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My heading comes as a result of browsing the sale books of a nearby garden centre (when I was young ‘garden centres’ were ‘nurseries’ and all you found there were plants). I probably wouldn’t have even picked up this particular book if it didn’t have a large label on the front saying “Publishers Price £12.99. Our Price £3.99. Further reduction £1.99”. At £2 (for that what it is isn’t it!) as I browsed through it, it seemed a good deal. It raised a smile and, I thought, provided some fuel for this article, and possibly a series of articles. The title of this particular book was “The Very Best of British” with a subtitle, “A humorous collection of all things quirky about the Brits”.

I won’t spoil it for you and list off a whole ream of the things covered for I thought I would just start off with some items of apparel that appear on its pages.  Now this is not going to be a classic of plagiarism so all I am going to do is mention the items in question and then ramble on from there.

The first of the items that make us ‘quirky’ is the bowler hat. Now this is where we silver surfers come into our own. The book suggested that it went into decline in the 1970’s. Now what is interesting is that I started work in the City in the mid 1960’s and yet my memories aren’t full of many city gents sporting bowlers. I believe some of the very senior men where I worked wore them which suggests there was something about seniority and bowlers. On TV these days if you see someone wearing a bowler you are either watching an old Ealing Studios film, an aging episode of Dad’s Army with the pompous Captain Mainwaring of bank manager fame, an old episode of the Avengers (remember Steed?) or an old Laurel and Hardy film, or just possibly the famous James Bond film with ‘Odd-job’ in it. All famous bowlers.  

There are a number of ways you can tell the age of a film, apart from whether there is grainy colour or it is obviously mostly done by CGI, and one of them is whether all the men were wearing hats.  Hat wearing, I believe, started dying out after the Second World War although reasons suggested for this are varied. While looking this up, I came across the following:  “A politician should have three hats. One for throwing into the ring, one for talking through and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected.” Well there you are.

Until recent years I have never been a hat-wearer but a thinning thatch suggests that wisdom dictates some form of titfer (origins from rhyming slang tit for tat, hat). The pom-pom or bobble-hat gets a brief mention in this book.  Pom-pom apparently comes from the French pompon, or the Middle French pompe, meaning a tuft of ribbons – first known use 1751.   I might have worn a bobble hat in my young days but the good news is that there are no photos in existence if I did.  Baseball caps do better at keeping the sun out of the eyes than the cold off the balding pate. I don’t really know how to describe the hats that management has bought me for Christmas so I’ll move on.

Sandals and socks are another of the items of apparel that get a mention that make us quirky. (Incidentally – quirky = A peculiarity of behaviour; an idiosyncrasy.) Now the book is a bit hedgy about wearing socks with sandals; it seems to suggest it is OK but I have suffered derision by the younger generation of my family for even thinking about it! Good old Wikipedia has, “Wearing socks with sandals is a controversial fashion combination and cultural phenomenon that is discussed in various countries and cultures. It is sometimes considered a fashion faux pas.”  The only thing, I reply, is that when you get older your feet often get uglier and sandals sans socks means a revelation you would prefer to keep to yourself. Sympathetic management looked and found sandals that are sandals but cover large amounts of the foot. Problem solved.

There are times when necessity overcomes. A while back we were in the Caribbean and were invited to a church. I understood that shorts were the way of things in that heat and went with that but when I found I was the only male in the building wearing socks with my sandals I snuck out and removed them surreptitiously! A combination of heat and public approval (or disapproval) can overcome inhibitions!  However, I realise I am in good company when I read on Wikipedia again, “The football player David Beckham and the singer Justin Bieber have been mocked for wearing socks with sandals by the British tabloid newspaper Daily Mail.”  Well the Daily Mail gets its share of mocking! Nevertheless, one website had an autumn 2014 headline, “Good news for all those unstylish Brits – socks with sandals are the autumn’s big hit Join this season’s prudent fashionistas by matching Birkenstocks with a flash of bare leg and ankle socks,” but Birkenstocks aren’t exactly sandals are they! And as that word, ‘fashinistas’, wow! Could I become a ‘fashinista’ I wonder. Probably not.

The third piece of apparel mentioned in this book on what makes us quirky is the famous anorak. I think the anorak has gained its fame as being The essential clothing for train spotters and the like (Eddie Stobart lorry spotters being a modern equivalent some suggest). They are used by nerds, geeks or whatever other derogatory term is applied by those with no similar leanings.  When I was younger the term ‘wind-cheater’ was used for such a zip-up jacket. Today there are many different forms of ‘keep-the-cold-out’ pieces of clothing, often designer wear. For the modern ‘outdoor person’ the cagoule is a lightweight smart alternative. According to the book the word comes from the French meaning ridiculous. Why????  If you want to wile away a quiet Sunday afternoon you can get endless amusement by Googling “who wears an anorak?” What an incredible source of fun the Internet can be!

So there we have them, particular pieces of clothing that are known to us Brits which apparently are peculiar to us. We have a picture of a person in an anorak, wearing sandals and socks and a bowler hat. You are sufficiently a Brit is you are filled with derision at that picture as you want to splutter, “Women never wore bowler hats (except if they were on a certain stage and in a certain stage production), and who wears sandals in the middle of winter and I have never seen an anorak in the City!” Yes, certain people at certain times and in certain places. We know the peculiarities don’t we?

Yes, there is something about clothing and being British. Perhaps it is living in such a varied climate where we dress accordingly and appropriately and we do tend to wear the right clothes for the right job – but doesn’t the rest of the world? I measure the date we leave summer and move into autumn by when it is I have to wear long sleeves as against short sleeves. And as for shorts…..  If you want to talk about idiosyncratic, watch out for those individuals who wear shorts in Tesco’s in December and we are not talking about four year olds! Oh yes, they are around and if that isn’t an idiosyncrasy I don’t know what is – but that is different from being British…. Or is it? I was climbing into my car in a public car park in Southend not long ago when a youngish lady passed by in shorts and a tee-shirt and it was about seven degrees. I must have looked a little amazed because my wife commented, “She’s a member of our PE department at school, probably on her way home.” Right!

Apparently it is the motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford that says, “Manners maketh man.” Well, according to my new book there are apparently certain clothes that maketh a Brit. Am I bothered? I am not. If you want some fun, Google ‘hats to counter cold weather’ and you might find my latest headwear. Am I quirky? I think not. And now, as tradition dictates, a few light-hearted and not so light quotes for finish the page:

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” 
 George Bernard Shaw

“Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it, or don't come here.” 
 Tony Blair

It used to be a slight hallmark of being English or British that one didn't make a big thing out of patriotic allegiance, and was indeed brimful of sarcastic and critical remarks about the old country, but would pull oneself together and say a word or two if it was attacked or criticized in any nasty or stupid manner by anybody else.
 Christopher Hitchens

“... instead of trying to grapple with the implications of the story of empire, the British seem to have decided just to ignore it... the most corrosive part of this amnesia is a sense that because the nation is not what it was, it can never be anything again.” 
 Jeremy Paxman, Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,-
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
William Shakespeare
King Richard II.

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