It’s OK to use your brain


at the medal ceremony – photo from Mind Sports Olympiad

19 years ago, a very nervous version of me turned up rather sheepishly to the Royal Festival Hall to dabble my toe in the water of something I’d read about in a Sunday paper. My first Mind Sports Olympiad – *the* first Mind Sports Olympiad – was basically one long ohmygodwhatamidoinghereheeeeeeeeeeeelp experience. Even though I was only there for one day. I was bemused and clueless and wandered around the massive open spaces not quite sure where I should be going but managing, just, to find my way to a seat in time for the morning’s IQ test, which was an utterly beflummoxing paper full of alphanumeric codes and Roman numerals, and the afternoon’s creative thinking challenge, which included (just a week or so before her death) the question “What does Princess Diana have in common with an orange?”

I was further shell-shocked to realise the afternoon’s events were being hosted by William Hartston, whose televisual chess musings had formed many of the pathways of my childhood geekery. And beyond discombobulated to discover that I had finished third, and come away with a bronze medal, presented by Hartston himself, who shook my hand as he presented it to me with the words, “You have a very sick mind.” To an impressionable 20-something uncertain of his future after the years of study came to their inevitable end, this was a defining moment, the highest praise I could possibly imagine. It was the start of a relationship with the Mind Sports Olympiad that lasted another 4 years during which time I managed a few more medals, in 2000 becoming the World Intelligence Champion (no Roman numerals this time!) and the following year becoming the first “grand master of intelligence”, which is sadly a lot less Smileyesque or Lovecraftian than it sounds. But those words stayed with me much longer, ultimately becoming the engine that would propel me into the literary labyrinth I’m still trying to navigate.

Doing something that has a title, or a medal, or even just a name attached to it is very strange. It  has an effect that I can only describe as demystifying. That is to say, “if I can do this it can’t really be something worth doing,  because I’m just me, and even I managed it.” In the years following that initial foray into the world of Mind Sports, experience has done nothing to dampen the demystification. The job offers hardly came rushing in when I became World Intelligence Champion. Which isn’t exactly surprising – doing IQ tests (basically a combination of spotting mathematical sequences, abstracting from general knowledge, and being able to tell which randomly-decorated polygon should come in the next picture) is hardly one of those skills the world is queuing up for – World Programming Champion, for example, now that’s gotta get people’s interest. Mind sports are, essentially, just a hobby like any other hobby, like fixing up old lawnmowers or growing exceptionally large marrows.

medal 1

Being good at head stuff has, ever since I was a child, left me feeling somewhat melancholic alongside the elation that comes naturally with doing, however fleetingly, something you really enjoy. There’s what I guess is the obvious to start with – that being good with your head is bad for your head – never accepting what you’re told, never believing platitudes, questioning way too much – especially when you have a borked brain chemistry – is never going to lead you to good places, and it has led me to some very very dark (wading through Kierkegaard in the middle of a breakdown) and angry (literally walking down the street, seeing people smiling, and wanting to scream in everyone of their smug faces “how dare you walk like you have the right to breathe, like oxygen is your entitlement, you’re no more than insensate rotting molecules fast-tracked to entropy just like I am, how dare you be so shallow and downright stupid as to believe anything else?” – hmm, yeah, not quite over that one there, clearly) places.

But it’s more than that. It’s the hypocrisy. The Dunning Krugerness of the world. The world at large never purports to be hungry for the growers of exceptional squashes or gigantiform rutabagas. But from the earliest we are sold the lie that the world, and not just its zombies, wants our brains. The world tells us, “you’re bright, you’ll be OK.” And yet the accretions of self-helping misfits I have encountered through my teenage and adult years has suggested exactly the opposite – that the world’s sewers are straining against the blocking fatbergs formed from all the brilliant minds it has flushed away “starving, hysterical, naked” or just worn out and tired of rejection and mockery.

For all the world tells us if we’re bright we’ve got it made, and even ignoring the trend that’s thankfully being talked about more these days of high functioning kids and teenagers with serious mental ill health failing to get a diagnosis because they “manage just fine”, the one place I never found affirmation that doing stuff with your head was really rather cool was where you might have thought it would happen most – school. Let me explain. Where I *was* lucky at school is that one of our maths teachers just happened to be one of the country’s top bridge players. And an incredibly good teacher. As a result, the school  had a thriving bridge club, which really took off just around the time I had discovered it was a good way to get to stay inside at lunchtime. And we weren’t just thriving, we were actually quite good. As in reaching national finals, winning county senior events, and representing the country level good. But for the three years I was involved at school, we had a constant fight to get anything but a cursory mention in the school magazine. And we were cocky, gobby little shites – we were pleased with what we’d done, the kind of pleased that kids who’d worked damn hard and achieved something really rather cool should be pleased. But did we get a mention alongside the rugby team in assembly? Once. In three years. Just once, grudgingly, as an afterthought. The message couldn’t have been clearer – doing stuff with your head that wasn’t homework really wasn’t the kind of thing kids should be indulging in.


I’ve been having an itch to get back to mind sports for a year or so now. And what cemented the decision to return was getting into running, and through it extreme challenges. A while ago, I resolved that next year I would do an “impossible binaries” challenge, doing things that are supposed not to go together – a 100 mile run, a powerlifting contest, and world championships in creative thinking and mental calculation. And as it was coming up, I thought I’d have a little look to see how the Mind Sports Olympiad had changed in a decade and a half.

Which is how I found myself sitting down in a room full of people with Bill Hartston (who hasn’t aged a day!), doing four twenty minute rounds of deliciously absurd puzzle solving. Between each round we milled, several of the junior competitors animatedly sharing some truly wonderful ideas with voices filled with an enthusiasm I hope they never lose, while a journalist mopped up the gloriously arcane tactics of the competitors who’d been around all week vying for the Pentamind, the ultimate challenge where your scores from five different events across the week are combined. There are, it seems, endless tactical possibilities – points depend on position and size of field in the event, so there is always a balance to be struck between competing so as to beat your overall opponents and taking part in another event so as to deplete the field your opponents can beat – such possibilities are, of course, almost as much of an attraction as the events themselves for people who like nothing more than calculating countless simultaneous scenarios.

medal 2

The puzzles, for you to flex your strangeness synapses, were (presented in much more elegant prose)

– uses for – 13 odd socks, an odd glove, and an odd chopstic
– how do we ensure GB’s medals in Tokyo cost less than the £5m each they cost in Rio
– two drawings from the patent office, stripped of their labelling, that are linked by a word – what are they, and what is the common word?
– put the following quotations into a story – “from this hand to this shoulder round the back of the ball cage”; “so I ended up naked and holding the lobster things over my boobs”; “It’s nice to step in and step back out again sometimes”; “Excuse me, are you the man from Gogglebox?”

Age must have given me some kind of gnarly Gene Hackman type wisdom because I ended up winning three of the four rounds to take the gold medal. I can’t remember all my answers (if I could I’d have taken part in the memory event as well!), but they included

Round 1 – building a lunar calendar clock using the chopstick as a gnomon and the socks as markers while the glove impersonates the coxcomb of a cockerel so as to remind the moon of the need to go for a rest so as to come back recharged.

Round 2 – rather unoriginally I opted for a variety of sabotage strategies, from arranging for Oxfordshire County Council to win the infrastructure creation bid for Tokyo so that all the teams bar the poor, accustomed GB personnel would arrive at the venue motion sick, further enhanced by having Lady Gaga design our outfits from a combination of sparkles and rotting meat – whilst our team was immunised by making Greggs our official training camp caterer – to swapping the official recording of the USA national anthem with a Jedward remix to disincentivise their top prospects.

Round 4 – this was a storyteller’s dream (though 20 minutes is shorter than even I’m used to working with). Once I’d decided the lobsters weren’t of the crustacean kind but were actually copies of David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster it all sort of flowed, the schoolboy who turned up on his doorstep instead of the reporter from London Review of Books, the melcncholy conversation, the musings on gardens as a metaphor for the quantum states narrative and metanarrative find themselves in, the secret obsession with Faraday and its use against the all-pervading tide of Freudianism, and so on…

And that’s where the cogitating started. Along with more vaguely disconnected self-doubt, of course, of the “oh, I thought creativity was something special, something desired and cherished, but it turns out it can’t be” kind. But I don’t want to wallow too much in that, because I understand completely that the comeback is “you’re so creative, create a way to make it work.” And that brings me back to the cogitating.

And it was the same cogitating that I’ve been doing a lot recently, that underpins what I’m tentatively looking to do through Petrichor, and with the work I do with Rogue Interrobang. It also goes back to my decades long obsession with outsider art. And the main object of the cogitation is this – that there must be a massive group simply bursting with creativity and the intellectual skills to contribute a beautiful brushstroke in the painting of a better future for our world. People who are, for reasons beyond their control, outside of those streams where society looks for its creatives and researchers, desperate to get in, to bloom, but lacking the mechanisms to allow them in, be that for reasons of health, lack of money to allow them the energy, lack of access to training and resources. What I’m particularly interested in, because of my own experience and because that experience probably gives me the best chance of successfully creating something that might work, is what feels as though it must be the simply huge tranche of people who have been unable to pursue academic dreams as a result of poor mental health.

Now to figure out how to do that, and how to combine that with maybe, finally, finding a way to earn a living by doing something I enjoy and seem to be OK at – and most of all trying to believe that all those teachers, and all my self doubt, is wrong – that maybe it’s OK, even valuable, to be creative. Maybe being creative can ultimately lead you out of the dark, angry places it takes you into (though I’m not necessarily holding my breath on that one yet!).

3 thoughts on “It’s OK to use your brain

  1. I used to think I was clever but brain fog from pain etc has taken that away, alas. But I have noticed a leaning towards the dumbing of pretty much everything and it annoys and scares me, even if I am a tad dumber than I used to be too. There is also an unreasonable anger towards clever people, and a feeling of even hatred.

  2. ‘People who are, for reasons beyond their control, outside of those streams where society looks for its creatives and researchers, desperate to get in, to bloom, but lacking the mechanisms to allow them in, be that for reasons of health,’

    Those people are still trying to be creative – the drive doesn’t go away – but it takes us a LOT longer than it takes the others. ‘Desperate’ is a good description of how it feels.

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