Monday, 13 October 2008

In the Radical First Person

“In times such as these, healthy citizenship requires the insertion of a human proxy into the stream of historical happenstance. What we need is an experimental subject, an “I” sufficiently armed with narrative powers both literary and historical, gifts of irony and indirection, and the soothing balms of description and implication, to go forth and find stories that might counteract the unhappy effects of our disorder … [Where] the individual consciousness of the writer is paramount. The reader thereby becomes privy to the writer’s experience and receives direct confirmation of its truth value.”

I aborted the above from the introduction to a nice collection of Harper’s stories by the magazine’s editor Roger D. Hodge. The book, “Submersion Journalism”, gives name to a genre of writing “from the inside”; where unsanctioned reporting seeks to provide an antidote to spin, and where a premium is paid for tales told “from a distinct point of view rather than pretend to some ideal of objectivity.”

And there, in a nutshell, is the Amateurs' perspective - and point.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Relevance of Rowing for Business

The celebrated Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is both a public spectacle and a long-standing trial of strength between two rival universities. Over a quarter of a million spectators watch the race from the banks of the Thames, while a guestimated 120 million TV viewers follow the twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies of this private match, held each year between late March and early April. The first Oxbridge race took place in 1829 and, with the exception of the first and second World War years, the race has been held continuously since 1856.

It is on that four mile and 374 yard length of tidal river, between Putney and Mortlake, that the outer limits of human performance are explored, where two student crews row alongside each other until one of them decides it can no longer win. It is the ultimate varsity race.

What is the enduring appeal of this extreme sporting challenge? Is it that the protagonists represent two of the world’s oldest and grandest institutions - the intellectual homes of Nobel laureates, philosophers, mathematicians and politicians? Is it the secrecy surrounding crew selection and race preparation? Or is the enduring appeal of this British sporting institution due to the sharp contrasts it throws up: at once passionately amateur and yet holding to professional standards, exhibiting mutual respect yet intense rivalry too, where it’s all about taking part but where the pain of losing is both physical and mental, and laid bare for all to see?


Differences between Cambridge University rowing and business are easy to spot. Not all teams have as clear and unchangeable an objective as the Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC). Founded in 1828, it exists for one reason only: to defeat Oxford in the annual Boat Race. Moreover, not all business teams can cherry-pick their membership. CUBC begins its season with around 40 keen athletes, from which it needs to select one crew of eight, plus a coxswain. Also, physical training has a degree of transparency not often found in business. Whereas everyone involved can see what weights you are lifting and how fast you are on a rowing machine, in typical business teams it is rather more difficult to isolate individual contributions.

Nevertheless, rowing contains some surprising similarities. Firstly, it requires a superb sense of coordination – something that remains relevant irrespective of whether you are doing the same thing (as in rowing) or are engaged in different, but complementary, activities. If, for example, the success of one’s work depends upon the input of others (as it so often does), the better coordinated the team is, the more efficient and successful it should be.

Secondly, Cambridge oarsmen – just like members of business team – are intelligent individuals, impatient of jargon or ‘management speak’. They easily see through any attempt at manipulation. Thirdly, rowing is an environment in which cooperation and competition co-exist in a necessary but socially often awkward relationship.

And, finally, rowing crews and business teams alike suffer from the Ringelmann Effect. Based on a set of experiments conducted in the 1880s and 1970s, Ringelmann and subsequent researchers discovered the inverse relationship between team size and individual effort due to a combination of increased coordination costs and social loafing. In other words, as more and more individuals are added to a team, the contribution of each individual team member decreases as they find it increasingly more difficult to coordinate their efforts with others and easier to get away with suboptimal performance.

Six parallels

But there may be further parallels between crews and teams. Here are six that we think are most relevant to the workplace:

1. What makes them good makes them difficult too. Cambridge oarsmen express individuality in wishing to remain on the coaches’ radar screens but togetherness in building team spirit. They are strong-minded yet rife with self-doubt, masculine yet unafraid of male intimacy, extraordinary in some ways yet so very ordinary in others too, ever prey to thinking that they can do always what they can do sometimes. For what makes them good makes them difficult: they are smart, which makes them have near-perfect faith in their intuitions; they are quick thinkers, meaning that they can be bad listeners; they are intolerant of failure, theirs as well as that of everyone else; they take an extraordinary level of performance as given; they will rarely admit to being wrong, and have little idea of the sort of impact their attitude has on others. As with most generalizations there are many exceptions to this characterization. But by and large Cambridge rowers are alphas, painstakingly cultivated yet a raw and instinctive cast of alpha males in a Dead Poets Society world.

How then do you craft a high performance team from a dysfunctional group of high performing individuals? It’s never going to be easy, though the following suggestions may help: don’t fall into the trap of cow-towing to these individuals (after all, everyone else does); confront them, if need be, with concrete examples or ‘hard’ data on their performance; be patient and empathetic as they argue their case (which may include blaming circumstances, or others, for their failure to perform), but be resolute. Remind them regularly of why this team exists and what you expect of them in very specific terms.

2. To collaborate effectively may require you to give up what you know has worked for you in the past. As with many organisations, the Cambridge squad is composed of various nationalities. This is relevant to the extent that rowing styles differ across the globe – from Canada to the US and Germany to Great Britain. These differences can be slight but, given the degree of coordination required in a crew, important. What this effectively means is that one is asking decorated oarsmen to give up a technique they know made them go fast in the past, and to adapt to that quintessential Cambridge style – something which takes some time getting used to. This can create much insecurity as rowers who might have been top dogs in their respective national squads are now slowing down their crews.

3. High performance crews, like business teams, are often characterised by tensions. However awkward this may feel at times, it does not mean they are dysfunctional. Far from it. And here is why. In most teams competition and cooperation co-exist, as do trust and vigilance, control and autonomy, unilateral and democratic decision-making, confrontation and compromise. The only way for rowers to compete effectively for a seat in the Blue Boat (or the crew that races Oxford) is to cooperate seamlessly with the very same individuals they are competing with.

Take the example of seat-racing as a selection tool. Here two crews of four race each other over a 1500 metre course. After finishing times are noted, two individuals (one from each crew) will swap places. The crews race each other again over the same course. Again, two individuals swap places after which the crews are raced once more. This process continues until the coaches are satisfied that they have been able to isolate the contributions of each rower to a crew. What this means, of course, is that oarsmen can only make their crews go fast by coordinating perfectly with those they were competing with only minutes ago. And what is true in rowing is often true in business too: competition must still weed out the inefficient and keep the fire at the heels of those involved. Yet cooperation is imperative to achieve organisational objectives. It too can improve efficiency in distributing information. Control likewise ensures efficiency even as autonomy may make organisations more creative. Trust is good but dangerous in the absence of vigilance. Thus these tensions must coexist. They are an ordinary characteristic of extraordinarily healthy teams, though sources of considerable anxiety.

4. Conflict occurs even as people agree on what’s important and why, and try hard to coordinate their efforts with others. It sometimes takes the shape of disagreements on how particular goals are best achieved, or it results from simple misunderstandings. What is striking is the degree to which crew and team members alike often resort to questioning each other’s intentions when faced with conflict. Behavioural science suggests that this is partly because we tend to think that our views of the world are more common than they actually are, or that we often believe ourselves to have access to an objective reality that those around us, if only they were more rational or clairvoyant, would have too. And yet experience tells us there are few things more destructive or alienating than for one’s intentions to be called into question. Our work with the Cambridge squad suggests that reality is actually often more benign than they think it is, leaving them with few justifications for paranoia. Imagine how much more efficient organisations would be if only they were to accept that the intentions of others are more often good than bad?

5. Individual performance is only ever meaningful in the context of a specific crew or team. What is interesting is the degree to which the performance of individual rowers can fluctuate depending on (i) who else they row with, and (ii) whether the seat they’ve been assigned caters to – or minimises – their self-concept. Some oarsmen, for example, dislike rowing with people they don’t rate, causing them to subtly under-perform. Or they fail to give their best if they feel undervalued by having been placed in, say, the middle section of the boat rather than the more technically demanding stern and bow sections.
These issues raise dilemmas for coaches and managers alike. After all, should one cater to someone’s ego to get the best out of him or her? Can this be done successfully without setting a precedent? Or should one fight that ego in the interest of fairness to the rest of the group?

6. Sometimes it makes sense to sacrifice technical ability to gain social skills in the interest of team performance. This would seem counter-intuitive in a sport as technically demanding as rowing. However, a socially gifted individual may help provide the glue to keep the crew together and thus minimise the Ringelmann Effect.

For example, the 2007 Cambridge crew included one oarsman who was included in the crew not based on his individual technical skills but because he seemed able to get a higher level of performance out of the rest of the crew. His affable personality was able to defuse conflict and help the crew gel socially.

There exists an interesting parallel of this in the management literature. In 2005, the Harvard Business Review carried an article provocatively entitled ‘Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks’. In it, the authors examined trade-off decisions made by managers when recruiting: does competence trump likeability, or vice versa? Unsurprisingly, most responded that it would be considered unprofessional not to hire the most competent for the job. However, in practice, managers more often sided with likeability as a criterion, suggesting that personal feelings play an important role in forming job-oriented relationships.

Of course this tradeoff relationship is contextual. If one requires brain-surgery, one should care infinitely more about competence than likeability. And a team of only likeable individuals may get little accomplished. However, it might make sense occasionally to trade one technically competent individual for one that is socially more gifted (even if technically less competent) if that improves the cohesiveness of the team.

Will social cohesiveness ensure team success? No it won’t. However, it will allow you to get the most out of each of the individuals involved – and that’s no mean feat.

The process of training and selecting the teams that will compete in 2009 begins soon. They will face six months of intensive coaching to mould them into a winning crew with just one chance to get it right on the day. Luckily, business teams get more than one opportunity to show what they are made of and pull together to achieve success.

(This article was first published in Professional Manager, Volume 17, Issue 5, September 2008:

Another short article on the link between business and rowing can be found in the September issue of the Harvard Business Review, Vol 86, No 9, p. 28 (2008)

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Olympic medals for Rowing Blues

It's often been said that rowing Blues (those who have competed in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race) are comparable to oarsmen of international stature. A look at our recent Olympic record suggests why this is so. 

The coxless four that took Britain’s third successive Gold on Saturday included three Blues: Oxford’s Pete Reed (2005) and Andy Triggs-Hodge (2005) and bowman Tom James, the former Cambridge oarsman (2003, 2005, 2006 & 2007). (Tom, incidentally, plays a major role in The Last Amateurs as President of the CUBC.)

The British crew that took silver in the Men’s Eight included Cambridge Blues Josh West (1998, 1999, 2000 & 2001) and Tom Stallard (1999, 2000, 2001 & 2002), Oxford’s Colin Smith (2004 & 2006) and was steered by Dark Blue cox Acer Nethercott (2003, 2004 & 2005). They were beaten by an impressive Canadian boat that featured another Oxford Blue, Jake Wetzel (2006).

What makes these athletes so fascinating? Is it their invincibility? Their god-like nature? Their unrelenting commitment to physical hardship? Or is it something else altogether? 

I wonder if, rather than their invincibility, it is perhaps their humanity that binds our fate to theirs. After all, they are so very like us. Their achievements may be Phelpsian to be sure but that's not what makes them a source of fascination. Rather, it is that they are, like us, vulnerable: flawed, irritable, intolerant, impatient, insecure. Lovable.

(A good source of Boat Race information is found at

Why I Wrote What I Wrote...

People have asked me why I wrote what I wrote and why I wrote it the way I wrote it - rather than in another way. Why not write a scholarly monograph instead? Why spend two years generating something that doesn't "count" for REA (Research Assessment Exercise) purposes? Why not focus on inducing general principles instead, or maybe some sort of model or analytical framework? Perhaps an algorithm even?

The answer is quite simple, really. I wanted to try and give readers an authentic sense of the visceral and highly emotional world of Cambridge University rowers. So much of our world is intuitive and primeval and emotional - think of fear, hope, lust, ambition, prejudice, cowardice, exhaustion, gratitude - and yet this is precisely this sort of stuff that gets lost (or is ignored) in academic writing.

Thus, the book is deliberately evocative rather than scholarly. That said, the ethnographic research on which it draws is rigorous. I went to great pains to identify my role and perspective as these evolved throughout the seven-month period. Though ethnography will never be free of impartiality, these references to myself allow the reader to see the observer and his subjects co-evolve.

Nowhere is this relation between subject and observer more poignantly expressed than in David Lodge's academic novel Small World:

The dancer teases the audience, as the text teases its readers, with the promise of an ultimate revelation that is infinitely postponed. Veil after veil, garment after garment, is removed, but it is the delay in the stripping that makes it exciting, not the stripping itself; because no sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another. When we have seen the girl’s underwear we want to see her body, when we have seen her breasts we want to see her buttocks, and when we have seen her buttocks we want to see her pubis, and when we see her pubis, the dance ends – but is our curiosity and desire satisfied? Of course not. The vagina remains hidden within the girl’s body, shaded by her pubic hair, and even if she were to spread her legs before us it would still not satisfy the curiosity and desire set into motion by the stripping. Staring into the orifice we find that we have somehow overshot the goal of our quest, gone beyond pleasure in contemplating beauty; gazing into the womb we are returned to the mystery of our own origins.

As it happens, I did actually try to write myself out of the story, and might have got away with it too. The result would have been the one masquerading for the many, a particular voice mistaken for the megaphone of a society. It would have been dishonest.

There is thus a strong subtext to the narrative. There are several, in fact. Depending on the reader’s background and interests, it can be read as a realist sports book (in supplying a warts-and-all account of the 2007 Cambridge Boat Race crew), as a business book (as it articulates important traits of high-performance teams), as an ethnography (specifically designed to tease at the boundary of ethnography and auto-ethnography, as well as a gender ethnography), as an example of C. Wright Mills’ ‘sociological imagination’ (in highlighting the temporal and dialectical nature of high-performance teams), or even as something far more existential.

Or you can just enjoy it for what it is.

Friday, 20 June 2008

The Dark Night of the Ethnographer's Soul (Part II)

You are, no doubt, familiar with the jibe that there’s more truth in fiction than non-fiction. Though that always seemed to me correct intuitively, I think I now appreciate why.

In my inbox lies a recent email (it matters not who sent it / don't ask / I won't tell):




To: “mark de Rond”

Subject: The book


I am sure you are aware I have always vigorously opposed the publication of this book and many who are aware of its existence feel the same way. It shows up what is currently wrong with the organization and it is extremely distasteful to me to read much of what you have written or implied.

I do not like you - you know that - and the less said or written further is probably best.


What I am to do with this? More relevantly, what does it tell me about scholarship in the ethnographic tradition? Aside from re-affirming that I’m not universally liked (and here I wished I had the skin of an elephant but am as vulnerable as most), what does it bode for truth telling in ethnography?

I am reminded of Bronislaw Malinowski’s controversial A Diary In The Strict Sense Of The Term (or rather Clifford Geertz’s references to Malinowski). This diary is said to contain a meticulous record of time spent by Malinowski observing natives, and revealed a quite different world from that described in his authoritative text on the Western Pacific. And it was this diary, said Geertz, that blew the straw house of ethnography to bits, leaving its author accused of doing the dirty on the discipline. As Geertz wrote, most of the shock arose from the discovery that Malinowski was not, to put it delicately, an unmitigated nice guy. He had rude things to say about the natives he was living with and rude words to say them in. He spent a great deal of time wishing he were elsewhere.

Presumably Malinowski didn’t care – he was dead by the time his wife published his diary. The controversy they triggered, however (he by writing and she by publishing it) points to a persistent difficulty in the practice of ethnography: to what extent are those doing the observing able to commit their observations to paper? Need ethnography – to be useful from a scholarly point of view – not reflect rough edges, daubs and warts, holes patched up but not yet repaired, irritability and instability - all that and more as well as of course the poetic and pretty sacredness of human organization?

If so, does our writing then not invariably involve hurting the feelings of some (even inadvertently), disappointing some by not giving their views more prominence, desecrating what yet others hold as sacrosanct? Provided of course all is done for the sake of scholarship, and with the necessary disclaimers of partiality and imperfection?

I’m aware that this problem may be peculiarly ethnographic. I also realize that those more entrenched in the field may properly place my experiences as novice. Be that as may – they are not therefore less poignant

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The Dark Night of the Ethnographer's Soul

I’ve something on my mind – something that has preoccupied me ever since starting my ethnography of the Cambridge squad. It is at once a great source of embarrassment and an intellectual challenge. Try as I might, I cannot remember a time when I dreamt as vividly as during my fieldwork. In contrast to most ordinary nights, these dreams were far from innocent. Oftentimes I’d wake up feeling parched, pooped, confused – haunted by the ghosts of last night’s dreams and wondering why they’d suddenly become so vivid, so menacing, so wounding? Who were these vengeful shadows from the netherworld floating in and out of my head, and why are they here? Was I not allowed some reprieve from the excessive introspection and worry that enveloped me like candyfloss since joining the squad? Like Philip Larkin’s mum and dad, the squad ‘fuck you up / They may not mean to but they do / They fill you with faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.’

How can it be that a healthy soul gives, in dreams, the strangest, the most incoherent, the most illogical manifestations, and afterwards, when awake, performs its function again in the most normal way? (Rignano, 1920)

These musings are a stab at untangling the clutter that are my thoughts. A handful of sociologists to date, including Loic Wacquant (author of Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer), have made inroads into formulating a carnal sociology – or an attempt to describe the subject’s world ‘by immersion’. This approach is, Wacquant argued, a radical departure from conventional ethnography. For it embraces the view that our subjects are first and foremost embodied, carnal beings of blood and flesh who relate to the world in passionate ways. This calls for a manner of research that recognizes and takes full epistemic advantage of the visceral nature of social life, such as Wacquant’s boxing gym or my rowing squad.

To the seasoned sociologist, my interpretation of Wacquant’s vision no doubt seems superficial – in which case I’d happily stand corrected. That said, it has very strong intuitive appeal. As a carnal sociology my recent work has serious drawbacks, the most relevant being that of me being unable to ‘partake’ of the training in the way Wacquant could – and did. After all, Boat Race preparation requires a level of skill and fitness that come only with many years of dedicated training and coaching. The best I could do was to participate with them in core exercises and, in lieu of their physical training, to row and train and compete with a less competent city based crew instead. It’s not perfect, but probably as good as it gets given the nature of the beast.

What interests me (coming to the point) is the extent to which a carnal sociology might usefully incorporate subconscious experience? After all, dreams were often regarded as truth-telling oracles in times past and, like it or not, we spend a significant portion of our lives unconscious. More relevantly, dreams may well serve as an important compliment to conscious reality. That, at least, was Jung’s view in seeing dreams as spontaneous self-portrayals, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious. (It is partly here that Jung deviates from Freud’s thesis on dreams as wish-fulfillment). Jung took dreams to be diagnostically valuable facts. Should we as ethnographers?

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who suggested that dreams do not suddenly cease to exist when unmasked for the delusions they are upon waking. Nor is the experience of everyday life snuffed out when descending into sleep. The two worlds are unmistakenly distinct and yet somehow related. This would seem particularly true in ethnography, where dreams might serve to highlight vital links between the observer and the observed. (This link may not be altogether different from that described in Damasio’s Descartes Error in linking emotion to reason, for instance, where emotion may increase the saliency of a premise and, in so doing, bias the conclusion in favour of this premise). But what precisely is this relationship? And how important is it in the research process?

It seems to progress we would need a couple of things: an ontology of dreams, and (possibly) a theory of behaviour as encased in dreams. Should dreams be treated as data, as bias or as analysis? Can they be considered data in the same way we consider interviews or first-hand observation data? If so, what are they data about? About the subject? About the observer? Or about the relationship between observer and subject?

Or are dreams best treated with contempt – as a source of bias – in colouring observations and analysis? Even in this case, it would seem important to recognize this (much like we confess to other potential sources of bias in reporting research).

Or are dreams active participants in analyzing data? To what extent do they help crystallize what we (think we) see?

None of this suggests that I believe dreams have special powers. In my particular case, the dreams were often of the anxiety kind (never pleasant), forcing me to think much more deeply about what it is to be a man in a men’s world, what masculinity entails, about the relationship between masculinity and affection, about the role of affection and humour as mediating the often awkward but inevitable tensions between cooperation and competition, trust and vigilance, narcissism and altruism, in pursuit of the sacred and the profane.

I have some thoughts on the above, but no firm answers. (Perhaps you do.) That said, intuitively I feel very strongly about the importance of acknowledging dreams in writing carnal sociologies – though I’m less clear on what this acknowledgement comprises.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Reality as quirkier than fiction

Reality can be stranger than fiction. Yesterday morning, for example, I was washing the only dish in my North Beach apartment when spotting something curious in between the twenty-odd feet separating 'my' house from the one behind it. I did a quick double-take to confirm that my neighbour was crossing the lawn stark-naked except for a short blue tee-shirt. She was carrying an espresso maker. I knew North Beach to be Bohemian - which is partly why I chose to live here - but was taken by surprise nonetheless.

The night before had been no less surreal. Having moved into my new apartment late that afternoon, I returned from a shopping trip (armed with bed linens, toothpaste and a corkscrew) rather later than I had planned. Vallejo Street was shrouded in darkness. I walked up to the door of what I remembered to be my apartment, unlocked the door with my very own key and, armed with two paper shopping bags, proceeded up the carpeted stairs. There, in the darkness, I made out three rooms, each more copiously furnished than mine should be.

I won't repeat the obscenities that crossed my lips at discovering that what should have been number 442 Vallejo Street was, in actual fact, 446. Confusion morphed into anxiety when, in the street below, a car approached. As the engine was silenced, veins throbbed noisily in my head. My palms were sweaty. After all, if this were a lone woman, she'd be freaked out by visions of an adult male stood awkwardly in front of her bedroom. If a man (particularly a burly one), I'd have my bacon whipped before being given a chance to explain how much more innocent reality is from appearance.

As it happened, its occupants mounted a house opposite. I walked downstairs, locked the apartment with the very same key, and made my way to the next house over. (I never did figure out why my key opens both 442 and 446 Vallejo St)

These two events, in close succession, reminded me of the surprising nature of reality - of how real life can be quirkier even than fiction. Why is it, for instance, that we are so symmetrical in so many ways and yet so lop-sided in others? Why do we have two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, two arms, two legs but only one heart left off centre? (Why not in the middle?) Why do we cover up our private parts as "private" but not our eyes, as windows into our very souls? Why are apples sufficiently round to be called round and yet not really round at all? And why is self-fulfillment more easily attained by focusing less on one-self and more on the happiness of others?

There is a rather more serious side to all this. Much of our scholarly practice is focused on inducing generalities about social life. Despite the obvious merits of uncovering general principles (e.g. in sometimes allowing for prescription), there surely is an inherent risk in this too? What prevents us from falling into the same trap as Tolstoy's plasterers who, in the absence of the chief superintendent, with much zeal plastered over church windows, icons, woodwork, and still unbuttressed walls and are delighted that, from their point of view as plasterers, everything looked so smooth and regular?

Tolstoy was, of course, a fox in the way George W. is a hedgehog. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing", Isaiah Berlin wrote in 1953. What Tolstoy's genius saw was not the one coherent and orderly world but always "with an ever-growing minuteness, in all its teeming individuality, with an obsessive, inescapable, incorruptible, all-penetrating lucidity which maddens him, the many."

Berlin's distinction between the fox and hedgehog became one of his most characteristic contributions. Siding with foxes, he chided hedgehogs for their passionate adherence to three, largely untested, assumptions: (a) that to every genuine question there is one genuine answer; (b) that these answers can be discovered by the application of reason; and (c) that, together, these answers must form a coherent, internally consistent, logical whole. Reality is like a puzzle, fragments of which lie scattered around us. Ours is the task of completing the puzzle by ordering the various fragments into a (predestined) coherent and unchangeable image. And together they must fit.

These assumptions are not innocent. Their worst expression lies in fundamentalism: Christian, atheist, and otherwise, to Fascism, Nazism, genocide.

What if we were to relax these assumptions? What if there were no internally consistent, logical structure that underpins our social world? What if there were no utopian future for mankind? No ideal type into which we can be coerced for, if only we were more rational, this is what we would want for ourselves? What if, as Hedges suggests, the universal desire to be more than simply human lies at the core of the ideologies of atheists as well as the Christian Right? 

What if reality were quirkier than fiction?

(Relevant readings: I. Berlin (1953) The Hedgehog and the Fox; C. Hedges (2008) I Don't Believe in Atheists; Chesterton's Orthodoxy; M. de Rond (2002) Reviewer 198, the hedgehog and the fox) 


Sunday, 18 May 2008

Why Cambridge Won The Boat Race - And Why It Nearly Lost

Speed is a function of rhythm. And rhythm in a crew is surprisingly tangible. It is that easy, predictable, relentless, nothing-else-matters-no-matter-what feel of the boat - a separation of stroke and recovery, a flawless coordination of lungs and legs, of push and let go, of brace and release: a wedlock of oarsman and boat, of oarsman and coxswain, each stroke an investment with the certainty of a return.

This rhythm is designed to generate flow, that most enviable of experiences - one familiar to many yet extraordinarily difficult to call up at will. It captures that rare moment in time where one is totally absorbed in what one is doing. It's the experience of pure harmony, or that point at which mind and matter fuse effortlessly and you know that something special has just occurred.

Flow is said to lift experience from the ordinary to the optimal, to a Zen-like state, and it's in precisely those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing. For the oarsman, it's an experience in which the self merges with the act of rowing and becomes indistinguishable from it. Where anxiety, self-doubt, indeed self-consciousness itself has been cut out as if by a clever surgeon - a feeling John Steinbeck described as very near to a kind of unconsciousness - where time changes its manner and where minutes disappear into the cloud of time. A time where everything finally falls into place: a groovy sensation of weightlessness yet total control, being really and truly alive in the present and knowing that nothing else matters, at least not now. Even as crowds roar, cameras flash, helicopters swivel dizzily overhead ... yet none of it matters much. All that matters, the only thing that matters, is being right here right now - a rare glimpse of perfection.

The rhythm of a boat is like the beating of a heart: a platform upon which everything depends and all else becomes aligned. It is the condition on which flow depends - on which it feeds. And in a very real sense, it is the unremitting quest for rhythm and flow that helps explain the controversial choice to replace a brash but experienced American coxswain with one much less experienced, British and female. It explains why the five most experienced rowers questioned matters of selection, insisting that a Canadian oarsman be selected despite him being less competent than the Brit he would unseat.

It explains why Cambridge won the Boat Race, and why it nearly lost.

(The idea of "flow" was popularized by the Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly.)

Saturday, 10 May 2008

At what price free speech?

And what a week it was. Not 48 hours after Rushdie's appearance, Stanford's Students for an Open Society raise the stakes by welcoming Flemming Rose. Rose is cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and responsible for commissioning the controversial Muhammad cartoons, published on 30 September 2005. The ensuing controversy (including loss of life) is well documented.

A soft-spoken, even monotonous, Rose spoke for the good part of one hour, his pain and frustration palpable. He defended his decision to commission the drawings by offering a long list of incidents of self-censorship in Europe "caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam." Examples included the inability of a Danish children's book writer to find someone to illustrate a new book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. Another involved the request of European translators of a book critical of Islam not to have their names appear alongside that of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding. 

The idea of commissioning the drawings, he wrote in an Op-ed for the Washington Post (19 Feb 2006), and as he explained to us that evening, "wasn't to provoke gratuitously - and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter." 

So Rose, and his Jyllands-Posten, decided to adopt the journalistic principle of "Show, don't tell" and invited various illustrators to picture Muhammad "as you see him." In publishing the 12 cartoons, Rose wrote: "The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule."

Unsurprisingly, Rose's presentation generated mixed reactions - and rather a lot too. The issues of right to free speech and self-censorship are complex and I have no particular expertise in this field. However, I do wonder to what extent we have "duties" as well as "rights" - in Rose's case a duty to protect those more vulnerable? 

To mind comes a short essay by Jonathan Sacks. In it he reflects on the nature of "rights" and "duty" based cultures. Rights-based cultures, he argues, reduce us to a state of dependency, where we make claims on others, assuming they have the power to meet our inalienable demands. Its origins are honorable, aimed at protecting ordinary individuals from the power of the state. A duty-based culture, on the other hand, asks us to give and to be sensitive to the needs of others - with the possibility of creating a healthier and happier society based on giving rather than demanding. 

So which has the higher priority? When, if ever, does duty trump right? Does our right to free speech entail the duty of others to respect whatever we choose to print? 

It's something I've often wondered about in writing The Last Amateurs. The book is brutally honest in many respects - not least where it concerns myself (and not always flattering). There have been occasions, however, where I felt that my duty to protect the athletes, coaches and club was more important than my right to free speech. Sometimes this meant removing sections that would have seriously compromised individuals. Where this self-censorship risked damaging the narrative (i.e. by narrowing the window on life inside the Cambridge University Boat Club), I compensated by writing myself into the story, for instance to highlight the sexually charged, masculine nature of the high performance sports. The alternative - an expose without limits - would not have added much in terms of substance, but would almost definitely have caused hurt or offense. (I am well aware of individuals that are still less than excited about the publication of this book, not least for its candour.)

Given the long series of questions, I didn't have a chance to ask Rose one of mine. I would have liked to have asked him if, given what he knows now, he would have done it again. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Salman Rushdie on Why We Write

I'm enjoying Stanford's hospitality as a Fulbright Scholar -- appreciative of the bright Californian sun, the time to write and read, and the opportunity to saunter around the campus in search of interesting lectures. People here seem to assume I'm a regular student - which suits me just fine. 

I wandered into Stanford's Kresge Auditorium on Monday night to hear Sir Salman Rushdie speak on the importance of literary engagement. His lecture was (unsurprisingly) superb (as is his Midnight's Children, which lies next to me on my desk) and contained all the right ingredients: humour, wit, sorrow, self-deprecation, and sense. Rushdie reflected on the role of fiction in fighting tyranny - religious, political or otherwise - his pen inflamed by some very real, and rather sobering, confrontations with tyranny (the most high-profile being the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1998 for his Satanic Verses). His battle, and that of novelists worldwide, would forever remain that of eradicating oppression, a fight for 'negative freedoms' (to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin): freedoms from interference, fostering a free market of ideas that (as J.S. Mill speculated) would give rise to originality, genius, moral courage.

Rushdie then pointed out that literature had blossomed greatly under such tyrannical regimes as Stalin's and Chowchesku's. In fact, he argued that literature had suffered enormously in Russia and Easter Europe upon the collapse of the "iron curtain" - or upon the end of oppression and beginning of freedom.

The irony of fighting an enemy that happens to also provide vital nourishment for one's artistic development clearly escaped him. Imagine one were given an opportunity to trade all the literature written in response to oppression for the freedom from the oppression that made this literature possible - what would one do? 

(I did ask him this question. He, facing the auditorium, pronounced the question dead - as nonsensical - as not worthy of a response.)

I am reminded of a recent documentary hosted by Stephen Fry on the relation between depression and artistic expression. Had anti-depressants been available to Vincent Van Gogh, would he have taken them? Would we have wanted him to? What would have been the consequences for the quality and poignancy of his art? 

As Fry admitted, he himself has long suffered from depression but realizes too that this disease has infused his work in powerful ways. In concluding his documentary, Fry asked himself whether he'd rather not be depressed - whether he'd take the pill - even if it came at the expense of his qualities as a writer?

With a candour more refreshing than Rushdie's, Fry concluded he would not. That this would be too high a price to pay.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

The boat race 2007

Here's a clip of Cambridge winning the 2007 Boat Race - the race that forms the finale of Mark de Rond's book:

The Last Amateurs by Mark de Rond

Brideshead Revisited meets Fight Club in this thrilling, first-hand account of a year in the life of Cambridge University’s Boat Race squad.

Founded in 1828, the Cambridge University Boat Club has one objective: to beat Oxford in the Boat Race. This annual affair is one of sharp contrasts: a private match between two of the world’s oldest universities, it is still followed by millions worldwide; an occasion marked by tribal rivalry, it also harbours deep mutual respect; quintessentially British, it is contested by amateurs who are nevertheless world-class sportsmen; it is all about taking part and yet the pain of losing is unimaginable.

A Cambridge don in his late thirties, Mark de Rond spent a year living the blood, sweat and tears of the 39 students risking all for a chance to race Oxford, seeing in them everything he is not. This intense and deeply personal account reinforces the great traditions of Oxbridge, yet gives them a human face. For despite their brilliance, these individuals are flawed too.

So what does it take to row in the coveted Blue Boat? De Rond delves into the depths of what it means to be a man and the primeval desire to compete. Told chronologically and driven by the pursuit of the final victory, the result is truly compelling – and a sports book like no other.

Mark de Rond described by the Financial Times as ‘Cambridge’s secret weapon for the Boat Race’, is an Oxford-educated Cambridge don. His work has also featured in Time, the Economist, The Times, The Week, and on BBC Radio 4.

Sir Steve Redgrave CBE is widely considered to be Britain’s greatest Olympian, having won a gold medal in rowing at five consecutive Olympic Games from 1984 to 2000, as well as an additional bronze medal in 1988.