The Wiki Man

Everyone should be sick in the street once

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

I learned a great deal at university, about half of it from a man called Raymond Foulk. Ray was not Professor Foulk or even Dr Foulk: Ray was a near contemporary — he was in the year below me — but a mature student, then aged about 44. Shortly before he arrived at the beginning of my second year to read architecture, the college investigated his past life and sought to exile him to first-year accommodation far outside the college walls to prevent him corrupting the youth. There was nothing remotely illegal or nefarious about his past — but he had created and run the three Isle of Wight Festivals with his brother, and the college authorities had somehow become convinced they were admitting a second Howard Marks. This was ironic since, although Ray might have indulged in the odd toke de politesse, he was generally far more abstemious and responsible than the rest of us.

Perhaps some percentage of university places should be reserved for mature students. Most of what you learn at university you learn from your coevals, and there is a limit to what you can learn from people no older than you. Fifteen years before, when I and the rest of my undergraduate cohort were just out of nappies, Ray was variously negotiating with Bob Dylan or Jerry Lee Lewis, investing in the art deco furniture of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann or flying Buckminster Fuller across the Atlantic to visit Milton Keynes. He drove a 1965 Bentley T1, but later bought a hideous Talbot Solara as a second car. ‘Why would you buy a Talbot Solara when you own a Bentley?’ I asked. His explanation was pure Ray: ‘You need a rotten car to remind yourself how good the Bentley is.’

Ray is one of the best examples of the creative-entrepreneurial mindset I have ever met. Anything was possible. At some point, one of his daughters was stuck on a school project on the early life of Bob Dylan. ‘Why don’t you talk to his mum?’ Ray asked. After some wrangling with International Directory Enquiries, his daughter was soon chatting away to Mrs Zimmerman in Minnesota.

He has always had an unusual take on everything — from music to politics. In fact I had first encountered him, unforgettably, five years before I met him in person, when listening to the Jimmy Young Show at the age of 14. The entire programme was dedicated to the question of litter — specifically how to eradicate it. As you can imagine, the callers were united in their conviction that litter was utterly frightful, and that the penalty for littering should certainly be death. Just as I was nodding off, Jimmy Young suddenly said: ‘A Mr Foulk rang from Oxford to say that he thought litter was a jolly good thing.’ Ray’s argument was healthily empirical: ‘Whenever you go somewhere interesting like New York, Los Angeles or Venice, there’s always crap all over the place. Show me somewhere clean and tidy, and I’ll show you somewhere that’s a bit boring.’ This rule certainly holds for my local town of Sevenoaks, an idyllic place in many respects, but one where the definition of nightlife is staying up for the first half of News at Ten.

I was reminded of Ray’s observation last week when, for the first time in ages, I saw someone vomiting on the street and the sight gladdened my heart. Let me explain. It is not good to be sick in the street. But, as with litter, it may be a good sign when some people are sometimes sick in the street. Assuming an optimal level of drinking with a certain degree of variance under a normal distribution, if the median level of drinking rises to a more pleasant level for most people, an increase in vomiting on the street is simply the newly visible tail-end of a good-times bell curve shifting to the right. It’s similar to the adage that: ‘If you’ve never missed a plane, you’ve spent too much of your life in airports.’ You don’t want to miss many flights. But you might want to miss one or two. Equally, you don’t want to be sick on the street every night, but if you haven’t vomited on the street at least once, you’re probably missing out.

Ray’s approach to litter — and life — is characteristic of the entrepreneurial mind, which is more content with contrarian explanations. It resonates with a theory proposed by Iain McGilchrist, and supported by the comedian John Cleese, that the brain — specifically the two divided hemispheres of the brain — deploys two different modes of attention which attend to information differently. There’s the reductionist-bureaucratic–mechanistic-Taylorist-optimiser approach of the left hemisphere, and the creative-comedic-entrepreneurial mode of the right. Our brain is hence a kind of ‘what is’ loosely wired in parallel with a ‘what if’.

The theory might be nuts, but if McGilchrist is right, it is highly important. Evidence from patients with injuries to one brain hemisphere seems to support it. It also chimes with my own experience of the different ways in which people value information in business. One approach — which dangerously predominates at the moment — favours amassing all available data with the aim of optimising for it, thereby arriving at a clear-cut decision based on quantifiable but unrepresentative and old information. The other, more entrepreneurial approach is almost perversely uninterested in this, but seeks out information, insights or interpretations which are counterintuitive, newly emergent or widely overlooked or undervalued. The first is interested in averages, the second in outliers or anecdotes. The first mode is uncomfortable with ambiguity whereas the second embraces contradictions in the hope of creatively resolving them. The first mode sets out knowing what success looks like in advance, whereas the second sometimes discovers an answer which only makes sense in retrospect.

You need both modes, obviously. McGilchrist acknowledges this. But the problem arises when one dangerously predominates over the other — which in business means you end up run by a nerdish cadre of consultants.

If you want to know more of this theory, McGilchrist has published a 1,500-page, £90 magisterial two–volume work under the title of The Matter with Things. Alternatively, if you are in two minds about buying it, and simply want to spend two hours nurturing your inner Ray, John Cleese’s book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide comes in at a more left-hemisphere-friendly £8.99.

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