Friday, July 04, 2008

The Unbearable Drabness of being British

I’m currently sat in a coffee shop at 10.30am not far from Parliament Square in central London and looking out of the window. It's brunch time; that strange twilight zone between meetings when I realise that I haven't had any breakfast and lunch time is too far away not to have something to eat now. And they have a free wireless connection here, so I can use my break profitably to scribble down this quick moan about British drabness. Because all I’ve seen for the past five minutes are people in mud-coloured clothes trudging their way to work.

All of the men are dressed in suits and the colours range from grey to black with occasional blues. And the ladies are as drab as the men. Why are we British so afraid of colour? Why do we insist on looking so dull when we go to work; the one place where we could all do with some cheering up? Do we really believe that it makes us less professional or less capable of doing our job? Would the fact that I was wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt make me any less capable of writing a report or chairing a meeting?
Maybe we’re simply the product of our environment. In countries where their surroundings reverberate with colour, so do the people. Look at the beautiful sarees of India; rich purples and greens picked out with gold. Look at native African clothes – mosaics of reds and yellows, whites and blacks, gold and copper. The native South Americans wear a riot of colours. And the ghastly red tartan shorts I’ve just seen one man wearing must belong to a North American tourist. No one from Britain would wear them in public. Not even a Scotsman. Britain is a wonderful place to live but, as a place to excite the senses, it can be dishwater dull. It’s just so conservative.

Yes, we do have some glorious gardens and public spaces. And yes, we do have white sandy beaches thrown into contrast by big brilliant blue skies on the odd days that we get good weather. There’s the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales and Snowdonia and Dartmoor … but, let’s face it, even these most beautiful of landscapes are mostly greens, browns and greys. And look at our wildlife. Almost all of our reptiles and amphibians are brown. Our wild mammals are mostly brown, reddish-brown or black and white. Even our birds, nature’s most adventurously colourful animals, are mostly brown. We get excited because robins have a little bit of red on them. Pheasants are colourful I know but we stole them from Africa and, since they’ve been here, they’ve toned themselves down. They're much more brown than their ancestors or close relatives. And before you start lecturing me about kingfishers, woodpeckers and golden eagles let me ask you when you last saw one of them. Any of them. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that they’re hiding as if ashamed to be British and so unnecessarily gaudy.
Our houses are grey, white, brick red. We leave concrete unpainted. Compare this with our close neighbours in Ireland where you’ll find pastel pink pubs and royal blue and mustard yellow cottages. In Britain, nearly all umbrellas are black. Household appliances are white, black or if we’re feeling daring, silver. Our light switches and plugs are white. Furniture is mostly brown. There is a vast palette of colours to play with. But we just don’t bother. If we meet someone who has dared to invest in a bright red sofa or a gloriously yellow car, we assume that they’re a bit weird or have attention seeking issues. Why? It’s just colour. It’s not something to be scared of.
This malaise is deepest is at our workplaces. In the days when I always had to wear a suit to work, I was expected to wear something grey, black or blue, the darker the better. Brown would bring on occasional nose-wrinkling. Tweed or corduroy would cause frowning. If I’d dared try a green or a purple, I’d have been sidelined and avoided as if I had the pox. Those of us who still felt the need to strut our male peacockiness – as most male animals do of course – would attempt to wear brightly coloured ties. These immediately engendered comments like ‘Turn it down’ or ‘someone’s been sick down your shirt’. Or you’d be assumed to be the office clown and have parts of yourself stapled to things. The situation is slightly better these days and I do see the occasional pink or purple shirt at work but they are minor aberrations among the blues and whites. Having spent the last quarter hour staring out of the window at a good cross-section of London’s business population – bankers, solicitors, secretaries, mortgage advisors, opticians, salespeople - I can assure you that nothing much has changed. The colours are still as conservative as ever. And just as dull.
One final note: When, in the 1820s, Gideon Mantell found some curious fossil bones and put them together, he discovered a species of previously unknown prehistoric animal (it turned out to be a species of Iguanodon). His finds were unfairly dismissed (and, some suggest, stolen) by Sir Richard Owen who then called this new animal – and others like it - the dinosauria, which means ‘terrible lizards’. Owen then engaged an artist to paint the beast as it may have looked in life. And he painted it brown. And almost every dinosaur illustration and reconstruction for a hundred years afterwards did the same. Every dinosaur from a T Rex to a duck-billed Parasaurolophus was either brown, grey or something equally dull. The situation persisted up until very recently (look at the monochrome dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park films) but now we’re starting to discover that, as the progenitors of birds, many dinosaurs had feathers and were therefore probably as colourful as birds are today; and their close relatives, the reptiles and amphibians. Tyrannosaurus Rex could have been as pink as a flamingo or as blue as a rainforest tree frog. Triceratops may have had stripes or spots. Velociraptor (which did have feathers) may have had scarlet fleshy wattles and crests like cockerels or vultures. All of which makes me wonder … if dinosaurs had first been discovered in the Amazon rainforest rather than Southern England, would the first reconstructions have been more colourful?

Richard Owen was horribly wrong about many aspects of dinosaur physiognomy. For example, despite Mantell’s research indicating that Iguanodon was bipedal (which it was), Owen had it reconstructed as a fat quadruped with its signature thumb spike as a horn on the nose. Owen also thought that Darwin’s ideas about evolution were rubbish. But I have a horrible suspicion that he may have got the colour right for the British dinosaurs. I bet they were brown. Terrible lizards? Terribly dull.

Right. 11am. Back to work.

Picture Credits: Notarius, Rhyl Business Group, Rob Davis, Zdenek Burian, RSPB.


potdoll said...

ever heard of a show called Grumpy Old Men...;)


Stevyn Colgan said...


(Hi Potdoll!)

willow said...

You Brits do have the reputation of being a little on the straight laced side. Is it in your genes? Is it because we Americans descend from frontier conquering stock?

Everyone is wearing red, white and blue over here today!

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

Amusing post, and a wry observation of sartorial Britain.

I daresay Canada is much the same.

Interesting to compare business people to dinosaurs. Hmmmmmmmmm......

Could be a hidden context there, wot!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hidden context? I'd like to think I was that clever!

But well spotted, wot!

nikita said...

hmm... and all my red/yellow/blue/green clothes are still in my wardrobe, for the past 5 years being in London! Great article about Hawker, I was at his hut 2 days ago, busy with an entry about him.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi Nikita - Thanks for popping by