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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On the choriambic actuary

April is the cruellest month…Echoing the sentiments of all actuarial examinees, these words – the opening strums of ‘The Waste Land’ – would seem by themselves enough to admit TS Eliot to the hallowed, oxymoronic category of ‘actuarial poets’. Although Eliot was not of the insurance world, he is of interest to us because he was, in his way, a product of the financial world. Thomas Stearns Eliot, the 20th century’s greatest poet, started working in Lloyd’s bank in the City of London in 1917, at the age of 28. He was to remain there for nine years – ‘arguably the most important years in his creative life’, contends Peter Ackroyd in his biography. (Indeed, it was in this period that Eliot invented an exciting new form of rate interval: ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’, he informs us in ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’.)What was the tie between the Lloyd’s clerk and the eloquent poet? Ackroyd tells us, ‘he found the “science of money” fascinating… the routine of the banking day also gave a rigour and formality to his life, and such formality was always important to him… the man who wrote “The Waste Land” was a man behind his desk, a bank official indistinguishable from other such officials except perhaps for the absolute decorum of his dress… Here are the makings of a truly remarkable double life.’How to explain this banker-cum-poet’s double life? Whatever the explanation, it will not fit into these few lines, and, pleasant as it would be to linger with Mr Eliot, we must proceed to the literati of the insurance world. ‘Let us go then, you and I…’Kafka, the Czech writer who posthumously left us The Castle, The Trial, and the one about the big beetle, dedicated his entire working life to the state insurance company in Prague (after a short period with Generali). His diary reveals his love of insurance work: ‘… it seems to me that I couldn’t hold out in the office even if they told me that in one month I’d be free… these six hours a day have tormented me to a degree that you cannot imagine…’However, Kafka span prose, not poetry, and so we leave him to his perplexed K and those ever-thwarted quests. Likewise we must neglect the German novelist Thomas Mann, whose time in an insurance company explains some surprising references to coinsurance and underwriting in The Magic Mountain. Our next stop: Wallace Stevens, one of America’s most renowned 20th-century poets. Stevens qualified as a lawyer but, almost immediately afterwards, started working in insurance. He specialised in fidelity and surety bonds, and shortly became a vice-president at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The essence of his life is perfectly expressed by one sentence in the late Ian Hamilton’s Against Oblivion: ‘He lived in a big house in Connecticut and wrote his poems on the way to work’. By his 60s he was an established literary figure, giving guest lectures at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, et al, en route to amassing around 500 pages of published poetry.So what might we conclude from such examples? An actuarial defence of poetry might start by citing Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian reformer and theologian of the Renaissance who argued that poetry was a subset of logic, poetic art being ‘knowledge of the syllogism called Example’; but perhaps that was why he was declared a heretic and executed. Let us leave the field of poetic logic for a rainy day.The least important message is this: that these examples let a gleam of creative light into our prosaic world; if they did, we could? It would be pleasant, albeit unrealistic, to think that the profession harboured a major – or even minor – poet of the 21st century. Please publish first in The Actuary.More importantly, we can ask ourselves if we are ‘using’ enough poetry to thrive in this materialist world. There is an argument for the enjoyment of poetry – whether active or passive, writing or reading – as a way of nourishing our ‘inner selves’; this theme may be out of place here, but Wallace Stevens would have been sympathetic. Stevens’s philosophy is best summarised by his pronouncement on religious substitution: ‘after one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place in life’s redemption’ (although, interestingly, he enjoyed a death-bed conversion from such ‘poetic idolatry’).But perhaps the most important reason – at least on utilitarian grounds – for reading and memorising the likes of Eliot, Stevens, Milton, and Keats, is to improve our language skills: our feel for words, how they should be chosen, how they should best be arranged – in keeping with Coleridge’s definition of poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’.If we expose ourselves only to a ghastly, meaningless slurry of ‘critical issues’, ‘key drivers’, and ‘very significant impacts’ from management books, internal memos, and trade journals, our verbal flame will be ever dim; are we not seeking to improve how we communicate with the word, and hence with the world? All those of us who worry about writing skills; all those of us who keep failing 201; all those of us who read down, not up: be not averse.