Guy Fawkes Night: Who, what, when, where, and why

November 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, when people across most of Britain (we’ll get into the most part eventually) light bonfires and burn a long-dead Catholic plotter in effigy.

The only time I went to a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, all we burned were some potatoes (and we did’t burn them well enough, if memory serves), but we did at least light a fair-size fire. In other places, they go all out, shooting off fireworks, tossing the effigy into the fire, and (according to what I read) chanting bloodthirsty rhymes. (I’m not really sure if anyone chants it on the spot, but I’ve heard people quote a line or two, so the rhymes do circulate.)

All this dates back to 1605, when a plot to overthrow James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland; same person; same name; it must’ve been confusing for him) failed.

James was the son and successor of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic) and the successor of Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant). Elizabeth—being the Virgin Queen and all—had no kids. That’s an occupational hazard of being a virgin queen: Kids are hard to explain. And if you take truth in advertising seriously, they’re even harder to produce. So a successor had to be brought in from another branch of the family, and he had to be a Protestant.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. And what’s worse, I’ve forgotten the name of the thing. It’s a wildflower, and I should know it.

Luckily for Liz, when Mary was de-queenified, James was just thirteen months old. He was crowned in a Protestant church and raised as a Protestant. How he felt about that I don’t know, but I doubt the people in charge cared much. What mattered was what he did, and he didn’t rock the boat.

The powerful weren’t an overly sentimental lot back then. Whether anyone else was, I don’t know.

Why did Liz need a Protestant heir? Because as far as the English Protestants were concerned, Catholics were the boogeyman. The Catholic Church had done what it could to suppress Protestantism, and Protestantism responded by doing the same to Catholicism. No one gets the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in any of this, Although after Henry Kissinger was awarded one, you have to wonder what the prize is worth. And we’re not even going to get into Aung San Suu Kyi’s.

Besides, Alfred Nobel hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not sure peace was even considered a possibility, never mind a goal.

So both sides did their damnedest to stamp out the other religion on whatever soil they controlled, and whichever side was out of power favored freedom of religion. The minute it got power, it used that freedom to stamp out the other religion.

Three cheers for freedom of religion.

Let’s take a break here for a brief (and largely irrelevant) summary of English attitudes toward a couple of non-Christian religions. Grab a cup of tea, okay? Just a small one, because it won’t take long.

Jews had been run out of England in 1290 and weren’t allowed back in until 1656. They were probably still the boogeyman of popular and churchly imagination, but in the absence of any actual Jews that was sort of a sideshow. I don’t expect they generated a lot of passion.

In contrast, after the Pope excommunicated her in 1570, Elizabeth was free to send diplomats and merchants to the Muslim world and to invite Muslims to England, and she took full advantage of that freedom. (The Catholic Church forbid any contact.) Chalk up a win for the law of unintended consequences. According to the BBC, “From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, servants and even prostitutes.” It’s an interesting story but this isn’t the place to get into it. Hold onto that for another post and I’ll see what more I can find out.

Finished with your tea? Good. Let’s go back to Christians fighting each other.

In suppressing whichever religion was out of power, torture was a powerful tool–at least as much to spread fear than to extract information. In fact, fear may have been the more important of the two. Burning people was another important tool. Holding to the wrong religion in the wrong place was a dangerous business. Most people switched allegiances as needed and kept their misgivings to themselves, but not everyone did or could or would. They genuinely believed they’d suffer an eternity in hell if they didn’t do what their religion demanded. So some people took the dangerous route of holding on to their beliefs publicly, while others kept them private—or tried to. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Catholics needed priests if they were to follow their religion, and some of the great houses in Britain still have priest holes—hiding places, usually very small, where a visiting priest could be concealed from the priest hunters who scoured the country. If a priest so much as entered England, it was high treason (see below for the explanation of how much fun it was to be drawn and quartered).

After Elizabeth died, English Catholics—or at least some of them—hoped James would introduce a more tolerant climate, allowing them to practice their religion openly, and when he didn’t thirteen of them plotted to blow him up when he opened the next session of Parliament.

What could possibly be more fun? Well, you could toss some potatoes on the fire.

They stashed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and waited for their moment. They were hoping the explosion would lead to a Catholic uprising. But somebody wrote to the fourth Baron Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the opening of Parliament on November 5. The somebody was probably Monteagle’s brother-in-law, who was one of the plotters. On top of that, the government’s spy network was already sniffing after the plotters. So word got out and when the basement was searched, there sat Guy Fawkes, bored silly and wondering why the i-phone hadn’t been invented yet. In its absence, he had nothing to do than worry about being discovered while he waited for the right moment to touch a match to the fuse.

Or whatever they used instead of a match back then. A Zippo lighter. Or a flint and a bit of steel. We’re not big on historical accuracy this week. One of the sources I read actually did say “a match,” but the great Googlemeister tells me “self-igniting matches” were invented in 1805. This was 1605, so our dates are off a bit, even if they do have a nice symetry.

And what’s a non-self-igniting match anyway?

Guy was caught and tortured but managed to throw himself off the ladder he had to climb in order to be hung, which allowed him to die before he could also be cut down, drawn, and quartered. The goal of hanging, drawing, and quartering is to keep the person alive while it all happens, inflicting the maximum amount of pain and horror.

But for the people who weren’t about to be hung, drawn, and quartered–at least those among ’em who did’t want the Catholics back in power–Guy getting caught was endless fun, so they lit bonfires and generally whooped it up.

In fairness, I can see where Protestants would’ve been relieved not to be back under Catholic rule. I can also see why Catholics wanted to be out from under Protestant rule. The brutality of both sides was a perfect justification for the brutality on both sides, and there’s a lesson for us today in there somewhere.

In response to the plot, the laws against Catholics were tightened. As was the law of unintended consequences.

According to one theory, the gunpowder that the plotters used wouldn’t have blown up Parliament anyway—it had passed its sell-by date. According to another theory, it was enough to blow up everything within 500 meters. Take your pick, because Guy never got to light that match and we can’t know for sure.

The cellars where Guy and his match and his gunpowder hid are still searched in advance of the Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament each year. Just in case. Even though the cellars no longer exist. Even though gunpowder wouldn’t be anyone’s weapon of choice anymore. Yes, kiddies, that’s the way things work here in Britain. We don’t care that the cellars were wiped out in a nineteenth-century reconstruction of the building. We’ll search those suckers anyway, because—. Well, as they used to say on 75th Street, where I grew up, just because.

Everyone but me considered that a good enough explanation. For anything. So it’s not just England that works that way.

In Northern Ireland, the various shades of Christianity are still highly charged, so anyone who celebrates Guy Fawkes Day there is (a) Protestant and (b) knowingly getting up the nose of Catholics.

Elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the night’s just an excuse to light fires and shoot off fireworks, but I know how easy it is for a majority group to say, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s all just a good time,” while cluelessly offending the hell out of a minority, so I asked a Catholic friend about her experience.

She’d never given it a moment’s thought before I asked, she said. She went to Catholic school, and neither her school or her church ever took a stand against Guy Fawkes Night. By way of contrast, her kids’ Catholic primary school wasn’t shy about telling the students that Halloween had satanic overtones. So if the church had an opinion of the event, we can assume they wouldn’t have been shy about saying so.

When she was young, she and her friends used to sit on the street (this was in London) with a guy–basically a scarecrow made of old clothes and whatever the kids could get their hands on–and ask passersby for “a penny for the guy.” They’d buy fireworks with whatever they collected. And the bloodthirsty rhyme? She remembers it as part of an ad for fireworks.

I don’t know how typical she is of British (or English) Catholics. If anyone else wants to weigh in here, I’m interested.

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Cornwall, and I’m not sure what it means to people there, since both places have a conflicted history with England (she said in a masterpiece of understatement). Again, if you’re from there, or from Northern Ireland, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Stuff that really goes on in Britain

Last July, the queen’s official swan marker counted the queen’s swans. This is called swan upping.

Okay, the unvarnished truth is that they didn’t count all the queen’s swans, just the ones on the Thames. And not even on all of the Thames, just on one part of it. It takes five days to complete that chunk, and that probably explains why they stop there.

But the queen has other, uncounted swans. Lots and lots of swans, although since no one counts them she doesn’t know how many. She owns all the unmarked mute swans on open water in the country. Why? Because she’s the queen, that’s why, and if that’s not enough of a reason for you, go ask someone who takes this stuff seriously.

By way of a partial explanation, though, I found this is Wikipendia: “Rights over swans may, however, be granted to a subject by the Crown (accordingly they may also be claimed by prescription).”

“Accordingly”? No, I don’t understand what that’s doing there either. But “prescription”? That makes sense. If you can convince a doctor that owning a swan will cure whatever ails you, the queen can grant you one.

You don’t believe me, you cynic, you? It’s right there in black and white. Or it was last I checked. The word may have been re-prescribed to some other entry by now—it’s Wikipedia, after all—but I swear I can’t make up stuff like this. I can, however, mix up my links. I suspect the link about what part of the Thames gets swan-upped belongs to the quote, but I can’t be bothered to check.

You don’t really care, do you?

The usual irrelevant photo: A rose in our garden. Roses here get black spot–or ours do, anyway. You can see the spots on the out-of-focus leaves in the upper left-hand corner. Black spot makes the plants lose leaves like mad, but so far the plants have survived anyway. There’s a life lesson in there if you’re into that kind of thing. At my age, I’ve lost a few leaves myself, but my spots tend to be brownish, not black, so I probably have something different.

The swan uppers traditionally wear red and take skiffs out on the river.

A skiff is a light rowing boat, usually for one person. I had to look it up. It’s one of those words I think I know until I notice that I don’t really. I’ll skip the link. You can google it yourself if you want, but unless you have a strong stomach, skip the Urban Dictionary’s offering. They define it as a verb and the less said about it the better. And in a rare moment of good taste and discretion, I’ll say less. So let’s change the subject and quote the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on the subject of swan upping:

“During the Middle Ages, the mute swan was considered to be a valuable commodity and was regularly traded between noblemen. The owners of swans were duty bound to mark their property by way of a succession of unique nicks in the beaks of their birds. It was the duty of the Royal Swanmaster to organise the annual swan-upping, a tradition that survives to this day.

“The role of swan-upping was to round up unmarked cygnets and once the parentage of the cygnets had been established to the Swanmaster’s satisfaction [how do you do that? you ask, of course], the birds could be marked appropriately and returned to the wild. The ceremony exists these days in a largely symbolic form, although as an exercise it is useful in monitoring the condition and number of swans on the Thames.

“The only two companies that still observe the tradition of owning swans on the Thames are the Worshipful Companies of Vintners and Dyers. The Royal swans are no longer marked, but an unmarked mute swan on the Thames is regarded as belonging to the Queen by default. The Queen still maintains an officially-appointed Swan Keeper, and the ceremony still takes place on the Monday of the third week in July.

“The Queen has a prerogative over all swans in England and Wales. The Swan Keeper also despatches swans all over the world, sent as gifts in the Queen’s name.”

Just when you think things can’t get any more English, someone tells you about a Worshipful Company—in capital letters, yet. You have to love this place. Or I do, Even when I’m reduced to fits of giggles.

*

On a more prosaic note, a school in Houghton-le-Spring (yes really; it’s somewhere near Sunderland, which is somewhere not near me but that covers a lot of territory and I’m hazy about exactly where in the land of not-near-me it is)—. Let’s start that over: The school sent a bunch of kids home at the beginning of the school year because their trousers (that’s pants if you’re American and definitely not pants if you’re British, except in a sort of metaphorical, insulting way, because pants are underwear except when the word’s used to mean something not good)—. We’re lost again, aren’t we? I’ll get to the point this time. The school sent a bunch of kids home because their trousers were the wrong shade of gray.

If you’re not British, you need to understand that school kids here have to wear uniforms. And that schools take their uniforms as seriously as the queen takes her swan upping. They’re convinced the uniforms give the kids a sense of pride in their school. I have yet to hear a single kid say that it does, but maybe I’m talking to the wrong kids.

I would, wouldn’t I? Mostly I was talking to one kid, who hated them with a passion I really admired.

Great kid.

But back in Houghton-le-Spring (yea, verily, that is the name of the place–I have no idea how it’s pronounced), the school made the kids line up in the rain while someone checked their trousers against a swatch of fabric. Yes, a swatch. They couldn’t just eyeball the damned things and say, “We said gray and that looks more like pink.” Nope. They needed the exact shade of gray.

I’m sure it made the kids immensely proud. Especially the standing in the rain part.

The point of the exercise was to make sure the parents bought £15.99 trousers from Total Sport instead of (oh, the horror of it all) £7 trousers from Tesco, which is a (more horror) supermarket that sells relatively cheap school clothes. Because if you force the parents to spend more money on school uniforms, you squeeze out the lower-income parents and get a better class of dolt filling your school’s seats.

The kids who couldn’t be sent home (presumably because their parents were at work and not available to be shamed with satisfying immediacy) were put in an isolation room, where they wouldn’t contaminate the other kids, and they weren’t allowed to attend classes until they repented, forked out £15.99 times however many pairs they needed, and changed clothes. The three with the wrongest shade of gray were freeze dried and won’t be thawed out until the end of the school year.

The headteacher (that’s the principal, if you’re American) said, “We are very, very particular about the uniform because we need consistency right across the board.

“In doing so some learners were sent home. If you have different types of trousers it leads on to different types of shoes, different types of shirts, etc.”

And the next thing you know, they’ll have different types of—gasp, wheeze—thoughts.

I don’t know when students became learners, but I’m sure they learned a lot from the exercise, and I hope it wasn’t what the headteacher wanted them to learn. And if the headteacher would please contact me, I’d love to correct her writing sample. I won’t charge, but I will point out that “in doing so” doesn’t refer back to a single damned thing.

How do I know? I’m holding a syntax swatch up beside it. She bought her sentences at the supermarket and I caught her at it.

*

A letter in the Guardian claimed that in the 1970s, when books had to be moved from the old library in Worthing (that’s probably in Somerset, but don’t trust me on that) to the new one, the library encouraged people to borrow as many books as they wanted from the old library, then return them to the new one.

“The shelves in the old library were soon empty,” the letter says. Except for the one that held the complete works of Proust.

*

This doesn’t really fit with our topic, but most of you know me well enough not to expect any better. A second Guardian letter writer mentioned the title of a commentary on modern church songs (or maybe that’s only one category of modern church songs—I wouldn’t know). The point is that the commentary was titled, “O God, let me be the putty round thy window pane.”

I expect it’s even funnier if you’ve been subjected to whatever category of church songs that is. I haven’t, for which I count myself lucky because if I’d laughed any harder I’d have rearranged my internal organs.

As far as I understand the definition of organs, all of mine are internal, but never mind. It sounds better with “internal” left in, and if you have a syntax swatch yourself, allow me to remind you that rhythm does matter.

Some of the Guardian letter writers are frighteningly funny, and the paper, to its credit, encourages the worst in them.

*

The Conservative Party held its conference in early October, and since the party’s somewhere between disarray and meltdown it badly needed to come out of it with a burst of energy, a bit of unity, and some good press. Instead, it organized a satirist’s dream. The best part came when the prime minister, Theresa May, coughed and choked her way through her big speech while standing in front of a sign that at the beginning of the speech said, “Building a country that works for everyone.” As she spoke, letters started dropping off until eventually it read, “Bui ding a c  ntry tha   orks for    ryon .”

Truer words have never peeled off a sign.

*

And finally, a note about something that didn’t happen: the annual World Bolving Contest Championships. For the second year in a row, there weren’t any. How they get to be annual under those conditions I don’t know, but the paper called them annual and who am I to argue?

Mind you, I can’t find a link to the article. Ever since the Western Morning News started pouring its content into Cornish Stuff instead of its own website, I haven’t been able to find its print articles online, although I happen to know they’re there. Somewhere. So let’s settle for a link to a video from the World Bolving Contest Championships back when they did happen. Just to prove they’re real.

How could you have doubted me? Don’t you feel kind of silly about it now?

So what’s bolving? The bolve is the red deer’s mating call. So bolving? That’s when the stag’s calling. Or when a human’s imitating a hormonally overamped red stag calling his love—whoever she might turn out to be. I have a hunch they’re not particular about that.

If you want a completely irrelevant meaning of the word and its astro-numerological significance, you’ll find it here. I haven’t read it and can’t think of a reason why I’d want to, but far be it from me to stop you from improving your mind.

If the human’s bolve works at all and if a stag’s in the neighborhood, the stag will answer. Maybe because they’re not really calling their loves but challenging their rivals. I’m no expert on red deer, but I’ve known some humans who are wired like that.

This isn’t one of those traditional contests Britain specializes in—the kind that are so ancient that no one really understands what they’re about anymore but everyone continues them anyway. Like, say, the Atherstone Ball Game.. Or the Gloucester Cheese Rolling. No, this one dates back only as far as 2003, when a few people were sitting around an Exmoor pub, drank too much, and made a bet. I’m guessing that’s how a lot of traditional contests started. Not necessarily with a bet, but definitely with a pub.

The contest started out small and local, but before anyone knew what had happened it was big and popular, which meant it involved visitors on the roads after dark and, wouldn’t you know it, insurance.

The WMN story ends with the tale of a regional deer expert who “used to bolve so that he could hear which stags were about, but one evening a mighty stag came belting down through the woods to confront him face to face. The beast did a kind of cartoon skid with all four hooves when he saw his opponent was a man, stopping just feet away to issue one final, deafening, defiant, bellow.”

You can tell you’re in the land of tall tales when you find not just a stag but a mighty stag, and when it does a cartoon skid.

That extra comma in the last sentence belongs to WMN. Far be it from me to cheat them out of it. If you’re not sure which one it is, don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s one of those editty, nitpicky things. I wont freeze dry either you or the WMN for it. The headteacher, though? I’ve got my eye on her. She’d better watch it.

How to boost your stats by screwing up

Bloggers, do you want more views on your blog, preferably without putting any work into it? I’ve discovered the secret, and it’s not one that any of the experts recommend. It’s simple: Screw up.

On Tuesday, I posted a blog I meant to schedule ahead, for November. Life’s a mess right now. Giving myself some leeway looks like a smart move. So within a minute of posting it, I took it down a tucked it into the schedule, where it can slumber till the world’s ready for it–or at least till I am.

But–semi-responsible blogger that I try to be–I thought I’d let followers know what happened, otherwise I’d get helpful messages saying one of my posts had disappeared. I’ve sent a few of them myself. So I put up a three-sentence post titled “Oops.”

And what happened? It got more views than my (admittedly very long) post of why Britain’s called Britain, which I poured a shitload of work into.

What does it all mean, bartender?

British manners

People here say “yes, please” a lot.

Let’s say I ask—as I often do when someone stops by—“Do you want a cup of tea?”

No one says just plain old “yes,” and not many will say, “I’d love one.” They say, “Yes-please,” and it’s more or less one word, which is why I stuck that hyphen in there. Imagine a good little girl who folds her hands in her lap and never kicks the chair legs. That’s what they sound like.

Unless they go from polite to self-effacing and say, “Only if you’re making one anyway.”

God forbid I should want to go out of my way for them because they’re friends.

But the pleases matter to people here. Really, really matter. As in, if you don’t say “please,” it doesn’t matter how nice you’re being, you’re still being rude. It runs me into trouble because—I’ve come to realize—the American version of asking for, say, half a pound of lunch meat politely is to start the sentence with, “Can I have…?” and end it with “lunch meat,” not “please.”

Why not? Be-fuckin’-cause. (Sorry. It’s a post on manners. Manners make me nervous. Being nervous makes me swear. So do other things, including air and water.) We say it that way that’s just how we say it. Don’t look for too much sense in these things, but if I had to come up with an explanation I’d say it’s because we’re doing business, not asking a favor.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. These are whatsit flowers. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful –the slugs don’t eat them.

Over here, what people seem to hear in can I is something along the lines of “is it physically possible?” Which makes them want to say, “Of course you can bloody well have half a pound of lunch meat. It’s right there in the display case. We’re trying to sell the stuff. Why couldn’t you have it?”

Although of course they don’t. Because they’re very, very polite. Mostly—but that’s a different post.

As a side issue, over here half a pound makes it sound like your talking about money. Ask for a quarter of a kilo. Ask for 250 grams. It’ll be close enough.

Anyway, to the American ear what’s physically possible isn’t the point of “can I?”. Maybe we say it to imply that the person behind the counter’s being nice in selling it to us. Maybe that’s not what’s under the surface at all. Maybe we don’t know what the hell we’re implying. It’s politeness. It doesn’t have to make sense.

In Britain, though, repeated drops of please and thank you are what you use to oil your way through the day. The country’s mind-bogglingly mannerly, but people over a certain age complain that no one has manners anymore. Store clerks are rude and kids are surly and water isn’t as wet as it used to be.

If they’re right, I don’t know how anyone found time in the day to eat, never mind build and then lose an empire, what with all the pleases and thank you’s they had to say.

A brief interruption: This is your pilot speaking. Please fasten your seat belt. The post is about to make what looks at first like a diversion but it really is related.

Building an empire, or imposing it on other countries, or whatever you want to call the process, isn’t a polite business. It involves money and guns and bloodshed. If you’re on the building end of this, you don’t say, “Only if you’re having one anyway.” You don’t say “please.” At least not to anyone you don’t consider your equal.

So give me a minute to speculate about the origin of contemporary British manners. First let’s go back in time. The empire’s being built. Within Britain, the class structure is rigid. Think great house with servants. Think of farm workers being expected to take their hats off to the lord—no, sorry, that was only the men. I don’t know what the equivalent was for women. You get the picture, though.

Who’s not the equal of who (okay, okay: to whom, if it makes you happier) is a national obsession, and this is carried over to the empire. The new rulers look down on the ruled for eating odd food and for having odd customs and skin colors and languages.

The definition of odd is “different from ours.”

But they also look down on each other, keeping a finely tuned awareness of who’s above who and who’s below. That tells them who they have to say “please” and “thank you” to and who has to say it to them. They may have the same skin color, but they had different ancestors. Most of them are convinced that matters. Because in Britain the class system isn’t just about money. I’ve heard people claim it’s not about money at all, although I’m sure money comes into it. But what they mean when they talk about the class system is each family’s place in a rigid structure and how long it’s clung on there.

So the way-back-when system meant that you were born into a station in life and were meant to damn well stay there. It gave rise to phrases like it’s not my place to… and getting a bit above ourselves, aren’t we? I’ve heard both. The second one was addressed to a cat, but I’ve never heard anyone say it to a cat in the U.S.

The cat didn’t think he was getting above himself at all.

And now let’s leave the cat behind, because I’m going to go out onto thin ice. My research on this is thin, so if anyone wants to correct me I’d be grateful.

After World War II, the class system broke down a bit. (I say “a bit” because it’s still around, but with nothing like the rigidity it once had.)

Some of the changes seem to have started earlier. Food rationing had been in place throughout the war and continued on for a good while afterward, and although it caused hardship for many it also meant that the poorest people were eating better than they had been. It was a form of equality, even if it was an equality of scarcity.

Then in 1945, a Labour government was elected and it either consolidated changes that were already in process or caused them–or more likely a little of each. The National Health Service was created, making health care free to all, and council houses (the equivalent of what Americans call public housing) were built on a massive scale.

And so on. I don’t want to get lost in the detail. For our purposes, what matters is that people weren’t expected to stay in their place anymore. They had a right to health care, decent housing, better pay, everyday respect. Egalitarianism was an acknowledged goal.

A few years back I heard someone on the BBC talking about a railway porter at the end of the war being addressed by a passenger who was high the social ladder. I can’t remember the details, but the passenger wanted to be addressed as sir, or something along those line. And the porter said, “Those days are over.”

It’s not a systematic study, but it’s one of those resonant details, although it’d resonate a hell of a lot more if I remembered the detail. Sorry. I could make it up, but I’d like to stick to the truth if you’re okay with that. What matters here is that the winds had shifted. No one was going to take their hat off anymore.

I haven’t fallen through the ice yet, but it gets thinner from here on out, because I have no evidence for this at all. That’s a sober-sounding way of saying I’m guessing. Somebody make sure the cat hasn’t followed us, okay?

My guess is that in that egalitarian windstorm, instead of sir and madam being blown away completely, they started to apply more or less across the board. If you’re a customer someplace, you’re in danger of getting sirred or madam’d. We’re all sirrable or madamable. It drives me mildly nuts, but it’s not a battle I’m going to fight.

That may be what all the pleases and thank you’s are about as well. We’re all the people we have to polite to these days. Anyone who comes in thinking they can just give orders will get a raised eyebrow and possibly even (may the angels, the fairies, and all the many sunspots protect them) a tut.

Looking at it that way, even this reckless American has an incentive to say “please.”

Again, I’m not at all sure I’m right about this. I’m testing out a theory and I’d love to know how much it matches with your experience.

If you’ll excuse me now, I’m going back to see how the cat is.

Why Britain is called Britain

Every so often someone searches the internet asking why Britain’s called Britain and the question lands them in the surreal territory that makes up Notes from the U.K. It’s a sensible question, and it makes a nice change from the related (and way more common) questions about why Britain’s called great. (Answer: ‘cause it’s bigger than the single-patty, quarter-pounder Britain. And it comes with a slice of pickle. Would you like fries with that?)

I’ve been meaning to research the question but put it off because it promised to be complicated. And it fulfilled that promise. It is complicated. Allow me, please, to make it worse.

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, Britain is the “proper name of the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales, c. 1300, Breteyne, from Old French Bretaigne, from Latin Britannia, earlier Brittania, from Brittani “the Britons” (see Briton). The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant “Wales.” If there was a Celtic name for the island, it has not been recorded.”

Are you confused yet? If not, go back and read that again, because you should be.

Good. If you’re now in the right state of mind, we’re take that mess apart, spread the pieces out on the living room floor, and look at them as carefully as if we expected to understand them. I doubt we’ll get all the parts back where they started, but what the hell, we didn’t write the definition so it’s not our problem. We might just figure out how it worked (if, in fact, it did work) before we pulled it all to pieces.

But before we dismantle the thing, I should let you know that I’ve made labels so we can sort the bits into categories. A lot of them could as easily go in one pile as another, but we need some sort of system if we’re going to keep this organized.

Wish me luck.

Marginally relevant photo: This is Britain, or a bit of it anyway. The picture doesn’t explain anything, but it is what we’re talking about.

The Romans and the Britons

What we’ve got so far, if you read between the lines of that not-very-well-organized definition, is that Britain was named by the Romans, who invaded the place in the first century C.E. and claimed naming rights.

Stop. What’s this C.E. business?

Like many of you (that’s a guess, but humor me), I learned to divide history into B.C. and A.D., using a system that take the birth (or is it death?) of Christ as the dividing point for all time everywhere. I was taught that the initials stood for Before Christ and After Death, which seems to leave the period when he was actually alive a blank, but never mind. It was a good way to remember which set of initials was what.

A.D. actually stands for Anno Domini, Latin for the year of our lord—or so I was told by a teacher who was probably as Jewish as I was and am, but the system was so rigidly in place at the time that neither of us commented on the strangeness of claiming a god who wasn’t ours and using him as our marker. Whatever B.C. really stands for, I’m sure it’s Latin as well, but a quick rattle through Dr. Google’s knowledge pills didn’t leave me any wiser and it’s a side point anyway. If anyone knows, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, we’ll stagger forward.

Decades after I learned about B.C. and A.D., I was working as a copy editor for a major publishing house. (I’m retired, much to the publishing world’s relief, and any inconsistencies in style that you find here are because I don’t get paid to care anymore. Wheeeeeeeeeee.) Their encyclopedias were sold in many countries and to many cultures. They needed to be inclusive, so they used C.E. (the Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) instead of A.D. and B.C.

C.E. / B.C.E. is an attempt to keep what as far as I know is the dominant dating system but without assuming that the entire world takes Christ as its reference point. But introducing a new system confuses the hell out of people over I’m not sure what age—and possibly under it. I’m sorry about the confusion. It took me a while to get used to it too, but there’s nothing like getting paid to help a person get on top of a new way of thinking. Now that I’ve made the transition, I like system, but I always feel like I need to explain.

At length, unfortunately.

And as another side point, the Muslim world starts its dating system from an entirely different point: the year Muhammad moved from Quba’ to Medina. So I could be wrong about what the dominant system is. Maybe it’s just been the dominant one in my life. Which is easy enough to mistake for the entire world.

The earliest dating systems tended to use rulers as their reference points—something along the lines of “In the third year of the rule of King Idogar the Insignificant…” That meant that different countries used different reference points and any single country used different reference points at different times. It made piecing the quilt of world history together a nightmare, since after a few centuries no one knew when old Idogar reined. So both the Christian and Muslim systems were massive improvements, giving everyone a stabilized way to track time, even if they both assumed their religions were and always would be the center of everything.

Onward. Or possibly backward to what we were talking about before I so rudely interrupted myself.

When the Romans landed in Britain, the place was inhabited by Celtic tribes—the Britons mentioned in the definition—who don’t seem (emphasis on seem; we can’t know) to have called it “Britain.” What did they call it? Dunno. They would’ve called it something more specific than “home.” They traveled to Europe (more about Europe in a minute), and Europeans traveled to Britain, so everyone involved would’ve needed a name for it. When you step outside of a place, you do need a way to talk about it. And Britain’s an island, which makes it distinct enough that it would’ve screamed out for a name of its own.

But what mattered more than the island at the time was what tribe a Briton belonged to or what tribe’s territory an outsider landed in. Britain wasn’t a united country. It wasn’t a country at all. Whatever it was called referred to the geography, not any political grouping.

As (yet another) a side point, no one had a name for Europe back then. They had names for its parts, but they didn’t think of the whole. It’s not a place with clear geographical borders, so naming it would have been like naming half your hand: It’s just not something most of us feel a need to do. Plus it’s big. No one at that time, as far as I know, would’ve traveled completely around it. So—to use a different comparison—naming it would’ve been like naming yourself and six inches of the air around you. This isn’t a territory most of us need a name for.

What people named were the parts—the places where they and people they knew about lived.

So the Romans invaded Britain and claimed naming rights, and in the process of naming the place named its inhabitants. We don’t know if the pre-Roman Britons had a group name for themselves. Until they were invaded, and probably for some time after, they’d have been more likely to see the differences between their tribe and the neighboring tribes than the samenesses.

The tribal names have come down to us from the Romans as the Iceni, the Cornovi, and so on and on and on. But those names use Latin forms. At best, they’d be Roman manglings of what the tribes called themselves and at worst complete impositions. One of the tribes is called the Setantii. I don’t know Latin, but that sounds suspiciously like the Italian word for 70—settanta

Why call a tribe 70? Once again, dunno. We’d have had to be there. Maybe that wasn’t what it meant at all.

But let’s go back to the word Britain, which comes from Brittania (however you want to spell it). It seems to come from an earlier word, Prettanoi or Prittanoi. And now it’s time to move over by the coffee table, because we’re going to put our pieces on a new pile.

The Celts, the Greeks, and the tattoos

One source says the name Prittanoi (however you choose to spell it) came from the Britons’ “Celtic neighbours in Gaul (modern France) and we know that they had a very similar language. Prettanoi was a native [that means Celtic] word meaning ‘painted people’, and the Prettanoi called the island where they lived Albion, ‘the white land’. [I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, grain of salt here. It’s on the shelf in the kitchen. Thanks.] Later Greek and Roman writers began to call the island Britannia, meaning ‘land of the Britons (Prettanoi).’”

Wikipedia (never mind the link—it will all have changed by now) says (or once said) that the word Prettanoi came to us from the Greek explorer Pytheas, who sailed around the British Isles (quick geography lesson: that includes Ireland) between 330 and 320 B.C.E. and that the word may have come to him from the Gauls.

Another source, and I’ve lost track of it by now—sorry; I’ve looked up too much closely related stuff and it’s all cross-fertilizing—says the word meant “the tattooed people.” The British tribes were known for painting themselves blue, at least when they went into battle, which they allegedly did naked. Spend a winter here and you’ll understand why I say “allegedly.” It’s not Minnesota, but speaking only for myself, I wear clothes and am damn glad to have them.

Some Roman sources claim the tribes didn’t just paint themselves but were tattooed, and a different Wikipedia entry translates Prettanoi as “the painted or tattooed people.” And, for whatever it’s worth, the BBC says that when the Normans invaded, they found the British (I’m not sure which British: the Anglo-Saxons or the Celts or both?) still tattooing themselves, and the Normans took up the habit from them. I’m not sure when they stopped, but I can tell you that they’ve started again, with (as far as I know) no sense that they’re carrying on a longstanding national tradition.

That second Wikipedia entry I mentioned also raises doubts about the word Prettanoi having anything to do with blue paint or tattoos. It links it to the Welsh word pritu (“ Proto-Celtic kwritu,” if that means anything to you), which meant “shape” or “form.” “This leaves us with Pritania,” it says.

Welsh is a descendant of the language spoken by some of the Celtic tribes (we’ll get to why I say “some of” eventually), so looking at Welsh makes sense , but I have no idea why “shape” or “form” would seem like a good name for an island or a people. I admit that both have a shape, but so do most solids.

Okay, when we took that apart, we kind of wrecked it. But what about Albion meaning “the white land”? One source (and again, I’ve lost track of which one; do you honestly care?) says the word’s probably Celtic but related to the Latin albus, meaning white, as in the white cliffs of Dover (presumably), because the land itself is green. That would mean the link to whiteness comes from Latin, not any Celtic language. Celtic and Latin are two very different, very unrelated languages.

I’m willing to believe that a Celtic word sounding roughly like Albion got mixed up with the Latin word meaning “white” and before anyone knew what had happened they were all as confused as I am. Or as you are if you’ve been following me closely.

But let’s not take ourselves too seriously. I have the sense that there’s a lot of guesswork going on here. And that from time to time serious explanation edges over into pure fantasy.

But we’ve wandered. You should know better than to leave me in charge.

If some of the Britons’ neighbors called them the Prittanoi or something vaguely like it, it’s no great surprise that it stuck. Many groups of people have been landed with names (often insulting ones) given to them by their neighbors. The Saami people used to be called Laplanders. The Inuits were called the Eskimo. The Ojibwe were called the Chippewa. They’ve only recently started to insist that the world call them by the names they call themselves.

For the Prittanoi, though, it’s too late. Whatever they called themselves is lost, and so are they.

More about the Celts, a bit about the Greeks, and nothing more about tattoos

While we’re talking about the Celts, let’s back up a bit and ask who they were.

The word describes a group of tribes who ran around Europe before anybody started taking notes. They can be traced back to the upper Danube around 1,400 B.C.E

According to one source, the Celts started arriving in in what’s now Scotland around 900 B.C.E. Which doesn’t mean all the Celts left Europe. One source (I no longer care which one; I’ve lost the will to link) says the Celts were in Austria France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Western Germany, Northern Spain, Turkey, and Hungary in 400 B.C.E. Not that any of those countries existed, but the Celts were in place and absolutely panting for them to be invented.

But another source says the Celts probably arrived in Britain in two waves: the Goidelic-speaking Celts (that means the tribes who spoke one version of a somewhat common language, and I can’t pronounce the word Goidelic either) between 2000 B.C.E. and 1200 B.C.E. and the Brythonic-speaking (that’s the other version) Celts sometime between 500 B.C.E. to 400 B.C.E.

Flip a coin. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. They got here. That’s all we need to know for now.

The Cornish, Welsh, Gaelic, and Breton languages are descendants of what we now call Celtic.

So why do we call it Celtic? Some sources claim the word Celt (it’s pronounced kelt; have I mentioned lately that English is insane?) comes from the ancient Greek keltoi, meaning “barbarian.” I doubted that because I happen to know that the English word barbarian comes from the Greek barbaros, meaning–you guessed it– “barbarian.” To the Greek ear, anyone who didn’t speak Greek must’ve all sounded like they were saying “bar bar bar baar bar bar bar.”

Where does keltoi come into it, then? Possibly nowhere. When I tried to find a translation, I came up with several people writing on the assumption that it did mean barbarian but not actually translating the word. Which made me—cynic that I am—even more suspicious. One site that looked like it was actually going to translate it ended up telling me about yew trees instead. So for a while there, I didn’t think I could find any proof the word even existed.

Ah, but I knew you were waiting, so I pressed on and found some online dictionaries of ancient Greek.

Now, ancient Greek uses—surprise, surprise—the Greek alphabet, and one dictionary offered me an on-screen keyboard. I don’t know Greek (my vocabulary’s made up of a few food words and a few insults, plus the words for and and barbarian), but I can stumble through parts of the alphabet, so I picked out the word κελτοι and hit Search.

A new screen appeared and said my search for κελτοι had come up blank.

Well, yes, I could see why it might’ve. I don’t know what alphabet that is or whether it’s used on this planet, but it ain’t Greek.

Fine. I found a dictionary that would accept transliterated words and typed in “keltoi.”

New Screen. Great excitement, because we were about to have a revelation.

The word means “Celtic.” Or “Gallic,” since that’s what the Romans called the Celts in what the Romans called Gaul, which covered what’s now France and Germany and a bunch of other places that didn’t have any political existence or possibly even separate names yet.

So the word Celtic derives from a Greek word meaning “Celtic,” which for all I know was taken from a Celtic word meaning “Celtic.”

Do you feel like we’re going in circles here?

Fine. We’re lost. But it’s okay, because we’ll just accept that Celt either comes from a word meaning “Celt” or from thin air and we’ll go on to talk about the part of the definition we started with, which says, “The Old English place-name Brytenlond meant ‘Wales.”

Reinforcing that, another source says that around 1200, Briton meant “a Celtic native of the British Isles,” or “a member of the tribe of the Britons.”

The Angles, the Saxons, and the Normans, but still no more tattoos

To make sense of that, we need to talk about a few more invasions.

The Romans, when they were still running Britain, brought in mercenaries who belonged to a couple of Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, and ceded land to them, which they settled. I don’t know if they pushed the Celts out of those lands at this stage or not, but I’m willing to guess that the good land suddenly wasn’t in Celtic hands.

After the Romans withdrew, more Angles and Saxons invaded or migrated—take your pick—into Britain. Between them, the Angles and the Saxons pushed the Celts into the corners of Britain—Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland.

The Angles eventually gave their name to England, which gradually became a country instead of a gaggle of small kingdomlets. That much seems clear. Not to mention shockingly simple.

Then Anglo-Saxon England got invaded by the Normans, who came from France but were originally Norse, which is the origin of their name.

Almost nobody in this tale ever leaves well enough alone. Especially (and I do know this although I don’t do much about it) me.

That brings us to the part of the definition we opened with where it says the word Britain came back into use from the Old French, which had preserved the Roman name. If that’s true, what did the Angles and Saxons call the place?

One of the 607 Wikipedia entries I got lost in says that in Old English—that’s the language of the Anglo-Saxons before and for some time after the Norman conquest—it was called “Bryttania.” Then it goes on to talk about the word Britannia re-entering the language from Old French, which the Normans spoke and which eventually merged with Old English to give us the glorious mess of a language that we have today.

How is Bryttania different from Britannia? Ignore the spelling, because spelling was a liquid back then. Most people couldn’t read and those who could treated spelling as a creative activity. C’mon, they didn’t have TV. They had to do something.

So let’s shove the spelling difference over a cliff. The two words look the same to me. Maybe the talk about the word re-entering from Old French is because French is what the conquerors spoke, so even if they used was the same word, the Norman version was the one that mattered. But you remember how I said things shade over into fantasy pretty quickly? I’m helping the process along here, because although that explanation sounds sensible I have no idea if it’s true.

We’re almost at the end here. Do you feel certain of anything anymore? If so, you haven’t been paying attention. So let’s end with a reminder from the BBC, which at least will take us back to a reliable source:

“Before Roman times, ‘Britain’ was just a geographical entity, and had no political meaning, and no single cultural identity. Arguably this remained generally true until the 17th century, when James I of England and VI of Scotland sought to establish a pan-British monarchy.”

*

Okay, that’s everything I know, and a bit more. If you’d help me get this mess off the living room floor, I’d appreciate it. Just drop it in the trash can as you go out. And have a good Friday the thirteenth. If you want to make corrections, add facts, or subtract facts, I’d welcome it. On the other hand, if you just want to tear your hair and moan, I’ll understand it. And on the third hand, if you want to complain, I’ll understand that as well.

Exploring early Cornish history

Let’s talk about early Cornish history. Or let’s try to, anyway. It turns out not to be an easy topic.

I spent a year or so searching for a good book on the subject and was met with blank looks in both used bookstores and unused bookstores. (What do we call those? New bookstores, even if they’re old? Just plain old bookstores, even if that’s not clear enough in the context?)

I didn’t do much better when I asked friends.

The books I did find fall into two and a quarter categories: 1, archeology; these books tend to be technical enough that I don’t get much out of them; 2, later history, which wasn’t what I was looking for; 2 ¼, school history, and this consists of one lone book for kids that has all the depth and reliability of any school history, which is why I’m not going to grant it a full category.

So it’s pretty dismal out there in the bookstore aisles, and in mid-September, I finally found out why. We’ll get to that, but first let me drag you through the tale of how I found out. It’s damn near relevant.

Some miles down the coast from where I live is Tintagel Castle. That’s pronounced tin-TA-jell, and the A in the middle syllable—oh, hell, English is impossible—is pronounced like the A in cat, although I don’t promise that’ll work in all accents everywhere.

Just do your best, okay? It won’t be on the test. The main thing is to put the emphasis on the middle syllable.

A shockingly relevant photo: Tintagel Castle. This is on the bit that was left on the mainland when the land bridge to the island collapsed.

Tintagel Castle was built in the 13th century on a bit of cliff that juts out into the ocean and catches every bit of wind coming from the west, south, or north. And since it’s joined to the mainland by a thin spit of land, it’s called the island.

Sorry, I don’t make the rules. It’s just called that. Erosion being what it is, especially with sea levels rising, sooner or later it’ll catch up with what it’s called and become the island it aspires to be. In the meantime, there’s a footbridge so you don’t have to clamber over the rocks and an impressive (not to mention rough) set of steps.

The castle’s a ruin now, having been subject to by wind and rain, not to mention people running (or staggering) off with chunks of stone after the place was abandoned. Hard as it is to steal stone that’s already been worked, it’s easier than digging up the unworked stuff, shaping it, and then having to move it anyway. Theft–or re-purposing, if you like–is one of the important ways that ruins get ruined. But what contributed most to the castle’s ruin was that the land bridge joining the headland to the mainland collapsed, taking the landward side of the hall with it.

If you’re intrigued, check out English Heritage’s website for photos and history. It’s well done and worth your time, even if many a Cornish eye rolls at the name English Heritage, because Cornwall was once independent, and had its own language, and the Cornish haven’t forgotten it and don’t consider themselves English.

Or some of them don’t. I’m an outsider and can’t pretend to talk for all of them. Or any of them. I can report what I’ve heard, though.

But the castle’s a relic of relatively late history and not what I was haunting the bookstore aisles for. If you hang around this country long enough, you can get snobbish about your history. Seven or eight hundred years ago? Phooey. I’m holding out for fifteen hundred or better.

Well, further out on the island, behind the 13th-century ruin, are much earlier stone foundations. The walls stand roughly knee high and grass forms a floor and grows on top of the walls. When I first visited Tintagel, the going theory was that they were the remains of a monastery. The current theory is that they’re the remains of a village dating back as far and the 5th and 6th centuries.

A number of the foundations were excavated in the 1930s, but the notes from that dig were lost in the blitz.

For five weeks this past summer, archeologists assembled a team of volunteers to dig out an unexplored patch of the island where the humps of foundations were visible, and so many people wanted to help out that they had a waiting list. The crews dug out three buildings (and found older foundations beneath them) and a number of trash pits, which are where archeologists find the really interesting stuff, in this case oyster shells, pig bones, and bits of Spanish glass and Mediterranean pottery.

I wasn’t one of those volunteers. I joined the smaller, unglamorous crew that came to fill in what the glamor-pusses had dug up. It’s the latest in high-tech archeology: You dig a site up, you find out what you can, then you fill it all back in before erosion wrecks it. In another thousand or so years, someone will dig it all up again and wonder what the hell happened. In the absence of any better idea, they’ll decide it was a religious ritual: People in the early 2000s dug up old buildings and then filled them in again, probably to honor the ancestors.

Back-filling the excavation at Tintagel. Black plasticky fabric covers the foundations that the first crew dug up. We buried it under the dirt and stones just to confuse archeologists of the future.

On the first and third days of the back-filling (I skipped the second day, and on the days I went I only stayed for the mornings; I’m 609 years old and thought it would be smart to quit while I was still in condition to come back)–. Let’s start over: On the first and third days, the crew consisted of five people: two archeologists and three volunteers. The larger, stronger people dug soil and pushed wheelbarrows. The smaller, older ones filled pails with rocks and dumped them into the pits. That sounds heavier than filling wheelbarrows with dirt, but believe me, it’s not.

This is not me filling a wheelbarrow with dirt.

On the third morning, the winds were just short of gale force and whipped soil off the rock pile that Wild Thing–that’s my partner, in case you’re new here; I haven’t mentioned her in an age–and I were crawling around in. I spent most of the morning trying to figure out where upwind was, but upwind had been suspended that day so that no matter where I knelt dirt blew into my eyes. Then the mizzle started—that’s a combination of mist and drizzle. You’d think water would settle the dirt down, but all it did was make it sticky as well as airborne.

By the time we climbed down off the island at lunchtime, we looked like some goth makeup artist had gotten loose on our faces. Our eyes were rimmed in black and Wild Thing’s mouth was neatly outlined in it. My hair had turned from white to tan and our clothes were a good match for our faces. I’d have taken a picture but I was afraid of what my hands would do to the camera. You’ll have to take my word for it: We looked fabulous.

So there we were at the sinks in the public toilets, surrounded by frighteningly clean tourists, and getting the sinks dirty without—and I can’t really explain this—managing to get ourselves clean. One woman finally gathered up the courage to ask, “What have you been doing?”

We didn’t say, “Burying the bodies,” and that turned out to be a good thing, because she decided we were safe and found us a couple of tissues, which let us scrape off a layer or two of the dirt.

Archeology’s such an elegant profession.

But–and here’s where we rejoin that path marked Early Cornish History–in the process of accumulating all that dirt, I learned a few things, not from the dig itself but from the archeologists.

One is that when Cornwall was conquered, in the tenth century, the Saxons burned pretty much everything. Why did they do that? No idea. You’d think it would be more profitable to leave the farms and villages intact and the people alive so people could continue farming and streaming tin, but war has a logic of its own once it starts.

So whatever records people had kept up to that point were presumably torched, and that would explain why I had trouble finding the book I wanted, and also why Cornwall Heritage Trust’s history of the period before the Saxon conquest is brief and general and relies so heavily on phrases like “seems to have.” Early Cornish history is a sketch with rough outlines—a muddle of archeology and guesswork, hearsay and reports from outsiders.

As an example, look at the information that’s come out of the dig at Tintagel: The settlement was a center of trade. The evidence indicates that the people there lived well. They had wine and olive oil from the Mediterranean. They drank from Spanish glassware. In return, they would have traded Cornish tin and copper.

Or at least some of them lived well. I’m guessing that the social structure was unequal and that some lived better than others–that’s how things worked in that period–but nothing I’ve read mentions that and I doubt the evidence can tell us how far into the ranks of ordinary people all that good food reached. I doubt we can even tell if the best fed ate well year around.

One archeologist on the site has a theory that the place might have been settled by refugees from the Mediterranean, which in the post-Roman period was in turmoil. Why does he think so? Because the foundations on the island are rectangular, and at that time the houses in the rest of Britain were round.

It’s educated guesswork but it’s intriguing. And possible.

“Would they have traded with a place they fled?” I asked, thinking of Syria and assuming that a place you flee from would be too dangerous or too chaotic to trade with.

“Think of the Plymouth colony in America,” he said.

It was settled by religious refugees, but it was also a colony. It maintained links to the land the settlers fled. The lines between refugee and settler aren’t as clear and dark as the words led me to believe.

The absence of hard information is one of several factors that let us romanticize the past. Another is that we don’t live there. It’s kind of like falling in love with the one person who’s least likely to fall in love with you. You never find out that they fart in bed.

On the first day, as we were climbing one of the sets of stairs that lead to the top of the island, a volunteer told me he’d love to have lived in the past. He started out wanting to go back to the period we were about to back-fill, then switched to the 16th century.

“At least for a while,” he said, leaving himself (and I’m guessing here) a chance to duck home for a shower, a sausage roll, and a Red Bull.

“Wouldn’t you?” he asked.

“It wasn’t a great time to be a woman,” I said.

It also wasn’t a great time to be Jewish. Or a lesbian. Or, while we’re at it, an atheist. Oddly enough, I didn’t think to say any of those things. It’s an interesting oversight but that’s too much of a digression even for me. If anyone wants to discuss it, we can duck into the comments and dissect it there.

In the meantime, let’s go back to the idea of living in the sixteenth century. I have another reason for refusing to live there. The clothing was ridiculous. I’ve never cared much about fashion–in fact, I’m dyslexic in it–but please be serious. Even for me, there are limits.

But I told this tale for a reason, other than that it happened. When you romanticize the past, you’re taking the present, with all the beliefs it allowed you to form and you’re importing them onto the past. You’re shaping it to suit you, and amateurs aren’t the only people who are guilty of it, although when professionals do it they’re much more convincing. Consider the story of a recently discovered grave in Sweden containing the bones of a woman buried with a sword, an axe, a spear, arrows, and not one but two shields and horses. Which must’ve made her grave the size of half a village.

Was she a warrior? I’d like to think so, but when I make that jump I’m importing my own hopes and beliefs backward in time to interpret the evidence. I do know that among the Maori, some women fought alongside the men, so I know women can’t be ruled out as warriors. But that’s as far as I can go without spinning fantasies: The woman in Sweden may well have been a warrior.

Before DNA testing was available, whenever slender bones were found buried with swords and so forth, archeologists wrote them off as “anomalous” and pulled back from exploring the possibility that a woman used those tools. Even with DNA testing that can now establish the sex of the person, some experts are still skeptical because everyone knows women weren’t warriors, right? And that’s the problem with archeology. What it finds can’t speak for itself; it has to be interpreted, and its easy to let our assumptions contaminate the evidence.

So early Cornish history is not only a rough sketch, it needs to stay that way. What we don’t know, we can at least try not to invent.

But back to Tintagel: I mentioned that we had five people working on the days I was there. What they needed to finish the job was at least twenty. But sensible people want to dig stuff up, not rebury it. On our last day, with most of the dig still unfilled, the people in charge were talking about calling the probation service to ask if they could borrow some strong young people who’d been sentenced to community service.

Wild Thing and I talked about going on the fourth day, but the winds were even stronger than on the third and we stayed home. The first named storm of the season, Aileen, had blown in. I haven’t read about anyone being blown off the island, so I’m guessing everyone else did as well.

What the world really wants to know about Britain, part sevenish

What leads (a few) wide-eyed innocents from all over the internet to Notes from the U.K.? Let’s look at the search questions they ask–and let’s pretend it tells us something about what they want to know about Britain.

We’ll start with the strange ones, for a change, instead of saving them for dessert.

Strange questions

“why is everyone wearing pineapples”

I, my friends, am not wearing pineapples. Not as I type this and not when I read the question. That convinces me that not everyone is wearing pineapples. I don’t think I ever have worn pineapples, although there was a stretch of time when I wasn’t responsible for what I wore—or even for remembering it. But my mother wasn’t a pineapple kind of parent. I’m pretty sure she didn’t dress me in any. If this is really important to anyone, I can ask if my older brother remembers any pineapple-related clothing events–his memory kicks in a few years earlier than mine–but I’m hoping you’ll take my word on this, because it’s not going to be easy to explain why I’m asking.

And to be completely clear, it doesn’t matter if the question is about clothing with pictures of pineapples, the fruit itself (sliced or whole; canned, fresh, or dried), or three-dimensional imitations of the fruit. I am not now wearing nor have I ever worn any of them.

Why did the comment lead someone to me? Because one of my posts, “Banning Pineapples,” mentioned that a couple of music festivals had banned them, along with hand grenades and land mines. You can understand why they’re all in the same category, right?

As an article on the BBC website explained (and it’s bizarre enough that it bears repetition), “Organisers said [the ban] was because fans of Oxford band Glass Animals bring hundreds of the fruit to its gigs, in a nod to song ‘Pork Soda’ which includes the lyrics ‘pineapples are in my head.’ ”

No, I don’t understand it either. Especially the pork soda part. But nothing I wrote mentioned anyone dressing in or as a pineapple. Pineapples are not in my head. And what kind of world do we live in that people don’t make a distinction between wearing pictures of pineapples and decking themselves out in dripping slices of the canned stuff?

A very strange world, that’s what we live in. It must be time for an irrelevant photo, and then another question.

Blatantly irrelevant photo: begonia flowers

“coke fabric yard”

I not only don’t understand this question, I can’t account for it leading anyone to Notes. As far as I can remember, I haven’t written about either coke or Coke. Yard? Yes, I have mentioned yards, probably in the context of metric and non-metric measures. Fabric? In the U.S, it’s measured by the yard, so I might’ve used that word too. Plus I do tend to call that piece of ground outside a house a yard. I probably said something about ours. The British call it a garden. Even—I think—if it’s cemented over.

Coke, though? I can think of three meanings of the word, and none are measured by the yard. You might as well toss pineapples into the conversation.

Surely thousands of other people on the internet have mentioned the word yard. How deep into a Google search would you have to go before you landed here?

Well, because I take the responsibility of blogging seriously, I checked. It turns out that you can buy Coke fabric—that’s fabric with pictures of Coke (cans of, or maybe bottles, but not spills or glasses), and the first couple of search pages were all about how to buy some. So if someone wanted to buy Coke fabric by the yard, they didn’t have to go very deep into the listings–it’s all at the top. But they went past all that, so I kept going as well. And it all got strange by the second or third page. I found:

Christ to Coke: How an Image Becomes an Icon. When I followed the link, I landed midway into the thing and found a mention of fabric and a picture of the American flag. No Coke, no Christ, no idea what it’s all about. Best guess? It’s somebody’s PhD thesis and it’s all very, very deep. Too deep for the likes of us, so let’s move on.

Next came The Dangers of Kissing and Diet Coke: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know. This leads to a book that opens by saying, “I bet you bought this book because you wonder what’s dangerous about kissing and Diet Coke.”

Well, no. I didn’t pay a damn dime and wouldn’t have. And when the author didn’t get around to either kissing or Diet Coke within the first few paragraphs, I figured it was clickbait and bullshit and I moved on to The Pollution Abatement Handbook, which mentioned both coke (a fuel used in making steel) and fabric filters to minimize emissions.

Below that I found The Reports of Sir Edward Coke KNT (1572-1617), in Thirteen Parts, which not only gives us one of the keywords in the author’s name but somewhere along the line mentions a church-yard, and that hyphen make sit look like the word yard is running around loose. No fabric. Sorry.

“KNT” may be an abbreviation of knight, but might also be a hint that the gentleman was knit. Or–as I’d have put it–knitted (or is that knot, or possibly knut?), but both spelling a grammar were different back then. I think I like it best when I’m not sure, so I didn’t try to find out anything about him.

After that came a story about cocaine being found in a Coke factory in France, which is appropriate, then one about what it’s “really” like to smuggle cocaine. Then we were back to Coke fabric.

Then I gave up.

“what does ‘feeding the bears’ mean when it comes to classroom instructional design”

Um. Gee. I have no idea. I googled it but the responses were about feeding actual bears. Or not feeding actual bears, which for most of us seems like a good idea.

The exception was the Urban Dictionary, which defined it as getting a traffic ticket. It had a second definition, but it was even less useful. I have as little understanding of how the search led to me as I do of the definition the writer was looking for.

 

Questions about Britain’s greatness

As always, people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. Or sometimes when it was first called Great Britain. Or—from the gullible—why Britain’s great. This version of the question comes from people who think the jumbo burger has to be big in some absolute way when in fact it could easily be bigger than a micro-size regular burger.

Great Britain is—as I say every time I write one of these posts—a geographical term. It means big.

When I slotted the question into Google, I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to work my way through pollution handbooks. Notes was close to the top of the list. Of course, Google feeds you what it thinks you want and confirms whatever prejudices it thinks you have. Still, you take your triumphs where you can find them.

If you want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain, it’s here.

I have yet to write about when Great Britain was first called that or why Britain’s called Britain, but a shallow splash in the Google pond tells me that Britain comes from the Latin Britannia, which dropped out of use when the Romans left Britain and came back into use when the Normans shot an arrow into the eye of the king of the moment and put themselves in charge, so they got to call it whatever they wanted.

I still don’t know why the Romans called it Britannia, but let’s not dive down that rabbit hole right now.

In the meantime, if you think words will make a country great, I refer you to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Full disclosure: Some versions of the quote use “cannot” instead of “can’t,” and one link claims he never said it at all. But, as Yogi Berra (is alleged to have) said, “I never said half the things I said.” So let’s not quibble.

And by way of full disclosure, I can fool myself perfectly well, so you don’t have to bother.

For the sake of variety, someone asked, “why great Britain.” This reminds me of the Marx Brothers routine, “Why a duck?” But really, why not a duck? And why not Great Britain? But all this threatens to involve us in some pretty deep thought and it’s too much for a Friday morning. We’ll leave it.

 

Knowledgeable questions

“emmits”

You have to know something about Cornwall to ask about this. It’s a Cornish word for incomers, and also for tourists, who swarm all over the landscape like ants, which is the word’s literal meaning.

When I googled emmits, I popped up at the top of the list, which is (again) meaningless since Google’s feeding me what it thinks I want to see and it knows how vain I am.

The word is also spelled emmets, and since that’s not the spelling I used, I drop out of the running if I put the word in that way. I should probably have gone with the e spelling. It seems to be more common.

What are people really trying to find out when they google this? If they’re emmits (or emmets), maybe only a definition, but maybe what the Cornish think of them. Since I’m not Cornish and came here four generations too late to ever be, you shouldn’t look to me for an answer.

“what is a cockwomble”

I’m not at the top of the list here, but in the narrow field of cockwomble experts I do at least register. I’m so proud. And proud of all the strange people who know enough to ask what a cockwomble is. What information I have is here.

 

Repeat questions        

Every time we do this, people want to know about:

Why British lawyers wear [fill in the blank with a disparaging adjective] wigs in court. Recently they’ve also been asking about court wigs.

Answer: It keeps their heads warm.

Oh, hell, I suppose I should include a link. Actual information is here.

Beer. This is usually—getting right to the point—about which country’s beer has more alcohol. Honestly, who cares? If you’re worried about getting drunk on minimal volume, try vodka. Or gin or tequila. Hell, it you can go for stuff that comes in colors too if you like.

How the English (or British) feel about (or treat) American tourists. A recent version of this read “british snooty to american tourists.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly (to do this, you pour off the SEO and interpret the patterns left behind), this should really have its own category: Paranoia. The writers are wondering whether it’s safe to take their delicate little selves out of the United States and whether the British will be mean to them. Take the risk, folks. It can’t possibly be as bad as junior high school.

Unless you were the people who made junior high so horrible.

“Tea on the Lawn.” It took me a while to figure this out, but these questions turn out to be about a poem that must be assigned to half the schoolkids in Britain, and they’re all out there looking for a quick way to get their bored little heads around it—possibly without having to read the damn thing. A recent query was looking for a summary. Read the poem, kid. It’ll be shorter than the summary.

The post that draws these poor souls was about a fund-raising tea on the lawn of a great house near where I live. It’s a very British thing, that kind of tea, and as a rule it doesn’t involve poetry.

 

New questions

how to act like an aristocrat Mostly, as I write this drivel, I don’t think about SEO—search engine optimization, or how to game the googlemonster—but when I wrote the headline that drew the poor silly soul behind the question into my lair, I did wonder if someone wouldn’t google the phrase. And someone did, confirming my worst suppositions about human nature.

“romance, marriage, village life” I have no idea what someone expected to find, but when I google it, my post on gay marriage, romance, and village life shows up. It’s probably not what the person was looking for, but it involves all three words. A triumph.

“US mail box UK”

What can I say? Name a topic and someone out there is interested in it.

“a bit about Britain”

There’s a blog by that name, and several of its posts turn up in a Google search. A post of mine shows up at the bottom of the page, after the ones that were a closer fit, and the questioner continued down that far, leading me to conclude that some people have too much time on their hands.

 

Language

Questions about pronunciation usually ask about place names, but not long ago someone wanted “pronunciation of whoo.”

This is awkward. The English language is such a mess. I edited kids’ nonfiction (briefly, which is too bad because it was great fun), and one of the things I had to do was create a vocabulary list for each book, with not just definitions but also pronunciations. Real linguists use a set of symbols that only they can understand. If you know the code, they’ll tell you how a word’s pronounced, but our lists had to use the 26 letters of the English alphabet and make sense to the average ten-year-old.

It tells you something about the language that we need a set of symbols the average English speaker can’t read to tell us what our words sound like. But never mind them. I couldn’t use them–both because I don’t understand them and because they wouldn’t do what we needed done.

So: English pronunciation with 26 letters. Have you ever tried writing the pronunciation of an English word? Name me a vowel (we’ll leave the consonants alone; they’re not as much of a mess) that doesn’t have three pronunciations for every whim that crosses its flitty little mind. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten avoids the whole problem by finding a word or phrase that each Yiddish word rhymes with. It works perfectly, but there must’ve been moments when he pounded his head against a wall.

So how do you pronounce whoo? Whoo. That’s  sort of like woo, but with a bit of air on the H, but that’s too long winded for a vocabulary list. It rhymes with few, but then so does woo, so that’s no damn help.

I’m happy to say, it never came up in the kids’ books.

“what do british call brownies”

Brownies. Aren’t you glad you asked? Mind you, British brownies aren’t always what I’d call brownies, because they’ll accept anything that’s baked, oblong, and vaguely chocolaty, but I’ve had some American brownies that I could describe the same way.

Semi-relevantly, the British tend to go over the top with their brownies, presumably because brownies are American and that’s what they think Americans do. So you can see a perfectly innocent brownie in a café’s display case, order it, and find that it comes to your table under a wedding gown’s worth of whipped cream embroidered with chocolate sauce. Plus, in the name of health and safety, a tiny marzipan stethoscope.

A question of my own and a bit about SEO

Before I end, I should make an opening, once again, for you to tell me what you’d like to know about Britain. Or the U.S. Or any other topic I might be unqualified to write about. I don’t promise to tackle it. That depends on whether I can be marginally informative while still amusing myself–and, with luck, you. But I will try.

And the bit about SEO? I just read that the Google searches beginning with “how to” are up more than 140% since 2004. (Sorry, I can’t give you link to prove I didn’t make this up. It was a very small item in the Guardian, and when I searched for it online, the matches were at least as bizarre as the stuff I’ve quoted above. Maybe it didn’t go into the online edition.)

The most popular searches include:

  • How to tie a tie (get someone to do it for you once, slip it off without unknotting it, and never own more than that one tie; when it gets dirty, twist it around to the back shows instead of the front)
  • How to kiss (put four lips together and see where things take you)
  • How to make money (don’t listen to anyone who charges for an answer)
  • How to write a cover letter (badly if the ones I’ve seen are typical)
  • How to make french toast (French toast? Excuse me, but I’m not answering that. It throws me so far off course that I’ve changed the structure of my answers by adding caps and periods and all that sentence-ending stuff. How’s that for intense? So let me ask a few questions of my own: Why not mashed potatoes? Why not pieroshki? In what culture is this a basic life skill?)

Updates from the British press

Statistics

An article that’s been buried at the bottom of my stack of clippings reports that 98% of us think we’re nicer than half the population. And 90% of drivers say they’re above average. And although it doesn’t say this, 98% of bloggers think their blogs are better than 99% of the others.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper getting ready for autumn. This photo’s in the top 0.1% of all online photos as measured by the Hawley Randomness Quotient.

Technology

Are you worried about autonomous weapons fighting a war that never ends? Well, Wikipedia turns out to be a battleground where software bots are fighting each other, sometimes until one of them is taken offline and the other’s sent to bed without its virtual supper.

Please note: Humans are still able to perform both of those actions. We don’t know how long that will be true.

The bots were designed to edit, add links, and correct errors, and they’ve done all of that. Then, when they’re done and they get bored, they start undoing each other’s changes, and then re-undoing them when their opposite numbers undoes—well, you get the picture. Each one’s convinced its right and the other one is uneducated and unwashed and hopelessly out of date.

Some of the battles stopped in 2013, when Wikipedia changed something I don’t understand about the links. (Sorry to get technical on you, but this is important stuff.) Whatever they did, though, it hasn’t stopped all the battles.

I’m using Gizmodo as a source for this, which isn’t primarily British, but I originally found the story in the British press, so the headline isn’t a complete lie.

In a parallel story, in 2011, two chatbots were turned loose to have a conversation with each other. They started bickering almost immediately and ended up in an argument about god. Neither was armed and humans were able to step in.

I’d love to know what bots have to say about god—it might be more thoughtful than what humans manage—but I couldn’t find out.

I’ve lost the link for that, but do you really care? Google it youself if you do. Try “chatbots, god.” It should be interesting. And bizarre.

Contests to name stuff

Having learned from the Boaty McBoatface disaster, when Cornwall Housing asked the public to help name a new street in Goonhavern, it didn’t let them vote. It just picked three names and gave those to the parish council, which dutifully picked the most boring of the lot.

The boring bit? That’s a guess. I did my best to find out what the name is, and (more to the point) what the losing suggestions were. I even went as far as reading a few months’ worth of parish council minutes, which took so much willpower that my eyes fizzed for three days. And I didn’t learn a damn thing from them.

That may say more about me than about the council minutes.

I can’t give you a link here. The post’s been taken down. I could link you to the council minutes, but I’m not that evil.

The House of Lords

Some (nope—not sure how many; sorry) of Britain’s wealthiest individuals are (a) members of the House of Lords and (b) claiming up to £40,000 in expenses (that should be per year, but I don’t think the article was specific) without voting, asking questions, serving on committees, or doing anything else identifiably useful.

Lords don’t get a salary but can claim an allowance of up to £300 a day, plus travel costs. To collect, they have to clock in. One is reported to have kept a cab waiting while he clocked in and then turned around and left.

In a small but annoying addition, the restaurants used by MPs and Lords are subsidized. The Lords resisted a suggestion that they buy their champagne jointly with the Commons because they felt what the Commons drank was of an, ahem, lower standard.

And this in a time of austerity, which is good for people who don’t have power. Or money. Or–oh, hell, don’t get me started. I won’t be in the least bit funny about it. Excuse me while I go bite something inanimate.

Making Britain great again

Anyone counting on Brexit to make Britain great again needs to do something about erosion., because, friends, the island’s being nibbled away, centimeter by centimeter.

Once upon a time that would’ve been inch by inch, but those dastardly Europeans imposed their humorless metric system on the grand insanity of British measures and these days we can only lose our coastline by the centimeter.

It’s sad, isn’t it? What the British system lacked in good sense it more than made up for in creativity. Want a link to a post about British measures? This’ll do as an introduction, although the full scale of craziness would take more pixels than I could find the week I wrote it.

But back to the coastline. For thousands of years, the Sussex coast (one place I was able to find some actual figures for) lost between 2 and 6 centimeters a year. For the past 150 years, though, that’s increased to between 22 and 23 a year.

Part of the problem comes from attempts to manage the coastline and part from gravel extraction, which was done enthusiastically and no controls. And now rising sea levels and increased storm severity have come along and multiplied the problem.

As a result, I regularly see pictures—and we’ve left Sussex now and are talking about coastal areas all around Britain—of houses perched at the edges of cliffs or collapsed onto the rocks at the bottom. You can find a few here.

The National Trust, which owns 775 miles of coastline, some of it sporting historically (and let’s face it, commercially) important buildings, is wrestling with its soul and its account books over where to fight and where to retreat. Mullion Harbor—a nineteenth-century Cornish harbor—was costing them £1,500 per week to maintain and they’ve made the decision to give up. In other places, buildings may (emphasis on may) be hauled back from the cliff edge and settled someplace safer but less picturesque.

Erosion closer to home

Even with those stories out of the way, the stack of newspaper clippings on my computer desk is deep enough to horrify any normal person, but a small corner of imitation wood grain has emerged and I feel—.

Okay, I’m not sure what I feel. It’s all pointless in the great scheme of things. You dust your house and it gets dusty again. You shovel off a bit of desk space and the universe provides enough absurdity to fill it up again. Before you know what’s happened, it’s twice as deep. But be of good cheer, folks. It’s Friday. And when the weekend ends, the universe will send another one if you can only wait for it.