Stale news from Britain

Racing News: The Great Knaresborough Bed Race took place in June. It follows the tradition of bizarre British festivals, although it’s different from a lot of them in that it asks contestants to stay sober. The rules say all runners have to stay sober until after the race.

Each team is expected to provide:

A bed decorated in the theme for the year

An audible air horn / hooter

A helmet for the passenger

A life jacket for the passenger

Irrelevant photo: A California poppy in Cornwall.

The beds have to be this height, that width, and some other length. They have to have wheels. The wheels have to meet so many specifications that I passed out reading them and had to be revived by two shih tzus and a cat, who wanted supper or they’d have let me solve my problem all by my unconscious self. The beds also have to float, because they’re going to cross the River Nidd. And they have to have ropes attached, although the ropes can’t be attached to any person. The ropes allow the runners can pull the bed when they start swimming.

All beds have to keep to the left except when they’re overtaking. Overtaking means passing. It is not the opposite of undertaking. English is a very strange language. Do not discuss this while swimming a bed across the river Nidd.

The whole thing sounds terrifyingly well organized.

Inevitably, the official video shows people in fancy dress, which means in costume, which, this being Britain, means a fair number of men dressed as women. 

No, I don’t know why they do that. It’s just something men do here. And just so we’re clear, these aren’t drag queens. Drag queens have flair. These are straight guys and they’re aiming for the Cinderella’s stepsister look. Maybe that’s what they think women look like.

The race (as I said above; pay attention, please) took place in June. If you join in next year, do send photos.

Social Media: While we’re talking about being late with a piece of news, last January the Conservative Party held a training session for its Members of Parliament. The idea was to help them use social media to present themselves to their constituents as real people so that younger people would love them and instantly run out and vote for them, even before an election was called. Several MPs responded by rushing out and posting frozen pictures of themselves standing in the kind of expensive buildings where politicians do business. They did not look like real people. They may not have been real people. I didn’t rush out and vote for them, but then I’m not in any of their constituencies and I wouldn’t have voted for them anyway. But I’m just saying, it didn’t work for me.

Then in March, Conservative MP Bob Blackman got so real that he posted an article claiming that the sexual abuse of white British children was part of Somali culture. It didn’t go over well and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was sorry if he’d hurt any feelings. That translates roughly to I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt when I stated the truth with less tact than I might have but gee isn’t everyone touchy these days?

Blackman uses social media so fluently that he joined a number of Islamophobic Facebook pages but when contacted about it by Vice said he didn’t know he’d been added and removed himself.

One of the groups, Britain for the British, is (or was–this happened in May) “administered by British National Party supporter Steven Devlin. It features numerous comments which praise Hitler, and many more which wish violence upon Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, accusing him of being an ‘Islamofascist’ and ‘traitor,’ and hoping that he dies.” 

Does it strike anyone other than me as a bit odd that a site where any number of people praise Hitler consider fascist an insult? Or is it only an insult when you add Islam to it?

If the party has held any more social media training sessions, it’s managed to keep them out of the news.

Snakes: This past summer has been unusually hot by British standards, and that’s led to an unusual number of snake sightings.

First, a quick review of the native reptiles. The BBC reports that “England is home to grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes, and to common lizards, sand lizards and slow-worms, slug-eating legless lizards.” The only one that’s poisonous is the adder, and they’re more of a worry for dogs than people.

Not that dogs worry much.

According to the Forestry Commission, “Adders have the most highly developed venom injecting mechanism of all snakes, but they are not aggressive animals. Adders will only use their venom as a last means of defence, usually if caught or trodden on. No one has died from adder bite in Britain for over 20 years. With proper treatment, the worst effects are nausea and drowsiness, followed by severe swelling and bruising in the area of the bite. Most people who are bitten were handling the snake.”

Some people don’t worry much either, and should.

I’m still trying to understand why the slow worm is a legless lizard instead of a snake. It looks like a snake and it quacks like a snake, but a lizard it is.

“It is illegal to kill or injure any of [the reptiles], with fines of up to £5,000 and six months’ imprisonment for offenders,” the BBC says.

But forget all that. A fair number of non-native snakes have been sighted this summer, according to the Guardian. A boa constrictor was spotted on a London street, wrapping itself around a pigeon. 

In Exeter, a man found an 8-foot (or 2.4-meter, if that works better for you) python in his bathroom, asking to borrow his razor and shaving cream. It seems to have escaped from a pet store in the building and found its way to his bathroom through the plumbing. It wanted to shave off its beard, give itself a new name, and start a new life.

About that “seems to have.” I’d have thought a store would know if it was missing an 8-foot python, but the article I read said “apparently.” Maybe shaving the beard worked–they didn’t recognize it as the 8-foot snake they were missing.

Meanwhile (or before, of afterwards) back in London, a woman woke up to find a 3-foot- (1-meter-) long royal python curled up next to her in bed. And a runner found a baby boa constrictor in the bushes just before a race. What was the runner doing in the bushes? Relieving himself, as the paper so delicately puts it.

He hasn’t peed since.

And finally, a royal python that’s probably pregnant is (as I write this, which means was as you read it) missing in Manchester, although she may be hiding somewhere in the apartment of the woman who thinks she owns her.

Manchester’s a long way from where I live, but Exeter’s not much more than an hour’s drive. I’m hoping the python hasn’t learned to drive.

An estimated 2 million snakes live as pets in Britain. Pythons and corn snakes are particularly popular.

Egg Throwing: And finally, to follow up on our theme of old news and bizarre contests, Deb (who’s popped up in the last three posts) sent me a link to a contest held in 2010, and since it’s news to me (and probably to you), it’ll do. A Lincolnshire egg-throwing contest wasn’t content with the traditional way of throwing eggs, where you take the egg in your hand, pull your hand back, and launch the thing as far as you can. This one introduced trebuchets.

A trebuchet? It’s a medieval weapon developed to launch stones during a siege. You put a heavy weight on one end of the arm, pull the unweighted end down, load a stone in its basket, and let fly. Do this often enough and you can break down a city wall and massacre the residents. 

Fun, fun, fun.

So yes, it’s a kind of catapult,but one with with a long range. I’d never heard the word till I moved to Britain.

Did I say it was medieval? It was, but it was used in China as early as the fourth century B.C.E. (That’s B.C. in [Britishism warning] old money.) Only it wasn’t called a trebuchet there. What a surprise.

You don’t have to call it a trebuchet if you don’t want to. Call it a catapult. What matters here is that it’s not meant to launch an egg.

In the competition, the target–every throwing or launching competition needs a target–was a person. I’m going to guess that each team had to supply its own, but understand that I’m making that bit up.

The BBC reported that “World Egg Throwing Federation president Andy Dunlop said 4,000 people were expected to attend the event, which has a total of 200 participants.”

The World Egg Throwing Federation? It does exist, you can find it on Facebook, and you can even watch a video of a launch that was banned from competition because it used a tube that appears to turn the egg into a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile.

The site comments, “Banned attempt at trebuchet competition. Disqualified because 1. Its not a trebuchet. 2. Its illegal to construct a shoulder launched egg launcher having a range of 1200 yds. (The Police complained)”

Can we stop for a minute, though, and talk about the World Egg Throwing Federation president? That is a position, kiddies, that a person can be proud of. Put it on your resume and you’ll be guaranteed interviews. I’m not saying anyone will hire you, but they will want to see what you look like.

You’ll do even better if you follow the advice offered by my partner, best known as Wild Thing: Change that title. Anyone can be a president. You want to be the Great Hen. Even if you’re male.

The link I gave you above leads to a 2010 contest, but the contest continues year after year. Why would something this important stop? I could give you a link to the more recent one but since we’re dealing in stale news this week, we’ll stay with 2010.

And now a bit of background on my research into this story. Understand first of all that no amount of research is too silly for me to undertake. When Deb first mentioned the contest, she misremembered it as a gravy throwing competition. Her brain apparently contained one egg throwing and one gravy wrestling competition and the combination led to a short circuit, producing a gravy throwing competition.

When I googled the phrase gravy throwing competition, I  found videos on how to throw a gravy boat–not as in now to launch it across a field but as in how to put a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel and make one. It was disappointing, but we can salvage something out of this: If your village is looking for a good fundraiser, you won’t find any others holding gravy throwing contests. There will be some problems to work out, but I can almost guarantee  press coverage. Great press coverage. And please, send me an invitation.

But back to egg throwing: I wrote about this festival before, but it was in the context of the presence of beer at summer festivals. (If you think I remember what I’ve written, you have no idea how my mind works and you can consider yourself lucky.) I can’t think how this happened, but in the earlier post I missed the trebuchets.

That earlier post led Fragglerocking to drop me a line about egg jarping–an Easter tradition from the northeast of England. I was going to wait for Easter to tell you about it, but since you brought it up I’ll drop it in here. 

“Well what do you expect from soft southerners?” she wrote in response to I can’t remember what–something soft and southern. Possibly chocolate eggs. “Up here where we hold the Annual Egg Jarping Championships every Easter, we’re still using hard boiled proper non-fake eggs!”

To jarp (is it a verb?), one contestant holds a hard-boiled egg with the pointed side up. The other one brings another hard-boiled egg down on it so the pointed sides crash. The winner has an undented egg. The loser cleans eggshell off the floor. If neither egg breaks, the players trade roles and try again. No beer is involved and you don’t have to organize an entire village or town to do it, although you can.

What do you do if they both break? For all I know, that’s physically impossible, but just in case, I recommend making sandwiches.

While I was googling egg throwing (I just love the research I do for this blog), I found an article on last May’s convention of the U.K. Flat Earth Society–a group of people dedicated to the idea that, evidence be damned, you can believe whatever you want. It should be getting wildly popular these days, what with folks making up their own facts, although they have more of a sense of humor than most of the people who don’t demand evidence before dedicating themselves to a set of beliefs.

The reason Lord Google led to to it was that the conference included a three-hour presentation about the earth being shaped like an egg. I’m not sure how you fill three hours with that, but I’ll admit to having known people who could fill three hours with less. And I won’t mention any names because they’d only call me.

British beer and summer festivals

An ad insert in the Saturday paper last month claimed to be a guide to “the best beer, food and good times in the UK this summer.” Mostly, though, it was a guide to beer, but if you drink enough of the stuff you’ll probably decide you had a good time. Even if you don’t remember it.

Anyway, the insert had a lot about beer and a little about food (some of it cooked in beer), but it threw in a few festivals—where beer’s sold—so no one had to feel like they were reading Alcoholics Weekly.

And it all came with a generous side of pretension.

Irrelevant photo: a blackberry bush–or bramble–in flower if not in perfect focus.

Because I blog, though, I read the thing instead of tossing it in the recycling the way I would have in my saner days. I only do these things for you, and I hope you appreciate it.

So what did I learn? That you should pour your beer at a 45-degree angle, just the way you’d pour champagne.

Sorry, you didn’t know how to pour champagne? What kind of barbarians am I hanging out with?

I learned that beer should be served in “glassware that maximises its notes and taste.”

How can you tell if it maximizes them? This will vary with the alcohol content of your brew, but as a general rule, if your beer hits a pure A above middle C you’ve maximized too many notes and it’s time to go home.

Let someone else drive, will you?

I learned that beer has fewer calories than red wine. And possibly than white wine, although it only gave statistics for red.

It also has fewer calories than the entire contents of a restaurant refrigerator, but the supplement didn’t brag about that.

The statistics were for 4% beer, although the beers whose alcohol content was mentioned ran as high as 4.7%. How much of a difference does that make? I have no idea. But do you want my advice? Of course you don’t. Do I care? Of course I do, but I won’t hear from you till long after my fingers have stopped typing so what you might have said is kind of irrelevant, isn’t it?

So here’s the advice: If you’re counting calories, drink water. And don’t eat the entire contents of the restaurant refrigerator.

Since I just did something particularly British, I should take a moment to point it out. Embedding a question your listener can’t answer (“isn’t it?”) into a statement (“what you might have said is kind of irrelevant,”) is a very British way to put a sentence together. I’m not sure what it tells us about the culture, but even after eleven years in this country it still throws me. Someone could be explaining physics, or how to count time when you’re mangling a jazz standard—two topics about which I’m deeply ignorant, although I mangle all too well—and at the most intricate and baffling point in the explanation they’ll ask for confirmation of it all by saying, “isn’t it?” or something along those lines.

And I’ll nod. It’s automatic. Or worse, I’ll say yes, although for all I know they made the whole thing up. How could I tell? Especially since the British count musical time in breves and crotchets and hemidemisemiquavers and I learned (barely) to (not quite) count them in whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes.

I don’t think that eighth note doesn’t take us down as far as the hemidemisemiquaver, but when I was (not quite) learning this stuff, notes any smaller than an eighth scared me into catatonia. I’d look at all those marks on the page and see a particularly intricate and intimidating form of no information at all. So I’ll stop with the eighth note.

The hemidemisemiquaver really does exist, even if it sounds like something Dr. Seuss made up. I’m not sure how much time one takes up, but little enough that if I thought about it too long it would scare me much more than any eighth note ever did, so let’s move on.

I still haven’t figured out what the British do when they’re tossed a question like, “That’s a hemidemisemiquaver, isn’t it?” Do they agree, even if they don’t know? Do they ignore the question mark and wait for the speaker to go on, since it’s not really a question? For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve managed not to notice.

But we were talking about beer. Which is essential to British culture, so forget the fripperies. Let’s get back to the core of our conversation.

How do I know beer’s essential to British culture? (That’s not an isn’t-it? question, it’s a lazy way of structuring a piece of writing and lazy writing crosses cultures comfortably.) I know because the guide says so: “Eccentricity,” it says in a desperate effort to charm, “is an essential part of Britishness; as much a part of our national identity as beer drinking, apologizing too frequently and making a cup of tea at the first sign of trouble.”

We’ll skip the apologies and the tea in this post and instead work our way toward exploring that eccentricity, because almost as essential to British culture as beer are summer festivals, and the guide lists a handful. Most—and I’m sure this is coincidence—are beer festivals, but when they’re not, it helpfully tells you where to look for a beer if you attend.

“Make a date with beer,” it says.

A date? Damn. When I drank the stuff, it didn’t insist on a date. If you were at least minimally solvent, you could just wander into the nearest liquor store and pick some up. You didn’t have to bring it flowers or even wear clean clothes. But beer’s gone upscale. It took a course on improving its self-esteem. So make a date. Wash your clothes. Take a shower. People can tell.

The guide says food and beer festivals “aren’t just fun—they can be highly educational too.” One festival is described as “upmarket camping” and includes a bar on wheels (if you can’t catch it, go to bed; you’ve had enough) and a stargazing session led by an astronomer—presumably sober and not in an acute state of despair over what it takes a highly educated professional to make a living these days, but I don’t really know. People who couldn’t catch the bar can lie on their backs and be educated until they pass out.

But I promised we’d come back to that business about eccentricity, didn’t I?

Sleaford, Lincolnshire (actually the nearby and smaller Swaton, where as far as I can figure it out the festival takes place), held the World Egg Throwing Championships on June 25 this year. It was mentioned in the beer supplement, but we’re going to abandon the supplement at this point and go to primary sources.

In one contest, the goal is to hit a target—probably a real person but I can’t swear to that. With an egg, of course. In another, contestants toss an egg back and forth , moving further and further apart until the inevitable happens. In a third, they pass an egg down a line as quickly as possible.

But the best contest is Russian Egg Roulette, where each contestant gets a tray of six eggs and breaks them, one at a time, against his or her forehead. Five of them are hardboiled. One’s raw. I’m guessing that if you pick that one, you lose.

The event is also—helpfully—be a beer festival.

George Clooney declined an invitation to attend, although I can’t think why. He was invited after organizers read that he had an egg-flinging machine at home to discourage paparazzi.

The article I read didn’t say who has to clean up the eggs George flings. I’m guessing it’s not him.

Stories I found online show the competition going back to 2010, so I wouldn’t say this qualifies as a traditional British festival. If you’re thinking about entering next year, a small change in your google search will call up a set of links about the physics of egg throwing, which might or might not be useful, depending on your ability to understand them.

Another recently invented competition is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship, which is held in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, and is now in its thirty-second year. Contestants swim two lengths of a 60-meter (or 55-meter, depending on who you want to believe) trench that runs through a peat bog. They can’t use any conventional swimming stroke but they can use a snorkel and (as far as I can figure out) must dress in some sort of ridiculous costume. I don’t know how they decide who wins, or if anyone cares.

The pictures are great. It seems to be held in August, so there’s still time if you want to enter.

Moving on, Bognor Regis holds the Birdman Competition in which people jump off the end of a pier and either try to fly or just have a good time dropping into the water. (Beer may also be involved here. I couldn’t possibly comment.) . My favorite contestant was the guy dressed as a box of popcorn.

Disappointingly, some of the contestants actually did manage to glide. I do know that birds, in general, fly, and that flying’s probably the goal here, but given the choice I’ll still root for the box of popcorn plunging feet-first into the sea.

I watched the videos with the sound off. If they say anything truly obnoxious, I didn’t catch it. You’re on your own.

Our final festival is a traditional one, dating back to the ninth century. Or the sixteenth, depending on who you want to believe. This is a truly inspired event: The Dog Inn, in Ludham Bridge, Norfolk, hosts a dwile flonking competition.

The official website says:

“Dwile Flonking is normally played by two teams dressed as country ‘yokels’ (or any other fancy dress including team T-Shirts/uniform etc). One team joins hands to form a ring which circles round, leaping into the air as they do so (Girting). A. member of the other team goes into the middle of the circle and puts a beer-soaked dwile on the end of a stick (Driveller). He spins round and has to project (Flonk) the dwile off the driveller with the object of hitting one of the players circling round him. He scores points for his team according to which part of the body he hits. When all the players in one team have flonked, they then form a circle and girt, while the other team takes turns to flonk. The team with the most points at the end being the winners.

“So the point is to flonk your dwile off the driveller and hit a girter.”

If you break the rules, the referee calls a foul flonk.

The original rules required the flonker to drink a pot of beer—somewhere between half a pint and a pint of the stuff. But in these milder times we live in, flonkers have the choice of drinking the beer or pouring it over their heads and drinking an equal amount of ginger beer.

And—just to prove a claim I made in some much earlier post which I’m not going to go looking for, that the British sing when drunk—there’s a song involved: “As the teams, enter the playing area, and after the game, they: may feel like singing the flonking song “Here we’em be t’gether”. The first verse plus the chorus is normally sung at the start of the game, the full song may be sung at the end (if they have enough breath left).”

And no, I’m not slandering them when I say they’re drunk, I’m just taking their word for it. One of the verses goes:

Now the game it do end and down go the sun,
And one team ha’ lorst and the other ha’ won.
But nobody knows of the score on the board,
Cos they’re flat on their backs and as drunk as a Lord!

Championships are listed in Coventry and Nottingham as well as Ludham Bridge, and I find a reference to dwiling in Suffolk as well. Wikipedia (at the moment) calls it a traditional English game and quotes a source that says, “’The rules of the game are impenetrable and the result is always contested.”

I believe both statements, even if someone’s gone through and changed them by now.

Bizarre British festivals: the flaming tar barrels

The web site for the Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels Festival says (or said when I last checked it), “Each year it becomes more difficult to find money to cover the costs of running this event.” Well, yes. Given that it involves a bunch of people running around with flaming tar barrels on their shoulders, I can see why insurance might be an issue.

The event is hundreds of years old, although the web site doesn’t say how many hundreds. Or how many people over the centuries have set themselves or their neighbors alight. It doesn’t matter: It predates insurance, that’s what we need to know.

Holy flaming tar barrels, they really do this. Sorry about the white space. The photo's from the official web site and I can't seem to crop the damned thing.

Holy flaming tar barrels, they really do this. Sorry about all the white space. The photo’s from the official web site and I can’t seem to crop the damned thing.

The web site asks visitors, for the sake of safety, not to pound on the barrels. A few years ago, someone threw a spray can into one of the barrels instead, causing an explosion. I couldn’t find any reference to it on the web site, but maybe they don’t want to plant ideas in anyone’s head. Wise. I should probably follow their lead but–oops, too late. If you feel impelled to show up and throw a spray can into a burning barrel of tar, you didn’t get the idea here, okay?

People in Britain make a big deal out of health and safety concerns being overdone. That’s partly, I think, because complaining about something in ways that won’t change them runs deep in Britain’s cultural DNA and partly because we humans do have a gift for taking a good thing (most of us would agree, for example, that keeping people from being killed and maimed at work is a good thing) and take it to absurd lengths. I was once told, in a second-hand shop (sorry: charity shop), that they couldn’t sell crochet hooks or knitting needles because of health and safety. At the yarn store, where I eventually bought one, they must keep them locked up. Can’t be too careful, you know.

A friend teaches health and safety workshops, and she swears that crochet hooks aren’t one of the things that keep her up at night. So yes, there is some absurdity going on, but it’s not the fault of the people whose job it is to promote health and safety, it’s the fault of overenthusiastic twits who use the phrase to defend whatever crazy decisions they’ve made.

So anyway, you’ll find people who talk about health and safety, as a single phrase, the way a certain kind of person—and you know who they are—complain about political correctness gone mad. (How upsetting that they can’t call entire groups of people names anymore without being told off. Or kick them out of their seats on the bus. Or, you know, lynch them, the way they could in the good old days.) If you listen for a while—especially after you’ve been told you can’t buy a crochet hook—you start to think modern life is being forced into such a narrow mold that humans will never again get to test themselves against any real challenge, and then you open the Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrel web site and think, Wait a flamin’ minute. What about health and safety?

Anyway, Wild Thing and I meant to go this year and bring you a first-hand report, but life got away from us and it’s not going to happen. In fact, we meant to get to every strange traditional festival we heard of but only managed one, the Gloucester Cheese Rolling. Maybe next year we’ll do better.

If you go to the Tar Barrels Festival (hurry; it’s on Nov. 5), leave your spray cans behind and don’t pound on the barrels. If you’d like to bring a small personal fire extinguisher, however, there’s no rule against it. And let me know. I’d love to have a first-hand report.