judy montagu 88.
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Eccentric: 1. departing from convention, especially in a bizarre manner; a person who deviates from normal forms of behavior; 2. situated away from the centre of the axis
- The Collins English Dictionary
It started when a Post colleague, frustrated by some work-related altercation, wandered into my room one evening, plonked herself down in an armchair and said, with a wry smile: "Newspapers seem to attract all the eccentrics. Is there one normal person in this building?"
It sounded like a straightforward question, but it's a slippery one, as we discovered when we started batting a few names around.
For we human beings all, without exception, have our quirks and foibles - and who's to define the point at which they spill over into eccentricity?
Psychiatrists like to stress that there's no such thing as a "normal" personality, only a well-adjusted one. Which implies that if we can manage our idiosyncrasies in such a way as to neither cause a disturbance nor harm others, we likely won't raise too many eyebrows.
I did, however, offer my colleague the opinion that journalism is much like the theater in the way it attracts offbeat personalities. With all the discipline involved, there's still an inherent informality and "outsider" quality about it which appeals to those who can't see themselves buttoned into the more straight-laced professions.
'THERE'S nowt so queer as folk," the late Alex Berlyne would often say - which provided the perfect springboard for me to assure my colleague that the current staff of the Post hardly figures on the eccentricity scale. I could, I told her, describe a few personalities around in the early '80s, when I joined the paper, that make the present crop look tame.
Such as Berlyne himself. In a long career at the paper, he was its art director and, latterly, book editor. He was a serious collector of military headgear - more than 200 hats - including a German spiked helmet from 1891 and a plumed Napoleonic one, pre-WWI.
He was also a keen volunteer policeman, ranked equivalent to a major, and on days he was on duty would show up at the paper in uniform, not a hair out of place, proudly toting his gun.
Polite in an old-fashioned way, when he got "narked," he would loudly express the hope that his human irritant would, as soon as possible, "dissolve into a pool of liquid putrefaction."
Inconsiderate drivers could cause him almost to run amok, as could unprofessionalism in his field of work.
MEIR Ronnen, now retired and the Post's longest-serving journalist - from 1949 to 2008 - reminisces:
"Berlyne, Alec Israel and Maurice Carr were three eccentrics - civilized, charming men who had an uncanny ability to transform into raving maniacs at the first appearance of injustice. I loved all three of them.
"Alec, who took over the book pages after Berlyne retired, thoroughly disliked colleagues who were bullies, or unhelpful. He perceived this in a young lady in charge of dealing with computer problems, exploded one day, called her nasty names and was subjected to an inquisition by the publisher.
"Maurice, for a decade the paper's Paris correspondent, was the nephew of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Himself a brilliant writer, he was quiet to the point of self-effacement. But any mention of Singer's name would cause him to foam at the mouth - literally. I suppose it dated back to some ancient family quarrel."
D'VORA Ben-Shaul, science reporter and popular nature columnist for the Post, was the longtime resident biologist at Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo, the Israel Nature Reserves Authority and the Hadassah Medical School's physiology department. Largely an autodidact, she had doctorates in biology and zoology.
I knew her fairly well from a previous position in the late '70s at a magazine called Newsview and already had her down as an eccentric.
Overhearing a question one day about an El Al plane that had been adapted to transport a group of giraffes, she casually remarked: "I brought mine over by sea."
Someone back then told me that she would enter the famous Cafe Atara on Ben-Yehuda St. with a young lion on a chain. It would crouch under the table while she chatted to friends.
"I never heard that story," International Edition editor Liat Collins told me, "but she did have a large feline - one of the big cats - that she used to take out walking. She was looking after a monkey once and took it on the bus, where someone commented, 'What an ugly baby!'"
"I didn't find her eccentric at all," retorted Yaakov Kirschen (Dry Bones), when I tried to confirm the lion story. "She was remarkably clear-thinking, and ahead of her time."
RUTH Connell-Robertson was one of the founders of radio broadcasting in Mandatory Palestine. Switching later to print journalism, she worked for the Post as a sub-editor for close to 20 years - well into her eighties.
When I arrived as a new recruit to the features department, I saw a white-haired old lady bent over a piece of typed copy, pen in hand (computers hadn't yet reached the Post).
I almost fell out of my chair when, irritated by some error, she raised her head and let out an expletive that wouldn't have sounded out of place aboard a merchant ship. Her effect on anyone who didn't know her was similar. One of her favorites was "Oh, go and f--- yourself sideways, through a boot."
Yet Ruth too was, if not exactly lovable, goodhearted and a mentor to several young journalists. She was proud of being "the only fully paid-up Jewish member of a Scottish clan," by virtue of her second marriage.
The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.
- From 'On Liberty' by John Stuart Mill (1859)
IT SEEMS quite appropriate on Purim, the festival when convention is turned on its head, to discover an esteemed political economist and philosopher singling out eccentricity as a characteristic essential to a healthy society.
For haven't we always looked askance at outlandish social behaviors, smiling behind our hands when it's strangers who are engaging in it, but becoming uncomfortably hot under the collar when the individual dancing uninhibitedly along the busy street is our own middle-aged relative?
The distinction begs to be made between folks who have "a screw loose" and those who deliberately shun convention; who dare - to use Mill's word - to stand apart from the herd and forge a new path in human understanding.
An unforgettable example of the former is the once-jilted Miss Haversham in Dickens' Great Expectations, forever clad in her ancient wedding dress and keeping her decayed bridal cake on the table.
As for the latter, astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was considered highly eccentric for insisting that the earth moved around the sun. That the church eventually forced him to recant doesn't, ultimately, detract from his "genius and moral courage."
And wasn't our own Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who singlehandedly revived Hebrew as a modern spoken language, a Millian eccentric of the first order? His children were brought up as the only ones in the world speaking Ivrit. They weren't consulted; they simply weren't given a choice.
Without their dad's stubbornness and mental strength - his eccentricity - modern Israelis might well be conversing in German.
TODAY, in Israel and the West, with social strictures relaxed and most behaviors deemed normal, is genuine eccentricity vanishing, having no dominant "center" to deviate from? If so, it's a shame. John Stuart Mill would term it a danger.
For along with the concomitant mental and moral decline that Mill implies, we would be losing, according to a piece in Time magazine called "The sad state of eccentricity," "a mad integrity that might leaven modern grimness, or even produce occasionally brilliant insights.
"A nation that fails to nurture eccentrics," the article concludes, "runs the risk of becoming the victim of a kind of national eccentricity."