The 'nobodies' worth knowing

Speak for yourself, Andy Warhol. It was you, wasn't it, who said that everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame?

It doesn't seem likely to me. How many of us will appear in Hullo magazine? Or on a late-night talk show?

Anyway, according to W.S. Gilbert, "When everyone is somebodee,/ Then no one's anybody." Maybe we are happy in our anonymity. The privacy of being overlooked isn't so bad. Would we really like to be stared at in supermarkets?

Emily Dickinson, hardly noticed in her lifetime, seemed positively celebratory when she wrote "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" Most of us, if we wrote a diary, would call it "The Diary of a Nobody."

Of course, fame or the lack of it are relative states. Being a big fish in a small pond may satisfy some people. Being a top specialist lawyer, say, may seem like fame - until you discover that nobody outside the legal profession has a clue who you are.

There's an amusing story along these lines. Julie Andrews is apparently a keen admirer of the work of Lucie Rie, the renowned potter (renowned in the world of 20th-century ceramics, that is). The film star asked if she might visit Rie, who was reticent, private, and a master of self-effacement. Nevertheless, she graciously let her admirer visit. The meeting went well. Finally, it came time to go. As Rie saw her guest out, she said as an afterthought: "Oh, I never asked. What do you do for a living?"

It says much about Andrews's modest humor that only she could have spread this story.

Measuring fame is tricky. One telling definition - and now I can't find out who said it - is that no one is truly famous until your mother has heard of them.

Which brings me to Harold Moore Scrivener. Until the current issue of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society's newsletter arrived this morning, the man was unknown. And not just to me and my mother. To virtually everyone.

Mackintosh, we know, of course. (Don't we?) He is lionized today as one of the world's most inventive architects, a man of towering imagination, astonishing vision. He's exhaustively celebrated by enthusiasts, scholars, and imitators. Books, articles, and exhibitions about him abound. Even one or two of his buildings still exist.

But Scrivener? Until today, nothing. And even now, the article in the Mackintosh newsletter basically says that ... hardly a thing is known about him. "Extremely obscure" is the author's phrase. A few bare facts: He was a Northampton architect for 40 years, yet apparently no building can be ascribed to him alone. (Though there is a photo of a Victorian shoe factory he may have designed with his partner in the firm.)

So, you may ask, why is he worth mentioning? Because of an extremely faint connection with Mackintosh. In 1926, Scrivener bought a small Northampton house at 78 Derngate.

It so happened that a few years earlier, Mackintosh had designed some interiors and furniture for this house on behalf of its previous owner. When Scrivener moved in (he stayed only a few years), the furniture was gone. No one knows why he bought the house, or even if he was interested in Mackintosh.

And this is where the question "How obscure is obscure?" comes into play. Seventy-eight Derngate and, indeed, Mackintosh himself, were also virtually unknown at that time. The work Mackintosh did for this house, now recognized as brilliant, had been a last gasp in a brief career already on the rocks. Mackintosh was more or less forgotten, and would be widely ignored for years.

I'm sure the author of the article would have willingly told more about Scrivener if he'd found more to tell. But in the end, he was forced to conclude his piece with: "Perhaps purchasing 78 Derngate was the most inspired action of Scrivener's whole career?"

Perhaps. And if so, I think if I had been Scrivener, I might have preferred to remain in the forgetful dark. To be remembered for nothing more than buying a house ... now that is surely to be enough of a Nobody for anybody.

So, I have a plan. I am going to start a society in Scrivener's name, on behalf of all of us unknowns. I find it impossible not to believe that the world is full of Scriveners, and that they also did worthy, essential, sound work, that they displayed authenticity, determination, and perspicacity. Even if nothing can be found out about them any longer, they helped the world go round, and were, like him, unquestionably famous to their mothers.

I have no way of proving this. But still, I obstinately believe that Scrivener (as a fine example of the Great Unheralded Majority) should have, in his name, a society. With a newsletter. We owe him nothing less. The annual membership fee is £25. Due now.

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