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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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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