How to get a license for your goldfish, and other news from Britain 

We all know how romantic Britain is, right? Ruined castles, foggy moors, illegal waste disposal. Yes, folks, we’ve got it all. 

Back in–hang on. How long has this article been kicking around my coffee table? Back in December 2020–in fact, just in time for Christmas–a Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, got exercised about criminal networks working in waste disposal, and (what with being criminals and all) dumping and burning large amounts of the stuff they were supposed to dispose of in the approved (if not necessarily planet-friendly) way. 

Some of it, he wrote, is hazardous.  

How could that be allowed to happen? 

He set out to demonstrate that the government has lost control of the licensing process so thoroughly that anyone can get licensed to dispose of waste. And they can use false information if they want, because it won’t be checked. 

To demonstrate, he registered his long-dead goldfish as an upper-tier carrier, broker, and dealer in waste. The fish appeared on the form as Algernon Goldfish of 49 Fishtank Close, Ohlooka Castle, Derby. 

A month later, Algernon had his license. Or to be entirely accurate, Monbiot had Algernon’s license. Algernon never opened his own mail, even when he was alive. 

Irrelevant photo: a lily

But let’s be even more than entirely accurate: Algernon may not have been male. To the casual human observer, male and female goldfish look nonbinary, which is to say, we can’t tell the difference. But the culture being what it is, most people will decide their fish is male. 

I know. But a female goldfish applying for a license might have snagged some official’s attention the way a male goldfish wouldn’t, after which they might have asked Lord Google where Ohlooka Castle is, and the whole thing would’ve fallen apart. So it was important that Algernon stay putatively male. 

As the cynical among us used to say in the–was it the seventies? Or as I think of it, last week? Yeah, it probably was. We said, “Make sexism work for you.”

It never did, really, but it sometimes kept us from throwing things.

 

What else makes Britain romantic?

Well, tea, of course. Or if it doesn’t make the place romantic, at least it makes up a huge part of people’s image of Britain. Which is a problem, because the British are buying less tea than they used to. And if they’re buying less, it follows as the night the day that they’re drinking less. 

What’s going on? 

The world’s ending, that’s what. 

On top of which Britons are switching to coffee, herbal tea, iced tea, energy drinks, and for all I know cocaine. 

Not everything on that list is available from your local supermarket, but with the exception of herbal tea all of it will wake you up.

According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is based on conversations with at least three people who still speak to me, the British consider coffee fancier than tea. 

To be clear: I’m not talking about instant coffee here, and maybe not about the stuff I learned to drink in the U.S. as a young adult, at great cost to my taste buds and ability to sleep. I’m talking about the kind you buy at a coffee shop. The kind that comes from a machine the size of a Volkswagen. Or the kind people make at home using a non-recyclable pod that they slot into a machine the size of a small short-haired dog.

Semi-relevantly, people don’t talk about having coffee here, they talk about having a coffee, as in “I stopped in for a coffee.” I’ve lived outside the U.S. too long to remember what Americans would say, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. A cup of coffee? Probably. But I do remember that tea’s the fancier drink in the U.S.. Or at least the one that marks you as a bit of a weirdo.  

To prove that tea isn’t the fancier drink in Britain, some whole category of people talk about builder’s tea, meaning the tea people who work in the building trades drink to fuel themselves through the damp and the wind and the hard work. I’m not sure how to describe that category of people who say call it builder’s tea, but I seem to have joined it. They didn’t do a background check before accepting me and I didn’t ask what I was signing up to. 

If that isn’t proof enough of tea’s un-fancyness–and I can’t think why it would be–there’s this: 96% of the tea that Britons slug down is made with a teabag, not from the more up-market leaf teas. 

How did they measure that 96%? By the cuppa, a non-standardized metric that can be found, in spite of the slow shift away from tea, in pretty much every household. The language has preserved a place for the question, “Would you like a cuppa?”

Or maybe that’s, “Do you want a cuppa?” I don’t really speak British. I speak something that’s vaguely related but it doesn’t allow me to write convincing dialogue. 

All comments and corrections and explanations of British English are welcome. Also all marginally appropriate mockery.

 

What else can we learn about British culture?

Why, we can learn what people leave behind at hotels. The Travelodge chain reported on that very topic, because they understand its cultural importance. The past year’s finds include:

  • A pair of feathered angel wings, six feet across
  • A dog named Beyoncé 
  • A dress made out of postcards
  • A horsebox, with the horse inside
  • A drum kit
  • A Jimmy Choo Cinderella shoe 
  • A suitcase full of Blackpool rock

Okay, a couple of those items need explanations. Blackpool rock doesn’t mean stones. Rock’s a stick-shaped hard candy with, in this case, the word Blackpool written all the way through the center. I can understand forgetting it. What I can’t understand is having a suitcase of it, but never mind, the human race is far stranger than any one mind can take in.

As for the shoe, all I can tell you is that Jimmy Choo shoes are ridiculously expensive and that Cinderella’s known for losing a shoe, so pouring that kind of money into two of them seems like a bad investment. But what do I know? I wear running shoes.

But 2021 was a pandemic year. Let’s go back to 2019, before the pandemic got its claws into us, and see what people left:

  • A five-foot unicorn made of flowers
  • A gallon of water from Loch Ness
  • Two alpacas
  • The best man from a wedding party (and that was before the wedding)
  • A dissertation (topic not specified)
  • An urn with someone’s father’s ashes
  • The deed to a shop
  • An Aston Martin
  • A cat
  • A 75-inch color TV (just try finding a black and white one these days)
  • A blood pressure monitor
  • And in a come-down from 2021, a set of angel wings that are only four feet wide

 

Meanwhile in British politics

We could learn a few things here too if we try.

With the shine having gone off the prime minister, a few people in his government are appealing to the we-don’t-like foreigners strand of the culture to see if they can’t shine him back up again. Or at least shine themselves up in case his position suddenly goes vacant.

Appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new, but it went into bold-face type earlier this year, with the home secretary, Priti Patel, calling for asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats to be forced back to France, which France insisted would put their lives at risk.

Will not, Patel said.

Will so too, France said.

Don’t care, Patel may have whispered once the microphone was turned off.

Patel introduced a bill that, until public outrage forced her to modify it, looked like it would make a criminal out of anyone saving an asylum seeker’s life at sea. 

All this activated Brexiteer Nigel Farage and some of the rightest wing of the media to accuse the Royal National Lifeboat Institution of being woke. Not woke as in having had too much fancy coffee but woke as in being someone they disagree with. 

Anything can be turned into an insult if you say it in the right tone of voice.

Why was the RNLI having the evil finger pointd at it? Because it was dedicated to saving lives at sea. Anyone’s life. Lots of ink was spilled onto newsprint, and lots of vitriol was spilled onto the internet. One group of fishermen apparently tried to block a lifeboat, presumably when it wasn’t trying to save a fisherman’s life.

So how well did that work for the anti-woke, no-caffeine campaigners? The RNLI ended 2020 on track to raise the largest amount of money in its almost 200-year history. Online donations went up 50%. 

 

 

And in economics

By 9 a.m. on January 7–the year’s fourth working day in Britain–the average head of the country’s biggest companies had made more money (if you figure it on an hourly basis, which they don’t but never mind) than the average British worker will make by the end of the year. Unless of course the spaceships land before the year ends and seriously reconfigure the economic system.

To put that a different way and for a different year, in 2020 FTSE 100 chief execs were paid an average of 86 times more than the average full-time British worker made. I wouldn’t say it adds to the romance of the country, but it does tell us a lot about the culture.

 

And in other countries…

The Dutch government has put out a warning about pendants that are supposed to protect people from frequencies 5G masts emit: The pendants are radioactive, the government says. And (in case this wasn’t obvious as soon as you hit the word radioactive), they’re dangerous. 

In Canada, cats have put out a warning that Elon Musk’s satellite dishes are nice and warm when it snows. Not very warm, but warmer than snow, because they have a self-heating feature that’s supposed to melt the snow off them. It does do that. It also attracts cats.

This was reported by a customer who said his cats have a heated house of their own but they prefer the satellite dish, at least while the sun’s up. 

The cats slow his reception way down, but hey, if kitty’s happy, everyone’s happy. Or so my cats tell me.

And finally, in the United States, an eight-year-old, Dillon Helbig, slipped a hand-drawn book onto a shelf in the children’s-book section of his local library.

“I wanted to put my book in the library center since I was five, and I always had a love for books and libraries,” he said. “I’ve been going to libraries a lot since I was a baby.”

The book is The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis, and it’s by “Dillon His Self.”  

Library staff found the book and moved it to the graphic novel section, so it can be borrowed. When last heard of, it had a waiting list of 55. The library awarded Dillon the first Whoodini Award for best young novelist. The award was named after the library’s owl mascot and the category was created for Dillon. Who’s working on a sequel.

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My thanks to Jane Whitledge for pushing me in the direction of that last story.

A snapshot of pandemic Britain

Britain’s back in lockdown and the number of Covid hospital admissions is higher than at the pandemic’s first peak. Go, us! The prime minister loves to set records. That’s why we had such a lovely Christmas germ exchange. 

 

The snapshot

Having reopened for exactly one day, the primary schools are now shut again. 

To explain the logic behind that, we go to Boris Johnson’s public statements. On Sunday he told us, “Schools are safe and . . . education is a priority.” On Monday he told us kids could (who knew this?) “act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.” 

Well, yes. Who would have thought that transmission thingy on a Sunday? It takes the cold light of a Monday morning for that to make its way through the fog.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. Almost everyone around here is complaining about the cold, but I feel very lucky to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

By Tuesday, Johnson had added the word alas to the situation. He says alas a lot. Maybe he always did, but he’s given himself so many reasons to alas this past year that someone I know set up a drinking game before his most recent press conference that would have her taking a drink every time he said alas. 

In fairness, she had a fistful of other phrases that would trigger a drink. I haven’t checked back to see how many bottles she emptied, but if she played the game at all (questionable, since drinking games like a cheering crowd and we’re not in crowd mode just now) she’ll still have the hangover.

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Unlike schools, preschools–or nurseries, if we’re talking British–will be staying open, and Purnima Tanuku, the head of the National Day Nurseries Association, said, “What we didn’t hear from the prime minister . . . is the reason behind the decision . . . to keep early years and childcare open, i.e. the science behind it.”

Science? Figures? Oh, these fussy people. 

Maybe in next Monday’s cold light the figures will surprise us, alas, and be forthcoming. At which point the preschools may also have to close.

Tanuku did say that with not many kids attending and staff being out sick, many of them weren’t likely to stay open for long anyway.

Cynics suggest that they’re staying open because it’s harder for people to work from home with a three-year-old underfoot than with an eight-year-old. In other words, forget health, it’s all about the economy.

You’re shocked, I know. So am I.

The data on how effectively kids spread the virus is still contradictory, but a study of Florida elementary schools and high schools shows that Covid infections went up after they reopened. Florida’s  statistics list an infected person’s age and county, which makes it a handy place to study.

After high schools reopened, infections went up almost 30%. For elementary schools (that’s kids age 6 to 13, so it seems to include middle schools or junior highs), that was about 20%. The study didn’t include preschools, but in times like these a person who happened to be prime minister, alas, might want to be make his mistakes on the side of caution.

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Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies tells us that the pandemic’s widening Britain’s inequality gap. More surprises, right? Poorer communities have taken a harder financial hit and their members are dying at roughly twice the rate of richer communities. Black and minority ethnic groups also have a higher death rate, in part as a result of disproportionately holding jobs that put them front lines. 

Kids from poorer families are hit harder by school closures. And people under 25 are twice as likely as older workers to have lost their jobs. 

The IFS has made several sensible recommendations to ameliorate the damage. Isn’t that nice? They’ll be ignored. 

 

New technologies that seem to be on the way

A new Covid test has been developed that not only gives a faster rapid result (five minutes as opposed to 20 or 30) but is accurate. It works by converting DNA to RNA and combining it with a technique called EXPAR. It will be called RTF-EXPAR. 

After that, unfortunately, I ran out of capital letters and couldn’t understand a thing. But it’s all very promising, they’ve applied for a patent, and they’re trying to get the beast into production.

If it works, it could be used for any RNA-based infectious agent or disease biomarker, including cancer.

I don’t know about you, but I understood the “including cancer” part of that sentence. The rest of it kind of went over my head, but I was impressed anyway.

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An at-home antibody test may become available, allowing people to track their Covid immunity by identifying neutralizing antibodies.

You know neutralizing antibodies, right? They’re the ones you met at the neighbors’ just before lockdown sent us all scuttling back inside our own four walls. They’re the tiny beasties that keep the virus from infecting your cells, and Medical Express tells us that “emerging research suggests neutralizing antibodies offer the best protection against the virus.” So learn to recognize them and say hello nicely when you see them, please.

Tests have been able to measure them before this, but not quickly, easily, or cheaply. And not accurately. Other than that, though, they’re great.

Since we’re dancing on the edge of what’s known–especially in countries like Britain that are deciding to administer one dose of a two-dose vaccine–monitoring immunity (your own; the general public’s; everyone’s) could be useful, she said in a masterful use of understatement. 

They’ve also filed a patent application.

Apostrophes, politics, and village pubs. It’s the news from Britain

The Apostrophe Protection Society has closed its doors

The group was founded in 2001 to preserve “the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark,” but the APS website says, “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

The website also warns us to beware of fake news: The site itself isn’t closing down. If you have a burning question about, say, whether an inanimate object can own something, look no further; It has an answer. You can also find advice about the difference between fewer and less

You’ll sleep better at night knowing it’s still there, right? Although I could argue that the exclamation point they used is excessive.

Not that I would or anything.

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Irrelevant photo: azalea blossoms. For some reason, this came into bloom in the fall.

When one door closes, some totally unrelated one opens, and they have nothing to do with each other. The International Bank Vault has opened its doors in London, but only to billionaires. 

Millionaires? Pfui. 

No, I don’t know how to pronounce that either, and it’s not a quote from their promotional literature. Oddly enough, they haven’t sent me their promotional literature.

Yeah, I know. It was an oversight.

What they offer, as far as I can figure out, is safety deposit boxes. The smallest one is a steal at £600 a year. Want me to order a couple for you? Each one is big enough for some jewellery and “a fair few gold bars; they’re only the size of your mobile phone” said someone or other who’s very important and knows the size of a gold bar.

I’d link you to their website but it’s boring. They do that to keep the riff-raff out.

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This might be a good time to mention that the six richest people in the UK control as much wealth as the poorest 13 million. (And that was before the recent election. I don’t know about you, but I expect a further tip richward.) That’s about £39.4 billion on each side. That’s a lot of money, but it’s less (please note: not fewer) if you have to split it with 13 million other people. 

Actually, that’s 13.2 million. And I’m having trouble finding anything funny about it.

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Scientists at the University of Bath have brewed up artificial neurons that–if they fulfill their promise, the human race survives long enough, and the crick don’t rise–could un-paralyze people, snap the hazy brain circuits of dementia back into sharp focus, correct a form of heart failure, and connect minds to machines. That last achievement may be more fun for the humans than for the machines.

The artificial neurons are built into tiny, low-power chips that can plug right into the nervous system. I mention this not because it’s funny but because it’s interesting. And because none of us are getting any younger.

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A study in the U.S. shows that smartphones are causing dumb injuries. People are walking into lamp posts while messing around with their phones–reading articles on nuclear physics or texting or doing whatever people do on their phones while walking into lamp posts. The problem’s serious enough that Salzburg has installed airbags on lamp posts “to raise awareness of the dangers.”

Not to prevent immediate injuries?

Apparently not. 

The article also mentions injuries from exploding batteries and “the phone hitting the face,” which makes it sound like that happens by itself or that the phone does deliberately. And maybe it does. A phone can get tired of being the conduit for all the trivialities of our weary little lives. You know what people are like. Bash one of them in the face, though, and wow, does that change the conversation. I’ve been tempted to try it myself from time to time, but it’s hard to mistake me for a smartphone, so I’ve resisted.

If those chips do connect our minds to our machinery, think how much more often this will happen.

About half the injuries were caused by people using the phone while they drove. Ninety (out of 76,000  injuries seen in 100 hospitals between 1998 and 2017) involved people playing Pokemon Go. One involved a man stepping on a snake while he crossed a parking lot looking at his phone. The good news? The incident was caught on camera. Possibly by him but more likely by someone who thought it made more sense to film it than to yell, “Look out for the snake.”

I couldn’t find any information on how the snake is. Sorry.

About 60 percent of the injuries were to people between 13 and 29, who make up considerably less than 60 percent of the population. That means either that people learn to be more careful as they get older or that a sizable number of people 30 and over don’t know how to work a smartphone. Me included.

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You probably already know this, but Donald Trump tweeted that Greta Thunberg should “work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” 

Thunberg responded by changing her bio on Twitter: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

Two points to Thunberg. A few spare capital letters to Trump. Not because he’s earned them but because he spends them profligately and will use up his supply any day now.

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As newly elected prime minister, Boris Johnson announced that he was going to lead a one-nation government. “Let the healing begin,” he said.

That was shortly after he celebrated his victory by announcing that Remainers should “put a sock in it.”

Yes, folks, we’ve entered a time of healing and goodwill over here.

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A bit of chewed birch tar found in southern Denmark has yielded the complete DNA of a woman who lived 6,000 years ago, at the start of the neolithic period. Like the early British settler Cheddar Man, whose DNA led to a reconstruction not long ago, she would have had dark hair and skin and blue eyes. 

She would have been a hunter-gatherer, one of a group of people who lived beside a brackish lagoon, and was more closely related to hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than to those from central Scandinavia.

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A survey of 5,000 British teachers asked what they’d prefer as Christmas gifts from their students. Most of them said a handmade card rather than alcohol or chocolate or whatever else parents think up. 

The exception? Primary school teachers. One explanation is that they’ve seen enough kids’ drawings and they’ve reached their limit. The other–and this one comes from me, so treat it with all the care and suspicion it deserves–is that they need the alcohol more than secondary teachers do.

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Feel-good story of the week: A small village in Northumberland (in case you’re not British, that’s somewhere way the hell up in the north, but in England, not all the way to Scotland) went online to raise money in the hope of buying its pub to run as a community business. The village had already lost its shop, its post office, and its village hall. The pub is the last public space it has left, and no one was interested in buying it–except the residents, who didn’t have the money. 

If you’re British you already know this, but for the rest of youse, pubs aren’t just places to drink. They’re social spaces. The fundraising website describes it as “the centre of our village. It is our meeting place, our venue for community events and celebrations, a boon for our older residents and, in short, is the lifeline of our village.

No community owned pub has ever gone bankrupt in England, they work really well – but we need to buy it first!”

The village consists of a couple of hundred people and needed a minimum of £200,000 to buy the pub, so it turned to the outside world. Just before Christmas, with four days to go, it had raised £186,000. Those were pledges not to make donations but to buy shares. When I checked on Christmas Eve, the site said they’d put in a bid and it had been accepted.

If you collect strange pronunciations of British place names, the nearby Bellingham is pronounced Belling-jum.

No, don’t ask me. I learned it from the website and understand nothing.