There is something about eccentricity that makes it endlessly attractive to the English.
Canvas opinion for example, on your favourite Dr Who. It has to be Tom Baker with that scarf.
Favourite actors? Brian Blessed perhaps, or for those of a certain generation, Oliver Reed; maybe even David Niven? Sportsmen? George Best, James Hunt?
Say what you will, it can’t be any coincidence that all of these have been touched by a little of the slightly off-centre. (Even David Niven, outwardly sporting the stiffest of upper lips, had a house called ‘Cirrhosis on the River’)
We all love an eccentric, don’t we?
The masters at the school I was educated at (an old-fashioned Grammar School) were eccentric almost to a man – at least it seemed like it at the time. And I have to say that it seemed an essential component of getting the best results from the motley group of which I was one. A little vulnerability, a demonstration of a side of themselves that was not only outside the framework of ‘rules’ was essential. It created a new and gloriously unpredictable reality – one without fear and if not totally without drudgery, was at least mitigated by something more sublime than ‘results’.
The master who taught me history was one. He never knew anyone’s name and never cared. Pupils were to him ‘large boy’ or ‘small boy’ and on one magnificent occasion in my presence, ‘medium-sized boy.’ His fascination with history led him to appreciate particularly (an appreciation I now share) the delights of ‘CV Wedgwood’ (as she always signed herself). It was racy in the extreme for her to be referred to as ‘Cecilia Veronica’ as my man was known to do.
(CV Wedgwood’s books, The King’s Peace, The King’s War and The Trial of Charles I, are still the most readable and approachable books on the period, Her introduction to Cardinal Richelieu and the French Monarchy is masterful).
But back to the classroom and our history master. He used to play games with us. Not on the sports field, but in class, where he would leave letters from his fiance (rumoured to be a nurse in some distant town) tantalisingly close to the point where they could be read by those in the foremost desks. Of course, they would be snatched away as the occupants of those desks leant forward.
He also had charge of what was known as the ‘General Sixth’ a class generally accepted to be immune to both punishment and learning, condemned to take a set of ‘easy’ O Levels to augment whatever qualifications they had already scraped together.
On one occasion when our eccentric entered their form room, there was no one there. The General Sixth were hiding in the cupboards. This might have caused a showdown with any other master, but our hero showed a perfect understanding of the situation and how it might be mitigated.
Gathering quickly from the rustlings and giggles from the cupboards what was actually happening, the history man said very loudly: “Good heavens. The General Sixth appear to have vanished. I think I shall retrace my steps to the library and then return here in two minutes. I am convinced that then they will all be in their places, and thus escape any punishment, which otherwise would be severe.”
And do you know? that’s exactly what happened.
So, what to read if you at least have some question mark over the case I have set out here? There is only one book for you, English Eccentrics, by Edith Sitwell (the author herself had her moments), will introduce you to travellers, sportsmen, heroes of the hunt, of the table, the stage and the pulpit, who perhaps are not quite of the run of the mill. Curricle Coates, Old Tom Parr, Jemmy Hirst and my favourite, Jack Mytton, the hunting squire who relieved himself of so much money and often led his horse into a nearby cottage to lie in front of the fire after a cold day of the chase.
David Niven’s memories of Hollywood are published in Bring on the Empty Horses, The Moon’s a Balloon and others.
The King’s Peace, The King’s War and The Trial of King Charles I, by CV Wedgwood, are published by Penguin.
English Eccentrics, by Edith Sitwell, is published by Pallas Athene.