Sunday, 12 December 2010

In praise of the local eccentric

One of the qualities that the English take pride in as being an integral aspect of the race is eccentricity, if not in oneself at least admiring eccentricity in others. Dottiness, I think, many of us would say, is the salt and pepper of national life. Everyone likes a character, fortunately I think Leek is the sort of place where in the past the idiosyncratic are at least tolerated and at best embraced by the local community. But first what do we mean by the eccentric?

In the 1930s the Derbyshire born writer Edith Sitwell wrote a book on English Eccentrics and in her view the eccentric was someone who was unafraid of what others may think of them. A sort of innocence surrounds the true eccentric. The first rule in being an oddball is that they do not recognise their actions as being strange. It follows that the person who calls themselves eccentric cannot truly be so called, the eccentric believes what they do as being perfectly normal.

Lord Bath perfectly articulates this perception in a recent comment to a French journalist,
 Eccentrics have often been found amongst the ranks of the aristocracy. The reason for this is simple, the aristocracy had enough money to hide a quirky member of the family on the estate and allow them to potter about harmlessly, the oddball poor especially in the past were simply locked away in the county asylum.
English Eccentrics continues a number of examples of the odd behaviour of the landed gentry such as Jack Mytton a squire in the neighbouring County of Shropshire who set himself alight with brandy in order to cure a bout of hiccups, or Lord Berners who painted doves’ different colours on his Cotswold estate.

And we faced up to our greatest danger in 1940 when the fate of the nation was in the hands of an eccentric in the form of Winston Churchill. The Historian A J P Taylor wrote "We were led to victory by a sardonic old fellow who wore funny clothes and drank wine at breakfast".

Perhaps the eccentric label is often applied loosely and too frequently. It is easy now to view with amusement the babblings of erratic pseudo scientists and flat-earthers, as well as those we have dubbed UFO obsessed, but that was the same fate suffered in their respective days by Galileo, Freud and Charles Darwin. It would be easy to classify the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford as eccentric because they all held to some wild-eyed theories or suffered from bizarre conduct or belief, but their serious accomplishments far outweigh their peccadilloes. In fact, their touches of madness may have sparked their genius.
Recent medical research which questioned a number of people whose behaviour could be thought as unconventional came up with a number of conclusions. Eccentrics tend to be longer living and healthier than everyone else as they suffer less from stress. They tend to visit their GP less than the normal. They are more curious about the world and of a higher intelligence. The unconventional have a good mischievous sense of humour and have little regard for themselves often being strangely dressed and untidy; there spelling has a tendency of being highly individualistic. They also are very talkative and are frequently opinionated.

 Eccentrics are also greater hoarders and collectors and they tend to be fixated once they stick on something.
I was thinking on this when I saw a picture of Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd dressed as a Druid in Wetton during the 1920s. There was also a picture of him with a large sword in the Hall in Winchester wherein is kept the Round Table. Sneyd is holding the broadsword reverentially. He bought the sword down with him on the train- try to attempt a similar feat now and see how far on the Rail network you would get. When Sneyd died the local paper carried a tribute to a man who was regarded as being generally odd.

In religion he was eclectic. He was a devout Catholic…he was a Theosophist and a follower of the remarkable woman Madame Blavatsky... a true Buddhist… A reverent Druid… he spoke seriously about the lost word.
Sneyd’s belief system seems to be all encompassing

As I said at the onset the area warms to its characters and perhaps over the years there has been a democratisation as far as the eccentric is concerned and the type is no longer simply confined to landed estates and stately homes.

My favourite eccentric in Leek in recent years was Mr Sydney Smith who I first met a few years before he died in 2004. I made the error of getting caught up in a long conversation with him. It involved him quoting from memory large sections from a PG Wodehouse novel and a conviction that one of his cats had returned from the dead. He also had rather strange opinions on radio waves. It took me a long time to get away, but I did not begrudge him his ability, to use a beloved Wodehouse phrase, of "collaring a conversation". Mr Smith certainly did wear the mantle of eccentricity as indeed did the aforementioned Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd, and it is to the poet and collector of Onecote I return.

I was drawn by the sheer strangeness of Sneyd’s actions take for example his Druidic ceremonies held in Wetton during the 1920s. Sneyd wanted to establish an English equivalent of the Gorsedd in Wales- a meeting of priests and druids. The interest in alleged ancient religious practices had attracted people for centuries previous to Sneyd’s interest.

The druid first starts to appear as a stock literary figure, an ancient British priest and philosopher-seer, in the sixteenth century. Inigo Jones the artist included in one of his masques a druid portrayed as a bare legged, long-haired, bearded figure in a shaggy tunic, wearing an oak garland and carrying a phial and dagger. This was apparently based on a contemporary description of ancient German statues thought wrongly to represent druids.

This was to become the standard visual representation of the druid, right down to the present day. Despite attempts to link them with the monuments such as Stonehenge it seems that they have nothing to do with it representing a religious movement which came into existence 1000 after Stonehenge had been built. Modern Druidism owes its existence to a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, the first Gorsedd was held on Primrose Hill in London in 1792 and it was conducted in English. This reality meant nothing to Sneyd as he believed himself to be a reincarnation of the 7th century Welsh poet Taliesin. Sneyd believed that he in turn would be reincarnated as a goat.

The ceremony was first held on the 14th September 1926 at Wetton when crowds of onlookers, including representatives of the national press saw flags depicting dragons and St George billowing out over the Peak countryside. The bards were clothed in green, but towering over them at 6 feet 4 inches was the imposing figure of Ralph with a shock of white hair dressed in a long red robe and carrying a broadsword.
If an interest in paganism was not enough there was also Ralph’s earlier fascination with Theosophy which lead to an invitation to, as far as I am aware, the only speaker at the Nicholson Institute ever to have a national day proclaimed after him as well as appearing on a national stamp.

The Theosophy Society was founded in New York by Madame Blavatsky a controversial figure together with Henry Steel Olcott an American journalist. The Society developed in response to the interest shown in the Victorian period with spiritualism and Eastern religions .Throughout her involvement with Theosophy Madame Blavatsky had to defend herself against allegations of fraud and of being a charlatan. In 1887 she had to leave India hurriedly after being exposed as a hoaxer during a séance. Sneyd who was fascinated with the occult met Blavatsky in 1889. He fell under the spell of the movement and arranged that Olcott give a talk on Theosophy at the Nicholson Institute in November 1889.

Olcott was a very interesting man who was the only Yankee journalist to attend the execution of John Brown after the failed uprising at Harper’s Ferry- an event which was one of the sparks of the American Civil War. He was also a member of the board of inquiry set up after the assassination of President Lincoln. He later moved to Ceylon or Sri Lanka as it is now known and was one of the instigators of the Buddhist Nationalist revival which fuelled the independence movement. He is commemorated on a Sri Lankan stamp and the death of his death 19th February is honoured by the lighting of candles. Olcott was one of the first people to promote an interest in Buddhism in the west.
Sneyd also passes another test of the eccentric, the fascination with collecting things. It is recorded that he had over 700 Buddha’s at his house at Onecote where we kept in a barn that he had restored around which he built battlements in the First World War "to keep the Germans out". And there were the Egyptian Mummies one reputed to contain the body of Ptolemy Philadelphus II-the grandson of Anthony and Cleopatra. Sneyd’s treatment of these artefacts was unusual annually the mummies were taken outside to be revarnished, a practice which would cause conservationalists apoplexy today.

He went on to see the Second World War end and the return of a Labour Government- an event that as a Tory of the old school he must have loathed. He is regarded with affection with older residents of the area who remembers his strange unworldly ways such as spreading mustard on to teacakes. He died in 1947 and was buried in a monk’s habit. On his coffin was the great sword that he carried up to Thor’s Cave twenty years before.

Another individual who expressed an interest in reincarnation was the Cheddleton born Sybil Leek, the self proclaimed "Queen of the Witches" who was a contentious figure and a colourful one as well: her trademarks were a loose fitting cloak, hoods and a pet jackdaw called Mr Hotfoot Jackson and a snake named Sashima. She claimed to be the reincarnation of the Burslem witch Molly Leigh. Sybil maintained many things in her life for example that she had a friendship as a child with HG Wells. Lawrence of Arabia was also it is alleged a house guest as indeed was the aforementioned Edith Sitwell who must have recognised a fellow eccentric. Even Sybil’s birth date was the subject of some argument. She gave the date as 22nd February 1922, while others now set the date at 5 years earlier
She was interested in paganism and witchcraft from an early age and was on good terms with Aleister Crowley- the supposed most evil man in the World and a great self publicist and fraud. There is a story that Crowley and Leek visited Burslem to seek out Molly Leigh’s grave- a jackdaw perched on Leek’s shoulders. After the war Leek went to the United States and became a media star appearing on TV shows and becoming something of a celebrity. She claimed that she was also guided by the spirit of Madame Blavatsky and therefore made as much an impression in death on Sybil as she had made on Ralph de Tunstall Sneyd in life. She met and married a man named Brian.

During the Second World War she declared that she drew up a horoscope chart that encouraged Rudolf Hess- Hitler’s deputy- to attempt his ill fated flight to Scotland in 1941.
Sybil was also involved with a number of American celebrities including the then Governor Ronald Reagan who maintained an interest in clairvoyance throughout his life. She also had a friendship with the writer Robert Bloch best known for his novel Psycho.
She also believed that she could predict events and scored an undoubted hit with a prediction she made in the early 70s.

"There is one menace to the career and potential of George Wallace"- the candidate for the American presidency in 1972," Leek asserted in her Astrological Guide to the Presidential Candidates.

"The nearer he gets to his goal, the greater the danger of political assassination. Yet he is likely to transform this danger into an asset, for if an unsuccessful attempt is made on his life, he could turn it to winning many thousands of votes throughout the country."

Written in early 1971, these words were of more interest to horoscope buffs than to political ones. But when Arthur Bremer, nearly 18 months later, fulfilled the prophecy and shot Wallace, crippling the former Governor of Alabama some political pundits and poll watchers decided to take a closer look at what is written in the candidates' stars.

Not that Leek's peeks into the future always proved entirely accurate. She once predicted, for example, that in 1970 President Richard Nixon would become embroiled in a saucy sex scandal that would jeopardize his renomination by Republicans, nor did she predict Watergate which really did bring Nixon down.

She died in October 1983 after a long battle against cancer

Are eccentrics such as Sneyd, Leek and the rest under threat in this age of conformity and targets when individuality is frowned on certainly the eccentric behaviour chronicled here? I think it is probably the case. I blame the Government.

The aggressive promotion of conformity at the heart of the government's 'respect' agenda is bad enough in its own terms. It offers no sense of even trying to work out what we are as a society, and where we want to go. The culture of uniformity really means can be summed up in the grim philosophy: 'Be whoever you want to be - but behave, or else'.

When we shut ourselves off from authentically unconventional people, we lose an important way to put conventional wisdom to the test. When we fail to nurture and cherish eccentrics, we rob ourselves of great joy. The "town character" is becoming less of a fixture and wide-spread conformity is allowing fewer and fewer exceptions.
"Me eccentric?" Not in the least, said the noble Lord, I am merely an individualist. In Lord Bath’s eyes, Le Figaro man at Longleat records, "it’s the rest of the world, marching in the opposite direction, that is a bit strange".