The Brexit Update, 4 September 2019

By the time you read this, it’ll be out of date–British politics are moving at the speed of a slow-motion train wreck–but here’s what I can tell you as of 7 a.m., British summer time (which isn’t a season but the time Britain goes by in the summer):

Yesterday, one lone MP resigned from the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats, and that was enough to lose the Conservatives their majority and make Boris Johnson the leader of a minority government.

That happened not long after Johnson announced that he would boot out (okay, effectively boot out, but let’s not get into that) any Conservative MP who voted against him. Last night, twenty-one of them did. At that point he became the leader of a government with a significantly smaller minority.

What they voted against him on was–damn this is hard to explain sensibly. Normally, the government has the power to set the agenda for the House of Commons, but the Commons can occasionally seize control of the agenda, and that’s what it did. This will allow the Commons to debate a no-deal Brexit today. 

When he lost the vote, Johnson said he’d call for an early election, but he needs the backing of two-thirds of the MPs for that to happen. Since a majority of MPs would be happy to drown him in the Thames, why wouldn’t they support a new election? Because Parliament shuts down for twenty-five days before the election, and Johnson would get to choose the date of the new election. If he chose his timing well, he could lock Parliament in a broom closet, withdraw from the European Union, and hum “Rule Britannia” while they pound on the door and yell, “Let me out!”

So although Labour’s been screaming for an early election, they’re against this one unless a no-deal Brexit is ruled out–which it won’t be. 

There are two ways around the need for a two-thirds majority:

First, the government calls for an election using the words “notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.” Then they’d only need a simple majority.

Can they do that, announce that they’re going to call an election ignoring the law governing elections? Apparently so. Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

But, of course, they don’t have a simple majority either. And proposing an election that way would allow MPs to set the election date, so it would lose Johnson his maneuvering room. And the bill could be amended, so Commons could tack on anti-no-deal wording.

It would also have to pass the House of Lords, so it’s a slower process. 

Second, the government could call a vote of no confidence in itself. 

Yes, seriously. 

If it passed, Johnson would be expected to resign and the Commons would try to agree on a new prime minister, who could ask the EU to delay Brexit. If the Commons couldn’t choose a prime minister in fourteen days (there’s a lot of political arm wrestling, not to mention posturing and an ego or two, involved), that would trigger a new election.

The BBC article that I pulled all that from (it’s the link several paragraphs back) calls that a high-risk strategy for the government. It doesn’t say that the crucial word in all this is expected, as in Johnson would be expected to resign, but it’s not entirely clear that he would, or whether he’d have to. The law’s fairly new and contains a lot of unknowns.

But back to the Commons seizing control of its agenda. If an anti-no-deal bill passes the Commons, which it probably will, the next hurdle is shoving it through the House of Lords, where it will, inevitably, be filibustered and amended. There’s an attempt in the works to set a time limit on debate. We’ll see how that goes.

The Scottish National Party is saying that a fall election would be a great opportunity for Scotland to demand a second vote on independence.

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That’s the headline stuff. In smaller print:

  • Scotland’s chief prosecutor has said he wants to intervene in two legal challenges to Johnson’s suspension of Parliament, saying that proroguing Parliament is it’s an abuse of power.
  • Speaking of abuses of power, Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings–the power, and possibly the brains, behind the throne–fired another special adviser, Sonia Khan, calling armed police to have her marched out of 10 Downing Street. He accused her of being the source of a leak–something she denies. The interesting thing here is that she didn’t work for him. She also didn’t work for Cummings’ boss, she worked for the chancellor, Sajid Javid. And Johnson wasn’t consulted about the firing. Read a few articles and you’ll find phrases like “mafia-style” and “reign of terror.” There are calls for an investigation into the firing.  
  • The government’s set aside £100 million for an information campaign to prepare people for Brexit, even though there are, apparently, questions about whether the government can manage to spend that much in two months. What do they want people to learn for all that money? That we should consult the government’s Brexit website, where they offer some fairly mild advice about travel, business, citizenship, and so forth. With apologies, I relied on a summary for that, not the website itself. The website wants to walk you through only what you need to know, and I bailed out at the point where it asked whether I’m a citizen. I am, but y’know, I just might want to know what happens to people who aren’t. But it’s all okay because the government has placed an order for mugs and T-shirts, so I feel better about it all.

Hats and the House of Commons

When did Members of Parliament stopped wearing hats in the House of Commons? someone asked recently.

The question wasn’t something I was expected to answer but a search engine question, meaning the person who asked isn’t likely to see the answer. Still, it intrigued me. So let’s hack it apart and see what we can learn:

The short answer is 1998.

The answer is also more complicated than that, and more fun. We’ll work more or less backward in time.

Irrelevant photo: I’m reasonably sure these are osteospermum. It sounds like a disease, but it’s not.

The reason 1998 comes up is that it’s a dividing line. Before then, anyone who wanted to raise a point of order during a division (which in the normal world would be called a vote) had to wear a top hat while they were talking. According to some sources, that was because it made them easier for the Speaker to spot. According to others, it was just because. Traditions are like that sometimes. It’s easy to lose track of why they were once done but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing them.

Two collapsible top hats were kept on hand so that they could be passed to whoever wanted to raise a point of order.

Yes, collapsible. For all I know, the point of order might have been invalid if the hat hadn’t been collapsible, although I have read that a women MP was issued a get-out-of-hat-free card: She got got to raise her point of order without putting the hat on her head. Maybe it didn’t work with her hair style. Maybe she (or the speaker, or the god of top hats) felt a top hat was inappropriate for a woman. Or for a lady. But that’s guesswork. If it was considered inappropriate for a lady, I just know I’d have worn the thing, and I like to think I could’ve pulled it off with a certain grand absurdist style. Fortunately–or possibly sadly–we’ll never find out so I can go on believing.

Then in 1998, the Modernisation Select Committee came along and ruined everything. Let me quote:

“In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television.'”

So no more games with top hats and TV cameras and Order Papers. But take heart. They didn’t spoil all the hat-related fun. Before each sitting of Parliament, the Speaker leads a procession from his or her office to the Commons chamber. This involves someone walking behind him or her carrying the train of her or his cloak (which is long enough to look like it was cut for some much taller species) and yet another person walking behind the train-carrier carrying fuck-all but looking very serious about it.

Apologies if the swearing offends anyone. All this ceremonial seriousness will rot your teeth if you don’t counteract it with a carefully calibrated dose of profanity.

Besides, I do swear. I have ever since I was first introduced to the words, which was some time before I understood what they meant. 

The two walkers-behind are–at least in the picture you’ll find if you follow the link a couple of paragraphs back–wearing frothy lace where you might otherwise find a tie. And no hats.

As they process through the members’ lobby, the police (because what’s a procession without police?) shout, “Speaker,” in case anyone hasn’t figured out that this is the Speaker. This allows everyone who isn’t the Speaker or the followers-behind to scuttle out of the way. Then (or possibly first–I have no idea what the route is), in the central lobby, the police inspector (because what’s a procession without a police inspector?) shouts, “Hats off, strangers,” and all the police take off their helmets. Because helmets are hats, sort of.

In the House of Commons, strangers are people who aren’t MPs–a.k.a. Members of Parliament. If any non-police non-MPs are around, they’re expected to take their hats off too. If they don’t, they’ll be turned into June bugs for the remainder of the day. 

Have you ever wondered how J.K. Rowling came up with all the convoluted traditions of the Harry Potter books? I’m not saying it was from Parliament in particular, just that the British culture sets a person’s mind working in certain odd ways.

Now, in the interest of making some marginal sense of all this, let’s slip back a bit further in time, to the days when gentlemen wore top hats or put order papers on their heads. And keep track of the gentle– part of the word gentlemen, because the whole point of a top hat was to prove you were the sort of man who could wear something that was as expensive as it was useless.

MPs were traditionally the sort of men who wore top hats.

So Commons had rules governing the hats. You could wear them inside the chamber but you couldn’t wear them as you were coming in or going out. Or when you were addressing the house. So you had to take your hat off to come in, then you might or might not put it on your head to sit down, but if you did you had to take it off to again stand up and speak, put it back on (if you chose to) to sit down, then take it off again to leave.

Which should be clear enough for anyone to follow.

A parliamentary guide to the traditions and customs of the House says:

“In the late nineteenth century,  the tall hat was de rigeur. It also served as a place reservation in the Chamber for its owner, the  thinking being that the wearer could not leave the Palace without it, and would therefore soon return.

“This system was defeated by some Members bringing two silk hats into the Palace (one Irish Member, it is said, once arrived with a cab full of hats) and so the present device of “prayer cards” was adopted.”

Prayer cards?

The House of Commons–can we agree, for convenience, to call it the H of C? Thanks. I feel comfortable enough to take off my top hat now. The H of C currently has 646 members but only 427 seats. Most days that’s not a problem. Turn on the news and you can often catch slight of MPs orating to a nearly empty expanse of green benches. (Green is the color of the H of C. It reminds them not to get above their station, because red is for the H of Lords.) But when some hot-ticket item is on the agenda, everyone wants to squeeze in and there isn’t room. As the BBC’s Democracy Live explains, “Behind each seat on the green benches is a small, brass frame into which MPs can place a card with their name.

“This card must be put in place before prayers take place each day and the MP must be in that seat during prayers.

“The seat is then reserved for that MP for the rest of the day.”

Now let’s go back to hats, because we need to keep our eyes on the important stuff.

Keir Hardie, the Labour Party’s first parliamentary leader, from 1906 to 1908, scandalized many a gentle (in the class-bound sense of the word) soul by showing up in Parliament wearing a cloth cap, which was as much the symbol of the working man as the top hat was the sign of a gentleman. He also wore–oh the horror of it all–a tweed suit.

Hardie was the son of an unmarried servant who later married a carpenter, and he started work as a baker’s delivery boy at the age of eight. He was, for at least part of that time, the family’s only wage earner and he never went to school . By the time he was eleven, he was working as a coal miner. By seventeen, he had taught himself to read and write.

So, no. No top hat on Mr. Hardie’s head, thank you. He was very pointedly not a gentleman and he knew he’d get nothing done if he played by gentlemen’s rules. Not that they’d have accepted him as one anyway.

What he put on his head when he wanted to make a point of order during a division I have no idea. Maybe the question never came up.

Long before him, in the seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell created a flap when he appeared in the H of C wearing a plain cloth suit that was none too clean and none too well made, along with a hat with no hatband.

The funny thing about all this is that to the people who took this stuff seriously, this was serious stuff. A hat with no hatband? Was the man born in a barn?

Mentioning Cromwell lands us conveniently in the period that explains the H of C’s obsession with hats, or at least gives us a some context for it: The whole question of who was superior to who(m, if you like) was–I was going to say more rigid in the seventeenth century but let’s change that to less hidden than it is today. Who–and this is among men, because they colonized all the positions of power, making women irrelevant to the discussion–took his hat off and who kept it on was the kind of issue you could discuss seriously. And take serious offense at. Not to mention cause offense by. Taking your hat off to someone was an acknowledgement that the someone was further up the social hierarchy than you. Or in the terms of the day, was your better. So hats were a handy symbol for all sides and everyone could agree on what they meant.

If you were on the bottom of the ladder–say, a peasant–and didn’t have a hat to take off, you were expected to tug a bit of hair above your forehead to prove you knew your place. What you were supposed to do if you were bald is beyond me.

The H of C devoted considerable brain space to when one of its members should be hatless or hatted in meetings with the Lords–who were considered their social superiors.

MPs were expected to take their hats off to hear a message signed by the king, and ditto during the king’s speech. Which made it all the more pointed–and probably more fun–when some refused, which on occasion they did.

Take that, Kingy. I keep my hat on in the presence of your writing materials.

All this obsession with who takes their hat off to who filters down to us in the H of C’s conviction that it has to regulate hats.

Even without the metal hat that goes with the outfit, though, no one, and I mean no one, is or was allowed to wear armor in the H of C.

You’re welcome.

What really happens in Britain. And elsewhere

Two guys working at a bike shop in Bury St. Edmunds got bored back in September of 2017 and decided to cremate a mouse. (“As you do,” as people in Britain say when someone’s done something strikingly odd.)

They ended up doing £1.6 million worth of damage. It took twelve fire crews–sixty firefighters–seven hours to put out the fire.

As of late June, they were still out on bail. None of the articles I read said what happened to the mouse. We can only hope its ashes were handled with appropriate respect.

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Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what we’re looking at here. Possibly honesty. That’s the name of a plant, not a comment about me admitting that I’m not sure.

Since Notes is about Britain, let’s talk about something that has nothing to do with it: a translation of Game of Thrones into Spanish.

Before the series ended, the upcoming plot twists in Game of Thrones were more tightly protected than the deliberations of Britain’s cabinet–which is setting the bar about as close to the floor as possible–so translators were given something like twenty seconds to translate an hour’s episode. The actors who spoke the translation got a further twenty seconds and then had to swear that they’d forgotten every line they spoke.

As a result, in a not-so-recent but crucial scene, when a character called out, “She can’t see us” (he was talking about a dragon, but you don’t really need to know that) the harried translator supplied the actor with a set of sounds that don’t form a word in Spanish: sicansíos, which is pronounced, very roughly, see-can-SEE-oss. The reason that’s a rough approximation is that any attempt at phonetic spelling in English is doomed.

The actor didn’t have time to say either “what??” or “this doesn’t make sense.” He just voiced the sounds and moved on. The hounds of hell and the twenty-second time limit were nipping at his heels. What else was he supposed to do?

Now, one of the nice things about Spanish is that you can look at a set of syllables that make no sense and at least know how to pronounce it. In English, the whole thing would come to a screaming halt while the actor said, “Look, I’m not arguing about whether this mess makes sense, but will somebody at least tell me how to say it?”

The papers (maybe that should be singular; I haven’t read them all) claim sicansíos might just replace no nos puede ver.

For about twenty seconds.

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And since we’re on the topic of things that have nothing to do with Britain, a survey in the U.S. asked some three thousand people if Arabic numerals should be taught in the schools. Roughly two-thirds said no.

Why? The survey did’t ask, but I have to assume it’s because they’re Arabic. And, you know, Islamic. And likely to turn our children terroristical.

So what are Arabic numerals? They’re the standard mathematical symbols, starting with 0 and going up to 9, that infiltrated our schools centuries ago and are no doubt responsible for the sorry state of the world today. They combine in infinite patterns and they terrorized me during my school years, right up to the time I was old enough to drop math.

I still wake up screaming, although at least one of my math teachers was (as far as I could tell) a very nice person. But even I will admit that Arabic numerals are a lot easier to work with than Roman numerals. Ever try adding MCLII to XIIL? If Roman numerals are the alternative, yes, Arabic numerals should be taught.

Arabic numerals were actually developed by Indian mathematicians but they spread to Europe from the Arab world, picking up their name along the way.

Another survey, in 2015, asked people if they supported bombing Agrabah, the imaginary city where the Disney film Aladdin was set. I don’t have an overall number, but 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats thought it would be a good idea. I know that’s a minority, but my friends, I despair.

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The shop in our village closed last year, as shops have in lots of British villages, in large part because people can order their groceries online and have them–or something vaguely like them–delivered to their door. So what’s it like to order groceries online?

Funny you should ask, because a recent newspaper article surveyed some of the more unlikely substitutions that stores had made when they didn’t have what the customer ordered. Top marks go to Tesco, which didn’t have a birthday candle shaped like a five and sent two twos and a one instead. They didn’t include any plus signs, so that would make the kid well over a hundred.

Asda was out of lemon juice and sent a lemon cake.

An unnamed supermarket sent Petit Filous yogurt instead of petit pois–small green peas–and spring onions instead of spring flowers.

Tesco sent printer paper instead of paper napkins.

An Australian Woolworths sent popcorn instead of potatoes.

All of which combines to make one reason I’ve never ordered groceries online. Of course, it helps that I can still drive and have to time to wander dazedly through the aisles myself, wondering where they moved the flour the last time they re-disorganized the place and how many candles it takes to add up to five if I’m working in Roman numerals instead of Arabic ones. And whether spring onions make an appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

The people who fill the orders apparently can override the substitutions the computer suggests, but if they’ve gone comatose with either boredom or overwork and don’t notice that anything odd has happened, they (very understandably) won’t.

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When did rabbits first come to Britain? It’s been assumed that the Normans brought them, but one lone bone found in a Roman palace has destroyed that belief. They were here when the Romans were and they dressed in sandals and itty bitty little suits of leather armor.

They tried the feathery helmets but the style just didn’t work for them, what with their long ears and all, although I have it from a reliable source that they liked the look a lot and envied the humans who wore them.

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Who owns England? Half of the land is owned by 1% of the population. Homeowners (nationally, that’s 62.5 % of the population) all rolled in together own 5%.

Now we come to the odd bit: how you find the proportion of homeowners–you know, that 62.5% that looks so convincing in the last paragraph. Based of Lord Google’s predictive text, you find it by asking for the proportion of homeowners who own their own home.

I’ll give that a minute to land in your brain and detonate.

I’d have thought 100% of homeowners owned their homes, but I’m a word person. I never have been good at math. It’s 62.5% and the other, um, is it 37.5% of homeowners? I can’t explain what they own, if it’s not their homes, that puts them in the homeowners category. But, um, yeah, I’m sure the number’s accurate, I just can’t be sure what it’s a number for. And, what the hell, if it isn’t accurate, just substitute some other number. If you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ‘em all.

What other rash assumptions did I make about land ownership? I assumed the aristocracy and landed gentry had long since doddered off into richly deserved irrelevance. Silly me. They own at least 30% of the land–possibly more, since 17% of the land is unregistered, meaning it’s probably (information on land ownership is fiendishly hard to find) inherited and has never been bought or sold. The owners are, many of them, the descendants of the Norman barons, still holding what their ancestors seized in 1066. It’s impressive, in a screwed up sort of way.

Another 18% is owned by corporations, 17% by “oligarchs and City bankers,” 8.5% by the public sector. Less than 2% each is owned by conservation charities, the royal family, and the Church of England.

If that adds up to more or less than 100%, recalculate it in Roman numerals and it’ll work out perfectly.

Farmers don’t seem to have been broken out into a separate category. I don’t know why or what that means. I do know that farming itself breaks down into many categories and may be harder to define that it sounds like it would be. If you keep pet llamas or rescue donkeys–or, I assume, horses–your land’s considered agricultural.

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A British judge asked to be excused from jury duty on the grounds that he was scheduled to preside over the trial he was being called for as a juror. So he wrote the central summoning bureau, explaining his predicament.

They refused his appeal and told him to apply to the resident judge.

“But I told them,” he said, “ ‘I am the resident judge.’ ”

They didn’t see a problem with that.

He finally phoned them and they let him off with a slap on the wrist.

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Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was paid more than $160,000 for two speeches in March. For one of them, that came to £40,000 an hour. As the old song says, it’s nice work if you can get it.

He had to apologize to the Commons for breaching its rules by being late in declaring £52,000 of outside income in addition to not declaring an apparent 20% interest in a property in Somerset.

He’s maneuvering to be the next prime minister now that Theresa May has finished stabbing herself in the back. For the most part (I haven’t read the morning headlines yet) this involves keeping his mouth shut so he doesn’t say anything exceedingly silly while the other candidates admit to drug use and lack of drug use and make promises to cut taxes on the rich–or occasionally not to. One did his best to cozy up to Larry the Cat, 10 Downing Street’s resident cat, who’s outlasted more than one incumbant. 

Larry walked away. 

Boris hasn’t yet promised to bomb Agrabah, but I’m waiting.

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Can you stand one more story about British politics? The person who was in charge of Grenfell Tower when it burned was invited to talk to a housing conference.

What’s Grenfell Tower? An apartment building that has become shorthand for, among other things, the arrogance of people whose bureaucratic decisions affect other people’s lives and deaths. The building went up in flames when a faulty refrigerator set the cladding–which is British for siding–on fire, spreading the fire unbelievably quickly to the entire high rise (or tower block if we’re speaking British).

Residents had been pointing out safety violations in the building for years and were ignored, because what did they know? Besides, it costs money to fix things. Seventy-two people died in the fire.

What was he asked to speak about? Safety.

When some of the survivors raised hell, he withdrew.

Some days it’s hard to be any more unlikely than reality.

Lions and bears and British politicians

Mark Harper is coming dead last in the race to lead Britain’s Conservative Party if the bookies are to be believed. They don’t conduct a poll, just take bets, but it’s what we’ve got by way of a measurement. So to lift his chances, he held a press conference, and somehow or other his campaign released his speech in advance. It began, “Now this isn’t going to be that scripted.”

So that went well.

Maybe what happened next was an attempt to recover and maybe it wasn’t, but either way he invited journalists to ask any question they wanted, promising he’d answer it. It may have really been an unscripted moment.

My best guess is that he hoped they’d ask about his drug use so he could say he’d never touched the stuff. Why? Because his fellow leadership candidate Michael Gove had recently been outed as having used cocaine before enforcing assorted anti-drug regimes on other people, including prison inmates and teachers. And once Gove was outed, all the other leadership candidates felt the need to out themselves. If you missed all that, you can catch up with it here and here.

Unfortunately, Harper had already outed himself as never having done any drugs, so the question was boring.

Never bore a group of journalists.

I can’t quite reassemble the order of what happened next from the articles I’ve read and it doesn’t really matter, although it would help me write a coherent sentence or two. Let’s just say it involved journalists, electronic messages, and an attempt to come up with the most absurd possible question. One nominee was, “How many gallons of sewage will the Thames Tideway tunnel be able to handle every nine days?” Others were who would win in a fight between an ostrich and and emu and what the value of pi is to the nearest seven decimal places. 

My favorite is, “Would he rather fight 1,000 duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?”

Eventually, someone asked out loud who would win if a lion fought a bear.

He did answer, as promised. I don’t remember which he picked. I doubt anyone much cares.

And that, my friends, is British politics in a nutshell. With the emphasis on nut.

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I know I’ve broken my pattern of posting weekly, but (talk about drugs) I just can’t leave some of this stuff alone. And you need to know about it. You know you do.

Lord Buckethead and British Politics

Lord Buckethead has been in the news lately.

Who, you might rationally ask, is Lord Buckethead? Let’s do a quick news quiz. He is:

  1. A candidate in U.K. elections.
  2. A character in a science fiction movie.
  3. Both of the above.

Answer # 3 is correct.

The only marginally useful thing I can tell you about the movie that created the Lord B. character is that it’s called Gremloids and that Lord B. is an intergalactic space lord. I’ve seen him described as a cut-price Darth Vader. I trust someone will jump in and save me from my ignorance. In the meantime, let me tell you about the candidate.

Lord Buckethead flashed onto the political scene in 2017, when he ran against Prime Minister Theresa May. In the British system, no one runs or votes directly the prime ministership, so he was running against her for a seat in Parliament. May claimed to be offering strong, stable leadership. He offered “strong, not entirely stable, leadership.”

Irrelevant photo: A rhododendron. The season’s over. Really, I need to get out there and take some new pictures.

He made his appearances in costume. (I could probably argue that she did as well.) You owe it to yourself to go back to the first mention of his name and follow the link so you can see him standing demurely alongside the other candidates, waiting for the vote totals to be announced.

I’ll make this easy: Here’s the link again.

He won 249 votes and the photo of him and his fellow candidates went viral.

At some point, the person under the Lord B. costume, Jon Harvey, got into a wrangle over control of the Lord B. character with Todd Durham, the filmmaker behind Gremloids. It ended up with Harvey surrendering the key to Lord B.’s Twitter account to  Durham.

Then Lord B. went quiet for a while.

Recently, though, he started tweeting again, and appearing at rallies backing a second Brexit referendum. He did some fundraising so he could run in the E.U. elections but dropped his bid when he realized he might take votes from anti-Brexit candidates he actually supported.

This is a new Lord Buckethead, though, not the old one. Since we’re talking about someone with a black buckety thing on his head, the difference isn’t easy to spot. The new Lord B. seems be linked to Durham, because it was Durham who said the money Lord B. crowdfunded for his E.U. election campaign had been returned when he abandoned his run.

Or maybe it is Durham, except that, according to the bios I’ve found, he’s American. Even in costume and under the name Lord Buckethead, he’s not–at least at first glance–eligible to run in European elections. And I’m going to assume that anyone registering to run as Lord Buckethead will be asked a few questions beyond the standard have you filled out this form and where’s your money?

Durham said he welcomed applications from people who want to stand as Lord B. in future British elections. He didn’t say how many, so in our next elections, whenever they turn out to happen, we may find multiple Lord B.’s running for multiple seats. Maybe we’ll end up with a parliament made up entirely of people in Buckethead costumes who all hold their seats under the same name. 

And you thought we had chaos now.

Anyway, it could have been an E.U. citizen inside the costume in this most recent almost-run. It also might not have been. We can’t tell. 

What do British electoral regulations say about people running under names that aren’t their own?

“If you commonly use a different name from your actual name, you can ask for your commonly used name(s) to be used instead of your actual name. “

The name does–at least in theory–have to be a commonly used name that you commonly use.  And it can’t be obscene or offensive. So if you commonly call yourself Lord Buckethead, you’re okay. If you don’t, you’re on shaky ground, although you can fix it all by convincing your mother to call you Lord Buckethead for a week or two.

Can I listen into that conversation? Please?

As far as I know, you don’t have to wear the costume all day or sew yourself Lord Buckethead pajamas.

No one has thought to make a rule governing multiple people running under the same commonly used name that just happens to belong to a fictional being.

Yet.

The earliest Lord Buckethead campaigns were personed by Mike Lee, who ran him (or maybe that should be plain old “who ran”; grammar doesn’t know what to do with this) against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 (131 votes) and against John Major in 1992 (107 votes).

Lord B.’s manifesto (that seems to be the second Lord B., not, I think, the first or the third, although really, your guess is as good as mine) includes the following position on nuclear weapons: “A firm public commitment to build the £100bn renewal of the Trident weapons system, followed by an equally firm private commitment not to build it. They’re secret submarines, no one will ever know. It’s a win win.”

The current Lord B. tweets as @LordBuckethead.

And Jon Harvey–the second Lord B.? He’s pointing out that crowdfunding can allow candidates to be funded and controlled from abroad. The most recent Lord B. campaign, he said, was being run by an American from Beverly Hills.

When the second (I think) Lord B. was interviewed on CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the interviewer asked,  “Are you like Dr. Who, do you regenerate for each election?”

“I am Buckethead,” he said. ” We are Buckethead. We are Legion. Does that answer your question?”

Which is an impressively accurate prediction, since he made it before he had any idea how legion he was about to become.

Welcome to the insanity of British politics. Sadly, most of it this much fun. Or this sensible.

*

I owe thanks to someone for suggesting that I write about Lord Buckethead, but I’ve lost track of who it is. When I looked him up at the time, I couldn’t make the story come together. It took the latest uproar for it to cohere into what you just read. By now, though, I’ve lost the note I left myself. Whoever you are, thanks and please let me know who you are. I’ll post a link if you blog.

Cold off the press: News from Britain

Let’s start with news from Britain, since that’s what we allegedly talk about here. Then we’ll wander off topic, as we usually manage to.

In June, scientists took water samples from Loch Ness to see if they could find a “biological explanation” for reports of the Loch Ness monster.

The plan was to test fragments of scales, skin, feathers, fur, feces, and urine–all that fun stufff that gets left in the water and carries DNA. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin your swim, but really, what did you think happened in there?) They expected to find invasive species and unspecified surprises down there (I know, it’s in the nature of surprises to be stuff you can’t list, so I shouldn’t complain, but I will anyway). What they didn’t really expect to find was Nessie, but dropping her name isn’t a bad way to get attention. And even scientists like attention–or some of them do anyway.

I haven’t seen any reports on what the study found. Probably because Nessie doesn’t like attention. She eats researchers if they get too close to the truth.

You heard it here first.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Or a small bit of it anyway.

To keep ourselves from being eaten, let’s take a couple of giant steps back from the water and talk about politics instead. I’ve been convinced ever since–wait: let me take my mittens off so I can count. Hmm. Turns out it’s since the Conservatives took power that I’ve been convinced the country’s being run by a random collection of amateurs. But that’s come into focus in a new way recently.

In early November, then-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told a technology conference that he “hadn’t quite understood” how heavily the U.K. relies on the crossing between the ports of Dover and Calais. The full quote is, “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.” Which led to headlines about him having just discovered that Britain is a island. And to some of his allies feeling that they had to tell the press that of course he knows it’s an island.

On behalf of all voters in the country, I’d like to say that we were relieved to know that. Every last one of us.

Dom has now resigned and is once again a lowly member of parliament. Having negotiated the Brexit agreement, he resigned to protest it. If I’m missing a piece there, someone please let me know where it got to. I’m happy to blame the cat for shoving it under the couch.

But back to this passing whim Britain had to turn itself into an island: In case your geography’s as hazy as Dom’s is, Dover’s in Britain. Calais’s in France, Paris is the capital of Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia has been divided so that the blouse is now separate from the trousers (or pants if you’re American). It just didn’t work as a jumpsuit but it still looks very nice with a scarf.

Rhode Island is not an island.

I hope that helps.

Anyway, welcome to the world, Dominic. No man is an island, but any number of countries are.

Dom isn’t alone in bringing limited knowledge, limited talent, and an impressive amount of candor to his [now former] job. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said in September, “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.”

If you’re American, that’s sort of like someone in charge of civil rights legislation saying they hadn’t known the country has a history of slavery, or that it still matters. Only, of course, the U.S. isn’t doing civil rights legislation anymore. All that unnecessary regulation is being rolled up and stuffed in the back of the closet, right next to the jeans that haven’t fit since 1964. By people who haven’t noticed that our history of slavery still drips toxins into our civic bloodstream. Or who’ve noticed but think it’s fine.

Sorry. I tried to be funny about that. Honest I did.

On a brighter note, U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, who’s responsible for media as well as culture, announced that he doesn’t read newspapers. That led the prime minister’s office to announce that she does read newspapers. 

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Yes, we all think as one over here.

When Wright became culture secretary, to prove he was up to date with modern media, he quick set up a Twitter account. I took a quick scroll through it just now and found him pleased, delighted, feeling very positive, and feeling really positive. It was all I could do to tear myself away but I knew you’d want me to report back, so here I am, energized and enlightened by my trip. 

Four days after he announced that he didn’t read newspapers, he was in the news again to explain not what he doesn’t do but what he does: He plays with Legos.

“Putting Lego together and pulling it apart again is a very therapeutic process,” he said. He mentioned having built a Death Star from 4,500 Lego bits.

It explains a lot about how policy gets assembled.

Enough politics. If we do any more of it, we’ll all get depressed.

In the Netherlands, a 69-year-old went to court to change his birth date so he’ll be twenty years younger. He compared being the wrong age to being transgender. He was born in the right body but the wrong year, although he didn’t put it quite like that.

What he did say was this: “When I’m 69, I am limited. If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work. When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”

He will also be less prone to arthritis. Now that I’m 23 again, my joints are like a 23-year-old’s. I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

But enough about me. This is about him, because he sounds like the kind of guy who’d want it to stay that way.

“It is really a question of free will,” he said.

His website says he’s in a long-term relationship with–oh, I don’t know, it was some moderate description like the most wonderful woman in the world. He’s so much in love that he spends his time on Tinder.

Humans. They make me crazy.

For no good reason, that makes my atheistic mind turn toward religion–not as in converting to one or several but as in thinking about the fact that they exist. The Church of England has created a program that allows Alexa–that clever little eavesdropper in your home (or not; I have no idea how you live or what you drag into your living room)–. Can we start that over? I made a mess of it. It programs Alexa to tell you who god is. Pour it in her electronic ear and she’ll also be able to answer questions like “what is the Bible?” and “what is a Christian?” She can say prayers for you, find nearby churches, and answer questions about weddings and funerals.

I can also answer questions about weddings and funerals: At a funeral, you bury someone. Or cremate them. Ideally, they’re dead before this happens. At weddings, two people agree to spend some absurd amount of money feeding their friends and family and getting them drunk. At the end of it, the community agrees to recognize them as a couple. Without the food and alcohol, tradition holds that they would still be single.

In some traditions, neither event is complete unless there’s a fight.

But the Church of England isn’t the only religious group to have enlisted Alexa. She’s been converted to any number of religions, even though they all claim that theirs is the only real god or set of gods. In a way I can only think of as godlike, Alexa embraces them all.

Google, meantime, has introduced Smart Compose, which will complete your sentences as you type an email. You thought predictive text was getting you in trouble? This will bring you a whole new level of mayhem to your life, introducing bland insincerity, cliched phrases and emotions, and things you didn’t mean to say at all. You write, “I haven’t” and it supplies “seen you in a while.” Since the cat’s about to jump on your keyboard, you don’t notice that you haven’t actually typed “had a chance to tell you how sorry I am to hear about your father’s death.”

Then the cat lands on the keyboard and hits a few random keys, triggering an onslaught of pre-programed joy at your upcoming reunion.

“Let’s get together soon,” Smart Compose writes. “Glad to hear life’s treating you so well.”

I love technology.

The army’s been taking a non–technological approach to predictive text. It’s been accused of dictating what soldiers say when they talk to the press.

Child Soldiers International spotted a series of identical quotes from graduates of the Army Foundation College. They date back to 2015. And the graduates didn’t even have to type that initial word.

I can’t find a link between this and the last paragraph, but Scotland’s ahead of England in finally putting a woman’s face on the £20 note. Who’s the trailblazer? Kate Cranston. What did she do? Um, she gave Charles Rennie Mackintosh enough money to start his famous Mackintosh tearooms. At least the papers (I do read the papers) tell me they’re famous, which I’m grateful for because I’d never heard of them. But I’m a foreigner here, on top of which Scotland’s at the far end of the island and that’s a long way to go when all you want is a cup of tea and you’ve got a perfectly good kettle on the counter.

Cranston was “a leading figure in the development of the tearooms.”

Now there’s the stereotype-smashing spirit that would make any feminist proud.

Speaking of pride, the midterm elections in the U.S. saw a dead pimp elected to the Nevada state assembly on the Republican ticket. 

Can Britain, for all its amateurishness, match that?

What really matters in British politics

You have to love British politics. We just had an election in which the prime minister, Theresa May—at least as I type this she’s still the prime minister, although I wouldn’t put any large amount of money on that lasting—was opposed in her bid to continue as a member of parliament by Lord Buckethead, Elmo, and Howling “Laud” Hope.

But before we go into detail, a bit of background for anyone who isn’t used to British elections: In spite of being the prime minister, May had to run for her seat in parliament, just like any other member of parliament. All prime ministers do. If she couldn’t keep her seat, she wouldn’t be prime minister anymore.

It must be humbling to go from wheeling a dealing and giving orders to begging for votes on equal terms with the rest of your party.

Especially when people don’t take it seriously.

Irrelevant and not particularly good photo: Buttercups. Sorry–I’ll try to do better next time.

Let’s start with the most dramatic of her opponents, Lord Buckethead, who wears a black cape and has a black bucket–or something black and vaguely bucketish–on his head. As far as I can figure out, he ran without the backing of any party. Political parties can be short sighted like that. Think of the publicity they could’ve gotten.

He describes himself as an “intergalactic space lord.” The article I learned this from says his real name is unknown, although for all we know he asked Google to translate his name from intergalactic space lordish into English and it comes out as Lord Buckethead.

Note to all reporters: Check your assumptions before you pass them off as facts. This stuff matters.

Anyway, Theresa May’s campaign, both in her own constituency and around the country on behalf of her party, consisted of droning the slogan “strong, stable leadership” at every possible opportunity. Buckethead promised strong but “not entirely stable leadership.”

That won him 249 votes.

He (or someone else with the same name and a bucket on his head) also ran against Margaret Thatcher in 1987 and John Major in 1992, when they were the prime ministers. In Britain, you don’t have to live in the constituency you’re running for office in—or even pretend to live in it—so running against a prime minister? It’s something you can do on a whim, as long as you have the filing fee, which is £500, and meet a list of fairly boring qualifications, such as not being a member of the police or armed forces, a civil servant, or a judge.

Buckethead apparently qualifies, and he even has policies. One is providing safe, effective opposition to Theresa May. Another is turning a safe seat (that means a parliamentary seat that a party’s almost guaranteed to win) into an ejector seat. A third is investing in schools, the National Health Service, social care, local infrastructure, and “other things humans vote for.”

He also promised to nationalize the singer Adele and abolish all lords except himself. And just to prove he’s serious about this, he has a campaign song.

Okay, I’ve heard better singers. Hell, I’m a better singer, because he doesn’t set the bar very high. But then the better singers I’m talking about weren’t singing from inside a bucket, so we should probably cut the guy a little slack.

Elmo also ran against Theresa May, but he only got 3 votes, probably because he appeared under the name Bobby Smith instead of Elmo. I mean, Bobby Smith? Who’s going to vote for him? On the other hand, he got to appear on the platform, dressed as Elmo, alongside May and Lord Buckethead when the votes were counted.

Lord Buckethead stole the show, though.

Still sticking with May’s constituency, the Monster Raving Loony Party (“vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party—The only sane thing to do in a world gone mad”) backed Howling “Laud” Hope, who won 119 votes and got to take the quotation marks home with him, since they appeared on the ballot. I don’t know if he had to change his name legally to appear on the ballot that way. It’s something Elmo should ask him about.

“Laud” Hope was also on stage, although looking at the BBC’s photo—which is wonderful—I’m not sure which one he is since he wasn’t in costume. The party could learn a thing or three from the independents.

But enough of Theresa May’s constituency. Let’s move on. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, had to run against Mr. Fish Finger (sometimes spelled Fishfinger), who according to the Guardian (see the first link) upstaged Farron’s victory speech.

Fish Finger took the name legally after a Twitter poll of 1,000 people showed that 90% of them would rather be led by a fish finger than by Farron.

What’s a Twitter poll? I don’t really know, but I suspect it’s one of those things where you ask 1,000 of your closest friends to agree with you.

Mr Finger (or maybe that’s Mr. Fishfinger) crowdfunded his campaign, raising £2,301. His page says he trusts “to Cod that you will keep giving.”

I was having a good time with all this until I read his twitter page, which (to the extent that I can figure out what he’s saying) is full of anti-immigrant crap and bad puns. Okay, full disclosure: the puns were on the crowdfunding page and I was willing to overlook them until I decided I hated the guy.

Strong opinions on the subject? Nah. I treasure my objectivity.

Still, he upstaged Tim Farron beautifully during the vote count. And got 309 votes. Plus he’s now the proud owner of a ratty-looking fish finger costume, and Halloween is coming.

And that, my friends, is what really goes on in British politics.

Making fun of the House of Lords: an appreciation

One of the joys of living in Britain is that you get to make fun of the House of Lords, and I’ve had at least my share of fun with that and probably used up someone else’s portion as well, but a recent (okay, not so recent; it’s taken me a while to get around to this) article in the Guardian’s weekend magazine made me wonder if the chamber may serve some genuine purpose.

But let’s go for the ridiculous first. I learned from the article that the House of Lords has a blue carpet that you can only walk on silently. If you stop and stand on it, you get told off. I’m not sure how you walk on a carpet noisily—maybe you need spurs—but you can’t do that either. The house’s senior official is called Black Rod, but his full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. He comes to work in pantaloons and wears a ruffle where a twenty-first century male would wear a tie. Or—well, he probably wears street clothes until he gets to work and then changes. Absurd as the get-up is in the House of Lords, wearing it on the bus would be worse. (I’d love a photo, though. Rush hour. People hanging on the poles. Frilly tie. Pantaloons. I don’t know what kind of shoes you wear with that.)

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

When the lords vote, they line up in corridors, one for Content (adjective, not verb, with the accent on the last syllable) and one for Not Content. Their names are ruled off a list and they’re then counted off by a peer holding a drumstick (“musical, not chicken,” added the lord who described the procedure). When women first joined the Lords, they weren’t allowed to address the doorkeepers.

Why not?

Because.

In case anyone’s interested, I’m capitalizing Lords when it stands in for House of Lords but not when it applies to members of the house, unless the name’s included, in which case it becomes a title and is capped. Is that baroque or what? Normal usage is probably to capitalize it both times but it just seems too damn worshipful and, good (L)lord, I can’t do it. Besides, a lot of Brits capitalize all sorts of words that I’d leave lower case. I suspect they’re overdoing it not just according to American usage but to British as well, but it’s so widely done that it must mean something. Maybe that they’re closer to the German roots of English than Americans are. Or maybe capital letters are on sale and no one’s told me.

I should rush out and Buy and half Dozen.

But back to the Lords: The speaker sits on a woolsack (the current speaker is, apparently, short enough that her feet dangle) and the clerks are equipped with both white wigs and iPads. Is that a great combination or what?

The lords meet in a room built to seat 240 members and there are now 859. Of those, 92 are hereditary. Under Tony Blair, there was a massive cull of hereditary peers; they’re what’s left. Why them instead of some of the others? Haven’t a clue. Other peers are appointed for life and the theory is that they’re experts in one thing or another—science, history, law, medicine, chutney, building blocks—but they also include party hacks and donors, former civil servants, a cheese maker, a children’s TV presenter, a rock star or two (or seven, but who’s counting?), former MPs, 26 bishops (whose bench is the only one that has arms), and the occasional stray novelist.

Peers are nominated by political parties and can be nominated by the public as well. Good luck with that, public. If anyone wants to nominate Wild Thing, go ahead. It’ll be interesting. The governing party gets to make more appointments than the parties that aren’t governing. Are you surprised? Then the appointees have to be approved by an independent commission (exactly how independent it is I’m couldn’t say, although I could take a reckless guess or two), which can make its own nominations, and the list is then approved by the prime minister. I don’t know if he gets to do any final tinkering or not. After all that, the queen waves her magic feather over it. Of 45 appointments in August 2015, 26 belonged to the party currently in office, the Conservatives. One of them is a former MP (that’s Member of Parliament, in case you don’t speak British) who stepped down in 2010 after the public learned that he’d claimed the £2,200 he spent for cleaning his moat on his expenses.

So yes, the system’s working perfectly. They don’t seem to have appointed the guy who got caught claiming the cost of a floating duck island for his country house.

The average age is 69, but the lone Green peer is quoted as saying “You can’t die in parliament. You’re not allowed.” I’d put that down to comic overstatement, but since we’re dealing with the House of Lords it’s probably not.

When the Lords were considering a bill that many people thought would have a disastrous effect on the National Health Service (it passed, and we were right: it has), several friends and I divided up the list of lords who we thought might be swing votes and wrote to all of them. I learned from this that some of them are elderly or ill and don’t show up anymore. They’re not required to, although they’re paid only for days they show up. Last I heard it was £300 a day.

A person could live on that.

I also learned that the peers aren’t provided with a clerical staff. They answer their own mail or they don’t. Mostly they don’t, but one member, Baroness (that’s what the women are called; the men are called Lord) Someone or Other, emailed back. And I emailed her back and she wrote back again and we argued the bill endlessly and purposelessly, since it quickly became clear that neither of us was going to change the other one’s position. It was all I could do to keep from asking, “Why are you writing me? Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

Anyway, she assured me that the bill would work to the benefit of the entire universe and that the sun would shine twenty-five hours a day and Britain would bask in eternal summer. I later saw her name on a list of peers who had investments that should have barred them from voting on the bill (but didn’t), since they were conflicts of interest.

I comfort myself with the thought that when she was writing to me she wasn’t accomplishing anything else.

But. Some of the peers interviewed in the Guardian article made a good case for the Lords having a use.

“A lot of bills are not debated at all in the House of Commons,” one said. “They fall to the House of Lords.”

A lot of the MPs barely even read them.

In the Lords, a certain number of members will actually read the damn things, line by line by dreary line, instead of just voting as their party tells them to. For one thing, they have the commitment and time. For another, since they’re appointed for life they can, if they want to, be independent of their party.

Still, the Lords is an unelected body, and that’s a dangerous way to govern.

The Lords has less power than the Commons (don’t ask; it’s as complicated as the rules governing carpets), but it can in some situations slow legislation down and in others amend or kill it. Since the British system gives a hell of a lot of power to the party that holds a majority in the Commons, the Lords is the only brake the system has. The current gridlock in the U.S. has made me understand what’s wrong with the checks and balances system the U.S. Constitution created. All it takes is one party dedicated to stopping the other for everything to grind to a halt—as long as that party is large enough and ruthless enough. But the British system has made me understand what’s wrong with efficiency. The governing party has a huge amount of power, which can be equally destructive if the governing party’s ruthless enough. The Lords is the one place it may (emphasis on may) not entirely control. Unless it’s in office long enough to stuff it with donors and hacks.

I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as the senior official wears a frilly tie and you can’t stand still on a blue rug, at least we get to laugh about it.

Why is Britain called Great Britain?

The question of why Britain’s called Great Britain popped up in a comment thread, and if I were a better person I’d go back and figure out where it was and link to whoever raised it (it was a British reader in case that strikes you as being worth knowing) but I’m crazed lately. I made a note to do sixty seconds of research on the topic, forgot to copy the link into my notes, and here I am, without a clue where we were at the time.

Sorry.

But the question persists. What are we talking about when we say “Great Britain”?

If you wander around London long enough, you’ll eventually stumble into a street called Great Russell Street. It’s not a particularly big street, but I’m assuming it’s bigger than (not great) Russell Street, which you’ll also stumble into if you stumble long enough. (All this stumbling relies on the same principal as those thousand monkey on typewriters who will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, assuming you can convince monkeys to type. And assuming I can get you to wander long enough. You’re welcome to stop for tea as often as you like if that helps. Or a beer.)

Great, my friends, isn’t a value judgment in either context. It means big. Big honkin’ Russell Street, Big honkin’ Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie is growing and would now like to be known as Great Eddie.

The first person to use great in the context of Britain seems to have been Ptolemy, who wasn’t writing in English so we’re fudging our facts here, but it’s interesting anyway. He called what we now know as England, Scotland, and Wales (and Cornish nationalist would add Cornwall)—in other words, the bigger landmass hereabouts—Great Britain, and Ireland—the smaller one—Little Britain.

Then everyone forgot about it for centuries. They had other things on their minds. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth called that bigger landmass Greater Britain to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, which wasn’t Ireland but Brittany. And then they forgot about it all for another long stretch of time.

The phrase pops up again in the fifteenth century in a not very interesting context, then gets serious in the seventeenth century, when James united what were still and continued to be two separate countries, England and Scotland, under a single monarchy—and (although it’s not relevant to our discussion) claimed Ireland and France as well. In the next century, England and Scotland were united into a single country. Wales had been conquered some time before all this and the English had gotten into the habit of thinking it was part of England (the Welsh thought differently), so it didn’t get a separate mention right then.

James, by the way, was either the first or the sixth, depending on whether you’re standing in England or in Scotland when you count. I told you not to trust me with numbers—they go all shifty when I’m in the room. It should also be noted that James couldn’t spell for shit. He called himself the king of “Great Brittaine,”

Well, he was king. He got to spell it any way he wanted. Who was going to tell him he had it wrong? Besides, pretty much everyone did that back then, with pretty much any word they set their feathery pens to.

Fast forward to the days when Britain had an empire. The Great in Great Britain must’ve been handy and did take on the tone of a value judgment. But the origin? Big. Nothing but big.

These days, Great Britain means England, Wales, and Scotland. (The link here is basically a footnote in case you’re seriously interested. I could also link to some kid’s school paper, which for reasons I won’t stop to think about came up at the top of Google’s list, but I won’t.) And Cornwall, as the Cornish nationalists would remind us. Along with some of the surrounding small islands but not others, which are self-governing dependent territories.

Don’t ask.

It doesn’t include Northern Ireland. But in everyday speech, people often use British to cover the entire United Kingdom, which does include Northern Ireland. A website called Know Britain says that from a legal point of view this is inaccurate—and just afterward it notes that the phrase is often used to mean exactly that in legislation, especially in reference to nationality.

So there you go. Are you confused yet? Then my work is done. But because I don’t like to leave a topic until I’ve overdone it, I should add that Know Britain says the British Islands is a political term meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. But the British Isles is a geographical term meaning Great Britain, all of Ireland, and all the smaller islands around them. Don’t you just love this language?

Someday when I’m feeling particularly brave I’ll tackle the question of which categories of people would say, “I’m British,” and which ones would say, for example, “I’m English,” or “I’m Cornish” and so forth, and what all that means. Or may mean.

But for now we’ll end there . It may not all be good, but it’s great, isn’t it?

Terror at the seaside: we all get hysterical about gulls

Let’s talk about wild beasts. Specifically, let’s talk about gulls, since they’ve been in the news here lately. They’re vicious creatures who dive bomb innocent civilians and steal their ice cream cones. Visit to the coast and you’re gambling with your life and your sanity. I’m exaggerating, but at least I admit it.

Yes, friends, the British press is getting hysterical again, so let’s settle for just one link. Enough is plenty.

A rare relevant photo, although it's from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

A rare relevant photo, although it’s from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

Before I tell you the terrible tales, I should let you know what I’ve learned about gulls:

They’re not really called seagulls. They’re gulls, and since we’ve already irresponsibly established that they’re vicious we don’t want to make ‘em mad, so we’ll call them what they want to be called. If you don’t believe me that they don’t like being called seagulls, just ask one.

If you dare.

According to Wikipedia, they’re “of the family Laridae in the sub-order Lari. . . . An older name for gulls is mew . . . This term can still be found in certain regional dialects.”  That, irrelevantly, explains a song that mentions seamews. I always wondered what they were. Play nice or I’ll sing it to you.

But back to gulls. (Nice birdy. I’m leaving part of my sandwich right here for you. Leave the finger. I need that.) There have been some incidents, and as usual if they happened to me I wouldn’t be happy about them, but I don’t know how new, or newsworthy, any of this is.

In the most serious incidents, a small dog—a yorkie, a breed that can get so small they’re not really big enough to be dogs—was killed by gulls and a tortoise was ditto. With those two things at the top of the page to draw our eye, column inches have been devoted to cafes and take-away joints trying to protect their customers (and their food) from birds and to children and adults being frightened, and occasionally hurt, by the birds.

Ever since I moved here, I’ve been reading about problems with gulls, or seeing segments on the local news. Or protecting my scones from them. Cornwall’s full of seaside towns and villages, and seaside towns and villages are full of summer visitors, and with the visitors come picnics and ice creams and chips (those are french fries if you’re on the left-hand side of the Atlantic) and so on. And gulls are nothing if not scavengers. If food’s around, they want to know about it. As a result, in some places they now nest on roofs instead of (or more likely, in addition to) the rocky offshore islands they used to like. I seem to remember hearing about a street where the letter carrier refused to deliver mail after getting swooped on once too often. That was a few years ago, then the story disappeared and we never found out what, if anything, got done.

Oddly enough, although gulls sit around on our roof and our neighbors, they don’t do anything more right here than yell and get into the garbage if a fox has already torn the bag open. As far as I know, they don’t even tear the bags themselves, although I can’t swear to that.

In response to this latest flap, the prime minister, David Cameron, has pontificated—sorry, announced that we need to have a big discussion on the subject. He’s counting on the subject disappearing with the summer leaves before he has to figure out needs to be said in the discussion, never mind what has to be done–or worse, have to spend money on it. Should we kill all the gulls? Shut down the seaside? Issue visitors with plastic bubbles?

Saint Ives used to cull gulls and use birds of prey to keep them from nesting. They also had a van driving around town playing loud noises to scare them off. What the van did to the tourists, I don’t know. I wouldn’t think they’d be crazy about loud noises themselves. It probably kept them from nesting on the roofs too.

The thing is, all of that is expensive. A cull costs £10,000. We’re in an age of austerity. That it’s artificially induced (in my not particularly popular opinion) is beside the point. Local governments are having to choose between libraries and leisure centers and then realizing  that they can’t afford either. So St. Ives is trying flapping colored flags. I don’t know how well that’ll work on gulls, but I tried flapping computer disks to keep the birds (blackbirds, I think) off my raspberries. After the first day or two, they were onto my tricks. They not only ate the berries, they set up their laptops on the outside table.

Truro is trying paint that reflects the sun’s UV rays. My guess is that we’ll be seeing gulls with sunglasses in the center of town.

When this first came out, I heard a scientist interviewed on the BBC’s Radio 4. He’d designed a study of urban gulls with an eye toward finding a solution to the problems they present. Embarrassingly enough–not for him but the the government–it was first funded but then defunded before it ever got going. It’s an age of austerity. We can’t afford that sort of frippery until everyone gets hysterical and starts yelling that someone had better do something. Even if it’s random and ineffective.