you as dismayed as I was in May 1999 to learn of the death at the age of
58 (suicide, by hanging) of Screaming Lord Sutch?
he is now primarily remembered as a crackpot politician
(he’d been Britain's longest serving party leader — of the
Official Monster Raving Loony Party), David Sutch first
became famous as a rock ‘n’ roll singer. The first
opportunity of his political career came in 1963 when
Defence Minister John Profumo was forced to resign as the
result of a sex scandal. In the ensuing
Stratford-upon-Avon by-election Sutch changed his name
from David to Lord and stood as the National Teenage Party
candidate on a platform of “votes at 18”.
Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964 and failed to implement this
policy, Sutch had no alternative but to stand in the 1966 election in
Wilson's own constituency. He won 585 votes. According to the manifesto of
his party, “this time Wilson got the message and changed the law to allow
18-year olds to vote”.
Sutch reinvented himself as the Go To Blazes Party, and in the early 80s
he was reincarnated once more when he launched the OMRL Party, fighting
his first by-election under the new banner in 1983.
as his victory with 18-year-old voting, over the ensuing decades he
“successfully campaigned” for allowing hotels to be open all day on Sunday
and licensing for commercial radio.
nineties his reputation had grown to the extent that “in 1994 Lord Sutch
won a staggering 1114 votes in the Rotherham by-election, scoring 4.1% of
the vote and almost saving his deposit”.
policies included banning work before lunchtime ("It's far too
difficult"), and putting joggers and the unemployed on treadmills to
generate cheap electricity.
remember writing, in my skinny twenties, that “Eccentrics are a dying
race, and more’s the pity”. In Sutch’s case it’s a sad truth, but in few
others, for I realise now, in my well-rounded seventh decade, that
oddballs are actually thriving, and always have, if only you know where to
Sydney we have been blessed over the years by our share of eccentrics, as
an exhibition that ran in mid-1999 at the State Library of New South Wales
you know the stories about the legendary Beatrice Miles (1902-1973), who
was forced to make hundreds of court appearances for her unconventional
behaviours. Born into a wealthy Wahroonga family, Bea seemed to have a
brilliant medical career ahead of her, but she abandoned her studies at
Sydney Uni and, after a few years of living at home and working as an
unpaid assistant in the emergency ward at Sydney Hospital, in 1926 she
left the comfortable North Shore milieu forever and set out on an
independent life as a bohemian.
1950s and 1960s, in her middle age, Bea could often be found sitting on
the steps of the State Library dressed in an old overcoat and an eyeshade
with a placard around her neck advertising her Shakespeare recitations at
prices ranging from sixpence to three shillings. She was equally renowned
for annoying taxi drivers by climbing into their cabs at intersections and
refusing to get out. To make her leave, drivers sometimes had resort to
hosing her or making sexual advances.
spent the last nine years of her life in a home for the aged run by the
Little Sisters of the Poor in Randwick, where she read an average of 14
books a week. Her unpublished manuscript Dictionary by a Bitch is
preserved in the State Library. Kate Grenville’s book Lilian's Story
(1984) is a fictionalized account of Bea's life, and in 1996 was made into
a movie that featured Toni Collette and Ruth Cracknell.
about those other Sydney ratbags, Dulcie Deamer, Arthur Stace, William
King or William Chidley? Have you heard of them?
Deamer (1890-1972) lived in Kings Cross during its heyday in the Roaring
Twenties when it was a community for struggling artists and writers. At
one point she was officially crowned the Queen of Bohemia. Perhaps her
most notorious exploit was performing the splits at the 1923 Artists Ball
in a leopard skin costume. She made her living from freelance writing for
various Sydney newspapers and magazines. Apparently obsessed with the
elemental passions of the Stone Age, Dulcie also wrote a number of short
stories set in that sensual, barbaric and heroic age, “when men were
strong and women were even stronger”.
had a serious side, too, as shown in her pessimistic but insightful
article In a Women's Prison, about the Women's Reformatory at Long
Bay, which appeared in 1925 in The Australian Women's Mirror. In
later life she published her autobiography, The Queen of Bohemia.
Born in a
Balmain slum to alcoholic parents and four alcoholic siblings, Arthur
Stace (1884-1967) soon became a drunkard himself. His alcoholism being so
extreme by the 1920s, his mind began to fail and he was in danger of
becoming a permanent inmate of a mental institution. In 1930 his life was
turned around when he attended a meeting for men conducted by Archdeacon
R.B.S. Hammond of St. Barnabas' Church on Broadway (Sydney).
months later he heard the evangelist, the Reverend John Ridley, booming “I
wish I could shout ‘Eternity’ through the streets of Sydney”. That day
Stace felt the powerful calling to write “Eternity” on the pavement.
on he would rise at 4 am, pray for an hour, have breakfast, and then set
out. He claimed that each night God gave him the name of the locality
where he should write the next day, and he arrived there before dawn —
Wynyard, Glebe, Paddington, Randwick, Central Station. First he wrote in
yellow chalk, but later switched to marking crayon because it stayed on
better in wet weather. In all, he wrote his anonymous message more than
half a million times over 35 years — a one-word sermon in an elegant
copperplate hand. There is even a fading example still extant at the old
Sydney Post Office in Martin Place — eleven storeys above the street,
inside one of the tower bells.
died of a stroke in a nursing home. He left his body to Sydney University.
loved “Eternity”. In 1969 the Sydney poet Douglas Stewart published a poem
in Stace’s memory. Decades later his “Eternity” would be celebrated in
lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (New Year’s Eve 1999) and in replica
of that event at the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games.
King (1807-1873) was a devout and athletic practitioner of pedestrianism —
the practice of travelling on foot. One of his many leg-driven adventures
was to tramp from Sydney to Parramatta with a live goat weighing 40 kg
plus a 5 kg dead weight on his shoulders. It took him just under seven
hours. On another occasion he carried a 31 kg dog from Sydney to
Campbelltown in nine hours. He also twice beat the Sydney to Windsor mail
coach on foot, and walked from Sydney to Parramatta and back, twice a day,
for six consecutive days.
his against-the-clock feats he did as bets.
also known as The Flying Pieman. In the 1850s he sold pies, freshly cooked
on a brazier, on the corner of Pitt and King Streets. The “Flying” epithet
came from his ability to sell pies at Circular Quay to passengers
embarking on the Parramatta River steamer and then meet the same
passengers as they got off, having outwalked them to Parramatta, a
distance of some 29 kilometres.
insane, in a home for the destitute.
favourite purveyor of Sydney bizarrerie was William James Chidley
(1860-1916). Among other beliefs to his everlasting notoriety, Chidley had
a fixation on the idea that the male erection was a Bad Thing, and on
Sundays in the Sydney Domain used to lecture ad nauseam on his
gospel of what he termed “natural coition”. He recorded his theories in a
volume (privately published, naturally, first in 1911 and with revisions
in 1915) called The Answer — i.e. the Answer to the Sex Problem.
wasn’t his ideas on sex that got him repeatedly arrested, but his silk
toga-like tunic which was seen by the authorities as indecent dress. He
wore it because he believed that heavy clothing caused unnatural erections
that inevitably would lead to sexual indulgence, ill health and an
Here is a
short quote from The Answer on the ill effects of "unnatural”
present coitus is a perversion and a shock. Now any protoplasm that
receives a shock contracts, and the brain actually becomes smaller, as
time goes on, through the repeated shocks of coition, and becomes
distorted in shape. The blood supply is perverted also, and this
contributes towards the injury. In the series of faces of my drawing you
see the changes a face undergoes after marriage — or after the sexual
habit has been formed — and these changes exactly correspond to those we
know would ensue if shocks were given to the brain, were accumulated by
the brain and nervous system. All the nerves, glands and muscles of the
body would suffer lesions and perversion, of course, but the delicate
network of muscles on face, and the eyes, show it more plainly than any
other part of the body.
record, in “natural coition” the male organ is not thrust into the vagina,
but when “the sphincter flashes open” the penis is gently drawn into it by
Billy King, Chidley died mad — in the Callan Park mental hospital.
you want more detailed information on Sydney’s eccentrics you could do a
lot worse than borrow a library copy of Keith Dunstan’s Ratbags,
published, I think, in the early 1980s.
you wonder, doesn’t it? What, if anything, did these examples of
Sydneyside idiosyncrasy have in common? Some were possessed by an idée
fixe, sure, but not all; some were nonconformist in a more general
what the first serious book ever to be published on the subject of
eccentricity has to say. I’m referring to Eccentrics by David
Weeks, a neuropsychologist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, and Jamie
James, a journalist (1995, ISBN hardcover 0 297 81447 8).
point out at once that, sadly, there’s no mention in the book of Miles,
Deamer, Stace, King or Chidley. One Australian eccentric who does get a
guernsey, though, is pianist/composer/self-flagellator Percy Aldridge
Grainger (1882-1961). If we can arrange it, there’ll be a feature on Percy
Grainger in a later Bikwil.
from the other individuals they do discuss (more of whom presently), what
I found most interesting were the results of the survey that gave rise to
the book. It was a ten-year study that began in 1984 and ultimately
included a sample of over a thousand eccentrics, mainly from Great Britain
and the United States.
found that the best way to define eccentricity is to consider some of the
things it is not:
of the most common misconceptions about eccentricity is that it is a mild
form of madness — in other words, that eccentric behavior is a symptom of
mental illness . . . [but] illness implies suffering and the need of a
cure, yet even a casual observation of most eccentrics undermines such a
great care must be taken to distinguish between eccentricity and neurosis
. . . Neurosis is often thrust upon the sufferer from the outside; it is
an unwanted difficulty in life. Eccentricity, on the other hand, is taken
on at least partly by choice, and is something positive and pleasurable to
the individual. Simply put, neurotics are miserable because they think
they’re not as good as everyone else, while eccentrics know they’re
different and glory in it.
more essential distinction needs to be drawn between eccentricity and
psychosis, though it may sometimes seem a blurry one to the lay observer .
. . [T]he important distinction is that the schizophrenic has no control
over his visions and the voices he hears: they intrude themselves upon him
forcibly and give rise to a terrifying sensation of powerlessness. The
eccentric, on the other hand, is likely to find his visions a source of
delight, and he has much more control over them.
Weeks devotes an entire chapter to the relationship between eccentricity
and mental illness.)
course, if Weeks is right about this, then some of our old Sydney ratbags
may have been something more than mere eccentrics. (On the other hand, the
definition of “insanity” will have changed over the past 150 years.)
Weeks’ conclusions from his study, in 1996 David Gergen interviewed him on
the U.S. PBS TV programme The News Hour. Here is part of what Weeks
permanently non-conforming from a very early age, and there's a great
overlap between eccentric children and gifted children. They develop
differently, though. The eccentrics become very, very creative but they're
motivated primarily by curiosity. They have extreme degrees of curiosity,
and they're very independent-minded. Their other motivation is fairly
idealistic. They want to make the world a better place, and they want to
make other people happy. They have these happy obsessive preoccupations,
and a wonderful, unusual sense of humor, and this gives them a significant
meaning in life. And they are far healthier than most people because of
that. They have very low stress. They're not worried about conforming to
the rest of society, low stress, high happiness equates with psychological
health. They use their solitude very constructively, and physical health,
because of that. They only visit their doctors perhaps once every eight or
nine years, which is about twenty times less than most of us do.
end of his study Weeks was able to identify fifteen characteristics that
applied to most eccentrics. Of these, the five central descriptive words
and phrases for eccentrics are:
strongly motivated by curiosity
happily obsessed with one or more hobbyhorses.
are some of the nonconformists that enliven Weeks and James’ book?
may recall, in Issue 1 (May 1997) of Bikwil we had an article on
Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics. Well, one of her star
performers, Jack Mytton, who “scorned caution and wondered why others did
not so likewise” (such as setting himself on fire to cure his hiccups), is
William McGonagall from Issue 5 (January 1998)? He’s present as well, in
all his splendour. Lord Sutch is there, too: he is described, mistakenly,
as “an aristocratic ne’er-do-well” and a “rock star manqué”.
composer Erik Satie makes an appearance. So do Canadian pianist Glenn
Gould, Virginian Dr. Patch Adams and Russian Madame Blavatsky (she who
founded Theosophy, after tiring of her life as a pianist and bareback
whole Mitford family turns up — Farve, Muv, Nancy, Jessica, Pam, Deborah,
Diana, Unity and Tom.
appealing oddball is John Slater, “the only person ever to have walked
from Land’s End to John O’Groats in his bare feet, wearing only his
striped pyjamas”. He lives in a remote sea cave, and “once volunteered to
spend six months in a cage in London Zoo as a human exhibit, to help raise
funds for the conservation of the panda. The zoo authorities, he said,
splendid example is the “potato man”, Alan Fairweather, an obsessed
inspector in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Scotland.
All his meals consist only of potatoes, with the occasional chocolate bar,
vitamin pill plus pots and pots of tea.
on the floor of his study in a sleeping bag and rents out all four of the
bedrooms in his house: “I don’t see the point in having a special room set
aside to fall unconscious in”.
meet Yvonne X, a New Jersey woman who builds perpetual-motion machines.
And the group calling itself the International Society of Cryptozoology.
These latter mob are “dedicated to searching for animal species not
recognized by conventional science” — not only Bigfoot and the Loch Ness
Monster, but also such delights as the beast of the Congo jungle they call
wind up with this piece about an unknown lady of means:
mother could always be relied on to do the unexpected. Her real forte was
staircases. She ripped them out and rerouted them with gay abandon. She
waltzed the good one around the house for five years — never, of course,
having it fixed. The only way to the second and third floors was by
outside ladder. In my sixties, I can still shinny up a ladder three
stories high. She chopped the house in half before the staircase finally
came down, and she took it with her when she sold the house. I don't think
I ever could persuade removal men to take a concert grand piano up a
spiral staircase, but she persuaded them it could be done — and after each
abortive attempt she plied them with expensive single-malt whisky. When
they all accepted defeat we had three tight movers and a piano minus its
legs, lid and pedals.
fun really started. She wanted to call the builder to reroute the
staircase again. How he did it I don't know, but by nine o'clock the next
morning my father had procured a carpenter and a mobile crane. The window
was taken out and the piano installed. Why she carted that piano around
was like everything else: never explained. One thing was certain, she
never learned to play it.