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

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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate