The Odditorium: The tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world (Oct 2016) is a playful re-telling of history told not through the fish eye lens of its victors but through the fascinating stories of lesser-known creative mavericks, tricksters, subversives and pioneers who changed our world.
Here are just five of our favourite stories from the book, which comes out today, including a man who tried to walk around the world in an iron mask, the world's worst vegetarian, a wild avant-garde artist who may have originated the most important work of art in the 20th century, a surreal poet who told tales of befriended sparrows and secondhand cups of tea and the subversive theatre director who pulled off one of the greatest pranks in British history, prompting an investigation from Scotland Yard…
The Odditorium is curated and written by Ernest editor Jo Keeling and regular contributor David Bramwell, along with guest contributions from a host of talented writers including John Higgs, Daniel Maier, Tim Smith, Sarah Angliss, Tim Lott, James Burt, Simon Ingram and Richard Turner. It is published by Hodder & Stoughton and comes out today (6 Oct, 2016)!
Harry Bensley: the other man in the iron mask
In the winter of 1908, a strange act appeared in the music halls of south-east England. Sandwiched between comedians and performing midgets, he gave his name only as ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’. Face covered by a knight’s helmet, he explained that, because of a bet, he was seeing whether it was possible to walk around the world without being identified.
That simple wager had been complicated with a list of other conditions. He had to remain masked throughout the journey, to visit every county in England (getting a signature from a mayor or other dignitary), to keep himself alive only by selling postcards and souvenirs, and to never accept any gifts from strangers. According to the Brighton Herald ’s article in February of that year, ‘perhaps the most extraordinary condition of all is that he should find a wife on the road, who must be “between the ages of twenty-five and thirty, well-educated, of even temper, with some knowledge of music”.’The number of conditions on the bet was fiendish – this is the sort of thing that ruins people’s lives.
Ken Campbell: the seeker who sought to astound
‘There is a meaning to life that can be peripherally sensed by being astounded or astounding others. And it may be fully glimpsed by astounding yourself.’
– Ken Campbell’s Meaning of Life (2006)
Ken Campbell was a performer, comic, theatre director and creative powerhouse. His life could be described as one ‘great caper’, a mission to seek out ‘the other’. What was the other? Anything that had the power to astound. And Campbell was a rare individual who possessed such power.
Campbell first came into prominence in the late 1960s with an anarchic comedy ensemble, The Ken Campbell Roadshow, which included Sylvester McCoy, Bob Hoskins and dwarf actor,
David Rappaport – who Ken would introduce as ‘not the world’s smallest man, but fucking close!’ His ensemble mixed comedy with music-hall stunts – nails up the nose, ferrets down the trousers – with McCoy always as the fall guy. Side-stepping theatre’s elitism, dwindling audiences and funding bodies, Ken took his roadshow into working men’s clubs and pubs, often unannounced. ‘If the audience won’t come to us, we’ll go to them,’ became their motto.
In 1979, Campbell entered the Guinness Book of Records by co-writing and directing the world’s longest play, The Warp a 22-hour autobiographical tale of one man’s journey of self- discovery through beat culture, jazz, scientology, New Age and psychedelia. That’s the equivalent to six Hamlets. Those who saw The Warp or starred in it were never the same again. In 1980, Campbell pulled off one of the greatest pranks in British history….
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven: the woman who was the future
Baroness Elsa was wild. She wore cakes for hats, postage stamps for make-up and a bra made from two tomato cans and green string. Over a 100 years before Lady Gaga turned up at the MTV Awards wearing a meat dress, the Baroness was genuinely shocking. She lived in abject poverty and was repeatedly arrested for offences ranging from theft to public nudity. She is now recognised as the first American Dada artist, although it might be more accurate to think of her as the first New York punk – 60 years too early.
Ivor Cutler: the poet who never grew up
Somewhere in north London, a bus driver is having a bad day. His foul mood is picked up on by all of those boarding his bus. The passengers, in typical English fashion, ignore his tempestuous face and hurry along to find a seat. The last one on is a short man, sporting round spectacles, plus-fours, a tweed jacket splattered with badges and a hat decorated with a plastic sunflower. Noting the driver’s countenance, the man silently reaches into a bag, pulls out a sheet of stickers and attaches one to the driver’s lapel. The driver stares down at the three words on his jacket and breaks into a huge grin. The man takes his place on the bus and sits down. On the driver’s lapel are the words ‘You are beautiful’.
Meet the man who dedicated his life to writing strange poetry and songs that captured a unique, parallel twist on the everyday, in which the minutiae of life – from socks to micro-organisms
– took on a gently surreal life of their own. It was a place where market stalls sold second-hand cups of tea, people had woollen eyes and Ivor’s toe bore a hole through which he could see Australia.
Frank Buckland: the world’s worst vegetarian
Ever wondered what a fly, earwig or rhinoceros might taste like? You haven’t? Well perhaps that’s no great surprise. Had you been alive in Victorian England during the mid-1800s, however, you just might have been caught up in a craze known as zoophagy: the practice of eating all animals, the more exotic the better. Zoophagy’s leading exponent was no experimental chef but a Victorian eccentric called Frank Buckland, who gave up a medical career in favour of natural history and fisheries. Not content with merely studying the animal kingdom, Buckland made it his life ambition to determine the palatability of every living creature.
Buckland – a stout, bearded man with butcher’s arms – was often found with a creature in tow or about his person. He kept a matchbox filled with toads and a small tortoise in his pocket. When Buckland studied at Oxford, chameleons, marmots, snakes, an eagle, a jackal and a bear named Tiglath-Pileser shared his digs. Unsurprisingly, they often escaped. After moving to London, Buckland added to his menagerie a parrot, a troop of monkeys, tame mice and a jaguar. These often scarpered too – notably the monkeys, which, according to Buckland’s biographer, G. Burgess, once resulted in a ‘thrilling chase across the housetops of London’.