Important stories from the British press

What people lose

You can learn a lot about a country by what it leaves behind. So what does Transport for London report having found on the city’s trains and buses? A life-sized Spiderman doll. A prosthetic leg. Endless wallets, phones, and tablets. Umbrellas. A judge’s wig, a room-sized carpet, and an urn with human ashes. “Enough musical instruments to form a band,” including drum kits. No grand pianos, apparently.

I’m not sure who I’m quoting about that band, but unlike some quotes that drift through the culture, this one seems to have actually been said because the newspaper article I’m stealing the information from put it in quotes. It’s probably from a TfL spokesperson.

Oh, and a brown paper envelope with £15,000. Which the finder actually turned in.

A rare relevant photo: A London tube station. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Vaguely relevant photo: Public transportation, although not in London. This is the Exeter St. David’s train station. Photo by Ida Swearingen

I don’t know what any of that tells you about British culture. That judges wear wigs and ride the tube. That someone either thinks or knows that a judge’s wig is different from a lawyer’s. That stuff drops out of people’s pockets. You know—phones,  wallets, room-sized rugs, tubas. An archeologist would have a field day.

But the real treasures are in the comments at the end of the article, where readers talk about the stuff they’ve lost on public transportation (Guardian readers write the best letters to the editor and their online comments aren’t bad either): “the will to live” (Northern Line, winter of 1993), “the woman I love” (Chalk Farm Station), “my heart” (San Francisco, which is a city, not public transportation, but what are categories for if you can’t break out of them?), and democracy (location not specified but probably also not on public transportation). I won’t spoil all the fun. A lot of the jokes are about that prosthetic leg, but not all. I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself.

Tom Lehrer said, “Life is like a sewer: What you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” That may not be entirely relevant, although in an odd way it does seem to  belong here, but it is at least a genuine quote. (In a comment, Retirementally Challenged introduced the theory that some of the best quotes never got said.) Lehrer’s comment was on a record I played endlessly when I was in my teens. He may be to blame for the way I am.

What someone bought

You can also learn a lot about a country from what it sells. Want to buy a title? One was going to be auctioned off in December with (as far as I can figure out) a starting price of £7,250. I assume it sold. Sorry I didn’t let you know about it earlier but the clipping sank into the morass I call a computer desk and only just surfaced. So let me tell you what you (may have) missed:

The lordship of the manor of Woodbury Salterton village is roughly 1,000 years old. Buy the title (lord or lady) and you can use it on your checks and credit cards. You can join the Manorial Society of Great Britain. You can—. Oh. That’s pretty much it. I suppose you could put it on your mailbox. You could try to get mail and packages addressed to you that way. I have a post about that somewhere. Good luck finding it.

And all that for just £7,250–or maybe more, since it was an auction. What a thrill.

The manor (sorry, not the title; oooh, I’m getting all English, apologizing for stuff that isn’t my fault) was mentioned in the Domesday Book. If you haven’t heard of that, it was commissioned by William the Conqueror not long after 1066, when he decided to find out what he’d gotten his paws on in conquering England. The country, as it turned out, had no football teams at the time, no umbrellas, and no tea. You wonder why he bothered. It probably didn’t even have scones, since baking soda (that’s bicarbonate of soda if you’re British) and baking powder weren’t in use yet. At least not in baking. The Egyptians used a relative of baking soda to clean things and mummify people, but for baking? Nope. Not until the nineteenth century. Next time you find a list of all the marvelous things you can do with bicarbonate of soda, see if mummification’s on it. If not, it’s incomplete.

Where were we? Titles. The Lord or Lady of Whatsit. The newspaper article gushed a bit about the title (or maybe that was the manor; do you really care?) being steeped in English history, but I wasn’t impressed. Pretty much everything here is steeped in history. When they dug trenches for sewage pipes in a neighboring village, they found the remains of a prehistoric encampment and a burial site that mixed Christian (east-west burials) and pre-Christian (buried with grave goods, and I think north-south). One person was buried east-west and with grave goods, so whatever happened after death he or she would be ready for it. So history? You don’t need a title around here, just a sewage pipe.

What the British drink

Sales of tea have gone down 6% over the past five years and ordinary teabags—the ones that make what people call builder’s tea—have gone down 13%. It’s all (or mostly, anyway) the fault of coffee. The British have discovered that coffee can be something more than instant granules stirred into hot water and swallowed quickly enough to keep the taste from becoming noticeable. Coffee’s gone upscale. Tea sales are going down downscale.

There’s an English song that I have got to find time to make fun of someday, “There’ll Always Be an England.” It’s full of pomp and Empire and flag waving, and my apologies if you love it but the first time I heard it I was in one of those situations where you can’t let yourself laugh. I built up enough residual hysteria that I splutter when I so much as read the title. But the reason I’m bringing it up now is this: If tea is losing ground to coffee, will there always be an England? And not, how much longer can we count on it?

Long enough for the British Standards Institution to publish a guide to making the perfect cup of tea. It has the catchy title “Preparation of a Liquor of Tea for Use in Sensory Tests.”

What does it recommend? According to the Independent, it says, “You need a pot made of porcelain, and there must be at least two grams of tea to every 100ml of water. The temperature can’t go beyond 85 degrees when served but should be above 60 degrees for “optimum flavour and sensation.”

The Independent then interrupts the poetic prose and steps in to summarize: ‘The perfect pot size is apparently between 74mm and 78mm wide, and 83mm and 87mm tall. Since the average tea bag contains 1.5g of tea leaves, at least two tea bags should be used for a small pot, and four for a large one.”

The tea should brew for six minutes. And you should pour the milk into the cup first. That last decree is controversial. Seriously. If we have a civil war anytime soon, it will be over whether the tea or the milk should hit the cup first.

Which makes me think that, yeah, there probably always will be an England.