Don’t you just love an eccentric? Not the type of person who purposely cultivates an “I’m so wacky, me!” vibe, but the true, wonderful eccentrics of yesteryear. I love finding out about incidences of human behaviour that – how shall we say? – are somewhat out of the box.
A rich source, as you might expect, are creatives: the artists and writers and film-makers whose whims or habits or likes or dislikes were that bit off-kilter, making for great Wikipedia entries and impressive bits of trivia. Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Talented Mr Ripley and The Price Of Salt, among others, was a huge fan of snails. She once attended a London cocktail party with a handbag full of them and a head of lettuce, announcing that they were her “companions for the evening”. Animals are a recurrent theme. Novelist Edith Wharton adored dogs, and campaigned for a water bowl on the corner of every street in New York City. Ernest Hemingway kept polydactyl cats (ones born with extra toes). Meanwhile, who knows whether Oscar Wilde really did walk around with a lobster on a lead?
Away from animals, my favourite historical, inspirational work practice was that employed by Demosthenes, who it is said, forced himself to write by shaving half of his head so that he was too embarrassed to leave the house. (This wouldn’t work for me; I’d just end up shaving the other half.) More recently, I’ve been inspired by Barbra Streisand’s alleged insistence that houseguests coordinate their outfits to her decor.
It’s not just the exploits of the famous that tickle me. I relate most ardently to Andarín Carvajal, a postman who competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon. Carvajal stopped midway through to pick and eat some apples, which turned out to be rotten. Feeling queasy, he lay down and took a nap. He finished fourth.
There is probably something in the idea that quirkiness or slightly odd behaviour might have a link with mental illness, neurodiversity or creative skill. Though sometimes it just seems a side-effect of having too much money or time. The English aristocracy, for example, are good value for being absurdly extra. To wit: Beau Brummell, who had his shoes polished with champagne.
Unfortunately, some are eccentric not by choice. Many people throughout history have died in bizarre ways. According to legend, in 620BC, Draco of Athens was smothered to death by gifts of cloaks and hats showered on him by citizens during a trip to the theatre. While it’s doubtful he’d have appreciated that, I’m afraid that I really do.