Bright Particular Stars: a Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics

Some years ago, when he was still owner of the Telegraph newspapers, Conrad Black damned journalists as a species. Not only were they obnoxious and tiresome, he said, which was fair enough; worse still, they were "nauseatingly eccentric". This stuck in my mind as an interesting term of abuse. In England, "eccentric" and "eccentricity" have never been derogatory terms, or not merely so. The English used to value individuality, privacy, quiddity, even oddity.

Such, at least, were my thoughts before I picked up Bright Particular Stars, David McKie's latest, entertaining book. Its cast list lives up
to the last word of the subtitle - A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics - in the literal sense of "irregular" or "anomalous": but the use of the word "glorious" is more debatable. Some of the unlikely people whom McKie has come across are cranky or outrageous way beyond Black's strictures.

Having already written a book with the defiantly unchic title Great British Bus Journeys, as well as McKie's Gazetteer, the author sets off again on his travels, from Carmarthenshire to Derbyshire, Cromarty to Staffordshire, and he finds some right ones 'ere or, rather, there. One or two of these men and women might kindle his sympathy, but by no means all.

Anyone who has been even slightly touched by the collecting instinct will feel for Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), who lived at Broadway
in Worcestershire. He devoted his life to the obsessive and finally deranged buying of books and manuscripts. His house fell into ruin, while every room was piled high with possessions that couldn't be catalogued or paid for as creditors forlornly lined the potholed drive. Phillipps admitted that two men had attempted to distrain on him, but said that one was a rogue and the other a Quaker, "each of them a race of beings which ought to be banished to some uninhabited island".

Nowadays, Cheltenham is best known for its racecourse and its music festival, but in the 1840s its most notable denizen was Reverend Francis Close, an improbable Cotswolds Savonarola. He thunderously denounced "the wide-spreading evils that are poured upon the lower orders of society through the vain pleasures of their superiors", and when the town's theatre was destroyed by fire he campaigned against its reopening.

And yet Close's reactionary zeal was even stronger than his puritanism. "The Bible is Conservative, the Prayer Book Conservative, the Liturgy Conservative and the Church Conservative," he pronounced, "and it is impossible for a minister to open his mouth without being a Conservative." But he found a formidable antagonist in George Jacob Holyoake, a radical Chartist and atheist who addressed a group of Cheltonian radicals - they did exist - and was imprisoned for blasphemy in 1842.

All the same, Close was almost a wet liberal compared to Dame Lucy Houston. Born poor, she became very rich by enticing men. In 1924, in her late sixties, she married an obnoxious, half-mad Tory MP, a shipping tycoon who conveniently died soon afterwards, and with her inheritance she bought the Saturday Review, a respectable journal in Victorian times which had enjoyed a brief period of brilliance when edited by Frank Harris, of all people.

Now, under the imperious direction of Dame Lucy from her house on the edge of Hampstead Heath, the Review became a voice of crazy jingoism veering towards fascism. She ranted against Bolshevism, doted on Mussolini, and pinned her faith on the one man who might rescue her own degraded country, whom she begged, in caps and italics, to "Lead us, Oh! My King, and we are ready to follow you to the death". But Edward VIII - for it was him she apostrophised - was in no mood to lead anyone, and soon departed.

As his discerning fan club knows, McKie himself is, if not eccentric, salty, sesquipedal and offbeat, but also a little poignant, as befits one of the last of an endangered species or tendency. It might be called the fogeyism of the left - "Radicals for cricket, railways and real ale" - which once had a billet at the Guardian, whose deputy editor McKie was, and where he later wrote the Elsewhere and Smallweed columns.

There was a time when that paper, too, or rather the Manchester Guardian as was, embodied certain virtues - dissenting, unfashionable, provincial - which are today not so much discounted or despised, as quite vanished. Much more significant than the politics of our media now is their tone: modish, sneering, intensely metropolitan. It is a world that would have disconcerted not only McKie's far-flung villains, but also his heroes.
For none of these does he have more affection than the men of Blackburn Olympic who won the FA Cup in 1883. In its early years, association football was very much a gentleman's game, as could be seen from the Cup matches, which pitted Royal Engineers against Old Carthusians, Oxford University against Old Etonians. It was this last team that Blackburn met in the final at the Oval (when both football and cricket were played there). The Etonians lost, one of them complained, because "the Blackburn men were in strict training", and the result was jeered and whistled at by Etonian spectators. It was a victory for "McKieism", for north over south, plebeians over patricians and, perhaps, past over present. After reading that characteristically delightful chapter in Bright Particular Stars, one reflects that not many of the virtues McKie admires are on display in the national press today, or the Premier League. l

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" (Penguin, £8.99) and "Yo, Blair!" (Politico's, £9.99)

Bright Particular Stars: a Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics
David McKie
Atlantic Books, 368pp, £25

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants