WHAT is "normal"? "Normal is a setting on a washing machine,"
the fridge-magnet motto runs. As a means of describing human
behaviour, the word has been in the English language only since the
early 19th century; and Dr Johnson, the lexicographer who might now
be diagnosed as having Tourette's syndrome, would not have
understood it as describing a state from which he deviated so
The current terminology is "neurotypical"; and it was in
celebration of neurodiversity that Bridget Kendall gathered her
guests for last week's The Forum (Radio 4, Saturday). So
much is about context: in the halls of academia, an absent-minded
professor is just one in a crowd, although there might be a
plethora of diagnoses that he might like to lay claim to, other
than mere eccentricity.
Indeed, it was in discussion of diagnosis that this programme
became particularly interesting. Professor Ute Frith, a pioneer in
research into autism, admits that OCD, Asperger's, and autism are
regularly used as a way for people to excuse their fears and
foibles. And she should know, since her other expertise is
dyslexia, a condition that, if all the diagnoses are to be
respected, has become a plague.
The Indian novelist Jerry Pinto, whose book about living with
bipolar disorder is having some influence on the way people in his
home country view neurodiversity, is more happy with diagnoses that
give the individual some means of owning the condition and
presenting it to the world. Once somebody labels you mad, there is
nothing you can do or say that will make you un-mad in the eyes of
If academia is one environment where eccentricity is expected,
another must be the world of celebrity and the wealthy. A
diagnostic assessment of Leonard Plugge, featured in Archive on
4: The eccentric entrepreneur (Radio 4, Saturday), would rob
this extraordinary individual of much of his charm, and also excuse
Plugge was the proto-radio pirate, broadcasting from France to
English audiences during the '20s and '30s programmes that the
Presbyterian John Reith thought unsuitable for British listeners.
When on Sunday the BBC was broadcasting How to Read an
Epistle and Heroes of the Free Church, Plugge's Radio
Normandy provided dance-hall music, fronted by no less than Roy
Plomley, later of Desert Island Discs fame. Carrying
adverts for everything from Persil to Bile Beans, Plugge made a
fortune - and he needed to, in order to support the Gatsbyish
lifestyle that he cultivated for himself.
A pirate, perhaps; but not a cowboy. Plugge took a nerdish
interest in broadcasting engineering, touring Europe to look at
transmitters, and becoming an expert on the emergent technology.
But it was his eye for an opportunity that made him, including
stunts such as a fashion talk sponsored by Selfridges, from the top
of the Eiffel Tower.
He was also a rogue; and, according to his son, not always a
lovable one - his flirtations extended to his son's girlfriends.
Had the war not intervened, and Plugge's stations in France shut
down, we might now be revering a very different father-figure for