Bright Particular Stars David McKie

Atlantic, pp.368, 25

There have been quite a few anthologies of British eccentricity. Usually they are roll-calls of the lunatic: a sought-after heiress so snobbish she finally gave her hand in marriage to a man who had managed to convince her he was the Emperor of China; a miser so mean he would sit on fish until he considered them cooked; a man so addicted to cobnuts he would, after any long coach journey, be up to his knees in their shells. Men who refused to get into a bath, others who refused to get out of one, or were so quarrelsome they could spot an insult at 100 yards, others who so loved animals they would bath owls (which died), or founded their own religions so they could copulate with the faithful on the high altar (though I gather this was an ambition of the novelist Graham Greene). All the crackpots. So it is a pity that this book has as its subtitle ‘A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics.’

There have been quite a few anthologies of British eccentricity. Usually they are roll-calls of the lunatic: a sought-after heiress so snobbish she finally gave her hand in marriage to a man who had managed to convince her he was the Emperor of China; a miser so mean he would sit on fish until he considered them cooked; a man so addicted to cobnuts he would, after any long coach journey, be up to his knees in their shells. Men who refused to get into a bath, others who refused to get out of one, or were so quarrelsome they could spot an insult at 100 yards, others who so loved animals they would bath owls (which died), or founded their own religions so they could copulate with the faithful on the high altar (though I gather this was an ambition of the novelist Graham Greene). All the crackpots. So it is a pity that this book has as its subtitle ‘A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics.’

For David McKie avoids the certifiable: his eccentrics are just like the rest of us, except, like Flecker’s pilgrims, they would go always a little further. Take Sir Thomas Phillipps, a man who so loved books he filled his house with them. Nothing odd about that. I have just stayed with a friend in Cardiff who, having run out of shelves, now stacks them in his passageway and has turned the key on bedrooms full of tea-chests. But Phillipps’ house was bigger (at one point he contemplated buying a castle and roofing its courtyard to accommodate his collection), so he could entertain the ambition of owning a copy of every book in the world. In the process, amongst the canyons, he mislaid his family and any interest in the actual upkeep of a property that had become a cupboard. Windows were never opened, though that made little difference, for no pane of glass was left in any of them.

Only Phillipps also mislaid any interest in paying booksellers, who, with the damp, closed in on him. He hated the Pope, slept with two pistols under his pillow in case His Holiness should call, and in the end lived in a single room, unable to locate any of the books he had amassed. Enthusiasm, if you have the cash to indulge it, can become Johnson’s definition:, that it is a form of madness.

So there was the Victorian Earl of Eglinton who loved the Middle Ages, a love shared with many who had not been obliged to live through them. But Eglinton, again, went further. He held a tournament, not just as a sort of point-to-point; he wanted the works, with heralds, a Queen of Beauty, and knights in full plate armour. Now thrive the armourers, or, in his case, blacksmiths ….Estimates of how many turned up vary from 60,000 to 100,000 who came by carriage, train or just walked. Only then it rained. It didn’t just rain, it poured, and the following day there were storms. Those knights who managed to find each other did fight in the lists, and a Mr Jeringham hurt his wrist. Eglington, understandably, later developed a love of golf, and, aged 49, got so excited watching a tournament at St Andrews that he died.

This is a relaxing book based largely on local folklore. McKie, a former deputy editor of the Guardian, a paper in which you will now not find a breath of local folklore, turns up at his various locations, then sets the scene where these events occurred, and, where possible, finds out what people remember. Thus he comes to the village of Eynsford in Kent, where in the 1920s the composer Peter Warlock briefly had a cottage, chosen with some care because there were 27 pubs within four miles. Three years ago the parish council wanted to call a new development Warlock Close, but the villagers objected because they still remembered what Warlock had got up to in their grandfathers’ time.

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He shared a bed with two women, drove his motor cycle naked with a naked woman on his pillion, and at weekends invited his London friends down to start the day with doses of Eno’s Fruit Salts mixed with gin. His landlord, Munn, the village grocer, was so fascinated he wrote a mock obituary:

Here lies Warlock, the composer,

Who lived next door to Munn, the grocer.

He died of drink and copulation,

A sad discredit to this nation.

But he got that wrong. Poor Warlock killed himself, and the village, which had not shared Munn’s fascination, got the development called Gibson’s Close after a local foundry owned by the family. Sadness is never far away in this book.

The formula is simple. There is a place, a village or a town, where someone turns up, does something extraordinary, and the place, for a little while becomes somewhere. Thus the composer Michael Tippett in the 1930s turns up at the village of Boosbeck in North Yorkshire to join an agricultural work camp for the unemployed, but, disliking digging, writes an opera which he gets the miners to perform. And then he goes away.

There is the industrial village of Trowell in Nottinghamshire, a place so insignificant it did not even have a pub, which in 1951 was chosen by a jury of civil servants as Britain’s Festival Village for the bizarre Festival of Britain. The press descended on Trowell and were rude; the villagers were just stupefied. And then everyone, with the exception of the villagers, went away again.

McKie’s book appears at a time when small town and village England has become nowhere in all national newspapers, including the Guardian. It surfaces briefly only if it can stage a particularly gruesome murder; in all other respects, amongst the unrelenting coverage of celebrity, metropolitan politics and international events, it has ceased to exist. Why most of the inhabitants of Britain continue to buy newspapers is a mystery.

So it is rather nice to be reminded that nowhere was often somewhere once.            

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, British, Eccentrics, History, Literature, Non-fiction