I know we have been seeing a lot of bad news, conflict, and general mess wherever we go lately. I am not trying to trivialize any of it, but I just want to offer the virtual form of the British panacea to show that there are still bits of comfort still there in the world to be cherished.
Pretend it is coffee, if you don’t like tea. I aim to please. You can look up pictures of your favorite biscuits to go with it.
I ordered Horne’s custard powder from Canada, and, to all the Britons out there, no, The Boffin is not starting divorce proceedings. To the Americans out there, custard powder is a staple within the U.K. and many Commonwealth countries because custard is either served by itself, primarily to children, or it is served with so many desserts the same way you would with whipped cream or ice cream. It is much quicker and easier to make than traditional custard because you don’t have to worry about curdled eggs. All you have to do is heat with milk.
It was first invented by a chemist named Alfred Bird of Swansea back in 1837 because his wife was allergic to eggs and couldn’t enjoy traditional custard. Mrs. Bird was a lucky lass, I say.
The British brand of choice is still Bird’s custard powder, and The Boffin still thinks it has a smoother, silkier mouth feel. However, we decided to pick up a tin of Horne’s when we visited Canada. I happen to like that brand better because it has vanilla, and it has four different starches which give it a fuller texture. So we decided to alternate tins. This is how an Anglo-American marriage works, folks. Neither side claims superiority.
Besides, Bird’s is better for making custard creams.
Regardless, the Canadian company where I bought the powder sent a fable with its packing slip. Service with a smile, so I thought I would pass it along.
Unfortunately, I did my grocery shopping too late, so I missed a chance to utilize these helpful suggestions on how to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night according to one of my local grocery stores.
Hey, it turns out that Guy Fawkes lead the conspiracy and not Robert Catesby. Who knew? And Guy Fawkes also did some time travel too because the Kingdom of Britain did not exist until 1707. I thought it was still the the Kingdom of England and Wales in 1605. He must have used the TARDIS. The Doctor never seems to go anywhere apart from London, as far as I have seen.
Regardless, so what are Americans supposed to do, since there are no fireworks, bonfires, nor parades around these parts (although there used to be in early colonial days in New England)? Well, it looks like we are supposed to drink Irish tea with chocolate covered digestive “crackers”. Perhaps we can snack on baked beans on top of Irish beer-flavored potato chips. Sounds pretty lame. Is that all?
The grocery store also gave an idea for a meal to fix along with some more specials.
Ah! It’s Cinco de Noviembre!
Considering we have some of the best Mexican food in the Chicagoland area, this could work. Instead of the bonfires, we can make Guy Fawkes into a piñata, fill him with a lot of that leftover Halloween candy, and have the kids hit him with sticks. And we are always looking for reasons to set off fireworks and explosives. This is America.
Both Remembrance Day and Veterans Day are celebrated on November 11, but they mark very different occasions and have very different tones to them.
Remembrance Day (also known as Armistice Day) marks the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918 that World War I officially ended and is observed by most countries who fought in the war, including the Commonwealth nations. I know in the U.K., the main commemoration involving the Royal Family and other dignitaries includes two minutes of silence at 11:00 at the Cenotaph at Whitehall, and the other ceremonies throughout the nation happen on Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 11th.
Over here, Veterans Day is a different thing entirely. It is a day that honors those who have served in the armed forces, living or dead. Wartime, peacetime…it doesn’t matter. So, if you signed on the dotted line, it’s your day. That is why you will see lots of memes on Facebook thanking veterans today from the Americans. Because we have Memorial Day on Bank Holiday weekend in May to honor those we lost, it’s a lot less somber than Remembrance Day.
Case in point, this is what The Boffin told me this morning.
“Happy Veterans Day! Go find some free shit.”
Yes, businesses here give veterans stuff for free on Veterans Day. Here is what I can get locally and some national deals.
I also found out I can get a free tall cup of coffee from Starbucks. Like the vast majority of Americans, I don’t care what color the cup is. I’ll just take a Sharpie and draw Stars of David on it. Or not, because the coffee tastes like water brewed through compost.
So it’s the same date, but different days. However, it is all down to honoring our troops, and I appreciate them in whatever way they served and are still serving. Thank you, all of you.
For the benefit for folks in my parts, November 5, 1605 is a national holiday in the U.K. celebrating the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot, the conspiracy to assassinate King James I by blowing up the Parliament building. Even though Guy Fawkes was the one discovered guarding the explosives, the mastermind behind the whole plot was one Robert Catesby. It’s a shame he never got the festival named after him, since it was his idea.
For the most part, when I was living there 20 years ago, it was always an innocuous holiday full of fireworks and fun, although there was a question about the effigies. It is traditional to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on the town’s bonfire. Understood. Cool. Even before I came over, sometimes towns would throw in a likeness of someone who is persona non grata like the late Margaret Thatcher. However, what made me squicky, were the pope effigies in a few isolated areas. Now, you crossed the line into religion. I understood that the whole point of the celebration was the thwarting of a Catholic conspiracy against the Protestant king, but I grew up Catholic. How was this OK? Were these people saying people like me were not wanted?
Of course, now, I realize my fears were unfounded. The U.K. is a much more religiously tolerant place than the actions of Bonfire Night would make out to be. The pope effigies are gone, and there is some debate about whether the effigies are appropriate for the modern age. That is not for me to say, since I am on this side of the Pond.
Audio media is still a critical part of British culture, and being an island nation, the BBC provides a valuable service by broadcasting the weather report at sea. Produced by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Shipping Forecast has become a staple on the British communication since the telegraph days.
But that does not mean I understood a word of it when I heard it on Radio 4. Stephen Fry created an accurate representation of what most outsiders hear when encountering this mystical broadcast.
Was this part of the citizenship test? Was this code left over from the war, and the powers that be just kept it around for tradition’s sake? Was this an elaborate game of Mornington Crescent that the U.K. was in on just to baffle foreigners?
But I developed a certain affection for the Shipping Forecast even though I had no clue about it. It was very hypnotic and soothing. It started with its theme “Sailing By” by The Perry-Gardner Orchestra, and the mood is set. Then you had the reader say these cryptic words with a rhythm that was almost nautical and definitely soporific. Insomnia was never an issue after the Shipping Forecast.
I ended up looking it up in a book in the Newmarket library because I was too embarrassed to ask anyone. I shouldn’t have been. After all, how is an American supposed to know how to decode the Shipping Forecast?
I am going to try to give a general summary of how it works. When broken down, it isn’t that bad. As you can see by the Stephen Fry graphic above, the water regions are divided and named. There are also inshore waters that are named and coastal weather stations that are numbered, and they are mentioned in the broadcast too.
Then the readers give the wind direction (south, southeast, etc.) and whether it is veering (changing clockwise) or backing (changing counterclockwise). You will hear a number from zero to 12 in there. That’s from the Beaufort scale and that measures wind speed with zero being calm to 12 being hurricane force. The announcers usually give the weather forecast and then the visibility (good, moderate, poor, fog). Under winter conditions, they will also grade the icing (light, moderate, severe). Oh, one more thing, they also keep track of pressure areas in millibars, so you will hear things like “Low Humber, 960, deepening rapidly.”
Back in 1993, the BBC aired the Shipping Forecast on TV and radio, and somebody was kind enough to post it on YouTube. For some, this could be meditative. For others, this could be pencil-in-the-throat boredom. If you are awake after this video, you are one very strong soul.
Even though trick-or-treating has become more common in the U.K., it is far from the well-established tradition that it is in the United States. I remember when I was stationed in the Air Force in the early 90s and having a conversation about it with my Ministry of Defense colleague. She could not see the point of children going door-to-door threatening strangers for sweets. From that perspective, it does sound quite weird, doesn’t it?
However, I loved trick-or-treating when I was little, and I love it even more as a mom when I take the Sprog out with her friends and seeing her feel the same joy I felt. Of course, the payoff is in the candy, since I understand sugar on a deeper level than most mortals. It is just as much about the atmosphere of autumn, the dressing up and playing make-believe, the giggling with your pals, and the thrill of the hunt. It’s running into a classmate and having her tell you, “Hey, go to number 62 around the corner! They have full-sized Twix bars!” Sweet! In more ways than one! It’s finding your older brother TPing the gym teacher’s house and his hissing at you, “Don’t tell Mom and Dad!”. You will figure out how many Milky Ways he has to cough up later to buy your silence. (Not an autobiographical story.) It’s the test of endurance. How far are you willing to walk to fill up a pillowcase of tooth rotting glory? And woe betide the house who distributed apples!
Much is made about safety concerns regarding trick-or-treating. First of all, the whole thing about evil sociopaths tampering with candy has been an urban myth perpetuated by inflated stories in the news. Of course, since it was hard to disprove these tales in the 80’s, my dad, in response, had to inspect the candy before we were allowed to touch it and used his authority to have first dibs. This was also the man who told us that Santa liked beer. He is quite a smart guy.
To be fair, it is good practice to look over the candy anyway just to throw out the ones that are choking hazards for the little ones and the sweets with open wrappers.
Secondly, you go trick-or-treating where you feel comfortable with the people and safety levels, and chances are, it is your neighborhood. If you do not live in such a place, there are usually community trick-or-treating events. For example, in my village during trick-or-treating hours, the businesses pass out candy. With the fun-size Snickers, your kid may get a coupon for a restaurant you have been meaning to try. I remember on one particularly chilly Halloween, one restaurant gave away mulled apple cider (non-alcoholic). And the police are there directing traffic and guiding people across the streets. So the kids get candy, and the village promotes local businesses. It’s crowded, but well done.
But can trick-or-treating go overboard? Well, you tell me. There are neighborhoods jam packed with families. Buying huge bags of candy is a necessity. I took pictures at my local Target to give those outside of our borders an idea of what we can buy to stock up.
I think it is a fair comment that it can be a bit much.
There is also the matter of what you do with the candy after trick-or-treating. The good chocolate can be frozen, but there is always those cheap candies like American Smarties that are basically sugar and food coloring that nobody wants to eat. Into the trash they go. Then there are the pencils, plastic rings, tattoos, and other tat that will end up in a desk drawer or hidden in the back of the kid’s closet. Those will be found next year during a bedroom deep clean. So we know there is only one place the rest of the candy can go.
The office break room.
If the parents are going to go down, they are going to bring everyone else down with them.
And thus begins the weight gaining season that will last until we make half-hearted New Year’s resolutions.