Cherwell

Loading the Canon: Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions

There’s nothing better than good, honest crackpots. Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions, by John Michell, is a collection of just that – people who, for whatever reasons and in whatever field, have found themselves at odds with the world. The New York Times neatly summed it up as ‘some of the most outrageous and beguiling oddballs who have ever walked through history’.

For example, in the 19th Century an ongoing battle raged between science and the ‘flat-earthers’, those who were convinced that the world was in fact a flat disk. The battle was centred upon a mile long stretch of canal in Cambridgeshire, the Old Bedford Level. A number of experiments were carried out, scientifically sound and mediated by an impartial judge. And yet both sides got exactly the results they wanted! A similar group were active in America, only they were not flat-earthers, but hollow-earthers, believing us to be living on the inside of a globe. Likewise, their own experiments proved conclusively that the earth does in fact curve upwards.

Michell never derides or laughs; he is, though, brilliantly funny. And these stories allow him to be so. John Rutter Carden, a dreadfully persistent lover, who kidnapped his unfortunate beguiler, was known as ‘Woodcock’ Carden, because he seemed impervious to gunshot, fired at him by his Irish tenants, who were none too keen on his modern idea that rent should be paid. After his failed attempt at kidnap, though, he became a local hero; a ballad was even composed for him.

The book, through its wit, offers a deep insight into human nature; we can recognise a little of Henry Lee Warner, of Walsingham Abbey, in all of us; he was so excessively kind that he couldn’t bear to reprimand the local villagers, who therefore freely made use of his estate, stealing timber and horses, using his land, and generally treating his property as their own.

All the characters in this book have one thing in common – they were completely obsessed with their various causes and notions, obsessions which took over their lives, in some cases destroying them entirely. Quite often, as in the case of the Irish priest who opposed loans with interest, they are in fact more sane than the people who derided them. The book is a standing testament to humanity’s obsessive, credulous and courageous nature.