Tag Archives: British

But Christmas was over ages ago! (Oh, no, it wasn’t!)

(British readers will probably find the headline for this post trite, a cliche; American readers probably won’t know why.  Read on to find out.)

You think Christmas is long gone?  There’s one Christmas tradition in Britain that begins in earliest November, and in some places runs well past the end of January, without anybody complaining that it starts too early or stays too long.  And it’s almost invariably known by a diminutive of its proper name without anybody—not even me—complaining that people shorten the name.  And that’s panto.

The Genie of the Ring and the Genie of the Lamp at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

The Genie of the Ring (Alison Moulden) and the Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) at a neighbourhood production of Aladdin this season

Yes, it’s short for pantomime, but there’re no coyly silent mimes grinning from under berets; panto is louder than most theatre performances, because the audience gets to talk back.  A lot. It’s not panto without audience participation.

A panto is ostensibly a play for children, although I’ve read that well over 90% of people in Britain see a panto every year, a total which must include people who, like me, have no children to give them an excuse.  They dramatize a few traditional children’s stories (generally Cinderella, Snow White, Babes in the Wood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Dick Whittington, or Aladdin), but it’s common to see whole families showing up with three or even four generations.  In the best pantos—well, in my opinion—a lot of the lines work on two levels: straightforward and wholesome for the kiddies, with a second and ever-so-slightly racy sense for adults.

Abenazar, the villain, played by

Good vs. Evil stories sink or swim on their bad guys, and this production lucked into a wonderful villain, the sorcerer Abenazer, as played by Lara Milne, with enormous swishing cape and truly evil chuckle.  In another of those British-English spelling variations for words ending in -er, Abenazer appeared in the programme for this production as “Abanaza”.  (In the edition of the Arabian Nights I have, he’s only called “the African magician”, and has no name.)

All pantos offer dastardly villains, whom we are encouraged to boo.  Each stars a principal boy: a plucky young male hero played by a beautiful young lady.  Each includes a pantomime Dame: an older female character (or two, in the case of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters), played by an older man.  Assorted members of the company handle the parts that complete the story, as well as the musical numbers, slapstick sketches and other wacky mayhem the director has dreamed up.  The most fun I’ve had in years came when some of these players of unnamed parts—in this case, the Lost Boys and the “redskins” (ah, yes; we’ll come to them in a minute) of Peter Pan—handed out grey, foam-rubber, cube-shaped “rocks” to the crowd.  (Sorry, I don’t know the British term for foam rubber, although I do know it isn’t foam rubber.)  They told us to wait for a particular line, and then defend Peter Pan from Captain Hook by throwing our rocks.  Our cue came in the second act.  The air filled with flying grey blocks.  We threw ours from the ground-floor seats, got pelted with rocks that didn’t make it to the stage from the audience in the balcony, picked those up and threw them at the stage, too, while the pirates on stage picked up all the rocks they could and threw ’em back; it was total bedlam, and complete second-childhood bliss, all to the music of the 1812 Overture.

Ahem.

A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A theatre poster for an 1886 panto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In calmer productions, the cast may throw candy into the crowd, or ask you to check your seat to see whether there’s a golden key hidden under it, or just ask for volunteers to come on stage to help with some of the nonsense.  Inevitably, there will be traditional lines for the audience, a sort of call-and-response that all British-born people seem to know, apparently having absorbed it with their mother’s milk.

The hero, you see, depends on the audience for messages about some of the action.  Often it’s that the villain is creeping up, which the audience indicates by shouting out together “He’s beHIIIIND you!”, to which the usual response is “What?” so that the audience can shout the line again and again, only louder.  Granted, this makes the characters seem a bit dim; they also seem rather contrary, going by the traditional disagreements, which go something like this:

Dame, as Evil Stepsister: “The glass slipper is MINE!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes, it is!”

Audience: “Oh, no, it isn’t!”

Dame: “Oh, yes…”

(Repeat until the last moment before it gets tiresome; timing is everything.)

Widow Twankay and the Emperor of China

Widow Twankey (Rosemary Woodcock) and the Emperor of China (Jo Heaphy).  Rosemary gets special credit for stepping into the role when the gent who was playing the Dame had to cancel; she did the cast proud, at one point turning a line she did remember–“I don’t know what to do”–into a hilarious cry for help–“I don’t know what to do.  I’ve no idea what to do [to crew offstage] Tell me what to do!

 This exchange may be the essence of panto.  Do an internet search on panto and I guarantee you’ll find headlines like “Traditional Panto on the Way Out? Oh, no, it isn’t!” or “Panto as Demanding for Actors as Serious Theatre – oh, yes, it is!”

Then there are audience lines I just don’t get, which nobody has been able to explain, most notably “Oompah, oompah, stick it up your jumper”.  Even if you take into account that oompah and jumper rhyme (well, sort of) in standard British English, it’s still nonsense.  But much of panto is nonsense.

Sometimes, though, it’s politically incorrect nonsense.  Peter Pan includes a tribe of “redskins” that I would venture to say would not be seen on any American stage today, certainly  not under the name redskins.  And then there’s Aladdin, which is set in China.  China?

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

Dan Leno, famous for his Dames, as Widow Twankey in 1896

As a child, I thought Aladdin lived just down the road from Ali Baba, in a land of camels and date palms—but listeners the world over like tales of exotic lands, and apparently the original Arabian folktale set Aladdin in China.   That China, however, is a land where shops close on Friday to observe the Muslim holy day, and the inhabitants are called by names such as Mustapha (according to my edition of the Arabian Nights).   The panto version sticks to the original as far as setting the scene in China—but not much beyond that.

In the world of panto, Aladdin’s Chinese mother conforms to English stereotype by running a laundry, which seems a bit culturally insensitive, but…okay; there must be laundries in China and somebody has to run them, presumably somebody Chinese, as it’s doubtful there’s a long-running cultural exchange program whereby English people run laundries in Beijing.  Aladdin’s brother, a laundry worker, is called Wishee Washee (hmmmm…) and their mother is called Widow Twankey—a name that comes from the supposedly Chinese brand-name of a low-grade tea once sold in Britain, chosen to hint that she’s past her prime, since that tea consisted of old leaves.  But then we come to the Emperor’s guards, a trio of Keystone-style cops—Woo, Choo, and Poo—who’re played as fools, and who swap their Rs for Ls.  They appear several times, “rooking for Araddin”, and talk about practicing karate, a Japanese art, as if Asian cultures were interchangeable.  With their entrance, the play descends so far into stereotype that in the US it would be frankly offensive, but it’s cheerfully accepted here as just good fun.

The Emporer and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy.  I loved the orange hightops!

The Emperor and Wishee Washee, played by mother-and-daughter team Jo and Amy Heaphy. I loved the orange hightops!

We wondered, at our neighborhood production of Aladdin this year, what the family sitting next to us, clearly from some far-eastern country and very possibly Chinese, would think. To go by their reaction, Asian immigrants don’t mind.  And the girls playing the Emperor’s Keystone-like guards were, just like the girls playing Aladdin, Wishee Washee, and Rosebud (equivalent of Disney’s Princess Jasmin), so beautiful, they just glowed—despite enormous false moustaches, in the case of the guards.  You couldn’t help but cheer them.

This Aladdin, performed for friends, parents, and locals in a church hall, was a blast, every bit as much fun as a professional panto with big-budget bells and whistles.  Nobody minded when the villain, still in character, dropped suddenly off the script, following a silence after “Noooow, Aladdin…”, with “Noooow, Aladdin, I have forgotten my line”.  Somebody offstage helped, and the whole effect was so charming, it seemed inspired.  They ought to write such things into the scripts on purpose.

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The Genie of the Lamp (Andy Wells) with two members of the chorus: Emily Moulden (left) and Ellie Wells (right), daughter of the Genie himself

For all I know, they have.  It’s traditional to change lines in the script, to add bad jokes (“My dog can talk!  How’re you feeling?” “Ruff!”  “What’s that on the tree?” “Bark!”) or to namecheck local places and personalities.  Characters in the local Aladdin went up the Farnham Road from Onslow Village, and saw the Hog’s Back—all local features, neither Chinese nor Arabian.  It all adds to the wacky (UK-ians might say “daft”) humour of panto that gives us a Wishee Washee in orange hightops, a Chinese/Arabian chorus singing Michael Jackson, and a Genie of the Ring who keeps a can of beer (UK: tin of lager) under her turban and whose theme song, played at her every entrance, is Nokia’s default ring-tone—get it? Get it?)

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

The Genie of the Ring meets her public (drink in hand!) after the show

All over Britain, churches, amateur dramatics societies, and community groups put on local pantos at Christmas-time, while for professional actors, pantos are big business.  Sir Ian McKellan took time off from being Gandalf a while back to play Widow Twankey;  John Barrowman (of Doctor Who and Torchwood) defied tradition to take the part of Aladdin (in a production visited by Daleks) several years in a row; and a famous soap star (Steve McFadden of Eastenders) reportedly earned £200,000 (about US$300,000) as Captain Hook in a production about 5 miles from my house.  You can find them in the National Database of Pantomime Performance along with the smaller fry, and you’ll see there that some of these larger productions actually continue into March.

No, really–March.  So, do you think Christmas is over?  Oh, n—  Well, now you know what to say.

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Remembrance Day Update on London Poppy Day

It’s Remembrance Day here, and at the end of a day full of ceremony and solemnity, I’m pleased to report that London Poppy Day (see previous post) brought in £802,000 (that’s $1,275,000)for needy veterans and soldiers and their dependents.  That’s even more impressive when you consider that last year’s total was £450,000.  As the British say, “Well done, you!”

The Queen touring a poppy factory.

Some poppies are made by hand, in factories set up to employ disabled veterans and their dependents.  Click here to follow a link to a YouTube video of the Queen visiting a poppy factory, and making her own poppy to wear.

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A Treacly Thanksgiving Message

Tate & Lyle tins/cans from my pantry

My family doesn’t usually observe American Thanksgiving now that we’re living in England; when nobody else is celebrating and it isn’t a public holiday, it loses most of its appeal. It’s not that I’m not thankful, that’s for sure, and it’s not that I don’t cook anything. In fact I spent the evening making spice cookies (UK: biscuits) to take to my doctor’s office (UK: doctor’s surgery) tomorrow for him and all the staff. The British National Health Service gives me excellent care—and without doubt the best access to medical care I’ve ever had—and I am truly grateful for it.

I couldn’t find my pumpkin- and turkey-shaped cookie cutters, though, so the clinic staff will have to make do with autumn leaf shapes and plain old circles. And the recipe calls for molasses, which we don’t have here, so I made the cookies with treacle.

When I first encountered Alice in Wonderland and read the story told by the dormouse about a treacle well, I was too little to know it was meant to be nonsense, and since I had no idea what treacle was, I happily took Lewis Carroll’s word for it that treacle was something that came out of a well. Harry Potter’s favorite dessert, treacle tart, isn’t quite that misleading, but it has none of what people usually call treacle in it, either. It’s one of my favorite British concoctions, and like so much good cooking it was born of necessity—you use up bread crumbs to make the filling—but it’s sweetened with golden syrup.

I’ve included photos of the tins (US: cans) of Lyle’s brand treacle and golden syrup from my pantry so you can see the remarkable labels used by the manufacturer, Tate & Lyle. It’s not often you come across food labeled with pictures of the carcass of a dead lion. The connection is the story of Samson, which is also the source of the quotation on the cans: “out of the strong came forth sweetness”. 

Samson seems to have been quite a capable lad, as the tale involves him killing a lion with his bare hands; finding later that bees had made a hive in the body of the lion, from which he harvested honey for his family; and later still being quick-witted enough to turn this into a riddle for what seems to have been some kind of after-dinner entertainment, karaoke not having been invented yet. But the dinner guests cheated at the riddle game so Sampson had to kill thirty of them, which is just the kind of story that makes reading the Old Testament so much fun, yet is precisely the part they leave out when they tell you about it in Sunday school.

The difference between black treacle and golden syrup.

From what I’ve read, treacle and molasses are both byproducts of refining sugar from sugar cane, as is golden syrup. Golden syrup is a type of treacle and molasses isn’t, though I have no idea why, and nobody calls golden syrup by the name treacle because… er, because treacle is something else entirely. Just look at the photos posted with this article and you’ll see the difference. And I have no idea why it’s easier to get molasses in the USA and to get treacle here. Presumably wherever you live, stores offer what the population prefers.

(My father, who was from Mississippi, preferred sorghum, which comes from a different plant entirely. If offered molasses he would launch into the old—if you’re from the American south—joke about how you cain’t have mo’  ’lasses if you ain’t had no  ’lasses yet.)

If the British prefer treacle then I would assume that treacle is sweeter than molasses, because most British food is sweeter than I like it. The national sweet tooth here seems to prefer things amazingly sweet, which I’ve always thought it might just be a holdover from the second world war. They had sugar rationing until 1953, and seem to still be making up for lost time.

But apparently treacle isn’t as sweet as molasses after all, because my spice cookies came out under-sweet. I’m going to give them to the clinic staff anyway.  I can pretend they’re meant to be like that, maybe call them low-sugar biscuits, bill them as a healthier option. The staff will still know I’m thankful to them for being there.

 *   *   *

And, readers, I’m thankful for you. 

In fact, I’ve been delighted to see how many readers seemed to be coming to read my posts these days—my hit count was looking pretty good.  That is, I was delighted, until I found that a good number of these readers were clicking through to this site from an Asian porn site.  Yes, my post from last Christmas on the English tradition of Christmas cake appeared, along with several links to other peoples’ Christmas-food blog posts, on what seems to be an Indonesian pornography site.

 So I am taking the advice of reader Rod Cuff from the north of England, who said that perhaps I could ask the people who enjoy my blog to post links to my site on their sites.  I would be most grateful if people would be willing to link to me, or even for people just to talk this blog up to their friends.  Somehow, I’d rather get new readers by asking you to join me in a marketing effort, than by getting myself listed on more porn pages.

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From Pillar to Post

The postie's van outside my neighbor's house. (That mottling isn't a bad paint job, it's the fierce British sun beating down on the vehicle through the leaves of an oak tree across the street. Either that, or there's something very wrong with my camera.)

In the previous post, I mentioned that Her Majesty’s Royal Mail has trademarked its logo shade of red, used traditionally for phone boxes (US: phone booths), for the vans the posties drive, and on pillar boxes—the British version of blue American mailboxes.  But of course I should really say that the blue American mailboxes are the US versions of pillar boxes, because the UK had them first.

A classic cast-iron pillar box.

In the British Isles, free-standing column-shaped boxes for posting letters date back to 1852, when the Post Office sent someone to investigate ways of speeding up the mail to and from the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey.  The investigator they chose to send was, surprisingly, the novelist Anthony Trollope, who worked for the Post Office at the time.  He suggested free-standing mail collection boxes, though he may have borrowed that idea from the French.  In any case, the oldest pillar box still in use is doing its job on Guernsey.  In addition to Trollope’s “letter-receiving pillars”, the Royal Mail uses wall boxes—set into walls so that the front of the box is flush with the surface of the wall—and lamp post boxes—which sit up on poles, but not necessarily street-lamp poles.

The Royal Cipher for George VI, father of the current queen, in Stanton Drew, a village in Somerset.

One of the most interesting features of pillar boxes is the Royal Cypher, an heraldic device for a member of the royal family, something like a monogram, but with less intertwining of the letters.  Each pillar box (with a very few exceptions) displays the Royal Cipher for the monarch on the throne at the time that pillar box was erected. 

A lamp post box outside our village church.

I don’t have photographs of pillar boxes of every monarch from Victoria onward (that would be truly nerdy), but almost all of them (so that’s not quite so nerdy, then).  I’ve even got a picture of one showing the Royal Cypher of Edward VIII, who was king for less than a year and was never crowned, so pillar boxes with his Royal Cypher are rare. 

Victorian wall box still in the Surrey village of Wanborough

You can find blue American mailboxes in the UK; you just have to go to a US military base.  I confess that once after visiting some cousins in the US Air Force who lived on an American base in the UK—sitting in their American-style home, eating American brands of food they bought on the base, and passing the blue American-style mailboxes at the corner of their street—drove my car off the base and out onto an English road, but onto the wrong side of the road.  The mailboxes in particular, I think, had fooled me into thinking I was back in the States.

Edward VIII's Royal Cypher in a pillar box in Burpham in Surrey--a rare find.

There’s a (probably untrue) story about a prince from a developing country whose family sent him to school in the UK.  When he went home, he told them about the wonderful postal system, and had pillar boxes erected throughout the country.  He neglected, however, to hire anyone to collect the mail from the pillar boxes and deliver it, or in other versions I’ve heard, he ran out of money, or there was a coup in which his family was thrown out of power and someone else, uninterested in regular delivery of the mail, took over.  If anybody can tell me whether there’s any truth in the tale, I’d be interested to know where this happened. 

The always-smiling postie who delivers the mail when our regular postie has the day off. He's a transplant, as I am, though he started out in the Philipines.

The thought of the letters in that poor (and probably fictitious) country languishing uncollected in pillar boxes does strike a chord today, since the new Tory-LibDem coalition government just announced new plans to sell the Royal Mail and let it take its chances on the free market with other delivery services.  I should note that when I said in my last post that the Royal Mail turns a profit, the report from which I got that information apparently didn’t take into account many, many millions the Royal Mail is obligated to pay to retirees who have Royal Mail pensions, though exactly how selling off the service to the private sector is going to remedy that, I’m not sure.  Stay tuned for updates; if they screw up the delivery of the mail, we’ll have still have email.  At least for now…



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I’ll Have 2 First-Class Stamps, Half a Dozen Pearl Buttons, a Fishing License, and a Mortgage, Please

The combination party-goods shop and post office where I bought the hen party items seen in the previous post.

In my previous blog-post, I mentioned a nearby post office that doubles as a shop selling party goods.  Other post offices near us are set up in shops selling knitting yarn and sewing notions (UK: haberdashery), in newsagents’ (US: a shop that sells periodicals, a newsagent’s can be anything from a sort of indoor newsstand to a big bookstore), or in the kind of small grocery known as a corner shop whether or not it sits on a corner. 

These places—officially called sub-post offices—are generally run by families; at the knitting/sewing post office, a young Moslem lady in a headscarf usually sits behind the post office window.  An older lady—her grandmother or perhaps an aunt (UK: auntie, especially if we’re talking about a south Asian family), sells the needlework supplies, and if she’s not there, whoever’s on duty behind the glass window will tell me to go behind the auntie’s counter and go through all the tiny drawers of buttons to find what I want, which is a very pleasant way to waste time as well as to find unusual buttons. I once showed up there when the grandfather had just come in from a walk with a little boy who looked to be about 5, who could hardly breathe for giggling as his grandfather “posted” him to his father through the opening in the glass window.  

Note: British people don’t mail letters, they—that is, we—post them; when letters are delivered we say “the post is here”, not “the mail is here”. 

The Post Office® (yes, it’s trademarked), along with Parcelforce, which handles larger packages (which the British tend to call parcels), are subsidiaries of the Royal Mail group, a company rather than a government service, but a company wholly owned by the government.  This is very much a post-modern postal system, with layers upon layers of business organizations owning each other in arcane, intertwined, and apparently incestuous ways.  It seems to work though; the Royal Mail recently began to turn a profit, and still manages pretty reliably to get first class letters from any part of the country to any other part of the country, overnight, for just 41 pence (about 65 US cents).   

Being able to send something anywhere in the country overnight for under a buck is near to miraculous to my US-adapted eye, though obviously the US Postal Service could never match that just because of the distances the USPS has to cover.  And it turns out that the Royal Mail’s first-class-mail-goes-overnight service is seen here as very much a comedown from what the Royal Mail used to offer; as recently as 2004, the Royal Mail delivered the post twice a day in some areas, the first delivery coming in time to catch people before they left for work in the morning, with a second delivery just after lunch.  In Victorian times, parts of London had as many as twelve deliveries per day, and in the early 20th century the post moved so quickly that Virginia Woolf could send an invitation for tea by post to a friend in the morning, and get the recipient’s reply by post in time to tell the cook how many to expect at teatime. 

I’m happy enough with my once-a-day delivery of post, brought by a Royal Mail employee generally referred to as a postie.  Posties traditionally do their routes by bicycle. My least favorite street in Guildford is the road by what used to be the main postal sorting office: too narrow to begin with, it’s got bottleneck after bottleneck because on-street parking is allowed—on both sides in some spots—with taxis screeching through at the highest possible speeds (or tailgating, if they’re behind me) to get people to and from the trains  because the station at the other end of the road, and on top of everything else there always used to be fleets of posties on bicycles coming out of the sorting office.  

The postie who brought our mail when we first moved to this house did his route by bicycle until he got a repetitive stress injury in his calves from pedalling with heavy saddlebags.  These aren’t the standard canvas mailbags, but you can see those at post offices or when people come to collect the mail from pillar boxes (US: mailboxes).  Canvas mailbags, by the way, are traditionally produced here by convicts, in the same way US convicts traditionally make car license plates (UK: number plates); at least sewing is a salable skill they can use when they come out, whereas stamping metal may be less called for, though any man who can so much as sew on a button is open to jokes about how much time he’s spent inside. 

In any case, the Royal Mail is phasing out bicycles; tradition giving way to the efficiency modern business requires, our current postie covers her route in a bright red van. The Royal Mail— trying to stay ahead of services such as DHL and UPS, who snap up the more lucrative long-distance parcel business and leave the unprofitable door-to-door trudging to the government, which doesn’t have a choice—has to look for profit where it can; it even has a trademark on its logo shade of red.  But there’s still value left in the old, sturdy post office bikes; many are being resold in India these days. 

Mail vans have long been used in rural areas and, in extremely isolated areas in the highlands of Scotland, the posties’ vans functioned as a kind of bus until last year when the company phased out the use of their vans as transports for civilians, calling it unprofitable, and thereby leaving lots of people stuck for a ride.  The economy here is not, as it is in the US, based on the assumption that everybody has a car, but that is—of necessity—changing. 

And sub-post offices are closing right and left, although perhaps not as rapidly as pubs are closing.  (Of the nine pubs I included in my pub sign safari in April, three have gone out of business, or as the British say, ceased trading.)  When we moved to this village in 2000, we had a sub-post office, but on the death of the sub-postmaster there, nobody could be found to take it on.  The building, which used to be a general store boasting a butcher counter with a vicious-looking bacon slicer, has been remodelled as a house, and sold. 

When a rural post office closes, the community loses much more than a place to buy stamps.  You go to a post office to get the forms you need for all kinds of government services, from getting a passport to getting a fishing license.  That’s also where we transact all the business that in California we did at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) office.  

And post offices here traditionally function very like banks.  Until recently, working class people didn’t generally have bank accounts; they would be more likely to open a post office account for what savings they had.  These days you can even get a mortgage via the post office.  People pick up their government pension payments (US: Social Security payments) at the post office.  In a country village, when the post office closes, the elderly and those without cars are really out of luck.

 The press is full of dire predictions: 1 in 4 post offices may be closing due to budget cuts, or is it 1 in 3?  At the same time, you read about post offices springing up everywhere from pubs to cupboards (US: in this case, means something closer to closet) in community centres.  And groups such as CAPOC (Communities Against Post Office Closures) have sprung up to fight the trend. 

I confess I haven’t done anything more active in these campaigns than signing a few petitions, but I do hope nearby post offices stay open.  If they close, who knows where I’d have to go to buy party hats or buttons?



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What the Best-Dressed Hen Parties are Wearing

When I posted the first in this recent sequence of egg-related blog entries (for first poultry-related post click here, for the second post in the series click here‎) Elliott, a reader from Alton in Hampshire, reported that when he read my article, one item on the automatically generated list of possibly related posts had to do with hen nights—the female equivalent of stag nights. The algorithm WordPress uses to find related blog entries wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that when I talked about (ahem) laying hens, I wasn’t speaking of people.

This is nothing new. Amazon once suggested that since I’d been looking at the listing for Flann O’Brien’s classic metafictional novel At Swim-Two-Birds, I might want to buy a swimsuit (UK: bathing costume). But having hen night come up as a related topic makes a nice lead-in to a subject I’d been meaning to take up for a while now.

Over here, a groom may have a stag night or stag do before the wedding and a bride may have a hen night or hen party, though these days a hen party is usually more of a hen pub-crawl. It’s common to see hen parties in restaurants, clubs, or pubs, groups of young women wearing identical costumes or at least identical T-shirts, and generally drinking a lot—and I mean a lot. It’s not unusual for the bride to wear an L-plate on a string around her neck; that’s the blocky red L on a white square that the law requires drivers with learner’s permits (UK: provisional licenses) to display on cars they drive until they pass their driving tests. And there’s always some kind of headgear: veils of one kind or another, or deelyboppers—those headbands with wiggly antennae on top. And what antennae they are (see illustrations). Hen parties here generally seem to involve a lot of drinking and a lot of raunchy references to sex.

When I got married in the US, I had heard of bachelorette parties, but only knew of one bride who’d actually had one. Most women had bridal showers (for UK readers, these are parties at which the bride-to-be is ‘showered’ with gifts to furnish her new home), tasteful afternoon affairs with cake and some silly games, nothing un-ladylike, nothing much that could by any stretch of the imagination be seen as racy. When I organized a shower 15 years ago, a saleslady at a California party store offered me a book of games appropriate, or so the publisher thought, for bridal showers. They might have suited women in 1940s, but not in the 1990s: there was a game about labeling the cuts of meat on a cow, with a space to write in your groom’s favorite steaks and beef dishes, and a relay race with brooms that involved sweeping up and down the room. I didn’t buy the book.

That vision of the life a newly married women could look forward to is, thank goodness, out of date, but it gives you the idea: US bridal showers are generally tame. British hen parties are anything but.

Hen is a term of affection here for any women or girl, especially among people in the north, who also use duck for the same purpose. If you’ve seen the animated film Chicken Run, you might remember that one of the chickens says to the others, “Face the facts, ducks”, while another says “Aye, hen” with a Scottish accent. British people got more of the joke of the movie than most Americans would have, underscored by the fact that many of the characters had northern accents. (According to the Internet Movie Database, http://www.IMDB.com, Tweedy’s farm is in Yorkshire; the road sign made into an airplane propeller reads “Halifax 32 mi”, which seems to clinch it.)

The phrase hen party goes back at least to the 1880s, but through most of the intervening years has meant any women-only gathering; the current use of hen party as a celebration for the bride before the wedding hasn’t made it into the Oxford English Dictionary yet (not even in the on-line version, which includes updates to the printed edition). The OED’s example from 1960 reads “A hen-party can be a very pleasant, relaxing affair, particularly for the older woman.”

Since I couldn't talk any of my friends into modelling any of these veils, I pressed a nearby pumpkin into service

Today’s hen parties aren’t meant to be relaxing, and are usually for younger women. The women at most of the hen parties I see around here wear fairy wings on their backs and dance around with wands, although hen parties can take on any of several themes. If they aren’t in fairy mode, they may be wearing school uniforms, although hemmed up to here and unbuttoned down to there. It’s too much like a paedophile’s fantasy for my taste, and a long cry from No Sex Please, We’re British. It’s clear that some British people are a lot more forthright about sex than American stereotypes of the British would lead you to think, and I have to admit I was a bit shocked to find Wiggle Willy deelyboppers displayed on the wall of the party store near me that doubles as a post office. Standing in line to buy stamps, I certainly didn’t expect to see little sparkly phalluses on headbands, there by the birthday candles and balloons.

It’s apparently part of a trend for young women to party more like young men do. In young men, getting falling down drunk in public and looking for casual sex  is called laddish behavior; more and more young women, called ladettes—a word that has made it into the OED—are doing the same, and some find it a worrying social development.

Whichever way you look at it, a party of young women wearing penis headgear is something not ordinarily seen in the USA.  To prove I’m not making it up, here are some photos of the hen party gear I found on sale at the aforementioned post office. I couldn’t persuade any of my friends to model them—you’ll see that I pressed an uncomplaining pumpkin into service—and you can see lots more photos using Google’s Image Search feature and looking for hen party.  If you look for products to buy for hen parties, you’ll find items a lot more explicit than what I’ve presented here.

Now, what can I do with the hen party accessories I bought in order to take the pictures? How about this: Anybody who posts a comment on this blog entry will be entered into a drawing and the winner will receive some items from these photos (if the winner wants them, of course). That should either bring in a lot of comments, or ensure I get no comments at all.

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