Book Feature by Robert Leeming
Being the morbid type I recently whiled away a spring Parisian afternoon wandering aimlessly around Pere Lachaise cemetery in the 20th arrondissement. This rambling space is home to many illustrious old bones, including those of literary dandy Oscar Wilde. His tomb, newly restored by a grant from the Irish government, is protected by a glass screen, the graveyard equivalent of a buffet sneeze guard, shielding it, like a force-field around a holy-relic, from devotees who have defaced and kissed the stonework to the edge of disrepair.
Today the glass is covered in red lipstick and felt-tip verses, and I wondered if his legions of mourners knew that Oscar used to mill around Oxford walking a lobster on a short length of white string. The girls, it seems, have always loved eccentrics, for nobody is worried that lipstick kisses are eroding away Marcel Proust’s grave.
Eccentricity in simple terms can be summed up as doing exactly what you wish without a care for the opinions of others. To harmless ends of course. The eccentric has largely, since the eighteenth century, been a character associated with our islands, but they are, in truth, to be found anywhere where freedom of expression is left unfettered. In his charmingly detailed and informative new book, The Eccentropedia, Australian writer Chris Mikul lists some of the most unusual people who have ever lived and considers their eccentric lives and achievements in a brief biography of each.
Mikul’s eccentrics are split into four broad categories, contrarians, theorists, visionaries and entertainers. Moneyed aristocrats, due to their large amount of free time and bags of money, often fall into the contrarian category, “people who do not give a fig for social conventions and determinedly go their own way, whether it is in their clothing, habits, beliefs, hobbies or living arrangements.” Like Sir George Sitwell for example, a man whose primary accomplishment in life was to invent a tiny revolver for killing wasps, or Henry Paget the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who squandered his entire family fortune on theatrical costume and modified his car so the exhaust pipe sprayed perfume. Contrarians are not only to be found in the upper classes, they can also to be seen living on the streets, like Bee Miles, a bag lady from Sydney, who memorised all of Shakespeare’s verse by heart and made money by reciting passages on request, money she saved for extravagant splurges such as crossing the continent from Sydney to Perth in a taxi cab, paying the driver five dollars every hundred miles from a plastic bag.
The theorists instead of refusing to conform to society believe they have something to offer it, a grand idea which will revolutionise the way we live our lives or alter our perception of the universe and our place within it. They are often wide of the mark, like Dr. Charlotte Bach, who claimed that all creatures have an inborn desire to become the opposite sex, she was later revealed to be a man. Or William Chidley, whose unrealistic sexual notions combined with vegetarianism and nudism, would, he believed, save humanity from itself. Every now and then though someone does skim awfully close to a revelation, like Cyrus Teed, who believed we were living inside a hollow earth (which makes sense if you think about it and suspend GCSE science for a moment) although this delusion does lose some of its romantic allure when you learn that Teed also believed he was the second Christ. Nevertheless, he did attract some followers, and their attempt to create a New Jerusalem in Florida, a community formed upon communist ideals, was deemed, briefly, to be one of the more successful attempts at a utopia.
Visionaries, the third category, are dreamers, witnesses to usually religious imagery that only they can see, often attempting to recreate these insights through art, sculpture or music. The final category Mikul considers is the entertainer, the writer takes careful consideration not to highlight people whose eccentricity was feigned to support their public image, but studies people whose eccentricity affected their entire lives. Big name entries include Michael Jackson, William Burroughs, Tiny Tim and Andy Warhol, but it is the forgotten names which provide the most interesting stories. Like Oofty Goofty, the human punch bag. Originally a freak show act called “the Wild Man of Borneo” Oofty Goofty would sit in a cage eating raw meat, chanting his moniker while covered in tar and horsehair. The tar caused him to become severely ill and doctors failing to remove it without taking great chunks of skin opted to dunk Oofty in solvent and leave him on the hospital roof to dry out. This highly technical medical procedure left Oofty temporarily unable to feel pain and, sparking a whole new career, he began charging strangers fifty cents to rough him up with a baseball bat. His run of “luck” came to end when a bare knuckle boxing champion thrashed him over the back with a pool cue, fracturing two vertebra. Then there is James McIntyre, the Canadian cheese poet, whose principle muse was anything dairy, he would regale guests with his cheesy odes at club house dinners, “The ancient poets ne’er did dream, that Canada was land of cream, where everything did solid freeze, they ne’er hoped nor looked for cheese.”
These are just some of the hundreds of befuddled and bemused heads honoured within Mikul’s authoritative tome, from the original thinkers to the alarmingly loony, there is an engaging human story to be found on virtually every page. In a world which has so often proved itself to be outrageously unhinged, one book couldn’t possibly include all the eccentric characters who have made their own broadside against normality in their time, but the most resonant and effecting stories are here, together making a fascinating read. In today’s formulaic era an original mind is a gift and the confidence to sustain originality, in the face of disdain and ridicule, is a gift greater still. If eccentrics live the life they choose without concession and have no regrets for doing so then good on them, just look at Oscar Wilde, his detractors aren’t losing their tombstones to lipstick and love.
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Book Feature by Robert Leeming