The Peasants’ Revolt: England, 1381

Last week, we scrambled through the mud of medieval England meeting the serfs. Or as they were also called, the villeins. You will, of course, remember every word I wrote, which is good because I don’t and someone should take the trouble. 

We ended, as any good miniseries does, on a cliffhanger: Individual serfs–by no means all of them, but some–were challenging their place in the system, trying to prove in court that they weren’t serfs.  When that starts to happen with any consistency, I claimed (and, of course, I know these things), it’s a sign that the system’s starting to crack. An increasing number of people didn’t fit into the old slots, but society was doing its damnedest to keep them stuffed in there. 

Obviously relevant photo. This is Fast Eddie, free cat of this village. He is relevant to everything that matters.

In The English Rebel, David Horspool says that before democracy (or anything that passed for it) wandered onto the scene, popular rebellions seemed to pop out of nowhere. The country’s rulers knew next to nothing about the people they ruled, and the ruled had no way to make their voices heard. Self-preservation advised them to keep their opinions to their unworthy and unwashed selves. So basically there were no tea leaves for the experts to read. Tea hadn’t been imported from Asia yet anyway.

Still, there were hints for anyone who knew how to read them. One of them was those scattered people going to court to prove they weren’t villeins. 

Another was—. Well, let’s back up a second. The Black Death had swept through the country, leaving a labor shortage. That happens when, oh, maybe a third of a country’s population dies. And farm laborers and artisans noticed that friends and co-workers were missing. How could they not? 

So what did they do? They took off, looking for better pay, better work, a breath or two of free air. Or they stayed put and tried to get a better deal where they were.

If you ruled the country, you could take those as hints or you could follow the example of those wise those caring people who actually did rule the place and pass the 1351 Statute of Labourers, freezing wages, restricting movement, and punishing offenders by, variously, putting them in the stocks, fining them, and tossing them in jail. And doing twice as much of it if they broke the law again.

It’s worth mentioning that while wages were frozen, prices were rising.

The statute’s goal was to contain the “malice of servants,” which was doing “great damage of the great men, and impoverishing of all the said commonalty.” All you laborers, back in your uncomfortable little slots. The stability of the entire society depends on you shutting up and acting like you’re making that space work for you.

Interestingly enough, the statute also covered unbeneficed priests–priests who didn’t have a church appointment, which meant they didn’t get the income a church appointment brought with it. I haven’t found any information on why the statute applied to them or how it affected them. Maybe unbeneficed priests were considered the laborers of the church and had their pay fixed along with everyone else’s. I might as well confess that I didn’t read the full text of the statute. It listed so many job categories–hostelers, harbergers, workmen, servants, dairymaids,tailors, tawers of leather, and assorted others–that I got too dizzy to read on. 

But never mind that. Can I offer you a warning instead, just in case you wake up some morning and find you’re the ruler of a wildly unequal society (and aren’t we lucky not to live in a world where they’re easy to find)? Be careful about letting the everyday poor make common cause with people whose education has set them up to nurture an expectation or three. Because when those two get together, they make an explosive combination, and unbeneficed priests (along with artisans) were strongly represented in the Peasants’ Revolt, even though it’s still called the Peasants’ Revolt, not the Peasants’, Artisans’, and Unbeneficed Priests’ Revolt. 

The people in charge of England at the time not only didn’t have the advantage of my advice, they didn’t see people going in search of higher pay as a hint of trouble to come. So they followed up on the Statute of Labourers by introducing poll taxes, which were taxes on “each person in the land, both male and female.” 

Isn’t it nice to see women mentioned for a change? 

The phrase poll tax comes from middle English. Poll meant head. If you had a head, it was taxed. Or it was if you’d had it long enough, because the tax did have a minimum age limit. It’s unseemly to tax newborns.

Poll taxes were imposed in 1377, 1379, and 1380, and the last one triggered the rebellion–or it helped to, in a last-straw kind of way. It was a flat tax–the richest and the poorest had to pay the same amount: a shilling from everyone above the age of fifteen. That was three times the amount of the poll tax that came before it.

To translate that, with complete accuracy, into modern terms, a shilling was a shitload of money. Or it was if you were poor. So if you couldn’t scratch up a shilling, you could pay by handing over your tools, your seeds, your cow. And if it left you unable to feed your family, maybe you should have thought it through before you grew such an expensive head.

Why all the taxes? Because England was in the middle of the Hundred Years War with France. (How do you respond to a disaster like the Black Death? Why, you keep right on fighting an endless war.) England was more or less always at war with France. Let’s not go into the reasons. It was like smoking: one of those habits that’s hard to give up. And like smoking, it was an expensive habit. That’s why all the taxes.

In response to the third tax, 450,000 people magically disappeared from the record books and the government appointed a commission to find them and collect all those missing shillings, one by one by one. In three Essex villages, Fobbing, Cottingham, and Stanford-le-Hope, a royal commissioner ran into trouble. A hundred or so people gathered, refused to pay, and when he tried to have them arrested ran him out of town.

Then they “went to the woods for fear of his malice,” according to a contemporary chronicler. By the time another commission came to arrest them, they’d gone from town to town, gathering support. The commission thought better of the job and left the rebels in control of the county–some 50,000 of them according to a contemporary estimate, although you might want to think twice before you take medieval numbers seriously. It’s better to think of that as a poetic way to say “a lot of people.”

The rebels sent letters to Kent, Suffolk, and Norfolk, calling on people to rise with them, and they may have been written by John Ball, so let’s take a minute to talk about him. He was a priest who for some time had been preaching the coming of a classless society and backing up his argument by drawing on the same religion that normally backed up the existing class hierarchy. 

“When Adam dalf and Eve span,” he preached, “who was then a gentleman?” 

Dalf? That’s means  dug, although I’ve usually seen it as delved. Span means spun

Ball was excommunicated in 1366 but went right on preaching, although not in churches anymore. He preached in churchyards and open marketplaces, and every so often he was thrown in jail for it.

Even though being excommunicated meant people weren’t supposed to listen to him, it didn’t seem to have dented his popularity. When the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, he had enough of a reputation that the rebels broke him out of Maidstone Prison and he joined them.

And now, instead of going backward let’s take a stop to one side:

In Kent, the rebellion was sparked not by the tax but by a dispute over whether or not a local man was a villein. It was one of those court cases I mentioned earlier, although I can’t tell you why this particular one sparked the rebellion instead of half a dozen others. But it did and local rebels seized the local castle. After that, some half of the rebels said, “Job done,” and went home, but the other half stuck around to burn records “so that once the memory of ancient customs had been wiped out their lords would be completely unable to vindicate their rights over them.” 

Burning the records seems to have marked a turning point in the rebellion. It took on a larger aim, and it’s at this point that Wat Tyler emerged as a leader. Not much is known about him. He might have fought in France–which also says he might not have. We’re doing well to have his name.

It’s hard to put all this together in any sort of coherent narrative. The chroniclers of the time were universally hostile to the uprising, and the rebels didn’t leave much in the way of documents. Their letters calling for risings are an exception, and they’re rich in imagery but light on concrete detail. In modern English, part of one says, “John the Miller hath ground small, small, small / The King’s son of heaven shall pay for all.”

If you’re going to invite me to a local uprising, could you please be more specific? I appreciate the poetry and all, but I’m a who-what-when-where-how-and-why kind of person. But the people who received the letters must have understood, because rebels gathered from across the southeast. One strand of rebels headed to Canterbury, where they demanded that the monks elect a new archbishop. They also executed a few folks, who were handed over to them by “the people.”

Which people? Dunno. How enthusiastically or unwillingly did they hand them over? Dunno that either.

Eventually the various groups of rebels gathered outside London, although other parts of the country also saw uprisings. Chroniclers of the time estimate the London group at 100,000. Modern historians, who are more accurate but nowhere near as much fun, guess the number at 10,000, but that was still bigger than most armies of the time and way the hell more than the government could call up at short notice.

England had no standing army at this point, remember. Or–well, why should you remember? They didn’t. New information. If they wanted an army, they called up aristocratic warriors, and they called up the armed free men under them and little by little an army gathered itself. 

Unless, as occasionally happened, it didn’t. But even at its best, it took time, so the rebels had the advantage.

The rebels included free and unfree peasants, tradesmen, laborers, unbeneficed priests, artisans, and some minor gentry, including a knight or two. Their enemy–as they saw it–was the king’s government and advisers, not the king himself. They were loyal to the king. 

Across the Thames from London, they attacked the Marshalsea prison, setting debtors and felons loose. They attacked the archbishop’s manor, where they burned more records. Then guards opened both London Bridge and the city walls to them, either out of fear or sympathy–we’ll never know. 

Inside the city, the rebels were violent but well focused, and they were joined by “the commons of London.” They opened more prisons and burned the much-hated John of Guant’s Savoy Palace without looting it. In the lawyers’ section of the city, the Temple, they destroyed both property and records, beheading eighteen individuals who were targeted for reasons that, as far as I’ve been able to find out, are lost to history. 

Some sources say the violence was more widespread and included slaughter of Flemish residents. When in doubt or anger, blame the immigrants. The point Horspool makes, though, isn’t that the rebels were saints but that they had effective leadership. This wasn’t simple rioting, it kept a political focus. 

The King–Richard, in case you care, who was all of fourteen–and his advisers hied their asses to the Tower of London, which had (and still has) its own set of walls. There his advisers went into a collective meltdown and couldn’t come up with any advice to offer their kinglet. It was the kid who decided to talk with the rebels. 

Which he did, at Mile End, while a few rebels somehow got into the Tower and executed a handful men they particularly hated, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Well, they had called for him to be replaced.

Meanwhile, out at Mile End, the rebels presented their demands to the king: “that henceforward no man should be a serf nor make homage nor any type of service to any lord, but should give four pense for an acre of land. They also asked that no one should serve any man except at his own will and by means of regular covenant.” 

The king said, “Yup, sounds fine to me,” and the meeting broke up. The killing in London continued that day and the next. 

Richard called the rebels to meet again and spoke with Wat Tyler, who (apparently; remember, we’re getting the story from a limited range of chroniclers who weren’t journalists) again presented their demands, expanding them to include an end to outlawing, the dividing up of Church goods, allowing provision for the clergy, and no lordship except for the king’s. 

Again the king agreed and issued pardons and charters of manumission–a way of releasing people from serfdom. 

Then the mayor of London tried to arrest Tyler, who stabbed him through his armor. The mayor stabber Tyler in the neck, someone else in the king’s entourage ran him through, and Tyler fell off his horse and called on his followers to avenge him.

How did everybody stab everybody when they were on horseback? No idea. Maybe we’re talking about swords, not knives. Maybe they were closer than I imagine them. Again, we’re getting the story from medieval chroniclers and they weren’t journalists. For all I know it’s not hard to stab someone when everyone’s on horseback. I have a shocking lack of experience with this.

The rebels, in spite of their overwhelming numbers, hesitated. This was the king–the person they’d pledged their loyalty to. The good guy who was surrounded by bad counselors.

Or they didn’t hesitate but drew their bows. As usual, accounts differ. The most common one is that Richard rode toward the rebels, calling that he would be their captain and leader, renewing his promise of freedom and pardons.

Whatever the exact events were, the rebellion was effectively over.

The charters of freedom were promptly forgotten. Rebel leaders were executed. John Ball was hung, drawn, and quartered, and his assorted body parts set outside London’s walls. I mention that in case you’re inclined to focus on the rebels’ violence. It was far from one sided. When the government finally gathered up an army, it marched into Essex, where there was still some resistance, and slaughtered five hundred rebels and killed a hundred more later on. Or some other large numbers, since we’ve agreed that any number over one is unreliable.

And the king’s promise? It disappeared without leaving so much as a puff of smoke behind. He now told rebel envoys, “You will remain in bondage, not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live and, by God’s grace, rule over the realm, we will strive . . . to suppress you so that the rigour of your servitude will be an example to posterity.” 

The Statute of Labourers was reinforced in the next few decades. England never formally abolished serfdom. It died out, but slowly.

On the other hand, no one tried to impose any more poll taxes. And, as these things tend to do, the legend of the rebellion lingers on, often in romanticized form.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The butterfly net I use to trap strange search engine questions has been filling up quickly, so even though I did a what-the-world-wants-to-know post just a few weeks ago, I can’t let riches like these go to waste. The questions are in italics and appear in their original form, however odd it may be.

The search for important information about Britain

england is not another name for great britain!

A-plus for the answer (or in British, A*, pronounced A-star). But what’s your question? And more to the point, why are you bothering Lord Google about something you already know?

Irrelevant photo: roses.

do brits just talk about weather

Before we can answer this, we have to figure out what it means. This should depend on which word just is hanging off of, but English-language writers dump just into sentences according to what sounds good, then figure that what they’ve written means what they think it means. But any grammar obsessive could tell them that the location determines the meaning. I’m not going to rant about that. The language is used the way it’s used, regardless of what the grammar books say, and I’m on both sides of these issues anyway. Passionately.

Still, it leaves me not knowing what the writer meant. So what are the possible variations here? 

Do Brits just talk about the weather as opposed to doing anything about it? Well, pretty much, yeah. You know how it is. We’re all like that when you come down to it. Talk, talk, talk. And the damned rain keeps coming down.

Or, in defiance of the order the words come in, do they talk just about the weather as opposed to, say, talking about feel-good topics like Brexit and global warming? Well, no. The British talk about all sorts of things. Shoes and ships and sealing wax. Brexit and potatoes and school buses.

Okay, not so much about sealing wax these days. And that’s a Lewis Carroll poem that I’m mangling. His version rhymes.

Or–I’m stretching a point here, but what the hell–do just Brits, as opposed to other people, talk about the weather,? No, it’s  a pretty common topic, given that most of the world’s countries (and therefore people) have something that passes for weather.

I’d go on, but the question only gave me three words to dangle just off of.

I hope I’ve been able to help.

why are we called great britain

Am I the only person who hears something plaintive in this? It has a kind of Mom-why-are-they-callling-me-names? quality.

It’s okay, sweetheat. They don’t mean anything by it. It’s because you’re big. Why don’t we sit down and have  a nice cookie?

Or maybe we should call it a biscuit.

ceremonail position in british government black rod

I’m tired of Black Rod, probably because I’ve heard entirely too much about parliament lately, what with Brexit and all. But yes, Black Rod has a position in the British government. Whether you consider it ceremonial or essential is probably a matter of opinion. Me? I’d call it ceremonial to the point of silliness, but I would, wouldn’t i? 

P.S. You misspelled ceremonial. I nevr misspell anything.

ploughman’s lunch history

It starts as a full plate–cheese, a roll, a pickled onion, chutney, butter if you’re lucky. Three grapes and a twisted slice of orange you’ve gone someplace fancy. Then it gets eaten. Or most of it does and the odd bits get left and someone takes them back to the kitchen and scrapes them in the trash and that’s it. End of history. 

It’s wasteful. I ordered a ploughman’s once or twice because it sounded more appealing than a cheese sandwich, but it’s nothing but a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich. 

characteristics of an aristocrat person how do they act

All aristocrats have exactly the same characteristics, to the point where every morning they call each other to work out what they’re going to wear. 

Okay, I shouldn’t get put off when people ask about this, because I wrote a snarky post about some titled idiot behaving badly and I gave it a clickbait heading about behaving like a British aristocrat. So it’s my own doing if I get search engine questions about it.

But if we’ve established that, let’s go on: Behaving like an aristocrat isn’t about having perfect manners, it’s about (a) considering that your manners, however horrid, are perfect, and (b)looking down on people who don’t behave the way you do–or who try to but who have to learn the secret handshakes from Lord Google.

Lord Google  will never tell us all the secret handshakes, just enough to leave us exposed as wannabes. But even if we find the missing bits and behave exactly like the aristocrats, we were still foolish enough to choose the wrong ancestors so we can’t be part of the club.

Silly  us.

It’s depressing to know (or think I know) that someone out there is trying to play this game. Don’t do it, folks. Aristocracy is a closed and toxic club. They don’t want us in and if we have a brain in our heads, we don’t want in. 

when will we know more about brexit sept 2019

We all wish we had the answer to that. And September’s already well in the past.

does a map show you how narrow a road is

Yes, but measuring the width of the map’s lines to the nearest micro-whatsit won’t help. You have to look at the letters associated with the roads. They won’t exactly tell you the width, but they’ll let you figure out how slow your drive’s likely to be, which is a related question. 

M roads–they have an M before their number– are motorways, the best roads the system offers. A roads–A followed by a number–come next. Some of them are hard to tell from motorways. They’re divided highways with a 70 mph speed limit and make a nice straight line from wherever you started to wherever you’re going. And other A roads are nothing like that. They’re two lanes, and they run through the middle of every town along the route. But they’re better than what comes next: B roads, which may be two lanes but may have one-lane stretches.

Then there are roads that no one bothers to give numbers to. Or they give them numbers but don’t bother to tell anyone what they are. In the summer, in touristed areas, they’re lined with nervous visitors who’ve plastered their cars to the hedges, letting the oncoming cars figure out if there’s room to pass.

There almost always is.

how do british cars pass on such narrow roads?

On the narrowest ones, everyone gets out and disassembles the lighter-colored car, moves it past the darker one, and puts it back together.

Why the lighter one? It’s a simple, non-judgmental way to choose, and it saves time-consuming arguments. 

And if they’re both the same color? Well, that’s where your arguments start. We need a better system. Everyone agrees, but we have to settle the Brexit mess first.

what was uk called before great britain

England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. Unless you want to go back to Latin, the Celtic languages, and Anglo-Saxon. And Pictish. For part of that time, though, we’re dealing with micro-kingdoms and it gets messy.

why do british people eat brussle sprouts at christmas?

Because it gives them the strength to face Boxing Day, that extra holiday that comes on December 26.

 

The search for important information about everything else

what is the actual date of 2019/09/04

I can answer that: It was 2019/09/04. 

But let’s talk about dating systems, since someone’s brought them up.. The American system starts with the month, follows with the day, and ends with the year, making 04/09/2019  April 9, 2019. The British and European system flips the first two elements, so the same numbers give you 4 September 2019. 

Isn’t this fun?

The British and European system doesn’t use a comma before the year. Or after, in case the sentence straggles on. The American one does.

Moving back and forth between the two systems means that you can’t be sure what date anyone–including your own bewildered self–is talking about unless they name the month or bring in a day that’s larger than twelve.

I don’t know any dating systems that open with the year, so I have no way to tell what, if anything, the date in the question means. I asked Lord Google for help but he told me I wasn’t asking the right question, so I ended up as fodder for someone else’s post about strange search engine questions.

Lord G., as is his way, wouldn’t tell me what the right question was. Dealing with Lord Google is like being trapped in one of those fairy tales where bad things happen because bad things happen and the world doesn’t reward the just and kind.

So what’s the actual date? My best guess is that it doesn’t exist.

is a vigilante sticking up for someone

It never rains weirdness but it pours it down by the bucketful. Is a vigilante sticking up for someone? Not as often in real life as in the movies. Has someone seen too many movies? Probably. Is a movie watcher having trouble finding the line between fiction and reality? Most definitely. 

For what it’s worth, friends, if you’re facing injustice and overwhelming odds, don’t look for a vigilante. And for pete’s sake, don’t become a vigilante. Vigilantes can propel decent shoot-em-up plots–or if not decent, at least popular–but in real life they end up as lone nuts with guns who leave grieving families in their wake. Try organizing. It’s slower and it’s less dramatic, but it spills less blood and it just might do some good in the long run. 

I have no idea why that question came to me. 

how to respectfully decline an award nomination

Be nice. Explain your reasons. Say thanks. Shut up. 

whats cultural about brownies

They like literature and classical music. They’re not much on visual art.

medieval catholic teaching sex

All the medieval Catholics are dead. So are the medieval everybody elses. That means none of them are teaching sex anymore. But they weren’t much good at it, so don’t worry about having missed out.

What people really want to know about Britain, part sixteenish

What do people ask their search engines to tell them about Britain? Or, to be more modest about it, what do they ask that leads them to Notes? A few sensible things, but never mind those, we’ll explore the stranger ones. 

Place Names

british place names pronunciation dictionary

A pronunciation dictionary would be handy but the whole point of spelling your hometown one way and pronouncing it some other way is to leave outsiders looking silly. Dulwich? That’s pronounced like a dull itch. Beaulieu is Bewlee. The unpronounceable-looking Ightham Mote? That’s Item Mote. And (I always toss this one in) Woolfardisworthy is Woolsery. 

Semi-relevant photo: The waterfall at St. Nectan’s Glen, which is pronounced St. Nectan’s Glen, which in turn is no fun at all so it’s also called St. Nectan’s Kieve, which is pronounced keeve.

why do they not call england great britain anymore

Please sit down so the shock doesn’t leave you with a torn muscle: They never did. But the universe holds an inexhaustible store of ignorance about this so we’ll never be rid of the question.

Of course it would help if the country very formerly known as England, then known as the United Kingdom, and after that as the United Kingdom of several confusing places and in other contexts, for rational but confusing reasons, known as Britain and also as Great Britain and occasionally as You There, would settle on one name and somehow get rid of all the others even though they make perfect sense if you can only get your head around their differing uses and meanings. 

Guys, I know its your country and you can call it what you like, but are you sure this is a good idea? For a good portion of  the rest of the world, wrestling with your name(s) is like reading a Russian novel: You have to figure out that Ivan is the same person as Vanya and Vanechka (if I’ve got that one right–don’t trust me too far on it) and Ivan Borisovich and Grushkov, but they’re all used for different reasons by different people and convey different relationships to him. And of course, there are fourteen other important characters and twenty-five minor ones, all with an equal number of names. 

But to answer the question, they never did call England Great Britain. You’ll find a link to an actual explanation of this further down. But in the meantime, since we’re talking about Russian novels:

War and Peace

berwick still at war; also berwick on tweed at war with russia

It’s not. What’s even more disappointing (since this would have been a bloodless war, without even diplomatic consequences), it doesn’t seem to have ever been. 

The story goes that little Berwick-upon-Tweed was listed in the declaration that started the Crimean War but was left off the peace treaty, stranding it forever in a war that it had to carry on all by its tiny self. I’ve done just enough research to learn that people who do genuine research have discredited the tale. Although, hey, it could all be a conspiracy to cover up something huge and dangerous. You can’t prove it isn’t, can you? The absence of evidence could be evidence of how big the cover-up is.

The story of why it might have gotten a separate mention in either a declaration of war or a peace treaty, since larger towns didn’t, is (like many things British) convoluted and interesting. You’ll find it here

Profound Philosophical Questions

why do we saygreat britain

What was the person who typed this trying to ask? Was it:

  1. Why do we say “Great Britain” at all? or
  2. Why do we say, “Great, Britain,” in a tone of encouragement or celebration? or
  3. Why do we say “Great Britain” when we could say, for example, “saxophone” or “peanut butter”? 

If it’s 3, it’s probably because Great Britain is on our minds at the crucial moment and peanut butter and saxophones aren’t. 

Is it unwise to think of peanut butter and saxophones at the same time? It’s not good if you’re a saxophonist. If you’re not, it’s probably okay, although if you let the mental image get too vivid (and I have, unfortunately) it can be unpleasant.

If it’s 2, it means Britain’s doing well in some international sports uproar.

If the question is 1, however, it’s because that’s the place we were talking about, so saying “France” or “Puerto Rico” or “Berwick-on-Tweed” wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But honestly, why do we say anything at all?

I do hope that helps, although I’m not optimistic about it. 

What does it all mean, bartender?

It means I should embed a link to an earlier post on the subject, that’s what it means.

why does beer in london taste better than thr us

Because you had too much before you sat down at the computer. Also because you were a tourist in London and happier there. It wasn’t your real life. It’s (relatively) easy to be happy when you’re not in your real life. Even the beer tastes better.

It’s also made differently. Different countries, different brands, different approaches to making the stuff. Way back when I was less than a hundred years old, one of the Minnesota beers ran an ad campaign implying that the water made a difference. I don’t mean to sound naive, but maybe it does.

If it makes you feel any better, the bagels are better in New York. 

Tourism

how english people feel about american tourists

Let’s start with the American part of the question, although without getting into the problem attached to calling one country by the name of two entire continents. English people (at least the ones who are willing to go on record) all (every last one of them) think our accents are charming. Or they claim to. Maybe they’re being diplomatic. 

Everyone seems to agree that we’re noisy, and there’s a lot of empirical evidence to back this up. 

A lot of them think we say water and butter in the most amusing way possible.  

Beyond that, I’m not sure you’ll find any sort of unanimity.

The tourist part of the question? Tourists anywhere are a pain in the neck. Local economies are desperate for their money, but that doesn’t mean anyone loves them. 

Sorry. I thought someone had better tell you.

americans are more tolerant of brits than the other way around

Sez who?

how do people recognize american tourists?

I asked for help on this one.

M. says it’s by their shorts and tee shirts.

Both I. and C. say it’s by their noise level.

I say it’s by the way they butt into line–or (since a British friend had no idea what I meant when I said this), jump the queue. 

Were you hoping to skulk around incognito? 

Requests Important for Cultural Information

do they have brownies (desserts) in the uk

Do you mention “(desserts)” to distinguish them from the junior version of Girl Scouts who in the U.S. are called (no, I have no idea why) Brownies? In that case, no. They have Girl Guides in the U.K., not Girl Scouts, and girls as young as five can join. You don’t want a junior version when five is the minimum age. It leads to crying and running into the street. 

People who type questions into search engines have an obsession with brownies (of the dessert variety). And with whether they exist in (depending on the phase of the moon) Britain, Great Britain, the U.K., or England. The answer is no. In order to distract us from the Brexit fiasco, a tyrannical government has banned them. To shut off the supply, spy networks have been established to search out people who deal in them.

This, of course, means there’s a lot of money to be made, so restaurants sometimes take the risk but hide them under random combinations of ice cream, whipped cream, fruit,  and chocolate syrup.

Someone’s going to take that seriously. I just know they will.

in england what color are the mailboxes and boobs

Well, dear, the mailboxes are red. The boobs are generally the same color as the rest of the person wearing them, although on people whose skin has tanned they’ll be a bit lighter than the parts that see the sun. Unless, of course, they’ve also seen some sun.

Why did you feel you had to ask?

visiting britain do they talk about the weather

Not as often as people ask about whether they talk about the weather.

I’m reasonably sure the British unleashed that stereotype on themselves, and that they think it’s funny. But correct me if I’m wrong.

In fact, the British do talk about the weather, but then so do Minnesotans. Both groups also talk about other things. Both groups believe they have a lot of weather to talk about. 

It’s okay, O prospective visitor. You can drop by without packing a prefabricated set of weather observations. If someone says the weather’s wonderful, all you have to do is agree with them. If someone says the weather’s terrible, you agree with them too. Don’t tell them how much better or worse it is where you come from. Nothing awful will happen if you do, but you won’t kept your side of the unwritten bargain.

is bell ringing dangerous?

Mostly, no. But after you stop giggling, you can google bell ringers’ injuries and find out about everything from rope burns to broken bones to why giving the rope a good hard yank if one of the bells is hard to ring might just bring the bell down on your head.

what do the english think of americans right now?

That we’ve made some, um, strange political choices. Or possibly that we’ve lost our minds. That’s not a universal opinion but Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that it’s fairly common.

As for me–sorry to get serious on you–I am completey horrified by what the country’s been doing on the Mexican border. I’d like to say that I don’t recognize the country I grew up and lived most of my life in, but that’s not entirely true. The seeds of this have been lying around for a long time. This flowering has left me thinking about how easy it is to come to terms with evil. 

does english beer have less alcohol than united states; also enhlish beer compared to usa

The United States is a big country. Not as big as Russia. Not as big as Canada or China. But still, big. On the other hand, since it’s a country instead of an alcoholic drink, it’s hard to find a reliable measurement of its alcohol content. Or its taste if that’s what the second question is asking about. 

That’s not taste as in the famous H.L. Mencken quote, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public”–especially since that isn’t what he actually wrote. He wrote something baggier, snobbier, and less memorable. 

But no, we’re talking about the taste of English–on enhlish–beer compared to the U.S., which is like comparing apples and radial tires. That makes it a question no one can answer.

As an aside, lots of people want to know about British (or English, or Enhlish) and American beer. Mostly they want to know which is stronger. If I wrote about nothing but beer, I’d have more subscribers but they’d all be too plastered to read.

church of england prdinad funding

If they get any money that way, I haven’t been able to find out about it. It could be another cover-up.

Miscellaneous

what did people call themselves if they were from great britain and ireland

Some called themselves Saoirse, which was awkward for English-only speakers, because they go into brainlock when that many vowels bump up against each other. Some called themselves–well, you don’t want me to go into the full list of possible first names, do you? 

I’m not sure what time period we’re supposed to be talking about. The past tense covers a long stretch of time, but if it’s a relatively recent period we’ll just remind ourselves that in these days of intercultural mingling (and they’ve been going on much longer than most people think) they’re no longer limited to names that comes from English and Gaelic. They could call themselves Ahmed or Svetlana and still be from both places. And other people could call them that as well.

If, on the other hand, the person who asked that was looking for British a parallel for Irish-American, I doubt they’ll find anything as compact. A friend describes herself as being British, of Irish heritage. It’s clunky but its accurate, and it’s  not at all the same thing as Anglo-Irish.

putting the kettle on

I have no idea what someone was hoping to find by typing this into a search engine–maybe an invitation to drop in and have a nice cuppa. 

As far as I’ve been able to figure out, this brushes up against one of the friendliest things you can say in British: either I’ll put the kettle on, or Shall I put the kettle on? 

I’m not sure why it has to be shall instead of should, but it does seem to work that way. 

Footnote: I’ve lived in Britain for thirteen years now but I still don’t have a great ear from British speech, so I could be wrong about that shall. I can tell you, though, with absolute certainty, that getting dialog right in someone else’s version of your language is no easy trick. I’ve seen British journalists, whose training emphasizes getting their quotes right, substitute the British phrases they thought they heard for the ones some American they were interviewing would have said. The examples I can remember involve an American talking about his mum and someone else talking about a drinks cabinet.  

We–or most of us, anyway–seem to have an over-eager little translator built into our brains, who takes any number of the interesting things we hear and turns them into the predictable things we expect to hear and then engraves them in our memories that way. Which is a long-winded way of saying what I already said: I could be wrong about the shall.

It’s also a warning: Unless you’re goddamn good, don’t try to write (never mind speak) in someone else’s version of your language.

ellen hawley

I deny all knowledge of her. She’s a know-it-all and a nuisance.

How tea soaked through Britain’s social structure

The world’s falling apart around us, my friends, but we can panic later. In the meantime, this is Britain, so let’s have a nice cup of tea.

Or, since it’s hard to boil water online, let’s talk about tea instead.

China has been growing and drinking tea since the third millennium B.C.E., or so legend has it, although it can only be documented from the third century B.C.E. Which isn’t bad. That’s an entire nation that’s known how to stay awake for well over two thousand years.

And with that quick nod to the larger picture, we’ll leave them not sleeping while we hop continents and a pocketful of centuries, because what we’re talking about is how Britain became a tea-drinking nation.

The British weren’t the first Europeans to latch onto the drink. That was the Portuguese. Traders and missionaries who sipped it in “the East,” as one of Lord Google’s minions puts it, and brought some home as souvenirs.  

Irrelevant and out of season photo: begonias

“The East” is kind of a big area, but we’ll just nod cynically and move on.

It was the Dutch who first made a business out of importing the stuff to Europe. That was in 1606, when they were trading out of Java, the port that gave coffee its nickname. By the time tea made it’s wind-powered way to Europe, it cost a small fortune, so drinking it was a way for the upperest of the upper crust in first Holland and then western Europe in general to show off their couth, not to mention their money.

You ever notice how much more specific our information is about, say, Europe, than about that vast, undifferentiated East?

But we were talking about tea. And England. Or Britain, since we’re in that murky period when England and Scotland had the same king but not the same government and Wales  had the same king and government but didn’t want either or them because it was less than delighted about having been conquered. As people tend to be.

To keep things relatively simple, we’ll keep our eye on England, which wasn’t about to be seduced by this effete continental brew. England was a nation of beer drinkers, thanks, except for people with money, who weren’t opposed to wine and might drink a bit of tea now and then for medicinal purposes, since it invigorated  the body and kept the spleen free of obstructions.

Obstructions? That’s when the spleen’s on its way to an important meeting and some damn county department’s closed the road just because it’s washed out or something silly. The spleen isn’t the most easy-going of organs. You know the word splenetic? Bad-tempered, cranky, ill-humored, and other synonyms. So, a nice cup of tea and the road is magically open before it.

No, I don’t understand it either, but medicine, like spelling, was more imaginative back then. 

According to a website about tea, tea, and nothing but tea, The first dated reference to tea [in Britain] is from an advert in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, from September 1658. It announced that ‘China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee’ was on sale at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in the City. The first coffee house had been established in London in 1652, and the terms of this advert suggest that tea was still somewhat unfamiliar to most readers, so it is fair to assume that the drink was still something of a curiosity.”

It wasn’t until Charles II married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1662 that the English took tea drinking to their hearts. Or more accurately, to their thin, aristocratic lips. Catherine loved her tea, and legend has it that since she was coming to a land of barbarians she brought a hefty supply of tea leaves in her very substantial baggage.

With Catherine drinking the stuff, tea suddenly looked less like medicine and more like a status symbol–a term that, however well it was understood, hadn’t been invented yet.

Tea was still expensive. A pound cost roughly what a “working class citizen” made in a year. What kind of working class citizen, since men’s and women’s pay differed dramatically? (Ah, the bad old days. Aren’t you glad we’re past all that?) Put your money on the male variety of citizen and you’re less likely to lose it. The female variety are generally referred to as “women,” not “citizens.” Or if the citizenship bit is important, their sex will be specified.

Odd, isn’t it?

As tea drinking spread among aristocratic women, so did tea paraphernalia. Tea drinkers needed imported porcelain teapots. And the thinnest of thin cups. And dainty dishes for sugar. They may not have actually liked tea, but they sure as hell knew how to make a ritual of it.

All those peripherals were imported by the Portuguese as well.

It was at this period–in other words, right from the start–that they began adding milk to their tea. The cups were so delicate that they cracked if the tea went in without something to cool it.  

Starting in 1664, the East India Company–a British creation–moved in on the trade and imported tea into England, and from aristocratic ladies, tea made its way down the social scale into the coffee houses, where middle- and upper-class men did business, and into the homes of middle- and upper-class women, who didn’t get out the way the men did.

Tea was still too expensive for the working class. The East India company got itself a monopoly on British imports and kept the price high. And tea was taxed heavily, which means that by the eighteenth century it worth smuggling. By the end of the eighteenth century, organized crime networks had gotten involved. Smugglers brought in seven million pounds of the stuff. How does anyone know, since they’d have been wise to keep it out of sight and uncounted? Good question. But legal tea? Only five million pounds came into the country.

Tea–especially the smuggled stuff–was often mixed with leaves that had been brewed once and then dried. Or with leaves from other plants. To make the color more convincing, some clever devil hit on the idea of adding sheep manure. Or so say the articles I read. People kept drinking it, so it couldn’t have been too off-putting.

In 1784, the government reduced the import tax and tea smuggling pretty well ended.

As the price came down, tea became a “common luxury” for working class people, and by the 1830s had become a “necessary luxury.” As the temperance movement grew it became a substitute for alcohol.

The working class diet at this point was made up mostly of bread, potatoes, and tea.

Why would class people buy something that didn’t fill their bellies and had no nutritional value when money was scarce and food wasn’t plentiful? Hot tea with sugar offered energy, a brief break from work, and the illusion that you’d had a hot meal. 

In the 1820s, the East India Company began growing tea in India, and in the 1860s it began to be grown in Sri Lanka, which was Ceylon at the time even though it occupied the same spot on the globe as it does now, under the new name. The price dropped.

Predictably enough, as soon as the working class started drinking serious amounts of tea, the overseers of public morality went into a panic about how it would affect them. Excessive tea drinking, they warned, would cause weakness and melancholy. But only in working-class people. Not among their, ahem, betters.

Then the public moralizers realized that if working people drank tea they’d have less time and money to drink beer, so they settled down and accepted the situation.

Tea became so much a part of British life that in the first and second world wars the government took control of importing it to ensure that it stayed both available and affordable. They were afraid morale would collapse without it.

And today? Britain sips its way through 60 billion cups of tea per year. That’s 900 cups per person, but that includes people who’ve just been born, so the rest of us have to drink their share. And sixteen- to thirty-four-year-olds aren’t drinking their share either, possibly because they’re afraid it’ll stain their teeth but possibly because tea doesn’t make a statement.

A statement?

The article that enlightened me about this quoted food futurologist Morgaine Gaye, who said, “A cup of English breakfast or builder’s tea is only cool when you are slumming it. You might have a cup of tea at your mum’s, but not when you are out or in a cafe because it doesn’t say anything.”

Slumming it at your mother’s? I’m going to tell her mother she said that and–I can predict this much of the food future–she won’t be eating there this holiday season. Or if she does, she’ll be drinking lukewarm water from the dog’s bowl.

Anyway, this defection by the irresponsible young means their brown-toothed elders–those of us who don’t want anything that lives inside our cups to make statements to the world at large or even whisper to us personally–have to drink even more.

And to make ourselves feel okay with that, we’ve started asking if it doesn’t, oh please, have some medicinal effects. In other words, since we’re drinking it anyway, doesn’t it cure something?

The definitive answer is, maybe. The evidence disagrees with itself. Pitch your tent with the people who say it does and you may be wrong but you’ll feel better about it all. 

Kate Fox, an anthropologist and the author of the inspired Watching the English, reports that the higher up the class structure you go, the weaker the tea. Which is why I’ve decided not to hang out with the queen anymore. I like a nice, strong brew and furthermore I like to drink it with people who aren’t afraid to swear, or who at least (a) understand the words and (b) don’t pass out when I do.

Fox also says, “Tea-making is the perfect displacement activity: whenever the English feel awkward or uncomfortable in a social situation (that is, almost all the time), they make tea.” Which may be why so much of it gets made.

And once you’ve brewed it, it’d be wasteful not to drink it. And since the young aren’t doing their share, it’s up to those of us who are over 34.

*

After Christmas, we’ll finally get around to the connection between tea and the opium trade.

Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

The Danish concept of hygge–roughly translated as coziness; the promotion of well-being–has made a big impression on Britain, at least if you believe the newspapers and  marketers. I can’t say it’s had an impact on my life, but I won’t promote myself as typical of anything much, except possibly stubbornness.

Still, the publicity around hygge‘s drawn tourists to Denmark, so VisitScotland thought they might be able to cash in by adapting the idea. To Scotland, of course. So, quick, what’s the Scottish version of hygge?

Well, it’s not hygge, they knew that much, and they knew they needed more atmosphere than they could pull out of an English word. So someone ran to the nearest Gaelic dictionary and found the word còsagach. Which is pronounced a lot like còsagach, Sorry, I don’t know Gaelic. If the Scottish version of Gaelic’s anything like the Irish one, the letters don’t communicate much to an English speaker.

VisitScotland, apparently (and sadly), knows about as much Gaelic as I do. because experts say the word’s more likely to be used about wet moss or a wet, mossy place than about anything cozy. Unless you consider wet moss cozy.

It can also be used about fibrous ground or a place full of holes or crevices.

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

So visit damp, cozy Scotland today. Spend money. Have a memorable experience. And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak. They’re as dangerous as thesauruses. Or maybe that’s thesauri. I’d look it up but I’ve developed an irrational terror of dictionaries.

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

Example 1. Starting in January, China banned the import of plastic waste, saying that a lot of it is too hazardous to process. (Anyone see a bit of irony there? I don’t. I’m just asking.) Since 2012, Britain’s shipped two-thirds of its total plastic waste exports to China—something along the lines of 2.7 million tons of the stuff.

So what’s Britain going to do with all the plastic its fleets of recycling trucks have been  collecting with such ecological fervor? Recycle it here? Ban plastic packaging? Use it to backfill Stonehenge?

Well, in December—which strikes me as kind of late to come up with a plan—someone asked the secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, about it and he said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is…something to which—I will be completely honest—I have not given it sufficient thought.”

So that’s our plan.

We’ll give him half a point for honesty. Then we’ll take it away for cluelessness.

Example 2. A slow-burning fuse of a story either exploded or fizzled out, but I can’t figure out which.

The government was under pressure from a parliamentary committee to publish its assessment of Brexit’s economic impact on Britain. (In case you need a translation, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. A lot of people are worried it’ll crash the British economy.) The government resisted. Sorry, it said, but the assessments were too sensitive to be seen by mere members of parliament.

More pressure.

Okay, MPs could read them, but first the government would have to bury them under six feet of plastic waste and the MPs could only read them after sundown, using a flashlight with a single, second-hand AA battery, and they mustn’t disturb the plastic waste because although the government still doesn’t know what to do with it, it might need to know which pieces were dumped first.

I exaggerate only slightly.

But David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, assured the committee that the government had 58 studies that went into the question “in excruciating detail.”

Then in early December, Davis told the committee he didn’t have any detailed information to publish. At all. He never had. They’d misunderstood him.

What about an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the customs union? someone asked. Was one of those hanging around somewhere?

Um, no. “Not a formal, quantitative one.” The assessments didn’t “have numbers attached.”

I’d like, since this is a public forum, to let Dave know that it’s okay. If he’ll just write a general statement and I’ll make up some numbers. We can paste them in anywhere. Because after you’ve seen a few numbers, they all start to look alike.

A quick P.S.: A BBC Radio 4 news story quoted Davis as saying that he doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a good negotiator. He doesn’t even have to know much, he just has to stay calm. When I wrote this (I generally write these posts well ahead of time; it keeps me marginally sane), he was still doing an admirable job of staying calm. And, I’m reasonably sure, of knowing very little.

For the record, both Davis and Gove are long-time politicians, but somehow or other they’ve managed to bring a broad spectrum of amateur qualities to their current jobs.

Public statements are clear and to the point

Train fares went up on January 2. It was the biggest jump in five years, and since the fares are already high and follow a formula that sets a world standard for incomprehensibility, and since train service in many areas is godawful, passengers are ready to chew up the seats in frustration.

So how did the train companies defend the fare hike? An industry flak-catcher said it showed the industry was trying to keep down the cost of travel.

A reporter asked if the companies were taking any risk at all, since (to simplify slightly) funding comes from the government and profit goes to the companies. The flak-catcher said, “Rail companies operate under contract and they honour the terms of their contracts and provide for things to happen in different circumstances. That operator will continue to make payments until 2020 and then the new operator will continue to make payments.”

I don’t  know about you, but as long as they provide for things to happen in different circumstances, I’m happy.

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

The police in Exeter had a quiet word with a man who was running around dressed as Jesus. That is, he was dressed as Jesus except for his hind end, which either wasn’t dressed at all or wasn’t dressed enough to make an unnamed member of the public happy.

This raises a number of questions. One is what you have to wear to be dressed as Jesus. This particular guy was wearing a sheet. How did anyone know he wasn’t dressed as a ghost? Or one of the apostles, who would’ve dressed roughly the same way as Jesus?

Another question is what a quiet word is. It’s a very English thing, that’s what it is. Or possibly a British one. I lose my way in some of this stuff. It’s the solution to any sort of public awkwardness, and it may or may not be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because the next public awkwardness will be handled the same way.

The final question is why I don’t give you a link. It’s because the story was in the Western Morning News and although they do publish online I can never find their stories.

One of the cops involved said the incident had scarred him “for about an hour.”

Everyone loves a feel-good story

A ten-year-old left his waterproof video camera on a beach in Yorkshire and the tide carried it 500 miles across the North Sea to the German island of Suderoog,

There’s an umlaut over the U–they like umlauts on islands in Germany–but we’re in the middle of an umlaut shortage here so we’ll have to do without one. Just make your pronunciation umlautish if you can.

No, an umlaut isn’t something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s two dots that go over a U in German for reasons I don’t understand since I never learned German. I’m sure that has something to do with the umlaut shortage. It’s hard to study German without them.

The island is a bird reserve with either one family or only two people living there (I read several stories and ended up knowing less than if I’d read one). Either way, I’m guessing they don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so they took a look at what was on the camera and found some people fooling around on the beach and then the first few minutes of the camera’s trip—water, basically.

They posted something about the camera on the bird reserve’s Facebook page and eventually located the kid’s father. The camera’s owners have been invited to come pick it up, but they can only get there by boat from the mainland and they can’t stay overnight. And they have to bring their own umlauts.

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

This happened in Belgium, not Britain, but it’s a good story. And both countries start with a B. It’ll do.

A—well, I guess we’ll have to call him a performance artist chained himself to block of marble to demonstrate the inescapable burden of history, including the history of art, which he was trying to free himself from by chiseling away at the stone.

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

Every fascinating moment was live-streamed. I’m happy to say, I didn’t watch it and I haven’t looked for a link. If you want to watch all nineteen days of it, I figure you’ve got the patience to find it yourself.

The story led me to realize that one nice thing about writing as opposed to performance art is that when you get trapped by your own metaphors it’s not quite as embarrassing.

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

Someone from Wolverhampton decided to put his head in the microwave and have his friends fill it with cement. It being the microwave, not the head, in case that needs clarification. When they realized he was having trouble breathing (no, apparently this didn’t occur to any of them ahead of time), they poked an air tube in.

How? No idea. Every way I try to imagine doing this ends up with the breathing tube clogged with cement. Lucky thing I’m not one of his friends.

The BBC story mentions that the microwave wasn’t plugged in. I mention that in case you decide to try this and it’s not in the instruction book.

Why’d they do this? It wasn’t performance art and no metaphors were harmed in the process. They wanted to post the video on YouTube.

It took five firefighters an hour to get him loose, and they needed help from their technical rescue team to get the microwave apart.

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

Okay, this one’s pretty grotesque and I wrestled with what passes for my conscience over whether to use it.

My conscience lost.

Someone from Dundee offered to sell a rug she’d had made from her dead dog because her new dog kept trying to hump it. I’m not sure this tells you anything about British culture, but it did happen.

People are very polite 

The British really are very polite. Until they’re not. Because that’s the thing about polite people: When they lose it, they don’t have a wide range of back-up  behaviors. You know, things like saying, “Hey, asshole, don’t push.” Which isn’t polite but is well short of bloodshed.

Some people are so polite they’d find it hard to say, “Excuse me, but would you stop pushing, please?”

So in October, either two or three people on a train near London got into an argument over a phone call. One man was talking one the phone loudly, one man was complaining about that, and the third man–well, I don’t know if he did anything other than just sit there, but he was a friend of Guy #1’s, so he had a kind of peripheral involvement, so when an argument broke out, Guy #2 leaned over and bit Guy #3’s ear.

Job done. Guy #2 went back to his seat. Quite possibly with a real sense of having done the right thing.

What did Guy #1, the guy on the phone, do? No idea.

Why Britain’s called the United Kingdom, or Hey, what do you call your country anyway?

A steady trickle of what’s-Britain? questions have gradually formed a largish pool on my list of odd questions that lead people to this blog.

The Great British Public contributes heavily to one of them: the why’s-Britain-called-great? question. How do I know many questioners are British? They say things like. “Why are we called Great Britain?” It’s subtle, but if you pay attention, you can tell.

I’ve answered the question here so many times that I’ve worn the fun off it, so we’ll skip to the others, which come from baffled outsiders. One persistent question is why the British insist on having multiple names for their country. Is it Britain, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or England? Wouldn’t it be simpler to have just one name?

Probably, but Britain isn’t a country that’s drawn to simplicity. You’re not convinced? Look at the spelling it invented.

So why is England different from Britain? For roughly the same reasons that New York’s different from the United States of Burgundy’s different from France. Heavy emphasis on roughly, but it’s good enough as a place to start.

The multiple names make sense if you drop into British history and set your assumptions aside. I’ll keep them safe and warm. You can pick them up when you leave.

Ready?

Once upon a time two countries, England and Scotland, were neighbors. Think of them as living upstairs and downstairs, since the maps are drawn that way. And like—well, not like all neighbors but like some, they had fights about how loud the bagpipe music had been on Saturday night and about whose party didn’t end until the last guest passed out at sunrise and about who throws trash out the window.

A damn near relevant photo: This is Minnie the Moocher. It takes more than loud bagpipes to keep her up at night. Or during the day. If you’re going to throw a loud party, she’s the neighbor you want.

They also fought about cattle and massacres and who was the king of the mountain.

This went on for centuries.

Every so often, the two countries went to war, but even when they weren’t fighting, families from both sides of the border raided families on the other side. And for the sake of fairness, sometimes they raided families on their own side, because this wasn’t about  borders or countries, it was about cattle and kinship and which families weren’t big and tough enough to protect themselves.

If one source is correct, it was also about poor land and too little of it. If another source is correct, it was about the breakdown of order. Think of the border area as a kind of failed state. Both explanations sound credible.

Keep in mind that there’s no natural border between Scotland and England, and for a good part of the time we’re talking about the border was fluid. People on one side lived the same way as people on the other side. Families spread across it. You could cross over without saying “Captain, may I?” One or both countries could move it, and at one point, or possibly more, they did.

Which country behaved worse at this stage? My impression is that both did.

For what it’s worth, this part of the history was news to me. I’d read about the Scots raiding the English, but not the other way around. Any guesses on which country’s historians I got that from?

And while we’re talking about me, I knew that England invaded Scotland repeatedly, but not that Scotland invaded England. Guess which country’s songs I listened to.

Scotland and England became distinct countries during the medieval period, Scotland in 843, according to Lord Google, and England in—oh, hell, that’s messier. Wiki-this’ll-all-change-in-a-minute-pedia gives me two years, 927 and 953.

Close enough.

In spite of cohering later, England became the major power on the island of Britain. (The island of Britain, in today’s terms, is the chunk of land made up of Scotland, England, Wales, and—if you count it separately, which some people do and some don’t—Cornwall.)

The BBC (which publishes good, short bits of history on its website) writes, “England had absorbed Wales and Cornwall by 1543, through parliamentary incorporation, political and cultural integration of the ruling elites, and administrative cohesion across church and state.”

Not to mention warfare and a fair bit of brutality here and there.

I can date the English invasions of Scotland back to 1072, when England’s new king, William of Normandy, having conquered England in 1066 thought he’d have Scotland for dessert. He forced Malcolm III, the King of Scotland, to hand over his son as a hostage, which counts as a victory in my book, but he didn’t get to annex Scotland. Maybe he hadn’t been trying.

The two countries continued to be separate. And the English continued to complain about the Scots playing the bagpipes late at night.

To put this in context, the English also have a tradition of bagpiping. The only ones I’ve heard are Northumbrian, They’re smaller than the Scottish ones and use their indoor voice, which since I’ve only heard them played indoors, in a pub, my eardrums and I appreciate immensely.

When I asked nicely, Lord Google led me to a list of eight English invasions of Scotland, For some reason, it didn’t include the one in 1072, so let’s make that nine. Compare that to seven Scottish invasions of England, one of which happened after the two countries were united so I’d call that a rebellion. That takes us down to six.

Another happened during the English Civil War at the request of the English Parliament. I’m not sure whether that’s an invasion, so what the hell, let’s call it five.

This isn’t just about numbers, though, it’s about power. According to History Today, England was “the major power in Britain and Ireland. By the end of the thirteenth century only Scotland stood in the way of the king of England’s claim to be sovereign of Britain.”

So basically, whether it invaded England or not, Scotland wasn’t about to conquer it, but an English conquest of Scotland was a very real possibility. And that’s another reason I knew of the English invasions, not the Scottish ones. They had a different impact. It’s also why I know the Scottish songs—that have that smaller-country-fighting-for-independence purity about them. Even if history’s never as pure as a good song.

A low point in relations between the two countries came in 1328, when Edward III signed the Treaty of Northampton, recognizing Scottish independence, then waited a year and invaded.

Yes, diplomacy’s a wonderful thing.

One form of diplomacy in this period was to marry someone from the royal family of Country A into the royal family of Country B. It guaranteed twenty minutes of good feeling and generations of warfare, because someone in the royal line of Country A was always being born into the royal family of Country B, and a fair portion of them grew up to claim the crown of the country they didn’t grow up in.

Which is how Scotland and England formed the United Kingdom. James IV of Scotland married Henry VII of England’s daughter, Margaret. (Don’t worry about the names. They’re purely decorative.) They duly produced a line of offspring who had a claim on the English throne, which is why:

(A) Mary Queen of Scots was executed. She was Catholic, she had an arguable claim on the English throne, and she was someone English Catholics could rally around if they could only get the Protestant Elizabeth I out of the way.

(B) When Elizabeth, being a professional virgin, died childless, which tends to happen to virgins, England had find a successor, fast. And the successor had to be Protestant. And have some vaguely credible claim to be a descendant of England’s past kings. So they turned to the Scottish king, James VI, who became the English king as well, making him James the VI of Scotland and I of England.

James packed his bags and moved from Scotland to England, which tells you where the power lay, so even though the Scottish line took over the English throne, I don’t think anyone would argue that Scotland took over England. Officially, it was a merger of two separate kingdoms under one king. In reality, Scotland was the junior partner.

As he made his way south, he was so struck by England’s wealth that he said he was “swapping a stony couch for a deep feather bed.”

Doesn’t it warm your heart when a leader puts the nation’s interests first?

So now it’s 1603 and we have one king ruling two separate countries. Each has its own parliament, courts, and laws. James wants to unite the two countries under one parliament. Both parliaments respectfully suggest that he take a hike off a short pier. What does he do? He sidesteps them and proclaims himself King of Great Britain. The English Parliament has already refused to vote him the title, but he does manage to wring it out the the Scottish one.

It wasn’t until 1707 that the United Kingdom was created by the Acts of Union, passed by the English and Scottish parliaments. A united parliament met for the first time in 1707.

James was long since dead.

Let’s go back to History Today:

“The Union actually enshrined the separate existence of central aspects of Scottish society–law, education and the church–and did not create a homogeneous unitary state, a situation which has continued to this day.”

And that, children, is how the crocodile got its tail. It’s also why England is not Britain, why Britain is not England, why Scotland almost voted to secede in 2014, and why the United Kingdom has so many names.

Your assumptions are on the table by the door, with your name written on the side. Be careful not to pick up someone else’s, because you may find it doesn’t fit comfortably.

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.

Great British traditions: the queen’s tweeter and runners in fancy dress

Madge, as my friend R. calls her royal Madge-esty, was recently looking for someone to handle her Twitter account.

You didn’t think the queen would do her own tweeting, did you? Those royal fingers have to be protected so she can cut ribbons.

If you check @britishmonarchy, as I just forced myself to do, you’ll find that the official MonarTweeter doesn’t try to impersonate the queen, because that would get into a whole tangle of decisions about whether to have her say I or one, as in “One has finished one’s breakfast and is off to a busy day of cutting ribbons.” Which might be too long for a tweet but I can’t be bothered counting. And more to the point, it would quite probably violate some law about impersonating a monarch. But anyway, the job of the MonarTweeter is to speak on her behalf.

I’d quote a few tweets but they’re really, really boring.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Ruin in the Firth of Forth, by Ida Swearingen. Don't you just love saying "Firth of Forth"?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An island in the Firth of Forth. Don’t you just love saying “Firth of Forth”? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

The same person will also be—or by now quite possibly is—in charge of her Facebook page and her YouTube channel, which are probably just as fascinating as the Twitter account. And will get paid between £45,000 and £50,000 per year. One of the requirements of the job is that you have to stay awake through all the dreary stuff you try to graft some excitement onto. And you not only have to keep a straight face about it all, you may even have to look reverent. Or at least preserve some small pocket of reverence deep inside.

I apologize for how slow I’ve been in getting this onto the blog. I know you’d have loved to apply. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have recommended using me as a reference. They wanted to hire someone who could “liaise with a broad spectrum of stakeholders” and I foam at the mouth when I’m around people who think stakeholder is a part of actual human speech. (As I type that I can’t help picturing a scene from a vampire movie. I’m the person holding the stake. Did you bring the hammer?)

And as long as we’re on the topic of British traditions, I can’t leave you without talking about the—. Umm. Is this a tradition? A habit? A thing?

Yes. The British thing about running races in costume—or fancy dress, as they call it here. A recent news article—.

Or, well, no. This isn’t really news. It’s the filler newspapers run to keep their readers from going suicidal over the real news. And it seems to work, because I’ve noticed lately that I’m still alive.

We all need stuff like this, and lately we need a lot of it.

So here, if you’ll be so kind as to follow the link, we have photos of people who’ve run races dressed as the Gingerbread Man, a dinosaur, a lobster, and Spiderman. Tragically, the print edition’s picture of a man dressed as a water faucet (or in British, a water tap) is missing from the online edition. But weep not, because by way of compensation you can follow this link and see a runner dressed as—or more accurately, in—a telephone booth, another one carrying a refrigerator, and some others dressed as a hippo, a telephone, and a large bird, possibly a parrot but I’m no expert. And yet another wearing a cardboard fig(I think)leaf and a bad wig. And not much else.

I don’t know what the temperature was when that last one was taken, but this country doesn’t over-indulge in warm weather. Let’s hope the running warmed him up.

Don’t you just love how ancient tradition survives in this modern world?

Great British traditions: the Atherstone ball game

The 817th Atherstone ball game was held last Shrove Tuesday. That’s Pancake Day, or the day before Lent starts. If you need more information on the significance of the date, your friendly local Jewish atheist is here to provide it, so do ask. The game runs for two hours and the winner is the person holding the ball when it ends.

Most of the sources I’ve checked agree that there’s only one rule, but they disagree about what it is. One says the only rule is that there are no rules, then it says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town. Which violates my sense of what no rules means, but hey, I’m a foreigner here, so what do I know? Maybe no is one of those words our two countries use differently.

And not to quibble or anything, but if the only rule is that there are no rules except for the one about not taking the ball out of town, isn’t that two rules? Rule 1. there are no rules. Rule 2. don’t take the ball out of town. Does that mean we use only differently as well?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It's spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It’s spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Another source says the only rule is that the players aren’t allowed to kill each other. That does seem sensible, but I suspect it’s not organic to the game and that the police are just being spoilsports. The town council backs my first source—the one that says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town—which supports my theory.

Yet another source, having repeated that there are no rules, says that the ball’s decorated with ribbons that can be exchanged for money by the people who snatch them. Sounds like a rule to me, folks, but maybe I have an expansive idea of what rule means. It also says the ball can be deflated or hidden after 4:30. (The game ends at 5). That also sounds like a rule. And it sounds like a hard trick to pull off. Getting the ball far enough away from the crowd so you can do anything other than fight for your life? Not likely.

The town prepares for the game by boarding up the shop windows and diverting traffic. I’d recommend locking up the guns and knives myself, but again, I’m a foreigner, and an American at that. You’d want to keep that in mind if you consider my advice seriously.

This is not a game for small people. In any number of the pictures I’ve seen, at least one person, and it’s never anybody my size, has somehow landed on top of the crowd and someone else is looking panicked, is on the ground, or is grabbing someone else, either to keep from getting trampled or to pull them down so they can be trampled. Or all of the above. And in one an elderly person is standing serenely in the middle of all this as if he (or possibly she–it’s a small photo and I’m not 600% sure) were alone on the cliffs and looking out to sea, while the man beside him or her is having his head shoved and his hat knocked off.

You gotta love this country.

I could give you a dozen links, but let’s limit it to one, a clip from BBC Midlands.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous?” the BBC interviewer asks I have no idea who.

“Not really,” I have no idea who answers and goes on to back that up with a couple of totally irrelevant statements. So, right, not dangerous at all, but I won’t be taking my short, not-young self into the middle of the melee next year, thanks.

If you have nothing better to do (and if you’ve read this far I’m going to have to assume that you don’t), you can find all the photos you want by googling Atherstone ball game, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Oh, hell, here, I’ll do it for you.

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