What people really want to know about Britain: part 6ish

How do I know what the world wants to know about Britain? By taking a quick dip into the search questions that bring people to Notes.

Does that constitute a biased sample? Absolutely. I only see search questions related to topics I write about. So yes, this is completely unscientific. Will that stop me? Absolutely not.

Repeat topics

Tutting: In my latest batch of questions, I found three about English tutting. Now, if you’ve never been tutted, you don’t live in England. Tutting is the way the unwritten rules are enforced. You butt in at the head of the line? Someone tuts you and your soul quietly withers. It’s not a subtle thing, but compared to what an American would do—“Hey, buddy, the rest of us have standing been on line here for, like, half an hour. How about you get to the back?”—it seems that way. It works best if you’ve been brought up to dread it, but even we barbarians know when we’ve been tutted and we don’t like it.

Lawyers’ wigs: I found the usual scattering of questions about lawyers’ wigs, most of them involving the word silly, including the one that wanted to know if barristers feel silly wearing them. After the first twenty or thirty years, I’m guessing they get used to it.

One writer managed to avoid the adjective and asked where lawyers in the U.K. get their wigs. Now that’s a new take on the subject. They get them at the Lawyers’ Wig Store, of course. Which has a separate entrance marked Courtroom Drama Wig Store. Customers meet in the middle and buy the same wigs but they can’t talk to anyone who came in the opposite door on pain of banishment.

No one ever asks if actors feel silly wearing those wigs.

Brussels sprouts: Now that Thanksgiving is past and the Christmas trees have been delivered to the stores, I’m getting questions about why we (we here being the British, so this is the British looking for information about the British) eat sprouts at Christmas.

Isn’t it strange that someone born and raised in this country is turning—or is directed—to me for an answer? It’s enough to make an anti-immigrant campaigner’s blood run cold. It’s enough, in fact, to make me want to answer, even though my first impulse was not to bother, since I’ve written about it in the past.

For the sake of variety, let’s do multiple choice this year: a) Brussels sprouts cast out intestinal demons that would otherwise trouble a person throughout the coming year. That’s why every British mother insists that her children eat at least one. b) They commemorate the fourteenth disciple, whose name has been lost to history but who was very short, even at a time when humans were closer to my height than to what we now think is standard. He was, in fact, so short they called him Sprout. Beansprouts weren’t known in the West until the 1960s, when the hippies discovered them and decided they’d solve all the world’s problems (you can see how well that’s worked). That was far too late and too fringy for a traditional Christmas dinner, so brussels sprouts it had to be. c) How many other vegetables are ready to pick in December? You eat what you can, then it becomes a tradition. And after that, you make up obscure reasons for it. d) All of the above.

The correct answer is d).

I should note that Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in the U.K., but Black Friday, the shopping day after Thanksgiving, has been imported, so a non-holiday ends up being a reference point anyway. Anti-immigrant campaigners should be having fits about this but don’t seem to be worried. There’s no understanding some people.

Why the British dislike Americans: I’ve come to think of this as the American Paranoia Corner. Some people at least ask whether the British dislike Americans, but others leap over that step and go directly to why.

So why do they? Because we think everyone hates us, that’s why. It’s not an attractive quality.

Related to this, in an opposites-attract sort of way, is “americans love living in britain.” (Google searches don’t use caps.) Someone else asked, “do americans like visiting britain.” (Google doesn’t use question marks either.) Yes. All Americans, without exception, love living in Britain and like visiting it. We’ll tear each other to pieces about everything else, but we agree on those two things.

Driving: Someone was looking for photos of narrow Cornish roads and someone else typed in a statement, “emmits can’t drive cornwall,” which is true and would still be true if it included the word in. My favorite, though, was cut short, because it was turning into an essay. It reads, “Official length and width of a passing place on single track lane in cor…”

I love this, because it so misunderstands the nature of Cornish single-track roads, which rarely have official passing places. What our narrowest (as well as some of our wider) roads have is wavery sides, as if the edges had been drawn by a drunk or a kid just getting used to crayons, and these make the width vary between narrow and narrower. In the narrow places, you can pass. In the narrower ones, you can’t. If there’s a field gate, you can pull over to let someone pass. If it’s not too muddy, you can get back on the road again.

I have seen passing places consciously carved out from the fields that border the road, but they’re rare and if anyone’s measured them it’s news to me. I’m guessing they were made by farmers for their own convenience.

New and interesting

Music: Somehow a question about Edith Piaf and Les Barker found its way to me, although their names appear here only once, buried deep inside a post about the differences in musical notation in Britain and in the U.S. I’d guess that the poor soul who typed that search was looking for the lyrics to a parody Les Barker wrote of the Piaf song “Je ne regretted rien.” Barker’s version was “Non, no courgettes,” and if you type that into Google you’ll find discussions of male and female courgette flowers and how to grow zucchini, which is American (and Italian) for courgette. Which is British and French for zucchini.

Don’t you learn a lot here? And isn’t it important stuff?

I didn’t go very deep into the list the great googlemaster offered me, but I couldn’t find either my post or the lyrics. Or a recording. Which is a shame, because the song deserves more visibility. Unfortunately, the lyrics aren’t mine to publish, so you won’t find them here, and as a public service I refrain from recording my singing.

You’re welcome.

Notes from the U.K.: Someone asked, “who writes notesfromtheuk.” I might as well confess: Fast Eddie, the cat, dictates it to me, mostly on Wednesdays so I can post it on Friday morning. I can pass it off as my own because he can’t read and wouldn’t bother to if he could.

Thanks, Eddie. You’re a great cat.


Two searches are looking for–well, it’s probably better if I get out of the way and quote them. The first reads, “driving throug narrow land writte on note back.” The second corrects that to “driving though narrow land written on note back.”

Narrow land written on note back. Is this the start of a fantasy novel? Is it bad typing? Whatever it means, it’s haunting, but I doubt the searcher found what she or he was looking for. I feel bad when that happens.

Driving in Britain: courtesy and narrow roads

British drivers are—at least to an American eye—amazingly considerate. Where two lanes narrow down to one, they merge in turn like the two sides of a zipper instead of edging each other out. When you’re stuck on some side street and losing hope that you’ll ever be able to cross the closer lane of traffic and turn into the far lane, someone will hold back and wave you across. And when the road’s too narrow for two cars to pass, most drivers will pull over if they’re close to a wide spot and see a car coming toward them, or they’ll back up if they know a wide spot is behind them.

You’ll notice, though, that I left myself some wiggle room in that first sentence: I said, “at least to an American eye.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, British drivers believe that [other] British drivers are rude, thoughtless, and hovering every second on the brink of lethal road rage.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

They also—again, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly—believe that the sky’s not as high as it used to be. But it’s hard to truly know what other people believe. That’s why I turn to tea leaves. I started buying loose tea not long ago, so I’m ready to check the tea leaves for an answer any question.

I do not, however, guarantee accuracy.

But even given my low standards for courteous driving, there’s always someone who’ll break the pattern, and I met him on a very back road some years ago.

It was the kind of road that hasn’t been graded (that, I think, is an Americanism; it means scraped until the humps fill in the potholes and you can drive it without jarring your fillings loose) since Henry VIII was in power. It also had stone walls on both sides and they were are set very close to the road. And for a long stretch, it had exactly one lane to accommodate traffic that ran in two directions. A lot of roads in Cornwall are like that, but this was a particularly narrow one.

I was halfway down it when another car showed up and instead of waiting for me to reach the end of the narrow stretch the driver drove straight at me. Since we were on the only straight road in Cornwall, he either saw me or was driving with his eyes closed. I assume he thought he could make me back up.

When roosters lay fried eggs he could. I kept going and when we were within pitching-a-fit distance of each other, I pulled as far toward the hedge as I could and turned the engine off. And there we sat. If I’d had a deck of cards, I’d have laid out a game of solitaire on the dashboard, but the best I could do was turn on the radio and stare serenely out into space. Eventually, he pulled as far to the left as he could and started nosing past me. Anything so he didn’t have to back up. There’s a bumper sticker around here that says, “Welcome to Cornwall. Your car’s not as wide as you think it is.” Well, mine is as wide as I think it is, and so was his, and I folded my wing mirror in but even so I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t both end up wearing each other’s paint jobs. And that was before his car tipped gently toward mine as his wheels rode up on a (really, very narrow) grassy stretch beside the road.

At this point I rolled my window down and said, “Are you okay?”

It was a serious question.

He stopped inching and said, “What did you say?” and if I’d wanted a fight I could have had one at a discount, although I can’t see how either of us would have gotten out of our cars unless we’d poured ourselves out the windows.

I repeated what I’d asked, and I don’t remember that he answered me, but he turned away and started inching again, and eventually he got past me and I started my engine and left.

I don’t’ know what, if anything, that tells you about driving in Britain. But it does tell you not to take cultural generalizations too seriously. Even when they’re true, you can always find an exception.

Driving in Britain: road signs and narrow roads

When I first started driving in Britain, it was white-knuckle work. Not because I’m a timid driver. I drove cab for five years back in Minneapolis, which  wasn’t a war zone, I admit, but it was and is a city, and the winter driving in particular could be hair-raising. Still, nothing prepared me for British driving.

The part I thought would be hard, keeping the car on the left, turned out to be the easy part, since that’s where all the other cars were and it’s easy enough to stay with the herd. When there’s no herd it was sometimes harder, but if there’s no one around you’ll do the least damage if you turn into the wrong lane. What was hard? Among other things, finding the steering wheel. More than once, I opened the passenger door, prepared to slip behind the wheel and drive, and instead stood there blankly thinking, Somebody stole my steering wheel. Who’d steal my steering wheel?

Look, I’m not responsible for what goes on in my head. As long as I refrain from acting on it, everything’s okay.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: A couple of people asked what the china cottages I wrote about looked like, and what I did with the ones I didn't send to my friend. Here are the ones I have left.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: A couple of people asked what the china cottages I wrote about in my boot sale post looked like, and what I did with the ones I didn’t send to my friend. Here are the ones I have left. The two with the brown roofs are replicas of the one labeled “Shakespeare’s cottage.” Apparently, he lived in three houses and they all looked alike.

I had similar moments with the seat belt, when I’d be groping in mid-air wondering where it had gotten to. (FYI: In British, that would be got to. I have no idea why.) L.’s husband, she told me, spent a lot of his driving time slamming his hand into the door when he wanted to change gears.

But those are moments. They pass. The roads though? They go on for as long as you’re driving, and if you want to get philosophical about it you could argue that they go on regardless of whether you’re driving or not. So let’s talk about the roads.

Before my first trip here, I had no idea how narrow British country roads could be. At every blind turn (and oh, does this country have a lot of them), I was convinced some big damn truck was going to come barreling toward me with half its wheels—and half its everything else—on my side of the road. Because where the roads are seriously narrow, people can’t help driving down in the middle. And in other places, they could but they don’t. Or they don’t always. Its standard practice around here to shave a bit of the curve off two particular stretches of road. They don’t happen to be blind, but still, it’s not a great habit.

It took a long time, but I’m finally used to narrow roads. I’ve stopped expecting trucks to appear in my lane. I can drive the hour and a quarter to Plymouth, where Wild Thing goes for eye treatments (which are working, thanks for asking; there’s a limit to what they can do, but they’re doing what’s possible; six cheers for the NHS, and cheer fast before the government succeeds in wrecking it) without feeling like it’s a big deal. I suspect I could do it without getting out of bed.

But I’ll admit to being thrown by a sign I noticed on a recent trip: Oncoming traffic in middle of road.

The first question I have about this is why it’s worth noting. Even by British standards, the roads in Cornwall can get narrow—something I know because I see panicky British tourists plastering their cars to the hedges while oncoming drivers breeze past, barely bothering to slow down because what the hell, there’s at least an inch to spare. But in most of the places where that happens, you won’t find an Oncoming traffic in middle of road sign. So why put one in this particular spot?

Which was, just for the record, in Devon, not Cornwall, but still, it wasn’t in what I’ve learned to think of as a particularly narrow spot, although once upon a time it would have scared me brainless.

The second question is what they expect me to do what about it. Screaming comes to mind. Some people might want to pray. But neither of those reliably avoids, or even minimizes, an accident.

I can’t answer either question—don’t you love how much you learn from this blog?—but I can happily waste a bit more of your time considering it.

An age or two ago, when I asked what people would like me to write about, Terri suggested British road signs and I tried to be at least mildly amusing on the subject but bored myself silly. I’m not sure I’m being wildly amusing this time around, but I’m still awake, and that’s a good sign, so let’s keep going.

British road signs fall into three categories.

Comprehensible signs

You see a sign that says 30 and you pretty much know you’re looking at the speed limit. Or you see a graphic that shows an intersection, a curve, two lanes turning into one. You can follow those. Or you see words: Ford; Reduce speed now; Slow. Useful but boring, so let’s move on.

Comprehensible (but only if you sent away for the secret decoder ring) signs

A lot of these are standardized European Union signs, which are wordless so that they’re equally incomprehensible in all of the many languages spoken throughout the union. Once you get used to them—well, I won’t say they make any intuitive sense but you can begin to think they do. A circle with a slash through it? Of course that means you can resume the national speed limit. The fascinating thing here is that you just know a whole committee of people spent hours—did I say hours? I meant months, and they felt like lifetimes—talking about what graphics people would intuitively understand. And then finally they looked at each other, said, “Screw it,” and settled on these, after which they went out for a drink.

Make that several drinks. They needed them.

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming them. They were handed an impossible and necessary task. Standardizing the signs makes sense. Making the signs wordless makes sense. Unfortunately, whatever solution you come up with will be absurd.

One of my favorites in this category made me think at first that I was being told to push my car off a pier when, in fact, I was being warned not to drive off one. But after a while, as long as you’re not in the car when it goes over, you begin to figure these things out.

If Britain leaves the EU this summer, a whole ‘nother committee will convene to discuss what to replace them with, because the old ones will be politically tainted. I can hardly wait to see what they unleash on us.

Eccentric signs

Some of my favorites in this category are the signs that warn you about road closures, because the people who write them are paid by the word (it’s the only explanation) and I’ve been a freelancer myself so I understand what they’re going through. They say things like, “We’re really very sorry about this, but we’re going to have to close this road between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Sunday 3 March in the year of our Lord 2016, and we hope it isn’t too inconvenient, especially since it may actually take a little longer than the time we have scheduled. We’ll finish up as soon as ever we can.”

I don’t care how much you slow down, you can’t read that. Neither can your passenger, even though he or she has the luxury of not watching the road. And you just know the sign writers would have squeezed in a few more words if they’d had a smaller font available.

One of the early signs of Wild Thing’s eye problems was that she had trouble reading road signs. Not just the road closure signs, but you know how it is: If you’re struggling with sane signs and then look at a road closure sign, you forget that you never could read them. Instead, you think, Crap, my eyes are worse than I thought.

So thanks for those, guys. We appreciate your efforts.

Then there are the signs that say “flood.” These are entirely legible to anyone with normal vision and they get put out where a heavy rain will flood the road. Then they get left there through drought and fire and plagues of locusts and they’re still there when the next flood comes around, although they may have faded into illegibility by then. Or been there so long that they’ve gone invisible. When I first saw them, I used to look around for a bunch of badly behaved water. Now, though, unless they’re actually sitting in water I ignore them. Which sort of defeats their purpose.

Directional signs range from the clear to the useless. I’ve driven through cities where the only way to leave a roundabout in the direction you had in mind is to read the markings on the road. (That’s assuming, of course, that you weren’t sharp enough to memorize the graphic of the roundabout that precedes it, which on our first trips here we often weren’t.) Lanes will be marked with things like “City Centre,” “Tavistock,” “Moon Landing Site,” and so forth. So far, so good. You find your lane and follow it. But the lettering on the road is only legible when traffic is thin. The moment other cars are rude enough to think they can share the roundabout with you, what do they do? They drive on the damn pavement. Which means they block the lettering. Which means you go through the roundabout three times, hoping for a gap in the traffic so you can read what they hid last time around.

In the U.S., we hang the directional signs above the traffic. They’re ugly as mud, but you can find them.

Other signs are homemade things. Some are little sparkly things asking you not to litter, which are so upbeat and good humored that you want to (first) sink your teeth into someone’s arm and (second) throw candy wrappers out the window. Followed by vodka bottles. Others are assertive black and yellow signs that say “Overhanging Roof” in the hope that if you’re driving a big honkin’ truck you’ll refrain from tearing the corner off their roof. Again. (Did I mention that the roads are narrow?) Or panicky signs that beg you to ignore your sat-nav because it will tell you to drive into someone’s living room, or into a lake, or down a street that’s too narrow for anything wider than Molly Malone’s fish barrow and we all know what became of her. Ever since we moved here, I’ve been seeing newspaper photos of truck drivers stuck in narrow streets, sometimes for days, while the world tries to figure out how to unstick him (to date and to my limited knowledge, they have all been hims)—or more accurately, his truck—without tearing down the houses. Here’s a photo from January of this year and another from March.  And what did they do in the second incident? Arrested the driver. I guess if you’re driving and you see a house in your way you should probably hit the brakes and all, and maybe a traffic ticket really isn’t enough of a response to someone who doesn’t. Still, I can’t help sympathizing with a driver who’s watching the road get narrower and narrower, feeling an escalating sense of panic, and thinking, If I can only get out of here before anyone sees me, this will never have happened.

If there’s a single sign visitors want to learn before they come to Britain, it’s the one that says, “Ignore your sat-nav.”

I’m not sure any of that is what Terri had in mind when she asked me to write about road signs, but if not, ask the question again in a different way. I just might get it right. Or at least be funnier.

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.

Crime in Britain

Let’s talk about crime in Britain.

On June 14, the newspaper carried two crime-related stories. The first took place on the Scilly (pronounced, yes, silly) Isles.

You have to understand that if Cornwall’s rural, the Scillies are not just rural but cut off by a whole lot of water. The only way to get there is to take a ferry or a small plane to the largest island. From there, you can take a boat to the smaller ones. None of the islands have much in the way of crime, so it made the news when someone slapped a phony parking ticket on a rented golf buggy and upset a tourist. I think a golf buggy is a golf cart in American, but I can’t swear to that because of my sports allergy, which is too severe for me to get near a golf course, never mind learn the vocabulary. Whatever it’s called, it was being used as transportation because forget bringing a car onto the islands. And it was parked, but not illegally.

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen, who's a better photographer than I am.

Irrelevant photo by Ida Swearingen, who’s a better photographer than I am.

The police say they consider the ticket a malicious communication, which can lead to a six-month jail sentence.

First, though, they have to find the culprit.

What else have the local cops been up to? A seal pup had wandered onto the main street (that’s the high street if you read British). They let it go with a warning. They also broke up a drunken fight between two chefs. It was about whether rock salt was better than sea salt.

Tough neighborhood. If you visit, don’t leave your wallet in your back pocket.

Those of you who aren’t British and followed the link may have been struck by the hats. People who want to be cops in Britain have all sorts of personal reasons, but I’ve never understood how they could get past the hats. I know one serving and one former cop and I’d ask them but I can’t think of a diplomatic way to word the question.

But someone will tell me why the hats are great, and that’s what makes a horse race, so let’s move on.

In Islington, a man was arrested for charging his phone from a socket on the London Overground Trains. He was handcuffed, hauled off to a British Transport police station for abstracting electricity, and then also arrested for unacceptable behavior and becoming aggressive. I’m not sure if this second arrest involved a second set of handcuffs and if the additional charge won him a third set, but I’m fascinated by the idea that they didn’t just throw extra charges at him, they rearrested him—presumably before they’d let him go in the first place.

Abstracting electricity carries a maximum sentence of five years. It’s enough to make a person think the phone isn’t all that important, y’know?

The culprit—sorry, the alleged culprit was later de-arrested. Give me back all those handcuffs, you malefactor!

As far as I know, nobody here uses the word malefactor, but the police really, honestly do use the word villain. With a straight face. It’s just, y’know, what they say. So they arrested the villain for abstracting electricity.

And here we should pause and consider the word abstracting. I know you can’t see electricity, but it seems real enough to my untutored mind, not abstract or theoretical or anything. But I didn’t go to law school, so what do I know? I still get thank-you letters from the schools I might have applied to because my grades were good and they just might have had to accept me.

Well. I apologize for not giving you a link to this earth-shaking article, but I read it in the print edition and can’t find it online. If you rely on electronic media and you can spend your life in ignorance of the things that matter. And maybe that means it really is abstract.

In a different week I might have skipped over both articles, but not long before I read them an expat website sent me a survey about crime “where you live.” I think they meant Britain, but since I live out in the country I told them what it was like literally (and I’m using literally in the literal sense of the word) where I live. I don’t usually answer surveys—it’s hopeless; give me two choices and I’ll pick the third—but for some reason I answered this one.

I wrote that a lot of people in our area leave their doors unlocked. Not everyone, but more than a handful. I know people who leave their keys in the car. It keeps them from wondering where they left them. Them being the keys, not the cars, which are still there in the morning. Except for the time two people who shall remain nameless (especially since I’ve forgotten who it was) decided they were too drunk to walk home so they’d have to drive. They’d walked to the pub, but they knew someone nearby whose keys were always in the car. I won’t get into either the wisdom or the ethics of that—they’re too obvious to bother with. Everyone lived and the car was returned.

That’s not the full list of crimes in the village. I’ll write about them another time.

Intercultural adventures: Reading road signs in the U.K. and the U.S.

How do the British and U.S. cultures differ? Read the road signs and you can learn a lot.

Ice Badger called my attention to the issue in a comment about calling cats. I admit, the link between the two topics isn’t obvious, but it made sense at the time. So fasten your seatbelt, please, because we’re going to investigate road signs and I hate driving while someone’s bouncing around loose in the back seat.

A few weeks ago, Wild Thing and I drove past a temporary road closure sign on the slip road onto the motorway. I’ll translate that: The sign was about repairs and it was beside the freeway entrance.

Wild Thing was driving, so she asked, “What did it say?”

Damn near relevant photo, from Wikimedia. An American road sign--apparently part of a Highway Department test of dangerous signs. The speed limit isn't really 625 mph, it's 62.5.   Why would anyone bother with .5 mph in a speed limit? Never mind. Someone had fun with it, I hope.) And the edge of the sign went through the windshield in a test crash.

Damn near relevant photo, from Wikimedia. An American road sign–apparently part of a Highway Department test of dangerous signs. The edge of the sign went through the windshield in a test crash. And the speed limit isn’t really 625 mph, it’s 62.5. Why would anyone bother with .5 mph in a speed limit? Don’t ask.

Signs announcing repairs are so wordy here that we’ve stopped trying to read them while we’re driving. They say things like, “We’re terribly sorry to announce that this road will be closed between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the fifth day of March in the year of our lord 2016 for repairs. We regret the inconvenience but the work is necessary for the smooth functioning of the United Kingdom’s infrastructure.”

I exaggerate only slightly. The repair work is done county by county, so they wouldn’t say “United Kingdom,” they’d name the county. But the fine points don’t matter. If you’re going to write a 500-word essay on a movable sign, you have to use small print, and that in turn means that drivers can’t begin to read it until they’re on top of it. And then they’re past it and they’ve only gotten as far as “terribly.”

When I’m the passenger (which isn’t often; I tend to get carsick and do better when I drive), I try to pick dates or times out of a sea of letters. If I see “p.m.” after the first number, it’s overnight construction and I can toss the road closure into the mental drawer marked “Stuff I don’t need to know” unless we’re planning some late-night driving. If I can’t pick out p.m, I have to shove it into the drawer labeled “Things I don’t know much about but that worry me.” In an odd way that’s good, since it’s overstuffed and this particular worry won’t get much individual attention.

On the other hand, if the road’s going to be closed for days at a stretch, I might actually need to know that and I won’t. So it’s worth a bit of worry. Maybe I’ll lay it neatly on the top layer.

To all of that, the Highway Department (which isn’t called that, I’m sure—I’m importing an American term) says, “Tough.”

Or “We’re terribly sorry, but this is the way we do things here.”

What would an American sign say in a similar situation? “Road Closed, March 5, 7 a.m. – 4 p.m.” Or something along those lines. In large print.

It all goes to reinforce national stereotypes, I’m afraid: Americans are blunt and to the point. Or rude, if you like. Road closed. No apologies and no explanations. The British say about themselves that if someone stands on their foot, they’ll–the person whose foot is being stood on–will apologize, so their signs first apologize and then throw in a bunch of extra words to soften the blow.

The British countryside and Winnie the Pooh

Nothing reminds me that I’m living in the British countryside quite the way crossing a ford does.

I know. Fords have been around ever since people and small rivers were first introduced, but even so the fords in our village make me think I live in Pooh Corners. And for the record, no, I’m not sure there were any fords in Winnie the Pooh, but there was a stream and—well, I don’t want to pretend I’m being reasonable about this. What I’m remembering, I think, is one of the illustrations, about measuring the height of a stream during a flood.

Funny what sticks with you from your childhood.

North Cornwall's coast

Irrelevant photo: North Cornwall’s coast on a hazy day

This all goes to show you what a New Yorker I am. New York City doesn’t do fords. In fact, it doesn’t do streams. As far as I know, many years before I was born, someone (or more accurately, some many) maneuvered all of New York’s streams into pipes and then paved them over. The city does have three big honkin’ rivers (or two, or maybe one, depending on what you count as a river and what you count as a straight), and that’s plenty, thanks.

When you grow up with pavement, not having streams seems natural. So much so that I used to wonder where streams came from. Not where rivers came from. They came from upstream, as any fool could see. In case you need further proof of how attuned I was to the natural world, I once looked into a huge hole in the street and was surprised to see earth and rock under the pavement. I don’t know what I expected, but scaffolding probably wouldn’t have surprised me. So living in Cornwall not only with streams but with fords? That’s exotic.

Wild Thing grew up in Texas, and her family used to spend time in Colorado. She swears that when they came to a ford and the river looked higher than usual, her parents would have her wade across to make sure it was safe for the car. She never got washed away, so I’m guessing these weren’t raging torrents. Her parents weren’t reckless or neglectful, but it’s also true that they never stopped her from exploring abandoned mine shafts, so I don’t have the impression that they were over-protective either.

In fairness, she wouldn’t have told them she was exploring mine shafts, but a different set of parents might have asked. Or discussed. Or at least warned.

Whatever the pluses and minuses of their approach, she came out of it with an enviable gift for gauging the depth of a stream, and that’s something I don’t have. I understand three levels: low enough to wade; higher than the waterproof part of my shoes; and ask Wild Thing before taking the car across. The first two are reliable. The third? It’s helpful only if Wild Thing happens to be with me. So far I’ve managed not to get swept away, which is why I’m sitting here typing this. I’ve turned back only once, and I probably I didn’t need to, but I figured it was better to wonder than to be wrong.

Years ago, some government agency set up gauges beside the fords. These look like gigantic rulers and go from 1 at the bottom to You’re in Deep Shit at the top, although in my city-bred opinion you’re in trouble by the time the water reaches 1, because for the most part the gauges sit serenely above the normal flow and I’d turn back long before the water reached them, even though at most fords that means having to back a long way. I’m good at backing a car. I’m not good at estimating fords. Give me a choice and it’s pretty clear which I’ll take.

I’m not sure what the gauges are for, really. Maybe so that, Pooh-like, we can measure the depth of the stream for no better reason than to know if it’s still rising. The valleys here are sharp and narrow, so the rainfall spills into the streams quickly. In a heavy storm, a stream that’s normally a trickle can rise to a torrent, especially if the ground’s already saturated. It can fall just as quickly as it rises, and I suppose a gauge could keep you amused while that’s happening, although you might be smarter to go back to your nice warm kitchen and wait. You could also look for another route if you’re driving. If you’re walking, the fords have foot bridges, so you should be fine. If the water comes up over that, you’d be smart to get out of there instead of watching the gauge.

In my city-bred opinion.


And unrelated to that, Notes has now been updated, with a new theme that looks one hell of a lot like the old one but should work on phones. In addition to that, it was going to have all sorts of added Googlery that would tell me if a gnat flew past your screen while you were reading it, and which would also reach through atmosphere and hijack unsuspecting readers, launching my stats to astronomical levels, but the whole thing went wrong and instead my posts stopped reaching most of you. The ancient Greeks called it hubris. So the googlery’s disappeared, everything except the new, barely discernible new theme is back (I hope) to where it started, and I’m toning down my ambitions. Or looking for another way to channel them.

Thanks to the people who wrote to say they couldn’t click through to the “Trouble, trouble, trouble” post. It’s now reappeared (along with a great comment from Cats at the Bar) and I’ve lost another post, which was nothing but an attempt to update the people who couldn’t click through to “Trouble, trouble, trouble.”

Don’t worry about it.

If you have any trouble let me know. But if you get this, that probably means you’re not having any problems.


Delivery Trucks and Village Gossip on the Cornish Roads

On Monday, I drove to a nearby hamlet to pick up a couple of blueberry plants. The hamlet’s locally famous for its road, which is one lane wide, closely hedged on both sides, and shaped more or less like a gigantic Z. Periodically, a delivery truck will get stuck on the one or the other of the Z’s angles. Or maybe that was only one truck, one time, but by the time the story worked its way to our end of the parish it’s happening once a week, and the trucks get stuck so thoroughly that road only stays open because of a Bermuda Triangle effect: No sooner does a new truck got stuck than it’s wafted bodily to wherever it is that trucks go when they’ve been not just good but a tiny bit careless as well.

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

So there I was, leaving with my blueberry plants, and what should I end up following but a truck. It was a blocky, one-piece thing—the kind that could deliver a dining room table, say, or a couch—and it was moving creeping along the way driver do around here when they’re looking for an address, which is another way of saying that it was lost. Except for one small patch of the village, addresses out here have nothing to do with street names and house numbers. Most of our roads don’t have names and most of our houses do, although they don’t necessarily display those names where you’d think to look for them. Most drivers find the post code they’re looking for, then wander helplessly, hoping to spot a name plaque.

Abandon logic, all ye who enter here.

I should have turned around and taken long way home, but—I guess it was curiosity that made me follow the truck. Here was parish legend, about to enact itself in front of my eyes. How could I turn away?

The truck reached the bend and stopped.

It sat there.

I sat there.

Beside the bend is a farm gate, and from behind the gate a dog barked.

I walked up to the truck to ask if they were okay. I mean, what with Bermuda Triangle effect and all, I might be the last person to talk to them. Before I could ask, though, the driver jumped down and asked if I knew where Tre-something was.

This being Cornwall, half the houses are called Tre-something. “Tre” is the Cornish word for homestead. Or according to some people, place. Or town. I don’t speak Cornish, so I can only report the muddle that’s passed around in the name of wisdom. Half the villages are also Tre-something, so I expect the rumors are right: It means both.

The villages that aren’t Tre-something are Saint Whosit.

I’m not good at remembering which house is named what, so I didn’t have a clue where Tre-something was. I asked about the post code and the passenger called it out to me from inside the truck.

This might have been helpful, but I didn’t know the hamlet’s post code.

I can’t think what they’d have done if they hadn’t run into me.

At this point in most can-you-tell-me-how-to-find conversations, the driver decides I’m not worth listening to because with my accent I can’t be local, but these guys didn’t do that. They were desperate, on top of which I hadn’t offered any information for them to dismiss, but even so it made me absurdly fond of them.

Finally the dog barked long enough to bring first one person out of the farmhouse and then two more. The driver asked the first one asked about Tre-something and she asked the other two, then one of them asked who lived there and all four of us shook our heads and said we didn’t recognize the name. At intervals, one after another, we repeated “Tre-something” as if that would help, and we shook our heads some more.

The dog kept barking. I began to suspect it knew Tre-something.

I asked about the farm’s post code and we established that it was the same as the one the guys in the truck were looking for.

If we’d gone on any longer, we’d have asked what they were delivering and what color it as and whether it matched the curtains, but instead one of the people from the farm said he was fairly sure Tre-something was on the other side of the ford. I was fairly sure it wasn’t, not because I knew the first thing about it but because I was convinced that post codes change when they cross water. But honestly, I’ve lived in the parish for eight years. The people on the other side of the gate have spent their lives here. I know—on rare occasions—when to shut up, and I did.

“If it’s not there,” the man said, “you can ask at the post office.”

This is the universal answer to can-you-tell-me-how-to-find questions. The driver headed for his truck.

At this point, I noticed that the truck’s front bumper was snuggled sweetly into the farm’s stone wall, which forms the most unforgiving part of the Z bend. The truck wasn’t, strictly speaking, too big to make the turn, but it was big enough not to make it easily.

I backed up to give it space. It backed up, with the help of some gesturing from behind the fence. In addition to an altruistic desire to help, the people behind the gate wanted to protect their wall.

Before the truck had backed far enough to try the bend again, I understood, with all the clarity of revelation, I didn’t want to be behind it if and when they didn’t find Tre-something on the other side of the ford. The road doesn’t make any sharp bends on that side, but it’s still only one lane wide. If they got into another long conversation, it wasn’t going to be as interesting—especially since I’d be out of excuses for jumping out of my car and joining in. So I backed up 100 yards (I’m making up the numbers, as I make up most numbers, but it was a fair distance) before I could turn in someone’s driveway, and I went home the long way, sacrificing my chance to see if the truck made the turn.

By the time I passed the post office, the truck was parked outside.

I never found out what they were delivering, but I bet someone in the post office did.

Consulting the Internet and the Chicken Entrails about Cornish Roads

I went to a meeting the other day, and I consulted the internet about it the night before. That’s the modern version of killing a chicken and consulting the entrails to find out how your trip’s going to go.

The internet entrails told me I’d need one hour and one minute to get there.

I figured I’d allow myself an extra ten minutes and be heroically early.

In the morning, I forgot about the ten minutes, but how many meetings start on time anyway? I punched the post code into the sat nav I stole from Wild Thing because I don’t believe in them unless I need one, in which case see I steal hers. That gives me access to both a sat nav and the moral high ground.

The sat nav spit the post code back out. I punched it in again. The sat nav offered me a list of alternative post codes, some of which were close but close wasn’t what I needed. I could find the town without the damned thing. What I needed was the final details.

mulfra 098We went through this several times until it accepted the post code. I will, of course, swear that I entered it correctly all sixteen times and that the sat nav was both pigheaded and wrong for the first fifteen, but you probably won’t believe me. I’m not sure I believe me either.

I was now going to be late. I was also now ready to accept that you can’t get from my house to Pool, where the meeting was, in one hour and one minute. And I’d kind of known that the night before, but I wasn’t ready to question the wisdom of the chicken entrails then.

I drove, telling myself I’d make up lost time. This was, of course, a crock. (A crock, my writers group tells me, is an Americanism. It may also be as out of date as I am, so if you need guidance, allow to me ask you, ever so delicately, to imagine what I’m implying is inside the crock.) Unless you’re on one of our few four-lane highways (or the occasional, very short, three-lane stretch), you have to be a whole lot crazier than I am if you’re going to make up time around here.

At the Pool turnoff, I realized that the sat nav hadn’t been speaking to me since I left the house. Why hadn’t I noticed? Because I don’t enjoy her conversation, so I hadn’t missed it. Our sat nav, by the way, is a her, and her name’s Dorothy, and she’s been losing her voice a lot lately. The last time it happened, Wild Thing fought with her until she started speaking again but she—Wild Thing, that is—wasn’t sure what she’d done, so I stood no chance of reproducing it. It involved a lot of swearing, which I can reproduce effortlessly, but I’m guessing that wasn’t the effective part. And I didn’t have time to wrestle with the sat nav anyway—I was already heroically late—so I drove into Pool trying to keep one eye on the little brown arrow.

Tell me, I begged the universe, that this isn’t a part of the county where sat navs don’t work.

I didn’t expect the universe to answer and it didn’t. Begging the universe is just one of those things I do to pass the time when I’m coming unglued. I fully expected the little brown arrow to direct me into an abandoned mine shaft or the frozen food aisle of the nearest supermarket. That optimism meant I was ready for it when the little brown arrow told me to turn where there wasn’t a street.

You can’t fool me, I told Dorothy, and I drove on.

The hell she couldn’t. The little brown arrow disappeared.

I turned around and tried again, somehow expecting to get different information this time. The little brown arrow still wanted me to turn onto a non-street, but it was at least paved, so I tried it and ended up in a supermarket parking lot.

I turned around before we got to the frozen food aisle and I drove back to where the arrow had disappeared, pulling into the parking lot of a small business. I walked inside and threw myself on their mercy.

They must’ve been used to this. Not only were they kind, they’d heard of the complex I was looking for and gave me usable directions.

“Sat navs,” I said, trying to look as befuddled as, in fact, I was. I felt—I have no idea why—that I owed them that.

“Sat navs,” they said, nodding and looking wise.

I got to the address, which turned out to be a Free Public Attraction (please note the capital letters, because they’re not mine; I’ve borrowed them from a sign I passed) about Cornish mining. With a not-at-all-free parking lot. I hadn’t counted on that and hadn’t brought much change, but I plugged in what I had, which was enough to carry me to the 11 a.m. break, when I might be able wangle change out of someone somewhere.

Or leave if the meeting turned out to be as pointless as I sort of suspected it would be.

I could probably have used my phone and credit card to pay, but (remember the internet and the chicken entrails?) I was late.

So in a gentle Cornish mizzle, I walked in through what must once have been a working mine complex and now that the mining’s gone is a tourist attraction. I thought melancholy and ironic thoughts about hard, dangerous work and low pay and tourist attractions but didn’t have a lot of time for them because I found the right building and went into a tasteful and (I assumed) expensive modern lobby where there was no sign pointing me to my meeting, only one saying Memory Café.

You know about memory cafes? They’re for people with some degree of dementia, to orient them to I have no idea what. Reality, I suppose, which at the moment didn’t strike me as a particularly wondrous gift.

I found an office and asked a woman about my meeting. She gave me a blank look. I produced my agenda.

“That’s tomorrow,” she said.

I could have gone to the memory café but reality wasn’t looking particularly good so I drove home.

Mrs. Baggit Struggles to Keep Britain Tidy

The first time Wild Thing and I visited the U.K., Maggie Thatcher was the prime minister and whatever ministry was in charge of roadsides had planted them with metal signs saying, “Mrs. Baggit Says, ‘Keep Britain Tidy.’”

That bit of brilliant public relations was finished off with a picture of a tied-off bag with a face—Mrs. Baggit’s, presumably, happily stuffed with garbage. It was impossible not to connect her image with Mrs. Thatcher’s, and some small part of my brain continues to insist, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that Thatcher’s real name was Maggie Baggit.

Irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

irrelevant Photo: Rose Behind Bars, by Ida Swearingen

We did a lot of driving on that trip, so we spent a lot of time looking at the signs and finding funny voices to quote them in.

“Mrs. Baggit says…”

Mrs. Baggit had a lot to say on that trip, all of it scold-y, although I can’t remember exactly what it was anymore. Except, of course, for “Keep Britain Tidy.”

To understand why that kept us amused, you need to know that tidy sounds different to an American ear than to a British one. To me, tidy is fussy. It’s small. All I have to do is think about it and I want to make bitsy motions with my fingertips, as if I’m cleaning up a dollhouse. As far as I can tell, none of that is true in the U.K. It’s just a word here. It means neat and doesn’t make your fingers do funny things in the empty air, although H. tells me the Mrs. Baggit part sounds fussy.

I should stop here and admit that when I started that last paragraph I was going to speak for an entire nation: For us (us here being all Americans—every last differentiated, argumentative one of us) tidy is fussy. Then some minimal sense of modesty (not to mention accuracy) caught up with me and I thought it might be nice if I didn’t mistake my mind for the mind of an entire, not to mention large and varied, country, even if I did grow up and live most of my life there. So I’ve backed off a bit. But I still hold that it has different overtones to an American ear than to a British one. That much, I think, is fair.

Language is like that. We think of it as a solid, but it’s not. It’s one of those slow liquids, like Silly Putty, that changes shape depending on what holds it, or who.

So how successful was the campaign? I never saw British roadsides before it started, so I can’t make a comparison, but I know this much: If you look for litter here, you’ll find it. And if you don’t look for it, you’ll find it anyway. I’ve seen places with more, but Mrs. Baggit hasn’t stopped the litterbugs mid-throw.

And who in their right mind thought she would?