I achieved herd immunity many years ago. In fact, I think I was born with it. No, I am not talking about the supposed protection from disease granted by vaccinations or actual diseases. I am talking about my immunity from the herd. I just do not fit in. In every classroom, in every Scout troop, in every collective endeavor imposed on children, there is always at least one, like me. If there were songs, I did not sing them. My poor mother despaired at how unclubbable I was at various nurseries to which she tried to send me. I would not join in the jolly activities provided. “Why can’t you be normal?” I can still hear her exasperated voice asking. “I am not normal,” I can still hear myself replying stoutly, my tiny eyebrows presumably knitted in a frown.
And so it went on. If there were sports, I shirked them. If there was a uniform to wear, I subverted it. If there was a playground craze, I was uninterested in it. I did not do this to be a “contrarian,” a term that infuriates me. I just did it because that is the way I am. And this unwillingness to believe anything until it has been officially denied, my suspicion of every crowd and fashion, is not a virtue of my own making. It is an awkward gift of the sort that dogs and troubles its possessor, but is of great value anyway. I have been tempted many times to reject it.
If I had been born into a primitive society, I should certainly have been clubbed to death, or abandoned on a freezing mountainside, before the age of seven. As I was born in a modern, stable civilization, which at that time prided itself on being the victorious defender of the world’s freedom, I survived. But it was only ever survival, as I would find out. For being the outsider almost never makes you popular, except perhaps in your teens at school when you can make everyone in class laugh at how ridiculous the world is. Even then, the acclaim is short-lived. They might laugh, but they do not really trust you. In the end they laugh because you have made them nervous about their comfortable and comforting beliefs. My advice is, do not try to capitalize on the mirth by pursuing the matter more seriously.
I have tried, more than once, to swim with the stream. I could see that it had its rewards. I swallowed my inhibitions and my dissenting thoughts, and joined gangs of various kinds. But I couldn’t keep it up. There was always the point where I found conformism impossible, and also where my would-be pals spotted that I wasn’t really one of them. After quite a bit of that I decided to skip both stages and begin as I meant to go on. I also decided to enjoy being an outsider.
For an important part of my working life, I reported for British newspapers on the strikes that at that time convulsed my country. The reporters who covered this frenzied subject, with its hard-drinking, raucous conferences and midnight summits, were an enjoyable and appealing group of people, especially when they were sober, which was not always. It was a tight-knit fellowship, and I still have individual friends from those days. But it demanded more conformism from me than I was prepared to give. And as a result, in my adult life I once again experienced the name-calling (which was ostensibly funny but wasn’t really) that I recalled from school.
Too bad. This was obviously the small price that had to be paid for being my own person. I was glad to pay it. In the back of my mind I have often since heard the voice of my paternal grandfather, a fierce nonconformist in both senses of the word, who (I like to think) had spotted his grandson’s difficulty and sought as best he could to let me know I wasn’t the first person who had experienced such things. Here is the sort of person he was: When he was aged twelve, his beloved sister fell ill in the poor, narrow streets of Portsmouth, died in a public hospital, and was brought home for burial. He was so full of grief, and so mistrusted the authorities, that, that night, he slipped into the room where her coffin was resting and unscrewed the lid to ensure that it was really her in the cheap box supplied. My aunt and uncle told me this story as they approached the ends of their own lives. I was as shocked and distressed by it as you might expect, but they knew a great deal about the sloppiness and cruelty of such institutions in those days, and they thought his action justified and courageous.
This extraordinary man (who providentially survived the 1914–18 Great War that wiped out so many like him) believed profoundly in good education for the children of the poor, such as he had been, and spent all his life teaching such children in state schools. He was a pioneer of England’s first teachers’ union. He was a strict Baptist who read only nonfiction. There was not one novel in his crammed bookshelves. All the stories he thought he needed to know were in the Scriptures. When I recall him, I think I have a pretty good idea about what Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides must have been like: scornful of their foes, mighty in battle, utterly English, full of the Bible. He regarded television as an abomination and refused to have a telephone in his house. Yet there were several majestic radio receivers, some of them dating back to the 1930s, looming in his living room. Their warmly glowing tuning dials offered to bring us ghostly long-ago voices from Kalundborg, Hilversum, Breslau, and Danzig (though several of them were in fact broken and could not be induced to emit any sound at all).
I never heard him explain why the wireless was not, like the TV and the telephone, the instrument of the devil. Perhaps it was because it was not a conformist force, and allowed the individual to form his own picture of what was being said. If so, I tend to agree with him, and my own house (where the TV often goes unwatched for weeks) is also full of radios, though they are rather smaller than his. When I do watch the TV, I feel badgered, not just by commercial appeal but by a series of assumptions about what sort of person I ought to be, what my tastes and sense of humor should be, and ultimately what I should think, which make me bridle. How lucky I am that it and the internet came so late into my life, for I am really not sure there is much room left for outsiders and nonconformists in the world we have made.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.