In a darkened living room in an anonymous suburb on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, a fan whirs. Outside, the west London streets are broiling. On matching red velvet sofas, four Mensa members pore over their game, Trial Pyramid of Phobos.
Sessions like these regularly stretch into the early hours. Yet since 1985, when Mensans started playing the game, nobody has won or even finished it. For that matter, none of the 66 ranked players have even got close to the pyramid's heart on Phobos, the mythical planet. Had they done so, Francis Thomason, author of the questions lying in neat piles around the room, concedes they might discover that wasn't the aim at all. "I haven't decided how it ends - yet," he grins. "It might be just the beginning."
Small wonder that those outside the society for those with IQs of 148 plus - supposedly two per cent of the population - view members as smug and too clever by half. Even some inside it, including chairman and inventor Sir Clive Sinclair (IQ unknown), acknowledges it is "elitist and exclusive".
Among Mensa's 36,000 members, these very traits, and a few worse ones, are touted as causing a history of vitriolic internal feuding. For Mensans, it seems, no issue is too trivial. Will the 21st century begin on 1 January 2000, or 2001? A furious debate ensues in London Mensa News. Is Mensa losing its egalitarian roots? Moves to change its status from a company to an association sparks a blazing row and accusations of secret meetings. A legal wrangle over directorship of Mensa Administration Ltd and the nine-strong ruling British Mensa committee ensues. Mensa's American cousins get in on the act - a newsletter suggests the homeless are mostly "lazy, crazy and stupid" and "should be done away with like abandoned kittens".
One erstwhile member, David Gallant, though, has pride of place in the Mensa hall of fame. A few years ago, he issued 74 writs against the committee for allegedly failing to abide by its own rules and making slanderous statements. The cases dragged through the courts for several years, leaving Gallant, 55, nursing a costs hangover. He lost another action shortly afterwards, suing two well-built women he accused of trapping him in a Ford Capri for an hour after a Mensa meeting.
But the latest round of championship backbiting makes all this look like a warm-up routine. The honorary secretary, John McNulty, has been suspended while detectives investigate allegations of expenses irregularities, which had swirled among gossipy members for years. A dossier compiled by Brian J Ford, one of the committee, is in the hands of police. Yet, in June, Ford, too, was promptly suspended from one of his official posts.
A few months earlier, another chapter in the turbulent story of Mensa unfolded. Rumours had also been gathering like storm clouds over Harold Gale, the chief executive of 19 years. By his own admission, his mistake was to swap his Toyota MR2 for something more flash - a pounds 46,000 Jaguar XJS convertible, paid for by the company, Harold Gale Associates, which he had set up to market Mind Games magazine and Mensa puzzles. Sir Clive, McNulty and Neil Goulder, Mensa's self-styled financial director, resolved at a secret meeting to persuade the committee to visit the Mensa House HQ in Wolverhampton and investigate.
"That was the raid on my offices," says Gale, 53, referring to the visit by Sir Clive and Steve Sutton, another Mensa director. "Sinclair handed me a piece of paper suggesting I resign. I was gobsmacked."
Gale was sacked in March, but not before his computer files were seized and locks at Mensa House changed. His opponents maintain he had abused an arrangement allowing him to use staff and materials to help produce Mind Games. He is adamant that the agreement was sanctioned and widely known. An industrial tribunal will soon ensure that this dirty washing is held up to public scrutiny. The committee's actions in particular will be spotlighted.
"Their behaviour in the past six months has been disgraceful," says Gale. He is not alone in his low opinion of Goulder, McNulty and Sir Clive, chairman for 15 years. "It's a self-perpetuating clique," says one insider. It's a nightmare - like the court of the Borgias."
Paradoxically, though, while many in Mensa may agree with that view of Sir Clive's leadership talents, few would like to see him go. Like a family, the Mensa boffins fight like cat and dog but soldier on.Sir Clive's most implacable foe, Brian J Ford, also a long-time friend, says: "While Sir Clive is the most incompetent chairman I've ever sat with, he's ideal as a figurehead for Mensa. But one feels sometimes he's part of a little clique who will do anything to remain in control."
This "clique", like all committee members, stands for re-election every three years. "They can throw us out if they want," is Sir Clive's retort to accusations of "stoogery". But insiders say the small but vocal band of malcontents who foment trouble, most notably at the AGM, are simply dismissed as the "irritant tendency" by Sir Clive and cronies.
Chief among this group are the Giscombe-Smiths, dubbed by some as the committee's "sworn enemies". Among the obsessions of Martin Giscombe-Smith - age 26, IQ 159 - is what he sees as Mensa's rampant commercialism. He and his wife submitted 22 critical motions to the upcoming AGM; all but two were rejected.
Opinions vary on why Mensa is such a nest of vipers. "Mensa attracts the slightly odd," admits one close observer. "Actually, deeply weird would probably be closer." "It seems that people have nothing better to do with their lives," says Steve Sutton. "In some warped way, they say they are doing their best, but they become obsessed. If they differ, they can't lay the bit down."
Another insider disagrees. "It doesn't attract any more anoraks than any other club, but because they're more intelligent, they tend to be more trouble." Ford is more analytical. "Mensans sit the test, and although intelligent, they're not terribly socially well endowed. Then they turn up and find they're talking to Sir Clive and it goes to their head. Just because you're clever doesn't mean you're not a blithering idiot."
Back in the darkened living room, the players display their particular brand of eccentricity. Asked her age, Susan Lambert responds with a puzzle: "My age is N years, where N is x + 1 and x is the integer applicable this time last year." (answer below) Presumably, had the 66th ranked player - Crippen the Mensa cat - been around, things would have been much more straightforward.
Answer: One year older than last year.
Famous members of Mensa
Geena Davis, American actress and free spirit in Thelma and Louise. Joined Mensa in 1988. "I've never been to any meetings or anything, so I can't imagine what they're like. I don't know if they just sit around and, um, talk about smart things."
Nicky Piper, boxer. IQ: 153
Thoughts on becoming a member of Mensa: "Just because you are a boxer you are obviously not dim." Fortunately for Nicky, his IQ does not obscure life's simpler pleasures. "Knowing that I possess the power to knock men out - there isn't anything else quite like it."
Jeremy Hanley, former Conservative Party chairman. A long-standing member. His IQ is a closely guarded secret; so too, on occasion, has been evidence of much common sense. When he cancelled a recent appointment at a Mensa debate, pleading pressure of work, unkind insiders blamed the pressure of such high-powered company.
Sir Jimmy Savile, IQ: 150 Mr Fixit has been a member for almost 20 years, but, says his agent, "you must see that in context. He's also a member of the Isetta Bubble- Car Club."
Says Jim, of joining Mensa: "It was the first exam I ever took of any sort in my life."
Garry Bushell, Sun columnist, IQ: 158.
"It wasn't a big deal or anything," he says, "but you see those ads and always wonder if you can solve them." Mr Bushell's inimitable prose style enlivened the Mensa magazine, but he is undazzled by his IQ. "It's much more important to have a bit of common sense, isn't it?"
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