Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins
-01- It had been long known to astronomers that peripheral vision has some very strange effects on perception… In the human eye, rods perceive in black and white, while cones perceiver colour. The rods have a much lower threshold for stimulation; that’s why at nighttime, when light is limited, cones become inactive and the world seems to lose colour. Being accustomed to gaze at what sends us light, we turn our eyes in the direction from which the rays come. As, however, the cones have not yet been stimulated… we cannot see the spot gazed at. Thereby we are confronted by the remarkable fact that we see something which we are not gazing at, whilst it becomes invisible when we wish to fix our eyes upon it… The centre of the eye is dominated by cones, while the rest of the retina has a combination of rods and cones.
-02- There was one maxim I could never be prevailed upon to depart from, viz. that whatever I had once affirmed in conversation, tho’ to ever so few people, and tho’ ever so improbable, or even absurd, should never be amended or contradicted in the narrative.
-03- God Almighty knows greater sinners, it may be, than you are, because he sees and knows the circumstances of all men’s sins, but your own heart, if it is faithful to you, can discover no guilt as great as your own; because it can only see in you those circumstances on which the great part of guilt is founded. (Serious [?] Call to Devotion)
-04- Other old tombstones from the time carry chilling messages like [??] mihi, cras tibi (Today me, tomorrow you.) – a spiteful epitaph if there ever was one.
-05- As my more adept readers may have already guessed, there was something missing from this fantastic narrative—an elusive quality that we might call reality .
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
001. The most dramatic example of this biological priority shift is a sexually mediated disregard for pain and physical discomfort. Whatever ails you pretty much stops ailing you during really hot sex. Fevers and muscle aches, Kinsey claimed, briefly abate. Temperature extremes go unnoticed, which must have been a relief for the couples in Kinsey’s attic, as it was, depending on the season, either very hot or very cold up there. Handily, the gag reflex is eliminated, even “among individuals who are quite prone to gag when objects are placed deep in their mouths.” (Objects! Har.) [Parenthetical is author's.]
002. A series of studies by Meredith Chivers and colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto showed that men are more discriminating than women when it comes to how they respond to pornographic images. Women, both gay and straight, will show immediate genital arousal in response to films of sexual activity, regardless of who is engaging in it—male, female, gay, straight, good hair or bad. Men, contrary to stereotype, tend to respond in a limited manner; they are aroused only by footage that fits their sexual orientation and interests.
003. Nominations for a Nobel Prize, I found out when I contacted the Nobel Foundation to try to verify Shafik’s, remain secret for fifty years. You make the claim, and nobody can prove otherwise until after you’re dead. Add one to your resume today!
004. But efficient sex is not amazing sex. The best sex going on in Masters and Johnson’s lab was the sex being had by committed gay and lesbian couples. Not because they were practicing special secret homosexual sex techniques, but because they “took their time.” They lost themselves—in each other, and in sex. They “tended to move slowly…and to linger at… [each] stage of stimulative response, making each step in tension increment something to be appreciated…” They teased each other “in an obvious effort to prolong the stimulatee’s high levels of sexual excitation.”
Another difference was that the lesbians were almost as aroused by what they were doing to their partner as was the partner herself. Not just because, say, fondling a breast turned them on, but because their partners’ reactions did. Masters and Johnson’s heterosexuals failed to grasp that if you lost yourself in the tease—in the pleasure and power of turning someone on—that that could be as arousing as being teased and turned on oneself. “Not only were committed lesbians more effective in satisfying their partners, they usually involved themselves without restraint…far more than husbands approaching their wives.” The straight man, in most cases, “became so involved in his own sexual tensions that he seemed relatively unaware of the degree of his partner’s sexual involvement. There were only a few instances when the husband seemed fully aware of his wife’s levels of sexual excitation and helped her to expand her pleasure…rather than attempting to force her rapidly to higher levels of sexual involvement.”
The same criticisms applied to straight women: “This sense of goal orientation, of trying to get something done…was exhibited almost as frequently by the heterosexual women as by their male partners.” They ignored their husband’s nipples and just about everything else other than his penis.
Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
-01- The advice that you must change your environment—for example, by eliminating negative people and news—is an admission that there may in fact be a “real world” out there that is utterly unaffected by our wishes. In the face of this terrifying possibility, the only “positive” response is to withdraw into one’s own carefully constructed world of constant approval and affirmation, nice news, and smiling people.
-02- A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns. In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States.
-03- The answer, I think, is that positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology—the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it. That ideology is “positive thinking,” by which we usually mean two things. One is the generic content of positive thinking—that is, the positive thought itself—which can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better. This is optimism, and it is not the same as hope. Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice.
-04- We don’t usually talk about American nationalism, but it is a mark of how deep it runs that we apply the word “nationalism” to Serbs, Russians, and others, while believing ourselves to possess a uniquely superior version called “patriotism.”
-05- But of course it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the “best” or the “greatest.” Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal,
-06- In her remarkable book, Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst, sociologist Karen Cerulo recounts a number of ways that the habit of positive thinking, or what she calls optimistic bias, undermined preparedness and invited disaster.
-07- Psychotherapy and support groups might improve one’s mood, but they did nothing to overcome cancer.
-08- genes of the inherited variety are thought to account for less than 10 percent of breast cancers, and only 30 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have any known risk factor (such as delaying childbearing or the late onset of menopause) at all.
-09- “When an entire lifetime is taken up in the pursuit of positive emotions, however, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found,” and without them, evidently, there can be no “authentic happiness.”
-10- Strangely though, the arrival of children—which one would expect to result from fundamentalist marriages—actually decreases the happiness of the parents, and, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “the only known symptom of ‘empty nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.”
-11- Without a doubt, throughout our several hundred thousand years of existence on earth, humans have also been guided by superstition, mystical visions, and collective delusions of all sorts. But we got where we are, fanning out over the huge continent of Africa and from there all over the earth, through the strength of the knots we could tie, the sturdiness of shelters and boats, the sharpness of spearheads.
Britain: Culture Smart!: Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Paul Norbury
-001- [Britain] has won more Nobel Prizes than the countries of Europe combined
-002- Britain is located on the westernmost edge of the continental shelf of Europe. It consists of two large and several hundred small islands that were separated from the European continent in about 6000 BCE.
-003- The landscape becomes increasingly mountainous toward the north, rising to the Grampian Mountains in Scotland, the Pennines in northern England, and the Cambrian Mountains in Wales. The major rivers include the Thames in the south, the Severn in the west, and the Spey in Scotland.
-004- Britain tends to be cloudy and overcast. Despite its reputation for rain, the fact is that only about half the country has more than 30 inches (76 cm) of rain annually—except in recent years, when freak flooding has overturned the precipitation tables. The wettest areas are Snowdonia, with about 200 inches (508 cm) of rain, and the Lake District, much loved by tourists, with 132 inches (335 cm).
-005- England itself generally enjoys the best weather overall, especially the southwestern part of the country, which benefits from its position in the path of the Gulf Stream (as do the Western Isles of Scotland). The coldest parts of Britain are the highlands of Scotland. On top of Ben Nevis, the highest peak, the mean temperature for the year is around freezing point, while many north-facing gullies contain year-round snow. Air temperatures seldom rise above 90°F (32°C) or drop below 14°F (-10°C). As this book goes to press in the summer of 2003, however, a heat wave in Britain has sent the temperature soaring above 100°F (38°C) for the first time since records began.
-006- it is essential to understand that the historic cultural traditions of the British, particularly the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, and Norman French cultures, remain at the center of the “British way of life.”
-007- The centuries of conflict that were finally resolved in the Act of Union uniting the governments of England and Scotland in 1707 (the monarchies having united in 1603) generated a profound and, at times, fiercely defended sense of separate identity. This is, perhaps, best demonstrated in the separate national football and rugby teams for England, Scotland, and Wales.
-008- For example, about two-thirds of all Black ethnic groups live in London. In Leicester, Wolverhampton, and Birmingham, there are large numbers of Indians, and many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in Birmingham, Greater Manchester, and West Yorkshire, especially in Leeds and Bradford.
-009- More than four-fifths of the total population of the United Kingdom live in England. The greatest concentrations of population are in London and the Southeast, South and West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, the West Midlands, and adjoining towns in the Northeast on the rivers Tyne (Newcastle), Wear (Durham and Sunderland), and Tees (Middlesbrough).
-010- With over 16,500 rural towns, villages, and hamlets in England, the majority having populations of fewer than 500,
-011- Even when Chaucer was writing his Canterbury Tales at the end of the fifteenth century, he was drawing on a vocabulary containing Celtic, classical Latin, vulgar Latin, medieval Latin, Saxon, Jutish, Northumbrian, Norman French, Central French, Danish, and Norwegian!
-012- In 55 and 54 BCE Julius Caesar sent expeditions to reconnoiter Britain for potential resources and settlement. Nearly a hundred years later, in 43 CE, the Emperor Claudius duly set about the conquest of Britain, which was followed by some 350 years of Roman rule over an evolving Romano-Celtic society. By the beginning of the fifth century, the Roman Empire was in serious decline, resulting in the virtual collapse of many of its outposts, including Britain. The remnants of the Roman army withdrew in c. 409 CE. With Pax Romana no longer maintaining law and order, Celtic Britain was soon at the mercy of marauding German tribes, the Jutes (Hengist and Horsa), the Saxons, and the Angles. The Roman-style civil governments, or civitates, that were left continued to beg Rome, in vain, for help against the invaders. Eventually, England was overrun and became a predominantly Anglo-Saxon society, with the indigenous Celtic peoples pushed to the extremities in Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland. The eighth century, however, witnessed the start of a new wave of invasions. This time, it was the turn of the highly sophisticated Norsemen—Viking pirates from Scandinavia, especially Denmark—to wreak havoc and devastation, at least initially, on towns and villages along vast areas of the British coast. The greatest Viking invasion, involving hundreds of ships—the biggest fleet England had ever seen—culminated in the fall of York in 867. Over time, the Viking authority in many parts of England was firmly established. The administration of these areas became subject to what was known as the Danelaw. Place-names ending in –by, as in Whitby, and –thorpe, as in Scunthorpe, bear witness to their Viking past.
-013- The next major milestone was in 1066, when the last successful invasion of Britain took place. William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings on the south coast of England and became King William I, known as “William the Conqueror.” The story of the battle is famously celebrated in the Bayeux tapestry, presumed to have been woven in Canterbury, and kept today in Bayeux, northern France.
-014- 61 Rebellion by the Iceni people under Boudicca (Boadicea). Paulinus crushes the revolt after overrunning London and St. Albans. (Boudicca commits suicide the following year.)
-015- 449 Landing of Hengist and Horsa. Jutes, Saxons, and Angles land in Britain and begin establishing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
-016- 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, invades England, defeats Harold Godwinson near Hastings on October 14, and seizes the English throne. 1085–6 Compilation of Domesday Book, a survey of English landholdings ordered by William I.
-017- 13th century First Oxford and Cambridge Colleges founded. Edward of Caernarvon (later Edward II) created Prince of Wales.
-018- 1348–9 Black Death (bubonic plague) wipes out a third of England’s population.
-019- 1477 First book to be printed in England by William Caxton.
-020- 1653–58 Britain becomes a republic, the “Commonwealth,” ruled by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. He abolishes the Monarchy, the House of Lords, and the Anglican Church. 1660 The Monarchy is restored under Charles II (1660–85), hence the Restoration Period (the Anglican Church and the House of Lords also reinstated).
-021- 1665 Great Plague—the last major epidemic of its kind in England. 1666 Great Fire of London begins in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane and burns for three days.
-022- 1760–1840 The Industrial Revolution transforms Britain.
-023- 1775–83 Under the reign of George III (1760–1811) American War of Independence leads to the loss of the Thirteen Colonies. The Empire continues to expand in Canada, India, and Australia. 1801 Act of Union unites Great Britain and Ireland, governed by a single Parliament.
-024- 1919–21 Anglo-Irish war. The Anglo-Irish Treaty establishes the Irish Free State; Northern Ireland (the Six Counties) remains part of the United Kingdom.
-025- 1947 Independence given to India and Pakistan; Britain begins to dismantle the Empire. 1948 Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) begins, offering free medical care to the entire population.
-026- Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis (4,409 feet; 1,344 meters) is in the Grampians. Scotland accounts for approximately one-third of Britain’s landmass, but contains only some 12 percent of the population (5.1 million)—a population that is gradually declining,
-027- It is not surprising, therefore, that Scotland has sustained a strong commitment to the rights of the working man and therefore the trade union movement, especially in Glasgow and the Strathclyde region, and continues a vigorous campaign, principally through the Scottish Nationalist Party, for independence. But today there is little enthusiasm as far as most Scots are concerned for an independent Scotland (as the 2003 Scottish Assembly elections showed); instead, most Scots vote Labour, and Scottish MPs at Westminster contribute vital votes to maintain the Labour government in power.
-028- The Parliament has the Scottish Executive and the First Minister at its head, and 129 members (MSPs), of which the majority are Labour. It is responsible for the day-to-day running of Scottish domestic affairs. It does not have a second, revising Chamber, like the House of Lords at Westminster. In the 2003 Assembly elections, fewer than a third of the Scottish electorate bothered to vote.
-029- The Scottish Parliament’s responsibilities include health, education, local government, housing, economic development, civil and criminal law, transport, the environment, agriculture, fisheries and forestry, sport and the Arts. In these matters, it is able to amend or repeal existing Acts of the British Parliament and pass new legislation. It also has the power to adjust the basic rate of income tax by a maximum of three pence.
-030- The principal elements of Scotland’s economy today are the electronics industry, accounting for over 50 percent of Scotland’s manufactured exports, offshore oil and gas, whiskey, tourism, forestry, fishing, and financial services. (The four Scottish-based clearing banks issue their own banknotes; these are legal tender throughout Britain, but are sometimes regarded with suspicion by traders in England.)
-031- Although known to the Egyptians and Romans millennia ago, there is no doubt that today the “sound” of Scotland is the bagpipes, and has been so for centuries.
-032- In the old days, most clan chiefs boasted a personal piper—a tradition that gave rise to legendary piping families, such as the MacCrimmons, the MacLeods, and the MacArthurs.
-033- Scottish life and culture used to be split between the Lowlands or Borders cities, towns, and villages, where intellectual, scientific, and literary life was nurtured, and the Highlands, where social life revolved around the clan system, clann in Gaelic meaning children or family. Loyalty was paramount for survival since the clan chief was at once leader, protector, and dispenser of justice. (Still to be seen today are the gallow hills and beheading pits, which were common features of clan territories.)
-034- The earliest mention of golf as a game that we would recognize goes back to 1457, when its popularity was so great that it (along with “futeball”) had to be prohibited on Sundays because it interfered with archery practice.
-035- The Scots are friendly people. They may be dour, cautious, and candid, and are certainly not given to as much laughter as the English, but they offer a warm and hospitable welcome to the visitor.
-036- People from Aberdeen, to the northeast, are sometimes said to speak the purest English in Britain, on account of their traditional “clean” and “clear” pronunciation of English, albeit with a very defined and rolled “r.”
-037- Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language, akin to Irish. As a spoken language it is on the decline, with perhaps fewer than 60,000 speakers who are competent enough to use it as a first language. Most of these live in the Hebrides (where over 70 percent are Gaelic speakers) and Skye (about 60 percent), off Scotland’s west coast.
-038- The most famous of the Welsh highland areas is Snowdonia National Park in the north of the country, which spreads across some 825 square miles (2,137 sq. km), with Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa), its highest peak, rising to 3,560 feet (1,085 m). But although the north is the most mountainous area, there are also delightful upland areas of central Wales. The River Severn, at 210 miles (338 km) is the longest river in Britain. The Brecon Beacons are the center of another National Park of about 500 square miles (l,300 sq. km).
-039- Long before the Romans left Britain, Wales was an autonomous Celtic stronghold ruled by sovereign princes. But by the eleventh century, the emerging Anglo-Norman kingdom of England found it increasingly difficult to accept the breakdown of law and order along its borders resulting from the rivalry that was rife among the Welsh princes. William the Conqueror had himself addressed (without much success) what came to be known as the “Welsh problem,” and in the second half of the twelfth century Henry II set up a system of “divide and rule” schemes involving small areas of jurisdiction whereby his famous, and often ruthless, Anglo-Norman Marcher barons held power in key places such as Chepstow, Brecon, and Monmouth. (The so-called Marcher barons were appointed to supervise the Marches, the boundary areas of England with Wales, and also with Scotland.)
-040- The population of Wales is just under three million, with over half living in the industrialized south. Cardiff is the largest city (population 325,000), followed by Swansea (230,000).
-041- Some 20 percent of the population are Welsh speakers, with Welsh being the first language spoken in the rural north and west of the country. Welsh is extensively used in broadcasting, most road signs are bilingual, and it is used equally with English in the Welsh Assembly. Since 2000 it has been taught as a first or second language to pupils throughout Wales; in addition, it is used as a first teaching language in some five hundred primary and secondary schools in Wales. The Welsh language has a unique, undulating rhythm, which has transferred to the accent of the Welsh when speaking English.
-042- Geographically, it is part of the island of Ireland, although at its closest point it is separated from Scotland by a mere 13 miles (21 km) of water, the North Channel. After a bitter civil war, the famous national vote of 1921 offered the people of Ireland the choice between independence and self-rule, and remaining part of Britain. Twenty-six predominantly Catholic counties, including three from Ulster, chose independence, leaving only the six northern, and in those days largely Protestant, counties of Ulster to remain part of and loyal to Britain.
-043- The Good Friday Agreement This secured three objectives: The establishment of an elected Assembly and Executive that is representative of both political traditions in Northern Ireland. The establishment of cross-border bodies to foster and develop greater cooperation between Ulster and the Republic. The commitment to expand and consolidate the relationship between the islands of Ireland and Britain.
-044- Archaeological evidence suggests a brief period of Roman occupation two thousand years ago. English history in Ireland goes back to the time of Henry II (1154–89), who in 1171 landed at Waterford with four thousand men and the blessing of Pope Adrian IV. Within weeks he had ensured that all the Irish bishops acknowledged the authority of Rome, and most of the Gaelic kings paid him homage. In the generations that followed, a new feudal Ireland emerged, based on the Norman English model, complete with castles, manors, walled towns, monasteries, and a French-speaking knightly caste, which, according to one historian, was “… utterly unlike the cattle-droving, kinship-based clans of the indigenous Gaels.”
-045- Northern Ireland has a 224-mile (360-km) border with the Irish Republic, forming the U.K.’s only land boundary with another member state of the European Union. About half the population of 1.7 million live in the eastern coastal region, at the center of which is the capital, Belfast (population just under 300,000).
-046- There are twenty-six local government district councils, eighteen Members of Parliament elected to the House of Commons in Westminster, and, by proportional representation, three of the eighty-seven U.K. representatives elected to the European Parliament.
-047- The English love nature and creativity, order and harmony, language and wit; and dislike pomposity. They are naturally curious, they are tolerant and fair, modest, practical, resilient, and self-sufficient. But they can seem “superior,” exclusive, and reserved. They can be too fond of alcohol and the “pub culture,” and anti-intellectual. They can be stubborn (“bloody-minded”), and skeptical.
-048- A British newspaper columnist once wrote that, after having been abroad for an extended period of time, it was an enormous relief to be back home in Britain and “on the same wavelength” as everyone else again. He put this down to reconnecting with the British sense of irony, one of the arteries of everyday communication. It is true that much of what the British say is not quite what they mean. This is self-evident to the native listener, but with others it can cause misunderstandings. This particular aspect of the British character does not seem to travel well. Irony has to do with self-deprecation, with the “buzz” that comes from a tendency to laugh at oneself and one’s situation, and an anticipation of constant, gentle amusement. Irony is a trigger for laughter, which, to paraphrase Billy Connolly, the British see as a form of free medication for body, mind, and spirit. Not surprisingly, the British are not routinely polite to each other—a habit that can be oppressive in other cultures; and they don’t suffer fools gladly. They are good “on parade,” when they have to be, though they might grumble; but later they make merry, and usually make a good job of doing that too.
-049- In his book Trust, Francis Fukuyama wrote of cultures that vary in fortune because of the levels of trust they enjoy and sustain; he cites Britain and Japan as High Trust cultures. It is certainly true that trust is implicit in the way the British manage their affairs, within local and central government, in their approach to law and order, including the principle that policing is done “with the consent of the people,” in the way their judiciary system operates, and so on. Trust is taken for granted in Britain. It is no surprise, therefore, that the degree of trust extended to each other in daily life is also remarkable, even though it is being seriously undermined by a rising tide of materialism and selfishness. The tradition of the “gentlemen’s agreement” epitomized this philosophy of life and continues to be cherished, especially by the older generations committed to traditional values.
-050- So underplayed (or even undervalued) in England are the public displays of national identity—so highly prized elsewhere in the world—that England’s national holidays do not include even the feast of St. George (the patron saint of England, famous for slaying a dragon) on April 23. In fact it generally passes unnoticed—whereas, as everybody knows, the celebrations by the Irish to mark the feast of St. Patrick on March 17 echo around the world. The English do not seem to feel the need for celebrations of this kind.
-051- A Sense of Superiority This has been expressed as, “The rest of the world have to keep telling us how wonderful they are—like the French, Italians, or Germans, who imagine that a perfect world consists only of French, Italians, or Germans. But the English, who will mix with anybody, don’t need to broadcast how good they are. They just know they’re the best.”
-052- Tolerance, fair play, and an instinct for compromise are fundamental qualities of the British character, along with a strong sense of justice, which draws on all of these and remains an abiding passion.
-053- There are three main class divisions in England (which also apply in Scotland, but perhaps less so in Wales): upper class, middle class, and lower or working class.
-054- As far as social behavior is concerned, it is generally true to say that the further up the social scale one goes, the more one will find people observing the old-fashioned conventions and formalities reflected in the old saying, “Manners makyth man.”
-055- The Honours Lists, as they are called, are announced twice a year and are known as the New Year’s Honours and the Queen’s Birthday Honours. The New Year list is largely compiled by the Prime Minister of the day, advised by ministers and civil servants. The Queen’s Birthday list, although also drawn up under advice from ministers and civil servants, has some direct input from the Queen herself together with her counsel. Titles are so broadly conferred today that some people feel their inherent value has become debased. There are also members of the Labour Party who would like to see the entire system abolished.
-056- The Catholic Church continues to have the largest adult active membership of any Christian denomination, with over one million attending mass regularly.
-057- The English love committees, so the government readily supports “quangos” (“quasi-autonomous nongovernmental organizations”) such as the Arts Council, which is one of the conduits whereby the arts are managed and subsidized and appropriate compromises are reached.
-058- Traditionally, the British were not known for applying themselves overconscientiously in the workplace: most worked simply to earn the money to live. “Devotion to duty,” and the very idea of “hard work” (with honorable exceptions, no doubt) are not phrases that readily come to mind.
-059- Also, the whole apparatus of the legal system is steeped in history, including dress and court conventions, which mostly date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
-060- in the summer of 2003 the government suddenly announced it was going to do away with the Lord Chancellor’s office—the oldest and most distinguished Office of State in the land—and replace it with a Department of Constitutional Affairs. Other fundamental reforms of the legal system are also being considered, including the abolition of the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, to be replaced by an American-style Supreme Court.
-061- This recent process of “devolving power” also includes a change in London, where there has been an elected mayor and a separately elected twenty-five-member Assembly (known as the Greater London Authority) since 2000.
-062- The Monarchy is the oldest institution of government in Britain. It can be dated back to Egbert, King of Wessex, who united England under his rule in 829.
-063- The Queen’s official title is “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.” The Queen is also Head of State of fifteen other realms, including Bermuda and the Falkland Islands, and fifteen Commonwealth countries (including Australia and New Zealand, the Bahamas, Barbados, Canada, and Jamaica), where she is represented by a Governor-General, appointed by her on advice from the ministers of the countries concerned and independent of the British government.
-064- In legal terms, the Queen is head of the executive and therefore Head of State; she is an integral part of the government’s legislature; she is head of the judiciary and commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of the Crown. She is also “supreme governor” of the established
-065- Broadly speaking, the political system in Britain, as you might expect, is divided along class lines, although all parties would protest that they are founded on ideological principles. Thus, there is the Conservative and Unionist Party (Unionist is an inclusive word, but also refers to the Protestant Unionist parties of Northern Ireland that support continued union with Britain), which has a history going back over two hundred years. Historically, it saw itself as defending tradition, the landed gentry, and the middle classes; but in today’s world of the politically uncommitted “floating voter,” increased blurring of social distinctions, and head-on challenges from New Labour, which adopted many Conservative policies when it came to power in 1997, its appeal is across the cultural spectrum.
-066- The Conservatives are also referred to as “Tories”—originally a term of abuse meaning bandits, which emerged in the period of Charles II. At the time, the other political faction was referred to as “Whigs” (today’s Liberal-Democrats), meaning Scottish cattle thieves. The Labour Party, founded at the end of the nineteenth century by the trade union movement, traditionally saw itself as the representative of the working classes. The new “Blairite” Labour Party sees itself as appealing, above all, to “Middle England”—the middle classes—which includes many “floating voters,” but in so doing it has alienated increasing numbers of its traditional working-class supporters. The third major party is the Liberal Democratic Party, formed in 1988 when the Liberal Party, which also has roots going back over two hundred years, merged with the Social Democratic Party, formed in 1981. The LDP occupies a position left of center, and appeals to the “high minded.” It campaigns constantly for proportional representation in Parliament, and endeavors to make all decisions from the “moral high ground.” However, the Liberal Party (or its successor, the LDP) has failed to gain office in over seventy years. Conservative and Labour have each held office eight times since World War II.
-067- It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that Parliament, the seat of government in Britain, is sustained by a great many conventions that go back centuries. For example, during parliamentary debates in the House of Commons (“the House”), Members of Parliament (MPs) are not allowed to use each other’s names; colleagues are called “My Honorable Friend” (or, if they are Privy Councillors, “My Right Honorable Friend”); whereas if they are opponents they are referred to as “the honorable gentleman (or lady).” There is no applause, and an MP can show only verbal agreement or dissent, hence shouts of “Here, here,” which signify agreement. Furthermore, there is a list of proscribed words in Parliament. Most importantly, you cannot call an honorable member a liar; but you could tell him you thought he was being “economical with the truth!”
-068- The general manager of the House of Commons when it is “sitting,” that is, in session, is called the Speaker. He or she determines who shall speak, and maintains control during debates by calling out “Order! Order!” when members become too noisy. Were the Speaker to stand up at any time because of serious disorder, then all members are obliged to sit down.
-069- British cooking has been much maligned. There are some ideas about it that may be partially true. For example, it has been said that the Puritans of the seventeenth century cast a shadow over just about every aspect of English life, leaving only a faint memory of the traditions of “Merrie England” that predated them. Food, or the love of it, may not have escaped this shadow. Then, in the twentieth century, years of wartime austerity and rationing also had their effect, and people “made do”—in many cases ingeniously—with whatever they could get, or could grow for themselves. As a result, they became used to second-best for a while.