Magazine article The Spectator

Telling a Writer 'Get on Yer Bike' Is Giving Him Good Advice

Magazine article The Spectator

Telling a Writer 'Get on Yer Bike' Is Giving Him Good Advice

Article excerpt

Reading Vidia Naipaul's moving new essay on how he became a writer, I was struck by the role dislocation plays in creativity. If Naipaul and his equally talented brother had remained in the traditional Indian society of their forebears, it is unlikely they would have emerged from the uncreative anonymity of the countless millions around them. Translated to an island off the South American coast, where a flavoursome English middle-class culture spiced up a bubbling melting-pot of races, they became expressive individuals and found in their alienation and exile powerful voices.

This principle of energising dislocation certainly operates in wealth creation. In the old days, historians attributed the geography of capitalism to Protestant roots. In 1920 Max Weber worked out the theory in detail in his Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, and R.H. Tawney in 1926 produced his own, English version of it in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Calvinism in particular and its `salvation panic' were presented as the dynamics which drove men to justify themselves by hard work, saving and investment. But too many exceptions emerged: why was Geneva, the capital of Calvinism, such a stagnant place economically until well into the l9th century? And why did ultra-Calvinist Scotland fail to develop capitalism before it was united to England, by which time its 'Protestant ethic' was in manifest decline?

In recent decades Weber's now exploded theory has been replaced by the much more plausible argument that it is the dislocation of communities, usually by persecution, which makes them successful in their new context. That has always been demonstrated by Jews. It was shown again by the Protestant sectarians driven from James I's England to the American colonies, by French Huguenots driven to England by Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and by Irish Catholics driven to the New World by famine. Innumerable other emigrant success stories all over the world confirm the thesis, not least the descendants of convicts who by the 1880s had made Australia the world's richest nation per capita, and by the Italian Catholic immigrants who, in the early decades of the 20th century, gave Argentina a `miracle economy'. The principle still operates: the Ugandan Asians, refugees from a black cannibal dictator, are now the wealthiest community in England, and in America, after the Jews, that position is held by the Cuban exiles from Castro's tyranny, with the Vietnamese fast catching them up. And look what the Hong Kongers are doing in western Canada! Men, and increasingly women, who would have tamely accepted a mediocre lot in their traditional homeland become industriously assertive, innovative and acquisitive in a new, alien setting.

I have long argued that business and artistic creativity spring from the same human impulses. It seems to me that there is no essential difference between writing a book or a symphony and building up a business employing thousands and delivering useful products and services at the lowest possible price. In neither case is money the chief motivation. What spurs on both artists and wealth creators is the generative instinct, the obsessive desire to bring into being something, be it a painting, a cathedral or a factory, which had never existed before, and to have your creative claim acknowledged by the world. …

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