Off Centre

John Michell. Eccentric Lives and Peculiar Notions. Thames and Hudson, 1984.

In the last few years there have been several books about the world of the fringe scientists and eccentric theorists. Some of these books have shown a tendency to copy from each other (rather like some of the people they write about) as well as simply to treat their characters as lunatics paraded for the reader's amusement. John Michell's book avoids these failings.

He has much original material on some fascinating but little-known figures such as Comyns Beaumont, who in the 1940's not only proposed theories of cosmic catastrophes in historical times, but attempted to prove that the Biblical Jerusalem had been sited at Edinburgh and that Dumbarton was ancient Athens.

In addition Michell treats his subjects with rather more respect than most writers in this field. He shows that many of them, far from being lunatics, were, when not proposing fringe theories, people of considerable substance. Beaumont, for instance, was a major Fleet Street figure, while Ignatius Donnelly, father both of modern Baconianism and Atlantology, was an important personality in late nineteenth century US politics. (A surprisingly high number of people featured in this book seem to have combined fringe theorising with attempts to set up Utopian communities).

This book also makes clear that the people it features did not exist in isolation from the mainstream of thought and ideas. Lord Monboddo, the eighteenth century judge who attempted to prove that apes were members of the human race who might be taught civilised ways came in for ridicule, but the boundary between nature and culture was a major topic in the philosophy of the period, and led eminent thinkers to take an interest in the reports of wildmen and wolfchildren.

Similarly, Victorian attempts to prove the British the lost tribes of Israel were simply the most explicit expression of the combination of nationalism and evangelical religion that was a major part of the ideology of the period.

The attempts of fringe theorists to compare themselves with Pasteur, Galileo and other scientific figures ridiculed by their contemporaries are tiresome, but this book does feature one or two figures who, in retrospect, we can judge differently from the way they must have been seen at the time. Lord Momboddo anticipated some of the Ideas of Darwin. Geoffrey Pyke, the World War II Scientist who bombarded the British Government with plans to build huge ships from mixtures of ice and wood-shavings and to solve the energy problems of post-war Europe with pedal powered trains, now seems not a stereotyped mad scientist, but a precursor of the Alternative Technology movement.

Even as bizarre a figure as Comyns Beaumont anticipated not merely the better known catastrophe theories of Velikovsky, but some of the speculations of Hoyle and Wickramsingh regarding comets. By contrast, the chapter on Sir Francis Galton, the leading Victorian anthropologist, presents us with a figure who although highly respected in his own lifetime now seems, with his attempts to draw up statistical tables to measure women's attractiveness and the frequency of lying amongst different nationalities, to be as weird as anyone from the scientific fringe.

Unlike most other books in this field, this one has little to say on contemporary figures like Berlltz and von Daniken, However it is salutary to note the contrast between fringe figures of the past, who reached their conclusions after wide reading and sacrificed friends, money and even sanity to the task of spreading what they considered vital truths; with their modern equivalents, copying dubious information from each others books with both eyes on sales figures. -- Roger Sandell. Magonia 19, May 1983.

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