Ooh-aah: Eric Cantona in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Maverick or phoney: why Balotelli has nothing in common with Cantona

Ed Smith’s weekly column, Left Field. 

The scientist and inventor James Lovelock likens the act of discovery to catching a cricket ball. Understanding the process is neither possible nor desirable; it relies on intuition and instinct. The inventor is like “the catcher whose brain estimates the trajectory of a fast-moving ball and programmes the movement of their whole body so their hand can intercept the ball’s path”. The mind must be trained by practice but: “The act of catching is never done rationally or consciously; our conscious minds are too slow.”

On the evidence of his provocative new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, Lovelock’s mind is still moving swiftly, even halfway through his tenth decade. Lovelock originated Gaia theory – the notion that Planet Earth is a self-correcting or self-healing system – and invented the electron capture detector, critical to the detection of CFCs and their impact on the ozone layer.

His achievements, though great, may prove less instructive than his temperament. Lovelock is a pre-eminent example of a maverick who made a real and lasting contribution. He now fears that his kind of career is becoming impossible in today’s highly professionalised world. I found the story strangely familiar: Lovelock has witnessed the maverick being squeezed out of science, just as I am watching the maverick being sidelined by professionalism in sport.

When Lovelock began practising science some six decades ago, there was an established tradition of the lone, disinterested scientist. “Now they are as rare as ectoplasm,” he laments. Journals would not publish papers sent from a home address and chemical and radioactive suppliers would not sell to individuals. So Lovelock formed a commercial business, taking on commissions from Nasa and Shell.

He saw the life of a scientist-inventor as being like that of an artist or composer. Aspiring to a state of “autarky”, Lovelock funded his private research by accepting work from four or five providers. He would rather bang out “potboilers” than take one all-consuming job. “To work for a single provider,” he concluded, “is merely to become again a bought man . . . and this is not independence.”

Reading Lovelock’s book reminded me of another autonomous scholar, Michael Ventris, who deciphered Linear B, the oldest comprehensible European writing system. Lovelock was born in 1919 and Ventris in 1922 (he died in a car crash in 1956). Ventris was an architect by training, never went to university and treated Linear B as a kind of hobby. Where his rivals were secretive, Ventris would send them his notes to keep them posted on his progress. Breadth not only helped him to decipher Linear B, it also reinforced his generosity of spirit.

The decline of the independent thinker applies equally to sport. Coaching, like science, has been turned into a strict professional system. It has become suspicious of mavericks, especially autonomous ones who do not need the “system”. Just as science is dominated by the “serious scientist” who masters the bureaucratic apparatus to engineer government grants, sport has allowed the tracksuited official coach to bully the local enthusiast into extinction. Being good is less important than being familiar.

Yet truly outstanding coaches are often not formally trained – their curiosity leads them to proceed by empirical observation. John Inverarity, the former Australian cricketer, enjoyed remarkable success as the coach of Kent and Warwickshire, then more recently as Australia’s chairman of selectors. But his career was in education, as a headmaster. His cricketing posts were usually sabbaticals and he spent much of his time pretending he was “doing little or nothing”. It was a trick to reinforce players’ self-reliance and avoid a dependency culture towards coaches.

Like Lovelock, Inverarity hated the assumption that a professional ought to look and behave in a certain way. Where Lovelock preferred woolly jumpers to lab coats, Inverarity refused to wear a tracksuit. He would wander out for the pre-match “warm-up” in his chinos.

In golf, Jimmy Ballard has arguably helped more major winners than any other coach. But he has, in effect, been hounded out of the professional game. His crime is trying to make golf simple, where many earn a living from making it complicated. Where swing coaches with inferior track records have become celebrities, Ballard remains on the periphery.

Lovelock’s point about the decline of the maverick is that it has been largely an unfortunate accident, not a deliberate purge. In science, the process of peer review and the funding of science by grant agencies prejudice against outsiders. The committees try to be fair but they are inevitably drawn from corporate science. Lovelock does not think all scientists should be like him, just that his type should not be made extinct. He wants curiosity to survive the American trend of turning science into a “team sport played for prizes and recognition”. Ironically, the same process has also depleted actual team sports.

I would add one qualification. In celebrating genuine mavericks, we should be vigilant about phoney ones. The litmus test of a genuine maverick is whether his eccentricity is incidental. The genuine eccentric does not consider himself eccentric; he thinks the rest of the world odd for persevering with its irrationalities. The true maverick feels the overwhelming need to do his work, enjoying moments of recognition along the way. The pseudo-maverick craves constant adulation, resenting the way work interrupts.

As James Lovelock’s book reminded me, Mario Balotelli has nothing in common with Eric Cantona. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

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 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.