Of dukes and baronesses and scamsters

In September, Alexander Wood was in court for having posed as the duke of Marlborough (there’s a real one; I just checked) and for having run up a bill in the neighborhood of £10,000 at expensive London hotels. No one asked him for identification because they thought it would be “inappropriate to ask.”  I mean, this is (purportedly) a duke, after all. You don’t do a stop-and-frisk on him, and you don’t ask for i.d., even when he runs up a huge whackin’ bill. They did eventually get suspicious when he bought drinks for fellow guests—something I gather no aristocrat would do.

Setting aside this one person’s motivation (the article makes it sound, not surprisingly, like mental health comes into it), Britain does tempt a person to borrow titles.

Irrelevant photo: teasels

Irrelevant photo: teasels

When I went online to donate the money from our village fundraiser to the Red Cross, I was offered a choice of Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms, Doctor, Lady, Professor, Reverend, Dame, Sir, Major, Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel, Sister, Lord, Canon, and Other. Oh, wheee! I lost my nerve before finding out whether Other would have given me a blank space to fill in the title of my choice, but I expect it would have.

As an aside, I was once called a dame, but no one mistook me for an aristocrat and no hotel bill was involved. And it wasn’t a compliment.

The Guardian’s subscription form despairs of coming up with a complete list and just leaves a blank line, where you can play as much as you dare. You want to be a general, or the Lord Mayor of Mill Crick? Feel free. Then sit back and see if your correspondence is addressed appropriately. And complain when it isn’t.

Why the blank instead of the list? I can’t help picturing some committee trying to list everything necessary to this title-obsessed land and sinking under the weight of the task. Why, for example, include Colonel but not General? And since this is the Guardian, a generally leftish and egalitarian paper, what about Private? Don’t privates deserve the respect of their title? And since the women members of the House of Lords are addressed as Baroness (something I happen to know because I’ve written letters to a fair few of them, and there’s a tale of its own), doesn’t that merit a mention? Or does Lady cover it? I haven’t a clue. If they’re Lady Whatsit, even though you address them as Baroness, what do they address themselves as? And what about the Barons? The male members of the House of Lords are Lords, not Barons. No, I don’t understand it either. But there are real barons out there, aren’t there? Granted, they probably don’t read the Guardian, but what if they wanted to?

And what about all the Lord Mayors dotted around the country. And the Counsellors: Spare a moment’s thought for all those long-suffering folks who sit on Parish Councils around the country, doing their unpaid and non-party-political bit for the most local level of local government? And Citizen. It was a popular title during the French Revolution. Give it half a chance and it could catch on again.

You can see the problem. Either the committee voted for the blank line and fled or else they’re still meeting, trying to complete the list, sinking deeper into despair with every passing week. Several of its members have been hospitalized for stress and clinical-level nit-picking.

This is what happens in a status-obsessed society. Everyone with a title needs to be recognized, placated, bowed to even.

And on the lowest level, where the rest of us live our lives? I still can’t get myself called Ms. Instead of Mrs.  No matter how often and politely I ask.

Comparative racism part 2: What’s it like in Britain?

After writing a guest post about American racism I don’t seem to be ready to leave the topic. My mind keeps circling back to something I’ve avoided writing about until now: British racism.

Why am I avoiding this? Tact? Nah. I have the occasional moment of tact, but as a rule I’m not paralyzed by it. That it’s a hard topic to be funny about? In part, but I hope to manage a bright spot here and there. Ignorance? Well, yeah, there is that. I’ve lived in the U.K. for nine years. That doesn’t make me an expert. It’s a huge, sprawling topic. Plus I live in an absurdly white part of the country. Although my friends and family are a multi-hued (and multi-many other thinged) group, my friends in this country, for the most part, are not.

But still, I listen. I hear things.

Beyond irrelevant photo: grasses after an autumn rain

Beyond irrelevant photo: grasses after an autumn rain

Before I go on, though, I need to explain something. I appreciate it that a lot of people say things like “he used the N-word” in order to avoid using a deeply offensive word. I’m about to use the word, though—not because I think it’s okay, but because I’m writing about people who do, and to dance around the word itself is to dance around the racism it embodies. You know the phrase she wouldn’t say shit if she had a mouthful? Well, we’ve got a mouthful here, and I am going to say shit.

Since I moved to the U.K., I’ve been in a couple of situations where people used the word nigger, not as I’m using it here, to discuss racism, but as a way of talking about black people, and I’ve argued with them about it. If you don’t say something, you become complicit. Besides, I’m not constructed for shutting up about things that matter to me.

Argued makes the interactions sound more reasoned than they were. What I’ve found myself saying is variations on You can’t say that in front of me. Because screw the reasoned argument, people already know why I’m objecting and why explain it one more time? What might make some difference is putting as high an emotional price as I can on using the word.

I won’t argue that it’s the best way to respond, but it’s the one I can manage.

So why am I talking particularly about Britain? It’s not that no one uses the word in the U.S., although I can’t remember the last time anybody in the U.S. crossed that particular line with me. I didn’t live in such a white area, and I’d guess that makes a difference. Or maybe it needs to be explained some other way. I’m not sure. But I’d be surprised if, in a similar situation, anyone in the U.S. would react the way people do here, and if I’m wrong, tell me, because I’m interested. What happens here is that people regularly respond by saying things like, “I like the word,” or, “I don’t mean anything offensive by it,”  which seems to say that nobody should be offended and presumably the argument can then turn to what’s wrong with people who are offended when they shouldn’t be.

Insert a brief incoherent shriek here if you would. I don’t know how to spell one convincingly or I’d insert it myself.

I’ve heard the same argument made about golliwogs—Little Black Sambo-like dolls that make my flesh crawl. I never saw one until I came to Britain, but they have a history here and I’ve met any number of whites who tell they had golliwogs when they were kids and they loved their golliwogs; to them, the dolls aren’t racist. Never mind that they’re caricatures right out of the 1920s-style School of Shameless Racism.

A few of these comments have come from people who are clueless and/or racist, but more of them come from people of genuine goodwill—people who’d be horrified to be thought of as racist. And yet the compass that tells them what’s racist resides inside themselves, not out in the world, among the people most affected by it.

Admittedly, to at least some extent we all have to trust our instincts. But we also have to listen to people who are closer to the front lines on this. Being part of the group in question give you an intense apprenticeship in tuning yourself to racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, anti-WhatHaveYouIsm. And those of us who aren’t part of the group? We might want to listen. And think about what we hear. Because if we’ve lived in a society full of anti-WhatHaveYouIsm, we can’t help but be affected by it. We breathe it in. The spores settle in our lungs and they want to multiply. Hearing from the outside world is a sort of antibiotic. And I’m going to bail out of that metaphor before it goes out of control. I only passed high school biology because the teacher wasn’t what you’d call rigorous.

That’s far from a full report on the differences between American and British racism. (Did I really need to say that?) But it’s an aspect that fascinates and baffles me. I’ll be interested to hear what you can add.

Why is Britain called Great Britain?

The question of why Britain’s called Great Britain popped up in a comment thread, and if I were a better person I’d go back and figure out where it was and link to whoever raised it (it was a British reader in case that strikes you as being worth knowing) but I’m crazed lately. I made a note to do sixty seconds of research on the topic, forgot to copy the link into my notes, and here I am, without a clue where we were at the time.


But the question persists. What are we talking about when we say “Great Britain”?

If you wander around London long enough, you’ll eventually stumble into a street called Great Russell Street. It’s not a particularly big street, but I’m assuming it’s bigger than (not great) Russell Street, which you’ll also stumble into if you stumble long enough. (All this stumbling relies on the same principal as those thousand monkey on typewriters who will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare, assuming you can convince monkeys to type. And assuming I can get you to wander long enough. You’re welcome to stop for tea as often as you like if that helps. Or a beer.)

Great, my friends, isn’t a value judgment in either context. It means big. Big honkin’ Russell Street, Big honkin’ Britain.

Irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie is growing and would now like to be known as Great Eddie.

The first person to use great in the context of Britain seems to have been Ptolemy, who wasn’t writing in English so we’re fudging our facts here, but it’s interesting anyway. He called what we now know as England, Scotland, and Wales (and Cornish nationalist would add Cornwall)—in other words, the bigger landmass hereabouts—Great Britain, and Ireland—the smaller one—Little Britain.

Then everyone forgot about it for centuries. They had other things on their minds. In the twelfth century Geoffrey of Monmouth called that bigger landmass Greater Britain to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, which wasn’t Ireland but Brittany. And then they forgot about it all for another long stretch of time.

The phrase pops up again in the fifteenth century in a not very interesting context, then gets serious in the seventeenth century, when James united what were still and continued to be two separate countries, England and Scotland, under a single monarchy—and (although it’s not relevant to our discussion) claimed Ireland and France as well. In the next century, England and Scotland were united into a single country. Wales had been conquered some time before all this and the English had gotten into the habit of thinking it was part of England (the Welsh thought differently), so it didn’t get a separate mention right then.

James, by the way, was either the first or the sixth, depending on whether you’re standing in England or in Scotland when you count. I told you not to trust me with numbers—they go all shifty when I’m in the room. It should also be noted that James couldn’t spell for shit. He called himself the king of “Great Brittaine,”

Well, he was king. He got to spell it any way he wanted. Who was going to tell him he had it wrong? Besides, pretty much everyone did that back then, with pretty much any word they set their feathery pens to.

Fast forward to the days when Britain had an empire. The Great in Great Britain must’ve been handy and did take on the tone of a value judgment. But the origin? Big. Nothing but big.

These days, Great Britain means England, Wales, and Scotland. (The link here is basically a footnote in case you’re seriously interested. I could also link to some kid’s school paper, which for reasons I won’t stop to think about came up at the top of Google’s list, but I won’t.) And Cornwall, as the Cornish nationalists would remind us. Along with some of the surrounding small islands but not others, which are self-governing dependent territories.

Don’t ask.

It doesn’t include Northern Ireland. But in everyday speech, people often use British to cover the entire United Kingdom, which does include Northern Ireland. A website called Know Britain says that from a legal point of view this is inaccurate—and just afterward it notes that the phrase is often used to mean exactly that in legislation, especially in reference to nationality.

So there you go. Are you confused yet? Then my work is done. But because I don’t like to leave a topic until I’ve overdone it, I should add that Know Britain says the British Islands is a political term meaning the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. But the British Isles is a geographical term meaning Great Britain, all of Ireland, and all the smaller islands around them. Don’t you just love this language?

Someday when I’m feeling particularly brave I’ll tackle the question of which categories of people would say, “I’m British,” and which ones would say, for example, “I’m English,” or “I’m Cornish” and so forth, and what all that means. Or may mean.

But for now we’ll end there . It may not all be good, but it’s great, isn’t it?

Cornwall Gay Pride

We’re a diverse bunch here at Notes, or an ill-assorted one if you like, and I love that, but once in a while it means I second-guess myself before I post something. To be specific, how’s a more conservative subsection of readers going to feel if I talk about a Gay Pride celebration? Am I going to run anyone off?

When I worry about running someone off it’s not about numbers. Sure, I check my stats as obsessively (and pointlessly) as any other blogger, but mostly it’s because I don’t want Notes to turn into an echo chamber for voices who all agree on a 674-point charter that we argued over until we all hate each other. I value the comments I get, and the people behind the comments. I don’t want to lose contact.

But that can’t come at the expense of being who I am. If I shut myself up every time I might drag a reader outside their comfort zone, I’ll bore us all to tears. And right after that I’ll stop writing altogether, because good writing carries an element of risk. You’ll have to judge whether the writing here is that good, but as a goal? It’s what I aim for.

All that long-windedness leads up to this: I went to Cornwall’s Gay Pride Day last weekend, and if that makes anyone uncomfortable, I hope you’ll stay with me anyway. If you don’t, I regret it but that’s what I’m writing about today.

Cornwall Gay Pride.

Cornwall Gay Pride. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

After all that rigmarole, of course, I’ve made myself wonder if anyone who’d be uncomfortable with Gay Pride Day is still around. If you are you’re more than welcome and if you left quietly by the side door I’m sorry to hear it. Thanks for not letting it slam.

Wild Thing and I been in together for 38 years now, which is long enough to have seen a lot of changes in the way same-sex couples are received in the larger world, and a lot of changes in Gay Pride celebrations as well. Here’s what struck me about this one:

First, Cornwall’s a rural county, so it wasn’t a huge gathering, but it was bigger than I expected. It was very much a family celebration: gay people and their families and friends, transsexuals and their families and friends, straight people who weren’t related to anyone but turned out to show support or buy a burger, sit on the grass, and enjoy the entertainment. Little kids, including one girl in a rainbow tutu. And dogs. Lots of dogs.

Organizations had set up booths promoting themselves—hotlines, political parties, the environment agency (!), the fire department (more exclamation marks), the police (multiple exclamation marks). Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians had a booth, and they always leave me with a lump in my throat. They were started by a woman whose gay son had been beaten up while distributing gay-related leaflets. First she wrote a letter protesting police inaction. Then she went on the radio and TV, then she joined a Gay Pride March. Soon she had an organization on her hands, and it’s been going ever since.

When so many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual young people have been rejected by their families, it means the world to see families stepping forward in this way, embracing their relatives and their right to live in the open. Which leads me to this: To the families of the gay etc. kids in my life, I hope you know how spectacular you are, and how much you mean to me.

And here I have to stop and say a word or seventeen about that phrase gay etc. For a while the most common phrase was simply gay, then it was gay and lesbian, then it was gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, which was unwieldy enough that it was usually shortened to GLBT, which I can’t help thinking of that as gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato. Recently I’ve seen a bunch of other letters added to the string, probably standing for pickles and mayonnaise and a side of chips, which in Britain are crisps, just in case this was in danger of sounding simple.

The world insists on getting more complicated. I’m as baffled as anyone else.

With the possible exception of mayonnaise, adding all these categories does make our language more accurate, and people get both passionate and political about it when they go to name an organization or write a leaflet. But it does make for a lot of words. Or letters. So for the moment, let’s settle for gay etc. I won’t argue that it’s the best phrase or the most accurate one, but it is the shortest.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to the involvement of the police. To understand why this struck me, you need two pieces of background.

One: Back in the day, when gay etc. sex was illegal (note: in Britain only sex between men was illegal, I’ve read, because Queen Victoria refused to believe that women would carry on that way), bars were one of the few places people could meet. The police could raid them at any time, though, because by definition what went on in there was illegal. Not that people were having sex on the premises necessarily. Dancing together was enough. Touching someone was enough. Being there was enough. People would be arrested, lose their jobs, lose their families. Lives were ruined.

Ah, the good old days.

Two, and this isn’t about the politics of being gay etc.: During one of the New York blackouts, a friend’s parents were in Grand Central Station. The friend’s father had MS, and when everything went dark and people started running around in a panic, his wife was struggling to keep him from getting knocked over. She saw a cop and went to him, saying, “Excuse me, but my husband has MS. Can you help us?”

To which the cop said, “Get outta my way, lady, I gotta help the people.”

And they were both straight and white.

God, I love New York.

I had a similar experience with a New York cop after a fender bender, but it wasn’t quite as outrageously absurd, so let’s stay with this as an example of what I expect from cops. I’m not even going to get into Ferguson, Staten Island, and black lives matter, but they’re not unrelated. When you’re outside the mainstream, you don’t assume the policeman is your friend. The history of the police and the gay community? Not friendly. And here they were, setting up booths about diversity, asking us to sign a petition to restore funding that’s been cut from the Devon and Cornwall police budget.

Wild Thing and I had been to a Cornwall Gay Pride Day before, so this wasn’t a complete surprise. That helps explain my final story.

On our way to the park, Wild Thing and I ran into friends, one of them in a wheelchair. We knew the name of the park but weren’t sure how to find it, and we asked a cop if he could point us in the right direction. You can’t do that just anywhere. But he offered to walk with us, and when the way got steep he took over pushing the wheelchair. He was young. We were once, but it was a long time ago. The pride I once took in doing that sort of thing myself has taken second place to the practical problems of bad backs and creaky shoulder joints and the need not to set that wheelchair rolling downhill when it’s supposed to be going up.

I did take responsibility for the liter of milk he’d been carrying.

So there we were, a young cop pushing a woman in a wheelchair to a Gay Pride gathering and three of us following behind with his liter of milk. I won’t argue that the world’s problems are over, but a few things have changed, and it gives me hope to see it.

People risked a lot to make that happen—their jobs, their families, their education, their peace of mind, sometimes their lives. In places around the world, they’re still taking those risks. Here’s a moment of silence to acknowledge them all.

Chasing lifestyles in Swanage

Wild Thing and I just got back from a few days of bumping around Swanage, a beach town in Dorset, where we were playing tourist. Or holidaymakers, if you want to get all British about it. I’m not sure why one’s a singular and the other’s a plural. Let’s pretend it’s one of those American/British things instead of a rule I just invented.

But forget the grammar. The important thing is that I came home with a burning question: What’s a lifestyle?

The question landed in my head because two shops there seem to sell lifestyles. One advertises lifestyle clothing, the other homeware (singular) and lifestyle.

Marginally relevant photo: a couple by the beach in Swanage. I don't know if this qualifies as a lifestyle.

Marginally relevant photo: a couple by the beach in Swanage. I don’t know if this qualifies as a lifestyle. Probably not, and I like them for it.

Now homeware demands its own moment of thought before we move on to lifestyle, because they’re related. Really they are. I’m guessing homeware is an upscale version of housewares (plural)—the boring stuff I vaguely remember my mother stopping to look at while I pulled on her arm and whined. (I was a charming kid.)

Now that I’m 203, I stop to look at housewares myself, and they’re more interesting than they were in my mother’s day. It’s amazing how the world’s gotten better, in at least this one not particularly useful way.

But homeware? Holy shit. Homeware isn’t just stuff you shove in a cupboard and take out when you need it. It’s made up of lifestyle items.

What am I talking about? I haven’t a clue, and I’m guessing that whoever paid to get that sign painted, if pushed, wouldn’t be able to tell me either. What it implies, though, is that if I own (and therefore, crucially, have bought) enough of this stuff, it will change my life. Or its style.

Are my life and its style the same thing? The slogan implies it. It also implies that if I change the style—the thin outer shell—my life will also change.

From the context, I can guess that if a cereal bowl is a lifestyle item, it costs more than if it were just, you know, a cereal bowl. How much more? Ten percent? Fifty percent? More than that? How much is a lifestyle change worth?

The higher price is essential. If you could get your hands on lifestyle cereal bowls for the cost of ordinary ones, would you believe in their power to change your life? Doesn’t all this depend on the lifestyle object being out of other people’s reach, so that owning it puts you in a special category?

Since we’d been talking about all this, Wild Thing stopped outside the lifestyle clothing store’s window and called my attention to a yellow, semi-see-through blouse. It wasn’t a fully transparent kind of see-through, but if you looked closely enough it you could see the stitching on the seams.

“If I wore that, it would change my lifestyle,” she said.

You need to understand that Wild Thing’s as likely to wear a see-through blouse as she is to wear a suit of armor, but if she did, it would still be Wild Thing in there, and wildly out of place.

None of which exactly addresses the question, which has now expanded from What’s a lifestyle? to include Whatever it is, can you sell it?

Let’s start with the first, What’s a lifestyle?

Years ago, when having a partner of the same sex shocked more people than it does today, someone told me she didn’t approve of my lifestyle. I can’t remember who she was, where we were, or how that came up, but I do remember thinking (and, unfortunately, not being fast enough to say), It’s not a lifestyle. It’s a life.

That wouldn’t have gotten into why she thought I should care what she approved of in my life or my style. We’ll set that aside, though, because our topic today is lifestyle, not silly, self-important people from the past who’d been programmed with a phrase or two that let her think she had the world figured out.

In the context of same-sex relationships, lifestyle was a word tossed around by people who—how am I going to characterize them? People who spent a lot more time than was good for them thinking about what other people did (or might do, since I doubt I could live up to their imaginings) in bed. And their choice of the word made my life sound like something I’d chosen from a delicatessen counter. I’ll have a slice of the blue cheese, please, some Kalamata olives, and, gee, what else do I want today? Maybe a partner of the same sex who the world at large disapproves of? Oh, fun.

So I’ve never been impressed with the word’s accuracy. And now (touching briefly on our second question) I find out lifestyles are for sale. In stores that sell cereal bowls and less-than-opaque blouses.

How times have changed.

It’s worth asking if the objects we own and use change us. They do. If you’ve never spent a day in high heels, try it and you’ll understand. Or an hour. Or, hell, walk from one end of the house to the other and you’ll catch a glimpse of how this works. Now apply that to the more serious changes like fire, or electricity, or central heating. Or clean water and sewage pipes.

Trust me to dive right into the most romantic objects, right?

If our lives demand that we live in and use objects that don’t suit us, we’ll be out of place in our own lives. All I have to do is imagine myself in a corset to know that objects matter. Getting rid of the wrong ones matters. Getting enough of the right ones matters. Having more stuff, though? Or more expensive stuff? What matters there is knowing that it doesn’t, in any deep way, matter. This is about knowing the difference between need and want, and between our own genuine wants and the ones foisted on us by the good folk selling us lifestyles.

I’m not immune to the lure of a beautiful object. Heels aren’t my thing—give me running shoes any day—but I often find myself looking through our mismatched mugs for the one I most want to drink out of. It’s silly—they all hold liquid—but I do it and take some small pleasure from it. It’s not a lifestyle, though, it’s a mug. To be a lifestyle, I suspect, you have to back away from your stuff and your choices and see your life as a creation, an art form. A kind of make-up applied to the face of your existence. Which, to me, seems to create something brittle.

Some bloggers call themselves lifestyle bloggers, meaning (I think) that they write about their own lives. Or maybe they write about the make-up on the face of their lives. Maybe for some of them all it means that they don’t fit any of the other prefabricated niches the blogosphere offers so they pour themselves into this one, whether or not they’d use the word if they weren’t pushed to it.

I’ve struggled with the niche issue myself. I don’t seem to fit any of them and haven’t claimed one. Notes isn’t (as far as I can figure out) an expat blog, isn’t a humor blog, and isn’t, may all the gods anyone ever believed in preserve us, a lifestyle blog. Because I’m not going to blog about something I suspect of being blue smoke and mirrors.

If a lifestyle can be marketed and then constructed out of things we buy, it’s no more than a veneer, a shell, an image we present first to ourselves and then to the world to say, Look how beautifully I’m living. Aren’t I just happy?

And behind that? That’s where the person lives, as happy or unhappy, as wise or foolish, as before the lifestyle goods arrived.

Putting the Kettle On

M. has my oven wired. When I bake, an alarm goes off in her house and she appears, as if by magic, at our door.

“Want a cup of tea?” either Wild Thing or I ask.

“Is the pope Catholic?”

She used to answer, “Is the pope a Nazi?” but that was before Francis. She was raised Catholic, so she gets to say stuff like that. I wasn’t raised Catholic so I don’t, but I will claim the right to quote her.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn't have figured that out.

Irrelevant photo: flowers. As if you couldn’t have figured that out.

I make a pot of tea and set out whatever I just finished baking. If I’m still getting it out of the pan, she asks, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Because you don’t want to stand between M. and a cup of tea, not even if you’re producing baked goods.

She never says, “You want me to I make the tea?” That’s what I’d say. With her, it’s all about the kettle. And while we’re at it, I don’t think I’ve ever said “shall I,” although M. says it as if it were a normal part of speech. And she doesn’t have what people here call a posh accent. She just, you know, uses it like language—ordinary, everyday language.

It’s this kind of thing that makes me doubt I’ll never write British (as opposed to American) dialogue. Oh, I can put together a line or two—enough to keep the blog fed—but if I wanted to write a full scene, never mind a full novel, in it? In no time at all I’d have one of my characters saying, “Want me to make the tea?” instead of, “Shall I put the kettle on?” Only it would be the equivalent on some subject where I haven’t noticed—or maybe even heard—the difference.

I know someone whose mind catalogs these small differences. Talking to her is like reaching into a grab bag: You (or more accurately, she) could pull out almost any sort of accent, along with any region’s phrasebook. It all lives in her head, organized into separate drawers (I know, I know, I’ve jumped metaphors; go ahead and shoot me), each neatly labeled, and none of it escapes to mix itself with her own accent—the accent she uses when she’s being herself. It’s an amazing, fascinating gift.

Me, though? I assimilate languages by steeping myself in them, and once I do I’ve taken on the new flavor. In other words, if I pick up a new accent or phrasebook in English, I’ll lose my clarity on the last one—the one I think is my own. Or more than that—is me. If I weren’t a writer, I wouldn’t have any problem with that. As a writer, though, I’m terrified that I’ll make such a cut-and-paste mess out of my accent that I won’t be able to write in any region’s English.

Crime in Britain

Let’s talk about crime in Britain.

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

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

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

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

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

First, though, they have to find the culprit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does my vocabulary look too British in this?

The differences between British and American English are an endless source of—well, pretty much anything you can name: confusion, fascination, amusement, bad temper, accusations (subtle and otherwise) of either ignorance or stuffiness, depending on which side of the Atlantic taught you your rash assumptions.

I’ve written about the differences between British and American English before, which means I’m supposed to slip in a link or ten to tempt newcomers deeper into the blog. That sounds ominous—step deeper into the dark and trackless blog, my dears. But I have to do it anyway. Who am I to defy the rules of the blogosphere? (Note: I already do with my irrelevant photos, and I’m not likely to stop, but once in a while I should behave like a serious blogger.) So here’s the link: This will connect you to a whole category of posts. You can pick through and see what interests you. Or not. I’ll never know.

Semi-relevant photo: What's more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the guy on the right looks like he's about to brain the guy on the left. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Semi-relevant photo: What’s more English than morris dancing? I like this shot because the big guy on the right looks like he’s about to haul off and brain the guy on the left. If you squint, the whole thing begins to look like a brawl. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Where was I? I’m returning to the topic because Karen wrote to say my writing sounded British to her. I asked what specifically struck her that way and she said what “sounds to my American ears not-so-American” were the phrases “‘he wasn’t being immensely clever” and “trying to conduct a bit of business.” 

I’m probably the last person who’d know if those are not-so-American. When I talk, I still sound American enough to get asked if I’m enjoying my stay (well yes, although it seems like I’ve been here for years), but Britishisms have crept into my brain and my speech. I’d like to think I notice them and build walls around them—you know: the kind with turnstiles, so I have to sacrifice a coin before I can get at them—but I’m not sure the system’s working.

In the first phrase, I wonder if what struck Karen isn’t the word immensely, which is formal—a tone I fall into a lot when I’m kidding around, although I’m never sure if it works. On the other hand, clever may be more common in Britain than in the U.S.  Emphasis on may. I’m not sure. But I can call up the sound of an English accent saying “you clever girl” or “clever clogs” (one is a compliment; the other probably isn’t), but I can’t come up with anything like it in an American accent.

What about the second phrase, trying to conduct a bit of business? Bit shows up a lot in British English. Bits and bobs. Or Zadie Smith’s wonderful phrase about nudity in a movie, the dangly bits. Do we use bits much in American? Ask someone if they’re tired and “a bit” wouldn’t be a strange answer, although “a little” might be a bit more common.

Did the bit in that last phrase jump out and sound British?

Conduct again has a formal tone, and although I’d guess it’s used equally in both versions of the language, we (the we here being Americans) do tend to think British English wears a corset (or at least a top hat) while American English slouches on the couch with its feet on the coffee table. That’s because we think everyone in Britain is belongs to the aristocracy. Even when we know better. We know the laws of physics decree that you can’t have an aristocracy without a whole lot of peasants to keep them fed and et cetera’d, but somewhere underneath whatever our good sense we have we still believe the British are all aristocrats.

We (again meaning Americans) are both right and wrong about the formality of British English. It can be more formal. It also can be gloriously rough and informal—like, I’d guess, any language or national version of a language.

Karen went on to write, “Isn’t this a problem writers encounter all the time when they create characters who are ‘other’? How does a woman writer ‘sound’ male? How does a thirty-something author ‘sound’ like a teenager? How does an American ‘sound’ British?”

The answer is that at their best, writers listen, deeply and actively, and learn their limits. I don’t hesitate to write dialog in a man’s voice, or to write from a man’s point of view. We’re not as different as the world tells us we are, and even if we were I’ve lived around men I don’t live with one, but I know what they sound like.

I wrote from man’s perspective in parts of Open Line (and here we go with the links again) and felt that I knew the character well and did him justice. He wasn’t an admirable person, but I ended up liking him. I’d lived inside his head.

Writing the male characters in The Divorce Diet was different. I only got to see them through my central character’s eyes, and if she was fed up with them, so was I. They’re not as fully realized because of the point of view I chose. You can’t tell every story from every perspective. But their dialog? It didn’t feel like a stretch.

But I know my limits and I stay well away from the edges. I’ve watched writers write dialog that goes past theirs. At its best it embarrasses me as a reader and makes them look ignorant. At its worst it comes off as racist. For myself, the rule is this: If you haven’t lived with it, don’t write it. If you don’t know the accent and vocabulary and attitude and life first hand, don’t write it. That doesn’t mean limit yourself to characters who are replicas of yourself. It means know your limits, and if they form too tight a circle, learn more. Live more widely.

Sorry: I’ve expanded the issue beyond vocabulary, but dialog isn’t just about word choice, it’s about the character. And writing about someone from a different demographic group isn’t just about finding the right words. If you don’t know the reality of another person’s life, you won’t write it with any depth or power. Or respect, no matter how good your intentions are.

Maybe that’s why so many male writers have written paper-thin women: They couldn’t see beyond what they wanted from women, or how women affected them, so they couldn’t create any depth in the women they wrote. You can plug other categories of writer and character into that sentence in whatever combination you like, but I have an English degree and ended up reading a dismal lot of paper-thin women. My patience wore thin and it doesn’t seem to be one of those things that repair themselves with time.

But let’s come back to the original question about words. It worries me when Britishisms creep into my brain. Picture me as an auto mechanic and someone’s slipped metric wrenches my toolbox, which would be fine except I work on American cars and nothing but American cars. They’re fine wrenches, but they don’t fit anything in the shop.

I’d love to work on both kinds of car, but I’m just the kind of maniac who couldn’t keep my wrenches apart.

I’ve tried keeping British words out of my head and it’s not possible. My brain loves words, and it vacuums them up wherever it finds them. And as I typed that, a voice in my head supplied the phrase hoovered them up. Because vacuuming’s a brand-name verb here, based on the Hoover vacuum. Like the American word band-aid, which in British is the generic (if, to me, bizarre sounding) sticking plaster.

Some words get planted more deeply because I use them, however hesitantly. There’s no point in asking where the band-aids are if no one knows what I’m talking about. Others plant themselves deeply because they sound good. People here have such a way of leaning into the word bloody that it makes me want to say it myself. If I find myself in the right time and place, cells in my brain jump up and down like popcorn in the microwave, begging, Can we say that? Please can we say that?

The wall-and-turnstile approach to keeping my vocabularies separate hasn’t been a screaming success. I might have more luck if I think of myself as having two toolboxes (or if I run those pesky foreign cars out of my garage), but I doubt it. It’s a problem I haven’t solved.

Any comments on what I sound like to you are welcome. Or on anything else that comes to mind. This should be interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing British English & Writing American English

Someone asked me a while back if I would ever set a novel in the U.K.

I’ve been tempted. I even have the first few scenes of one on paper. (Yes, paper. You remember paper. It’s that stuff the kitten chases when you crumple it into a ball.) If I’m smart, or at least cautious, a few scenes is as far as that novel will go. Because it doesn’t take long before I/you/whatever writer we’re talking about here comes to one of those spots where British and American English branch off in different directions and chooses the wrong path.

A good copy editor could save our writer, but a good copy editor doesn’t always pop up at those forks in the road, so the writer marches bravely off in the wrong direction and ends up wandering through the wilderness. Days later, she stumbles into town, having missed a few meals and sporting twigs in her hair and mud on her clothes.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I'll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fast Eddie attacks the laundry basket. I’ll impose a short moratorium on cute kitten photos after this.

Where was the copy editor? Semi-comatose at the computer. Or firmly rooted in the wrong version of our shared language. I’ve been a copy editor. We can’t be specialists in everything. We do a bit of fact checking, but nothing guarantees that we’ll check the right facts. And a word we recognize as right? Unless we’re fully bilingual in English, we won’t stop to question it.

When you’re paid by the word, you don’t have time to ponder deeply.

So I don’t assume a copy editor can save me. Whatever version of the language I write in, I’m responsible for getting it right.

I’m not a careless listener. When I started writing fiction, I trained myself to hear not what I thought people said but what they really said. Because speech isn’t even close to the English that we’re taught is correct, and nothing sounds as phony as characters speaking in perfectly formed sentences. I used to listen to snippets of conversation and then write down as much of them as I could remember, paying attention to word choice, to unpredictable phrases, to pauses, to the ways people waited each other out and cut each other off, to run-on sentences and sentence fragments, to the genuine and glorious insanity of the spoken language.

A high point in my eavesdropping career was a conversation between a Minneapolis cop and a man—white and presumably drunk, although I couldn’t swear to that second part—who was lying on my neighbors’ front lawn. The cop was trying to persuade him to move on, and the man, by the time I started listening, was sitting up and holding a hamburger in the air like Exhibit A.

They said a few words back and forth, then the man was on his feet and heading down the street and the cop yelled after him, “I’m gonna come to your house and sit on your lawn and eat hamburgers. See how you like that.”

It was a mix of things that made this memorable. The “and…and…and” rhythm of the cop’s comment. The “see how you like that,” which made him sound like a twelve-year-old. But mostly it was the sheer craziness of a cop, with his gun and his club and the full weight of the law’s machinery on his side, threatening to sit on someone’s lawn and eat hamburgers.

I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down as much of the exchange as I could, because if I let it wait I wouldn’t believe I was remembering it accurately.

So, there’s my proof—my hamburger; my Exhibit A—that I’m not an untrained listener. Move me from Minnesota to Cornwall, though, and my carefully tuned ear goes off key. I do listen to the Britishness of British speech, and I keep a mental list of phrases I love, because even the clichés sound fresh to me. Someone says, “Oh, she’s away with the fairies,” and I laugh as if she’d invented the phrase. I’ve been hearing it for nine years now, but it still makes me picture fairies.

M. has two stock phrases that sound fresh to me, although I know she didn’t invent them: “He’s all talk and no trousers” and “she’s all frill and no knickers.”

When we bought our house, we asked a different M. to give us some advice about the garden. She showed us a broken pot with blade-like leaves growing out of it, which had been left behind.

“If you have to have these,” she said, “make sure they stay in the pot. Those,” and she pointed to some other plant, although I can’t remember what, “are invasive, but this is a thug.”

I laughed and got one of those blank looks you get when you’ve laughed at the wrong thing. She wasn’t being immensely clever. Thug is a category of plant that any gardener here recognizes—one step worse than invasive.

So yes, I listen and I appreciate and I remember. But I still hesitate to write either Cornish or more standard British dialogue. Sure, I can tuck in a phrase or two, but after that? I’d write something I think is neutral and without knowing it rely on something hopelessly American. Because it’s not the phrases you hear and remember and are delighted with that matter. It’s the ones you don’t hear. It’s the times you don’t stop to question yourself but turn out to be writing your native English instead of that other, related language.

I catch British journalists doing this when they interview Americans: “I just reached into the drinks cabinet,” they’ll have someone say. Into the what??? We don’t have drinks cabinets in the U.S. We have— Wait a minute, what do we have? Liquor cabinets? I never actually had one, so it’s not a phrase that has much life in my mind and I can’t remember what to call the damn things.

Let’s fall back on another example. A while back, I read an interview in which some American actor talked about his mum. His what? Americans have mothers and moms and mamas, but we do not, in any regional or ethnic accent I ever heard of, have mums. But it’s what the writer heard because it’s the word the writer uses. We translate without noticing.

I love running into stuff like that. It makes me feel gloriously smug. Not because I couldn’t do exactly the same thing but because this particular time I didn’t.

For a post about paying the tax on my car, I wrote about being in the post office and trying to conduct a bit of business that we couldn’t finish and couldn’t abandon and if you ever want to bring a small post office to a halt, talk to me because I know how to do now. After what seemed like forever, I was able to step aside and the woman behind the counter called out—

What the hell did she call out? At first I wrote, “Can I help the next person?” I was pretty sure that was wrong, but I left it because it got the job done.

The next day, hesitantly, I changed it to, “Can I help?” and then to “Can I help who’s next?” which is a weird phrase, and grammatically strange enough for me to believe I didn’t invent it, but I checked it with a friend anyway, and she confirmed it: That’s what the woman would have said.

So I got away with it, but I hesitate to write more that a few lines in any of the many versions of British. Because it’s not the stuff you hear that trips you up but the stuff you don’t hear. The stuff you take for granted, that your brain translates automatically. It’s the drinks cabinet. It’s the mum.