Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

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 And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak.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

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

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

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

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

So that’s our plan.

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

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

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

More pressure.

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

I exaggerate only slightly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public statements are clear and to the point

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

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

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

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

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone loves a feel-good story

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

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

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

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

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

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

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

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

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

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

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

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

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

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

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

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

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

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

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

My conscience lost.

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

People are very polite 

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

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

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

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

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

Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

A steady trickle of what’s-Britain? questions have gradually formed a largish pool on my list of odd questions that lead people to this blog.

The Great British Public contributes heavily to one of them: the why’s-Britain-called-great? question. How do I know many questioners are British? They say things like. “Why are we called Great Britain?” It’s subtle, but if you pay attention, you can tell.

I’ve answered the question here so many times that I’ve worn the fun off it, so we’ll skip to the others, which come from baffled outsiders. One persistent question is why the British insist on having multiple names for their country. Is it Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have just one name?

Probably, but Britain isn’t a country that’s drawn to simplicity. You’re not convinced? Look at the spelling it invented.

So why is England different from Britain? For roughly the same reasons that New York’s different from the United States of Burgundy’s different from France. Heavy emphasis on roughly, but it’s good enough as a place to start.

The multiple names make sense if you drop into British history and set your assumptions aside. I’ll keep them safe and warm. You can pick them up when you leave.


Once upon a time two countries, England and Scotland, were neighbors. Think of them as living upstairs and downstairs, since the maps are drawn that way. And like—well, not like all neighbors but like some, they had fights about how loud the bagpipe music had been on Saturday night and about whose party didn’t end until the last guest passed out at sunrise and about who throws trash out the window.

A damn near relevant photo: This is Minnie the Moocher. It takes more than loud bagpipes to keep her up at night. Or during the day. If you’re going to throw a loud party, she’s the neighbor you want.

They also fought about cattle and massacres and who was the king of the mountain.

This went on for centuries.

Every so often, the two countries went to war, but even when they weren’t fighting, families from both sides of the border raided families on the other side. And for the sake of fairness, sometimes they raided families on their own side, because this wasn’t about  borders or countries, it was about cattle and kinship and which families weren’t big and tough enough to protect themselves.

If one source is correct, it was also about poor land and too little of it. If another source is correct, it was about the breakdown of order. Think of the border area as a kind of failed state. Both explanations sound credible.

Keep in mind that there’s no natural border between Scotland and England, and for a good part of the time we’re talking about the border was fluid. People on one side lived the same way as people on the other side. Families spread across it. You could cross over without saying “Captain, may I?” One or both countries could move it, and at one point, or possibly more, they did.

Which country behaved worse at this stage? My impression is that both did.

For what it’s worth, this part of the history was news to me. I’d read about the Scots raiding the English, but not the other way around. Any guesses on which country’s historians I got that from?

And while we’re talking about me, I knew that England invaded Scotland repeatedly, but not that Scotland invaded England. Guess which country’s songs I listened to.

Scotland and England became distinct countries during the medieval period, Scotland in 843, according to Lord Google, and England in—oh, hell, that’s messier. Wiki-this’ll-all-change-in-a-minute-pedia gives me two years, 927 and 953.

Close enough.

In spite of cohering later, England became the major power on the island of Britain. (The island of Britain, in today’s terms, is the chunk of land made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and—if you count it separately, which some people do and some don’t—Cornwall.)

The BBC (which publishes good, short bits of history on its website) writes, “England had absorbed Wales and Cornwall by 1543, through parliamentary incorporation, political and cultural integration of the ruling elites, and administrative cohesion across church and state.”

Not to mention warfare and a fair bit of brutality here and there.

I can date the English invasions of Scotland back to 1072, when England’s new king, William of Normandy, having conquered England in 1066 thought he’d have Scotland for dessert. He forced Malcolm III, the King of Scotland, to hand over his son as a hostage, which counts as a victory in my book, but he didn’t get to annex Scotland. Maybe he hadn’t been trying.

The two countries continued to be separate. And the English continued to complain about the Scots playing the bagpipes late at night.

To put this in context, the English also have a tradition of bagpiping. The only ones I’ve heard are Northumbrian, They’re smaller than the Scottish ones and use their indoor voice, which since I’ve only heard them played indoors, in a pub, my eardrums and I appreciate immensely.

When I asked nicely, Lord Google led me to a list of eight English invasions of Scotland, For some reason, it didn’t include the one in 1072, so let’s make that nine. Compare that to seven Scottish invasions of England, one of which happened after the two countries were united so I’d call that a rebellion. That takes us down to six.

Another happened during the English Civil War at the request of the English Parliament. I’m not sure whether that’s an invasion, so what the hell, let’s call it five.

This isn’t just about numbers, though, it’s about power. According to History Today, England was “the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England’s claim to be sovereign of Britain.”

So basically, whether it invaded England or not, Scotland wasn’t about to conquer it, but an English conquest of Scotland was a very real possibility. And that’s another reason I knew of the English invasions, not the Scottish ones. They had a different impact. It’s also why I know the Scottish songs—that have that smaller-country-fighting-for-independence purity about them. Even if history’s never as pure as a good song.

A low point in relations between the two countries came in 1328, when Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, recognizing Scottish independence, then waited a year and invaded.

Yes, diplomacy’s a wonderful thing.

One form of diplomacy in this period was to marry someone from the royal family of Country A into the royal family of Country B. It guaranteed twenty minutes of good feeling and generations of warfare, because someone in the royal line of Country A was always being born into the royal family of Country B, and a fair portion of them grew up to claim the crown of the country they didn’t grow up in.

Which is how Scotland and England formed the United Kingdom. James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret. (Don’t worry about the names. They’re purely decorative.) They duly produced a line of offspring who had a claim on the English throne, which is why:

(A) Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Catholic, she had an arguable claim on the English throne, and she was someone English Catholics could rally around if they could only get the Protestant Elizabeth I out of the way.

(B) When Elizabeth, being a professional virgin, died childless, which tends to happen to virgins, England had find a successor, fast. And the successor had to be Protestant. And have some vaguely credible claim to be a descendant of England’s past kings. So they turned to the Scottish king, James VI, who became the English king as well, making him James the VI of Scotland and I of England.

James packed his bags and moved from Scotland to England, which tells you where the power lay, so even though the Scottish line took over the English throne, I don’t think anyone would argue that Scotland took over England. Officially, it was a merger of two separate kingdoms under one king. In reality, Scotland was the junior partner.

As he made his way south, he was so struck by England’s wealth that he said he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.”

Doesn’t it warm your heart when a leader puts the nation’s interests first?

So now it’s 1603 and we have one king ruling two separate countries. Each has its own parliament, courts, and laws. James wants to unite the two countries under one parliament. Both parliaments respectfully suggest that he take a hike off a short pier. What does he do? He sidesteps them and proclaims himself King of Great Britain. The English Parliament has already refused to vote him the title, but he does manage to wring it out the the Scottish one.

It wasn’t until 1707 that the United Kingdom was created by the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish parliaments. A united parliament met for the first time in 1707.

James was long since dead.

Let’s go back to History Today:

“The Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society–law, education and the church–and did not create a homogeneous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.”

And that, children, is how the crocodile got its tail. It’s also why England is not Britain, why Britain is not England, why Scotland almost voted to secede in 2014, and why the United Kingdom has so many names.

Your assumptions are on the table by the door, with your name written on the side. Be careful not to pick up someone else’s, because you may find it doesn’t fit comfortably.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part eightish

What does the world want to know about Britain lately? Let’s take a stroll through the questions that lead people to Notes from the U.K.

Is that a fair way to answer the question?

Probably not.

Do I care?

Oh, absolutely, but not enough to keep me from writing the post.

How’d-that-land-here? questions

“I won’t answer the question polly put the kettle on answer.”

Now that, friends, is a very strange thing to type into a search engine. It’s even stranger that it led someone here, although part of it has a vaguely familiar sound, as if some bot picked up a bit of something I wrote (or that someone else wrote in a comment), tossed it in a jar with a few spare words from someone else’s blog, shook the jar until they blended, then poured them onto the keyboard and hit Send.

It’s even stranger for using a capital letter. Think of capital letters as clothes. Most search questions run through the internet bare-ass nekked.

Anyway, if the writer won’t answer the question (remind me, someone: what was the question?), I won’t either, but I will say that I understand how a phone can be put on answer, although I don’t think that’s what anyone calls the process. Still, whatever you call it, you punch a bunch of buttons and record yourself trying to say you’re out while not admitting that you’re out because you don’t want someone to hear your message and think, Aha! They just said they’re out. I’ll go break in and steal ’em blind.

Once you’ve done all that, the phone answers itself, bypassing you entirely and raising the question of whether you add any value at all to the transaction.

The kettle, though? I keep hearing that machines are getting smarter, but so far all my kettle does is boil water. I talk to it sometimes. I even sing to it. It doesn’t answer.

A final note before we move along: “polly put the kettle on” is not a question.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: Thrift. I really need to get out and take some more photos.

“what figure of speech is a thousand miles.”

Um, gee. I’d have to say it depends how you use it.

A figure of speech is a word or a set of words that are used to mean something other than its literal meaning. So a thousand miles can mean a thousand miles. One, two, three, and so on until you get to a thousand. That’s literal. No problem unless you get into the whole question of how long a mile is, because an old-style Cornish mile measured 3.161 etc. to nine decimal points of our current miles.

But let’s stick with the standard mile. I can sow enough confusion with needing help, thanks. Stick to the literal meaning and it’s not a figure of speech.

If you were to write, “My love is like a thousand miles,” you’d have written a lousy line but it would be a figure of speech—a simile, pronounced SIM-ill-ee, which I mention because written English contains almost no clue about how to pronounce a word and also because I have nothing better to do with myself. So sure, you probably already knew all that, but I’m having fun here.

A simile is two things compared openly, using like or as. Or possibly some other words I’ve forgotten, although I don’t think so. I’m not paid to know this stuff anymore, so I threw it all out of my head to make space for more useful things. Like the Cornish mile.

I wasn’t using it anyway and until today I didn’t miss it.

If you write, “My love is a thousand miles,” your writing would still by lousy but you’d have moved on from a simile to a metaphor, where like or as drops away and the comparison goes underground.

If you delete “my love is” and instead dropped “a thousand miles” into a sentence so that it stood for your love, it still wouldn’t make any sense but it would be a symbol. Of something.

We’ll skip the fancier stuff, like synecdoche. But aren’t you glad someone asked?

For the record, my love is not a thousand miles. She’s on the phone in the living room at this very minute, talking in a very un-thousand-mile-like way.

“guy stickney the night light linked in”

We’re going to have to disassemble that and see if any piece of it makes sense. Stickney’s a real last name, and I happen know a guy who carries it. His first name is not Guy. I don’t know him well enough to know if he uses—or even owns—a nightlight. Or if he uses LinkedIn.

Somehow I don’t think any of that is what whoever wrote that was looking for.

How’d the question get to me? I’ve used the words the, and in a lot, but I’m pretty sure everyone else on the internet has too. I’m sure I’ve used guy, night, and light, and probably even linked. As far as I can remember, I haven’t connected them in any way that would draw a search question.

Lord Google moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

“deer plot seeds”

They do? And here I was, thinking they’re all little innocent creatures who gambol around the forest and eat grass. Or leaves. Or something vegetabilian.

No, that’s gambol, not gamble. Cab drivers gamble. Deer? No, even on the evidence of this question, they may plot, but they don’t gamble. They weigh their risks carefully and don’t make their move till their sure.

What are they plotting? I’m not sure. I don’t understand what it means to plot seeds. To seed a plot, yes. To plot in general? Sure, no problem. But plotting seeds is like plotting shoes: There just doesn’t seem to be much point to it.

Still, keep your eye on those innocent-looking creatures. They’re up to something, and we’ve been warned.

“how could smart glasses do more thing”

I don’t know. This is not a technology blog. You should talk to my kettle.


Yes. Or possibly no. It depends on time, place, and circumstance. Also on meaning.


This is clearer, The answer is no, absolutely not.

If anyone has a theory (no matter how crackpot) about how these last two questions got to me, I’d love to hear it. The first I wrote off as a glitch. With the second, I’m starting to see a pattern. One more and it’ll be a conspiracy.

“pees women pants”

With this one, you have officially seen me speechless. Or at least you’ve read me smart-answerless. Is this a search for the kind of women’s underwear meant for people with incontinence problems? Is someone looking for highly specialized pornography?

Either way, I seriously doubt I was any help.

Let’s try a new category.

What’s Britain really like?

“british talk about weather outside.”

Weather in Britain happens outside. It’s one of the things that lets you know you’re in Britain, not Canada or Cambodia, where (as I’m sure you know) they bring their weather indoors.

For some years now, British politicians have turned themselves inside out trying to define British values—it’s one of those placate-the-anti-immigrant-lobby things—and they’ve failed spectacularly. It’s kind of endearing, the hash they’ve made of it. If they want to know what British values are, they should ask their nearest immigrant. We could tell them: British weather takes place outside, and British that people talk about that.

To get the right to stay in this country, since I am my nearest immigrant, I had to take an entire damn computerized test to prove I understood British culture. Why didn’t they just ask me about outdoor weather? Talk about wasting taxpayer money.

Next question, please.

“do british homes have mailboxes”


What are they called? (I’m adding this. No one asked.)

(That’s not true. I asked some time ago, and finding the answer wasn’t easy. Probably because I looked in the wrong places.)

Letter boxes.

Are they boxes?

Not necessarily. Ours is a slot in the door.

Why are they called boxes?

Because. It’s English. Abandon logic all ye who hope to master this language.

“do british people eat notmal cookies”

Um, no. Some eat oatmeal cookies. Some eat normal cookies. None, as far as I’ve been able to find out, eat notmal cookies, although British English is (a) regional and (b) inventive as hell, so I’ll never be completely sure.

“chocolate chip cookies in Britain”

British people do eat chocolate chip cookies, although that should probably be some British people eat these. So many internet searches are fixated on what all British people do. Get born. Breathe. Die. Beyond that, you’ll find a lot of variation.

Chocolate chip cookies in Britain often seem—I don’t like to say this—a bit disoriented. They’re not used to the range of accents. The oven temperatures are measured in centigrade instead of Fahrenheit. They’re trying to locate their friends the Notmal family, who aren’t in the phone book. (You remember phone books, right? Am I the only one around here who’s getting old?)

Basically, chocolate chip cookies are immigrants. Adapting is never a smooth process. Be patient with them. Eventually they’ll understand that the British weather is outside and you’ll be able to have a very nice conversation with them about that.

“why doing british people know what brownies are”

Because brownies are sold here. If you buy one in a café, you may have to excavate it from under layers of ice cream, whipped cream, fudge sauce, chocolate sprinkles, and tiny American flags playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” but if you keep your nerve you’ll find a brownie down there somewhere.

“what people guy night”

Why, those people over there.

This probably has to do with Guy Fawkes night, which I did write about, and which may be responsible for me receiving all guy-related internet searches from now until forever. I’m not sure about the “what people” part of the question, though. The British ones? Probably. You can identify them by their confusion over what their values are.

“what are american biscuits called in england”

If this is about baking powder biscuits, they’re not called anything unless you’re at my house. They only exist if I make a batch, and I call them baking powder biscuits so people don’t take one thinking they’re funny-looking cookies and then feel disappointed.

On the other hand, if this is about the kind of biscuits you eat with cheese, they’re called biscuits. That’s to distinguish them from the things Americans call cookies, which are called biscuits.

Clear? Want to read about the Cornish mile?

“do the english get confused between the names ‘england’ and ‘britain’”

No more than the Americans get confused between the names Minnesota and Upper Midwest, or California and West Coast, or Massachusetts and New England. They leave it to Americans to get confused about. It’s a handy division of labor and it’s worked well for the country, although I’m not sure it’s done the U.S. any favors.

I suspect the rest of the world has less trouble with this, but maybe that’s just my ignorance speaking.

“why are people called great Britain”

They’re not.

“why is great and why is Britain”

Yes. Both.

“are drinks stronger in britain”

No, but water’s wetter. And the air is airier.

“letter from an English friend talking about how they bake lemon bread”

Sorry, but I didn’t get the letter. And my feelings were hurt by that.

“siri welsh placenames”

I don’t know Welsh, I’m sorry to say, so I wouldn’t trust my pronunciation and you shouldn’t either. I also wouldn’t trust Siri’s, or any other automated voice’s.

Not long ago, I caught a ride down to Hayle (pronounced Hale by everyone I’ve heard mention it) with a friend whose sat-nav called it HAY-yell. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but you can’t know with place names in England (or Cornwall) unless you ask someone local. And even then, you have to hope they’re not messing with you, because it’s got to be tempting.

I suspect Welsh place names are less unpredictable than English ones, but I’m saying that not because I know anything about Welsh place names but because I’m convinced that nothing matches the English ones for sheer insanity.

“how many brussels sprouts do we eat in the u.k. at christmas”

240,641, 004. But that doesn’t take account of the ones that get sliced into quarters and shoved under the leftover mashed potatoes, And the brussels sprouts monitors are still arguing whether to count the ones that get fed to the dog.

Britain and the U.S.

“british admired americans directness”

Oh, they did, did they? All of them? When was that? In my experience some do and some would just as soon send us home to be direct—or rude, if you prefer—with our fellow Amurricans.

“british hate americans” // “do brits like americans” // “british attitude toward americans” // “do british people like chocolate chip cookies”

Let’s get this out of the way first: I do understand the difference between Americans and chocolate chip cookies. I herded those complaining questions into a single group because I want to explain this once and once only: The Great British Attitude Convention—you know: the one that votes on how the entire population feels about things—bogged down in procedural disagreements this year and hasn’t been able to decide a damn thing. They’re still arguing about the shape of the table.

So Americans? Chocolate chip cookies? Right now, no one knows how the British feel. People are hugging American tourists and then hauling off and slapping them. They’re buying chocolate chip cookies, then throwing them on the floor by the cash register and stamping on them. It’s a tricky business, being on all sides of everything.

“british people think of tornado alley”

I’m not so sure they do. A few, probably, but I don’t think tornado alley’s widely known.

The inevitable wig questions

“does the government still wear those stupid wigs in england”

The government is not a living being. From that it follows from it is that the government doesn’t have a physical head to put a wig on. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. Some things we’ve just got to face up to. And the phrase “the head of state”? It’s a figure of speech. The state, like the government, doesn’t have a literal head.

“do english judges feel silly”


Oh, you were asking about wigs. Probably not. They’re used to them.

Gotcha questions

“how to act like aristocracy”

Okay, I admit it: When I gave that title (or something like it; I don’t really remember) to a post, I was thinking, I bet someone googles this. And they do. Not in huge numbers, but in ones and threes. It’s embarrassing. For them, not me. Do you suppose they’re really trying to act like aristocracy, and if so, why?

“how to behave like an aristocratic lady”

Keep your eye on me, kid, then do the opposite.

What the world really wants to know about Britain, part sevenish

What leads (a few) wide-eyed innocents from all over the internet to Notes from the U.K.? Let’s look at the search questions they ask–and let’s pretend it tells us something about what they want to know about Britain.

We’ll start with the strange ones, for a change, instead of saving them for dessert.

Strange questions

“why is everyone wearing pineapples”

I, my friends, am not wearing pineapples. Not as I type this and not when I read the question. That convinces me that not everyone is wearing pineapples. I don’t think I ever have worn pineapples, although there was a stretch of time when I wasn’t responsible for what I wore—or even for remembering it. But my mother wasn’t a pineapple kind of parent. I’m pretty sure she didn’t dress me in any. If this is really important to anyone, I can ask if my older brother remembers any pineapple-related clothing events–his memory kicks in a few years earlier than mine–but I’m hoping you’ll take my word on this, because it’s not going to be easy to explain why I’m asking.

And to be completely clear, it doesn’t matter if the question is about clothing with pictures of pineapples, the fruit itself (sliced or whole; canned, fresh, or dried), or three-dimensional imitations of the fruit. I am not now wearing nor have I ever worn any of them.

Why did the comment lead someone to me? Because one of my posts, “Banning Pineapples,” mentioned that a couple of music festivals had banned them, along with hand grenades and land mines. You can understand why they’re all in the same category, right?

As an article on the BBC website explained (and it’s bizarre enough that it bears repetition), “Organisers said [the ban] was because fans of Oxford band Glass Animals bring hundreds of the fruit to its gigs, in a nod to song ‘Pork Soda’ which includes the lyrics ‘pineapples are in my head.’ ”

No, I don’t understand it either. Especially the pork soda part. But nothing I wrote mentioned anyone dressing in or as a pineapple. Pineapples are not in my head. And what kind of world do we live in that people don’t make a distinction between wearing pictures of pineapples and decking themselves out in dripping slices of the canned stuff?

A very strange world, that’s what we live in. It must be time for an irrelevant photo, and then another question.

Blatantly irrelevant photo: begonia flowers

“coke fabric yard”

I not only don’t understand this question, I can’t account for it leading anyone to Notes. As far as I can remember, I haven’t written about either coke or Coke. Yard? Yes, I have mentioned yards, probably in the context of metric and non-metric measures. Fabric? In the U.S, it’s measured by the yard, so I might’ve used that word too. Plus I do tend to call that piece of ground outside a house a yard. I probably said something about ours. The British call it a garden. Even—I think—if it’s cemented over.

Coke, though? I can think of three meanings of the word, and none are measured by the yard. You might as well toss pineapples into the conversation.

Surely thousands of other people on the internet have mentioned the word yard. How deep into a Google search would you have to go before you landed here?

Well, because I take the responsibility of blogging seriously, I checked. It turns out that you can buy Coke fabric—that’s fabric with pictures of Coke (cans of, or maybe bottles, but not spills or glasses), and the first couple of search pages were all about how to buy some. So if someone wanted to buy Coke fabric by the yard, they didn’t have to go very deep into the listings–it’s all at the top. But they went past all that, so I kept going as well. And it all got strange by the second or third page. I found:

Christ to Coke: How an Image Becomes an Icon. When I followed the link, I landed midway into the thing and found a mention of fabric and a picture of the American flag. No Coke, no Christ, no idea what it’s all about. Best guess? It’s somebody’s PhD thesis and it’s all very, very deep. Too deep for the likes of us, so let’s move on.

Next came The Dangers of Kissing and Diet Coke: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know. This leads to a book that opens by saying, “I bet you bought this book because you wonder what’s dangerous about kissing and Diet Coke.”

Well, no. I didn’t pay a damn dime and wouldn’t have. And when the author didn’t get around to either kissing or Diet Coke within the first few paragraphs, I figured it was clickbait and bullshit and I moved on to The Pollution Abatement Handbook, which mentioned both coke (a fuel used in making steel) and fabric filters to minimize emissions.

Below that I found The Reports of Sir Edward Coke KNT (1572-1617), in Thirteen Parts, which not only gives us one of the keywords in the author’s name but somewhere along the line mentions a church-yard, and that hyphen make sit look like the word yard is running around loose. No fabric. Sorry.

“KNT” may be an abbreviation of knight, but might also be a hint that the gentleman was knit. Or–as I’d have put it–knitted (or is that knot, or possibly knut?), but both spelling a grammar were different back then. I think I like it best when I’m not sure, so I didn’t try to find out anything about him.

After that came a story about cocaine being found in a Coke factory in France, which is appropriate, then one about what it’s “really” like to smuggle cocaine. Then we were back to Coke fabric.

Then I gave up.

“what does ‘feeding the bears’ mean when it comes to classroom instructional design”

Um. Gee. I have no idea. I googled it but the responses were about feeding actual bears. Or not feeding actual bears, which for most of us seems like a good idea.

The exception was the Urban Dictionary, which defined it as getting a traffic ticket. It had a second definition, but it was even less useful. I have as little understanding of how the search led to me as I do of the definition the writer was looking for.


Questions about Britain’s greatness

As always, people want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain. Or sometimes when it was first called Great Britain. Or—from the gullible—why Britain’s great. This version of the question comes from people who think the jumbo burger has to be big in some absolute way when in fact it could easily be bigger than a micro-size regular burger.

Great Britain is—as I say every time I write one of these posts—a geographical term. It means big.

When I slotted the question into Google, I’m happy to report that I didn’t have to work my way through pollution handbooks. Notes was close to the top of the list. Of course, Google feeds you what it thinks you want and confirms whatever prejudices it thinks you have. Still, you take your triumphs where you can find them.

If you want to know why Britain’s called Great Britain, it’s here.

I have yet to write about when Great Britain was first called that or why Britain’s called Britain, but a shallow splash in the Google pond tells me that Britain comes from the Latin Britannia, which dropped out of use when the Romans left Britain and came back into use when the Normans shot an arrow into the eye of the king of the moment and put themselves in charge, so they got to call it whatever they wanted.

I still don’t know why the Romans called it Britannia, but let’s not dive down that rabbit hole right now.

In the meantime, if you think words will make a country great, I refer you to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

Full disclosure: Some versions of the quote use “cannot” instead of “can’t,” and one link claims he never said it at all. But, as Yogi Berra (is alleged to have) said, “I never said half the things I said.” So let’s not quibble.

And by way of full disclosure, I can fool myself perfectly well, so you don’t have to bother.

For the sake of variety, someone asked, “why great Britain.” This reminds me of the Marx Brothers routine, “Why a duck?” But really, why not a duck? And why not Great Britain? But all this threatens to involve us in some pretty deep thought and it’s too much for a Friday morning. We’ll leave it.


Knowledgeable questions


You have to know something about Cornwall to ask about this. It’s a Cornish word for incomers, and also for tourists, who swarm all over the landscape like ants, which is the word’s literal meaning.

When I googled emmits, I popped up at the top of the list, which is (again) meaningless since Google’s feeding me what it thinks I want to see and it knows how vain I am.

The word is also spelled emmets, and since that’s not the spelling I used, I drop out of the running if I put the word in that way. I should probably have gone with the e spelling. It seems to be more common.

What are people really trying to find out when they google this? If they’re emmits (or emmets), maybe only a definition, but maybe what the Cornish think of them. Since I’m not Cornish and came here four generations too late to ever be, you shouldn’t look to me for an answer.

“what is a cockwomble”

I’m not at the top of the list here, but in the narrow field of cockwomble experts I do at least register. I’m so proud. And proud of all the strange people who know enough to ask what a cockwomble is. What information I have is here.


Repeat questions        

Every time we do this, people want to know about:

Why British lawyers wear [fill in the blank with a disparaging adjective] wigs in court. Recently they’ve also been asking about court wigs.

Answer: It keeps their heads warm.

Oh, hell, I suppose I should include a link. Actual information is here.

Beer. This is usually—getting right to the point—about which country’s beer has more alcohol. Honestly, who cares? If you’re worried about getting drunk on minimal volume, try vodka. Or gin or tequila. Hell, it you can go for stuff that comes in colors too if you like.

How the English (or British) feel about (or treat) American tourists. A recent version of this read “british snooty to american tourists.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly (to do this, you pour off the SEO and interpret the patterns left behind), this should really have its own category: Paranoia. The writers are wondering whether it’s safe to take their delicate little selves out of the United States and whether the British will be mean to them. Take the risk, folks. It can’t possibly be as bad as junior high school.

Unless you were the people who made junior high so horrible.

“Tea on the Lawn.” It took me a while to figure this out, but these questions turn out to be about a poem that must be assigned to half the schoolkids in Britain, and they’re all out there looking for a quick way to get their bored little heads around it—possibly without having to read the damn thing. A recent query was looking for a summary. Read the poem, kid. It’ll be shorter than the summary.

The post that draws these poor souls was about a fund-raising tea on the lawn of a great house near where I live. It’s a very British thing, that kind of tea, and as a rule it doesn’t involve poetry.


New questions

how to act like an aristocrat Mostly, as I write this drivel, I don’t think about SEO—search engine optimization, or how to game the googlemonster—but when I wrote the headline that drew the poor silly soul behind the question into my lair, I did wonder if someone wouldn’t google the phrase. And someone did, confirming my worst suppositions about human nature.

“romance, marriage, village life” I have no idea what someone expected to find, but when I google it, my post on gay marriage, romance, and village life shows up. It’s probably not what the person was looking for, but it involves all three words. A triumph.

“US mail box UK”

What can I say? Name a topic and someone out there is interested in it.

“a bit about Britain”

There’s a blog by that name, and several of its posts turn up in a Google search. A post of mine shows up at the bottom of the page, after the ones that were a closer fit, and the questioner continued down that far, leading me to conclude that some people have too much time on their hands.



Questions about pronunciation usually ask about place names, but not long ago someone wanted “pronunciation of whoo.”

This is awkward. The English language is such a mess. I edited kids’ nonfiction (briefly, which is too bad because it was great fun), and one of the things I had to do was create a vocabulary list for each book, with not just definitions but also pronunciations. Real linguists use a set of symbols that only they can understand. If you know the code, they’ll tell you how a word’s pronounced, but our lists had to use the 26 letters of the English alphabet and make sense to the average ten-year-old.

It tells you something about the language that we need a set of symbols the average English speaker can’t read to tell us what our words sound like. But never mind them. I couldn’t use them–both because I don’t understand them and because they wouldn’t do what we needed done.

So: English pronunciation with 26 letters. Have you ever tried writing the pronunciation of an English word? Name me a vowel (we’ll leave the consonants alone; they’re not as much of a mess) that doesn’t have three pronunciations for every whim that crosses its flitty little mind. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten avoids the whole problem by finding a word or phrase that each Yiddish word rhymes with. It works perfectly, but there must’ve been moments when he pounded his head against a wall.

So how do you pronounce whoo? Whoo. That’s  sort of like woo, but with a bit of air on the H, but that’s too long winded for a vocabulary list. It rhymes with few, but then so does woo, so that’s no damn help.

I’m happy to say, it never came up in the kids’ books.

“what do british call brownies”

Brownies. Aren’t you glad you asked? Mind you, British brownies aren’t always what I’d call brownies, because they’ll accept anything that’s baked, oblong, and vaguely chocolaty, but I’ve had some American brownies that I could describe the same way.

Semi-relevantly, the British tend to go over the top with their brownies, presumably because brownies are American and that’s what they think Americans do. So you can see a perfectly innocent brownie in a café’s display case, order it, and find that it comes to your table under a wedding gown’s worth of whipped cream embroidered with chocolate sauce. Plus, in the name of health and safety, a tiny marzipan stethoscope.

A question of my own and a bit about SEO

Before I end, I should make an opening, once again, for you to tell me what you’d like to know about Britain. Or the U.S. Or any other topic I might be unqualified to write about. I don’t promise to tackle it. That depends on whether I can be marginally informative while still amusing myself–and, with luck, you. But I will try.

And the bit about SEO? I just read that the Google searches beginning with “how to” are up more than 140% since 2004. (Sorry, I can’t give you link to prove I didn’t make this up. It was a very small item in the Guardian, and when I searched for it online, the matches were at least as bizarre as the stuff I’ve quoted above. Maybe it didn’t go into the online edition.)

The most popular searches include:

  • How to tie a tie (get someone to do it for you once, slip it off without unknotting it, and never own more than that one tie; when it gets dirty, twist it around to the back shows instead of the front)
  • How to kiss (put four lips together and see where things take you)
  • How to make money (don’t listen to anyone who charges for an answer)
  • How to write a cover letter (badly if the ones I’ve seen are typical)
  • How to make french toast (French toast? Excuse me, but I’m not answering that. It throws me so far off course that I’ve changed the structure of my answers by adding caps and periods and all that sentence-ending stuff. How’s that for intense? So let me ask a few questions of my own: Why not mashed potatoes? Why not pieroshki? In what culture is this a basic life skill?)

What people really want to know about Britain, part something

Let’s take a break from the way the world (or at least the U.S. as I once knew it) is imploding and ask what people really want to know about Britain. Because I don’t know about you, but I need a break from reality.

If you haven’t been reading Notes for long, here’s how I figure out what the world wants to know: I read the questions that lead people here. It’s highly unscientific, since people who want to know about Roman walls wouldn’t have, until today, found anything to lead them here, but what the hell, it’s the method I have to hand.


A rare relevant photo: A bit of Roman wall, now fencing off someone's garden in Exeter.

A rare relevant photo: A bit of Roman wall, now fencing off someone’s backyard in Exeter.

As always, people wanted to know about judges’ wigs, and occasionally about lawyers’ wigs. Someone wanted to know why barristers wear wigs, and I live to inform the curious multitudes. It’s because they want to. In spite of all the studying they had to do to become barristers, they watched too much TV and it left them with the impression that they’d look important if they ran around with white, sideways Shirley Temple curls on their heads.

No, I can’t explain it either.

Bonus relevant photo: A single stone, carefully placed in the same yard, which I'd call a garden if I weren't, at heart, American. Our best guess is that that the wall was hit when Exeter was bombed during World War II.

Bonus relevant photo: A single stone from the Roman wall, carefully placed in the same yard, which I’d call a garden if I weren’t, at heart, American. Our best guess is that that the wall was hit when Exeter was bombed during World War II.

A related comment (it wasn’t really a question) read, (and as usual, these come with no capital letters or question marks), “the wig which judges wear in uk courts is a with answers.”

Got that? If the writer’s correct, all those judges share a single wig. This has to be awkward, since although Britain looks small if you’re sitting in a big country like the U.S., it actually takes quite a bit of time to drive a single wig from courthouse to courthouse, stopping at every last one from Land’s End to John O’Groats and from Fishguard to the white cliffs of Dover. No wonder the courts are building up a backlog. It’s not budget cuts, it’s because that damned wig got caught in traffic.

Why do the judges have to wait for the wig to arrive? Because they’ve also been watching too much TV, but also because, as the writer says, “is a with answers.” The wig has the answers. Want to know the correct precedent for the case in front of you (and this is especially important in a country with an unwritten constitution that consists of a random number of historical documents and every damn precedent ever precedented)? The wig knows what it is.

And then it moves on.

Americans, as always, want to know what the British think of them, and especially if they hate them or like them. What is it with my fellow countrypeople? Is crossing the border into a foreign country so terrifying that we have to slip a message in a bottle before we take the risk, asking, “Is anyone out there? Do you hate me?”

Right now, a lot of the people I run into are asking what’s wrong with us (the us here being Americans), and I don’t have a good answer. If you’re American and visit Britain, please don’t take that as personal hostility. It’s political. And it’s a not a bad question.

Within a few days, over a million Britons signed a petition asking to ban Trump from making a state visit to the U.K. But relax, friends, no one’s doing anything extreme like proposing a ban on anyone with an American passport if they were born into one religion or another.

Several questions this time around asked about the phrase tickety boo. One person just typed in the phrase. Another wanted to know who says it. J. does from time to time. So do other people. Does that help?

Probably not. Here’s where I tell you everything I know about it. And more.

As always, a few people wanted to know about British beer and a few others wanted to compare American and British swearing. For all I’ve written about tea, no one who wanted to know about it was led here, they were all seized by larger sites. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Someone wanted to know, “how to drive straight in a narrow.” Um,  you do that by not turning the wheel. Someone else typed in, “uk narrow streets dangerous for driving.” Oh, I dunno. If you’re careful not to hit anyone, they’re okay. They may be more work than a wide street, but I’m not sure they’re any more dangerous.

A third person asked, “Why are englands roads so narrow.” Because, my friend, a whole shitload of them were built before the first car was ade. They were the widths people needed (or could afford) back then. And—you know how this works—folks built their houses alongside them. And then cars were invented and traffic got out of control and even though people tried shoving the houses back a few feet it didn’t work, so they left them where they were and there they sit to this day. And when one or two of them fall apart or get torn down, they’re replaced by newer buildings but since the neighboring buildings are usually still standing, the road stays narrow.

And that’s how the crocodile got its tale.

Aren’t you glad I’m here to sort this shit out?

The usual wheelbarrowload of people wanted to know why Britain is called Great Britain, or simply why it’s called great. It’s not a moral judgment, it means big. Someone did ask, though, why it was called Britain, which is an interesting twist on the question and if life ever settles down a bit I’ll see what sort of answers I can dig out.

Almost as many people asked about brussels sprouts (usually in the form of why they’re eaten at Christmas) as asked about why Britain was called great. Now that tells you what’s important in the culture.

Someone wanted to know about “Russian hotel aftermath/torch [explicit].” That was before the allegations about Trump and golden showers in a Russian hotel, although maybe somebody knew something even then. Do the allegations mention a torch? I don’t remember any mention of that.

I also didn’t write about that. The search probably landed here because of a post about a hotel fire in Exeter. Which is not in Russia, it’s in Devon. And no one seems to be saying the place was torched.

As far as explicit goes, the post was pretty mild. Sorry if I’ve disappointed you. I lack imagination.

A few questions came from the clued-up. A few people wanted to read about emmits. It’s not something you ask about if you don’t already know a bit. Someone else wanted to know about “tutting in a queue.” Again, you have to know a bit about the British religion, which is standing in line—otherwise known as queuing—and British disapproval, which often takes the form of tutting, before you can ask the question. I’d give you a link to whatever I wrote about all that but I have no idea where it is. Google “tutting in a queue” and “Notes from the U.K.” and you may or may not find it.

Someone else asked, “why do mps walk five steps and bow.” Wow. Good question. Do they? Always? No wonder it’s so hard to accomplish anything sensible. The MPs (that’s Members of Parliament to the uninitiated) are all running around the Westminster chess board like knights with a twitch, one step forward and two to the side, then they bow. With two hops in the middle so it adds up to five.

Can I go watch?

One lone soul asked about kitten post it notes. I’ve used the word post, sometimes in the context of blogging and sometimes in the context of the Royal Mail. And when Fast Eddie was a kitten, I posted (and there’s that word again) photos because I was threatened with a boycott if I didn’t. So there you go. It all comes together.

Someone wanted to know about cockwombles. It was one of my more profound posts, if I do say so myself.

And finally, someone wrote, “notes i have my own rules to.” Uh huh. I have a few of my own rules, and lots of notes. I can even decipher some of then. Others are as much of a mystery as that comment is. I’ll leave it for you to figure out.

Stay sane, people. The world’s getting crazy. And speak up, because this is when it matters. It really, really matters.

Great British traditions: the boot sale


Let’s play a word association game: I say “great British traditions” and you say what? Tea on the lawn? The queen? Baffling parliamentary traditions? Heads on a pike outside the city walls? Chasing a cheese down a hill? Running a race carrying a flaming barrel of tar?

I’ve written about a good part of that and dutifully stuck in the links because that’s what bloggers do. I’d be banned from the internet if I didn’t. I’d But forget them all. They’re trivial. We’re talking serious British tradition today. We’re talking about the great British boot sale.

The first time Wild Thing and I visited Britain, we rented a car and drove maniacally from one end of the island to the other and then back to London along (roughly) the opposite coast until we’d made a full circuit. It’s a small country, right? We could see everything.

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

We saw a hell of a lot less than we would have if we hadn’t tried to see so much, but it was enough to draw us back. And more importantly, to introduce us to the boot sale. Why, we asked each other as we drove past yet another Boot Sale sign, are they selling all these boots? And why only one? Who buys single boots? What happens to the other one?

Hey, we know how to ponder the deep questions life throws at us. But not necessarily to answer them, because we didn’t stop to find out what a boot sale was. We were in a hurry. We had something else on our list of things to not-entirely-see that day. So the mystery remained in place until we passed a variation on the sign, which said Car Boot Sale.

Aha. Got it. The boot is the trunk. They’re selling car trunks.

No, they’re selling stuff out of the trunks. It’s a flea market!

I love a flea market.

We still didn’t stop. We were in too much of a hurry to have fun. I mean, hell, it was a vacation.

So we’re making up for it now. On a recent (and a-typically dry) spring Sunday, Wild Thing and I went to the local boot sale, which is held in a field and raises money for the community hospital. When we first moved here, we went this boot sale regularly. It was a great place to look for things we knew we needed and find things we didn’t know we needed until we saw them. Used stuff, new stuff, hand-made craft-type stuff, who-knows-what-and-why-does-it-matter? stuff. We bought kitchen canisters, bakeware, a teapot that I broke and then its replacement, a two-seat wooden bench for the front yard. Plants. Eggs. Flapjacks, which if you’re not British I should explain aren’t pancakes but sweet, heavy oat bars that leave you licking your fingers for the next half hour because they always  leave just a little more syrup than you found last time you licked. And the syrup always escapes the paper.

No, there’s nowhere to wash. It’s a field.

This time, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, it was just a social thing. We just wanted to wander through, see what was for sale, let the dogs say hello to other dogs. Dog people always end up talking with other dog people, so we got to do a bit of greeting ourselves.

We came home with two pictures that Ida bought for their frames, a knitted doll for a toddler who’s about to become a big sister, a couple of plastic cars for the toy box, and some little china cottages, which are the real reason I’m writing this.

The cottages were displayed in a small basket on the ground and I only bent down to look through them just to kill time while Wild Thing was looking at I have no idea what. We didn’t want to get too far apart or we’d never find each other again. The place was crowded, and Wild Thing’s cell phone doesn’t like me. Any chance it gets, it blocks my number. Wild Thing swears it’s not her doing and I shouldn’t take it personally.

I turned a couple of the cottages over in my hands and noticed a typed (you remember typewriters?) label on the back of one: Shakespeare’s cottage. A poet friend in the U.S., J., had asked not long before if I could find her a Shakespeare tee shirt, since we are endlessly commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. (He seems to have taken a very long time to die.) I’d just ordered her one, and here I was looking at a tiny replica of his cottage.

Or what claimed to be a replica. How would I know what his cottage looked like? When I looked further, I saw two other cottages that were identical and weren’t labeled Shakespeare’s cottage or anything else, but I was willing to be convinced. I mean, somebody had typed that out and pasted it to one of the cottages. How could it not be true?

So I asked how much it was.

The woman selling it said I couldn’t buy just the one. It was the whole lot (twelve or so) or nothing.

Fine, then: nothing. I put Shakespeare’s cottage back in the basket and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the damned thing. Because J. wants a Shakespeare tee shirt. And because the cottages had a dollhouse quality that meant I couldn’t keep my mind off them.

Wild Thing and I used to build dollhouses for the kids in our lives, and every adult who came to the house when we had a partly finished standing around, no matter who they were, no matter how tough they were or unlikely they were, ended up moving the furniture around. They couldn’t help themselves.

And I couldn’t help myself. As we wandered around the rest of the boot sale, I argued with myself about the cottages: They’re collectibles, I told myself, meaning the seller would want too much for them. That’s not really Shakespeare’s cottage. At least not unless he was very, very small and could fit through a molded china door. J. will think it’s silly and then feel like she has to keep it because it’s a present.

Just as we were leaving, I lost the argument, as I’d known I would, and went back. How much did the seller want for them?

Five pounds.

I could probably have bargained, but having lost the battle with myself I wasn’t about to fight with her. I handed over my money and tried to give her back the basket.

Nope, I had to take the basket too.

I tell you, that woman drove a hard bargain.

I left with the cottages, the basket, and the tissue paper lining the basket, and we ran into another great British tradition: generosity in traffic. I know I lured you in with the promise of one tradition, but I can drive a hard bargain myself. Today if you read about one tradition, you get another for free.

Pushy New Yorker that I will always be at heart, British drivers amaze me, even after ten years in the country. Wild Thing and I were in a kind of feeder line, hoping to edge into the line of cars that were inching their way to the exit, and somebody held back and made a space we could pull into. As I’d known someone would but even so I was breathless with gratitude, because anytime I try to pull into traffic some tiny voice in my head starts a drone: This is going to take forever. It’s going to take longer than forever. We’ll die here and our skeletons will turn to dust before the traffic thins out. But someone always makes space. Such generosity. Such public-spiritedness. Such a sense of cooperation.

I was basking in all that good feeling when someone ahead of us made a space for a car that was waiting in the next feeder line and I snapped back into New York (or maybe that’s American; I’ve lost track) mode: You mean this applies to everyone here? We’ll never get out. Even the memory of our skeletons will turn to dust…

Well, yes, it does apply to everyone. If you’ll read the small print, right there at the end of page two…

Okay, I was ashamed of myself. So much so that I let someone in ahead of me.

I told Wild Thing I was going all British on her.

“You didn’t let the car behind them in,” she said.

“Fuck no,” I said. “I’m not that British.”

And there, my friends, we leave our ongoing saga, The Britishization of Wild Thing and Ellen. They have encountered two great British traditions and managed to not to embarrass themselves on the public stage, even if one of them reverted to type, swore roughly as much as usual, and on top of that snuck a case of spare Z’s past customs and planted one of them right here in this paragraph, where a Brit would use an S.

Great British traditions: the queen’s tweeter and runners in fancy dress

Madge, as my friend R. calls her royal Madge-esty, was recently looking for someone to handle her Twitter account.

You didn’t think the queen would do her own tweeting, did you? Those royal fingers have to be protected so she can cut ribbons.

If you check @britishmonarchy, as I just forced myself to do, you’ll find that the official MonarTweeter doesn’t try to impersonate the queen, because that would get into a whole tangle of decisions about whether to have her say I or one, as in “One has finished one’s breakfast and is off to a busy day of cutting ribbons.” Which might be too long for a tweet but I can’t be bothered counting. And more to the point, it would quite probably violate some law about impersonating a monarch. But anyway, the job of the MonarTweeter is to speak on her behalf.

I’d quote a few tweets but they’re really, really boring.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Ruin in the Firth of Forth, by Ida Swearingen. Don't you just love saying "Firth of Forth"?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An island in the Firth of Forth. Don’t you just love saying “Firth of Forth”? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

The same person will also be—or by now quite possibly is—in charge of her Facebook page and her YouTube channel, which are probably just as fascinating as the Twitter account. And will get paid between £45,000 and £50,000 per year. One of the requirements of the job is that you have to stay awake through all the dreary stuff you try to graft some excitement onto. And you not only have to keep a straight face about it all, you may even have to look reverent. Or at least preserve some small pocket of reverence deep inside.

I apologize for how slow I’ve been in getting this onto the blog. I know you’d have loved to apply. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have recommended using me as a reference. They wanted to hire someone who could “liaise with a broad spectrum of stakeholders” and I foam at the mouth when I’m around people who think stakeholder is a part of actual human speech. (As I type that I can’t help picturing a scene from a vampire movie. I’m the person holding the stake. Did you bring the hammer?)

And as long as we’re on the topic of British traditions, I can’t leave you without talking about the—. Umm. Is this a tradition? A habit? A thing?

Yes. The British thing about running races in costume—or fancy dress, as they call it here. A recent news article—.

Or, well, no. This isn’t really news. It’s the filler newspapers run to keep their readers from going suicidal over the real news. And it seems to work, because I’ve noticed lately that I’m still alive.

We all need stuff like this, and lately we need a lot of it.

So here, if you’ll be so kind as to follow the link, we have photos of people who’ve run races dressed as the Gingerbread Man, a dinosaur, a lobster, and Spiderman. Tragically, the print edition’s picture of a man dressed as a water faucet (or in British, a water tap) is missing from the online edition. But weep not, because by way of compensation you can follow this link and see a runner dressed as—or more accurately, in—a telephone booth, another one carrying a refrigerator, and some others dressed as a hippo, a telephone, and a large bird, possibly a parrot but I’m no expert. And yet another wearing a cardboard fig(I think)leaf and a bad wig. And not much else.

I don’t know what the temperature was when that last one was taken, but this country doesn’t over-indulge in warm weather. Let’s hope the running warmed him up.

Don’t you just love how ancient tradition survives in this modern world?

Great British traditions: the Atherstone ball game

The 817th Atherstone ball game was held last Shrove Tuesday. That’s Pancake Day, or the day before Lent starts. If you need more information on the significance of the date, your friendly local Jewish atheist is here to provide it, so do ask. The game runs for two hours and the winner is the person holding the ball when it ends.

Most of the sources I’ve checked agree that there’s only one rule, but they disagree about what it is. One says the only rule is that there are no rules, then it says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town. Which violates my sense of what no rules means, but hey, I’m a foreigner here, so what do I know? Maybe no is one of those words our two countries use differently.

And not to quibble or anything, but if the only rule is that there are no rules except for the one about not taking the ball out of town, isn’t that two rules? Rule 1. there are no rules. Rule 2. don’t take the ball out of town. Does that mean we use only differently as well?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It's spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It’s spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Another source says the only rule is that the players aren’t allowed to kill each other. That does seem sensible, but I suspect it’s not organic to the game and that the police are just being spoilsports. The town council backs my first source—the one that says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town—which supports my theory.

Yet another source, having repeated that there are no rules, says that the ball’s decorated with ribbons that can be exchanged for money by the people who snatch them. Sounds like a rule to me, folks, but maybe I have an expansive idea of what rule means. It also says the ball can be deflated or hidden after 4:30. (The game ends at 5). That also sounds like a rule. And it sounds like a hard trick to pull off. Getting the ball far enough away from the crowd so you can do anything other than fight for your life? Not likely.

The town prepares for the game by boarding up the shop windows and diverting traffic. I’d recommend locking up the guns and knives myself, but again, I’m a foreigner, and an American at that. You’d want to keep that in mind if you consider my advice seriously.

This is not a game for small people. In any number of the pictures I’ve seen, at least one person, and it’s never anybody my size, has somehow landed on top of the crowd and someone else is looking panicked, is on the ground, or is grabbing someone else, either to keep from getting trampled or to pull them down so they can be trampled. Or all of the above. And in one an elderly person is standing serenely in the middle of all this as if he (or possibly she–it’s a small photo and I’m not 600% sure) were alone on the cliffs and looking out to sea, while the man beside him or her is having his head shoved and his hat knocked off.

You gotta love this country.

I could give you a dozen links, but let’s limit it to one, a clip from BBC Midlands.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous?” the BBC interviewer asks I have no idea who.

“Not really,” I have no idea who answers and goes on to back that up with a couple of totally irrelevant statements. So, right, not dangerous at all, but I won’t be taking my short, not-young self into the middle of the melee next year, thanks.

If you have nothing better to do (and if you’ve read this far I’m going to have to assume that you don’t), you can find all the photos you want by googling Atherstone ball game, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Oh, hell, here, I’ll do it for you.

Life in the village: the white cat

The latest village uproar—or, to be more accurate, the latest our-small-section-of-the-village uproar—involves a white cat who breaks into other cats’ houses and sprays. And, of course, other cats’ houses means other people’s houses.

Okay, okay, it’s the latest uproar in our house. The neighbors have been putting up with him (reluctantly) for years. But before I tell you about it: all you city dwellers, listen up: We live in a small village. We take our scandals where we can get them. Y’know how in some place you have the Mafia? Well, we have the white cat.

And let me add that there is juicier gossip to be had, but I can’t repeat it. Because I’d like to stay here, thanks. So even if I knew who’d done what with (or to) who( or whom, if you prefer), I couldn’t post it.

And I’m not saying I don’t know. I’m just ducking the issue.

Don’t you just hate it when people go all discrete on you?

A surprisingly relevant photo: Fast Eddie, guarding the house.

A surprisingly relevant photo: Fast Eddie, guarding the house.

The white cat, though, doesn’t give a rip who says what about him, and besides, if my neighbors had to choose between me and him, even the ones who don’t like me would choose me.  Because even at my worst, I do not spray in the house and never have.

We first heard about the white cat some years ago. One set of neighbors had two cats at the time, along with a cat flap, and the white cat would come in through the flap, then all three cats would go into a panic and try to escape through the flap at once.

All very funny if it’s not your house, and since we don’t have a cat flap I got all smug and thought we were immune. But we do have a window, which our current cat, Fast Eddie, and his predecessor, the mighty Smudge, have used instead of a cat flap. The smudge on the wall underneath it bears witness. They’ve braced their front paws there so many times of the way in on the way in that it’s become permanent. We do clean it every so often, just to pretend we’re the kind of people who clean big smudges off the wall, but it never completely disappears and it’s back to full smudgeliness in no time.

If you look at something like that long enough, it goes invisible.

It’s been demonstrated that if our cats can get in, so can others, but we didn’t give it much thought. When we first moved here, a different set of neighbors had a cat named Missy who went visiting by moonlight, and when Wild Thing was in the U.S. getting our cats and dog ready to ship over, I’d wake up in the night and find Missy in bed with me. I used to think I should rise up and say, “Excuse me, have we been introduced?” because I don’t know about you, but I like to know the names of the creatures I sleep with. But I’m not sharp enough in the middle of the night and the subtler the joke is, the more it’s wasted on cats.

Besides, we had been introduced.

I didn’t really mind her curling up with me, but she was noisier leaving than she was coming in, knocking over lamps and scrabbling against the wall, and after a couple of nights I closed the main windows and opened a little transom window to let some air in. That night I woke up to frantic scrambling and Missy dropping onto the bed triumphantly.

I closed the transom window until Wild Thing arrived with our cats, who explained in yowls of one syllable why Missy should go sleep in her own house.

Which is a long way of saying that I should’ve known we weren’t white-catproof but I didn’t and the other night I looked through the glass of the hall door and saw him ghosting along behind Fast Eddie, who hadn’t noticed the white cat because he was totally involved in scratching at the edge of the closed door and teasing Moose.

I opened the door and yelled, the white cat turned to leap for the window, Fast Eddie gave chase, and Wild Thing let the dogs out the back door. The dogs were ecstatic: Something to chase. Something that runs away. Wheee, pant, bark, pant, bark. We’re dogs, we’re dogs, we’re dogs. They ran around the corner of the house, barking as seriously as if they really were dogs, which being shih tzus they only kind of are.

So now we’re on high alert. We’re forming a militia made up of two armed dogs plus Fast Eddie to do recon and summon them when they’re needed. The white cat must not enter the house. No pasaran, if you know your Spanish Civil War history, although the verb there is plural and missing an accent mark and the white cat is singular and couldn’t be trusted with an accent mark and besides he almost certainly doesn’t speak Spanish. Why should he? He doesn’t speak English and he hears a hell of a lot more of that than he does Spanish around here.

There’s a lot of complaining about him on the village Facebook page. Some of the neighbors, Wild Thing tells me, are talking about catching the cat and getting him neutered, but the owner doesn’t want it done and no matter what they say, nobody’s likely  to do it. That’s a British thing, I’m told: talking to anyone except the right person about what needs to be done so that it never happens. (If you’re interested in this as a cultural phenomenon, look in the index of Watching the English under “moaning.”

From what little I know about cats and spraying, neutering wouldn’t help anyway. Once they start, they continue, vet or no vet.

So that’s the latest uproar here in romantic Cornwall. We live an exciting life

The Soulbury Stone: ancient tradition meets four-wheel drive

The British are proud of their traditions, even when they haven’t a clue where they came from or what (if anything) they commemorate. It’s one of the things I love about the country—that mix of deep history and complete insanity. For today’s example, students, turn your textbook to page—. Sorry, I’m dating myself. Click your magic tablets to (and you can take your pick here): the Guardian, the BBC, or the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which doesn’t necessarily have the best article but does have the best name. Don’t you wish you wrote for the Leighton Buzzard?

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

It seems that at some dim point in history, the village of Soulbury built its main road around a stone. A big ol’ stone—the kind of stone that defeated two tanks during World War II, when someone decided that the only way to beat Hitler was to get that stone out of the middle of the road. Hitler did eventually lose the war, but the tanks lost the battle. Local wisdom says that the Soulbury Stone always wins.

But let me backtrack. When I said they build the road around it, I don’t mean that they detoured around it. I mean that the thing’s sticking up right in the middle of the road. Judging from the photos, it’s the height of an average person’s thigh. You’ll notice I avoided saying where it would come up to on the imaginary person’s thigh. A thigh’s a longish bit of anatomy. So this is a rough estimate but close enough to let you understand that the stone’s not the sort of thing your average village leaves in the middle of the road. Or that your average driver looks at and thinks, I don’t need to detour around that.

At one point, a lamppost stood beside it, but that’s gone now—maybe the tanks got it—so it’s just the stone these days, sticking out of the pavement all on its own.

I should stop here and tell you a bit about Soulbury. The population, according to Wikipedia, is 736. In 1891, it was 510, so yes, it’s been growing madly. Most references to it are on genealogical sites and its main claim to fame seems to be the stone. Once I ran through nine or ten entries about either the stone or somebody else’s ancestors, I was suddenly looking at listings about Sri Lanka and Tamil separatism. I should probably have followed the links to see if there really was some connection but I preferred to think it was a random collision of electronic bitzies.

Don’t you just love Google?

What brought the stone to national attention was an incident—or an alleged incident—involving a four-by-four and the Immovable Object, after which the county council decided the stone was an obstruction and needed to be removed.

Mind you, they weren’t going to crush it to smithereens. They understand the power of village tradition. All they were proposing was to move it to the village green. To which the village said, reasonably enough, “Obstruction? Whaddaya mean obstruction?”

Sorry, wrong accent. I can’t  help myself.

One resident threatened to chain himself to it, although it you look at the pictures you’ll be hard pressed to figure out how. My friends, I’ve done civil disobedience. Never in that particular form, but I think I’m safe in saying that a roundish stone isn’t something you can chain yourself to.

A move is afoot to have it declared an ancient monument, not because anybody’s Neolithic ancestor erected it—it was left there by a glacier— but because it would protect the stone. And, well, just because, as the kids used to say where I grew up when they had to explain something that couldn’t be explained, which usually meant some rule that originated with the grownups.

According the the Guardian article, “Even local people can’t quite put a finger on why they value [the stone] so highly. Debbie Olié, who lives at the bottom of Chapel Hill, appreciates that it’s a handy way to direct people looking for her turnoff. Jacqui Butler, who lives in the large, early-18th century house in front of the stone, says her teenage son likes to stand on it every Thursday evening waiting for the fish and chip van. Janet Joosten, who lives a few doors along the main road and is a member of a druid society, believes the stone has ‘particular energies’.

“Some people think it was a mounting block for horses. There is a legend that Oliver Cromwell stood on top of it while his troops were ransacking the village church (though villagers are happy to admit the sourcing on that may be sketchy). Some cite a legend that the stone rolls down the low hill every night at midnight only to reappear each morning, though sceptics scoff at such superstition and say it only happens every Halloween.”


Local belief also holds that only an eighth of the stone is visible aboveground. If that’s true (and how would anyone know?), it would explain why no one moved it a few hundred, or thousand, years ago, before anyone got sentimental about the thing.

In the name of safety, the stone is now surrounded by orange traffic cones. Last I heard, the fight was still going on.

And people thought I was making things up on April Fool’s Day. With a country like this, who needs April Fool’s Day?