Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Praise of Eccentricity

‘Where have all the flowers gone?’

It was a question posed to a crowded lecture hall of final year medical students twenty-six years ago by a much respected consultant physician and lecturer at the Charing Cross Hospital Medical School, London. His name was Dr P B S Fowler, although I think that is where any tenuous personal connection ended. As we were about to set forth into the world of medicine as fully fledged doctors, Bruce Fowler was about to retire from the NHS. A huge man, who always wore an academic’s black gown when addressing the students, he was an entertaining lecturer and could fill an auditorium to over-capacity regardless of the subject of his lecture. On this particular occasion he took as his theme the demise of doctors with individual characters, lamenting the modern trend for medical schools to manipulate new undergraduates into identical clones. Those who initially showed promising signs of individuality were systematically humiliated by the teaching methods of the day, until they succumbed to a life constrained by the need to conform to the rules of professional conduct.

Of course, Britain has always been a country of eccentrics; possibly containing far more per head of population than many larger countries. The history books are full of them. Relating to behaviour considered to be unusual or odd, eccentricity is often found in the company of the artistically creative and the intellectual, and frequently invokes the concepts of genius and madness; as Mr Pickwick remarked in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, ‘Eccentricities of Genius, Sam’. This failure to conform to society’s norm is one often loved and admired from a distance, but can be quite disturbing to close members of the family. A former patient of mine was a man of great character, quite unconcerned by the community’s occasional disapproval of his behaviour to the point of being a local eccentric. I praised his individuality to his son one day, whose reply was illuminating: ‘Characters are wonderful people, as long as you don’t have to live with them’. Having an eccentric in my own family, I found myself warming to his words.

So what makes someone an eccentric? In a 1995 study of ‘sanity and strangeness’, Dr David Weeks and Jamie James concluded that the principal characteristics an eccentric possesses are: non-conformity, creativity, being motivated by curiosity, idealism, an obsession with one or more hobbyhorses, an awareness from early childhood of being different, higher than average intelligence, a tendency to be opinionated and outspoken, a love of solitude, and a mischievous sense of humour. Do you know anybody like that? I suspect that younger readers are more likely to say yes, as eccentrics are nearly always older than ourselves, and of course we never recognise eccentricity in our own behaviour; after all, for an eccentric it is the rest of society who has got it all wrong.

I was reminded of Bruce Fowler’s lecture recently by a wonderful coincidence of timing. Sadly, in August this year he died, albeit at the age of 90. His obituary appeared in the BMJ on the 29th October. It just so happened that the Ancient Order of Eccentrics was reformed on the very same day, with eccentric guests travelling from all over the British Isles to attend a banquet in Lincoln. First founded over two centuries ago, the Eccentric Club exists to celebrate ‘Great British eccentrics and original thinking, flying in the face of the bland modern world’. I am sure that Dr P B S Fowler would be overjoyed to know that the flowers he once lamented are in fact alive and blooming in the 21st century. If only I was an eccentric, I would be tempted to become a member.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 24th November 2011.)

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