In Search of the English Eccentric by Henry Hemming
My face lit up with pleasure when I heard that a Book of English Eccentrics had appeared. The world of English Eccentrics is a sunny place, filled with eighteenth century hobbyists with names like Mad Jack, and given to riding on bears or crocodiles. Many Great Eccentrics were squires or writers, others rose from humble spheres of life to become great enthusiasts, philanthropists and reformers. Enthusiasm for a hitherto unthought-of or despised subject is the mark of a True Eccentric, such as the late Miriam Rothschild who became a world authority on fleas. Her distinguished Uncle Walter sometimes rode on the back of a giant tortoise or drove around in a coach pulled by zebras.
Henry Hemming’s book opens in the Amazon rainforest, where the author meets an Amerindian villager named Krentoma. The other villagers smile in an embarrassed way when Krentoma’s name is mentioned. They live in a group of thatched huts. Krentoma leads the author into the forest andthere proudly shows him a lone hut made of concrete and strips of corrugated iron. Hemming concludes from this that the eccentric Krentoma, shunned by his tribe, is proof of the Eccentric as Innovator. He is only mildly disconcerted when he learns that Krentoma (who drinks diesel oil) had previously cut a fellow villager’s throat.
Judging by African tribal village standards (as known to members of my family), the picture is rather different. Krentoma has obviously been banished as a murderer, and possibly a witch. It is his tribe who are unusual for not admiring his hut of corrugated iron.
All over Africa, and perhaps South America, progressive villagers are abandoning their beautiful old huts and building new ones in Krentoma style, to great acclaim. Krentoma seems a deplorable person: those who despise him are admirable.
Having founded his whole book on a mistake, Hemming cannot put a foot right, and assumes that everyday victims of drug-taking who have grown obsessive and paranoid are Eccentrics. England could well do without such eccentrics.
However, in a blokey jokey sweary sort of way, Party One of the book is not too bad, in a radio deejay style. Read aloud at night on the wireless, it might send you to sleep smiling. Hemming even brings in two aristocrats, the Marquessof Bath (who turns out to have taken L.S.D. just like any dreary suburban art student) and a Shropshire squire who believes in cruelty to animals (his version of being “politically incorrect” like everyone else). Most Hemming eccentrics are intensely selfish and leave the world a far worse place than when they found it.
In Parts Two, Three and Four, to the end, the book deteriorates and ceases to be radio-like. Hemming tries to form serious conclusions from his parade of wretches, with much pontification on the Spirit of England, English Identityand Eccentricity and the English. Older books on England, from the eighteen nineties to the nineteen forties, always headed the chapter on the Spirit of England with a photograph of a horse with a white blaze on its forehead pulling a plough held by a man in a cloth cap. I remember such scenes in real life, but the last time I met a ploughman, in Lincolnshire, he drove a tractor and wore a baseball cap. Some farmers here and there still work with horses – could not Hemming have sought them out, instead of giving us tattooed madmen and brothel keepers?
There are several “scoops” in this book, on subjects that would make good newspaper articles if written in sprightly English. Hemming’s flat, non-judgemental deadpan style spoils some surprising discoveries. Apparently nearly all the crop circles that appeared in Britain were the work of a team of hoaxers lead by one John Lundberg. Lundberg attends meetings of crop circle fanatics and listens to lectures on the extra-terrestrial or magical ‘origins’ of circles he had made himself. Like Tom the Cabin Boy, he smiles and says nothing.
Laureate John Betjeman’s grandson took drugs and is now confined in a mental home. Brian Haw, the man who annoys Parliament with his anti-war vigil, complete with handwritten posters on a traffic island opposite the Commons, proves to be both foul-mouthed and paranoid, abusing well-wishers as ‘government spies”. People like these lead Hemming to examine the lunacy laws. He decides that it is too easy to “section” outsiders and eccentrics who annoy the Powers That Be.
Towards the end of the book, Heming decides to bring on Creative Eccentrics who produce great works of art. Chief of these is a rock singer who insisted on kicking Hemming repeatedly in the back. This attack took place in a chauffeur-driven car on a motorway, and nearly led to a fatal accident.
Next day, safe at home, Hemming felt his bruises with awe and pride, a souvenir of a remarkable day. Summing up the experience, he writes: “I’m glad I met Pete Doherty when I did. In the way he moved, his peripatetic dreamy detachment, learning and wit, as well as his creativity, he was what I imagined a Thomas de Quincey figure to be”.
I closed the book with a feeling of deep depression. The England it depicts is a rainy country where everyone is going mad.