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

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.