The fate of Christopher Jefferies shows that it can still be dangerous to be different

In an age of stifling consensus, is there a place for eccentricity?

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The Independent Online

It must be rare for any ITV prime-time drama to pay homage to a classic of post-war German fiction. That tribute came this week not only in the title but also the theme of The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies. From Peter Morgan’s screenplay, Roger Michell directed a two-part film about the ordeal of his former teacher at Clifton College in Bristol.

Mr Jefferies, falsely accused of his tenant Joanna Yeates’s murder in December 2010 via media innuendo that took its cue (let’s not forget) from strong steers by the police, later won eight libel actions against newspapers. The innocent housekeeper monstered by the tabloids in Heinrich Böll’s 1974 novella The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum takes a speedier revenge. She shoots the scumbag reporter who has twisted her past and sullied her name stone dead.

Böll’s subtitle is “How violence develops and where it can lead”. He treated his story as a symptom of the suspicion, panic and resentment that – three decades after the fall of the Third Reich – still lay under the placid surface of West German society. Read the defamatory accounts of Mr Jefferies that appeared after the murder (committed by Dutch engineer Vincent Tabak) and you will find a positively fascist flavour to his demonisation. Supposedly “weird”, “posh”, “lewd” and “creepy” (all that from The Sun), this innocent retired teacher became over his 72 hours in custody a storybook psychopath from a suburban horror movie. But what gave his vilification a very English taste was the phoney charge-sheet concocted by some of the press. Wild hair, non-standard dress, distinctive accent, French films, Romantic poetry: “highbrow” culture and lifestyle branded him as a depraved killer.

Even an interest in the allegedly morbid verse of Christina Rossetti made him a marked man. Well, we wouldn’t want children exposed to that sort of diseased tripe, would we? Let me quote some: “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,/ Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;/ Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,/ In the bleak midwinter, long ago.” Thank heavens that such deviant trash will never pass the lips of red-top readers’ kids.

This would be hilarious were it not so terrible. Even the dread word “loner” cropped up – shorthand for “crazed axe murderer” – although the target had taught successfully for 34 years and helped to run a cluster of local organisations. And it goes on. A review of the Morgan-Michell film calls its hero – le mot juste, I think – “vain, fussy and blameless”. Notice how the insults still precede the exoneration.

In 2011, Mr Jefferies told Brian Cathcart – himself a founder of the Hacked Off campaign – that “it was a kind of rape that had taken place”. With its boot-boy philistinism, its vilification of all difference, that violation was a home-grown tabloid crime. Roger Michell has said that he wanted to make the drama because “I was concerned that the right to be eccentric was under siege. We have always been good at eccentrics in England. I felt that was a cause worth fighting for”.

Amen to that (if eccentricity ever permits agreement). However, we should take care to avoid a gentler act of monstering here. Eccentricity needs its champions. Still, I’m not sure that the innocent man in question even counts as one or would want to embrace the label. Whatever The Sun says, I find nothing remotely unusual about admiring (say) Alain Resnais’s Holocaust masterpiece Night and Fog or Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

There is, in any case, something contradictory about a class-action defence of mavericks, oddballs, lone wolves and loose cannons. Each one-off would wish to stand up for him – or herself. (By the way, the nation of Edith Sitwell and Vivienne Westwood, of Tracey Emin and – by adoption – Germaine Greer should not be making gendered assumptions here.) I’m reminded of the rebel Chinese painters during the Qing dynasty collectively known as the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou. Well, if they had so much in common, they can’t have been all that eccentric, can they?

Let’s argue principle rather than personality. Today’s stigmatisation of outsiders exposes the seamy underside of a culture that, with its smart dress on, congratulates itself on diversity and pluralism. But down in the basement of mass hysteria and pack persecution, events such as the witch-hunts against alleged “paedos” lead to the torture and murder of vulnerable men.

Consider the heartbreaking cases of David Askew, who died in Manchester after 30 years of torment, or Bijan Ebrahimi, burnt to death on his front lawn in Bristol, and you might conclude that some corners of England have yet to enter the Middle Ages. Not true: this vengeance on visible otherness is a modern malady, driven by herd instincts and media feeding frenzies.

Last month, John Nimmo was sentenced for threatening tweets aimed at the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and the Labour MP Stella Creasy. According to Nimmo’s defence, he mistook retweets as proof of “popularity” and so sent more vile bile in the pitiable belief that “there was a conversation”. On Twitter, as in the red-tops, that “conversation” often involves roughly as much give-and-take as when a shoal of piranha chomps its prey down to bare white bones.

On the sunny side of the street, official Britain trumpets its respect for difference. Over in the shadows, aggressive orthodoxy still exacts obedience to the prevailing social norms. Strike your neighbours as a little strange (remember, Mr Jefferies’s real neighbours did not even say that) and, after an unlucky break, the kindling, the torches and the stake may come out of storage. With cohesive groups, identities or “communities”, we may have grown more tolerant. As for the idiosyncrasies that can set people apart: I’m not so sure. Advertising, social media and the pressure to consume en masse (look at Black Friday) can crack a techno-whip over fledgling eccentrics.

Lifestyle heresy may have replaced religious non-conformism, political dissent or sexual unorthodoxy as the flashpoint for fury. The impulse to scapegoat and expel remains. New media amplifies and accelerate the “madness of crowds” identified by the Scottish writer Charles Mackay in 1841. Responsible conduct in public life now demands stern resistance to it. Ed Miliband should never have sacked Emily Thornberry for her white-van tweet. He doesn’t make a remotely credible piranha.

The pity is that Britain has bred and nourished more than its fair share of notable eccentrics. Read Louis de Bernières’s collection of stories Notwithstanding and you will meet versions of the characters who enriched the author’s childhood in rural Surrey, a backwater replete with spiritualists, home zookeepers, cross-dressers, hobbyists, fantasists and all the singular strands that weave life’s rich tapestry. De Bernières reported that a French acquaintance loves England “because it’s so exotic”; he finds this country like “a huge lunatic asylum”. Not a new idea. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, the gravedigger says that young Hamlet was sent to England to recover his wits. But no matter if he stays loco because “there the men are as mad as he”.

In fact, eccentricity aligns with robust sanity more than with clinical derangement. Over two decades of studying the phenomenon, Edinburgh neuropsychologist Dr David Weeks has shown that well-adjusted social soloists are to be envied more than pitied. Other things being equal, they tend to be happier and healthier – as well as more creative, curious, independent, idealistic and resourceful – than conformists. Against the drive by psychiatry to pathologise every quiddity, Weeks insists that “most eccentrics, at least 80 per cent of them, were not schizotypal”. How about Asperger’s syndrome? There were “perishingly few people in my research” with that diagnosis.

In his great liberal tract On Liberty, John Stuart Mill maintained that “the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage which it contained”. Mill detested “the tyranny of opinion”. For him, writing in 1859, “the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement”. From the sport, the freak, the outlier, the heretic, humankind progresses. That same year also saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Mill lamented that, in strait-laced Victorian England, “peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes”. Now, 155 years later, they can in effect become crimes for the majoritarian media, circling and fanged. But embrace your foibles and your quirks, keep in an eccentric orbit, and you may learn to be happy in ways undreamt of by Pharrell Williams and his army of (as of noon yesterday) 513,747,634 YouTube viewers. You might even care to try the self-assessment questionnaire on (agony uncle: Dr David Weeks, naturally).

I did. With a score of 72 per cent, I could be “on your way to becoming a fully fledged eccentric. While keeping your perspective, think about how your sense of humour and wittiness may reap even more positive benefits personally”. Gee, thanks. Still, 72 per cent strikes me as fairly far up the scale, if not yet at the point where – alerted by the howling of a dozen unfed cats – masked paramedics break down the door to find the emaciated body buried under a room-high stack of minutely annotated old newspapers. Give it time.