Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle

James Dyson is dead wrong - studying things like "French lesbian poetry” can make people's lives better, even if they don't suck dirt up off carpets.

According to James Dyson the British are turning their backs on the things that once made them wealthy by studying humanities instead of science and technology. I reckon he’s onto something. Take me, for instance. I’m British. I have a BA in languages, an MPhil in European Literature and a PhD in German and I’ve never invented a single piece of useful household equipment in my life. I haven’t even had anything accepted by Take A Break’s Brainwaves Roadshow. And yes, it’s not very scientific to draw conclusions from just one example but I’m not very scientific. That’s the whole problem.

Dyson is worried, not just about getting vacuum cleaners around troublesome corners, but about the whole future of our nation:

Today we’re decadent. We’ve relaxed. [...] If we want to be wealthy and have our welfare programmes we’ve got to create wealth.

Which is fair enough, although to be honest, rich businessmen have been saying this for centuries. They used to say it 200 years ago regarding the German Romantics and their “decadent” influence on youth (I know this because I studied it, pointlessly, when I really ought to have been working out a means of improving on the humble tumble dryer).

So anyhow, I’m sorry, nation and economy, for spending so much time pissing about. It’s not as though I was even any good at it. It took me two goes to get my doctorate. To call me a “failed academic” would be flattering, to say the least. All the same, it does irritate me to hear Dyson making sneery comments about “little Angelina wanting to go off to study French lesbian poetry”. First, the subject of my thesis was German, male and straight, so ner (that’s the kind of debating technique one learns in an arts seminar). Second, just what is your problem, James Dyson? Would you have said the same thing about Shakespeare (who may have much to say about the human condition but, as far as I’m aware, knew sod all about bagless vacuuming technology)? To me it sounds as though you’re using the example of an imaginary artist who’s foreign AND female AND not straight to add extra weight to the suggestion that the arts just aren’t relevant. Because clearly, normal people – those who could be (but aren’t) making Britain great – are British, male and straight. A bit like you, really.

I realise that in saying this, I’m starting to sound like a typical lefty arts student. I’ll be honest – arts students do have that reputation. But don’t be fooled. We’re not always as woolly as we seem. We might aim to be inclusive but that’s not to say it’s not often tokenistic. Many’s the time* I’ve sat around with a bunch of middle-class arty types debating Marxist and feminist approaches to literature before the conversation’s moved on to mocking someone’s allegedly unattractive, uncultured cleaning lady. Even so, that’s not to say the inclusivity’s all lip service (or based on the fact that the more obscure the person you study, the fewer secondary materials you have to read. That’s true, but it’s not all down to that). The reception of good art – the kind of art that changes other people’s world views – doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes real treasures need to be dug out from all the prejudices that have buried them. And if you’re saying yeah, sure, but don’t expect other people to pay for it, well, sure. It’s a good thing AHRC funding is a complete bugger to access (although a pity this means promoters of diversity in the arts tend not to be very sodding diverse).

The truth is, I like vacuum cleaners. And I like books. What’s more, I don’t really believe absorption in the latter are responsible for the downfall of innovation or the decline of manufacturing industries (but that’s history. You don’t do history, James, do you? It’s one of the humanities, after all). Furthermore, things that improve our standard of living don’t just lie with science and technology. Sometimes good things come from arty-farty, pretentious, poncey, pondering types, the kind of people who don’t study disciplines where there are “right” answers (which, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t mean they’re easier. How many pre-teen prodigies do you see getting GCSE English Lit compared to maths and IT?). We gain from having people who reshape our cultural landscape and put things in new contexts. People who don’t use “lesbian” as a shorthand for irrelevant. People who challenge bigotry rather than flippantly reinforce it. Engagement with feminism and queer theory – when it’s done properly (ie not as disastrously as I used to do it) – can change people’s lives far more than a modification to a vacuum cleaner and the fact that it’s made one person very rich. While I have never owned a Dyson, I still have feminism. And yes, one cannot live on feminism alone, but that’s why I’ve bought a cheap Tesco model, complete with bag.

* Oh, okay, it was once.

PS Here it may sound like I am agreeing with Michael Gove for once. Rest assured I am not Michael Gove. Just in case you were wondering.

This post originally appeared on Glosswitch's blog.

James Dyson would like us all to get rich by inventing things like this. Photograph by Nimbu on Flicker, via Creative Commons

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

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 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge