As I may have mentioned, I live in Brighton, which is pretty much the hub of British eccentricity. You get so used to the unique, wonderful, daring and downright weird characters around town that they very quickly cease to be weird. It’s just normal.
But it’s not just Brighton – being ‘unique’ has become a nationwide trend. I think it started, for better or for worse, on reality TV, where people would stand behind a claim of “this is just who I am” to explain good behaviour and bad. Our Olympics opening and closing ceremonies were applauded as appropriate representations of British eccentricity.
What I’ve been wondering lately is what happens when we all try to be unique. By definition, we can’t all be beyond the norm. What happens then? This is especially evident in street style – the British eccentric look (as I have called it – I am sure there’s better fashion industry words for it) is everywhere.
So what does it take to be a British eccentric these days?
In the old days (i.e. five years ago), you could spot a British eccentric type by the following: round glasses that are too big to suit the face. Slightly mismatched clothes, perhaps clashing prints. Hair (on women) that was either tied tight into a topknot/bun, or half up with messy tendrils spilling everywhere. You know, the famous ‘just-got-out-of-bed-and-have-too-much-on-my-mind-to-do-my-hair’ hair. Some kind of quirky ‘I just found this in the charity shop’ jewellery or hat.
It’s not so easy these days to spot – or to style yourself as – the Modern British Eccentric. First of all, trying to look eccentric almost definitely means you are not eccentric. To me, the whole point of eccentricity is a slightly distracted mind – formal definitions go along the line of ‘beyond the norm’ and ‘unconventional’.
An eccentric will be wearing clothes that no-one else would dare – because they literally, by definition, don’t consider or desire to fit in with the norm. So, when you’re people-watching from your favourite bench in Brighton (just me then?), you can find the eccentric by finding the one who is not dressed in a top knot, hipster glasses, a giant moustache pendant, oversized top, leggings and ankle boots. That goes for men as well as women.
Whilst researching this column, I found a lot of claims to famous British eccentrics…who I’d never heard of. My history education was minimal and oddly specialised – I guess if they didn’t have time to teach us who the Tudors and Stewarts were (I still don’t know) then they certainly wouldn’t have time to get to eccentrics from history.
One fictional eccentric that I can’t help but mention is Irene from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers (er, perhaps I should have spent more of my reading time on history books, and less on stories about boarding school. Irene was a maths and music genius, and totally cool because she never boasted or tried to win the favour of others. She didn’t quite ‘get’ why others didn’t get the link between music and maths as the same, and her eccentricity pretty much made her the most popular girl at the school. I always wanted to be like Irene – a wish which, by its own existence, was never going to become true.
Famous eccentrics I can think of these days include the following:
Billie Piper. AKA ex-teen-songstress-turned-Rose-from-Doctor-Who. She is gorgeous, clever, talented quirky – and a little bit awkward. It’s like she doesn’t quite have time to process everything – but it’s cool because see above re: talented and, well, because she was Rose Tyler.
Vivienne Westwood. Definitely a shoe-in for the title of Ultimate Modern British Eccentric.
Helena Bonham-Carter. The poster-woman for British quirkiness.
Russell Brand. It’s been said that Russell Brand’s eccentricity is contrived, but I choose to believe it’s real. Who could keep that act up at all times, for so long? Who else could rock up in the Olympics Closing Ceremony, on the top of a psychedelic bus, wearing a top hat, singing his heart out even though he’s, erm, not a singer?
3. Conversation and Pastimes
Many of the aforementioned great British eccentrics from history that I’ve never heard of had odd pasttimes, which must have made upholding conversation with them tricky. For example Lord Rokeby, who loved water and would spend hours wallowing in the shallows…accompanied by a floating joint of roast veal for when he got hungry. I for one am not sure how anyone can turn that topic of conversation around at a dinner party.
This might be a good time to throw in these awesome photos of British Eccentricity, shot by Tim Walker for Vanity Fair.
These days, the Modern British Eccentric is more likely to reference an obscure SciFi show you’ve never heard of, than to talk about their hobbies. The difference between the Modern British Eccentric and you and your own obsession with the Battlestar Galactica remake is that it won’t occur to them that it is an obscure reference. The Modern British Eccentric may dye their hair every month – not out of vanity or a need to be noticed, but out of curiosity and creativity. They are more likely to isolate themselves for a week ro finish their tenth prog-rock album than to invent the musical toothbrush*.
So, there you have it. I think that what’s needed to be a Modern British Eccentric is unawareness of your eccentricity. You can’t fake it, you just are that way.
P.S. Big love and thanks to my lovely friend Liz. She’s not really an eccentric, but she came up with the idea for this column.
*Sir George Sitwell