Exploring Englishness, Part 6

(This is the sixth in a series of articles in which we attempt to pin down and dissect various aspects of the English character.)

The English are unusual in the degree to which they regard eccentricity as a positive trait.  A euphemism for 'strange' in many other Western countries, 'eccentric' is often a compliment in England.  We seem to regard eccentricity as endearing, or positively attractive.  (It must be said, however, that we hardly ever seem to admire it in foreigners, in whom eccentric behaviour is often written off as 'peculiar,' which is certainly not a compliment).  Some of us even consciously cultivate our eccentricities (though it is not done to admit this, except to close friends -we are, after all, supposed to come by it naturally).  Why this attitude?  Why do we enjoy being eccentric, and find it admirable in others?  The answers to these questions seem to lie in various English preoccupations, and in the history of English society.


Eccentricity has obviously been deep-seated in England for a long time; John Aubrey's Brief Lives chronicled the oddities of various late seventeenth-century figures, and the eighteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson delighted in lampooning eccentric hobbyists in caricatures that were themselves eccentric. But the greatest chronicler of our quirks must be the twentieth-century poet Edith Sitwell, herself a great eccentric known for her bird-like features and enormous Byzantine-looking head-dresses.  In English Eccentrics she compiled a marvellous book of examples of English oddity, related in a mandarin yet gnomic style. Here we find characters whose eccentricity is on a truly heroic scale, such as the sportsman Mr Hirst, who hunted using "sagacious pigs" instead of dogs, wore a waistcoat made of drake's feathers to Doncaster races, and had an empty coffin in the dining-room as a conversation piece.  The quirks of the famous are revealed as well; the philosopher Herbert Spencer used to insist on slinging a hammock in any train on which he had to make an overnight journey, in the belief that this would prevent him from being shaken about by the train's movements, and Wordsworth sported "a long cloak, a Scotch bonnet and great goggles" during the winter.  As for George Eliot, her taste in men was so ridiculous that it, too, according to Miss Sitwell, qualifies as eccentricity, though one can discern a slight cattiness on the author's part. There is a whole chapter on a Mr Charles Waterton whose entire life, so it seems, was eccentric to a degree that made him severely trying to his friends, whom he would welcome (even in his eighties!) by dancing down the drive, or ambushing them in the guise of a mad dog.  While it is quite true that the proper development of eccentricity requires leisure time, so that the most famous eccentrics have often been members of the aristocracy or gentry, this is not to say that the genius for it does not also flourish amongst the lower orders as well; they simply tend to be less obvious about it. My own family contained people, outwardly perfectly ordinary Cockneys, who at home did things like hoard newspapers dating back to 1920.


It is possible, however, that the English were not originally more eccentric than anybody else, but that eccentricity became established as a national trait simply because conditions in England have made it noticeable for so long; England has had fairly stable government and well-established social mores for hundreds of years, making it possible for quirks of behaviour to be identified. Eccentricity of the often subtle English variety only becomes identifiable in a society and culture governed by numerous and widely-understood rules.


Whatever form it takes, eccentricity is a mild form of rebellion against authority and social convention, so it appeals to the often-noted anarchic streak in the English character.  It is a declaration of independence on a small (and moderate) English scale, an assertion of the free-born English person's right to dispose of their own leisure time un-interfered with.  Our fierce attachment to our freedom in leisure pursuits is proverbial, and it explains the outcry in the media every time "government busybodies" start "sticking their noses in" to somebody's hobby; why shouldn't Mrs Jones cover her garden with pottery cats if she wants to, and who is anybody else to try and stop her? Like humour, to which it is often closely allied, English eccentricity is a way of letting off steam. By providing an outlet for the frustrations that must inevitably build up in a densely-populated and fairly cohesive society, eccentricity paradoxically helps to prop up the very order that it appears to so recklessly flout, both by providing the exceptions that prove the rules and by working off tensions that could otherwise pose a real threat to social (and governmental) stability.  The fact that eccentricity is an important mental safety valve also helps to explain why many eccentric English people seem to radiate an otherwise inexplicable serenity. Giving in a little to the irrational probably keeps many of us fundamentally sane, and may have added something to our generally fairly steady and placid temperament. We should be concerned that, as the Americanisation of English culture continues, our tolerance and encouragement of small oddities will vanish and be replaced by the stronger norms of conformity of North American culture, which leave hardly any room for the gnomic or the quixotic and are, for us at any rate, not as healthy.


A useful distinction between conscious and unconscious eccentricity might be made here. We are attracted to unconscious eccentricity in others because it is endearing and amusing (and, as we have noted before, we tend to be fond of those who amuse us), often connected to an equally endearing vagueness and complete, almost selfless absorption in a hobby, whether it is collecting models of all the Z-cars or practising for the World Conker Championships. (We should note that it is not always the interest itself that is eccentric, but the depth of the English hobbyist's devotion to it.) Eccentricity of the consciously knowing variety is also connected to humour, but this time the joke is shared by both the eccentric and those who are amused at the eccentric's behaviour. This type of eccentricity is self-aware and ironic, usually a running joke at one's own expense, and it is often connected to sex-appeal -an ability to laugh at one's self is enormously attractive to other English people, since it shows awareness combined with humour. This type of eccentricity also harnesses the allure of the conscious rebel. It is a form of self-parody that invites others to admire one's wit and style; not surprisingly, many English celebrities have cultivated it, particularly rock stars.


Whether consciously or unconsciously quirky, eccentrics are also admired because they are indisputably individuals. An orientation towards individuality, fostered by the development of a philosophical tradition of English individualism throughout the centuries (which probably goes back to pre-Norman times), is hard-wired into our brains.  It is largely our distinctiveness which makes us likeable or loveable to other English people. While this is true to some extent of other peoples as well, it is noticeable that we have always been less likely to focus on people as universal types than are many other Western groups, and more on what makes them unique. Thus, while many classic French authors deal with archetypes, such as the Femme Fatale (to take an example that is known in the English-speaking world), a novelist like Dickens delights in a pantheon of diverse characters, of whom even the minor figures have intriguing quirks (remember the simple, kind-hearted Mr Dick in David Copperfield, whose childlikeness is expressed by his love of kite-flying, the various members of the Pickwick Club, or the marvellous, spirits-swigging Mrs Gamp). This admiration for eccentricity is a part of the English cult of individual personality, and helps to promote the idea that individual human beings are irreplaceable.


The English have always been lukewarm about the ideal of human and societal perfection, and their enthusiasm for eccentricity is connected to this. If various ways of being slightly odd --and hence different personality types-- are equally acceptable, there can be no perfect, classical standard to which we should all aspire. Thus the notion of the Great Man, which has dominated many Western cultures, has often met with embarrassment on the part of the English.  Many foreigners (particularly Americans, who seem, by contrast with us, far more interested in figures of mythic stature) are fascinated by Churchill's back-to-the-wall heroism during the Second World War; there is no doubt that we are grateful for it, but we are more fascinated by the details of his personality and the eccentricities to which this was inextricably tied.  We like to hear about his landscape-painting hobby, his silk underwear, and episodes in which, for example, he was discovered skipping around his tent in the African desert to a gramophone record, clad only in his dressing gown, with a sandwich in one hand and some watercress in the other. Such quirks lighten heroism's gravitas, bringing 'great' people down to our level and making them intelligible to us.  English politicians have often exploited this: Disraeli's theatrical dress sense and Macmillan's penchant for quoting Jane Austen at times of crisis are just two examples.


Our attitude towards eccentrics is very important with regard to the great English virtue of tolerance; a long-standing amused and admiring acceptance of other people's quirks obviously makes for tolerance of other differences, and perhaps helps to explain why England has, on the whole, quite a good record on religious toleration.  Could it be that, in accepting individuality in others, we have been practising for our current diversity?  It certainly must have contributed to the idea that human differences make for a more interesting society.  Admiration for eccentricity is connected to a capacity for imaginative empathy; we have to be able to understand and empathise with the eccentric's interest.  If something is so strange that it is completely incomprehensible to anybody except the eccentric concerned, it is likely to be labelled 'edgy' (by the critics, in the case of modern art) or 'peculiar' by the rest of society, while if an interest or behaviour seems likely to hurt one's self or other people, it stops being eccentric and becomes perverse. Not every unconventional behaviour qualifies as eccentricity, therefore. Like most other things, we can only stand oddness in moderation.

Eccentricity is closely tied to English emotional life, particularly our ticklishness about letting our true selves show too much to others.  This is true more of the knowing variety, though there is something in the single-minded determination with which many pursue their hobbies which suggests that these provide some sort of emotional satisfaction.  Given our dislike of revealing ourselves too quickly to others, combined with our sociability and deep need for human relationships, knowing eccentricity provides us with a way of showing our interests to someone else -yes, I'm a trainspotter, eccentric, isn't it?—under the guise of laughing at one's self, so that, if the other person doesn't care for the interest, this protection remains, to give the impression that one wasn't all that serious about the interest, and so cannot be hurt by the other's indifference to it. There are other advantages to being eccentric as well, with regard to social interactions. Being eccentric is at the opposite end of the spectrum from being a Bore, nowhere so much disliked as in England.  Not only that, it is a gift to those of us who have a natural urge to do good; it allows us to avoid falling into another hated category, that of the Prig.  If you embrace a cause and talk passionately to other people about it, many will see you as a humourless do-gooder or, worse, a fanatic (the Bore with the one-track mind). If, however, you manifest your urge to improve the world in a quirky way --say you push a peanut to Land's End with your nose in order to draw attention to a serious issue, or join an association with an endearing name such as the Hedgehog Preservation Society-- people will not only admire your delightful eccentricity, but your selfless dedication to the cause.  In no other country do people so regularly perform feats that would be considered strange and stupid elsewhere, in order to gain newspaper inches for their cause. 


From the English point of view, eccentricity is also one of the few redeeming features of the genius; in fact, it sometimes seems as if, in England, a very clever person has to be eccentric in order to become endearing, and cease being seen as either threatening or pretentious. Would somebody with an intellect like Clement Freud's, for example, be so popular were it not for his dead-pan performances on Just a Minute?  The programme itself is evidence of our love for virtuoso exhibitions of eccentric playfulness and verbal dexterity; it is perhaps the only radio show in the Western world on which one can hear popular personalities discussing such subjects as Getting Ice-Cubes Out of an Ice-Cube Tray without hesitation, repetition or deviating from the subject, and also one of the few which keeps alive the art of civilised banter.  Many other highly intelligent people have indulged their appetite for play in England, in a way which would shock the more reverential public of other countries; the historian John Julius Norwich, an expert on the Byzantine empire, has not only published several books on the subject, but a delightfully humorous reinterpretation of the Twelve Days of Christmas for the twentieth century, written from the point of view of a middle-class young lady ("Dearest Edward -What a surprise—four calling birds arrived this morning.  They are very sweet, even if they do call rather loudly").  In England, brains are not enough, or even, on the whole, that desirable; personality and kindliness are much more important.          


Eccentricity is, of course, closely tied to English creativity and inventiveness.  This can be clearly seen in all the arts, particularly in fashion and music, as well as in our tradition of nonsense literature.  English fashion designers have long attempted to tap into the allure of the conscious type of eccentricity by evoking it in their collections, so that self-parody is now regarded as a hallmark of English fashion.  Likewise, eccentricity has been reflected in English music. English music fans often want to be entertained and amused more than uplifted and enlightened by the music that they listen to. Thus a tinge of eccentricity has helped to produce some of the best English music of the past fifty years, especially noticeable on some of the great rock albums, such as Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon. Perhaps the high point of eccentricity in English music (a tradition which includes Gilbert and Sullivan, Kate Bush, the Kinks, the Streets, and many others) was the wild and woolly Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, headed up by the most flamboyant eccentric of our time, the late Vivian Stanshall.  His penchant for Edwardian menswear worn with rubber ears, among many other quirks, fascinated and delighted audiences. The Bonzos' big hit, I'm the Urban Spaceman, features Vivian playing a garden hose at the end. Let us also not forget the urbane Flanders and Swann, whose songs about purloined French horns, the laws of thermodynamics and, most famously, amorous hippopotami ensured that their shows were immensely popular with post-war English people of all classes. The whole genre of progressive rock has benefited enormously from injections of English eccentricity, and might not have developed as it did without the determination of groups like Procol Harum to combine rock with other musical styles, particularly classical.  A member of the Moody Blues made a revealing remark, when asked by a journalist whether combining classical and rock music works: what matters is not whether it works, but the fact that it hasn't been done before, he explained.  This is an extremely English thing to say.


It also shows the way in which English eccentricity is connected to our passion for originality and inventiveness, which also asserts our individuality and sends the message "I am an interesting person to know."  Without all the prototypes for Nick Park's Wallace, the legions of inventors pottering about with plans and daft ideas that never came to anything, it is doubtful that our country would have produced so many world-changing inventions. (Even some inventions that seem silly at first glance have been generally adopted, such as the cat flap, popularly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton). Here we should note that eccentricity and inventiveness are tied to the cult of the amateur: a dislike of professionalism and a resistance to doing things in a clinical, organised way, in favour of a hobbyist and intuitive approach. 


Although we have a long-standing admiration for eccentricity, there also seems to be something indefinable about the English atmosphere that positively encourages it.  Perhaps it is the class system, which has long encouraged, for the upper class, affectations as class distinguishers that are only a stone's throw from eccentricity.  Perhaps it is the weather, which encourages us to stay indoors and amuse ourselves with our hobbies, and develop a more intense interest in them than we otherwise might.  It could perhaps be simpler than that, however; approval of any behaviour tends to promote it.  (That is what we call a glimpse of the bloomin' obvious).  The effect of the English atmosphere on us is clear, however.  Hitchcock's English films, for example, snap and crackle with the eccentricity of both their creator and their characters, while those of his Hollywood period are glossy and solid but frequently lifeless in comparison, standardised by the Hollywood system.  The same syndrome can be identified in the work that the film-maker John Schlesinger did in England, combined with his Hollywood output.


However, we should not rest on our laurels.  Sometimes it seems as if eccentrics of the grand old school are becoming fewer and fewer; truly original eccentricity, one of the motive forces which propel the development and renewal of English culture, is harder to find these days. Let us be bold and inventive --we must not allow our culture to stagnate. Who's for tabletop croquet? --Isabel Taylor

Copyright © Isabel Taylor 2006.




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