Saturday, April 18, 2009
In Search of the English Eccentric by Henry Hemming
We all need to affirm our legitimate strangeness, but eccentricity for its own sake is an unedifying spectacle. Genuine eccentrics are unaware of their condition; the remainder desperately seek eccentricity. For every truly inspired English eccentric like Sir Isaac Newton or Henry Cavendish there's another who dresses as a baked bean or has a hedge shaped like a whale. England is famous for its eccentrics, says Hemming, who unearths several from our distant past, such as Cull Billy and the Green Man of Brighton, but we live in an era of meddling officiousness and today the great English eccentric is in danger of becoming an endangered species. Hemming keeps up a stream of comic patter, dropping in quotes from Hazlitt, Orwell and, er, Paxman along the way, but somehow his interviews with various English eccentrics, including Chris Eubank, Vivienne Westwood and Pete Doherty, only serve to dampen one's enthusiasm for the type. Are English eccentrics so great? After all, the French have the Marquis de Sade and surrealism; we have the Marquess of Bath and Edith Sitwell.