Whatever has happened to the Great English Eccentric? This has always been a land proud of its eccentrics. You have only to browse through the volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography to appreciate the respect given to great eccentrics of the past. Just look at the entry for Joseph Capper (1727-1804), whose Field of Interest is listed as "Miscellaneous" and his Occupation as "eccentric character", or Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (1776-1839), Field of Interest: Miscellaneous; Occupation: Eccentric. Where else could eccentricity be a profession and its practice a qualification for inclusion among the select biographies of the age?
In past centuries, eccentricity was seen as a mark of the individualism that made Britain great. It was also a sign of the self-indulgence that only a successful nation could afford. But extolling eccentricity indicated, above all, the general tolerance of a society which could produce literary figures as charmingly strange as Edith Sitwell or as alarming as Evelyn Waugh with his loud checks and ear trumpet; or even, in the Fifties, the hugely moustachioed MP Sir Gerald Nabarro? Yet, notwithstanding Screaming Lord Sutch and Jimmy Savile OBE , all the evidence suggests our position as world-beaters in eccentricity has slipped.
To define the term is not easy. Nowhere in their book Eccentrics do Weeks and James succeed in explaining precisely what they're writing about. Exhibitionism, iconoclasm, obsession and madness may contribute to eccentricity, but, even then, any assessment of eccentricity depends on culturally determined ideas of normality. Eccentricity in California, for example, may be not having a driver's licence, or, in 10 years' time, the smoking of cigarettes.
The most recent expedition in search of the English Eccentric has been by a Swiss writer, Lukas Lessing, and the photographer Luca Zanetti. Here's an account of their first sighting:
This man cannot be taken in at a single glance. His yellow-looking hands clutch a well-worn forked stick, from which a hundred things dangle - bells and ribbons and emblems and rubbish... bells also dangle from a chain pierced through his foreskin. The man occasionally exhibits his privy parts. He talks fast and interminably, since he has nobody else to converse with apart from his son. The latter does not reply, because he is a dog, a very tired dog who answers to the name of Sir Emmanuel "Manoyle" Ramsbottom. The man was married to the dog's mother, the blessed Mrs Pepa Mangle-Wurzel. Jake Jonathon Zebedee Mangle-Wurzel is just one of the man's names, of the dozen or so names that make his visiting card burst out of all proportion. Another one is Sir Thomas Henry Erasmus Occupier, or THE Occupier, for short.
Hang on a moment. Does a true eccentric do anything as odd as change his name to THE Occupier and have cards printed advertising the fact? Is this a true eccentric, or a look-at-me-I'm-eccentric eccentric? Let's read on with Lessing's account:
The man is still talking. He talks entirely about himself, and about his indifference towards anything and his fellow human. He talks of his four marriages to females of the human species, whom he thoroughly hates, of his great dislike of any government, and his preference for copulating with sheep at least on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights. He would like to be physically stronger, in order to give his neighbours a good thrashing.
Hmm. But if he's so indifferent towards his fellow human beings, why is he giving this interview? The answer is sadly disillusioning:
He wants us, as all the other journalists before have done, to pay pounds 50 for the opportunity of observing his eccentricity. He wants them to pay for making fun of him and saying: "Look, dear reader- here's an idiot."
But not such an idiot, after all. In fact, it's rather a worldly sort of eccentric who can carve himself 50-quid-a-throw out of today's media.
Compare this with the18th-century eccentric, Joseph Capper, who, after prospering as a grocer, "spent several days in walking about the vicinity of London, searching for lodgings. Stopping at the Horns, Kennington, one day, he asked for a bed and, being curtly refused, determined to stop in order to plague the landlord. Though for many years he talked about quitting the place the next day, he lived there until the day of his death, a period of 25 years." It seems that he would not even let anyone else poke the fire without his permission. "His favourite amusement was killing flies with his cane, before doing which he generally told a story about the rascality of all Frenchmen, "whom", he said "I hate and detest and would knock down just the same as these flies." When he died, at the age of 77, he left pounds 30,000 to be shared among his poor relations, whom he had always refused to see in his lifetime."
Now that's eccentric.
Of course, it's easier to be eccentric if you're rich. In their book, Weeks and James analysed in a survey the social standing of historical eccentrics. The aristocracy, landed gentry and upper middle class claimed 86 per cent of the sample, with only 14 per cent of eccentrics being lower middle or working class. "We ought not to make too much of these figures," they warn; "our archival sources were far more likely to report on the doings of the rich and noble than the poor and obscure. Yet it is nonetheless true that eccentric behaviour has always been more frequent among the leisured classes, for eccentricity itself is essentially a leisure activity... a person who must hold down a job in order to put food on the table is not in a good position to tell the world to go to the devil."
Dr Weeks, a clinical neuropsychologist and therapist in Edinburgh, set himself the task of studying contemporary eccentrics and advertised for suitable subjects. "Every time another story about the study was published, we would get another flurry of calls from eccentrics who were intrigued by what we were doing," he declares.
But are these the same eccentrics who want to tell the world to go to the devil? Yes, the world can go to the devil - but not before I've picked up the phone.
Perhaps we are close to identifying the difference between Joseph Capper and THE Occupier. Mr Capper would surely not have responded to an advert in the local paper asking for eccentrics because he probably did not consider himself to be one.
A hierarchy of eccentricity begins to emerge: at the lowest level, there are the rebels who consciously fight against authority and embrace political incorrectness for its own sake; at a higher level, we have those eccentrics who know they are different and relish it; and, at the highest level of all, we have true individualists who make their own rules in life, oblivious of what anyone else is doing.
Let's try another modern eccentric from Lessing's collection:
In a Baptist vicarage in the little town of Sowerby Bridge, unemployed bus-driver David Shires clutches both hands around a huge, sharp pencil. One large photograph stands out among the many little ones tacked to the wall. It shows a different man from the one pathetically bent over his desk; a man in a dirty yellow, leather cloak, with an iron breastplate, iron helmet and heavy gauntlets, sitting proudly on a horse, and carrying a sword. He is Captain Helliwell, a forgotten English Civil War officer of the Heptonstall Roundheads. David Shires will write the officer's history, a story he has made his own. In a small book in 1993, he revealed the bare historical facts. The second book will reveal everything. "Captain Helliwell is, to me, a ghost," said Shires, "whom I can frequently feel surrounding me."
Shires left his girlfriend and gave up work. It requires time and stamina to keep a Civil War soldier alive." When someone has been dead for 300 years, it should be a great pleasure for him to ride again,and feel the reins once more. He uses me to return to his battlefield, to be alive."
Shires then mounts his 15-year-old mountain pony, Oliver, and rides into Halifax, where he studiously ignores the attentions of the curious. "I do this entirely for myself," he says. "If nobody watched, I'd still do the same."
Now that's more like it, but isn't it just a little contrived, driving down to the stables and taking up haughty poses on horseback for photographers? Or is it a simple case of delusion? Would Martin van Butchell, anatomist, dentist and maker of trusses, born in1735, have ever done such a thing? Here's an extract from his DNB entry:
His long beard and extraordinary costume astonished all beholders, and it his custom to ride about in Hyde Park and the streets on a white pony which he sometimes painted all purple, sometimes with purple or black spots. To defend himself against rude molestation, he carried a large white bone, which was said to have been used as a weapon of war in the island of Otaheite... For many years van Butchell kept the mummy of his (late) wife in his parlour, and frequently exhibited the corpse to his friends and visitors. On his second marriage, it was found expedient to remove the body to the museum of the College of Surgeons... At the present time (1886) it is a repulsive-looking object.
Today, Martin van Butchell would be appearing on television chat shows, because we no longer tolerate and admire our eccentrics; we study them, lionise them, and turn them back towards the mainstream of the entertainment industry. Either that or we lock them up: there was a celebrated case earlier this year of an old lady imprisoned for feeding the local pigeons in defiance of authority.
All of Lessing's and Zanetti's subjects have succumbed to celebrity. There is John de Locksley, who dresses up as Robin Hood (whose ancestry he claims) and, in his spare time, is an authority on Jack the Ripper and founder of the British Ku Klux Klan; there is John Slater, sometime tree-dweller and caveman, now writing a book on his cave philosophy; and Captain Beeny, a charity worker who changed his name by deed poll. But do true eccentrics really found organisations or bother with bureaucratic things like deed polls?
David Weeks found his "eccentrics" to be happy and long-lived. Lukas Lessing concluded that his were, in general, rather miserable sods. Yet both have been responsible for blurring the edges between eccentricity and exhibitionism. Their researches are a classic case of the observer altering that which he observes. But surely somewhere out there are the last true eccentrics, who know that it's the rest of us who really are odd
David Shires (Captain Helliwell) was a bus driver for 16 years who gave up his job to write the history of a forgotten officer of the Civil War. Shires discovered the original Helliwell while browsing in a bookshop in Halifax, and has made it his mission to revive him. He dresses up as a Roundhead and visits all the Civil War battlefields on horseback, sometimes riding for three days to find sites that are often no longer visible
Former headmistress Rhea Sheddon, 73, who lives in a former coal- mining village near Edinburgh, is a hypochondriac with an astounding theoretical knowledge of medicine (she has an IQ of 165). Much of her time is spent exhausting professors with letters about medical matters, though she often elicits highly learned replies. She also devotes a considerable amount of her small pension to the literature of skin diseases and other infections
John Gray prefers to be known as Jake Mangle-Wurzle. He has been married four times, latterly to a lesbian wrestler named Joanne Sophine. Mangle-Wurzle never throws anything away - his urine is stored around his Yorkshire cottage in thousands of milk bottles - and he describes himself as the champion sheep-shagger of all England, a misogynist, and `a bit of a loner'
Captain Beeny, from Port Talbot in south Wales, took his name after being made redundant from BP. He took on his superhero identity after achieving the record for staying in a bath of baked beans for more than 100 hours. His main activity now is raising money for charity. His mother, with whom he lives, is a bit worried about his dressing up. `I want my son back,' she says
Ann Atkin shares her home and garden in Barnstaple, Devon, with 7,500 gnomes. She has created a gnome reserve in the woods near her house where people can rent a gnome hat, sit on mushroom-like chairs, talk to the flora and fauna and, according to Atkin, `let the gnome inside you awake'
True eccentric: in the 18th century, Martin van Butchell, an anatomist and maker of trusses, would ride about Hyde Park on a white pony with purple or black spots, carrying a large white boneReuse content