To hell with Britain: news from all over

Department of Religious Freedom: A Dutch court ruled that a woman does not have the right to wear a colander on her head in her passport and driving license photos. And just to be clear, that’s not because she’s a woman. A man doesn’t have that right either.

That strikes me as fair enough, but the story’s more complicated than it appears. We’re talking about religious freedom here.

The woman in question, Mienke de Wilde, was (this was in August, when the story appeared in the press) considering an appeal the the European Court of Human Rights. She’s a law student and I’m sure she’ll learn a lot from it. And talk about having something to put on your resume . . .

Irrelevant photo: If I remember my wildflowers correctly, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Dutch law bans headgear in identity photos but people can claim an exemption on religious grounds, and de Wilde was claiming one. She’s a Pastafarian, a member of a religion whose members worship an invisible, undetectable god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who created the universe. They wear colanders on their heads as a tribute to the god, although they consider it disrespectful to explain their beliefs without wearing full pirate regalia.

Why? “Because He becomes angry if we don’t,” the U.K. Pastafarian website says. I should probably have read the Dutch site, but I don’t read Dutch and don’t trust Lord Google to translate anything this important.

Since I’m short on pirate regalia, I’ll leave a full explanation of Pastafarian beliefs to someone with a better wardrobe, but I can at least say that believers are expected to be nice to all sentient beings and to eat a lot of pasta.

Pastafarianism is recognized by both the New Zealand government and the spell check system on my toy typewriter. The Dutch court didn’t exactly say it isn’t a real religion. It said, with the sobriety of which only a court is capable, “It may be the case that the colander is considered a holy object for Pastafarians, worn in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there is no obligation to do so. In fact, Pastafariansm has no obligations or restrictions.”

That does seem to be true. Pastafarianism’s short on obligations and don’ts. The church originally had ten I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts, but two got lost, so now it has only eight. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t demand or forbid much of anything. Except that  business about the pirate costume.

Department of Shhhh, This Is a Library: A librarian called in a bomb hoax to delay his plane because he was running late. That held it up for 90 minutes, but he still didn’t make it and was arrested when he got abusive with airline staff.  

Kind of changes your image of librarians, doesn’t it?

Department of Corporate Overreach: Procter & Gamble is trying (or at last reading, in August, was trying) to trademark some bits of the alphabet soup spread by text messaging, including LOL, WTF, NBD, and FML. I’ll translate those for the acronymically impaired: laughing out loud, what the fuck?, no big deal, and fuck my life.

The applications went to USPTO–the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Is P&G going to release a product called Fuck My Life? If so, can I sit in on the meetings where they work out a marketing strategy? Please?? I really need to be there and I promise to take notes and report back.

Sadly, it looks like all they want to do is use the letters to advertise existing products so that the millennial generation will think they’re cool. Or whatever today’s equivalent of cool is. Hot. Lukewarm. Fried. Acronymed. I’m 103 and exempt from having to be cool, hot, or anything in between.

The truth is that I never was cool but I no longer give a fuck (which just might make me cool–who knows?). It’s one of the lovely things about getting older, and we can reduce that to an acronym if my language offends anyone: INLGAF.

The USPTO asked P&G for clarification (I’ll bet they did), but according to the Independent, the BBC, and the Guardian, P&G declined to comment to the press.

Of those three, only the Guardian was willing to spell out what all the acronyms stand for. The others hid behind asterisks and “too rude to spell out.”

I think I said this before, back when the Royal Mail trademarked the shade of red it uses on trucks and mailboxes, but I never got around to doing anything about it: I’m going to trademark the word and. That means every time anyone else uses it, they have to put a little ™ (meaning trademark) sign beside it. Otherwise I get to sue them.  

Department of Truth in Blogging: That last paragraph contains a bit of urban mythology. When I worked as an editor, I ran into one or two writers who were convinced that if they mentioned a brand name they had to add ™ to avoid lawsuits and other forms of apocalypse. They didn’t. We didn’t. You don’t. Companies use the symbol to show that they’re claiming the word as a trademark. An R in a circle means roughly the same thing only more so, but WTF, let’s skip the details–they’re boring. The claim only matters to you if you’re another company in more or less the same field and want to use the word / name / phrase / color /acronym.

Department of Friendly and Accessible Government: Britain’s minister for immigration Twitter-blocked two applicants who, in desperation, tweeted her to ask for help when the Home Office wouldn’t reply to their appeals or to letters from their MPs. One was a citizen trying to prevent his long-term partner from being deported to Australia. The other was a citizen trying to get British passports for his Filippino-born adopted (and already British) children. The snag is that they have Filippino passports with their pre-adoption names. To change their names on the Filippino passports, the family would have to take the kids out of school and move to the Philippines, then he’d have to re-adopt the kids. It could take up to 18 months.

What the hell, people and their needs are all so complicated. It’s simpler just to block them.

Department of Endless Updates: Britain’s Home Office has updated its immigration rules 5,700 times since 2010. Or that was the number as of late August. That means they’ve more than doubled in length. They’re now 375,000 words long.

By way of comparison, the minimum length of a novel these days is (give or take a few ands or a the’s) 40,000 words. Most are between 60,000 and 100,000.

At least seven times, new guidelines were issued a week after the last ones were issued.

Judges and lawyers are tearing at their wigs in frustration. One said, “The changes are often hurried out, which means they can be badly written. They can be very difficult to understand, even for judges and lawyers.”

Another called it (with typical British understatement) “something of a disgrace.”

Department of Urban Wildlife: In August, New York City subway crews found two goats on the tracks of a Brooklyn subway line that was closed for repairs. The goats grazed their way down the line–I’d like to say happily but I wasn’t there and even if I had been I don’t know goats well enough to read their mood. But graze they did, right alongside the electrified third rail, until they were tranquilized and moved to a rescue center in New Jersey, where, even though I’m not there and et cetera, I’m absolutely sure they’re happy.

The area where they were found is close to some slaughterhouses and the goats are thought to have escaped from one. So yeah, good food, a nice wide river between them and the slaughterhouse? They’re happy.

Department of Technological Wonders: An article about policing the Notting Hill Carnival mentioned that the police aren’t going to use facial recognition software again this year. They tried it out for two years running and among other successes it managed to confuse a young woman with a balding man.

I struggle to recognize people–it’s called face blindness and I was endlessly relieved when I found a name for it that wasn’t Ellen’s clueless. But mixing up a young woman and a balding man? Even I’m not that bad.  

Department of Archeology: A 90,000-year-old bone fragment found in a Siberian cave turns out to be from a teenager whose DNA contains fragments from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Denisovans? They’re a recently discovered member of the human family tree and not much is known about them yet. The National Geographic says they were “a sister group of the Neanderthals, splitting from a common ancestor some 390,000 years ago. They likely lived until around 40,000 years ago, around the time when Neanderthals were also starting to fade away.”

This is the first evidence that the two groups interbred and raises the possibility that the lost groups weren’t wiped out by conflict or competition with modern humans, who arrived in Eurasia some 60,000 years ago,  but absorbed into the population.

Department of Lucrative Language: Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of the Lloyds Banking Group, announced that “our differentiated, customer-focused business model continues to deliver with our multi brand, multi channel approach, cost leadership, low risk positioning, investment capacity and execution capabilities positioning us well for sustainable success in a digital world.”

He gets paid £6.4 million a year to say stuff like that.

Department of Modern Royalty: Once upon a time, a dispute over royal succession would’ve ended up on the battlefield or with a nice, quiet assassination. Today, someone who thinks he was cheated him out of Monaco’s throne is suing France for 351 million euros. The switch from one branch of the Grimaldi family to another took place in 1911, and France was, in fact, involved. 

Louis Jean Raymond Marie de Vincens de Causans said, “I want the truth to come out and this injustice perpetrated by France on my family to be put right.”

And, incidentally, he wants 351 million euros. And a few extra names, because six doesn’t seem like enough for someone of his caliber.

Department of Police Being Soft on Crime: The German police rescued a man who was being chased by a baby squirrel. When the police arrived, the man was being chased down the street, but the chase ended with the squirrel suddenly lying down and going to sleep.

Police officer Christina Krenz said that “squirrels that have lost their mothers look for a replacement and then focus on one person.”

The squirrel was taken into custody and instead of being charged is now a police mascot. It’s going to grow up thinking this sort of thing is acceptable behavior.

Department of Terrorist Threats: A man traveling from Belfast to London to see his father, who was starting treatment for cancer, missed his flight when airport security refused to let him take his wheelchair repair kit on the flight. The toolkit had some wrenches (called spanners in Britain), some spare wheel nuts, and medicine for diabetes.

When he challenged security over it, saying he needed the tools in case his wheels broke and so he could adjust his chair to fit into the car he’d rented on the other end,  they said the wrenches could be used to “dismantle the plane.”

I didn’t make that up.

Okay, how about if the cabin crew looked after the toolkit until he left the plane?

Nope.

Could it go with the luggage?

Sorry, there was no time for that.

His partner publicized the incident on social media, and that had no connection to the apology he later received from the airport. The airport has agreed to make a donation to a disability charity, which is nice but doesn’t strike me as being anywhere close to enough.

I admit, I’m not sure what would be.

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.