How the hegehog promotes Britishness

The hedgehog is one of Britain’s best-loved creatures.

How do I know that? I googled “beloved hedgehogs” until I found enough material to prove what I was already sure of. Lord Google’s happy to confirm any belief we hold if only we ask the right way and leave an offering of data at his shrine. 

Thank you, Lord G., for what you contribute to the world’s wisdom.

But I also, in the real world, listen to people, including a neighbor who told me some years back,  “We have a hedgehog,” making it sound as if her backyard was being visited by angels instead of a small, spiny, snuffly creature.

Irrelevant photo: Snow on a camellia bud in February. We had two or three inches. Half of Cornwall ran off the road. The other half stayed home.

Ah, but I’m serious about my responsibility to inform the world about  Britain, so I asked my friend Helen about the place hedgehogs hold in British culture and she went into a remebering-childhod reverie, telling me about hedgehogs in the books she read: Fuzzypeg, who’s part of Alice Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. If you grow up with these books, apparently, some part of you will forever believe that the hedgehog is a wonderful little creature and an essential part of Britain’s charm.

Or if you want to be snarky about it, which is always more fun than being reverential, part of Britain’s Britishness.

Britain’s Britishness?

Absolutely. Not because it’s clear what Britishness is–it’s not–but because Britain has lots of it and if you eavesdrop on the national conversation you’ll learn that it’s important.

For a while there, defining Britishness was a kind of indoor sport at Westminster. Politicians needed to know what it was so they could impose it on those of us who didn’t fit whatever the definition turned out to be. “Us,” of course, being immigrants. Because that’s the problem with immigrants: They come from places that aren’t Britain, bringing all kinds of -ishnesses that aren’t Britishness.

It turned out, though, that no two politicians agreed about what the ingredients of Britishness were and eventually they stopped talking about them. It was getting embarrassing. 

Or maybe that was because Brexit wasn’t–and isn’t–leaving room in the national conversation for anything else. 

Anyway, I have more than one post about Britishness and I’d love to link you to them, but I never thought to create a category labeled Britishness and I can’t find the damned things. They’re somewhere in this mess. 

None of the politicians mentioned hedgehogs, although you’d think they would have. They should also mention having read the right kids’ books at the right age. Maybe it was all too obvious to think of.

But let’s shut up about that and talk about the hedgehog. It’s native to Europe (which in this case includes Britain; please can we not argue about that right now?), Asia, and Africa. It’s not native to New Zealand but was introduced there to eat slugs and snails. New Zealand conservationists hate them because they compete with native species, but they don’t hate them as much as they hate some of the other beasties that enthusiastic idiots released into the wild, so let’s move on.

The hedgehog’s gone extinct in the Americas but people keep imported types as pets, which is why that cute little British wild animal is making American pet-owners sick. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has warned people not to kiss and cuddle their hedgehogs because they can spread salmonella. Eight people in the U.S. have gotten salmonella that way since October, and one’s been hospitalized.

That was as of January. It could well be up to nine by the time you read this. As you can see, we’re dealing with an epidemic. Declare an international incident, someone. Send warships.  

The hedgehogs Americans are likely to keep as pets are actually African pygmy hedgehogs, but fact shouldn’t get in the way of a good international incident. American culture is at stake here. Americans only keep African pygmy hedgehogs because the British brainwashed them into thinking they were cute. And (ever so incidentally) because someone on Instagram has one. 

Not to be left out, the RSPCA–the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–issued roughly the same warning to British hedgehog cuddlers. Take that, America. We didn’t make you take them into your homes and we’re suffering just as much as you are, in our understated way.

We now have the horrifying statistics, the warnings, and the international posturing out of the way. 

According to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (of course there’s a British Hedgehog Preservation Society, and it sells books and magnets and all sorts of other things that hedgehogs need), hedgehog spines are actually modified hairs and the average adult hedgehog has 5,000 to 7,000 of them. 

Yes, someone counted them. No, it wasn’t me. 

The spines are a great defense, even though they’re not barbed like porcupine quills. When our dogs found one in the backyard, it rolled into a ball, spines out. The dogs barked insanely and poked their noses at it, then trotted inside, defeated. The hedgehog unrolled itself and waddled off in search of bugs and slugs and a visa to New Zealand.

Somewhere in among all those spines, the hedgehog has a tail. And sex organs. But how do the spiny little things get close enough to each other to create more hedgehogs? Carefully. The female curls her tail upward. The male keeps his relevant body part close to the middle of his belly, so he doesn’t have to climb on top, Humans, who don’t have the same level of interest in the aforesaid body part as hedgehogs do, sometimes mistake it for a belly button. 

Hedgehogs think this is very funny.

Baby hedgehoglets aren’t born prickly, for which their mothers are endlessly grateful. Motherhood’s hard enough without spines. The babies have soft spine stubs that grow and harden within a few weeks.

Hedgehogs eat insects, bugs, slugs, worms, snakes, frogs, toads, eggs, berries, melons, mushrooms, grass, and nice little meaty treats that humans set out for them as long as other creatures don’t get to them first. My best guess is that if they eat melons (which don’t pass the Britishness test, by the way; they’re from Africa and southwest Asia), they also eat berries (some of which do pass the test), but berries aren’t on the list I found, so treat that as guesswork.

That bit about eating slugs? It’s more powerful than children’s books in making gardeners love hedgehogs.

Hegehogs are noctural and they hibernate–or they do if it gets cold enough. With the way climate change has been messing with the seasons lately, some are not going into hibernation and struggle to find enough food over the winter. Even when they’re hibernating, though, they will come out during warm spells and have a snack or two.

They’ve adapted fairly well to city life, but they’re struggling in the countryside, where they’ve been hit hard by the loss of hedgerows and a decline in bug (okay, not just bug: invertebrate) numbers. They also get poisoned by slug pellets and hit by cars.

This is not a fun time to be a hedgehog.

There’s no shortage of campaigns to save them. The Wildlife Trust recommends cutting a small hole in the bottom of your fence (that’s only if you have a fence) so hedgehogs can waddle through. They travel a kilometer or two a night searching for food and mates. That’s mates as in hedgehogs they can breed with, not as in friends. In miles that’s–oh, let’s pretend it’s somewhere betwwen half a mile and a mile. If you were sending a rocket to the moon with calculations like that, you’d miss the whole damn thing, but it’s close enough for a hedgehog. They don’t read, they don’t do math, and they won’t cover any less distance just because I get my numbers wrong.

You can also build it a nice little box for it to hide in and set out some dog or cat food. You can play it patriotic British tunes on your smart phone. If you find a sick or injured hedgehog, you can rehabilitate it. The trust doesn’t tell you not to kiss it–I don’t think it occurred to anyone that you might–but it does tell you to use gardening gloves to pick it up. 

It doesn’t recommend adopting it as a pet.

A group of hedgehogs is called an array. Will you need to know this? Probably not. They’re solitary creatures. Once a female mates, she won’t want the male around. He’d only eat the young. In fact, if the nest is disturbed, the mother might do that herself.

These are the things they don’t put that in the children’s books. 

Hedgehogs used to be called urchins, which came to English from Latin by way of Norman French. By the fifteenth century, an urchin was anyone who looked like a hedgehog, including a hunchback, a goblin, a bad girl (no, don’t ask me–I’ve known and admired plenty of bad girls and none of them struck me as looking like hedgehogs), and a ragged child. By the late eighteenth century, an urchin was in general use to mean a ragged child. 

In the U.S., keeping hedgehogs is illegal in Georgia, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Washington, and New York City–or it was as of January 2018. Calling a kid you’re unhappy with a hedgehog isn’t illegal anywhere but it will earn you some odd looks, as will calling a hedgehog an urchin.

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My thanks to Flo, who first let me know about the threat hedgehogs pose to America’s health, and to Helen and (while we’re on the subject) assorted other friends who treat my odd questions (“So what is it about the British and hedgehogs?”) as if they were almost normal.

Strange British traditions: Whuppity Scoorie

March 1 is Whuppity Scoorie in Lanark.

That sentence was entirely in English. Let’s take it apart.

Is is a verb. March 1 is a date. In is a preposition. A preposition is anything you can do in relation to a cloud: You can be in it, on it, under it, near it. Lanark is a town in Scotland–a royal burgh, to use its formal description. You can be in it or near it. It’s awkward to be on it or under it, but it’s not impossible. It has a population of 8,253 (or did at last count) and is 29 1/2 miles from Edinburgh and 325 miles from London.

In between all those words is a festival, Whuppity Scoorie, and if you hurry you still have time to go, which is why I’ve added an extra post this week. Welcome to another oddity of British culture.

A royal burgh? That’s a Scottish burgh with a royal charter under a law abolished in 1975. Which is sort of like giving directions by telling you to turn left where the cafe used to be, but history’s a powerful beast and the phrase lingers even if the law and the cafe are gone

A burgh? That’s an incorporated town. In Scotland.

Scotland? It’s that stretch of land covering the north of Britain.  

We could keep this up all day but let’s move on. What’s Whuppity Scoorie?

To help explain that, a 2011 article in the Scotsman quotes the chair of the community council, who describes it as an “ancient ritual . . . despite the fact that nobody really knows when it started or what it means. But hey, it’s fun and it’s aye been.”

It’s aye been? That’s one of those things the Scots say to mess with the English. I’m American and easy to mess with, linguistically speaking, especially since Google translate won’t divulge the secret of what that means. But I dug deeper, with Lord Google’s permission, and found that it means it always has been.

And if it doesn’t, I’m sure someone will correct me.

Okay, you’ve stuck around long enough to prove that you’re serious, so let’s find out what happens at Whuppity Scoorie: The town’s kids run around the kirk (that’s the church) three times, going anti-clockwise and swinging paper balls around their heads on strings. At the end, the kids scramble for small coins scattered on the ground. Since it’s evening, the coins are hard to spot.

A man scattering scattering coins told the Scotsman, “I just keep walking. If you stop, you’re surrounded. Nothing against the kids, but I’ve seen vultures no as bad as this.”

What do people think it means? One local woman thought the ritual was pre-Christian and was meant to chase evil spirits to the neighboring village.

Good neighbors, those Lanarkians.

Did either town exist in pre-Christian times? Possibly. I can’t find a date for either place. The evil spirits have been chased onto the internet and they’ve taken the dates down.

Other people believe the ritual welcomes spring and still others that it mimics the seventeenth-century “practice of taking prisoners from the nearby Tolbooth and whipping them round the kirk before scouring them of their sins in the River Clyde.”

Another belief dates it to the nineteenth century, when Lanark kids would march over to New Lanark to throw stones at the kids there.

Like I said, good neighbors.

Lanark has two other yearly festivals. Het Pint started in 1662. It takes place on New Year’s Day and involves pensioners getting a free glass of mulled wine at the Tolbooth. Lanimer Day sounds like a carnival but it lasts five days.  

It’s a very strange place, Britain. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

Parliament, Cromwell, Charles I, and Tourette

In 1653, with Charles I beheaded, Charles II in exile, and the rebellions in Ireland suppressed (brutally, since you asked), Oliver Cromwell had no one left to fight with but his allies. So off he toddled to the House of Commons and closed it down.

How’d we get to this point?  

Before Charles I was executed and when the odds of him losing his throne looked about the same as the odds that he’d invent the rechargeable battery, he knocked heads with his parliament over money and power. It’s hard, when you’re not just the king but the head of your country’s church, not to think that god meant you to be the head of everything else too, so Charlie believed he had a divine right to be king.

Semi-relevant photo: Minnie the Moocher believes she has a divine right to be in bed.

He wasn’t the only one. It was a long-standing European belief, but that didn’t make it any less of an issue, because  Parliament, for the most part, didn’t believe it. It believed in the Magna Carta, which said (with just the slightest bit of paraphrasing), Sure, this guy can be king but there are limits. So Parliament voted him money by the teaspoonful and did everything it could to limit his power.

Charlie sent them home, because that was one of the powers that they both agreed he had.

Bad Parliament. You can’t play at Our house anymore.

Did I say “house”? I meant “palace.”

But dissolving Parliament turned off his largest money tap. He cobbled together assorted of ways to raise money, but after eleven years he needed those pesky parliamentarians again. He’d gotten himself in a war with Scotland over prayer books and bishops. No, seriously: That stuff mattered. Either that or it stood in for what mattered more but didn’t play as well to the crowd.

Whatever they’re about, though, wars are expensive.

So Parliament met and and the new one didn’t get along with the king any better than the last one had. The most Protestant Protestants among its members suspected Charles of edging the country toward Catholicism, what with his Catholic wife and his stained glass church windows and his priests in fancy dress.

No, I’m telling you. All of that mattered.  

In 1641, the new Parliament arm-wrestled Charles for various sorts of power and passed–barely–a list of complaints about the king, called the Grand Remonstrance. When Charles didn’t email back immediately and say, Hey, guys, great talking points, let’s discuss them, my door is always open, its supporters circulated the Remonstrance to the public.

And with that, the Parliamentary debate had broken powerfully into the world, where ordinary people were already debating these issues.

Before long, Charles broke into the House of Commons and tried to arrest the five members who annoyed him most, which must’ve been a hard choice. They were all getting on his refined and kingly nerves.

Within weeks, armed bands had invaded Westminster. The king and queen fled. Parliament held London.

Both sides armed themselves, the Scots came in on the side of Parliament, and everyone fought back and forth for a few years, with neither side knocking the other one off the board. That was the First Civil War.

Where did the army stand in all this? Funny you should ask. The country didn’t have a standing army. It raised one when it needed to, then sent it home when it didn’t. That’s how it had always been done, and it saved having to feed and pay soldiers to sit around during peacetime.

In 1645, Charles escaped a siege at Oxford and handed himself to the Scottish army for safety. After nine months of negotiations, Scotland sold him to Parliament for £100,000 and a promise that England would never enter the haggis market.

No, no, no. That bit about the haggis? Please don’t link to it.  

Charlie escaped again and made a deal with the Scots: You get rid of these pesky rebels and I’ll make England Presbyterian for three years.

What would have happened after three years if he’d had a chance to make good on the deal? Someone would have taken one chair away and the music would’ve started all over again. And they all pretty much knew that, but no one could tell who’d be chairless when the music stopped, so they all jumped in and started the Second Civil War, which ended with Charles captured again.

This left Parliament with an awkward problem: What were they supposed to do with this guy? No matter how many times he lost his tail feathers, he was still the king.

In the meantime, Parliament wasn’t getting along with its army much better than it had with Charles. Like everything else, this had a religious element to it. Everything had a religious element. It was the language of politics. It was the language of everything. If they’d had cooking shows, they’d have had a religious element to them as well.

What mattered more immediately was that Parliament wanted to negotiate with the king and that Oliver Cromwell, on behalf of the army, didn’t.

How do you settle a problem like that? Ollie tossed out the MPs who didn’t take his side and made his deal with the ones who were left.

And since everything had a religious element, God said it was okay.

The MPs who were left were called the Rump Parliament, not after anyone’s hind end but because the word also means a small part of something that used to be bigger, and they put the king on trial. The House of Lords and the highest available judges said it wasn’t a good idea, so they established a new court, tried the king, found him guilty, and executed him. No one called it revolutionary justice, but that’s pretty much what it was. When you tear down the old order, you make new laws because the old ones don’t work anymore. Is that right? Is that wrong? It depends on your point of view.

England was now a republic, or a commonwealth. The House of Lords was abolished.

Did they all live happily ever after? No, they fought the Third Civil War. The remaining royalists and Scotland rallied about Charles part Two, but by 1651 it was all over. When the last Irish resistance ended in 1653, there was no one left to oppose Cromwell.

And that’s when he lost it with the Rump Parliament. Cromwell and the army wanted it to dissolve itself so they could elect a new, godly assembly. Parliament thought it was plenty godly, thanks, and wanted to stay where it was.

It sounds familiar? It is. We’re still watching the same play, but Cromwell’s playing Charles and Parliament’s playing Parliament. The difference is that Cromwell was a better Charles than Charles was: He stomped into the House of Commons with some musketeers, had them seize the mace, that symbol of Parliament’s royal authority, and sent the MPs home.

The symbol of royal authority? Wasn’t the king dead? Well, yes, but old habits die hard and history–not to mention humans–is nothing if not contradictory. They were still using the thing.

The members of the new Parliament were chosen by the army’s officers for their religious fervor. But it turned out to be too radical and in 1653, when its more problematic members were in a prayer meeting, the remainder of the group dissolved itself.

That left Oliver Cromwell to become the Lord Protector: a king in all but name.

History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but with the way it barks our repeated phrases you have to wonder sometimes if it doesn’t have tourette’s.

Is Berwick-upon-Tweed at war with Russia?

Legend has it that the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has been at war with Russia for decades. Or if you hear another version of the story, was at war for decades but made peace a while back. 

Berwick-upon-Tweed is England’s northernmost town, although if you tune in at another point in the long timeline of English-Scottish conflict, it was Scotland’s southernmost. It changed hands thirteen times in its history.

Its name comes from either the Old English word for barley or from the Celtic word for an estuary confluence. How that’s different from a plain old estuary I don’t know, but you can take your pick on its origins. Both languages are relevant,  and we weren’t there so we’ll never know for sure anyway.

When B-upon-T was founded, it was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which became part of England in the tenth century, taking little B-upon-T. with it. (That argues for the barley hypothesis.) Then in 1018, Scotland took the town over. By the middle ages, it was Scotland’s richest port, known as South Berwick to distinguish it from North Berwick, near Edinburgh. (That argues for the estuary.)

If you’re not confused yet, stay with me.

Irrelevant photo: After last week’s orange berries, we’re moving on to red berries. I really do need to get out and take some new pictures. There’s an entire world out there–or so they tell me.

In 1296, the town became English again, and so on back and forth. Some of those changes involved raids, sieges, massacres, and other stuff that wasn’t fun to live through. Or die from. Others involved the town being sold or ceded, which is high-handed but by comparison looks pretty good. Finally in 1482–.

Well, here’s where it gets complicated: The town became English, and legal documents called it a kingdom of England but not within England, and if you understand what that means you’re miles ahead of me. What I can tell you is that it was under English control but–.

But what? I’m not sure, but the but’s important.

The clearest explanation I’ve found comes from the Daily Beast, which says the wording made Berwick, like Wales, semi-sovereign. Any royal decree that didn’t specifically mention it excluded it. That continued until 1746, when the Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed Act was passed, but the tradition of mentioning it stumbled on anyway.

Mostly.

Before I go on, I might as well admit that most of my information comes from Wikiwhatsia, a source I avoid anytime I can find one that sounds more respectable, but except for a BBC article and the Daily Beast, everything about Berwick is about how to visit the castle, the bridge, the town walls, and all the many, many places to spend your money. Or else they were even less authoritative. So Wikiwhatsia it is.

Back when I worked as a copy editor, I did some work for the branch of Macmillan that published speciality encyclopedias and I vividly remember reading (I’ve forgotten where but probably in the local newspaper, the Minneapolis StarTribune) that on average Wikiwhatsia was at least as accurate as the more respectable encyclopedias. The editor I worked for at the time was less than happy to hear that, especially since the article mentioned the bio of a fictitious person that some pissed-off writer or editor slipped into a thoroughly respectable encyclopedia and that was repeated in subsequent editions. 

My sense of humor isn’t universally welcome.

Anyway, the trick with Wikiwhatsia is to catch your entry on an average day, since its wikiness leaves it open to brief moments of complete insanity.

But we were talking about Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Once it settled into English hands, it became a well-defended border town, and in 1551 it was made a self-governing county corporate.

A what?

A city or town important enough to be independent of its county. The category dates back to the medieval period,

So Berwick was governed by English law and was its own county, Berwickshire, until 1885, when it was folded into Northumberland. And there things sat until the 1970s, when four separate laws managed to simplify and complicate things. One of them, the Interpretation Act of 1978, says, without cracking a smile, that any reference to England in legislation passed between 1967 and 1974 “includes Berwick on Tweed.” And (for our purposes irrelevantly) Monmouthshire.

The legend that Berwick was (or is) at war with Russia grows out of all this murkiness. In 1853, the legend says, at the start of the Crimean War, Queen Victoria declared war on Russia by signing herself “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions.” Which is a bit like saying that I’m a citizen of Britain and my bathtub, but never mind.

The snag, according to this legend, is that the peace treaty that ended the war left out little Berwick, meaning it was still officially at war. According to the Daily Beast, the story was reported as fact in a New Zealand newspaper in 1914, then in a local (that means, I think, Berwickian) paper in 1926.

The Foreign Office investigated in the 1930s and again in 1965 (sometimes they run short of things to do and people who work there need to be kept  busy) and both times found no truth in the tale, but that wasn’t enough to put an end to it. In 1966, according to legend, a Pravda correspondent visited Berwick, met a town councillor, and the two of them declared peace. The councillor, Robert Knox, said, “Please tell the Russian people through your newspaper that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.”

The Guardian’s supposed to have run a story on it. By the time the tale appeared in other papers, the Pravda reporter had become a Soviet official and the two sides had signed a peace treaty.

Did the papers really carry that story? I can’t confirm it and in a story where so many elements are questionable that would be worth doing. But they ran well before the internet sent its tendrils creeping into our brains and I don’t live where newspaper archives are easily (or even difficultly) available. If anyone wants to search, the original article is said to be in the Guardian of 28 December 1966. The follow-up articles are supposed to be in the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor. Your guess is as good as mine on the dates.

A 1970s BBC program went back to the original documents and found no mention of Berwick in the declaration of war, meaning that it’s not at war and making a disappointing end to the tale.

Allegedly. I haven’t seen the documents myself and I don’t know that anyone really did land on the moon. Or that any of you actually exist. You could all be elaborate fever dreams.

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So what’s Berwick-upon-Tweed like when it’s not at war against overwhelming odds? The BBC reports that Berwickers feel themselves to be Berwickers first and English or Scottish second. Not English second, you’ll notice, although they’re still oficially part of England. They still feel the choice is open to them, whether or not any particular government agrees.

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My thanks to John Russell for giving me a shove in the direction of this story. He also tells me that the Isle of Man is said to still be at war with the Kaiser. It’s roughly the same tale: They were–apparently–part of the declaration of war at the start of World War I but not of the peace. However, the only mention I’ve been able to find is on a discussion forum where someone wants to know whether, since the island’s still at war, he can shoot some random German.

I’d like to think he’s joking, or at least trying to.

I haven’t been able to find anything more authoritative–or more sensitble–than that. If someone can send me a link, I’d be grateful.

What people want to know about Britain, part thirteen-ish

It’s time to dip into the search engine questions that lead unsuspecting souls to Notes from the U.K. and see what it is they want to know about this green and pleasant land. The questions are in boldface type and I’ve reproduced them in all their oddity. And because my goal in life is to enlighten the ignorant world, I’ve done my best to provide the information they wanted. Even though the people who asked the questions will never wander back to find the answers. It keeps me occupied and mostly out of trouble.

CULTURE & LANGUAGE

good manners of britain

Yes, Britain has good manners. So do other countries, but no one notices because we’ve all been trained since early childhood to think British manners are good manners and other countries’ manners are rude flaming ignorance. We’ve also been trained to think a British accent is classy and other accents need a bath. This is all rampant bullshit, of course, and a hand-me-down from the British empire, but good luck convincing anyone of it.

When I say “a British accent,” what I really mean is an accent the listener can identify as British, which won’t come anywhere close to the full range of British accents. And when I say “no one” and “we’ve all,” what I really mean is the group of people I happen to be thinking about. I’m not quite silly enough to think I’m talking about everyone

Irrelevant photo: Orange berries. What would you do without me to explain these thing to you?

why do americans say derby instead of ‘darby’

Because that’s how it’s spelled. D e r b y: derby. Americans are naive like that. In spite of all the evidence that points the other way–and, boy, does the English language point the other way–they still think that if a word’s spelled with an E it gets pronounced as if it had an E.

Silly people.

brits think americans are too loud

THEY DO? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

swear words england vs american

If you have to look up swear words, they won’t work for  you. Swear words are very particular about who they’ll work for. Stick with the vocabulary you understand. It’ll have more impact. 

should word anglophile be capitaluzed?

Capitaluzed? No. Some people capitalize it, though. Others don’t. Because I’m retired (I used to be an editor; now I’m just an everyday fussbudget), I’m not going to chase down definitive sources. You’re probably safest capitalizing it, but you could defend either choice. 

Which isn’t much of an argument. People defend all kinds of stupidity. That doesn’t make it right.

POLITICS

should all male mps wear a jacket in the commons

Oh, absolutely. Otherwise British politics would degenerate into the kind of farce where people who support staying in the EU throw all their weight behind leaving because it keeps them in power for another twenty minutes; where people argue against a second referendum in the name of democracy; and where amateurs run the government. Heavens to Betsy, we wouldn’t want that.

stockings in the house of commons

It’s not smart to make guesses about anything as improbable as the British parliament, but I’m about to: I’m fairly sure Christmas stockings don’t play much of a role there. The MPs are too old to believe in Santa Claus, although a few still claim to. On top of which, they go home over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so if Santy exists, he has to look for them there.   

mps are not allowed to wear armor

This is as shocking as it is true: They are not allowed to wear armor in the House of Commons, and it’s a stain on British democracy.

On the other hand, they (like everyone else in the land) are allowed to wear armor outside the House of Commons. On the train going home, say. At the corner store. It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and they’ll get some odd looks, but I’ve never heard of a law that  prevents it.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS

If search engine questions are a fair representation of what the world’s interested in, the world is obsessed with brussels sprouts. I could turn Notes into the leading (and only) brussels sprouts blog and make a real success of it. Depending, of course, on how we define success.

Here’s a sampling of the brussels sprouts questions.

why do we eat sprouts at christmas

To make sure we’re on Santa’s good list.

why do we have sprouts at christmas bbc

Good question, BBC. The world’s waiting to hear from you on this important topic. Why are you leaving it to amateurs like me to fabricate answers? This is the height of irresponsibility.

the tradition of why we eat spr54otes

The truly traditional Christmas dinner doesn’t involve spr54otes, it involves plain sprouts, of the brussels variety. The 54 was added in recent years as people became aware of how important fiber is to a healthy diet. And the U? It still feels bad about Americans having dropped it from so many words and it’s sitting out this round to make a point about how much it has to contribute.

why do cross a sprout

To get to the other side?

plumpudding brussel

No, people. There is a limit. Never put brussels sprouts in your plum pudding.

OTHER FOOD & DRINK

what percentage is american beer

That depends on what percentage of what. The world’s beer output?

what do they call brownies in england

Brownies.

SIZE

why are english roads so narrow / why are english streets so narrow

Because of the houses on either side, some of which were there before cars came along. Also because of the fields. And the hedges, and the stone walls. And because, you know, they’ve been that size for a long time and it works, so why mess with it? And incidentally because they take less space.

Isn’t it odd how people go to another country, full of excitement to see something different, and then judge if by the standards of the place they left. And find it failed to meet them.

why is britain called great britain when it is small

Because it has an inferiority complex and needs to puff itself up as much as possible. We try not to talk about it, okay?

TRADITIONS

yale door company knob throwing contest

You can find Yale locks in many American doors. And, according to a quick internet search, also in Australian, Indian, New Zealand (New Zealandish?), and British doors. If the company makes doors, as opposed to locks, they’re keeping the information off the internet. But doors have door knobs, and some door knobs have locks in them, and Yale does make those. So we have a connection here.

But the whole thing breaks down after that. The Dorset knob throwing contest isn’t about throwing door knobs, much less whole doors, it’s about throwing a biscuity thing called a knob, which is a bit sweet and, at least as I remember it, too light to throw well, but you shouldn’t take my word on that, you should go and find out for yourself. The next contest is on May 5, 2019.

Leave your door at home. Also your door knob. They’ll provide all the Dorset knobs you need.  

 

Dark skies in England

The Campaign to Protect Rural England is asking people to help measure how dark England’s skies are. To participate, you look for the constellation Orion and see how many stars you can count inside it without using binoculars or a telescope. Only you have to do it sometime between this exact minute and February 23.

And if this exact minute happens to be noon? You wait till after 7 pm because night is when it gets dark.

Do I have to explain everything?

The best time to do this is the first week of February, when there’ll be less light from the moon. You also want to wait for a good clear night, otherwise the exercise is pointless. If you see ten or fewer stars (not counting the corner stars), you’re in a light-polluted area. Thirty or more is dark, dark, dark.

To find Orion, you read the article I linked to above, because there’s no point in me repeating it, then you take a look at the photo in this one, which gives you a better idea of what Orion looks like and where the corner stars are. Then you go back to the first site and report your findings.

The point of the exercise is to raise awareness of light pollution, which according the campaign interferes with sleep patterns in humans and messes with wildlife, and to get localities to modify their lighting as much as possible.

The point of me writing about this is that it’s good to know that someone cares, and that people can pitch in. Even though, I admit, it’s a long way from being the biggest problem we face.

British traditions: the ceremonial mace

Let’s talk about ceremonial maces. Because, um–.

Never mind the because. Let’s talk about them anyway.

In December 2018, an MP (that’s a member of parliament, and let’s not bother with the capital letters; they bore me) seized the ceremonial mace and started out the door with it.

What ceremonail mace? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why he grabbed it. It was to protest the way the government was handling Brexit. (A quick translation: Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union, and pretty much everybody, from every party and every point of view, was protesting the way it was being handled. Even the people who supported it opposed it, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s a sign that you understand the situation. It’s still a mess, but I write these posts well in advance and by now it’s a slightly different mess.There’s always room at the bottom.)

Irrelevant photo, to cheer us up after a mention of Brexit: This is not a ceremonial mace but an azalea. In a pot whose color doesn’t do much for the flowers. Sorry.

Now let’s go back to where we were before those pesky parentheses and the irrelevant photo got in the way. The MP grabbed the mace and headed for the door, walking as if he was leading some sober ceremony in full silly dress, complete with lace frills and an ermine robe. Not that he was wearing anything silly or that MPs get to wear ermine robes. That’s reserved for members of the House of Lords and only on special occasions. But carrying the thing made him surprisingly stately, either because of the weight of the mace or the weight of tradition. Even when you’re disrespecting it, the mace makes you move respectfully.

Before he got to the door, he let someone take it away from him and she carried it back to its place, equally ceremoniously.

And that was enough to create a huge flap. Because people take this stuff seriously. So seriously that he was probably relieved to let someone take it away before he got out the door and had to decide what to do next. Lean it in a corner in his office? Take it home on the bus and store it in the bathtub? Head for the pawn shop and see what it’s worth?

The MP told reporters, “The symbolic gesture of lifting the mace and removing it is that the will of Parliament to govern is no longer there, has been removed. I felt Parliament had effectively given up its sovereign right to govern properly.

“They stopped me before I got out of the chamber and I wasn’t going to struggle with someone wearing a huge sword on their hip.”

I’ve watched a video of the incident and I couldn’t see who had a sword, huge or otherwise, but given the symbolic silliness that goes on in parliament I’m sure he didn’t make it up. Of course someone would be running around with a sword. I doubt the sword’s sharp enough to cut anything tougher than cheese, but I don’t really know that. Maybe tradition insists that it has to be sharpened daily. I have a nice block of local cheddar in the refrigerator in case anyone wants to experiment.  

Now let’s go back to the question of what the mace is. The Radio Times–which isn’t the place you’d normally go for political reporting–says, “The ceremonial mace is a five-foot-long, silver gilt ornamental staff that represents the royal authority of Parliament. Without the mace, Parliament cannot meet or pass laws.”  

Seriously?

Well, they all think so, so they make sure it’s true.

Oliver Cromwell made an impressive demonstration of its power and at the same time won the prize for most effective mace-grab: In 1653, he got frustrated with the MPs and told the Commons, “I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting.” Then he told his soldiers to walk off with that “fool’s bauble,” a.k.a. the mace, which they did and since the swords were on their hips no one stopped them.

After that, he threw the MPs out of the House and locked the door. A month later, he formed another parliament–one he figured he could get along with. 

So there.

Whether he brought back the mace so they could pass laws or they went ahead without it I don’t know. If anyone does, I’d love to hear from you. 

According to WikiWhatsia, maces originated in the ancient Middle East during the late stone age and were symbols of authority. It says, “A ceremonial mace is a highly ornamented staff of metal or wood, carried before a sovereign or other high official in civic ceremonies by a mace-bearer, intended to represent the official’s authority. The mace, as used today, derives from the original mace used as a weapon.” 

The mace that the Commons depends on is a symbol of royal authority. It’s carried in every day by the “Serjeant at Arms. It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.”

In contrast, the House of Lords has two maces, probably to prove they’re better than the Commons. One is placed (ceremoniously, I’m sure) on the woolsack before the House meets but isn’t placed there if the monarch comes to the chamber. Presumably because the monarch represents royal authority more impressively than a five-foot silver gilt symbol of monarchy.

I have no idea where the other mace is. Probably gathering dust ceremoniously under the Lord Speaker’s bed.

The woolsack? That’s what the Lord Speaker sits on, of course.

Stop that giggling in the back. We’re trying to learn something here.

The woolsack tradition started when Edward III (1327–1377) ordered his Lord Chancellor to sit on a bale of wool while in council. At the time, the lord chancellor presided in the Lords, so that’s where the woolsack went to live and that’s where it stayed.

This wasn’t just wooly thinking. Wool was central to the economy. The lord chancellor was to remember that. 

You want scandal, though? In 1938, someone discovered that the woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. It was duly taken apart and restuffed with wool. By rights, they should’ve gone back and un-passed every law that had made its way through the Lords while the speaker was sitting on the imposter wool sack, but World War II wasn’t far away and people were distracted.

Sprinkle a little salt on that, would you? On the first part of the sentence, please, not the second.

Anyway, the Lords can’t meet or pass laws without their mace either. And if the woolsack’s stuffed with horsehair, they can’t know about it or they’ll all have to burn their wigs.

Salt, please.

By now the Americans among us (and possibly a few other nationalities; I can’t predict that) are laughing helplessly, not because I’m funny but because of all these sober traditions. I can predict the American reaction because I’m close to that state myself and I’m still mostly American. If anyone wants to discuss what it means to be mostly American, let me know. I’m happy to wander off down that dark alley. But for now, allow me to sober everyone up: The U.S. House of Representatives has its own ceremonial mace, and if it’s not in place, then the House isn’t meeting. That’s not quite the same as saying the House can’t meet without it, but the two symbols are within spitting distance of each other.

Any number of state legislatures have them as well.

If you’re still giggling, think about how many Americans get worked up over someone burning the flag. Not because the thing has any intrinsic value–it’s just a piece of cloth–but because of its symbolism. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in other countries, but  let’s agree that we can all get silly about this stuff and mistake a symbol for a law of physics.

Because the British mace is so freighted with symbolism, periodically some MP or other loses it and grabs the mace. Or doesn’t lose it but makes a calculated decision to grab the mace, because if you want to make a point–not to mention the front pages and the 6 o’clock news–grabbing the mace is a reliable way to do it. It probably won’t be good publicity, but they will at least spell your name right. Or try to.

Stale news from here and there

Heroic Medical Experimentation: Sometime last year, six doctors in the U.K. and Australia used themselves as guinea pigs and each swallowed the head of a Lego figure to find out how long it would take to find its way out.

The answer is between 1.1 and 1.7 days. To measure this, they developed the FART score (Found and Retrieved Time) and the SHAT score (Stool Hardness and Transit). Without those two scores, the experiment would’ve been just as measurable but wouldn’t have gotten half the publicity.

Toys are the second most common things kids swallow. I’m not sure what the first most common is, but our neighbor’s kid swallowed a coin and the clever devils in A & E (that’s Accident and Emergency–the equivalent of an Emergency Room) used a metal detector to figure out if it had gone into his stomach (safe) or lungs (dangerous). It kept them from having to expose him to unnecessary x-rays.

He’s fine.

Irrelevant photo: A cyclamen, one of those magical British plants that bloom in the winter.

Two things you should know about the experiement: 1. The researchers don’t recommend trying it at home. 2. The experiment doesn’t prove that Lego heads are smarter than mice. Mice in experiments run through mazes where they have to choose one direction or another. The Lego heads followed the only path available to them.

Kids do not, as a rule, swallow mice.

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Department of Eternal Youth: The man who asked a Dutch court to declare him twenty years younger than–how am I going to put this? It’s difficult, because what he asked for falls off the edge of the English language, not to mention the edge of logic. Let’s try it this way: He asked the court to change the year he was born because he didn’t feel his emotional state and physical condition matched the number of years he’d been bumping around the planet. Also because he wanted a better response on Tinder. Anyway, the court turned him down, saying he was free to feel and act twenty years younger if he liked, but his age would remain his age.

The photo that accompanies the article doesn’t make him look like a man who’s twenty years younger than his birth certificate claims. He looks like a man who’d doctor his mirror, mirror on the wall so it shows him what he wants to see.

He plans to appeal–either the court’s decision or the mirror’s.

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Defining Human Rights: While we’re on the other side of the English Channel, a Belgian prince claimed the government violated his human rights by taking 15% off his annual £280,000 endowment. Actually, it was figured in euros–308,000 of them, but I don’t have a euro sign on my keyboard, so I shifted to pounds, knowing that you’d never notice.

The relationship of pounds to euros in constantly shifting, depending largely on who’s screwed up how badly on Brexit and how recently. Forget about me updating it, because it’ll be out of date an hour later. That was the relationship between the two at some point. It almost surely no longer is, but it’ll do.

What did the prince do to make them cut his allowance? He’s been running around meeting with the representatives of foreign states, sometimes in full naval uniform, without the government’s okay. He’d have gotten away with it if he hadn’t tweeted a picture of himself.

The cut of 15%, he said, would “deprive him and his family of all livelihoods.”

It’s tough out there, kids. And the dry cleaning expenses for those uniforms are shockingly high.

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Great Moments in International Diplomacy; And now let’s zip across a bit more water to the United States. I don’t usually write about American politics, mostly because they make me lose my sense of humor. British politics can get depressing, but every so often the people involved will dress up in knee breeches or ermine robes or treat a centuries-old ceremonial mace as if it held actual power. That cheers me up every time. What can American politics do to match that?

Still, let’s have a quick visit: Back in June of 2018, the person Trump would later pick for ambassador to the U.N., Heather Nauert, displayed her grasp of history and diplomacy by saying, “When you talk about Germany, we have a very strong relationship with the government of Germany. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day landing. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government.

I don’t know if satire really is dead, but I do know it has a hell of a mountain to climb before it can exaggerate the stupidity that passes for normal lately.

Please note: I’m writing this in December and scheduling it for January. I often write my posts well in advance of the time they go live. If by the time you read this, we’ve had two or three more nominees for the post, or two or three different confirmed ambassadors, don’t blame me. If you want your news in a sensibly timely fashion, you need to read a newspaper.

What hasn’t changed in that time is history. The D-Day landing was not a high point in German-American cooperation and good will. 

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Feel-Good News: Two U.S. debt-collection industry executives had a life-changing moment, triggered by I don’t know what, when they realized the crushing effect that medical debt has on people. In response, they became former debt-collection industry executives. More than that, they formed a nonprofit, R.I.P. Medical Debt, that buys up medical debt for roughly half a penny on the dollar and then forgives it.

The group has wiped out $434 million worth of medical debt, freeing some 250,000 people (plus their families) from its burden. The organization targets people who are in financial trouble, facing foreclosure, or earning less than twice the national poverty level.

It’s an all-around feel-good story until you realize that the total past-due medical debt in the U.S. is more than $750 billion.

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Franz Kafka Department of Fighting Terrorism: An American-born theater historian, David Mayer, who lives in Britain, got on a U.S. terrorist watch list because a Chechen Isis member, Akhmed Chatayev, once used the name David Mayer, along with many others. You’d think it would be a simple problem to sort out since David Mayer the historian 1, isn’t Chechen, 2, was born decades before Chatayev, and 3, unlike Chatayev is both alive and the owner of a matching set of arms, one on the left and one on the right. Chatayev, before he died, was known as Akhmed the One-Armed.

No such luck, though. None of that’s been enough to prove that he’s a different person.

Being on the list means Mayer the historian can’t receive packages or mail from the U.S. Why would it endanger anyone if he did? No idea, but he can’t. He found out he had a problem when he tried to buy an old theater poster off Ebay. The U.S. wouldn’t let it out of the country.

He has been able to fly, but he carries his discharge papers from the Korean War to show with his passport. They’ve helped, although I can’t begin to explain why they’re more convincing than having two arms. Papers can be forged. Arms, at the moment, can’t be.

Mayer’s been trying to get himself off the list for two years but hasn’t even been able to find out what list he’s trying to get off of. 

In 2016, a Muslim ten-year-old in the north of England wrote on a school paper that he lived in a terrorist house. Teachers are required to report any suspected extremism, so they did and the cops turned up at his house the next day. His parents did their best to explain that he meant “terraced house,” which is British for a row of houses that are attached to each other by their side walls.

The police and county government issued a statement saying it was “untrue to suggest that this situation was brought about by a simple spelling mistake” and also that “No concerns were identified and no further action was required by any agency.” Those sound to me like they contradict each other, but what do I know about terraced houses?

The boy’s cousin said the kid was afraid to write anymore.

In 2018, a British woman filling out a visa waiver form for a trip to the U.S. accidentally checked yes in response to a question about whether she’d ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide.

And yes, that’s a perfectly a sensible question to put on a form, since anyone who’d done those things would, of course, say yes.

That moment’s inattention cost her more than £800. She had to rearrange her trip plus go through a couple of high-stress interviews with the U.S. embassy. She did at least get to go, and she can, as far as I can tell, still receive mail from the U.S.

She may or may not live in a terraced house.

It gets better: A three-month-old baby was identified as a terrorist by his grandfather, who was filling out the same form for him. The baby was summoned for an interview. The grandfather reports that the officials didn’t seem to have a sense of humor so it’s probably just as well that they didn’t dress him in an orange jumpsuit. The whole thing cost them an extra £3,000.

In 2016, a flight was delayed when the seatmate of a professor working some mathematical equations reported that he might be engaged in suspicious activity. The seatmate got off the plane. The captain interviewed the professor and decided it was safe to fly.

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Public Involvement: Back in Britain, the minister of a church in Aylsham decided to make services interactive by letting parishioners use an app to register their opinions on hymns and create a word cloud of things they’re praying for.

I don’t suppose it’ll make the papers when someone writes that they’re praying for the end of the sermon.

One of my favorite attempts to make people feel they’ve been consulted about things they don’t control sits at the end of a British airport security checkpoint. Let’s take a minute to visit it:

You’ve just dripped free from narrow end of the security check’s funnel, frazzled and shoeless, and you’re still trying to assemble your phone and computer and belt and change and, oh my gawd, where did you put your passport?, and there sits this panel with buttons, asking how your experience with airport security was today. The buttons are big, each one’s a different, attractive color, and you get to push one to say your experience was ecstatic, fine, tolerable, or terrifying.

Okay, I’ve made up the categories, but you get the idea.

When I walked past it, a girl and boy were punching the buttons, one after another after another after another. They were having a wonderful time, and their parents were so relieved to see them occupied with something that didn’t break, complain, or cost money that they let the kids slam their happy fists on the buttons for many minutes.

I don’t believe for half a second that anyone looks at the results of that survey, or even that the buttons are hooked up to anything, but it was a reminder of what it’s worth when a massive bureaucratic system asks our opinion.

Public consultation’s a thing in Britain. It has to be done, usually after all the decisions have been made, and if one more authority consults me about things they aren’t about to change, I’m going to start throwing things.

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Swearing and Kids: People working in British nursery schools are reporting an increase in how often kids swear. I probably shouldn’t think that’s funny–I believe swearing should be reserved for those who understand the meaning and implications of the words they’re saying–but all the same, I do think it’s funny.

Someone I know used to work in a daycare center, and just when the inspectors from some important department or other walked through, Kid 1 was about to hit Kid 2 over the head with a toy truck. The person who told me the story magicked the truck out of Kid 1’s hands and said, “We don’t hit people here. Use your words.”

In response to which, Kid 1 said, “Fuck you, Kid 2.”

The inspectors were impressed all to hell and back.

But that was in the U.S. It has no bearing on swearing in Britain. It’s just a story I always wanted to drop in somewhere.

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Swearing and Santa: Where are all these kids learning to swear? Well, a Santa Claus in Cambridgeshire, which is conveniently located in the U.K., came raging out of his grotto this past Christmas, tearing off his beard and yelling at fifty or so kids to “get the fuck out.”

A fire alarm had gone off and the kids were already on their way out, but apparently not fast enough. One parent speculated that thumping music from a kids’ rave (a kids’ rave? don’t ask me) downstairs had already driven Santa to the breaking point when the fire alarm started screaming.

Another parent said they told their kids that this wasn’t the real Santa and that he was going on the naughty list.

And this, my friends, is why you should never tell your kids that Santa’s real. You can’t predict when Santa’s going to tear off his beard and teach your kids to swear, after which all they’ll want for Christmas is another handful of those powerful, forbidden words. And they’ll never believe anything you tell them again.

I expect the shit to fly over my having said that, but I’m actually quite serious about it. 

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What Santa Didn’t Bring You: It’s a little late for Christmas, but Harrods was (and probably still is) selling a hand-painted refrigerator for £36,000. 

I found several articles about it, with photos, so this seems to be far more real than Santa Claus, but I can’t find it on Harrods’ website, possibly because Lord Google knows I’m not a serious customer and tucked it away so it wouldn’t get shopworn. You don’t want unworthy eyes wearing the paint off it.

I did find a £500 hand-painted toaster and a £700 hand-painted blender. You can also buy a £600 kitchen mixer that isn’t hand painted. Just in case you’re struggling with the vexing question of how to get rid of your money fast enough and you don’t like hand-painted stuff.

You’re welcome. I’m here to help. But I still don’t think you should tell kids that Santa’s real.

Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.

If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.

Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:

Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.

I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. I know I’m engaging in un-British activities when I say this, but I’m grateful to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.

Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.

Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.

Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?

Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches. 

Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.

Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.

The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?

Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.

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The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.

Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.

A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.  

Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.

The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”

MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”

If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.

All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.

All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.

So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country? 

The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.

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But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.

That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.

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But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves. 

Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.

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A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along. 

A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:

“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.

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Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.

The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.

How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.

I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.

Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.

But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.

For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.

I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.