Modern life on ancient streets

A few weeks ago, an armored truck parked on one of Launceston’s ancient streets to collect modern money from a store.

To someone born in Britain, Launceston’s streets might not seem ancient, just old. There’s so much older stuff around, it’s easy to get spoiled. Sure, they’re narrow and twisty, and the gatehouse from the old town walls is still standing. I can’t find a date for it, or for when the town walls were either built or torn down, so we’ll  have to settle for knowing that it’s old. The castle was built in 1070 and now a fixer-upper. The church dates to the sixteenth-century but has a tower from the fourteenth century.

But modern life has crept in around all that. Or marched in with hobnailed boots. New buildings have been added to the old, and the stores in old buildings have adapted them to modern uses. It’s easy to walk through and forget everything but the errands that brought you here: a stop at the chain stationery store, the bakery, the antique store (what’s more modern than an antique store?), even the lingerie shop if you have a lingerie kind of disposition.

On the day the armored truck parked, I wasn’t thinking about ancient streets but about the loaf of bread and two scones I was buying, but I gradually became aware of an un-ancient, automated kind of ruckus outside. Wild Thing had stayed outside with the dogs and by the time I joined her a crowd had gathered, not around her but around the armored truck, from which a flat, automated voice was repeating, on a loop, “Help. Help. G4S driver needs assistance. Call the police.”

No one was calling the police. It’s hard to get excited about a looped announcement saying, “Help. Help.” Whoever taped the announcement hadn’t managed to sound like she needed help. She wasn’t real and we all knew it.

Still, she might have done better if she hadn’t mentioned G4S, which is one of those outsourcing companies that does stuff governments no longer want to do themselves. Its focus is on security—something that’s subtly hinted at by its slogan, “Securing your world.” It’s best known for winning the security contract for the London Olympics and then failing to recruit enough staff. It had to be bailed out at the last minute by the army.

I shouldn’t laugh. I know I shouldn’t.

G4S also runs prisons (and “lost control” of one recently: translation, there was a riot), and they a similar company, Serco, had a contract to do electronic monitoring of convicted offenders. As the Telegraph put it, “anomalies were found in the data G4S handed over” to the government and the company had to pay back £109 million. It was all an oversight, I’m sure, and what’s £109 million between friends, but the Serious Fraud Office launched a criminal investigation. I haven’t heard that charges were filed.

What did those bland anomalies consist of? Among other things, they charged the government for monitoring people who either were back in prison or dead.

The dead are so easy to monitor. You can understand the temptation.

So, no, it’s not one of those companies people love, although I probably feel a bit more strongly about it than most of the people clustered around the back of the armored truck.

I asked Wild Thing what was going on and she told me the driver had locked himself inside, but the back door was now open and he was on stage. Which didn’t stop the tape from playing: “Help. Help. G4S driver requires assistance. Call the police.”

What G4S driver really required right then was a bit of privacy to pull himself back together, not to mention a way to stop the damn tape, but he wasn’t getting either of those things. The crowd lingered. And stared. And didn’t call the police. And he couldn’t close the door for fear of locking himself in again.

We left before the tape stopped. For all I know it played for the rest of the day and the driver’s still recovering.

The streets, however, remain as ancient as they were before he locked himself in.

And now a brief aside: When I was looking up dates for the various bits of the town, I consulted Wikipedia. It’s easy, it’s online, and it’s, um, often reliable.

At the end of the entry for Launceston, I found a list of notable residents: a poet, a New Wave guitarist, a sailor, an “antiquary and…oriental traveller,” and at the end of the list, “Emily Lovell, the biological and spiritual successor to Mao Zedong.”

The what?

The link from her name led to a Wikipedia entry on Maoism, where (surprise, surprise) no mention of ol’ Emily jumped out at me. Just to be thorough, I typed her name into Google, which offered to connect me to assorted Emily Lovells via LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, etc. They struck me as unsuitable hangouts for the biological and spiritual heir to Mao Zedong, so I skipped them.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed her at the end of the Launceston entry.

Great British traditions: the boot sale

 

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant photo: primroses. Photo by Ida Swearingen

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

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

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

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

I love a flea market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I asked how much it was.

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

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

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

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

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

Five pounds.

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

Nope, I had to take the basket too.

I tell you, that woman drove a hard bargain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the village: the white cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, we had been introduced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparative weather

I was once stuck on a train next to a man whose idea of a conversation starter was to tell me that Britain has the most varied weather in the world. I’d only recently moved here from Minnesota, where the temperature ranges from unspeakably hot to unimaginably cold, with an unbearably beautiful week or three in the spring and fall, and I was still having trouble distinguishing the British winter from the British summer, so I nodded vaguely and opened my book. I mean, if I was going to argue, or even discuss this, where would I start?

So what’s the weather really like? I live in Cornwall, which is the southwest tip of the island, so I apologize to the rest of the British Isles if I’m misrepresenting them, but here’s how I know it’s winter: It rains and the sky’s gray. How do I know it’s summer? The tourists (who are called holidaymakers) show up, and they buy ice cream cones and dress up in hiking gear and drive our narrow roads slowly, looking terrified. Or they dress up in beach clothes and sit on the sand till their skin turns a painful shade of boiled lobster. It rains less but it’ll probably still be gray. Everything grows madly. I love the Cornish summer, but it’s basically an absence of winter, plus ice cream.

Vaguely related photo: the cliffs in summer. If you look closely, you'll see an ice cream cone just outside the frame, on the left.

Vaguely related photo: the cliffs in summer. If you look closely, you’ll see an ice cream cone just outside the frame, on the left.

When we left Minnesota, Wild Thing and I gave away our winter jackets. Talk about burning your bridges. They were good to a thousand below (Fahrenheit or Celsius; at that temperature, who cares?) and wearing them made us look like short versions of the Michelin Tire Man. What we wear as winter jackets now would get us through the early part of a Minnesota fall and after that would be about as useful against the cold as blue paint and wax paper.

I will admit that the Cornish summer is warmer than the winter, but a hot day gets into the 70s and it’s a rare day when the breeze doesn’t have a gorgeous cool undertone. If it gets into the 80s, everyone—including the papers—talks heat wave. I know it’s touched 90 when people around me wilt. Mostly it’s in the 60s, and I’m not complaining about that. In the winter, it rarely drops below freezing, and if it does it’s not likely to stay there once the sun comes up. And I’m not complaining about that either.

The biggest difference between winter and summer is the length of the days. Summer evenings go on forever. As do winter nights. Cornwall is further north than Minnesota, even if we think it’s the tropics. On the other hand, there’s lots of north to the north of us, so I don’t want to make it sound too extreme. The sun does come up in the winter, and it goes down in the summer.

Every so often in the winter, the local weather report will warn us, in a sobering sort of voice—the kind could induce controlled panic—that it’s going to get cold. Wild Thing and I get ready to sew the dogs into their long underwear. But before we have time to get out the sewing box, they put the three-day forecast on the screen and we realize that they’re talking about a five degree drop. Admittedly, that’s centigrade, but still, that’s something like ten degrees Fahrenheit. So it’ll be cooler, and it’ll probably be grayer and windier, but the dogs have fur and live indoors and they’ll be fine. We can leave the window open at night and not die of it. A fire will feel nice in the evening but once it goes out the house will be unheated and the pipes won’t going to freeze.

I’ve lost track of the number of times our pipes froze in Minnesota, in spite of central heating. I got to be good at thawing them out. For a long time we used the hair dryer, then we discovered electric paint strippers. They’re wonderful. Finally a plumber—clever man—moved the pipes away from the north wall and they never froze again. I don’t remember where the paint stripper ended up, but we didn’t dare give it away. Minnesota’s like that. You don’t want to be unprepared.

The weather I take seriously these days is rain. Here in Cornwall, we’re getting off lightly, by which I mean it’s nothing worse than wet, windy, and miserable, but the flooding in northern England and in Scotland is serious–people flooded out of their homes, bridges collapsed (okay, one bridge, but it was dramatic), power out, rescue services working like mad. I’ve been reading a lot recently about the value of flood abatement as opposed to flood defenses: letting rivers meander, the way they did before we clever little monkeys got in there and straightened them; planting trees on hillsides, which take major amounts of water out of the ground; letting fields flood, as they did before we clever little monkeys decided they shouldn’t, all of which (and more) could save cities. None of it is as sexy as big engineering projects, apparently, although speaking just for myself I never could keep sex and engineering in my mind at the same time. But to each his or her own, and if you’re a fan of engineering I won’t argue–except, just to contradict myself, to say that there does seem to be a whole side of flood prevention that we’re ignoring.

Christmas carols in the U.S. and Britain

As Christmas approaches, carols leak into the folk (and occasionally other kinds of) songs at the pub’s singers night. It happens every year, and every year I ask myself if I shouldn’t take a week or two off to avoid them.

I have a couple of reasons for that. The first and simplest is that I expect carols to be unchanging and over here they’re not. Some have the same words as the American ones and at first the tunes sound like they’ll behave, then they take a sharp left and head off in some new direction, leaving me all alone and on the wrong note. Usually at full volume. In others the tune stays the same but the words are different.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

The first few times I heard that, I’d turn to someone nearby and say, “That’s not the way we sing it.”

I might as well have said how shocked I was that gravity was operating over the holidays. Whoever it was would say, “Oh, I know. That’s the Cornish version.” Or the Boscastle version. Or the Padstow version. They’d learned a different version back in Shropshire, or Essex, or Truro, or Wherever.

I’d explain: In the U.S., Christmas carols are harder to change that the Constitution, which (to simplify things a bit) only needs a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and then the approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures. It’s a high standard to meet, but at least a procedure’s mapped out and ready to use. Christmas carols, though? Sorry, but we don’t have a way to change them, so they stay fixed, the North Star of our culture.

Whoever I was talking to would hear me out and then tell me all over again about Shropshire or Essex or Wherever. Eventually I stopped trying.

So that’s one reason I think about disappearing for the holidays. The next is that some of the carols are—well, let me tell you a story instead of trying to sum them up: Wild Thing and I went to a school Christmas concert to hear a friend’s daughter, and one of the carols was about Mary’s womb. And there we were expecting “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Which, by the way, I hate.

Wild Thing leaned over and whispered that the Methodists in Amarillo never talked about Mary’s lady parts, let put them to music. In Amarillo, it was all “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o(etc.)ria.” They sang the same carols I did, whose religion had, at least to my ears, been worn away by repetition. But change the words a bit and toss in Mary’s womb and you’ll jolt me out of my dozy acceptance. It starts to sound, you know, religious.

I should add that the word womb doesn’t make for a particularly singable line.

I grew up celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday. The extended family came to our apartment (and later, to our house) to eat, give the kids presents, and enjoy an argument or two, usually about politics. What can I tell you? Arguing was a form of entertainment in my family. But one year an older cousin’s girlfriend played the piano and we gathered around and sang carols, and every Jewish atheist one of us knew the songs as well as the few non-Jewish family members did.

It’s a moment I remember fondly. It was decades before I stopped to think what deeply weird picture it makes.

Then I moved to Minnesota and started to feel smothered by Christmas, and that’s my third reason, if you remember after all these words what we’re counting. In New York—at least in the circles I traveled in—there were enough Jews around to create a space for people who didn’t celebrate, and that made celebrating feel voluntary. I never paid much attention to who was Jewish and who was something else, but this wasn’t about individuals. It was about the impact of demographics. (At the time, my experience was pretty much limited to Jews and Christians. I don’t know if the New York created space for other forms of non-Christians over the holidays.)

Minnesota, though, is packed with people who even if they’re not religiously Christian are at least culturally so, and that left less space for people who didn’t celebrate the holiday. Celebration stopped feeling voluntary, and I developed mixed feelings about it—part celebratory, part crabby.

And in Cornwall? As far as I know, I’m the only Jew for miles around, and probably ditto for the only person whose family wasn’t, at some point, Christian. I still celebrate the holiday, which is good since Wild Thing never saw a holiday she didn’t want to be part of and has a strong historical claim to this one, but the more insistently it surrounds me the more footnotes, caveats, reservations I add.

This year, the carols weren’t overwhelming at the pub, and the harmonies on a couple of them were stunning. My crabby meter registered only minimal grumpiness. Maybe repetition is starting to blunt the edges of the religion.

*

Whatever you celebrate and whether it’s religious or secular, I wish you a good one of it. And if you don’ t have a holiday at this time of year, tuck my good wishes away and save them whenever your next holiday comes around. If you still remember by then where you left them.

Cornwall and Calais: small actions, huge issues

This comes with a seriousness warning, along with a heart-warming-story warning. If you read on, you have no one to blame but yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, the refugee crisis activated J., who couldn’t sit back and wring her hands any longer, she had to do something, so set her network in motion and we helped her plan a village coffee morning. (She is one hell of an organizer—I wish I had half her skill.)

The coffee morning’s a tradition here. The Methodist Church has one regularly—something I know only because I see a sign out outside the chapel, not because I go. And the Macmillan cancer charity has a yearly one, which they call the world’s largest coffee morning since it’s on the same day everywhere in the country. And, and, and. Lots of similar examples that won’t make you any wiser if I take more of your time while I list them.

It’s not something I ever heard of in the U.S., but maybe I traveled in the wrong circles.

Soothing and irrelevant photo

Soothing and irrelevant photo. The cliffs on a hazy day in spring.

So J. got us all in motion, and it was already too late to get a notice in the village newsletter. The crisis was building and still is. We didn’t want to put it off for a month. So we put posters up and we got a notice on the village Facebook site, and the grapevine got to work.

In addition to collecting money, we were also collecting clothes, bedding, toiletries, and a few other things, because out of nowhere a Cornwall to Calais drive had appeared, gathering things for the refugees in Calais, who are stranded by the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, looking for a way into Britain. None of them have visas, and they’re desperate enough not to care. One told a reporter he’d rather die there than be sent home. If I remember right, he was Eritrean—a state I’ve seen described as being very much like North Korea. They’ve chosen Britain for the most part either because they have family here or because they speak the language. (As I write this, police have cleared the camp, forcing them out. Whether it will reform remains to be seen.)

I can’t help remembering that before World War II, a shipload of German-Jewish refugees were turned away by one country after another, because the fear of being swamped by Jewish refugees was as powerful then as the fear of being swamped by non-European, and especially Muslim, refugees is today. And when all their possibilities had been exhausted, the ship took them back to Germany, where they died in the concentration camps.

The Calais refugees, by their simple existence, have stirred up a lot of hostility, of the sorry-but-the-country’s-already-full-and-besides-it’s-ours variety. So we expected some hostility in the village to the coffee morning. With a very few exceptions, we didn’t find it. The photo of the Syrian toddler who drowned crossing the Mediterranean with his family had shocked people. The refugees are, suddenly, fully human in many, possibly most, people’s eyes.

Maybe I’m not being fair in putting it that way. Maybe most people have, in a quiet way, always seen them as human (and not, as the Prime Minister put it, “a swarm”). What I do know is that the photo changed the conversation. People have publicly pledged space in their homes to refugees. Calais, rumors have it, now has as much in the way of clothing etc. as it can handle and what’s still being collected will end up going further—to Hungary, maybe, or to Germany or Austria or Italy or Greece or wherever it’s needed. The situation changes daily. It’s chaotic. We collected without yet knowing where it’s headed, and the people sorting it when we dropped it off weren’t sure either. What we know is that it’s needed, and it will be sent.

So we set up tables for donations at the coffee morning, and before long they overflowed—shoes, warm clothes, pots and pans, candles, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, belts, blankets, towels, tents, backpacks, rucksacks. We bagged it up to make room and more appeared. It was very moving—and all the more so because this wasn’t coming from just the usual suspects, the people we already knew were with us on this. The people donating crossed the political spectrum.

And the people who baked things to sell and who helped out on the morning also crossed the political spectrum.

F. contributed a cake to the coffee morning, and I didn’t try it, which I’ve been regretting because I’ve been hearing how good it was ever since. We’ve never talked politics, so I haven’t a clue where she stands. She grew up in Mauritius, and she told me about a flood they had there. She was helping sort clothes for the Red Cross, because people had lost everything, and they came across two completely impractical things: a wedding dress and a little girl’s princess dress.

The princess dress ended up making a small child very happy. And the wedding dress? A young woman who came in had made her own wedding dress and lost it in the flood. Everyone got together and remade the donated one—which F. said was very glamorous—so it fit her. She got married in it, and I have a hunch she carried herself like a queen and that the story’s still being passed down in her family.

I hope, in this time when people are desperate enough to walk across a continent, cross the Mediterranean in a rubber dingy, and trust themselves to traffickers because not to do so is even more dangerous; when those who can’t take those risks are being warehoused in camps with no schools and not enough to eat and expected to wait there until no one knows when; when countries are saying they’ll take some absurdly small number of refugees because if one more person comes in someone who’s already here will fall off; in times like these, I hope the small gestures of people in a small village will let a few people know they’re not forgotten, not invisible. And I hope it will add to a thousand other small gestures and shame our governments into doing something.

If anyone wants to make a donation, here are a couple of organizations that can make use of it: The United Nations camps were, last I heard, running out of money and needed donations desperately. And the British Red Cross has a Syria Appeal.

There are others, and I don’t know which is most important, which is making best use of the money, or which is placed where the pinch is felt most sharply. All I know is that people are suffering.

The cream tea wars

Cornwall and Devon are separated by the River Tamar and by a whole lot of bitter claims over who makes the best cream tea. Since a few people have left comments lately saying—and I’m about to paraphrase them both inaccurately and irresponsibly—that almost no wars are worth fighting, I think it’s time we stop and contemplate whether this one might not be. Because some things really do matter.

But first, for the sake of those of you whose feet have never been tucked under a table blessed with a cream tea, I need to explain what I’m going on about. The cream tea one of the few things that might convince this atheist that heaven exists. You take a scone and split it in half, then put jam and clotted cream on each half and as you take that first bite you’ll notice your eyes rolling upward toward the heavens in thanks.

swanage 073

Irrelevant photo: To be fair to both Cornwall and Devon, I’m posting a photo from Dorset. Which probably also thinks it invented the cream tea.

What’s clotted cream, though? It’s roughly as thick as whipped cream (don’t quibble; I did say “roughly”) but unsweetened. As well as yellower, gooier, and better. Ignore the disgusting name.

What’s this got to do with wars? Well, in Devon they think they invented both clotted cream and the cream tea. And they put the cream on first. In Cornwall, they also think they invented clotted cream and the cream tea and they put the jam on first. You at the back, settle down. This will be on the test.

In fact, it’s on the test every time I get a cream tea—which isn’t often because the arteries will only put up with just so much abuse. But it does happen now and then and when it does I sit in front of the scones, the dishes of cream and jam, and can’t remember which goes on first. Because I live in Cornwall, and this is serious stuff. It’s also exactly the kind of stuff my mind spits out like a toddler offered rutabaga. Ptooey, it says. I’m not remembering this, and it dances off to review some song lyric it already knows perfectly well, or the name of a wildflower, or something else of its own damn choosing.

Meanwhile, I could get myself run out of the county for this. And if I do, my mind’s going with me so I wish it would pay more attention.

Why does anyone care? Once upon a time, I’d have said it was just something to fight over, but food scientists have researched the issue, looking for the perfect cream tea formula. It turns out you want 40 grams of scone, 30 of cream, and 30 of jam. And—although they don’t mention this—a good-size pot of tea. With milk, a sunny day, and some people you like. Because hurling yourself at a cream tea on your own is right up there with drinking alone.

It turns out that the Devon method makes it easier to spread the fillings but the Cornish method allows you to serve the scone hotter, because the jam insulates the cream and keeps it from running. They don’t actually say which is better, the cowards. Which means they’ve been overtaken by the fate of most peacemakers, which is to piss off both sides.

You will, of course, pledge your allegiance to whichever side you choose, but don’t be surprised to make a few enemies when you do.

If you don’t live in Britain but want to make your own cream tea so you can participate in our wars? You’ll find a scone recipe in a back post and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding strawberry jam in a store, but you’ll have to either find a fancy supermarket and pay an outrageous amount of money for real clotted cream or try to fake it. Here are a couple of attempts I found online. I can’t vouch for either of them. This one’s from Food.com and used heavy cream and sour cream. And this one’s from Just a Pinch and uses cream cheese and whipping cream. Both add a bit of sugar, which makes me skeptical, but it may work. For the real thing, you’ll have to visit. On a sunny day. With friends.

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?

Dealing with the public, U.K. style: part 2

Last Friday I posted a piece about what it’s like dealing with the public in the U.K. Then I did the grocery shopping and became the public.

I need to bore you with a bit of personal background here. On Thursday, I made pizza for Wild Thing, a friend, and myself. Two pizzas to be exact, because our friend is young, with youth’s boundless and enthusiastic ability to eat a lot of whatever’s available. I make a decent pizza, if I do say so myself, with homemade dough but, sadly, bottled sauce. I used homemade sauce once, and although it’s good on spaghetti it was all wrong on pizza. So I use bottled stuff.

But pizza calls for mozzarella.

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Now unlike the U.S., Britain never attracted a serious wave of Italian immigrants, and it’s a poorer country for it—something that’s worth keeping in mind as we battle it out over how many refugees we’ll allow to reach these green shores. So Cornwall shouldn’t be your first stop if you’re planning a mozzarella tour of the world. When you ask for mozzarella here, most stores will show you little wet balls of the stuff, called fresh mozzarella, sealed in soft plastic coffins.

Do I sound biased? I’ve never tasted truly fresh mozzarella, but I’ve read that it has 24 wonderful qualities and one is lost in each hour after it’s made. The stuff in plastic coffins, then? It’s edible, even if I can’t get excited about it. But it’s Italian, and we’re all impressed with Italian food, so it sells. As the British recover from a traumatic food history, which includes not just rationing during and after World War II but long exposure to baked beans and overboiled cabbage, they’re exercising their gourmet muscles, trying to build up—well, maybe not a reputation as a gourmet nation but a something, a, um, gee, I seem to have gone all flappy and wordless as I try to describe this.

Okay, here’s what I’m trying to say: I opened Saturday’s paper and turned to the recipes while I worked up the courage to face the latest brutalities of the refugee crisis. Because—I know, in the context it’s grotesque, but our world a grotesque place these days—I love reading recipes, and trying a few of them. And the ones I found called for orange blossom honey, fresh curry leaves, and quails’ eggs. And good sherry vinegar. If you have any of the crappy stuff, don’t use it. Not to mention fennel bulbs. (Bleah—licorice flavor. Shudder, shudder, shudder.)

Not all in one recipe, to be fair about this. But still, you know, it’s not the stuff every home cook keeps on hand. Or the stuff rural supermarkets stock.

I can’t help thinking that these things get tossed into British recipes to establish the gourmetocity of the cooks who write them. You know: Look at us. Aren’t we worldly? Don’t we know our ingredients? So what if you never cook it: Aren’t you impressed?

I’ve wandered. Where was I? Fresh mozzarella in little wet packs that preserve it for so long that calling it fresh violates every Truth in Advertising standard ever established. It’s trendy. So the supermarkets sell it. Hell, even our village store’s been known to stock it. And it’s useless for pizza. Once, in desperation, I tried squeezing the water out of it and using it. I might as well have boiled the pizza.

I do not recommend repeating the experiment.

Plain ol’ mozzarella—the nonfresh stuff; I guess you could call it the dry stuff—is hard to find where I live. Maybe in cities it’s easier. For a while our local supermarket, Morrison’s, sold it by the block, which was great. Then they didn’t sell any. Then they sold it grated. Then that disappeared and was replaced with a mozzarella and cheddar mix, which is blasphemy. Then, finally, they sold a Morrison’s brand grated mozzarella again. And all was at peace in North Cornwall.

Until of course it wasn’t. Because the stuff I bought and used on our most recent pizzas? It was white and it melted—so far so much like mozzarella—but it didn’t taste like cheese. The packaging was the same as the mozzarella I’d bought before, but they’re substituted some uncheeselike substance.

And this in a country that takes cheese seriously. That makes and eats wonderful cheese.

And now we return to Friday, when I was shopping in Morrison’s, having made two bad pizzas the day before, and I was in the dairy aisle, where a kid was stocking something and on an impulse I asked him, “If I made a comment on one of your products, is there anyone who actually listens to that sort of thing?”

To which he said something along the lines of, “Gee, I don’t know.”

We both laughed. There was no point in going on about the mozzarella, but there was also no way not to, so I told him about it. We stopped to unscramble that I didn’t mean the fresh stuff, I meant the grated (since they no longer sell it in bricks).

“I only buy the red Leicester,” he said, “and to be honest that’s crap too.”

How could I not like this kid? I seem to remember Wild Thing swearing off red Leicester years ago, for just that reason, although on the basis of our recent experience I’m ready to guess that we don’t know what red Leicester really tastes like. I don’t remember what else we said, but as we were winding down I said, “Well, if there’s anyone to pass my comment on to, tell them some crazy American who lives here complained about the mozzarella.”

He said he would. We were both, I think, pretty sure he wouldn’t, because who was he going to tell? I thought about calling the emergency services number—which is 999 here, in case you need to know that—but I restrained myself.

Cornwall Gay Pride

We’re a diverse bunch here at Notes, or an ill-assorted one if you like, and I love that, but once in a while it means I second-guess myself before I post something. To be specific, how’s a more conservative subsection of readers going to feel if I talk about a Gay Pride celebration? Am I going to run anyone off?

When I worry about running someone off it’s not about numbers. Sure, I check my stats as obsessively (and pointlessly) as any other blogger, but mostly it’s because I don’t want Notes to turn into an echo chamber for voices who all agree on a 674-point charter that we argued over until we all hate each other. I value the comments I get, and the people behind the comments. I don’t want to lose contact.

But that can’t come at the expense of being who I am. If I shut myself up every time I might drag a reader outside their comfort zone, I’ll bore us all to tears. And right after that I’ll stop writing altogether, because good writing carries an element of risk. You’ll have to judge whether the writing here is that good, but as a goal? It’s what I aim for.

All that long-windedness leads up to this: I went to Cornwall’s Gay Pride Day last weekend, and if that makes anyone uncomfortable, I hope you’ll stay with me anyway. If you don’t, I regret it but that’s what I’m writing about today.

Cornwall Gay Pride.

Cornwall Gay Pride. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

After all that rigmarole, of course, I’ve made myself wonder if anyone who’d be uncomfortable with Gay Pride Day is still around. If you are you’re more than welcome and if you left quietly by the side door I’m sorry to hear it. Thanks for not letting it slam.

Wild Thing and I been in together for 38 years now, which is long enough to have seen a lot of changes in the way same-sex couples are received in the larger world, and a lot of changes in Gay Pride celebrations as well. Here’s what struck me about this one:

First, Cornwall’s a rural county, so it wasn’t a huge gathering, but it was bigger than I expected. It was very much a family celebration: gay people and their families and friends, transsexuals and their families and friends, straight people who weren’t related to anyone but turned out to show support or buy a burger, sit on the grass, and enjoy the entertainment. Little kids, including one girl in a rainbow tutu. And dogs. Lots of dogs.

Organizations had set up booths promoting themselves—hotlines, political parties, the environment agency (!), the fire department (more exclamation marks), the police (multiple exclamation marks). Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians had a booth, and they always leave me with a lump in my throat. They were started by a woman whose gay son had been beaten up while distributing gay-related leaflets. First she wrote a letter protesting police inaction. Then she went on the radio and TV, then she joined a Gay Pride March. Soon she had an organization on her hands, and it’s been going ever since.

When so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual young people have been rejected by their families, it means the world to see families stepping forward in this way, embracing their relatives and their right to live in the open. Which leads me to this: To the families of the gay etc. kids in my life, I hope you know how spectacular you are, and how much you mean to me.

And here I have to stop and say a word or seventeen about that phrase gay etc. For a while the most common phrase was simply gay, then it was gay and lesbian, then it was gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, which was unwieldy enough that it was usually shortened to GLBT, which I can’t help thinking of that as gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato. Recently I’ve seen a bunch of other letters added to the string, probably standing for pickles and mayonnaise and a side of chips, which in Britain are crisps, just in case this was in danger of sounding simple.

The world insists on getting more complicated. I’m as baffled as anyone else.

With the possible exception of mayonnaise, adding all these categories does make our language more accurate, and people get both passionate and political about it when they go to name an organization or write a leaflet. But it does make for a lot of words. Or letters. So for the moment, let’s settle for gay etc. I won’t argue that it’s the best phrase or the most accurate one, but it is the shortest.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to the involvement of the police. To understand why this struck me, you need two pieces of background.

One: Back in the day, when gay etc. sex was illegal (note: in Britain only sex between men was illegal, I’ve read, because Queen Victoria refused to believe that women would carry on that way), bars were one of the few places people could meet. The police could raid them at any time, though, because by definition what went on in there was illegal. Not that people were having sex on the premises necessarily. Dancing together was enough. Touching someone was enough. Being there was enough. People would be arrested, lose their jobs, lose their families. Lives were ruined.

Ah, the good old days.

Two, and this isn’t about the politics of being gay etc.: During one of the New York blackouts, a friend’s parents were in Grand Central Station. The friend’s father had MS, and when everything went dark and people started running around in a panic, his wife was struggling to keep him from getting knocked over. She saw a cop and went to him, saying, “Excuse me, but my husband has MS. Can you help us?”

To which the cop said, “Get outta my way, lady, I gotta help the people.”

And they were both straight and white.

God, I love New York.

I had a similar experience with a New York cop after a fender bender, but it wasn’t quite as outrageously absurd, so let’s stay with this as an example of what I expect from cops. I’m not even going to get into Ferguson, Staten Island, and black lives matter, but they’re not unrelated. When you’re outside the mainstream, you don’t assume the policeman is your friend. The history of the police and the gay community? Not friendly. And here they were, setting up booths about diversity, asking us to sign a petition to restore funding that’s been cut from the Devon and Cornwall police budget.

Wild Thing and I had been to a Cornwall Gay Pride Day before, so this wasn’t a complete surprise. That helps explain my final story.

On our way to the park, Wild Thing and I ran into friends, one of them in a wheelchair. We knew the name of the park but weren’t sure how to find it, and we asked a cop if he could point us in the right direction. You can’t do that just anywhere. But he offered to walk with us, and when the way got steep he took over pushing the wheelchair. He was young. We were once, but it was a long time ago. The pride I once took in doing that sort of thing myself has taken second place to the practical problems of bad backs and creaky shoulder joints and the need not to set that wheelchair rolling downhill when it’s supposed to be going up.

I did take responsibility for the liter of milk he’d been carrying.

So there we were, a young cop pushing a woman in a wheelchair to a Gay Pride gathering and three of us following behind with his liter of milk. I won’t argue that the world’s problems are over, but a few things have changed, and it gives me hope to see it.

People risked a lot to make that happen—their jobs, their families, their education, their peace of mind, sometimes their lives. In places around the world, they’re still taking those risks. Here’s a moment of silence to acknowledge them all.