The last polymath?

The first time I heard Just a Minute was sitting half-awake in the back of my dad’s car on a long journey home. The Radio 4 show was created in 1967 and has been hosted ever since by the indefatigable Nicholas Parsons. The guests are invited to speak on a subject for one minute, without repetition, hesitation or deviation. The show had been a resounding success, hosting a smorgasbord of British comedy from Kenneth Williams to Paul Merton and everything in between.

Clement Freud, who died this month aged eighty-four, holds the distinction of being the only guest to have appeared on every series of Just a Minute. Delivering lines in his familiar, lugubrious drawl, he was renowned for his competitive streak, deadpan humour and ability to run down the clock by making seemingly endless lists. His ruthlessness was complimented by a droll sense of humour and perfect timing, making him highly popular with audiences.

But there was more to Freud’s career than just a poky panel show. He came from a cerebral family, being the brother of painter Lucien Freud and a grandson of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. He served in the Royal Fusiliers during World War II, acting as aide to the famous Field Marshal Montgomery. After serving as a liaison officer at the Nuremberg Trials, he married June Flewett, the inspiration for Lucy Pevensie in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe.

After a brief stint as head chef at The Dorchester Hotel in London, Freud was immortalised in the 1950s through a series of self-deprecating adverts for dog food, starring opposite a jowly bloodhound called Henry. He later became renowned as a ‘celebrity chef’ with his own TV show, and wrote a food column for various broadsheet newspapers.

Freud also had the chance to prove his political credentials. In 1973 he stood for the Liberal Party in the Isle of Ely by-election, and won, holding a seat at Westminster for fourteen years. During his time in parliament he took part in a delegation to China with the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill. In a famous anecdote, the two gentlemen stayed at the same hotel and Churchill was given a better room; Freud quipped that, for the first time in his life, he had been “out-grandfathered”.

From game show panellist to food critic, night club owner to racing tipster, and from MP to children’s author, Clement Freud had one of the most varied and successful careers of anyone of his generation. His life demonstrated not just the sheer number of things one man can accomplish, but that success does not have to be confined to any particular field.

Freud was, in many ways, part of a long line of polymaths – namely, famous figures who excelled in multiple walks of life. Sir Isaac Newton was not just a brilliant physicist and mathematician; he also wrote copious works on theology, which actually outnumbered his scientific studies. Stephen Fry’s ancestor, Charles Burgess Fry, captained England and Surrey at cricket, played in an FA Cup Final, held the world long jump record for twelve months, and was offered the throne of Albania. Other notable examples include Benjamin Franklin, the American politician and scientist, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who not only wrote poetry but conservative philosophy and lectured on Shakespeare and Milton.

One might easily argue that the polymath is a foreign concept in today’s society. The flexibility of the job market and the decline of family businesses may make it possible to do more than one job in a lifetime, but the structure of British university education leads to specialising very early on, meaning that such variation is almost impossible.

And yet, something tells me that this is the ideal time for a new generation of polymaths to come along. In an age where seemingly everyone wants to be famous, and will go to any lengths to achieve it, we desperately need role models to prove that the hard and diverse path is far more rewarding. If you’re graduating this July, as I am, don’t allow yourself to get pigeonholed and ground down easily. Take risks, let your imagination run riot, and celebrate the diversity we possess.

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