What people really want to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The search engines have been kind lately, washing all manner of collector’s items onto my shores. So let’s see what people want to know about Britain.

But first, for the sake of clarity: It’s in the nature of search engines to wash people to places they’ll never visit again, so I trust I’m not insulting anyone by being just a touch a wise-ass about their question. If I am, take heart from knowing that at this very minute someone somewhere else is making fun of the questions I left behind.

 

Irrelevant photo: A tree. Pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds. Also, incidentally, a repeat, since I forgot to toss in a photo until the last minute. But who’ll notice?

The endless search for knowledge about Britain

why is two fingers an insult in britain

Why is anything an insult? It all has to do with intent, and with the conviction behind the words or gesture. If you can pull together enough toxin, you can insult someone by calling them a fish fry, but it’ll be more powerful if the weight of social agreement says that fish fry is an  insult, or that you’re part of a category of people who can be freely insulted. We’re social creatures, and it makes us vulnerable to hostility from our fellow humans. Even if we don’t share the assumptions their insults are based on, they get to us.

Take the word fat. These days it’s an insult, but only because of the culture’s belief that thin in good. At different times and in assorted cultures, being fat was good. It was healthy, it was sexy, it meant you were rich, or at least solvent. Being skinny? That was the insult. 

As for the two-finger insult, it’s not clear why it’s an insult. The generally accepted explanation is generally accepted to be bullshit. It’s an insult because it’s an insult. And because it’s understood as one.  

sticking two fingers up as a greeting in different cultures

As a general rule, if you’re wandering around a culture you don’t understand, don’t try out a bunch of random hand signals to see if one of them turns out to be a greeting. I can’t prove this, but (humans being what we are) I’m pretty sure the world contains a lot more insulting hand signals than friendly ones. That would mean that, the odds are against your coming up with anything friendly.

british understatement

I keep getting these questions, and in the midst of the Brexit uproar it finally hit me: British understatement? How did the country ever get a reputation for that? MPs in the House of Commons bray and roar at each other and call it debate. The Brexit mayhem has included a prime minister accusing the opposition of surrender at a time when the country isn’t at war. The word betrayal is flying around often enough to pierce the serenest citizenly moment. So understatement? What would happen in public life if the country’s reputation rested on over-reaction? 

Which brings us to the next question.

brexit forgetting evrything you blieved in

Yes, a lot of people have done that.

And that takes us to the next question.

why is britain so great

Well, it invented the scone. And the shortbread, thank you very much. Not to mention the two-finger insult, Brexit, and understatement. If I’d done any of those things–.

No, if I’d done the first two things, believe me, I’d brag about it. In an understated sort of way, and since I’m American no one would expect that.

It’s also managed to con a lot of people into thinking that a geographical description is a statement about its general wonderfulness. 

cuntegrope

Well, of course this question found its way to me. I attract strange questions. It’s part of my understated charm.

I have a vague memory of writing about British street names at one point, and Cuntegrope Alley, or something along those lines, came into the discussion. Along with an Isis street, alley, or place, named after a nearby river and causing no end of trouble for the residents in these twitchy days.

was the uk always called the uk

No. Once upon a time, it wasn’t called anything. No one who used language lived here–or anywhere else. Then people came. We’ll never know what they called it, but the place wasn’t united and it wasn’t a kingdom, and English hadn’t been invented, so almost surely something else. Besides, the area we’re talking about had no reason to think of itself as a single country.

After a while other people came and called it other things. We’ll speed this up because I’m getting bored. The place has been called a lot of things, and oddly enough it still is, with varying degrees of formality: Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom. Check back with us in a decade or two and we’ll let you know if we’re still using the word united.

enclosure movement 16th century

Holy shit. This is a sensible question. It’s more than a little frightening to find myself passing as a source for genuine information. I do everything I can to keep this mess accurate–really, I do–but I’m no historian, and posting something weekly means my research is necessarily shallow, even when it’s wide. Cross your fingers for me, folks. Or wish me luck. Or wish the rest of the world luck. I do my best. Let’s hope it works.

isuk road are nartow

Probable translation: Is UK road are narrow. 

No. In most places, they’re wide enough for two conjugations of the same verb to pass each other with barely a scrape.

can i drive a ninefoot wide vehicle on british roads?

That’ll depend in part on how well you drive.And on where you plan to find a 9’-wide vehicle. A Hummer (the widest thing I could find in a short and uninteresting search, although I’ve never seen one in Britain) is roughly seven feet wide. If we jump out of the car category–you did say “vehicle,” not “car”–your standard semi (called an articulated lorry here) is 8’ 4” wide, plus a few decimal points. I’ve seen them squeeze through amazingly tight slots, and one of them did it backwards. 

On the other hand, periodically one or another of them gets stuck between two houses that are less than 8’ 4” wide. And shows up in the papers.

If you’re holding out for the full 9’, though, you could load a prefab houses on the trailer. They’re wide enough to travel with escorts carrying  Wide Load signs. 

Can we assume you have a license to drive one of these things?

photo of wooden floor in tudor times

Taken with an actual Tudor camera, please. Post in the comments section. Reward offered.

photos of british female wigs

Wigs are not, strictly speaking, either male or female. They reproduce asexually.

what are brussel sprouts called in britain

Brussels sprouts. The real question is what they’re called in Brussels.

 

Questions using the U.S. as a reference point

american in britain “legally obliged” brought weather with you talk about weather

Americans are not legally obliged to bring their own weather to Britain. Even in its most nationalist and mean-spirited phases, the country invites visitors and immigrants alike to share in whatever weather the country has going–all the more so because the British generally figure that anything the weather offers will be terrible. So why not share?

Neither are the British legally obliged to say anything about Americans having brought the weather with them, although the occasional Briton may fall back on that old joke because she or he can’t think of anything else to say. 

I have a hunch–and I can’t support this with anything like data–that the joke about bringing the weather with you is usually made by men. As always, I’d love to know if I’m completely wrong about that.

The British are also not legally obliged to talk about the weather. That would be like passing a law requiring everyone to respect gravity. 

Visiting Americans are welcome to talk about the weather, but they’re not legally obliged to either.

As always, I hope I’ve been able to clarify things. I do think it’s good when we learn about each other’s cultures.

alcohol content us vs uk

Are we talking about the alcohol content of the people? At what time of day? Do we exclude children under the age of five? Or is that the alcohol content of the countries themselves? The first question’s tough, but I don’t know how to even approach the second one. The land–the rock and soil and so forth–I think we can safely exclude. The water–or at least the sewage–may show some second-hand alcohol content. I’m not sure what’s left once the body processes it. I know it shows traces of cocaine, estrogen, antibiotics, and other fun stuff. 

Sorry. I don’t think I’m the right person to answer this.

what do brits really think of americans?

Really, really think of Americans? You mean, when they’re not being understated or hopelessly polite? I could gather up a random patchwork of things people have told me and pretend they stand for what one entire country thinks of another one, but the real question is why you care. I can’t help wondering if this is a particularly American form of paranoia –a sense that the world beyond the borders is hostile territory. 

Does any other group of people worry as much about what other nationalities think of them as Americans do? If anyone has any experience with this, I’d love to hear from you. 

what brits like about americans

  1. Our accents.
  2. The chance to make fun of our accents. In the kindest possible way.
  3. Our brownies.

 

Questions about the U.S.

why does america have saloon doors on toilets

Because there’s no feeling like swaggering out of the toilet cubicle with your jeans newly re-buttoned and your hands on your six-guns, ready to shoot everyone washing their hands at the sinks. 

Yeah, I watched too many westerns as a kid. The person asking the question did too. May parents warned me.

do canadians talk louder thena americans

No.

how do us mailboxes work

They’re magical. You drop your letter in. Someone who works for the post office comes along and takes it out, along with all its newfound friends and acquaintances, and delivers it to the post office, where someone asks where it wants to go and sends it on its way.. 

What an amazing system.

 

Mysteries

what do brits think.of pulisic / what nationality is gulibion

I thought these were both typos, but it turns out they’re questions about sports figures. I have a severe sports allergy and have no idea how either question got here. 

Mistaken identities in the (partially British) news

A video showing what seemed to be–if looked at the right way–a Chinese version of the Loch Ness monster paddling around near the Three Gorges Dam turned out to be a twenty-meter-long industrial airbag. Or in some articles, a long piece of tubing, which may or may not be another way of saying the same thing.

What was the right was way to look at it? Mind-altering substances (a category that includes alcohol) have been shown to be effective.

*

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: a begonia

In California, a robocop was mistaken for a robocop. It was rolling through a park, demonstrating that it could do everything the police force had said it would do: patrol large open spaces and use its microphone to deter crime. So when a fight broke out, a witness ran up to it and pushed the emergency alert button. 

What did it do? It said, “Step out of the way.”

Eventually she stepped out of the way and it rolled off, stopping now and then to tell people to keep the park clean.

Another witness just called the police on an old-fashioned phone.

The robot turned out not to be connected to any actual police. It called the company that made it. Which may or may not have called the police. I don’t really know.

Its video camera also wasn’t connected to the police department. Its ability to read license plates and track cell phones? Ditto. It will, eventually and presumably, get connected, but in the meantime it runs around playing cops and park attendants and costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year. 

It has not yet been mistaken for the Loch Ness monster.

*

A cash machine in London mistook a fake £20 bill (or note if you’re British) for a real one. Which would be understandable enough except that the bill said, “Twenty poonds” on the back. Not to mention, “This is play money.”

The machine apologized for any problems it might have caused and explained that it can’t actually read.

You can by counterfeit twenties on the internet. They go for around £8 each, although if you’re okay with money that announces that it’s not real you can get ten for around £15.

No, I’m not recommending it. It just seemed like something you’d want to know.

*

The person in charge of the US nuclear arsenal mistook an internet hoax for something real. Rick Perry, the secretary of Energy, reposted a warning having to do with Instagram being able to use people’s photos in accordance with a treaty that the US isn’t part of. 

The good news is that he didn’t run up to a robocop, push a button, and expect it to protect the nuclear arsenal. 

*

“Jerusalem” was voted the U.K.’s favorite hymn. Or at least the favorite of the people who listened to the BBC’s Songs of Praise and took the trouble to vote. 

What’s that got to do with mistaken identity? The song’s almost universally mistaken for a hymn. The words are by William Blake, who was intensely religious but nothing like an orthodox Christian. Among other things, he didn’t attend church and didn’t believe he needed a god to redeem him. The Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being,” he wrote in “A Vision of the Last Judgment.” 

But let’s be fair and separate the writer from the words he wrote. Did he, in spite of himself, write a hymn? Here it is:

Jerusalem
   And did those feet in ancient time
   Walk upon England’s mountains green?
   And was the holy Lamb of God
   On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
   And did the Countenance Divine,
   Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
   And was Jerusalem builded here,
   Among these dark Satanic Mills?

   Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
   Bring me my arrows of desire:
   Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
   Bring me my Chariot of fire!
   I will not cease from Mental Fight,
   Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
   Till we have built Jerusalem,
   In England’s green & pleasant Land.

It’s stunning, but is it a hymn? He’s asking if the countenance divine shone forth upon our clouded hills, not saying it did. He only gets into statements when he calls for building a Jerusalem, and that’s in the England of this world, not in the next. I’ll admit that using Jerusalem as a metaphor means drawing from Christian imagery, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Blake had no use for organized religion, and especially for state-sponsored religion. So inevitably his poem has been adopted as the hymn of a state-sponsored religion.

The music that goes with it was written in 1916. (Blake died in 1827.) It’s also beautiful. This version comes from the movie The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

And I still say it’s no hymn. 

*

Five out of ten flies will mistake a cow for not-a-cow if you paint it with zebra stripes–which of course you will sooner or later. They register their belief that this is not a cow by not landing on it and not biting it. The cows painted as zebras still identify as cows. They register this belief by mooing and eating grass and allowing themselves to be milked.

*

A national police database in Britain mistook thousands of cybercrime and fraud reports for a security risk and quarantined them, creating a backlog of 9,000 cases and leaving some of them there for a year. The problem is that the reports include words and symbols that the database’s program recognized as risk markers, so yeah, it quarantined them.

*

Rory Stewart–Member of Parliament; former candidate for leader of the Conservative Party; former member of the Conservative Party; and currently independent candidate for the mayor of London–mistook three Irish musicians for minor gangsters.

Stewart’s plan was to walk through every London borough while he was running for Conservative Party leader, and he asked the men if he could film them. They agreed, then found out he was a politician and said they “didn’t fuck with politics.” They left. 

So far, so good, and if he’d left it at that he’d have been fine, but at a later event he talked about meeting three “sort of minor gangsters” who told him he was an idiot. 

The people he was talking to turn out to be a band called Hare Squad, from Dublin. They’re black, which is presumably why Stewart decided they were gangsters. 

“We’re all about peace and love,” one of them, Lilo Blues, said. 

In addition to being denounced as a racist, Stewart was also asked, “What the hell is a minor gangster?”

*

A four-year-old was mistaken for a neighborhood menace when the Birmingham Council (that’s the city government, and we’re talking about Birmingham in Britain, not in the U.S.) sent her a letter saying she’d been accused to antisocial acts –shouting, banging, and visitors. Presumably that’s disruptive visitors. Visitors aren’t inherently a problem. 

Her mother says the girl has eczema and sometimes cries at night. 

The kid was invited to contact the council if she had any questions. I don’t know if she did, but when I was four my questions would’ve been something along the lines of “what’s for dessert”–nothing the council could’ve answered. 

What’s worse, I couldn’t write yet. Or read. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she can’t either.

Well, no wonder she’s getting in trouble. What’s wrong with the schools today?

*

An early Renaissance masterpiece was mistaken for some old thing hanging in a French kitchen. An auctioneer spotted it when he came to value the furniture after the woman decided to move. 

It was auctioned off for 24 million euros.

*

A Viking warrior was mistaken for some other Viking warrior’s nice little wifely homemaker in Norway. For years. Apologies for the heavy use of stereotypes there, but I’m not the only person dragging them into the story.

The good news is that it didn’t bother the warrior, because she’d been dead for years. The thousand-year-old body was correctly identified as a woman, but even though she was buried with an armory big enough to take down several English or Irish villages, when she was first found they disregarded all that because she was a woman and–hey, we know this: Women aren’t warriors and never were. She was just buried with that stuff because, um, they were cleaning house and the weaponry was in the way.

Now a new team of scientists have reinterpreted the skeleton, looking at the partially healed battle wound to her skull, probably made with a sword. A reconstruction of her face–never a 100% reliable thing–shows one tough-looking woman.

Some of the people working on this were from the University of Dundee, so the story does actually have a British connection.

*

This final item has nothing to do with mistaken identity but I had to put it in: Scientists in the US have discovered that driving tiny electric cars lowers stress levels in rats, in theory because of the pleasure of learning a new skill. They used a mix of lab-raised rats and rats from the real world. The real-world rats turned out to be significantly better drivers than the lab rats. 

The point of the experiment was to explore the possibility of drugless treatments for mental illness, but it might be more useful to know that if you’re hitching a ride with a rat you’ll want to look for one raised in the real world. The safe life isn’t necessarily the best preparation. And I tell you that as a former cab driver. 

*

My thanks for Bill, who in response to last week’s post tells me that there is a culture out there that puts the year first when they write the date: the Japanese. Thank you, Bill. Also domo arigato gozai mas.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The butterfly net I use to trap strange search engine questions has been filling up quickly, so even though I did a what-the-world-wants-to-know post just a few weeks ago, I can’t let riches like these go to waste. The questions are in italics and appear in their original form, however odd it may be.

The search for important information about Britain

england is not another name for great britain!

A-plus for the answer (or in British, A*, pronounced A-star). But what’s your question? And more to the point, why are you bothering Lord Google about something you already know?

Irrelevant photo: roses.

do brits just talk about weather

Before we can answer this, we have to figure out what it means. This should depend on which word just is hanging off of, but English-language writers dump just into sentences according to what sounds good, then figure that what they’ve written means what they think it means. But any grammar obsessive could tell them that the location determines the meaning. I’m not going to rant about that. The language is used the way it’s used, regardless of what the grammar books say, and I’m on both sides of these issues anyway. Passionately.

Still, it leaves me not knowing what the writer meant. So what are the possible variations here? 

Do Brits just talk about the weather as opposed to doing anything about it? Well, pretty much, yeah. You know how it is. We’re all like that when you come down to it. Talk, talk, talk. And the damned rain keeps coming down.

Or, in defiance of the order the words come in, do they talk just about the weather as opposed to, say, talking about feel-good topics like Brexit and global warming? Well, no. The British talk about all sorts of things. Shoes and ships and sealing wax. Brexit and potatoes and school buses.

Okay, not so much about sealing wax these days. And that’s a Lewis Carroll poem that I’m mangling. His version rhymes.

Or–I’m stretching a point here, but what the hell–do just Brits, as opposed to other people, talk about the weather,? No, it’s  a pretty common topic, given that most of the world’s countries (and therefore people) have something that passes for weather.

I’d go on, but the question only gave me three words to dangle just off of.

I hope I’ve been able to help.

why are we called great britain

Am I the only person who hears something plaintive in this? It has a kind of Mom-why-are-they-callling-me-names? quality.

It’s okay, sweetheat. They don’t mean anything by it. It’s because you’re big. Why don’t we sit down and have  a nice cookie?

Or maybe we should call it a biscuit.

ceremonail position in british government black rod

I’m tired of Black Rod, probably because I’ve heard entirely too much about parliament lately, what with Brexit and all. But yes, Black Rod has a position in the British government. Whether you consider it ceremonial or essential is probably a matter of opinion. Me? I’d call it ceremonial to the point of silliness, but I would, wouldn’t i? 

P.S. You misspelled ceremonial. I nevr misspell anything.

ploughman’s lunch history

It starts as a full plate–cheese, a roll, a pickled onion, chutney, butter if you’re lucky. Three grapes and a twisted slice of orange you’ve gone someplace fancy. Then it gets eaten. Or most of it does and the odd bits get left and someone takes them back to the kitchen and scrapes them in the trash and that’s it. End of history. 

It’s wasteful. I ordered a ploughman’s once or twice because it sounded more appealing than a cheese sandwich, but it’s nothing but a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich. 

characteristics of an aristocrat person how do they act

All aristocrats have exactly the same characteristics, to the point where every morning they call each other to work out what they’re going to wear. 

Okay, I shouldn’t get put off when people ask about this, because I wrote a snarky post about some titled idiot behaving badly and I gave it a clickbait heading about behaving like a British aristocrat. So it’s my own doing if I get search engine questions about it.

But if we’ve established that, let’s go on: Behaving like an aristocrat isn’t about having perfect manners, it’s about (a) considering that your manners, however horrid, are perfect, and (b)looking down on people who don’t behave the way you do–or who try to but who have to learn the secret handshakes from Lord Google.

Lord Google  will never tell us all the secret handshakes, just enough to leave us exposed as wannabes. But even if we find the missing bits and behave exactly like the aristocrats, we were still foolish enough to choose the wrong ancestors so we can’t be part of the club.

Silly  us.

It’s depressing to know (or think I know) that someone out there is trying to play this game. Don’t do it, folks. Aristocracy is a closed and toxic club. They don’t want us in and if we have a brain in our heads, we don’t want in. 

when will we know more about brexit sept 2019

We all wish we had the answer to that. And September’s already well in the past.

does a map show you how narrow a road is

Yes, but measuring the width of the map’s lines to the nearest micro-whatsit won’t help. You have to look at the letters associated with the roads. They won’t exactly tell you the width, but they’ll let you figure out how slow your drive’s likely to be, which is a related question. 

M roads–they have an M before their number– are motorways, the best roads the system offers. A roads–A followed by a number–come next. Some of them are hard to tell from motorways. They’re divided highways with a 70 mph speed limit and make a nice straight line from wherever you started to wherever you’re going. And other A roads are nothing like that. They’re two lanes, and they run through the middle of every town along the route. But they’re better than what comes next: B roads, which may be two lanes but may have one-lane stretches.

Then there are roads that no one bothers to give numbers to. Or they give them numbers but don’t bother to tell anyone what they are. In the summer, in touristed areas, they’re lined with nervous visitors who’ve plastered their cars to the hedges, letting the oncoming cars figure out if there’s room to pass.

There almost always is.

how do british cars pass on such narrow roads?

On the narrowest ones, everyone gets out and disassembles the lighter-colored car, moves it past the darker one, and puts it back together.

Why the lighter one? It’s a simple, non-judgmental way to choose, and it saves time-consuming arguments. 

And if they’re both the same color? Well, that’s where your arguments start. We need a better system. Everyone agrees, but we have to settle the Brexit mess first.

what was uk called before great britain

England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. Unless you want to go back to Latin, the Celtic languages, and Anglo-Saxon. And Pictish. For part of that time, though, we’re dealing with micro-kingdoms and it gets messy.

why do british people eat brussle sprouts at christmas?

Because it gives them the strength to face Boxing Day, that extra holiday that comes on December 26.

 

The search for important information about everything else

what is the actual date of 2019/09/04

I can answer that: It was 2019/09/04. 

But let’s talk about dating systems, since someone’s brought them up.. The American system starts with the month, follows with the day, and ends with the year, making 04/09/2019  April 9, 2019. The British and European system flips the first two elements, so the same numbers give you 4 September 2019. 

Isn’t this fun?

The British and European system doesn’t use a comma before the year. Or after, in case the sentence straggles on. The American one does.

Moving back and forth between the two systems means that you can’t be sure what date anyone–including your own bewildered self–is talking about unless they name the month or bring in a day that’s larger than twelve.

I don’t know any dating systems that open with the year, so I have no way to tell what, if anything, the date in the question means. I asked Lord Google for help but he told me I wasn’t asking the right question, so I ended up as fodder for someone else’s post about strange search engine questions.

Lord G., as is his way, wouldn’t tell me what the right question was. Dealing with Lord Google is like being trapped in one of those fairy tales where bad things happen because bad things happen and the world doesn’t reward the just and kind.

So what’s the actual date? My best guess is that it doesn’t exist.

is a vigilante sticking up for someone

It never rains weirdness but it pours it down by the bucketful. Is a vigilante sticking up for someone? Not as often in real life as in the movies. Has someone seen too many movies? Probably. Is a movie watcher having trouble finding the line between fiction and reality? Most definitely. 

For what it’s worth, friends, if you’re facing injustice and overwhelming odds, don’t look for a vigilante. And for pete’s sake, don’t become a vigilante. Vigilantes can propel decent shoot-em-up plots–or if not decent, at least popular–but in real life they end up as lone nuts with guns who leave grieving families in their wake. Try organizing. It’s slower and it’s less dramatic, but it spills less blood and it just might do some good in the long run. 

I have no idea why that question came to me. 

how to respectfully decline an award nomination

Be nice. Explain your reasons. Say thanks. Shut up. 

whats cultural about brownies

They like literature and classical music. They’re not much on visual art.

medieval catholic teaching sex

All the medieval Catholics are dead. So are the medieval everybody elses. That means none of them are teaching sex anymore. But they weren’t much good at it, so don’t worry about having missed out.

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.

The news from Britain: gin, scotch, and the gender pay gap

With climate change threatening grain crops, researchers have isolated a gene in barley that will–thank all the gods you may or may not believe in–ensure that the world’s supply of scotch is safe for the foreseeable future. 

The gene is one of more than 39,000 and it helps barley survive drought. Or to be more accurate about it, “when it’s prominently expressed” the plants are better able to survive drought, so resistant crops can be planted in the future. Assuming that the extreme weather that barley-growing regions face will be drought, not flood, although a mix of the two isn’t out of the question.

The new plants will, presumably, also be good for the food supply, although that didn’t make it as far as the headlines.

*

Irrelevant photo: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

The pope got stuck in an elevator in the Vatican in September. Not for all of September, just 25 minutes of it. I hope I’m not the only person who finds that funny.

*

Unrelated to that (although I’m sure I could manage a very nice segue here if I cared enough), a Catholic school in Tennessee pulled all the Harry Potter books out of its library because “the curses and spells in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

A group of parents wrote to a local radio station anonymously, questioning the ability of the priest responsible to “critically assess and discern fact from fiction.” They didn’t question his use of the semicolon, but they should  have. It’s diabolical. And also wrong.

As far as I can remember, J.K. doesn’t include a spell for removing a pope from an elevator (or a priest from a school). If she had, I’d write the pope (he’d be thrilled to hear from me) and recommend the books. 

There’s your segue, at the end instead of the beginning, but in troubled times like these, you take your segues where you can get them.

*

In all my coverage of Brexit, I haven’t mentioned the demonstrators–pro and anti–who gather outside parliament and make noise when the newscasters turn on their mics and try to explain the latest Brexity zigzags. At least one of the demonstrators plays bagpipes. Others bellow. And one–. I’m going to have to quote from the Guardian here, because it puts it gorgeously. It talks about “the largely inexplicable presence of a man with a glockenspiel playing the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars.”

Which is one way to get your voice heard, even if no one knows what your voice is trying to say.

Or maybe he’s just found a place to practice his glockenspiel where he won’t annoy his family, just the reporters.

*

A truck (that’s American for lorry) carrying 7,039 gallons of concentrated gin was in an accident in Cheshire in September. If you need that in liters, it’s 32,000, although I suspect someone’s rounded it up or down to the nearest something or other. Once you get past the first shot or six, you don’t really care, do you? 

Concentrated gin? It was news to me as well. According to the Langley Distillery, the distilling process produces something that’s “between 78%-82% ABV and cannot be used alone to make gin. We blend the concentrate with neutral alcohol, to create high strength gin that is reduced with water to bottling strength.” 

The missing 22%-18% in that first sentence is made up of adjectives that the distellery lovingly applies later in the description but we can’t afford them this late in the evening, so we’ll stagger home without ’em. 

ABV means alcohol by volume, so 82% should be enough to put us under the table nicely enough.

Neutral alcohol? Oh, hell, you don’t want to know. Or maybe you do but I don’t. It’s stuff you put in gin. What’s more interesting is that the concentrate is flammable, and the local fire and rescue folks spayed it with fire retardants to keep it from going whoosh. 

I had a moment of thinking I was living in a land flowing not with milk and honey but with gin and fire retardant–or gin and fire retardant and drunken, fire-proof fish–but no. Not all of those 7,039 gallons leaked out. They managed to control the leak and pump the remainder into another tanker. 

The BBC reported that people sat in their cars for up to four hours while police, fire fighters, and local drunks worked to clear up the spill. 

*

The head of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s social media team, Chloe Westley, defended someone or other against charges of misogyny by saying that young women have been “misled by feminists” into thinking they were being discriminated over pay. 

The full quote is, “Young women in Britain are being misled by feminists. Take the stories over the weekend based on ‘Equal Pay Day’. We’re told that there is a ‘gender pay gap’ between men and women, and that this is due to rampant discrimination. But this gap is simply a comparison of the average salaries of men and women: it’s not indicative of any kind of discrimination.” 

So why does this happen? Why, women’s choices, of course. Silly creatures that they are, they chose to have biological equipment that allows them to get pregnant, and a significant number of them use it. Then instead of putting the kids in a dresser drawer till they get home from work, they stay home to keep the little creatures alive. Or they pay startling amounts of money so someone else can keep them alive and go back to work, but when the kids get sick what do they do? They stay home with them. Why? That dresser drawer’s still available. 

No wonder they get paid less. If men carried on like that, I ask you, where would the human race be?

*

Jacob Leeks-Mogg” took second place in a vegetable characters competition. It’s a spoof of Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons and now famous for lounging on the Commons benches during a Brexit debate, more or less as seen here. 

_108811928_capture.jpg (660×473)

“Jacob Leeks-Mogg.” Thanks to Deb Croxford for sending me a link to this deathless piece of art, which has either wilted or been eaten by now.

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Meanwhile, in the U.S., two scientists in New Jersey found a baby two-headed rattlesnake. Since both scientists are named Dave, they named the snake Double Dave and took it into protective custody. Two heads, it turns out, are not better than one. They make the snake slow, and since they both operate independently they sometimes fight over food, not understanding that it doesn’t matter who swallows the food, it goes into a shared digestive system.

There’s a moral in there somewhere, for all of us.

The snake wouldn’t be likely to survive in the wild.

*

And since we’re dropping in on other countries, a cult theory holds that Bielefeld, Germany’s twentieth-largest city, doesn’t exist. Don’t ask me to explain how this started, but the joke’s been going for twenty-five years and the city is now running a contest, offering a million euros to anyone who can prove that it doesn’t exist. 

Bielefeld climate change activists are offering the same amount to anyone who can prove climate change isn’t happening.

*

In France, a court ruled that a rooster named Maurice can keep crowing. A couple–retired farmers, ironically–had complained about Maurice, and the case has been working its way through the courts for two years, sparking a social media I am Maurice campaign.

Other complaints about rural noises have targeted frogs, cicadas, ducks, and geese. 

Humans are a difficult species.

*

Before we leave, let’s go back to Britain for a feel-good story. Bradford was once home to a bustling Jewish community, but the 2011 census records only 299 residents who identify themselves as Jewish. (It’s hard to know what that means, since the question might have been about religion or it might have been about ethnicity. But never mind–that’s a side issue.) Bradford’s lone synagogue was down to 45 members and almost shut down in 2013, when the cost of fixing the roof outran the outran the money it could raise. (Forgive me for even bothering to say this, but some people still need to hear it: Whatever you’ve been told, not all Jews are rich. We cover the full economic spectrum. And, oddly enough, we don’t run the world.)

What happened next was that the Muslim community (129,041 in the 2011 census) stepped in and raised the money, which led to a lottery grant that covered other repairs.

The connection was made by a Muslim self-taught photographer, Nudrat Afza, a Pakistani immigrant who became friends with the synagogue’s 93-year-old chairman, Rudi Leavor, who came to Bradford as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

You can see a few of her photographs of the synagogue here and other photos here. She’s good. And she’s been made an honorary member of the synagogue.

And that story should echo out into a small and perfect silence. Hold it in your heart.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part seventeenish

I’m posting this a day early and joining 350.org and WordPress’s digital climate strike. But before that happens, it’s time to find out, yet again. what people want to know about Britain. The search engines have been kind to me lately, pouring a rich mix of oddity onto my stats page. Put on your absurdity goggles and let’s go.

Trends

entymolpgy cockwomble

I get a lot of questions about cockwombles. I’m thinking of seeing if I can’t get paid gigs talking to conferences on the subject. I don’t know much about them, but that doesn’t stop other conference speakers so why lose sleep over it?

As for this particular question, I shouldn’t make fun of it, although I will. I regularly have to look up the difference between etymology (the study of words) and entomology (the study of bugs). I look it up, I remember it for a while, then the magic wears off and I have to do a stealthy recheck on the difference between bugs and words. However, fairness isn’t  going to get in my way: The womble is not a bug. It’s an imaginary creature from a long-gone TV show, and the cockwomble is an insult based on it. If you’re interested, Lord Google will lead you to websites where you can buy cockwomble mugs and tee shirts or listen (I assume; I didn’t bother) to songs about them. 

Isn’t the internet wonderful? And no, I’m not giving you a link. If you want cockwomble mugs, go find your own.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

similar to cockwomble

I don’t know of anything similar to a cockwomble. Why is the internet awash in cockwombles lately? Is this political commentary?

urban slang like cockwomble

You could argue that this is urban (as opposed to what? rural?) slang, but I wouldn’t advise strutting down the toughest street you can find and thinking you’ll intimidate someone by calling them a cockwomble. It doesn’t have the punch you’re looking for. 

Political questions

does the house of commons have air conditioning

Nope. It has crumbling pipes, so many fire hazards that it has a constant firewatch, stonework hurling itself to the ground at unpredictable intervals, and little ribbons where you can hang your sword (although, let’s face it, they’re not there for you or me, they’re for someone more important, who also doesn’t have a sword). But it does not have air conditioning. 

The shape the building’s in, it’s doing well to have air.

mps who wear stockings

I’ve had a run of questions lately about MPs wearing stockings. Does some group of people have a thing about MPs in stockings and are they hoping to find a community here? Do they spend hours on the internet, panting over photos of them? We humans are a strange species, and the older I get the more fully I understand that. 

Still, it sounds harmless as long as they don’t inflict their obsession on any actual MPs.

I’m not sure what kind of stockings the people who type this into Google are looking for. Those white stockings that men wore with knee breeches a few centuries back and which, given the British gift for resurrecting outdated clothing on ceremonial occasions, can still show up here and there? Or the kind women wore before the invention of what Americans call pantyhose and the British call tights? 

If it’s the second, I’d bet a sum of money in the low single digits that no one wears them, in Parliament or anywhere else. They’re ridiculous, uncomfortable, and several other adjectives. They’re also (I’m reasonably sure) not made anymore. Or if they are, they’re hard to find.

So I can’t answer the question, since I don’t know quite what it’s about, but I can inform you, irrelevantly, that what Americans call a run in a stocking/pair of pantyhose, the British call a ladder in a stocking/pair of tights.

Yes, friends, I’m here to educate, even if it’s not necessarily on subjects you want to learn about. Think of it as a grab bag. You click your mouse and–look, we’re learning about medieval fireplaces this week! 

berwick as part of ussr

No, no, no. Even if the rumor about Berwick-upon-Tweed being at war with Russia had been true (unfortunately for lovers of absurdity, it isn’t), it never included anything about Russia or the Soviet Union having annexed Berwick. So just to be clear: At no time was Berwick-upon-Tweed part of either Russia or the Soviet Union. It was once part of Scotland–it’s one of those places that moved back and forth between England and Scotland without budging an inch. The border did all the traveling. Berwick’s now English, and Scotland, in spite of anything you may have heard and in spite of being way the hell up north, is not Russia. There’s talk that in case of a hard Brexit (or any Brexit, or–well, who knows these days?) Scotland might well leave the U.K., but no one’s suggesting that it will annex itself to Russia , much less the U.S.S.R., which is hard to join since it no longer exists. 

There’s even less reason to believe that Berwick is planning to annex Russia to itself.

How’s that for starting a rumor by denying it?

Conversational English

worcester pronunciation of wasp

Of wasp? The one word in the English language that you can look at and have a running chance at pronouncing correctly? 

And why Worcester? Do we have any reason to think they pronounce it differently there?

Sorry, I haven’t been more helpful here. I do try, but this one mystifies me.

how to talk trash in the uk

If you need instructions for this, don’t do it. Just say something you can handle. You’ll be fine.

do british people really talk about weather most

Most what? Most days? Most as in more than any other group of people? Most as in more than other topics? 

Finding what you want on the internet–not to mention in life–starts with figuring out the right question. 

derby pronunciation darby

It’s reckless to guess about the pronunciations of British place names, but I wouldn’t write this trash if I weren’t at least a little reckless, so here we go: I’m reasonably sure that the Derby pronunciation of Derby is Darby. That’s the way the rest of the country pronounces it and why change something that’s traditional and makes so little sense?

Requests for Cross-cultural Information

do the british think of the americans as brothers

Let’s turn that around: Do the Americans think of the British as brothers? 

Are the Americans aware that not every British person is male? 

To the best of my knowledge, no and yes. 

Do they understand why the second question is relevant? 

A lot of them, no, and some subset of them would find it offensive.

I despair. 

do british people like tourists

Oh, yes, every last British person loves tourists. Especially when the aforesaid tourists arrive in swarms, butt into line, and expect to be the purpose of everyone else’s day. 

americans arw blunt brits

Possibly, but they don’t spell as well.

why are the roads in france so small and no strips

Wrong country, but isn’t it interesting how people take whatever they were raised with (a road should be the width I’m used to; a grownup should eat the way I was taught to; people should talk the way I do) and then compare the rest of the world with that standard.  And silly thing that the world is, it doesn’t manage to meet it. It eats with chopsticks, or the delicate fingers of the right hand. It drives on roads that meet a whole different set of needs. And it doesn’t check with us before doing it. 

What is it thinking?

does bell rining strain yiur back

I’m going to have to admit ignorance on this. I’m not a bell ringer. For many reasons. One is that dedicating a fair chunk of time to pulling on a rope doesn’t ring my bell. Another is that bell ringing’s a church thing, and I’m not only Jewish, I’m an atheist. That makes me a bad fit. In my lack-of-tradition, we may ring the occasional doorbell but that’s about the limit of it.

I have never strained my back ringing a doorbell. Have I been living too cautiously?

I know: The question wasn’t about me personally, but I thought it might be good to explain my ignorance. My best guess is that it doesn’t strain yiur back, but that comes a footnote saying, “If you do it right.” 

Bell rining can, however, strain yiur spelling. 

I shouldn’t make fun of people’s spelling, but when people shoot anonymous questions through the blogosphere, all normal rules of good behavior are suspended.

can bellringing damage your shoulder

See above.

are englands roads all narrow

No. Has the price of apostrophes gone up?

Questions Too Deep to Answer Fully

british understatement make others silly

It doesn’t have do. Becoming silly is a choice we make, independent of other people’s under- or overstatements. 

Damn, that was profound. I may start one of those blogs where I advise people on how to live their best lives, regardless of what a hash I’m making of mine. 

Cat ate sticky toffee pudding

I’ve had a run of questions about cats and sticky toffee pudding lately. On the odd obsession list that I’ve started keeping, it’s right up there with MPs and stockings. Here’s what I know about it: 

  • Our resident cat, Fast Eddie, does not eat sticky toffee pudding. He doesn’t request sticky toffee pudding. He doesn’t recommend sticky toffee pudding to other cats.
  • The store where we buy Fast Eddie’s food doesn’t carry sticky toffee pudding. I’ve never asked if they recommend it for cats and as a result they still–silly people–consider me sane.

When I put those two observations together, I’m inclined to think that most cats don’t eat, or want to eat, sticky toffee pudding. I hope that helps.

The more I write about cats and sticky toffee pudding, the more Lord Google will funnel these questions to me, since no one else out there is brave enough to discuss it. Given the opportunity, most people will dodge controversial topics. And the more Lord G. funnels them to me, the more I’ll be convinced that it all means something. 

And the more I’m convinced that it means something, the more I’ll write about it. 

Did I mention somewhere that the internet’s wonderful?

Still, if no one was out there asking the question, Lord G. wouldn’t have anything to send me. So it’s not entirely a self-contained loop.

cotchets vegetable

I started out assuming this was a typo and that the word was supposed to be crotchets. We’ll come back to that. But just to be sure (I don’t know everything, much to my surprise), I tossed it, as spelled, to Lord G., who sent me to WikiWhatsia, which told me it was a noun, masculine, meaning a young cockerel. In parentheses, it said, “Jersey,” so I’m going to guess it’s a word used on the island of Jersey rather than a young chicken in a sweater. It’s from the French coq (English equivalent, cock–as in bird, wiseass) and –et, a French masculine diminutive. So a young rooster.

A different site says it’s Norman, so French-ish, but old. Or to put that another way, an old young rooster. 

Then Lord G. sent me to a site about last names, which told me that the origin of the name Cotchets is unknown and left the meaning blank. I asked Lord G. to tell me about a few random first name/last name combinations involving Cotchet and couldn’t find anyone to match. Which could explain why the origin’s unknown: There are no Cotchets. I think the site will accept anything as a last name–hell, it could be possible–but if it’s never seen it before it gives out no information. 

So we’re talking about young vegetarian roosters on Jersey or young roosters on Jersey made of vegetables. 

And a crotchet? It’s a bit of British musical notation. Americans (and I think Canadians) call it a quarter note.  

the guardian brits and their dogs

This is a good demonstration of why commas matter, although search engine questions almost never use them. If this is “the guardian, brits, and their dogs,” we’re talking about three things: a guardian, brits, and a group of dogs hanging around mysteriously and belonging to one or both of them. But if it’s “the guardian brits and their dogs,” then we’re talking about some equally mysterious brits who guard something–with their dogs. 

None of it makes any sense, mind you, with or without commas, but at least we know what it is that we don’t understand.

What people really want to know about Britain, part sixteenish

What do people ask their search engines to tell them about Britain? Or, to be more modest about it, what do they ask that leads them to Notes? A few sensible things, but never mind those, we’ll explore the stranger ones. 

Place Names

british place names pronunciation dictionary

A pronunciation dictionary would be handy but the whole point of spelling your hometown one way and pronouncing it some other way is to leave outsiders looking silly. Dulwich? That’s pronounced like a dull itch. Beaulieu is Bewlee. The unpronounceable-looking Ightham Mote? That’s Item Mote. And (I always toss this one in) Woolfardisworthy is Woolsery. 

Semi-relevant photo: The waterfall at St. Nectan’s Glen, which is pronounced St. Nectan’s Glen, which in turn is no fun at all so it’s also called St. Nectan’s Kieve, which is pronounced keeve.

why do they not call england great britain anymore

Please sit down so the shock doesn’t leave you with a torn muscle: They never did. But the universe holds an inexhaustible store of ignorance about this so we’ll never be rid of the question.

Of course it would help if the country very formerly known as England, then known as the United Kingdom, and after that as the United Kingdom of several confusing places and in other contexts, for rational but confusing reasons, known as Britain and also as Great Britain and occasionally as You There, would settle on one name and somehow get rid of all the others even though they make perfect sense if you can only get your head around their differing uses and meanings. 

Guys, I know its your country and you can call it what you like, but are you sure this is a good idea? For a good portion of  the rest of the world, wrestling with your name(s) is like reading a Russian novel: You have to figure out that Ivan is the same person as Vanya and Vanechka (if I’ve got that one right–don’t trust me too far on it) and Ivan Borisovich and Grushkov, but they’re all used for different reasons by different people and convey different relationships to him. And of course, there are fourteen other important characters and twenty-five minor ones, all with an equal number of names. 

But to answer the question, they never did call England Great Britain. You’ll find a link to an actual explanation of this further down. But in the meantime, since we’re talking about Russian novels:

War and Peace

berwick still at war; also berwick on tweed at war with russia

It’s not. What’s even more disappointing (since this would have been a bloodless war, without even diplomatic consequences), it doesn’t seem to have ever been. 

The story goes that little Berwick-upon-Tweed was listed in the declaration that started the Crimean War but was left off the peace treaty, stranding it forever in a war that it had to carry on all by its tiny self. I’ve done just enough research to learn that people who do genuine research have discredited the tale. Although, hey, it could all be a conspiracy to cover up something huge and dangerous. You can’t prove it isn’t, can you? The absence of evidence could be evidence of how big the cover-up is.

The story of why it might have gotten a separate mention in either a declaration of war or a peace treaty, since larger towns didn’t, is (like many things British) convoluted and interesting. You’ll find it here

Profound Philosophical Questions

why do we saygreat britain

What was the person who typed this trying to ask? Was it:

  1. Why do we say “Great Britain” at all? or
  2. Why do we say, “Great, Britain,” in a tone of encouragement or celebration? or
  3. Why do we say “Great Britain” when we could say, for example, “saxophone” or “peanut butter”? 

If it’s 3, it’s probably because Great Britain is on our minds at the crucial moment and peanut butter and saxophones aren’t. 

Is it unwise to think of peanut butter and saxophones at the same time? It’s not good if you’re a saxophonist. If you’re not, it’s probably okay, although if you let the mental image get too vivid (and I have, unfortunately) it can be unpleasant.

If it’s 2, it means Britain’s doing well in some international sports uproar.

If the question is 1, however, it’s because that’s the place we were talking about, so saying “France” or “Puerto Rico” or “Berwick-on-Tweed” wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But honestly, why do we say anything at all?

I do hope that helps, although I’m not optimistic about it. 

What does it all mean, bartender?

It means I should embed a link to an earlier post on the subject, that’s what it means.

why does beer in london taste better than thr us

Because you had too much before you sat down at the computer. Also because you were a tourist in London and happier there. It wasn’t your real life. It’s (relatively) easy to be happy when you’re not in your real life. Even the beer tastes better.

It’s also made differently. Different countries, different brands, different approaches to making the stuff. Way back when I was less than a hundred years old, one of the Minnesota beers ran an ad campaign implying that the water made a difference. I don’t mean to sound naive, but maybe it does.

If it makes you feel any better, the bagels are better in New York. 

Tourism

how english people feel about american tourists

Let’s start with the American part of the question, although without getting into the problem attached to calling one country by the name of two entire continents. English people (at least the ones who are willing to go on record) all (every last one of them) think our accents are charming. Or they claim to. Maybe they’re being diplomatic. 

Everyone seems to agree that we’re noisy, and there’s a lot of empirical evidence to back this up. 

A lot of them think we say water and butter in the most amusing way possible.  

Beyond that, I’m not sure you’ll find any sort of unanimity.

The tourist part of the question? Tourists anywhere are a pain in the neck. Local economies are desperate for their money, but that doesn’t mean anyone loves them. 

Sorry. I thought someone had better tell you.

americans are more tolerant of brits than the other way around

Sez who?

how do people recognize american tourists?

I asked for help on this one.

M. says it’s by their shorts and tee shirts.

Both I. and C. say it’s by their noise level.

I say it’s by the way they butt into line–or (since a British friend had no idea what I meant when I said this), jump the queue. 

Were you hoping to skulk around incognito? 

Requests Important for Cultural Information

do they have brownies (desserts) in the uk

Do you mention “(desserts)” to distinguish them from the junior version of Girl Scouts who in the U.S. are called (no, I have no idea why) Brownies? In that case, no. They have Girl Guides in the U.K., not Girl Scouts, and girls as young as five can join. You don’t want a junior version when five is the minimum age. It leads to crying and running into the street. 

People who type questions into search engines have an obsession with brownies (of the dessert variety). And with whether they exist in (depending on the phase of the moon) Britain, Great Britain, the U.K., or England. The answer is no. In order to distract us from the Brexit fiasco, a tyrannical government has banned them. To shut off the supply, spy networks have been established to search out people who deal in them.

This, of course, means there’s a lot of money to be made, so restaurants sometimes take the risk but hide them under random combinations of ice cream, whipped cream, fruit,  and chocolate syrup.

Someone’s going to take that seriously. I just know they will.

in england what color are the mailboxes and boobs

Well, dear, the mailboxes are red. The boobs are generally the same color as the rest of the person wearing them, although on people whose skin has tanned they’ll be a bit lighter than the parts that see the sun. Unless, of course, they’ve also seen some sun.

Why did you feel you had to ask?

visiting britain do they talk about the weather

Not as often as people ask about whether they talk about the weather.

I’m reasonably sure the British unleashed that stereotype on themselves, and that they think it’s funny. But correct me if I’m wrong.

In fact, the British do talk about the weather, but then so do Minnesotans. Both groups also talk about other things. Both groups believe they have a lot of weather to talk about. 

It’s okay, O prospective visitor. You can drop by without packing a prefabricated set of weather observations. If someone says the weather’s wonderful, all you have to do is agree with them. If someone says the weather’s terrible, you agree with them too. Don’t tell them how much better or worse it is where you come from. Nothing awful will happen if you do, but you won’t kept your side of the unwritten bargain.

is bell ringing dangerous?

Mostly, no. But after you stop giggling, you can google bell ringers’ injuries and find out about everything from rope burns to broken bones to why giving the rope a good hard yank if one of the bells is hard to ring might just bring the bell down on your head.

what do the english think of americans right now?

That we’ve made some, um, strange political choices. Or possibly that we’ve lost our minds. That’s not a universal opinion but Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that it’s fairly common.

As for me–sorry to get serious on you–I am completey horrified by what the country’s been doing on the Mexican border. I’d like to say that I don’t recognize the country I grew up and lived most of my life in, but that’s not entirely true. The seeds of this have been lying around for a long time. This flowering has left me thinking about how easy it is to come to terms with evil. 

does english beer have less alcohol than united states; also enhlish beer compared to usa

The United States is a big country. Not as big as Russia. Not as big as Canada or China. But still, big. On the other hand, since it’s a country instead of an alcoholic drink, it’s hard to find a reliable measurement of its alcohol content. Or its taste if that’s what the second question is asking about. 

That’s not taste as in the famous H.L. Mencken quote, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”–especially since that isn’t what he actually wrote. He wrote something baggier, snobbier, and less memorable. 

But no, we’re talking about the taste of English–on enhlish–beer compared to the U.S., which is like comparing apples and radial tires. That makes it a question no one can answer.

As an aside, lots of people want to know about British (or English, or Enhlish) and American beer. Mostly they want to know which is stronger. If I wrote about nothing but beer, I’d have more subscribers but they’d all be too plastered to read.

church of england prdinad funding

If they get any money that way, I haven’t been able to find out about it. It could be another cover-up.

Miscellaneous

what did people call themselves if they were from great britain and ireland

Some called themselves Saoirse, which was awkward for English-only speakers, because they go into brainlock when that many vowels bump up against each other. Some called themselves–well, you don’t want me to go into the full list of possible first names, do you? 

I’m not sure what time period we’re supposed to be talking about. The past tense covers a long stretch of time, but if it’s a relatively recent period we’ll just remind ourselves that in these days of intercultural mingling (and they’ve been going on much longer than most people think) they’re no longer limited to names that comes from English and Gaelic. They could call themselves Ahmed or Svetlana and still be from both places. And other people could call them that as well.

If, on the other hand, the person who asked that was looking for British a parallel for Irish-American, I doubt they’ll find anything as compact. A friend describes herself as being British, of Irish heritage. It’s clunky but its accurate, and it’s  not at all the same thing as Anglo-Irish.

putting the kettle on

I have no idea what someone was hoping to find by typing this into a search engine–maybe an invitation to drop in and have a nice cuppa. 

As far as I’ve been able to figure out, this brushes up against one of the friendliest things you can say in British: either I’ll put the kettle on, or Shall I put the kettle on? 

I’m not sure why it has to be shall instead of should, but it does seem to work that way. 

Footnote: I’ve lived in Britain for thirteen years now but I still don’t have a great ear from British speech, so I could be wrong about that shall. I can tell you, though, with absolute certainty, that getting dialog right in someone else’s version of your language is no easy trick. I’ve seen British journalists, whose training emphasizes getting their quotes right, substitute the British phrases they thought they heard for the ones some American they were interviewing would have said. The examples I can remember involve an American talking about his mum and someone else talking about a drinks cabinet.  

We–or most of us, anyway–seem to have an over-eager little translator built into our brains, who takes any number of the interesting things we hear and turns them into the predictable things we expect to hear and then engraves them in our memories that way. Which is a long-winded way of saying what I already said: I could be wrong about the shall.

It’s also a warning: Unless you’re goddamn good, don’t try to write (never mind speak) in someone else’s version of your language.

ellen hawley

I deny all knowledge of her. She’s a know-it-all and a nuisance.

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

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

CULTURE & LANGUAGE

good manners of britain

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

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

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

why do americans say derby instead of ‘darby’

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

Silly people.

brits think americans are too loud

THEY DO? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

swear words england vs american

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

should word anglophile be capitaluzed?

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

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

POLITICS

should all male mps wear a jacket in the commons

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

stockings in the house of commons

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

mps are not allowed to wear armor

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

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

BRUSSELS SPROUTS

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

Here’s a sampling of the brussels sprouts questions.

why do we eat sprouts at christmas

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

why do we have sprouts at christmas bbc

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

the tradition of why we eat spr54otes

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

why do cross a sprout

To get to the other side?

plumpudding brussel

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

OTHER FOOD & DRINK

what percentage is american beer

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

what do they call brownies in england

Brownies.

SIZE

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

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

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

why is britain called great britain when it is small

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

TRADITIONS

yale door company knob throwing contest

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

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

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

 

How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, and brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.

*

After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

News from Britain. And elsewhere

When Boris Johnson became Britain’s foreign secretary, he had to give up his–well, I don’t know if I should call this his day job or his night job, so let’s say his newspaper job. He was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph while he was a member of pariliament.

It’s not unusual for MPs to have outside jobs–roughly a fifth of them do. After all, their basic salary is only £79,397 plus expenses. It’s tough, but in this age of austerity what more can they expect? They have to set an example for the nation.

And the expenses? Well, after the 2009 scandal, when it turned out that one MP had claimed for a duck island and another put in a receipt for having his moat cleaned (and both claims were accepted), expenses went down for a while. Then they started up again. and in 2014 -15 they ranged from a low of around £4,000 to something in the neighborhood of £200,000.

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower. A montbretia, to be more exact–an absolutely gorgeous wildflower that spreads like mad and gives gardeners the heeby-jeebies.

Expenses are supposed to cover travel, the cost of living in London while parliament’s meeting (or in their constituency–it’s complicated, but it depends on what they claim as their primary residence; did you really want to know?), and the cost of running an office. But every so often, you know, the moat really does need a good cleaning. Mine has gone way beyond the limits of decency, but I’m waiting till I get elected because the maintenance on the damned things is just ridiculous.

But back to Boris Johnson having an outside job. Now that he’s no longer in the cabinet, he’s free to make a little much-need money, because who can live on £79,000 plus up to £200,000 in expenses? The Telegraph took pity and rehired him. For £275,000 a year, in return for which he writes a weekly column that he’s said takes ten hours a month to write. That’s £2,291 per hour. Or I trust it is. I’m riding on someone else’s calculation there. Given my gift for math, it’s better to trust even the least reliable source than mess it up myself. That way if it’s wrong I get to blame someone else. In 2009, he described the income from his column as chickenfeed.

I’d love to see the size of his chickens.

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A Costa Coffee ad has been banned from the airwaves because it bad-mouthed avocados. According to British advertising guidelines, ads aren’t allowed to discourage people from eating fruit and vegetables.

The ad talked about avocados taking 18 days, 3 hours, and 20 minutes to ripen, then going bad after 10 minutes. Costa has argued that it was only joking. The Avocado Defense League has said it doesn’t care.

*

Full disclosure: There is no Avocado Defense League. Two listeners and half a dozen highly distressed avocados complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but it wasn’t a coordinated effort.

In the process of making sure that the league didn’t exist (it’s a strange world out there and you never know until you check), I learned two things; 

One, that drug cartels have been extorting money from Mexican avocado growers, because avocado export is big business. The war on drugs has had some very weird results. That’s a more important story than an anti-avocado ad, but I’m a sucker for a silly story and I can’t find much to laugh about in the serious one. 

Two, that some economic sages think the reason the millennial generation is broke is because they eat avocados. On toast. The reason these kids can’t buy a home, they say, isn’t because housing prices are too high, wages are too low, and work too unstable. It’s because the silly little hedonists frivel their money away buying avocado toast.

The ever-helpful BBC has created an avocado toast index. It tells us that in New York, you’d have to forgo 12,135 avocado toasts to save up the downpayment on a home. That’s 33 years without avocado toast. In San Francisco, you’d have to give up 12, 975 avocado toasts, waiting 44 years. London? It’s 24,499, or 67 years.

That’s calculated on the basis on one serving of avocado toast a day.

*

Four East London schools closed because they were infested with false widow spiders, which can bite but don’t seem to have gotten around to it. They were too busy keeping up with their homework.

False widows arrived in Britain in 1879, in a bunch of bananas from Madeira disguised as real widows, black veils and all. Having been in the country for this long, you’d think they’d have graduated by now, but homework’s difficult when pens and pencils aren’t made for your species and you don’t have internet access.

There are four species of false widow in Britain. The ones in the London school are the noble false widow, the biggest of the bunch at around 14 mm (the males are smaller, 10 mm, or roughly a third of an inch). Still, compared to a pencil, that’s not very big. I’d make a joke about noble false widows but I can’t think of one that works well enough to be worth our time. It’s a car crash of a name, though. 

And in case you’re as clueless as I am, Madeira’s an island off the coast of Portugal. Politically, if not quite geographically, it’s part of Portugal. It’s one of those places I didn’t know I couldn’t locate until I had to locate it.

*

A new typeface, sans forgetica, is supposed to help readers remember what they’re read. The theory is that by making readers work to decipher what they’re looking at, the font will–okay, I’m making this up on the spot, but it sounds credible–engage more of the brain, making the content harder to forget, or possibly even easier to remember. The font’s back-slanted and the letters have gaps that make it hard to read. I read a small piece of an article in it and have no memory of what it said. You’re welcome to try it if you like.

If you’re thinking of using it, my advice would be to forget the font and the make the content more interesting.

*

Britain had another royal wedding: Prince Andrew’s daughter Eugenie married–oh, somebody or other. He works as a brand ambassador for a tequila company.

This is a job?

Andrew apparently wanted the BBC to cover the event live and in full, excruciating detail but it declined, so ITV stepped in. Three cheers for keeping the public up to date on the things that affect our lives. The aforesaid public didn’t pick up the cost of the wedding but paid for the security, which an anti-monarchist group estimates at £2 million.

I wasn’t invited. It’s all very sad, because I have a very nearly respectable pair of black jeans that I’ve been meaning to wear someplace only somehow I never do because they’re too dressy for most of the occasions I’m welcome at.

*

Our solar system has a newly found dwarf planet on its outskirts, somewhere beyond Pluto. It’s been named the Goblin. Astronomers found it while they were looking for a large planet they assume is out there but haven’t located, which they call Planet Nine. The Goblin seems to be under the gravitational influence of something large but so far unseen, so the find adds to the belief that Nine is out there.

The Goblin is about 300 km, or 190 miles, across and takes 40,000 years to complete one asymmetrical orbit of the sun.

The Goblin’s formal name is 2015 TG387, but a member of the team that discovered it explained that “human examination of the candidate slow-moving objects occurred in roughly the Halloween timeframe.”

You followed that, right? It was close to Halloween when they found it.

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A free speech row has broken out over the use of the word bollocks. The founder of a London plumbing company, Charlie Mullins, was told to take down a sign saying, “Bollocks to Brexit,” which is highly visible above the company’s office.

It replaced a sign that read, “Nobody voted to be poorer,” which hung there for six months without offending the council (which is British for the local government), so Mullins is assuming the problem is the word bollocks, although he points out that a 1977 case involving the Sex Pistols ruled that the word is not obscene.

The definition of bollocks–and if you’re not British you might need this–is either testicles or nonsense, rubbish. Its origin is Middle English, which is irrelevant but interesting. At least it’s interesting if you’re something of a language geek.

Mullins said he’s prepared to go to jail but he’s not taking the sign down. To which the council says, “Bollocks.”

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A Banksy spray painting was sold at auction for more than a million pounds. Then it shredded itself.

It did what?

It shredded itself. Or the lower half of itself. Banksy–a graffiti artist who’s managed to stay anonymous while building a worldwide reputation–had somehow rigged a shredder into the frame and the canvas dropped itself neatly down into the blades, emerging in strips just after it was sold.

As I write this, a lot of things aren’t clear, including how it was done, who bought the painting, whether the auction house will hold the buyer to the contract, and whether the piece is now worth more or less or nothing at all. [A late note: The buyer decided to buy it anyway. What’s it worth? Probably a lot more. The world is insane.]

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Now that Toronto’s rid of the mayor who was caught on video smoking crack, you’d think its problems would be over, but they’ve only just started. Raccoons are riding the subways. They’re breaking into banks, crashing baseball games, and stealing donuts.

One resident found three in her kitchen eating bread. Two ran off but one not only held its ground, it grabbed hold of the broom handle the woman poked at it and yanked it. Which for reasons I can’t entirely explain seems more threatening that just grabbing the thing.

A great deal of growling and hissing went on, all of it on the part of the human.

When the raccoon had eaten every bit of bread in the house, it yawned, scratched its belly, and left through the window. The woman locked the window and the raccoon spent the next two hours scratching to get back in. It must have seen the stale hamburger bun that fell behind the refrigerator the week before.

At one point, the city tried to deal with its raccoon problem by introducing a raccoon-proof trash can with a hand-turned lock. In no time at all, the little beasts had figured out that they could tip them over, triggering a gravity-operated opening mechanism that allows the cans to be dumped into trucks.

To date, no one’s caught the raccoons smoking crack on video. They’re too clever to do it around anyone with a phone.

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Salisbury’s image has been tarnished this year by the Novichok poisoning first of a Russian resident and his visiting daughter and then, just when the city thought it might recover, of two homeless people who picked up the bottle used to transport the poison. Visitor numbers are down. Business is suffering.

What does a city do in a situation like that? Why, it hires consultants, and it asks them to rebrand the city.

Visit historic Salisbury: It’s more than just Novichok.

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In September, Megan Markle–the newly minted Duchess of Wherever and wife to Prince Whoosit–was caught on camera closing her own car door.

Yes, folks, that’s print-worthy. The BBC interviewed an etiquette and protocol coach, William Hanson, to make sure the monarchy would survive. He was reassuring and said it wasn’t a protocol breach.

I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am. If you’re not, you should be. The Guardian was so relieved that it printed rumors about what Prince Charles, Meggy’s newly minted father-in-law, won’t do for himself. You’re welcome to chase the full list down if you’re interested, but my favorite is that he has a valet iron his shoelaces. 

Allegedly.