4 Times British Culture Was a Little Strange

Monty Python graffiti in Leicester

There’s a strong vein of silliness that runs through British culture.

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This is, after all, a country that enjoys duck races, where people pick numbered rubber ducks and throw them into a river to see which one will reach the finish line first, and cheese rolling, where people chase a wheel of cheese down a hill (which has led to serious injuries in the past). Britain is the country of gurning competitions, marmite and Monty Python. British people are more likely to know a nonsense poem like ‘Jabberwocky’ off by heart than they are to know the second or third verse of the National Anthem. Our monarchy is famous the world over, but we mostly like to show our appreciation by making fun of them. Deference is certainly an aspect of British culture, but this is strongly tempered with silliness and mockery towards any authority figure, especially if they seem to be taking themselves too seriously. And nothing demonstrates that so well as…

1. The rise and fall of Boaty McBoatface

Back in March, the Natural Environment Research Council, or NERC, announced that it was soon to launch a new £200 million polar research vessel, “the UK’s largest and most advanced research ship yet”. Back in the 1980s, a competition among US school students had resulted in a NASA space shuttle being given the stirring name Endeavour, in tribute to the ship that took Captain Cook to Australia. Presumably hoping for something similarly inspiring, the NERC invited members of the public to submit and vote on names for the ship.

The vessel was ultimately named after national treasure David Attenborough.
The vessel was ultimately named after national treasure David Attenborough.

Perhaps they should have seen the danger coming. In 2007, the environmental campaigning group Greenpeace launched a similar competition to name a humpback whale in the Pacific Ocean, which was at threat from hunting. The name ‘Mister Splashy Pants’ won with 78% of the vote. To their credit, Greenpeace stuck to the name, turned it to their advantage, and got no shortage of publicity out of the story.
So, not long after the NERC poll launched, former BBC presenter James Hand suggested the name ‘RRS Boaty McBoatface’. Other submissions included ‘RRS Capt’n Birdseye Get Off My Cod’, ‘RRS It’s bloody cold here’ and, on a more serious note, ‘RRS Poppy-Mai’ and ‘RRS David Attenborough’. But Boaty McBoatface took an early lead in the voting and held it, eventually topping the polls with 124,109 votes to the runner-up’s 34,371. The people had spoken, and they wanted a £200 million, 15,000 tonne ship to have a name that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Unfortunately, the NERC disagreed, and since the poll was just a ‘suggestion’, went ahead with the public’s fifth-placed option (395 votes behind RRS It’s bloody cold here), RRS David Attenborough, in honour of the English broadcaster and naturalist – which was, in fact, the preferred choice of the man who had come up with Boaty McBoatface in the first place. The NERC said “the name Boaty McBoatface will live on as the name of the ship’s high-tech remotely operated sub-sea vehicle” – which is not quite the same thing.
And that was more-or-less the end of it. Except that some people felt that “in the interests of democracy and humour”, since the ship Boaty McBoatface had taken Sir David Attenborough’s name, it was only appropriate that the human David Attenborough should take Boaty McBoatface’s name. The change.org petition asking him to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface currently has an impressive 3,500 signatures and rising. Who knows, maybe the will of the people will be respected after all.

2. The battle of Gresley’s mallard

Sir Nigel Gresley was a locomotive engineer at the turn of the 20th century. If you think of a beautiful, sleek, traditional steam locomotive, you might well be thinking of the kind of locomotives that Gresley designed. He died in 1941, and travelling on trains pulled by Gresley-designed locomotives is still something that many people in Britain can remember from their childhood; now, Gresley’s locomotives can be found in museums and on heritage lines. Gresley’s locomotives belong to what is now commonly thought of as the golden age of British railways, before cuts in the 1960s and early 1970s led to thousands of miles of railways being closed, and transportation funds being put into developing the road network instead.

We have Gresley to thank for the classic steam locomotive.
We have Gresley to thank for the classic steam locomotive.

So it’s unsurprising that many people have nostalgic, romantic associations with Gresley’s locomotives. But his designs weren’t just attractive, they were impressive from an engineering perspective too. The Flying Scotsman, one of his locomotives, was the first steam locomotive to do more than 100 miles per hour in passenger service, while his Mallard locomotive made it to 126 miles per hour – which is still the speed record for a steam locomotive. To put this in context, the maximum speed on most of the UK’s West Coast main line today is 125 mph, and many sections are limited to 110 mph.
Gresley named his fastest locomotive the Mallard because he was fond of birds; in the 1930s, he lived at Salisbury Hall, a manor house near St Albans with a substantial moat. There, he bred ducks, including mallards. And so, when the Gresley Society Trust, a charity founded in 1963 to “promote interest in the life and work of Sir Nigel Gresley”, commissioned a bronze statue of Sir Nigel to be placed in the Western Concourse of King’s Cross Station, it made sense for the sculptor to suggest having a second statue of a mallard duck to stand at his feet, representing both the locomotive and Sir Nigel’s love of birds. It was also intended to help draw attention to the statue, which might otherwise be overlooked in the busy station.

Pro-duckists have taken to planting rubber ducks at Gresley's feet.
Pro-duckists have taken to planting rubber ducks at Gresley’s feet.

However, when the statue came to be sculpted, two of Sir Nigel’s elderly grandsons objected to the idea of the duck, saying it would make the statue seem less dignified. The Gresley Society Trust respected their objection, and asked for the statue without the duck. In April, it was unveiled, duckless, at King’s Cross (it’s next to Leon, if you’re looking for it). Gresley fans were sharply divided by the decision, and a campaign was set up at www.gresleyduck.org to see the duck reinstated. In the meantime, pro-duck campaigners have taken to putting rubber ducks at the statue’s feet – presumably in the hope that if dignity is what the Gresley Society Trust are concerned about, then a bronze duck would surely be an improvement on a rubber one.

3. The triumph of the statue of the Duke of Wellington’s cone

It’s not just the statue of Sir Nigel Gresley that’s been a victim (or a beneficiary, depending on your point of view) of the British inclination towards silliness. Another has been the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington on Royal Exchange Square, in front of the Gallery of Modern Art, in the centre of Glasgow. Wellington is known as the military hero who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The statue is known for other reasons; since the 1980s, there has been a tradition of putting a traffic cone on its head. The statue even features in a Lonely Planet guide as one of the “top 10 most bizarre monuments on Earth”.

In more recent years, the horse has acquired a cone of its own.
In more recent years, the horse has acquired a cone of its own.

This comes as no great surprise to any British person; student vandalism of statues is a centuries-old tradition in the UK. In the Great Gate of Trinity College, Cambridge, is a statue dating to 1615 of the college’s founder, Henry VIII, which ought to be holding a sword, but is instead holding a chair leg. Whether the switch was made by students in the 19th century or by a window cleaner more recently is a subject for debate. Either way, the sword has been lost to time and the chair leg is staying put.
Glasgow City Council weren’t quite as amenable to pranks as Trinity College. In 2013, they put forward the suggestion that the statue be ‘restored’ at a cost of £65,000, and in the process, raise its plinth to make it harder to put cones on its head. The council cited fears that people would be injured in climbing on to the existing plinth and – more plausibly – that having a cone on the statue’s head gave a “depressing image” of Glasgow. They claimed that removing cones from the statue’s head, which they did about 100 times a year, was costing them an annual £10,000.
If you’ve read this far in the article, you’ll be able to guess what happened next: there was uproar. The incident was dubbed #conegate and a change.org petition was launched, gaining 10,613 signatures in under 24 hours. The petition argued:
“The cone on Wellington’s head is an iconic part of Glasgow’s heritage, and means far more to the people of Glasgow and to visitors than Wellington himself ever has. Raising the statue will, in any case, only result in people injuring themselves attempting to put the cone on anyway: does anyone really think that a raised plinth will deter drunk Glaswegians?”
Apparently Glasgow City Council concluded that they had a point, or at least that this wasn’t a fight worth having, and backed down just a day after the original announcement was made. British people in general, and Glaswegians in particular, have a particular hatred for petty rules that spoil their fun.

5. The continuing success of the Keswick Pencil Museum

British silliness isn’t just about making fun of polls, petitions and authority figures who take themselves too seriously. One unusual feature of British society is the plethora of hobbyist groups that manage to thrive. It’s a theme that many writers on the subject of Britishness have observed. George Orwell wrote about the British “addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations”, Jeremy Paxman noted that “there are clubs to go fishing, support football teams, play cards, arrange flowers, race pigeons, make jam, ride bicycles, watch birds…” and Kate Fox, author of the excellent Watching the English, added that “just as every conceivable English leisure pursuit has a magazine or six, each one also has clubs, if not a National Society with a whole network of Regional Groups and subdivisions”.

How would you sharpen an 8-metre pencil?
How would you sharpen an 8-metre pencil?

So just as an example, if you were interested in model railways, you could go to toy and train fairs, meet other railway modellers in your local club, and read any one of Model Rail, Model Railway Express, British Railway Modelling, Hornby Magazine, Your Model Railway Village, Railway Modeller and probably some more besides. You could also visit one of at least half a dozen model railway museums scattered across the country. And the same is true if you were interested in fly-fishing, or jam-making, or virtually anything else that people do to pass the time when they’re not at work or asleep.
Most hobbyist activity goes unnoticed for most people – unless you rent out a church hall or spend a lot of time bored in newsagents, you might well not realise just how many dedicated activities there are for a huge range of hobbies. But if you’re travelling across the country looking for somewhere to visit, you might start to notice how many weird and wonderful museums there are, dedicated to endless niche interests. You might go to Bridgwater’s brick and tile museum, Derbyshire’s forklift truck museum, Merseyside’s lawnmower museum, Cheshire’s cuckoo clock museum, Yalding’s teapot museum, or London’s anaesthesia heritage centre. And remember that while it might only take a handful of dedicated enthusiasts to start such a museum, it takes quite a lot more to make up the visitor numbers that keep them all open.
But the classic example of a niche museum must be Keswick’s pencil museum. Here you can explore the history of pencils and pencil making, and see the largest colouring pencil in the world, which is nearly 8 metres long and weighs nearly half a tonne. It’s worth noting that this destination has a four-star rating on TripAdvisor. Currently closed after being flooded during the winter, the pencil museum’s countless well-wishers are eagerly awaiting its reopening.

What do you find odd about British culture? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: monty python graffiti; david attenborough; farnworth tunnel; duke of wellington statue; pencil; rubber ducks