury Easter eggs. Let’s see how much money we can spend. And before someone else mentions it, let me be clear that what follows in no way represents the way 99.99% of British people live, or even what interests them; 99% of British Easter eggs sell for supermarket-type prices, at a rough guess £10 at the top end, three for £10 in the middle, and small eggs and chocolate rabbits for £1. I mention that because I want to be clear that I won’t be talking about the world most of us live in here.

Irrelevant and ever so slightly odd photo: This is Fast Eddie in motion. He doesn’t eat chocolate.

Ready?

For a mere £85, you can get a single-origin milk chocolate egg, boringly decorated with cherry blossoms, or the same thing in dark chocolate, only the dark chocolate’s from Madagascar, which may mean it’s more singular than single origin or may mean it’s less singular. We’re not told the origin of the milk chocolate, only that it’s singular. Maybe wherever it came from doesn’t sound as exotic as Madagascar. Maybe it’s from New Jersey.

Do they grow cacao in New Jersey? Not last I heard but it calls itself the garden state, so we can’t rule it out.

Which is better, single origin or Madagascan? Who cares. They cost the same.

The eggs weigh in at 800 grams of chocolate, which (in case your brain is wired non-metrically) is way the hell more than a pound of the stuff.

On the other hand, for £5 less (that’s £80, and aren’t you just proud of me that I figured that out?), you can get an ostrich Easter egg that’s half milk and half dark, filled with smaller chocolates and accompanied by a tray of chocolates that didn’t fit inside because those damned ostriches never did learn to plan ahead. They don’t really stick their heads in the sand to hide from danger, but you still can’t count on them to plan.

Is there a difference between planning and planning ahead? What else could you plan for if not something that’s ahead?

The egg is more than a kilo of chocolate, which translates to more than 2.2 pounds in non-metricality. How much more? They’re not saying. And you get zero decoration on the egg.

A bit further down the scale, for £57.50 you can get a milk chocolate egg “stippled” with dark chocolate and decorated with multicolored flowers. It’s not as expensive as the one with the cherry blossoms, but it is more colorful and more care went into arranging the verbiage. It’s not just stippled, it’s sumptuous. It “started life as the finest Swiss Grand Cru milk chocolate,” which makes me think that as a vegetarian I probably probably shouldn’t eat it. I don’t want to bite into something whose life was cut short because I wanted a snack.

Whether or not it was once alive, it now weights 600 grams.

Since I brought up the verbiage, I might as well say that I wouldn’t pay extra for it, no matter how carefully it’s arranged. You can’t eat the stuff.

And by way of full disclosure, I should say that I don’t want an Easter egg myself—especially an expensive one. I used to work in a candy factory and it cured me. I lost interest in almost all candy, although I do sometimes want good, plain dark chocolate—the kind most people think it meant for cooking.

But enough of that. As I was researching this post (I googled “easter eggs, luxury”—and yes, I included the comma; I can’t help myself), predictive text offered me “easter eggs the devil’s testicles.” And although—sorry, gents—testicles don’t interest me and I feel roughly the same way about the devil, the combination was too much to pass up. I’m here to tell you about parts of the world you might not stumble into yourself, right? So I clicked a few links and found that someone’s written a book that asks the burning question, “Are your children playing with Lucifer’s testicles?”

You thought they’d gone kind of quiet in the back bedroom, didn’t you?

[A late addition: Mikedw and Ubi Dubium (a) read the site more carefully than I did and (b) are more knowledgeable than I am, and both pointed out that it’s a satirical site. You can see their comments below. So I tripped on my own feet there. That’s particularly embarrassing since a blogger or two believed some of the more bizarre things I’ve said, including that Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout, linked to them, and commented on them. But there’s no cure for embarrassement like admitting to it, so here you go. Read the rest of this with that in mind–I haven’t changed it.]

Now, I’m not so dedicated to this blog that I’m going to read the book for you, and no way in hell would I encourage the author by parting with money for it—I’d rather set the money on fire, thanks. So I’m limited to what the website told me, but it sound like the author recommends telling your children that their little heathen friends celebrate Easter the way they do because “in the old days, deluded pagans would gather round and hump like bunnies on Easter Sunday because they thought it would make their tomatoes grow faster.”

By way of extreme generosity, let’s assume (although it doesn’t say this) that you’re supposed to tell them about humping like bunnies in the most tolerant and age-appropriate way. You might also want to tell your kids why the pagans celebrated Easter on a Sunday, being as how they were pagans and all.

A quotation from the book says, “Pagan kids didn’t have anything to do on Easter Sunday because their mommies and daddies were stuck in a false temple all day, naked and writhing around with their neighbors in Satanic orgies of the flesh. You see, parents had to come up with a way to occupy their children while they were away from home, praying and fornicating under the altar of Satan. And since they didn’t have babysitters back then, they gave their kids eggs to play with and sometimes paint.”

And if that doesn’t teach me not to click random links on the internet, nothing will. It should also teach us all not to obsess about other people’s sex lives. It never leads anywhere good.

In spite of my better instincts, I’ve got to give you a link. How else will you know this isn’t the product of my diseased mind instead of someone else’s?

I need to get that out of our minds, don’t I? So let’s talk about chocolate again. When I’ve posted about overpriced Easter eggs in the past, I’ve waited until a newspaper or two runs an article about the most outrageous ones, then I ride on their research. But this year I thought I’d run the post a bit early, so we’ll have to make do with what I can find online.

Why don’t I call a few fancy store and do my research the way genuine journalists do? Because that works better when you write for some real publication instead of having to say, “Hi, I’m a blogger no one ever heard of. What’s the most ridiculous thing you’re selling this season?” So the internet it was.

Harrod’s is a reliable source of overpriced goodies, so I checked their website and found that they’re “partnered” with “artist Camille Walala,” who turned out a limited edition of twelve eggs. They say the “eggs are highly-prized; a fitting marriage of an exciting London designer with our [ahem; due modesty here] world-famous store.”

In the department of expensive verbiage, they could have saved some money by deleting the first hyphen, since it’s wrong anyway. And while I’m at it, the semi-colon began life as a comma and should probably return to that happy state of being before it gets mistaken for something edible, although it’s still going to be a clunky sentence for reasons I’m not going to get into.

The website doesn’t mention how much the eggs cost. I think it’s one of those “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” things, but if you insist on knowing how much money it’s humanly possible to spend on chocolate, you can look elsewhere on the site and order an assortment of truffles for £350, even though the assortment’s not specific to Easter. There’s no mention of how much it weighs, but the verbiage is weighty if not creative. It includes perfect, special, abundance, luxurious, mouth-watering, bespoke, and exquisite. Which—I’m sorry to be critical—strikes me as a bit ho-hum for that sort of money.

It also says the selection will leave you wanting more. At £350 a box, that might not be a good thing, but I suppose it depends on how much cash you’ve dropped on the floor of the village shop. If they ever move the freezer, they should have enough to buy a couple of boxes. Given what I contributed, I’m owed a taste.

 

The Beast from the East

Button up, kiddies, because we’re going to talk about Britain’s recent storm. I’m limping in well behind the event, but I usually do. It’s part of my charm, and you’re just going to have to take my word for that.

At the end of February, Britain got whacked with a snowstorm, called, since it came in on an east wind, the Beast from the East. It shut the country down.

How much snow does it take to do that? Drumalbin, in Scotland, got 50 centiwhatsits. That’s in the neighborhood of 20 inches, which—Minnesotan that I am (or was; I could argue it either way)—even I will admit is enough to count as a legitimate snowstorm. Further south, Cambridgeshire got 26 centithings. Let’s call that a foot of the stuff. It blows around, so I don’t feel the need to be exact.

Relevant photo: Crocuses that survived the freeze.

Here in Cornwall, we got less. I’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s talk about the country shutting down: Cars got stuck, turning highways into parking lots, and drivers and passengers got stuck with them, waiting in their cars for I have no idea what. Rescue? Instructions? Warmer weather? Enlightenment? I understand why you wouldn’t want to walk away from your car in a snowstorm, but on the other hand, how long do you sit with it?

In one highway-slash-parking lot, the driver of a bakery truck gave up on the idea of delivering his goodies and passed them out to the folks he was stuck in the snow with. He was a hero, at least for a while, and got in all the papers. I’m not sure what happened when he got back to work—the papers haven’t covered that. If the bakery has any sense, they’ll give him a bonus, because they got great publicity, but I wouldn’t want to bet on that happening.

Someone I know of took in drivers who got stranded near her house. They were with her for a few days.

A woman was in the news because she left her car on the side of the road and walked to safety. She came back to find it had been towed and it was going to cost a shitload of money to get it back. And to make it worse, before she left it there she asked a cop if it was would be okay and he said sure, it would be fine.

Schools closed. Roads closed. Trains were canceled. Houses lost power. The supermarkets ran short of milk, bread, fruit, vegetables, and whatever else you happened to want. The Daily Mail wrote scary stories about sixteen-inch snowdrifts.

You Minnesotans, stop that. If you hardly ever see a snowdrift, sixteen inches is impressive.

British friends say two things to us in these conditions.

One: Isn’t it beautiful (or some variation on that)? It is and you can have my share. I’ve seen enough snow to last me several lifetimes. I don’t expect to get any extra lifetimes in which to spend my stockpile, but in case I do, I’m ready.

Two: How is it that we can’t handle this when Canada/Poland/Finland/wherever it is you told me you’re from don’t shut down every time they have a snowstorm.

It’s mostly true that they don’t, but any of those places can counts on having a fistful of snowstorms per year, so they invest in more than a fistful of snowplows, not to mention mountains of sand mixed with some strange chemical that melts ice and rusts cars. Their citizens are born clutching tiny snow shovels. It makes childbirth incredibly hard but once you get that out of the way, snowstorms are nothing.

On top of that, people in those places know how to drive in snow. And the ones who just can’t learn? They get Darwined out of the herd not long after they get their driving licenses.

Okay, now we can get to Cornwall: I can’t find a reliable source to tell you how much snow we got here, so let’s consult me. I’m anything but reliable, especially with numbers, but I am available. Where I live, in North Cornwall—which you can also call it East Cornwall if you’re in the mood; it’s not exactly the same, but it’ll do—we got an inch or two. South and west of us (that’s called down west), they got more. How much more? I wasn’t there, but it hit them earlier and seems to have caused them more trouble.

The last Cornish snow I saw was wet. It packed into ice almost immediately, so it was lethal. That was eight years ago, give or take a year or three, and I didn’t drive in it. Anything around here that isn’t a hill is a curve, so driving on ice? I’ll just do some baking, make a cup of tea, and stay home, thanks. That’s one of the best things about being retired. But this recent snow was powdery and dry and easy to drive in, and the temperature–unusually–was far enough below freezing to keep it from half-melting and then turning to ice.

Even I will admit that it was pretty. And as soon as a decent layer had fallen, the streets around us blossomed with parents pulling small kids on plastic sleds, which was also pretty.

Where did the sleds come from in this land of almost no snow? No idea. Fax, maybe. You order them online and the machine spits them out almost immediately.

I’ve heard that up on the moors the snow was heavier. Whatever weather the rest of Cornwall gets—wind, rain, heat, snow (you notice I haven’t mentioned sun)—the moors get more of it.

The county did some plowing and salting, but they start with the main roads and we’re on the way to nowhere, so they wouldn’t get to us before July, by which time its sort of beside the point. Around us, it was farmers who did the plowing with their tractors. Of course—and I say this for the benefit of people who’ve never lived with snow—when roads get plowed, snow gets pushed to the side, and if you have a driveway guess what happens to it? A lovely, dense layer of snow compacts across it and if you hope to get out you have to shovel your way through it. It’s heavy, heavy work. I did it a lot when I lived in Minnesota, sometimes breaking a (much too narrow) slot through the snowbank in front of the house so we could reach the street and sometimes to dig our cars out after the alley had been plowed.

Okay, I admit it: Some years we didn’t get that slot to the street cut after the first storm, and with each storm that followed it became harder to shovel through the snowbank. Getting from sidewalk to street involved mountaineering.

Our excuse was that it’s damn hard work. And in Cornwall almost nobody owns a snow shovel. We don’t even own a snow shovel, never mind a–oh, what are they called? Not icebreakers–those are ships. And not ice scrapers–those are for windshields. I have been gone a long time. One of those blades on a shovel-type handle that’s meant to deal with ice.

Anyway, for lack of the right tools, people end up trying to dig themselves out with soup spoons.

So that was the Beast from the East. Not at all bad where we were but tough further north and on the moors.

The next day, the Beast from the East met a wind from the west, a storm named Emma. (I’m not sure the Beast from the East didn’t get a formal name while Emma did. Weather people move in mysterious ways.) The combination brought freezing rain to Cornwall. Everything had a nice, slick layer of ice on it, and that stuff can kill you.

What did my partner and I do? Stayed the hell indoors. I may call her Wild Thing, but she’s not that wild.

With the ice, the village was cut off. Again,we’re on the way to exactly nowhere. It would take the county as long to get around to salting our road as it would take our current national government to locate both its brain and its heart. So when the driver who was supposed to deliver milk to the village store called to say he wasn’t coming because if he once got into the village he wouldn’t get back out, the store put out a call on Facebook, asking if anyone with a four-by-four could meet the truck.

The store got its milk. That’s life in a village.

For what it’s worth, I’ve never owned a four-by-four, but I’m pretty sure they’re no better on ice that a two-by-two. Never mind, though. They got through.

It wasn’t just the snow and ice that affected us, though. The houses around here are built—oddly enough—for Cornish weather, which rarely dips below zero and never stays there long. Except when it does. What I’m trying to say is that water pipes seem to be put in any which way.

Okay, I’m not a plumber. I’m sure a good bit of thought goes into them, but a friend’s water pipes turned out to be above ground. Insulated, but above ground. That looked like a sensible thing to do when the house was built.

Guess whose water pipes froze solid for a few days?

In northern Minnesota, the frost reaches five feet into the earth. In southern Minnesota—we’re soft down there—it only goes down 3 feet, six inches. Wild Thing and I were told once that footings had to go down either six or seven feet (I can’t remember which) to keep the frost from messing with them. Water pipes? They go through the center of the earth. Just to be safe.

Our friend wasn’t the only one whose pipes froze. So did an assortment of other people’s. So did water mains all around the country. Parts of London went without water for days—long after the temperatures rose.

The day after the freeze, as the temperatures rose and the ice started to melt, the delivery trucks reappeared and the store ran out of milk. The dairy’s pipes had frozen and it took them a day or so to recover. The supermarket’s shelves were still pretty bare days days after the thaw.

The thaw? It came the next day. The temperature got up into the forties–above zero for the metrically inclined–and the whole mess disappeared and we got back to normal. Even the daffodils, snowdrops, crocuses, and primroses that had frozen (see the rare relevant picture, above) recovered. When I lived in Minnesota, I longed for weather that behaved that way.

A week or so later, another storm system brought snow and ice warnings (and I think some actual snow and ice) to the north of us. It was called the Pest from the West.

This is what happens when a country starts naming its storms. People have way too much fun with it.

What’s happening to asylum seekers in Britain

Sorry,  no jokes today. I just read a post by a Ugandan seeking asylum in Britain. She’s being held the Yarl’s Wood detention center and is on a hunger strike. Let it serve as a quick introduction to the craziness and cruelty of the current British approach to immigration. Her post isn’t an easy fit here, but the world isn’t all jokes, and as a fellow immigrant, although a far luckier one, I can’t just walk past without calling attention to it.

I found the post in Phil Davis’s A Darkened Room. He works with asylum seekers and writes well and knowledgeably about their struggles.

The Dorset knob throwing contest

This year’s Dorset Knob Throwing Festival has been canceled.

This year’s what? Dorset Knob Throwing Festival. Let’s break that down into its parts.

Dorset: A British county

Dorset Knob: a biscuit made in Dorset

Biscuit: a British word for cookie (in the baking, as opposed to electronic, sense of the word) or, just to confuse things, for biscuit (in the American sense of the word)

Cookie: an American word for biscuit but always sweet, unlike the British biscuit, which you have to sneak up on carefully to find out if it’s dessertish or with-cheese-ish

So is the Dorset knob sweet or not-sweet?

Yes.

Irrelevant photo: strange plant a friend gave us

As far as I can remember (I had one years ago), it’s somewhere in the middle: not dessertish but not unsweetened. The BBC, which knows these things, reports that “they can be eaten with Blue Vinny cheese, dipped in tea or cider, or taken with honey and cream—known locally as thunder and lightning.”

The Dorset knob was created some 150 years ago in—you got it: Dorset. Which is a county (see above). In England (see a map). It was created out of leftover bread dough plus butter and sugar, then left to dry (not to mention bake) in an oven that was cooling down, and it was popular enough to hang around for 150 years.

Or that’s one version of how they’re made.

Another is that it originated with “Maria Bligdon, ‘a formidable woman with striking looks and great strength. She could handle a sack of flour as well as any man and was known for getting her own way.’ [I’m not sure who we’re quoting here. Sorry.] Around 1852 she began the ‘White Cross Baker’ in Litton Cheney, near Dorchester [someone should’ve put a comma here but, in the interest of verisimilitude and other big words, I’ll leave it out since this is a quote] where one of her bakers, Mr Moores, either devised [wait, wait, here’s where the comma got to!], or introduced [and here’s a spare in case we need it later; I’m not distracting you, am I?], the Dorset Knob. The recipe consists of bread dough with sugar and butter, shaped into round balls by hand and baked three times, to produce a crumbly rusk-like texture. On Mary Blingdon’s death, Moores set up his own bakery at Morcombelake with his sons, which continues to this day.”

If you’re reading carefully, you’ll notice that on her death Mary also acquired a second N in her last name.

The Dorset knob had a real moment during World War II, when it was made “compulsory as a soup roll during the rationing of World War II, possibly because of its excellent keeping qualities.”

So much, so ho-hum (except for the idea of a food item being compulsory, which is sort of chilling). Then in 2008 some wiseacre got the idea of holding a festival where everybody threw the things. That’s one of the ways you can tell rationing’s over: grownups think throwing food’s a good idea.

Why do they do that? The winters here aren’t all that cold, but they can be dark and rainy. That does things to people. After eleven years in this country, I understand why sooner or later someone will turn to a neighbor—or to the person next to them at the bar—and say, “Why don’t we hold a knob-throwing festival?” And it’ll sound like a good idea.

Really, it will.

This particular festival includes—or in the past has included—not just knob throwing but a knob eating contest and an assortment of other games involving knobs: archery, weight guessing, darts, pyramid building.

Now put the knob eating contest out of your mind. You’ll be grateful to me, because the festival also, daringly, includes a pin-the-knob-on-the-Cerne-Giant contest. Or at least on a picture of the giant.

Why’s that daring? Because the Cerne Giant is a huge, anatomically correct male figure cut into a nearby chalky hillside. As drawn, he’s—shall we say he’s interested in someone? You’ll find a photo here.

In a nod to modern sensibilities, the picture used in the game has been edited into inoffensiveness. You can pin the knob wherever you like, because you won’t hurt him too badly.

I don’t know how they score the game (I also don’t know how people fix a Dorset knob onto a piece of paper, but never mind), but I did wonder what the winning spot would be.

It might be worth knowing, in this context, that the Oxford online dictionary lists a “vulgar slang” definition in which knob means exactly the part that’s missing from the picture. I can’t believe that bit of information didn’t rise to the surface of some brain other than mine. Especially since, more or less by definition, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the male anatomy. Unless, of course, I’m writing about giants chalked into a hillside. Away from hillsides, I prefer the female anatomy. It’s just one of those things.

According to the same dictionary, knob can also mean “a small flock of wigeon, pochard, or teal (ducks),” but it does note that it’s a rare meaning. The dictionary doesn’t mention Dorset knobs.

The organizers hope the festival will be back in 2019 and better than ever. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by. And keep your mind out of the gutter.

*

I have to thank—or possibly blame—Bear Humphries for sending me a link to this story and suggesting that it was just strange enough to suit me. Check out his blog. It’ll serve him right.

Off-the-shelf comparisons in the U.S. and the U.K.

What a country compares things to tells us a lot about its culture.

What does it tell us? Damned if I know, but I do know that communication’s going on and I’ll claim a point or two, if you don’t mind, for getting that much right.

So let’s talk about what people reach for when they need an off-the-shelf point of comparison. If we’re talking about size–and we are, otherwise the conversation will be too baggy to manage–the British start with a double decker bus, then move up to a football pitch, which is, if I’ve got this straight, a football field except that the football in question is what Americans call a soccer ball, not what Americans call a football, and the field may be a slightly different size. Still, it’s close enough for all of us to think, delusional creatures that we are. that we’re talking about the same thing.

After the football pitch, the British upgrade directly to Wales, and after that, they stop. Nothing on the shelf is bigger than Wales. If they want something larger, they have to improvise.

What are the standard comparisons in the U.S.? A barn door. The broad side of a barn. (I may be cheating a bit here. This usually shows up as “couldn’t hit the broad side of a…” which isn’t a comparison. Half a point to me for honesty, then take it away for cheating.)

Completely relevant photo: This dog is smaller than a bus. He is also smaller than Rhode Island. He doesn’t actually have green eyes; that’s a spooky flash effect.

If Americans need a point of comparison bigger than that, we have “the size of Rhode Island,” which I should explain for the sake of non-Americans is our smallest state.

Texas used to be our biggest state, but that was before Alaska joined the union. Now it can only claim to be the biggest in the contiguous 48 states and the most blustiferous in all 50. But the things I remember hearing compared to Texas aren’t things that can be measured in miles. You might say, “She has a student loan the size of Texas,” but I can’t remember bodies of water, other countries, or deserts being compared to it

There’s no reason they shouldn’t be, but something about Texas tempts us into off-the-wall (as opposed to off-the-shelf) comparison. And here I really am saying something about the culture behind the comparisons.

My partner’s from Texas, so I don’t say any of this from ignorance. Or by way of complaint. I admire the florid insanity that Texans (forgive the generalization; I’m going to move on now before anyone gets a chance to complain) tap into so gloriously.

I’m from New York originally. We have our own forms of insanity, but they’re not as much fun, and we lean toward the small, being more likely to say, “My first apartment was the size of your average phone booth.”

For anyone young enough to ask, “What’s a phone booth?” I might as well explain that they were booths. Around phones. One phone to a booth. And back when they existed, all phone booths were the size of your average phone booth. They varied about as much as the old black rotary-dial phone. One size fit all. I could add that some New York apartments were smaller than your average phone booth, so whoever’s apartment was the size of one was was living in luxury.

And again, that does say something about the culture. New York’s a big city in a small space. Unless a person’s insanely rich, the amount of space she or he can lay claim to is limited.

The British are fond of reminding people that they’re a small island, although the people–the they in that sentence–aren’t actually a small island. The place they live is. Still, I seem to have always heard it as “we’re a small island.” 

Does it say something about the culture that the people have themselves confused with a chunk of land?

The small island excludes Northern Ireland, which is the smaller part of a different, smaller island. And that means something too, although I might do well to leave it to someone else to explain what, because I’m not at all sure. Any takers?

Soon after my partner and I first moved to Britain, the Guardian newspaper’s letter writers got into an extended discussion about using Wales as a point of comparison. The conversation started in a column that invites readers to ask and answer questions when someone asked, since it was a standard point of comparison, what size a Wales actually was. The discussion went on for so long that the editors moved it out of the column and onto to the letters page.

It’s hard to summarize an exchange of such intricate and admirable lunacy, but one highlight was the suggestion that we should learn from the metric system and standardize the Wales so that it becomes as reliable as a kilometer.

That led someone else to ask if it would be standardized at high tide or low.

As far as I can remember, no one asked, Why Wales? Northern Ireland’s smaller. Scotland’s bigger. England’s bigger still. What part of the British psyche does Wales occupy that people feel this compulsion to compare things to it?

*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer and editor, it’s that as soon as you state that something has three causes, someone will come along and tell you it has four. If you say it has four, someone will pop up with a fifth. So warm up your keypads, kidlets. I’ve missed a point of comparison. Or I’ve missed thirteen of ’em, and that’s not even starting on their implications. This is your invitation to tear up the floorboards. To shred, fold, and staple. (That’s a reference that only makes sense if you’re over a thousand years old. I am. If you’re nice, I might explain it.) Tell me what I’ve missed and what, if anything, it all means.

 

American schools and their guns

Enough about Britain. Let’s have some news from the U.S., because there’s more than enough lunacy there to keep us bitterly amused. I know, I know, it’s a serious subject, but bear with me.

You’ve heard that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers? Well, let’s check in on what happens when teachers are armed:

In Utah, a teacher shot herself in the leg in an elementary school toilet–or rest room, as we say in the U.S., because we may allow guns in our schools but we don’t allow loose talk about toilets. That sort of language reminds us of what we do with them–which is, generally, not shoot ourselves but get ride of bodily waste products (she said delicately). Or, to prove that I really would say shit if I had a mouthful, we shit and we pee.

The teacher had completed a gun safety course (which I’m guessing wasn’t long enough) and, you’ll be relieved to learn, was carrying the gun legally.

In Idaho, a professor shot himself in the foot while walking across campus.

In Minnesota, a third-grader reached over to a police officer’s holster and pulled the trigger on his (unless it was her–the officer was in possession of a gun but not of a pronoun). Should we start over? The kid shot the cop’s handgun. While it was in its holster and the cop was talking to the kids. The bullet went into the floor without passing through any flesh on the way. Likewise it did not pass Go or collect two hundred dollars. And if you’re a complete outsider to American (and I believe general English-speaking) culture, that’s an irrelevant reference to a board game.

Has Monopoly been translated into other languages and foisted off on the rest of the world?

And in Pennsylvania, a teacher in a small Christian school with one toilet that’s used by both staff and teachers put her handgun on the toilet tank while she used the restroom and then left without it. Four kids between the ages of six and eight used the, um, facilities before one of them reported it to his parents, who told a teacher, who presumably got it out of there safely.

So yes, arm the teachers. That’ll keep the kids safe.