No matter how hard we try, no matter how noble our intention, and no matter how loath we would be to admit it, most of us still hold fast to various tired, timeworn stereotypes about people from other countries. No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we all seem to have some dark corner tucked away somewhere that’s just right for keeping these embarrassing beliefs alive.
It’s not our fault really – it’s a failing that can be chalked up to that catch-all usually referred to as human nature. All right, maybe we should accept a little of the blame, so long as it’s only a little. After all, what are we supposed to do about the fact that there are Swiss who seem a little more fastidious and compulsive than the rest of us? Or that there are French people in Paris who can be a trifle less than friendly to visitors from other countries?
Anyway, it seems as if every time I think I’ve finally snuffed out that last smoldering urge to blithely generalize about another culture or its people, something happens to relight the small flame of bias that burns in my subconscious.
What brought this post on? A conversation with Charles who told me that there had been a study conducted many years ago at the Royal Hospital in Edinburgh and after extensive research they found that the British are–how can I put this delicately?-shall we say more inclined than other people to act in a peculiar manner. The study actually revealed that Britain seem to have a higher percentage of loopy souls than other places. We’re not talking here about people that are seriously ill, but rather the kind of genuinely off-the-wall behaviour that’s usually categorized as eccentric.
For anyone who thought that the oddities of British behavior consisted mostly of peculiarities like warm beer, chilling baths, eating kippers first thing in the morning, and having some kind of unnatural affection for darts, the study proofed to be a real eye opener.
For instance; a man who bathes in nothing but baked beans, a potato inspector who eats nothing but potatoes and spends his holidays studying the ur-potato and its offspring in Peru, and an aristocratic woman who came to be interviewed with her plastic lobster (which she continually stroked) and mentioned that she had a plastic crab at home to keep it company. Anyone still wondering where the cast of Monty Python got its material?
In any event, the idea that looniness is somehow endemic (epidemic?) to British society was simply too fraught with amusing possibilities to let a little thing like fear of contributing to or perpetrating stereotypes get in the way. So I nosed around a little to see just how heartwarmingly loony the British actually are. Quite daft, I can happily report.
And lest you think that all of this was done strictly for your amusement, there is a sobering side to eccentricity. It can only flourish in a tolerant society and that it often produces radical new ideas by virtue of its willingness to cast off accepted norms.
A few years ago, a construction worker from a place called Plumstead was arrested at a bank in the City of London. He'd arrived there in a Rolls-Royce, dressed up in Arab robes and a burnoose, and had tried to persuade the bank's staff to part with some $1.7 million. The bank was ready to go for it, but then someone noticed that "the Arab prince" had forgotten to change his work boots. He got eighteen months at Knightsbridge Crown Court.
This episode, I thought, could have been lifted straight from Monty Python (with John Cleese playing the hopelessly forgetful brick carrier). But then the whole Monty Python series could be interpreted as a string of documentaries on the follies and foibles of British life. For British life can, from time to time, be even battier than anything dreamed up as these ads in The Times of London attest:
"Tutor with Scottish accent urgently required for intelligent parrot."
Or: "Bombing strongly stimulated the adrenal glands: genuine inquirer ... seeks a substitute."
Or these, the lonely exploits of British pioneers recorded in early editions of the Guinness Book of Records (before it went international): "Carrying an open bag of coal for thirty-six miles" or "Smoking fourteen full-sized cigars simultaneously, while whistling, talking, or giving a bird imitation."
Now I'm not sure whether the people who did or required these things should be called nuts, screwy, loopy, or just plain demented. (Can you imagine working your way up from one cigar to fourteen, or spending your life in search of a satisfactory substitute for bombing?) But I suspect that most people in Britain would simply call them eccentric. For eccentricity is one of those things that the British hold in high regard.
I remember for example a friend who when he was a student at Oxford told me that people still talked fondly of the Reader in Spanish who carried a lump of sugar around his neck "to sweeten my conversation," and an ear trumpet "for catching clever remarks." They remembered with affection the professor who prowled the streets reciting poetry to himself and jumping into the air when he reached his favorite passages. And they positively doted on the memory of William Archibald Spooner, who was the warden of one of the colleges shortly after the turn of the century. Spooner had a reputation for mangling the English language in an unconsciously hilarious fashion. (He is in fact the father of the spoonerism, the accidental transposition of the initial sounds of two or more words, e.g., blushing crowl crushing blow.) But he also seems to have been quite genuinely cuckoo. He once went up to a student and said to him in all seriousness, "Now let me see. Was it you or your brother who was killed in the war?" He also invited a new don to dinner, saying, "Do come to dinner tonight. We have that Fellow, Casson, coming." "But, Warden," said the don, "I am Casson." "Oh, well," said Spooner. "Never mind. Come anyway."
Having learned early in my life to appreciate the dotty and the wacky I was delighted to discover, that Charles had devoted some considerable time to the subject. And he's found some, well ... how shall I put it in scientific terms? Some absolute lulus.
The thing that first caught my interest was just how off-the-wall some of the people, Britons especially, seemed to be. There was the Barking Vicar of Berkshire, as he was called, who enlivened sermons with an array of sound effects; the Ministry of Defense chemist who was so obsessed with Robin Hood that he carries a bow and arrows and dressed up in Lincoln green in the evenings; and the cave-dweller in Wester Ross whose third wife left him because their bijou home was flooded whenever the tide carne in. And there's the inventor (mostly of strange, impractical machines) who, to raise money for kidney patients, rappelled down tower blocks dressed as a pink elephant. "I've probably cured more alcoholics," he said modestly, "than most doctors."
Well, this brief account of selected British oddness was enough to whet my appetite for more. So being an investigative sort, I immediately ask Charles to send more information on the subject.
A few days later it arrived and delivered up a number of new prospective candidates for a British Eccentrics' Hall of Fame. There's the pacifist and long-distance tricyclist who lived in a bombed-out shell on the outskirts of Belfast. And there's his opposite number in the peace-war continuum, a zealous militarist who lived hemmed in by models of tanks and who, during an interview (conducted in bed), pulled out a hand grenade and said, "Frightened, dearie?"
But there is also something more interesting: an attempt to measure and account for what the eccentric personality might be; how it might be related to various forms of madness; and whether it could be connected to the peculiar quality of British life.
In the English dictionary an eccentric is defined as "an irregular, odd, or whimsical person." But it's not a word or a concept that translates easily into other cultures or languages. The Japanese equivalent is a character that is "out of the ordinary, disobedient, and evil," and I suppose the nearest equivalent in a totalitarian state is that ominous word for "one who thinks differently," dissident. So clearly the first thing you have to have for the emergence of a true blue, dyed-in-the-wool eccentric (in the British sense) is a fairly tolerant society. That, I think, they probably have: a society that is by and large loath to send for the men in the white coats just because Aunt Emily has bought her six hundredth garden gnome.
There is something of this spirit of tolerance in a letter by the poet Dame Edith Sitwell (no mean eccentric herself) from her castello in Florence. "An old gentleman, aged 92," she wrote to a friend in 1951,"... came to a lunch party here two days ago and broke down and sobbed at lunch because his pet hen was dead. This bird used to sleep in his bed, and was in the habit of kissing him good night. There were also rows at hotels because he would bring her into the dining room." (All this may be batty, she seems to be saying, but it's not certifiable. It's interesting!)
But, according to my reading, there's a second thing you have to have: a society that is receptive to novel ideas. For the contention is that eccentrics (apart, apparently, from tending to think in images and to be vivid dreamers) have a unique ability "to cast off preconceptions and to produce radical new ideas which can be put to good use."
Now this is not something that I would myself claim for Britain, even in my rosiest of humors. (It seems to me in many ways an awesomely hidebound place.) You can imagine my surprise, then, when I read that over half the world's new commercially adopted ideas and inventions have come from Britain.
I immediately spoke to Charles. "Yes," he said, "quite true. There was a worldwide study conducted. " But does this necessarily have anything to do with your eccentrics? "I don't know," he said. "But I suspect there are parallels."
I remembered a line from John Stuart Mill: "Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded. . . That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time."
This new vision of Britain as a place packed to the gunwales with slightly cracked inventors (all taken semi-seriously) filled me with some joy. And I began to plague my friends with questions about any eccentrics they might have known. My friend remembered his Oxford tutor who, if he saw him on the street, would regularly come to a halt and start a conversation with him while he was still fifty yards away. And he recalled that the dippy William Archibald Spooner had lived to the ripe old age of 85.
I rooted about in Charles’ papers to see if there were any other advantages to being a fully paid-up eccentric like Spooner. There were, indeed. Eccentrics, I read with rising enthusiasm, are self-confident. (Well, they'd have to be, wouldn't they, to bathe in baked beans and go long-distance tricycling?) And because of this, they tend both to ignore other people and to be free of stress. The result?
They're almost unbelievably healthy. "The average eccentric," I read, "visits his doctor sixteen times less frequently than his 'normal' compatriot."
And so, I have joined in his network of those who are searching them out. I've even decided that there's much to be said-given the clear health advantages-for becoming an eccentric myself. Oh, I don't mean that I intend to go all the way just yet. (Just think what it must cost to take a bath in baked beans or to have that long-distance love affair with the proto-potato.) But I've recently been watching reruns of Monty Python for a few documentary tips, and I've begun noticing, well, how dementedly individual some of my neighbors actually are. Soon I am hoping to launch into an unsuspecting world (sotto voce): "I am trying to become a cultivated enigma." When I've done that, I'll try out my favorite: "Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light."
In the meantime, I am doing what I can to carry to a yet wider audience (I hope there are thousands of you out there) the message with which the Royal Hospital in Edinburgh started: "Are you eccentric? If you think you are, or know someone who may be, contact the Royal Edinburgh Hospital." Soon, I shall introduce the hospital to the would-be bank robber from Plumstead who, for the want of the right shoes, just missed out on $1.7 million. I think, with the hospitals help, he's got a great future.