London has had more than its fair share of eccentrics over the years, from the Mole Man of Hackney to the carefully crafted ditzy façade presented by Boris Johnson. Some self-proclaimed eccentrics even attend the Eccentric Club, formed in the 1780s and largely representing that very British tradition of the eccentric aristocrat. Similarly, there’s a group that goes around installing blue plaques for 'English Eccentrics', including the one marking architect and demolition enthusiast Cedric Price’s former office in Bloomsbury.
There are professional aristocrats, such as Screaming Lord Sutch, Sebastian Horsley or Grayson Perry. There are semi-professionals like Rainbow George, a serial caller of radio chat shows and former ally of Peter Cook. And there are the quiet local eccentrics, who might not even be eccentrics at all but just sort of stand out from the crowd, like the guy who used to ride a white horse round Stockwell or the White Woman of Camberwell, or the piano playing transvestite of Herne Hill.
But some eccentrics are much more visible, becoming so familiar to so many Londoners in such a short space of time that they feel as if they are part of the city’s furniture, a landmark every bit as important as Big Ben or St Paul’s, until they suddenly disappear. These characters are often driven by a desire to spread a message, and seem like sprites that have broken free from the self-enclosed lunacy of Speakers' Corner to run amok in wider London. While around, they are taken for granted, largely tolerated but occasionally persecuted. And they are invariably missed when they are gone.
Stanley Green, Protein Man
Like so many people, my earliest memories of London feature the unforgettable sight of the Protein Man, that solitary figure who marched up and down Oxford Street wearing a dramatic sandwich board and selling pamphlets warning against the dangers of protein.
This was Stanley Green, who from 1968 until his death in 1993, travelled to the West End from his home in Ealing every day to wear a placard promising 'Less Lust From Less Protein', and recommending the banning of fish, bird, meat, cheese, egg, beans, peas, nuts and, of course, sitting. Green sold pamphlets printed in his front room, in which he warned that an excess of protein was responsible for uncontrollable passions, causing much of what was wrong with the world. Imagine what he would have made of Donald Trump.
During my youthful forays into London, I sadly never spoke to Stanley Green or bought one of his pamphlets, but was delighted to find one of his distinctive placards had found its way into the Museum of London’s collection. This is entirely fitting. You could make a case that during the 1970s and 1980s, Stanley Green was the most famous non-famous person in London, a figure recognised by millions even if few ever actually spoke to him. Oxford Circus has never felt quite the same without him.
Phil Howard, Sinner-Winner Man
Stanley Green’s pitch was eventually taken by Phil Howard, a scruffy, beaming Scouser who hung around Oxford Circus from around 2000 bellowing through a megaphone at shoppers and office workers. His catchphrase, 'be a winner, not a sinner', earned him the nickname Sinner-Winner Man, as well as drawing the attention of Westminster Council, who gave him in an ASBO. In 2005, I interviewed Howard for Time Out, discovering he was an Everton fan who had given up his business after falling for God in his 20s.
I subsequently met him every week or so for a couple of months to get his views on London and life for an irregular column – we thought of it as our take on Thought For The Day. He even sent me a Christmas card. Howard was a bit of a reactionary – he would tell people they were going to hell because they dyed their hair - and a minor nuisance, but caused no real harm. He would often pop up at other London landmarks as well as major sporting events across the capital, but, after being banned by a number of councils, suddenly seemed to disappear.
A pioneering figure, Jesus Jellet is remembered fondly by many. He was a fixture at UK festivals in the 1970s, including the numerous open air concerts in Hyde Park. He was nicknamed Jesus because that’s who he looked like, and while he was a believer he wasn’t given over to excessive preaching, preferring to spend his time dancing, talking about vegetarianism at Speakers' Corner and taking his clothes off. Jesus, who came from Southampton and lived in Ladbroke Grove, moved with the times. He was photographed at a Sex Pistols show and was still attending gigs into the 1980s. There’s a nice round-up here.
Square-jawed Brian Haw’s 1,000-yard-stare arrived at Parliament Square in June 2001, where he set up a 'peace camp' to protest the imposition of sanctions against Iraq. He stayed for almost ten years, sleeping in a small tent and surrounded by a mosaic of colourful banners protesting western foreign policy, before he died in Berlin of lung cancer in 2011.
There were numerous fudged and over-officious attempts to remove Haw from his prominent site and he became such a well-known political and cultural figure that the artist Mark Wallinger recreated his entire tableau of protest paraphernalia at the Tate Britain in 2007. I interviewed Haw, squatting by his side for an intense two-and-a-half hours while he talked almost without break about his life and beliefs. I thought he’d never stop. The man was driven beyond belief, as I guess you’d have to be to live as he did for a decade.
Neil Horan, The Dancing Priest
A divisive character to say the least, Horan was born in Ireland and lives in Nunhead. He dresses in green, accessorised with beret, kilt and Israel flag, and appears all over the world, dancing and carrying banners warning about the end of the world. A defrocked former Catholic priest who was acquitted of charges of indecency involving a minor in 2004, Horan’s publicity stunts have seen him invade the courses of the British Grand Prix and Olympic Marathon, as well as appear on Britain’s Got Talent.
He is said to carry a card that reads: 'Neil Horan, the Britain's Got Talent Irish Dancer. I perform at Weddings. My Mission in Life is to help prepare the world for the Second Coming.' Lacking any of the charm of many eccentrics, Horan’s thirst for fame demonstrates a serious decline in the noble tradition of the outspoken London eccentric, but he’s all we have left.