Masters of the loonyverse: One writer's search for the greatest eccentric

England has its fair share of loonies, oddballs and eccentrics. On a per capita basis, England probably has more of these than any other nation. Why this should be is probably a bit of a mystery.

Take William John Cavendish Bentinck Scott, the fifth Duke of Portland. This man hated daylight, and did everything he could to stay away from it. After inheriting Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire and coming into the title in 1854, he decided to burrow underground. He built 15 miles of tunnels under his estate. He hated meeting people and never invited anyone to his home, yet he constructed a vast complex of subterranean rooms, including the largest ballroom in the country, a 250 foot(75 metres) library, a hugh glass-roofed conservatory and a billiard-room big enough to take a dozen billiard tables.

And there was the English naturalist Frank Buckland (1826-1880), who loved eating all sorts of creatures. He loved mice on buttered toast, and once cooked a viper for lunch. He also added that he had prepared some elephant's trunk soup but was disappointed because, dispite several days boiling, it was too tough to eat.

And Lord Rokeby, who lived from 1712 to 1800, decided that he would like to spend all his life near to or in water. He would spend hours in the sea off the Kent coast and sometimes had to dragged, unconscious, back to dry land.

At home, in Mount Morris, near Hyde, he built an enormous glass topped tank and spent nearly all his life floating in the water, even taking his meals there. He grew an enormous beard, which hung down to his waist and spread out on the surface of the water.

His obsession with water was so great that he had a vast number of drinking fountains installed all over his house and drank great quantities of water from them every day.

Now one man has decided to go on a search for England's greatest eccentric.

Henry Hemming takes to the street to fight a proper English loony....

Masters of the loonyverse: One writer's search for England's greatest eccentric

By Henry Hemming
30th November 2008
Daily Mail

My crusade began one summer's morning two years ago when I was slumped in front of my television, eating a bowl of cereal and watching the breakfast news.

There, framed by the worn white plastic of my antiquated set, was Zac Monro, a friendly-looking architect in his 30s.

He explained in an agitated middle-class register that he had received a letter from Lambeth Council in South London, complaining about the hedge in front of his terrace house.

Even English democracy is eccentric - "Captain Beany from the Planet Beanus" stands for election at election-time

It wasn't that he had let the hedge run wild. No, the problem was that he had carefully trimmed it into the shape of a whale. It even had a blow-hole with a blast of water shooting skywards, depicted by a white-flowering shrub that fanned out at its peak.

The council claimed that Monro's topiary was obstructing the pavement and posed a threat to pedestrians. Blind people were being forced into the road, they argued.

Already I could feel some of Monro's anger bubbling up inside me. You could see that this hedge was not forcing people out into the quiet, residential street. Yes, it bulged a little over the pavement, but you would have to be at least a yard wide to collide with it.

'The hedge gets compliments from passers-by the whole time,' insisted Monro.

'Some of them think it's a peacock but they love it.'

He paused. 'What I still don't understand is why the council even bothered to write to me in the first place. I mean, have they really got nothing better to do?'
'Exactly!' I wanted to shout. I was burning with rare indignation, for his story seemed to confirm an otherwise vague hunch: the country I lived in was being wiped clean of its anomalies.

On the radio, on television, in newspapers and magazines, thudding about like spent cannonballs, were expressions like 'the nanny state', 'clone towns', 'European standardisation', and 'health and safety-o-cracy'.

All this pointed to the same alarming conclusion: that we are in danger of wiping out a species which is as much a part of Englishness as cups of tea, the Sex Pistols or the Queen. I'm talking about the great English eccentric.

In full costume the eccentric takes to the streets

Originally the word 'eccentric' was written 'ex-centric', meaning away from the centre, and we English seem to have a peculiar talent for producing those mavericks who will not be moulded by society's idea of 'normal' behaviour.

Refusing to care what others think, and symbolising the less inhibited and more childlike approach to life that deep down most of us aspire to, such figures have long played a pivotal role in our national life.

Where would we be without Jonas Hanway, the 18th-century philanthropist who first dared to walk the streets of London while holding a wooden stick which supported a canopy of oiled silk over his head?

Oblivious to the ridicule of passing coachmen, Hanway persisted and soon his invention, the umbrella, was jeopardising the livelihoods of those very coachmen who had mocked him.

Physicist Oliver Heaviside was another creative eccentric. Living alone and in the dark for many years before his death in 1925, he painted his nails cherry red, and had granite blocks moved into his house as furniture, for some reason best known to himself.

His behaviour no doubt puzzled his neighbours in North London but his scientific research contributed hugely to our understanding of how the earth's atmosphere is structured and earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize in
History clearly shows us that England needs such people and, having seen what was happening to Zac Monro, a walking, talking, hedge-trimming English eccentric if ever I saw one, I decided to track down England's last remaining eccentrics and share their plight with the rest of the world before it was too late.

My plan was to find the leader of the tribe, England's most eccentric man or woman. If no one else did, surely they would know how to save their kind from extinction?

First, though, I wanted to understand why we English are so famous for our eccentrics - and the answer seemed to lie in the reign of King George III, whose bouts of insanity after he came to the throne in 1760 changed attitudes towards mental illness.

Previously, people had paid 2d to gawp at the inmates of lunatic asylums such as Bedlam in London and hire sticks to prod them if they felt they weren't getting their money's worth.

But now they realised that if the monarch could be struck down by madness, so could anyone.

Zac Munro stands proudly beside his hedge

The King's illness made it much easier for his subjects to talk fondly about the nonconformists in their midst and soon it became fashionable to cultivate the acquaintance of characters such as hermits, leading to an unlikely fad for having artificial wildmen installed on your estate.

The English eccentric stood for freedom and liberty.

Charles Hamilton of Painshill Park in Surrey was one of many wealthy Englishmen who, in the mid-1700s, advertised for a hermit to live on his land, offering 700 in return for seven years of ascetic solitude spent studying the Bible while dressed in a camel-hair robe.

Sadly, the only known applicant had to be sacked when he was spotted at the local pub three weeks after moving in.

The cult of eccentricity really took off in the Victorian era, amid concerns that increased conformity, authority and order in society were stifling creativity - the very fear I have today.

There was a craze for reading the biographies of famous eccentrics, flamboyant characters such as Robert 'Romeo' Coates, a sugar planter's son who was celebrated as Georgian England's worst actor.

Extravagantly rich, Coates would pay to appear in plays and wave at friends during performances.

If jeered he would break off to threaten the heckler with his sword and his favourite role was the lead in Romeo and Juliet, a part he liked so much that he rewrote it to better suit what he felt was Romeo's true character, that of a dandy like himself.

Taking a generous pinch of snuff during the balcony scene, and then offering it to the bewildered Juliet, he prepared for his 'death' by placing his hat on the stage as a pillow and sweeping a space clean with his silk handkerchief before lowering himself foppishly to the ground.

Another favourite of the Victorians was naturalist Charles Waterton. To his credit he completed the world's first nature reserve at his home near
Wakefield in 1826 but his love of animals also took a somewhat perverse turn.

When guests came to dinner, he would hide in the hall and then leap out, bouncing up to them on hands and knees like a guard dog and once sinking his teeth into a visitor's leg until he drew blood.

The hobby of the English eccentric - collecting gnomes (and then dressing like one)

Other eccentrics of the time shunned human company altogether, most notably the fifth Duke of Portland, better known as the ' Burrowing Duke' on account of the 15 miles of underground tunnels he built around his estate in Nottinghamshire, so he could move around out being seen.

His was strange behaviour indeed but perhaps the most remarkable character of the time was John 'Mad k' Mytton, a heavy-drinking Shropshire squire.

He owned a bear, named Nell, on the back of whom he once rode into a dinner party in full hunting gear, roaring tally ho! as his guests dived for cover.

Nell later ate part of his leg but this did not blunt Mad Jack's passion for animals and at one point there were estimated to be 2,000 dogs in his house.

They were fed steak and champagne and the dining room on the first floor was fitted with a trapdoor so his pet giraffe could join him for Sunday lunch.

Mad Jack could be rather less kind towards humans. One night after entertaining his doctor and local parson for dinner he dressed up as a highwayman and ambushed his two guests on their way home, firing shots over their heads and chasing after them as they ran for their lives.

By the 20th century, aristocratic eccentricity had taken a more sedate turn with the appearance of characters such as the composer Lord Berners.

He became famous between the wars for painting his doves pastel pink and letting his horse Moti roam around his country pile in Oxfordshire as he fed her buttered scones.

Later there was Brinsley Le Poer Trench, Earl of Clancarty and an avid follower of UFOs, who believed that the earth was hollow, claimed descent from aliens and founded the all-party House of Lords UFO Study Group before his death in 1995.

By then the English fascination with eccentrics spanned more than two centuries so I was surprised to learn that the first and only scientific investigation of eccentricity to date was not undertaken until 1984.

Dr David Weeks, a respected neuropsychologist, estimated - by advertising nationwide, asking people who considered themselves eccentric to step forward - that England is home to some 6,000 true eccentrics.

That is one for every 10,000 non-eccentrics and enough to fill a small football stadium, although, of course, such a gathering would never happen.

True eccentrics would squirm at the thought of being part of a homogeneous swarm cheering on the same team. They'd prefer to be the streaker running across the pitch.

Ann Atkin with her troop of garden gnomes

As to what these people might be like, I found the dictionary definition of eccentric very vague, meaning anything from whimsical to unusual.

Clearly the only way to find out was to go and meet them. For the next year, I travelled the country, encountering a cast of characters more outlandish, yet more gripping, than any I could invent: from reincarnated English monarch to animal impersonator, from cow-hurling aristocrat to obsessive hoarder.

An internet search revealed many people described as 'eccentric collectors' - hoarders of everything from lawn-mowers to aeroplane sick bags.

One trail took me to Devon where I found a woman who runs the world's largest gnome reserve. There I saw thousands of gnomes, fishing, playing chess, smoking, and doing just about everything else a gnome could get up to that could be shown before the 9pm watershed.

As well as collectors who sought out physical objects, I came across acquirers of numbers. Plane-spotters, for example, were the Brahmins of the spotting caste-system, obsessively noting the identity code of every aircraft they can find.

Beneath them in this curious hierarchy of spotting came train-spotters, and below them the spotter untouchables: bus-spotters. In a caste of his own was a man from Bristol who spotted pylons.

I also interviewed the swimmers who brave the icy waters of the Serpentine Lake in London's Hyde Park every Christmas Day, a woman who lives in a sheep-pen in the Yorkshire Dales, and an unemployed superhero in his 50s who likes to dress up as a baked bean and stands for political election wherever possible as Captain Beany from the Planet Beanus.

But perhaps one of my most surprising discoveries was an Englishman who in some ways way matched the behaviour of such eccentrics as bearriding 'Mad Jack' Mytton.

Like Mytton before him, Hew Kennedy is a wealthy Shropshire landowner and he has spent years building a life-size replica of a trebuchet, a 30-ton medieval catapult, the height of a four-storey building.

He uses this to send sailing high across his estate dead cows, small cars and defunct grand pianos with explosives attached.

'Why?' I asked him. 'Because it's bloody good fun!' was the reply.

In Kennedy, I thought I had perhaps found the ultimate English oddball but then I met King Arthur Uther Pendragon, a former soldier named John Rothwell who changed his name by deed poll in 1986.

Now 54 he has, for the past 22 years, lived a nomadic lifestyle, giving up his home and staying with friends around the country as he lives life as the modern-day incarnation of King Arthur.

Wearing full battle-frock and crown, his steed a Triumph motorbike, he has stood for Parliament, earned the legal right to carry his sword Excalibur and successfully campaigned for Stonehenge to be re-opened for the Summer Solstice.

As a symbol of how our society embraces those on its margins, he is an example of English eccentricity at its best, but still I did not accord him the title of England's greatest eccentric.

There was no point settling for a pretend king when I had a real one in my sights and, at the end of my long search I realised that the person I was looking for was someone I might never get to interview at all - His Royal Highness Prince Charles.

When, or if, he becomes king, we will have on the throne a man who not only reveres above all other monarchs the godfather of English eccentricity, King George III, but likes nothing more than to potter about his garden in an Afghan gown, talking to plants or contemplating the world from beneath an architectural folly.

If the 'eccentric prince' does become the 'eccentric king', we can only hope that, like George III, he can transform our attitudes towards nonconformity once more and help preserve the national treasure that is English eccentricity, whale-shaped hedges included.

ADAPTED by David Leafe from In Search of the English Eccentric by Henry Hemming published by John Murray on June 12 at 16.99. To order a copy for 15.30 (inc p&p) call 0845 606 4206.
Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 30th, 2008 at 03:04 PM..
That's hilarious!!...Great new look for this site eh??..It is great to have a place to speak so freely.Read so many differnet and sometimes bizzare view points!..Much can be learned and UNlearned here!!lol...

It is all necessary to be properly educated!!!...

Let freedom rule!!...

It is the only way to find the truth!

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