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The Independent Online
Genius "AT LEAST I have got through this appreciation of Peter Cook without using the G-word," wrote Clive Anderson in the Independent. Others were not so inhibited. An indisputable genius, said John Bird in the same issue. "Dudley Moore. . . described him as a creative genius," said a Daily Telegraph caption. "Not only a genius. . ." was the Daily Mail's headline over a piece by Christopher Booker.

This was not, as it happened, how Booker meant the word. In his piece he called Peter Cook "a real original, touched with genius." Booker was going back to an older meaning, to when "genius" was a magical quality, not a person, but a visitation from elsewhere. Your genius was your guardian angel, assigned to you at birth (the word comes, via Latin, from the Greek for "to be born"). It determined your character, and there wasn't much you could do about it - indeed, more than one obituarist has pointed out that Cook didn't understand where his ideas came from. When Thomas Carlyle said genius was the capacity to take trouble ("an infinite capacity for taking pains", as someone else put it), we forget that he was only trying out a modest little paradox, and was not to be taken seriously.

Anyway, by putting that "a" in front of the word, the Mail's sub-editiors showed they were thinking of a later meaning, when "genius" was no longer a quality, but the person who had it. The Telegraph's caption-writers did much the same thing last week. Dudley Moore didn't actually say Cook was "a creative genius". He said he was "the creative genius and driving force behind our partnership"; in other words, that his was the inspiration behind it. One can just about see how the one meaning could have moved into the other. It's only when you put them into the plural that they clearly diverge. Thomas Gray in his comic poem describes a couple of goldfish as "two angel forms . . . the Genii of the stream." Those two fish were no geniuses.

Nicholas Bagnall

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