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British Eccentrics - Maybe It Is Everyone Else Who Is Out Of Step

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Someone somewhere sometime - well, it may have been Victoria Melody in Lincoln this week (more about her later) said: "We are only as interesting as the people we know".

And I do try my best.

This week I went to an Eccentrics Symposium at the University of Lincoln. Purely as an observer, you understand.

I went along with my chum mad inventor John Ward, whose yo-yo safety net (a hair net attached to the yo-yo-using person's leg) once got a two-page spread in German magazine Stern when they were writing about serious conservation issues. John says:

"I have found that, if you keep a straight face, people will print anything. James Dyson will be remembered for inventing his vacuum cleaner; Frank Whittle will be remembered for inventing the jet engine; and I will be remembered for inventing the electric bra-warmer."

(It was featured in the science pages of the Guardian.)

Interestingly each of the speakers claimed that he or she was not actually an eccentric himself or herself - except for John who had little alternative but to admit it, as he has featured in various academic books on eccentricity.

Anthony Schrag, the first speaker, grew up in Africa and was nicknamed 'Wrinkle Blue Bum' as a child because he liked to climb trees so much that he reminded his friends of local apes. He is an artist interested in the way people move. His CV says he focuses on "blowing things up, climbing on things and occasionally kidnapping people".

This week, he revealed he had discovered that, if you tightly wrap a boy in a blanket or similar covering and roll him down a hill, the boy cannot stop himself rolling. He also persuaded the audience to try the internet craze of 'planking' - lying straight, across unlikely objects... though the President of the World Egg Throwing Federation (of whom more later) claimed that, on the internet, 'planking' has been replaced by the craze of doing a 'Batman' - hanging upside-down by your toes from unlikely objects.

John Plowman talked about his hats - he always wears one except when having a bath and having sex and buys them in London, New York, Chicago and - well - anywhere... mostly pork pie hats although, he admitted, this is rather odd as he is a vegetarian.  He seemed to have bought two non-pork pie hats because they have initials inside them; one of those two had his own initials inside them. He always carries an umbrella with him because he does not like his hats to get wet.

'Project Pigeon', an "art and education project which works with pigeons as a vehicle to bring people together", did not send anyone along but they did send a video along which included shots of pigeons doing back flips. These are a specific type of pigeon and they have to be kept in quite small cages to prevent their tumbling getting out of control.

Unless I misunderstood, tumbling pigeon and 'parlour rolling' contests are held and this type of pigeon was specifically developed by a bus driver in Birmingham in the early 20th century by selective breeding. Quite how he chose pigeons with the appropriate genes I am uncertain. The Project Pigeon website claims that this particular type of pigeon is "the uniquely acrobatic Birmingham Roller, a type that originated in 1920 in Bordesley Green, Birmingham, after local fancier William Penson noticed one of his birds perform a backflip while in flight."

It looks to me a bit like the pigeon is having a panic attack but, according to Project Pigeon, "today there are hundreds of Birmingham Roller clubs around the world and fiercely fought competitions to pick the birds that perform the most dramatic tumbling."

The utterly fascinating Victoria Melody  as previously alluded to - "We are only as interesting as the people we know" - had actually spent about a year living with pigeon fanciers because she has a passion for other people's passions. She said that, when she put an ad in a magazine saying she wanted to live with pigeon fanciers for a year, she got a lot of responses from much older single men living alone.

Yesterday, she screened a sadly too-brief video taken by a tiny camera and transmitter which she had attached to a pigeon which then flew across Brighton; she says she received and recorded the pictures using a satellite dish on top of a car. The pigeon, alas, went AWOL.

An even briefer video of two pigeons playing ping pong - which you can see on YouTube - was apparently shot by B.F.Skinner, the highly admirable man who later created the concept of a pigeon guided missile during World War Two: a concept which I feel the US military was short-sighted in rejecting.

But Victoria Melody's passion for people's passions stretches far wider than pigeon-fanciers. She spent a year immersed in the fascinating Northern Soul scene - centred round what she described as "the Motown Music that never made it into the charts". It was a year, as she described it, of "being taught how to dance in people's living rooms".

Her latest cultural immersions have been dog shows (with her Basset hound Major Tom) and the world of beauty pageants, specifically preparing for next year's Miss Galaxy 2012, where contestants can include married women.

Which brings us to Andy Dunlop, aforementioned President of the World Egg Throwing Federation, which was formed in 2006 though the sport started in 1322 in Swaton, Lincolnshire. Andy has managed to persuade the English Sports Council to recognise four of the five main egg throwing disciplines as legitimate sports. These are:

- two-person Throw and Catch, which consists of one catcher and one tosser.

- six or seven-person Static Relay (in which competitors pass eggs to each other by throwing them).

- individual Target Throwing, although Andy did not mention to the English Sports Council that, at the annual World Egg Throwing Championships, the target is the World Gravy Wrestling Champion - with extra points for hitting his groin.

- team Egg Trebuchet, a trebuchet being a large catapult-like siege engine which was employed by armies in the Middle Ages.

The English Sports Council, rather short-sightedly in both Andy's and my opinion, refused to recognise as a legitimate sport (despite the obvious skill required) Russian Egg Roulette.

This involves guessing - sorry, skilfully choosing - which individual egg in a six-pack of eggs is raw as opposed to hard-boiled. Five are hard boiled; one is raw. Contestants, with handkerchiefs tied round their foreheads, as in the Vietnam movie The Deer Hunter, then smash the eggs on their foreheads to prove/disprove their choice. Obviously, the one who smashes a raw egg onto his or her forehead loses.

Victoria Melody attempted this with tragic results. Her hair was still sticky with raw egg 40 minutes later.

Egg Throwing is a fast-spreading sporting event. This year, the World Championships in Lincolnshire attracted TV crews from 26 TV stations worldwide. The Deputy Vice President of the World Egg Throwing Federation is former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott - or, at least, Andy Dunlop chose Mr Prescott's non-refusal of the offer to be an acceptance. Likewise, he took actor George Clooney's non-refusal to attend the World Egg Throwing Championships as an acceptance and got worldwide press publicity across the globe for George Clooney's decision to turn up at the championships in Lancashire which, sadly, he did not.

But, as Andy says, "it cost nothing, got us worldwide publicity and was better than paying £60 to put an ad in the local paper".

This is a major factor as important in general eccentricity as it is in egg-throwing.

A more serious point was made by Andy when he pointed out that it was only a few centuries ago when almost everyone believed the world was flat and that the planets all revolved around the Earth. People who thought the world was round and that the earth revolved around the Sun were seen as slightly mad eccentrics.

And who was right?

The minority.

The eccentrics.

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