How to enjoy British politics: Imaginary menu items, hard hats, and triple negatives

As Britain staggers unenthusiastically in the direction of its new prime minister, whoever that turns out to be, the two contenders are telling us how gloriously they’ll govern the country (if give the chance) while ignoring small things like the inflation crisis, the sewage crisis, the housing crisis, the drought crisis, the energy crisis, the environmental crisis, and the crisis crisis.

But one of them, Rishi Sunak, works harder at it. Because he’s ridiculously rich and people know it, he has to prove he could not only govern but is in touch with the real world. 

In pursuit of that image, he recently told the media that he likes McDonald’s breakfast wraps. Isn’t that the kind of thing the common people eat, after all? He and his daughter eat them regularly, he told the media.

Not anymore. Someone did some digging and found that McDonald’s hasn’t sold them for two years

His campaign team leapt to his defense by saying that, um, yeah, well, he ate them when they were on the menu but “he’s barely seen his kids in the last two and a half years.”

Thanks, folks. That really humanized your guy.

He’s also been spotted struggling to figure out how contactless card payments happen (he held the card in front of a barcode scanner) and filling up a car that turned out to be borrowed. His advisors must’ve told him common people do stuff like that. I don’t think he’s been spotted pretending to wash his clothes at a laundromat (called a launderette in Britain) or playing at being a food bank client, but there’s still time.

Irrelevant photo: a neighbor’s dahlia

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The strain between Sunak and his former boss, the multi-vacationing prime minister Boris Johnson, brought us a headline I can’t help but admire, since it manages a triple negative: “PM Refuses to Deny He Is Not Taking Sunak’s Calls.”

In the interests of complete transparency, that’s from the print edition. Once it went online, the PM failed to deny, but it’s still a triple negative.

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But let’s talk about hard hats, because politicians just love to put them on their heads and pose for the press. It makes them look like they’re doing something real. Or at least like they might at any moment.

Knowing that, I asked Lord Google about hard hats and politicians and he led me to a Buzzfeed article that’s well worth a visit: “21 Photos of Politicians in Hard Hats Pointing at Things.”

Call me naive, but I hadn’t noticed what they did after putting on the hats, but I will from now on. So go ahead, follow the link. You know you want to.

I’d tell you what Sunak and Truss are doing and proposing about real-world issues, but it’s all too depressing. And in case it sounds like I think Truss would be less evil or even less absurd, I don’t. I’m damned if I know which will be worse. Both. Either. Sunak just happens to have been funnier lately. I struggle to find a laugh in the Truss stories.

 

The politics of blood

Scotland’s the first country on the planet to provide free universal access to period products, which is a great thing to do, and in that spirit the Tay region appointed someone to promote the dignity of menstruation. 

Who’d they choose

A man. 

Why? 

Because of his long experience of monthly bleeding, of course. And his background in tobacco sales and as a personal trainer. 

The man in question defended his appointment by saying, “I think being a man will help me to break down barriers, reduce stigma, and encourage more open discussions.”

I have little doubt that it also helped him rise up the list of nominees. It happens so quietly and so often, and we’re so used to it, that we barely notice. Until suddenly something like this comes along and we wonder how that happened.

 

The politics of swans

Rumor has it that all swans in Britain belong to the queen, but as so often happens rumor has it wrong. Or partially wrong. She owns the swans that aren’t marked as belonging to someone else, and that gives her the title seigneur of the swans. 

Is seigneur a masculine noun? I’m reasonably sure it is. My French was never impressive, but maybe we’d want to make her the seigneuse of the swans. Or maybe, being a queen and all, she’s above gender. 

That’ll upset the anti-woke warriors. Don’t tell Liz Truss. 

The queen’s staff includes a swan warden.

The tradition of marking–or for that matter, owning–swans goes back to the middle ages, when they were a status symbol and aristocrats wanted to have a pair or three paddling on their rivers and on grand occasions carried onto their dinner tables (to be clear: that’s as food, not as guests), but the right to own them could only be granted by the king and only went to the most important landowners, who marked their ownership by nicking the birds’ beaks in distinctive patterns, which wouldn’t have been a lot of fun for the birds. Or the people doing the nicking.

Owning swans is so deeply embedded in the monarchy that it observes a yearly swan upping. Or maybe it does a swan upping. Or, well, I’m not sure, since I’ve never upped a swan. It sounds like some disreputable thing you’d do in a back alley, not on a river. But I do know that the staff does/observes/whatevers it, not the queen herself. And it does happen on a stretch of the water, since that’s where the birds are.

If you want to learn about swan upping you’ll find an article about it in the Smithsonian magazine. 

 

The politics of money

Britain’s fastening its frayed seat belt and bracing itself for inflation to hit 18% or so, and people who aren’t in Rishi Sunak’s tax bracket are feeling the pinch already, since prices are up 10% from a year ago.  

An assortment of pointing fingers blame the war in Ukraine, Brexit, Covid, the energy crisis, and workers demanding pay increases. If you read enough explanations, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re blaming our current inflation on inflation. What’s the cause of inflation? Higher prices on goods from abroad, they answer. Increased cost of supplies. A shortage of workers willing to take low-paid jobs, etc. 

In other words, inflation.

The government–such as it is until we have a new prime minister or the outgoing one comes back from vacation and is jolted awake by his wallpaper, causing him to remember that he’s still the prime minister and is expected to pretend he cares–

Where were we? The government and the contestants in the pre-prime ministerial boxing ring are making a show of pretending they can stop the inflationary cycle by blocking the pay increases unions are demanding, in response to which the unions that aren’t already on strike are making noises that hint they could be soon.  

Which is why a headline saying the average pay of chief executives for Britain’s 100 biggest companies drew my eye went up by 39% last year. That gives them, on average, a take home pay of £3.4 million. Per year. Which is 109 times what the average British worker makes. 

In 2020 it was a modest 79 times the average. 

I don’t believe that includes bonuses. Or perks. And we won’t get into what shareholders make.

But it’s okay, because that doesn’t contribute to the inflationary spiral. 

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How does executive pay get set? Well, children, I’m glad you asked, because at least some of the time, and quite possibly all of it, the pay of one chief exec gets set by chief execs from other companies, who act as non-executive directors on the boards of companies where they’re not CEOs. And of course they get paid for that. 

This comes to light–bear with me while I take a step sideways–because Britain’s privatized water companies are in the news lately. We’re in a serious drought, drawing attention to the 3.2 billion liters of water that leak from the water companies’ pipes every day. That would fill 1,237 Olympic-sized swimming pools but first you’d have to convince the water to jump into them instead of running pointlessly down the nearest gutter.

The water companies have also been dumping raw sewage into the sea, winning the hearts of surfers and swimmers throughout this beshittened isle. Beaches do not have an exemption. So when, say, United Utilities, which is in charge of leaking northwest England’s water and sewage into places it’s not supposed to go, pays its CEO £3.2 million a year, that has a way of making headlines, and even more so when he also gets paid to sit on the remuneration committee at BAE systems. 

Other water company execs sit on other boards, and on the committees that set pay. One is paid £115,000 for sitting on the  International Airlines Group board and another a measly £93,000 for sitting on the Centrica board. 

Please be sympathetic. It’s not easy to live on just one CEO salary. A person needs those little extras.

 

What’s happening in the rest of the world?

The Japanese government wants people to drink more booze

That goes against the tide–most governments are discouraging drinking–but alcohol sales are linked to taxes, and taxes are linked to, um, you know, money. In 1980, alcohol accounted for 5% of tax income. In 2011, that was 3%, and in 2020, 1.7%.

Get out there and drink, people. It may not be good for you, but it’s patriotic.

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In New Zealand, a seal used the cat flap to break into a marine biologist’s house, traumatizing the cat but otherwise doing no damage. The marine biologist wasn’t home, though, leaving his cat, his wife, and his kids to deal with the seal.

This is really the only family emergency where it would be useful to have a marine biologist in the house,” he said. 

The seal was returned to the sea. The cat is receiving therapy and multiple cat treats and is lobbying for one of those high-tech cat flaps that keeps out unchipped intruders.

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Since we’re talking about water, let’s talk about the news that sponges sneeze.

No, not those plasticky things sold as sponges but the real ones that grow on the seabed. They clear their filtration systems of assorted gunk (sorry for the scientific terminology, but you’re tough; you can handle it), shooting it out through small pores called ostia. It takes anywhere between 20 and 50 minutes for a single sneeze, but what else has a sponge got to do with its time? It doesn’t have to punch a clock or catch a train, so why not luxuriate in a long, slow, cleansing sneeze.

The sponges coat the gunk in mucus before they expel it, which temps nearby fish to eat it, proving, in case you were even in doubt, that nature is disgusting.

 

Your heart-warming stories for the week

One: During the pandemic, a ransomware group called Maze promised not to attack health organizations. Sweet, right?

But between last April and the end of June, though, attacks on healthcare organizations rose by 90% compared to the same months the year before. Or I assume it’s the year before. A typo has that reading “compared to the same period in 2022.”

Somebody tell me this is still 2022, please. I’m starting to feel a little dizzy.

Anyway, that’s what you get for telling ransomware companies (and the rest of the population) that the pandemic’s over. They were playing nice for a while there. Really they were.

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That didn’t quite warm your heart? Okay.

Two: The Patmos library in Jamestown, Michigan, was the focus of a year-long campaign by the Jamestown Conservative group, which wanted LGBTQ books taken off its shelves. The books made up, after all, a whopping .015% of the collection. As measured in number of titles, I assume, not weight or word count or font size.

As the Jamestown group explained its objection, “They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires. . . . . It’s not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”

The library refused to get rid of the books and in a recent election lost its funding.

Someone or other asked the board president if it was a wake-up call.

“A wake-up call to what? To take LGBTQ books off the shelf and then they will give us money? What do you call that? Ransom? We stand behind the fact that our community is made up of a very diverse group of individuals, and we as a library cater to the diversity of our community.”

Two Jamestown residents responded by starting GoFundMe pages, which in four days raised $59,000 and $2,900, making a total of, um, something larger than either number alone. 

Last I looked, the larger campaign had raised just short of $156,000 and the smaller one had raised over $6,000. 

The tax money the library lost came to $245,000, but the money that’s been raised should keep it open until it can work out a plan, which will probably involve getting tax support on the ballot in a second election. 

BookRiot–a large online site dedicated to books–is calling on readers and writers to support the campaigns and “send a strong message that these tactics don’t work — that they can backfire and provide the library with more support and more funding. And hopefully, next time a book banning group considers defunding the library, they’ll remember Patmos Library.”

 

And from the Department of Gastronomical Karma…

…comes the news that the US pizza chain Domino’s thought it could challenge Italian pizza makers on their home turf. The theory was that people will eat anything–even American pizza–if it’s delivered to their door. This turned out not to be true. All its Italian branches have now closed and the company that held the franchise is filing for bankruptcy. 

Politicians and hungry kids: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

After refusing to find common ground with Manchester’s political leadership over money to support workers and businesses devastated by a local lockdown, the government announced a new package of support for businesses and workers devastated by local lockdowns. 

Andy Burnham, Manchester’s mayor, said it was what he’d been pushing for all along

So why did the government let the talks blow up before agreeing to provide support? So it can say, “Nyah, nyah, we win.” The government can now claim that it was their idea all along and that they’ve forgotten where Manchester is anyway.

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Irrelevant photo: Starlings in the neighbors’ tree. They gather in large flocks in the fall and winter. The Scandinavian starlings spend their winters here. The ones that spend the summer here head south in the winter. Go figure.

This might be an appropriate time to talk about sewage

No, that wasn’t an editorial comment. I am so politically neutral that I can’t even see myself in a mirror. 

Ninety sewage treatment sites in England, Wales, and Scotland are starting to test for Covid. A pilot program in Plymouth spotted an outbreak that was clustered around some asymptomatic cases well before the test and trace system spotted it.

Admittedly, the test and trace system couldn’t spot a Covid-infected camel if it crashed  through the Serco board room with a nickelodeon on its back playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the point is that the sewage folks spotted the outbreak at an early stage. They’d have no problem spotting a camel either. 

The nickelodeon might be more of a problem. It needs a different set of reagents and an entirely different testing protocol.

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Having finally noticed that the test and trace system not only isn’t working but that the percentage of people it contacts has fallen, the government placed an ad for someone with a track record of “turning around failing call centres.” 

The job pays £2,000 a day. And as I often have to remind you, in a pinch a person can live on that.

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When I was looking for details on the program to support workers and businesses devastated by etc., I thought I could save myself a few keystrokes by just typing in the chancellor’s last name, Sunak. Auto-complete took what I’d written and supplied “flip-flops.” I was delighted: Sunak and Johnson had both flip-flopped on support for etc, and here Lord Google was writing an editorial for me. 

I followed Lord G.’s editorial to pictures of physical flip-flops–those plastic sandals you can slip your feet into without having to fasten anything. Turns out I’d flip-flopped a couple of letters and typed “Sanuk,” a brand of flip-flop that cost anywhere between £20 and £55. 

I remember when flip-flops were cheap. Of course, I remember when gas (or petrol if you speak British) was $0.29 a gallon. I also remember when I was nineteen, and it was a shockingly long time ago. 

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After rising for seven weeks, the number of Covid cases in England looks like it’s stopped rising. Hospitalizations always tag along behind, kind of like a pesky younger brother, so they’re still going up.

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An Australian company is working on a Covid test based on saliva–no swabs involved–that reports back in fifteen minutes and uses a hand-held device. That doesn’t necessarily mean the device is cheap–the article didn’t say what it costs–but it does mean you don’t need an entire lab for the test, so there ought to be some savings in there somewhere.

Of course, in Britain, we’ll have to contract with an outsourcing company to bring it into the country, and that should add a few million to the cost, if they get it here at all. But hey, what’s a few million pounds between friends? After all, Parliament just voted not to give low-income families £15 per kid over the school holidays so the kids wouldn’t go hungry. We might as well spend that money somewhere. 

The tests themselves work out to about $25 each, although to get a more exact figure I expect you’d have to do some sort of mathematical gymnastics involving the cost of the hand-held gizmo and the number of tests you’re going to do on each one. 

The bad news is that the system’s still being tested, but the hope is that it’ll detect the virus when people haven’t  yet shown any symptoms but are already contagious. The current tests are most effective after symptoms have started, meaning they give a lot of false negatives.

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After Parliament voted not to give families that £15 per low-income kid over the school holidays, cafes, restaurants, and local governments stepped in to help fill the gap.

The issue of kids going hungry was raised by a football player, Marcus Rashford, who learned enough about hunger as a kid to qualify as an expert. He shamed the government into creating a program over the summer, but the thing about eating is that having done it once doesn’t keep you from needing to do it again.

Reacting to businesses stepping in to help, Rashford said, “Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.

“I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British tonight.”

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, “declined to welcome the offers of assistance,” as one paper put it. I assume some reporter gave him the opportunity just to see if he would. But hell, if these kids wanted to eat over the holidays, they should’ve had the foresight to get themselves born into better-off families, the way he did.

Arguing against spending the money on kids, MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said, “I do not believe in nationalising children.

“Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility and this means less virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”

Like low pay, possibly? Or a lack of jobs? 

Nah, it’s got to be personal irresponsibility.

The government’s decision is particularly grotesque since it spent over £522 million on a summer program to tempt people back into cafes and restaurants, but only if they could afford to pay half the cost. And MPs are expected to get a £3,000 raise.