What’s new in Britain?

The news from Britain? Oh, you know, the usual. Somebody wants to nominate the queen for a Nobel peace prize. They wanted to nominate me, but I didn’t feel right about it so they moved on down the list. A replica of Francis Drake’s ship is up for sale. Friday’s the best night to hear gossip in the pub. A badger’s conquered a castle. (Okay, that’s clickbait, and about as accurate as most clickbait.)

Is any of this worth a post? Of course it is. And if you have to ask why, you’re probably right to but please don’t because I’ll only have to come up with an answer.

Let’s start with the queen. Not because she’s the queen. If I won’t give her a capital letter, you don’t think I’d let her jump the queue, do you?

Irrelevant–and out of season–photo. Cornwall in the snow. It snows every ten years, give or take a decade. First we all tell each other how beautiful it is and when it doesn’t go away within two hours we decide the world’s ending.

A brief interruption here for the sake of readers who aren’t British. Jumping the queue is the only real sin in Britain. It means pushing in at the front of the line, or as we called it when I was a kid, butting into line.

What line are we talking about? Any line. Britain’s full of lines. Not because things are in short supply, but because that’s how people here handle more-than-one-person-type situations. If people are waiting for a bus, a ticket, or the attention of the person behind the bar, they form a queue. It may be what Kate Fox, in her glorious and slightly mad Watching the English, calls a disorganized queue (you can’t see it but everyone involved knows about it, and knows where they are in it) or even a queue of one (I’m here first and if anyone else comes along, they’re after me), but it’s still a queue–a kind of implied queue.

I’m happy to make fun of queuing, but it does take the anxiety out of those situations. Not to mention the hostility. And I say that as a sharp-elbowed New Yorker who knows how to push with the best of them. It’s nice not to have to. And occasionally it’s annoying to know I can’t. But jumping the queue is an offense against public decency, the natural order of things, the secular religion, and everything your mother taught you, and you do it at your own risk, and possibly at risk of your mortal soul.

So, no, the queen doesn’t get to jump the queue here at Notes. The newspaper clipping mentioning her just happened to be at the top of the pile. And I’m as hesitant to mess with the order of my clippings as I am to jump the queue. No one but me would care about my clippings pile, but the prospect of picking that mess off the floor and putting it back in its original disorder makes me cautious.

But back to our story: “Senior political figures and ministers” want to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her more than 60 years of service to the Commonwealth. She takes the Commonwealth seriously, and that’s a large part of what’s held it together. Or so they say. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though, because I’m having to take someone else’s.

What does the Commonwealth do? Good question, and I should write a post about it, if for no better reason than that I might find an answer, but in the meantime let’s quote Philip Murphy, the director of Commonwealth studies at the University of London, who can be presumed to know something on the subject and who recently published a long article about it. It’s in a different, equally fragile, pile of clippings, I can’t pull it out and read it through just now. A closer read will have to wait.

It’s online, you say? Don’t bother me. I have my excuses in order and the dog really did eat my homework.

For now, let’s grab a couple of pull quotes (those are those things in biggish type that publications use to fill the page when an article is, awkwardly, a couple of hundred words too short to reach the bottom).

“Many members of India’s policymaking elite see the Commonwealth as little more than a quaint relic of imperialism,” one says.

“If the Commonwealth really is the future, then we’re in even more trouble than I thought,” says another.

Oh, go on, let’s have one more: “For Britain’s administrative elite, the Commonwealth is a bit like a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations. It hasn’t told the right time for decades, but no one has the heart to take such a treasured heirloom to the tip.”

The tip is the dump. The place where you throw things out. So if Phil’s right, the Commonwealth doesn’t do a hell of a lot.

The importance of this nomination is highlighted by how weird it got when I googled “queen nobel prize.” I found someone at Queen’s University who won a Nobel in physics and someone at Queen Mary University who won a Nobel in something else. I found Queen Latifah, who hosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2014. And I found a page from the official Nobel Prize website called “the Queen’s Gowns,” which is about a different queen, Silvia. As far as I can tell–and I didn’t stick around to be sure I had it right–it documents the gowns Queen Sil wore to the awards ceremony in every year since she was queenified in 1976. I’m sure the world’s a richer place now that the information is available to an eager public.

I mention all that in case you think “the queen” is a definitive description.

Will Liz get the award? As someone or other pointed out, the bar was set pretty low when Henry Kissinger won it, and it didn’t help that Barack Obama was awarded one before he’d had time to do anything. So it’s a definite maybe.

But enough of the queen. What about Drake’s ship? It was called the Golden Hind. Sort of. I’ll come back to that, but first, who was Drake?

Well, it depends who you ask. According to a website promoting visits to the ship, he was “the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, on an epic expedition of discovery and adventure.”

Sounds like a movie poster, probably from the fifties.

Drake’s purpose, it says, was “to intercept the gold and jewels, which the Spanish were removing from South America . . . and shipping back to Spain.” It adds that he made vital discoveries, etc., etc. Step right up, folks. Adult tickets are £7, kids and doddery old people get in for a fiver.

It’s okay, I’m old enough that I get to say “doddery.” If you’re under 65, you’ll just have to wait. Unless you want someone to say you’re making fun of the elderly..

On the other hand, if you read Wikipedia (and if no one’s changed the entry yet), Drake’s voyage was about privateering.

What’s that? An early form of privatization. The Mariners’ Museum defines a privateer as “any individual granted license by their government to attack shipping belonging to an enemy government, usually during a war. . . . They receive a Letter of Marque from their nation’s Admiralty, which grants them permission to raid enemy ships and keep a percentage of the spoils – so long as they pay a cut of that bounty back to the government.”

So basically Drake was operating as a licensed pirate, although according to WikiWhatsia Queen Elizabeth I’s support was unofficial, so he probably didn’t get his letter of marque. And it probably didn’t matter. If he’d been captured by the Spanish it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

In 1579, Drake captured a Spanish ship with so much treasure that it took six days to transfer it all to the Golden Hind. Liz’s share of the takings was enough to pay off the government’s entire annual debt and leave enough to invest in a new trading company operating in the Levant, which is roughly and not quite accurately the Middle East.

If you wonder how Britain got to be an imperial power, that’s as good a place as any to start unraveling the thread. If you want my opinion–and nobody asked but you’re too late to stop me–neither country was in the right. The Spanish were plundering their colonies in what’s now Latin America and the English were plundering the Spanish.

Step right up. Adult entry’s just £7.

The ship was originally called the Pelican but Drake renamed it in the middle of the voyage to flatter his patron, whose crest was a golden hind–a female red deer. How can you tell it’s a red deer if it’s gold? That’s too deep for me, but I’m sure there’s an answer out there somewhere. 

Why bother flattering his patron when he was in the middle of the ocean and his patron wouldn’t know a thing about it until he got back–if he got back? Because those long voyages got boring, and jigsaw puzzles weren’t invented until the 1760s.

Two replicas of the ship exist, one in London and one in Brixham, Devon, and it’s the second one that was up for sale, with a guide price at auction of £195,000. Presumably it’s been sold by now, but if not you can probably bargain them down a bit. It’s too big for the bathtub, but if you want a bit of British history in your front yard, it’d look great.

If you have a big enough front yard.

Moving back to modern days, researchers report that the best pub gossip can be heard on Friday nights.

How are they defining best? The newspapers don’t say, but the most common topics are, in order, old memories, something completely random, TV shows, funny stories, gossip, the news, film, music, jokes, and football.

Why’s football at the end of the list? I’m not sure but it may mean that the historic gender imbalance in pubs has been corrected.

What kind of category is “something completely random”? A garbage can category. Again, the papers don’t say what it means, or why, if it means anything else it’s not at the top of the list. I’m going to jump in with both feet and guess that this isn’t a well designed study, just something fun to report on.

One in five people in the study have been offered a chance to buy something odd while they were in the pub. How odd? A hundred dead pheasants. A broken snooker cue. Four packets of bacon.

Pubs are closing down all over the country. How the culture will survive without them, I don’t know.

In Scotland, a “very angry badger” was found in a tunnel in Craignethan Castle, in South Lanarkshire, and Historic Scotland has closed off the tunnel while it tries to lure it out using cat food and honey. I suspect that means tries to lure it into a trap, but it doesn’t sound as friendly when you put it that way. Let’s pretend it’s a little trail of cat food and honey, leading to the great outdoors.

The story’s undated, so I have no idea when this happened. It could have been centuries ago, during one of the many Scottish/English battles for all I know. When I was a kid, we told each other stories about Japanese soldiers hiding in caves on isolated islands who’d never heard that World War II was over. I suspect they were complete bullshit, but we believed each other. Maybe this is the Scottish/English equivalent: a Scottish nationalist badger still fighting to keep out the English, completely unaware that it’s actually fighting Scottish Heritage.

And now your bonus for getting this far in the post: The Mary River turtle, in Australia, can breathe through its–no, I don’t make this up–genitals. As a result, it can stay underwater for as much as three days, and I like to think it has a good time while it’s there. It also grows a punk haircut–a kind of green mohican. If you have nothing better to do with your life (and you’re reading this, aren’t you?), you should check out the photo.

Unfortunately, the turtle’s on the list of 100 most endangered reptiles.

Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

The Danish concept of hygge–roughly translated as coziness; the promotion of well-being–has made a big impression on Britain, at least if you believe the newspapers and  marketers. I can’t say it’s had an impact on my life, but I won’t promote myself as typical of anything much, except possibly stubbornness.

Still, the publicity around hygge‘s drawn tourists to Denmark, so VisitScotland thought they might be able to cash in by adapting the idea. To Scotland, of course. So, quick, what’s the Scottish version of hygge?

Well, it’s not hygge, they knew that much, and they knew they needed more atmosphere than they could pull out of an English word. So someone ran to the nearest Gaelic dictionary and found the word còsagach. Which is pronounced a lot like còsagach, Sorry, I don’t know Gaelic. If the Scottish version of Gaelic’s anything like the Irish one, the letters don’t communicate much to an English speaker.

VisitScotland, apparently (and sadly), knows about as much Gaelic as I do. because experts say the word’s more likely to be used about wet moss or a wet, mossy place than about anything cozy. Unless you consider wet moss cozy.

It can also be used about fibrous ground or a place full of holes or crevices.

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

So visit damp, cozy Scotland today. Spend money. Have a memorable experience. And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak. They’re as dangerous as thesauruses. Or maybe that’s thesauri. I’d look it up but I’ve developed an irrational terror of dictionaries.

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

Example 1. Starting in January, China banned the import of plastic waste, saying that a lot of it is too hazardous to process. (Anyone see a bit of irony there? I don’t. I’m just asking.) Since 2012, Britain’s shipped two-thirds of its total plastic waste exports to China—something along the lines of 2.7 million tons of the stuff.

So what’s Britain going to do with all the plastic its fleets of recycling trucks have been  collecting with such ecological fervor? Recycle it here? Ban plastic packaging? Use it to backfill Stonehenge?

Well, in December—which strikes me as kind of late to come up with a plan—someone asked the secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, about it and he said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is…something to which—I will be completely honest—I have not given it sufficient thought.”

So that’s our plan.

We’ll give him half a point for honesty. Then we’ll take it away for cluelessness.

Example 2. A slow-burning fuse of a story either exploded or fizzled out, but I can’t figure out which.

The government was under pressure from a parliamentary committee to publish its assessment of Brexit’s economic impact on Britain. (In case you need a translation, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. A lot of people are worried it’ll crash the British economy.) The government resisted. Sorry, it said, but the assessments were too sensitive to be seen by mere members of parliament.

More pressure.

Okay, MPs could read them, but first the government would have to bury them under six feet of plastic waste and the MPs could only read them after sundown, using a flashlight with a single, second-hand AA battery, and they mustn’t disturb the plastic waste because although the government still doesn’t know what to do with it, it might need to know which pieces were dumped first.

I exaggerate only slightly.

But David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, assured the committee that the government had 58 studies that went into the question “in excruciating detail.”

Then in early December, Davis told the committee he didn’t have any detailed information to publish. At all. He never had. They’d misunderstood him.

What about an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the customs union? someone asked. Was one of those hanging around somewhere?

Um, no. “Not a formal, quantitative one.” The assessments didn’t “have numbers attached.”

I’d like, since this is a public forum, to let Dave know that it’s okay. If he’ll just write a general statement and I’ll make up some numbers. We can paste them in anywhere. Because after you’ve seen a few numbers, they all start to look alike.

A quick P.S.: A BBC Radio 4 news story quoted Davis as saying that he doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a good negotiator. He doesn’t even have to know much, he just has to stay calm. When I wrote this (I generally write these posts well ahead of time; it keeps me marginally sane), he was still doing an admirable job of staying calm. And, I’m reasonably sure, of knowing very little.

For the record, both Davis and Gove are long-time politicians, but somehow or other they’ve managed to bring a broad spectrum of amateur qualities to their current jobs.

Public statements are clear and to the point

Train fares went up on January 2. It was the biggest jump in five years, and since the fares are already high and follow a formula that sets a world standard for incomprehensibility, and since train service in many areas is godawful, passengers are ready to chew up the seats in frustration.

So how did the train companies defend the fare hike? An industry flak-catcher said it showed the industry was trying to keep down the cost of travel.

A reporter asked if the companies were taking any risk at all, since (to simplify slightly) funding comes from the government and profit goes to the companies. The flak-catcher said, “Rail companies operate under contract and they honour the terms of their contracts and provide for things to happen in different circumstances. That operator will continue to make payments until 2020 and then the new operator will continue to make payments.”

I don’t  know about you, but as long as they provide for things to happen in different circumstances, I’m happy.

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

The police in Exeter had a quiet word with a man who was running around dressed as Jesus. That is, he was dressed as Jesus except for his hind end, which either wasn’t dressed at all or wasn’t dressed enough to make an unnamed member of the public happy.

This raises a number of questions. One is what you have to wear to be dressed as Jesus. This particular guy was wearing a sheet. How did anyone know he wasn’t dressed as a ghost? Or one of the apostles, who would’ve dressed roughly the same way as Jesus?

Another question is what a quiet word is. It’s a very English thing, that’s what it is. Or possibly a British one. I lose my way in some of this stuff. It’s the solution to any sort of public awkwardness, and it may or may not be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because the next public awkwardness will be handled the same way.

The final question is why I don’t give you a link. It’s because the story was in the Western Morning News and although they do publish online I can never find their stories.

One of the cops involved said the incident had scarred him “for about an hour.”

Everyone loves a feel-good story

A ten-year-old left his waterproof video camera on a beach in Yorkshire and the tide carried it 500 miles across the North Sea to the German island of Suderoog,

There’s an umlaut over the U–they like umlauts on islands in Germany–but we’re in the middle of an umlaut shortage here so we’ll have to do without one. Just make your pronunciation umlautish if you can.

No, an umlaut isn’t something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s two dots that go over a U in German for reasons I don’t understand since I never learned German. I’m sure that has something to do with the umlaut shortage. It’s hard to study German without them.

The island is a bird reserve with either one family or only two people living there (I read several stories and ended up knowing less than if I’d read one). Either way, I’m guessing they don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so they took a look at what was on the camera and found some people fooling around on the beach and then the first few minutes of the camera’s trip—water, basically.

They posted something about the camera on the bird reserve’s Facebook page and eventually located the kid’s father. The camera’s owners have been invited to come pick it up, but they can only get there by boat from the mainland and they can’t stay overnight. And they have to bring their own umlauts.

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

This happened in Belgium, not Britain, but it’s a good story. And both countries start with a B. It’ll do.

A—well, I guess we’ll have to call him a performance artist chained himself to block of marble to demonstrate the inescapable burden of history, including the history of art, which he was trying to free himself from by chiseling away at the stone.

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

Every fascinating moment was live-streamed. I’m happy to say, I didn’t watch it and I haven’t looked for a link. If you want to watch all nineteen days of it, I figure you’ve got the patience to find it yourself.

The story led me to realize that one nice thing about writing as opposed to performance art is that when you get trapped by your own metaphors it’s not quite as embarrassing.

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

Someone from Wolverhampton decided to put his head in the microwave and have his friends fill it with cement. It being the microwave, not the head, in case that needs clarification. When they realized he was having trouble breathing (no, apparently this didn’t occur to any of them ahead of time), they poked an air tube in.

How? No idea. Every way I try to imagine doing this ends up with the breathing tube clogged with cement. Lucky thing I’m not one of his friends.

The BBC story mentions that the microwave wasn’t plugged in. I mention that in case you decide to try this and it’s not in the instruction book.

Why’d they do this? It wasn’t performance art and no metaphors were harmed in the process. They wanted to post the video on YouTube.

It took five firefighters an hour to get him loose, and they needed help from their technical rescue team to get the microwave apart.

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

Okay, this one’s pretty grotesque and I wrestled with what passes for my conscience over whether to use it.

My conscience lost.

Someone from Dundee offered to sell a rug she’d had made from her dead dog because her new dog kept trying to hump it. I’m not sure this tells you anything about British culture, but it did happen.

People are very polite 

The British really are very polite. Until they’re not. Because that’s the thing about polite people: When they lose it, they don’t have a wide range of back-up  behaviors. You know, things like saying, “Hey, asshole, don’t push.” Which isn’t polite but is well short of bloodshed.

Some people are so polite they’d find it hard to say, “Excuse me, but would you stop pushing, please?”

So in October, either two or three people on a train near London got into an argument over a phone call. One man was talking one the phone loudly, one man was complaining about that, and the third man–well, I don’t know if he did anything other than just sit there, but he was a friend of Guy #1’s, so he had a kind of peripheral involvement, so when an argument broke out, Guy #2 leaned over and bit Guy #3’s ear.

Job done. Guy #2 went back to his seat. Quite possibly with a real sense of having done the right thing.

What did Guy #1, the guy on the phone, do? No idea.