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This Britain

Minor British Institutions: The eccentric

It seems odd that eccentrics should be cherished by the British, who are pretty much a conformist people, but that's probably why.

The eccentric are licensed to vary from the normal by the normal, who haven't the imagination, courage and lack of inhibition of our odd fellows, but can happily, ruefully and satisfyingly condescend to them. Our Great British Eccentrics have included jesters, fools, saints, sorcerers and more: it's partly why we tolerated Oliver Cromwell, for example; and Mrs Thatcher. But eccentrics are not what they were.

Our hungry screens relish them, make them far too conscious of their eccentricity: "Look at me: I'm mad, I am". Much better to stay in the past, away from sobering medical diagnosis, with the great Mad Squires, especially Jack Mytton, who was accustomed to ride his pet bear into dinner and cured his hiccups by setting his shirt alight to give himself a shock. Grayson Perry? Boris Johnson? Please.

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