Meanwhile back in the UK – Breaking the Unwritten Rules

This is a column for the excellent Expatriate Lifestyle magazine. It was first published in August 2013


My great aunt Cnythia had a penchant for performing chicken impressions in crowded shopping centres. She also smoked a pipe, though not while performing. And it was following an administrative error at the passport office, which she took to be divine intervention, that she changed her first name. Not her ‘Christian’ name, note, since Cnythia was a revivalist member of the ancient Caledonian deer cult.

We tried, on occasion, to talk her out of her peculiar behaviour – except the chicken impressions, because to be honest the eggs came in handy – but she was having none of it. Great aunt Cnythia was happy to be what they call an eccentric.


Not Cnythia’s Elk

I was reminded of her, and her ilk – not to be confused with her elk, which was quite high in the priesthood – when I noticed that this month sees the annual peat bog snorkelling championship in Wales. Not only because Cnythia insisted on calling them Peter bogs, abbreviations being the work of the devil, (a kind of moose), but because, it occurred to me, someone equally eccentric must, some years ago, have looked at an excavated strip of opaque water-filled bog, containing all sorts of be-toothed pond-life, and thought in a way that was perfectly natural to them, ‘I wonder how quickly I could snorkel up and down there without using my arms’. And several other people who heard this idea did not think ‘There goes one of suspect mental balance’ but instead exclaimed ‘Good question; let’s find out!’. And they have been doing so annually ever since. At least they have the good sense to do so over the August Bank Holiday when the bog is sure to be full of rainwater.

In Britain, of course, eccentrics have long been loved and lauded. There are famous ones; like Sir George Sitwell – not only lauded, but knighted to boot – who invented a gun for shooting wasps. You could always spot Sir George; he was the one opposite the empty chair at the picnic table.

Or Screaming Lord Sutch, leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party, who in forty attempts never did get elected with his policy of using a giant treadmill and the unemployed to generate cheap electricity. Reading the papers these days I think it was simply an idea ahead of its time.

But there are plenty of obscure eccentrics as well. On the sporting front alone, along with the snorkelers, there is the bunch who throw themselves down a Gloucestershire hillside in pursuit of cheese, those who compete in an annual shin-kicking competition, and others who compete to throw black puddings as far as possible (which, I admit, sounds a lot more sensible than eating them).

And there are many individuals, not unlike Cnythia, whose behaviour is equally singular. From those who sport huge handlebar moustaches to the gentleman – I am not making this up – who manufactures and collects moulds of the internal volumes of 3 pin, 13 amp UK electrical plugs. But, given the chance, who wouldn’t?

We like them, I am convinced, because we all have the seeds of eccentricity in us, where they battle against British reserve, against the ingrained habit of behaving in a way dictated by the social norm. I still want to climb trees in the park and kick my way through piles of leaves and jump in puddles. But I don’t. I still want a pair of those trainers with light-up heels, but when I get socks at Christmas only my face lights up, and that with an effort. The unwritten rules of society that bind me are as straight and narrow as a peat bog snorkelling pit, and I am not alone.

Hence our soft spot for people who behave ‘oddly’; they have overcome the constraints against which we secretly strain. We see in the eccentric the courage to cock a snook at convention; to be seen as different. How we would love to do the same.

So I say go for it. Ignore the ‘norm’ and do something today just because it makes you feel good. Start small; whistle in public. Wear odd socks, or better yet, shoes. And if you’re feeling really bold, how are your chicken impressions?

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