The Other I

May 14, 2018

In the end…

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:03 pm

“In the end, what gives life meaning is not only how it is lived, but how it draws to a close.”

Baroness Tessa Jowell

Image result for tessa jowell Independent


Two days ago, Tessa Jowell, a member of Parliament, died of brain cancer.

She had been an extremely active and accomplished member of Parliament, and was deeply respected – I think even loved – by members of all parties.  She was described as one of the kindest and hard-working MP’s by fellow Labour party members as well as those from the Tory and Liberal parties.

In January, she addressed Parliament for the last time, asking them to do more to improve treatment for cancer patients.  Britain’s National Health Service lags behind most developed countries in treating cancer, and although it was too late for her, she spent her last months still working for others.  She brought the Parliament to tears with her address and received a standing ovation.

Since her death, I have been reflecting on how unusual her approach to her own death seems to me.  When I was 18, my own mother, suffering from cancer, was given 8 weeks to live.  She spent that time preparing her husband and her ten children between the ages of 7 and 19 for life after her death.  She talked to us openly about dying, and I am sure she agreed with my father to his remarriage which was announced within weeks after she died.

None of us, including my mother, could possibly have appreciated the strength of the legacy she was leaving us with her courageous and honest facing of the painful reality of her death at the age of 48.  But when my father died 19 years later, then my younger sister, and recently a younger brother died, they each built on that legacy, facing with courage and honesty the reality of death, and leaving their own legacies to the loved ones who survived them

I didn’t realize until I moved with my husband to England to care for his dying father how unusual this legacy was.  I remember my first insight was in the hospital emergency room when I said to the attending nurse that I did not think my father-in-law was dying.  The look of shock on her face showed her amazement that I would so much as use the term “dying.”  During the year in which we cared for him, I learned more than once that death was not something one spoke about out loud, no matter how imminent it was.

And so Tessa Jowell’s speech to Parliament impressed me as both courageous and culturally quite exceptional.

And now I find myself wondering about other cultures.  Obviously it isn’t something I can explore on Google.  I’m not aware, in fact, of any research comparing cultural attitudes like this.  But the reality of death is not fake news for any of us.  How do different communities face it?  And what are the different ways in which we support each other?


November 26, 2017

Stir-up Sunday

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:16 pm

Until yesterday I might have said that today was the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  Or if I were a millenial, I would probably be more apt to say it’s the Sunday after Black Friday.  Or if I were really reaching back into history, that it’s the last Sunday before Advent, which is the beginning of the 4 weeks before Christmas.  Advent was a kind of mini-Lent during my childhood during which we made various resolutions, usually around abstaining from sweets or some such.

But what I’ve just learned from my English husband is that today is Stir-up Sunday.

Stir-up Sunday is always the last Sunday before Advent and was widely celebrated during Victorian times.  Its name is based on the prayer said on this day in Anglican churches which calls upon the Lord to  “Stir-up, we beseech thee, oh Lord,  the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Image result for christmas pudding

Then families went home for the really important ritual of the day.  That was to stir-up all the ingredients for the Christmas pudding.

Each member of the family took a turn to stir-up the ingredients, meanwhile making a wish.

The pudding was then put aside for Christmas except for the regular dollops of brandy which were added.

For spiritual reasons, of course.

These days, most people don’t make their own Christmas puddings, but buy them from the market.

Great loss, I would think.

For spiritual reasons, of course.


July 26, 2016

A stand against sexual discrimination

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:02 pm

Unlike in the States, schools did not begin their summer break until last Friday here in England.  But in recent days the weather has been extremely hot climbing well into the 90’s in some areas.

Several high school boys at a co-ed high school, therefore, asked for permission to wear shorts in order to be a little cooler, but the word came back that all students were required to wear the regulation uniform consisting of either long pants or skirts.

Four boys took the ruling at its face value and showed up in skirts.

From left: George Boyland, Jesse Stringer, Kodi Ayling, Michael Parker

I know from experience that skirts are indeed much cooler than long pants.

Though I’m not sure the skirts cooled things off in all senses of the word.


March 26, 2016

Be careful what you say!

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 5:28 pm

The philosopher of great renown, Hilary Putnam, died several weeks ago.  He wrote about a lot of things, including the meaning of meaning, pointing out that when we use a word, its meaning depends on the context in which we understand it.  Putnam gave the hypothetical example of identical twins living on planets identical in every way except for the molecular component of what each twin called “water.”  Putnam pointed out that although each twin would be using the same word, they would be referring to fundamentally different things.

But one need not go extra-terrestial to find examples of the importance of context in giving words different meanings even to individuals speaking the same language.  I have found hundreds of examples merely by crossing the pond.  Men here routinely address me as “love,” or “loverly” in contexts that I would find inappropriate in the States but rather enjoy over here.  Alternatively, as I have mentioned before, my husband had to caution me not to use words such as “bloody,” or “knackers” with the freedom I might have used them in the new world.

I stumbled on another emerging example yesterday of the influence of context on meaning.  It’s in relation to rapeseed oil which is called canola oil in America.  The word “rape” is derived originally from the Latin term for turnip, but in America the name was changed for marketing reasons.  It is still called rapeseed oil here in Britain.

But the marketing inhibitions associated with the term rape have recrossed the pond returning to Britain in a different context.  Aldi, a superstore, has agreed to change the name of its Rape Yellow paint after a woman who had been sexually assaulted complained that Rape Yellow did not remind her of bright and cheerful sunshine but of a darker more disturbing event.

Hmm:  learning a different language is even harder than I thought.

March 14, 2014

Not powerless!

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:33 pm

Tony Benn, a leader Labor politician died at the age of 88 today.  He was a man of principle, and has been praised even by those politicians who didn’t always agree with him.

But one leading politician praised him for “defending the powerless.”   I found myself bristling.

From my limited perspective, Benn did not degrade members of the working class whom he represented  by calling them powerless.  He did not suggest that people with less money, less education, or with other social or economic disadvantages were merely helpless victims who had to be helped by the more fortunate.

Yes, he fought for justice.  Yes, he fought tenaciously for human rights, for democracy, for education.  But I never heard him suggest that anybody is without choice, that anybody must submit to being a victim because they are powerless.

Do we need help sometimes?  Absolutely!  But the first step in not being a victim is to refuse to be one.  One of the things counselors for rape victims sometimes find is that some women insist on identifying some behaviors in which they engaged which may have been interpreted – however wrongly – as a come-on.   What the women are saying is that they can take some responsibility for what happens to them in the future, that they are not powerless, that they refuse to be nothing more than victims to explain what happens to them.

We might not always like our choices.  But as long as we are conscious, we can choose.

February 17, 2014

Us and Them

Next September, Scotland is going to have a referendum to decide whether they want to be an independent country again and no longer part of Great Britain (also known as the United Kingdom) which today is composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.  The wording of the referendum has been agreed by the current governments in London and Edinburgh, and whatever the outcome, nobody foresees the issue degenerating into outright war.

But the situation is becoming tetchy.  Last week all the main parties in the UK agreed that if Scotland chose independence, Britain would not agree to their using the pound sterling as a common currency.  Scotland could continue to use the pound, if she wished, but her debts would no longer be secured by the Bank of England in London.  The reasoning, which seems obvious to me, is that the euro has already demonstrated that a common currency used by a number of independent countries each responsible for their own budgets is unsustainable in the long run.  The Scottish National Party which is Scotland’s independence party is accusing the English of being bullies.  And when David Cameron, the Prime Minister, encouraged the English to ask their Scottish friends to vote against independence, many Scots asked who the English thought they were to tell them how to vote.  Etc., etc.

I strongly suspect the exchanges are going to become more heated, if not more enlightened.  My hope is that by the time September arrives, the trading of accusations will not have become so bad as to make it impossible for the British and the Scots to work together, whether Scotland is or isn’t independent.

All of which has set me wondering again if we human beings are capable of getting along in our increasingly globalized world.  Can we stand being this relentlessly close to each other and still maintain our individual identities?

It seems to me, war inevitably requires a sense that “Us”, and “Them” are incompatible.  Whether the conflicts are between Catholics and Protestants, Black and White, Shias and Sunnis, Allied and Axis powers,  the Tutsi and Hutu tribes, or one of the hundreds of other warring sides, it happens when we find it impossible to share our essential identities with others.  Christianity still preaches that we are all God’s children, but that has not stopped us from killing each other as intolerable heretics.  Whites for centuries enslaved Blacks on the grounds that Blacks are inferior.  Tribes in Africa and Asia are also unable to find common ground, and would rather die than live together.

I don’t know if we can do it in this stage of our evolutionary development.   Maybe we are too aggressive and insufficiently cooperative, unable to recognize our common humanity whatever our differences.  The European Union was founded as a result of World War II, in the belief that if Europe were sufficiently united economically, countries would avoid the destructiveness of war.  But more than a functioning economy is required.  Sometimes people don’t understand how much cooperation a global economy requires.  Sometimes they’d rather take the chance of going it alone rather than take orders from Brussels or London or Washington or Moscow or Beijing.

It is highly unlikely that a Scottish vote for independence would utterly destroy their economy.  I strongly suspect independence would come at an economic cost, however, to both Scotland and to a lesser extent to the rest of Great Britain.  But that’s not the only issue.  Many Scots don’t like the feeling that they are being ruled by London, just as many states in the U.S. resent federal laws and taxes, or the way many in England resent the rules coming from Brussels and the European Union.

As anybody in any long-term relationship has discovered, making it last requires both compromise and cooperation.  If both feel that the independence one gives up is worth what one receives in its stead, the relationship is experienced as a success.  But if I’m losing more than I’m giving, I want out.

I suppose it’s the same way with countries.  Right now it’s the Scots who are asking the question.  But there are many other places too that are asking if they wouldn’t be better off on their own.  Scotland, I am glad, is not resorting to bombs and guns to find the answer.

Still, I hope things don’t get too nasty before the issue is resolved.

February 12, 2014

Taking the weather seriously

Some years ago, I read a weather forecaster who said that the effects of global warming were unlikely to be what people were expecting – even looking forward to.  Familiar weather patterns would not disappear, he said, but become instead more extreme.  Droughts would occur more often and last longer.  So would floods, snow storms, and deadly heat waves.

For Britain, the forecaster said, the chances were that colder winter temperatures would sweep down from the arctic.  They might dump snow on America, but as the weather systems crossed the Atlantic, they would turn to rain, bringing more rain, gale-force winds, and potentially disastrous floods to Ireland and Britain.

Well, this might not be global warming.  One can’t say with certainty until a clear pattern has set in over many years, by which time it may be far more difficult if not impossible to reverse forces that have been triggered by greenhouse gases.

But the weather we are experiencing now in Ireland and Britain sounds like it could be a brutal introduction to environmental change, and is breaking centuries of records.  Storms have been arriving on a conveyor belt from America since December.  Some people have been flooded out of their homes since before Christmas, and many will never be able to go back.  Tens of thousands of acres of farmland are under water, and herds of farm animals are in grave trouble.  Tonight more than a quarter of a million homes in Ireland are without electricity and half that many again in England.  A thousand people were evacuated from their homes just last night.  Sewage water is backing up into the streets and into people’s houses.  Some homes have been told not to flush their toilets but to use porto-toilets.  Gale winds have washed rail lines into the sea and blocked access to much of England’s south-west coast.

The army and navy are both out, supporting thousands of volunteers who have been working for weeks to try to hold the sea at bay, and politicians have been buying boots in order to wade about in the waters to make it look like they are doing something.

What is most worrying is that it is getting worse and there is no end in sight.  These weekly – even tri-weekly – storms could last into the end of March, bringing more rain and floods, uprooting more trees whose roots have been loosened by the water, pushing more people out of their homes.  When I hear weather forecasters telling Americans in the north that more snow is coming to be added to their already 15-foot snow banks, I tremble.  I know what that kind of snow is like.  But when it arrives as unrelenting rain, it’s devastation can be even worse.

We here in Cambridge are not getting the worst of it.  Roads are closed and fields are flooded.  Yesterday when we returned from shopping, we had to take four separate detours to get through.

But we’re not flooded out – yet anyway.

I won’t say it’s easy, but there is a spirit of determination among the English right now.  I won’t say they aren’t angry.  And they certainly aren’t enjoying it.  But they are pulling up their boots.

If the only expected result of global warming were the potential for flooding, I wouldn’t worry about Britain.  They’re going to solve this problem one way or another.

In the meantime, it’s wet.  And depressing.

I think I’ll make a cup of tea





January 31, 2014

Generation gap

Filed under: The English,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 2:09 pm


Yvettte Cooper, a leading Labour Party member of Parliament, told the annual Labour party conference today about her parental limitations.  

“I have to be realistic,”  she admitted.  “I have to ask my kids how to use the parental controls. “

January 18, 2014

What do you think about your mother?

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching,The English — theotheri @ 4:53 pm

Shortly after leaving the convent and before I met my husband, someone gave me a piece of advice that still looks brilliant to me.  “If you want to know whether your perspective husband will see you as an equal, don’t look to his father;  find out what he thinks about his mother.”

It worked for me.  My husband’s mother wanted to be a teacher, but she had to leave school at the age of twelve to support her family.  Nonetheless, Peter thought she was extremely intelligent, with equal amounts of determination and energy.  When I met her I agreed.  At the time, I was wondering whether I was wasting my life as an educator.  She never expressed regret about the opportunities life had not offered her.  But just knowing her  convinced me that giving an education to a young person is one of the most wonderful gifts we can bestow.

I was reminded of that advice recently.  I am now in my 70’s and sometimes subject to the kind of prejudice against the elderly that unfortunately I see quite often here in Britain.  It may be compounded for women compared to men,  and in addition I rarely tell people that I have a Ph.D.  So if young people, particularly young men seriously listen to what I have to say, I notice.

I have a new dentist who I bet has a mother whom he respects.  He’s young, and on my first visit told me that I hadn’t just lost the filling on the tooth I was concerned about, but needed a root canal.  So I grilled him.  I told him I’d already had one root canal done by someone who didn’t know what they were doing, and that I did not approach another procedure with automatic trust.  I asked him about his background and experience, and he was completely unthreatened.  I couldn’t look up his record the way I could in the U.S., but I decided that someone who was able to answer my questions without being aggressive or defensive felt confident in his abilities.  So I decided to stay with him.  Yesterday he put the crown on the finished job.  It looks and feels terrific.

I didn’t think that I had the right to ask him what he thinks about his mother.  But I bet he has a high opinion of her.  Or if not his mother, a grandmother, aunt, older sister, or teacher.

I’d love to know.

November 30, 2013

“You’re welcome.”

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:24 pm


Image source:

If you are an American, you will never believe this.

But the British have imported Thanksgiving.

I’m not kidding, they really have.  Turkeys and all.

Well, also including Black Friday, as well, so it may have a little consumerist motivation and is not all a deep appreciation for all the gifts of life and family and friends.

On the other hand, perhaps they really are grateful, in retrospect that those rebels left England on three ships and didn’t come back?  I haven’t heard anybody say so.  But perhaps British politeness…

November 26, 2013

Us and them

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 9:45 pm

One of the enduring struggles in human societies for as far back as we can see in history revolves around the inevitable tension between the small and the large.  Some times the tensions is between the individual and the family or the small group that constitute our friends, classmates, neighbours, or associates.  Sometimes the tensions are between families, between teams, between organizations, between ethnic groups, between nations, or even groups of nations.  Inevitably there is always a trade-off in benefits.

We can’t, for instance, work primarily for ourselves or for our own group and still gain all the benefits of cooperating with a larger circle.  And we can’t work for the benefit of the larger group without giving up some of the benefits that come with exclusively pursuing our own.

Often these tensions lead to war – the Allies versus the Axis powers, the east versus the west, the Christians versus the Muslims.  Sometimes the tensions are manifest in political struggles.

The St Andrews Cross and the Union JackToday the Scottish National Party published its arguments for an independent Scotland, which is going to be the subject of a referendum next September.   If they win, Scotland will no longer be part of the United Kingdom, presently consisting of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Scotland and England were united under the same king and parliament in London 400 years ago.  But although they speak a common language, they remain different cultures, rather the way the north and south of the United States are different cultures.  The Scottish National Party is trying to convince the Scottish voters that the benefits of becoming an independent nation of their own will greatly outweigh the benefits of being united with England.

Right now, those Scots who say they will vote for independence are in a minority.  But it is not at all clear how the vote will eventually go.  There are great number of undecideds, people who are not sure whether what they will gain with independence would be less than what they would lose.  For most people the questions seems to be primarily economic, and the paper arguing for independence promises all sort of goodies.  The question being hotly debated is whether these promises are economically realistic in an independent Scotland.

The struggle is not unlike the debate going on in the United Kingdom in general about British membership in the European Union.  All sorts of rules and regulations are sent down from Brussels which apply to all 27 member countries.  They inevitably sometimes feels high-handed, self-serving, picky, or ill-informed.  But they do a great deal to facilitate trade and economic development.  It’s a tension that also parallels the question of States’ rights in America.

As an American, I have no say on the question of Scottish independence.  As an outsider, it doesn’t look like a good economic move to me.  But I have some sympathy with the feeling that London is too far away, too remote.  I watch the struggle of the European Union, and particularly the struggle over its common currency, the euro, as Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, even France, struggle, and I think I understand how the Scots feel.  Part of me would like to see the whole EU enterprise fail.   Brussels’ nannying is so infuriating.

But would it be worth it to try to go it alone?

My gut feeling is that in both situations, more would be lost by cutting loose than would be gained.

But for once, neither the EU or Scottish independence are my problems.

Thank goodness.  I have enough to worry about as an American.

November 8, 2013

Up, Down, or around?

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:42 pm

Cultural differences have fascinated me ever since my father told us, when I was about six years old, that some Chinese people ate birds’  nests.  Why?  I wondered.  And did the Chinese use catsup on their nests?  Did they cook them first?

Over the years I’ve come to understand that cultures don’t just influence our language and food preferences.  They can even shape our most fundamental understandings.

Yesterday I realized it even influences our understanding of space.

I’ve been living with my husband for 40 years, and thought I knew him pretty well.  But there is still room for surprises.  We were discussing the best route to take to a farm shop we wanted to visit.  I suggested that we start by going “down Rt. 603.”  Yes, he nodded in agreement, and then “down the A-10.”

Down the A-10!? I asked in startled disagreement.  “That’s going in exactly the wrong direction.”

Then I remembered.

Here in England one goes “up” to London, whether one is going north or south.  So of course, if one is heading away from London, one goes “down,” even if it means heading north.

I asked Google where this conception of Up and Down came from.  The most convincing answer I found was that the words are not directional in the sense of space but in the sense of social status.  Since London is the capital of the country, it is always “up.”  And if one is expelled from Cambridge or Oxford, one is “sent down,” even if one returns to the north.

Fascinating.  It’s enough to get a foreigner going in circles sometimes.  But we did make it to the farm shop — going “down” the A-10.

July 24, 2013

A black prince story

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:21 pm

At last Kate and William’s baby, the third in line for the British throne, has been born.  Journalists and tv cameras have been posted outside the hospital where the birth took place for weeks to make sure they had a good place.  The Americans got there first, and camped out for a full 23 days in anticipation.  I can only imagine what the American coverage was like.  Here it felt like 24/7 non-stop, during which, as one reporter eloquently put it, “Never has so little been said by so many.”

But finally the baby arrived – late as first-borns often are, but by all accounts healthy and robust.  The news here reported that when the birth was announced a cheer went up outside the hospital.  But also in Times Square in New York City.

One story that I love and I doubt made the U.S. media occurred outside the hospital after the new prince was born.  One reporter began interviewing people among the hundreds gathered on the street outside.  “Have you heard it’s a boy?!”  she excitedly asked an observer.  “Yes,” he replied, “and it’s black.”  The reporter was completely flummoxed and stood there with a stunned expression on her face.  As a result, everyone else around also stopped talking.  The reporter never did recover her aplomb, and finally simply addressed another observer asking “Have you heard it’s a boy?”  To her relief, the response was a more prosaic, if less creative, “Yes, and isn’t it just wonderful!”

I’ve been thinking of various appropriate responses with which the reporter might have responded.  I don’t know if I would have been fast enough on the draw either, but in theory I would have said “Oh, wouldn’t that have been just wonderful?  almost as good as if it had been a girl.”

But I rather suspect that life is full of one-liners one doesn’t think of in time.

Now we are waiting for the baby’s name.  I’m hoping for Mike.


June 10, 2013

The liberty to think or the duty to believe?

For the first two and a half decades of my life, I was taught history from the perspective of Roman Catholicism.  That perspective was probably most influential in relation to the Tudor era of Henry VIII and his offspring Queens Mary and Elizabeth.  I have three brothers named after Catholic martyrs of this period – Thomas More, John Fischer, and Richard Reynolds.  According to the stories I was told, they were heroic martyrs who defended the True Church against the monarchs trying to displace the divine authority of Rome.  I had no idea that the “other side” also had an array of martyrs who had stood up against the Catholic regime.

The BBC right now is running a series of documentaries on this Tudor era.  Last night we watched the story of William Tyndale, the English priest who was burned at the stake for translating the New Testament into English.

As a Maryknoll nun, I also fought for the right to read the bible privately instead of hearing it only read, usually by a priest who then explained to us what it meant. Since I had Vatican II as the justification for my argument, I was not burned at the stake for my views.  Instead we actually managed to convince our superiors to change their minds.  At the time, however, I had no appreciation of the depth that had caused the determination to keep the bible out of the hands of anyone but the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Tyndale was an ordained Roman Catholic priest educated at Oxford.  But he believed that the Word of God should be put into the hands “even of the plowman,” that God spoke directly to each of us, without the intervention of others.  Tyndale was vehemently opposed by both church and government authorities who argued that ordinary people would descend into lawlessness and chaos if they were permitted to interpret the Word of God on their own.  Tyndale was pursued and finally cornered by the arch-heretic hunter Thomas More (he who was himself to be beheaded by Henry VIII for refusing to recognize his marriage to Anne Boleyn) who was one of the leading defenders of this religious “rule of law” view.

Besides that, over the years, the Roman Catholic Church had added a good deal of superfluous doctrine to scriptures – original sin, purgatory, ordination of priests, confession, and indulgences were doctrines added centuries after the scriptures were written.  But since people were not permitted to read the bible for themselves, few of them were aware that these were additions, and believed them to share the authority of sacred scriptures. Rome rightly feared that if the bible were to get into the hands of ordinary people – even into the hands of mere plowmen – the authority of Rome would be undermined.

But ultimately, after many struggles and persecutions, the King James Bible, which incorporated most of Tyndale’s elegant translations, was placed in every church in Britain.  Every one who could read was free to read it and draw inspiration from it.

It was, said Melvin Bragg, the triumph of “the liberty to think rather than the duty to believe.”  It was the triumph of individual conscience against even religious authority.  It was the triumph of the common, ordinary man.

It was also, I think, one of the foundation stones of democracy.  People not only could hear the word of God without depending on the interpretation of the authority of the church.  That same ordinary man, that same plowman, had a right to determine who was to govern the society of which he was a part.

I understand now why so many people were afraid that electing John F. Kennedy as a Catholic president in the US could spell the end of democracy as we knew it.  Their fear was unfounded.  But I understand now where it came from.

April 26, 2013

Misinterpreting the obvious

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:01 pm

One of the things I find fascinating about living in Britain is the names of places.  It’s hardly unique that the names are often a short-hand for their location.  But what I find so endlessly surprising is that the short-hand so often goes back not just hundreds but thousands of years.

“Roman Hill” obviously got its name over a thousand years ago.  “Cathedral Close” is close to the cathedral,”Stocks Lane” suggests the ancient location of the stocks used to humiliate and punish recalcitrants.   The meanings of  “Boot Street,” “Cheese Place,” or “Westgate” might be obvious, but “Ludgate” is a little more elusive if one doesn’t know that Lud was an ancient Welsh god.

I assumed that our organic farm shop located on Bury Lane was among the obvious, and I asked our fish monger yesterday where the cemetery was – or at least had been.  He said that his knowledge went back no further than its long history as a fruit farm.

So I went to Wikipedia and discovered that “Bury” is an old English word for castle or stronghold, and is a precursor of the word borough.  Instead of looking for a cemetery, I should be looking for the castle.

So I think I must admit that my obvious interpretation of “Bury” was — ahem, are you ready for this? — dead wrong.

April 14, 2013

Ding Dong the witch…

It is something of a shock, if not a surprise, to be living here in England listening to some of the unedited comments about Margaret Thatcher.  Hatred lives long and deep in the hearts of those who feel that she destroyed their communities, their jobs, even entire industries.  “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” is reaching number one in the song charts, and people are drinking champagne to celebrate her death.

I personally think Margaret Thatcher saved Britain from becoming a much poorer country, but I can understand and respect those who disagree with her policies.  I can positively agree with those who feel that her methods sometimes seemed to lack compassion.

But she was a legitimate leader of the country, re-elected prime minister three times.  The lack of restraint in relation to those who disagreed with her seem to me to show a lack of respect for the very political freedoms of Great Britain and of which she is so justly proud.

Besides that, Margaret Thatcher has been out of office for 23 years.  She leaves children and grandchildren and many voters who benefited hugely from her policies.  Many of the comments are cruel, mean, coarse, arrogant, and ignorant.

Not, of course, that we ever engage in behavior distantly resembling anything like that in the United States.

We’re a gun culture after all.  Guns are much more effective than words.

March 10, 2013

Are mothers the same the world over?

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:44 pm

Today in Britain is “Mothering Sunday.”  It’s mother’s day now in that it’s a day children pick whatever is growing to give as a gift to their mothers, and grown-ups buy cards for them.  But  as the 4th Sunday in Lent, it’s traditionally the day when church-goers return to the “mother church” of their original families.  It sometimes involves travelling some distance, and although it is less common now that only 10% of the British population attend church regularly, it is still a recognized custom.

In this sense, “Mothering Sunday” is another example of the adaptation by Christianity of what were originally pagan practices honouring that Mother Nature who gives life to us all, and on whom we depend during every living moment.  The festival to the Egyptian goddess Nut, married to the sun-god Re, is one of the earliest mother’s day celebrations on record.

If you are interested, there is an excellent introduction to these mothering gods on a blog post entitled Mothering Sunday.

If you scroll down on that same post, the author has a wicked list of the things his own mother taught him.  If I hadn’t also learned from my own mother not to steal, I would copy it verbatim here and claim it as my own.  Not only did my second-generation Polish American mother teach me the same things as the Laird’s mother taught him growing up in Scotland.  She seems to have used the same words!  Below are a few of the teachings of the Laird’s mother:

My mother taught me –

  • religion:  “You better pray that this will come out of the carpet.”
  • logic:  “Because I said so, that’s why.”
  • contortionism:  “Will you look at that dirt on the back of your neck!”
  • weather:  “This room of yours looks as if a tornado went through it.”
  • hypocrisy:  “If I told you once, I’ve told you a million times.  Don’t exaggerate!”

Be interesting to know if other readers recognize their own mothers as often as I do.  Do let me and/or the Laird know if you do.



March 7, 2013

Translation of an English weather forecast

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:06 pm
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As a child I remember being  told that the Inuit had 117 words for snow, and almost as many different words for various colors of  white.  Just how many words the Inuit really have for different kinds of snow is a matter of some scientific controversy.  But obviously, it would be important for survival for an Inuit to be highly sensitive to differences in snow.

Weather forecasters in Britain do not have 117 words for rain, but I have learned the usefulness of a few distinctions with which as an American I was not familiar.

But before embarking on a trans-oceanic vocabulary lesson, let me point out that  British weather forecasters are among the best in the world.  That is because Britain is probably one of the most challenging  places in the world to forecast the weather – accurately anyway.  The land mass of Great Britain is slightly smaller than the land mass of the state of Oregon.  But it is buffeted by distinct weather systems from all four directions each competing to be number one.

The UK often gets weather crossing the Atlantic Ocean after it has visited the US and Canada.  Depending on whether it is a hurricane that has travelled up the East Coast before turning east, or whether it has first travelled across the continent, it may arrive in Britain more subdued or more ferocious.  Weather also arrives from continental Europe.  If it is sweeping down from Siberia, it may be viciously cold.  If it is sweeping up from southern Europe, it is often warmer.  Then there is the Golf Stream.  It doesn’t always arrive on the same trajectory, so it may bring more or less rain and temperatures may vary. The UK is a battleground of warm air from the tropics and cold air from the Arctic.  Add a variable wind and the result is usually extremely volatile weather.

Which is why there are at least three qualitatively different kinds of rain.   I was initially mystified by a prediction that “Showers would be followed by rain”, especially when it was paired with a prediction in a different part of the country that “Rain would be followed by showers.”  Or even by “drizzle”.  It all sounded like rain to me.

Technically, rain is the generic term of condensed water falling from the clouds, but in usual forecasting parlance, predictions of rain usually suggest it will go on for some time.   A shower, on the other hand, is apt to be a one-off, not settling in for a long stay.  It might be called a rain-storm if it is heavy enough.   Then there is drizzle which consists of  fine, mist-like droplets,  also sometimes called mizzle, making the weather “mizzly.”

An incomplete list of other rain-related terms includes cloudburst, hail, condensation, dew, fog, mist, precipitation, and sleet.  Hmmm:  maybe British forecasters could compete with the Inuit’s snow list after all.

In case one is wondering whether to wear a rain coat in Britain, the default answer is Yes.  Burberry rain coats are a famous British invention for a reason.

March 6, 2013

The high ground

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 9:10 pm

Britain doesn’t have Main Streets.  People in Britain know what a main street is – the street with the main shops in a town or city.  But they invariably call it “High Street.”  I don’t remember ever seeing a street actually named “Main Street.”

Although it’s where the banks and businesses are generally located, High Streets are not named after the High and Mighty.  The names were generated almost two thousand years ago by the road system built by the Romans.  They chose the highest possible location for the road in order to avoid periodic flooding.  So the main road running through towns here are literally the highest streets.

It’s quite interesting to try to guess on entering a town for the first time which is the High Street.  I don’t get it wrong very often.

It’s not because I’m so smart.

It was the Romans who were the smart ones.

February 13, 2013

Chin up, it’s going to get worse

A British journalist yesterday was reporting on the economy.

The bad news, he said, is that this year is going to be worse than last year.

But the good news is that this year is going to be better than next year.

And he probably thinks he’s an optimist, as well.


January 23, 2013

A Right Royal Story

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:43 pm

Mike Tindall is the rugby (rough translation for Americans:  football)-playing husband of Princess Zara Phillips, the Queen’s granddaughter and Silver medal Olympics winner.

Four years ago, some friends were going to a horse auction, and at the last minute invited Mike and a friend to come along to fill in a last-minute vacancy.   To give the night-out a bit of pepper, Mike and his friend bid on a horse about which they knew absolutely nothing.  In fact, he had his back turned to the sales ring.  But he bid £10,000 just for the fun of it.  It was just about the last horse to be auctioned for the night, and the lowest price a horse had gone for that night was £28,000, so Mike felt he was on safe ground.

In other words, he did not have the slightest expectation of actually gaining ownership of the horse whose name was the possibly somewhat unpromising “Monbeg Dude.”  So even though he’d never seen the Dude and hadn’t even read the brochure about him, he felt unruffled by upping his bid to £12,000 (about $20,000).

That was the winning bid.  To his astonishment, and then in panic, he realized he was now the owner of a horse who had won exactly one race in his entire life.  He’d even managed to break his pelvis during his first race.

Zara admitted that when she found out what he’d done, she called her husband was an absolute idiot.

Over the last: Paul Carberry and Monbeg Dude (left) still had ground to make up onTeaforthree and Tony McCoy

Last week Monbeg Dude won the Welsh Grand National.  Zara is now helping to improve his technique, and he’s booked for the Grand National trial in February and maybe the Cheltenham Gold Cup after that.

Estimates are that Monbeg Dude is now worth about £200,000.  Not that they are interested in selling him, says Tindall.

But, he adds, “You couldn’t make it up, could you?”



January 8, 2013

Not so simple after all

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 9:49 pm

The UK government recently announced that it was bringing forth legislation to make the first-born of the reigning monarch the next in line to become monarch whether the child is a boy or girl.  There is some rush to get the legislation passed because Kate is pregnant and so the child would be in line to take the throne after Prince William.

The announcement didn’t cause much stir because mostly people approve.  Queen Elizabeth II has shown that a woman can do an admirable job as monarch.

There are also plans to permit a monarch to be married to a Roman Catholic, something which has been forbidden since the time of Queen Elizabeth I.  Prince Charles, however, has pointed out that the government did not consult the royal family about this legislation, and has overlooked some potentially important issues.

What would happen, for instance, if the reigning monarch married a Catholic who insisted, according to the law of the Roman Catholic church, that their children be raised as Catholics.   The likelihood is that within a generation a Catholic would be sitting on the throne of England.

That may not seem any more traumatic than the election of the Catholic John F Kennedy felt to many Americans.  But the American president is not the official head of the Anglican Church.  The king or queen of England is.

The government has said that if such an event took place, they would discuss it with the Vatican.

I’m afraid I agree with Prince Charles that this is an incredibly naive position to take, which is simply asking for trouble.  The feeling runs deep among many Britons that they are not Roman Catholics and do not want to be under the authority of Rome .

December 3, 2012

And a babe – or two

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 9:32 pm

It’s just been announced that Prince William and his wife Princess Kate are expecting a baby, probably around June.  She hasn’t been pregnant for as long as 12 weeks yet, so they were not planning on making an announcement quite yet.  The rumours began several months ago, though, when Kate declined a glass of champagne and sipped water instead.

But the news is out because Kate was taken to the hospital this afternoon with a type of very acute morning sickness that sometimes indicates twins.   Even the Queen wasn’t told Kate was pregnant until this morning.

The media is going mad.

The news has displaced the big uproar about controlling the press which began when the Murdoch paper was discovered to be hacking into phones like they were running a telephone exchange.  Everybody from royalty to the family of murder victims.

It’s nice to have something to celebrate.

November 5, 2012

Not the standard English

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 5:08 pm

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla are currently in Papua New Guinea representing the Queen during her Jubilee celebration year.  The local language is “Pidgin’ – or  Pidgeon.   It’s a mix of mostly English with a few German words left over from the days when it was a German colony.

Charles Pidgin name is “the Queen’s Pikininni.”  The Queen herself is referred to as “Mrs. Queen,” and Charles introduced Camilla today as “Mrs. Belowme.”




Meanwhile, here on home soil, the English are celebrating Guy Fawkes night with fireworks.  It’s in remembrance of  the failure of the Gunpowder Plot 500 years ago when English Catholics tried to blow up Parliament.

They would no doubt call it Terrorism these days.  Unless it referred to action by the Americans, in which case they would refer to it as Shock and Awe.



October 17, 2012

You saw a what-a?!

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:39 pm

I live just outside Cambridge, England.  This fact may seem fairly irrelevant, but I feel the reader should know.  Because last night, on a road about a five-minute drive from here, a taxi driving several young women home in the small hours of the night spotted a wallaby crossing the road in front of the car.  Yes, a wallaby.  As in Australian kangaroo.

Wallaby, Barton, CambridgeshireOne of the women was so fascinated she took a picture of it with her cell phone.

Good thing, because the taxi stopped to look for the animal, and another cab stopped to ask if they were in trouble.  No, they replied, they were looking for a kangaroo.   A passenger in the passing taxi was suspicious and phoned the police.  The police were equally skeptical, suspecting something closer to monkey-business than a kangaroo hunt.  So the young woman produced the photo she’d just taken.

The police called for reinforcements and the vet from the local safari park, and an hour later they found the wallaby.

The question was where it had come from.  No one had reported a missing pet kangaroo, and no zoos had reported any escapes recently.

But sixty years ago, a kangaroo troop had escaped from a local zoo, and have been living in the wild – undetected in England – ever since.

The vets strongly advised that the recently captured kangaroo should be returned to the spot where he was found, that he certainly had a family, and knew how to survive.

So the RSPCA took the kangaroo back to where he was found and released him.

We’re checking our garden though, for nightly visitors.  Maybe it’s a wallaby, not a rabbit, that’s been nibbling at our winter vegetables.  Okay, so we’re sharing.

September 21, 2012

Sometimes English is a different language

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:45 pm

Weight Conversion CalculatorPeter and I were discussing the size of beef brisket this morning and trying to decide whether to buy the 1 or the 1.5 kilo roast. “The 1.5 kilo roast is about 8 pounds,” he said.
I looked at him in disbelief.  If you’ve lived in both the US and the UK as long as we have, you become bi-lingual in converting celsius to fahrenheit, centimetres to inches, kilometers to miles, liters to quarts, kilos to pounds.  Was this a rare and uncharacteristic manifestation of dementia?

“No,” I said. “1 1/2 kilos is just between 3 and 3 1/2 pounds.”

Peter didn’t blink.  “I was talking about pounds sterling,” he said.

Most of the time we are both bi-lingual in dollars/pounds too.


September 14, 2012

Tomb of a different king

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:31 pm

Richard III  Richard III was the king of England for two years between 1483 and 1485 when he was killed in the battle that decisively ended the Wars of the Roses, which at that point had gone on for 30 years.

Richard had a spinal deformity, which earned him the title “Hunchback” by Henry Tudor, the man who defeated him and became Henry VII.  He was accused of murdering the two sons of his brother who had been king Edward IV, and whose sons had prior claim to the throne until Edward’s marriage was declared invalid and the two princes deemed bastards, and therefore ineligible to ascend to the throne.

Richard is the Richard III of Shakespeare’s play by that name, which assumes that all the accusations about him are true.  Modern scholars aren’t so sure, and have pointed out that during his short reign Richard actually accomplished some valuable things.

Which may be why archaeologists have been looking for his tomb.  Richard III was not only the last English king to die in battle;  he was the last English king before this century.  Henry VII was Welsh, future kings were Scottish, and then German.

So how did Richard III get lost?  As a loser, his burial was low-key, in a Grey Friars Church in Leicester near where he was killed in battle.  That church is now destroyed, and in its place is a car park.  The archaeologists have been digging up the car park, and they think they have found Richard’s tomb.  They hope to be able to get DNA evidence to aid their claim, but they already know the man whose body they have found suffered from a spinal deformity like Richard’s and a severe injury to the head consonant with war.

The interesting thing is that people are now saying that if the body is firmly identified as belonging to Richard III that he should be buried in Westminster or in some other place suitable for royal burial —  not in  a car park.

It’s never too late to dig up the past and tell the story with a different ending.

June 5, 2012

The end of an era?

One may have thought that the Diamond Jubilee weekend ended with the concert outside Buckingham Palace last night but this is a grand celebration stretching over a double holiday in to today.  This morning was a ceremony of Thanksgiving at St. Paul’s cathedral followed by a great parade of horses and carriages back to the palace, a fly past, and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony in front of tens of thousands of well wishers.

It’s all very celebratory, and yet…

Last night we were watching the concert with Tom Jones belting out “Why, why, why Delilah?” joined by the vast crowd, including the Archbishop of Canterbury waving his Union Jack as he cried out with everyone else “Why, why why…?!”

At which point Peter said “they aren’t just saying congratulations.  And thank you.  They are saying farewell.  It’s an end of an era.”

And I knew what he meant as I sat there with a vague premonition of something similar.  First of all, the Queen’s husband, the Duke of  Edinburgh was unable to join her because Sunday evening he was taken to hospital where they are keeping him “under supervision” with a bladder infection for at least 3-4 days.  So the Queen is making all her subsequent public appearances without him.  She kept smiling and waving.  But I could not help but remember the stoic bravery that she and so many others showed during the bombings of World War II.  The Queen has been married for 65 years;  her husband is 91, and in April he was absent from all the Easter celebrations because he’d been rushed to hospital with a heart condition.  I cannot imagine what she must be feeling during these last two days.  I know if my husband were in hospital, I would be just want to cancel everything.  At best I’d be walking through celebrations like these like a zombie.  But the Queen keeps smiling and saving.  She is a very strong, committed woman.

And all of this against the backdrop of the euro crisis.  The European Union was first formed after WWII to make sure that the nations of Europe would never go to war with each other again.  But the monetary union is in grave danger.  The United States is aware of the danger.  Britain (which is part of the European Union but not part of the euro) is profoundly aware of the danger.  China is aware of the danger.  But it looks as if the European politicians are fiddling while Rome burns.  Germany, which has benefited hugely from the euro, is adamant that the countries in trouble must simply cut their budgets.

But it’s not going to work.  Yes, budgets must eventually be brought into line, but not yet.  Right now the economies of these countries are shrinking faster than they are cutting costs.  And people are going to the wall.  By which I mean, they are living without electricity, without basic, medical supplies often needed simply to stay alive, often without sufficient food.  And millions are unable to get jobs to replace the ones that have been cut.

I know I don’t know what is going to happen.  But I do know this is a seriously dangerous time for the world.  And especially for Europe.

Perhaps it really is the end of an era.

June 3, 2012

The Queen on the Thames

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 9:01 pm

The Queen participated in a flotilla on the Thames and then watched boats passing by in a salute in a freezing cold and slashing rain on the River Thames today.  She’s 86 and stood there smiling and waving for five hours.  How she did not catch pneumonia is more than I can explain.

I merely watched more television today than I usually watch in two weeks and I’m worn out.

A friend in Kenya was wondering why so many people there were celebrating the Diamond Jubilee since, within memory, they’d effectively fought a war of independence against the British.  I don’t know the answer.  I’m an American.  You’d be forgiven for thinking she was our queen too.

I did read a post by a fellow-blogger in Scotland, whose assessment comes close to mine, so I’m copying it below.

Post from

I watched a lot of the flotilla today for the Queen’s Jubilee. I did sleep for a lot of it as well, but I woke up in time to see everyone getting drenched.

20120603-093253 PM.jpg

The event itself was great, but the BBC coverage was uncharacteristically high-cringe. Very repetitive commentary: “and the rain certainly hasn’t dampened their spirits”; “and the Queen is still standing. She has not sat down.”

Twitter was more entertaining with a more realistic view such as:

(@Michael Dennis) “Every time I turn on to BBC1 Sophie Raworth talks about “amazing scenes” and we then cut to an oily fishing boat in the rain.”

So, the high points for me: Kate’s outfit – great choice in vibrant red. Beautiful. I also really liked the Gloriana flagship. It had nine banks of oars and looked the business. I want one. Especially if it came equipped with Olympic medal winners and ex-servicemen. But I haven’t got a river. Still, it’s my fortieth in 2013, so I’ll put it on my “maybe” list… And the choir giving it laldy in the pouring rain: “Rule Britannia!”

Low points – Sorry to say that the BBC were struggling for things to say. Also the reveling in rain. It would have been miserable. Why pretend?

Nice to see Anneka Rice again though. I’d have liked a slot on the art bridge – that was a great idea.

I think the Queen would have liked the flotilla . A good show – and mid afternoon which has got to be a plus. She can go home for a cup of tea and a peaceful evening before facing tomorrow.

But we could have used a Dimbleby for the commentary.

June 2, 2012

Another Jubilee story

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:01 pm

The House of Windsor from 1952

Today’s London Times tells the story about Queen Elizabeth and her mother, the Queen Mother, who was the Queen consort to her husband who ascended to the throne after his brother’s abdication in 1936 until King George died in 1952.  She was immensely popular, and is particularly famous for her response during World War II when it was suggested that for the safety of her family she should leave England and go to Canada with her children:  ‘The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.’

Sometime during her reign, her daughter, the present Queen Elizabeth II went with her mother to a theatre in London.  They were clearly having a spat about something, and as they entered the royal box in the theatre, her mother was heard to say “Who do you think you are?”

To which her daughter replied “The queen, Mummy.  The queen.”

The royal family right now are held in great affection.

It is, however, rainy and cold, a condition that is predicted to continue for the next four days.  Apparently that’s what it was like when Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952.  She insisted, nonetheless, on riding in an open carriage.

Rain, after all, is very British.

June 1, 2012

Memories from the royal bath

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:28 pm

This weekend is the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond (60th) Jubilee on the throne.  There are four days of celebration nationwide to which almost everyone seems to be contributing.  For his part, Prince Charles released hours of movies taken of him and Princess Anne when they were children.

My favourite story he tells is about his mother having to learn to wear the crown for the very long coronation ceremony.  It is very heavy, he says, and if you don’t get used to it, it will cause intense headache.

So one of his strongest childhood memories is of his mother bathing him wearing the crown because she was practicing keeping it on her head.

October 28, 2011

A new title from Down Under

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 7:48 pm

Queen Elizabeth II attends a state reception at government house in Perth, Australia on Thursday. The 16 States of Commonwealth Realms have agreed to alter the monarch rules. Photo: AP

The Queen is in Australia right now, and has just presided over an agreement that in the future, the oldest child of the reigning monarch will be the first in line for the throne.  In other words, will be king or queen.

And that’s what’s new.  From now on, if the eldest child of the monarch is a girl, she will be the next in line.  If she has a younger brother, he will not displace her, which has been the case for as long as there has been a King of England.

Another change which is perhaps just as momentous but is being reported as secondary, from now on the monarch can marry a Catholic.  Ever since Henry VIII broke with Rome, monarchs have been forbidden to marry a Catholic.  They could marry a Muslim or Jew, a Hindu, or Baptist, but not a Roman Catholic.  It’s a law that has increasingly felt outdated.

But there is another new title which has emerged from Australia.

At the moment, the Prime Minister of Australia is a woman.  Her partner is known as — get ready for this — The First Bloke.  He is also not the Prime Minister’s husband, which seems unremarkable to most Australians.

Tim Mathieson

He’s also a hairdresser when he’s not accompanying the Prime Minister.

August 18, 2011

Announcing a short delay before Armageddon

Filed under: The English,The Younger Generation — theotheri @ 1:58 pm

In the Economist this week, Bagehot discusses a book published in 1982 by Bradford University academic, Geoffrey Pearson.  The young of Britain, it appears, have been degenerating not for decades but for centuries.

Some of the causes cited for this total break down of social structures have a surprising déjà vu quality that have been repeated for 500 years.  Inevitably, poor parenting, going soft on the punishment of criminals (let’s restore Saturday night flogging in the public square and for their own good, whipping our children more often), alcohol and drugs and the malign influence of ethnic minorities are declared to be responsible for a loss of respect for authority and traditional values.  These causes are repeated with a kind of grating regularity.

So, rather to my surprise, is music.  Not Beethoven’s kind of music, or church hymns.  But all this modern stuff that exults immorality and permissiveness  If it’s not rap, it’s rock-n roll, in 1840 “foreign music that must have come out of the jungle,” and even as far back as the 1500’s, the Puritans blamed popular songs that treated criminals as heroes.  The amoral influence of music is purportedly amplified by modern technology including everything from silent films to computer games and social networks.

All of which is not to suggest that last week’s rioting in England was trivial.  It does not suggest that the underlying causes should not be investigated and that how to deal with them should not be taken seriously.

It is to suggest, though, that just because something is new, just because it is popular with young people, or just because culture is changing that we of the older generation have some special insights about what needs to be done.  We need to ask and listen too.  We need the research and the investigations.  We need to test the validity of our own assessments before too much self-righteousness blinds us both to the problems and to the immense potential of young people today.

I doubt the “old ways” were nearly as wonderful as many of the older generation remember them to have been.

In any case, going back to the old ways is patently impossible.  For which I am hugely grateful.

PS:  I’ve always promised myself that I would resist becoming one of the older generation who thinks that the past represents some kind of Golden Era which, sadly, has been destroyed by the wild youth of today.  Right now we’re getting a large dose of Lost Golden Era exposure.  Yesterday a neighbour who himself fought in the Second World War said he felt sorry for his grandchildren and their children for the world they are inheriting.  As we closed the door behind him, Peter said to me “every age has its challenges.” 

 Yes.  And there never was a Garden of Eden.  They weren’t even allowed to eat apples there.

August 13, 2011

Another point of view altogether

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:05 pm

With a saving sense of irony which rarely fails to lift my spirits, some parts of the English press are referring to the looting that took place earlier this week in English cities as “shopping with violence.”






Okay, I promise this is my last post on the subject of riots and looting.

For now anyway.



August 12, 2011

The best and the worst in England’s riots

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 7:45 pm

Benjamin Disraeli once said “It is much easier to be critical than correct.”

With this in mind, I am reluctant to pontificate too pompously on the causes of the rioting, burning, and looting in English cities.  Some admirable community participation along with a heavy police presence seems to have calmed things down.  (The police, by the way, consulted the police in Los Angeles to ask what they had learned as a result of the Rodney King riots in 1992.)  I think every one is hugely relieved that it has been unnecessary to use the brute force of water cannon or plastic bullets.

We are learning a little bit more about some of the rioters.  More than 1500 arrests have been made, and some courts have now been sitting for 24 hours a day for three days.  That the majority of looters were young unemployed men is not a surprise.  That the riots were not primarily racist is a relief.

What leaves me gobsmacked are the number of arrested who come from privileged backgrounds.  One young woman was arrested as she drove in her BMW through the area being looted  accompanied by two 18 year olds who were filling up the trunk of her car with TVs and other electronics.  Another young woman had been a representative of the Olympics, had been on the Welcoming Committee and met with politicians in high profile appearances.  She was caught on camera throwing stones at a police car saying something to the effect that she’d never had so much fun in her life.  An arrested model is the daughter of a millionnaire.  A twenty-two-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of murder for beating a 68-year-old man who has since died who was trying to put out a fire started by the looters threatening his house.

But there are other stories that are just the opposite.  A mother and father who were watching the news saw a clip of their adolescent offspring looting a shoe store.   They marched her off to the police station when she got home.  A Black woman stood on the street corner with her cane telling the looters to go home.  Probably most moving of all, the father of a young man who was killed by a hit and run driver yesterday went out onto the street today and addressed the young men gathering.  Go home, he urged them.  You are like my sons, you know what is good and what is bad in your heart.  I beg you, find the good.

These riots, unlike the Rodney King riots in LA, are not primarily motivated by racism, although there have been those who have tried to escalate racist tensions.   It is not clearly an issue of poverty although it may be an issue of materialism gone wild.  It is clearly not all, or even most, young people.  There are those who claim that it is a loss of religious values, and although clearly something has desperately gone wrong with some people’s values, the great majority of people who are no longer church goers or even believers are appalled by the looting and rioting and certainly do not condone it as acceptable behavior.

Obviously I don’t know.  But these riots have shaken the English people.

It is not something that will pass out of national consciousness any time soon.



August 10, 2011


Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 7:48 pm

A friend wrote me today asking if the rioters on the streets of England’s cities are real English people.  Her experience has been that the English are unfailingly polite compared to pushy Americans, and expressed astonishment that it could be real Englishmen who are looting and burning.  She asked if the rioters were mainly immigrants or ethnic minorities.

I’m viewing this through the lens of our media, which right there limits my view.  But even for those on the streets and close to the action, what is happening isn’t all that clear.  For one thing it keeps changing.

But yes, a great number of rioters are English.   I mean English English.  They are not second or third generation immigrant English either.  There is a disaffection deep in the psyche somewhere, some loss of faith in the larger society principally among young English males who feel they have no prospects, no role in the future.

Interestingly, many young and middle age men, in ethnic areas, rather than participating in the riots, armed themselves with whatever was available and kept their neighbourhoods safe.  But this is a dangerous tactic.  Three Asian young men protecting their street in Birmingham were killed last night by a hit and run driver.  Tonight the violence is threatening to become overtly ethnic.

Until now, the single most frequent explanation I have heard for the riots related to the lack of respect shown by police toward the young of all groups.  Young Asians and Blacks in particular are routinely searched by police, and they feel they are treated like second-class citizens.  There is undoubtedly some legitimacy to this, but the fact is that the police have effectively been breaking up organized crime in some English cities, and there is some evidence that this is revenge time.   Looting in Birmingham last night seemed to have been directed by middle-age men telling looters which stores to attack, and police are deliberately diverted by creating fires in one spot and looting another while the police are guarding the fire fighters.

Why aren’t the military being called in?  Today the police were given permission to use water cannon and plastic bullets if necessary, but they are reluctant to take even this course of action.  It is their view that ultimately use of this kind of force will alienate entire communities making their task impossible in the long run.  Presently a substantial part of most communities want the looters stopped and are doing what they can to restore order to the streets.  Order was restored to London last night after the usual number of police on the streets was tripled.  Manpower is tight, but that is the strategy they are adopting for other hots spots tonight.

Meanwhile, more than a thousand looters have been arrested and charged, and local courts are sitting all night.

The next question is whether, in this time of increasing unemployment and the growing gap between the poorest and the richest,  it could happen in the United States?

August 9, 2011

Not an Arab spring

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:12 pm

Woman jumping from her London apartment last night 

Police in towns and cities throughout Britain are bracing themselves for a 4th day/night running of looting, rioting, and fires.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, have both returned home early from their summer vacations, and Parliament has been recalled to meet tomorrow.

An initial peaceful demonstration in one of the less wealthy suburbs of London on Sunday to object to the very strange police shooting of a local man turned violent.  Looting and violence has now broken out in cities across England and in at least ten separate suburbs of London.  Apartment blocks, stores, and cars have been burned to the ground, people have been hurt, one man died of gun shot wounds this morning, and the main streets in town after town have been devastated.  It is quite terrifying.  

The police have thus far simply been outfaced.  Tonight they are bringing in almost three times as many officers as yesterday, local people have been trying to clean up the streets where possible, and shops in London are already closing for the day.

Some people are calling for the government to call in the military, but I think it is highly unlikely.  It will be interesting to watch, though, what will happen if the rioting continues again tonight.  On the one hand we are urging Syria and Libya and other Middle Eastern governments not to use military force against their own protesters.  It would hardly set an example to bring them into London. 

The police, however, may be given permission to use water cannon if the destruction continues.  The government is hoping, though, that the communities themselves will exert enough influence on the rioters to keep most of them at home and that this won’t be necessary.

In the meantime, I heard a journalist who lives in one of the areas where a furniture store was burned down last night and the main street ransacked say this is a continuation of the “Arab spring.”  He is arguing that young people are rising up and demanding respect and freedom which they have been denied.

There are, of course, long-term and deep social causes that have contributed to this conflagration of violence.   Personally, I suspect, among other factors, that we may be reaping the result of too many single-parent families.  Children need fathers and Britain has the highest percentage of single mothers in all of Europe.  The unemployment rate for the young is disproportionately high, and though society has done a lot to reduce sexist inequality for women, it has not done enough to help young men find roles in society which are meaningful.

But to say that this rioting is our version of the Arab Spring is ridiculous.  The protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square did not trash it.  They directed traffic and after Mubarak had fallen, they came in and cleaned up their trash.  They did not burn people out of their homes and loot stores.

No, this is no Arab spring.  This is common thuggery.

July 25, 2011

Proud to be a thief

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 8:49 pm

In response to my last two posts, a friend has sent me a word tree on display on Ellis Island.  (Ellis Island was America’s Great Immigrant Gateway from the late 19th century until 1924.)  The tree sprouts American words now in popular use which have been adopted from the original languages of immigrant Americans, including from Native Americans who were here centuries before Columbus “discovered” America.

The English have given us 50 of their cringe-making Americanisms.  Here are 50 of my own  favourites, which I use with pride.

  •  Native American words:  chipmonk,  podunk,  kayak, skunk,  toboggan,  papoose,  powwow,  hurricane
  • from Africa: bad mouth,  jukebox
  • from China:  gung ho
  • Dutch words:  caboodle,  yankee,  Santa Claus,  hunkey dorey,    filibuster,  sleigh,  spook,  caboose,  boss,  poppycock,  bowery
  • from France:  shanty,  picayune, prairie,  rapids,  sashay
  • German words:  hoodlum,  coffee klatsch,  flak,  spiel,  seminar,  bummer,  hex,  nix
  •  from the German-Dutch or -French:  poker,  kutlz,  nosh
  • Yiddish words:  schlock,  schmo,  mench,  schmaltz,  kibitz,  schnook
  • Italian:  mezzanine
  • Japan/China:  tycoon, honcho
  •  Mexican/Spanish:  boondocks,  savy
  • Tagalog:  voodoo

For Americanisms with an English origin, see Webster’s Unabridged International Dictionary.

English-isms with an American origin are fewer in number than those going in the other direction, but we’re proud to share!  And I’m sure you won’t mix us up again with Shakespeare.  (See Americanism #27 on the BBC list and comment # 1294.  )

July 23, 2011

Gallows humour

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 2:51 pm

When my mother was dying, a friend came for a visit bringing two bottles – one filled with Lourdes water, the other with Scotch whiskey.  “If one doesn’t work,” my mother said, “the other will.”  (For the uninitiated, Lourdes water is from a place in France where the mother of Jesus appeared to three peasant girls, and is now associated with miraculous cures.*)

  My mother did not think a miracle was likely, and she did not drink much.  So when she died there were several miracles still left in each bottle.  I don’t know what actually happened to the Lourdes water, but I can make a pretty good guess about the Scotch.  

This story is my justification for gallows humour, which, in my mother’s case, I think is a rather marvellous example of her courage.  If she could make jokes about dying at 48 with ten children under the age of 20, one can’t argue that laughing is to dismiss the gravity of the issue.

Which is my justification for a further discussion of Americanisms even in the light of the current state of the world.  This morning I turned on the news to see that at least 84 young people were dead after being shot by a 32-year-old Norwegian dressed as a policeman.  He went to an island where they were gathered after planting a bomb that devastated the center of Oslo.  The gunman now in custody does not seem to be an Islamist but is native Norwegian with a far-right Christian orientation.

If that weren’t enough, the story following this is that the talks collapsed last night between Republicans and Democrats to find a compromise to prevent the U.S. from defaulting come August 1st.  If they don’t reach some agreement, my own fear is that serious suffering will hit far more than 84 innocent families.  Tens of thousands of people could be affected.  That elected government representatives should be behaving with this kind of cavalier attitude is despicable.

So back to Americanisms.  A few people have shared their own pet cringe-making phrases.  Like “as of yet…”

As I was reading the expanded list, I began to change my assessment of Americanisms.  I know they sometimes come from carelessness or a failure to reflect on what we are actually saying.  But often they are quite creative.  And why shouldn’t we be creative with words?  They are no more static than poetry or art or architecture.

One of the reasons why I think Americans are so apparently inventive is that the population has originated from so many different countries.  So English (for English readers, excuse me for calling it that) for so many people was learned as a second language.  Many of our phrases, therefore, are a result of applying the rules of  our first language to English, or are a mistaken application of English rules.

I noticed that one person asked where “gotten” came from.  It was a term my mother used.  Okay, “gotten” wasn’t originally a correct past participle, but doesn’t it sound right?  Get, Got, Gotten?  Is this any stranger than the child who says it’s “winding and raining”?  Or thinks the plural of mouse is “mouses”?

Other Americanisms are direct translations from the original language.  The use of the double negative, for instance, has come to be associated with a lack of education.  But it began as a literal translation from languages that do appropriately use double negatives.

I’m sure “enough already” must have come from the original Yiddish, and I do know that “what for?” is a literal translation of the Spanish “why?”  Unfortunately, I cannot not, as of yet, provide any reasonable defense of “You know, I mean.”

Hmmm, I’m not sure this discussion actually qualifies as gallows humour.

I hope life doesn’t decide any time soon that I need some real-life practice.

* Whoops!  Really Important Correction:  Lourdes isn’t where the Blessed Virgin appeared to three peasant girls.  That’s Fatima.  The Lourdes appearance was to Bernadette.  Given that Bernadette was my name as a nun for 9 years, you would think I wouldn’t have gotten (sic) that mixed up.  

May 19, 2011

Why not sooner?

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:17 pm

In a comment following yesterday’s post, Chris asked why the Queen’s visit to Ireland couldn’t have taken place ten years ago.

The technical answer is that the Queen is not a political figure but a representative of the people.  In that sense, she does not make policy or broker deals, but confirms them.  In the visit to Ireland, she was speaking for the people of England to say that the hostilities of the last century no longer are the way Britain related to the Irish people.

So why couldn’t she have said it ten years ago?  Because the English and the Irish were still killing each other.  Each side inflicted massive and deadly wounds both in Northern Ireland, in England, and on the high seas.  Because peace talks were still starting and stalling and starting again.   Politicians were visiting each other in frustrating and agonizing negotiations that have taken decades to achieve.

Even now, the people in Ireland were not allowed to crowd into the streets to greet the Queen for fear that someone would explode a bomb.  Sinn Fein representatives Martin McGinnis and Gerry Adams refused to attend any ceremonies on the grounds that it is still “too early.”

All of this might be easier to understand if one reflects on how very personal so many of the hostilities were, how brutally they ripped apart families on both sides.  It takes time to heal wounds like this.  How often when two people have a fight and one person says they are sorry does the other one continue to attack, elaborating the accusations and pain?  It takes time and a greatness of spirit to say “I’m sorry.”  And often it takes even greater generosity and selflessness to accept an apology from someone who has caused real harm.

I think had the Queen gone to Ireland ten years ago, there would have been an uproar.  Neither side was really ready yet for peace.  Too many on both sides wanted revenge, not peace.

Now the majority of people want peace and cooperation.

And that’s why the Queen could go to Ireland now.  And not ten years ago.

May 18, 2011

The Queen wore green

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 7:34 pm

Photo appearing with article in The Economist.

As an American bystander living in England for close to 15 years,  I began feeling mostly indifferent to the monarchy here but with the suspicion that the only way to break down the class system would be to give up royalty.

But over the years, I have developed a growing admiration for the royal family and the Queen in particular – for her commitment to duty, to the country, and for the good only she can accomplish for her people.

Her visit to Ireland is an outstanding case in point.  She is 85 years old, and making the first visit by a UK monarch to Ireland since Ireland became an independent country in 1921.  She went despite her age, despite the fact that her cousin, Lord Mountbatten, was killed on his boat by an IRA bomb in 1979. and despite the very real security threats today.  Several explosive devices have been found, security is tighter than anything I have ever seen.  Irish republicans who don’t want her there have been vocal.

The Queen  got off the plane in Dublin wearing green.  It is a symbolic gesture that was clear.  She laid a wreath to honour Irish soldiers who died alongside British soldiers during WWI but far more importantly she visited the graves of dissidents who died fighting the English for Irish independence and today visited Croke Park where the first Bloody Sunday occurred and 14 people were killed by British forces during a Gaelic football match 91 years ago.

Does any of this matter?  Is it of any significance?

Yes, it’s huge.  It represents the results of the struggles and unrelenting efforts that have been taking place for more than 30 years to bring about a reconciliation between the two countries.   Sometimes it felt as if it was a wound impossible to heal.

Is there more to do?  yes, of course.  But the bond between these two countries and the support for the peace process among politicians from all sides of the divide, and from Protestants and Catholics alike is deep.

The only place where something similar has taken place in modern times that I can think of is in South Africa.

I don’t know what it looks like to others, but to me this is one of those moments when the struggles to find another way besides killing each other have finally brought real and I suspect lasting progress.

The news doesn’t usually feel so heart-warming.

May 5, 2011

The fantastic and fantastical

While we were watching the RW procession from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace last Friday, there was a marvellous shot of Prince Harry in an open carriage laughing with several of the very young bridesmaids travelling with him.  It was a delightful glimpse of Diana’s son.

Since then, we’ve discovered what was happening.  The three-year-old (the one who later was standing on the balcony covering her ears) was terrified of the noise made by the cheering crowds as they rode by.  Harry, knowing that he would be travelling with them and foreseeing the possibility that the young ones might need some special kind of help to get through the royal ordeal, had bought a rubber worm in his pocket.  It was less than a two dollar purchase, but the little one was entranced.  And comforted.

Welcome distraction: Bridesmaid Eliza Lopes was entertained at the Royal Wedding with a £1 wiggly worm

A close look at the official royal photograph taken after they’d reached the palace shows that she was still holding onto her bright pink wiggly worm.

On the less fantastic but hopefully fantastical level, a former Pakistani diplomat currently in Washington, said that he had no doubt that the killing of Bin Laden has unquestionably been a trade-off between the U.S. and some elements of the Pakistani authorities.  Why else, he asked, wasn’t he caught before?  And why, suddenly, was protection withdrawn at just this point?  No, he said, Pakistan has known for years that they held this bargaining chip.  They have just now decided that the U.S. had something to offer that made it worth playing.

I don’t know if it’s true.  I would like to hope it isn’t.  But I certainly don’t find it unbelievable.

May 3, 2011

RW addendums

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:05 pm

These tid bits will be out of date in less than 24 hours, but just in case anyone has not had more than they can already take about the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton last Friday, here are a few details that didn’t make the front page.

 Poised? The tall 'ninja nun' in black Reebok Classics trainers sits just inches from Prince William, perhaps ready to spring into action, as they sing hymns at Westminster Abbey yesterdayThe very tall nun sitting in the sanctuary close to William and Kate, and wearing Reebok trainers might have been a secret agent.  It is unclear why there were nuns there at all.  Unless she was on a protective mission.  The rumour was denied by a man saying he was the nun’s father.

As Kate was walking down the aisle toward the altar on the arm of her father, Prince Harry turned around to see her, and then whispered to William “Wait til you see what’s coming down the aisle.”  When she reached William’s side, he turned to her and said “You look beautiful.”

At the post-wedding toasts, Kate’s father said he began to suspect William was serious about his daughter when he started parking his helicopter on his driveway.

A BBC correspondent was reprimanded and made to apologize for tweeting that “after 10 years they can finally have sex.”

Okay, back to the serious angst of life.  I heard a conspiracy story about Bin Laden tonight that blew my mind.  I’ll save it for tomorrow’s post if it still feels like it’s worth passing on.

April 29, 2011

Don’t call me Kate

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:02 pm

Okay, we watched it.  For two hours anyway, from when the guests began arriving at Westminster Abbey — with informed commentary by the BBC about just who designed every dress, hat, pair of shoes, and purse — to the appearance on the palace balcony.  William and Kate (or “Catherine,” as she says she prefers to be called) appeared relaxed and in contact with each other.

For the last week or so, British commentators have been commenting in amazement at the apparently complete lack of cynicism not only of the foreign tourists but from the hardened and seasoned members of the foreign press.  Today the same people were commenting with even greater amazement at the absence of any cynicism by the tens of thousands of British people lining the streets and waiting patiently for a glimpse of the royal party.  Even here in our little village, the church bells peeled all morning from the ancient bell tower.

As for the lack of cynicism, I don’t think either the British or the Americans are seriously naive enough to think that this marriage, or any other marriage, unfolds in fairy-tale fashion.  But it’s a chance to celebrate being British, and to wish them well.   It doesn’t seem any different to me than the music and dancing and foolishness on the streets of America when we are celebrating a patriotic moment – America’s 200th anniversary in 1976, the election of John Kennedy or of Barak Obama, for instance.

During the fifteen years I have been living here, I have changed from thinking that the class system would never be finally broken until the British got rid of their kings and queens to appreciating the value of the monarchy.  Especially this particular monarchy.   I have seen a great political value in having a head of state who is separate from the elected president or prime minister.  And I’ve come to admire the queen and her ability, even at the age of 85, to listen to the changing needs and desires of the people.  I strongly suspect that, of all the royal family, she and her 90-year-old husband, Prince Phillip, are the most relaxed about the fact that Kate and Will have been living together for the last three years.

My favourite story of the day, however, is not about pomp and circumstance.  It is about the mother tweeting that when she called her three-year old daughter, Kate, as usual, to come to breakfast, she responded that her mother, from now on, should call her “Catherine.”

Oh, almost forgot to say that William and Kate are now, among other things, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  I thought I ought to mention it. They’ve just announced another special bell-ringing gala before Evensong at Orwell church this Sunday.

April 21, 2011

Chillaxing in the Throne Room

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 7:41 pm

I learned today that the Throne Room in Buckingham Palace is being transformed into a disco for the night of the royal wedding next Friday.

A friend of Prince William and Prince Harry runs a number of discos, and Prince William’s grandmother — that is the Queen — agreed to give over the Throne Room for a night of chillaxing.  In the meantime, while the Throne Room is being prepared for the gala celebrations, ceremonies that are traditionally performed there, like the granting of knighthoods and other royal honours, have been transferred elsewhere.

If you are young enough, you might already know that chillaxing refers to the ultimate combination of chilling out and relaxing.  I don’t know if the Queen engages in chillaxing.  She is celebrating her 85th birthday today.

I do think she’s a pretty cool queen.

April 3, 2011

Mother’s Day and Mother Church

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

Today is Mother’s day over here, which is how I discovered that Mother’s day is another one of the pagan celebrations – like Christmas and Easter and Halloween – that the Church took over from the peoples it converted and made its own.

The pagan celebrations  were originally a spring ritual and centered around not our individual mothers, but around Mother Nature.  According to the version adapted for Christianity, this is the day in mid-Lent to return to the Mother Church.  It’s a custom which has not altogether died out here in Britain, and people often still return to the church where their families originally worshipped.

As with Christmas and Easter, I find myself feeling that the original pagan celebrations are somehow closer to the Earth and life as I know it.

I’m not against Catholicism adopting the beliefs and rituals of other beliefs.  But I think it would a be a richer church if it acknowledged that these insights and celebrations did not originate with them.

No single religion, no single philosophy or teaching, has an exclusive a monopoly on celebrating our place in the universe.

April 1, 2011

Happy April Fools Day 2011

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:18 pm

May I invite you to join me in celebrating April Fools Day this year with a short review of selected news stories of the day:

A current government minister unearthed a direction from the European Union in Brussels saying that on all government buildings, the European Union flag must fly alongside the flag of the country.  So said government minister has hoisted the pirates’ flag with a skull and cross-bones to accompany the Union Jack.  But the letter of the law suggests that if said minister did not seek and obtain permission to fly the pirates’ flag, he should be considered an authentic pirate.  Some think this appropriate.

Prince William is currently showing his grandmother around his helicopter.  The proud grandmother and her husband are being shown what all the buttons and levers are for, while William is advising the Queen to keep a hold of her hat because it’s very windy.

On May 14,  a mass march is scheduled to be held in London for more government spending cuts.  There will be bands and people are urged to come dressed in any outfit of their choosing and march to demand that the national debt be lowered faster than the government has currently programmed.

Ed Milliband is the leader of the Labour Party which was voted out of office last year.  He is in his mid-forties with several children, and he and his partner have decided to get married on May 27.  The Labour central office sent out an email to all local labour constituency offices recommending that they hold street parties throughout the country to celebrate this wedding.  A supermarket chain is in talks with Labour to produce “Mini Milli Trifles” made with bananas.

It’s much more important, says Labor’s head office, than the wedding being held in London on the 29th of April.

I haven’t made these stories up.   But I do wish you a happy April Fools Day.

March 29, 2011

Heaven is a crowded place

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:42 pm

We had a calendar on our kitchen wall when I was growing up that listed the saint’s feast day for every day of the year.  I thought I knew all the official saints whom popes have declared had been welcomed into heaven.

That was before we moved to Spain and then to England.  There are thousands of names I had never heard of whose names grace streets, churches, squares, and cul-d-sacs.  I thought I’d learned not to be surprised.

But yesterday I was introduced to St. Tiggywinkles.  You think I’m making this up.  I’m not.

There is a hospital for animals, especially badgers and hedgehogs,  in Buckinghamshire under the patronage of St. Tiggywinkles.  The name strains credibility, I know.  But maybe there really was a St. Tiggywinkles, perhaps a follower of St. Francis, who loved animals?

This is England, after all.

March 18, 2011

In defense of the understatement

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:27 pm

It may be the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lays the eggs.

Margaret Thatcher

March 13, 2011

Wildly close

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:39 pm

Rugby over here on this side of the pond is roughly equivalent to what football is in America.  Although just to confuse the issue, football over here refers to what over there is called soccer.

Anyway, that is a mere introductory aside.  Peter is watching a big rugby match between England and Scotland and just called me in to see the interference.  An urban fox is running around the pitch and they are trying to catch it.

For about ten minutes, I contemplated what it would be like to have the fox running interference for the game, perhaps along side a referee.  Unfortunately for my fantasy but probably fortunately for the fox and referee, the fox was caught and the game is proceeding.

With the sport fundamentally over from my point of view, I retired to my computer while England and Scotland fight it out for world dominance.

When I checked my email, I found this:  (Don’t worry, by the way, that it says it’s in Spanish.  Music doesn’t come in language the same way words do.)

Sakes alive!  As my grandmother used to say.

March 5, 2011

Our little local war zone

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 8:43 pm

We were wakened this morning with a telephone call telling us that our village store – about a block away – had burned down.  Or rather, apparently had been burned down at about six am this morning.  Whether they did it or not, the police have several local youth in custody who have been causing trouble in the village for several weeks.

Until this morning, we assumed they were engaged in irresponsible, and potentially dangerous, pranks.  But they seemed like pranks  – like letting horses out of their pasture to roam the street or smashing hens’ eggs stolen from their nests.  Actually, most people are being officially quite careful about what happened or who did it, and I hope for their sakes as much as for the village that the boys didn’t start the fire deliberately.  Inevitably, some people are sure who did it and are already demanding that they be given prison sentences.

For my part, I cannot imagine the desperate emptiness of young lives that would drive them to be out on the street at six a.m. and burning down the local store.  Why?  It can’t have been for money or a drug fix.  Was it a desperate need for attention?  for revenge?  because the store is owned by an Asian?

The store, including a post office and part of a near-by house are completely burnt out.  A look through the open door shows nothing but blackened rubble and smashed shelves.  It is – well, was – a wonderful amenity in the village on which many older people depend for their groceries.

This afternoon, emails were sent out to the whole village offering rides to near-by stores and coordinating trips to the bank for those who depended on the post office to receive their pensions each week.

The email ended with the assurance that if any community can overcome a setback like this, “we can!”

And you know, I think we will.

February 25, 2011

Fox news reaches the heights

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:06 pm

If your patience with Fox News is as limited as mine, here is a little light relief.


A fox has been discovered living on top of London’s highest skyscraper.  It’s unlikely he got there by flying so he seems to have reached the top floor of 72 storey building up by climbing the stairs and negotiating a ladder.  Once there he survived by scavenging food left behind by workers.

When the fox was returned to earth, he was given a good meal by his rescuers and released into Bermondsey.

Bermondsey, for those not familiar with London neighbourhoods is highly populated.  Urban foxes live there with everybody else.

January 22, 2011

Joy of sex revisited

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 2:38 pm

I guess I am more of an unreconstructed American than I thought.  Over here, the folk wisdom is that British television is far more restrained in relation to depicting violence while American television won’t air sexual scenes that are taken for granted over here.

Scenes of violence make me extremely uncomfortable while sex doesn’t, so I’ve often thought I am more suited to the British psyche.

Last week, however, I was a little taken aback by the description of a tv series called The Joy of Teen Sex:

The UK has the highest rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies in Europe, and last year 100,000 teenagers contracted a sexually transmitted infection.  So Channel 4 has decided, with infinite good sense, that something needs to be done.  It offers a one-stop shop offering sexual advice to all teenagers, straight or gay.  There is nothing po-faced or euphemistic going on here.  The frankness of the programme is awe-inspiring, based on the premise that sex should be safe and enjoyable.  As well as the standard advice about contraception and condoms, it provides a detailed guide to anal sex, a discussion of the pros and cons of glamour modelling and helpful advice on how lesbian lovers can maximise their pleasure.  Good old Channel 4.

Now, I totally approve of programmes like this.  I wish I could imagine American television audiences being comfortable with it.  But I do have to admit I was just a little bit surprised that a main television channel even here in England has the confidence to air it.

No, I didn’t watch the programme.  I figured it was too late to learn whatever I don’t already know.  But I certainly would have benefited in my youth from a more open, less embarrassed, introduction to the Joy of Sex.

January 11, 2011


Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 11:13 am

Today is an unusual date:  January 11, 2011.  Or to put it another way, 1.11.11.

Unless, like me, you live in England rather than America.  In which case it’s 11.1.11.

The next time we will have a day like this is 11.1.11.

Unless, of course, you live in England.  In which case it will be on 1.11.11.

However you write it, I hope it’s a ! day.

January 4, 2011

Carpentry 101

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 9:50 pm

I got the snow shovel today.  More precisely, the snow shovel I ordered on the internet last week arrived today.

It cost $32.  Well, $31.75 to be precise.  Keep this in mind, because I am going to describe it.  At the end of this post there will be a quiz in which the reader will have an opportunity to decide whether it was a good investment.

First of all, as advertised the shovel does have a blade of 20″.  It does have a wooden handle attached quite similar to all other shovel handles with which I am familiar.

The “blade” is screwed onto the handle with two screws.  There is no supporting bracket but the manufacturer says it is “very strong,” and can lift heavy loads of snow.  Personally, I fear the blade may not stay attached to the handle if it is submitted to the pressure applied by the weight of too much wet snow.  But  since there are no sides to the shovel, the excess may fall off.

But the striking feature of the “blade” is that it consists solely of a piece of flat wood painted bright red.  It was supposed to be better than plastic because it doesn’t freeze and break.

Apart from the fact that I think I could have constructed it in less than 30 minutes from stray pieces of wood lying around in the workshop, it’s brilliant.

I think, in fact, it should be used as an introductory lesson on day one for a course in carpentry for 10-year-olds whose confidence needs to be built up.  I think they could go home from class after day one with a money-making project in their hands.

Just think, $32 for a hand-made snow shovel.

I must not give the impression that it is impossible to buy plastic or metal snow shovels here in England.  They are available.  It was just that the advertising blurb convinced me that, compared to a manually operated one made of metal or plastic, this one was the best on the market.  Admittedly, I have not yet tried it out with proper snow.  The weather forecaster thinks I might get a chance this weekend.

What’s your betting on whether it was worth it?

January 1, 2011

“Sir”, I believe?

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:49 pm

I wouldn’t call it a full-fledged  culture shock exactly, but we were at least rather surprised to open the paper today to discover that the son of the couple living next door has been made a Knight.

Every New Year there is what is called “the Queen’s Honours List” in which outstanding achievement or services are awarded honours.   Awards are given for activities in almost any field – sports, entertainment, business, science, or charity across the United Kingdom.

The honours are of all sorts and levels, the names or initials of which I mostly recognize these days but have no idea of their hierarchy.  I do know there are several levels of Knightly honours, and that a Knighthood is itself pretty significant.

Instead of being addressed as “Mr.”, knights are addressed as “Sir…” and their wives as “Lady…”  There is even a protocol which determines whether you follow the Sir and Lady with the first or last name or both.  I’ll learn the exact rules should I ever foresee the unlikely need.

In the meantime, our neighbour’s son might not notice much difference.  He already holds a high rank in the UK air force, so I imagine he’s been addressed as “sir” for quite a long time already.

It’s interesting.  But not like America.  It’s not that we Americans don’t have a hierarchy.   We just display our status in slightly different ways.

December 20, 2010

Omg, this might BE global warming

Here in Britain we are facing what is literally breaking records for cold.  Not just the last ten years, or “since the 1962 winter,” but quite possibly the lowest temperatures ever recorded in modern Britain.  Thankfully they do not extend to the ice age 15,000 years ago.  They don’t even extend to the 17th century mini-ice age when people crossed the River Thames in London on foot and in New York walked from Manhattan to Staten Island.

Yet modern records are bad enough.  During the winter of 1962 (which those who lived here then remember and shutter), it did not get over 5 degrees any where in Britain before mid-March.

This morning a meteorologist reminded me of something I’ve known for years but have tried to forget.  Instead of global warming making Britain a warmer, if wetter, place, it could shift the Gulf Stream south.  In which case our weather here in Britain will resemble that of Siberia or Alaska which are on the same latitude.

This winter the Gulf Stream has shifted south, and is highly unlikely to return here this year.  And it does feel like Siberia or Alaska right now.

Well, we will survive that.  But what if the Gulf Stream never returns?  I do not find the scientific evidence comforting.

As they say, one should be careful what one prays for.

December 19, 2010

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

Just as soon as the traffic is moving and the backlog of mail and Christmas packages have been delivered, I am going to buy a snow shovel.  

My only excuse for the fact that Peter and I spent 3 hours clearing our driveway of 5 inches of snow with a yard broom and garden shovel today is that the roof never leaks when it doesn’t rain.

But this time I’m going to get one.  I promise.  No, I’ll get two.  I probably will have to order it on line because local stores don’t stock them on a regular basis – it doesn’t snow often enough.

I thought when we moved here we’d get away with not having to buy a snow shovel, what with the promise of global warming and all.

It reminds me of when I said to my husband in about 1979 that I thought we could get through our professional lives without having to buy a computer.

That was at least a dozen computers ago.

December 18, 2010

Auld acquaintances

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 10:09 pm

On the wall in the kitchen where I  grew up, there was always a calendar with a little paragraph describing the saint whose feast was being celebrated that day.  I thought I knew every saint who ever lived.

Then we moved to Cambridge.  Here are a small selection of the saints whose names grace the churches and streets here:  Sts Ovins, Eligius, Botolph, Neots, Tibbs, Vigor, Wendreda, Pega, Guthlac, and Ethelwolds.

I have never heard of a single one of them.  I looked some of them up in Wikipedia recently, but even Wikipedia has never heard of St. Tibbs, and seems to think that St. Ovins in a town in France.

Those  saints I did find were mostly 6th or 7th century religious – a bishop, a monk, a hermit.  Botolph is a patron of travellers and farmers, Eligius was French and is the patron of goldsmiths, coin collectors — and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.  St. Wendreda was the daughter of a king and still has a church in her name near here, and Botolph has a church that I pass almost every time I’m in Cambridge city centre.

I love living in a place where the names of places and buildings still being used are 12 or 13 centuries old.  You can even take a millennium off their ages and they were standing before the Constitution of the United States was written.

Unlike saints like David and Peter and Michael and Andrew, nobody is named Botolph or Wendreda anymore.

But people are still living on their streets and worshipping in their churches.

Puts things in a different perspective.

December 7, 2010


Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:22 pm

I learned yesterday that a Pogonip is a kind of ice fog that forms in mountain valleys in the western United States.

Since the only pogos I’d ever heard of before were sticks, and since no one can accuse me of being someone to pass up an opportunity to learn Something Really Unimportant, I googled “Pogo.”

It’s quite a word:

First of all, Pogonips are an Shoshone Indian word for ice fog.  So I think they might claim credit for using the word first.

Pogo is also the name of a place in Alabama, a species of gorilla, a type of food also known as a corn dog, a kind of grass, a dangerous oscillation found in rocket engines, and the acronym for the Project on Government Oversight.

I’m not sure how so much of it got onto our trees and lawn here in Cambridge, England but ice fog certainly describes what our weather is currently spreading around.

Although my husband unromantically simply refers to it as “a heavy frost.”

November 26, 2010

Religion and dogma: a happy ending

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:41 pm

In several posts last week, I reflected on the role ritual has played in my family, and about both those times when it has been strengthening and when it has been divisive.    Thanksgiving has always been in our family, as among many families across America, a time to get together, to celebrate, and enjoy each other.  We’ve had our traditional dinner at my grandmother’s house down the road, sang our songs around the piano, and on Fridays, weather permitting, went for a walk in Virginia Kendall Park.

But this idyllic scenario was threatened to be ripped apart when my brother Tom got a divorce and then remarried.  By then, my grandparents had died but Thanksgiving continued to be hosted by our unmarried Aunt Tillie who still lived on the homestead.

The problem was that Tillie believed the Catholic teaching that divorce was bad enough but might under extreme circumstances be justified.  Remarriage, however, was always  a grave sin – a mortal sin which condemned the unrepentant to eternal hell.  It is not mandated by Rome, as far as I know, but where I came from, many Catholics believed that divorced people who remarried must not only be refused communion, but should be expelled from the family and community.

Tillie was a very good, very earnest Catholic.  She was also a person whose love and open door to her nephews and nieces was a life saver after my mother died.  Especially for Tom who also was particularly close to her.  Tillie’s problem was that she thought on the one hand religious teaching demanded that she refuse to continue to relate to Tom, and on the other, she knew how devastating a decision like this would be for both of them and for his children.

On pain of fearing that she herself may be condemned to many long years in purgatory, if not an eternity in hell, she simply said she loved Tom too much.  She never closed her door to him.

Tillie did not have the analytical skills that some of us have.  I have discovered about myself, for instance, that I can rationalize almost any course of action, and I cannot imagine suffering any torment in relation to a decision like the one Tillie made.  All she had was her conviction that to hurt someone she loved and who depended on that love as much as Tom and his children did was wrong.  Period.  She couldn’t explain it.

She just knew that, whatever the price, she wasn’t going to do it.

I know several other instances of people who have made similar decisions.  And I admire them beyond words.  I fear that I myself do not possess this arrow that goes to the heart of the issue so directly, so honestly.  I twist and turn, looking at every aspect of the situation, even when we are talking about something as basic as simply continuing to love someone.

Most great religions teach that loving our fellow-man is fundamental.  Tillie was one of those people who, whatever the cost might be to her, just never lost sight of that.  She anguished, she kept going to church, I believe she lay on her deathbed fearing she was going to hell.

But she never stopped loving.

When I was growing up, I thought this kind of steadfast love was rather simple.  Not that Tillie was unintelligent – she was, actually, a gifted musician and teacher.   But, forgive me, I took it for granted.  I might even have felt that my own analytical approach was superior.

Addendum:  since this is a story about religious dogma and self-righteous rules, it might sound as if I am attacking religion.   But I think the problem is much more complex than religion.  It seems to me that in all groups one can find sanctimonious people who lose sight of the reason for rules and become obsessed with enforcing them to the letter for their own sakes.

A small example of this was featured in the news recently, when garbage men refused to pick up the bins of an elderly woman because the lid was slightly ajar.  “The rule,” they said, “is that bins must be securely closed.”  To their credit, the local authorities suggested that in the future the men use a little bit of common sense and compassion.

Maybe even a little brotherly concern.  Sounds like a sort of secularized version of the command to love ones neighbour, doesn’t it?

Tillie would certainly have understood.

Addendum II:  I have only in the last several years really understood that authentic religion is not about belief.  It’s not about dogma and doctrine.  It’s not about power or social control or converting others to the ‘true faith.’

It’s about loving.

If it gets in the way of loving, there’s something terribly wrong.

November 23, 2010

Religion and ritual: The advanced version

Several months ago, Pope Benedict invited disaffected Anglicans – bishops, priests, their families and their parishes – to move en toto to a special conclave in Roman Catholicism where the vicars would be permitted to continue to practice their ministry even though they were married, and parishioners would be assured that they would never be ministered to by a woman priest.

Nobody really knows for sure how many Anglicans are contemplating a transfer to Roman authority, but one parish in a village in Kent – or rather about one-half a parish – that wants to convert  is negotiating with the other half.  The departing half wants to share the use of the parish church with the non-transferring Anglicans.  They would like to use the facilities for Sunday Mass and other Roman Catholic services with their departing vicar-become-Catholic-priest either before the Anglicans hold their services with their remaining still-Anglican vicar.

The resident Anglicans are making accommodating sounds, but I wonder how an arrangement like this will evolve.  Here in the little village outside Cambridge where we live, the imposing Anglican Church as stood for almost a millennium.  Roman Catholics attend Mass said by a Catholic priest every month.  It has not, to my knowledge, been a source of friction.

But the Catholics using the church were not part of the original Anglican community with whom they disagreed so fundamentally that they could no longer attend the same services together.

In the case of the Kent and similar parishes, I foresee one of  two scenarios.  The first possibility is that the split will ultimately be divisive and long-term.  The alternative is that with time, and as the older generation dies, the problems the new Catholics have with Anglicanism will diminish and problems with Rome will increase.  Most especially, the English, in my opinion, are not temperamentally suited to accepting the infallibility of the pope.  It’s just that they happen to agree with him on the issue of women priests right now.

But whether it’s homosexuality or abortion, women priests or papal infallibility, I find myself wondering what has happened to the Christian command to love ones fellow-man?  Should a stray Anglican stray into their communion service, will the Catholics refuse to break bread with them?

How can these matters of doctrine be so important that these neighbours cannot even pray together anymore?

November 21, 2010

Stir Sunday

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:26 pm

In America most people probably think of today as the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  Or just possibly among a religious minority, as the last Sunday before Advent begins.  Here in England it is Stir Sunday.

No, being new to these Isles,  I never heard of it either.  But apparently it goes back a long way.

The Book of Common Prayer today petitions the Lord to “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

What I love most especially about it is that it is the communities across the land mark as the day to Stir-up the Christmas pudding.

Sounds like a good idea to me.

November 16, 2010

September 22, 2010

Finding the idiots

I am happy to report that even those English who are atheists, are beginning to object to the nature of Richard Dawkins’ bombastic attacks on believers.

There is a way in which his lack of respect for those who disagree with him make Dawkins even worse than the religious fundamentalists who believe they, too, have the right to impose their beliefs on everybody else.  But unlike many fundamentalists, Dawkins is extremely well-educated and as a professor at Oxford, recognized as an authority in his field.

Being convinced that one is right does not give one the right to treat everyone who disagrees with you like retrograde idiots and fools.

September 19, 2010

The English Way

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 9:10 pm

The pope left Britain today after an enthusiastic visit in which hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets to greet him.  Many of them participated in an all-night vigil in Hyde Park last night, Susan Boyle sang at the outdoor Mass in Scotland and yesterday the Anglicans put on a service in Westminister Cathedral with enough pomp and ceremony to rival any display in Rome.  There was even an Anglican woman priest who offered a key prayer and whose hand the pope later shook.

The consensus is that it was a “successful visit.”

But those who didn’t like the pope coming over here on the first state visit made by a Roman Catholic pope since the Reformation objected in the typical robust English way.  I personally think Richard Dawkins often does his position harm by his unbridled, unrestrained cleverness.  But I must admit several things:  it’s very English;  this kind of thing is by no means limited to attacks on Catholics;  and part of me can’t help but laugh when I read his latest diatribe:

The pope, he says, is a “leering old villain in a frock”,  but whose conservativism nonetheless is  perfectly suited to destroying his “evil” church from within.   He “should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.”

Sounds rather like a Republican rant against the Democrats in America these days to me.

September 14, 2010

Avoiding celebrity

Filed under: The English,Two Kuvasz Dogs: Suli and Dugo — theotheri @ 8:53 pm

The search for celebrity seems to have become a passion for a lot of people.  Somehow to have millions of people know about me and what I have done seems to be the ultimate fantasy.

It’s not particularly hard to see that celebrity almost always comes with a price.  It is not hard to find examples of the destruction celebrity has wrought on personal lives and relationships, especially when it is accompanied by money.

Today, though, I began to think about those who actively avoid public notice.  Two weeks ago, an 89-year-old woman living by herself in an apartment in Torquay, England died.   She did not seem to have any relatives, and the town council was planning on giving her a pauper’s funeral and burial in a local plot.

That was before they found the medals.  And the letters.  And the papers in her apartment.

During World War II, she’d been one of a small group of young women parachuted into France by Britain where they worked as spies.  She was fluent in French, having lived there with her parents for many years before the war and after being arrested by the Nazis twice convinced them she was an innocent French woman.  She was also sent to a concentration camp where she was tortured by something similar to water boarding, and from which she escaped.  She also escaped again from a forced labour camp,

But in Torquay she was simply known as an old lady whom people liked but didn’t know.  When mail arrived and someone noticed that it was addressed to her with the title MBE she laughed and said it was a mistake.  Ster Orde van het Britse Rijk.jpg

But it wasn’t.  She really was a member of the Order of the British Empire.  Donations are now coming from around the world for her funeral.  A military contingent will be present, and two different funeral directors in the town have offered their services free of charge.

Some cultures are more private than others (the English are more private than most Americans, for instance).  Some people avoid celebrity because it comes at a price they do not want to pay.  Some people simply find public attention acutely painful.     Some people have enough personal confidence not to want or need the distraction of public adulation.

And some people I think avoid the public spot light because of where they have been and what they have seen.

September 12, 2010

Introduction to modern courtesies

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

I have spent a lot of my adult life learning the subtleties of varying cultural courtesies.  “Bloody” might sound vaguely sophisticated in America, for instance, but it sounds simply vulgar where I live now.  It took me years before I got it straight that the answer to “would you like…?” is no if the person says “I’m not bothered,” but yes if they say “I don’t mind.”

I don’t use text messaging much.  I would, I suppose, if anybody with whom I communicate regularly spoke Text, but since the 11th century church tower in our village interferes with getting a regular cell phone signal, most of us still use one of the old-fashioned methods of communicating.

But I’ve learned a few of the niceties of the language.  Or thought I did.  “Lol” means “lots of love.”  I thought.  But it also can mean “lots of laughs.”

So best not use it when sending condolences.

It could be misunderstood.

August 24, 2010

Some things never change

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 7:59 pm

A report today in Britain revealed that the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, police in Northern Ireland, and the British government all participated in a cover up of the evidence that a Catholic priest had engineered an IRA bombing 40 years ago that killed 8 people, including both Catholics and Protestants, adults and children.  The priest was transferred to a parish in Donegal, and died 30 years ago.

The reason for the cover up was that the “Troubles” were at their height, and both the government and the church were concerned that an already highly volatile situation would explode into full-fledged civil war if a Roman Catholic priest were arrested as a terrorist.

The families of those who died were told today why no one was ever charged.  The priest wasn’t even interviewed by the police despite highly suggestive evidence.

What do you think the government,  the church and the police should have done?  My own feeling is that too often the RC church tries to solve its problems by covering them up.  And I dare say governments are not far off doing the same when they can get away with it.

I think the priest should have been arrested and charged if the evidence suggested his guilt.  (Instead, some of the records have disappeared.)

Also dealing with what appear to be unbridgeable and deadly religious divides, a friend just sent me a questionnaire about building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center:

How far from the wreckage of the World Trade Center is far enough away to build a mosque?

  • Allow space in the World Trade Center itself or within several blocks of the site:  Islam is basically a peaceful religion and the right to freedom of religion is a constitutional right.  Yes, it was a horrible mass murder by terrorists but terrorists come in many different religious guises (eg: the IRA) and we should not all be punished for the horrible murder committed by terrorists.
  • 10 blocks
  • 1 mile
  • 10 miles
  • not in NY City
  • not in NY State

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if New Yorkers could say “Islam has a constitutional right to build a mosque close to the World Trade Center and we will not betray our ideals by trying to stop it”?

And at the same time, if those wanting to build the mosque would say “yes, we know we have a constitutional right to build a mosque close to the World Trade Center, but it will cause a great deal of pain and offence if we did.  So we aren’t going to” ?

But I fear that if the mosque got built in proximity to the World Trade Center, it would be bombed.

August 20, 2010

A unique never

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:25 pm

Never in the course of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

70 years ago today, Churchill delivered one of his iconic war-time speeches that did so much keep up the morale of the British during World War II.

He was reporting to Parliament on the success of Royal Air Force planes in shooting down Hitler’s Luftwaffe that was trying to gain control of the air space over Britain prior to a land invasion.  Night after night, wave after wave of German bombers arrived, dropping their deadly cargo over London and other English cities and industrial sites important to the war effort.

Fighting them off was a dangerous and terrifying job for young RAF pilots who often had only minimal training.

But they downed enough German planes so that eventually Hitler backed off, turning his eyes east instead to begin the invasion of Russia.

It was not the beginning of the end.  But that summer might have been what Churchill called “the end of the beginning.

August 17, 2010


Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:34 pm

A comment on my post yesterday said the reader often had to look up the meaning of words I use.  My students used to tell me the same thing.  Mostly it is an absolute blind spot.  I cannot think of a single word I use that is not in common parlance, and would love to receive an example or two.

But I must admit that “chuffed” isn’t American.  It’s northern English that I learned from my Yorkshire in-laws.  It’s such an absolutely wonderful word, though, that I am afraid I do use it rather often.  The sedate definition probably would be “pleased,” but I don’t think that really communicates its full richness.

Chuffed is the little train that could, chuffed is the kid who’s just hit a home run, chuffed is the teenager who has just done what you told him wasn’t possible.  I suppose it’s am amalgamation of “huffed” and “puffed”.  It reminds me of the robin that has just found the worm.

Interestingly, here in the south of England, it also sometimes connotes just the opposite – surly or displeased or complaining loudly.

Rather like the difference between the American and English meanings of “to table.”  In England it means to put it up for discussion;  in America it means just the opposite.

July 25, 2010

Recreational Break

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 9:52 pm

I’ve just read that the BBC in partnership with Masterpiece Theatre in the US are making another series of Upstairs Downstairs.  In the 1970’s, it was one of those series that kept us home on Sunday nights.

The original series ended with the beginning of the First World War in 1914.  The second series begins in 1936.  It’s set in the same house, and Jean Marsh (the parlour maid called “Rose” in Series I) has now been promoted to housekeeper.

Series II is being filmed this fall, and scheduled to be shown some time next year.

I hope I like it.  Mostly these days we turn the television off before a program ends.  Well, that’s when we’ve bothered to turn it on.

In general, I’d rather read a book.  Either I’ve changed or television programming isn’t what it used to be.  I think I’m getting old.

June 8, 2010

The teddy bears’ picnic

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:35 pm

I am a city person, but sometimes living in the small village where we do just outside of Cambridge and an hour out of London has its rewards.  The village itself has been here for more than a thousand years, the present church on the hill for more than 800.

The church bells are rung by village bell ringers regularly and for special occasions – weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, memorials, and celebrations.  So it’s a matter of concern that the bell tower needs repair.

Sunday was Secret Gardens’ Day when everyone who wished opened their private garden to the village.  And some ingenious person developed a clever way of collecting funds for the bell tower repairs.  Children were invited to bring their teddy bears to the bell tower where they were fitted with a mini-parachute before being released to dive from atop the tower.  (This is the teddy bears, that is, not the children.)  A photograph was taken of the teddy bear’s flight, and all donations given to the Repair Fund.

We are also in the midst of the annual scarecrow competition.  Scarecrows are placed in front yards of houses throughout the village for more than a week.  I’m not acquainted with the criteria used for choosing the best, but an award is given at the end of the viewing period.

Some are certainly inventive.

May 11, 2010

Returning to ground

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 7:31 pm

The Queen has just accepted Gordon Brown’s resignation, and David Cameron is as I write on his way to the Palace where the Queen will ask him to form a new government.  He is expected to arrive at Number 10 Downing Street within minutes.

The Tories and Lib Dems have been in negotiations for the last six hours, but the details of any agreement for forming a government haven’t yet been released.

I must say there is a dignity in this final resolution.  The last five days it has looked as if principle had completely departed from politics here.  But in the end, it was Labour parliament members who said that attempting to build a coalition with the Lib Dems to muscle out the Conservatives who had won a majority.

It’s a huge relief to have this crisis resolved.  It has been historic and watching it has been mesmerizing.  But I’m looking forward to returning to a little predictable routine.

Not least, I can start writing posts about something else.

May 10, 2010

Quantum Fuzzies II

I really was going to hold forth on a serious aspect of quantum physics tonight, but once again the UK election is using up all my psychic energy.

All day today, news reporters have been going along expecting an announcement from the Conservatives and the Lib Dems this evening that they’d agreed on forming a government.

And then out of the dark, Gordon Brown (current prime minister and leader of the Labour party) announced that he was stepping down no later than September and that the Labour party was entering into serious negotiations with the Lib Dems toward forming a coalition government.

AHH is breaking loose across the board.  The negotiations with the Conservatives had been taking place with a very high public profile, and they had no idea that the Lib Dems had been carrying on parallel negotiations with Labour.  One commentator called them dishonourable, standing on the street, if you will, hawking for the highest bid for their parliamentary support.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next:

  • The market is an important unknown:  how long will it take before sterling plummets and interest rates on government borrowings sky-rocket?
  • If nobody is able to form a stable government –  one that can at least command a majority vote following the Queens speech which lays out the government’s plan for the next year – there will have to be a new election immediately.  It’s not clear how long these negotiations can go on with no resolution, but next Monday might be the last possible date.
  • The one prize the Lib Dems are seeking is a change in the voting system.  Labour and the Lib Dems think they can get legislative changes through that will keep the Conservatives out for the foreseeable future.  Since the Conservatives command a majority in England, and Labour with the Lib Dems command majorities in Scotland and Wales, this could be divisive on a large scale.  In a desperate effort not to stay in contention, the Conservatives have, nonetheless, offered the Lib Dems voter reform if they will join them instead of Labour to form a government.

It’s a nasty business.

But it is totally fascinating.

May 9, 2010

Quantum fuzzies

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:09 pm

I was going to write a post today about one of the more intriguing findings of quantum physics, but I find that watching the current developments in British politics is sufficiently mind-boggling.

Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg

Brown (Labour), Cameron (Tory), and Clegg (Liberal  Democrat)

At this point, I have received 3 telephone calls and six emails from Americans asking me to explain what is happening.  Actually explaining what is going on is probably beyond my wit, but here are a few relevant features:

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are currently locked in negotiations in an attempt to form a coalition government.  The Tory  Conservatives have 306 parliamentary seats, 10 short of the majority they need to form a government that the other parties could not unseat without help from Tory defectors.  The Lib Dems have 58 seats, so together they could form a pretty solid block.

The problem is that, although they agree on some significant issues, they seriously disagree on immigration policy, Britain’s role in Europe, how to deal with the looming budget deficit, and on changes to the voting rules.  The last is probably the most difficult to resolve, because the Lib Dems cannot foresee being more than a third tag-along party without change.  The current system is rather like the electoral system by which the U.S. President is elected, making it possible for the party with the smaller popular vote to actually win the most electoral votes and so become president.  The difficulty for the Lib Dems is that this system applies to every member parliament so that they routinely get a much larger popular vote than they get seats in parliament.

If the two parties can reach some kind of agreement on this issue, I think the chances are  that they can make it work.  The question, though, is whether the party members on either side can work together for long enough to hold the coalition together for more than a year.

The alternative to a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is for a Lib Dem-Labour coalition with another party adding its votes when necessary.  The problem with this solution is that neither of these two parties received a commanding mandate from the voters.  And 62% of the population say that they want Gordon Brown out under any circumstances.

Okay, these are the public issues.  Slightly more sote voce issues which are nonetheless quite possibly of equal importance is the fact that each party is not only concerned, as they loudly proclaim, with the “good of the country first.”  First, also, is probably maximizing the chances of being or getting into power in another year or two.  For example:

Should the Conservatives let Labour and the Lib Dems deal with the cuts and tax rises and labour strikes which almost everybody expects to emerge in the next year, and then get elected with a majority next year?

Should the Lib Dems agree to a coalition with Labour in order to effect an immediate change in voter rules in their favour?  If they did, would the voters forgive them for such a blatant self-serving tactic?

Ditto for Labour.  Besides, will voters tolerate a party that came in second in terms of both the popular vote and parliamentary seats remaining in government?

Okay, tomorrow I’m writing about quantum physics.  That should be a good deal simpler.  (At least the way I’m going to write about it anyway.)

For what it’s worth, I’m hoping for a successful Conservative/Lib Dem coalition.  Given the very painful cuts and adjustments that the current economic reality is going to require for at least another five or even ten years, I think the country will find it easier to accept if it is coming from these two quite different parties together.

May 7, 2010

Resigning from running the world

Well, the election here in Britain has resulted in a humdinger of a hung parliament.  Britain has had hung parliaments before, but never before in the face of such a huge budget deficit and fiscal crisis.  The markets are wobbling, but if the Tories (Conservatives) can’t reach an agreement with the Liberal Democrats before markets open on Monday, pandamonium could break out.

Meanwhile, TruthOut, which I read with a due sense of outraged seriousness, continues to send me their daily updates about the dire state of everything.  Today their leads concerned the control of America’s mass media by the right wing, Arizona’s racist immigration law, the Time Square bomb, regulatory failure of the big banks, the Gulf oil spill, and the prediction that oil production will peak in 2014.

It’s a good thing I no longer feel responsible for the world.

Because even in the midst of everything that seems to me so wrong, so out of kilter, so cruel or stupid or unjust, I find an amazing joy, a great fulfilment, in just being here.

I wouldn’t have thought understanding something so simple would have taken me so long to learn.

But now I am going back to see what I can make of this jumble that seems to have resulted from the election here last night.

May 6, 2010

State of suspended animation

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 6:56 pm

Very few elections in my life have seemed critically important.  Kennedy’s election and Obama’s win stand out on the positive side.  George Bush Jr’s election and re-election stand out as recent elections with disastrous results.

Today’s election here in Britain feels like that.  It’s been a wild four weeks.  Today everything is quiet — media coverage is subdued except for reports of continued demonstrations in Greece and the spread of the oil spill in the Gulf.

We will stay up tonight until we collapse and have some idea of the shape of the results.

Now back to the suspense being covered by the BBC.

Best vote for the day:  A wildly popular political blogger tells this story of his family life around the breakfast table this morning.  The night before Guido Fawkes (father figure) brought home  finger puppets  of the three men leading the three main political parties vying for votes in today’s election.

This morning Miss Fawkes (5) and Ms Fawkes (2¾) grabbed them off the breakfast table, ripping open the packets to give dad the benefit of their political analysis.

First, and mindful that Mrs Fawkes was watching with a wary look in her eye, Guido tried to exercise some fatherly objectivity and give the girls some background:-

“The one with the red tie is Gordon Brown, he is the Prime Minister, the one with the blue tie is David Cameron, he wants to be Prime Minister.  Nick Clegg has a yellow tie and he wants to decide who is Prime Minister.”

Miss Fawkes immediately and preceptively interrupted “They are all boys?”, “Yes” replied dad. Miss & Ms Fawkes chorused “Yukk”.  With that they discarded the politicians and went back to their porridge.

So there you have it, The feminist Fawkes girls say “none of the above”…

May 5, 2010

Just another ordinary chaotic day in the world

Sitting here in my little corner of England, I have tried not to make this blog a commentary on international affairs.  But right now three very big events are unfolding simultaneously that I think might have momentous results.

The closest to home is the British election tomorrow.  Four weeks ago the result looked like a foregone conclusion, but tonight the polls are suggesting that it will be a three-way nobody-wins outright outcome leading to a hung parliament.  The bond and currency markets are staying open all night on Thursday, because nobody knows how the markets will react.  Some analysts are predicting that if there’s no clear government identified by Friday afternoon, the value of the British currency will plummet and bond rates will inflate, quite possibly rocketing Britain with an unsustainable deficit, dashing the economy, and creating rampant inflation.

(I personally agree with analysts who think it will take a little longer than 24 hours for a crash like this to happen, but if there’s still no sign of a stable government grappling with the deficit within a week or ten days, the bottom will almost certainly begin to fall out.)

Which gets us to Greece.  The rioting on the streets again today in Greece, including the torching of a bank that killed three people trapped inside, is not a local matter.  Portugal, Spain, Italy, and possibly Britain, could find themselves in a similar situation, and it could tear Europe apart.  In the worst case scenario, riots and serious civil unrest could spread across the continent, the euro (Europe’s single currency used by 15 European countries) could implode, and Europe fall into a deep economic depression.

This would have grave effects way beyond Europe, including making it much harder for America to continue to pull out of recession and pay down our deficit.

The third event with potentially world-wide effects is the oil leak in the Gulf.  It’s already obvious that the environmental damage is going to be huge.  We just don’t know how huge.

But since most of the world’s oil is now being accessed through underwater wells, this accident is going to increase the cost of oil, and reduce its availability.  The one good effect of this catastrophe might be that green technology gets a bigger boost than all the warnings of global warming could produce.

Whatever else, I can’t see how anyone finds life boring.  Scary, maybe.  Infuriating often.  But not boring.

May 2, 2010

Another mess

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

It looks as if the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is going to become an unqualified catastrophe.  They think it might take as long as three months to stop the leak which might not be a mere 5,000 barrels of oil a day but 25,000.  (To put that in context, the Exxon Valdez leak totalled 11,000 barrels of oil, and the effects are still evident.)

But it gets worse:  a whistleblower who worked for BP says there is another BP well in the Gulf which violates federal law and could make the current leak look like child’s play.

In that context, I suppose it qualifies as good news that the police disarmed the car bomb set to go off in the middle of Times Square last night.

So I thought it would not be inappropriate to write about another mess to which I was introduced during the weekend we just spent in London.

It’s called Eton Mess, and it is a dessert the like of which I have never had before.  It’s traditionally served at Eton College’s annual cricket game with Winchester College, and I would think would serve as an adequate consolation prize for whichever team loses.

Basically, it consists of the following in – from what I can tell – whatever amounts are available or preferred by the cook – mixed up in a huge mess:

  • any kind of summer berries or soft fruit;  strawberries are traditional
  • Cointreau, brandy, bourbon or any other liqueur
  • meringues, usually crushed into bite-size pieces
  • whipped cream
  • sugar to taste
  • melted white or black chocolate

I have searched Google for a picture that even vaguely resembles the dessert I was served at Brown’s restaurant in London’s Convent Gardens, but they all look quite sedate and respectable.  What I was served was a huge pile on a flat plate approximately the size of a small melon.

I cannot see that it had any redeeming nutritional value whatever save aiding one in actually rolling down the street.

I ate the entire thing.


April 13, 2010


Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 9:03 pm

I have been trying to ignore the elephant in the corner but it’s there 24/7 and it’s difficult to keep pretending it’s not there:  Britain is in the throes of a general election which, like the Obama/McCain race, is finely balanced with clear differences between the two parties.

Gordon Brown is the current prime minister and I have developed the same sense of revulsion every time I see him open his mouth that I had in relation to George Bush.  Brown was chancellor for 10 years before he unceremoniously ousted Tony Blair and took over the country.  The chancellor basically decides the country’s entire fiscal policy – taxes and spending were all almost completely under his control for a decade.

Brown obviously didn’t cause the global recession, but he spent money like an addict for the ten years he was chancellor and increased public debt, so that Britain was not well placed to face the recession when it happened.   He was enamoured of the bankers, knighted several, and like them thought the good times were going to roll forever.

So I very much hope David Cameron and the Tories win.  Today Cameron revealed their manifesto which quoted John F Kennedy and tried to emulate Obama’s Yes We Can kind of hope.  Somehow it feels pretty dead in the water, but he would be better than Brown et al.

But there is also a serious possibility of a hung Parliament.  That means no party wins an outright majority, and the Queen then asks one party to try to form a coalition government.  If they can’t do it, the Queen then asks another party.  It tends to be an unstable arrangement and could quite conceivable lead to another election within months.

The election is May 6.  We will stay up waiting to hear the returns.  In the meantime, there is an awful lot of waffle, trying to pretend that it won’t cost anybody anything really demanding to pay down the deficit, and trying to pretend that the country can still afford a government that can give hand-outs as if we’d just won a lottery.  Instead of losing it.

All this agro, and I don’t even have a vote.

April 5, 2010

The independent life of meerkats

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

I consider TV ads an opportunity to get a cup of coffee, fix lunch, use the bathroom, or accomplish any other 3-minute job that suggests itself.  But about once a decade, the advertising world produces something that develops a life of its own, romping on independently of the product it is supposed to sell.

Instead of dashing into the kitchen during the television ads,  I am now watching the meerkats.

The meerkats’ job is ostensibly to sell car insurance through an online comparison site called Compare the Market.

The Meerkats, however, have generated an industry of their own.  One can buy stuffed meerkats to join the bedroom menagerie of bears, lions, and ducks and meerkat  gnomes are available to decorate the garden.

If you are looking for a little light relief in the midst of the drudgery and traumas of life, check out the Meerkat’s website, Compare The Meerkat.

Meerkats, by the way, in case your childhood pets were limited to dogs, goldfish, guinea pigs, and the occasional sassy parrot,  are real.

Though they have perhaps exaggerated their accomplishments just a little.

April 3, 2010

Religious politics strain brotherly love

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 4:45 pm

I’m sure it’s in the news that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church throughout the world, has said that the Catholic Church in Ireland has lost all credibility and that it is difficult for some priests even to walk in public wearing a Roman collar throughout the country.  It’s front page news here.  The Archbishop also suggested that the Pope would be greeted as a colleague in his visit to Britain in September but suggested a distinct lack of enthusiasm about seeing him.

Apparently the Pope’s visit was planned initially to welcome in hoards of Anglican priests and their parishioners who were fleeing to Rome in protest over the ordination of women priests and bishops in the Anglican Church.  It was a rather under-handed manoeuvre by the Pope to offer them asylum making a tricky situation for the Anglican Church even trickier.

The Irish paedophile scandal, however, has given dissenting Anglicans pause lest they find themselves in the fire instead of the more comfortable frying pan.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who constantly reminds the voting public that he is the son of a Church of Scotland minister, has declared that the Labour Party is the Good Samaritan.  He’s behind in the polls for an election that will probably take place on May 6, and by law cannot be delayed beyond June 6.

Also of critical interest, today Cambridge beat Oxford in the annual boat race that’s been taking place on the Thames for 180 years.  Thousands of people lined the Thames to watch it, and tens of thousands more watched it on television.  The race lasts for 18 minutes.

It’s important to keep things in perspective.

March 3, 2010

Elegy on an English winter

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

I’m not talking to any of my friends anymore who live in the States about the weather.  We’re still hyperventilating from the worst winter Britain has had for 30 years, but I get no sympathy whatsoever.

We’ve had 8 inches of snow, and the electricity was cut off for two hours, I plead.  It’s not risen above 38 degrees fahrenheit for a week, I say, and I’m wearing two layers of wool sweaters sitting at my computer.

So what do I get?  This photograph from a friend in New York of the three feet of snow covering fallen trees on her road, and who has been without electricity for five days.  Whose gold-fish all died, and whose dogs have announced that they are emigrating to Africa.  She’s been flushing her loo with melted snow.  She did explain to me what she did about getting a shower.  I think it was to skip it and hope that brushing her teeth would be enough.

I just can’t get no respect these days.

February 20, 2010

Just tickled

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 2:12 pm

I know it rather well, because my husband grew up in Castleford, Yorkshire, and we lived there for a full year when his father was dying.

There is a bridge which I’ve walked under more times than I can count.  I didn’t know its name until today, but the locals did.  For a brief – very brief  – period it was called Tickle Cott Bridge.  But its real name is – and shall remain – Tickle Cock Bridge.

Yes, it means exactly what it sounds like.  It was named during Victorian times so it has a heritage.

The thing is that politicians from outside the area decided that Castleford needed to be tarted up.  After all, it had been an important Roman crossing two thousand years ago, and had much more potential that its residents appreciated.  Tickle Cock had to go.

It’s not that Tickle Cock is one of the truly great bridges of modern times.

It’s not named after an important person like George Washington.

It’s not the oldest extant bridge in the world in Torino, Italy.

It’s not even the longest bridge in Britain which is in Hull.

But a photograph of its pedestrian underpass before its recent renovation suggests its possibilities:  The underpass before regeneration

The politically correct renovators, however, felt there was room for improvement, and spent some significant effort improving it.  The local council faced stiff opposition after renaming the bridge (Photo: Wakefield Council)

Along with the tawdry underpass, the Improvers also decided that the ranchy name also was unworthy.  So they renamed it the Tickle Cott Bridge. They  reckoned without the Castleford Area Voice for the Elderly, a group of over-50’s who were not having a nannying government step in to sanitize their heritage.

The short-lived Tickle Cott Bridge sign has now been consigned to history.  Tickle Cock Bridge it shall remain.

January 29, 2010


Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 5:32 pm

I don’t know what other title to give to this post but Courage.   We’ve been watching the Chilcot Inquiry which is examining the process by which Britain became committed to the war in Iraq.

Up until now, the usual suspects have been interviewed, and have not said anything particularly new.  Most have been well-prepared and smooth, some alternately humorous, aggressive, evasive, and that old faithful standby, forgetful.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst was different.  She’d been one of the attorneys in the British foreign office asked to advise on the possible legality of a military invasion to unseat Saddam Hussein, and had been the only one to resign as a matter of principle:  she thought the war was illiegal.

At the time it looked like a self-defeating gesture.  None of the other 56 attorneys in the foreign office who also thought the war was illegal resigned.  Nor were they ethically required to do so.

But Elizabeth Wilmshurst could not be silent and if she did not resign, she was required to support government policy by keeping her personal views private.  She felt that under the circumstances she could not even appear to be supporting such a war.

Her testimonyto the Chilcot Inquiry was riveting.  It was quiet, understated, without rancor or hyperbole or accusation.  It was tremendously powerful.

When she stood up after completing hours of questioning by the committee and as she was gathering her papers, the “ordinary people” sitting in the public gallery broke out in spontaneous applause.  That has never happened before.  Admiration for a woman who stood her ground with such dignity and courage was universal.

I think the biggest challenges life offers most of us are like that.  The moment doesn’t come with a big sign saying “This is the Moment of Great Testing.”  If anybody is noticing at all, they very well may think one a fool or unnecessarily moralistic.

But every once in a while – maybe not more than once or twice in a lifetime – those moments come when one can either simply go with the flow, or stand up and say, whatever the cost, I will not be moved.

Tony Blair is testifying to the committee today.

January 13, 2010


Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:43 pm

I always thought New York was sort of kooky.  It’s one of the things I found so liberating about it.

But I’m not sure what I think about the 9th Annual No Pants Day.  According the London paper, it began in 2002 in the New York subway.  I wonder if there are rules about when you put your pants back on.  I mean, do you walk through the streets in sub-zero temperature like that?  Personally, I’d have chosen a date in July.  Although possibly nobody would have noticed, given the relaxed dress code among New Yorkers.

The custom has now travelled across the pond and is known as “No Trousers on the Tube Day” in the London underground.

I think this is what they mean by globalization.

January 11, 2010

Differences of degree

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 9:00 pm

Anybody who’s ever been married for more than a week knows that it involves two separate people.  With two separate sets of opinions about how things are done.

Some of these differences are potentially explosive, in which case the marriage might not survive.  Other times they are merely irritating.  And once in a while, they are also fascinating.

One of the differences between my English husband and me belongs in this latter category.  I’ve been noticing it of late as we are passing through what is heralded as a “prolonged cold spell.”

When I was growing up in Ohio, we installed storm windows each fall which made it impossible to open the inner windows until they were removed in the spring.   I also learned to close the door behind me when I came in from the cold.  It wasn’t very original, but my mother’s repeated, and eventually effective, command was “Close the door;  money doesn’t grow on trees and it’s cold outside.”

The English have a completely different ethic.  In their view, houses in which windows and doors are not opened daily to air the house are positively unhealthy.  I look out our window at the cars skidding on the ice and snow outside, and to the houses beyond.  The bedroom and bathroom windows are ajar.  Not just cracked.  Open by at least four inches.

I can tell when a door is open three rooms away, and yet here are people with not only a window cracked but sleeping and bathing in a blast of what I would categorize as arctic wind.

I read once that adults who as babies lived in centrally heated houses were more sensitive to the cold than children who grew up with merely a stove in one room and a hot water bottle in bed.

My husband and I have learned to compromise.  But after more than 35 years, I’ve accepted that the differences between us on this question are permanent.

January 10, 2010

Cold enough

Filed under: Environmental Issues,The English — theotheri @ 2:46 pm

Despite two gigantic salt mines, Britain didn’t plan on this much cold weather and is now rationing road salt and grit throughout the country.  Emergency shipments from the United States are due to arrive by the end of the month.  (Seriously.)

Still, as most of the northern hemisphere is locked in by sub-zero temperatures while at the same time I am sitting here in quite a cozy room with our fire going, it feels worth remembering that besides being inconvenient, ice can also be beautiful.

And that, despite appearances, hell probably isn’t freezing over.

Frozen fountain with cold elephant


Wave frozen in motion as the water rises from the sea into the cold air


January 4, 2010

English translation

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 9:26 pm

For the last decade or so, I’ve watched the English adapt political campaigning strategies originating in America.  Now the Tories are hoping to replace Labor in power in the next election which must be held sometime before June, and will probably by May 6th.   All parties have learned from Obama and are using the internet aggressively – blogging, twitter, social networking, and you-tube.

But the transfers of political strategies as they cross the pond are inevitably adjusted to fit the different cultural nuances of the two countries.

Today the Tories unveiled their slogan for the upcoming campaign:


There is still time for further adjustment, but apparently it has displaced the previous leading candidate


Believe it or not, these are English versions of Obama’s winning slogan


December 27, 2009

American snow isn’t like English snow

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 2:54 pm

Early last week, we got about 8 inches of snow.  Somehow our snow shovel never made it from New York as we passed through Spain and since it only snows here seriously once or twice a year, we’ve never replaced it Once or twice a year, we resolutely promise we will.  But like the man whose roof doesn’t leak when it doesn’t rain, somehow the snow shovel never makes it onto our shopping list when we are actually in the vicinity of a snow-shovel shop.  That may be because snow-shovel shops do not feature widely here in Cambridge, England.

So we cleared our drive and front sidewalk yet again with our garden shovel, yard broom, and hoe.  When two more inches fell, I went out again and swept the drive before the snow had a chance to melt and then turn to the more treacherous and stubborn ice.  I repeated the exercise – which took about ten minutes – a third time when another inch fell.

And do you know what?  Ours was the only – I mean only – drive in the entire village of several thousand people whose drive was swept.

Every once in a while, something happens and I realize that being an American is just a little different from being English.  It just doesn’t snow here often enough for people to relate to it.  One neighbour even seriously asked me what a snow shovel looked like compared to an “ordinary” shovel.  I told him there is a complete technology of shovels including shovels with big wheels, small wheels, and wheels for gravel drives, shovels with ergonomic handles, folding shovels, shovels for children, shovels to fit into the car trunk (which is called boot over here) and even snow blowers,.  He was gob-smacked.

Here in this part of England, they just hunker down or slide around in their cars or pull their children on their sleds for a few days and simply wait for it to pass.

And it does.  Today all the snow except for a few harmless patches has disappeared completely.

December 16, 2009

Fried eggs and humble pie

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:36 pm

Bette Midler gave a Royal Command performance for the Queen last week.  Apparently it was at the Queen’s request.  I like the Queen for that.  All the stories that in private she has a wicked sense of humour must be right.   When Midler came on stage she said she’d been entertaining queens all her life, but this was the first time she had the chance to entertain a real queen.

Of all the works I have ever heard Midler perform, my favourite is her reverie on fried eggs.  Whenever my sense of superiority gets just too far out of line, I think about it.

I was walking down 42nd street one day – I wasn’t working 42nd street, I was walking 42nd street – and this amazing thing happened to me.

It was July, it was about 89 degrees and it was hot – hot for New York.  I was walking east and this humongous person was coming west.  And she had this big blue house dress on puckered all over with big white daisies.  She was almost bald but sitting on top of her forehead was this fried egg.

Here was this demented lady with a big fried egg on her head in the middle of July.

Ever since I saw that lady not one day goes by I don’t think of her.  And I say to myself:

“Oh God, don’t let me wake up tomorrow and want to put a fried egg on my head.  Oh God.”

Then I say real fast, I say “Oh God, if by chance I do wind up with a fried egg on my head “ – cause sometimes you can’t help those things, you know –  I say to myself

“Don’t let anybody notice.”

And then I say to myself real fast after that

“If they do notice that I’m carrying something that’s – that’s not quite right – and they want to talk about it, let them talk about it, but don’t let them talk so I can hear.”

I don’t want to hear it.  Cause the truth about fried eggs, you can call it a fried egg – you can call it anything you like –  but everybody gets one.  Some people wear ‘em on the outside.  Some people they wear ‘em on the inside.

What worries me isn’t that I might have a fried egg or two of my own.  What really worries me is that I might not be one of those people who wears them on the inside.

December 14, 2009

A manageable problem

Filed under: Environmental Issues,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 9:51 pm

The news tonight is that the Copenhagen meeting on climate change fell apart for about five hours today when the African nations walked out.  Things didn’t look good before, but now they look positively hopeless.

So I’m concentrating on a more manageable problem.  One, I agree, about which I am equally unable to do anything about.  But at least it does not tempt me to despair.

The manageable problem is this.  The Marquis of – Something or other, I don’t remember, but he’s very important and very rich – has just had his first son.  Or rather, his first sons.  They are twins and were born by Caesarean section.  Mother and babies doing fine and are healthy.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that the title of Marquis of Something-or-Other  and a considerable accompanying fortune is inherited by the first-born son.  Which is…?

Anyway, it’s a distraction from worrying about potentially catastrophic climate change.

December 11, 2009

Fundamentalism at the shopping mall

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 5:19 pm

Many of the shopping malls here in England have recently instituted a “No Hoodies” policy.  The declared aim of the policy is for the protection of shoppers and shops, but it is unabashedly aimed at young people perceived to be slinking around, shoulders hunched, and faces out of view of CCT cameras aimed at shop-lifters.

I think it’s a rather nasty, petty, lip-pursing policy myself, but at least I understand the point.

We have a rather grand shopping mall in Cambridge called “The Grand Arcade” whose security guards have been instructed to enforce the “no hoodies” policy.  Unfortunately, they seem to have a rather fundamentalist perception of the rule.  For them “no hoodies” means “no hoodies,” and that means they should ask anyone wearing a hood to please remove it.  Failing that, the offender should presumably be asked to leave the mall.  In fact, escorted off the premises, if necessary.

So when an 84-year-old woman walking with a stick and accompanied by her 84-year-old husband entered the mall with the fur-lined hood of her parka pulled up, the security guard instructed her either to remove it or to leave.

What more can I say?

The mall officials say they are “reviewing their policy.”

December 10, 2009

The difference between great and ordinary

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 8:53 pm

If my critics saw me walking over the Thames, they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.

Margaret Thatcher

On the other hand, if my critics saw me walking over the Thames, they would say it was because it was frozen.

November 20, 2009

Wet rain

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 9:05 pm

We watched the news on television today for much longer than necessary because they were carrying live footage on the flooding in the Lake District.  It’s where we lived for five years and we watched reports coming from areas that we know well.  We recognized some of the houses that flooded and fields where the river running through Kendal had burst its banks.

We listened to the newscasters trying to find words to describe what was happening, as they kept reaching for superlatives – phrases like “fourteen inches of rain over night,” “more rain in a single day than as fallen in any 24-hour period since records began in 1790,” “rain in Biblical proportions, ” and “the amount of rain one expects to fall all winter came in 24 hours.”

But my favourite was the announcer who reached the pinnacle:  this was “the wettest rain ever recorded.”

November 10, 2009

High self-esteem

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:03 pm

We are all worms.  But I do believe I am a glow-worm.

Winston Churchill


October 30, 2009

The Church of England vs the Church of Rome

The pope’s invitation to Anglican Catholics – including priests and bishops – to join the Roman Catholic Church is continuing to have repercussions.  By and large, I’m afraid it is not a display of Christian love.

Just in case you missed it in the 4th-grade history class, the Anglican Church broke off from the RC church 500 years ago over the issue of papal authority.  The trigger was King Henry VIII’s desire to annul his first marriage to Catherine, an annulment to which papal authority would not agree.  This was not wholly a matter of principle, since Catherine had powerful connections whom Rome did not wish to overly displease.   Henry ultimately decided that he was the head of the Church of England, and divorced himself.  Years of civil war ensued, but Anglicanism ultimately replaced Roman Catholicism because great swathes of England wanted it that way.

Personally, I strongly suspect that what at the moment looks like a clever papal coup and a humiliation for the Church of England is going to be a rather small wave in the tide of history.   The Anglicans who are contemplating a move to Rome are doing so over the ordination of women and gay priests and bishops.  But the English psyche is not going to bend easily to papal authority.

That has been the issue for 500 years, and it is not going to go away.  Roman and Anglican Catholics may have a great deal of doctrine in common.  But those who are leaving the Anglican Church are doing so because they do not agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  There is even less room for disagreement when they disagree with the pope.

Addendum:  When Pope Benedict XVI met with Queen Elizabeth II for the first time, the pope was expecting her to kneel and kiss his ring, which is the protocol he has come to expect.  The Queen, however, as the Head of the Church of England, simply stood and held out her hand.  The Pope, apparently, was quite taken back.

How dare she!  and a woman besides.

October 24, 2009


I would be interested to know if it has hit the media in the U.S. the way it has here.  Here in Britain, every major paper and magazine in the country seems to be carrying front-page headlines about what The Economist is calling “the pope’s power grab.”

In case you missed it, the pope, without discussing it with the archbishop of Canterbury who is the head of the world-wide Anglican Church, has set up a special “ordinariate” for any married or unmarried Anglican priest or bishop who wants to come over to the Roman Catholic Church.  Up until now, married Anglican priests have not been able to convert to Roman Catholicism and continue to work within their parish, but now the pope is inviting them to be re-ordained as Catholic priests and to bring their parishes or even entire dioceses with them.

The Anglican Church has been trying to find a way to resolve what seem to be unresolvable conflicts over the ordination of women and homosexuals.  Whether the Roman Catholic Church exacerbates its own conflicts about married priests as a result of this move is unclear.

Somehow this doesn’t look like Christian love to me.  It looks much more like politics.

October 14, 2009

Getting right smartly wrong

I’ve just read a story told about himself by Douglas Adams, one of the wonderfully crazy nuts who called themselves “Monty Phython”.

He arrived at a railway station early for his train, so he bought a newspaper, a cup of coffee with a packet of cookies and sat down at a table.  He folded his paper so he could do the crossword, leaving the cookies was in the middle of the table.

There was another man already at the table, and this man now leaned calmly across, tore open the packet of cookies and ate one.    Douglas went into a sort of state of shock but was determined not to show any reaction. Instead , he too calmly leaned forward and took a cookie. A few minutes later, the man took the third cookie.  Douglas, by then inwardly apoplectic, took the last cookie and tried not to glare at the brazen thief across the table.

Shortly, the thief stood up and wandered off as if nothing had happened.

At which point Douglas’s train was announced.  He hurriedly finished his coffee and picked up his paper.

Beneath it was the packet of cookies which he had bought for himself.

October 8, 2009

War story with a happy ending

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:37 pm

There is a news story today about Ed Miliband, one of Britain’s fairly young cabinet ministers.  He was in Moscow yesterday giving  an interview about the environment and a woman phoned in.

She said she was his relative,  Sofia Davidovna Miliband.  The telephone operator thought it was a hoax.

But she really is a relative about whom Ed and his entire family in Britain were unaware.  Ed’s grandfather left the Warsaw Jewish ghetto in the 1920’s and during World War II, escaped the Nazis by getting into Britain on forged papers.   Sofia’s wing of the family went to Russia.  She is now 87 years old.

The Milibands, both in Russia or England, are an interesting family.  Sofia Miliband was a leading academic on the faculty Moscow School ofOriental Studies and is recognized expert on Iran.  Her latest book was published last year.  Ed’s father was a sociologist and political scientist at the London School of Economics, and now both of his sons are members of the current UK government.

So much for Hitler’s vision of a pure society.  Thank God he failed.

October 7, 2009

Redirecting attention

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 1:41 pm

This is the time of year when the major political parties hold their annual conferences.  They are particularly important this year because there will be an election in less than eight months and the parties are facing a deficit that threatens to derail the country for decades if it is not reduced.

In the midst of this most serious discussion, a marvellous story emerged from last year’s conference.

An exceptionally attractive member of a Tory think tank was being repeatedly propositioned by a Member of Parliament.  Finally, he thrust his hotel key into her hand and said “come tonight at 3:30;  I promise you a wonderful time.”

Some time later, another MP propositioning her also refused to take no for an answer.  “All right,” she said, “here is my room key.  Come by tonight at 3:30.”

Neither MP has been named.

But they each know who the other is.

September 26, 2009

An innocent question

Filed under: Life as a Nun,The English — theotheri @ 4:11 pm

England is strewn with abbeys closed by Henry VIII in the 16th century.  They were methodically stripped of their roofs and any valuables, and today they stand as haunting historic ruins, a reminder that even power seemingly backed up by the unassailable authority of God will not last forever.

What struck me about these abbeys when we were visiting one with our guests last week wasn’t this loss of power and prestige, however, so much as the process of globalization that has taken place for the last millenium.  Today it might be Walmarts and Tyotas that mark worldwide globalization.  Then it was Christianity.  By the 7th century, this included monastic life of the abbeys and convents which are now spread all over Europe and the Americas.  I recognize their layouts and the life styles they represent immediately.

They may be ruins, they may still be occupied and used for their original purpose,  or even converted into apartments or hotels.  But the monastic life around which they were originally built is unmissable.  I recognize them like the streets of my hometown, because I lived for nine years as a nun and the fundamental structure has not changed for more than a thousand years.

There is the church, of course, the cells, the refectory and kitchens.  And there is the chapter room where the community met.  Usually it was to deal with questions of regular discipline and where the Chapter of Faults took place.  I explained to my husband and guests how it operated.  One by one, each individual stood before the community and accused herself of the faults she had committed since the last chapter.  After the recitation, she lay prostate on the floor and received the penance from the superior.  Then the next sister stood up and accused herself until every individual had confessed their faults before the community.

“What did you do if you hadn’t committed any faults?” my husband asked.

That could not happen.  To pronounce oneself to be blameless would of itself be an exhibition of the great sin of pride.  Far far better to make a sin up than to stand in speechless innocence.

However, there was always several fall back positions.  One was to confess to breaking “custody of the eyes.”  Breaking custody of the eyes meant that one had looked around, had displayed interest or curiosity in the people or events around you.  In my time, there was also always the potential of confessing to “recreating in two’s.”  As young nuns we were never permitted to have a conversation involving less than three people.  Although this was never said, the obvious purpose of this rule was to reduce the possibility of homosexual attachments but confessing to breaking this rule did not seem to suggest that the sinner was a lesbian, so it was a useful fall-back in case of need.

Neither of these rules are extant among Maryknollers today.  But there are still many convents – including in America – where they are still taken with deadly seriousness.

September 18, 2009

Little is a big deal

The news today is featuring photographs of the casket of St Therese of Lisieux which is currently on tour around England “for the edification of the faithful.”  Apparently there are three caskets containing Therese’s bona-fide bones.  The main one is on display in the cathedral in Lisieux, France, and the other two seem to be more or less on permanent pilgrimage around the world.  The casket currently here in England contains a thigh and pieces of foot bones.

Thousands of  Catholics are showing up for edification but in this country which is largely Anglican or Protestant, an awful lot of people think it’s confirming their worst suspicions about Catholics.  There are serious editorials in major newspapers about being tolerant.  The former RC Cardinal in England refused to let the casket come on tour, but the new one apparently thinks it is neither superstitious or scandalizing.

This is the saint after whom I was named and who was supposed to be my role model.  I spent most of my childhood disliking her because she is the champion of achieving holiness by doing small things.  I had higher ambitions for myself.

But I have come to appreciate that little things can mean a lot.  Small acts of undeserved kindness shown to me have sometimes had life-saving dimensions.  Even soul-saving dimensions.    So although in the great scheme of things, everybody is pretty little, I see that being little isn’t that useless.  And even those who die with full membership intact among the Great and the Good are inevitably brought down to size by history.

Still, I’m not telling a lot of people my real name is Therese.

And I am appalled by that roving casket.

September 10, 2009

In between elections

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 7:57 pm

When Nixon was in office and it looked increasingly as if he’d seriously broken the law but Congress did not have what they called “the smoking gun” with which to impeach him, I used to look over here at the British system. The Prime Minister is in that position because he is the leader of the party. Although it is not easy, it is possible for the party to overthrow the Prime Minister and elect a new party leader without triggering a national election.

But now the tables are turned. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister who forced Tony Blair out of office two years ago, is looking increasingly – well, ineffective is the most neutral word one might use. The country looks rudderless in many respects.  But an election must be called before next May and the party seems reluctant to change leaders with a national election less than ten months away.

Very few people doubt the multiple stories about Brown’s temper tantrums – his throwing telephones and printers around the office, his shouting at journalists and secretarial staff being reduced to tears.  But now there are rumours that Brown is taking heavy-duty antidepressants. Not just prozac, but the mood altering Mono Amine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) which are very rarely prescribed and used only sparingly when dealing with severely depressed patients.

The question is whether his medications are responsible for some of the strange public behavior that people have been commenting on in recent months. Even more pertinently, they are asking whether they might be interfering with his ability to make responsible decisions for the country.

The problem of a leader in situ who may no longer be able to lead effectively due to illness of some kind has occurred here and in the U.S. perhaps half a dozen times in the last century.  I can’t see an immediate solution to the danger this poses, but it is potentially extremely hazardous.

At least in a democracy, it won’t go on for a lifetime. We don’t have to have a coup or an assassination to change leaders. (more…)

September 6, 2009

Remembering Albert

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:28 pm

We were in London for the weekend and went to the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

I first went to London almost 40 years ago and have been there for weeks on end more times than I can count.  But I’d never been to the Royal Albert Hall before.  And so I’d never seen the Prince Albert Memorial which towers across the street in Kensington Park.

Prince Albert was Queen Victoria’s husband.  (By a twist of probably anti-feminist history, the wife of a reigning king in Britain is called a queen, but the husband of the reigning queen is not given the title king.  The best he can aspire to is prince.  At least in Britain, a woman can become the heir to the throne if the reigning king and queen have no sons.  Although as things stand, a younger son will beat his older sister to the throne if he’s around.)

But back to the memorial.  Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861 at the age of 42.  Queen Victoria was devastated and never fully recovered.  She went into mourning for years and demanded that his bedroom and all his personal belongings be kept just as they were when he died.   When ministers suggested a memorial in Albert’s honour, Victoria expected a memorial unlike no other.

Whew!  It is the height of at least a 10-storey building.  The land on which it sits seems to me to cover about five acres and is surrounded by a fence covered in gold leaf.  There are 4 huge  allegorical sculptures at the base, and two levels of majestic stairs on all four sides.  Albert himself sits robed covered totally in gold leaf, and above him are two more levels of figures and filigree.  Finally, high on top is gold cross.

It is a gothic design, and nothing that could have been added was withheld.  It is not an understatement.

The whole thing is stunningly, breathtakingly, mesmermizingly – awful.

But no doubt Queen Victoria was pleased.

August 31, 2009

What’s magical about Cambridge

Filed under: The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:24 pm

In some ways, Cambridge is more like an ancient city than any other place I have ever lived.  At its  centre are the magnificent universities – “the dreaming spires” –  where the River Cam meanders through and around and eventually reaches the sea.

Surrounding this magnficent centre of learning are farms with their fields of wheat and barley, their strawberries and asparagus, the chard and raspberries and greens, and where cattle graze in the summer. We drove into Cambridge today and the harvested bales of wheat are waiting in the golden fields.  They are the bread flour of Britain.

All cities, of course, are fed by farmlands beyond.  But in Cambridge, the critical relationship between the farmers and the city dwellers is unmistakable.  It is even a city built on a river, like so many of the original cities in the Fertile Crescent of the middle East seven millenia ago.

East Anglia in general, of which Cambridgeshire is a part, is an important bread basket for the whole country.  I was nonethess amazed to see on the bag of plain ordinary sugar we brought home from the supermarket today that it was “made from sugar beets grown in Cambridgeshire.”

And I thought Cambridge was just about Newton and Hawking.

July 31, 2009

St. Swithun’s Day revisited

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:11 pm

July 21st was St. Swithun’s day which legend says will predict the weather for the next 40 days.  It rained on St. Swithun’s feast, and so far since then it has rained every single day but one.

Weather forecasters say it’s going to be an unusually wet August.

Heaven help us.

July 29, 2009

Turning the tea around

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:27 pm

One so often thinks of tea as a very British drink, but it’s not native to Britain and didn’t arrive here until it was brought from China by Portuguese trading ships in the mid-1700’s.

Some historians think that the arrival of tea played a critical part in England’s development as the world’s first great industrial power.  They say that until the 18th century, cities were limited in size because the spread of disease always imposed a limit to population growth in a confined space.  Much disease was spread through contaminated water, so that boiling the water to make the tea greatly reduced the rampant spread of infection.  And tea itself is a significant source of anti-oxidants, (which is why so many health-conscious people still recommend it today.)

Because the cities were able to expand, factories were able to find workers to produce more goods that were delivered by ship and railroad all over the world.

Yesterday, though, I just learned something else about tea.  When it was first brought to England, it wasn’t used as a drink.  The water in which it was boiled was discarded and the tea leaves eaten with salt and pepper.

Sort of like cabbage, I suppose.

July 28, 2009

Standing on giants’ shoulders – or in their shoes

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 9:38 pm

One of things I like about living in England is that so many of the foundations of today are visible.  The church around the corner has been there for more than eight centuries.  The village has been here for at least twice as long.  We live on Stocks Lane, which is where the original stocks used to publicly punish the recalcitrant were located.  Roman Hill really does refer to the Romans who first arrived in the first century AD.

Today I discovered that the shoes on my feet had a surprising origin.  I would have called them sneakers or possibly tennis shoes, but over here they are called “Plimsolls.”

Plimsoll was the man responsible in the mid-1800’s for demanding that ships have a line painted on them indicating the level of cargo they could hold.  When the line on the ship sank below the water line, it was dangerously overloaded and subject to capsizing.  His crusade ultimately has saved millions of lives.  Ships everywhere today have “plimsoll lines” painted on their sides.

Plimsoll also developed a shoe which is why they are now called Plimsolls.  The original version, including the pair I’m wearing, have a line about a quarter of an inch above the sole indicating that if you don’t step in water above that line, your feet will stay dry.

It was probably a good shoe at the time for sailors.  But I suspect the line on the ship was a better idea than the one on the shoe.  I don’t think Plimsolls are too highly recommended as a boot alternative these days.

July 26, 2009

Whose life is it?

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 3:56 pm

While the United States is convulsed with an argument about health care, a fierce debate is occurring over here about assisted suicide.

It runs along lines similar to the abortion debate in America:  do those who object to abortion or assisted suicide on religious grounds have the right, in a free society, to impose their religious views on everyone?

When lawmakers here realized that it was impossible to prosecute anyone who actually succeeded in killing themselves, they changed the law so that it is no longer illegal to commit suicide.  It is still illegal, however, to assist someone who may wish to commit suicide.

But now, according to a poll published yesterday, about 70% of the population in Britain want the terminally ill who are of sound mind to have the freedom to get assistance to end their lives.  There have also been a significant number of high-profile cases of people travelling from Britain to Dignitas, an organization based in Switzerland where for about $6000 one can receive medical help in achieving a peaceful death.

Some opponents fear that a change in law will lead to an increased pressure by relatives on the elderly and disabled to end their lives.  In the face of this potential temptation, they believe no one should have the right to receive help.

Actually, it is an unexpectedly encouraging view of the human condition that statistics from places like Oregon or Switzerland which do permit assisted suicide do not support the prediction that, given a chance, we will encourage our inconvenient relatives to end their lives.

July 21, 2009

St. Swithun’s Day

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 9:16 pm

There is an ancient tradition here in Britain which claims that if it rains on St. Swithun’s feast day, it will rain for the next 40 days.  If, however, it is fair on his feast, the rest of the summer will be sunny too.

Personally, I was somewhat surprised never to have heard of St. Swithun, growing up as I did with a Catholic calendar on the kitchen wall which listed the name of a different saint’s feast on every single day of the year.

I knew about St. Stephen and St. Sylvester.  I knew a Sister Sebastian and and Brother Stanley, but I never met a Sister Swithun.  Or a Brother Swithun.  Or Father Swithun.

I learned today he was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester in the 9th century.  When he was dying, he asked to be buried outside so that the rain would fall on him and the feet of ordinary men could pass over him.  A century later, though, his body was moved inside the cathedral.  Legend has it that he was so angry that he caused a storm to rage for 40 days.

The legend persists.  Though these days the weather office tends to look at the position of the jet stream to predict the weather.  Myself, I’m hoping Swithun is over his temper tantrum.

PS:  For what it’s worth, it rained last Wednesday on St. Swithun’s day.  And it’s pretty much rained every day since.  The weather forecast says it should be sunny by Sunday.

July 4, 2009

A friend for Independence Day

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 2:58 pm

I first met Richard on the day that we were moving into our penthouse apartment in the English Lake District.  Moving house is listed as one of the five most stressful events in most people’s lives, and our move from Spain was an example of why it tends to hit the stratosphere.

Finding an irascible man at our door was not a favourable introduction. Richard didn’t say “welcome” or introduce himself and invite us for drinks one evening.  He said that the moving men were risking breaking the elevator by overloading it and we’d better stop them and unceremoniously left.  Sometime later his wife Margaret came up to welcome us and asked if there was anything she could do to help.  She said they lived in apartment #2, and if we needed anything at anytime (I remember her saying “eggs or anything”) to come down.

But I was unmollified after Richard’s presentation and I thought it unlikely that we would have much to say to each other.

I was wrong.

With time we came to be immensely fond of Richard and Margaret.  Richard said what he thought without embroidery, a Yorkshire characteristic I found totally refreshing.  He was completely without pretension, and without ceremony one of the most generous people I’ve ever met.

He was also an iconoclast with a sense of humour.  What I remember most often was the inevitable phone call I would get on July 3rd urging me to hang an American flag outside our tower window to celebrate American Independence Day.

I never did it, because actually, I never had a flag.  But in retrospect, I dearly wish I had.

Richard died unexpectedly very shortly after we moved from the Lake District to Cambridge, and we miss him more often than he would have guessed.

Especially on July 4th.   Independence Day suited him.

May 16, 2009

Survival technique

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 9:50 pm

I was discussing some of the more preposterous expense claims some of the MPs have submitted with a friend today.  In their wonderfully dry English way, commentators and comedians are already saying some devastatingly funny things.

We were relating various anecdotes to each other, when D said “well, all joking aside…”  And then he broke off and said “Wouldn’t that be awful?  no joking allowed.  We would never have made it through the war.”

May 15, 2009

Parliamentary convulsions

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 7:52 pm

I doubt it is making the front pages or top of the news in the U.S., but here in England, Parliament is convulsed with quite possibly the most wide-spread scandal it’s faced in centuries.

This may be hard for the American mind to comprehend, because the individual sums of money involved are relatively small.  I say relatively, although sums between perhaps $5000 and $500,000 are not personally small.  But to discover that a great number of  U.S. Congressmen had fiddled their expenses to the tune of $100,000 would probably not threaten to unseat the government.

Over here it is.

It started some years ago when Parliamentary members thought that they should have a pay increase but that the electorate would not tolerate it.  So they instituted a lavish and covert expense system, whereby MPs (that is, Members of Parliament) could claim tax-free living expenses for a second mortgage, property tax, food, household furnishing and services, taxis, restaurants.  The list of possibilities seems to be limited only by the imagination of MPs, which, in this case, did not appear to be limited by anything.  One MP even claimed for the cleaning of his moat.  (Yes, a moat is that medieval body of water surrounding a castle or manor house to protect it from marauding attackers.)

About a week ago a national newspaper got hold of all the expense claims that have been submitted by every MP in the last five years.  They have been publishing them in a kind of water torture every day since Sunday, and they aren’t finished.  

After the scandal of the bankers’ bonuses paid from money provided by the taxpayer to keep the banks from facing bankruptcy, and with 2.5 million people presently unemployed,  the general public has exploded with a fury that even experienced journalists say they have never seen in their lives.  MPs are paying thousands of dollars back, but people are not satisfied.  The police are investigating whether there is any actual criminal fraud, and the tax authorities are inquiring whether any tax fraud has been perpetrated.  They say it’s so bad that some MPs are on suicide watch, though this might be an exaggeration.

Several MPs have been suspended, and party leaders are scrambling to convince the public that their party is getting a hold.  The Tories have agreed to post every expense claim made from today on-line the day it is submitted.

Nobody thinks it’s over.  We’re watching the news as live entertainment.

May 12, 2009

Royal Greetings Refried

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:33 pm

Every year Queen Elizabeth II sends a birthday card to each of her subjects (which is what citizens are called in a country that has a King or Queen) who are 100 or older.

One woman, however, who is now 109, wrote to the Queen complaining about the cards she’d been receiving in recent years.  She wasn’t complaining that the card always had a picture of the Queen.  But she did object to the fact that for the last seven years she’d been wearing exactly the same yellow dress.

So the Queen sent Prince William (that’s Diana’s and Charles’ eldest who is in line for the throne after his father, currently Prince Charles) to the rest home where the woman lives to visit her today.

Among other things, he promised her that his grandmother would wear a different dress for the photo that’s on the birthday card she receives when she’s 110 in November.

Only in England.

May 9, 2009

Asparagus patch

Filed under: Food chains,The English — theotheri @ 2:53 pm

Admitting to not growing vegetables is close to an unpatriotic statement here in England.  Perhaps it goes back to the war when every square foot was planted with something to eat.  I think even people who are too young to actually remember the war have a reverence for growing things.  People who live in apartments often grow a pot of salad greens on a window sill, and thousands of people have what they call allotments.  

Allotments are usually rows of patches of earth each with a small shed for keeping gardening tools, and which sometimes have been cultivated for as long as the eye can see.  We have a neighbour who is so committed to growing his own food that along with his personal vegetable patch on his own land, he also leases an allotment from the village authorities.

Personally I don’t like to garden very much.  I’d much rather clean, although what I mean by cleaning is usually closer to organizing things than actually cleaning them.

But I do find eating an enjoyable activity, and it seems only fair that I should make some contribution to the vegetables that grow in our garden and eventually make it onto our plates.  

Last month, Peter ordered 24 asparagus plants to be delivered by post.  I was enthusiastically supportive not only because I like asparagus but because the ad said that once the plants got started, they would produce for as long as 20 years.  It was an act of faith because there is a two-year wait after planting before one can pick the first crop.  But I thought you only plant them once every twenty years and at that rate, I was unlikely to be around to have to plant them a second time.

I was wrong.  Yesterday in the post another box of asparagus plants arrived with a note of apology from the producer saying that they were sending us new stock because one third of original stock we had received was inferior.

We had noticed this, but I was willing to ignore the evidence.  Planting asparagus requires digging a trend about a foot deep and a foot wide, planting the root, and then gradually building the soil up around it as the tip appears.  Once every twenty years seemed enough work.  Now we were being told to do it again after a mere four weeks.

Cambridgeshire is one of the asparagus-growing capitals of the world.  Road signs are even now appearing inviting you to “pick your own.”  The supermarket, however, is selling bunches at outrageous prices with little tags that say “grown in Peru.”

So this morning I dug out the trench and planted 8 more asparagus plants.  Check in again in 2011 to find out if we’re eating it yet.

May 8, 2009

Mom’s Day

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:00 pm

Mother Day is called Mothering Sunday here in England – a ghastly adjustment in the transatlantic crossing of the original Mother’s Day which began in America a couple of centuries ago.  (I haven’t always known that – I read it in Wikipedia, which means it might be right.)  Besides mangling the name, Mother’s Day is celebrated over here in March, which is why I’m claiming I couldn’t remember when Mother’s Day is in America and I had to look it up.  

I read yesterday, though, that Michelle Obama has adopted the official title of “Mom-in-Chief.”   I personally think this is just brilliant and it delights me no end.  She’s the First Lady, the wife of the President of the United States, the first Black woman ever to hold this position, and an accomplished lawyer.

And what does she say about herself?  That she’s serving as the nation’s First Mom.

It’s enough to make me want to celebrate Mother’s Day.  

Something of a challenge since my mother died 50 years ago, and I haven’t any children who call me mother.  Or mom either.

April 28, 2009

Up North

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:28 pm

My husband comes from Yorkshire, and since his parents lived there, it is a place I came to know better than most.  Yorkshire is different from London and the south of England.  

Yorkshire people are independent, tough, stubborn, and fiercely loyal.  The Vikings settled there, among others, in the 8th century, and as a result it is a place that never had slaves.  After the industrial revolution, much of the country’s coal was mined there, and life was often hard and brutal.

There is also a special dialect that belongs uniquely to Yorkshire.  It has died out to a large extent, especially the lilting use of “thee” and “thou,” but some phrases linger on and have even infiltrated their way into my own usage.

Recently, I came across a folk song from the North.  The chorus is the welcome to a friend, and it catches, for me, something that I will never forget about the years I spent “up North.”


I’m always glad to see a man like thee

Thou’s as welcome, lad, as welcome as can be

Thou cheerest up the table

Stay as long as thou art able

I’m always glad to see a lad like thee.

April 23, 2009

Golden fields of – er, uhm…

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:45 pm

Many of the fields that stretch out on the farms surrounding Cambridge right now are laid out in carpets of gold.  Well, more prosaically, fields of rape seed flowers which are masses of bright yellow.

Rape seed is used to make rape seed oil which is used both for cooking and for various industrial uses and bio-fuels.

Rape seed oil is called canola oil in the States.  Apparently, when they discovered how healthy it was, marketers said they wouldn’t be able to sell it in America if its name wasn’t changed to something less associative.

While we’re on name changes, aluminium over here got to be called aluminum is the States because of a spelling error by customs on the first shipment arriving from Europe.  The story I read did not specify whether the mistake was made by the English or the Americans.  

I suspect it was the Americans.

February 8, 2009

The ancient salt of Cheshire

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:38 pm

Under the town of Cheshire  southeast of Liverpool in northern England lies an almost incomprehensibly huge deposit of salt.  

It was left behind 220 million years ago in the Triassic period when the dinosaurs were king.  England lay beneath a tropical sea then, and over millions of years as it evaporated, the salt, mixed with sand blown in from eastern deserts, was left behind.

People have been accessing it since at least 600 BC, and today it is mined by huge machines that can take a single bite and spit out a chunk 16 feet wide and 20 feet deep.  It works 24/7, pulverizing 20,000 tonnes a day, enough to fill and re-fill 2000 gritters day in and day out.  50 million tonnes have been taken out in the last 50 years.

Despite this, the salt is no where near being depleted.  Huge caverns created by the excavated materials are now used for storage, some for government records going back as far as the 16th century, some for toxic waste.  25 truckloads arrive each day, 100,000 tonnes  annually.  They don’t expect all the room ever to be filled.  The rooms where waste will be stored for the next 100 years have already been assigned for the purpose.  You couldn’t find them without a map.

With this almost inexhaustible supply of salt which was ready-mixed with sand millions of years ago, one would expect Britain to have more than enough to grit all the roads in the country for several weeks of snow each winter.

It was a surprise, therefore, to read in the paper today that 40,000 tonnes of emergency gritting salt is on its way by boat from Spain.  And that the county of Gloucestershire resorted to buying 500 tonnes of table salt to grit its streets after Thursday’s snow.

I’m holding onto my salt shaker.  More snow is expected tomorrow night.

February 2, 2009

The rain in Spain

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 9:08 pm

When we moved to Spain, we were amazed to discover that rain was so rare that when it did rain, it was tantamount to a blizzard.  Work stopped and people huddled down until it was safe to go outside again.

Here in England, of course, this practice would bring the country to a stand still.  Instead, there is a nonchalance about rain that I am afraid I still do not share.

But snow is a different matter altogether.  I grew up in Ohio where we owned our own tractor and snow plough, and where two feet of snow was hardly newsworthy.  Later, when I lived just outside New York City, snow was on the ground from December through March.  So you learned to drive in the snow, and use the car’s gears to brake.

But snow in London seems to be comparable to rain in Spain.  Ten inches fell last night, and the city has been brought to a stand still.  No buses are running, thousands of schools have been closed, hundreds of cancelled flights at three airports have stranded at least 40,000 passengers, the underground and trains are working only in spurts, theatres have cancelled their plays, and hospitals are accepting emergency cases only. On the highway, tail backs are as long as 39 miles.  Tonight people can’t get home and since hotels are crammed, many are spending the night in offices or with friends.

In London’s defense, this seems to be the biggest snow fall in eighteen years.   Local government officials say that they could not keep the necessary snow-clearing equipment stored unused for that long.

This sounds a bit feeble to me.  I mean, it has snowed quite often and sometimes quite seriously in the last 18 years, so the equipment would not have been moth-balled all that time.

Still, it’s nice to sit here at home, feeling quite smug, and happy to heed the advice not to travel if we don’t have to.

January 10, 2009

An English problem

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 9:27 pm

The captain of English cricket was fired/resigned two days ago.  I know this doesn’t even qualify as page seven news in America, but here in England, it hit the front page.  

Cricket is to England what baseball is to America.  Except that in cricket, the equivalent of the World Series really does involve teams from all over the world, and the English team is just about to depart for a Really Really Important series in Australia.

The source of the confusion and misunderstanding that led to Keven Pietersen’s departure is the source of much speculation.  He is a brilliant player and may have been an incredibly gifted captain.

One factor in his departure, whether it was voluntary or forced, is undoubtedly his unusually sturdy ego.  When the Australian team were playing in England last summer, they nicknamed him “Figjam,” which they said stood for “F*** I’m Good, Just Ask Me.”

December 6, 2008

In search of a pickling spoon

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

We met a neighbour on our way back from picking up the Times this morning, and asked – as one does – how he and his wife were doing.  “I’m rushing home,” he said.  “We need a new pickling spoon.”

Pickling spoon!  A special spoon just for pickles?!  I felt a whole world away from a couple who would feel impelled to spend several hours of a sunny Saturday morning in search of a pickling spoon.  I have been introduced to a fish fork, which I have managed to live without for 68 years without a feeling of undue deprivation.  But a pickling spoon took what I considered to be an outrageous conceit to a whole new level.

However, I have learned something in my 68 years, and that is to consider the possibility that I don’t already know everything before jumping to my foregone conclusions.  So I asked Peter about pickling and fish cutlery.  To put his answer in context, Peter was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  On the contrary, he grew up in a Yorkshire mining village during the depression and World War II.  His father was a manager in a coal mine, and his mother ran a grocery store.  She did, I know from experience, keep up her standards.  But no one ever suggested she belonged to the Upper Class.

Peter says that special cutlery for fish and pickles is quite standard fare, and that he grew up using such implements.  Cutlery, apparently, picks up the taste of fish.  (I never noticed, but some people can tell.)  And cutlery used for pickles is exposed to an excess amount of vinegar which will corrode ordinary cutlery over time. 

So I guess pickling spoons and fish forks are not the conceits I thought they were. 

They’re just very English.

November 24, 2008

Beta test for financial rescue plan

The British government today announced what in the States would be called a huge bail-out plan for the economy.  Fundamentally it consists of cutting taxes, increasing hand-outs, and borrowing mind-boggling amounts of money that will ultimately equal at least 57% of GDP.  It’s a huge gamble.  It will be early next year before analysts can make an informed guess about how the dice are rolling.

It’s similar to what Obama and the Democrats are hoping to try with a $700 billion stimulus package, but it’s a greater risk for Britain because it’s a much smaller country, and the dollar is a world currency while the British pound isn’t.  If it works, the Labour government will be hailed as heroes.  If it fails, I strongly suspect I will be dead before the country recovers fiscally.  As it is, the government cannot foresee even beginning to pay down the debt in less than eight years, although taxes will begin to shoot up in 15 months time. 

To tell the truth, despite a lot of blustering, nobody really knows what will happen. 

I think in part it is simply a question of confidence.  If people believe things are getting better they will, because we will take risks rather than stuffing all our savings under the mattress. 

Alternatively, we can take the very very long view:  fishermen have just dragged a fossil out of the ocean on the coast of Britain.  It was the fossil of a turtle whose forebears had first left the ocean for life on land 215 million years ago.  50 million years later it returned home to live an acquatic life once again.

Well, I don’t think the changes we are facing in the world today are that drastic.

November 22, 2008

“And to All a Good Night”

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 9:32 pm

Frankness, sense and mirth

Advertisement by The Economist Magazine, suggesting itself as a gift for those you love this Christmas.

Along with a gift subscription, the magazine is including a free copy of their “Book of Obituaries.”


November 19, 2008

Where have all the flowers gone?

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English — theotheri @ 8:28 pm

Queen Elizabeth was visiting the London School of Economics earlier this month and someone asked her what she thought about the global financial crisis.

“You’d think,” she said “that with so much money involved, somebody would know where it is.”

So it’s true:  absolutely nobody knows what’s going on.

November 18, 2008

“You wouldn’t want to meet him”

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 5:10 pm

Prince Charles is celebrating his sixtieth birthday.  Or rather, the British are celebrating his birthday.  Since his divorce from Diana, the press by and large has not been kind to him, though in recent years his standing among the British people has improved, and calls for his son, Prince William to become king instead of Charles when Queen Elizabeth dies are less frequent.

It being his birthday, stories about Prince Charles, who actually does a lot of effective work for a lot of good causes, are usually positive and often amusing.  One reporter says that when Charles was serving his stint as a young man in the navy, he went on board the ship where he was stationed to interview him.  When he couldn’t find him, he approached a serviceman in jeans, unshaven, and clearly in need of a shower and asked where he was.

“Oh, he’s not here,” the serviceman replied helpfully.  “Besides, you wouldn’t want to know him.  He’s a real son of a bitch.”

Yes, you guessed right.

November 12, 2008

Keep Calm and Carry On

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 5:45 pm

Yesterday was Remembrance Day here in Britain, the 90th anniversay of the end of World War I in 1918.  The commemoration ceremonies (it would misunderstand to call them “celebrations”) were held throughout the country and saturated all the media.  Here in our little village, at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th month, the bugler stood on the steps of the Church and called the last post, that poignant reminder that the day has reached its end.  Then the Church bells tolled, and everyone stood in silent remembrance for two minutes.  It would have been blasphemous to do otherwise.  

It seems to be taken more seriously than Veterans’ Day in the States.  The wars reached deeper into the land here, into people’s lives, and many many more died.

One newspaper featured posters from the war.  Most were familiar:  “Your Country Needs You,” or “Buy War Bonds.”  But my absolutely favourite that I have framed and put on my study wall is the quintessentially British exhortation to people facing daily bombings, rations, and war news, printed in bold white letters on a bright red background with the regal crown :

Keep Calm and Carry On

It somehow feels rather relevant right now.

November 8, 2008

The bread we eat

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 10:26 pm

People in the upper echelons of society began to be called “the upper crust” in the kitchens of medieval England.  Bread, in those days, was baked directly on the fire, and the bottom crust was therefore inevitably burned and blackened.  So the bottom half was cut off and kept for those “below,” and the upper crust was sent to the table of the great and the good upstairs.

In France, the upper crust are called “the big vegetables.”

In the United States, however, everybody – absolutely everybody – is “middle class.”  The only distinguishing concessions permitted lie in the adjectives “lower,” “middle,” and “upper.”

October 25, 2008

God on commercial terms

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 8:31 pm
Tags: ,

Along with advertisements for shampoo, theatres, and Big Macs, London buses have included God in their list of ads for some time now.  The ads are mostly one-liners that are familiar to anyone reading the signs outside many evangelical churches – Jesus loves you, Jesus saves, or urging repentance of those list of sins we all know we harbour.  Some ads include website addresses, some of which assure the hapless surfer that they are almost certainly on their way to hell if they go on as they are.

So London being London, and Londoners being Londoners, some of them have decided to buy bus advertising space for their own world vision.  Starting in January and running for as long as the money holds out, some buses will announce that “There probably isn’t a God:  so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Bus advertisements are not where I take counsel concerning either shampoo or God.  But if I did, that “probably” would cause me some worry.  Given the stakes involved, that there “probably” isn’t a God just doesn’t seem insurance enough to me.

August 15, 2008

The limits of feminism

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 3:57 pm

Girton College, which is part of Cambridge University, used to be an all-women’s college.  In those days it was called a “Hall” rather than a “College” because there were no men.  When Girton decided to become co-ed it became a “College,” but the head of the College, who is still a woman, is called a “Mistress.” 

A small problem is appearing as a distant cloud on the horizon.  Another college has recently appointed a woman as its head.  They’ve never had a woman head before, and decided that she should still be called a “Master,” as has been the wont of male colleges since Time Began, even though they now admit female students and have female faculty.

The Big Question is whether the head of Girton College will be called a Mistress should a new head ever be appointed who is male.  I’m not putting my money on it.

July 26, 2008

An English take on Obama

Filed under: Political thoughts,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:40 pm

According to the polls, 72% of the Germans would vote for Obama rather than McCain.  I suspect the percentages aren’t too wildly different in  much of Europe, including  Great Britain.  The British, however, are not given to enthusiasms.  We listened to Obama’s speech to several hundred thousand in Berlin two days ago.  While I immersed myself in a warm glow reminiscent of JFK and anti-Vietnam protests and civil rights marches, my husband muttered “Yes, buts” like “how is he going to accomplish that?” or “what does that mean,” or “Congress isn’t going to cooperate on that.” 

In my sober moments I know that Obama cannot possibly live up to the heights some people are expecting of him.  The world is real, for one thing.  And his followers often want contradictory things or believe in impossibilities.  But I think America, and the world, needs to believe in our best selves again, to hope that something besides the most basic instincts of survival can motivate us.  I think just making this clarion call of hope to a cynical, weary, battered world has a great value.  McCain doesn’t do that.  Obama does.

But while some of us are taking all of this terribly terribly seriously, the English humor adds a saving spice to the deadly earnestness of the converted.  Gerard Baker, a columnist for the London Times, has been covering Obama’s European tour.  He ended the column with Obama’s visit to London from France today to meet with Tony Blair (breakfast), the Prime Minister Gordon Brown (whose party suffered a stunning bi-election defeat on Thursday), and David Cameron (the currently wildly-popular Tory leader hoping to win the next general election):   

On the Seventh Day he walked across the Channel of the Angles to the ancient land of the hooligans. There he was welcomed with open arms by the once great prophet Blair and his successor, Gordon the Leper, and his successor, David the Golden One.

And suddenly, with the men appeared the archangel Gabriel and the whole host of the heavenly choir, ranks of cherubim and seraphim, all praising God and singing: “Yes, We Can.”  

For the whole column see (

July 20, 2008

Not quite so important in the daylight

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 4:04 pm

I’ve been writing this blog long enough, so I should have known better than to title my post yesterday “Good and Evil.”  It was not meant to be a vast ray of light in the great universe of darkness.  Just some late-night ruminations about the enigmatic, gifted, magnanimous, and sometime seemingly insane species to which I belong.

Anyway, the comments it attracted were not relevant, and I’ve changed the title with the hope that it may appear a little less pretentious.  I think I got a little carried away.

July 5, 2008

Dr. Who at 68

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 8:52 pm

It’s not Dr. Who who is 68, but me.  Dr. Who looks like an ordinary human but isn’t.  He has been travelling around time and space fighting on the BBC since 1963, and is the longest-lasting science-fantasy show ever written.  He has died 8 or 9 times, but when he does he has regenerated and appeared looking like someone else.  At which point he is played by a different actor.

Peter told me about Dr. Who whom he had watched as a young man 45 years ago.  The story line impressed me as so fantastical that I was never tempted even to introduce myself to this icon of longevity.  About a month ago, however, nothing viewable seemed scheduled.  Under these circumstances we inevitably turn the TV off and read or go to our computers.  For some inexplicable reason, we started to watch Dr. Who instead.

I was hooked.  The production is magnificent, the story – while wholly unbelievable – expands on some of the ideas of cosmic science and quantum mechanics with teletransportation, time warps, alternative universes, and of course extra-terrestrial beings, some very smart and very friendly toward humans, some very smart and very evil.

Historically, at the end of each season, Dr. Who gets killed, and regenerates as a new Dr. Who.  The internet has been buzzing for weeks about Dr. Who was going to become.  Tonight was the final episode, and new-born addict that I am, I readjusted our eating schedule to make sure we did not miss it.  Half way through it looked as if the Dr. Who was going to break with tradition and become a woman.  But instead, equally surprising, Dr. Who came back as the same person he was. 

So next season Dr. Who will apparently still be played by David Tennet.  Life is so surprising.

No one can say I don’t have my priorities straight.

July 4, 2008

Independence Day

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 7:58 pm

Three neighbours came over to wish me a happy Independence Day today.  So I guess all is forgiven after the war of 1776.  One well-wisher, I admit, thought we should be celebrating with turkey and pumpkin pie – a vegetable which he thought was a total waste of time.  But to be celebrating July 4th at all in Cambridge, England in a quintisessential English village with thatched roofs and rose gardes is a surprise.

But I miss Richard Eves, an iconoclastic Yorkshireman who’d become a very good friend when we were living in the Lake District.  He died several months ago, so there is no one to phone and egg me on to hang an American flag outside our window. 

You know, I would have done it if I’d only had a flag.

July 2, 2008

The English really are different

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English — theotheri @ 8:54 pm

It’s been at least thirty-five years since I first realized that whenever I said something complimentary to my husband, he batted it away like a cobweb interfering with the clarity of his vision.  Somehow he always seemed to manage to explain his achievement in such a way that it did not reflect directly on him.  The meal he cooked was delicious because it was a good recipe, the garden he’d planned was stunning because the plants were of such good stock, his grasp of the sociology of law was due to a fantastic professor he’d had at university.  Etc. 

Over the years, it became a game between us.  I would try to trick him into accepting a compliment unawares, while he honed his skills at dodging my bullets and finding some other explanation than anything meaningful he himself might have contributed.  Over the years, I have probably increased my success at getting behind his cover to about 1%.  He is either very good at dodging, or I am very bad at aiming.

At first I thought his dismissive strategy was an individual quirk, probably exacerbated by his natural tendency toward depression and pessimism.  My first hint that it might have a cultural component came from his mother.  An English team had just won a big soccer cup, and were celebrating with exuberance.  “They should be careful,” my mother-in-law said to me;  “They might not win the cup next year.”   The English find it uncomfortable to be unambiguously acknowledged as the best at anything.  It’s not that they don’t think they are very good very often.  It’s just that one shouldn’t say so.   They prefer understatement and find the bald statement of fact vulgar.

So I suppose I should not have been surprised when I commented to our neighbour, a retired Air Force officer, who has been developing his garden since he moved in last summer, on his beautiful plantings and marvellous display of colour.  “Oh, I haven’t any skill as a gardener,” he said.  “It’s just a lot of hard work.”  I said I hoped the Air Force used a slightly higher standard in selecting its pilots than how hard he flapped his arms. 

I thought I’d won that round, but several hours later he came up to our shared property fence I was repainting on our side and asked if the paint was intoxicating.  “Oh no,” I said, unaware of the consequences of this naked truthfulness,  “not at all.”  “What a shame,” he said, “what a shame,” as he went over to check on the progress of the tomatoes.  Being an American, I laughed out loud, which is okay because as an American I am forgiven certain ostentatious displays. 

But if I were English, the appropriate response would have been to show my appreciation for his humour with a deadpan expression, preferably accompanied by an equally clever remark, which even now evades me.  Good thing I can get away with laughing.


June 25, 2008

Jello wrestling

In the last few days, I have been learning a little more about the historical roots of clerical celibacy.  But I would like to check out the facts a little more thoroughly before I sally forth further in public on this issue. 

In the meantime, a little light relief in the midst of the serious business of figuring out what life is about.

I have just been introduced to one of the historic year-end events at Cambridge University here in England.  It is Jello Wrestling.  Two women students dressed in bikinis wrestle each other in a vat of strawberry jello.  Other students pay to watch, and at the end of the fight, the winner is awarded £250 (about $500).

Unfortunately, this year the event got out of hand, and the loser was so incensed that she began to sock the winner and then everyone else who tried to restrain here.  Somewhere in the midst of the melee, she also acquired a bottle of wine which helped stoke her energy, and which she used even when the police eventually arrived.  She was taken to the station, and when she was released said she had no comment.

The university authorities, however, have decreed that this historic event has taken place for the last time. 

I guess I shall never see a jello wrestling contest then.  Somehow, the loss seems bearable.

June 8, 2008

The importance of the absurd

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Jonathan Routh died in Jamaica last week where he lived with his wife in a house without running water or electricity.  He spent his days painting, and his evenings in one of the local restaurants where he often paid for his meal with one of his paintings.  He was English, most well known to the British as the television presenter who made Candid Camera a success. 

His great gift to mankind was to make liberal use of an unsurpassed sense of the absurd.  He once sold a woman in a tea shop two “valuable left-handed teacups,” and organized a totally silent concert at Wigmore Hall (for those of you who are not familiar with Wigmore, it is one of London’s serious concert venues) by “Tomas Blod” at the piano performing “Transmorgrafications, Opus 37, by Sandal.”  Tomas sat at the piano without playing a single note.  Routh proclaimed it “a quiet success.”

I cannot produce the kind of absurdities Routh spent his life sharing with us all, which may be why I have a deep appreciation for his particular contribution to mankind.  Perhaps I can make a contribution to the absurd, though, by telling you that the single response I received to my blog posting yesterday was an advertisement for sunglasses.  I first spammed it, but on reconsideration, I’m going to approve it. 

It’s a testimony to my serious commitment to the Importance of the Absurd.

March 22, 2008

I’m dreaming of a white – er- Easter

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 9:08 am

England rarely has a white Christmas, and the bookies invariably make a profit on those who place bets that we will.  But late, in this case, is not better than never, and I am not consoled with the predictions for most of England of a white Easter.

Up to four inches of snow should provide some novel places to hide eggs for the local hunts sponsored for children in many estates and gardens here though.  I guess if the snow melts, it could facilitate finding them too.

 I hope your Easter, whatever color the eggs, is a happy one.

March 18, 2008

Sins for the modern intellectual

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,The English — theotheri @ 4:00 pm

Richard Morrison, a columnist with The Times in London, has welcomed the update of the seven deadly sins recently announced by the Church.  He does point out, however, that modern sinning makes some strenuous intellectual demands. 

According to the Vatican’s ‘spokes-bishop’, one offends God by, among other newly emerging sins, “carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments and allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA …”

As Morrison suggests, it sounds like an lot of work to commit some of these modern sins.  He prefers old-fashioned gluttony, sloth, and should he be so lucky, a spot of lust.

It not only sounds like a good deal less effort but a good deal more fun.

March 10, 2008

Honourable titles

Filed under: Cultural Differences,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:31 pm

I was wondering today how it happened that rivers in England are named with the word “River” first, while in America it is just the opposite.  So in London it’s “River Thames” and in Cambridge “River Cam,” but in New York it’s the “Hudson River” and in the midwest “Mississippi River.”  

It’s almost as if in England “River” is an honourable title.  The way one might say “may I introduce “Lord and Lady Hathaway,”  while in America it’s a family name.  One sees the influence of pre-Christian and pagan communities more obviously here in England than in America.  Not surprisingly since these islands have been inhabited by humans on and off for at least 15,000 years. 

So perhaps the title “River” really does honour the river as so many peoples have honoured the sun.

March 1, 2008

Political correctness vs correct politics

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:26 pm

I’m beginning to think that political correctness is too much in the eye of the beholder to be of any use at all.  I have heard people without a bone of racism, an ounce of chauvinism, or inch of bad will say things that someone else thinks is politically incorrect at best and downright offensive at worst.

Yet we differ so much in how we interpret what we hear.  Yesterday my sister Bernadette said in a family email that the good news from Jack is that the brain surgery had not turned him into a Republican.  Another family member of a different political persuasion took offense.  Not all the Republicans in the family were affronted.  But this particular one thinks that political allegiance is off limits as an object of legitimate humour.

The cultural rules are different here in England, but with the increasing cultural diversity, there is an increasing difference of opinion about what represents appropriate humour.  As a cultural foreigner myself, I try to understand people’s intentions before concluding that I know what they really mean. 

Not that one can ask directly.  “Are you a racist?” would probably elicit a sincere negative even from the Klu Klux Klan.  By the same token, it is quite possible to be for Clinton or McCain rather than Obama without being a racist.

February 13, 2008

“I don’t think I’m ready for a Black president”

Filed under: The English — theotheri @ 4:47 pm

In recent days Peter and I each have been uncomfortably exposed to what to us can only be described as racism securely embedded in the genteel English middle class.  Inevitably it is introduced with the phrase “I’m not racist but…,” a phrase which now prepares me for what I am almost certainly going to think is racist. 

In my case, a couple we know rather well asked me who I was hoping would win the U.S. presidential election.  Unaware of the labyrinth into which I was stepping, I cheerfully began to discuss the pros and cons of each of the candidates as I see them, concluding that I think America needs to risk Obama’s inexperience for the possibility of a new approach to politics, and America’s dealings with the rest of the world.  At which point, the woman stared into the middle distance and said “I don’t think I’m ready for a Black president.”  It is irrelevant that she is English.  We discuss politics often and I express my own view of British politics as if I had a vote here too although I don’t. 

What is relevant are the reasons she and her well-educated and well-travelled husband gave me for this position.  First she explained that she was against women priests, that she would not want to be married by a woman vicar.  Surely, I said as mildly as I could, not wanting to be married by a woman vicar is not her reason for not being ready for America to elect a Black president.  She had to admit this was fairly ridiculous and looked beseechingly at her husband.

So her husband tried to help her out with what he considered a more reasonable argument:  ethnic groups have come to Britain to do menial jobs, and when they’re not working, they breed.  And they do not adopt British values.   I suggested that the very real contemporary problems in Britain of assimilating hundreds of thousands of immigrants a year into a country the size of New York State was equally not a reason for arguing against a Black American with a Harvard degree whose cultural identity was obviously American.

Well, they agreed, the “educated ones” were okay.  And maybe America is ready for a Black president.   But she concluded vehemently “I’m not racist.  But I’m certainly not ready for a Black Prime Minister in England.”  I was left with the clear impression that not only was she not ready, but that all non-white English ethnic minorities needed at least another two centuries before they might conceivably be qualified for such a position.

I don’t pretend that I think the English are any more or less racist than Americans.  Or any other group in the world, given the right – or wrong – circumstances.  We’ve seen too much in Africa, the Balkans, in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Palestine and Israel for a quick contemporary list, to think that racism is not a potentially dark underside of any culture in the world.   The real problem here, I think, is the speed of cultural change.  It is taking place among all groups, including among those who have traditionally been considered the heart of the British culture and people are feeling threatened and disconnected.  So they are flailing around at anybody who does not fit that somewhat mythical profile they remember as quintessentially British. 

Political correctness has gone as mad over here as in America.  But it follows different rules.  Even if they thought it, I doubt a comparable couple in America would attack Obama’s candidacy on the grounds that African Americans breed more than white Americans. 

January 23, 2008

Life: by John Lennon

Filed under: Just Stuff,Survival Strategies,The English — theotheri @ 9:15 pm

It was John Lennon, I think, who said life is what happens when you are busy making plans to do something else.  By that definition, I have clearly been involved in living for the last three days.  It certainly is not what I’d planned.

It started out on schedule.  Peter and I drove north to the Lake District on Sunday for a quick visit to his dentist.  It’s a four hour trip, but Peter likes the dentist he has on the National Health Service there, so we make the occasional trip into a little excursion.  On this particular trip, we drove through the Yorkshire Dales with their wonderfully evocative names – Blubberhouse, Stump Cross, Beamsley Hill, Kettlewell, and my two favourites (I’m not making this up) Wigglesworth and Giggleswick. 

We stopped at a roadside coffee shop where I was reminded that we were in the north of England.  There is a north-south divide in England just as there is in the States, but the affluent half is in the south over here.  The north is where the Industrial Revolution started in the mid-1850’s, and is the center of England’s coal mines.  Paradoxically, it has also been the home of poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, artists like Henry Moore, and writers like D.H. Lawrence.  It has some of the most stunning beauty in England, great cities like Manchester, and there is a strength of character here that sometimes looks like mere stubbornness, sometimes like a capacity for survival that is awesome. 

There is also among some what looks like resentment at the lot life has dealt them.  The girl who served me the coffee in the Little Chef handed it to me with an expression that suggested it was an abuse of her human rights that she should actually be required to work in order to earn her pay check.  As we drove through the cold rain under the slate-grey sky, I thought about this self-defeating sulkiness that I have seen so often among communities that think themselves ill-used.

Coming south on the way home, we were in another Little Chef just a little north of our Sunday coffee stop.  How we ended up there for ten long hours is the story for tomorrow’s post.   But in the midst of our rescue from three feet of flood water that had stalled and possibly destroyed our car along with hundreds of others, we saw the best of northern hospitality, ingenuity, and kindness. 

January 8, 2008

Of Queens and Presidents

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 11:52 am

The Times here in London is running a “primary” on line in which readers can vote for their favourite candidate in the American presidential election.  ( 

As Peter (English husband) said:  “Our Queen is the only real Queen for Americans.  And your President is the only real president of us.”

January 5, 2008

Trivia survives

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 3:24 pm

The English papers are full this morning of analyses of the American election.  Two themes stand out.  One is the demographics of the Obama vote – the young, the independents, those who have never thought it was worth voting before, Republicans crossing over to the Democrats to vote for Obama.  It feels like a powerful bandwagon.  If he can carry New Hampshire – or even make a strong showing there – I think he may be unstoppable.  Americans are going to vote for this non-cynical clarion call of Hope.

The other theme came from some of the more mature columnists.  “Where is the meat?” one asked, no doubt remembering Walter Mondale’s challenge, “Where’s the beef?” in response to inspirational campaigning by his presidential opponent in the 1980’s.  Doesn’t the inspirational become rather banal if you can’t actually get things done?  Remember John Kennedy who could not get his program through Congress.  Or Jimmy Carter whose ethical policies coincided with 14% inflation and hostages stranded in Iran.   Or Ronald Reagan who left office with the country facing the biggest budget deficit in history. 

Does Obama know the ropes well enough to get things done?  With a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, Missouri, with a Harvard degree and the middle name “Hussein,” he could start out with a world-wide bounty of good will and expectation that has been all but destroyed by the current White House.  Could Obama deliver?  Could anybody deliver?  Who would he choose as his advisers, to replace Bush’s Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld?

Could Hilary Clinton, a seasoned and experienced politician, achieve more?

Along with these weighty issues of global import, Peter lost his glasses this morning.  After a panicky search, thankfully of fairly short duration, he found them.  They were on his face. 

Never let it be said that we lose sight of the importance of life’s trivia.

January 3, 2008

Watching Iowa from afar

Filed under: Cultural Differences,Just Stuff,The English — theotheri @ 10:56 pm

It is quite astonishing how involved the English media are in the Iowa caucuses, and in the whole U.S. election process.   I’ve read several columns expressing appreciation and almost envy at the dynamic rough and tumble by which the party candidates are selected, and the Iowa vote today is a key news item on all the television news hours and major newspapers. 

It is almost impossible to describe, unless you are living outside the United States, the change of attitude that has taken place in relation to America.  When 9/11 happened, the identification with Americans and the support for America and our values was deeper and broader than I’ve ever seen it.  Since the Iraq war went forward without the support of the United Nations and then when Abu Graib and Guantanamo and the secret renditions were revealed, respect for our values has plummeted.  We are not respected for standing up for what we believe in, for fighting for democracy, but are seen as bullies and thugs.  Albeit very strong and fairly rich bullies and thugs.

Now, at least here in England, they are watching the election process, and people are desperately eager to know the outcome. I think much of Europe is hoping as much as many of the votes in the U.S. that we will find our way again.

 I don’t think a Democratic president will be absolutely wonderful.  But I think it’s essential that the Republicans are not allowed to hold onto the White House.  Not electing a Republican is the only signal Americans can send that says we respect human rights, not just for Americans, but for all humans.  That says that wire tapping without a court order, that holding people in prison  without charge or trial for years without foreseeable end, that torture and destruction of evidence violates our most fundamental values. 

And then, of course, one can only hope that a Democratic president might at least appear to care more about the global environment than our present oil-loving president and vice-president.

December 27, 2007

Christmas Lite

Actually, it was a lovely Christmas.  I wouldn’t want to spend it this quietly every year, but as it turns out, it wasn’t quite as quiet as we’d planned.  And under the circumstances, Peter and I were glad we were not entertaining guests after all.

It started Christmas Eve morning.  Peter stepped out of the shower and it wouldn’t turn off.  We have an Aqualisa, the kind that holds its temperature constant, even when somewhere else in the house someone else flushes a toilet or decides to start the dishwasher.  It does this by the magic of electronics, which is pretty much all I know about how it works.  I can describe several ways in which the Start/Stop function does not work, however.  Or at least the Stop function.  It won’t stop if you take a kitchen knife and scrape the calc out around the edges of the Control Button.  It won’t stop if you take the front off the button and use a wooden toothpick to press the little outlets inside.  It won’t stop even if you get very wet and speak to it in language my mother didn’t know I’d learned.  Even if it’s Spanish.

It will stop if you go outside and turn off all the water coming into the house.  Unfortunately, this also stops water coming into the kitchen, the toilets, the sinks, and even the outside garden outlets.  Not such a great solution on Christmas Eve.  So I climbed into the attic (or loft as attics are called here in England), and found the valves controlling the water going into the master bathroom.  Turning them off gave us water in the rest of the house, but the entire master bathroom was dry.  It is also how I discovered that the valves were leaking, and that if something were not done about them soon, the bathroom water supply would be coming directly into the shower below through the ceiling.  I got a large plastic sheet that used to be a shower curtain to provide a temporary retainer.

Then I called our wonderful plumber, and apologized to his nine-year-old daughter for calling her Dad on Christmas Eve.  Oh, that’s okay, she said.  Can I have him phone you when he gets home?  Which he did.  I told him it was not a call-out emergency, but did he have any stop-gap solutions until he could come after the holidays.  He said to go back into the loft and turn the electrical supply to the shower off and then back on again.  “I don’t know why,” he said, “but this sometimes happens with your kind of shower, and this sometimes works.”

And it did work.  So by the time the church bells were ringing calling the faithful to midnight services, we once again had a functioning bathroom, shower and all.  Not what we’d thought twelve hours earlier we were hoping for Christmas, but glad for it after all.

Alan, the plumber, is coming next week to replace the faulty valves.  We’re hoping for a happy New Year.  That does mean, much as I appreciate him, seeing a little less of Alan in 2008 than we saw of him in 2007.

If you are wondering about my diet, I did lose a pound before Christmas.  Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I put it back on, and besides that, I also think my scale is off by about three pounds.  That means I really want to lose six pounds instead of three.  I wonder if learning to love fat would be easier than getting it off?

December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve gift

Filed under: Just Stuff,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 3:16 pm

Two days ago, Chris Hopkins, a businessman in Yorkshire, ordered ten tonnes of snow on eBay and had it delivered to a children’s hospice in Whetherby near Leeds, so the children there could have a white Christmas.  As I write this, they are rolling snowmen, tracing angels, throwing snow balls, and sledding the inclines.

The man from whom Chris Hopkins purchased the snow has donated the proceeds to Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London.

Merry Christmas

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