No wannabes or posers

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien sitting in an Irish pub deploring the lack of real characters in Ireland. Notwithstanding the lovely irony of that story, the prominent eccentric has declined in recent years, which makes Robert Holden’s collection of Australian characters, Crackpots, Rebels and Ratbags, extremely useful. Holden loves his subject, and that love is reflected in the book’s humorous style.

Part of the appeal of eccentrics lies in their naivety. The true eccentric (in proper Australian style) is not different for the sake of being different, but is genuinely apart. He or she (regardless of background) does not bung it on. Wannabes and posers need not apply. Some eccentrics struggle for recognition, and occasionally get it. Many of the eccentrics paraded here craved attention: Bee Miles, Percy Grainger, Manning Clark, Rosaleen Norton. Others had attention thrust upon them: E. W. Cole, Arthur Stace (the Eternity Man). It is often said that an eccentric is a rich lunatic, and Holden keeps returning to this theme.

In this collection, prime ministers stand proudly with bag ladies, professors and composers with the peculiar. Some eccentrics are so identifiable that they become part of the local landscape: E. W. Cole’s bookshop in Melbourne was visited by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and others; Eternity, Arthur Stace’s graffito, was so well known in Sydney that it was made the centrepiece of the 2000 New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration on the harbour. During their lifetime, you hadn’t seen Sydney if you hadn’t seen either Billy Blue or Bee Miles.

The chapters on Rosaleen Norton and Arthur Stace are superb. Norton’s sad decline from truly feared Satanist (who brought down no less a figure than Sir Charles Mackerras) to unintentional caricature is astutely handled. Holden manages to take a fairly mysterious phantasm, Arthur Stace, and put some skin and bone on the mystique.

The book has few flaws. Alfred Deakin’s spiritualism could have been examined further. A perusal of Al Gabay’s The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin would have strengthened this chapter. On matters spiritualist, Holden repeats the minor canard that Arthur Conan Doyle converted to spiritualism during World War I. He had been a committed spiritualist for many years before the war; the war (and the death of his son) merely strengthened his resolve and the public’s reception to his position. There are a couple of stylistic approaches that don’t quite work: comparing Indiana Jones to Baron Munchausen and ‘The Greatest Liar on Earth’, Louis de Rougemont, seems like comparing apples to motorcars.

The only other flaw I found (and it too is quite inconsequential) is that I thought the original title, From Queer to Eternity, was superb. However, the title that the book ended up with will do.

I will not take issue with Holden’s choices of subjects: after all, space, budget, time and personal preferences must constrain any work, and Holden’s choices are terrific. Some of the others he includes are William Chidley (he of the Answer), Lola Montez (whose lack of dancing skills did not seem to be a disadvantage to her career as a dancer) and Dulcie Deamer (who personified Decadent Sydney in the 1920s but dissolved into self-parody). I like to think, though, that this book might lead to a website of eccentrics, continually updated, fully referenced and available to all, so that David Scott Mitchell and Alf Conlon, P. R. Stephensen and Lassiter, and so many others might also get attention, as well as the marvellous procession of misfits, eccentrics, and characters that Holden does present.

The current slavish attachment to individualism has seen the decline of the eccentric. It is hard to shock current complacency. We accept individuals now—provided they conform to our preconceived ideas of what constitutes an individual. In the past, we used to harass and suppress individualism. Several of the subjects in this book ended up in Callan Park or other such institutions. In turn, we were harassed, and our mediocre approaches were challenged quite severely. Now that eccentricity is part of the social norm, we have developed a much crueller response: ignoring eccentricity. In an age where pedestrian mediocrities can be made ‘unique’ through the media, we struggle to find true eccentrics.

Indeed, nearly all of Holden’s modern eccentrics are recluses, living like Diogenes, cut off from the conveniences of modern life. This in itself speaks volumes. Holden is absolutely correct to discuss J. S. Mills’ concern that his society was too conformist. Our society is only superficially non-conformist. Everybody’s an individual, just like everybody else. Reading this book was a delight, and the minor criticisms I have are not to detract from my recommendation that you read it.

Crackpots, Rebels and Ratbags, Robert Holden. ABC Books, 2005. ISBN 7 333 1541 0, RRP$29.95

D. L. Lewis’s review of Andrew Mercador’s Super Aussie Soaps appeared in the April 2005 issue of Eureka Street.


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