RADIO / Have a garlic sarnie

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The Independent Culture
THELMA HOLT is not eccentric. Oh no. She may eat garlic sandwiches and dress in Japanese rags. She may have enough plates and glasses to set a table for 200 guests. She may hitch rides on dustcarts, and she may - once - have arrived at the theatre to realise she'd forgotten to wear a thing under her coat. But the chair of the Arts Council Drama Panel is not eccentric, just practical. Those garlic sandwiches are great for colds, even if they drive her friends mad. That dustcart proved faster than a taxi. And the incident at the theatre? Well, anyone can make a mistake.

It's said that the true eccentric is the one who doesn't recognise his or her own eccentricity. By that reckoning, Radio 3 was doing itself no favours calling its series English Eccentrics - surely, the logic runs, any subject who really was eccentric would insist they weren't, and so would refuse the invitation; and if they agreed, well that just shows they must be a fraud, doesn't it? A bit like a witch's trial by water.

Fortunately for the programme-makers, the irrepressible Ms Holt - as off-centre as a Roberto Baggio penalty-kick - refused to be slowed by such considerations. One moment she was insisting that any sensible person would keep their champagne in the washing machine too, if they only stopped to think about it; the next she was failing to recognise her ex- husband ('Why should I? He'd gone out of my life'). She even put herself forward as a sort of spokesoddball, arguing for equal rights: 'An eccentric old gent is regarded as great fun and everyone wants to dine with him. An eccentric old lady is regarded as batty and on the way to senile dementia. I think it's a bit unfair really.' People often talk of the eccentricites of the politically correct - could this have been the world's first example of the political correctness of eccentricity?

Eccentric was one word that sprung to mind listening to That Afro Look (R4), Pauline Brandt's fascinating history of black women's hairstyles through the 20th century. Here we entered a world of hot combs, acid treatments, perms and relaxers, fringes, beehives, Supremes wigs and flick-ups. It sounded painful, and often it was: 'All of us have still got some scars somewhere from where our mother used to press our hair,' remembered one child of the Sixties. But the unstated argument was: if you really want to know about changing attitudes to race, get down to the hairdresser's salon.

Ever since Mrs C J Walker of Louisiana invented the hot- comb process in 1901, making herself America's first black millionairess in the process, black women in Europe and America had tried to make their hair straighter, whiter, more European. The dream was to be able to 'fling' your hair, like the white girls do. One woman told how, as a child in Tottenham, she would tie cardigans to her head to get that flingability. There is no record of Martin Luther King referring directly to those cardies, but it is hard to find a better metaphor for the civil-rights achievement than that north London schoolgirl's decision to swap the knitwear for the natural look.

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