Our lovable oddballs may be at risk of being labelled mad or bad. We should celebrate them, says HILARY FREEMAN, and even try to be a bit more like them
Sebastian Horsley, self-confessed dandy, artist and writer – who died in an accidental drug overdose in June – was best known for a bizarre stunt in which he had himself, literally, crucified for his art in the Philippines (famously, the footrest dropped away and he fell off the cross). He dressed in velvet suits, waistcoats, top hats and tails, had a flat filled with skulls, and delighted in revealing lurid details of his sex life.
Some profiles talked of Horsley as the last of the great eccentrics. Perhaps they were right. According to Henry Hemming, author of In Search of the English Eccentric, ‘the efflorescence of new psychiatric syndromes in Western medicine is making it harder for the true eccentric to thrive’. What does he mean? ‘The space in which one can be eccentric is narrowing,’ he explains. ‘Now someone who is eccentric could be labelled as mentally ill. True eccentrics are not in need of medical attention and they rarely end up in jail. They’re not a danger to themselves or others.’
So are they sick – or just rather colourful? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a guide used by doctors worldwide, contains three times as many mental disorders today as it did in 1952, says Hemming – and further proposals to modify classifications could squeeze the great British eccentric out of his or her natural habitat. Which would be a shame: because, as we’ll discover, true eccentrics are not only happy with their lot – they’re a darn sight happier than the rest of us.
There’s little denying that British people are, as a nation, united by our quest for individuality. A survey carried out by the Future Foundation for First Direct in June 2010 found that more than one in 10 Brits (13 per cent) – that’s six million people across the country – can be classified as true eccentrics, although a massive 32 million display ‘traits’ of eccentricity. That’s half of us. Whether it’s practising such curious pursuits as bog snorkelling or going commando to meet the Queen, as fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood did, our taste for the unconventional is what made Britain great and what keeps us in the world’s consciousness.
Our island is home to colourful and creative characters. A random selection: Lord Byron (kept a bear in his college room); Chris Eubank (boxer who wears a monocle and plus fours); Helena Bonham-Carter (lives in an adjoining house to her husband); the Marquess of Bath (as Edith Sitwell once noted, aristocrats are often naturally equipped for eccentricity being ‘entirely uninfluenced by the opinions of the crowd’). And where else but Britain could Boris Johnson be voted in as mayor of a capital city?
Many eccentrics aren’t household names, merely making the headlines when their behaviour captures the public imagination. Take former marine, John Slater, who walked barefoot from John O’Groats to Land’s End in his pyjamas. Or the so-called Leopard Man of Skye who, having retired from the armed forces, decided to have himself tattooed head to foot in leopard spots and live as a hermit on the Isle of Skye.
So what – or who – is an eccentric? Its literal meaning is ex-centric (not situated in the geometric centre) and it describes those who deviate from the established norms, who are odd or unconventional. According to Dr David Weeks, a consultant clinical neuropsychologist in Edinburgh and author of Eccentrics (Weidenfeld & Nicholson), they have 20 features in common. ‘The first traits are the most important. Eccentrics are nonconforming, they are creative, they are motivated by curiosity, they’re idealistic and happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses − often five or six. The majority are aware from an early age that they’re different, although they’re certain they’re in the right and it’s the world that’s out of step.’
While many people take part in hobbies some may consider to be eccentric − pigeon-fancying or historical battle re-enactments – the true eccentric doesn’t tend to join groups or clubs. Take William McGonagall (1825 -1902), notorious for being ‘the world’s worst poet’. He once bribed his way into playing the lead in Macbeth and then refused to play dead, preferring to improvise bad verse.
Eccentrics live for their art or hobby; they become it, so that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Dr Weeks says his research suggests that approximately one in 10,000 people is a real eccentric, and that eccentrics are neither mad, bad nor dangerous. In fact, they tend to be happy people with a good sense of humour and attractive personalities, who socialise well. ‘Eldest or only children are more likely to be eccentrics. And while an eccentric is more likely to be single, they’re also more likely to have been married and then divorced – probably because their spouses couldn’t put up with their strange behaviour.’
Historically, more men than women were thought of as eccentric – because of economic constraints and because unconventional women may, in less enlightened times, have been regarded as witches − but now there are almost an equal number. Women tend to hold back until middle age, when their children have left home. ‘First they dispense with their husbands and then they blossom into eccentricity and creativity,’ says Dr Weeks. Everyone gets more eccentric as they get older, which is why you’ll find a disproportionate number in seaside towns popular with the elderly.
Dr Weeks believes that eccentricity has thrived in Britain because of class structure. ‘If you can’t move vertically then you tend to develop horizontally,’ he explains. But it’s not an exclusively British trait. There are many eccentrics in America, too, but you’ll find few in Japan or in Germany where order and convention rule. Unsurprisingly, you won’t find many in totalitarian regimes either.
Few countries could have produced Horsley, who claimed to have slept with 1,000 prostitutes, noting: ‘I can count all the lovers I’ve had on one hand – if I’m holding a calculator.’ He was once refused entry to the US on the grounds of ‘moral turpitude’. His riposte was: ‘I’ve never drunk turpentine in my life.’
According to author Henry Hemming: ‘The thing about most eccentrics is that they don’t consider themselves eccentric – it’s everyone else who’s a bit odd.’
Vivienne Westwood is a great example. She hates being called eccentric, despite being known for rather, er, eccentric actions. ‘I don’t wear knickers with dresses,’ she said, having twirled to reveal all after accepting her OBE at Buckingham Palace. She’s also renowned for telling people not to buy clothes (remember, she’s a fashion designer), and in 2002 launched a 22-page manifesto to rescue mankind from mediocrity, called Active Resistance. It featured 20 characters, including Alice in Wonderland, Aristotle and Pinocchio.
Being eccentric is good for your health. ‘Eccentrics don’t have the normal anxieties,’ says Dr Weeks. ‘They don’t care what others think and they don’t get stressed or anxious. Consequently, they go to the doctor far less than average − about every seven or eight years − and they tend to live longer. We should all strive to be more eccentric. It’s good for us.’
How eccentric are you? Test your own oddness by taking our official great British eccentric quiz and let us know how you score!
1. Would you describe yourself as at least three of these:
Motivated by curiosity?
Obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses?
2. Would you say you are right more often than the world?
3. Are you an oldest or only child?
4. Are you happy?
5. Do you like mixing with people?
6. Are you single or divorced?
7. Do you live in a seaside town?
8. Are you never anxious?
9. Do you rarely visit the doctor?
10. Do you deny that you’re eccentric?
How many questions did you say yes to?
1-4: You’re pretty conventional
5-7: You’re not quite the norm
8-10: Congratulations! You’re a great British eccentric
By Hilary Freeman, Do Not Disturb (In-hotel Magazine)