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Despite, or perhaps because of, Britain’s supposed stiff upper lip, the nation loves nothing more than a display of bizarre behaviour. And if England is a country which incubates eccentrics, London is where they congregate in full, glorious plumage.

Summing up the capital’s love affair with ‘characters’ are ever-gaffing mayor Boris Johnson and Parliament Square peace protester Brian Haw. Polar opposites united in their disdain for conformity.

At one end of the spectrum is tousled Johnson who, at the passing of the Olympic flag from China to the UK, declared that “ping pong is coming home!”. He also once called George W Bush a “cross-eyed Texan warmonger”.

At the other is Haw, who has camped outside Parliament for a decade, becoming both a tourist attraction and professional public nuisance. Ironically, Haw is soon to be evicted by arch nemesis Johnson.


Parliament Square peace protester, Brian Haw.

A tolerance for off-beat behaviour is deep-rooted in the capital.

Perhaps most famous of London’s historic eccentrics is William Blake (1757-1827). Anti-authority, visionary and generally pretty weird, Blake claimed to have seen an angel and had a penchant for reading poetry naked in his garden.

But what constitutes eccentricity?

“It’s the no-man’s land between what’s normal and what’s considered completely mad,” says Henry Hemming, author of In Search Of The English Eccentric. “Eccentrics make connections that other people do not and take them further. They are generally more childish, playful and unafraid of what people think.”

But definitions change. What was considered abnormal in the 18th century might not be today.

“A good example of this is women’s role in society,” says Hemming. “Two centuries ago, non-conforming women were more likely to be called witches than eccentrics."

Today, female eccentricity is welcome in London, with Dame Vivienne Westwood its standard bearer. At 69, the titan-haired, toy-boy-shagging punk-rock designer continues to dress more outrageously than most teenagers.

London’s Eccentric Club, formed in 1781, was once stringently men-only. Today, Mary-Ann Russon, 25, is a member.

Russon, who often dresses in full Victorian garb and takes her doll collection on holiday, says she has never felt the need to conform. And, in London, her eccentricity is accepted. “I do get looked at a lot,” she says. “But people usually just smile and think it’s cute.”


London's own Dame Vivienne Westwood.

It’s London’s tolerance for the grey-area of eccentricity that has allowed much of the capital’s creativity to flourish.

Uber-industrious eccentric Lyndon Yorke, a fixture at the Henley Regatta, has, over the years, produced an amphibious Edwardian tricycle, a floating wicker bathchair and a nine-piece mechanical orchestra made of car windscreen wiper motors.

“I don’t like to fit in with normality,” Yorke says. “And people seem to be amused!”

The fact that artist Grayson Perry frequently shows up to public functions dressed as his pig-tailed school girl alter-ego, ‘Claire’, has done nothing to damage his career. In fact, cynics may say that eccentricity has become so fetishised in London, developing a zany persona is a fail-safe marketing ploy.

But standing out, in whatever form, is highly prized in this city. Psychologist Diana Parkinson suggests that eccentricity is a reminder that the shackles of social convention can be broken.

“Most of us are trapped and fearful of doing anything out of the ordinary. We need eccentrics because they inspire and encourage us to take more risks,” Parkinson says.

Long may they reign!

London's top Eccentric Attractions

1. The Dodi and Diana memorial

At the bottom of Harrod’s ‘Egyptian escalator’ you’ll find gilt-framed portraits of the deceased pair sitting atop a trickling waterfall. Inside a glass pyramid sit Diana’s engagement ring and a glass she allegedly drank from the night she died.

2. Cleopatra’s Needle

This Ancient Egyptian obelisk first stood in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis in 1450BC. Today, the monument, which has nothing to do with Cleopatra, sits on the Victoria Embankment, near the Golden Jubilee Bridges. The 224-ton pillar was erected in 1877 and has a ‘time-capsule’ buried beneath it containing, among other things, 12 photographs of the best-looking English women of the day.

3. London taxidermy

Stuffed animals have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years and no faux-vintage bar is complete without a creature’s head on the wall. Weirder still is the popularity of getting your pet pooch preserved by a taxidermists. Check out Get Stuffed, on Essex Road, Islington, N1 (thegetstuffed.co.uk).

The Alternative Royal Family

Laying rest to the idea that eccentricity is just for toffs, London’s Pearly Kings and Queens (pearlysociety.co.uk) are a flamboyant celebration of cockney culture that epitomise British quirkiness.

The organisation began in 1875 when Henry Croft, a 13-year-old orphan working as a market sweeper, decided to raise money to help those left in the orphanage. Croft created the first ‘pearly suit’ – a creation so spectacular it spawned generations of followers (and the cover of a White Stripes album). When Croft died in 1930, 400 pearly-suited followers attended his funeral. Today Pearly Societies continue to raise money for charity.



London Eccentrics: A look into the quirks of the capital city
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