IPH and Mensa

This is about my membership of Mensa.

How I came to join

When I worked at ICL in Windsor (1974..76), it was my manager there, Peter Bloxsom*, who suggested to me that I apply to join Mensa. I took the test in May or June 1976 and was invited to join, but by that time the work which I had been doing at ICL was coming to an end, and I was about to emigrate to Paris; therefore the Mensa people in England they suggested that I join Mensa-France, which I duly did.

Mensa didn’t mean much to me in Stuttgart; I never contacted any Mensans while there, and though I met a few Mensans in Virginia I made other friends there to spend time with.

It was ultimately when I was back in England that I began going to a few meetings, and making Mensan friends. Then in 2000 (after 17 years in my present house) I volunteered to help out with editing (I meant: putting the final copy together on the computer for) the south east England regional newsletter, called SEMantics. This is a modest monthly effort done by volunteers in each British Mensa region for that region. It has eight A5 pages. I was invited to become the Editor of SEMantics, which meant producing the entire contents. I did this for five years (covering issues June 2000 to June 2005 inclusive), with a few single months off now and then, because I had a deputy and she produced the issue instead of me as practice so she would be ready to step in if I was unable to do it at any point.

On being a Mensan

Being in Mensa is a funny thing. Most people’s reaction is “surely it is an elitist idea, isn’t it?” And they always say it as though they are the first person to whom that idea can ever have occurred, and that I can’t possibly have ever heard it before. Well, it isn’t elitist; it would be if Mensa had political aims, but it doesn’t. It’s a social network for people at the top extreme of the IQ range, but out of the 60 million people in the UK (so I gather) 2 per cent is 1,200,000 people are eligible to join and less than 50,000 have ever been members at the same time so they aren’t exactly ganging up on everybody else.

The main benefit for people like me is that other Mensans are far less likely to say things like “what’s the matter with you? Did you swallow a dictionary this morning?" in that nasty tone that low-brow anti-intellectual people tend to use if one uses more than one long word that they don’t know in conversation.

For some Mensans (though not so much for me), and especially for many older women who join Mensa, membership is confirmation that they are very highly intelligent, and or those women it is often the first way they have ever had, in which they can prove this to their men folk. Many suffered decades where their fathers, brothers, then husbands and indeed their sons said “you don’t/wouldn’t understand” and other things -- continually putting them down. Now, they can look them in the eye and say “No, I am a person of very high intelligence; I’m a member of Mensa!" I am all for that.

Now that I have retired from the computer industry and don’t regularly meet other pretty clever people through work, Mensa is a good way to know and keep in touch with people who share my more intellectual interests such as languages, puzzles and ideas generally. But having a Mensa IQ doesn’t guarantee that a person will not say and do stupid things; far from it. Plenty of them say or do — and write — stupid things all the time. Look at the letter column in British Mensa magazine. One reason I am putting writing stuff on this website is that I can prepare explanations of my points of view on various things once and for all and then, faced with anyone who’d like to know my explanation of my views on anything, a link will suffice. It is mainly Mensans, of all the people whom I encounter, who think about some of the questions I am interested in. This is because usually I don’t move in other circles where I’d meet non-Mensans who think about them. If I worked in a university or an intellectual publishing house I might; but I don’t.

When I took the Mensa IQ test in 1976 I got a score ten points higher than the starting score for membership, which is that corresponding to the 98th percentile. As I understand it, this puts me in not just the top 2% but the top 1% of the population, that is the top half of the Mensa range. But this is no big deal. What people who are not in this range, but are high enough in the overall population’s range to care about such things, tend to think is that one will be rather full of oneself about it. Occasionally a new (and probably quite young) Mensa member can be tempted to think is: “Hey! I’m a member of Mensa! I am quite somebody!”

This is, however, rather like the spoilt children of rich parents using inherited money to throw their weight about and be supercilious and officious with other people who do not happen to share their good luck as regards who their parents are. I say this because, as far as we know, intelligence, IQ, is an inherited characteristic; it may not be particularly evident in either parent; and it may not be shared by siblings. It may or may not be actually in the DNA; perhaps, instead of genetics it is governed (as has been suggested by some pieces of research on the subject) more by factors such as the mother’s experience before she gives birth; one study indicated that giving the mother additional oxygen before and during the birth can increase the baby’s ultimate intelligence. Whatever the factors are, they are not such as the individual can claim the credit for. A suitable and easy comparison is with a person who gets a good university degree. If a person has to work hard and diligently or several years to achieve something, they are certainly entitled to due credit for their achievement. But if what makes them special is something that is not of their doing (regardless of who else’s doing it may be) the right attitude to their situation is to be pleased at their good luck but not to swagger or even to use their intelligence to take unfair advantage of people less fortunate than themselves in that regard.

With a very high IQ can go isolation because the other people around one are not on the same wavelength; the hostile, presumably resentful, attitude I referred to above is perhaps the unpleasant extreme, but there are a hundred gentler and more polite but insistent and equally rejecting ways in which people can signal degrees of exclusion. But anyone as intelligent as the Mensa criterion picks this up at a very early age and realizes that they aren't quite like most people. It may not, without help from a suitably intelligent other person, be completely clear to them just how they are different; and the outcome varies enormously. Some very bright people never quite cotton on that they are far brighter than most people. They can even go through life blithely assuming that everybody else can see, grasp, understand and interpret every situation, every system, every set of facts that confronts us all just as easily and well as they do. These people can breeze, as I say, blithely through; but some people can, despite their intelligence, somehow lack the kind of empathy that is needed to really grasp the mood and viewpoint of other people around them; the outcome of this can be that they live very frustrated lives, because they never quite get to realize why other people can't take in any given new situation so quickly, see solutions to problems, do things in the best way in any given circumstances, and so on, as they themselves manage to. They can end up being irritating because they are irritated by the shortcomings compared to themselves of 98% (well, let us leave a margin and say perhaps 70%) of all the other people around them in most situations out in the real everyday world.

For anybody like that, should they happen to see a puzzle they can solve, in a Mensa advert, and should they then take and pass the test and join, and start to socialize a little with others in this select IQ range, they may at last find some peace and understand that the rest of the world is not deliberately being obtuse to annoy them (as it were), but that they themselves just happen to be unusually clever, and that they must learn to be very patient with the majority of the human population and to take advantage of the company of their fellow Mensans to let their intellectual hair down and just be themselves among equals. For, being Mensa material can for some make for a very lonely existence.

That is the social side of being, willy-nilly (remember: that means, whether they want to or not), of extreme high IQ. The educational side for some youngsters of high IQ can be a disaster. If in a school where their ability is either not noticed, or else not understood (in terms of their having special education needs just as much as do those with significant learning difficulties), what can all too easily happen is that the very bright child gets bored, and starts to let their attention wander. Maybe they start playing the fool to alleviate boredom; or maybe they even start to play truant. They might be very talented here at deceiving the school such as by, for example, forging sick notes from their parents to avoid being detected. Only if the school then happened to speak directly to one of their parents at an open evening or some such thing would the adults on the two sides start to cotton on to what the child had been doing. And of course i really astute the child would also work this out, anticipate potential discovery, and in some devious way to forestall this ever happening.

But usually the child is interested enough to do the work well enough to avoid complaints; some stick at that, some are simply top of the class and if they are lucky the other children will not come to resent it. At my primary school I was top or close to top in many subjects. As for secondary school, because I went to a selective school (a religion-based grammar school) I was put in a 2nd stream then moved to the top stream after one term in the first year and therefore subjected to Latin in that first year (now called year 7), then ancient Greek in the next year (year 8) and O(rdinary) level GCE exams in year 10 (a year earlier than streams lower than the top stream in each year). The general effect of this was that there was always enough to get one's teeth into. If you have a Latin or ancient Greek grammar text book that covers the entire language, even though you are only expected to master a certain amount of it for the exams you are going to be taking, there is always plenty more over the page after you have learnt the bit you are supposed to be learning and done the exercise you were given for homework. The result was that I almost never felt bored at school: there was something to do, and I did it.

The head-hitter

How did I manage to serve as RNLE (Regional NewsLetter Editor) for five whole years? Well, I kept at this because I quite like a challenge, and as a professional writer I had never found writing or indeed word processing and producing camera copy for printing difficult. I made it clear when I began that it was up to people (there are well over 4000 members in the region) to supply me with news stories about past or planned events and other contributions, and that my sole policy would be that I wouldn’t go to press with empty pages. I then waited for input, and when I reached deadline without enough from them, I would just write articles or other items (quizzes, poems, puzzles) to fill the empty space. Somebody provided me a crossword every month, for which a prize was given starting when I started; and one or two other pages were filled with Mensa social “business” information. The funny part was that some readers would tell me they liked my articles more, at the same time as others, the Mensa party animals who thought that Mensa was there to hold events for people to attend (although only about 10 per cent of members ever went to any events at all) insisted the newsletter should be full of regional news — which of course it should have been in theory. I just pointed to my editorial policy statement: you send me copy, I’ll put it in. If you don’t, I won’t print empty pages. Some of them never really grasped this despite all their supposed intelligence. When I retired from that I offered to continue to “edit” the crossword page and handle the postal entries and prize-winner drawing; I still do that.

University of Bristol Alumni Magazine article

In June 2010, the university’s Communications Manager for Campaigns and Alumni Relations asked me to write a short piece about joining and belonging to Mensa, which I did. It was part of a feature that appeared in the Alumni magazine Nonesuch: “The next edition will be an ‘admissions special’. The aim is to explore the process of admissions and the issues around it and to show just how hard it is to get into Bristol — only the very best make it. We thought it would be fun to include an article highlighting other organisations/clubs/fields of work that are notoriously hard to get into, and we are asking alumni ‘on the inside’ to give advice on how to get into these various institutions, ranging from ‘How to get into the Chelsea Flower Show’ to ‘How to get into the diplomatic service’.

* My ICL training course writing department manager Peter Bloxsom was, in 1974, already involved in a sideline of his, writing novels about The Saint (Simon Templar) after the manner of Leslie Charteris, with whom he collaborated. He is not the only Peter Bloxsom mentioned on the web, but search hits on his name related to the Simon Templar books are the Peter Bloxsom I worked for. As I recall, he had in fact become friends with Leslie Charteris through his local Mensa group.