Monday, July 14, 2008

David Davis: rebellious, risk-taking...but patriotic

After David Davis decided to fight a by-election on the issue of civil liberties, many people branded him an "eccentric". As someone who has spent the past two years studying the English eccentric, I must protest.

Unlike the notorious Regency eccentric John "Mad Jack" Mytton, Davis does not have a pet giraffe that joins him for Sunday lunch via a trapdoor in his dining room.

Nor does he employ an ornamental hermit to live in his garden, like 18th-century landowner Charles Hamilton, who forbade the man to cut his beard or nails, leave the grounds, talk to the servants or wear anything other than a camel-hair robe.

But the most worrying thing about the coverage of today's vote has not been the definition of eccentricity used, but the sneering tone - not just about Davis, but the assortment of 25 other candidates. In 1859, John Stuart Mill warned: "That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of our time." Almost 150 years on, that danger is just as real.

Society has become so risk-averse and litigious that eccentricity is squeezed out. In 2007, when an admirably idiosyncratic architect in London trimmed his front hedge into the shape of a whale, he was asked to remove it by the local council; they felt it endangered passing pedestrians.

The author of this article has written an entire book about the English eccentric. I'm going to have to order a copy "dispatched", as they so delightfully put it, across the Pond.

Hat tip: An Englishman's Castle.

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