For something we generally welcome, luck gets an extraordinarily bad reception from our political and social masters. To dour Yorkshire cricketers of the Geoffrey Boycott variety, luck is what you need if you haven’t got proper batting technique. Victorians bought self-help manuals almost as much as the Bible and were taught that bad luck was what was visited on the deservedly indigent and feckless. Strands of Thatcherite thinking in the Eighties loudly echoed those sentiments.
The golfer Gary Player’s famous dictum that the more he practised, the luckier he got says it all: successful people write their own narratives of graft and perseverance on the way up. To admit luck would be an invitation to bosses, or team selectors, to discount hard-earned talents. Even for the clergy, acknowledging that we have no control over some events might be admitting to a higher power than God.
Ed Smith’s fascinating tour of the way we interact with luck forces a reassessment of the nature of success and opportunity. And he is excellent on the sinister conclusions one might draw from some of the worst of the bootstrap-pulling brigade. “[Bad luck] is a clear sentence of guilt on everyone who encounters misfortune,” whether that be from cancer, a hurricane, or for that matter, a Holocaust.
Smith sets out to say this is absurd. There has always been a thrilling role of luck in our lives. Winston Churchill was almost mown down by a car in 1931 in New York. Had he died at the age of 57, history would have judged him largely as a failed politician. Margaret Thatcher, Smith says, was able to run for the leadership of the Tory Party only after the front-runner, Keith Joseph, gave a disastrous speech over which she had had no influence.
There are other factors behind success than graft. Class as determined by accident of birth often dictates political or business success. And Smith sticks up for geneticists in the debate of nature against nurture. In a clever passage, he explains that sporting prowess has reached the point where all top sportspeople are nurtured the same way and must now be more reliant on genes alone to beat each other. In the old days, success came to the first to stop having a pint and a fag at half time.
Smith is no fancy polemicist but he is a treat, like a celebrated after-dinner speaker, because of his unique CV. This clear writer has captained Middlesex cricket club and played for England. When he talks of friends’ experiences to illustrate his points, his friends are the current England cricket captain, and numerous other people at the top of their fields. The byways of cosy inquiry are pleasant to travel in his company.
Good anecdotes and contacts do not make for intellectual rigour, however. Smith mixes freely points that are made scientifically and those made by the man-in-the-pub. For someone prepared to trawl obscure websites for American football data, he is surprisingly off-kilter with generalisations such as: “Globalisation has affected sport more quickly and more deeply than almost any other sphere.” Try telling that to the Greeks, or the customers of Lehman Brothers.
Smith’s narrative, in which he places luck time and again at the centre of world-changing events, takes account only of the old-fashioned historical method that ignores economics and other trends in favour of the forceful individual and personality. Without Napoleon, no Trafalgar. Without Thatcher, no miners’ strike. Yet someone else would have taken on the unions, or picked a fight with the British.
For us inconsequential humans, luck is a crucial determinant of the course of our individual lives, but the broad sweep of history will be adjudged more or less the same by our successors. Smith charmingly relates how he met his future wife on a train neither of them were supposed to catch. But if he hadn’t, he might have met her somewhere else, or married someone different. Either way, he would still doubtless be making someone a charming husband, full of inquiry and anecdote and great at winning debates in the pub.