The Daily Mirror: 17 things that put the Great in Britain — from Marmite to Eddie the Eagle

Why were our phone boxes red, which Women’s Institute members are heavy metal fans and which Lord would only eat meals in his swimming pool?

Author Fraser McAlpine, who must explain Britain to foreigners as editor of the BBC’s Anglophenia blog, answers these questions and more in new book Stuff Brits Like: A Guide To What’s Great About Great Britain.

So here are some of the best bits about being British…

Keep Calm posters

Keep Calm and Carry On posters were printed in 1939 and were meant to be used in a moment of dire need, such as after an invasion.

But the moment never came and most were destroyed after the Second World War.

A surviving poster was found in 2000 in a box of old books in a secondhand shop in Alnwick, Northumberland.

The owners framed it and the rest is history.

Cornish pasty

The Cornish pasty, staple of the West Country county, was created as a handy lunch for the tin miners.

They often ended up with arsenic on their fingers, and the pasty allowed them to hold the thick crust, which they could then discard at the end of their lunch.

Shipping forecast

BBC Radio 4 broadcasts the shipping forecast four times a day.

Blur’s Damon Albarn admitted that when he was on his first US tour in 1991, he tuned into the shipping forecast when he felt homesick.

Joe Orton

The playwright, who wrote Loot, and his lover Kenneth Halliwell used to sneak books from libraries and replace their dust jackets with homemade versions, complete with a fresh – and scandalous – blurb and the odd naked man, too.

Pantomime Dame

The British love of cross-dressing originates with Shakespeare, who had males playing females. But in Victorian times both the main female and male lead were traditionally played by women.


Loved and hated in equal measure, Marmite is made from the breweries’ boiled-down leftovers, known as beer scum.

Despite being a quintessential British condiment, it was actually created by a German scientist called Justus von Liebig.

Memorial plaque

In Hammersmith, West London, where the opening credits of Nineties comedy series Bottom was filmed, there is a plaque that reads “Rik Mayall – 1958-2014 – punched his friend in the balls near this spot”.

Phone boxes

The original design of the iconic red British phone boxes were actually green to blend in with the grass and trees. But they blended in so well people started walking into them, so the colour had to change. As Royal Mail also ran telephone services, they were painted the classic red colour.

Tikka masala

Chicken tikka masala is a Glaswegian invention thought up in 1971, while the Indian balti dishes were first created in Birmingham restaurant Adil’s in 1977.

The WI

The Women’s Institute started in 1915 in the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyll to encourage women to take an active role in food production during the First World War.

Now there are 212,000 members across 6,600 institutes. A Liverpool branch called Iron Maidens was created to welcome Death Metal fans, goths and burlesque dancers.


The word chav, which was coined in the early 2000s, most likely comes from the Romany word chavi, meaning child.

Rugby… league & union

The divide between rugby union and rugby league goes back to the late 1800s.

In the industrial north, amateur players were losing too much paid work in order to play so they decided to go professional. But players from clubs in the south refused to join them in their rugby league, which developed in parallel to rugby union, each with their own rules and customs.

Lord Rokeby

The eccentric 18th century peer loved water so much he ate dinner in his pool and it was believed he wanted to be a fish.

Doctor Who

The Doctor Who theme tune, recorded at an experimental BBC Radiophonic Workshop, was one of the first widely popular electronic songs.

Rod Stewart

Several pages of the pop legend’s autobiography are dedicated to his habit of drawing penises on things, including the passports of the boys from McFly.

Golden Syrup

The inscription on the iconic Lyle’s Golden Syrup tin comes from the Old Testament story of Samson and the Lion. “Out of the strong came forth sweetness” was the first British advertising slogan.

Eddie the Eagle

Eddie Edwards became a household name after losing the 70m and 90m ski jump in the 1988 Winter Olympics. It was the first time Britain had entered a competitor in the event and Eddie had to borrow his ski boots, which were so big he wore six pairs of socks to make them fit.

by Melissa Thompson

The Daily Mirror, 13 July 2015