Wesley, Samuel (British clergyman and poet, 1662 – 1735). On Christmas Day 1716, Wesley was haunted by an apparition of a badger with no head. It was called Jeffrey.
“It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to write a modern, updated version of John Aubrey’s Brief Lives. But it further occurred to me that some books are unimproveable, and that in trying to follow in Aubrey’s footsteps I would embarrass myself and become the butt of ridicule. The idea continued to nag at me, however, and eventually I decided the solution was to outdo Aubrey in brevity. My own Brief Lives would consist of a single, unadorned fact about each of my subjects. So the reader may not learn very much about the life of X or Y or Z, but they would be armed with one little nugget which might come in handy to chuck into a lull during the conversation at the kind of swish sophisticated cocktail party to which they no doubt get invited.”
Other entries include: Gibson, Willie (Irish, 2nd Baron Ashbourne, 1868 – 1942). An enthusiastic Gaelic nationalist, Gibson was rumoured to keep a tortoise in his sporran. Harmsworth, Alfred, Lord Northcliffe (British newspaper magnate, 1865 – 1922). One day at a seaside resort, Northcliffe wantonly struck down a seagull with his stick and beat it to death on the sand. Jansson, Tove (Finnish writer and illustrator, 1914 – 2001). When staying at her Finnish island retreat, it was Tove Jansson’s practice to get out of bed at four o’ clock in the morning and stand stock still, pretending to be a tree, while a squirrel ran up and down her frozen limbs. Lennon, John (British musician, 1940 – 1980). According to Bernard Levin (q.v.), “there is nothing wrong with John Lennon that could not be cured by standing him upside down and shaking him gently until whatever is inside his head falls out”. Stein, Gertrude (American writer, 1874 – 1946). Stein liked to write while looking at cows. She and Alice B Toklas would drive around until they found a suitable spot, then Stein would sit on a campstool armed with pad and pencil, while Toklas coaxed a cow into her line of vision. Nixon, Richard Milhous (American politician and Potus, 1913 – 1994) Nixon’s favourite pastime was mashing potatoes.
Schubert, Franz (Austrian composer, 1797 – 1828). Upon his deathbed, Schubert’s final wish was that someone would bring him some books by James Fenimore Cooper.
Tippett, Michael (British composer, 1905 – 1998). Tippett called the refrigerator in his kitchen “Bernard Levin”.
Anderson, John Henry (British magician, 1814 – 1874). The first magician to pull a rabbit out of a hat, Anderson also did a trick which he described as “a Grand Ambidexterological Illusion with 12 Handkerchiefs, into which will be introduced the Enchanted Loaf and Learned Bottle, the Animated Orange and the Invisible Pigeon”.
Brooke, Charles (British, Rajah of Sarawak, 1829 – 1917). An austere character, Brooke deemed jam “effeminate” and replaced his glass eye with one taken from a stuffed albatross.
Callaghan, James (British politician and Prime Minister, 1912 – 2005). When Tom Driberg married Ena Binfield in 1951, Callaghan gave them as a wedding present four ashtrays, two of which were broken. Russell, Ken (British film director, 1927 – 2011). According to Glenda Jackson, the only direction Russell ever gave to his actors was to say “It needs to be a bit more … urrrgh”, or “a bit less hmmm”.