In Praise of Eccentricity
Someone recently described Balans Soho Society as being ‘eccentric’.
Now, we’re utterly shameless in that regard – we’ll take a compliment from anywhere, no matter how potentially double-edged it might be. But as delightful as that was to hear it has made us think about how important it is to celebrate eccentricity in this hyper-commercialised age when it feels like even non-conformity is in danger of becoming institutionalised, as packaged and undervalued as cornflakes.
The word ‘eccentric’ comes from a combination of the Greek terms ek (out of) and kentron (centre). When put together, ekkentros means – unsurprisingly perhaps – ‘out of centre’. The term became popular in the late Middle Ages when astronomers like Copernicus trolled up and down every High Street in Poland daring to suggest that the earth was not, in fact, at the centre of the solar system. By claiming the earth, in fact, orbited the sun, one could say that Copernicus was really the original eccentric.
In 1859, the anti-slavery campaigner and Liberal MP John Stuart Mill wrote this in his book ‘On Liberty’:
‘In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained’.
His view was that eccentrics see the world from new, colourful and completely unexpected angles. It’s their very peculiarity that helps them make gigantic leaps of the imagination, far from the curtain-twitching, self-absorbed arbiters of deadening, monochrome convention. For Mill, these were the tyrants responsible for ‘enslaving the soul’. ‘That so few now dare to be eccentric’, he wrote, ‘marks the chief danger of the time.’
It’s often thought that to be eccentric is to be hovering on the edges of rather serious off-one’s-rocker-ness, but in reality, studies conducted in the 1990s by a psychiatrist called David Weeks showed that people defined as ‘eccentric’ actually suffered fewer problems such as depression. They also visited a doctor less often than most of us and, on average live slightly longer. So, rather marvellously, it appears that those who refuse to repress their inner self in the struggle to conform actually suffer less stress and are generally happier than your average Daily Mail reader. On the whole, Weeks also found that eccentrics tend to be highly creative and optimistic with a highly developed, mischievous sense of humour, a childlike curiosity and a drive to make the world a better place.
How dull would the world be without people like George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell, who preferred the soles of his boots to be polished in the froth from champagne or Sir George Sitwell who once tried to sell his invention, the ‘Sitwell Egg’ – a dish formed from a yolk of smoked meat, a white of rice and a shell of lime – to Selfridges? Chances are we all have eccentric tendencies tucked away somewhere and however they manifest themselves, we at Balans Soho Society feel we should take pride in them. Of course, there will always be those who shake their heads in disapproval, tightening the straps on their social straight jackets, the bland leading the bland, but really – they’re the ones with the problem. Marching along to the beat of a different drummer, joyfully proclaiming our idiosyncrasies adds to the colour of the universe in ways they couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Vive – as they say – la difference!