Saturday, 9 May 2009


Warning - going through a phase. It will pass.

I've been feeling pretty stupid lately. Or rather ignorant, which is not quite the same thing. It’s one of these ‘mid-life crises’ I’ve been having since I was, oh, fifteen. I look back and think, Christ, what a mess and a waste it’s all been, and how little I know! Everything I read seems to open up new caverns of ignorance, and nowadays after I have put down a book I forget almost immediately what I've just read. I bought Clive James's 'Cultural Amnesia' a couple of years ago and felt so depressingly ignorant reading it that I haven't picked it up for eighteen months. How could I ever catch up?

As a kid and teenager I had that magpie type of mind that collects and stores sparkly scraps from blurbs, footnotes, TV documentaries and encyclopaedias. It’s a habit of mind that makes you insufferably good at answering questions on Mastermind and University Challenge. On hearing Bamber Gascoigne rattle off a question like ‘frequently trepanned in fourteen fifty splunge and said since to have been twice disgruntled, whose compendia were boiled in ambergris by the Medici as a secondary means of warding off the Evil Eye?' magpie-brained kids immediately blurt out ‘occipital condyles!’ and that’s their starter for ten. It’s a habit of mind I still have to a large extent and I don’t think it is a very useful one. With it come a low boredom threshold and impatience with detail. I get interested in a subject, send away urgently for books, then once I have the subject in outline, its allure is tarnished and I’m on the look out again for shinier things. I could never do a PhD. The sheer dogged persistence required of one for such an undertaking is something I could not muster, even assuming I did have the academic ability.

Well anyway, out of curiosity I sent for a home test booklet from MENSA, to see if I really am as stiff and creaky of mind as I have been feeling. It arrived this morning, and I sat down and had a look through it. You know the sort of stuff:

  • What’s next in this series of numbers: 1, 2, 4, 3, 6, 8, 45, …?
  • FIN is to FISH as WING is to a) Bird b) Cricket c) Wormwood Scrubbs.
  • Someone is filling a tank with water while at the same time allowing the water to escape through an unstopped plug hole. How long will it take him to fill the tank T if the water W flows in at 4 gallons per minute while the plughole P lets it all out at 6 gallons per minute? (Why the hell doesn't he just put the bloody plug in?)

The stuff with figures is beyond me, for figures and I have never got on. I transpose digits in phone numbers and fuck up percentages because there is no ‘of’ button on a calculator. I really do need numbers to be represented as big, tangible objects. I would have benefited as a kid from being taught with Cuisenaire rods – indeed I would probably benefit from them even now. Instead I have to manage with printed numbers or numbers on the display of a calculator or mobile phone, where they seem to me to swap places and wiggle about like thunderbugs. I can add up a column of figures five times and get a different total for each attempt. I have never mastered multiplication tables. I know 'five eights are forty' in the same way as I know Leontes's line 'To mingle friendships far is mingling bloods' - it has just stuck in my mind as a phrase since school. Also, I can't imagine a less interesting task than the one above about the bloody water tank - I mean, who cares? I ignored most of the number questions on the test.

The verbals are mostly a doddle. You connect synonyms and antonyms, detect the odd example of polysemy, note superordinates and hyponyms. There you are, you see, my Diploma in TEFL from 20 years ago was not wholly wasted, but unfortunately you don’t get marks for knowing the polysyllabic jargon. Language is what I do, though, so I would not expect to screw up on this section. However, there is a page that tests processing speed. Here letters appear in a grid and you are presented with questions in which prepositional phrases slam into one another like lorries in a motorway pile-up: ‘what letter comes just below the letter which comes between the letter just after the letter just above G and the letter just before the letter just below B?’ ("Can you do Addition?" the White Queen asked. "What's one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one?" ) I imagine some specky twelve year-old, who learns Sanskrit in his time out from composing sonatas, rattling through this and thinking it great fun, and I envy him. But I got this far and thought, do I really give a stuff? The task really amounts to decoding a very badly constructed sentence.

I may never send the test back to be marked. I don’t want to pay the £9.95 fee to get a letter in reply saying ‘Are you kidding?’ I will probably have lost interest in the matter by tomorrow morning in any case.


In fact I did send it back to be marked, and according to the letter I got in reply, my results on this rough and ready preliminary test would probably put me in the top 8% of people who can be bothered to send the test back.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the numbers thing ! I remember a maths lesson in school where the teacher said " P = 3.2 " ( or something like that ) and my question was " why? " - who says so ? Needless to say I never passed a maths exam after 1st form. The subject was totally incomprehensible to me. Words are easy !!!!

vilges suola said...

P=3.2... Well, maybe it does. Hard to give a fuck, though, innit?

Sethy said...

I laughed a lot at this, identifying completely.. It seems even my spelling and vocabulary have gone straight down the proverbial toilet too. These were things that held me above my peers in my relative youth. My theory though, is that the mind changes its priorities at a certain point in life, choosing to point out to us that perhaps these things are not really important when all we want is to be satisfied.

vilges suola said...

Hi Sethy, glad it amused you! My priorities have changed in favour of filling some of the shaming gaps in my knowledge. I might plug a few before I lay my burden down...


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