Saturday, December 06, 2014

Book: In Search of the English Eccentric by Henry Hemming

 

"That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time." - J.S Mill

In Search of the English Eccentric is an excellent celebration of eccentricity across the nation and across all strata of society. Notable eccentric characters include: a chap who covertly creates crop circles with the aim of manipulating people's beliefs; people who take part in a swimming race along The Serpentine (a river in Hyde Park) on Christmas morning; the Leopard Man of Skye, a peaceful recluse who is covered head-to-toe in leopard tattoos; and a man who believes he may be King Arthur (this is my favourite profile). The wonderful final chapter includes shorter profiles of creative eccentrics, including inventors and artists, including the striking dandy Sebastian Horsley, singer Pete Doherty and the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. 

Throughout the book, Hemming looks at eccentrics through history and reflects on the state of eccentricity today, astutely observing that while eccentricity is by definition about being away from the centre, as the economy has moved away from manufacturing toward more creative enterprises, so originality and childlike curiosity is being encouraged at the very core of society. Another important point emphasised at different points in the book is that the term eccentricity carries a stereotype and perhaps a connotation of acting up and playing the role, whereas it is actually about being honest to yourself without any pretension or trying to be eccentric. The characters profiled in the book have no sense of playing up to the label.

Henry Hemming is a surprisingly masterly writer, and his weaving together of endearing character profiles with historical context and reflections on eccentricity added unexpected depth and made for excellent reading.

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