Richard Smith: “I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty, and my legs are thin.”

Richard SmithIt’s been a bad week. I’ve flown 6000 miles to attend two meetings where not only did I not manage to say anything useful but I also came across as stupid. Such experiences always lead me to reflect on my extreme deficiencies and marvel that I’ve got as far as I have. I’m writing this partly to assuage my discomfort (one of the best reasons for writing), but more to illustrate to the young how you can get a long way with minimal talent.

(If you want to read more on such a theme I recommend Anthony Powell’s twelve volume Dance to the Music Time, in which one of the main characters Kenneth Widmerpool, a socially awkward fool, rises to be Lord Widmerpool. Mind you, by the end of the book he is the powerless, naked member of a pagan cult. Perhaps a similar fate awaits me.)

As far as I can see, I have no skills. I can’t speak a foreign language, one of life’s most important skills in that it is the key to other cultures. I might—and do—read lots of books written initially in languages other than English, but it’s very much a diminished experience compared with reading them in their original languages. And, although poetry is hugely important to me, I’m shut out completely from poetry written in other languages. I spent five years learning French, but even ordering a meal in a Parisian restaurant is a strain. Yet I have friends, particularly African and Asian friends, who speak up to six languages without hesitation.

Music is as important to me as poetry, but I can’t play a musical instrument. I did spend several years learning the clarinet and tenor saxophone, but the sounds I made couldn’t be described as music. Nor can I sing or dance, although I enjoy to do both. My daddy dancing mortifies my family, and the only song I can sing in public is the Winkle Song, which I always introduce by saying “This is a song that can be sung only by those who can’t sing.” Nor do I have other performance skills; my comedian brother can keep an audience laughing for two hours, and his question to measure anybody’s value is “Could you do 10 minutes at the Comedy Store?” My answer is no.

Then I’m not a proper doctor. Some doctors can do things as remarkable as transplant a heart or embolise a brain tumour, and the humblest doctor who sees patients has to have a formidable range of skills. I don’t see patients, and as I did so for only two years never learnt many of those skills. Most academics also have technical skills like being able to do differential calculus or calculate when Halley’s comment will next appear. Although, I’ve been a professor in five institutions I don’t have any such technical skills.

Nor do I possess sporting skills. I went to Lords last year and was astonished by the skills of the cricketers: even the slowest bowlers bowled so fast that I couldn’t see the ball, and yet batsmen could most of the time put bat on the the fastest bowling. I did once take 10 wickets in an innings, but that was 50 years ago when I was 10—and  I don’t think that the standard was high in a park in Rotherhithe. I play tennis sometimes but can’t serve properly. I can at least swim, but that’s not a  marketable skill.

Then there’s all those practical skills that I don’t have. While I sit upstairs writing silly blogs like this, five Bulgarians have built an extension to our kitchen, an achievement that has demanded many complex skills. I remember as a child passing a tall chimney in a train, and my father telling me “Your uncle built that chimney.” In retrospect I recognise that he wouldn’t have done so alone (as I thought at the time), but it must be a fine thing to point to some solid structure, perhaps even a house, and say “I built that.” I once was part of a start up business, and every day as I cycled to work I past a block of flats being built. After two years the flats were built and occupied, whereas our business was shaky.

I can change a plug, but that seems to be an almost redundant skill. I can cook, but when I think of my attempt to cook something special I think of the utter failure of my macaroni pie that I cooked for the Guardian‘s restaurant critic.

There must, I suppose, be some skills that I have. I can walk, chew gum, clean my teeth, and tie my shoelaces, but who can’t do these things? (Mind you, even changing the clock on the microwave is beyond me: I have to wait for my daughter to come home from university to get this done.) I can compose a grammatical sentence, although not a 100% of the time, but I could not write a novel or poem that anybody would want to read. Perhaps I have “soft skills” unlike the “hard skills” of being able to speak Spanish fluently, play the cello well enough to play in a string quarter, or do a hip replacement—but there’s not much satisfaction to be had from skills so soft that they are hard to define and impossible to measure.

Perhaps I should be terrified by this lack of skills, and if I was 20 rather than 60 I might be. But somehow I’ve managed to get myself into Who’s Who? with no discernible skills. I’m another Widmerpool.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.