In Praise of Eccentricity

There was a curious piece in the Independent yesterday, by the paper’s publisher and occasional columnist, Evgeny Lebedev (see above). What I imagined to be a generic, heart-warming defence of eccentricity turned out to be something more confusing.

One moment EL was suggesting that an article bashing transsexuals should have been allowed to run, in the spirit of cultivating eccentric freedom of speech. Moments later he was having a go at the media for freely making ad hominem attacks on Jimmy Saville. Freedom of speech good; freedom of speech bad. Just to muddy the waters a little more, after suggesting that transsexual bashing should be tolerated he took to eulogizing the good ole days of Jacobean London when life was more rollicking and eccentric and on stage you could expect to see ‘cross-dressing rascals’. Then there was the closing line. We must fight the rising tide of conformity and all attempts to ‘eradicate’ eccentricity, he urged, ‘because the country you and I love [England] is sleepwalking into a Soviet future.’

It’s not.

What made this piece so interesting was not just seeing how easy it is to arrive at grand-sounding conclusions about the state of society based on a smattering of anecdotal and sensational evidence, but to be reminded of the tendency some of us have to imagine the world as less colourful, less easy-going and of course less eccentric than it was centuries ago. Jacobean England was not famous for its tolerance of non-conformists, or Non-Conformists for that. A proposed book on female eccentricity at the start of the 19th century was dropped because, as the publisher pointed out, there was no such thing – unusual women were not amiably eccentric, they were mad. Fifty years ago, as we all know, homosexuality was illegal. It is easy to forget just how much more scope there is in England today for living as you please.





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