Thursday, 29 July 2010

Eccentricity - a Response by Max Davidson

Further to yesterday’s rather bonkers piece in the Telegraph, today they published this:-

Being a little odd doesn't mean that I'm mentally ill.
[Labelling every behaviour out of the norm as a sign of mental illness is insanity].
By Max Davidson
Published: 5:46PM BST 28 Jul 2010

The bean-counters at the NHS must be tearing their hair out. If we take our cue from America, as we generally do in these matters, the number of people diagnosed with mental disorders may be about to rise exponentially, with knock-on effects for their budgets.

Even tearing your hair out, once a perfectly acceptable sign of emotional frustration, could soon be re-categorised as psychotic behaviour – innocuous in itself, but symptomatic of underlying mental health problems.

In fresh guidelines promulgated by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the definitive American textbook, in use all around the world – the latest buzz-phrase is "Psychosis Risk Syndrome". The clue is in the name: it is concerned not with how people behave now, but how they might behave in future.

Nobody should make light of mental illnesses, or the importance of understanding them. But if the bar for mental illness is to continually lowered, it will sound the death knell for the kind of benign eccentricity at which the British have long excelled. If someone is doing something odd but harmless – sporting an asparagus in their buttonhole, say – doctors will find it increasingly hard to leave it at that. They will ask: "Why the asparagus?" and seek abstruse explanations. Perhaps the asparagus-wearer harbours feelings of sexual inadequacy? Or perhaps he has a pathological hatred of his mother, after being forced to eat asparagus as a child?

Medical knowledge may be growing, but the world is shrinking. Once everyone has been labelled, has had a name slapped on their condition, there is no room left for the kind of people who defy labelling. Sherlock Holmes, brilliantly reinvented in a new BBC series, is no longer a maverick, but a "sociopath". Yet our history is littered with colourful oddballs, from William Archibald Spooner, the Oxford professor whose bloopers packed lecture halls ("Such Bulgarians should be vanished") to Sir George Sitwell, who invented a pistol for shooting wasps and had the cows on his estate stencilled with a blue Chinese willow pattern – and they have been remembered far more fondly than their po-faced contemporaries.

Glyndebourne opera house is now celebrated around the world, but its founder, John Christie, was so many high Cs short of an aria that he would be placed under restraint today. On one occasion, he was sitting next to the Queen during a performance, when he took out his glass eye, cleaned it, replaced it in its socket, and asked the Queen if it was in straight.

Cricket lovers all over the world treasure the memory of the late, great David Shepherd [above], the umpire who hopped from foot to foot whenever the score reached 111 or multiples thereof. Shepherd hailed from the West Country, and was a mass of old rural superstitions of the kind that psychiatry is powerless to heal. He belonged in a museum, not a hospital.

Of course, eccentrics are not to be confused with the kind of desperate attention seekers who find their way on to Big Brother. If they wear odd clothes, or have acquired odd mannerisms, it is not because they are showing off, but because they live their own lives, oblivious to what other people think of them. The best of them are holy fools, blessed with an innocence that their more conventional friends can only envy.

Sadly, I have never really hacked it as a major-league eccentric: the habits of conformity are too ingrained. But the further I drift from the mainstream – as I did at a barbecue recently, performing a full-on impression of Laurence Olivier as Richard III, hunchback and all – the happier I feel.

I certainly don't want doctors totting up my little quirks – loud ties, Wild Man of Borneo hairdos, DIY fish recipes, talking to myself in the bath – and finding a medical condition to explain them. I would rather be myself, unlabelled and untamed.

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