Curing Hiccups with Small Fires: A Delightful Miscellany of Great British Eccentrics by Karl Shaw

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Curing Hiccups with Small Fires: A Delightful Miscellany of Great British Eccentrics by Karl Shaw

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A thoroughly entertaining,well researched and frequently hilarious book of peculiar aristocrats, soldiers, politicians and generally odd people from all walks of life.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Boxtree
ISBN: 978-0752227030

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There have been many books written on the subject of rogues and villains of every hue. In my reading experience, those on eccentrics seem to have been few and far between, although the two-page bibliography at the end of this volume reveals that a handful have appeared over the last forty years or so. Nevertheless there is always room for at least one more, and the author of Five People Who Died During Sex and 100 Other Terribly Tasteless Lists must be as well qualified to write it as anyone else.

Ten chapters divide the subject matter into categories, such as travelling, religious, political, literary aristocratic eccentrics and others. A few people mentioned in these pages are already well-known for one reason or another. Bill Boaks, indefatigable parliamentary candidate at by-elections for the Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident, was almost legendary in his own lifetime, until his death in 1986 from head injuries sustained in a road traffic accident, notwithstanding his perpetual campaigns for better safety on the roads. The Rev Harold Stiffkey was also famous in his own lifetime (between the wars) and beyond, not only for being defrocked after he was photographed with a naked teenage would-be model, but also for exhibiting himself in a cage with a circus lion which eventually mauled him to death, presumably in a moment of boredom. George Brown, the habitually 'tired and emotional' but rather endearing senior minister in Harold Wilson's government, and Fanny Cradock, the less than endearing TV cook, are also featured.

As for the less famous, I was aware of the literary Sitwell family, but I had no idea what a peculiar crowd they were, until Shaw told us that the siblings were so anxious to get away from their domineering father that they invented an imaginary round the world yacht cruise that they were supposedly going on. Then had fake headed notepaper made up on which they wrote to him, explaining that until the itinerary had been finalised, they were unable to provide a forwarding address at which they could be contacted. Meanwhile they still lived in London, secure in the knowledge that their father would remain blissfully unaware of their deception as he would not recognise them when he passed them in the street. He was not the only parent deficient in this regard. Lord Salisbury, three times Prime Minister, a rather unsuccessful amateur scientist whose laboratory was the scene of regular explosions, and probably the only holder of that high office to be arrested by a farmer as her looked like a poacher (he was notorious for dressing down), once asked why a certain man was smiling at him at a court function, to be informed that the friendly fellow was his eldest son.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Can I whet your appetite further with references to the first explorer to be shot dead by his camel, the peer who proposed to the same woman fifteen times until she barricaded herself in her own home, only for him to come down the chimney and try yet again, blackened with soot (mercifully for him she said yes at this point), and the dreadful Poet Laureate who was generally broke, but said he managed to keep the wolf from the door – to be asked if he did so solely by reading his poems to him? Not to mention the world's worst novelist, the footballer banned for six weeks after eating the notebook of the referee who sent him off for foul and abusive language, the army officer who used to summon his manservant by firing a revolver at the ceiling and accidentally shot himself dead, or the MP who rarely attended Parliament as he was too busy buying books. There is not a dull page here.

Our thanks to Boxtree for sending us a copy for review.

If you enjoy this, why not also try the similarly lighthearted but very informative History Without the Boring Bits by Ian Crofton.

Buy Curing Hiccups with Small Fires: A Delightful Miscellany of Great British Eccentrics by Karl Shaw at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Curing Hiccups with Small Fires: A Delightful Miscellany of Great British Eccentrics by Karl Shaw at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Curing Hiccups with Small Fires: A Delightful Miscellany of Great British Eccentrics by Karl Shaw at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Curing Hiccups with Small Fires: A Delightful Miscellany of Great British Eccentrics by Karl Shaw at Amazon.com.

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