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

The Soulbury Stone: ancient tradition meets four-wheel drive

The British are proud of their traditions, even when they haven’t a clue where they came from or what (if anything) they commemorate. It’s one of the things I love about the country—that mix of deep history and complete insanity. For today’s example, students, turn your textbook to page—. Sorry, I’m dating myself. Click your magic tablets to (and you can take your pick here): the Guardian, the BBC, or the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which doesn’t necessarily have the best article but does have the best name. Don’t you wish you wrote for the Leighton Buzzard?

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

It seems that at some dim point in history, the village of Soulbury built its main road around a stone. A big ol’ stone—the kind of stone that defeated two tanks during World War II, when someone decided that the only way to beat Hitler was to get that stone out of the middle of the road. Hitler did eventually lose the war, but the tanks lost the battle. Local wisdom says that the Soulbury Stone always wins.

But let me backtrack. When I said they build the road around it, I don’t mean that they detoured around it. I mean that the thing’s sticking up right in the middle of the road. Judging from the photos, it’s the height of an average person’s thigh. You’ll notice I avoided saying where it would come up to on the imaginary person’s thigh. A thigh’s a longish bit of anatomy. So this is a rough estimate but close enough to let you understand that the stone’s not the sort of thing your average village leaves in the middle of the road. Or that your average driver looks at and thinks, I don’t need to detour around that.

At one point, a lamppost stood beside it, but that’s gone now—maybe the tanks got it—so it’s just the stone these days, sticking out of the pavement all on its own.

I should stop here and tell you a bit about Soulbury. The population, according to Wikipedia, is 736. In 1891, it was 510, so yes, it’s been growing madly. Most references to it are on genealogical sites and its main claim to fame seems to be the stone. Once I ran through nine or ten entries about either the stone or somebody else’s ancestors, I was suddenly looking at listings about Sri Lanka and Tamil separatism. I should probably have followed the links to see if there really was some connection but I preferred to think it was a random collision of electronic bitzies.

Don’t you just love Google?

What brought the stone to national attention was an incident—or an alleged incident—involving a four-by-four and the Immovable Object, after which the county council decided the stone was an obstruction and needed to be removed.

Mind you, they weren’t going to crush it to smithereens. They understand the power of village tradition. All they were proposing was to move it to the village green. To which the village said, reasonably enough, “Obstruction? Whaddaya mean obstruction?”

Sorry, wrong accent. I can’t  help myself.

One resident threatened to chain himself to it, although it you look at the pictures you’ll be hard pressed to figure out how. My friends, I’ve done civil disobedience. Never in that particular form, but I think I’m safe in saying that a roundish stone isn’t something you can chain yourself to.

A move is afoot to have it declared an ancient monument, not because anybody’s Neolithic ancestor erected it—it was left there by a glacier— but because it would protect the stone. And, well, just because, as the kids used to say where I grew up when they had to explain something that couldn’t be explained, which usually meant some rule that originated with the grownups.

According the the Guardian article, “Even local people can’t quite put a finger on why they value [the stone] so highly. Debbie Olié, who lives at the bottom of Chapel Hill, appreciates that it’s a handy way to direct people looking for her turnoff. Jacqui Butler, who lives in the large, early-18th century house in front of the stone, says her teenage son likes to stand on it every Thursday evening waiting for the fish and chip van. Janet Joosten, who lives a few doors along the main road and is a member of a druid society, believes the stone has ‘particular energies’.

“Some people think it was a mounting block for horses. There is a legend that Oliver Cromwell stood on top of it while his troops were ransacking the village church (though villagers are happy to admit the sourcing on that may be sketchy). Some cite a legend that the stone rolls down the low hill every night at midnight only to reappear each morning, though sceptics scoff at such superstition and say it only happens every Halloween.”

Right.

Local belief also holds that only an eighth of the stone is visible aboveground. If that’s true (and how would anyone know?), it would explain why no one moved it a few hundred, or thousand, years ago, before anyone got sentimental about the thing.

In the name of safety, the stone is now surrounded by orange traffic cones. Last I heard, the fight was still going on.

And people thought I was making things up on April Fool’s Day. With a country like this, who needs April Fool’s Day?

On the good ship Boaty McBoatface

The British are famous for their dry sense of humor, but not long ago they took it out for exercise and got it wet.

What am I talking about? The Natural Environment Research Council will be launching a new polar research vessel, which they say “will be the UK’s largest and most advanced research ship yet. She will allow scientists to carry out research safely and efficiently, even through the harshest of winters, in both Antarctica and the Arctic.

So far, so unfunny. But in an effort to create the illusion of public involvement, some genius launched a Name Our Ship campaign.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, the prevailing wind blows from the right. If, of course, you're facing the right way. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, the prevailing wind blows from the right. If, of course, you’re facing the right way. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Beware of media consultants bearing catchy ideas. The Research Council didn’t. Instead, they set up a web site, invited public involvement, and it all went wrong. So many people were voting that at one point the site crashed. You think that’s a success?

Nope. The top entry is Boaty McBoatface (ships’ names are italicized, in case anyone’s taking notes), and ol’ Boaty’s the reason so many people voted. Maybe the name caught something the spirit of the times or maybe there’s some more profound reason that I’m too shallow to spot.

After Boaty, you get a couple of serious names and you’ll forgive me if I skip those, right? Then we come to It’s Bloody Cold Here and Usain Boat. After that come Thanks for All the Fish (if you don’t catch the reference, you need to read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; try to read around the ingrained sexism, because it’s funny in spite of the [I’d like to think] dated attitude) and What Iceberg?

Scroll down a bit and you come to my favorite, Big Metal Floaty Thingy-Thing, as well as Not the Titanic and Boat Marley and the Whalers.

Enough with trying to patch together interesting sentences. Others include:

Ship Happens

Boaty O’Boatface

Boatback Mountain

Fish ‘n’ Chips

Slippery When Wet

Do You Want Ice with That?

Science!!! (I like that one. I hear it in a high, manic, advertising voice.)

It Ain’t Half Cold Mum

ColdTrouser

Aunt Arctica

Float Like a Butterfly (for anyone who’s not old enough to remember, that’s a Muhammad Ali reference)

Big Ship Innit (in case you’re not British, innit translates to isn’t it) and

Bbrrrrrrr (with, yes, two B’s)

At this point, I was reading names that had thirty or so votes and I lost the will to scroll any further. By way of comparison, Boaty McBoatface had 76,470 votes. The next most popular ones were serious, and they had around 7,000 and 5,000. It’s Bloody Cold Here also had some 5,000 and no apostrophe. I added one. I had to. I trust someone will add it officially if the entry wins. Unless either maritime safety or the law of the sea forbids apostrophes.

After Boaty crashed the website, the Natural Environment Research Council announced that the vote is only advisory and they’ll make the final decision themselves, thank you very much. But you kind of knew that, didn’t you?

So there you have the British sense of humor. You thought I meant the names, right? I don’t. I’m talking about public consultation. Bureaucrats just love consulting the public.So much so that when I had to decide what category to file this under, Traditions won out. What could be more traditional than involving and then ignoring the public?

 

Easter eggs, crime sprees, and personal delivery

Last Saturday’s Western Morning News had a story about a “£300,000 rural crime spree” in which six men stole four-wheel-drives, tractors, trailers, boats, farm equipment, and–this reads like it wandered in from a different story but I swear it didn’t–chocolate Easter eggs. Thousands of pounds worth of chocolate Easter eggs. I’d give you a link but I can’t find the story online. I read it in the print edition. It was on–do you remember paper? It was on paper. So you’ll just have to trust me on this.

Or not. If you think I made it up, no harm done. I’ll get credit for a bizarre imagination.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. I'll stop with the cat and dog photos soon, but everything else I've shot lately is overexposed.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. Or the other way around. I’ll stop with the cat and dog photos eventually, but everything else I’ve shot lately is overexposed. Besides, who can resist this one?

How much space does it take to store thousands of pounds worth of Easter eggs? Well, that depends on how much the Easter eggs cost, which (if you were buying instead of stealing them) is another way of saying it depends on your income, or at least outgo. It might take less space than you’d think. Hotel Chocolat sells one for £75, but at Fortnum and Mason, you can drop £90 for a chocolate Easter egg or £250 for a “chocolate beehive sculpture” (sorry–I can’t take that seriously enough to leave it outside of quotation marks; I don’t want the blame for that description). And for that amount, I’ll throw in more quotation marks: It’s made from “majestic” Valrhona chocolate. Whatever the hell Valrhona chocolate is, the price went up by £50 pounds when they glued that adjective to it.

I worked in a candy factory for long enough to lost my taste for the stuff, and although I wouldn’t say they used particularly good chocolate and I wouldn’t hold it up as setting the world standard for chocolates–well, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never seen majestic chocolate.

Fortnum and Mason can’t send the beehive, by the way. Maybe at £250 you’re not paying enough for that or maybe it’s just too valuable to ship. Either way,you’ll have to pick it up at the store.

Or you can spend your £250 at Betty’s of Harrogate and get Betty’s “Imperial Easter Egg.” Betty delivers. “Personally.” That goes in quotes too. I assume that’s personally to you, not personally by Betty. In fact, I don’t even know that there is a Betty, or that there ever was. And while we’re talking about things I don’t know, I don’t know how much she charges to deliver, because you have to call to find out–the information isn’t online–but if you’re spending £250 for a chunk of decorated chocolate, why quibble about delivery costs?

Okay, let’s get back to that personal delivery. Have you ever had anything sent to you that wasn’t delivered personally? I’m guessing the personally, in this context, means by a person (as opposed to a drone) and to a person. Even if the package is left in the garage, or with a neighbor, it’s still to you, personally. Or, if they insist on it going directly into your anxious little paws, all it means is that you’re stuck waiting around for it.

Who writes this stuff? I once saw a real estate brochure for an apartment building that said it had an indoor elevator. That’s as opposed, presumably, to a trebuchet, which is a £250 word for the kind of catapult used in medieval sieges–an outdoor arrangement that delivers you memorably to granny’s fourth floor apartment if her place doesn’t have an indoor elevator. After you arrive splat in her living room, her place won’t have glass in the window either, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor.

I’ve wandered, haven’t I? We were talking about the Easter eggs.Betty’s is 5.4 kilos of chocolate, milk or dark, If you think in pounds rather than kilos, you can either multiply that by 2.2 or simply accept that it’s a shitload of chocolate. You can also multiply, divide, and go into shock over how much you’re spending per pound. Or ounce.

From Betty’s site I went to Cadbury’s, which asked how much I wanted to spend. The answer was, Oh, lots! and I clicked on the most expensive category, which was “over £50.” That’s me,the reckless spender, but the best they could do for me was offer hampers–enough stuff thrown together to take the price up to an even £50. Given where I’d just come from, I wasn’t impressed. So I checked out Lidl’s, the discount supermarket, where I could buy a bag of chocolate (I think) mini-eggs for £1.29, and they’ll ring them up at the cash register for me personally. After that, I can personally carry it out to my car, munching as I go. Except that I used to work in that candy factory and I’m immune to the lure of anything but good (although not majestic), very plain dark chocolate.

So–returning to the actual story I was telling, and you may have forgotten that there was one but I haven’t–it’s not clear how much storage space the stolen Easter eggs needed. Especially since the Westy didn’t say how many thousands of pounds of Easter eggs it was talking about. The Westy‘s like that. It tells you what it tells you, which is often that the neighbors were shocked and horrified, and leaves out what it leaves out, which can be a great deal. But it does spell neighbors with a U. Always.

Before I leave the topic entirely, I need to credit the members of my writers group, who pointed me in the direction of the Betty’s of Harrogate egg. They’re wonderful, and every bit as strange as I am.

If you celebrate Easter, have a good Easter. And if you don’t–well, neither do I. Whatever you believe, don’t steal any Easter eggs, okay? At the end of it all, you just eat them (it’s too late in the season to sell them) and eating a £250 egg–well, what does that leave you with?

Making fun of the House of Lords: an appreciation

One of the joys of living in Britain is that you get to make fun of the House of Lords, and I’ve had at least my share of fun with that and probably used up someone else’s portion as well, but a recent (okay, not so recent; it’s taken me a while to get around to this) article in the Guardian’s weekend magazine made me wonder if the chamber may serve some genuine purpose.

But let’s go for the ridiculous first. I learned from the article that the House of Lords has a blue carpet that you can only walk on silently. If you stop and stand on it, you get told off. I’m not sure how you walk on a carpet noisily—maybe you need spurs—but you can’t do that either. The house’s senior official is called Black Rod, but his full title is the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. He comes to work in pantaloons and wears a ruffle where a twenty-first century male would wear a tie. Or—well, he probably wears street clothes until he gets to work and then changes. Absurd as the get-up is in the House of Lords, wearing it on the bus would be worse. (I’d love a photo, though. Rush hour. People hanging on the poles. Frilly tie. Pantaloons. I don’t know what kind of shoes you wear with that.)

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

Irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher and Fast Eddie, in a moment of bliss.

When the lords vote, they line up in corridors, one for Content (adjective, not verb, with the accent on the last syllable) and one for Not Content. Their names are ruled off a list and they’re then counted off by a peer holding a drumstick (“musical, not chicken,” added the lord who described the procedure). When women first joined the Lords, they weren’t allowed to address the doorkeepers.

Why not?

Because.

In case anyone’s interested, I’m capitalizing Lords when it stands in for House of Lords but not when it applies to members of the house, unless the name’s included, in which case it becomes a title and is capped. Is that baroque or what? Normal usage is probably to capitalize it both times but it just seems too damn worshipful and, good (L)lord, I can’t do it. Besides, a lot of Brits capitalize all sorts of words that I’d leave lower case. I suspect they’re overdoing it not just according to American usage but to British as well, but it’s so widely done that it must mean something. Maybe that they’re closer to the German roots of English than Americans are. Or maybe capital letters are on sale and no one’s told me.

I should rush out and Buy and half Dozen.

But back to the Lords: The speaker sits on a woolsack (the current speaker is, apparently, short enough that her feet dangle) and the clerks are equipped with both white wigs and iPads. Is that a great combination or what?

The lords meet in a room built to seat 240 members and there are now 859. Of those, 92 are hereditary. Under Tony Blair, there was a massive cull of hereditary peers; they’re what’s left. Why them instead of some of the others? Haven’t a clue. Other peers are appointed for life and the theory is that they’re experts in one thing or another—science, history, law, medicine, chutney, building blocks—but they also include party hacks and donors, former civil servants, a cheese maker, a children’s TV presenter, a rock star or two (or seven, but who’s counting?), former MPs, 26 bishops (whose bench is the only one that has arms), and the occasional stray novelist.

Peers are nominated by political parties and can be nominated by the public as well. Good luck with that, public. If anyone wants to nominate Wild Thing, go ahead. It’ll be interesting. The governing party gets to make more appointments than the parties that aren’t governing. Are you surprised? Then the appointees have to be approved by an independent commission (exactly how independent it is I’m couldn’t say, although I could take a reckless guess or two), which can make its own nominations, and the list is then approved by the prime minister. I don’t know if he gets to do any final tinkering or not. After all that, the queen waves her magic feather over it. Of 45 appointments in August 2015, 26 belonged to the party currently in office, the Conservatives. One of them is a former MP (that’s Member of Parliament, in case you don’t speak British) who stepped down in 2010 after the public learned that he’d claimed the £2,200 he spent for cleaning his moat on his expenses.

So yes, the system’s working perfectly. They don’t seem to have appointed the guy who got caught claiming the cost of a floating duck island for his country house.

The average age is 69, but the lone Green peer is quoted as saying “You can’t die in parliament. You’re not allowed.” I’d put that down to comic overstatement, but since we’re dealing with the House of Lords it’s probably not.

When the Lords were considering a bill that many people thought would have a disastrous effect on the National Health Service (it passed, and we were right: it has), several friends and I divided up the list of lords who we thought might be swing votes and wrote to all of them. I learned from this that some of them are elderly or ill and don’t show up anymore. They’re not required to, although they’re paid only for days they show up. Last I heard it was £300 a day.

A person could live on that.

I also learned that the peers aren’t provided with a clerical staff. They answer their own mail or they don’t. Mostly they don’t, but one member, Baroness (that’s what the women are called; the men are called Lord) Someone or Other, emailed back. And I emailed her back and she wrote back again and we argued the bill endlessly and purposelessly, since it quickly became clear that neither of us was going to change the other one’s position. It was all I could do to keep from asking, “Why are you writing me? Don’t you have a country to run or something?”

Anyway, she assured me that the bill would work to the benefit of the entire universe and that the sun would shine twenty-five hours a day and Britain would bask in eternal summer. I later saw her name on a list of peers who had investments that should have barred them from voting on the bill (but didn’t), since they were conflicts of interest.

I comfort myself with the thought that when she was writing to me she wasn’t accomplishing anything else.

But. Some of the peers interviewed in the Guardian article made a good case for the Lords having a use.

“A lot of bills are not debated at all in the House of Commons,” one said. “They fall to the House of Lords.”

A lot of the MPs barely even read them.

In the Lords, a certain number of members will actually read the damn things, line by line by dreary line, instead of just voting as their party tells them to. For one thing, they have the commitment and time. For another, since they’re appointed for life they can, if they want to, be independent of their party.

Still, the Lords is an unelected body, and that’s a dangerous way to govern.

The Lords has less power than the Commons (don’t ask; it’s as complicated as the rules governing carpets), but it can in some situations slow legislation down and in others amend or kill it. Since the British system gives a hell of a lot of power to the party that holds a majority in the Commons, the Lords is the only brake the system has. The current gridlock in the U.S. has made me understand what’s wrong with the checks and balances system the U.S. Constitution created. All it takes is one party dedicated to stopping the other for everything to grind to a halt—as long as that party is large enough and ruthless enough. But the British system has made me understand what’s wrong with efficiency. The governing party has a huge amount of power, which can be equally destructive if the governing party’s ruthless enough. The Lords is the one place it may (emphasis on may) not entirely control. Unless it’s in office long enough to stuff it with donors and hacks.

I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as the senior official wears a frilly tie and you can’t stand still on a blue rug, at least we get to laugh about it.

Comparative idiot-proofing

Brits are smarter than Americans. Want proof? They’re surrounded by less idiot-proofing and they—or at least enough of them to keep the country staggering forward—survive.

Example number one: The cliffs here in north Cornwall are high and dangerous, and in places the footpaths run right along the edge. And no one builds a hand rail or fence (unless the fence is there to keep the cattle or sheep back; the humans are left to fend for themselves). For the most part, no one even puts up a sign. They’re cliffs. It’s assumed you’ll have sense enough not to walk off the edge. Besides, you’d have to fence off half the Cornish coastline if you wanted to protect everyone from themselves.

Our local beach does have a sign about falling rock on one side. People ignore it, but short of installing sheepdogs to herd them away, the council’s done as much as it’s willing to. No fences.

Penkenna, north cornwall

Irrelevant photo: The beach on a much nicer day than the day when I’m typing this. The gusts are high enough that I took the dogs on a stagger,  not a walk.

Example number two: Our car doesn’t have as many you-idiot buzzers as American cars, and I assume other people’s are the same. The makers count on you having the brains to take your key out of the ignition when you get out. In the U.S., they know better, because as it turns out I don’t have the brains–and let’s pretend for a moment that I’m typical of the human race. The other night, I not only left my key in the car, I left it turned so that it drained the battery. (On the positive side, the car was still where I left it.) So in the morning, when I went to drive Wild Thing to a doctor’s appointment (ah, yes, excitement; we were younger when she first got her name, but she still manages to live up to it) the car was dead, dead, dead.

You wouldn’t expect a person to complain about a car not insulting her intelligence, would you? But it does make me miss my insulting American car, which would’ve given me some sort of nasty you-idiot sound and I would have rolled my eyes and put the key in my pocket and sworn I didn’t need the reminder.

Here, the only thing I do (and I do it fairly regularly) to make my car give me the you-idiot noise is leave the lights on. You know, when it’s not dark enough for me to see that they’re on but overcast enough that they made me more visible. And then I forget I turned them on but the car—thank you, car—remembers.

When I drove cab—and we’re going back a few thousand years here—the company bought a bunch of new cars that, for the first time in Blue & White Cab Co. history, made a deeply aggressive you-idiot noise when the driver didn’t wear a seatbelt. A sizable percent of the drivers were of the Don’t You Tell Me What to Do persuasion, and they dealt with it by either fastening the belts permanently behind them or unplugging the wire between the belt and the screamy thing.

They even took a certain joy in it, as if they’d snatched back some control over their lives from an overwhelming and powerful system, and I do understand the impulse, just not the direction they take with it.

The going justification for not wearing a seatbelt was that we jumped in and out of the cab dozens of times a day—to open doors, to load and unload groceries and luggage, to ring doorbells and roust out passengers who said they’d be outside waiting for us but weren’t, so who could be bothered fastening and unfastening the damn thing each time?

Well, me, actually. Maybe it was just innate caution and maybe it was tales from friends and family who’d had their seatbelts fastened during accidents and had come through without a scratch. Maybe it was the accident I had, in a car with no seatbelt, where I ended up in the back seat with the lid of a coffee pot on my head and one boot still beside the gas pedal, ready to keep driving even without my foot to help it. I didn’t have a scratch on me, but I was dazed for the rest of the day.

We didn’t really jump out of the cab that many times a day. I mean, come on. Open the door for people? Only for the elderly and for people who needed to be, um, encouraged to leave. We weren’t fuckin’ limo drivers, trying to make our passengers think they were aristocrats.

Yes, cab driving did wonders for my attitude.

Anyway, I wear a seatbelt so regularly that it took me nine years to find out our current car screams when the driver doesn’t wear one. But I now officially miss all that other you-idiot buzzing. I not only had to ask our neighbor to drive Wild Thing to her appointment, I had to call the roadside assistance, which I’m grateful that we have because we don’t have a charger. While I waited for them, I was so pissed off that I tried out a hot cross bun recipe I’d found on the internet. I couldn’t think of anything else to do with myself. But the recipe turned out to have some uncertainties: How sticky a dough is a somewhat sticky dough? Is that bread flour or plain flour? Are those photographs really the buns you made or did you download it so we’d be impressed?

I used bread flour and left the dough too sticky, so the buns flattened out and even if they hadn’t they wouldn’t have been round anyway because I’m a practical baker, not a decorative one, plus they didn’t taste particularly like hot cross buns although they weren’t bad, and since I couldn’t be bothered putting a cross on top because the cross is decorative and I don’t have a lot of patience for that and would feel kind of weird about the religious symbolism anyway although I wouldn’t if I were buying them instead of baking them [quick pause for breath here], they ended up being cold secular buns. Not at all bad but not hot cross buns.

Then the guy came to jump the car and the world looked like a marginally better place. I don’t need a buzzer to keep me back from the cliff edges, but I will not complain about being insulted by my car.

If you want a cold secular bun, stop by soon. They’re going fast.