Sue Arnold: It's a bleak house that has no eccentrics

What happened to those delightful oddballs whose idiosyncrasies supplied us with funny anecdotes?

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Personally, I'm all for adding new characters, not just to TV drama, but to everyday life, which seems depressingly short of genuine eccentrics these days. What happened to all those delightful oddballs whose idiosyncrasies furnish us with an endless supply of amusing anecdotes to pass on to our straight-laced friends? The high tables of Oxbridge used to bristle with dippy dons who, according to their students, rode penny-farthings dressed like Mary Poppins or held their moral philosophy tutorials in bingo halls, or kept ferrets in the bath. Maybe they were apocryphal; a lot of those academic stories are, such as the one about the famously absent-minded Professor Spooner who, we're told, on one occasion kissed the porter on Paddington Station and gave his wife sixpence.

The problem with modern eccentricity is that, the minute a television producer gets wind of an oddball, they are turned into a Channel 4 series with all the concomitant paraphernalia of marketing and merchandise. And then what happens? I'll tell you - phut, the spark that made them so endearingly quirky is extinguished at a stroke.

I'm thinking of people such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose alternative lifestyle in his rural fastness in Somerset, or wherever it is, has become so familiar to viewers - his new River Cottage Cookbook looks like making a fortune this Christmas - that I, for one, heartily wish the cameras would relocate to the home of an accountant in Welwyn Garden City instead. That sounds mean. It is not Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's fault that we are all so fascinated with his recipes for mint squirrel and rhubarb pasta. To him, that sort of fare is perfectly normal, like the rest of his lifestyle.

The mark of a genuine eccentric is that he doesn't see himself as strange - it is the rest of the world that is out of kilter. The other mark of the genuine eccentric is that only a limited number of friends and acquaintances are aware of their foibles. Once the oxygen of publicity in the shape of a television chat show or an autobiography or even a blog has heralded their oddness to the world, it ceases to be odd.

The best example of an eccentric I know, or rather knew, was Bertie, the man who lived in the flat downstairs. Until I read his obituary in several newspapers, including this one, last month, I never realised he was such an extraordinary character. He was funny and bitchy: whenever I met him, he'd give me the latest low down on the other residents, but I had no idea that he'd led a such colourful life.

For a start, he knew everyone, Mick Jagger, Lord Astor, the Kray twins, everyone. Whether he'd met them in his career as a soldier, a farmer or a high-class estate agent, I couldn't say. But he knew them. His farming career didn't last long because, he admitted, he didn't know much about farming. Once, he complained that the field next to his smallholding was in a terrible state, full of weeds, only to be told that it actually belonged to him. Unlike the herd of cows that he rounded up and milked one morning, which didn't. How am I supposed to know what my cows look like, he told the rightful owner.

When he started his next venture, selling old rectories and vicarages, he called his company Craig & Davis (His name was Bertie Hope Davis). Craig didn't exist. He was just a useful person to blame if things went wrong. But for me, Bertie's greatest coup was teaching his small dog when he came to live in Chelsea how to take itself for walks. One day, the dog got on a No 19 bus and went to Hyde Park. It was eventually brought back after several hours by Ava Gardner. If only there were more people like Bertie in my life, how much more fun things would be.

Having said that, there he was in the flat downstairs for 10 years and I hadn't the slightest inkling of what I was missing. I'm a fish out of water. I belong to a bygone Dickensian era rich with wonderful characters like Mr Turveydrop, Mrs Jellyby, Inspector Bucket and Miss Flite, who wouldn't stand a chance of survival in these overregulated nanny-state times. "Them birds are going to have to go, haven't you heard of avian flu?" I can hear Miss Flite's landlord.

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