How to enjoy British politics: Imaginary menu items, hard hats, and triple negatives

As Britain staggers unenthusiastically in the direction of its new prime minister, whoever that turns out to be, the two contenders are telling us how gloriously they’ll govern the country (if give the chance) while ignoring small things like the inflation crisis, the sewage crisis, the housing crisis, the drought crisis, the energy crisis, the environmental crisis, and the crisis crisis.

But one of them, Rishi Sunak, works harder at it. Because he’s ridiculously rich and people know it, he has to prove he could not only govern but is in touch with the real world. 

In pursuit of that image, he recently told the media that he likes McDonald’s breakfast wraps. Isn’t that the kind of thing the common people eat, after all? He and his daughter eat them regularly, he told the media.

Not anymore. Someone did some digging and found that McDonald’s hasn’t sold them for two years

His campaign team leapt to his defense by saying that, um, yeah, well, he ate them when they were on the menu but “he’s barely seen his kids in the last two and a half years.”

Thanks, folks. That really humanized your guy.

He’s also been spotted struggling to figure out how contactless card payments happen (he held the card in front of a barcode scanner) and filling up a car that turned out to be borrowed. His advisors must’ve told him common people do stuff like that. I don’t think he’s been spotted pretending to wash his clothes at a laundromat (called a launderette in Britain) or playing at being a food bank client, but there’s still time.

Irrelevant photo: a neighbor’s dahlia

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The strain between Sunak and his former boss, the multi-vacationing prime minister Boris Johnson, brought us a headline I can’t help but admire, since it manages a triple negative: “PM Refuses to Deny He Is Not Taking Sunak’s Calls.”

In the interests of complete transparency, that’s from the print edition. Once it went online, the PM failed to deny, but it’s still a triple negative.

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But let’s talk about hard hats, because politicians just love to put them on their heads and pose for the press. It makes them look like they’re doing something real. Or at least like they might at any moment.

Knowing that, I asked Lord Google about hard hats and politicians and he led me to a Buzzfeed article that’s well worth a visit: “21 Photos of Politicians in Hard Hats Pointing at Things.”

Call me naive, but I hadn’t noticed what they did after putting on the hats, but I will from now on. So go ahead, follow the link. You know you want to.

I’d tell you what Sunak and Truss are doing and proposing about real-world issues, but it’s all too depressing. And in case it sounds like I think Truss would be less evil or even less absurd, I don’t. I’m damned if I know which will be worse. Both. Either. Sunak just happens to have been funnier lately. I struggle to find a laugh in the Truss stories.

 

The politics of blood

Scotland’s the first country on the planet to provide free universal access to period products, which is a great thing to do, and in that spirit the Tay region appointed someone to promote the dignity of menstruation. 

Who’d they choose

A man. 

Why? 

Because of his long experience of monthly bleeding, of course. And his background in tobacco sales and as a personal trainer. 

The man in question defended his appointment by saying, “I think being a man will help me to break down barriers, reduce stigma, and encourage more open discussions.”

I have little doubt that it also helped him rise up the list of nominees. It happens so quietly and so often, and we’re so used to it, that we barely notice. Until suddenly something like this comes along and we wonder how that happened.

 

The politics of swans

Rumor has it that all swans in Britain belong to the queen, but as so often happens rumor has it wrong. Or partially wrong. She owns the swans that aren’t marked as belonging to someone else, and that gives her the title seigneur of the swans. 

Is seigneur a masculine noun? I’m reasonably sure it is. My French was never impressive, but maybe we’d want to make her the seigneuse of the swans. Or maybe, being a queen and all, she’s above gender. 

That’ll upset the anti-woke warriors. Don’t tell Liz Truss. 

The queen’s staff includes a swan warden.

The tradition of marking–or for that matter, owning–swans goes back to the middle ages, when they were a status symbol and aristocrats wanted to have a pair or three paddling on their rivers and on grand occasions carried onto their dinner tables (to be clear: that’s as food, not as guests), but the right to own them could only be granted by the king and only went to the most important landowners, who marked their ownership by nicking the birds’ beaks in distinctive patterns, which wouldn’t have been a lot of fun for the birds. Or the people doing the nicking.

Owning swans is so deeply embedded in the monarchy that it observes a yearly swan upping. Or maybe it does a swan upping. Or, well, I’m not sure, since I’ve never upped a swan. It sounds like some disreputable thing you’d do in a back alley, not on a river. But I do know that the staff does/observes/whatevers it, not the queen herself. And it does happen on a stretch of the water, since that’s where the birds are.

If you want to learn about swan upping you’ll find an article about it in the Smithsonian magazine. 

 

The politics of money

Britain’s fastening its frayed seat belt and bracing itself for inflation to hit 18% or so, and people who aren’t in Rishi Sunak’s tax bracket are feeling the pinch already, since prices are up 10% from a year ago.  

An assortment of pointing fingers blame the war in Ukraine, Brexit, Covid, the energy crisis, and workers demanding pay increases. If you read enough explanations, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re blaming our current inflation on inflation. What’s the cause of inflation? Higher prices on goods from abroad, they answer. Increased cost of supplies. A shortage of workers willing to take low-paid jobs, etc. 

In other words, inflation.

The government–such as it is until we have a new prime minister or the outgoing one comes back from vacation and is jolted awake by his wallpaper, causing him to remember that he’s still the prime minister and is expected to pretend he cares–

Where were we? The government and the contestants in the pre-prime ministerial boxing ring are making a show of pretending they can stop the inflationary cycle by blocking the pay increases unions are demanding, in response to which the unions that aren’t already on strike are making noises that hint they could be soon.  

Which is why a headline saying the average pay of chief executives for Britain’s 100 biggest companies drew my eye went up by 39% last year. That gives them, on average, a take home pay of £3.4 million. Per year. Which is 109 times what the average British worker makes. 

In 2020 it was a modest 79 times the average. 

I don’t believe that includes bonuses. Or perks. And we won’t get into what shareholders make.

But it’s okay, because that doesn’t contribute to the inflationary spiral. 

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How does executive pay get set? Well, children, I’m glad you asked, because at least some of the time, and quite possibly all of it, the pay of one chief exec gets set by chief execs from other companies, who act as non-executive directors on the boards of companies where they’re not CEOs. And of course they get paid for that. 

This comes to light–bear with me while I take a step sideways–because Britain’s privatized water companies are in the news lately. We’re in a serious drought, drawing attention to the 3.2 billion liters of water that leak from the water companies’ pipes every day. That would fill 1,237 Olympic-sized swimming pools but first you’d have to convince the water to jump into them instead of running pointlessly down the nearest gutter.

The water companies have also been dumping raw sewage into the sea, winning the hearts of surfers and swimmers throughout this beshittened isle. Beaches do not have an exemption. So when, say, United Utilities, which is in charge of leaking northwest England’s water and sewage into places it’s not supposed to go, pays its CEO £3.2 million a year, that has a way of making headlines, and even more so when he also gets paid to sit on the remuneration committee at BAE systems. 

Other water company execs sit on other boards, and on the committees that set pay. One is paid £115,000 for sitting on the  International Airlines Group board and another a measly £93,000 for sitting on the Centrica board. 

Please be sympathetic. It’s not easy to live on just one CEO salary. A person needs those little extras.

 

What’s happening in the rest of the world?

The Japanese government wants people to drink more booze

That goes against the tide–most governments are discouraging drinking–but alcohol sales are linked to taxes, and taxes are linked to, um, you know, money. In 1980, alcohol accounted for 5% of tax income. In 2011, that was 3%, and in 2020, 1.7%.

Get out there and drink, people. It may not be good for you, but it’s patriotic.

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In New Zealand, a seal used the cat flap to break into a marine biologist’s house, traumatizing the cat but otherwise doing no damage. The marine biologist wasn’t home, though, leaving his cat, his wife, and his kids to deal with the seal.

This is really the only family emergency where it would be useful to have a marine biologist in the house,” he said. 

The seal was returned to the sea. The cat is receiving therapy and multiple cat treats and is lobbying for one of those high-tech cat flaps that keeps out unchipped intruders.

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Since we’re talking about water, let’s talk about the news that sponges sneeze.

No, not those plasticky things sold as sponges but the real ones that grow on the seabed. They clear their filtration systems of assorted gunk (sorry for the scientific terminology, but you’re tough; you can handle it), shooting it out through small pores called ostia. It takes anywhere between 20 and 50 minutes for a single sneeze, but what else has a sponge got to do with its time? It doesn’t have to punch a clock or catch a train, so why not luxuriate in a long, slow, cleansing sneeze.

The sponges coat the gunk in mucus before they expel it, which temps nearby fish to eat it, proving, in case you were even in doubt, that nature is disgusting.

 

Your heart-warming stories for the week

One: During the pandemic, a ransomware group called Maze promised not to attack health organizations. Sweet, right?

But between last April and the end of June, though, attacks on healthcare organizations rose by 90% compared to the same months the year before. Or I assume it’s the year before. A typo has that reading “compared to the same period in 2022.”

Somebody tell me this is still 2022, please. I’m starting to feel a little dizzy.

Anyway, that’s what you get for telling ransomware companies (and the rest of the population) that the pandemic’s over. They were playing nice for a while there. Really they were.

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That didn’t quite warm your heart? Okay.

Two: The Patmos library in Jamestown, Michigan, was the focus of a year-long campaign by the Jamestown Conservative group, which wanted LGBTQ books taken off its shelves. The books made up, after all, a whopping .015% of the collection. As measured in number of titles, I assume, not weight or word count or font size.

As the Jamestown group explained its objection, “They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires. . . . . It’s not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”

The library refused to get rid of the books and in a recent election lost its funding.

Someone or other asked the board president if it was a wake-up call.

“A wake-up call to what? To take LGBTQ books off the shelf and then they will give us money? What do you call that? Ransom? We stand behind the fact that our community is made up of a very diverse group of individuals, and we as a library cater to the diversity of our community.”

Two Jamestown residents responded by starting GoFundMe pages, which in four days raised $59,000 and $2,900, making a total of, um, something larger than either number alone. 

Last I looked, the larger campaign had raised just short of $156,000 and the smaller one had raised over $6,000. 

The tax money the library lost came to $245,000, but the money that’s been raised should keep it open until it can work out a plan, which will probably involve getting tax support on the ballot in a second election. 

BookRiot–a large online site dedicated to books–is calling on readers and writers to support the campaigns and “send a strong message that these tactics don’t work — that they can backfire and provide the library with more support and more funding. And hopefully, next time a book banning group considers defunding the library, they’ll remember Patmos Library.”

 

And from the Department of Gastronomical Karma…

…comes the news that the US pizza chain Domino’s thought it could challenge Italian pizza makers on their home turf. The theory was that people will eat anything–even American pizza–if it’s delivered to their door. This turned out not to be true. All its Italian branches have now closed and the company that held the franchise is filing for bankruptcy. 

What happens when you elect a pony as your mayor

Cockington, a village in Devon, has elected a shetland pony as its mayor. 

The pony’s name is Patrick, he’s four years old, he works as a therapy animal in hospitals and schools, and at some point after the pandemic started his person brought him to the local pub to help people who were struggling with–well, whatever the pandemic had them struggling with in the pub. 

As a logical outcome of all that, when the previous mayor–a human–died in 2019, 200 people signed a petition supporting Patrick’s candidacy on the grounds that he was “non judgemental and genuinely caring and supportive to all.”

His person–who doubled as his campaign manager–wrote the petition. 

Irrelevant photo: a sunflower–our neighbor’s.

Disappointingly (especially in view of my  misleading headline), the best the village could do was to make him the unofficial mayor, but he did have a very official-seeming ceremony and his own office. And all was well until someone complained about him being in the pub and the Torbay Council–that’s the local government–stuck its nose in and announced that the pub needed planning permission for Patrick’s pen and for animal grazing. 

That meant money, so the pub dismantled Patrick’s enclosure. (I think that was his office, but I can’t swear to it.)

Why did someone complain? One local suspects jealousy. “It’s someone who also thinks they are mayor of Cockington.”

On the other hand, the council hasn’t banned Patrick from visiting the pub. Which is good because he ‘s developed a taste for Guiness. 

 

Less upbeat political news

Liz Truss, one of the two remaining candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party and (ever so incidentally) the country, briefly proposed saving £11 billion by reducing the cost of the civil service. In headline-speak, that was going to be a War on Whitehall Waste, complete with capital letters.

Most of the savings were going to come through cutting civil servants’ pay and vacation time and it would save £8.8 billion.

Why is that £8.8 billion instead of £11 billion? No idea. I’m allergic to numbers. But it doesn’t matter, because according to Alex Thomas, program director for the Institute for Government, the total bill for the civil service comes to around £9 billion. 

What the proposal meant, he explained in a tweet, was not just cutting the pay of civil servants, who politicians love to attack, but also the pay of nurses, doctors, and all the important but less picturesque people who keep the National Health Service running, plus (while we’re at it) teachers.

Truss backed away from the proposal as soon as the bricks started flying, but if the local council orders the pub to tear down her enclosure, I’m not sure how many people will protest.

 

News from the art world

I don’t know why I think this next story follows from that, but what the hell, it’s about money, so let’s put it here: A New Zealand artist is asking $10,000 NZ for an artwork that (if you have an eye for art) you’ll recognize as the pickle slice from a McDonald’s cheeseburger that’s been thrown onto an art gallery ceiling.

That’s the pickle, not the whole cheeseburger. I do think it’s important to get these details right.

The rest of us, barbarians that we are, will probably think it came from some low-rent, cheeseless quarter-pounder. But no, this pickle slice not only comes from a cheeseburger, it’s classy enough to be a “provocative gesture” designed to question what has value–or so the gallery says. And since art-speak has lots of value, it must be so. At least until the bugs get to it.

The work is called  “Pickle.” If you buy it–and I know  you’d love to–you’ll get instructions on how to recreate it in your own space. But you’ll have to buy your own burger and remove the pickle, so that’ll cost you $4.44 NZ on top of the $10,000.

Or you can just paste a pickle to your ceiling and save yourself $10,000 NZ. If you need a bit of rhetoric to justify saving money on art, I’m happy to work with you on that. For free. Art-speak isn’t my specialty but I’m pretty sure we could, in combination, come up with something and then add art-speak to our CVs.

 

Can we go back to politics now?

…or at least to the corner where politics and money meet and where so many politicians aspire to live? 

The Summit of the Americas brought together both of the above in the interest of promoting investment and development and profit. Who could possibly object?

Yes, I know you could, but the question was rhetorical so please put your hand down. 

Since the people who attended have no need of free goodies, they were given expensive goodie bags, demonstrating yet again that to those who need not shall free stuff be given. And it was in that spirit that the US Chamber of Commerce (purpose? “We . . . fight for business growth and America’s success”) promoted US business by handing out goodie bags with  sunglasses and insulated drinking bottles stamped with the words “Made in China.” 

 

From the International Relations Desk

Denmark and Canada have ended the Whiskey War

The what?

A fifty-year squabble over the uninhabited Arctic rock called Hans Island,which is less than a square mile–and for reasons I’ll never wrap my head around that’s not the same as a mile square. You’re welcome to explain that to me as long as you don’t suffer from the illusion that it’ll help. 

The battle began with a boundary dispute over the Nares Channel, which separates Canada and Greenland. That was settled in 1973 but the two countries are close enough to Hans Island that under international law both had a legitimate claim to it. 

And who wouldn’t want to claim a small, uninhabited, and apparently useless rock if international law says you can? 

What does all this have to do with Denmark, you ask? Greenland’s an autonomous territory of Denmark, which means Denmark had a dog in that fight–or as a friend insists on putting it, an animal in that barn.

The two sides eventually came to an agreement about the unimportant stuff but had to postpone the contentious issue of Hans Island. Then in 1984, Canada landed, planted its flag, and buried a bottle of Canadian whiskey. Denmark responded by replacing the maple leaf with its own flag and leaving a bottle of schnapps, along with a note saying, “Welcome to Danish Island.”

And so it went back and forth for 49 years, through multiple flags and lots of booze, until in 2018 the two countries agreed to split the island. 

Why are we only hearing about this now? Is it one of those things the Deep State doesn’t want you to know? 

Well, no. Both countries needed parliamentary approval before they could commit themselves on anything this momentous, so it’s taken time. When the news broke in June, it looked like both sides were ready to declare peace. 

I don’t know who’s been opening all those bottles, but I’m sure they’ll miss the war.

 

And related to none of that…

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s One Good Fact email informs me that the first ever webcam was set up to monitor a pot of coffee “so scientists wouldn’t have to go check if it was empty.”

Who gets to vote on Britain’s next prime minister?

What’s the news from Britain? Well, the race for leadership of the Conservative Party–and incidentally of the country–is now down to two people, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The winner will be decided by something like 160,000 members of the Conservative Party, 97% of them white, half of them over sixty, and most of them male. While we’re at it, a hefty number are from southern England. 

That’s based on the 2019 count. Statisticians tried to do a complete count but fell asleep before they could complete their work. 

What’s the population of Britain? Something in the neighborhood of 67 million. I’d give you a link to prove it but I fell asleep too. 

So yes, it’s all very democratic and representative and so forth. 

I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

Irrelevant photo: a hydrangea

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In other uplifting political news, the Nottinghamshire police and crime commissioner won her position (it’s an elected post) by promising to crack down on speeding, then went on to get caught speeding five times in twelve weeks, two of them near a primary school. She’s lost her license for six months and was fined £2,450. 

She asked to keep her license because losing it would cause her exceptional hardship, to which the judge did not say, “Are you kidding me?” 

Sh hasn’t said whether she’ll resign but it won’t surprise you to learn that she’s been asked.

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In what’s probably an unrelated story, wild European bison are roaming the country for the first time in 6,000 years. Three females were released in Kent this month and a male is set to join them in August, as soon as he gets through the backup at Heathrow’s passport control. 

I’m not sure how the three get to be the first in Britain, since one of them came from a herd in Scotland, but maybe it’s because they’re roaming in the woods as opposed to, um, you know, taking the tram up and down Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Listen, I don’t understand this stuff, I just report it. What does seem comprehensible is that they’re expected to strip the bark off of trees, thinning the forest canopy, creating paths, collecting seeds (bison like seeds), planting wildflowers, and generally rearranging the ecosystem and transforming the woods “into a lush, thriving, biodiverse environment once more.” Which will allow the trust that owns the land “to step back from hands-on management.”

I did say the bison were wild, right? 

I did, but what that means depends on how you define wild. They have tracking collars and are now fenced in a five-hectare area, which will eventually increase to two hundred hectares. But, yeah, within that, they’re wild as hell. 

They’ll soon be joined by ponies from Exmoor and iron-age pigs.

What’s an iron-age pig? For starters, it’s older than anyone you or I know.

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It turns out that if you switch off a neighborhood’s streetlights between midnight and 5 a.m., it will cut down on the number of things that get stolen from cars. By almost 50%. And crime overall will fall by 25%.

Why’s that? Because it’s hard to see. 

The bad news is that both will increase in nearby neighborhoods. 

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Have I slagged off the government enough lately? Sorry, I let myself get distracted.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (who now hate each other but used to work together and played nice in front of the TV cameras) spent £2.9 billion on the Restart program, a mandatory program that was supposed to get the long-term unemployed back to work. A mandatory program, meaning if you were referred to it you had to go. Because, hey, we’re trying to help you here.

How well did it work? Oh, gorgeously. Some 93% of its participants didn’t find work. That gives us with–wait, I need to consult Lord Google to be sure I get this right–a 7% success rate. 

It did, however, transfer a lot of money to the private contractors it was farmed out to. 

By way of accuracy, the program cost £2.9 billion in the headline but more than £2.5 billion in the text. Why the difference? Dunno, but even I will admit that £2.9 billion is more than £2.5 billion.

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No summary of the news would be complete without this one: A retired Church of England vicar was fined and added to the list of sex offenders after a member of the public (“who was attending a talk about Asperger’s syndrome) found him in church naked except for a pair of stockings and performing a sex act with a vacuum cleaner.

You thought you’d heard it all? Silly you. Human sexuality is infinite. You can never hear it all.

It’s true that this particular vacuum cleaner has a name–not the individual vacuum but the brand. They’re called Henry. All of them. And they have a face painted on the side. So it might be easier to personify them than it is your average back-of-the-mop-cupboard vacuum cleaner. But then, I could be misunderstanding the situation completely.

The newspaper article I stole this from notes that the vicar had, before this, a clean record. As he would, given his inclinations. 

 

But enough about Britain. What’s happening elsewhere?

Well, around the world, at any given time, one out of six people will have a headache.Maybe it’s why more people aren’t having sex with vacuum cleaners.

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According to a study in Japan, decisive people are no more likely to make the right choices than people who are full of doubt. 

“What we found is that confidence was the only thing that was different,” said the study’s first author, whose name is the Japanese equivalent of Smith: Zajkowski.

Hesitant people of the world, unite. 

Or not. You might want to think about it before you jump in. 

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A Belgian virologist and government Covid advisor, Marc Van Ranst, was threatened by an air force officer who got his hands on a submachine gun and four anti-tank missile launchers.

But that’s not our story. The story is that the head of an anti-vax group, who is not so incidentally a dance teacher, publicly said something approving about the death threat.

“When there’s a salsa pandemic,” the virologist tweeted, “I’ll listen to you with great pleasure. But at this moment, I don’t give a flying fuck what you have to say and nobody in the Netherlands should either.”

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In the US, Republican Senatorial candidate Herschel Walker impressed the hell out of everyone by explaining the climate change problem this way: “Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air. So when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then — now we got we to clean that back up.”

I can’t swear to it, but I think the shift from general incoherence to total incoherence there at the end is the actual quote, not a typo. 

Here’s what he had to say about gun control after the Uvalde shooting:

“Cain killed Abel and that’s a problem that we have. What we need to do is look into how we can stop those things. You know, you talked about doing a disinformation — what about getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at their social media. What about doing that? Looking into things like that and we can stop that that way. But yet they want to just continue to talk about taking away your constitutional rights. And I think there’s more things we need to look into. This has been happening for years and the way we stop it is putting money into the mental health field, by putting money into other departments rather than departments that want to take away your rights.”

There you go. A problem understood is a problem halfway solved. 

 

And a bit of history

Benjamin Franklin deliberately misspelled Pennsylvania when he printed the colony’s currency.And not just one wrong way but three different ones: Pensilvania, Pennsilvania, and Pensylvania. 

The state seems to have survived his efforts.

The plan was to foil counterfeiters, or so it’s generally believed.

An incomplete guide to Boris Johnson’s downfall, or How to have fun with British politics

Let’s do a quick review of recent British political mayhem for the benefit both of folks who don’t live in Britain and of the ones who do but want a few extra moments to gloat: 

Boris Johnson has stepped down as prime minister and head of the Conservative Party. But Boris Johnson is also  still the prime minister and head of the Conservative Party.

Confused? I can’t think why. Stick around. It’ll all make something vaguely approaching sense before we’re done. 

Or else it won’t. I make no promises.

 

Irrelevant photo: Purple toadflax

What went wrong for Johnson?

You might as well ask what didn’t, but as so often happens he wasn’t brought down by the real scandals–the corruption, the lies, a Brexit cobbled together from high-end wine corks and journalistic fairy dust, not to mention heartless policies, destruction of the infrastructure, drunken parties during lockdown, lost elections, and the resignations of two ethics advisors–but by a sex scandal. And not even one he participated in. 

What happened was that he appointed someone named Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip, ignoring accusations that he was not a pincher but a groper.

Deputy chief whip? No, that’s not the sex scandal. It’s one of those weird British things that we can blame on history and that I won’t bother to explain.. 

When the accusations became public, Johnson said he hadn’t known about them.

Then it became public that he had been told. Formally. 

Then more allegations surfaced.

For the record, the people Pincher groped were male. I’m not sure if that had an impact in how the scandal’s played out. It would an interesting study. Or in the absence of evidence, an interesting essay. You could assert all kinds of things you couldn’t actually demonstrate.

Anyway, once all that happened, resignation letters from cabinet ministers and assorted less impressive governmental appointees began to flutter to the pavement outside 10 Downing Street like autumn leaves–first two, then more, than dozens, including, eventually, resignations from people who’d been appointed to replace people who’d resigned earlier.

At this point, any normal politician would have put their hands in the air and surrendered peacefully, but this is Boris Johnson we’re talking about, and it wasn’t until the resignation letters formed a layer dep enough to resemble Larry the Cat’s litter box that he finally, grudgingly, made a resignation speech that blamed herd mentality for running him out. 

Why did this particular scandal bring him down when other equally lurid ones haven’t? It’s a mystery. If enough autumn leaves fall onto a balance scale, eventually they’ll outweigh the political convenience on the other side. That’s the best I can do. 

But (see above; you’re supposed to be paying attention here), he’s not actually gone yet.

You know about Rasputin? He was a mystic, a faith healer, a self-proclaimed holy man, and a key hanger-on in the court of Russia’s last tsar–assuming, of course, that we don’t count Putin. He was assassinated by other court hangers-on who were desperate to get rid of him, and the story goes that he was poisoned, stabbed, beaten, shot three times, and finally wrapped in a rug and tossed into the River Neva. When he was fished out he was decisively dead, but he had water in his lungs, indicating that he was still alive when they threw him in.

The rug was ruined.

To be fair, it may not have happened exactly that way, but that’s okay, we’re not doing Russian history here, we’re just giving it a passing glance because I suspect it’s going to take something along the same lines to get Johnson out of Number 10, even now that he’s resigned.

And just for the record, I’m not advocating that particular set of actions, just contemplating overblown similarities. 

Johnson, they say, likes the perks of office. I can’t imagine he’ll give them up willingly. Already he’s had to move a postponed wedding reception from the grand mansion where prime ministers get to play to I don’t know where but wherever it is it’s less impressive.

Hasn’t the poor man suffered enough already?

 

What has Johnson learned from all those resignations?

The names of people he wants to take revenge on, although whether he’ll have the power to do them any damage is still up for grabs. Other than that, nothing that I can see. He new appointments aren’t much better than his old ones. One of the new crop (because he’s still the prime minister and is expected to have some semblance of a functioning government around him) has been accused by someone Pincher groped of asking if he’s gay, because if he is then surely what happened isn’t straightforward sexual harassment. 

In other words, she wanted to know if he asking for it.

Another appointee demonstrated the political judgment and sensitivity that she’ll bring to her new position by giving the finger to demonstrators outside Number 10. That may breach the ministerial code, which expects “high standards of behavior” and “propriety.” But that’s okay because  who’s going to enforce it? 

A third appointee doesn’t believe people are really having trouble affording food–presumably they’re using food banks because, hey, it’s free food–and compared taking the knee to giving a Nazi salute.

The big appointment, though, is to the chancellor’s job, since the last one resigned and is a front runner in the race to replace Johnson. The chancellor’s the guy who counts the money and makes financial policy. Or tries to, anyway. The new one is Nadhim Zahawi, and reports leaked out that civil servants sent out warnings about his finances. That’s not the same as saying he’s guilty of anything, only that disturbing allegations are buzzing around his head like flies around cowpies.

Wise politicians might want to be careful where they set their foot, although a wise politician is not what we’re dealing with.

An unnamed Conservative grandee accused Johnson of making unsuitable appointments so that he could leave a mess behind for his successor, but it’s also possible that no one suitable will take his phone calls. Or that he doesn’t know a bad appointment from a convenient one.

 

What didn’t happen

Under the current law, the prime minister can call an election at any time, and at one point Johnson hinted that he might just do that. Since his party has a huge whackin’ majority and polls indicate that right now it’s scraping caked-on crud off the linoleum, his party will be against this. As one article says, it would be “constitutionally very unusual.” And the queen could, if her advisers advised, refuse the request on the grounds that the existing parliament is viable.

From what I’ve read, that would be done via back channels, not in public. A message would go to Number 10 saying, basically, “Do not embarrass the queen by requesting this.” Only they’d capitalize queen.

 

So why’s he still the prime minister?

The best I can do by way of an answer is to say, Because that’s the way it works. Prime ministers aren’t elected directly. They’re (usually) the leader of the majority party, if there is one, or of the biggest, baddest party in the case of a coalition government. So if they step down, guess who gets to choose a new one.

You got it: the biggest, baddest party in the House of Commons. Which does it by following its own party rules instead of rules drawn up by anything as finicky as the government. So the process can take time, depending on the rules. 

Of course, since the rules are the party’s, the party can also change them at will–at least if its rules allow it to. If it wants to choose the next prime minister by seeing who can throw a rock farthest, I can’t see what would stop it.

Prime ministers can always resign effective immediately, in which case their party texts a temp agency and says, “Send us someone of prime ministerial quality, please. Must make public appearances and know how to wear a suit convincingly.” And then that person will run a caretaker government.  

But that’s not what’s happened. When Johnson finally bowed to something approaching reality and agreed to resign, he proposed hanging on until October, when the Conservatives hold their convention. 

To which the party said, “Not a chance,” but it didn’t roll him in that rug, so the date when he’s fully replaced depends on how quickly it can organize its replacement procedures: First the people who wanted to replace Johnson had to get support from at least 20 of their fellow Conservative MPs (that knocked a few out of the race), then those same MPs have (or had–I’m writing this a bit in advance of the fact, so I’m not sure if it’s happened yet) to vote until they’ve narrowed the list to two.  Then the party’s members vote. 

They’re rushing it as fast as they can and he should be gone by September 5. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. They might roll him in the wallpaper * and head for the river.

 

  • Yeah, that was another scandal. It’s breathtakingly ugly, it was very expensive (but then so was the rest of the furniture), and Johnson got caught arranging for a Conservative donor to pay for it. The next prime minister will either be haunted by it or bringing in a team of people with acetylene torches to get rid of it.

Sexism and tractor porn in British politics

You’ve gotta love British politics. Not for what it does or how it works but for its sheer insanity.

At the end of April, Neil Parish, a Conservative MP, was looking at porn sites in the House of Commons–so that’s during working hours and in public–when a couple of his fellow MPs couldn’t help noticing. 

A couple of female fellow MPs, wording that calls attention to the underlying fuckedupedness of the English language, since the word fellow tells us we’re talking about the male of the species, although we’re not. The language doesn’t offer us a parallel word for females or for humans of both or unspecified genders. But never mind that. It’s the language we have, so let’s work with it. We can argue about fixing it when we have the time. In, say, a few hundred years if the species (not to mention the language) is still functioning.

My spellcheck program (since we’ve taken a break to talk about wording) doesn’t stub its toe on fuckedupedness. It just smiles and continues across the kitchen to pick up the mouse parts the cat left in the night. So let’s assume it’s a word English relies on heavily.

At long last, I bring you a relevant photo: This lovely flower is called honesty. What could be more appropriate?

But back to our friend Neil: The aforesaid fellow MPs went public about him watching porn at work and all hell broke loose. And since the incident followed on the heels of another public incident of sexism in the House of Commons, it all turned into a particularly shit-filled shitstorm. (Spell check also accepts shitstorm. Don’t you love the way language evolves?) 

The earlier incident? One of our trashier national newspapers quoted an unnamed MP as saying that Angela Raynor, a leader of the Opposition (that’s the Labour Party), made a point of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the prime minister (who’s from the Conservative Party and male) when he was speaking. 

The nerve of her. Any decent woman would have wrapped said legs in burlap. (That’s hessian in British.) Honestly, none of this would be necessary if women would stop showing their ankles in public. How are men supposed to concentrate on running the country with women’s body parts on display everywhere they look?

Where were we before I indulged in that fit of decency? All hell had already broken loose about sexism in Parliament, and in rode Neil Parish and his (I assume) smart phone, although for all I know it could’ve been a laptop, with a bigger screen showing bigger pictures of improbably enlarged body parts.

After a bit of unconvincing waffle (he might have looked at porn, but it might have been by accident), he admitted that he’d watched porn in the Commons twice, but the first time it really did happen by accident. See, he’d been looking for pictures of tractors when up popped (so to speak) this porn site.  

It could happen to anyone. And to be fair, it’s no sillier than the excuse someone offered for one of Boris Johnson’s breaches of his own lockdown rules: He was ambushed by a birthday cake.

Which might or might not have been on a tractor.

*

All of this opened the door to a public discussion of sexism in Parliament, and (refreshingly) it’s not just the opposition parties doing the talking. Women in the Conservative Party–again, that’s the party in power–have waded in, with one suggesting that male MPs should all keep their hands in their pockets, because there isn’t a woman in Parliament who hadn’t been subjected to “wandering hands.” 

What the suggestion lacks in effectiveness it makes up for in evocativeness.

I’ll spare you the specific examples. You’ve heard it all before, and if you’re of the female persuasion you’ve experienced it, but last I heard 56 MPs had been accused of sexual misconduct in one form or another.

To demonstrate how thoroughly the government doesn’t get it, the business minister announced that although there were some bad apples, “that doesn’t mean the entire culture is extremely misogynistic or full of male entitlement.”

If you’re ever following a recipe that calls for a half pound of entitlement and you don’t have one in the refrigerator, you’re welcome to dump that one into the frying pan: The person who doesn’t experience the problem tells the people who do that it’s not as extensive as their silly little minds let them think it is. Because he understands the situation better they possibly could.

*

Not entirely unrelated to this is a 2020 survey reporting that MPs drink more heavily than the general population, with 29% of the ones who answered the survey falling into the risky drinking category. The survey doesn’t seem to have looked at whether they drink at work or after, but the building that houses Parliament is full of bars, and the booze is comparatively cheap. My money’s on a lot of it happening during working hours.

The business secretary (remember him?) said closing the bars would be an “excessively puritanical” response to the problem of sexism in Parliament.

At least he didn’t say “boys will be boys.” At least not in public.

 

The role of traffic cones in British politics

The combination of Tractorgate, Partygate (that’s Boris Johnson breaking his own lockdown rules), and epidemic government incompetence led me to learn a new political phrase: a cones hotline moment. It came into existence when John Major’s government had lost its way in the dark and decided it could generate light by launching a proposal so spectacularly lightless that it became Westminster shorthand for the moment when (warning: metaphor shift ahead) the rising water reaches the governmental nostrils and the only thing anyone can think to do is spend money on a phone line so people can complain about something they know won’t change. In Major’s case, the subject was roadworks. Which is disappointing. Based on the name, I was hoping it was about rogue traffic cones.

I owe thanks to Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, for that information.

Has the Johnson government reached its cones hotline moment? Possibly. As the cost of living soars and increasing numbers of people struggle to pay the rent, stay warm, and feed themselves (choose two, or in some cases one and a half), what does the government offer by way of help? Well, if you own a ride-on mower or a golf cart (called a golf buggy in British), it will save you some £50 a year by scrapping a European Union requirement that you insure it as if it was a car. 

Then it called on us to admire the glories Brexit has brought us.

Embarrassingly, the EU’s already scrapped the requirement. And it did so before Britain got around to it. But if the initiative appeals to you, I have a traffic cone hotline that I’d be happy to sell you. If you hurry, you can get it for 30% off.

*

As people struggle to keep up with inflation and the government reorganizes the traffic cones on the Titanic, another Conservative MP delivered his informed opinion about food banks: The only reason people are using food banks is that they don’t know how to cook cheap, nutritious meals from scratch. And they can’t budget, the silly creatures.

The best answer came from Jack Monroe, a food poverty campaigner and a single mother who actually made a career out of recipes using cheap food:

“You can’t cook meals from scratch with nothing. You can’t buy cheap food with nothing. The issue is not ‘skills,’ it’s 12 years of Conservative cuts to social support. The square root of fuck all is ALWAYS going to be fuck all.”

 

In the US, Sarah Palin faces off with someone she’d have thought was an ally

From there, it’s only a small step to American politics:

Remember Sarah Palin? John McCain picked her as his running mate in a presidential election and a lot of silly people–I was one of them–thought US politics could sink no lower. 

Yeah, some jokes aren’t funny but I keep trying.

Sarah’s running for the House of Representatives, hoping to complete the term of someone who died in office, possibly of embarrassment. One of the people running against her is Santa Claus. He lives in North Pole, Alaska, possesses a luxuriant white beard, and changed his name from Tom O’Connor in 2005.

Yes, now that you ask, the new name has caused him problems with airport security once or twice. 

He used to work in law enforcement and although he’s politically unaffiliated his politics have more in common with Bernie Sanders’ than with Palin’s.

This is where I should insert something approximating a punchline but I haven’t come up with one. Sorry.

*

In other US news, three former US officials–all unnamed, although presumably they had names soon after birth–told Rolling Stone that Donald Trump asked his aides, repeatedly, if China wasn’t maybe, please, using a “hurricane gun” to create hurricanes and send them to the US. And could the US retaliate militarily.

Maybe, he suggested, they could destroy the storms with nuclear weapons.

One of his press secretaris, Stephanie Grisham, said, “Stuff like that was not unusual for him. He would blurt out crazy things all the time, and tell aides to look into it or do something about it. His staff would say they’d look into, knowing that more often than not, he’d forget about it quickly – much like a toddler.”

 

Vigilantes face down the vigilantes

Remember Canada’s convoy of honking trucks protesting Covid restrictions? Well, a similar convoy gathered, complete  with bullhorns, outside a California lawmaker’s home to protest her work on a bill that would end coroner investigations of still births and require state businesses to mandate Covid vaccines for their employees.

That’s one bill? Apparently. Or maybe they’re two separate bills these guys objected to. Don’t ask me.

This convoy was run out of town by the legislator’s neighbors, who threw eggs and jumped onto the trucks to go nose to nose with the drivers. 

That’s the annoying thing about threatening, vigilante-type behavior: It’s only fun when you’re winning. 

 

And from the world of conspiracy theories

Have you heard of the claim that birds aren’t real? It occupies an uncomfortable space between conspiracy theory and satire. It started right after Trump was elected, when a guy named Peter McIndoe was watching the women’s march in Memphis and noticed some counterprotesters, who he described as “older, bigger white men, . . . aggravators .  . . encroaching on something that was not their event.”

He made a placard saying, “Birds aren’t real,” and joined them. The idea was to make an absurdist statement. When people asked what it meant, he ad libbed, saying he was part of a movement that had been around for fifty years and had tried and failed to save American birds, which were destroyed by the deep state and replaced with feathered surveillance drones.

Someone filmed him and put it on Facebook, where it went viral. Then it became a movement. People have chanted it at high school football games and shown up here and there with banners and signs. Admittedly, it didn’t spread all on its own. Once he saw what was happening, he gave it a fair bit of encouragement and some organizational structure. 

So how many people get the joke? 

Some. 

McIndoe gives interviews in character as a conspiracy believer, and some of his interviewers–the shock jocks of the world–treat him not quite as if he’s bringing the truth down from Mount Whatever but not as an obvious nutburger. They don’t say, “You do know that’s bonkers, right?” They’re noncommittal. They say things like, “Huh. That’s bad.”

“Real conspiracy theorists will approach me like I’m their brother,” McIndoe said, “like I’m part of their team. They will start spouting hateful rhetoric and racist ideas, because they feel as if I’m safe.” 

It sounds like that’s evolving, though. Now “they think Birds Aren’t Real is a CIA psy-op. They think that we are the CIA, we’re put out there as a weapon against conspiracy theorists.”

For the people who do get the joke, though, “It is a collective role-playing experiment. There is true community found through this, it breaks down political barriers. We have taken pictures of a car park at a Birds Aren’t Real rally. There are people who will show up with a US flag on their car, Republican, patriotic, and a car right next to them with Bernie Sanders stickers. I was a Bernie guy myself. You see these people marching together, unified.”

I wouldn’t count on it to heal the fractured country, but it might offer us a short vacation from focusing on the conflict.

 

And unrelated to any of that

I just discovered that Yahoo, in its wisdom, has been dumping several categories of WordPress notifications into my spam folder, which I haven’t checked since our older dog was a kitten. I thought it had gotten quiet out there, but I’ve been stretched thin enough that I didn’t give it much thought. On top of that, WordPress itself has indulged in a badly judged fit of self-improvement and most of its notifications no longer let me drop in on the blogs of the people who send them, which I enjoyed doing before WP tripped over its own feet and made that somewhere between difficult and impossible. So if you’ve noticed my absence (I wouldn’t have, so I’m not expecting you to be moping over it), we have two entities to blame–and neither of them are me.

Party news from Britain and–oh, you know, other places

The recent news from Britain demonstrates my theory that politicians aren’t brought down by corruption, by undermining democracy, or by heartlessness toward the vulnerable. It’s the human-size scandals that do them in. Not the kind that  wreck a country–we’ve developed a high tolerance for country-wrecking–but the ones that show the politicians as human-size jerks, people no larger than ourselves who we can afford to wipe off our plates.

Yes, it restores my faith in the basic lunacy of my species. (I’m assuming that’s your species as well.)

What’s happened, you ask? Or you ask if you’re not British, because over here we’ve been following this with either glee or despair or fury, depending on our pre-existing political convictions, our temperaments, and how warped our senses of humor are. Or in my case with a destabilizing mix of both glee and despair–a mix that leaves me wondering what kind of excuse for a human being I really am.

What I’m talking about is a drip feed of stories about Boris Johnson–Britain’s prime minister when he can spare the time and attention–along with the circle around him having broken every rule of the Covid lockdown that they imposed on everyone but themselves. At a time when people couldn’t be with family members as they died, Johnson and his cohort were holding parties. Or gatherings. Or work events. With wine and cheese. And, for one of them, a bring-your-own-booze invitation. 

Irrelevant photo: Cornwall’s trees may not tell you which way the wind’s blowing at any given moment, but they do let you know where the prevailing winds come from.

At a time when extended families couldn’t meet in parks, never mind at funerals, they were holding more work events involving alcohol. And in the spirit of screaming irony, dozens of people from the Cabinet Office’s Covid task force showed up at one of them. On the same day the government tweeted that workplaces couldn’t hold Christmas lunches or parties.

The prime minister has variously said that he wasn’t at one or another of them, that he was there but thought he was attending a work meeting, that no one told him they broke the rules, and that he was there but is really, really sorry, especially about the party the day before Prince Phillip’s funeral, which (this being Britain and all) may be the one that sinks him. 

On the other hand, the video of Johnson dancing around with a light saber isn’t from any of the lockdown gatherings. Fact checkers have established that it predates the pandemic.

You feel better now, right?

*

Meanwhile, Michael Fabricant, a Member of Parliament from Johnson’s own Consevative Party, accused the BBC of attempting a coup.

How? By covering the Partygate story. 

“This is not news reporting an event,” he said. “This relentless news creation is a coup attempt against the prime minister.”

What the hell, a coup attempt made big news in the U.S. I expect he thought tossing the phrase into the conversation would trigger the same sort of attention here. 

*

At more or less (mostly less) the same time and no doubt backing the BBC’s coup attempt, dozens of people in dark suits, Boris Johnson masks, and floppy blond wigs turned up in Trafalgar Square and outside Downing Street with beer, wine, music, and British flags to drink, dance, and chant, “My name is Boris,” and “This is a work event.”

I heard some pundit on the news saying that when the political response shifts from anger to mockery, a politician’s career is over. Stay tuned and we’ll see if it’s true.

 

And in party news from elsewhere

A December 30 charter flight from Montreal to Cancun, Mexico got so rowdy that the passengers were banned from their return flight

The trip had been organized by something that describes itself as an “exclusive private group,” the 111 (pronounced  Triple One) Private Club. 

If exclusivity depends on who you exclude, I’m happy to be among the people who get left out of this.

The passengers drank and danced in the aisles, maskless, and of course video’d themselves to provide evidence. Because nothing that happens happened if you don’t have a selfie to prove it. 

The airline they flew down on, Sunwing, canceled their return flight. It did negotiate with Triple One about taking them back, and it got as far as agreeing that the passengers would show up sober and not be served any alcohol on the flight, but negotiations broke down over food: Sunwing said it wouldn’t serve meals. Triple One said that on a five-hour flight they’d fade away without it. 

Okay, I haven’t a clue what Triple One actually said, but negotiations did break down at that point. Last I heard Triple One said it was working to get the passengers home and two other airlines also refused to have them on board. I

Who were these little charmers? Influencers. Reality TV stars. A small handful of the organizer’s business partners. They were facing  fines when they got home. And possibly jail time, which gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the word  reality

*

And finally, an Australian four-year-old wanted to have a party of his own–he had a birthday coming up–and used his father’s phone to order $1,139 worth of cake and ice cream, including a personalized birthday cake, from Uber Eats. It was delivered to the fire station where the boy’s father works, and the firefighters accepted the order.

What sane person, after all, would ask questions before accepting a thousand dollars worth of cake and ice cream? 

Uber Eats agreed to refund the money and the parents are speaking to the kid again, although I don’t know if he got to eat any of the stuff he ordered. Which doesn’t make it much of a party for him. 

Boris Johnson will be drafted in to consult with him on his party planning as soon as he’s booted out as prime minister.

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.

*

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.