Eccentric,moi? A New Survey Claims That 18 of the World"s 20 Greatest Eccentrics Are British. Two of This Illustrious Crew Are Baffled by the Label - after All, What"s Strange about Wearing a Stovepipe Hat or Pitching a Tent in Your Living Room?

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I suppose it is a compliment of sorts in a nation that has always loved its eccentrics to be numbered among their selection. I have to say, when I told them of this eccentricity poll, many of my friends reacted: 'What?

Only number 12? They can't know you very well.' That sums up my problem.

Personally, I see nothing much in my public profile with which to dub me eccentric: a fat cook with a penchant for field sports, a devotion to human liberties and proper food is not surely that unordinary?

Perhaps I can't see myself as eccentric because of what I have to live up to. My forbears were truly worthy of such an accolade. Take my paternal grandmother, who lived in a tent in her drawing room, despite having done no more travelling than taking the boat from Ireland to the mainland. It was a proper campaign tent, and she had the gardener hammer the spikes into the parquet floor. The family reacted pragmatically; freedom of expression has never been a problem with us. The house was in Little Venice and was later bought - tentless I'm sure - by Joan Collins. When Grandma entertained, a table was laid in front of the tent with the finest napery, drapery, china and crystal, and she sat on her campaign chair and ate exquisite food out of mess tins placed by a retinue of servants on her collapsible table. That's what I call eccentric.

The same grandmother, when visiting any of her nine children, would wear all the clothes she required for the visit, one on top of the other, and merely carried a hat box and a shoe bag.

So my friends began to worry when, aged 40, I acquired a passion for camping and an aversion to luggage.

My other grandmother, an Australian, was less unusual, merely telling tales of flinging chop bones to tigers that prowled around in the Malay jungle, where she travelled with my grandfather, an explorer and mining engineer, who changed into white tie to dine by his jungle camp fire and died of drink aged 30, or of persuading him to shoot his prize ducks rather than her after she cooked one of the selfsame birds for dinner.

My parents' generation was less dramatic though equally idiosyncratic. My father, an eminent surgeon, had a thick rubber mat placed in the theatre when he was operating so that, when the tension got too much, he could jump up and down screaming. My mother, a woman of great charm and elegance, had a mink jacket made with poachers' pockets lined with plastic so that she could collect cuttings from the gardens she visited.

So, you see, I am really quite ordinary: I see nothing eccentric about my life. The Oxford English Dictionary describes eccentricity as 'a whimsical disregard for convention', so perhaps I should plead guilty. I asked a friend what she found eccentric about me. She said I don't give a toss what people think about me. She described me at a hunt meet with one leg of my plus fours perfectly buckled above the sock and the other 'Just William': I was surprised she'd even noticed. It is true I really don't care what others think. 'This above all: to thine own self be true/ And it must follow, as the night the day/ Thou canst not then be false to any man' is a philosophy dear to my heart.

The conventional road has never appealed to me: husbands, children, home-owning, a secure income from a dull job - things that ordinary people want are not for me. It's important to me to stand up for what I believe in, such as my stance on field sports. I was the nation's favourite cook when Jane Root at the BBC commissioned Clarissa and the Countryman.

The antis tried everything to scare me off: death threats and all. The BBC lost the courage of their convictions and dropped me, but I wouldn't have it otherwise. I may be 'a food weirdie', but during Two Fat Ladies sales of cream and butter rose by 19 per cent and have risen ever since.

That's something to be proud of. …


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