Eccentric Avenue of Writers


Imagine living on a street solely inhabited by the greatest writers of all time. You step out of your house and take a stroll to the shops to grab some milk. There’s Oscar Wilde coming in the opposite direction with a lobster on a leash. He better stay away from Lord Byron though because he’s taking his pet bear out for a walk and we all know the two animals don’t get on, probably because the Bear is bitter about being denied a fellowship to Byron’s school.

If Byron and Wilde had ever met, this strange occurrence could very well have taken place as it is rumoured Wilde once took a lobster for a walk on a leash and Byron did indeed keep a tame bear in his dorm room at school, take it out for walks around campus and even applied for it to have a fellowship. Byron had a great love of not only bears but all animals, especially his Newfoundland dog, Boatswain. Byron even nursed Boatswain when the animal contracted rabies, without any thought towards being bitten or becoming infected himself. When Boatswain passed away Byron, despite his crippling debts at the time, commissioned the construction of an impressive marble funerary monument for Boatswain at Newstead Abbey, larger than his own.

In his lifetime Byron kept a ridiculous amount of pets: a fox, four monkeys, a parrot, five cats, an eagle, a crow, a crocodile, a falcon, five peacocks, two guinea hens, an Egyptian crane, a badger, three geese, a heron, various dogs and horses and a goat with a broken leg. Except for the horses, they were all kept indoors at his homes in England, Greece, Switzerland and Italy.

Byron wasn’t the only one with a fondness for animals. The celebrated mystery writer Raymond Chandler had a proclivity for cats, particularly his black Persian cat, Taki, whose habit of standing on Chandler’s important papers and securing them caused the author to dub Taki his secretary. The cat also doubled as a ruthless critic. Raymond wrote that Taki would spend time “just quietly gazing out of the window from a corner of the desk as if to say, ‘The stuff you’re doing is a waste of time, bud.’”

The question I’m asking is: is all this eccentricity really necessary? Does great peculiarity create great art? It often seems that writers and artists develop these sometime obscene decadences after they have first achieved great success under normal circumstances. It seems the pressure to keep the magic going and equal or surpass their first artistic endeavour creates these sort of ritualistic superstitions in some cases.

Truman Capote admitted to being “fantastically superstitious, I mean to the point of mania.” For instance, “he wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday. He had an aversion to the number 13. He’d trade hotel rooms or avoid making a call if the number 13 was somehow involved. At one point, he would even jump on his thirteenth step.” He also “never let the number of cigarette butts in an ashtray exceed three (extra ones were placed in his coat pocket),” and “refused to board a plane with more than one nun.”

Moreover there are a whole host of writers and authors who indulged in the ritual of shall we say ‘a thorough dressing down’ before they could so much as put pen to paper. Father of Existentialism Franz Kafka exercised while nude; discoverer of electricity and founding father Benjamin Franklin took “air baths,” writing his essays and letters in a cold room whilst nude; creator of legendary fictional detectives Poirot and Miss Marple, full time crime novelist and part time disappearing act Agatha Christie liked writing in the bathtub; famed American children’s poet and chronic alcoholic James Whitcomb Riley wrote naked so he wouldn’t be tempted to walk to the bar; when French Romantic author of seminal novels such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Victor Hugo felt distracted, he removed all his clothes so that he was totally alone with pen and paper and last but not least; D.H Lawrence, controversial author of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ as a writing warm-up would climb mulberry trees in his birthday suit.

Looking at writers today the last true eccentric was probably the intrepid inventor of ‘Gonzo journalism’ Hunter S. Thompson and that was in the early 1970s. If you think about it, writers were the first celebrities, rulers of the only tangible medium of entertainment. From the 17th to early 19th century writers and poets were today’s Hollywood VIPs and world conquering rock stars. Not counting Royalty they were the most famous people in the world. Nowadays ‘fame’ is a concept modern society is highly and sometimes painfully aware of. The age we live in has birthed so many so called ‘celebrities’ that we actually need to characterise them into different alphabetical lists. But back then, the concept of celebrity was alien, so in many ways those great writers who first achieved great notoriety were the intrepid pioneers of what it now means to be famous. And for many it seems, this meant becoming incredibly bizarre.

But of course fame alone is not the only and especially not the sole reason for the wacky exploits of our great intellectuals. I asked whether great peculiarity created great art and I personally do not think that it does. I do not believe it is the acts of weirdness themselves; perhaps more the quality that these people had that gave them the inclination to perform these extravagant acts in the first place. This is the essence of greatness; that indefinable, intangible quality. The different thought processes, these minds that operated on different tracks that gave us these great works of art. Eccentricity it seems is merely a by-product of genius.

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