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Polymath Wanna Cracker?

Saturday, 28th April, 2001

Oh, it took some getting up this morning. That little devil was back on my shoulder again, doing his thing.

'You don't need to get up at five. It's Saturday! Sleep in! You can start back on this on Monday - make it a weekday thing. Nobody will mind. Hey - it's not like anyone reads this anyway...'

But no, if I'm to do this, I ought to do it right. So here I am like a madman at five o'clock on a Saturday morning, and when this is done I can go back to bed. OK, here goes...

On my desk is a calendar, done in a block format like you see on the desks of executives. Its theme is to tie each day to dates in history. Today, for instance, King Edward IV was born, a mere six and a half centuries ago in 1442; and Captain Cook landed at and named Botany Bay in 1770. It's an interesting little thing.

Maybe my mother, most of the way through a history degree, could write a piece about Edward IV or Captain Cook, but I couldn't tell you much about either. I know Cook was born in Marton, Cleveland, because I've visited the church he was baptised in. Edward IV? He was king. That's all I know. I'm fixin' to find me some of that fancy edumacashun so's I can tell y'all more.

For now, though, I'm going to flick back to Thursday, which listed Leonardo da Vinci, born on 26th April, 1452. What's a couple of days between friends?

It lists him as a 'painter and sculptor', which doesn't exactly give the full picture. If he was a mere 'painter and sculptor', he wouldn't be as fascinating as he is. I'd have listed him as 'Renaissance Man' or 'polymath'. It's polymaths that fascinate me.

Here's my basic theory. Life is a game of cards. It's the biggest game there is, with everyone in the world playing, but it's just a game of cards. Kismet is the dealer and she's good at what she does. Pay attention because one day she'll deal you four aces. Then you're in business.

You have to work like crazy, of course. Remember TANSTAAFL - There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Put in the hours and the days and be the best that you can be. And you'll get there, because anyone can be great at one thing. We're back to Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes and the old adage that there's a book inside everyone.

The catch is that it's only one thing. Try to be great at two different things and they'll bitch at each other and steal each other's time and attention - and suddenly you'll be good at two things but great at none. You only get those four aces once.

Every now and again someone rigs the cards. These are the guys who get to be great at anything they do. They get four aces every hand. In America, the colour supplements and celebrity magazines would cover their every move. In England, we'd make up stories about their alleged transvestite encounter with a nun and a sheep and run them in a national daily tabloid.

I just want to know how they rigged the cards.

The strange thing is that, historically, they're not always the most famous of people, or at least their fame doesn't always last down the ages.

Leonardo, 'painter and sculptor' designed helicopters four hundred years before we could fly. That takes a special genius. He wrote all his notes backwards - literally, as a mirror image - which in the fifteenth century was encryption as good as PGP. His painting included incredibly detailed anatomical drawings that were standard reference points for centuries.

Robert Heinlein wrote a sf novel postulating that Leonardo was really someone from the twentieth century who went back in a time machine but got stuck. It doesn't cut it - I think he just rigged the cards. How else do you get to be a ninja turtle?

America is supposed to be a celebration of success. So how come nobody's put together a book on polymaths? Each chapter would deal with a different, and not necessarily well known polymath, from varying historical time periods.

One chapter would cover G K Chesterton: novelist, poet, cleric, historian, writer on any number of subjects, whose fame nowadays remains almost exclusively through his fictional detective, Father Brown. Another would be Sabine Baring-Gould: folklorist, novelist, hymn collector, writer of even more varied subjects than Chesterton.

And how about R Lionel Fanthorpe?

In the decade of the 1960s, Badger Books put out a long, long list of paperbacks in uniform yellow covers. Lurid science fiction, outre weirdness, collections of horror shorts, by a wide variety of authors with improbable names. The names were more than improbable - almost all were Fanthorpe under one pseudonym or other. All in all, he wrote over a hundred books in a period of well under a decade. And the scariest part is that it was all in his spare time. He held down a full time job as a teacher for the whole period.

I'm still amazing myself by still having words flowing six days into my experiment. Fanthorpe ended up hiring four secretaries, and literally stood dictating a novel from imagination. When one tape was full, one secretary would head off to type it up and another would take her place. His record was to start one novel early in the morning and have it ready for the next day's post.

It meant that much of what he wrote is garbage, but certainly not all, and the garbage is garbage in incredibly inventive ways. He knew every trick the pulp era hacks knew and maybe invented a few more. His books are now highly collectable and are often the subject of games and conversation at science fiction conventions.

He also holds a number of world records for writing the most material in a 24 hour period - for fiction, non fiction, play. He's locked in a friendly battle with Guy N Smith, another candidate for a chapter, and the titles switch between them with unerring regularity.

Of course, this is all the job of a writer, not a polymath. But Fanthorpe has other strings to his bow. He gave up teaching as a full time job a long while ago, but he still teaches privately. He became ordained into the Church in Wales, and works as a chaplain. Lately he's picked up more fame as the leather clad cleric on television's Channel 4 series, 'Fortean TV', in which he gets to take his viewers on a whirlwind ride through all that's weird and wonderful, a field in which he writes and investigates. And of course there are more books, always more books.

He also has the longest letterhead I've ever seen, at least until I replied with one even longer still. Why climb that mountain? Because it's there.

So, a toast to the polymaths! You keep our world a fascinating place, you keep our minds and senses alive and happy, you deserve your place in history. Now, how do you rig those cards?

OK, back to bed go I. And I think that little devil stuck his tongue out at me.


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