Singing buildings, smart condoms, immigration, and other stuff in the news

The Guardian printed a report on singing buildings recently.

Are singing buildings a sign that the world’s ending? As far as I know, no religious text says it is. Mind you, I haven’t read any religious book from end to end. I tried reading the bible once, when I was young and thought it was something I ought to at least crack the covers of. I got as far as the begats, which bored me into insensibility, before admitting to myself that (a) I didn’t get it and (b) I wasn’t getting anything out of the exercise. So I am officially no expert. But singing buildings do sound harmless: Apparently, when the winds are high enough—and I’m not sure how high that is—certain buildings get the urge to sing. I do some singing myself, so I understand how powerful the impulse can be.

The list of singing buildings include Manchester’s Beetham tower. Several fixes have been tried, and the architect has apologized, but the building sings on, hitting a note close to middle C. If anyone reading this is trying to fix the problem, better breath support should bring that note in right on key. Or so I’ve been told when I go a little flat.

The Cityspire building in Manhattan (who names these things?) used to sing but no longer does. Instead, it’s being treated for depression. That actually might herald the end of the world, and it could be that religious texts need to be updated as architecture and technology evolve.

I’d give you a link for all these claims—they do sound like something I made up—but the Guardian online is mad at me for using it too often and thinks I should subscribe. I would—it’s a fine paper, and I understand how difficult the business climate is for newspapers today—but Wild Thing and I already pay for the print edition and unless you have a tablet you can’t access the online edition based on a print subscription.

Or something along those lines. Google “the strange case of the singing buildings” and you should find it. And in case I wasn’t clear, I was talking about an electronic tablet, not a stone one.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is a whatsit plant. In our garden.

What else is happening in the world? Smart condoms are now for sale. How smart are they? Not smart enough to solve your relationship problems or even your (assuming you to be either male and equipped with the relevant organ or female and involved with a male equipped with etc.) sexual—we shouldn’t say “problems” in this context, should we? Issues, then. All it does report back—speed, frequency, girth, skin temperature, and so forth. All those things a thrilling lover needs to know.

Do I hear hysterical laughter from the alto and soprano sections?

The Guardian gave me access to that story. They understand what matters.

Smart condoms probably aren’t a sign that the world’s ending either, but they could evidence that it deserves to.

By the way, as far as I can figure out, they’re not actual condoms, they just work in the vicinity of the real ones. They won’t prevent either pregnancy or venereal disease. They may prevent relaxation and fun.

Moving on:

The CIA, Wikileaks announced, is spying on us through our smart TVs, smartphones, and antivirus software. At our house, we’re assuming some British agency does the same, since Britain helped develop the technology, and that they’ve been listening to everything we say in the living room. Wild Thing’s delighted.

“My opinion finally counts for something somewhere,” the spokesperson for our household said.

[Update: I just checked the link on that story, and (who knows how) I linked it to one of my own posts–about village life and chasing chickens. I’ve left it for the pure silliness of it–and because I thought it was a good, if irrelevant, post. For relevant information, try this link instead.]

What else is happening? A 99-year-old from the Dutch city of Nijmegen had herself arrested because—and I’m making an assumption here—she thought it would be fun. Apparently she’d always been a good girl and, as her niece explained it, she “wanted to experience this.”

O ye who have never sinned enough to be arrested, there is still time to repent. But I warn you: I was arrested in a civil rights demonstration a hundred or so years ago and I didn’t find it a whole lot of fun. Neither, to the best of my knowledge, did anyone I was arrested with. But maybe we went into it for the wrong reasons. Instead of trying to end racism, we should have been trying to have fun, fun, fun.

The tales from our court appearances were pretty funny, but I’ll need a different excuse to tell those.

The 99-year-old isn’t alone. A 102-year-old from Missouri had herself handcuffed and delivered to an event at her retirement home in a police car. It had been on her bucket list.

So let’s talk about bucket lists. I’m all for acknowledging our mortality, but a list of ridiculous things you want to experience before you die? Don’t we have anything better to do with our lives, and if not why are we bothering the planet with our presence here?

For reasons known only to its algorithm, the Guardian gave me access to this story.

From there, we go to immigration. Britain, having held a referendum in which we voted to jump off a cliff of unknown height in a fog so thick that we can’t see what’s at the bottom—this is known as the Brexit referendum, in case you’re not getting the allusion—is now pretending that what we voted for wasn’t to leave the EU but to  get rid of foreigners. As many as possible, and for any reason.

Why?

Well because they’re foreign, silly.

Did I say “they”? Sorry. Slip of the tongue. I’m a foreigner here myself, and citizen or not, I always will be.

So who are they getting rid of? For one, a grandmother who lost her indefinite leave to remain because she spent too much time outside the country caring for her dying parents. You can see why she’d be dangerous. She was held in a detention center for a month and was given no chance to say goodbye to her British husband of 27 years, her two sons, or her granddaughter before being hustled through the airport by the arms and tossed on a plane to Singapore. She had £12 in her pocket and the clothes on her back. That happened on a Sunday, presumably to keep her family from getting hold of a lawyer.

For the government, it’s all about numbers. The more immigrants they throw out, the better the politicians (with rare, brave exceptions) think they look. They’re like people with anorexia—they look in the mirror and never think they’re thin enough.

It turns out that being a citizen is less protection than Wild Thing and I thought when we took citizenship. The home secretary can revoke the citizenship people who weren’t born here if it’s not “conducive to the public good.” No court has to approve it and the person doesn’t have to have been of—or even charged with—a crime. When our current prime minister was in charge of the Home Office, 70 people lost their citizenship that way.

I’d make a joke about that, but I’m afraid I’d suddenly find myself in Singapore. So let’s move on.

The town of Rochdale plans to ban swearing. Also begging, unauthorized collections for charity, loitering, antisocial parking, loud music, drinking in public, and skateboarding. Not to mention bad temper, bad attitudes, bad hairdos, and stupid laws. It’s already made a difference. Asked by a reporter what he thought about it, a resident said, “It’s a load of bullshit.”

Onward. The most hated household chore in Britain is ironing. That’s why I live here. Ironing is against my religion and people don’t laugh when I explain that.

A dog swallowed a toy train and was rushed to the vet for emergency surgery. I believe it was a Thomas the Tank Engine. I am grateful for the existence of a free and fearless press.

Former chancellor George Osborne, who’s still an MP, has been moonlighting at BlackRock, a fund management company. He declared a salary of £650,000. For working four days a month. And then there’s the £800,000 he made in speaking fees.

You know, in a pinch, a person could live on that.

The National Trust has started charging for parking near the Levant mine, in West Cornwall, which has become popular because of the BBC’s Poldark series. The mine was the site of a 1919 disaster in which 31 miners died. The National Trust’s pay-and-display machinery had already been ripped out of the ground once. This time, the coin slots were filled with expanding foam.

I know I’m not supposed to think that’s funny, but I can’t help myself. Expanding foam in the coin slot. Haven’t you ever wanted to do that yourself?

Cornwall’s St. Piran’s flag—a white cross on a black background—was painted onto the information board, just in case the Trust didn’t get the message.

*

And finally, as a reward for slogging through the parts of this that weren’t funny, here’s a comment I just dug out of my spam folder: “Attractive portijon of content. I simply stumblled upon your web site and in accession capital to assert that I get in fact enjoyed account your bpog posts. Anyy way I wiull be subscribingg to your augment or even I achievemewnt you get entry to constantly rapidly.”

Yes. Finally. I aim to establish my bpog as a portijon of content and I’m flattered all to hell that someone noticed.

What, you ask, is a portijon? It’s what you get when you cross a portable toilet with a demijohn. And I—thank you for the applause—have cornered the market.

We’re all immigrants, or will be

When you live in a culture you didn’t grow up in—

No, forget you, because we both know I’m talking about me. So let’s try that again:

Because I live in a culture I didn’t grow up in, I’m forever stubbing my toe on cultural differences. Is that last meal of the day—to give you an unimportant example—dinner or supper? If I invite a friend over for dinner (I usually say “supper,” but who knows, I might try to go all British and accidentally use the more ambiguous “dinner”), will she show up at noon when I didn’t plan to start cooking until five?

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what's-it-called.

Irrelevant photo: Frost on the what’s-it-called.

M. came over for whatever that meal’s called recently—showing up just when I thought she would—and as I set the table my mind wandered off into an extended meditation on the intercultural use of spoons. It’s another of those silly differences. Americans will set the table with a fork, a knife, and a small spoon, but the British will add a big honkin’ soup spoon if they plan to pull dessert out of a hat, a cupboard, or a refrigerator at the end of the meal. Because that’s what they’ll eat it with.

At our house, sorry, you don’t get two spoons.  I learned to set a table the American way, and the younger you learn a thing the more some irrational and very powerful part of you is convinced that it’s right.

And by you, as we all know by now, I mean me, because I’d feel roughly as comfortable setting out two spoons as I would wearing a tutu.

For the record, I don’t own and have never worn a tutu. I do have both size spoons, though, so I debated which ones to use. A small spoon’s good for stirring milk into tea, and M. takes her tea with milk. When I make a pot, I pour the milk in before the tea so it doesn’t need stirring, but it was evening and Wild Thing and I would want herb tea (ah, we get wilder every year), so I’d make M’s in the cup, meaning I couldn’t add the milk first. All that weighed on the side of small spoons.

On the other side of the balance, she could stir her tea with a big spoon and then use if for dessert and feel right at home if a little barbaric. For that matter, she could stir her tea with the handle of her knife. Or her thumb if the mood took her. She’s family. It wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.

I put out small spoons. Some of us stirred our tea with them and some of us left them on the table, American style, because I’m not going to pretend that the American way of setting the table makes more sense than the British way. We put out small spoons because we put out small spoons, not necessarily because anyone will use them. What matters is that the spoons are available.

On such moments are entire cultures balanced.

We used forks for dessert—those of us who didn’t use our fingers. It was American coffee cake, which isn’t one of those things that demand a fork. The fork’s so we can show each other that we’re housebroken.

It was all, I’m sure, a very unBritish meal.

End of example and a chance to move on to my real point, which is that British/American cultural differences aren’t the only kind I stumble over, so let’s move on to a new example:

I’ve been gathering a information on U.K. publishers recently. I published a political satire, Open Line, back in the U.S. in 2008. It’s about alternative facts and fake news, although it doesn’t use either phrase, and it’s become sadly relevant recently, so I’m looking around for a U.K. publisher that might want the British rights. My U.S. publisher’s all for it and that’s as much help as they plan to give me. Index cards struck me as the best way to organize what was quickly becoming a mess.

Now, you have to be over a certain age to know what index cards look like, never mind to understand what they’re for or why they seemed like a better idea than putting it all on the computer. I’m not sure what that age is, but you’ll know which side you’re on and we can all do some guesswork from there.

Our nearby town has a stationery store and right beside it an almost-stationery store, which sells newspapers and lots of toys as well as gum and some school supplies. The stationery store, I was pretty sure, would have index cards, but I got there on a Saturday afternoon and it was closed. That’s a British thing, the half day on Saturday. Not all stores observe it, but when one does I shouldn’t be surprised.

I both was and wasn’t. Cultural differences and all that. If you—and by you of course I mean I; or me, but let’s not get into that because it’s a grammatical rat’s nest—don’t plan for these cultural differences, you stub your toe and swear a bit, then you move on. My feet have thick callouses by now. I went next door.

The store had been reorganized since my last visit, so nothing was where I remembered it. I could have wandered around looking for the stationery section but it would have meant spending time with My Little Pony and Bob the Builder and I couldn’t face either of them just then. Instead, I found the cash register, which would be called the till (I think). Two young women looked up with that bright-eyed, can-I-help-you face people make, and I was struck by how immensely young they were. So young that I thought, No, you probably can’t, but I asked anyway: “I don’t suppose you have index cards, do you?”

And by you, I meant you. Which is grammatically less complicated than the I/me snarl.

One of them turned to the other, looking blank and quietly panicked.

“It’s a generational thing,” I said, meaning it’s a cultural difference and there was no reason she’d know what I was talking about.

The second clerk asked if they weren’t those dividers—.

“Not the dividers,” I said. “The things they divide.” Because it made a skewed kind of sense to me that they’d know about index card dividers but not the cards themselves. Why? Because I had a pack of alphabetical dividers at home, which proved to me that they still existed. The cards I wasn’t so sure about.

No, you didn’t miss anything. That set of connections is at least as irrational as the business about the spoons.

The second clerk showed me where the dividers lived. They were the size of a notebook and not at all what I wanted, but they were near something vaguely related to index cards and I figured they were the closest thing I’d find on a Saturday afternoon, so I bought them.

Which brings me to my point: Cultural differences exist between all kinds of groups, not just immigrants and the native born or majority populations and minority groups. Anyone who thinks immigrants or minority groups should just shut up and adapt to every twitch and wriggle of their new country or of the majority, think about your grandmother. Or your great-grandmother. Or yourself if you’re old enough. Because if we live long enough, we all become immigrants to a world we didn’t grow up in. We adapt to some parts of it and not to others. Humans are like that. Some deep part of our selves insists that this will all make more sense on index cards than on the computer, even though she/you/I know(s) perfectly well how to work the computer. Or looks at the soup spoons and thinks, That’s a ridiculous thing to eat dessert with and I’m not setting it on the table.

No, it’s not exactly the same, but maybe it’s enough to make us stop and think.

Welcome to diversity. It’s more diverse than you think.

*

And, although it has no connection with that, I’d like to report that Britain is suffering from a plague of automated phone calls. Some are annoying but confirm medical appointments, so we put up with them because we don’t want our appointments canceled. And by we I mean every ragged one of us.

Others, though—.

Today (and by today I mean the day I wrote this, which as I edit it has already slipped away) I’ve had five automated calls that start, “This is an urgent announcement…”

I hang up at that point, so I haven’t figured out what the scam is, I just know there is one.

Two came when I was cooking and my hands were oily and Wild Thing wasn’t able to answer the phone so I had to pick it up, slathering oil as I went, in case it was someone real. One came when I was ready to stuff the phone down the next caller’s throat, because the last two had been an urgent announcement.

The next call, which I almost answered by saying, “This is an urgent announcement,” was not only someone real, it was someone I don’t know well enough to pull that sort of stunt on. I was glad that good sense had gotten the better of me, however briefly.

We’ve been getting these calls for months, along with a series that start, “Boiler replace for free.” They also arrive in herds.

Wild Thing registered recently for something that promised to track unwanted calls. It did not promise to get rid of them and so far it’s kept that promise.

I’m not sure who thinks it’s a good investment to pay some company to make these calls. By my calculations, they’d cover Wales in urgency to a depth of six inches if we could only round them up. Calculating that slightly differently, I can also report that they’ve called every landline in Britain 74 times by now.

Does anyone who didn’t take the bait the first time take it on the 73rd?

Cornwall and Calais: small actions, huge issues

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

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

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

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

Soothing and irrelevant photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A government decides to promote British values

The British government worries that Britain may not be British enough. It worries so much that the Department for Education has instructed schools to promote British values.

Part of this is meant to counter the lure ISIS has on a (let’s be realistic, limited but highly publicized) number of young people, but I seem to remember that they started talking about British values back when Scotland was voting on whether to leave the U.K. So I’m guessing that some more general unease lies behind the decision.

Let me be clear: I take ISIS seriously. Hell, I take Scotland seriously. What I don’t take seriously are people who think “promoting British values” is a response to either of those very distinct entities. Especially since the British values campaign forces everyone to confront the awkward question of what those values are. I mean, they’re not , say, the flag or apple pie. They’re hard to define.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand.

Irrelevant photo: an old shed at Trebarwith Strand. The pink flowers are red campion. I don’t make this stuff up. Really I don’t.

As prime minister, David Cameron defined them as freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility, and respect for British institutions. Nick Clegg, when he was deputy prime minister, added gender equality and equality before the law. Then his party tanked in the elections and no one’s consulted him since. Michael Gove, when he was secretary of education, defined them as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. Awkwardly enough, in 2007 he said trying to define Britishness was “rather un-British.”

Oops.

Since Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, which should really be OSECSS) will have the joy of assessing the schools’ efforts, it’s published the official set of British values. They’re democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.

Can we tolerate people with different, non-British values? Sorry, the question’s too complicated. Ofsted lives in a true/false culture.

Do other countries hold to these same values and if they do are the values still specifically British? Sorry, that’s not on the test and we can’t discuss it now.

Can we tolerate politicians offering three sets of non-identical British values plus one opinion trashing the whole idea of codifying them? Of course we can, because by now everyone’s swung their weight behind the official version and has forgotten that they didn’t always agree. Except possibly Nick Clegg and, see above, no one consults him anymore.

In joyful response to this attempt at unifying the nation’s beliefs, a whole lot of people cut loose on Twitter under the hashtag #BritishValues. According to The Independent, some of the early tweets summarizing the aforesaid values included:

  • Being wary of foreigners while having a Belgian beer with an Indian curry in your Spanish villa wearing Indonesian clothes.
  • Queuing; dressing inappropriately when the sun comes out; warm beer; winning World Wars; immigration & Pot Noodles.
  • Wearing socks with sandals
  • complaining about immigration

The Independent article online was open for comments, and they included a few more suggestions:

  • Seeing a rogue traffic cone and immediately working out the nearest sculpture in need of a hat.
  • Denouncing immigrants, while we have a royal family made up of immigrants.
  • Loving fish and chips even though the potato migrated here from abroad.

The comment thread quickly degenerated into arguments, name calling, and “This comment has been deleted,” so I stopped reading. Instead, I went to Twitter to check out the more recent comments. Not all of them are funny. Some are bitter-edged comments about homelessness and not rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean.  Others are about trash in the hedges and dog-poo bags left by the side of the road. But, hey, we try to keep laughing here, even when the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.  The lighter tweets included:

  • The bloke in front of me just put his entire body weight on my foot & I said sorry.
  • Forming an orderly queue.
  • Pie and chips done properly!
  • Get an exclusive 15% off any order from @TwiningsTea

None of these answers the question (and I do understand that it wasn’t posed as a question) of what British values are, but it does point us in the right direction: Whatever they are, they include an ad for tea and a sense of humor. So brew yourself a nice cup and tell me something silly about British values, would you?

Or American values. Or any other nation’s values. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Department of Futile Exercises: Summing up the U.K. and the U.S.

Recently, a teachers’ conference objected to the government’s drive to teach British values in the schools, saying it was becoming “the source of wider conflict rather than a means of resolving it.” (“Teachers urged to ‘disengage’ from promotion of British values”)

I’ve been hearing about British values since I first came to this country, and I always wonder what they are. Standing in orderly lines? Forming brass bands? Not using sunscreen on the beach, even though you’re light-skinned and have already turned an alarming shade of pink? It’s a heavy responsibility, settling on a handful of characteristics to sum up an entire nation.

Irrelevant photo: The coast on the same hazy day as the last waves-in-the-haze picture I posted. The haze was caused by a sandstorm in the Sahara.

What did the Department for (not of, thank you very much*) Education decide were the ultimate British values when they pushed the nation’s protesting teachers under the wheels of this particular train? “Democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs.” (“Schools ‘must actively promote British values’ – DfE”)

Don’t you just love a politician who can say stuff like that with a straight face? Because, of course, no other country in this battered old world can lay claim to those ideals. If you’re startled awake some night and hear that set of values marching down the street behind a brass band, you’ll know right away what country you woke up in.

Any discussion of British values is complicated by a central reality of Britain, which is that the country’s a mash-up of four (or five, if you’re a Cornish nationalist) nations**, and the people most likely to call themselves British seem to be those of us who aren’t English, Scottish, Northern Irish, or Welsh. Or Cornish. In other words, those of us who came from someplace else. Those of us whose children the Department for Education is worried about Britishizing.

As far as I can tell, summing up either a country or its values is a messy business, whatever country you pick. When I still lived in the U.S., I taught briefly in a community college, and we’d read an essay by an immigrant that made a passing reference to, if I remember right, “being more like an American.”

“What,” I asked, on the spur of the moment, “does it mean when you say someone’s like an American?”

It wasn’t a question I had an answer for, and as it turned out no one else did either. The class broke into small groups, and a couple of them set about finding some essential trait that would separate the Americans from the non-Americans, but pretty much everything people suggested fell apart. Being born in the country? Nope. You could still become a citizen, and a citizen was an American. Being a citizen, then? Well, legally, yes, but some non-citizens are as culturally American (whatever that means) as any citizen. One small group, pushed, I think, by a single enthusiast, decided that speaking English was a dividing line, but the other groups didn’t jump in to endorse that. Personally, I’m all for speaking the language of a country you live in (British and American expats in non-English-speaking countries, are you taking notes?), but not every immigrant can learn a new language. My great-grandmother never did, even though the price she paid was not being able to talk freely with her grandchildren. It wasn’t lack of motivation. She wasn’t young when she immigrated and she couldn’t make the adjustment. Maybe she wasn’t good with languages. Maybe she was terrified. I don’t know.

No one, including me, thought to mention that other countries speak English and it hasn’t made them particularly American. In fact, some countries—mentioning no names—think they speak it better than we do. And then there are the Puerto Ricans. They’re U.S. citizens by birth. If some of them speak only Spanish, either by choice or because it’s their only language, are they any less American?

I won’t go on. We couldn’t say what being American meant, although we all thought we knew.

So, British values? Sorry, folks, but I’m not hopeful. I will, however, have a hell of a good time listening to the debate as it staggers on.

 

—————–

*My spies tell me it used to be the Department of Education, but the name was changed at some point. I’m sure the education system is better because of it.

**I owe the insight about the U.K. being a country of four (or five) nations to my writers group. The United Kingdom looks a whole lot more united from the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, Scotland came very close to leaving in 2014. Somebody tell me: Did that get any coverage in the U.S.?

Looking American: On culture, nationality, and immigration

A few months ago, M. told me, “You’re looking very”—and here you have to imagine a short pause— “American today.”

When I stopped laughing, I asked what American looked like, and you can insert another, somewhat longer pause before you go on, because he had to think about it. Or else he was looking for a gentle way to say it.

“You walk as if the sun always shines on you and you own the world,” he said. Not unkindly, I should add, although from someone else it might have sounded like a complaint.

Semi-relevant photo: The sun shining on a herd of cows. (Actually, they were making sure we left their field, and I can't remember if the sun was shining on them or not--it looks like diffuse sunlight. Does that count?)

Semi-relevant photo: The sun shining on a herd of cattle. Actually, they were making sure we left their field, and I can’t remember if the sun was shining on them or not–it looks like diffuse sunlight. That may or may not count.

The sun wasn’t shining on me that day. I’ll skip the details, because they’ll take me off in a whole ‘nother direction, but I’d been shaken by some bad news a few hours earlier, and I was still feeling it.

What does it mean to be so American that I look like I own the world, even (or particularly) when I’m don’t feel that way? Well, what does it mean to belong to any nationality?

The question’s been rattling around in my head lately, at least in part because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that seeps into so much of British politics these days. And into American politics, while we’re at it. You could probably drop any other more or less solvent nation into that sentence, because trouble drives people to immigrate, and the world’s a troubled place these days.

Part of the anti-immigrant feeling is about jobs: If immigrants come over here (wherever here is), they’ll work for less and wages will drop. There’s some logic to this, although what’s really undermining wages is that jobs, and whole industries, have moved overseas, where wages are ruinously cheaper. On top of that, unions don’t have the clout they once did (those two aren’t unrelated), and they were a major force driving wages up.

But another, more emotional, strand of complaint is that immigrants don’t blend in. Basically, the problem with immigrants is that we’re foreigners, and couldn’t we please stop that? Stop talking our languages in public. Stop eating funny foods. Stop dressing differently. Stop running around with different-color skin. Stop cheering for foreign sports teams or holding to foreign religions or using all those alphabets that no decent person knows how to read. I mean, who knows what we’re writing in them?

But once you grow up in a culture, you don’t get to leave it behind—not entirely, even if you want to. No matter how much you work at blending into another one, you carry some part of the original. I walk, apparently, like an American, and I know I sound like one. I even eat like one. The American way of eating involves juggling the fork from the left hand, where we hold it if we need to cut something with knife and fork, to the right hand, which we use to bring the food to the mouth. The British way leaves the fork where it started, in the left hand. This is great, because it lets you use the knife to push food onto your fork—and it’s perfectly good manners when you do. That solves a problem built into the American approach: How do you get the last bits of non-spearable food onto the fork without sneaking a finger onto the plate and hoping no one’s looking? Although it doesn’t solve another problem, which is how to keep the food on your fork, because the British hold the damned thing with the back—the hump—facing up, so that you can’t use the fork’s valley to cradle your food. I haven’t a clue why they do this, but it may explain why mashed potatoes are so popular: you can use them as mortar to hold the rest of your food on your fork.

So I’m a partial fan of the British method, and periodically I try to eat that way—usually with the curved part of the fork facing up, but never mind, I’m compromising here and I want some credit, damn it. All you anti-immigrant campaigners, are you listening? I’m making an effort.

What happens, though? The minute my mind wanders—and it doesn’t take long—my fork’s magically moved itself back to my right hand and I’m eating like an American again. And the sun shines on me.

At this point, while the sun’s shining on me alone, I have to interrupt myself, because I read this post to my writers group and they told me that holding the fork with the hump facing up is posh, presumably because it makes you eat more slowly. Holding it valley-side up is working class. Who’d have thunk? I swear, you have to be born here to figure this stuff out. On the evidence of that alone, though, I ask you: Who should be running the country?

Because of my (sometimes absurd) efforts to publicize both my book and this blog, I’ve written a lot of bios lately (I will post just about anywhere, about almost anything, as long as I get a bio and a link), and I keep describing myself as an American living in Cornwall. That reflects the reality of who I am culturally, but it ignores the fact that I’m a British citizen as well as an American one.

For me, becoming a British citizen was about security, not love or allegiance or culture. I do love the country, but I’m not romantic about citizenship. I wanted to be a citizen because it’s harder to get rid of a citizen than a resident alien. Since the U.K. government had already changed the rules once before Wild Thing and I got the right to stay in the country for the long term,and since we just about got kicked out of the country because of it, we were touchy on the subject. It may be crass, but we wanted the safety that comes with citizenship. We’re grateful for it, but it hasn’t, and can’t, change who we are.

So when I hear someone say that the problem with immigrants is that we don’t acculturate, I can only suggest moving abroad and seeing what happens.

*

A final note: Before my writers group before we fell down the conversational rabbit hole of what it means to have a constitution that isn’t a written document, I learned something else about forks and nationality: More and more of the British are acting like Americans and shuffling their forks from hand to hand as they eat.

And we’re not even the immigrant group anyone’s upset about.

If you want to blame someone, you can blame movies or television, because there aren’t enough Americans here to have that big an impact.

How do foreigners change a culture? Sometimes it’s from a distance.

Beer and British politics: The Pub Landlord runs for office

British politics just got a bit less depressing: A new candidate just entered the race for a parliamentary seat, a comic named Al Murray running under the name of his comedy character, the Pub Landlord. His party’s logo looks a lot like the one the U.K. Independence Party (Ukip) uses, and although I hate to give Ukip any space in my earth-shatteringly influential blog, the joke doesn’t work unless you know a bit about who the Pub Landlord’s making fun of.

Ukip wants to take the U.K. out of the European Union and get rid of all of us pesky foreigners. Or maybe they don’t want to get rid of quite all of us, because Ukip’s leader is married to a woman from Spain, so presumably they’ll make exceptions, but basically they don’t like furriners coming over here, taking British jobs and speaking funny languages on their streets. Last I heard, the party leader’s wife had a paid job in his office, but I guess that wasn’t a British job, it was some other kind of job, so it must be okay.

Irrelevant Photo: Mulfra Quoit, an ancient monument in West Cornwall

Irrelevant Photo: Mulfra Quoit, in West Cornwall

What else does Ukip stand for? Well, it sort of depends when you ask and who you ask and what sort of mood they’re in. And whether they’re still in the party, because periodically one of their candidates goes too far and gets thrown out. One proposed banning Islam and tearing down mosques. Another posted anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements on his Facebook page. A third was convicted of assault. Let me quote the Mail Online here: “The Ukip official charged with vetting the party’s election candidates has revealed he spends half his time ‘weeding out the lunatics’. . . .

“The remarks come after one Ukip candidate was recorded making homophobic, racist and obscene comments—while another was exposed as a fantasist after becoming embroiled in a public sex scandal.”

Ukip does stand for a good pint of beer, though—that’s been pretty consistent and to date no one’s been thrown out for it. And they’re polling well considering that they’re a minor and basically bonkers party. Well enough to scare the bejeezus out of the major parties and drag them all into a discussion of what to do about immigration, as if everyone agreed that immigration is what’s wrong with—and probably the only thing wrong with—the country.

But back to the new party: Its name is Free United Kingdom Party, or FUKP. (Yeah, go ahead and pronounce it.) And what’s its platform? The Pub Landlord promises to burn down the Houses of Parliament for the insurance and brick up the Channel Tunnel to keep immigrants out. His most inspired proposal is revaluing the pound so it’s worth £1.10. About cutting immigration, he says, “This is the greatest country in the world and people want to move here. We need an MP to make things worse. Look no further.” On corporations and globalization, he says, “Blah blah blah paradigm blah blah blah, blah blah dialectic blah blah blah blah blah blah game-changer.” Which is pretty much what all the politicians are saying.

Finally, he pledges that the U.K. will leave Europe by 2025 and the solar system by 2050.

Politics hasn’t made this much sense since Screaming Lord Sutch ran on the Official Monster Raving Loony Party ticket.

Celebrating a Bulgarian British Christmas

Since my recent posts were about Christmas in Britain, I should send you to Not Another Tall Blog for a post on what it’s like to keep your original traditions–in this case Bulgarian–when your children are growing up British. Every immigrant has to find a balance between the two cultures they live with, and when you’re raising children in a new culture the issue must be even more pressing.

Angie’s post drew my mind to my grandparents, my father’s parents–Russian-Jewish immigrants who raised eight children in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century–and the decisions they were faced with. There’s a long story there, or may stories, but let’s save them for another day.

Again, happy holidays.

A Recommendation

I just read a post on speaking with an accent on Not Another Tall Blog, by Angie K., and I want to recommend it to you.

Yeah, it’s true that we all have an accent of one sort or another, but when you’re the possessor of one that stands out, suddenly you don’t just have an accent, you have An Accent, and that changes things. Her post makes me want to write about the issue, but it’ll take me a while to catch up with that. In the meantime, do take a look at what she’s written.

The Life in the U.K. Test

British_Flag (1)It was 2006 when Wild Thing and I left Minnesota for a village in Cornwall. It’s ridiculously beautiful and it’s also—well, British. And we’re American. Actually, by now we’re both British and American, but we’ve been Americans for a lot longer than we’ll ever be British, and these things don’t leave you.

When we applied for permanent leave to remain in the UK, I had to take the Life in the UK test to prove that I was fit to stay. Or maybe what I had to prove was that some ministry or political party was sufficiently tough on immigration to appeal to the anti-immigrant vote. The test is silly, but politics makes people silly. Wild Thing is eight years older than I am and didn’t have to take the test. If you’re past a certain age, you can keep your foreign ways without threatening the country’s integrity. Or something along those lines. The logic of it got lost in the twists and turns of some politician’s brain and if you think about it too much it’ll only upset you.

I bought a government booklet about the test and studied it. Since I worked as an editor before I retired, I couldn’t help tracing through the book’s logic, and I’m prepared to testify that there wasn’t much. A part of it explained how to deal with officialdom, and that was theoretically useful, although by the time I had to take the test life had taught me most of it, as I expect it does to other test-takers. It included information on emergency phone numbers, libraries, the National Health System, that sort of thing. But sandwiched in with that were pages and pages of data: what proportion of the population belonged to which religion, for example. I think I’m right in remembering that Jedi had enough adherents to show up on the list. The patron saints of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, and the days on which they’re celebrated, which are no longer official (and are barely unofficial) holidays, so the information is of no earthly use. I suppose if you belong to a religion that believes in saints you could argue that it’s of some unearthly use, but I don’t know if calendar dates remain relevant in heaven, should such a place turn out to exist. But I duly memorized them, and they weren’t on the test. I have now duly forgotten them. (The test is computerized and the questions vary; not everyone takes the same test. So someone somewhere may get asked about them.) The populations of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Since there’s nothing involving numbers that I can’t screw up, I spent a lot of time on this and forgot every bit of it ten minutes after the test, which is okay because, unlike the religions, which were in percentages, these were in absolute numbers and  will have changed by now. Although, come to think of it, the religious percentages may have as well.

They also had a list of popular sports. Cricket, which I would have thought was the most British of British games, wasn’t included, maybe because the game takes so long that none of its followers had time to respond to a survey.

Sports weren’t on the test. The only question I still remember had to do with the television license—something along the lines of whether people renting a room in a house would have to pay for a separate television license if they had their own set. The television license pays for the BBC and is, essentially, a tax dedicated to that specific use. Think of it as a toll booth, only it’s not on the highway, it’s on the TV set and pays for the programming, not the road.

All that mess about populations and saints’ days? As far as I know, it’s either in there either to fill out the pamphlet or to distract applicants from learning the information they’ll actually need.

It’s a hell of a way to welcome a person to the country.