Friday, July 24, 2009

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Great British Eccentrics by Catherine Caufield

The Man Who Ate Bluebottles and Other Great British Eccentrics does exactly what it says on the tin. Here is the blurb:

Until he ate a bluebottle, William Buckland had always maintained that the taste of mole was the most repulsive thing he knew. But that was before he ate the embalmed heart of Louis XIV...
Lord Monboddo believed that babies are born with tails and was a careful observer at the births of his own children-but in each case the midwife outwitted him and managed to destroy the evidence.
This delightful survey of British loopiness through the ages is a celebration of true originals, whose strength of character stands out more than ever in our age of mass-market conformity. As John Stuart Mill warned as long ago as the 1850s: "That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time."

It's a compendium of about 300 mad British Men and Women who've gone down in history for being more than just a little bit odd. Some of them are laugh out loud funny and others are very touching. There are the odd few that are just plain heartbreaking.

The cover reviews are as follows:

"An entertaining and fascinating book about some of our best eccentrics. I enjoyed it immensely." Sir Patrick Moore

It is definitely those two things. I would also add "touching" to that list. Quite often these people, as annoying and inconvenient as their habits undoubtedly were, had people willing to indulge and to help them. Mind you, quite a lot of them were very rich and could afford to pay people to indulge them, but, my cynicism aside, quite a lot of instances in the book will renew your faith in people just a tiny bit.

"Mad dogs and Englishmen, laid out for public gaze." Fortean Times
There are Englishwomen too, Fortean Times. And non-English types. It is British eccentrics, we had a whole Empire to claim stories from for quite a long time. I do not like this review. It is elitist and exclusive. I shan't have it.

"A compelling read that praises our individual idiosyncrasies." Big Issue
Praise is right. As funny and charming as the author's commentary consistently is, she seems to gloss over the fact that quite a large proportion of these people were very obviously seriously mentally ill. As good as the stories are that are made by these mental illnesses might be, it seems a little exploitative to trivialise the enormous problems of these individuals to the level of "Oh, aren't they odd? Charming, really." It's something that troubled me more and more as I read account after account of behaviour for which somebody would seek treatment in our time passed off as a quirk that was causing nobody any real harm. I'm not saying that the mentally ill should be hidden away and sedated, but more than if they have an illness they should be treated for it, rather than exhibited in a sort of patronising freak show.

Even in the blurb the idea that "mass market conformity" is the reason for the lack of eccentrics is just absurd. Yes I agree that anything very strange is quite likely to be mocked and unpopular, and that's awful, but I think that's always been the case.. I absolutely agree that it's people like William Buckland who make the world a far nicer place to be in. He's clearly a man who really is just a little bit odd. There's a difference between eccentricity and signs of mental illness, is what I'm saying.

Don't think that I don't want to hear about mentally ill eccentrics, nor that the behaviour of the mentally ill is to be hidden away and taboo because of their illness, but the idea that the lack of seriously mentally ill people to write more books about is a negative impact of mass market conformity is absurd. If I have to choose between living in a society with a great many interesting people, many of whom are desperately unhappy OR living in a society where the mentally ill are better cared for and suitably medicated, with slightly fewer truly eccentric people as a result, I know which one I feel better about.

It just could have been addressed a little better, or at all.

It gets 3 Mell Heads, because it's a good read but left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

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