Great British Eccentrics by S D Tucker

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Great British Eccentrics by S D Tucker

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: There's nowt so queer as folk, and this thoroughly entertaining book regales us with some of the strangest British people over the last three or four centuries whose behaviour has amused, astonished and occasionally horrified us in equal measure. Occasionally poignant, but more often very funny – and all true.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Amberley
ISBN: 9781445647708

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Some very strange people have stalked our green and pleasant land. In his introduction, Tucker asks why. Is it our status as an island people which has made so many of our countrymen turn in on ourselves? Has our long libertarian tradition of the idea of individual freedom, as long as we do nobody else any harm, allowed weirdness to flourish among us?

About seventy years ago George Orwell celebrated his fellow citizens as a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, coupon-snippers and crossword-puzzle fans, who unlike their contemporaries in Nazi Germany and elsewhere stubbornly refused all efforts to make them conform to official attitudes. Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot, a Belgian by birth but British by adoption, put it differently; everyone, he once said, 'is a little mad'.

Some were more mad – or should we say more individual - than others. There is a remarkable gallery in the pages of this book of the sad, the extraordinary, and sometimes the downright yet darkly hilarious. A chapter is dedicated to 'the strangest family in England', the Sitwells. One of them used to drive through the streets of Scarborough in her coach with a suffragan bishop, kidnapping women whom she thought resembled prostitutes, took them to the home for 'fallen women' which she had founded, dressed them up in navy-blue uniforms and put them to work as laundresses behind closed doors. Another proclaimed himself the world's leading expert on oriental rock gardens, filled his shotgun up with rare Himalayan seeds and fired it into cliffs 'in order to lend an element of chance to his horticultural compositions', stood for Parliament and lost after spending his entire campaign budget on flower bulbs. Ironically Dame Edith Sitwell, noted as an author and also as one of the most loopy of a very loopy tribe, compounded the irony by publishing her own book on English Eccentrics. It was even turned into a comic (well, obviously) opera. You could hardly make it up, could you?

Closer to our own time was David Icke, who claimed that human beings were an artificial species created by a race of extraterrestrial lizards, and told Terry Wogan on his TV chat show that he was the Son of God, sent to heal the earth. There was also Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks, road-safety campaigner and would-be politician, one of whose missions in life was to cause such traffic chaos that all motorists would give up their cars and travel by bus or helicopter instead. Ironically he did not long survive falling off a bus and banging his head. And let us not forget record producer Joe Meek, who turned down an offer to become involved with the Beatles on the grounds that they were 'just another bunch of noise', and during the last year of his short life spent too much time wandering round graveyards, trying to capture the voices of the dead on tape. He claimed that he had succeeded, although he was not one to admit defeat – or rather, not until that horrific day when he blasted his landlady and then himself to death with a shotgun. At least novelist Evelyn Waugh was not as mad as that – well, not quite. But he so hated his tutor at Oxford, an arguably slightly abrasive Mr Cruttwell, that he demonised him by naming several of the most terrible characters in his stories after the poor man, not to mention spreading a rumour that he (Mr C) enjoyed raping dogs, and going so far (Mr W) as barking beneath his window to humiliate him.

Aristocrats, politicians, literary, artistic and military eccentrics, some more successful at their calling than others, have all kept their contemporaries amused, enthralled and horrified in equal measure. Take the nineteenth-century Marquess of Waterford, who appeared in court on a charge of endangering the public by riding his horse too fast through a crowded street, and demanded that his steed should be questioned in the dock as only he knew how fast he was going. Or from a century before that, take one John Tallis, who was convinced that human ill-health was caused by the air we breathe, so he had his bedroom windows bricked up, had himself bandaged up tightly, fitted stoppers into his nostrils, and stayed in bed for nearly thirty years.

On occasion I found a few of the stories rather poignant, but more often than not very funny. Did people really behave like that? They evidently did, and Mr Tucker has done us a service in this delightful distillation of the daft. I found myself chuckling many a time.

For more anecdotes about some of the odder individuals from our society, we can also recommend the equally lively Curing Hiccups with Small Fires: A Delightful Miscellany of Great British Eccentrics by Karl Shaw.

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