I first saw him in the kitchenware aisle of Sainsbury’s supermarket, flanked by his family.
He must have been six foot six, and his stance was that of a great Russian bear.
But he had attemped to cloak it with a great long black overcoat so that now, if Boris Godunov had ever been recruited as a member of the KGB, this is almost exactly what he would have looked like.
And on his head was – I think – a beanie. One of those woollen hats beloved of the ski set. But what no-one told the ski set is that if you pull the hat all the way up, so it sits tall, you look a little like a Russian boyar. He radiated differentness. He was taller, and more imposing, and vastly odder than anyone else in the shop.
So there he stood, a great Russian boyar, surrounded by his family, sussing out the kitchenware in Sainsbury’s.
I nudged Phil.
“Look,” I said. “There’s another one of your lot here.”
Phil looked puzzled. “My lot? What do you mean?”
“It’s another member of the Eccentric Dad’s Club.”
Phil huffed and puffed.”I have no idea what you are talking about,” he hrumphed, as he stood there in a thirty-year-old vintage sheepskin coat which he terms a timeless classic. Old coats never die, they just go to the dry cleaners. Phil cultivates the air of a 1970’s used car salesman, and he does it with glee.
The 1970s used car salesman eyed the Russian boyar, who had graduated to the chicken aisle. Maybe he was planning a little chicken lapsha noodle soup.
We had drifted to the dog food aisle, and were thinking about the options.
And suddenly we were not alone. There was a chirpy salesman from the supermarket, interested in interesting us in their store credit card. “Would you be interested in a Nectar credit card, sir?” he inquired.
Phil did not back away, self effacing. He did not quietly and politely refuse. No: he broke into song.
He sang to the salesman about how we weren’t interested, thank you. And the baffled but game gentleman encouraged him, possibly seeing a signature on the dotted line in the near future. I edged as far down the dog food aisle as I could, fighting the need to explain my husband to the credit card salesman. He would find out for himself.
My mind fled to the daughter of an eccentric father. Edith Sitwell. The deeply odd Sir George Sitwell, too, wrote: but on such subjects as The Introduction of the Peacock into Western Gardens, Rotherham Under Cromwell, Modern Modifications on Leaden Jewellery in the Middle Ages and his seminal A Short History of the Fork.
Visitors to the Sitwell household were met with a sign: “‘I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”
Edith knew eccentric, but her father’s antics did not put her off. Indeed, she wrote an entire book about English eccentrics which makes excellent reading, and shows the eccentric in the light I have always percieved him: “Eccentricity is not, as some would believe, a form of madness,” she writes.
“It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics, by the opinions and vagiaries of the crowd.”
Never a truer word. The crowds of Sainsbury’s ebbed and flowed round these two men.
And the good opinion of the hordes could not have mattered less to them both.