Thursday, 24 March 2016

Big Bad Bob the Albino


I've got to admit I've known a few odd balls during my time in this incarnation. I seem to attract, or more likely, I'm attracted to eccentric characters.

To my mind, an eccentric is an individual with a natural and effortless ability to display a range of unconventional behaviours. It is difficult to generalise about something so complex, as by their very nature, eccentrics are exceedingly hard to classify by conventional means. However, if pushed into a corner and asked to list some of their salient features, I would itemise thusly: The most standout eccentrics do seem to share a few common characteristics, in my experience. They don't appear to care much for societies' norms or for what other folk think of them. They often appear obsessed with rather obscure topics and are generally very knowledgeable on those topics. Most are creative and intellectually smart. They don't tend to have many true friends, if any. But this does not seem to bother them as they are more than happy to spend long periods alone indulging in their favourite pastimes. Often they have problems forging relationships with the opposite sex and consequently remain single throughout their lives. The character I am about to describe is a 'textbook eccentric' (no such thing). For the sake of anonymity and to protect the innocent, I'm going to call him: 'Big Bad Bob, the Albino'- or BBBA, for short. By the way, he is not an albino.

When I was a relatively young man I was engaged in botanical research at an English University. In the department, we had several PhD students diligently engaged in the furtherance of knowledge for the greater good of humankind. As I distinctly recall, we had one student researching 'buttercups' (Ranunculus repens); a second student worked hard improving the nutrient content of 'water-cress' (why?). The subject of my tale, BBBA (there is no other), was working on sun flower cotyledons. To say that this fella was a little strange was an understatement. And like many highly eccentric people he was highly intelligent having obtained ‘a first’ in his Bachelor's degree at Oxford University.

He was a hive of activity and immersed himself in several student activities. He was an avid member of the boxing club but never boxed himself and applied himself to the administration and organisation of amateur bouts. He was also active in the 'The Young Conservatives' and the local Anglican church. For all his church activity I saw very little piety in the man, just grandiose eloquence.

Although our research interests were quite different I got to see quite a lot of him around the botanical department. From our first meeting, I realised I was dealing with an exceptional individual. For some reason he managed to twist the conversation to a discussion about the majesty of Gothic Cathedrals; not so much a discussion, more a monologue. He was undoubtedly an anachronism; lost in a time that didn’t understand him. His mannerisms and speech were archaic and would not have gone out of place in a Victorian drawing room. He once described himself as ‘High Tory’ and High Church’; no one would describe themselves like that anymore. Nor was it an affectation, BBBA was genuinely like that.

On one occasion he wrote to the British Ministry of Defence stating that he had worked out the formula for the nerve gas, VX. This was in the early 1980s and therefore, his scholarship was achieved without the benefit of the ‘all knowing’ internet- so quite a feat, especially for a biologist. Of course, he was spot on and very soon afterwards he received a visitation from a couple of large lads in black suits. He was promptly told that if he ever mentioned the topic again to the Ministry or anyone else for that matter, he would end up in a disused coal mine. BBBA was mightily impressed and consequently discussed the matter with everyone.

BBBA was not imbued with the social graces. One day I was chatting to one of the technicians, a drab, mousy, single lady of about 35. During the conversation, BBBA interspersed himself between us, completely ignoring my presence even though I was in mid conversation, and proceeded to ask the technician out on a date. Not just a meal or a drink either, but a weekend away in a hotel. She, of course, refused in a very stern tone. Completely unfazed he turned on his heel and wandered off down the corridor. Eccentricity should in no way be confused with charisma.

BBBA was a poor lonely soul and most folk avoided him, if they could, in order to escape his extensive rants on some esoteric point of English Canon law, or something, else equally arcane. He was universally loathed by women in the department who considered him rather creepy and weird.

BBBA would take no direction and consequently drove his thesis supervisor to distraction. After a particularly difficult encounter, the Prof (not Mugumbo) confided his profound insight into his none conforming student. He said: “If BBBA was adrift in the ocean on a sinking boat and was about to be rescued and  if he got it into his head to count all the nails in the boat, before being rescued, that is exactly what he would do regardless of the dire situation confronting him….." I think the Prof gave a very fair summation as to BBBA's character and motivation.

I was about the nearest thing he had to a friend, probably because I didn't treat him with total contempt, although it was a close-run thing. But if I had treated him with disdain it is unlikely he would have noticed. I invited him to my wedding and he gave an excruciatingly long impromptu speech at the reception much to the amusement of family and friends.

Two years into his PhD I left for a career in human genetics and for a short while I received tediously rambling letters in beautiful copperplate handwriting. Then he simply disappeared. Apparently he terminated his research at the University never completing his doctorate. There would be nothing more to tell except for that damned thing called social media. A couple of years ago out of sheer curiosity I searched for his name on ‘Facebook’ and quickly established contact. He had not changed. His Facebook posts are long screeds about things that interest him and no one else. He has modest employment as a ‘Sports Administrator’ which undoubtedly gives him time to pursue his interests, various. And before you ask, he is still unloved and single............    

The world needs more people like Bob.


  1. I've always believed from a fairly early age that the English eccentric beats all other eccentrics in the world. I have no idea why I should have such a belief - probably a suggestion made during my most receptive years, but having been educated at an English boarding school, neither the staff nor my contemporaries were anything which would disillusion me of such a tenet.

    Indeed, I'm probably considered a mild oddity by some but it's nothing over which I lose any sleep.

  2. Spot on Ted. The English eccentric is top of the list when it comes to the national championships. The character I describe was way out there. For a few of us 'off centre' folk he sets the bar for which we reach.......

  3. "The world needs more people like Bob."

    Yes. It really does.