Cornish history: the Prayerbook Rebellion

The Prayerbook Rebellion started when Henry decided to divorce Katherine.

Yeah, that Henry. Isn’t it odd how we’re on first-name terms with people who wouldn’t have known us from the dirt under their feet?

By way of full disclosure, I set the start date a little early, just for context, so nothing happened for the first few years. Then in 1534 Henry founded the Church of England, with himself as its head. And–no one could’ve been more surprised than him–it decided to grant him his divorce, which the Catholic Church was being very crabby about.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. 

 

Henry the Much-Married starts the ball rolling downhill

The reconfiguration of the church took on a logic of its own, and starting in 1536 Henry closed religious centers–monasteries, hospitals, nunneries, abbeys. Some of them served a purpose in their communities–as schools and hospitals. The confiscated land and the buildings went to the crown and a lot of it was sold off to the wealthy. Who else had that kind of money? 

We’ll get to Cornwall any minute here. I promise.

In 1537, Henry banned the feasts on saints’ days. That included St. Piran’s Day, which is where I finally get Cornwall into the picture. St. Piran is Cornwall’s patron saint, and at this point we have a reaction on record: A fisherman from St. Keverne planned a protest and was arrested and probably executed. In Truro–Cornwall’s capital–a customs officer tried to stop a ship carrying people to Brittany to celebrate some unspecified saint’s day. He was pushed into the sea. The story seems to drop out of history there but let’s assume the ship got away and the people came back later and lived happily ever after.

The next year, pilgrimages were banned. 

You get a sense of how life was changing, right? Anne Bolyn, who Henry divorced Katherine for, had been dead by Henry’s executioner’s hand for two years by now. I mention that as a reminder of how far all this had wandered from where it started.

Along with the ban on pilgrimages came a directive that churches had to use an English-language translation of the bible. When I first heard about that–this was, oh, maybe a hundred years ago–I thought it meant people could understand the book they considered holy. The problem was, English wasn’t Cornwall’s language. Cornish was. 

It didn’t go down well. So let’s talk about the ways Cornwall was both a part of England and not English.

 

Cornwall as a country and a county

Cornwall was governed by England at this point, and it had been for a long time. Technically speaking, it was just another English county.  But it also had a distinctive culture: Not just its own language, but its own style of dress, folklore, naming customs, agricultural practices, and games and pastimes.”

High on the list of games and pastimes was pushing customs officers into the sea.

Cornwall also had two distinctive administrative institutions, the Stannary organisation, which oversaw tin mining, and  the Duchy of Cornwall. We won’t stop to make sense of those; we’ll just take it on faith they underlined its sense of separation.

Writers of the time–and well into the next century–wrote about the Cornish as a separate people, as distinct and recognizable as the Welsh, and about Cornwall as almost a separate country.

So that’s what we get to plunk onto the separate-country side of the scales. On the English-county side was an English gentry, which England had long since imposed on Cornwall, and the gradual inward seep of the English language. 

It might not have looked that way at the time, but from our point of view we can see the Cornish language in a slow retreat from the Devon border down toward the tip of Cornwall’s foot. 

Why’d that happen? The English gentry spoke English, although they may (or may not–I don’t know) have spoken Cornish as well. That made it useful to know enough English to do business with them, to work for them, to mix with them in whatever other ways the non-gentry mixed with the gentry. To people who cared about refinement, the fact that the gentry spoke English would’ve made English seem like the language of refinement. 

Cornwall’s ports would also have been full of the English language and the people who spoke it. This was a time when it was easier to get from, say, London by sea than by road.

 

All hell breaks (slowly) loose

In 1547, colleges, hospitals, chapels, and guilds were closed, and no provision was made for anyone else to fill the roles they’d played in caring for the sick and educating–well, some small number of kids, but still it mattered to the ones who might’ve been able to take advantage of it, leaving a very practical gap. The next year, an English official was stabbed when he tried to take down an image in a parish church. 

That makes it sound like a sudden thing. It wasn’t. The conflict had rocked back and forth for months, but we don’t do detail here at Notes. Twenty-eight Cornishmen were arrested and ten were executed for it. 

Then in 1549, Edward VI–or at least his government, since he’d have been somewhere in the neighborhood of eleven–introduced the Book of Common Prayer. Which was in English. And it insisted that church services follow it. That demand’s called the Act of Uniformity, in case that rings any bells from your long-buried memory of history classes.

Straw.

Camel.

Back.

For all that Cornish was in retreat, it was still Cornwall’s language, and for many people it was their only language. This wasn’t bringing the church’s language closer to them, it was moving it further away. 

Nationalism, meet outraged religious beliefs. You’ll find you have a lot to talk about.

Three thousand men gathered outside Bodmin–the geographical center of Cornwall, in case that’s of any relevance, which I suspect it isn’t–and drew up a set of complaints. They chose a leader, Humphrey Arundell, who was one of the richest and most powerful men in Cornwall and from an aristocratic English Catholic family. 

Was he Cornish or English? These days, the only way to figure out who’s Cornish and who isn’t is by how many generations of ancestors a person has buried in Cornish soil. I’ve been told four. I’ve also been told two. Either way, I’m too late. Whether either of those was the standard then, when Cornish identity was more sharply defined, I don’t know. I know Arundell was born in Cornwall and that he had family in England. He could as easily have been moved by religious belief as by nationalism. 

Either this set of complaints of a later one (sorry–the quotes have all gone adrift) said, “We will not receive the newe service because it is but lyke a Christmas game, and so we the Cornyshe men (wherof certen of us understande no Englysh) utterly refuse thys newe Englysh.” 

Half the church’s confiscated land was to be returned.

The complaints were sent to the government, which shrugged its shoulders and ignored them, convinced everyone would settle down as soon as it was time for Coronation Street to come on.

Then, in the random way that these things tend to happen, a rebellion broke out in Devon, the neighboring county: A congregation forced its priest to conduct the service in Latin, and in case that wasn’t enough, a supporter of the book of Common Prayer was killed. Somehow or other things escalated and the next thing anyone knew (okay: the next thing I knew) an army was marching on Exeter, Devon’s capital. 

You know how things can get out of hand, right? One day you’re killing someone over a prayer book and before you know you’ve got a whole damn army and you’re marching on the capital, thinking, How’d I get here? Do I really want to do this? Did someone think to bring sandwiches?

Arundell hadn’t wanted a fight, but the snowball was rolling downhill too fast. His army started off toward London. His plan was to talk to the government, with a few thousand soldiers at his back to serve as a megaphone, but on the way it took Trematon Castle, where some members of the gentry had holed up, and Plymouth. It also took St Michael’s Mount, which is in the wrong direction. This tells us that sat-navs (what Americans would soon learn to call GPSs) were no different then than they are now.  

Plymouth, by the way, isn’t in Cornwall, it’s in Devon, a change that’s marked by the River Tamar, which is wide enough at that point that you’d be hard put not to notice it. It’s also very wet, both there and along its entire length. But like I said, snowball; downhill; and melting gently in the Tamar’s waters. Who’s going to argue about county borders when all that’s going on?

 

Across the Tamar

At roughly this point, the Cornish and Devon armies joined together and laid siege to Exeter for five weeks, and they would have blown up the city walls but their gunpowder was too wet. That’s the English weather for you. 

The Cornish weather’s no better.

In London, the news that a Cornish army was marching on London caused a panic. Bridges were pulled down. Plays were banned–they might turn people against the government. France rubbed its hands and declared war.

The government sent soldiers to defend Exeter.

The leaders of the Cornish on Devonian armies wrote the government again, saying essentially the same thing: “We will have our old service of matins, mass, evensong and procession in Latin as it was before.”

This time the government wrote back. Three times, in fact, all of them saying no. In a long-winded, oddly spelled sort of way.

Several battles were fought, and I won’t drag you through them. The English army was bigger and the Cornish and Devonians lost. In one battle so many were captured that the English were afraid they’d lose control of them and slaughtered them instead. 

In the final battle, 1,400 were killed and the survivors fled. Arundell went into hiding and was captured (his servant turned out to have been working for the English). He was taken to London and with other leaders of the rebellion was hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Which kind of makes getting slaughtered en masse by the people who captured you look almost good. 

His lands were also confiscated and given to the leader of the English army that had defeated him. He was past doing anything with them by then, but it meant his family lost out. 

All told, some three thousand to four thousand Westcountry men were killed, including some priests and mayors hanged after the rebellion was over. According to one source, hundreds may have been killed for taking part–including many who may not have had anything to do with the uprising. 

 

The aftermath

The Cornish language went into a sharper decline after this, and although the Book of Common Prayer was translated into Welsh, it was never translated into Cornish.

Mind you, I’m not sure how welcome the translation was in Wales.

Stained glass windows were broken out of Cornish churches and images with any scent of Catholicism were destroyed, as they were elsewhere in England. 

Maps stopped showing Cornwall as a separate nation, and by 1700 you don’t find anyone writing about it as almost a separate country.

Ironically, the defeat of the rebellion, which was against the king’s new religion, set Cornwall up to support the king during the Civil War. The king was seen as British and the Parliamentary Army was seen as English. I suspect you had to be there at the time for that to make sense. The Parliamentary Army was also far more Protestantly Protestant than the king’s. I don’t know how heavily that weighed on the scales, but I assume it mattered.

When the king was defeated, it was another whack on the head for Cornwall’s status as an almost-country of its own.

The Cornish diaspora

Cornwall–that nobbly foot sticking its toes into the waters of southwestern Britain–lost about a third of its population in the nineteenth century. 

 

The background stuff

To come up with that number, we have to use a flexible definition of the nineteenth century, then we have to admit that no one actually counted heads. Yes, you can document the number of people who left Britain, which ports they left from, and where their ships were bound, but no one asked where they were from. Or if they did, they didn’t write it down. 

You can guess more or less reasonably that most people leaving from Cornish ports were Cornish, since Cornwall (being foot-shaped and sticking into the ocean) isn’t on the way from anywhere except Cornwall, but not everyone would’ve left Cornwall from Cornish ports. Plymouth, which is in Devon, is temptingly close. 

Never mind. A third is close enough, so let’s call that calculated.

Irrelevant photo: A wild primrose. Although it’s in Cornwall, so let’s call it semi-relevant.

Are we ready to start yet?

Nope. To understand the story, you need to know although England swallowed Cornwall centuries ago, it never managed to digest it completely. 

Cornwall was once its own country, with its own language, and even today it holds onto its identity. The last native speaker of the Cornish language, Dolly Portreath, died in 1777, not all that long before the period we’re talking about, and I’m reasonably sure that “native speaker” here means that Cornish was her only language, not that she was the last person who spoke it fluently, because the language survived in isolated communities into the nineteenth century.

If we’ve got the pieces in place now, we’ll go on.

 

Early emigration

In 1815, the Napoleonic Wars ended, and instead of joy and relief, peace brought a depression. For farm workers, that meant low wages and unemployment. For farmers, it meant being squeezed between high rents and high taxes. 

In Britain, remember farmers were likely to rent their land, not own it. 

For Cornwall, it meant the start of wholesale emigration, with families headed to the U.S. and Canada. 

The West Briton (that’s a newspaper) wrote in 1843, “The spirit of emigration continues active in the neighbourhood of Stratton. High rents, heavy rates, and obnoxious and impoverishing taxes are driving some of the best of our agriculturalists to climes where these demons of robbery and ruin are unknown.”

Agriculturalists? That translates to farmers. And Stratton’s in North Cornwall, not all that far from where I live.

But if poverty and depression were the primary forces driving people out, they weren’t the only ones. Cornwall was a stronghold of Methodism, and even though they no longer belonged to the Church of England, they still owed it a tithe, which was basically a tax the church levied. You could quit the church if you liked, but your money couldn’t. If you left England, though, you could shuck off that history and those obligations and be free in your religion. 

Still, if leaving England gave people a whiff of freedom and the promise of a decent living, or at least a full meal, it also meant leaving their families, their homes, and their culture. It’s the story of immigrants everywhere, and as always, hope mingled with grief.

Between 1815 and 1830, Latin American countries were winning their independence, and some of them drew Cornish emigrants. Copper, gold, and silver were being mined in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, and Cornwall was hard-rock mining country, from prehistory onwards. Cornish miners had the experience mine owners were looking for. The saying is that you can go anywhere in the world and if you look into a hole in the ground you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom, digging. 

In the 1840s, the same potato blight that devastated Ireland hit Cornwall. Potatoes had become a staple in the Cornish diet as well as a cash crop and pig food. With the blight, people faced starvation in Cornwall, although not in the same devastating numbers as in Ireland. But if you’re starving, you don’t stop to argue if somewhere else more people are even closer to the edge than you are. There were food riots.

At about the same time, the Australian government offered free passage to anyone who met their standards. They wanted people who were “healthy, sober, industrious and in the habit of working for wages.” To prove that they qualified, applicants needed two signatures from “respectable householders,” one from a physician or surgeon, and one from a clergyman. Presumably the clergyman was supposed to attest to the sober and industrious part.

Don’t get me started.

They wouldn’t have needed to say this, but they also wanted people who were white. 

 

And the later waves

In 1859, Australian mines started producing copper–lots of copper–and the price dropped worldwide. Cornish mines closed. Then in the 1870s, the price of tin collapsed. More jobs lost. More emigration. 

Reverend Hawker, from a North Cornwall parish, wrote in 1862,

“They come to me for advice. If they have a few pounds out of the wreck my advice always is ‘Emigrate!’ And accordingly nearly a hundred in the current year go across the seas. Our population in 1851 was 1,074 in 1861 it was 868.”

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Cornish began emigrating to South Africa to mine diamonds and gold. By then, steamships had made the trip faster, and miners were more likely to go abroad and return home rather than sink permanent roots in new countries. 

Wherever they went, though, and for however long, many emigrants sent money home. At the end of the nineteenth century, 7,000 miners in South Africa  sent £1 million a year to Cornwall. In 1898, the West Briton reported a rush to the banks after mail came from South Africa. 

By the time World War I ended, emigration had slowed down, but the population of Cornwall kept on shrinking until the late 1960s. By one estimate, between 1815 and 1920, 250,000 people left Cornwall for other countries and almost the same number left to find work–mostly in mining–in other parts of Britain and in Ireland. 

A different source estimates that between 1861 and 1900 44.8% of the Cornish male population who were between fifteen and twenty-four left to work overseas. So did 26.2% of the female population in the same age group. Another 30% of men and 35.5% of women left for other parts of Britain. 

By the time you add all that up, you have something like half a dozen people left at home to keep the fire going.

 

Cousin Jack

Outside of Cornwall, the non-Cornish considered the Cornish to be clannish. Somehow immigrants are always accused of being clannish. They cluster together to share their customs, their food, their memories, their language, their joys, and their grief. They lean into each other for familiarity and for help–material and emotional–in negotiating the transition. And they’re resented for it. It’s an old story, and it seems to play on a loop throughout–well, I can’t speak for all of human history but the parts of it that I know about.

This led to the belief that Cousin Jack, the common name for a Cornishman, especially a miner, came from Cornish miners always lobbying for some other Cornishman to be hired–his cousin Jack. 

The parallel name for a Cornishwoman is Cousin Jenny.

The story’s vivid enough to be convincing, although that doesn’t make it true. Especially since different sources trace the origin of the phrase to Australia, to the California gold fields, and to Devon, Cornwall’s neighboring county. 

The historian and archeologist Caitlin Green traces it to either Cornwall itself or to Devon and wonders if it didn’t start out as a name to mock Cornishmen, which was then stolen and repurposed by the community it was meant to mock. 

Cousin, she reminds us, didn’t just mean a family member at the time. It was a friendly way to address someone who was close but not family.

I’ll leave you with a link to a beautiful and heartbreaking song about Cornwall, mining, and emigration, “Cousin Jack.” It’s by the Fisherman’s Friends, a group of Cornish singers who are the subject of a movie made a few years ago. It’s got a joke embedded in it about Cornish and English nationalism, although maybe you have to have spent time in Cornwall to get it.

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My thanks to Pete Cooper for sending me a link about the origin of the phrase Cousin Jack, which got me going on this.

Surfers, Black Lives Matter, and the Star Count: It’s the news roundup from Britain

Let’s start with the star count: Back in the winter sometime, I posted information about an effort to study light pollution by asking people to count the stars they could see inside the constellation Orion. If you’d like to see the map that compiled from that study, here’s the link.

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I know I said the news was from Britain, but what the hell, I’m sitting in Britain and I’m typing this, so this comes from Britain, even if the news is from the U.S. It’s too good to miss: Someone from Nebraska is suing every gay person on the planet. In federal court.

She’s not claiming gay people have broken any laws. In fact, her hand-written, seven-page statement doesn’t talk about law. She quotes the Bible and she quotes a dictionary.

Now, I’ll admit to having misspelled a word or two in my time–possibly more than two. And ignorance of the law is no defense, so I might be worth suing, although first we should establish that a lawsuit is the appropriate remedy.

But the Bible–. Folks, it’s time we all sat down and had a serious discussion about whether people have to follow the rules of religions they don’t belong to. And if the answer turns out to be yes, we need to talk about which religion’s rules to follow. Because the world’s full of religions, and they have different rules. We’ll find a few areas of overlap, but that’s not going to be enough.

I predict a messy, uncomfortable discussion.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the woman bringing the lawsuit is representing herself in court.

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Relevant photo (it happens sometimes): A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Camelford, Cornwall.

Enough of that. Let’s go back to Britain:

After a slave trader’s statue was toppled into the Bristol harbor, British conversations about black lives matter have focused heavily on the symbolic. In other words, on statues. So a group of white, far-right activists felt called upon to gather in London so they could protect its historic statues.

To avoid violence, Black Lives Matter called off the protest it had scheduled for that day, although other groups didn’t.

The far-right activists drank; threw bottles, smoke grenades, and flares at the cops,; gave the Nazi salute: took off their shirts; and pissed on statues, possibly on the theory that they need liquid to grow.

To be fair, not all of them did all those things. That’s a collective portrait.

A hundred people were arrested.

They made a point of claiming Winston Churchill as one of their own, possibly because someone had painted, “Was a racist” below his statue. I’ll let a tweet from @dannywallace sum the situation up:

“-  Police are protecting a statue from people who want to protect it from people who don’t seem to be there.

“- Meanwhile the man who stopped us all from having to salute like a Nazi is celebrated by men doing Nazi salutes.”

A group called the Football Lads Alliance took part. It’s a British thing, going to a football game in order to get in a fight. Not everyone who likes the game does that, but for some people it’s the whole point. And it does seem to be linked to racism.

I’m not even going to try to explain it. I don’t think it’s anything an outsider is likely to understand..

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At a point where a group of far right demonstrators (let’s call them FRs) clashed with a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators (let’s call them BLMs), one FR was left by his friends and was curled on the ground, surrounded by the group of BLMs they’d been fighting with. Patrick Hutchinson, a personal trainer who’d come with some friends in order to de-escalate clashes, waded in, heaved the FR over his shoulder, and with his friends in formation around him, carried him out.

The photo–a black guy carrying a white FR demonstrator to safety–went viral.

“If the other three police officers who were standing around when George Floyd was murdered had thought about intervening like what we did, George Floyd would be alive today,” he said.

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Near where I live, in mostly white, very rural Cornwall, thirty people held a one-hour Black Lives Matter demonstration in the small market town of Camelford. We were masked and distanced and it took some of us most of the hour to work out that we already knew half of the people we were standing with.

I’d posted the event on our village Facebook page (having a village Facebook page is a tradition that dates back to the middle ages), and the response was a long argument about statues and whether responding to black lives matter by saying “all lives matter” is like saying responding to someone saying, “Save the Amazon,” by saying “all trees matter.”

The argument went on for over 200 comments.

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Further down west (as people say around here), in Porthleven, surfers paddled into the harbor in support of black lives matter.

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On a totally different note, in Italy, a group of drug dealers knew they were being watched by the police and wanted someplace safe to stash their stash until the cops got bored, so they did what any sensible, adult drug dealer would do: They hid $22,000 worth of cocaine in the forest. Where a pack of wild boars found it, tore open the packaging, and spread it all over the forest floor.

It’s not at all clear whether the boars inhaled.

The article I got this from called the boars a horde, which made me realize that I don’t know what you call a group of wild boars. I’ve (arbitrarily–it’s the privilege of the chair to be arbitrary) called them a pack, ruling horde out of order, along with mob, herd, and flock. I haven’t ruled out committee.

A committee of cocaine-fueled wild boars . . .

If you’re a fan of short story prompts, you’re welcome to use that as an opening line. In the story I won’t bother to write, they end up running the country.

It may or may not be fiction.

How English is England? a quick lesson in geology

England’s creation story as we once knew it went like this: In the beginning, whatever god(s) you like to give credit to, along with all the ones you don’t, separated England from France because they thought it would be better that way, and all the humans with an interest in either country agreed that, yea, this was wise.

It wasn’t easy for the humans to do this, because humans only joined the planet some 2.8 million years ago and the separation of England and France took place 400 million years ago. But the tension between the English and the French is pronounced enough that it could have easily predated the human race by some 397 million years, give or take a few months.  

Gods, as it turns out, can be vain–it’s an occupational hazard–and they were so pleased with all that human praise that many million years later they poured the English Channel into the space between the two countries to mark their accomplishment. And lo, the humans lavished them with more praise.

Endangered species: This is a relevant photo–see below for a comment about
stone monuments, although in keeping with tradition this isn’t quite the kind of monument I was talking about.

To be marginally more scientific about this, until very recently the belief was that Britain–that’s England, Scotland, and Wales–was formed when two ancient landmasses, Laurentia and Avalonia, met and married. France had nothing to do with it–it was on a landmass called Armorica–and a marriage can only take place between two landmasses. The third could have been, at most, a witness.

It’s true that this was before marriage had been invented, and possibly even before sex had been invented, but for richer and for poorer, for better and for worser, the two landmasses became one and everyone was happy with the arrangement, especially the English, because there’s something about being English that compels even the most broad-minded people to get sniffy about the French.

We’re going to assume that the French were just as happy, because (at least in my limited experience) they can be sniffy about the English as well. I’m basing that on the number of people my partner and I met in France who asked, “Are you English?” and when we said we were American said (more or less, and in French), “Oh, wonderful. We like Americans.”

That was back when it was easy to tell people what nationality we were. These days it’s complicated. Are we American? Yes. Are we British? Yes. So are we British-Americans? Americo-Britoids? Passport-hopping cosmopolitan nuisances?

Never mind. Let’s go back to our origin story. Here was an arrangement that suited both parties. The English were from Laurentia-Avalonia and the French were from Armorica and never the twain would meet. They didn’t have to trace their geological histories back to a common point.  

It turns out, however, that it didn’t happen that way. Some wiseacres from the University of Plymouth have spoiled it all by taking rock samples from southwestern Britain and Brittany (in western France), playing geologist games with them, and announcing that the deposits left from volcanic explosions in part of Cornwall and Devon match those in France.

This explains why the mineral deposits in the southwest (primarily tin, but also copper, antimony, arsenic, a bit of silver, plus in case you’re still interested, tungsten, uranium, zinc, and occasional supermarkets cart–called a trolleys–that show up when they drain canals) match what’s found in Brittany (with the possible exception of the supermarket cart) but not what’s found in the rest of Britain (again with the exception of the supermarket cart).

So geologically speaking, a fair chunk of southwest England is French, including most of Cornwall, which culturally and historically may not be part of England at all, but let’s not argue about that, I only brought it up to complicate things. And because people I know bring it up regularly, so I feel a kind of duty to toss it into my posts.

What can we learn from this discovery? That marriage is more complicated than anyone imagined and can indeed involve three landmasses. That everyone should settle down and stop being sniffy about whole swathes of people because if we go back far enough we’re all related, as is the land we live on. That we should all save our spikiness for deserving individuals. And for the people we’re closely closely related to and have to play nice with on holidays.

We can also learn that it’s good to have our brain molecules rearranged periodically. That’s the lovely thing about the sciences. They start with a theory, they test it, and when they find information that contradicts it they either update it or throw it out altogether.  

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But the French-Southwest England connection is more than just geological. The cultural links go back to the Neolithic age–that’s the late stone age–when the people of southwest Britain traded with the people of what’s now France. It couldn’t have been easy sailing stone boats back and forth across the channel, never mind hollowing them out, so they must’ve wanted to see each other really badly.

If anyone decides to link to this, please, please note: that’s a joke about stone boats. I had another joke go wrong again recently and I’m feeling just the slightest bit sheepish. If sheep can giggle (sorry, I can’t help myself), which I’ve never seen them do but can’t rule out.

The two groups would’ve shared shared overlapping cultures, because both spent their free time setting huge stones in place to mark we’ll never really know what. Their presence, maybe. It’s too weird an activity not to mark an overlap.

English Heritage (the name doesn’t play universally well in Cornwall) says that “by the later Iron Age, southern England’s principal trading partners were northern Gaul (France) and Armorica (Brittany).” 

If we slip forward to the years after the Romans left Britain, we’ll  find Celtic refugees fleeing the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–or so it’s said. Archeologists are challenging that belief, but we’ll get to that some other time. If the Celts did indeed flee, they left with their language folded neatly into their suitcases. And where did they land? Armorica, which they renamed Brittany.

Then in the eleventh century, the Norman French invaded England, changing the language to French and completing the circle on influence, connection, resentment, and bizarre spelling. They didn’t care about landmasses, they just wanted the land. And its people.

We, of course, live in an enlightened age and do care about landmasses. Please take a few minutes to feel smug.

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.