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The Great British Love and Tolerance of the Eccentric

Eccentrics are ‘off centre’ or ‘beyond the norms’ of others. They can be thought crazy, are unafraid to be different and add to the colour of British life.

Eccentricity isn’t confined to the UK, though HistoryUK.com said: ‘England may be a small country but seems to have more true eccentrics than many larger countries’. All nationalities enjoy practical jokes, dress outrageously, behave to shock and have mindsets that see differently.

French author David d’Equainville (Manifesto for a Day Put Off) founded International Procrastination Day, to promote ‘positive procrastination’ in the fast-paced, results-driven world. It’s an act of resistance against orders, a ‘defence mechanism’. He accepted some would delay the Day.

Creatives are frequently eccentrics, too. Britain’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party manifesto (there’s also a US version), includes such ‘fun’ demands as abolition of income tax, motorways to be cycle ways, inviting Europe to join the British pound, a 99p coin ‘to save on change’ and banning semi-colons.

Eccentric Creative, Creative Eccentricity

Writing in World of Psychology (May 2011), Margarita Tartakovsky connected creativity and eccentricity, quoting Shelly Carson’s Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximise Imagination, in the May/June 2011 Scientific American. Albert Einstein’s predilection for gathering cigarette butts off the street for pipe tobacco, Howard Hughes stranded on a chair in the middle of a room for days and Robert Schumann believing Beethoven dictated his compositions from the grave: creative eccentricity.

She felt that mild schizotypal personality disorder was behind creativity/eccentricity. This takes many forms, including perception distortions, paranormal beliefs, preference for solitary activities and paranoia. Not all eccentrics display these facets of behaviour, predictive dreams or magical belief/thinking, but many creatives do.

Tartakovsky mentioned cognitive disinhibition, where some cannot ignore irrelevant or extraneous information/data bombarding daily. People possess a mental filter, latent inhibition. Where this is reduced, there’s vulnerability to schizophrenia. Thus, she argued, ‘allowing unfiltered information into consciousness could lead to strange visual perceptions like hearing voices, seeing imaginary people’.

Eccentrics of Common Mind

While some argue many social organisations are but eccentric collectives masquarading as normal, there is The Eccentrics Club, ‘celebrating eccentricity since 1781’. They’re a social, charitable, politically unaffiliated group of men and (nowadays) women.

They follow traditions of predecessor organisations like The Illustrious Society of Eccentrics, The Everlasting Society of Eccentrics and The Eccentric Society Club. Their Patron is known for an offbeat world view, HRH Prince Philip.

Through entertaining and educational events, they promote creative and original approaches to social, historic, cultural, ethical and aesthetical issues, ‘some of which may be considered controversial by present day media and society’. One point about eccentricity: some recognise it in themselves, but others apply the label.

Eccentrics in Literature and Reality

Writing in The Guardian (March 2011) of his book, Bright Particular Stars: A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics, David McKie identified favourite eccentrics. He featured Sairey Gamp in Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit, with her flow of proverbs and inventive relationship with Mrs Harris.

His favourite from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass was the White Knight ‘with his songs, uncertain seat in the saddle and talent for strange inventions’. He homed in on aunts as a favourite writers’ depository for eccentricity. Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt was one sort; Ant Dot from Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond another; ‘all-aunt, all-eccentric’.

He reckoned Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time meets the requirement of ‘not conforming to common rules’. From the real world, McKie chose William Beckford (1760-1844), a collector of pictures, books and furniture, sometime politician, ‘the richest commoner in England’ and wearer of makeup.

Preferring isolation, the 5th Duke of Portland (1800-1879), built a tunnel under his Nottinghamshire estate, so he could move around unseen. Florence Nightingale devotee Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), formidable master of Balliol College, Oxford detested the French. He’d ask students what was written over the entrance to Hell. The answer: ‘Ici on parle Francais’.

Eccentric Musicians

Sean O’Hagan in The Observer (October 2003) claimed music needs eccentrics. He rated reclusive Kate ‘most peculiar’ Bush in his top ten, as she ‘brought her own rural gothic eccentricity’ mainstream. Her Wuthering Heights inspired ‘loons’ like Bjork, Tricky and Tori Amos.

Sun Ra (1914-1992), self named after ‘aliens abducted him’ in his teens, released 200 albums as five billion people were ‘all out of time’. Captain Beefheart was the ‘weirdest rock visionary of all’, who once sold a vacuum cleaner to Aldous Huxley with the line, ‘this machine sucks’.

Kevin Rowland, of Dexy’s Midnight Runners became a celtic gypsy and wore stockings & suspenders at Reading Festival. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, ‘reggae’s reigning eccentric’, kept a fence-impaled toaster in his studio. Musicologist Harry Smith donated a paper airplane collection to the American National Air & Space Museum and collected Ukrainian Easter eggs.

Mental Health Warning

O’Hagan wondered about Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Syd Barret, Viv Stanshall, Hazel Adkins, Lucia Pamela but decided that genuine mental illness, drug-destruction or alcoholism ruled them out as true eccentrics. Others wondered about Yoko Ono, too.

Nick Collins, in The Daily Telegraph (July 2010) feared eccentrics could be labelled with mental disorders under diagnostic guideline modifications published by the American Psychiatric Association, which ‘shrink the pool of normality to a puddle’.

‘Difficult’ or ‘eccentric’ people could be diagnosed as mentally ill. That would suit conformists, but most eccentric behaviour is harmless. The APA devised ‘Psychosis Risk Syndrome’ to identify people at risk of developing mental illness. Symptoms include episodes of hearing voices, which is occasionally an experience of both creatives and eccentrics. Madness and genius have always been close relations.

If every maverick thought a little batty, strange or slightly weird is now to be ‘treated’, where does it stop?

First published on Suite 101, 20 July 2011

Image: Eccentric Store Sign – Infrogmation

 

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