Mensa, the society for people with high IQs, is about to celebrate its Golden Anniversary. But 50 years of intelligence-testing don't seem to have made its members any more grown up, and the festivities.are likely to be marred by feuding and scandal
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ONE DECEMBER DAY in 1945, an Oxford postgraduate student called Lancelot Ware was on a train home to Godalming for the holidays, his receding chin buried in a volume of Hansard, when another passenger walked into his First Class compartment. The man sat down beside him. Roland Berrill was a 50 year-old Australian with a private fortune and a consuming interest in Oxford. He had failed the entrance exam, but afterwards took to following rowing eights along the towpath, bellowing unofficial advice regardless. Now, he was looking for something to occupy his middle age. He began watching Ware with his bulging, inquisitive eyes. Just past Woking, he leant over.

"Young man, is that Hansard you're reading?" Berrill asked.

Ware looked up: "Obviously. You can see the name on the top." He went back to his reading.

But Berrill persisted; as the train clanked across Surrey, he told Ware about himself: his elder brother at Oxford, his own failure to get in, his attempts to found a Men's Dress Reform Movement to promote the wearing of bright colours by both genders. As the bearded Australian boomed and gestured, Ware found himself listening, then responding. He told Berrill about his own passions, and one in particular: intelligence testing.

Ware had administered tests as a medical researcher during the war. When he got to Oxford, the sight of (in his eyes) so many other bright young people gave him the idea for a high-IQ society. Now, here on the train, he had found an ideal patron. Berrill was drawn - and all the more so when Ware suggested he come and stay at his digs in Oxford to discuss the plan.

The next term, Berrill arrived as arranged. Ware gave him an IQ test. Afterwards, Ware told him his score was in the top one per cent of all those examined. Berrill said it was the first time anyone had ever complimented his ability in anything. Then he burst into tears.

FIFTY YEARS later, Mensa can still seem very much Berrill and Ware's insecure child. In London earlier this month, an evening discussion about the society's future draws thin, jittery men through the grand revolving doors of Simpson's-in-the-Strand. The first wears spectacles and a limp macintosh, and ghosts across the restaurant's heavy-panelled Victorian lobby to ask reception for directions in a timid gasp. Upstairs in Mensa's allocated room, he sits down alone and stares silently forward, old and frail beneath the vast cream mouldings. Only 72 chairs have been put out.

But it does not take many Mensans to make a crowd. Two more elderly, distracted men drift singly in, then a woman with grey bouffant hair and a polka-dotted pink cardigan, two eager Asian teenagers - with parents - and a young chap with a forehead and glasses to confirm all preconceptions. Everyone knows everyone. The first man looks round in his chair, smiles a rumpled scientist's smile, shrugs off his mac, and hurries over to join the tweedy knot by the door.

Mensan chat is not like other chat. Exchanges have the jerky, unpractised quality of Berrill and Ware's first encounter. Sentences jump with mock- formalities: "Good to see you, young man. How are you?"; "I can't sit down until I regularise the ticket situation"; "I understand skiing was most eventful." Gestures - tentative backslaps, hands stuck out for shaking - are stiff too, but delighted, as if library-tied students had been let out for an unexpected party.

Most Mensans seem to be drinkers.

One couple, however, arrive unacknowledged. He is bigger than the rest, red-bearded and about 30, eyes fiercely bloodshot; she is smaller, dark- haired and exaggeratedly calm; both of them wear the jeans and trainers of the world outside. They do not take a drink, and do not speak, but stride quickly to the front of the room and sit down. No one sits next to them. Instead, Martyn and Christina Giscombe-Smith wait, tightly together, her leaning on the shoulder of his leather jacket. "I think there'll be a big row," he says, staring straight ahead. "Everyone else against me and my wife."

Behind them, there are glances, whispers, discreet pointing. She is an accountant; he is a photo-librarian; together, the Giscombe-Smiths are well known for their concern with Mensa matters: last year they submitted 21 critical motions to its annual meeting. Among other things, they are unhappy about the cost of Mensa directors meeting at the Savoy five times a year; about the "extremist" views of Simon Clark, editor of Mensa magazine; and about the British Mensa Committee, "an autocracy... imposing their will on people who don't bother." For their trouble, the Giscombe-Smiths are described by some of their fellow Mensans as "ridiculous, paranoid and laughable". An exasperated British Mensa Committee has proposed limiting the number of motions they can submit.

As it happens, the row never quite materialises tonight. But the Giscombe- Smiths are only one busy part of what the committee calls Mensa's Irritant Tendency. "At any given time," says someone who has worked for the organisation since the Seventies, "there are always several groups of dissidents. Some of them are straight loonies, some of them are sensible."

Any day now, an industrial tribunal in Birmingham is expected to decide on a case for unfair dismissal brought by Howard Gale, Mensa's Executive Director for the past 19 years. Gale was sacked early one morning last February, when Mensa's Chairman, Sir Clive Sinclair, together with a fellow Mensa director called Steve Sutton and some private security guards, arrived unannounced outside his office. They handed Gale a resignation letter to sign, changed the locks and suspended three of his subordinates. Gale brought an action for wrongful dismissal.

This winter an industrial tribunal heard allegations from Mensa - which Gale disputed - that Gale and the three subordinates had been running a private business for Gale's personal profit from Mensa's offices. It also heard allegations from Gale's supporters - which Mensa disputed - that his dismissal was, first, a coup by the Mensa directors to seize control of the society's previously independent administrative arm, or, second, a smokescreen to hide irregular expenses claims worth pounds 10,000 by John McNulty, another Mensa director.

The tribunal's verdict is imminent. Meanwhile, David Torvell, chairman of Mensa's administration for the past 17 years, has resigned in protest at Gale's treatment. And Gale's deputy, Carole Taylor, has brought her own unfair dismissal case, to be heard in May. John McNulty, who was suspended last June, has been reinstated. And, by phone and Internet and everyday gossip, the labyrinth of claim and counter-claim continues to grow.

In the moments when Mensans are not arguing about Mensa, they seem to argue about everything else. The letters pages of their magazine rage with personal score-settling and self-justification ("I am not an under- achiever stuck in a rotten low-paid job..."), hair-splitting about Star Trek, rows about the precise date of the new millennium. Meanwhile the committee, mindful that Mensa's politics are officially neutral, seeks constantly to damp down members' inflammatory opinions. Last year an American Mensa newsletter printed two articles arguing for the creation of a "master race" and that the homeless "should be done away with, like abandoned kittens." The committee rushed out a disclaimer, but, as Sinclair concedes, "When we last asked, members tended to be more to the right than to the left... They tend to be individualistic..." In January, an article in Mensa magazine argued that "at the age of 16... all children should leave home and move into barracks... separated from the influences of dope-peddlars and other no-hopers." Editor Simon Clark is an ex-director of Norman Tebbit's Media Monitoring Unit. Dr Madsen Pirie, president of the ultra-Thatcherite Adam Smith Institute and a member of Mensa since 1964, is the most regular columnist.

In short, Mensa has an image problem. "If the press gives the impression Mensa is eccentric," says Sinclair, "that's because it is." At Simpson's, the start of the evening's discussion offers further evidence. Lancelot Ware himself, now a white-tufted 81, answers questions as part of a panel of six (five white men over 50 and a young woman). The first is: has Mensa come up to your expectations? Ware begins, "That question could be applied to the whole of humanity, and the answer is much the same." His high voice cracks and slurs. "We are still struggling in infancy..." At the back of the room, one of the organisers, beard full of peanuts, says quietly to no one in particular, "It's funny. Sometimes at this meeting they have nuts and sometimes they don't. There's no consistency."

IT'S EASY to laugh. But, for all its feuding and frothing, Berrill and Ware's child has grown surprisingly large and strong. Mensa magazine lists at least 60 meetings in the capital every month. Across Britain, Mensa has nearly 38,000 members, a twentyfold increase since 1980; abroad, International Mensa has another 60,000, with branches in America, the rest of Europe, the Commonwealth and, increasingly, southern Asia. And many more people are keen to join: each year 50,000 take the entrance IQ test in Britain alone. (About one in 20 pass.)

This August, Mensa is planning to celebrate its Golden Anniversary for a whole week in London, Manchester, Cambridge and Paris. There will be parties, lectures, concerts, seminars, black-tie dinners, ten-pin bowling trips, treasure hunts and all the slightly gauche entertainments an international gathering of prodigies and professors might require. Jimmy Savile, Sharon Stone, Gary Bushell, and Jeremy Hanley - all members - may be spotted together in the same room. Sir Clive Sinclair will give his chairman's address.

What he says may be more worth listening to than usual. After 50 years of struggle and mockery, Mensa and its members' ideas are achieving a kind of backdoor credibility. Intelligence testing has long been excluded from the academic mainstream for being supposedly unscientific and, it has often been said, politically and racially motivated. Recently, however, the practice has crept in from the margins. In 1994 The Bell Curve, a book suggesting that IQ is largely inherited, and thus unequally distributed between races, was a bestseller for the right-wing American sociologist Charles Murray. Later that year, the Wall Street Journal published a "Statement On Intelligence", demanding a return to serious consideration of IQ, signed by a cross-section of psychologists. Last summer Dr James Tooley, a libertarian educationalist at Ware's old university, announced on several newspaper front pages that IQ tests should replace GCSE and A-level exams.

More broadly, Mensa's perpetual call for selection by mental ability has been echoing ever louder in the education policies of both main political parties. "The idea of a rough sorting of the populace on the basis of IQ is on the verge of a pretty major comeback," says Marek Kohn, a journalist who published The Race Gallery, a book about the revival of interest in racial difference, last year. "Ours is a society which is used to thinking in class terms, and IQ is particularly attractive to a middle class that feels it isn't getting its due."

"Mensa have been influential," says Joan Freeman, a professor in the department of education and social science at the University of Middlesex. "People are curious about them. Human beings are psychologists: we always categorise people - by their clothes, their faces. If you can give this a number [IQ] all the better."

Mensa's popularisation of the IQ idea is managed from a three-storey red-brick building in Wolverhampton. The surrounding square is pretty, with an 18th-century church and arching trees. But Mensa's headquarters is a functional warren, over-heated and bare - except, oddly, for a dated, near-psychedelic decor, as if a frugal small business had taken over the premises of a Seventies student society.

The office of the new Executive Director has a red floral carpet, gold globes for lights, a set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas marching along its only shelf and a large, very clean desk. Behind it sits Dave Chatten, Gale's replacement, rumpled and cheerily aggressive as any businessman you might meet on a train. "We'll hopefully get over all this crap," he says, waving a hand, of the row spitting on around his predecessor. Chatten does a lot of verbal waving-away. He describes himself as "a management consultant"; in fact he was, and still is, an employee of Sinclair's own company. "I was just the hitman, brought in very quickly," he says, creasing his forehead to suggest neutrality. "I don't do the politics. It has been a very traumatic period."

Chatten would rather bustle round his headquarters, taking the opportunity to check for mid-afternoon feet on desks and to bark instructions about new Mensa newspaper advertisements. These ads, usually in the form of puzzles (example: what is the connection between the words "skipper", "rescue", "ballet", and "acrobat"? Answer: all contain shorter words for items of sporting equipment) are Mensa's main source of income. Readers who send in correct answers can buy a Mensa home-testing kit for pounds 10 to rate their IQ. If they come in the top two per cent of national scores, they can take another, supervised intelligence test to try for Mensa entry. Come in the top two per cent again - commonly said to give an IQ of at least 146, although Mensans use six different scales of IQ - and you can join. Some 10,000 people take the supervised test each year; 2,500 pass.

Thus Mensa is in large part a mail order business (it also supplies businesses with personality testing kits). A hot roomful of middle-aged ladies sort the daily sackloads of post. There are so many inquiries that Mensa has stopped printing its phone number on its literature.

Every now and again, Chatten drops his talk of efficiency to portray all this paperwork as a populist crusade: "It doesn't matter what race or religion you are, whether you're in jail... We've got a moral responsibility to help people find out what their IQs are so they can fulfil their potential in society." Then he spoils things: "About 80 per cent of our members are from an executive-type background. You don't expect someone on a cash till to join Mensa."

A SIMILAR combination of idealism and snobbery attended Mensa's birth. After their weekend in Oxford, Ware and Berrill drew up a founding statement for their new society. "The aim of Mensa," it began, "is to get down on to a printed list the names and addresses of 600 of the most intelligent people in the country..." Ware and Berrill proposed placing their list "in the hands of the social anthropologist, of Ministers of the Crown". In October 1946 they began advertising in academic journals.

It took them until 1959 to get their 600 members. Ware and Berrill had problems from the start. First there was the name: they settled on Mens, for Mental Health Society, then realised this was the name of a well-known pornographic magazine, and switched to Mensa, the Latin for table, to suggest intellectuals at dinner together. Then there was their logo, which was to be glazed on to a tile in every member's home; it split the letter M into a pair of pointed hats, and people mistook it for the Ku Klux Klan's.

Berrill's behaviour in particular proved counter-productive. He wrote to the Home Secretary offering the services of Mensa to the government, and was predictably ignored. Then he decided Mensa's meetings needed a figurehead - a young woman, selected for her "pulchritude" and seated on a throne before the members, naked except for a leopard skin. The scheme unravelled like a bad Benny Hill sketch: the first candidate for "Corps d'Esprit" objected to Berrill's insistence on being present for her robing and disrobing; the second, Vera Davies, had to change her name because some sniggering members considered her initials naughty.

The annual Mensa meetings of 1950 and 1951 saw a revolt, then a breakaway. In 1952 Berrill disappeared to his flat in Eastbourne, rarely to re-emerge; by the following year the Mensa Quarterly was down to two pages. The main article was about penguins.

All these eccentric misfires stunted Mensa; but its growth was equally slowed by inept timing. Ware and Berrill had founded Mensa just as intelligence testing was beginning to lose credibility. Any time in the 50 years before 1946 would have been better. The practice had first been widely used in the 1900s, when the previous century's frankly racist obsession with skull- measuring and brain-weighing matured into a more respectable science of mental ability under the French psychologist Alfred Binet. In 1904 Binet was commissioned to develop a series of simple tests to stream children who were having difficulty in Paris schools.

Suggesting a scale for the results which would later be called IQ, he cautioned that "intellectual qualities cannot be measured as linear surfaces are", and recommended that his tests only be used in conjunction with other, less quantitative measures. His warnings were ignored. An American psychologist called Lewis Terman changed Binet's rough measure to an all- embracing formula called IQ, concocted by comparing mental to physical age and setting the average as 100. Proponents of superiority by race and class seized this new tool.

But more enlightened enthusiasts emerged too. Some Labour politicians, excited by research in the Twenties and Thirties by Cyril Burt, official psychologist for London County Council, began to see intelligence testing as a means of opening up good schools to working class pupils. Their enthusiasm led to the 1944 Education Act, which embedded IQ testing in the new 11- plus exam to separate out the cleverest fifth of schoolchildren from the rest.

But by the time Berrill and Ware made their move, disillusionment with the impact of the 11-plus was already setting in. Middle-class parents with average children were horrified to see the smart school places they expected for their offsping being opened to competition; left-wing meritocrats were worried that too few working-class children were pouring through the grammar school gates. The discovery that Hitler had used testing to weed out the "subnormal" also cast a pall over IQ. Meanwhile the emerging discipline of sociology began to undermine first the idea of inherited intelligence, then the idea of environment-neutral testing itself.

As Mensa struggled through the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, the scientific justification for its existence seemed to disappear. Radical academics like RD Laing and Michel Foucault questioned the very concept of intelligence; the 11-plus was abolished; American courts called IQ-testing for jobs unconstitutional; and Burt himself was accused of making up his results. New research showed that IQs tended to rise with time in a given population, eroding further the notion of a fixed, quantifiable ability. This anti- IQ consensus remains strong today. Professor Freeman, who has examined the developing intelligence of unusually gifted children, maintains that IQ cannot assess "personality, motivation, or creativity. It only measures the capacity to think along very formal lines."

BY THE SIXTIES, even formal thinking seemed rather beyond many Mensans. With Berrill out of the way, the society had grown stealthily in Britain during the Fifties; in America, it took off into five-figure membership, thanks in particular to a successful tour of television talk shows by a new Mensan chairman with the too-good-to-be-true name of Victor Serebriakoff. But expansion into America brought bigger, American tensions.

In the new, international Mensa, foreign members could challenge the power of headquarters in Wolverhampton. During the early Sixties the Kansas City branch of Mensa began publishing a scandal sheet attacking Serebriakoff. They called themselves SIGRIM (Special Interest Group for Reform In Mensa), and their protests soon escalated into full-scale insurrection. They wrote poison-pen letters under false names to the Mensa leadership's employers. They alleged frauds. On one occasion, they even falsely announced a Mensa official's death.

Wounds still smart from this. The panel at Simpson's devote a hoarse- voiced half hour to dredging up the old struggle. "SIGRIM should have been locked up for what they did," says a white-bearded Serebriakoff. Dr Jack Cohen, another chairman of Mensa in the SIGRIM era, is angrier: "This was the first time I had met people I thought were genuinely evil. They actually threatened people with guns." He flushes, leaning forward on his thick forearms. The room suddenly pays attention, starts making connections from past to present. Cohen bellows on: "When they said Ivan Lawrence [a leader of SIGRIM] was dead, I said, `Great. I hope he died painfully.' "

In 1967 SIGRIM passed a motion of no confidence in the Mensa leadership at its annual meeting, ejecting Serebriakoff and his allies. He fought on. Peace did not come until 1981, with a hotel-brokered agreement called the Miami Pact which gave semi-independence to Mensa branches outside Britain, under the name International Mensa.

Yet by then Mensa was finally gaining ground in Britain. From a couple of thousand in 1979, membership started to shoot upwards: to 10,000 by 1983, 30,000 by the end of the decade. In part, this was attributable to Margaret Thatcher's influence. "Mensa benefited from the New Right and the retreat of the Left and liberal determinism, the return to faith in innate qualities," says Marek Kohn. With self-obsession and improvement now considered political virtues, intelligence-testing edged back towards respectability. In America, a Berkeley professor called Arthur Jensen published a lengthy, unapologetic defence of IQ as a hereditary quality. In Britain, Professor Hans Eysenck of the London School of Economics, against whom students had protested for years for his linking of race and IQ, suddenly found himself an ally in Keith Joseph, a cabinet minister who favoured sterilising the criminal and feckless.

But most important was the revitalisation of Mensa itself. Harold Gale, who had been hired in 1977, introduced the all-important newspaper ads, in both broadsheets and tabloids. Mensa began to attract, and show off, celebrity members. It also helped set up special interest groups, clubs within the club for croquet players, Star Trek fans (the most popular), even fetishists. Mensa publicised the SIGs, and printed and circulated their newsletters; the SIGs drew in new members, who founded more SIGs, and so on, in a well-organised virtuous circle. Meanwhile a new charitable arm called the Mensa Foundation for Gifted Children, funded by members' donations, began to offer advice on schools to parents with bright offspring. Plans were mooted for a separate school system run by the foundation. By 1994, for the first time in its history, Mensa seemed adult.

SINCE THEN things have gone back to infantile normality. Last year saw the eruption of the Gale scandal; this year's anniversary celebrations risk making the surrounding disputes all the more public. Towards the end of the evening at Simpson's, as the glasses of wine grow stale and gazes start to drop towards the floor, an explanation for this appears. Someone asks again why Mensa has no declared aim. Serebriakoff answers wearily, "If we had an aim, straightaway a lot of people would drop away who didn't like it."

This inability to agree an aim reflects a fundamental tension. On the one hand, Mensa is a giant club, with elected officers and an annual subscription of pounds 25. On the other, it is a limited company, with all the anti-democratic boardroom tendencies this often implies. The Giscombe-Smiths, with their activist trips to Islington Library to examine the backgrounds of committee members, personify one tendency; Chatten, with his executive belly and no-nonsense dismissal of dissent as "politics", is the other. The two most often meet, and fight, at the members' meeting every August.

Christina Giscombe-Smith says that last year the address for the meeting, which Mensa is required to publish by company law, was hidden away on an inside page of the book of motions circulated beforehand, making attendance difficult. "The committee would have the AGM in the Outer Hebrides if they could... They encourage Mensans to go to parties, discos, local museums, but they're very disapproving of people going to the AGM... In the hall they try to speed it up as much as possible. You can tell by their faces they absolutely hate it."

"Most AGMs in companies last very limited times," says Chatten, leaning back wistfully behind his big, clean desk. "They're purely for legal requirements. And nowadays there are ways of getting round them, thanks to the Companies Act part 377..."

With this basic quarrel unresolved, Mensa takes refuge in its equally traditional eccentricities. Nigel Tinsley, company secretary at headquarters for the last 11 years, expects nothing less: "A lot of members just join so they can say they're in Mensa." He smiles a little knowing smile - he is not a member - and continues in his soft, seen-it-all West Midlands voice, "There's something terribly British about it... not quite like your local allotment society - a bit more cerebral than that... One problem we have is that apart from having a high IQ they have nothing in common."

At Simpson's, the discussion soon spins off in all directions, itchy attention-spans each having their way. The usual Mensa questions are asked about the society's attitude to extreme viewpoints (fascists are allowed, say the panel), and the lack of female members (possibly lower IQ, say the panel, to very little dissent). After all her husband's warnings, and much whispering between them, Christina Giscombe-Smith asks innocuously about a Mensa sperm bank in America. "It's certainly come up a lot," says Serebriakoff to the loudest laugh of the night. Then Jack Cohen, sleeves rolled up, arms raised, announces his own vision for Mensa: "I hope that Ruritanian Mensa makes an attempt to take over the world. I want US Mensa to become an enormous company making products everyone wants. I don't want it to be like any boring club."

Afterwards, as the Mensans ghost back off into the night, the organiser with the beard stands by the bowls of uneaten nuts and says, "It's interesting. There's no pattern. Sometimes they're round, sometimes they're not." !