There seems to be an unwritten rule that eccentricity
is endearing when accompanied by grandeur - thus Lord Emsworth and his Empress; thus Edith Sitwell.
I ought to admit that Edith Sitwell only springs to mind because I've recently read a review of a book about her. Furthermore, she was not alone in her family when it came to eccentricity - indeed, the review, by Rosemary Hill, published in the London Review of Books last year, describes the Sitwells as 'lodged, along with the Mitfords and some outlying members of the Bloomsbury group, in the national Pantheon of the higher eccentricity'.
Edith's mother, the review explains, 'kept a piece of hangman's rope on her bed head for good luck', while her father 'occupied himself with his life's work, the landscaping of the grounds at Renishaw [Renishaw Hall, the family 'seat' in Derbyshire], spending hours motionless on one of several wooden viewing platforms he had had built, staring at his creation through a telescope ... In contrast to his wife, whom he had soon come cordially to loathe, Sir George served his guests at most a small glass of Bordeaux and after dinner would entertain the gentlemen on a favourite topic, such as Nottingham in the Middle Ages, without the benefit of brandy.'
The child of such loopy types would find it hard not to turn out a little unusual and Edith did not escape the family trait. Hill tells us the following about her:
"'I was shy', she recalled, 'and yet, at unexpected moments, not silent.' ... She changed her mind and her feelings about people violently and often and at such moments she was not silent, often in unexpected ways. When Robert Graves sold a copy of her book The Sleeping Beauty, which she had inscribed to him 'in admiration', she bought it back and resold it after adding: 'I wrote this dedication at a time when Robert Graves was a tentative English nightingale and not an American loon or screech-owl. Though poor, I am happy to buy this book (from the shop to which he sold it) for the sum of 15s so that no one can accuse me of being a hoot-fan. Edith Sitwell.' ... At the same time there was a side of her that retained the manners of an Edwardian country-house chatelaine...Dealing with a Boston psychiatrist who demanded to know why she wrote about Christ rather than mankind, she inquired whether Christ was not good enough for him and if he would prefer her to put her trust in the atom bomb. 'I then bowed from the waist, and said I feared I was keeping him from his friends.'..."
Anyway, back to my main premise, which is that only in settings as sumptuous as Blandings or Renishaw Hall, is eccentricity happily tolerated. In other places - for example, the post office, passions for pigs or fondnesses for either bits of hangman's rope or conversations about Nottingham in the Middle Ages most definitely lose their allure. This may explain why, when I saw one of Britain's most famous living eccentrics, the current Marquess of Bath, many years ago being fantastically vague and incompetent in Notting Hill Post Office, (as a customer rather than an employee, I should add), he struck me as totally charmless (although I'm not completely convinced that surrounded by the splendours of Longleat he would necessarily acquire any greater allure, to be truthful).
Certainly when I went to our local post office the other day and stood in a queue waiting to be served my reaction upon spotting one of the most eccentric men I'd ever clapped eyes on behind the counter was, initially, a sense of dread that he might be the one who was going to serve me. This is him:
In case it's hard to make out, he has black inserts of about 5 inches in diameter in his earlobes, plus several matching items dotted about other parts of his ears and through his nose and a curious black ovoid affixed to the area of skin below his lower lip. He also has a mass of tattoos, although these were far less distracting than the black things, especially the one's that give his ears a slight elephantine quality. To present yourself to the public in this manner indicates true eccentricity but, away from a world of chintz and porcelain and Grinling Gibbons, I found the effect disconcerting rather than disarming - at least, at first.
However, after a while I realised, as I watched the transactions taking place in front of me, that, despite his startling appearance, the man with the inserts was actually by far the nicest, most helpful and efficient of all the people working in that branch of the Post Office. Furthermore, when it came my turn to be served, I ended up with him and I was glad.
As expected from what I'd observed while waiting, the fellow could not have been more helpful. I gave him my parcel and he explained my options and whizzed about the place at breakneck speed, fetching the things I needed. Meanwhile, having decided that, if it was eccentricity one was after, two could play at that game, I abandoned my reserve and as he calculated the cost of a registered envelope to Hungary, I enquired what further plans he had vis-a-vis his ears.
Luckily, he didn't take offence at my question. Instead he explained how as a child he'd become fascinated by pictures in the National Geographic of tribes from distant countries who scarred themselves and decorated themselves with bones and bits and pieces and decided he wanted to spend his life doing the same to his own body. When he'd started, there hadn't been any opportunity for anything except cutting himself with his own pocket knife (shudder, shudder, shudder) to produce scar patterns, and so that at first was what he'd done. Then, as tattooists and body decorators became more prevalent, (and I wonder why and when exactly that happened - it certainly has, but what was the impulse behind this odd development?), he embarked on the process of self-transformation in earnest. It is his major activity in life, apparently, which is about as eccentric a thing as I've ever heard of.
Edith Sitwell, of course, might not have agreed. Certainly she was an expert on the subject, having not only practised the art of eccentricity herself but also written about it, producing a book called English Eccentrics and devoting a chapter in a memoir called Taken Care Of to the topic as well. In the latter she described HG Wells as eccentric, 'not because of any remarkable habits or predilections, but rather because of his intense and eloquent ordinariness'. By that definition I would have to say that my friend, the Australia Post worker, is far from eccentric, since he is also far from ordinary. However, perhaps ordinariness only becomes eccentricity when in an eccentric environment, whereas in an environment as ordinary - dare I say, as drab and as dreary? - as the Dickson branch of Australia Post, only proper straightforward eccentricity makes the eccentric grade.
1 hour ago