In this age of creeping censorship ‘mad’ is not a word to be used lightly. It would certainly be unlawful to use it in Kipling’s sense when he refers to frontier tribes being ‘stirred up’ by ‘a mad mullah’.

In this age of creeping censorship ‘mad’ is not a word to be used lightly. It would certainly be unlawful to use it in Kipling’s sense when he refers to frontier tribes being ‘stirred up’ by ‘a mad mullah’. I rather think Winston Churchill used it in this sense in his book The Malakand Field Force, but then practically everything the old boy said or wrote in moments of excitement or exaltation would now be banned. To be fair, mad has long been suspect. The OED states, a little pompously one might think: ‘The word has always had some tinge of contempt or disgust, and would now [1989] be quite inappropriate in medical use, or in referring sympathetically to an insane person as the subject of an infliction.’

In any case it has quite a different, albeit related, meaning in the United States, where it signifies anger — as in Robert Kennedy’s maxim, designed to be delivered with eyes narrowed and jaw jutted: ‘Don’t get mad — get even.’ ‘Always in the mads’ was a Southern expression in the 18th century. In the North it took various forms: a pioneer found his way ‘blocked by a grizzly getting his mad up’. You could use it in the reverse too. H.L. Wilson, in Somewhere in Red Gap (1916), writes of a woman: ‘She kept her mad down better. She set there as nice and sweet as a pet scorpion.’ ‘Keeping your mad down’ was holding your temper. I recall L.B.J. saying that ‘over Vietnam you hafta keep your mads down’. George Bush Jr doubtless says the same over Iraq.

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Mad is such a short, sharp, useful word we tend to overuse it, and so undermine its precise meaning. Thus Pepys noted in 1663: ‘Thence by coach, with a mad coachman, that drove like mad.’ Then, two years later, he uses the word in two quite different senses: ‘He told me what a mad freaking fellow Sir Ellis Layton hath been, and is, and once at Antwerp was really mad.’ Shakespeare uses it in half-a-dozen different ways. We know what he means when he has Lear say: ‘O Foole, I shall go mad!’ But what do we make of the remark in As You Like It: ‘I draw by suitor from his mad humour of love to a loving humour of madness’? Just the Bard being too clever by half? And what exactly did Middleton mean a few years later by his title, A Mad World, my Masters? We use this phrase today to signify that we don’t understand what is going on, and don’t like it either. The world has gone mad is a phrase often on our lips in 2007, alas.

All kinds of things and creatures are said to epitomise madness, both lunacy and anger. We say mad as a hornet, Americans ‘mad as Ajax’, which is a kind of hornet. They also say ‘mad as a cut snake’. Australians and New Zealanders, for mysterious reasons, speak of ‘Mad as a meat-axe’. ‘Mad as a wet hen’ has always seemed to me a feeble simile, as is ‘mad as a tup’ — but who uses that now? ‘Mad as a March hare’ is better. One can see what is meant, for hares are still, occasionally, to be spotted in the countryside. I suppose March is their rutting month. Lewis Carroll says in Alice, ‘The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps, as this is May, it won’t be raving mad — at least not so mad as it was in March.’

Lewis Carroll doubles up the mad imagery by having the Hatter give the tea-party the March Hare attends. Weavers were supposed to be mad, but hatters madder. Why so? One’s acquaintance with hatters is not extensive, though a decade ago I wrote an essay on hats and had letters from half a dozen of them, all deploring the tendency of men never to wear hats nowadays. In Carroll’s day all men put on hats the moment they stepped out of doors. Compulsory hat-wearing went on till much later, the 1920s say or even the 1930s. Laurel and Hardy always wore their bowlers, like Ulster Protestants. George Orwell remarks that in northern towns like Wigan a man who went into the streets without his hat was liable to be stoned by small boys. One explanation for the madness of hatters is that the felt used in hats contained mercury nitrate, whose effects can produce St Vitus’ Dance. But which hatters were notoriously or proverbially mad?

One example often cited is Roger Crab, born about 1620, who died in 1680 in his sixties. He was not mad but eccentric, and came from Buckinghamshire, as do many egregious persons. He said, not very nicely I think, ‘My mother had 20 pounds a year, otherwise my father would not have married her.’ He was one of the earliest vegans, giving up not only meat and fish but butter and cheese. He eventually graduated, through broth thickened with bran and puddings made of turnip leaves, to a mixture of dock-leaves and grass. But the only person he converted died of malnutrition. He said a flesh diet made people immoral, adding, ‘Butchers are excluded from juries. But the receiver is worse than the thief, so the buyer is worse than the butcher.’ He fought in the Parliamentary army, and ‘my skull was cloven to the brain’. Later, already known in the army as a troublemaker, he was sentenced to death by Cromwell. Indeed he was in and out of custody much of his life, chiefly for Sabbath-breaking. But he was never a member of any of the sects — Quakers, Shakers, Ranters etc — which proliferated in those noisy times. When the wars died down he set up as ‘a haberdasher of hats’ in Chesham, but sold his shop in 1651 ‘to give a considerable estate to the poor’. At Ickenham near Uxbridge, a place I used to know well, full of odd people though none of them hatters, he bought ‘a small roode of ground’ and built himself a hermitage. He wore ‘a frock of sackcloth’ and ‘no band on his neck’. The country people loved him because he could cast their horoscopes and treat their ailments with herbs and simples. He had up to 120 patients. The authorities harassed him, and he claimed that once, when they refused him food he could eat in the gaol, a dog brought him bread. There are other accounts of miraculous hands printing his tracts, including his autobiography, The English Hermite; or Wonder of this Age, being a relation of the Life of Roger Crab, originally published in 1655 and reprinted in the Harleian Miscellany. He prophesied the restoration of the monarchy, and the returning Cavaliers treated him more generously than the Puritans had, simply calling him the Mad Hatter. He died 25 years later in an odour of sanctity, and was buried in Stepney Parish Church. It is a pity he is not to be found in Aubrey’s Brief Lives, as there is a shortage of authentic anecdotes about this courageous, learned, kindly, obstinate, smelly, odd but unquestionably sane man. Instead he is immortalised and caricatured in Alice.

Today a more apposite figure than the Mad Hatter is the mad scientist. I have rather lost faith in scientists as a group. The Royal Society behaves more as a public relations agency for the Greens than an institution dedicated to objective truth, and the holder of the Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University appears to assert, in his book promoting militant atheism, that no true Christian is or can be a good scientist. As a result, all kinds of journalistic hobbledehoys are putting out stuff saying there is no God, and the supply of clever teenagers taking science at school is dwindling. We live in the age of the Mad Scientist’s Tea Party, and what gets talked about there makes Alice’s experiences seem credible, indeed prosaic. Scientists still claim to rule the intellect but the lessons they teach erod
e confidence — as the Gryphon said, ‘The reason they’re called lessons is because they lessen from day to day.’

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