What the world wants to know about Britain, part 18-ish

Parliament

the ceremonial mace

Ah, yes, the ceremonial mace, the symbol of “royal authority without which neither House [that’s the Commons and the Lords] can meet or pass laws.” (That’s a quote from parliament’s official website.)

Why can’t they meet or pass laws without it? Because that’s how it’s done. Grab the thing and take it home with you and you bring business to a screeching halt. If Boris Johnson really wanted to stop parliament from meeting, he could’ve tried it. It worked for Cromwell. 

a dozen pubs in parliment

At least. Also two A’s. 

mps wearing ties

This at least gets us away from questions about MPs wearing stockings, which is a nice change. Yes, MPs who are of the male persuasion are expected to wear ties. It’s boring, but it’s true.

Irrelevant photo: One rose.

what is the robe that house speaker wears

It’s–um, it’s a robe. Not like a bathrobe type of robe but like–well, it’s called a gown, so a gown type of robe. The current speaker broke with tradition by dressing in an ordinary suit (and yes, a tie, and I’m sure shoes and undies and all that predictable stuff) with the gown over it. That’s instead of wearing what’s called court dress underneath, which is more formal and infinitely more absurd and which speakers before him wore. On high ceremonial occasions, he wears a gown with gold braid.

History, biology, geography

why was great britain created

Well, the mommy britain looked at the daddy britain and thought he was–not exactly handsome, you know, but interesting. And the daddy britain looked at the mommy britain and thought she was someone worth getting to know. Not beautiful exactly, but green and pleasant, and there was just something about her that he couldn’t get out of his mind. And that’s how great britain was created. At first it was called little britain because it followed the traditional pattern of being born small and slowly getting bigger, but as it got older it took after the mommy britain and grew up to be a green and pleasant land. And larger than both its parents. That could be because by then growth hormones were being fed to the cattle, but no one knows for sure.  

is there such a country called britain

Not exactly. The country’s called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, known to its friends as the U.K. The Great Britain part of that is that big island you’ll find floating around between Ireland and Europe. It includes Wales, Scotland, and England. And Cornwall if you care to count it separately. Those are nations but they’re not (at the moment–check with me later to be sure we stay up to date) countries. That nation thing is about separate cultures. The country thing about government.

As a political entity, Britain doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t keep politicians from talking as if they were governing it. 

Brexit

brexit and metric

I’m sure someone out there is counting on a triumphant, patriotic return to imperial measures if we leave the E.U., but I doubt it’ll happen. First, changing over is expensive. Second, British businesses will still hope to export (once they wade through all the paperwork) to metric-speaking countries, and it’s easier to export when you share a set of measurements. 

Assuming, of course, that rational minds prevail. 

Stop laughing. It’s been known to happen.

metric except for

…the things that aren’t. Miles, for example. Beer. A random sampling of other stuff. Instead of repeating what I’ve said better elsewhere, allow me to refer you to myself

eveeything you need to know about brexit

Oops. I think I did make that claim, although I’m pretty sure I had another R in it somewhere. The thing is, we can’t take me seriously. No one knows everything we need to know about Brexit. Especially the people who said it would be simple.

So what’s Britain really like?

great in great britain

Yes, I am doing great here, and thanks for asking. Hope you’re doing great as well, wherever you may be.

why back roads in englane are so narrow

Because they’re back roads–the ones not a lot of people drive on. The ones that don’t need to be as wide as the main roads. 

percentage uk people fishn chips or tikka masala

This is, I’d guess, a question about what percent of the British public prefers which, and it drives me to comment not on the topic itself but on the nature of search questions–or of questions in general. Does liking one mean you don’t like the other? Can a country include people who love both or neither? If the answer to the first question is no and to the second is yes, then there’s no way to do a head count.

If, of course, anyone cared enough to bother.

But let’s assume they do care and rejigger the question: As a way of checking in on the great British eating machine, once we find a way not to make this an either/or question, we can’t give people only those two choices. We need to allow for the impact of sausage rolls (and lately, vegan sausage rolls) on the British culture. And pasties. Do we include sweet stuff? Breakfast food? Lunch? Supper/dinner/tea/confusingly named evening meal?

What are we trying to measure here, and what are we going to learn if we get an answer to our questions?

do women lawyers in wales wear wigs

They do. Which means the men lawyers do as well. Some political powers have been devolved to Wales, but their legal system’s still English. Why? Because history’s a messy beast. So if English lawyers of whatever gender wear wigs in court (not in the office; not in the bath; and not in bed–I assume–or on the train), so do the lawyers in Wales. 

In spite of devolution, I’m 99% sure that Scotland and Northern Ireland haven’t gotten rid of them. Maybe if Scotland leaves the U.K., it’ll reconsider. 

I had other wig-related questions to choose from, but I’m tired of wigs. Let’s talk about something else.

throwing of currant buns

That happens in Abingdon-on-Thames on royal-related occasions. Allow me (apologies) to refer you to myself again for what I used to know on the subject but forgot as soon as I published it. 

two finger up in britain

The plural of finger is fingers. If you’re using two of them, you need to topple from the singular into the plural. But I suspect that wasn’t the question.

What was the question?

are english public schools a good thing for education in this country

No.

That was easy.

If things that came from or made in britain were called “british,” something that came from or made in flanders were called ________________________

Flandish.

You’re welcome.

question is berwick upon tweed at war with russia

Answer: No. Sorry. But you could form an organization and push Berwick to declare war. Never underestimate the power that a small, committed group of people can have to make the world a better place. If the search engine questions that wander in here are any measure, a fair few of you are concerned about the issue.

who is berwick on tweed at war with

No one, but that could change any minute now.

what color are mailboxes in england

The same color as in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. And Cornwall, which is to say in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: red.

Random

amazon

Why did this come to me? Because I am bigger than Amazon. And better.

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.

*

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.

*

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.