Did you know that I am a British icon? It’s true, I swear. The Queen, a fellow icon, when recently asked about me, said “Is there plastic in Manchester?” and our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said “Who?”
Yesterday, I went for a walk and started asking random people about British icons. Most of them told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was a weirdo. But those that took me seriously gave me many diverse answers. Britain is a place so full of iconic objects that I could write a book about them. And even then I wouldn’t cover them all. There are just so bloody many of them.
Moreover, these icons can be subdivided into various classes. I have therefore decided to split the icons into two classes: symbols and places. I will start with symbols.
Bagpipes/Kilts: I would like to meet the man who thought that bagpipes were a good idea. This Scottish instrument is one of the most bizarre ways to make music that I have ever encountered. Incredibly, the bagpipes don’t actually originate in Scotland (something that surprised me); there is evidence of bagpipe-esque instruments dating from the times of ancient Greece. However, the Scottish bagpipe has the most visibility today and the unique wailing noise is mostly associated with our northern neighbours. It is strange watching a piper play; he blows up the bag and plays the tune, yet the timing of the tune is totally different from the timing of his exhalations. As crazy as it sounds, I think that bagpipes actually work musically. I don’t know why And do you know what my favourtie bagpipe tune is? Don't laugh - I'm already embarrassed enough! It is “Amazing Grace” as played at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, when Spock’s coffin is ejected from the Enterprise. Brings tears to my eyes every time. What a sad fool I am.
As for kilts: I have often been in trouble taking the mickey out of our Scottish neighbours for wearing “skirts”. They don’t take this joke too kindly. To be honest, a Scot dressed in a formal costume complete with kilt and sporran does actually look very smart. Personally I wouldn’t wear a kilt for any amount of money – well perhaps a million pounds as long as there were no cameras to record the event.
Beefeaters: Beefeaters are really “Yeoman Warders” whose purpose in life is to guard the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Why are they called beefeaters? One theory is that part of their salary package included slabs of beef in the 17th century. In the time of Henry VIII, these guys were responsible for guarding prisoners, like his wives, held in the tower. These days, of course, the tower is not used as a prison and beefeaters are largely ceremonial. The uniform is ostentatious and flamboyant but it might not be a good idea to poke fun if you are tempted, as these guys are ex-army officers.
Bowler Hats: Whenever I think of bowler hats, I don’t picture a London city gent with an umbrella and a briefcase; I see Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (two of my all time favourite comic actors). And I’ve never seen anybody wear one, other than in films and in musicals - oh and in that video for "Rock Star" by Nickleback.
Britannia: Britannia is a symbol of the British Empire but originated in Roman Times as a goddess. She is depicted as a beautiful young woman, wearing the helmet of a Roman centurion, carrying a trident and shield, sitting on a rock with a bloody great big lion next to her. I think I would say she is beautiful if threatened by a trident and a lion.
John Bull: This guy is a little like America’s Uncle Sam. He is a rotund Englishman wearing a union jack waistcoat. I would say that he is typically British but the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish see him as English and don’t accept him. However, apparently he likes a beer, so that makes him okay with me.
Bulldog: Let’s face it, bulldogs are ugly brutes and the fact that this stubby little creature is the British mascot is really funny and typically British. Purists will say that this muscular little canine is a tenacious little beast and therefore represents the dogged spirit of your typical British citizen. How mad is that? I personally think we picked the ugliest mutt on purpose (probably after a few beers).
Cricket: I love cricket. Every summer you will find me and several thousand like-minded Englishmen sitting at a cricket ground watching England in battle with Australia, the West Indies, India, Pakistan, New Zealand or South Africa, relaxing in the sunshine with a pint of best English bitter. As a day out it can’t be beaten. Cricket, however, is seen as an enigma to those that don’t play it. As I’ve said before, I once tried to explain the rules of cricket to an American. It was almost impossible – I thought I had explained in great detail but terms such as "deep long leg", "silly mid-off", "googly", "bowling a maiden over" and "long hop" left him in a confused state. I came across this amusing “rules of cricket” that perhaps I should have used. It makes sense to me because I understand the rules. Does this make it easier?
You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out. When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!
That makes it all clear, doesn’t it? I’ll be testing you later …
Double-decker bus: Double-decker buses are used extensively in the UK and while they also exist in other places, Britain is deemed to be their home. Significantly the most famous double-deckers are the old red London Routemaster buses, that have sadly been replaced and exist for tourists and heritage only. I think they are great to be honest: as a kid I used to race up to the upper deck so that I could get a superb view of the surrounding area from the bus. To be honest, I still do this now.
Dr Who: Who (I hear you cry)? Yes “Who”! Dr Who is a British science fiction series about the adventures of a Time Lord (an alien time traveller) called Dr Who, who travels around through time and space in a blue 1950’s police box called the “Tardis”. It began on the BBC in 1963 and is the longest running science fiction series in the world. It was shown consistently between 1963 and 1989 when it was axed. It returned in a one-off special in 1996 and was relaunched in 2005 and has been going ever since. I am a HUGE fan of the show. “The Doctor” as he is known has “regenerated” nine times and we are currently on our tenth doctor with number eleven waiting in the wings. Enemies include the Daleks (left picture below) and the Cybermen (middle picture below), each British icons in their own right, as well as a rogue Time Lord called “The Master”. In addition to countless TV series there have been two movies. Every British person knows about the Tardis, the Daleks and the Cybermen, and those who claim not to are lying (in a vain attempt to keep their street credibility). For those of you out there in the world who have yet to experience the wonder of Dr Who, I implore you to do so at your earliest convenience. You won’t regret it.
Football: Whether you are a fan of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Celtic, Rangers or Walsall, football is THE greatest sport in existence and is THE sport of Britain. There is nothing better than spending a cold winter’s afternoon with a wagon wheel and a cup of Bovril shivering as your beloved team of warriors battle on the field of play. You become part of a tribe of like minded people who are completely focused on the game. You chant at the opposition; the more obscene and humorous the chant, the better. If you can’t make it to the game, you watch it on TV and hurl abuse at the blind linesmen and cheating referees. If it were up to me football would be played all year round. And for any Americans reading, I am not talking about the rugby-clone that you call “football”. I think you refer to it as “soccer”.
Grenadier Guards: These are the men wearing the red uniform who stand sentry outside royal palaces and are most famous for standing completely still in their huge busby hats while tourists and scamps try their best to make them twitch. However, be aware that Grenadier Guards are in the most senior regiment of the guards division in the British army.
James Bond: The most famous and greatest fictional spy in the entire world is 007, aka Commander Sir James Bond (KCMG, RNVR), a man who flies the flag of Great Britain as he jets around the world, killing psychotic megalomaniacs intent on world domination, while seducing gorgeous young women as he goes. It is rumoured that Ian Fleming used me as a role model for the super spy, but I can say that this just isn’t true. Compared to me, James Bond is an absolute clueless wimp.
London Underground Map: I find it bizarre that the map of the London Underground system is a popular icon amongst tourists. To me it is a simple means to find your way around the vast metropolis that is our capital without getting utterly and totally lost. All you need to do to find your way is identify the nearest “tube” station to the sight you are looking for and use this map to get to that station. It couldn’t be simpler. Having travelled on the tube many times, I can honestly say that it is a simple and very good experience – unless you hit the rush hour, which unfortunately for Londoners, seems to be all day every working day. In that event it is an absolute nightmare!
The Mini: The mini is, as the name suggests, a small car that somehow became an icon in the sixties, thanks to films like “The Italian Job”. It is difficult to believe that this little car was really popular from 1959 to 2000, when the manufacturers stopped making them. The good news, if you are into cars, is that there is a new model called the MINI (the name is in capitals to distinguish it from the previous model). However, this new effort is a little bigger and some mini enthusiasts don’t actually like it.
Pubs: Pubs are my favourite British icon and I have spent a fair amount of time in them over the years. There are approximately 58,000 pubs (short for “public houses”) in Britain and you can find at least one in every village as well as hundreds in towns and cities. In fact, sometimes you can be driving along a lonely country road and sometimes stumble into one in the middle of nowhere. Pubs these days are more than just places to meet and chat over a few beers. In recent years, many pubs double as restaurants and hotels and you can have a decent meal in the majority of them. A recent change in the licensing laws means that instead of pubs closing at 11pm, they can in theory stay open for 24 hours (though most choose not to do so). You can therefore find somewhere to have a nice cosy drink all day and most of the night, should you so desire. Another great thing about pubs are the names such as "The Red Lion", "The Royal Oak", "Lass o'Gowrie", "The Jabez Clegg" and "The Ape and Apple" - and these are just in Manchester. Below is a lovely little pub in the centre of Manchester with a fabulous name: "The Peveril of the Peak".
Red Telephone Box / Red Pillar Box: In recent times you could wander around Britain and see bright red structures almost everywhere. The public telephone box, containing a pay phone used to be ubiquitous but with the advent of mobile phones appear, sadly, to be in decline. Red pillar boxes are still omnipresent and are simply mail boxes. What’s weird about both of these truly British icons is that I have seen them on my travels to other countries, either in a British themed pub or as part of a rich foreigner’s strange collection. I find that bizarre to be honest.
Rolls Royce: I can’t help but admire Roll Royce cars. I would love to drive one but I can’t see that happening unless I win the lottery. Why? Because these cars are not meant to be driven by people like me – they are for the so-called elite, i.e. those with a stupid amount of cash to spend on them. That said, they are gorgeous cars. Sadly, they are owned by BMW, which to me doesn’t sound right.
Sherlock Holmes: Forget Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Perry Mason and Ellery Queen. The most famous detective in the history of fictional detectives is our very own Sherlock Holmes, the greatest sleuth ever to step forth from the imagination of an author. Sherlock Holmes had almost supernatural powers of reasoning, observation and deduction and no villain could escape once Sherlock was on his trail. Elementary, my dear readers.
Taxis: Many foreigners make the mistake of thinking that the black cabs (or Hackney Carriages) they see around London are used only in that city. In fact, the black cab is in use in many other places in Britain, including Manchester. Furthermore, London cab drivers are famous for their opinions and observations but that too is not limited to the capital; Manchester taxi drivers are exactly the same, keen to put the world to rights and offer solutions to every conceivable problem. My problem is that I am equally opinionated and end up clashing with them on a regular basis. I should learn to shut up and listen really.
As I said at the beginning of this post, there are thousands of British icons – I have limited my list and still written, for me, a long post. I do apologise. However, feel free to comment and add your own icons or disagree with my choices.
In the meantime, do you remember the rules for cricket?
Oh, and if you want to start a campaign to make “The Plastic Mancunian” a British icon, don't let me stop you. I wonder how many votes I can count on?
I shall return with a post about iconic places.