[ Issue 22 ]

Eccentrics are a particular interest of Emily Bronto

Bikwil honours Eccentrics


Here Tony Rogers salutes several loonies from his home town, and for good measure investigates the first serious book on the whole subject of eccentricity.

French composer Erik Satie makes an appearance. So do Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Virginian Dr. Patch Adams and Russian Madame Blavatsky (she who founded Theosophy, after tiring of her life as a pianist and bareback rider)

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Here Be Nutters — Tony Rogers


Were you as dismayed as I was in May 1999 to learn of the death at the age of 58 (suicide, by hanging) of Screaming Lord Sutch?

Although he is now primarily remembered as a crackpot politician (he’d been Britain's longest serving party leader — of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party), David Sutch first became famous as a rock ‘n’ roll singer. The first opportunity of his political career came in 1963 when Defence Minister John Profumo was forced to resign as the result of a sex scandal. In the ensuing Stratford-upon-Avon by-election Sutch changed his name from David to Lord and stood as the National Teenage Party candidate on a platform of “votes at 18”.

When Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964 and failed to implement this policy, Sutch had no alternative but to stand in the 1966 election in Wilson's own constituency. He won 585 votes. According to the manifesto of his party, “this time Wilson got the message and changed the law to allow 18-year olds to vote”.

In 1974 Sutch reinvented himself as the Go To Blazes Party, and in the early 80s he was reincarnated once more when he launched the OMRL Party, fighting his first by-election under the new banner in 1983.

As well as his victory with 18-year-old voting, over the ensuing decades he “successfully campaigned” for allowing hotels to be open all day on Sunday and licensing for commercial radio.

By the nineties his reputation had grown to the extent that “in 1994 Lord Sutch won a staggering 1114 votes in the Rotherham by-election, scoring 4.1% of the vote and almost saving his deposit”.

According to Newsweek,

His policies included banning work before lunchtime ("It's far too difficult"), and putting joggers and the unemployed on treadmills to generate cheap electricity.

I remember writing, in my skinny twenties, that “Eccentrics are a dying race, and more’s the pity”. In Sutch’s case it’s a sad truth, but in few others, for I realise now, in my well-rounded seventh decade, that oddballs are actually thriving, and always have, if only you know where to look.

More’s the joy.

Here in Sydney we have been blessed over the years by our share of eccentrics, as an exhibition that ran in mid-1999 at the State Library of New South Wales unambiguously showed.

No doubt you know the stories about the legendary Beatrice Miles (1902-1973), who was forced to make hundreds of court appearances for her unconventional behaviours. Born into a wealthy Wahroonga family, Bea seemed to have a brilliant medical career ahead of her, but she abandoned her studies at Sydney Uni and, after a few years of living at home and working as an unpaid assistant in the emergency ward at Sydney Hospital, in 1926 she left the comfortable North Shore milieu forever and set out on an independent life as a bohemian.

In the 1950s and 1960s, in her middle age, Bea could often be found sitting on the steps of the State Library dressed in an old overcoat and an eyeshade with a placard around her neck advertising her Shakespeare recitations at prices ranging from sixpence to three shillings. She was equally renowned for annoying taxi drivers by climbing into their cabs at intersections and refusing to get out. To make her leave, drivers sometimes had resort to hosing her or making sexual advances.

Bea Miles spent the last nine years of her life in a home for the aged run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Randwick, where she read an average of 14 books a week. Her unpublished manuscript Dictionary by a Bitch is preserved in the State Library. Kate Grenville’s book Lilian's Story (1984) is a fictionalized account of Bea's life, and in 1996 was made into a movie that featured Toni Collette and Ruth Cracknell.

But what about those other Sydney ratbags, Dulcie Deamer, Arthur Stace, William King or William Chidley? Have you heard of them?

Dulcie Deamer (1890-1972) lived in Kings Cross during its heyday in the Roaring Twenties when it was a community for struggling artists and writers. At one point she was officially crowned the Queen of Bohemia. Perhaps her most notorious exploit was performing the splits at the 1923 Artists Ball in a leopard skin costume. She made her living from freelance writing for various Sydney newspapers and magazines. Apparently obsessed with the elemental passions of the Stone Age, Dulcie also wrote a number of short stories set in that sensual, barbaric and heroic age, “when men were strong and women were even stronger”.

But she had a serious side, too, as shown in her pessimistic but insightful article In a Women's Prison, about the Women's Reformatory at Long Bay, which appeared in 1925 in The Australian Women's Mirror. In later life she published her autobiography, The Queen of Bohemia.

Born in a Balmain slum to alcoholic parents and four alcoholic siblings, Arthur Stace (1884-1967) soon became a drunkard himself. His alcoholism being so extreme by the 1920s, his mind began to fail and he was in danger of becoming a permanent inmate of a mental institution. In 1930 his life was turned around when he attended a meeting for men conducted by Archdeacon R.B.S. Hammond of St. Barnabas' Church on Broadway (Sydney).

Some months later he heard the evangelist, the Reverend John Ridley, booming “I wish I could shout ‘Eternity’ through the streets of Sydney”. That day Stace felt the powerful calling to write “Eternity” on the pavement.

From then on he would rise at 4 am, pray for an hour, have breakfast, and then set out. He claimed that each night God gave him the name of the locality where he should write the next day, and he arrived there before dawn — Wynyard, Glebe, Paddington, Randwick, Central Station. First he wrote in yellow chalk, but later switched to marking crayon because it stayed on better in wet weather. In all, he wrote his anonymous message more than half a million times over 35 years — a one-word sermon in an elegant copperplate hand. There is even a fading example still extant at the old Sydney Post Office in Martin Place — eleven storeys above the street, inside one of the tower bells.

Stace died of a stroke in a nursing home. He left his body to Sydney University.

Sydney loved “Eternity”. In 1969 the Sydney poet Douglas Stewart published a poem in Stace’s memory. Decades later his “Eternity” would be celebrated in lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (New Year’s Eve 1999) and in replica of that event at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games.

Billy King (1807-1873) was a devout and athletic practitioner of pedestrianism — the practice of travelling on foot. One of his many leg-driven adventures was to tramp from Sydney to Parramatta with a live goat weighing 40 kg plus a 5 kg dead weight on his shoulders. It took him just under seven hours. On another occasion he carried a 31 kg dog from Sydney to Campbelltown in nine hours. He also twice beat the Sydney to Windsor mail coach on foot, and walked from Sydney to Parramatta and back, twice a day, for six consecutive days.

Most of his against-the-clock feats he did as bets.

King was also known as The Flying Pieman. In the 1850s he sold pies, freshly cooked on a brazier, on the corner of Pitt and King Streets. The “Flying” epithet came from his ability to sell pies at Circular Quay to passengers embarking on the Parramatta River steamer and then meet the same passengers as they got off, having outwalked them to Parramatta, a distance of some 29 kilometres.

He died, insane, in a home for the destitute.

My favourite purveyor of Sydney bizarrerie was William James Chidley (1860-1916). Among other beliefs to his everlasting notoriety, Chidley had a fixation on the idea that the male erection was a Bad Thing, and on Sundays in the Sydney Domain used to lecture ad nauseam on his gospel of what he termed “natural coition”. He recorded his theories in a volume (privately published, naturally, first in 1911 and with revisions in 1915) called The Answer — i.e. the Answer to the Sex Problem.

Yet it wasn’t his ideas on sex that got him repeatedly arrested, but his silk toga-like tunic which was seen by the authorities as indecent dress. He wore it because he believed that heavy clothing caused unnatural erections that inevitably would lead to sexual indulgence, ill health and an untimely death.

Here is a short quote from The Answer on the ill effects of "unnatural” intercourse:

Our present coitus is a perversion and a shock. Now any protoplasm that receives a shock contracts, and the brain actually becomes smaller, as time goes on, through the repeated shocks of coition, and becomes distorted in shape. The blood supply is perverted also, and this contributes towards the injury. In the series of faces of my drawing you see the changes a face undergoes after marriage — or after the sexual habit has been formed — and these changes exactly correspond to those we know would ensue if shocks were given to the brain, were accumulated by the brain and nervous system. All the nerves, glands and muscles of the body would suffer lesions and perversion, of course, but the delicate network of muscles on face, and the eyes, show it more plainly than any other part of the body.

For the record, in “natural coition” the male organ is not thrust into the vagina, but when “the sphincter flashes open” the penis is gently drawn into it by suction.

Like Billy King, Chidley died mad — in the Callan Park mental hospital.

Now, if you want more detailed information on Sydney’s eccentrics you could do a lot worse than borrow a library copy of Keith Dunstan’s Ratbags, published, I think, in the early 1980s.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? What, if anything, did these examples of Sydneyside idiosyncrasy have in common? Some were possessed by an idée fixe, sure, but not all; some were nonconformist in a more general way.

Let’s see what the first serious book ever to be published on the subject of eccentricity has to say. I’m referring to Eccentrics by David Weeks, a neuropsychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, and Jamie James, a journalist (1995, ISBN hardcover 0 297 81447 8).

I should point out at once that, sadly, there’s no mention in the book of Miles, Deamer, Stace, King or Chidley. One Australian eccentric who does get a guernsey, though, is pianist/composer/self-flagellator Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961). If we can arrange it, there’ll be a feature on Percy Grainger in a later Bikwil.

Apart from the other individuals they do discuss (more of whom presently), what I found most interesting were the results of the survey that gave rise to the book. It was a ten-year study that began in 1984 and ultimately included a sample of over a thousand eccentrics, mainly from Great Britain and the United States.

Weeks found that the best way to define eccentricity is to consider some of the things it is not:

One of the most common misconceptions about eccentricity is that it is a mild form of madness — in other words, that eccentric behavior is a symptom of mental illness . . . [but] illness implies suffering and the need of a cure, yet even a casual observation of most eccentrics undermines such a conclusion.

Especially great care must be taken to distinguish between eccentricity and neurosis . . . Neurosis is often thrust upon the sufferer from the outside; it is an unwanted difficulty in life. Eccentricity, on the other hand, is taken on at least partly by choice, and is something positive and pleasurable to the individual. Simply put, neurotics are miserable because they think they’re not as good as everyone else, while eccentrics know they’re different and glory in it.

An even more essential distinction needs to be drawn between eccentricity and psychosis, though it may sometimes seem a blurry one to the lay observer . . . [T]he important distinction is that the schizophrenic has no control over his visions and the voices he hears: they intrude themselves upon him forcibly and give rise to a terrifying sensation of powerlessness. The eccentric, on the other hand, is likely to find his visions a source of delight, and he has much more control over them.

(Significantly, Weeks devotes an entire chapter to the relationship between eccentricity and mental illness.)

Of course, if Weeks is right about this, then some of our old Sydney ratbags may have been something more than mere eccentrics. (On the other hand, the definition of “insanity” will have changed over the past 150 years.)

As for Weeks’ conclusions from his study, in 1996 David Gergen interviewed him on the U.S. PBS TV programme The News Hour. Here is part of what Weeks said:

They're permanently non-conforming from a very early age, and there's a great overlap between eccentric children and gifted children. They develop differently, though. The eccentrics become very, very creative but they're motivated primarily by curiosity. They have extreme degrees of curiosity, and they're very independent-minded. Their other motivation is fairly idealistic. They want to make the world a better place, and they want to make other people happy. They have these happy obsessive preoccupations, and a wonderful, unusual sense of humor, and this gives them a significant meaning in life. And they are far healthier than most people because of that. They have very low stress. They're not worried about conforming to the rest of society, low stress, high happiness equates with psychological health. They use their solitude very constructively, and physical health, because of that. They only visit their doctors perhaps once every eight or nine years, which is about twenty times less than most of us do.

By the end of his study Weeks was able to identify fifteen characteristics that applied to most eccentrics. Of these, the five central descriptive words and phrases for eccentrics are:

strongly motivated by curiosity
happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses.

So who are some of the nonconformists that enliven Weeks and James’ book?

As you may recall, in Issue 1 (May 1997) of Bikwil we had an article on Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics. Well, one of her star performers, Jack Mytton, who “scorned caution and wondered why others did not so likewise” (such as setting himself on fire to cure his hiccups), is there.

Remember William McGonagall from Issue 5 (January 1998)? He’s present as well, in all his splendour. Lord Sutch is there, too: he is described, mistakenly, as “an aristocratic ne’er-do-well” and a “rock star manqué”.

French composer Erik Satie makes an appearance. So do Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Virginian Dr. Patch Adams and Russian Madame Blavatsky (she who founded Theosophy, after tiring of her life as a pianist and bareback rider.)

And the whole Mitford family turns up — Farve, Muv, Nancy, Jessica, Pam, Deborah, Diana, Unity and Tom.

One appealing oddball is John Slater, “the only person ever to have walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats in his bare feet, wearing only his striped pyjamas”. He lives in a remote sea cave, and “once volunteered to spend six months in a cage in London Zoo as a human exhibit, to help raise funds for the conservation of the panda. The zoo authorities, he said, ‘foolishly declined’”.

Another splendid example is the “potato man”, Alan Fairweather, an obsessed inspector in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Scotland. All his meals consist only of potatoes, with the occasional chocolate bar, vitamin pill plus pots and pots of tea.

He sleeps on the floor of his study in a sleeping bag and rents out all four of the bedrooms in his house: “I don’t see the point in having a special room set aside to fall unconscious in”.

And we meet Yvonne X, a New Jersey woman who builds perpetual-motion machines. And the group calling itself the International Society of Cryptozoology. These latter mob are “dedicated to searching for animal species not recognized by conventional science” — not only Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, but also such delights as the beast of the Congo jungle they call Mokele-mbembe.

Let’s wind up with this piece about an unknown lady of means:

My mother could always be relied on to do the unexpected. Her real forte was staircases. She ripped them out and rerouted them with gay abandon. She waltzed the good one around the house for five years — never, of course, having it fixed. The only way to the second and third floors was by outside ladder. In my sixties, I can still shinny up a ladder three stories high. She chopped the house in half before the staircase finally came down, and she took it with her when she sold the house. I don't think I ever could persuade removal men to take a concert grand piano up a spiral staircase, but she persuaded them it could be done — and after each abortive attempt she plied them with expensive single-malt whisky. When they all accepted defeat we had three tight movers and a piano minus its legs, lid and pedals.

Then the fun really started. She wanted to call the builder to reroute the staircase again. How he did it I don't know, but by nine o'clock the next morning my father had procured a carpenter and a mobile crane. The window was taken out and the piano installed. Why she carted that piano around was like everything else: never explained. One thing was certain, she never learned to play it.

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