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Mongrels All

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By Angus Calder

Angus Calder’s thesis, summarized on the dust jacket flap, is that the weird deserve centre-stage because these creatures are the zeitgeist of our world and, quite independently, are inherently interesting. He argues that they may even be more telling than better-known entities.

Calder’s choice of characters isn’t just odd or screwball-funny; it’s truly bizarre. Billie Holiday rubs shoulders with the Hindu elephant-headed god, Ganesha, and with the Devil himself. There’s also Billy the Kid, Annie Besant, Ludwig Wittgenstein and an assortment of others. These aren’t just weirdos. Some of them are, today, pretty mainstream – Holiday, Wittgenstein, Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria. Why include them?

People are odd, some more than others; it’s as simple as that. We are all products of multiple influences, often conflicting, but each of which makes us what we are. Every influence has its own potential. This makes every person unique. Some, in whom the influences are more pronounced, are more eccentric than others and it is in these people that we glimpse reflections of the “potentialities, both comic and tragic, of human nature”. This is what fascinates Calder and it is difficult to disagree when he says that “mongrelism is our common lot” and that “we are all mongrels”. There is no reason to exclude deities from this procession, either; they are, after all, to a greater or lesser extent, projections of human wants, desires, needs and beliefs and it is in them that the eccentricities can be allowed to run riot without fear of confinement to a padded cell. How else could one explain such a bizarre pantheon? Of course, if oddness is the overarching criterion for selection, the result is bound to be lopsided and Calder quickly acknowledges this and apologises for it. I think the mea culpa is unnecessary. No one could really expect consistency or completeness in as subjective a book as this and, indeed, the sheer eccentricity of the selection only emphasizes Calder’s thesis.

Structurally, the book is uncompromising. The entries are arranged alphabetically by surname, but there is no table of contents. You have to either read it through or know what you’re looking for. The index, though it exists, is singularly (and unabashedly) unhelpful. “I hope that if you are frustrated in some particular search you will nevertheless be intrigued by oddities and interconnections and might pursue them back into the text, where you will, I hope find instruction, amusement, or indeed both at once,” says Calder and that pretty much sums up his entire approach.

In fact, there isn’t any definable consistency to the book as, indeed, there shouldn’t be – Calder’s selection is itself mongrel and the result of whatever or whoever seems to have caught his fancy. These are not authorised biographies, or even potted biographies. These are essays that limn Calder’s abaxial perception of foibles. Calder doesn’t look so much at the personalities – many of the entries are obscure non-entities – as at their eccentricities. This is unlike most biographies or reference texts which take prominent persons and incidentally may (or may not) cover their idiosyncrasies. Calder entirely inverts this approach by choosing the quirk and then examining the persona behind it. Take, for instance, the piece on Babe Ruth, a figure on whom there is surely a surfeit of material. Calder’s interest in him springs first from the legendary called-shot home run in the 1932 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs. Did he really call that shot by pointing his bat to the bleachers? Calder seems to argue that perhaps this doesn’t matter for all it did was add to the sheen and allure of a figure who was already an icon, not just in the sport, but for the nation, as a “surrogate for hope” and a “redeemer” when the nation needed one in a time of depression, organised crime and cynicism. It is this, and the bundle of Babe Ruth’s own personality – drinker, womaniser, setter of impossible records – that makes him a true mongrel. There is no one quirk that marks an individual apart or worthy of Calder’s notice. His gaze is directed, rather, to people of many parts, the sum of which exceeds themselves. Thus, Calder includes Bill Tilden and Henri Cochet in tennis but not Connors, Arthur Ashe, McEnroe or Borg; the celebrity chef Alexis Soyer; the writer B Traven; Herbert Ironmonger and Gregor MacGregor in cricket and so on.

Clearly, the selection is not just idiosyncratic, it is personally quirky; Calder chooses the ones that are appealing to him, and it is this whole-hearted subjectivity that gives the book it’s appeal. In his piece on MacGregor, for instance, Calder writes:

“Which brings me to the reason why MacGregor is in this book. Firstly, while a very great deal of cricket has been played in Lowland Scotland for a couple of centuries, we have produced damn few top-class heroes, and amongst these only MacGregor could be classed as ‘legendary’. Furthermore, I kept wicket for years myself, at ‘good club’ second eleven level, and had my days of success. The courage of MacGregor fascinates me – because, perhaps even with cut hands, he ‘stood up’ to Sammy Woods’ bowling.”

The book makes compelling reading. Calder writes with his tongue set very firmly in his cheek and is irrepressibly and delightfully irreverent, especially when he treads on hallowed ground. Yet, he can write with intense feeling – the pieces on Billie Holiday and Lester Young are tragic masterpieces.

At a personal level, I was taken by the surprising number of entries connected with India (Ganesha, Kali, Victoria, Annie Besant, Shaikh Adam, Mirza Sheikh I’tesamuddin), jazz (Lester Young, Billie Holiday) and movies (Hedy Lamarr, Merle Oberon). That’s not to suggest that there’s any particular slant to the book, because there isn’t. As eccentric books go, this can’t be bettered.

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About Gautam Patel

Mumbai-based lawyer and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.