In praise of eccentrics

Many years ago when I was a postgraduate student in Cambridge I was walking along one of those rather scenic footpaths along the River Cam when I heard a sudden noise of skidding bicycle tyres behind me, and before I could react properly the cyclist had collided with me. He had obviously been riding far too fast and had not seen me in time or his mind had been wandering. Both the cyclist and I fell to the ground. As I picked myself up I helped the quite elderly cyclist get up also and pick up his bike. He apologised profusely and said his mind had been focusing on a new theory he was developing and he hadn’t noticed me until it was too late. As he got back on the bicycle he turned to me and asked: ‘Could you possibly tell me which direction I was coming from when we collided?’ Amused, I pointed in the direction from which I had also come. ‘Ah, thank you,’ he said, obviously relieved. ‘In that case I’ve had my lunch.’

A little later I discovered that my collision partner was a very eminent (though already retired) scientist, whose work was considered mould-breaking. So I thought that he was entitled to be a little confused about worldly things.

A year later I had returned to Trinity College Dublin as a lecturer, and I remember one evening attending the main College dinner (‘Commons’) and hearing one senior Fellow bemoan the fact that ‘these days, we no longer have any eccentrics.’ As the Fellow in question was considered by most to be a distinguished eccentric in his own right, and as the person he was saying this to was an even more notorious one, I could not in my mind agree that academic eccentricity was at risk. But yet, the unavailability of contemporary eccentrics is a common complaint in today’s global academic community. I hope that it is unfounded, and that we still have people with brilliant minds but little concern for the formalities and niceties of polite company. More particularly, I hope that we both have and encourage those who want to think unorthodox thoughts while living unconventional and unpredictable lives. We have (and must accept) demands for accountability, transparency and performance, but these must not snuff out individuality and oddness. We probably cannot afford to have higher education institutions that are staffed entirely by eccentrics; but we should always have room for some.

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4 Comments on “In praise of eccentrics”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Well, I blame the water with its cocktail of chemicals.
    In the not so distant past, drinking water was the surest way to an early grave and you were likely to carry off all around you.
    Then to keep alive, wine and you would have to say the triumph pastis when they lost production for 40 years, beer or gin and I suppose vodka, were the ways to put liquid into your body. It cannot be a surprise that the great waterworks projects happened just as the upperclass had their supply of grape juice cut off.
    So anyone would have to say a system of being half cut all of the time was bound to kick up the odd eccentric. But more than that, with his audience in the same general condition it is certain he would hardly have been noticed anyway.

  2. Hugh Carthy Says:

    I agree that eccentrics should be cherished, and that its probably prudent not to give them too much responsibility!
    A few years into my own chosen career, after we had had a chance to absorb the legends in which our seniors were the stars, we all bemoaned that there were no new eccentrics coming up through the ranks. I’ve often thought about this and wondered if there are, in fact, fewer eccentrics about now that there used to be. I don’t know the answer, but I can’t think of any acquaintance of mine that I could call eccentric.
    Since eccentricity is often accompanied by some form of genius, maybe they’re being coralled in academia, or confined to the art world? Or maybe there’s so much pressure in most modern walks of life to conform, that they’re being sidelined or kept out of sight? Whether its the case that there are fewer of them, or that they’re just not as visible as they used to be, I think we’re a poorer society for not having them occasionally brighten up our lives, and even run us over on their bicycles!

  3. Perry Share Says:

    No doubt we could make use of PMDS (Performance Management and Development System) to encourage more eccentricity. Maybe Batt could audit it?


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