I found cranks fascinating. They have the role of enabling movement in an engine. I really enjoyed drawing one in my high school art class, there was something about the smooth, machined metal, the shadows, its inherent strength, and above all, the fact that it was oddly shaped, offset. I used to see them as bent out of shape. Which is part of the the word’s origin: from the middle low German it gives us wrinkle, and in Dutch it gives us crinkle. So that out of shape look is also the origin of its name.
Of course there are parallels in human behaviour. If you’re labelled a crank it might be that you’re grumpy, or that you have very strange ideas, or behaviour.
What I get from that is that we’re all a bit of a crank. Ever since the 70s we have accepted that we’re all on a spectrum, no one is perfect, and we all have some behavioural oddities, imperfections, obsessions, phobias, anxieties … who hasn’t had some wacky idea they’ve clung too, who hasn’t exhibited weird behaviour at some point – and who are you to say you haven’t? By whose measurement or definition can you evade the spectrum of life?
So, there are two sides to crank, we have both the capacity to drive something, to turn something, and we have the capacity to be difficult, grumpy or odd. At our core we’re all a bit bent, but yet it is our very bentness that gives us possibilities.
Some famous creative types who were also deemed a bit odd, and who also fascinated me would include Byron, Shelley, The Earl of Rochester – John Wilmot, Baudelaire, Pushkin, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Newton, Poe, Hemingway, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett … the point being, that sometimes their quirks, oddness, and bentness enabled their creative juice to flow (and sometimes the reverse or both).
You may remember the 2001 movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ based on the real life story of 1994 Nobel Prize winner and mathematical genius John Nash. Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and was unwillingly institutionalised several times. He slowly recovered with help, and returned to teaching at Princeton. Nash wasn’t bent in the sense that Byron was bent, but he was not like other people, and in that sense he was of a different order, yet a genius and great contributor to understanding maths.
One of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read is of a woman who battled with schizophrenia when everyone thought it was MS. Elyn R. Saks (‘The Centre Cannot Hold’ London, Virago, 2007) pushed through ilness, institutionalisation, misdiagnosis and more to become a lawyer, and a psychiatrist. It is a truly heart rending story, but also a wonderfully inspiring story.
All of the above were thought to be cranks in the plain sense, that they were just a little mad, and in some ways they were/are. But most simply suffered from a variety of physical and mental ilnesses, which, today, we know is not a barrier to anything (except our judgmentalism perhaps). And, as I stated at the begining, we’re all on some spectrum, along with all of them, so who are we to judge? We’re all a bit mad, a crank, odd in some way. But we all have capacity to shine, to create, to contribute in the simplest ways where we are, sometimes in spite of the things that dog us, and sometimes because of the very things that dog us.
Syd Barrett (1946 – 2006), musically talented, sadly succumbed to psychadelic drug usage, to the point that the other members of Pink Floyd removed him from the band in The four part song ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ was written to honour Barrett, who had enabled Pink Floyd to move, to create and develop their own style. A truly creative crank.