The British have a global reputation for eccentricity, both in terms of individual style and appearance and also the behaviors they exhibit. Historically, Britain has always encouraged rather than criticized eccentricity and that is perhaps the difference between British eccentricity and that of any other nation. Closely correlated with creativity and intelligence, eccentricity in Britain is more a matter for aspiration than condemnation. Some would say it opens doors for them. It was Jules Verne who said ‘Everything is possible for an eccentric, especially when he is English’.
Genuine eccentricity is about nonconformism and that is an area of British life where there is much to debate, enjoy and entertain. Notable eccentrics have often come from the aristocracy, renowned for the way they dressed, presented themselves, lived their lives, decorated their houses or entertained others. Eccentricity originally appeared to be the preserve of an exclusive society echelon since they had the time and the money to indulge it.
English philosopher John Stuart Mill, a leading influential figure in the 19th century on liberty and social theory, warned then ‘that so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.’ He need not have worried. George Santayana’s later essay on ‘the British character’ in 1922 said ‘England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies, and humors.’ Eccentricity is now evidenced all around us and in any household, whether in terms of unconventional home décor choices, unusual collecting behavior, exotic pets or bizarre high fashion and audacious hairstyles.
The events put on around the UK illustrate the range and type of eccentricity upheld in British life. These events are open to anyone with the desire to indulge their eccentric passions and sometimes the courage to embrace them! Not for the faint hearted are the ‘Bognor Birdman’ or the ‘Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling’. Participants should expect to sign on the organisers’ liability disclaimer forms as safety is definitely not guaranteed.
Folklore is at the root of many of the eccentric events and may be extravagant re-enactments of centuries old traditions with what must be a hefty dose of poetic license and embellishment. These events make for popular and engaging spectacles, even if they don’t appear to make sense to the casual bystander. The ‘Haxey Hood’ makes much of a minor incident involving the blowing away of a lady’s riding hood in the 14th century, but that need not get in the way of a grand event that inevitably concludes with alcoholic refreshments at one of the village hostelries.
The Brits can’t resist a challenge to pit themselves against unlikely odds. This is hardly more true than in the case of the ‘Man versus Horse’ 22 mile race over mountainous terrain, or the ‘Race The Train’ event over 14 miles of footpaths and farmland in Wales. The often quoted ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ most definitely applies.
Getting unpleasantly wet and or dirty is inexplicably attractive to the Brits and is featured in many eccentric events. Bog snorkeling, the ‘Maldon Mud Race’ and the ‘Great Knaresborough Bed Race’ all involve immersion in waters of varying levels of quality.
Being great community events, significant sums are raised for charity in local communities and their success ensures a collective will to keep holding these events into the future.
All this celebration of eccentricity is not to say that conformism is not highly regarded too in the way things are done in British life. Queuing for everything, a behavior regarded by some outsiders as eccentric in itself, is as intertwined with Britishness as any national trait and is tied up in deep-rooted values such as fairness and consideration for others. There is a time and a place for eccentricity, but not if it interferes with any other such time-honored bastions of Britishness.