Anorak Attack

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The Independent Online
Why is it that no-one wants to be anal? Of the phases that Freud identified in child development (giving rise to the shorthand ways of describing different types of people), only the anal has a really bad reputation. When did you last hear someone complaining that a friend or spouse was so "phallic" or so "oral"? Both of these might be considered to be compliments, carrying with them either the hint of thrusting sexuality and interesting tumescence, or a capacity for sensual appreciation. Anal, however, means focused on the lower bowel, retentive, obsessive.

It could be that this is a simple associative problem caused by Freud's choice of words. This argument runs that we do not value our anuses as highly as we do our gobs and our genitals, and this disregard has become attached to those characteristics linked to anality. Had the great Viennese and his disciples decided that retention was to be linked to the phallus, all film stars and great people would happily admit to weekend trainspotting and silver-polishing.

Alas, anybody working in the field of psychometric testing will know that an entirely different descriptor still produces the same aversion. Almost everybody who is tested wants to be a "leader", an "innovator", or even, at a push, a "monitor". Few want to be "completers". The consolatory sentiment that every good team needs a completer will rarely help. "Why does it have to be me?" is the usual answer.

We are terrified of boredom and of being boring. The only true path is that of the creator, the conjuror of bright lights. Extreme examples of leadership or of innovation are feared or admired - extreme examples of completion, of seeing the thing through, are considered laughable or contemptible.

Professor Les Woodcock, who this week completed a 22-year-long calculation, is one of the ultimate completers. Since 1975 (the year the Vietnam War ended, Steve Harley was No 1 - and there was a Labour government), Les had been trying to discover whether hexagonal close-packed lattices were less stable than their crystal face-centred cousins. The answer, released this week, turned out to be triangle S = 0.005R. But even Woodcock admits that Woodcock's Solution was "not particularly useful as such".

Les now joins the pantheon of obstinate problem solvers, whose other deities include John Machin (who in 1706 calculated the value of pi to 100 decimal points) and William Sacks (who in 1853 took it to 707, the last 179 of which were wrong).

Is this a sad nerd, then, worthy of comparison with men such as the miserable German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (who insisted on lecturing at exactly the same time as his more famous contemporary, Hegel, and thus for several years addressed an entirely empty lecture theatre)? And is this presumably a man whose company at the dinner party is to be avoided at all costs ("and what exactly does the triangle represent, Les?").

Not a bit of it. For Professor Woodcock does not turn out to be some crepuscular academic, sequestered from human society by the nature of his obsessions. Photographs do not show something soft with thick specs, blinking in the unexpected light of the day, but a fit, happy and young- looking chap. In addition to solving this nearly useless problem, he has also found time to help run a small sheep farm in the Dales, parent seven children and fill a place in his local pub's trivia quiz team. Les has a pretty full life. He is normal.

This may be the most frightening aspect of it all. Nicola Horlick was bad enough. She made a million, was bloody good at her job, had five kids, was very bright and, above all, was fantastically well organised. I am not even sure that her management of money made her more useful than Les. But she must have been anal. Compared with her and Les, the rest of us are chaotic anti-completers who see nothing through, who cannot master simple pieces of technology, add without calculators, read instruction manuals, make wills or listen to pension advice without falling asleep. We are carried by those we mock - the accountants and the anoraks. Up ours!