The owner of the talents isn't always their best judge. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thought his historical novels were his best work – and tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes.
Composer Arthur Sullivan made a fortune out of comic operas, but wanted to write serious oratorios.
Peter Ustinov claimed: “I act because I can, I write because I must.” He penned a few long-forgotten whimsical plays in the 50s.
A life of dogged self-belief and determined public indifference. (Review of Starstruck, Cosmo Landesman’s book about his parents, Guardian, 2008. Fran and Jay were determined to be famous at all costs, starting in the 50s and changing their story – jazz, open marriage, singer/songwriter, health food freak – decade by decade. Jay wanted to set up a museum of himself.)
“Anthony Newley directed, co-wrote and starred in...” The diminutive British actor, composer and singer wanted to be Charles Aznavour and become a National Treasure. But he did write the song Pure Imagination.
“They have a highly inflated opinion of their own abilities,” says Alex Polizzi of a couple of hoteliers who are convinced that their rather “individual” taste is perfect.
Funny writer Marty Feldman wanted to star in his own shows and revive silent comedy. Meanwhile the Goodies and Benny Hill had already done that, with hilarious results. Anyone later than Buster Keaton thinking slapstick is Art is doomed to failure.
You write some wacky spoofs when young and spend the rest of your life trying to interest people in your real, serious, magnum opus. See novelist Barbara Pym’s diaries (funny) and her endless letters in the manner of Ivy Compton Burnett (leaden).
William Blake wrote pithy, surreal lyrics, then wasted time crafting unreadable sagas about characters called Urizen and Golgonooza. In imitation of Ossian, the imaginary Scottish bard? The epic poems featuring Ossian, published in the 1760s, were written by James Macpherson, “drawing in part on traditional Gaelic poetry he had collected”, says Wikipedia.) Blake’s reverse coloured etchings (plus poems) are lovely, but his imitations of Michelangelo are embarrassing. But if you invent your own printing process, poetic form, mythology, artistic style and artistic method, you may think yourself above criticism. Historian E.P. Thompson placed Blake in the context of late 18th century millennialist cults.
The Monkees sacked their songwriters (Neil Sedaka, Carole King, Neil Diamond).
Tony Hancock decided that his success as a comedian was all his own work and sacked his scriptwriters (Galton and Simpson). He was convinced he’d make it big in America without them.
Marilyn Monroe was a natural comedienne – but then she had the wrong kind of acting lessons from followers of Konstantin Stanislavski.
Ladybird Books were works of art covering fairy tales, history, nature and modern life. The firm replaced beautiful paintings with crude cartoons, and produced books to support a long-forgotten reading system. And now the early books are being republished with the text replaced by lame attempts at adult humour.
Folk-song collector Alan Lomax “in later years devoted his energies to something he called cantometrics, classifying the patterns of singing (and, in choreometrics and parlametrics, dancing and speech) so as to relate them to modes of behaviour and social structures; at his death he was beginning to construct a “general theory” which he believed could form a defence of endangered cultures, not least against the spread of American influence. “The primary function of music,” he wrote in 1954, “is to remind the listener that he belongs to one certain part of the human race, comes from a certain region, belongs to a certain generation. The music of your place... is a quick and immediate symbol for all the deepest emotions the people of your part of the world share.”” (Guardian, 2011. But Lomax was probably surrounded by people busily stamping out indigenous cultures, or being ashamed of their European roots.)
You spend your whole life trying to find the key to all mythologies, without realising that a) you’re unlikely to find it, b) even if it was findable, it’s too big a project for one person and one lifetime, and c) even if you could find an answer it’s unlikely to be right. d) even if it’s the right answer, who cares? e) you’ve ignored research by other people in a language you don’t read. (This really happened to Mr. Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. But maybe Sir James Frazer wrote his book for him as The Golden Bough.)
A prominent person famous in their field (writer, scientist) gets a bee in their bonnet about something way outside their specialism and spends days, weeks, months, researching, lecturing and making TV programmes about Their Theory. Writer Patricia Cornwell is sure painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Linus Pauling (quantum chemist, molecular biologist) thought Vitamin C cured colds. Eric de Maré (architectural photographer) was obsessed with Social Credit – a substitute for money. Apocalyptic Victorian painter John Martin wanted to be an engineer and designed sewers. We got the sewers, but not the Babylonian repro architecture along the banks of the Thames that was part of his plan.
During the war scientist John Lilly did useful studies and produced workable inventions, but after the war he ended up thinking there was a “coincidence bureau” “out there” somewhere. Drugs and Timothy Leary came into it. He invented the isolation tank.
The Nobel Disease is a term for a tendency of Nobel laureates to embrace unscientific ideas later in life. For instance, biochemist Kary Mullis accepted astrology, thought the climate crisis was a hoax and said he once spoke with a fluorescent raccoon who addressed him as doctor. (@qikipedia. Scientist James Watson “stole DNA from Rosalind Franklin”, but his scientific training didn’t stop him being a racist. William Shockley, 1956 Nobel Prize winner in Physics for “researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect”, became a champion of eugenics and the sterilisation of African-Americans.)
Budd Hopkins (1931-2011) started off as an Abstract Expressionist painter, had a decent career for 20 years, then became caught up in the “alien abduction” phenomenon and spent the rest of his life “researching” it, hypnotising “patients” and persuading them they’d been abducted, and becoming a guru with a circle of acolytes. He became hysterical when challenged about his belief system. The Fortean Times points out that the “therapists” needed more and more lurid details so that they could sell more books and get more speaking dates. (My book/CD/DVD is on sale in the foyer and do subscribe to my youtube channel.)
See also doctor Jean-Martin Charcot who exhibited hysterics to packed lecture halls. One of them was Jane Avril, who later made a career for herself singing on the cabaret stage, dressed as a small child. I’ll just leave that there.