British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.

Cathedral cats, soy sauce, and highway signs: Its the news from Britain

Southwark Cathedral’s much-loved cat, Doorkins Magnificat, has died. 

Doorkins came to the cathedral as a stray and discovered that the vergers–the people who open the building in the morning and (I assume) close it at night–were good for a bowl of food and a pet or two if she was in the mood, so she stayed for twelve years, making herself at home on the warm pipe that runs under a stone seat, on a cushion, on a grating where warm air (I’m guessing here) does very little to take the chill off a cathedral’s huge open space but does a great deal to take the chill off a cat.

At Christmas, she liked to sleep in the manger display. Humans, I need you to move the kid over. The cat needs a nap.

That’s one way we can know Doorkins was a genuine cat. 

She wasn’t a fan of the bishop, she strolled through the most solemn of services, and she gave herself a good cleaning whenever the mood took her. When the queen visited–well, they say a cat can look at a queen, but a cat can also decide it’s not worth the trouble. Doorkins couldn’t be bothered. She opened one eye, didn’t see anything that impressed her, and shut it again. So we’ll amend the ancient wisdom: A cat can look at a queen, but only if she wants to.

What could be more relevant to a post that opens with a cat than a photo of birds? This is a murmuration of starlings. In the winter, they flock together to roost in the trees at the edge of the field–thousands upon thousands of them. They come in in separate flocks that merge, circle, form shifting patterns, and eventually condense onto the trees for the night.

She did lend her name and image to a range of tchotchkes that the cathedral sold to visitors–mouse pads, mugs, magnets, cards, eventually a kids’ book. She had her own Twitter account but left it to her humans to post stuff.

Tchotchkes? Sorry, that’s a bit of Yiddish. Or maybe it’s Yinglish.  Either way, it’s out of place in a conversation about a cathedral, which is probably why it wandered in, as disrespectful as a cat. Tchotchkes are little things that are basically useless but decorative and don’t we just love having them around?

After Doorkins died, the cathedral held a memorial service, although in keeping with Covid guidelines they limited it to thirty people. Her ashes are buried in the cathedral close.

A close? It’s, um, a closed space. In British, a dead-end street’s called a close. So is the enclosed area around a cathedral, even though the ones I’ve seen aren’t seriously enclosed, just marked with a low wall. I don’t usually let myself get publicly sentimental, but a cathedral close is a good spot for a cathedral cat with a following that won’t be ready to let her go. 

The dean of the cathedral said, “She did more to bring people to this place than I will ever do.”

*

A seventeen-year-old student working on a project to explore brand loyalty fooled mainstream online news outlets into thinking Woolworth’s was going to reopen in Britain. The store hasn’t been around for over ten years, but the MailOnline, the Star, the Metro, the Mirror, the Sun, and a fair number of others fell for a tweet saying the chain would be resurrected, even though Woolworth’s was spelled two different ways and the Twitter account linked to a nonexistent website. 

The student didn’t expect (or mean) the experiment to take off the way it did, but once news outlets picked it up it got away from them. Twitter took twelve hours to shut the account down.

*

With Brexit looming and the pandemic raging, the government needs whatever good news it can get, so it announced proudly that a new trade agreement with Japan will mean cheaper soy sauce for your average British soy sauce addict. Because you know how many pints of soy sauce a dedicated user can get through in an afternoon. 

The announcement from the Department of International Trade didn’t spell soy sauce more than one way, and the trade agreement with Japan is entirely real, but it turns out that the price of soy sauce won’t be going down. Under the EU trade agreement that we’re about to leave, the tariff on soy sauce is a whopping 0%. Unless someone pays us to take it, it’s hard to get cheaper than that. 

We would have gotten a bargain if as European Union members we’d been importing it on the basis of World Trade Organization rules, but we haven’t been. Those aren’t the rules the EU and Japan trade under. 

It also turns out that Britain doesn’t import much soy sauce from Japan. It comes from China.

Other than that, the announcement was entirely accurate. 

*

Two brothers are suing the London police for stopping, searching, and handcuffing them after they greeted each other with a fist bump. Both are–I’m sure this will surprise you–Black. At 29 and 30, they say that between them they’ve been stopped and searched more than 25 times, starting when they were as young as 12. The only explanation they were given for the search was that they fist-bumped each other and were in the Deptford high street.

It’s legal for the British police to stop and search someone if they have “reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property, or something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar.”

Or if you’re Black and bumping fists in Deptford. 

According to the government’s own figures, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every thousand White people, compared with thirty-eight for every thousand Black people.

*

Britain’s garbage dumps are under attack by zombie batteries, and if you live in some other country the odds are that your garbage dumps are in just as much danger. 

A zombie battery is one that’s tossed out with the household trash instead of being given the respectful end-of-life care it’s due. It then gets punctured or outright crushed and starts a fire.

Or–in the name of accuracy–it can start a fire, especially if it’s the lithium-ion type that run laptops, cell phones (aka mobile phones), e-cigarettes, and Bluetooth thingies. They can get worked up enough to explode. 

Zombie batteries are believed to have started 250 fires at waste processing sites in the year ending in March 2020, and Britain goes through 22,000 tons of batteries a year. Less than half of them are recycled properly. 

Beware. And my apologies for not posting that before Halloween. A zombie battery would make a great costume if you’re into obscure jokes.

*

In response to a directive from the Department for Transport, it looks like Highways England is rebranding itself as National Highways, although it still covers only England and the new name has managed to piss off the Welsh (or at least some of them). The Welsh political party Plaid Cymru called the new name “self-aggrandising and offensive.” Wales, like England, is a nation within the country that is the United Kingdom, and in Wales the roads are the responsibility of the Welsh government, not the English one.

It’ll also be expensive. It’ll cost something like £7 million to redesign and reprint brochures, signs explaining road works,  documents, departmental cars and trucks, and who knows what else. And if that isn’t absurd enough, the agency’s said to have just finished updating all of the above after a 2015 name change. 

However much they spend redesigning signs about road works, I predict that they’ll continue to be unreadable. Instead of saying something like, “Closed 8 pm to 8 am, 3 October to 5 October,” road closure signs say something along the lines of, “We’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but this road will be closed between 8 pm and 8 am from 3 October 2020 to 5 October 2020 while we conduct roadworks that will improve your driving experience. ”

And of course it’ll end with some sort of attribution to National Highways, or Highways England, or whoever they are. Not that most drivers read that far. We’re all panting to know who left us the sign, but by the time we’ve read as far as “driving experience” we’re in the ditch and not happy with how ours has gone. 

Either that or we zip past knowing only that the road will close at some point but sublimely ignorant of when.

Diversion signs, on the other hand, point us boldly through the first turn or two to take us around a road closure, then whoever set them out either ran out of signs or got bored. Either way, they abandon us on some back road. If we keep driving, though, and take a random number of rights and lefts, eventually we come out someplace else and can start over. 

*

In California, raccoons broke into a bank, prowled the halls, sat at a desk, and were shooed out before they could withdraw any cash, although they did get some almond cookies. 

They broke in sometime during the night and seem to have climbed a tree, crawled through the air ducts, and fallen through the ceiling tiles. In the morning, they were spotted through the windows by a guy heading to work on a construction site. He called the Humane Society.

No charges have been filed.

Moonshots and international law: It’s the news from Britain 

We all just love good news, which is why we’ll try not to gag when we discuss Boris Johnson’s moonshot plan to test everybody in Britain for Covid all day every day, including when they’re asleep, working in their pajamas, or breaking and entering because they want to wear someone else’s pajamas for a change.

I know, but you do need to let me exaggerate now and then. It prevents explosions.

The moonshot plan is about ramping up Covid testing from 200,000 tests a day to 10 million a day by early next year. It would cost, at a wild and irresponsible guess (sorry–at a sober but preliminary estimate), £10 billion plus. 

Plus how much? At those levels, who cares? By way of comparison, that’s roughly equal to the UK’s education budget, but since the alternative, at least in the scenario posed by the prime minister, is a second lockdown, it’s a bargain at twice the price. 

Or something along those lines. 

Completely relevant photo: Have I mentioned that we’re going to the dogs?

It’ll involve lots of private companies–some of them the same ones who are screwing up the current test and trace program–so I could see where we’d end up paying twice the price. For half the product.

Given that the current testing program is short of something–probably lab capacity but who really knows?–and is therefore suggesting that people drive to hell and back if they seriously want to get tested because Britain’s a small island and when I was a kid we walked to school. Through the snow. We didn’t stand around waiting for a bus to pick us up and moaning about a little rain–

Let’s start that over. Why do you people keep leaving me in charge? 

The moonshot tests, or at least some of them, will give results in minutes. 

The problem is–

No, one of the problems is that the technology to make this work doesn’t exist yet. Another problem is the public health leaders are screaming for more control of the current testing program because the companies running it are making such a mess. 

This time, though, they’ll get it right. And I’ll be twenty again, only much smarter than I was the first time around. 

Also taller.

*

Want another problem with the moonshot program? The government’s advisors weren’t called upon to advise before it was shot at the press. The National Screening Committee was sidelined on the grounds that the moonshot is a testing program, not screening. 

“Mass testing is screening,” according to Allyson Pollock, the director of something very impressive at Newcastle University. I’d give her full title but we need to move on. Sorry.

See how British I’ve gotten in fourteen years? I apologize all the time. I don’t mean it, but I do apologize. 

If I were Britishly British, though I’d write “I’ve got” instead of “I’ve gotten.” Don’t ask me to explain it, but I’ve discovered that the American version annoys the hell out of someone in the village who’s well worth annoying. I’d use it anyway–my speech pattern, c’est moi–but it does add joy to the words.

Where were we? 

If the committee had been involved, it could consider the impact of false positives and false negatives and the social and economic impact of a large number of people being told to self-isolate. 

John Deeks, a professor of something equally impressive at the University of Birmingham said, “There is a massive cause for concern that there is no screening expertise evident in the documents. They are written by management consultants. . . . Before you start, you have to make sure you do less harm than good.”

*

If a massive testing program really happens, is anyone talking about paying people enough that they can afford to stay home if they test positive? 

Don’t be silly. It would set a bad precedent and make people lazy. 

*

While the official testing program limps along, running short of whatever it’s running short of, the University of Exeter is buying its own tests for students and staff–saliva tests that promise results either the same day or the next. They’re made by an outfit called Halo, which says they’re wonderful. As they may well be, but I’d like to hear that from an unbiased source and so far I haven’t found one. With a different test, people who actually understand these things complained that although the company making the test reported that it registered very few false negatives or false positives, it’s possible to game the data and unless companies make their testing process transparent, no one will know if they have. 

I don’t know if Halo’s transparent. 

*

Covid cases have been  rising in Britain, but the number of deaths has stayed low, presumably because the infections are concentrated among younger people, who are less likely to die or be hospitalized. A fair number of fingers have been wagged at them for getting sick. They’ve been out seeing friends, drinking in pubs, eating in cafes, attending illegal raves. 

Of course, the government’s been dangling vouchers in front of them–and the rest of us–to lure us into pubs and cafes so we could support the economy, as well as telling everyone working at home to get out of their bathrobes (which could use a good wash by now anyway) and relocate their hind ends to whatever office it is they used to work in. The economy can’t deal with this many people working from home.

That says something about how much sheer uselessness it takes to keep the economy rolling.

Now that more people are testing positive for Covid, though, it’s their own fault for listening to the government. They should’ve known better. 

Why are younger people really picking up the disease? A combination of factors, probably. Many of them have jobs that put them into contact with the public, and with all the viruses the public carries. Some of them are careless. They’ve been told they’re unlikely to get seriously sick. The police have broken up some illegal raves, but the entire younger population of the country wasn’t at them, 

You also have to figure that a lot of us who are retired are still in hiding, or semi-hiding, so we’re a little harder for the germs to find. Opportunists that they are, they jump into whoever they find.

What’s the government’s advice to  keep young people on the straight and narrow? “Don’t kill granny.”

Seriously.

There’s something unnerving about that as a way of mobilizing a nation.

*

No news from Britain is complete without a mention of Brexit: 

Rod McKenzie of Britain’s Road Haulage Association warns us, or warns the government, or warns anyone who’s listening, which may not be anyone at all since the government listens only to itself, I don’t really exist, and we’re not so sure about you–

Can we start that over?

Rod McKenzie, of Britain’s Road Haulage Association, warns us that we’re “sleepwalking to a disaster with the border preparations that we have, whether it is a deal or no-deal Brexit at the end of December.”

He’s worried about supply chains being interrupted, especially on the heels of the Covid crisis. 

“The difference here is between a disaster area and a disaster area with rocket boosters on.”

Remember the beginning of lockdown, when everyone was stocking up on toilet paper and bread flour (or hoarding it, depending on whether we were talking about ourselves or our neighbors)? If you’re in Britain, it might be worth doing that again. I have a recipe that calls for both if you want it.

Brexit, Covid spikes, and lies: It’s the news from Britain

Britain is gearing up to break international law in “a very limited and specific way,” according to Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary. 

Last October, Boris Johnson’s government negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the European Union that would avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something everyone with half a brain and no political advisors with the initials D.C. considers important because a hard border threatens to reignite the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We’ll skip the background there because it’s long and complicated. If you’re not up on it, just nod sagely and pretend you know what I’m talking about. 

It was a patched-together agreement and even at the time it looked unworkable because if Britain left the EU there had to be a hard border somewhere, and if it wasn’t going to be between Ireland and Northern Ireland, then it was going to be in the middle of the Irish Sea, pushing Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK. 

Wave bye-bye to the nice island, Boris. 

Look! It’s waving back. 

Or maybe that’s Northern Ireland waving hello to the Irish Republic. Either way, aren’t the Irish friendly?

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower that goes by that name.

Anyway, it was all going to be okay, we were told, because they–they being some unnamed genius in a governmental office somewhere, whose initials were probably D.C.–would figure out a way to make it work.

So what have they figured out? Well, um, nothing. Which is why we’re gearing up for that limited and specific little law-break, Your Honor. See, we were painting the floor. And then we realized we were in a corner and surrounded by wet paint. And we really needed a beer, and on top of that, we had to pee.

Sorry, did I just say pee? We needed to visit the loo and drive to Barnard Castle to test our eyesight. But you understand the difficulty, right?

Sorry: British political in joke implanted there. I couldn’t help myself. It all has to do with a prime ministerial advisor who doesn’t believe laws apply to him.

The former prime minister Theresa May asked how the government planned to “reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreement.” And you know what, no one answered her. Because she’s the former prime minister, not the current one.

Somewhat more noticeably, the most senior legal civil servant resigned over it, and that seems to be creating a few shock waves. He’d advised ministers–or so Westminster gossip (which I get by way of the newspapers) holds–that the changes would be illegal, and since civil servants are required to stay within the law, he quit.

That raises the question of whether the justice secretary and attorney general, who take oaths to uphold the rule of law, will find themselves in deep shit at some point over this.

The government’s said to have asked for independent legal advice and when they didn’t like what the advice advised are said to have ignored it. 

Senior Tories are urging the government to perform yet another U-turn–a maneuver the government does well. The question is, how many senior Tories are we talking about, and how many junior ones? The Tories have a majority of 80, so it’ll take more than a handful to have an impact.

Please ensure that your seat belts are securely fastened. We’re headed for turbulence.

*

Britain’s had a spike in Covid cases and is imposing new restrictions to try to stop it. Or to slow it down. Or to be seen to be doing something while still trying to get people who’ve been working at home back into the office so they can support the economy by buying sandwiches and expensive coffees and those sparkly notebooks that eight-year-olds like. Without those sales, the economy’s sinking.

Whatever. We now have new restrictions. 

In England, starting on Monday, social gatherings of more than six people or from more than two households will be illegal. Unless they’re weddings or funerals or organized team sports. Or schools or work, which aren’t exactly social but the health secretary Matt Hancock mentioned them anyway because he was trying to make the point that the ”the rule is really simple.” 

“What,” a friend asked me as I was explaining how simple this is, “about my brother, who has six kids?”

“Well,” I said, “he should’ve thought of that before he had them.” 

And just so I’d sound all British about this, I added, “Shouldn’t he?”

As it turns out, it really is simple. It’s either six people from any number of households (two households, six households, thousands of households if you can make the numbers work) or any number of people from any two households. Plus either a dessert or an appetizer.

Fizzy drinks and alcohol cost extra. And my friend’s brother can keep all his kids. 

Of course, the rules are different if you’re in one of the cities and towns that have local lockdowns or the restrictions that are an attempt to avoid a full-out lockdown. No two local rules seem to be the same. In some, restrictions involve venues–however the hell they’re defining that–having to close between 10 pm and 5 am, which is when the virus is known to come out and play. In others, you can’t have people over, indoors or in your garden, which in American is called a yard, unless you’ve formed a support bubble, which is created when a household with one adult joins another household and when they add soap to a dishpan of water (glycerine helps) and have a bubble pipe or wand. 

It’s best to do this outdoors, because it’s messy.

With the emphasis on gardens, it sounds like you could get together if you put a fence between one household and the other as long as no more than six people are inside the fence.

Anyway, it’s really very simple. 

I’ve always considered the mess an art form. I should idolize Hancock, but somehow he just doesn’t do it for me. 

All of that, of course, only applies to England. What about in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (if it hasn’t floated out of sight yet)?

It’s simple, so I’ll quote the BBC to be sure I get it right:

  • In Scotland, up to 15 people from five different households can meet outdoors.
  • In Wales, up to 30 people are allowed to see each other outdoors.
  • In Northern Ireland, the maximum number of people who can meet outdoors has been reduced from 30 to 15.

However, if we’re talking about being indoors, either at your place or in a pub, the rules alllow:

  • In Scotland, up to eight people from three different households
  • In Northern Ireland, up to six people from two households
  • In Wales, up to four households can form an “extended household.”

I don’t know how it can get any clearer than that. But keep in mind that the distance you’re supposed to keep from other people will vary depending on whether you’re in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. Because the virus behaves differently depending on the accent it hears.

*

I can’t think why I’m so tired.

*

Last week sometime, I told you my tale about trying to get one of Britain’s world-beating Covid tests and being advised to go from Cornwall to Wales. I’m used to being told where to go, and it doesn’t usually involve anyplace as nice as Wales, so I didn’t get my feelings hurt. 

But now it turns out that I’m the reasons Britain is short of Covid testing materials, and that does hurt my feelings. 

Matt Hancock, our secretary of state for health, social care, and public excuses, tells us the shortage of Covid tests is the fault of people getting tested when they don’t need a test. A full 25% of the people asking for tests turn out to be this sort of me-too-ers. They don’t have the symptoms, so what are they up to? 

We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about symptoms. The government web site gives you a choice of three, but if you bump around the internet, limiting yourself to entirely responsible sites, you’ll find that the virus is more generous than that. You can have five symptoms if you want them. You can probably have more than that, but I’m prone to dizziness when I work with higher numbers so I stopped there.

But even if the government could count to five, it shouldn’t matter whether you have symptoms. One of the things that makes the virus so damn hard to stamp out is that asymptomatic people can and do transmit it. Any chance of controlling it rests on (a) a highly effective vaccine, (b) magic, or (c) testing–lots and lots of testing, including testing people who don’t have any symptoms so they can find out if they’re carrying it and then isolate themselves and not pass it on. 

Let’s pause here for some advice: If you have an off-brand symptom and want to get tested, you should lie. Don’t worry. This is a government that understands lying. 

*

Trials for the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine hit Pause when a participant was hospitalized with what may be a serious reaction to the vaccine and may be something unrelated. You know, the kind of thing that happens when a satellite flies over your house just as you’re chewing bubble gum and the cat’s litter tray needs cleaning and you’ve got Billie Holiday playing on whatever on earth it is you use to play recorded music these days. And–I almost forgot–you breathe in a virus that isn’t the one we’re concerned about but does still make you very, very sick.

These things do happen and you can’t know in advance what effect they’ll have. Researchers are trying (frantically, I’d think, but we all know I’m not there, so let’s not take me too seriously) to figure out if the participant’s illness is related to the vaccine or not. It may not be, but this is why political pressure to shorten the testing process is really very stupid.

Tea, coffee, and shareholders: It’s the news from Britain

Let’s talk about something other than the pandemic, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

The shareholders of Tesco, a British supermarket chain, objected by 67% to whatever’s left to paying its outgoing chief exec an extra £1.7 on top of the £6.42 million he was already scheduled to get. And while we’re at it, to paying an extra £900,000 to the finance director. 

To which Tesco said, “They didn’t really mean that.”  

That’s a paraphrase. What they actually said was, “Recent engagement on our remuneration report with a number of our larger shareholders” told them that shareholders are actually just fine with it.

That one marginally comprehensible phrase was wrapped in enough extra verbiage that I had to borrow the neighbors’ an hedge trimmer to cut it loose.

*

Irrelevant photo: Somebody else’s flowers. I have no idea what they are.

A Spanish law that was passed to keep Canary Island separatists from flying their flags on public buildings ended up blocking the town of Villanueva de Algaidas from flying a rainbow flag to mark Pride Month. Town officials put up a rainbow flag, the police got three complaints (or possibly one complaint from three people), and down the flag had to go.

What happened next? Residents filled the town with rainbow flags. Hundreds of people flew them from windows, from balconies, from anything they had access to. The instigators–sorry, the organizers–are hoping to do the same next year.

*

A German post office closed down because a suspicious package smelled so bad that six people were taken to the hospital and others became nauseous and were evacuated.

The place promptly filled with police and firefighters who cleared sixty people from the building and looked for some sort of dangerous gas.

The cause turned turned out to be a four durians from Thailand. 

The durian is a fruit, and one of those things people either love or hate. It’s been compared to cheesecake. It’s also been compared to dirty feet and to rotting onions. In parts of Asia, it’s banned from public transportation. Some hotels won’t allow it on the premises.

*

After I moved to Britain, I learned that Britain and the U.S. have a special relationship.

Sorry, make that the special relationship. It’s something that almost no one in the U.S. knows about it, but mention it in Britain and 93.6% of resident humans will know what you mean.

And 47.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.

That doesn’t have much to do with the following story, but it needed some sort of introduction.

Michelle from North Carolina posted a TikTok video that involved making tea by mixing milk, powdered lemonade, spices, sugar, Tang (that’s an orange-colored drink mix), and a teabag, then microwaving the whole mess.

Did the microwave die of embarrassment? It did not. It stuck around long enough for her to try making “British tea,” which (as far as I can figure out without actually going to TikTok myself) involved cold water, a tea bag (possibly the same one, but possibly not; what do I know?) and that same microwave. 

The internet went nuts–or at least the British segment of it did. Eventually Britain’s ambassador to Washington posted a video of in which three branches of the armed forces appeared separately and demonstrated how to make a cup of tea. 

Take that, Americans.

They didn’t. The U.S. ambassador to London responded with a video demonstrating how to make a cup of coffee. He dumped a spoonful of instant coffee in a mug, poured milk in, and put water in a kettle. 

“Have a nice day,” he said.

The British think all Americans say “have a nice day” at the end of every encounter. They’re probably right, but they’ve started saying it themselves.

A source at the Italian embassy has said, unofficially, “What [the ambassador] made was American coffee. And I stress: American coffee.”

Michelle from North Carolina turns out to live in Britain. She’s having a great time, thanks and has 5 million TikTok likes. You can trade those for money at the concession stand on your way out.

*

As I’m sure you know, Britain’s leaving the E.U., and that means we have to do all sorts of things for ourselves that the E.U had been doing for us, including find satellites to bounce our navigation system signals off of. (I know: a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with. Aren’t I just daring? Don’t you just hold your breath at the audacity of it all?) 

So Britain bought a 20% stake in OneWeb, to the tune of something like £500 million. The problem? OneWeb doesn’t run the kind of satellite network navigation systems need. 

According to Bleddyn Bower, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, “What happened is that the very talented lobbyists at OneWeb have convinced the government that we can completely redesign some of the satellites to piggyback a navigation payload on it. It’s bolting an unproven technology onto a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else.” 

All existing navigation use satellites in medium orbit. OneWeb’s are in low orbit.

The original plan was for the UK to build its own satellite system, to the tune of about £4 billion. That was put on hold just before the feasibility study was due to be published, by which time the cost had gone up to £5 billion. 

Giles Thorne, a research analyst, said, “Let’s give the government the benefit of the doubt. . . . It is probably quicker and cheaper to smash the square peg of OneWeb into the round hole of a Galileo replacement than to do it from scratch.”

But he also said, “This situation is nonsensical to me.”

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. in March. Which has nothing to do with anything.

*

Okay, one pandemic story: A barista in San Diego, California, asked a customer to wear a face mask. Instead, the customer cursed at him, threatened to call the cops, took a photo, and posted it to Facebook.

“Meet Lenen from Starbucks who refused to serve me cause I’m not wearing a mask. Next time I will wait for cops and bring a medical exemption,” she wrote.

His name isn’t Lenen. It’s Lenin Gutierrez. 

The move backfired. Her post is full of comments that range from reasoned arguments to abuse to my favorite explanation of why you wear a mask: “You know what’s really uncomfortable? Pants. But I still wear them in public. Not for me. For others.” 

In American, pants aren’t underwear. They’re overwear: trousers. In British, they’re underwear.

Okay, one more comment on her post: “Covid-19 sent you a friend request.”

Then someone–not anyone who knew Gutierrez–set up a GoFundMe page, asking people to leave Gutierrez a tip for standing up to the customer. He hoped to raise $1,000 and ended up raising $80,000 in less than a week.  When I checked at the end of June, it was close to $100,000.

“I don’t know how to truly vocalize how grateful and blessed I feel with this opportunity everyone has given me,” Gutierrez said. 

He plans to use some of the money to pursue his dream, which is to become a dancer, and to donate some of it to organizations in San Diego.

Happiness, depression, drunks, and codpieces. It’s the news from Britain.

Let’s start with Brexit, since January 31–the day this post goes live, in case you’re getting here late–is the last day that Britain is still a member of the European Union.

To mark the occasion, Boris Johnson announced a fundraising campaign to rush the repairs on Big Ben so it could ring out when Britain crosses that wild Brexit frontier. The cost was estimated at £500,000. He called it “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.”

Don’t expect me to give you a word-for-word translation of that into American. Basically, it means “give money” and “I’m cute.”

Then, without the alliteration, a government spokesperson said there might be, um, problems in accepting public donations. Cue assorted forms of confected outrage. The newspaper I deliver to a neighbor (nice neighbor, godawful paper) ran a headline about a Remainer stitchup over Big Ben’s bongs. Because that’s what remainers are about: keeping that clock from ringing.

The headline didn’t get the clock ringing but it saved a bit of Johnson’s alliteration.

The aforesaid hapless government spokesperson was asked if Johnson would apologize to the people who’d already contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. He declined to say either that he would or he wouldn’t. Several times over.

But maybe church bells could ring out all over Britain.

Well, as it turns out that ringing bells, or not ringing them, is governed by church law. Who knew? And  only parish priests get to decide when and whether to ring them. A quick survey by the Guardian didn’t indicate much enthusiasm for it, either on the part of the clergy or the bellringers.

An Exeter Cathedral spokesperson said, “The Church of England in Devon is the church for everyone, whether they voted leave or remain. Church bells are first and foremost a call to worship and, in line with the Central Council for Church Bellringers, we do not feel, in principle, they should be rung for political purposes.”

*

Rumor has it that Boris Johnson has banned the word Brexit from 10 Downing Street as of January 31. It’s not clear why. Maybe it’s his way of addressing people’s Brexit exhaustion: Let’s just not talk about it anymore.They’ll also stop talking about negotiations with the EU and pretend everything’s taken care of. Maybe that’s what people really voted for: not to fix anything, just to stop hearing about it.

So what does the new 50p Brexit coin say? “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”

Seriously. An earlier edition of 1 million was melted down because it had an exit date that Johnson, in a fit of enthusiasm, promised but then changed–October 31. How much did that cost? Nobody’s saying, although a fair number are asking. In an trial run, a thousand were minted with an earlier date that Theresa May missed.

*

One last bit of Brexit news: Bloomberg Econmics estimated that since the referendum the cost of Brexit has been £130 billion, and if expects another £70 billion to be added to that by the end of the transition period. But hey, it’s only money, right?

If you’re interested in how Brexit is likely to affect business or in the issues around regulation and what alignment with EU regulations means, check out the Brexit Blog.

*

The Church of England’s House of Bishops has issued advice saying that sex should be for married heterosexuals only. Which makes sense. If god had wanted anyone else to have sex, he would have given them sexual desires and clearly he didn’t.

*

Designers have introduced high heels to men’s fashion. One said they made her customers feel “more powerful and sexy.”

The last pair of heels I ever owned–or ever will, and this was back in 1804 or thereabouts –made me feel like I was going to fall down the stairs. That was a split second before I did fall down the stairs. It was sexy as hell. And very powerful. In spite of which I doubt the trend will transfer from the catwalk to the allegedly real world, but if it does, guys, you’re welcome to my share of the damn things, although you’ll probably need a larger size.

I also read that designers are reintroducing the codpiece. You know the codpiece? It’s “a pouch attached to a man’s breeches or close-fitting hose to cover the genitals, worn in the 15th and 16th centuries,” according to Lord Google. A highly exaggerated pouch. Henry VIII wore one. He would have had room to stuff his falconer’s gloves in there, and the falcon along with them. One paper said they’re intended to induce awe. I’m sure they will if you can only get people to stop laughing.  

*

Irrelevant photo: A camellia blossom. In January.

A study of UK students reports that focusing on happiness could leave a person depressed. The students who valued happiness most registered as more depressed.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

*

Let’s shift countries for a few entries: An octopus escaped a New Zealand zoo by breaking out of its tank and slipping down a drain to the ocean. A zoo spokesperson said the octopus wasn’t unhappy at the zoo–they’re solitary creatures–just curious. 

I’d need to hear that from the octopus before I feel certain of it, but it didn’t designate a spokesperson before it left.

*

In the US, a drop-down menu on the Department of Agriculture’s website listed Wakanda, the imaginary country in the movie Black Panther, as a free-trade partner. What do the US and Wakanda trade?  Ducks, donkeys, and dairy cows. Possibly more, since those all start with D and I’d hope they’d trade up and down the full alphabet. I’d check but once it hit the papers, someone erased the evidence.

*

A chef in France lost one of his three Michelin stars because a Michelin inspector claimed he’d substituted that English horror, cheddar, for good French reblochon, beaufort, or tomme in a souffle. That threw the chef into a deep depression (he might want to focus less on being happy; I’m told it helps), which in turn threw everybody involved into court.

He lost. Not because anyone proved that he’d used the dread cheddar but because he couldn’t demonstrate that losing the star had hurt his business. A “degustation” menu at his restaurant costs 395 euros.

Me? I like cheddar. Think how much money I’m saving.

*

Coming back in the UK, a five-foot corn snake named Allan broke out of his vivarium (no, I never heard of one either; it’s a bit like an aquarium but without the water) when his people were making one of those Christmas trips that no sane person would make without a five-foot snake in the back seat. 

I’m not sure why they noticed that Allan had gone slither-about, but when they did they pulled off to the side of the motorway (if you’re American, that’s a freeway) and started pulling the car apart. Not figuratively: literally. They pulled out the seats and assorted other parts until they found him curled around the gear shift, trapped. They buttered it but he still couldn’t get loose.

This is sounding more and more like I’m making it up, isn’t it? I’m not. 

They ended up with the Fire and Rescue Service and the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals on the scene, one group cutting through a bit of metal and the other using a damp towel to protect the snake from the heated metal the first group was cutting. 

Allan is fine. There’s no report on how the car is.

*

After a contestant on a British quiz show, Celebrity Mastermind, misidentified Greta Thunberg simply as Sharon, Thunberg changed her Twitter handle to Sharon. 

*

Gardeners in at the Cambridge University Botanical Garden spent years trying to get the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis orchid to blossom. It finally did in December, and it smells like rotting cabbage. Or a mix of dead rats and smelly socks. Or rotting fish. Choose one randomly, since it didn’t bloom for long and we’ve all missed the chance to describe it ourselves.

Isn’t that sad?

Try not to focus so much on being happy and you won’t feel as bad about it.

*

Dominic Cummings, who as far as I can tell is Boris Johnson’s brain, placed an ad inviting weirdos and misfits (the two nouns are quotes, but I don’t like littering a paragraph with quotation marks around a bunch of bitsy words) to apply for jobs at Number 10 Downing Street, where both Boris and his brain work. Cummings has also (a) called for civil servants to be tested regularly to make sure they’re up to doing their jobs and (b) said he regularly makes decisions that are “well outside” his “circle of competence.”

He has not been tested to see whether he’s up to doing his job, and the weirdos and misfits ad may have been outside his circle of competence, because a few days later Number 10 announced that Cummings won’t be doing any recruiting outside of the usual procedures.

Security may also be outside his circle of competence, because he was using a gmail address in his ad instead of the secure government address he’s supposed to be using. Gmail’s known for reading users’ emails, and in some situations for making them available to third parties. 

*

In January, a 26-year-old Plymouth man denied wounding with intent to cause bodily harm after allegedly throwing a seagull at someone’s head. He didn’t enter a plea to the charge of attempting to injure a wild bird. 

You’d think you could find out more about a story like that, but I haven’t  been able to. Except that it happened in a cafe, that he’s due in court in April, and that he was wearing a smart suit at his bail hearing. You know: the stuff that really matters.

My thanks to Phil Davis for this one. I can’t begin to tell you how much poorer my life would have been if he hadn’t let me know about it.

*

My last news roundup included a story about mysterious packets of money appearing in the village of Blackhall Colliery. The people who left the  money have now outed themselves, but anonymously. Just enough to reassure everyone that the money was meant to be found and that the finders are welcome to keep it.

The two people who left the money aren’t related, aren’t married, aren’t local, and seem to have started out separately before joining forces. They made a point of leaving the cash where it would be found by people who most needed it.

The Brexit update, with elections

Britain’s went into election mode this past week, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute, but let’s do some background first.

Before we could schedule an election, first we had to argue about whether to have an election, and if so, when and how. And by “we,” of course, I mean “them”: Our politicians and their many, many advisers. Parliament had to agree before anyone could schedule an election.

At one point in the wrangling, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, threatened that if parliament wouldn’t agree to hold an election before Christmas the government would do only the bare minimum. Then, faced with headlines about the government going on strike, he backed away from the threat, but he did say he’d park his Brexit bill until an election was scheduled. 

I’m reasonably sure that was to keep parliament from tacking amendments onto it. The whole point of trying to shove the bill through in three days, as he tried and failed to do, was to get the beast through unexamined and unamended.

Yeah, we’ve been champions at cooperation and compromise lately. 

In the meantime, the European Union agreed to a three-month Brexit extension, although it can be shorter in the unlikely situation that we all agree on anything other than how terrible the weather is. With that announcement, we all drew a deep breath and started using up the three cans of tomatoes and six cans of baked beans that every household had stockpiled in case of a no-deal Brexit emergency. 

As far as I know, no one’s drawing down their private stockpiles of medication. And since my partner and I both hate baked beans, we don’t have any to use up. Some other household has our portion stashed away and is responsible for using it up. These things all average out.

While everyone was focused on the election that we might or might not have, a leaked document showed that, in spite of vague governmental noises about maintaining EU standards on workers’ rights and the environment, the Department for Exiting the European Union has drafted plans saying that “the government is open to significant divergence from EU regulation and workers’ rights.”

That should matter to us all, but it hasn’t gotten much attention. So little of the important stuff has. We act as if Brexit was a yes / no question when in fact it’s not even multiple choice, it’s an essay test.

Another thing we’re not paying much attention to is the report from a cross-party parliamentary committee about Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum. The committee expected Johnson to approve and release it. The government’s saying it always takes more time than that. The committee says, “Oh, no it doesn’t,” and the government says, “Oh, yes it does.”

And if that doesn’t sound like a joke, keep reading. It’s a British thing.

Cue accusations of a cover-up.

Cue denials of a cover-up.

Some of the wrangling over whether to hold an election was focused on whether to hold it on December 9th or December 12th. The theory is that this matters because on the 9th more students will still be at their universities, where they’ll be more likely to vote. Parties that appeal strongly to younger voters wanted the election on the 9th and parties that appeal to older voters wanted it on the 12th. 

No one’s motives are pure.

It’ll be on the 12th. 

Holding an election right now is a massive gamble for everyone. Polls show the Conservatives–Johnson’s party–with a lead but nothing like a majority. That should make them (relatively) confident, but they’re not. And there’s no reason they should be. They went into the last election with a lead in the polls and lost ground. And Johnson’s a wild card. A new scandal could emerge at any time. And he was tightly controlled during the campaign for party leadership, but he’s the kind of guy who could have a meltdown this time around. 

Another problem they face is that Johnson hasn’t delivered Brexit by October 31, which he swore he’d do and which will almost surely allow the Brexit Party to eat into the Conservative lead. 

As for the polls, they can be deceptive. Among other things, what matters is the number of votes each candidate gets in each seat, so a nationwide lead may not translate into a majority in parliament. If that’s not clear, I’m sure Hillary Clinton can explain it.

So the party was split over calling for an election. Johnson might’ve done better to push ahead with the Brexit deal he negotiated. In the British system, parliament packs up and goes home before an election and all the bills under consideration die. The bill would probably have gathered amendments he didn’t like, but according to Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog, he could have dropped those later on. I can’t explain how that would have worked and Gray doesn’t seem to think he needs to, but he’s a hell of a lot better informed than I am and I’m going to trust him on this.

Some Labour MPs are also hesitant about an election. The polls show them behind the Conservatives. On the other hand, in the last election they did better than they were expected to do and they’re hoping that rabbit’s still in the hat. They’re scuffling their hands around at the bottom, feeling for fur.

Meanwhile, the smaller opposition parties–the Liberal Democrats; the Scottish National Party; probably the Greens–want an early election. They look like they’d benefit from it. 

All the parties, however, are publicly predicting great and wonderful victories. 

Before the election date was set, we were sprlnkled with so many reasons that holding an election before Christmas would be a problem that they fell upon us like fairy dust.

First, polling places are getting harder to book, especially since they’ll be competing with Christmas shows, especially pantos. 

For anyone who isn’t British (or isn’t from a country that picked up the custom from Britain), I’d better explain that: A panto is a form of kids’ theater. They start around Christmas time, run for a while afterwards, then go dormant for the rest of the year so everyone can recover. They’re (very) loosely based on fairy tales. The leading woman is (wildly over)played by a man. At some point, the audience is expected to yell, “He’s behind you” while some clueless character wanders around doing everything but looking behind him- or herself, and at some other point two characters will fall into an exchange that runs something like, “Oh, yes I will,” / “Oh, no you won’t.” After the first half dozen repetitions, it starts to be funny. Or maybe I laughed so hard because it wasn’t funny. It’s hard to say why it works.

That long digression was to make the point that one problem with a pre-Christmas election is that the pantos may get a larger audience than the election itself. This election really does matter, and a lot of people feel that. On the other hand, we’re all sick to death of everything linked to Brexit. 

Will most people vote? Oh, yes they will. 

Oh, no they won’t. 

Oh, I haven’t a clue. 

Second (we were counting problems with a pre-Christmas election, you’ll of course remember), the postal workers just voted to go on strike sometime before Christmas. I don’t think a date’s been set yet, but if it comes at the wrong time absentee ballots will be held in purgatory until such time as the strike is settled. 

Third, the less time is left between an election being declared and an election being held, the more polling places cost to rent. That cost falls on local governments, which have been starved of funds for the past–um, sorry, this involves numbers. Austerity started in late 2008. I’ll leave you to figure out how long that’s been.

Weighing against all those negatives is the possibility that the election will end the parliamentary gridlock. 

Of course, if it does (and that’s a big if), no one knows which side the change will favor, and once the new parliament is in place it won’t have much time to figure out (a) what if anything it can agree to and (b) how to do it before the next Brexit deadline.

No one knows if Brexit will be the only issue deciding how people vote. Voters themselves may not know yet. If it is, the Liberal Democrats (anti-Brexit) and the Brexit Party (pro) can be expected to pick up votes from Labour and the Conservatives, even though no one (possibly including the two parties themselves) has a clue what they stand for on other issues.

I’ve mentioned before that both Labour and the Conservatives are deeply split over Brexit, but they’re not the only ones who are split. We’ve had a nationwide sale on divisiveness lately, so everybody’s splitting with somebody and every available party is bitterly divided on something. (With a few smallish exceptions, but less not mess up a good image.) The People’s Vote Campaign, which has been pushing for a second referendum, is badly divided, with firings, walk-outs, threatening letters, and calls for the chair to resign. On the other side, the Brexit Party split from the UK Independence Party (better known as UKIP) some time so. Since then, UKIP has burned through leaders faster than the Catholic Church burns through candles. And the Brexit Party was split over whether to contest every seat or stay out of some races to keep from siphoning votes from the Conservatives. It’s too early to say whether some residue of that division still hangs over them.

*

Setting aside all the important implications of this election, it means that unless something startling happens I’ll stop doing Brexit updates for a while. I may even start sleeping late.

But before I set Brexit on a top shelf where it can gather dust, a quick note to readers who’ve taken the time and trouble to argue with me about Brexit posts: I appreciate your willingness to stay with me when you disagree and I appreciate it that you’ve bothered to argue. It’s not easy to read opinions you disagree with, and at least for some people it’s not easy to argue. Thanks for doing both.

*

In case you’re staying up nights wondering about this, members of the House of Lords can’t vote in British elections. The queen can but in the interest of neutrality doesn’t.

*

At least some people had trouble following the emailed link to Friday’s post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and I’ve asked WordPress to help me sort out the problem. I may end up re-posting that to make sure it reaches everyone. If you get it twice, my apologies.

The (short) Brexit update, with pumpkins

It gets weirder over here by the minute. First, the House of Commons passed Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill. Only that wasn’t a decisive vote. It was the bill’s second reading, which is (the name’s a bit misleading) the first chance the Commons gets to debate a bill. If a bill passes the second reading, all that means is that the Commons approves the general principle of a bill, and then–at least in any normal situation–it goes to a committee, which considers all the clauses, the amendments, the commas, the footnotes, and the implications. Then the Commons can make a more informed decision.

But Johnson was demanding that the bill go through all its stages in three days, one of which had already been mostly used up, so it was second hand by the time the schedule was put to a vote. Commons would have to forget the commas, the clauses, the 110 pages of text, the fact that the chancellor had refused to issue any prediction about the agreement’s economic impact. To keep up with the schedule, the bill needed to leave the ball before the horses turned into mice and the coach turned into a pumpkin.

Why? Because Johnson said Britain would be out of the EU by Halloween and he had his sizeable ego caught up in this thing. Which is convenient, since it gives me a headline. 

We’ll cut to the chase here. After the bill passed its second reading, the commons voted down his timetable, at which point Johnson said he’d withdraw the bill and call for an election. Then he said he’d pause the bill but Britain would still leave by October 31.

He also said he’d talk to EU leaders about an extension–preferably a short one. Donald Tusk, the EU council president, has said he’ll recommend a three-month extension that can end earlier if a deal is finally completed.

Do we have an election coming up? Hard to say. Johnson would love to leave the ball right now, if only to return with a new dress, two slippers, and a mandate. Do you know how awkward it is to run around in one high-heeled slipper, especially a glass one with no flexibility? On the other hand, he may think he can get his deal through, in which case he’ll want to do that first. 

Will Labour support an election? Possibly. The experts are still reading the tea leaves on that.

Most predictions are that any election would return another deeply divided parliament, but I wouldn’t recommend putting money on any of this. 

The Brexit update, with some old lady’s bananas

Saturday–that’s yesterday as I write this–was the big day: A special session of parliament was set up to vote of the Brexit deal Boris Johnson had negotiated with the European Union. It was the moment when we were finally going know what was happening.

Or not, as it turned out, because a majority of the MPs didn’t trust Johnson enough give him a simple vote.

Let me explain, because nothing in the Brexit saga is simple. Ever. In fact, let’s (almost) open with a quote from an unnamed cabinet minister, who said, “I really have no idea what is going on.”

Yeah, I know just how you feel. So if halfway through the update, you feel a heavy fog taking over your brain, obscuring clear thought, you’re right up there with the experts. And no, I’m not claiming to be one of the experts,it’s just that I can get befuddled with the best of them.

So, what happened on Saturday? The government proposed its version of Brexit. I won’t go into the details because I did that in the last update and I don’t want to send you all screaming into the sunset. Let’s sum it up by saying that if Theresa May had proposed it, the people who now support it–or negotiated it for that matter–would have denounced it as one step short of treason.

Okay, maybe two steps short. But that kind of hysterical language has been flying around the halls of parliament and the pages of the press.

And you know what? I keep getting search engine questions about British understatement. But it’s not all understatement here. It’s “surrender bill” and “big girl’s blouse” and I’ve already cleared my mind of the rest of the abuse.

Sorry. Where were we? A version of Brexit was put before Parliament and everyone was counting noses. Each member of parliament comes equipped with one nose except for the MPs representing Sinn Fein, who refuse to take their seats because they refuse to recognize Britain’s right to govern any part of Ireland. They may have noses–that has yet to be established–but they weren’t being counted.

According to all counts, the vote was going to be very, very close. 

But before we could find out what the vote would’ve been, a cross-party amendment was tabled, called the Letwin amendment, by people who don’t trust Johnson to walk from one side of the street to the other without pulling some kind of fast one. You know, disappearing up the side of a building; stealing the bananas at the top of some old lady’s grocery bag; that kind of thing. These are, basically, the same MPs who’d passed a law–the Benn act–not long before that was meant to block the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

The problem was, they saw a possible loophole in the Benn act, and presumably Johnson did too, because he kept trumpeting to the press that he wasn’t going to ask for the extension the Benn act demanded. A smarter wheeler-dealer might’ve kept that to himself and pulled his stunt at the last minute, but Johnson loves a headline. “See those bananas?” he kept saying. “I’m gonna have those. Watch me.”

The loophole was this: If Johnson’s deal was accepted on Saturday, the requirements of the Benn act would be satisfied and Johnson wouldn’t have to ask for an extension. But if the enabling legislation didn’t get passed in time, Britain could still crash out of the EU. 

“Look, Ma, no hands! We’re gonna crash out!”

So the Letwin amendment withholds final approval until all the legislation implementing the deal is in place.

We’ll take a shortcut or two here, skipping a bit of the drama, and just say that the amendment passed. 

What happened next? Johnson said he wouldn’t negotiate a delay with the EU. What did he do instead? He sent an unsigned letter to the EU requesting a delay, along with a signed one saying why he thought they should ignore the first one. That may still land him in court, because the law requires him to ask for a delay. 

The government–or at least one of its ministers–is still insisting that Britain will leave the EU by October 31.

The government says it will hold a vote on the Brexit deal on Monday, but it’s not at all clear whether the speaker of the house will allow it. He has, in the past, ruled that the government can’t keep bringing defeated proposals back. 

The government could also try to tackle the enabling legislation.

What’s clear at this point is that an amendment for a second referendum will be proposed. If it passed, this would give the country the choice of staying in the EU or accepting the form of Brexit the government’s negotiated. It looks like Labour–which has been dancing around a commitment to the second referendum–will propose it. I don’t think anyone’s had time to count noses or to make sure no one’s coming in with a few prosthetic noses.

By now, everyone’s exhausted with the endless Brexit maneuvering, but Chris Grey, in The Brexit Blog, makes a good point about why it’s happening: “At the core of the entire row over Brexit, “ he says, is the problem that “as soon as [Brexit] gets defined in any particular way, some who support it in principle do not support it in that version.” The Democratic Unionist Party wants one version, the handful of Labour Brexiteers want something very different, and (he argues) the Brexit Party is so invested in the politics of protest that “nothing can ever live up to their fantasy.”

And that covers only a few of the grouplets that have to be corralled before the government can assemble a majority. 

*

In deference to all the good people who are sensitive about old ladies and bananas: I’m 72. I’ve earned the right to make fun of old ladies. And if Boris Johnson thinks he can get his mitts on mine, I invite him to try.

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.