Strange lack of old peculiars

April 4, 2003

Whatever happened to the good old days of dons mowing the campus lawn in their pyjamas? Adrian Mourby charts the decline of that great academic institution - the eccentric

According to a report in The Times , the outgoing Czech ambassador to London, Pavel Seifter, has chosen to take up an academic post at the London School of Economics rather than return home. His rationale:

"Prague used to be a good place for eccentricity but it has recently lost its sense of humour."

But take care, Dr Seifter. Many people would claim that British universities have also lost their joie de vivre , their humour and their reputation for being the breeding grounds of individualism and eccentricity.

It wasn't always so. Elisabeth Leedham-Green, former deputy keeper of the archives and historian of Cambridge University, can remember the days when her alma mater, perhaps more than any other British university, was a hot-house for rampant individualism.

"There's still plenty of colour but it's certainly true that if you raise the question of notable eccentrics - men such as Donald McKinnon, who used literally to tear his hair out, or Simbo (F. A. Simpson), who used to cut holly berries off with a pair of nail scissors - they're nearly all dead or retired."

Sad to relate, the world does seem to have turned rather grey and user-friendly since the days of Simbo, who wore a paper bag over his head in railway carriages, or Besikovich of Trinity, who used to mow the college lawns in his pyjamas. Or Maurice Bowra of Oxford who, on being discovered naked in Parson's Pleasure, by a group of young ladies, covered his head rather than his genitals, remarking, "I don't know about you, gentlemen, but round here I am known by my face." And will anyone ever match the fiery individualism of McKinnon, regius professor of divinity, who went into a post office, pointed to the middle of a sheet of stamps and announced, "I want a first-class stamp and I want that one." Famous for his highly vocal inner dialogues, McKinnon was once overheard climbing the stairs muttering "You're wrong, McKinnon", adding, "and I don't need you to tell me that."

Modern-day professors such as Tim Jacob of the Cardiff School of Biosciences can still remember the last days of academic individualism.

"Fifteen years ago, when I came to Cardiff, there were eccentrics but they've disappeared now," he says. "The workload is partly to blame but also the demands of the research assessment exercise, which have forced people into applying for more and more research money to support their university's ambitions in the league table. There is pressure on all academic staff to bring in money and to get published in high-impact factor journals."

His lecture and administrative load is now determined by a formula based on income and output, and his teaching is governed by standard recommended teaching methods. "I have a staff development booklet on my desk, and just looking at random, there's a seminar here on 'Lecturing to large groups'," he says. "I'll bet there isn't much advice for your average card-carrying eccentric in there."

Jacob also believes that students are now more vocal and less tolerant when it comes to individualism among academics. "They are paying more towards their education," he says. "They are demanding more, and the university is having to respond. Student opinion is canvassed in the form of end-of-module questionnaires and in staff-student panels, the contents of which are minuted and seen by external assessors. Eccentric behaviour would just be an embarrassment under these circumstances."

But is it possible that we are looking back on a golden age that gets more colourful with hindsight? Maybe dons were always pen-pushers and form-fillers at heart?

"Oh no," says Leedham-Green, "these men were considered eccentric in their time." She says the truly great time for eccentricity was the 18th century.

Then people could secure fellowships at 23 and were not charged with doing much thereafter, allowing them to take off into their own worlds. Nowadays, "the university needs teachers - people who are reasonably good at communicating - and one of the things with eccentrics is that they do not find it easy to communicate".

She points out that in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in fact until quite recently, once you were a fellow, you were there for life, "unless you committed matrimony! Today when you are interviewing for a research fellow it's possible to see that they'd be good at researching but not a useful member of faculty, that's the significant thing. In the past there was much less teaching required."

One man who has been recognised as something of a modern-day eccentric is the Barbadian academic John Gilmore, who occasionally sported a frock coat and stock while a student and now lectures at Warwick University. "I don't know whether I would claim to be an eccentric," he says. "But I suppose if wearing a watch and chain is eccentric these days, then maybe I might qualify."

Gilmore believes that his subject, more than his behaviour, singles him out. "I came to Warwick as a Caribbeanist and I teach an MA in post-colonial studies at the Centre for Translation Studies. The centre offers some degree of independence and they are very supportive, letting me follow my own path." He is now working on 18th-century Neo-Latin and the works of Francis Williams, the Caribbean poet who wrote his verses in this little-known language. He prefers to call eccentricity "individualism" and suggests that it depends on finding a corner that you can make your own and avoiding the pressure to fit in with a research profile.

"These days you have to sell yourself to get the grants, and influence is brought to bear to keep you on the straight and narrow," he says. "A university can give you the freedom to develop your own individual interests and that makes for individualism but it can grind you down with all the form-filling. That and the pressure to popularise - to jazz things up, to get bums on seats - they both erode individualism."

If universities have, in the past, been hot-houses for individualism, providing the perfect environment for eccentricity to bloom, then Gilmore feels that successive waves of rationalisation have sent a chill breeze through the greenhouse.

"Back in the 1980s there was a move to get rid of the readership in ancient Iranian at Cambridge when the then incumbent retired. It was pointed out that he'd had no undergraduates and something like only eight PhD students in ten years. There were howls of protest and the decision was rescinded.

Nowadays I think it would be less easy to get a move like that rescinded," Gilmore says.

Down the corridor from Gilmore at Warwick is psychologist Martin Skinner, who has been pondering the relationship between academe and eccentricity.

"I think 'what makes academics eccentric?' is the wrong question," he says.

"It should be, 'what happens to stop us being eccentric?' You might almost argue that it was one's duty to be unusual or non-conforming, with eccentric as the default setting for humanity. The university world frees you up from a lot of the usual constraints that stop us being eccentric.

Academics have much more freedom to be unusual or non-conforming than say someone in retail, management or the armed forces."

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