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From Michael Lewis to Montaigne, the best writers first live an interesting life

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

A most unusual kind of jealousy settled over me this week: envy for the life of an 18th- or 19th century clergyman. Fortunately, I can explain. What do the following thinkers have in common?

Thomas Bayes (Bayesian probability). Thomas Malthus (over-population), Edmund Cartwright (who invented the power loom), George Garrett (who invented the submarine). They were all parish priests. 

The point, fortunately, is not that we have to enter the priesthood to think better. It wasn’t necessarily God that inspired them; it was autonomy. The Church inadvertently protected them from the need to “pursue a career” with their inventions and scientific research. Their research was self-directed, guided by personal whims and passions, rather than restricted by the rules of academic disciplines. They were hobbyists not “professionals”. We should remember their example.

That is one of the brilliant arguments in Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book. Taleb himself started writing when he was still a trader. His day job bought him freedom, time and autonomy to follow his intellectual passions. He wrote as he chose. Taleb is not alone. Stendhal was a diplomat, Trollope worked as a civil servant for the Post Office, Kafka was employed by an insurance company.

Just do something

Taleb’s argument makes me feel better about the awkwardness I suffer when I am asked how to pursue a “career” in writing. I’ve always wanted to say this: “Don’t! If you really want to write, then do so. Just don’t view it as a prearranged career, a battle campaign to be planned. Writing isn’t like that. Perhaps you need to do something else first.”

How many of your favourite writers, whether they are journalists or novelists, mapped out a career plan, ticking off all the available credentials and qualifications as they moved towards their prearranged destination? If your answer is more than none, then you clearly like different writers from me.

Let me give three examples. They are all writers I greatly admire, drawn from very different genres, all of whom experienced life outside the literary world long before they paid the bills with their pens. Michael Lewis is probably the most widely read and influential journalist in the world. Following his series for Vanity Fair about the crisis in the eurozone, the Economist argued that “Europe trembles before Lewis’s gaze”. Lewis started out as a banker at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s. Being inside finance, rather than viewing it with contempt from the vantage point of the media or academia, did more than provide a grasp of financial detail. More importantly, Lewis understood the nature of the beast. What he had seen, felt and lived as a banker formed the insights of his books – even though they were written long after he had fallen out of love with finance. Lewis did not pursue “contacts”, he lived his life.

As a poet, calligrapher, librettist and novelist, Vikram Seth’s work could not be more different from the urgent relevance of Lewis’s writings. But the idea of Seth studying “creative writing” is as unlikely as Lewis taking a further degree in finance. At school, Seth was thought more likely to be a politician than a writer. After studying PPE at Oxford, he pursued macroeconomics at Stanford. The real world fascinated him first; the means of artistic expression came later. After Seth made an epic voyage through China, Tibet and Nepal, his father urged him to write up his travel notes. They became From Heaven Lake, his first book. Nor did Seth “plan” his books; he was too busy writing them. He wrote A Suitable Boy (over 1,400 pages) in full before submitting it to publishers.

If Lewis is a champion of middle-distance running, and Seth leads the field over the marathon, Matthew Parris is one of our greatest sprinters, master of the 1,200-word essay. He was an MP before finding his voice as parliamentary sketch-writer and columnist for The Times. Public life came first, then the writer’s life. The practical realm gave way to reflection. The careers – or, better, the lives – of Seneca and Montaigne follow the same pattern.

Reflecting on all this led to a startling realisation. For 13 years, I was a professional cricketer. In my conscious mind, my ambitions in cricket were very simple and obvious – to play for England, to improve as a batsman, to succeed as a captain and so on. My friends often questioned why I carried on so long, even after I’d dropped out of contention for the England side. I can now see that the answers I gave – “I’m batting better this season . . . a breakthrough is round the corner” – were honest but incomplete.

Away from the crease

The untold story, which I didn’t understand, let alone acknowledge, is that cricket informed the rest of my life. First, it provided rich experience. A day lived in a position of leadership teaches you more than a year spent studying leadership in others. Later, when I withdrew into the writer’s world, I had a deep well of emotions and experiences with which I was still grappling.

Secondly, cricket gave me freedom. For seven months a year, I had a reasonably secure job (albeit a very demanding one). In the other five months, I could write exactly as I wanted – whether books or journalism – without having to pretend to be someone else to please an editor or publisher. For five months a year, I could live as a self-tasking academic, only without any papers to mark or research proposals to submit. I could follow any intellectual threads that interested me, no matter how obscure or unconnected to my “career”. In the process, I developed a love of freedom and autonomy that stayed with me even when writing replaced cricket as my main job.

Aristotle’s definition of the free man is one who is free with his opinions – as a side effect of being free with his time. The Church provided that freedom to the 19th-century parson. Cricket provided it for me. How back-to-front we get things. I used to think my vain, childish obsession with sport had taken up far too much time, preventing me from more serious pursuits. Now I feel only deep gratitude.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis