Bring me my Balloon!

February 2, 2011 § 5 Comments

I don’t know about you, but personally I love it when I pick up a book and find a host of really colourful characters. The  more eccentric and unique, the better. Show me a woman who bathes in green tea and cobwebs, dines on a steady diet of mushrooms and paints her lips with the innards of insects and I’m probably sold.

I’m not alone in this, for certain: there are reasons why the Mad Hatter and his friends are some of the most popular characters in literature. In my own writing, I intend to be swimming in peculiar characters before long. In which case, it doesn’t hurt to get started by looking up a bit of inspiration, does it?

I’ve said before that history is one of my chief sources of inspiration, especially if my imagination fails me and I get stuck. I can’t recommend it enough: it’s the surest cure for writer’s block that I know. A few weeks ago on this blog, we looked through the annals of history for some juicy tid-bits about highwaymen. And it was fun! It was almost like stepping into Wikipedia: we began with highwaymen and ended up with care bears. Crazy.

Today we will plunge back into the eighteenth century (and beyond). This time, our line is baited for eccentrics and madmen. Let’s fish.

Here’s an article to start, from “the Public Advertiser”, 30th October 1784.

“The celebrated Dr. Graham who is figuring away at Manchester, has till very lately, buried himself every morning in earth! He has stood, at least, up to his chin in it; then ran nimbly round a large field, attended by numerous spectators, to whom he advised the adoption of “this sure and happy means of preserving health, and of obtaining longevity!” – He dresses in a light suit of cotton, in compliment to the manufacturers of that place, and lives principally upon potatoes.

The above excentric character, who in lectures which he gives at Manchester recommends Balloon-flying as very conducive to health, says that in the course of years this mode of travelling will, he doubts not, be so much improved, and rendered familiar, that it will be “as common to hear a man call for his Balloon when he is going on a journey, as it is now for him to call for his boots!“- The art of flying he considers as one of the greatest desiderata of mechanics, attempted in divers ages, and now bringing to perfection.”

An encouraging start. The man is instantly described as ‘celebrated’ – obviously doing odd things is widely considered worthy of applause. I wonder if burying oneself in earth up to the chin every morning really works…?

Next is Sir  George Sitwell, a baronet born in 1860. He is famously recorded as having had a plaque put up on the gates to his Derbyshire manor house with the following inscription:

“I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”

If only we could all get away with that…

There is also an intriguing rumour of his having the white cows on his estate stencilled with blue and white Chinese willow patterns. Fair enough, I say. If you can make your livestock look a little more interesting, why wouldn’t you?

Sir George compounds his excellent track record for mild insanity by pronouncing that novel writing is bad for the health of its practitioners. Obviously crazy.

Francis Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater: another wealthy Englishman, whose particular penchant was for holding dinner parties for dogs. Each dog would be properly dressed for the occasion in the latest fashions, all the way down to shoes to fit little doggie-feet. He also counted time by lining up his old shoes in rows: he only wore each pair once. He never married, for some reason.

It’s sometimes said that creativity leads to increased eccentricity. Furthermore, according to this article, eccentricity is likely to become increasingly extreme as people age.

For my part, then, I am looking forward to being incredibly colourful by the time I reach old age (assuming I make it that far). I will have a vast collection of hats, one for each day that I’ve been alive; I will eat nothing but cake, and drink nothing but tea; I will hold tea-parties for my cats; and I will sleep on a mattress of novels every night. What are your plans for your charmingly eccentric twilight years?

I will end with this uplifting quote from John Stuart Mill in 1859 : “The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour and moral courage it contained. [T]hat so few people now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time.”

Now bring me my Balloon…


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§ 5 Responses to Bring me my Balloon!

  • Andy says:

    Eat NOTHING but CAKE!? You’re going to weigh as much as an elephant by the time you get to 80! But… I guess it will be balanced by the drinking nothing but tea.

    Hmm I’ve always had an aversion to history for some reason, as if the past is the past and shouldn’t be bothered anymore. But this was really an enjoyable read. Maybe I’ll go scouring around for some nice and juicy history morsels. I do have a ‘History of Music’ that I picked up at a $1 school sale once. Hmmm.

    • Andy says:

      Oh and I definitely want one of those balloons. Transport of the future.

    • Charlotte says:

      Well, if I am to become a true eccentric, I will not mind the consequence of my cake-eating, because the consequences are irrelevant – only the experience matters!

      Regarding history, there’s a lot more to it than a long series of events that are done and over with now. I think of it like a vast tapestry of individual stories, many of which interconnect in often surprising ways. History’s made up of people. In some cases, they might have been surprisingly like you and me, and in other cases were marvellously, astonishingly different. I always find it exciting to dip into it, and see who I meet today.

  • Lois Hoffman says:

    Great post. I don’t so much fly balloons as twist them, but I get the point. I love the idea of scouring history for the most eccentric and putting them all in the same room. Imagine the chaos!

    • Charlotte says:

      One has to admire true eccentrics, somehow – there’s a certain freedom to throwing out all the ‘rules’ and doing exactly what strikes your fancy, no matter how illogical or peculiar to everyone else. It’s like giving your imagination license to rule instead of the social laws. Now, a roomful of people with rampant imaginations and no social qualms would be chaos indeed, and probably tremendously fun. Like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, but amplified?

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