Epilogue, or, How to Think Like a Genius

Excerpt from 'Churchill’s Iceman: The True Story of Geoffrey Pyke: Genius, Fugitive, Spy' by Henry Hemming, 2014.

Epilogue, or, How to Think Like a Genius

Cover of 'Churchill’s Iceman'.

‘I’d like everything concerning me to be destroyed and to be forgotten as if I’d never lived,’ wrote Pyke in his final letter to his son. Yet David Pyke chose to keep his father’s papers. Even if he had thrown them away, it would have been impossible to delete Geoffrey Pyke’s imprint on the world, to undo the conversations, speeches, articles and inventions, as well as the universe of ideas which he had sung into being during his fifty-four years, and which had covered such an astonishing range. Pyke’s Zelig-like journey through the early twentieth century encompassed a landscape of different fields – from the molecular constitution of ice through to Gallup Surveys, exotic investment models and the application of Freudian psychoanalysis to kindergarten design. He would tackle the problem of European anti-Semitism with the same imaginative, scientific rigour as the question of how to adapt a motorcycle sidecar for the Spanish Republicans. Also he had the remarkable ability to conceive complex technical ideas in spite of having no scientific training. What is interesting today is to see how his various ideas have aged, and the extent to which he was ahead of his time.

Pyke’s work on NHS recruitment was included by John Cohen in a Minority Report that went out under both their names and has been described recently as ‘one of the most radical critiques of nurse recruitment and education’. It foreshadowed many of the problems which would plague the NHS over the coming decades.

His letters to The Times about the government’s decision not to donate to UNICEF or abolish the death penalty were no less prescient. The latter was abolished in 1965, and today the British government gives roughly 0.7 per cent of the Gross National Income in foreign aid and to organisations like UNICEF. His hopes for pedal-powered devices and, as he rather clunkily put it, ‘the utilisation of muscle-power’ are no less relevant today as energy prices soar, along with levels of obesity. Now there are charities and companies which adapt bicycles to power everything from water pumps to threshers, grinders, cinemas, kettles and even laptops. There is also a version of Pyke’s cyclo-tractor in use, admittedly not the farm vehicle that Pyke had in mind but a pedalpowered bar in which you and your friends can cycle down the street while getting drunk.

His discovery of Pykrete proved to be a significant development in our understanding of ice, and for Professor Mark the results of the Habbakuk experiments ‘have been put to good use ever since in all permanent constructions (roads, airstrips, bridges, and habitats) in Arctic and Antarctic regions.’ While the idea of using Pykrete to build an enormous berg-ship has captured many people’s imaginations – there has been a radio play on the subject, as well as one book and many television documentaries – to date this ship has not been built. Yet if the price of steel ever again becomes prohibitively high, as it was during the war, we may yet see bergships moving cargo around the world.

The Weasel tracked carrier, which emerged from the Plough proposal, was later used at the South Pole and in Canada’s Northwestern Territories for scientific research and mineral prospecting.As we know, the First Special Service Force, which also emerged from Plough, later evolved into the Canadian and US Special Forces.

Pyke’s idea for an underwater oil pipeline, PLUTO, which he had first proposed in 1934, has since been replicated all over the world. The pioneering concept behind Voluntary Industrial Aid for Spain of organising groups of factory workers to produce material aid in their spare time remains largely untouched, and in Britain today there are no charities using this model, possibly for a similar reason to the one Pyke encountered at the time: the unions would not stand for it.

The principle behind Pyke’s 1936 suggestion of an ‘anthropology of ourselves’, which resulted in the Mass Observation movement, has since become an accepted and important tool in the way we analyse British society. The Office for National Statistics collects a dizzying range of data on how we live, while the British Social Attitudes survey, among others, gauges our attitudes to major political and cultural questions just as Pyke had once proposed.

A decade after he began to raise money for an institute designed to eradicate anti-Semitism from Nazi Germany, lest there be a genocide on the scale of what had happened to the Armenians in Turkey, the horror of the Nazi Holocaust became clear. Sixty-six years later the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism opened in Britain, at Birkbeck College, University of London, with aims similar to the organisation which had been once proposed by Pyke.

The legacy of Malting House School has since been described as ‘out of all proportion to its three-year life span and the limited numbers of pupils with which it dealt’. For Pyke its great achievement was the role it played in raising his son, David, who could later reflect that ‘one of the factors of my life has been a distinct absence of revelations. People usually find that some adult experience awakens them to an aspect of life previously closed to them; I have never had that. Everything was always open to me.’ Elsewhere it has been suggested that Malting House ‘played a key role in contesting and reconfiguring understandings of the “nature” of the English child’. By recording in such minute detail how the children reacted to this unfettered existence Pyke produced a longitudinal study of enormous value. Again, many of the school’s underlying principles became widely accepted in educational theory after his death.

Yet the strand of Pyke’s thought which has aged better than perhaps any other is one not easily associated with a particular period of his life – it is what he said and wrote about innovation. Inventing radical ideas was his metier. In the millions of words he wrote during his life he was at his most lucid on the history of stunningly original ideas and, as he told Mountbatten and others, he planned to write a history of Habbakuk to serve ‘as a serious sociological study of the Dynamics of Innovation in our time’. Right up to his death he was gathering material for this book, focusing on where radical ideas came from and why so many fell on stony ground. ‘Should this country go to war again it might be as well that such studies should exist and have been absorbed by both the public and the official mind.’ This book was to be the last word on innovation, an exploration of radical ideas written by a man who had been described repeatedly as a brilliant problem-solver. It would be an everyman guide to thinking like a genius – for he believed that anyone could think as he did.

‘What made Pyke so extraordinary,’ ran his obituary in Time magazine, ‘was his consistent belief that a human being could reason his way through any problem. That belief rammed Geoffrey Pyke’s bald head into – and sometimes through – one stone wall after another.’ But like so many books that are described at length by their author before being written, this one never materialised. We can still imagine what it would have contained. If you look at the way Pyke approached problems during his life, whether it was getting out of Ruhleben or winning the Battle of the Atlantic, there are clear patterns that emerge. Rather than waiting for moments of divine inspiration Pyke had a robust problem-solving technique. His method for coming up with radical new ideas can be broken down into a series of stages. They go roughly as follows:

A Pykean Guide to Innovation

His first step, simple as it may sound, was to be adventurous. Adventurousness could be defined as ‘a readiness to make a fool of oneself ’ – something he called ‘the first duty of a citizen’. He lived by Dostoyevsky’s maxim that ‘the cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month’. Any mistakes you made were ‘the social and purposive equivalent of Nature’s mutations’, without which there can be no progress. In other words, to be adventurous one must also be prepared to look silly or be laughed at and that requires courage. Without this it is almost impossible to come up with a truly radical idea.

The next step followed on from the first. A by-product of being intellectually adventurous was to develop a more sceptical attitude to what you were told. Pyke trained himself to question accepted truths, and to keep doing so until he had found the one which did not ring true – for there was always one. ‘It is easier to solve a problem than it is to spot what is the problem (as the whole history of science and technology shows). Almost any fool can solve a problem and quite a number do. To detect the right problem – at least so I have found – requires what Wells calls the daily agony of scrutinising accepted facts.’ Challenging everything like this was not just a ‘daily agony’ but a form of impertinence. In Ruhleben it felt rude to question the accepted fact that nobody could escape – rude but essential. ‘My technique, whose results sometimes give me a spurious appearance of brilliance, consists of nothing more than having enough intellectual courage to think in terms which our social environment has decided are nonsense and to see if after all our epoch is right . . . in every particular. It is not. And that is all there is in the trick. And I can teach anyone young enough in heart to do the same.’

Once this ‘daily agony’ had provided him with an interesting problem, Pyke would pause to refine it. This was a key step, for the wording of the question had to be right. He often found that tiny adjustments to the formulation of a problem could unlock a torrent of fresh ideas. He got nowhere by asking himself what disguise he and Falk should adopt to get from Ruhleben to London undetected; instead the question was how they would like to come across in the eyes of those they encountered. ‘The correct formulation of a problem is more than halfway to its solution,’ he insisted. ‘If anybody says he has nothing to say it only means that the problem has been put to him inappropriately.’

Having refined the question, Pyke would move on to the next stage – research – which saw him head off in two different directions. He would mine the past for historical analogies and lost solutions, for we live in a written culture that encourages forgetfulness. Yet he would also search for scraps of information and inspiration in the world around him, scouring newspapers, journals, films, posters, statistics and surveys, as well as the conversations he had. ‘One of my ideas [. . .] came from a music hall song with a line “The Bomb that Found Its Own Way Home.”’ In a similar sense, he believed in carrying out small-scale experiments to learn about the problem in hand. His guiding principle here was never to limit research to a single field, which explains the bewildering range of influences behind the Malting House School, for example, from Freud and Rousseau to Montessori, Armstrong and his own childhood. ‘We cannot tell where data and ideas will come from, or to whom they will be significant.’ Instead he taught himself to look for correlations everywhere. ‘EVERY THING IS IRRELEVANT TILL CORRELATED WITH SOMETHING ELSE.’ Identifying those correlations ‘is not a question of ability, but of free-mindedness’.

Sometimes this research would provide him with a solution and there was no need to go any further. But for trickier problems Pyke would reach for his ‘Auto-Socratic’ technique in which he imagined a dialogue between two voices – best described as a wildly inventive teenager and a polite psychiatrist. The teenager represents fantasy, the psychiatrist is reality. One proposes – and takes things to an extreme – while the other scrutinises – and does so graciously. The sober voice of reality does not shoot down ideas for the sake of it but allows the voice of fantasy to finish each train of thought. The dialogue between the two begins always with the patient presenting the problem in its most pared-down form, after which the conversation ferrets off under its own momentum until it produces either a subject for further research or a solution. There were times when this technique was ‘Auto-Shavian’ as much as Auto-Socratic, such was Pyke’s love of Bernard Shaw’s paradoxes and his habit of spinning round every truism, question or statement. Pyke, too, had a pathological weakness for reversal. The Nazis set up an institute to study the Jewish Question; as a Jew he would study the Nazi Question. When in a rush to get to Berlin, he took the slowest train possible. To inflict the greatest damage on an enemy in occupied territory he urged that it be occupied more fully. If for at least one of his critics at OSRD Pyke ‘would rather wage a futile campaign with mathematical or psychological elegance than win the war by recourse to vulgar or commonplace weapons or strategems’, more often than not these reversals provided Pyke with a way out of any intellectual dead-end.

Another defining element of Pyke’s technique was his determination never to become attached to a tentative solution. As he had learnt with Plough and Habbakuk, one must always be ready to try, fail, learn and try again as soon as possible. He also learnt repeatedly and painfully that all innovations must encounter resistance. As he once told Mountbatten, his experience of suggesting new ideas had been ‘to be heartily kicked in the pants’. The times in his life when he was most successful were those when he anticipated where the resistance to his idea would lie.

After the war, Pyke complained to Michael Foot, the future Labour Party leader, that ‘the sport of shooting down ideas has come to be a substitute for the amusement of shooting down grouse and partridges’. An idea might also be shot down because it was no good. It could be that it threatened the prestige, earning power or autonomy of an individual or an institution. The fear of its unintended consequences, or the suspicion that its benefits had been exaggerated, had the ability to turn people against it. Incomprehension was another reason why some of Pyke’s most radical ideas met with resistance. At other times the opposition might stem from a personal dislike of the scheme’s author.

But for Pyke, new ideas were usually dismissed because they threatened a tradition or habit. Sometimes he was right. We look for consistency in our surroundings and all too often will turn against an innovation not as a result of a level-headed assessment but purely because of its disruptive nature.

Towards the end of his life Pyke began to appreciate that there were steps he could take to protect his ideas from this kind of opposition, and on those happy occasions when he was successful it was often because he had communicated a clear narrative about what his new idea was and why it was so useful. He would contrast the consequences of developing it with inaction. When convincing those in Combined Operations to take on Plough, he recognised that resistance might be directed against the author of the concept as much as the concept itself, so he worked hard at personally winning over the officers he spoke to. When trying to improve the image of Malting House he understood the importance of showing the radical new ideas it embodied in action, so he commissioned a film about the school. The demonstration of Pykrete which took place in Churchill’s bath and in Quebec did more than anything else to convince senior political and military figures that Habbakuk could work (though neither was his idea). But perhaps the most important thing Pyke did when trying to introduce a strange, disruptive idea like Habbakuk or Plough, the reason why he got as far as he did, was that he won over powerful individual supporters.

In today’s jargon these are sometimes called ‘early adopters’. It is easy to spot a potential early adopter in the top brass of any institution: he or she will be the person who likes to take risks or prides themselves on being outspoken. Once Pyke had identified an early adopter there were various tricks he used to win them over. He would avoid sending over a written summary of his idea before meeting in person. Once he had been granted an audience he would do his best to provoke them and make them laugh, for we become more impulsive when in a good mood. Usually he told them that he only wanted several minutes of their time, or that they need read no more than the first few pages of his proposal. He would appeal to their curiosity by presenting the idea as a story with a beginning, middle and end and, like any skilled storyteller, he tried to vary the scale by moving about historically and remembering to zoom out and in. He would find out about the interests of this early adopter and play to them in his pitch. Where possible he would also appeal to their vanity by implying that they were the only ones with the imagination and foresight to recognise the Promethean brilliance of his new idea.

As he did with Mountbatten so often, Pyke tried to extend the ownership of an idea by leaving elements of the plan unfinished. In this way additional details might be provided by Mountbatten and, once he had begun to fill in some of the gaps, Pyke would refer to the proposal as ‘our idea’. He would also stress that his radical solution was not the finished one and that others needed to come in – all of which made his ideas appear less dogmatic or intimidating.

The final stage of Geoffrey Pyke’s problem-solving technique was to carry out a post-mortem. He would ask himself if there were lessons to be taken from his latest attempt to bring a new idea into the world. Increasingly, towards the end of his life, this was where he went wrong.

When casting his eye back over an unsuccessful campaign he was too quick to blame its failure on society’s fear of change. There were times, as Donald Tyerman suggested, that ‘even if you had your way and got a community open to innovation, there would still be the problem of Pyke to solve’. Yet to imagine Pyke without ‘the problem of Pyke’ is a counter-factual too far. The ‘problem of Pyke’ represents the same disequilibrium that drove him on with the kind of relentless momentum which is so often manifested in those who lose a parent at a young age.

In many ways the shape of his personality was set by the end of the First World War, after which he emerged as a young man suffering from an undiagnosed condition, possibly Addison’s Disease, who carried the scars of an abusive childhood and the complex of having survived a war in which he did not fight – both because he had escaped from imprisonment and was deemed medically unfit for service. He had also written a best-selling book, smuggled himself into Germany, become an amateur spy, faced execution in solitary confinement, converted to socialism and escaped from a German detention camp. All this by the age of twenty-four.

This unique and unlikely set of experiences changed his understanding of what was possible and why change did not happen sooner. Many of us at a similar age might test the boundaries of what we can achieve before undergoing a realignment of sorts. Pyke never experienced that adjustment. He remained in this youthful frame of mind for the rest of his life, unyielding in his determination that no question was beyond him, resistance to new ideas was socially inherited and that each of us can solve any problem we like. Moreover, we have a duty to do so. He was intelligent and comfortable with paradox, and in the English society he inhabited his eccentricities were tolerated – indeed, his character is at times a reflection of this abiding English tolerance for colourful nonconformists. ‘Pyke is just a pure English freak,’ he imagined Mountbatten telling General Marshall (in a letter Pyke had sent to Mountbatten). ‘Of course, most of our freaks are no good. But about one in a thousand is the goods. You know, just like you might have to open a thousand oysters before you get one with a pearl. Though Pyke is not an oyster. For you can’t shut him up.’ He warmed to his theme of the English and their oddballs: ‘We have a very sound method for testing their sense of the practical. If they have got enough sense to force their way through all the barriers of officialdom to the people at the top, then there must be something to them’.

This is a revealing line. It is one of the only times we are given a glimpse of Pyke’s ambition. He knew that he was unusual, that some saw him as a ‘freak’, but he was desperate to prove his worth by having his ideas taken up at the highest level.

During the Second World War this singular Englishman realised his dream by forcing himself and his ideas through to the very top. In the face of the fascist threat he flourished, but there was only so much he could do alone. Throughout his life his most radical ideas depended on the support of others, and his role was simply to propose these ideas. ‘I have to behave rather like Nature,’ he once wrote, ‘throwing up a hundred million pollen on the chance that one may do its duty.’ Of course his greatest and most radical idea was that each of us could do the same ourselves. 

Extract from Churchill’s Iceman: The True Story of Geoffrey Pyke: Genius, Fugitive, Spy by Henry Hemming, 2014

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