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California Like England? Just Consider the Eccentrics

Lord Alexander Rufus-Isaacs is president of the British-American Bar Assn. of Southern California. An English barrister whose London office used to be Sir Francis Bacon's bathroom, he has practiced law and lived in Los Angeles for 10 years

A few weeks ago, Elizabeth Springer Wrigley, formerly president of the Francis Bacon Foundation in Claremont, died at aged 81. She had devoted herself to the study of whether the works attributed to William Shakespeare were, in fact, written by Sir Francis Bacon, an English lawyer and philosopher who died in 1626. This enterprise was funded by art collectors Walter Conrad Arensberg and his wife, Louise Stevens Arensberg, members of the East Coast establishment who had settled comfortably in Los Angeles.

Eventually, Wrigley concluded that Bacon was not the playwright, because, in her opinion, Bacon was far too busy with other things. As a result, Wrigley voluntarily downgraded herself from the “mad Baconian” category to being merely “dreadfully pro-Bacon.” In an area densely populated by the intellectually unhinged, such objectivity is unusual.

Bacon, for instance, is but one of many who have been touted as the real authors of Shakespeare. Others are Queen Elizabeth I, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and Christopher Marlowe--virtually everyone who was anyone in those days, except, perhaps, Tommy Lasorda. But what is almost more interesting than the highly speculative theories being advanced are the personalities of the touts--and the fact that many of them are either English or Californian.

The links between these two hotbeds of eccentricity stretch back many years, to 1586, when Sir Francis Drake landed at Point Reyes, named the country Nova Albion and claimed it for the English crown. Indeed, it is tempting to speculate what might have happened if the British had stayed on. Perhaps the estimated 300,000 Brits in the Southland are merely occupying what is, after all, rightfully theirs. Or have they found something in California missing from the ever-increasing rationalism of post-Thatcher Britain?

The great dampener on unusual lifestyles in Britain is that confounded modern innovation--the need to earn a living. For the true eccentric is like an orchid: slow to bloom, shy, delicate, often hidden until one stumbles on a flash of color against the monotone background of mundanity. Historically, the preferred habitat has been English country houses, particularly those of gentry blessed with sufficient inherited wealth to allow them to lead a life of leisure. With too much time on their hands, they may either become obsessed with a subject of such obscurity that no one else even knows it exists, or develop behavioral anomalies that would almost certainly lead to incarceration if discovered.

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Ultimately, eccentricity just doesn’t cut it in the modern corporate world. Just recall Peter O’Toole’s character in “The Ruling Class” having to step down off his crucifix to catch the 8:17 to London. His nearest equivalent in real life whom I ever met was a friend of my parents, who held the honorary title of Lord Lieutenant of Kent. Among his duties, he was obliged to act as an escort for members of the royal family visiting his county. This must have caused some problems, since his two index fingers were permanently glued together behind his right knee, forcing him to walk stooped over, with one arm between his legs. Yet, he still managed to play the bagpipes in his spare time and to drive the estate fire engine around the countryside stark naked. That is, until he began setting fire to farm buildings so that he could then dowse the flames in an orgy of sweat, smoke and hoses.

Such heroes of unconventional behavior still exist in Britain, but they are an endangered species seldom seen these days. For in comparison with the narcissists, maniacs and perverts who endlessly compete for our attention in the media, they shun publicity. Californians, on the other hand, appear far less afraid of embarrassing themselves in public, which may explain why they have taken over many of the mantles formerly held by the Brits.

Take the Flat Earth Society. Basing their beliefs on a literal reading of obscure portions of the Old Testament, these persecutors of Copernicus and Galileo were largely swept away by the Enlightenment, but in the late 19th century, the society was resurrected by an English gentleman, Sir Walter de Sodington Blount. He and his wife held a series of experiments on a canal called Old Bedford Level that purported to prove the Earth had no curvature. Intolerant of any dissent from the self-evident truths of their creed, they were apt to shout down anyone who disagreed with them.

It is hardly surprising that none of their countrymen showed much willingness to carry the baton after they died. However, according to John Michell’s magnificent “Eccentric People and Peculiar Notions,” the society is now flourishing in Lancaster, Calif., under the leadership of a Mr. and Mrs. Charles Johnson. The society is reported to have faced something of a problem when the space program began, and we saw TV footage of the Earth from space, but this was dismissed by the Johnsons as a hoax perpetrated by Arthur C. Clarke in a hangar in Arizona.

Misunderstandings based on generalized perceptions of racial stereotypes abound. The British are comfortable with the notion that California is the temple of vulgarity and eccentricity satirized by Evelyn Waugh in “The Loved One” and Aldous Huxley in “After Many a Summer Dies a Swan.” Californians, on the other hand, when confronted by a drunken Brit rolling out of a Santa Monica pub, might think they are meeting Agatha Christie’s Lord Peter Wimsey. In either event, noses are likely to be put out of joint.

The reality is that the Western hemisphere is on a 60-degree tilt, with the hinge running along the Pacific coastline, and anything that isn’t firmly nailed down, be it in Woking or Wisconsin, comes tumbling down until it hits the beach. Just a series of perverse coincidences and here we are, swept along on the tide of adventure. After all, the only control we have over our lives is how much sugar we put in our coffee--everything else is up to the Almighty. The result is the greatest collection of misfits the world has ever known, and with it, the most fertile breeding ground for eccentrics since the demise of the English country house.

My accountant, for example, refuses to eat if his plate contains food with more than two colors. Then there was the man who reportedly cured himself of an obsessive compulsive order by shooting himself in the head. A Catholic priest of my acquaintance has a car that sports the bumper sticker: “So many women, so little time.” Then there is the Venice performance artist who invites the public to inspect her cervix. And I am told a lawyer on the Westside has instructed his answering service to tell callers: “I don’t care who you are, I’ll f___ you!” A refreshingly honest mission statement if ever there was one.

And where else in the world would one meet someone like Albert? Overweight, wild-eyed, wild-haired, prone to wild gesticulations and more likely to shout at you than talk at a normal volume, Albert is an acknowledged academic expert on medieval siege catapults, and is particularly keen on the trebuchet--a catapult with a long arm and a sling. It wouldn’t be so bad if he just read or wrote books about trebuchets; the problem is he has built one--and is now throwing things around his property in Topanga. The “things” are what disturbs the neighbors, for, in addition to grand pianos, they include dead domestic animals and other road kill. Imagine your Sunday lunch being disturbed by a loud whistling noise followed by the carcass of a dead dog landing on your patio with explosive force.

The problem with the Brits, particularly those who live in Los Angeles, is that they are far more conventionally ambitious than their fellow Angelenos might imagine. This is, after all, our 20th-century equivalent of the Viking raids: rape, pillage, a couple of IPO’s or movies, and then back to a nice house in the Cotswolds with a large sack of loot and a decorous nubile. As for the old myth that we leave Britain because we can’t stand the food, the real reason isn’t the food, it’s the women--but perhaps that’s one point I shouldn’t expand on.


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