Ed Smith at bat. Photo: Tom Dulat/Getty Images
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The secret to performing at your peak? Deciding which of the voices in your head is talking sense

The conflict between instict and reason has left me having a small domestic disagreement in my head.

As a batsman in the middle of an innings, alone with my thoughts at the batting crease, a silent but urgent conversation would play out inside my head. There were two voices. The first belonged to the player, the actor on the stage, the participant. The second voice was that of a coach, mentor or critic. This observer might advise “me” to be bolder, to assert myself, to be less cautious. Another time, the voice would say the opposite: “You’re losing too much control – rein things in, be more wary.”

Both voices, of course, belonged to me. But they seemed entirely distinct, quite removed from one another, one belonging to the realm of action and the second to the sphere of reflection. One person played the shots; another called the shots.

On good days, this division of labour was co-operative. When the balance between instinct and removed self-criticism felt right, the two voices got along well. At other times the critical voice was too strong and overbearing. He needed to be sent packing, his notebook chucked away.

So there were two dimensions to this conversation that required careful attention. The first was the efficacy and wisdom of the critical advice: was the critic sending the right technical or tactical messages? After all, coaches have bad days, too. The second question was whether this was the right time to be taking advice at all. Because there are moments when you are far better off trusting your own competitiveness and instinct.

A few times in my career the internal voices turned into spoken words, and the opposition fielder at short-leg would look at me in astonishment as I said something like, “Shut up! Just play! Watch the ball! That’s all you need to do!” From my perspective, it was just a small domestic disagreement in my head, nothing more. But to the outside world it looked very eccentric – or plain mad.

So I was delighted to learn the other week that I keep good company. In a sparkling interview with Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show, Mark Rylance described how the actor on the stage, just like the batsman at the crease, has a conversation going on inside his own head:

 

“When you play in front of people – it may be the same for sports players, too – you have a kind of coach in your head who is monitoring whether (in my case) the passes and the different things I’m doing with the ball – if the ball is the story – whether they are real and natural and believable. You have a little voice saying, ‘Wait, wait, now; quickly, quickly, now.’ Or: ‘Too much, too much.’ And sometimes it’s too strong and you have to banish it from the stage.”

 

That was my experience of sport, perfectly captured by an actor.

I sometimes feel that all modes of performance – music, drama, sport – are merely variations on a theme, different expressions of the same underlying experience. The play may look different, but the stage on which the actors stand is universal.

Ten years ago, I made a series for Radio 3 called Peak Performance, in which I interviewed young classical musicians and explored the parallels between playing sport and playing music. “Acting, music, cricket – the final vocational choice was partly just chance,” the guitarist Craig Ogden told me. “If I hadn’t become a musician, I’m sure I would have done something else that put me on a stage in front of an audience.”

On The South Bank Show (24 February, Sky Arts 1), viewers watched Rylance watch himself playing Henry V. As the Rylance of today pulled on his glasses, the Rylance of the late 1990s began his version of Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech before Agincourt. Here the critic and the performer were not sharing the stage at the same moment. Instead, they were separated by years of ex­perience and perspective. It was like watching an artist in his studio poring over his early works.

Before I’d had the chance guiltily to suppress my first reaction (“He wasn’t quite as good back then”), Rylance himself said just that. “I hadn’t yet learned to use my voice properly”: that was his assessment of his younger self. The ease and depth of his voice today, which helped make his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall so compelling, hadn’t developed fully.

So, what changed? Mastery of technique, the refinement of his craft, is surely only part of the story. There is also the question of Rylance the man: his intellectual curiosity and search for experience, his reluctance to play it safe or to repeat himself, his openness and risk-taking, his preference for the more difficult path. Because of Rylance’s temperament and his sensibility, both of his voices – the spoken voice and the coaching voice – are far more evolved than they were 15 years ago. The actor and the critic, the player and the coach, have grown up in tandem and, with age, the conversation has become more co-operative.

Here, alas, the arts generally leave sports behind. For although some lucky sportsmen may be permitted a second act, none (except in golf) gets to enjoy middle age. It’s all over by then.

So I finished watching Rylance’s South Bank Show interview pondering two parallel questions, about careers in which talent and temperament aren’t ideally matched. Which sportsmen would have been better suited, temperamentally, to a longer and more reflective race rather than the fast-forward time of professional sport? Conversely, which actors were fated to have a long-drawn-out career when a shorter one would have suited them far better?

Because although you can shape the words you tell yourself, and can even quell the voice in your head, you can’t do much about the stage you’re standing on.

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 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder