Thinking ahead, the brains of the outfit
THE TIMES, 18 August 1996
By Lesley White
If fashion has reclaimed the nerd and Oasis adopted the anorak, how do we imagine the chairman of Mensa, as the organisation celebrates its 50th birthday this month? He should be well-spoken and badly dressed, obsessed by arcane minutiae, a Mastermind contender, or a Sealed Knot fantasist and perfectly proud to lead the uncoolest club in the world. Dress?
A light-grey suit and beard perhaps? Here is the inventor Sir Clive Sinclair, who has done the job for 15 years wearing just that, but - let's be fair - with some mitigating factors. His domed head is pink and fresh as a boiled prawn; his beard is trimmed to a ginger bristle, the specs expensive, the new Jay Mclnerney casually cast on the coffee table with an anthology of poetry. This is a man of the world then, a reader of trendy fiction, an escorter of babes to top nite-spots. "The Boffin and the Playgirl" was one tabloid headline. "I like lively girls, I'm naturally attracted to their minds." He should be so lucky, they mutter at Mensa discos. His cramped Mayfair flat is basic and simple, nothing to distract him from his "thinking", which is currently perfecting an eco-friendly bicycle and the Zeta power-pack which will give your ordinary bike an electric boost. He joined Mensa in 1959 as a curious 19-year-old, for the challenge of the test, and used it to make friends as a lonesome youth in London. "What is wrong with like-minded people getting together? The Mensa singles scene is thriving," he beams. He thoroughly approves of the Californian comrade who, in a bid to improve American intelligence, has set up a super-brainy sperm bank - donors preferably Nobel prize winners - the Repository For Germinal Choice. "People say it's Hitlerian eugenics," says Sinclair, "but if a woman wants artificial insemination, why not have that information, that choice? They choose partners for good reasons anyway. It's never random." Just what his famously glammy girlfriends see in him, genes apart, we do not discuss.
Mensa, however, is about arrogance as much as romance, the desire of self-appointed eggheads to dispute, split hairs, bicker over the real date of the millennium. That it has always elicited more mockery than resentment - imagine how Clive would feel if, say, the beautiful gathered to assert their superiority - is down to our assumption that its members are sad cases. Why, I ask the chairman, do they join? For the imprimatur of boffin chums? "I think £30 a year is rather a lot to fork out just for that, don't you?" No actually, I think it's cheap at the price. Though inventing is his bread and butter, he has worked hard for Mensa. Inspired by the American model, he used his marketing skills - ads, promotions, teasingly easy tests in the popular press - to swell the membership to 45,000 from just 2,000 in 1980. But in the month of its golden anniversary and a big membership drive its most eminent patron sounds a little weary.
He couldn't recall the test that won him entry; nor his first meeting, nor even the subject for discussion at the last black-tie dinner - discussion topic set with the menu - he attended. He will be at the fun-packed Manchester birthday weekender but only long enough to address the annual meeting and have dinner. When his committee term ends next year, he will not stand again. Perhaps he is embarrassed by some bad press. Members of American Mensa recently wrote to the newsletter in support of slaughtering "defectives". And Sinclair is furious about the use of his beloved IQ tests to demean the have-nots: Charles Murray's controversial study The Bell Curve, which alleges the natural inferiority of black brains, is dismissed as rubbish and unscientific. "There is no such thing as a culture-free test; difference in schooling and background come out in results. Anyone who can't see that is..." Stupid? He wouldn't say it.
The club's "Irritant Tendency" has accused the committee of out-wrangling the Borgias. Who could blame Clive Sinclair for having had enough, for retreating to his new penthouse overlooking King's Cross station, as the elite Uber-Mensan, only associating with the non-naff contingent like Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, and the lovely Carol Vorderman?
He has made enough smart friends, he says, and though its founders saw Mensa as a brains trust, penetrating the problems of the world on behalf of mankind, its modern function is purely social. "That was an overblown idea. Just because people do well at IQ tests doesn't make them great philosophers. Or successful, even." What does it make them? "Good at passing IQ tests."
Is that why Clive, purveyor of the first populist PC, the 1979 Spectrum, is not quite Bill Gates? "He is a businessman and I am an inventor, business to me is a necessary evil, it gets in the way of my thinking. I'd hate to be a billionaire, looking after all that money, what a nuisance." He has always and only ever wanted to innovate. The son of a "clever" engineer and an "also clever" housewife, at school he built a one-man submarine from a petrol tank salvaged from a Reading scrap yard; and a camera from the lenses of a magnifying glass. He refused to go to university (though later attended Cambridge) and insisted, as his frustrated teachers predicted he would, on going his own way.
After the first pocket calculator (W H Smith wasn't interested), the Spectrum (still Russia's biggest-selling PC), the pocket phone, and the matchbox radio, he is absorbed today in the super-light bike that folds like an umbrella. Plans to cross his C5 with the fibreglass Robin Reliant seem to have been temporarily shelved.
His career has been at times gratifyingly funny - especially the sight of Professor Brainstawm burning down the cycle lane in his C5 in 1985 ("too early, no cycle tracks"), a failure that cost him more than £7m. But in person Sinclair is too affable, too connected, too rich to be the get-a-life emblem. Nor is he, in an age of the pontificating pundits, the preening tele-dons, the least bit pompous about his brain power. "I don't really think about it, in myself or others. I don't have a sense of myself as intellectually superior to other people, I don't even particularly value intellectual skills. Intelligence, which I define as speed of mind, is useful to achieve certain things, but creativity, the ability to write poetry, that interests me much more."
There are, one suspects, few poets in Mensa, few bohemian spirits and towering romantic artists, and Sinclair, whose celebrity rather than Mensa membership has led him to associate with all manner of fascinating creatives, knows it. Why aren't there more, um, interesting, creative types among the IQ flyers?
"I don't know," he muses.
That's not a very clever answer, I reply. "I know...You're quite right."
Only joking, Clive. "Oh I see...ha ha, yes indeed."